Overview of '11.22.63'
Stephen King is often referred to as "the master storyteller" and for me this is never been more evident than in his epic novel 11.22.63. An lengthy 734 pages long, the book examines the "butterfly effect” that results when one man tries to change the past. To quote from the back narrative: ‘In 2011, Jake Epping, an English teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine, sets out on an insane – and insanely possible – mission to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Leaving behind a world of computers and mobile phones, he goes back to a time of big American cars and diners, of Lindy Hopping, the sound of Elvis and the taste of root beer. In this haunting world, Jake falls in love with Sadie, a beautiful high school librarian. And, as the ominous date 11.22.63 approaches, he encounters a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald.’
Into his portrait of the Kennedy era, King weaves the love story of Jake, now known as George, and Sadie, one that never becomes overly treacly but instead is detailed with humour and realism. In 11.22.63, Jake travels the classic hero’s journey, from a jaded high school teacher, bruised from his divorce from his alcoholic wife, to a man who discovers the love of his life and the courage to do what hurts in order to put right the problems he’s caused.
Rich details of 1950s and 1960s American life
King is a master at evoking small-town America from the 50s and 60s. We are treated to a rich portrayal of a past life; from Jake's first taste of homemade root beer, through the music and dances of the era (Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’, lindy hopping), to the cars (Jake's beloved Sunliner). In contrast to this nostalgic idyll, King also gives us the downside - prevalent domestic violence, racial prejudice, the fug of ever-present cigarette smoke. Idyll and anti-idyll are set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the bogeyman figure of Nikita Khrushchev. Besides the darkness, King provides plenty of lighter moments in the book – absurdly quaint slogans (Drink Cheer-Up Coffee!) and sidesteps such as the fun of George teaching Ritchie and Bevvie how to lindy hop. The humour is more evident in the first half of the novel, before the narrative takes a dark downward twist in the months leading up to Lee Harvey Oswald's attack on Kennedy. The richness of detail is amazing, like tracing the path of a fractal. The blood and sweat of King’s depiction of the prize fight between Case and Tiger. The shat-HOOSH sound of the machines at Worumbo Mills and Weaving. The taste of the root beer and ribs. At times, the narrative is so evocative I felt I was deep inside the novel, embedded in the heart of 1960s America.
Remember the butterfly effect...
Ah, let's not forget we're not supposed to tinker with time. What about the butterfly effect? King provides plenty of hints about the impact George's presence in the past is having, and it's not always a beneficial one. Take what happens to Vince Knowles; the changing colour of the Yellow Card Man's card; the subtle differences in the conversations George has every time he returns to September 9, 1958. This is no Groundhog Day – instead of opportunities to improve his situation, King provides George with more and more chances to screw up the future by messing with the past. As Al Templeton tells him: "The past is obdurate. Doesn't want to be changed". It’s no coincidence that the entrance to the rabbit hole into 1950s Lisbon Falls is chained off, posing as a broken sewer pipe. A metaphor for George’s sullying of the world’s future by meddling with forces he doesn’t understand. A salutary lesson for all of us (not that any of us are likely to go time travelling any time soon!)
High tension, moving towards a perfect ending...
Throughout the narrative, the foreboding figure of the Yellow Card Man, a foul-mouthed wino, stands guard over the mysterious portal from Jake’s present day life into 1950s America. It is late in the novel before the Yellow Card Man’s secret is revealed, along with his instrumental role in safeguarding the future of the world. The tension mounts as the past becomes ever more obdurate in its attempts to thwart George’s interference in the Kennedy assassination. Will he succeed or won’t he? As we discover the answer, King sweeps us along to the novel’s ending, which for me was perfect. Very moving.
Why genre fiction is overlooked when it comes to the major literary prizes, when it can produce novels of this calibre, is beyond me. I highly recommend this book.
A dark, twisted psychological thriller
This week's post is a review of 'The Surrogate' by Louise Jensen. A dark, twisted psychological thriller that never fails to entertain, it's the first novel by this author that I've read, but it won't be the last. Here's the Amazon blurb:
She can give you everything you want... But can you trust her?
Kat and her husband Nick have tried everything to become parents. All they want is a child to love but they are beginning to lose hope. Then a chance encounter with Kat’s childhood friend Lisa gives them one last chance.
Kat and Lisa were once as close as sisters. The secrets they share mean their trust is for life... Or is it?
Just when the couple’s dream seems within reach, Kat begins to suspect she’s being watched and Nick is telling her lies.
Are the cracks appearing in Kat’s perfect picture of the future all in her head, or should she be scared for the lives of herself and her family?
How far would you go, to protect everything you love?
Fast pace and intriguing plot
Wow! Sounds good, doesn't it? I read 'The Surrogate' in one sitting, drawn in by its fast pace and intriguing plot, and the twist at the end came as a shock. The narrative switches between past and present, from hope to despair, but always entertains. If I had to level any criticism at this book, it would be concerning the plot; without wishing to give spoilers, I thought it a little implausible at times. I also found the last few paragraphs jarred; I wasn't convinced Kat would behave that way, not given her current circumstances. These are minor points, however, that didn't detract from my enjoyment of this novel.
At the start of the book, Kat is a happily married woman whose life only requires one thing to make it complete: a baby. However, both she and her husband Nick harbour secrets, ones that threaten to derail their relationship. Kat's skeleton in the closet is dark, serving to drive a wedge between her and her best friend, Lisa. Nick's, however, is even darker, mirrored by his damaged family history. Lisa, too, isn't all she seems. At first money and revenge appear to be her reasons for being a surrogate, but as Kat increasingly appears unreliable as a narrator, Lisa's true motives still aren't clear. Until the truth is revealed, leading to a wow! of an ending.
This novel is twisted, dark and menacing, with a climax that some readers will love and others, like myself, will question. It embraces themes of revenge, forgiveness, love and parenthood, set against a backdrop of intrigue. You can find out more about Louise and her novels via her website, www.louisejensen.co.uk.
Let's hear from you!
Have you read 'The Surrogate'? Did you like or loathe it? What about the ending? Leave a comment and let me know!
This is the first book by B P Walter that I've read, and I'm looking forward to more. A gripping psychological thriller, it weaves the stories of Julianne and Holly into a roller-coaster read that hooked me from the start. Here's a taster:
2019: Julianne is preparing a family dinner when her son comes to her and says he’s found something on his iPad. Something so terrible, it will turn Julianne’s world into a nightmare and make her question everything about her marriage and what type of man her husband is or is pretending to be.
1990: Holly is a fresher student at Oxford University. Out of her depth and nervous about her surroundings, she falls into an uneasy friendship with a group of older students from the upper echelons of society and begins to develop feelings for one in particular. He’s confident, quiet, attractive and seems to like her too. But as the year progresses, her friends’ behaviour grows steadily more disconcerting and Holly begins to realise she might just be a disposable pawn in a very sinister game.
A devastating secret has simmered beneath the surface for over twenty-five years. Now it’s time to discover the truth. But what if you’re afraid of what you might find?
Two women, two timelines, one awful truth...
First, let's deal with the characters. None of them are particularly likable, in my opinion. Julianne has a tendency to bury her head in the proverbial sand when it comes to her husband. James, Ernest, Peter and Ally are self-absorbed and cruel. Holly is unbelievably naive and at times an inverted snob.
None of this matters; I'm not the kind of reader who needs to like characters in a novel, but they do need to interest me. And they did. When would the scales fall from Julianne's eyes? Why can't Holly see how warped her friends are? Is James really that easily led by Ernest?
Other downsides to the characters? I wish the author had developed Diane, Julianne's mother, more. B P Walter does a great job of portraying this narcissistic woman and how she undermines her daughter, so i assumed this was part of a character arc/subplot that would develop as the novel progressed. I was wrong - Diane doesn't appear again. A shame, as her acerbic brand of commentary used as the novel reaches its climax would have, in my opinion, added to the tension. As it stands, she appears to contribute nothing to the plot.
As for Holly, she vacillates between uptight virginity and sexual abandon in a way that fails to convince. One moment she's a prudish bookworm, the next she's spying on her friends' sex lives. That scene where she hides in a wardrobe? Really?
I also rolled my eyes at the way the wealthy characters are portrayed as selfish and uncaring individuals who use their social status to procure their twisted desires with no regard for others. It's stereotypical thinking - 'All rich people are bastards!' - and says more, in my view, about the holders of such opinions than wealthy people themselves.
Other loose ends and anomalies
Let's move on and examine the plot. Some parts are hard to believe - would James really have saved those documents in the family Dropbox account, even by accident? However tired he might be, its hard to imagine him making such a catastrophic error. Also, the way his character arc ends is weak and far too convenient, letting him off the hook for his crimes.
The ending almost calls for a sequel and doesn't answer the question of whether the other members of James's cabbal get their comeuppance. From what we're told, it could go either way, but we never get to find out. The reader is left hanging, which makes for a less than satisfactory finale.
So would I recommend 'A Version of the Truth'?
You might be thinking that I disliked this novel. I didn't. 'A Version of the Truth' drew me in from the first chapter. It's soon obvious that Julianne's husband harbours a dark side; the mystery lies in the fine details and how James manages to conceal his depravities for so long. I enjoyed the way the stories of Julianne and Holly are interwoven along with the different timelines - that worked well. A warning - this book is not for the faint of heart. It examines rape, people-trafficking, abuses of power, dysfunctional families and class envy. Some readers may find the sexual scenes uncomfortable reading. The novel is dark, twisty and intriguing, despite its flaws. You can check it out via this link: A Version of the Truth.
Have you read 'A Version of the Truth'?
Did you like it, love it, hate it, find it a bit 'meh'? Leave a comment and let me know!
'The Abattoir of Dreams' is thriller writer Mark Tilbury’s third novel, and as I’m a fan of the first two, reading this one was a must! Unlike Mark’s other books, 'The Revelation Room' and 'The Eyes of the Accused', it's a standalone offering and not part of the Ben Whittle investigation series. Instead, in 'The Abattoir of Dreams' Mark takes his writing down a supernatural route, blending a paranormal theme with thriller material, a dash of time travel and dollops of humour. A unique and intriguing concept! Here’s a taster:
Michael Tate has not had an easy life. With his father in prison, and his mother dead, Michael was sent to Woodside Children’s Home.
Now an adult, Michael wakes up from a coma in hospital suffering from amnesia and paralysis. Confused and terrified, he is charged with the fatal stabbing of his girlfriend, Becky. He also learns he attempted to end his own life.
Detective Inspector John Carver is determined that Michael is sent to prison. With no way of defending himself, Michael is left in his hospital bed awaiting transfer to remand. But then strange things begin to happen and his childhood comes back to haunt him. Can Michael ever escape the past? Will he ever discover the truth about Becky’s murder? And why is DI Carver so eager to make him suffer?
How does Mark Tilbury blend humour and horror so well?
Sounds intriguing, doesn't it? Much of the action takes place in the 1970s, at a government-run children’s home. In recent years we’ve seen the unearthing of many terrible abuse cases that happened at such places, and this theme is examined in depth in 'The Abattoir of Dreams'.
The plot delves into many dark concepts, such as cruelty to children, corruption and murder and yet Mark throws in splashes of humour along the way. This is what has struck me before with his writing, and what makes him stand out – I read his books and think, ‘how the hell does he do that?’ You wouldn’t think horror and humour make good bedfellows, yet they do in Mark’s capable hands. He manages it with a succession of witty asides, sarcastic comments and other gems, often in the head of Michael Tate, the protagonist.
Talking of characters, what a fine cast we have!
There are many dark souls in this book: Michael’s father, Kraft and Malloy at Woodside, and none more dogged in his pursuit of Michael than D I John Carver, the police officer determined to bring Michael to justice. Alongside them are many sympathetic characters, though: Michael’s mother, her friend Rachel and the kindly vicar, Paul Brady. The friendship between the younger Michael and damaged fellow Woodside resident Liam is both tender and touching, and lightens the part of the story that deals with terrible things. And then there’s Michael himself. Paralysed, his memory faulty, he’s vulnerable to the machinations of D I Carver, and the reader feels for his plight, especially once his tragic story begins to be revealed. He needs to confront his past, but how can he when he doesn’t remember it? Michael has friends, however, and not all of them belong to this world. As a ghostly presence transports him back in time, the truth is gradually revealed, and Michael learns what really happened to Becky.
Want to know more? Check out these links:
It's my pleasure this week to review Tony Forder's 'Slow Slicing', the latest novel in his bestselling Bliss and Chandler police procedural series. I interviewed Tony for my blog in April 2019, and you can read that post here: Interview with Tony Forder.
Right, on with my review of 'Slow Slicing'! Here's a taster of the plot:
WHEN DEATH BECOMES THE KINDEST CUT OF ALL
When slices of flesh and body parts are discovered in different areas of the country, DI Bliss and his team are tasked with running the operation. After Bliss realises the victims have been subjected to a specific form of torture, it leads him to a cold case involving the brutal and bloody murder of a woman in London twenty-six years earlier.
As the team discover links between their victims, the murdered woman, and gangland crime, they begin a dangerous investigation into both the past and the present. But Bliss is stumped, unable to decide if the current spate of mutilations are acts of revenge or the result of ageing criminals seeking to hide their despicable actions. Following a leak to the media, Bliss’s reaction may have dire consequences.
With the hunt for the victims at fever point, Bliss uncovers evidence steering him in the direction of one particular individual. The only problem being, his prime suspect is the one person it cannot possibly be. When Bliss orders a sting operation, the astonishing truth is revealed. And that’s when things really start to go wrong…
More twists than a bag of pretzels...
Wow, sounds intriguing, right? And it is. 'Slow Slicing' is yet another superb book in Tony Forder's Bliss and Chandler series. It's a dark and disturbing read that delivers more twists than a bag of pretzels, and never fails to entertain. When I say 'dark and disturbing', I mean it - this is not a novel for the squeamish. At one point I had to take a deep breath before reading on, because what was happening wasn't pretty. I expect that from crime fiction anyway; the book blurb specifically mentions torture, so I can't say I wasn't warned. The violence described is never gratuitous, though; it's relevant to the plot but never dominates it.
Let's start with the story. The pacing is relentless and the narrative fascinating. 'Slow Slicing' is a page turner that poses intriguing questions. Why has the torturer waited so long to exact revenge? Wait - maybe it's not vengeance, but an attempt by gangsters to conceal other crimes. Other weird stuff crops up too. What's the reason for the letters and numbers carved into the victims' body parts? Tony keeps his reader guessing throughout, but all the questions are answered by the time the satisfying conclusion rolls around.
Bliss and Chandler are well-drawn characters, and continue their symbiotic relationship in 'Slow Slicing'. This time Chandler takes a back seat, with Bliss often branching out on his own. At best this causes tension between him and Penny; at worst it entails serious consequences for Bliss's career. Bliss, with his usual 'don't care' attitude, is solely concerned with catching the bad guys, and if his methods are unorthodox, so what? That doesn't go down well with his superior officers, of course!
I've said it before and I'll say it again - this author ranks in terms of talent with the very best of novelists. I wish I could award 'Slow Slicing' more than five stars, but hey ho, life's not perfect! Let's just say the five stars I'm giving this book are all supernovas.
Discover more about Tony Forder and his novels:
Recently I read 'Thinner' (1984) by Richard Bachman. For those who don't know, Richard Bachman is a pseudonym of the great Stephen King. When King was embarking on his writing career, many publishers opted not to release more than one book per year by each author, since they believed more would be unacceptable to the public. (How times have changed!) King therefore chose to write under a pen name to increase his sales without over-saturating the market for his books. There are seven books in the Bachman collection, with Thinner being the fourth; the others include 'The Running Man', later made into a well-known film. King has stated that that writing as Richard Bachman was also his way of discovering whether his success was due to talent or luck. He deliberately released his Bachman novels without much marketing fanfare, but his identity was revealed before he ever got his answer. Here's a taster:
'Thinner' - the old gypsy man barely whispers the word. Billy feels the touch of a withered hand on his cheek. Billy Halleck, prosperous if overweight citizen, happily married, shuddered then turned angrily away. The old woman's death had been none of his fault. The courts had cleared him. She'd just stumbled in front of his car. Now he simply wanted to forget the whole messy business. Later, when the scales told him he was losing weight, it was what the doctor ordered. His wife was pleased - as she should have been. But . . . 'Thinner' - the word, the old man's curse, has lodged in Billy's mind like a fattening worm, eating at his flesh, at his reason. And with his despair, comes violence.
Wow! A gypsy curse - great material for a maestro like King!
'Thinner' doesn't disappoint. It's shorter than his usual trademark novels that weigh in at several hundred pages, but its writing style is pure Stephen King. How did it take four Bachman books before his cover got blown?! Sprinkled throughout the narrative are his trademark motifs, such as splitting a sentence over a few lines, with italicised and bracketed text in between. Also evident is his penchant for all-American brand names, and the fact that much of the action takes place in Maine. What's more, his characters even refer to a situation as 'like something out of a Stephen King novel' at one point. Cheeky, but amusing!
The protagonist, Billy Halleck, is not a likeable character; he's arrogant and lacks self-awareness. Nobody else in the book, with the possible exception of Billy's wife Heidi, comes across any better. The originator of the curse, Taduz Lemke, and his granddaughter Gina are especially vicious, unforgiving individuals. This lack of anyone with whom to empathise might mean some readers could find it hard to connect with the story, but that aspect didn't bother me. To me, Billy is all too human in his failings; had the woman's death been murder rather than an accident, the gypsy's curse may have been more understandable, but the old man acts out of malevolence and spite. What I found fascinating was King's examination of the various emotions Billy experiences throughout the book. From the start we know he killed another human being through a motor accident, and the story is very much about guilt, responsibility and justice. At first, Billy wants to put the incident behind him, and it's not until he understands he's been cursed does he begin to deal with his demons. Having said that, the book contains much injustice; it's hard to say more without giving plot spoilers, but the cruel twist at the end is a good example. That was unkind of you, Mr King, although I guess you intended it as poetic justice! Anyone for strawberry pie?
So would I recommend 'Thinner'?
Yes, I would. The book rambles a little at times and it doesn't rank for me as one of King's best, but it's a lot better than 'From a Buick 8', which lacked structure and rambled a LOT. (Click here to read my review - From A Buick 8). Also, as a diehard Stephen King fan, I'm happy to sample his lesser-known work. I'll look out for further Richard Bachman books.
What about you? Have you read 'Thinner'?
Did you enjoy it? Leave a comment and let me know! (UK readers, you can check out 'Thinner' by clicking on the main image.
Blood is thicker than water...
This week's post is a review of the Sunday Times bestseller 'Good Me Bad Me' by author Ali Land. Here's a taster:
Annie's mother is a serial killer.
The only way she can make it stop is to hand her in to the police.
But out of sight is not out of mind.
As her mother's trial looms, the secrets of her past won't let Annie sleep, even with a new foster family and name - Milly.
A fresh start. Now, surely, she can be whoever she wants to be.
But Milly's mother is a serial killer. And blood is thicker than water.
She is, after all, her mother's daughter...
The old question of nature versus nurture
'Good Me Bad Me' is told entirely in the narrative voice of Milly, formerly known as Annie, a fifteen-year-old in foster care after turning her serial killer mother in to the police. At first I struggled with this; Milly is a confused and very disturbed girl, and the writing reflects her anguish. Short, clipped phrases show her inner turmoil and the book wasn't easy reading at first. Sentences such as 'Shifted in his chair he did. Sat up straight, him and his gut' jarred on me, but after a while I got used to the author's style. Taken from a terrible situation in which she is horribly abused, you'd think Milly's new foster family would offer her some hope for a brighter future. They are wrestling with their own issues, however, and hide dark dysfunctional secrets. Mike, her foster father, is tasked with preparing her for the trial against her mother, which he does as best he can, but Saska, his wife, is a different matter. Remote, emotionally absent, she barely touches Milly's life and in no way provides an adequate maternal substitute. The daughter, Phoebe, bullies Milly and over time the pressure on the vulnerable fifteen-year-old grows. In her head, Milly talks to her mother a lot, seeking to make sense of her fractured life but unable to break free from the woman's stranglehold over her emotions.
The book throws up uncomfortable questions, such as: should she be pitied or feared? Nature versus nurture? On the one hand, Milly is desperate for reassurance that she's not a psychopath like her mother. On the other, how can she escape her terrible start in life? As the blurb says, blood is thicker than water, and Milly has witnessed things no child should ever see. Her turmoil has to find an outlet somehow...
The plot has some frustrating elements, such as some loose ends. For example, a threat to the safety of Miss Kemp, one of Milly's teachers, is hinted at when Milly finds out where she lives. Milly considers herself slighted by this woman, giving rise to the expectation that she will attempt to exact revenge. However, this tantalising glimpse of what might have been never gets resolved, which makes me wonder why it was ever included. In addition, the ending is somewhat odd; it's hard to say much without giving plot spoilers, but I doubt Mike would have capitulated to Milly's manipulations as quickly as he did.
I also suspect Milly's behaviour would have been very different. Most of the time she is well-behaved, polite and strives to fit in with her foster family and at school. Would a girl who has been physically and sexually abused, who has witnessed murder, act this way? Would she not be self-harming, hurting others, trashing her room, etc? Perhaps the 'good me' part of her character is a little too saccharine and unlikely.
Would I recommend 'Good Me Bad Me'? Yes, despite the minor niggles. The story is engrossing and, as a debut novel, it's impressive. Definitely worth a read, in my opinion.
'Sandrine' by Thomas H Cook is an unusual novel, and might annoy some readers because it falls between two stools genre-wise. On the face of it, it's a legal thriller; much of the action centres around the trial of Samuel Madison for the murder of his wife Sandrine. Here's the Amazon description:
How did Sandrine die? There was no forced entry. She had been gradually stockpiling prescription drugs. A lethal quantity of Demerol was found in her blood. But did the beautiful, luminous Sandrine Madison really take her own life? The District Attorney doesn't think so. Neither does the local newspaper. And so Sandrine's husband must now face a town convinced of his guilt and a daughter whose faith in her father has been shaken to its core. But, as he stands in the dock, Samuel Madison must confront yet more searing questions: Who was Sandrine? Why did she die? And why – how? – is she making him fall in love with her all over again?
The last line gives the clue as to the book's other focus. 'Sandrine' is one of the most moving love stories I've ever read. Not that I read much in the romance genre, as I find a lot of what's on offer is clichéd, full of lantern-jawed heroes and catwalk-beautiful heroines. If all love stories were as good as 'Sandrine', however, I'd read more widely in the genre. No cardboard stereotypes are found among the book's cast of characters. Instead, Samuel Madison is flawed and very believable; he's failed to achieve his ambitions and is disappointed by his marriage. Once madly in love with his wife, over time he becomes indifferent towards her, as well as apathetic about his own life. Sandrine's death forces him to acknowledge, through a tortured examination of his behaviour, how people often don't realise they possess a treasure until they lose it. The book charts Sam's gradual realisation of his faults and asks whether love can be reawakened, even after death. And poses the question: did he murder Sandrine?
This isn’t an 'edge of the seat' type of legal thriller; the pace is slower than anything John Grisham might write. The novel has its issues; some readers report being turned off by its frequent literary references, which are frequent and colourful. Given both Sandrine and Sam work at a liberal arts college, and Sam's ambition is to be a writer, it seems reasonable they'd make such references, so they didn't bother me. The main weakness, for me, was that some aspects of the story stretch belief, but I can't elaborate without giving major plot spoilers! Overall, though, this novel was a joy to read, and the ending moved me to tears. I highly recommend it.
Have you read 'Sandrine' and, if so, what did you think? Leave a comment and let me know!
This week's blog post is a book review of 'The Widow', Fiona Barton's first novel. The book was published in 2016 and has achieved both Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller status. It's billed as 'the ultimate psychological thriller... a terrifically chilling exploration of the darkness at the heart of a seemingly ordinary marriage.'
Wow! When I read that, I decided this novel was right up my street, both as the kind of book I like to read and also to write.. Here's the description from Amazon:
'We've all seen him: the man - the monster - staring from the front page of every newspaper, accused of a terrible crime. But what about her: the woman who grips his arm on the courtroom stairs – the wife who stands by him? Jean Taylor’s life was blissfully ordinary. Nice house, nice husband. Glen was all she’d ever wanted: her Prince Charming. Until he became that man accused, that monster on the front page. Jean was married to a man everyone thought capable of unimaginable evil. But now Glen is dead and she’s alone for the first time, free to tell her story on her own terms. Jean Taylor is going to tell us what she knows.'
Sounds gripping, doesn't it?
'The Widow' doesn't disappoint. I read it in one sitting, forcing my eyes to stay open one night as I devoured the contents into the small hours. I loved Fiona's depiction of the two main characters, Glen and Jeanie Taylor.
Glen is a petty, self-absorbed tyrant. His persona is wonderfully drawn, shown through the myriad ways he controls Jeanie and his failure to accept responsibility for his actions. Everything is someone else's fault, never his. (Don't we all know people like that?!) He attributes his dismissal from his bank job to his boss's jealousy rather than his unsatisfactory performance. When he's put on trial, he bills himself as a victim of police harassment. According to him, his obsession with child pornography is a medical condition for which he needs help. Not, of course, a sign of his warped nature, one that he keeps well-hidden. Here is a man who is outwardly unremarkable, yet, as the book asks, is he also a paedophile and a murderer? And is Jeanie complicit in his misdeeds?
The domineering Glen is mostly seen through the recollections of his down-trodden wife, who is a masterpiece of characterisation, expertly portrayed though subtle nuances. Jeanie adores her husband at first but her love fades as she realises the kind of man she has married. It's not long, though, before the reader starts to feel she may be hiding her own dark side. In addition, she might know more about Bella Elliott's disappearance than she's revealing.
The only flaw, for me, was that she comes across as older than her age, which jars at times. This may be deliberate, to emphasise Jean's unworldliness, but if so, I think it's overdone. It's not just that her name would be more appropriate for an older woman. At times Jean behaves like a stereotypical pensioner, so much so that when the narrative refers to her as being thirty-seven, it comes as a shock. Well, to me, anyway.
An impressive debut novel
As a foil to Glen and Jeanie, the other central characters of journalist Kate Waters and DI Bob Sparkes are more crudely drawn. Sparkes is almost like a caricature of a detective inspector, and his scenes didn't come alive for me. Kate is a more convincing character, although hard to like. Ruthless in pursuit of a scoop for her newspaper, she's hard as nails despite the caring persona she projects. The descriptions of unsavoury press behaviour are hard to stomach, as they frequently descend into harassment and trial by media. Fiona Barton used to be a journalist, so the antics she depicts are presumably realistic, yet in my view they're abhorrent.
Those wanting thrills a minute and a high body count may be disappointed by this book. The story focuses more on Jeanie's character development rather than delivering a plot rollercoaster. There are no twists as such - the ending is fairly obvious from early on - and few startling revelations. That's not the strength of this novel. The interest lies more in the reader exploring every nook and cranny of Jeanie's mind, in understanding why she gradually turns against her husband during the course of her marriage. As a first novel, it's impressive, and I look forward to reading more from this author.
Fiona Barton is a former journalist who has worked for the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday. In the latter role she won Reporter of the Year at the National Press Awards. She gave up her job to volunteer in Sri Lanka and has worked with exiled journalists all over the globe. The idea for 'The Widow' came from time spent during her journalistic career covering famous trials. Fiona began to wonder what the wives of the accused knew or allowed themselves to know about the crimes in question. Fiona lives with her husband in rural France and has written several other novels. You can find out more at her website: http://fionabartonauthor.com/
As many of you know, I love Stephen King's novels. I think he's a master of the writing craft, and I'm awed by his prolific output. I'm working my way through his books, a task that will keep me occupied for quite a while! On a recent trip to a charity shop, I bagged myself seven titles I'd not yet read. All were ones that aren't so well known, such as 'Desperation' and 'Just After Sunset'. I was curious about my purchases, wondering why they hadn't achieved the success of books such as 'Carrie' or 'The Shining'. The last one I finished was 'From a Buick 8', a novel about a supernatural car. The book gets very varied reviews on Amazon, and I can see why. For me, reading it proved a mixed experience.
First, let's deal with the good stuff. The prose is every bit as enthralling as King's other novels. I love the way he makes magic with words, and 'From a Buick 8' didn't disappoint in that respect. I read the book pretty much in one sitting, and was never bored. After all, diehard fans like me will enjoy whatever the man writes, even if it's his laundry list! So what was the issue? How come I could understand the scathing Amazon reviews, ones such as, 'It should have been titled "nothing happened"'? Or what about: 'A car that isn't really a car pitches up in a Pennsylvania backwater... and that's it. What we don't get is a story.'
Less leaves, more action, please
Whilst the words are wonderful, 'From a Buick 8' lacks a coherent plot or much tension. It's a shame because the potential's there, but King fails to develop it. One problem is that the story is largely revealed in hindsight, with the police officers of Troop D telling the story of the mysterious car they guard to a rookie recruit. Such a plot device lacks the immediacy present-day action offers, at least the way King does it. As those disgruntled reviewers pointed out, the plot is thin. The Buick could have been so much more menacing than it actually is. More victims should have succumbed to its power, thus upping the ante. Instead, Kind spends a lot of the book telling us how the car's trunk spawns all manner of weird things, most of which can't survive in our world. Instead of leaves that disintegrate minutes after they arrive on planet Earth, or dead flowers, how about giving the readers something truly scary? The one thing that does live is more ridiculous than frightening, and is soon killed anyway.
It would have been good to have a chapter or two in which the state troopers attempt to destroy the car, resulting in casualties as it fights back, but it didn't happen. Instead we're given a flimsy reason as to why they're content to leave it be. Even the Troop D members admit long stretches of time pass during which nothing happens with the Buick. Neither are we given any notion as to why the car ended up in this world, abandoned by its mysterious driver. Again, I feel the author missed a trick here. This is not the stuff great supernatural fiction is made of, in my opinion. King does provide a welcome boost to the tension towards the end, but then the plot goes flat again.
So there you have it. I'm still an avid fan of Stephen King's work, given his talent with words, but 'From a Buick 8' will most likely only appeal to readers who, like me, are already hooked.
Let's hear from you!
Have you read 'From a Buick 8'? What's your opinion of the book? Leave a comment and let me know!