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My Friend Dahmer
My Friend Dahmer
by Derf Backderf
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 12.44

4 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Reflected Gory, 11 Oct 2012
This review is from: My Friend Dahmer (Hardcover)
It's difficult to top the nastiness of the Jeffrey Dahmer story but this graphic novel manages to do it. It's a smug, self satisfied cash-in on our fascination with real life Hannibal Lectors - Dahmer was the first to excite a new pitch of fascination, caught not long after The Silence Of The Lambs hoopla.

The author has the wit to showily walk the right line between explaining and condoning; empathy and sympathy; humanising and demonising, but he's fooling no-one: he, with many others, exploited Dahmer for his kicks then and ours now.

The extreme nature of the subject matter only serves better to reflect the vanity of the author. This whole exercise is seen through the lens of his pleasure at his own escape from Dahmer-ville and success in Meejar-land. His continued ambition shows even through his narcissism. The author is in a "group of band nerds and advanced placement brains". Well done you. And he's not a "social invalid" like Dahmer. Nice.

The most startling thing about this book is that it is dull. The author saw the early years of a notorious serial killer and manages to bore us with the story. Anyone who so slavishly picks over dreary American rites of passage fare at the expense of any novel insights, psychological or otherwise, shouldn't be wasting their time or our money. The author is more journalist than artist: the narrative is all "and then, and then, and then..." to the point where it becomes as dreary as Bath, Ohio. It isn't helped by a rather pompous graduate style: why say brother when sibling will do!

The only interesting thing about this book is the author's relationship with "the normal". Throughout the book this is a revealing dance. They're so alike, he claims, but so different. Instead of the banality of evil, we're faced here with the softly gloating evil of banality: our dads were chemists, but my mum wasn't mentally ill; our houses were alike but mine was light, not dark; my grades were great, I didn't flunk; my life's great --- but I could have been him! Patently, he couldn't. It's Derf Backderf's wholesome normality that makes him such a mediocrity as a storyteller. The graphic format can be edgy, subversive, revealing, but all that's revealed here is that Derf Backderf is a mass production product on a conveyor belt Dahmer didn't ride.

On the back, James Ellroy praises "A solid job"; the only thing in Dahmer's life he wasn't damned with: faint praise.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 12, 2014 9:47 PM BST


Devil's Guard
Devil's Guard
by George Robert Elford
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: 4.81

3 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An Everyday Tale Of French Foreign Legion Nazis In Vietnam, 28 July 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This was a book I heard about in 1990. It's a bit of a favourite in the infantry. Seeing it still in print and on Amazon, I thought I'd give it a go.

There's a whiff of the hippy trail at the start of the book. It purports to be fact, related by the protagonist to the author in some far flung Hindu extremity back in the mid to late `sixties. The author claims all this was dictated to him. If this was the case, you'd have to feel sorry for the aging main character; he talks just like a 20-page-a-day pulp novelist. It reads like a pulp Joseph Conrad mouthing off through a cut price Charles Marlow; as real as Daniel De Foe's Plague Year and far less convincing.

Nothing in the book has the ring of truth. The action is comic book stuff. The characters are slight. The dialogue is rudimentary and wooden. That these former SS men work autonomously within the Foreign Legion seems fanciful. Half way through the book some feisty women are added to the confection introducing a painful, by numbers, romantic element.

Any cultish glamour this book has, then, does not rely on its literary merit. So why has it been in print for almost all of the past 40 years? I think the reason lies in the book's canny combination of two proven fascinations: Vietnam and Nazis. Throw in some derring do and even a bit of clockwork romance and you have something, it seems, of enduring appeal.

Published in 1971, the book does give a bracingly extreme perspective of that time. For the U.S., the Vietnam war was now being fought both in South East Asia and at the years long Paris negotiations. There were no more illusions of victory. To the protagonist, this could all have been different had the Americans been more like the SS partisan headhunters of the Russian front, fighting with guerrilla tactics and utter ruthlessness. The book has a fair few passages bemoaning the lily-livered tactics of the French, and then American, top brass from a man who admits to having butchered many Russian civilians, children even, in the crusade against Bolshevism. Had this ideological warrior existed, the author would have been busily scribbling down his words at about the time of the My Lai massacre. Ideologies could no longer clash amidst defenceless innocents without the likes of Walter Kronkite exposing the butcher's bill. The public of the free world had begun to realise the true cost of armed interventions.

There is only one element of the book that holds any interest in 2012: it is rabidly, eye bulgingly, anti-communist. Our former SS man is fanatically convinced of the evil and threat of communism. This, at least, rings true: our hero is an ideologue of depression-era Germany, the Russian Front, and the Cold War. One thinks of Himmler's delusion that he could go to the Americans, ally with them, and drive the Red Army back beyond the Urals. This fanatical Cold War anti-communism is something that is difficult for us to recall now. We have quickly forgotten the occasional red panics that swept the free world between 1917 and 1989 or, anachronistically, we find them rather quaint, a source of kitsch and irony. The book reminded me with a sledgehammer touch that at certain times (1917, 1921, 1924, 1939, 1948, 1951, 1962, 1979, 1983) there seemed a very real danger of a system prevailing that would have us, on a good day, queue interminably and drive cars made of cardboard. The book, through the protagonist, plays up the evil and danger of communism at every opportunity while distancing our man from the genocidal aspects of his former employment.

So this is an amusing curio to pass a couple of afternoons. It left me feeling that the charnel-house of the mid-twentieth century, the collateral damage of ideological clashes, seems now very distant. As a book, though, it's tosh: don't read it if you value good writing or credibility.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 6, 2014 12:16 PM GMT


Protector
Protector
by Larry Niven
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Future Smells Of The Seventies And I Like It, 7 Jun 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Protector (Mass Market Paperback)
Larry Niven's novel Protector is good, solid, science fiction like they don't write anymore. It depicts man's first contacts with extraterrestrials about two and four centuries hence. It is a novel of ideas: some futurology, some philosophy, some fantasy anthropology. It presents a consistent world that we can easily understand. It makes us think about where the human race came from and for what purpose. There are also one or two nice twists in the book.

Of course, the book cannot help but reflect the time in which it was written, the late sixties and early seventies. It's still a man's world: the only woman character in the book is feisty and tomboyish but succumbs to the hero's muscular charms; the police are men: helpful, but too busy to be effective; hippyish middle aged men go through crises and backpack round the world; a crepuscular statesman lingers contentedly in his establishment club. It's reassuring to know that books are still read and that sometimes they even take computers on trickier deep space missions. This is a book of its time, but the story and the ideas keep it fresh and divert from the threadbare certainties of four decades ago.

Like all good science fiction, it resonates. As I finished the book, a company called Planetary Resources, backed, apparently, by billionaires, announced their intention to begin a programme of space travel in order to exploit the mineral wealth of "near Earth asteroids". Niven's first "belters" are near. Much of the von Daniken speculation and the biological catalysts found in Prometheus, the new Ridley Scott film, are in Niven's novel too; the "ancient astronaut" being a fashionable theory of the late sixties and early seventies.

If all Niven's speculation from the first golden age of space exploration were not enough, we can marvel at Alice Jordan, Protector's lone woman, who becomes "Sally" from time to time as the book progresses. Teleportation? Mutation? Poor copy editing, more likely.


Occupied City
Occupied City
by David Peace
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Give Peace A Chance?, 25 April 2012
This review is from: Occupied City (Paperback)
David Peace is an emperor without clothes. To disguise literary shortcomings, he has developed a style which has fooled a hungry and undiscerning literary constituency into thinking he's a significant writer. Don't believe the hype. David Peace joins a long line of writers, Irvine Welsh, Alex Garland, Douglas Coupland, even Martin Amis, more talked about and interviewed than read. There is no better examplar of how Peace has pulled off this lucrative but empty ruse than Occupied City.

Occupied City is the third Peace novel that I have read, the others being Tokyo Year Zero and The Damned United. The Damned United is by far the best of the three and the least flawed. The two Tokyo books are more self indulgent puff pieces than novels. Given the flaws in these books, it is a great tribute to Peace's publishers that he sells so well. They're helped by Peace being hip, especially since The Damned United, and this seemingly has its own momentum.

Peace employs obvious devices to mask serious inadequacies. All writers make the compromise between what they intend and what they realise but Peace, his publishers, and supportive critics, are passing off extreme limitations as brilliant, spare writing. Peace's writing is not brilliant, it's not even good. It's spare only because less is safe.

Here are some of the methods David Peace uses to eke out a bestselling career. Most are common to all three of the novels; all devices are employed in Occupied City:

No dialogue. Peace's dialogue is rare and functional. This is because dialogue is difficult to get right. It must be dramatic yet realistic, involving distinct, credible voices. To be good at dialogue, ultimately, you have to be good at character. Peace just doesn't have the palette.

Repetition. Peace knows that repetition can induce the dreamlike quality of mantra, creating an unreal atmosphere. He uses this ad nauseam...ad nauseam...ad nauseam. Repetition is a device with diminishing returns; use it too much and the spell is broken, the reader rebels becoming bored and suspicious that pages are being padded. In Occupied City this happens...repeatedly.

Basic Plot, Complex Structure. A novelist without an interesting plot has a problem: it's difficult to keep the reader interested. There are various ways to get around this. The modern `literary novel' uses flowery language, or an experimental structure, or earnestly liberal themes, to mask the fact that the story's dull. Peace chooses to divert our eye by making the structure more complex. We're given multiple-viewpoints from multiple narrators, all linked at intervals by some faux mystical temple hokum. At the end of Occupied City, I wasn't fooled; this is a book about a single event and the frustrations of those investigating and reporting it, interspersed with stories of those who are trying to grasp the bigger - biological warfare - picture and getting nowhere. It's a dead end exercise sliced and diced to keep us guessing: a shaggy dog story without a laugh.

Extreme Or Obsessive Behaviour. Everyone in Occupied City is a nut: American and Russian top brass go off their heads; monomaniac journalists and detectives obsess. These are not rounded characters portrayed with nuance, but eye catching, momentary charicatures. Charicatures are easier to write than well rounded characters.

Women. There's one woman character in this book. It has been said that women characters are difficult for a male writer to realise. Peace ducks the issue by sticking to a world of dysfunctional men.

Memos & Letters. To break up the structure more fully, to weave more mazey patterns down this pointless cul-de-sac, Peace uses many memos and letters. I've no problem with the epistolary form; it's as old as novels but, here, it's just another device to keep us from seeing that the story is...so...very...ba...sic.

Show Your Research: Having flanneled for 270 pages, leaving us without so much as a pay-off, Peace flaunts his research. He read a lot not to say much. It's a brazen attempt to have us take this piece of flimsy seriously.

Nebulous conspiracy. The book relies on the shadows of conspiracy and that old stand-by: the United States military. Uncle Sam is cosying up to men formerly of the Imperial Army's biological warfare unit. They are giving war criminals a free pass because it is useful for them so to do. Well I never. This conspiracy lies behind every scene, providing the context for the book's opening moments and the events, such as they are, that follow. That's as much as we ever really learn, though: a sense that the characters are puppets in some malevolent shadow play. Vagueness is a convenient device for Peace, allowing things to remain unexplained. It's an exercise in bafflement and frustration for the reader; nothing at all has been resolved by the end of the book. There's no resolution because Peace, like the reader, has no real idea what's gone on and doesn't care enough to work it out.

David Peace has a problem. He obviously regards himself as a "serious writer", his publishers are touting him as such, but he's not writing in a literary genre. The result is Occupied City: an ambitious and frustrated writer trying to square the circle and come up with the "literary thriller". Even that puffed up, overrated, fraud Graham Greene would have dismissed this sort of work as "an entertainment". Perhaps that is the ultimate problem with Occupied City: the author doesn't know what it is because he's unsure what he wants to be. Is he trying to deliver a high quality thriller like the Ellroys and the Leonards, or is he aiming for something "higher"? He needs to make up his mind because Occupied City only reflects his indecision.


The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life
The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life
by Alice Schroeder
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.49

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An Unlikely American Colossus, 23 April 2012
Warren Buffett is the American investment colossus. His name moves markets. At 81, he's taking some of the biggest positions of his career. His taxation pronouncements are cited by the President. The April 2012 announcement that he had stage one prostate cancer was news worldwide. No doubt, then, that Alice Schroeder's 800 page book tackles a subject of real importance. Indeed, such is the continued pace of events, Schroeder should consider a third edition of this book, following hard on her 2010 Lehman revisions: whether it's Tesco or on the stump, Warren Buffett is making the news more now than any at other time in his sixty year career.

This is an authorised biography and an authoritative one. It is difficult to see any other Buffet biography superseding this book or not relying on it; the privileged access that Shroeder has had is obvious on every page.

It avoids the usual problems of authorised biographies for the most part: it isn't too saccharine, nor is it a hagiography. Buffett seems to have encouraged a warts and all portrayal. There's a genuine effort to do this, but I sense that Buffett has escaped a truly disinterested appraisal. Schroeder is too polite to ever be anything other than respectful. At times, she seems in awe of her subject. There's enough balance overall, though, to give the book credibility.

Politeness and respectfulness allow the book its only turgid moments: long passages dealing with Buffett's family life. These become tiresome. Certainly, there's an unconventional aspect to Buffett's domestic arrangements. These give some insight into his singular personality and deserve scrutiny, but we get seven decades of familial minutiae and psychobabble. What is even more trying during these long domestic interludes is that Buffett is not in them; if he's about, he's buried in reports. One cannot know the details of tens of thousands of companies and be at the heart of family life. Buffett needs someone to be there, but his concentration is such that he's not always sure who it is. We are often left for page after page, then, with nice but unexceptional people and their relationship with a man absent even when he's there.

The accounts of family life may pall but the business life is enthralling. Schroeder writes with all the style of a business journalist but that doesn't harm the book. Buffett is all business, all the time; it's the insights into his investment success, in a period when American wealth grew 6 times in real terms, that really get the pages turning.

The Buffett story cannot be separated from that of the country in which he has always believed. In some Mad Men epsisode, Don and Roger are talking about Pete Campbell, the chippy executive. One notes that Campbell's family sold out in the '29 crash and took a bath. "They didn't believe in America," He concludes. It's a telling phrase. To do business in America, to invest in America, was to believe in America. To quote Calvin Coolidge more fully than is usual: "After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world." Warren Buffett was born into an America where momentarily this seemed no longer to be true. The fear that Franklin Roosevelt spoke of gripped America's economy and so the world's. In the worst of it, Warren Buffett's father lost his stockbroking job. Like many an American before and since, he dusted himself off and started on his own as...a stockbroker. To do that in the teeth of America's greatest peacetime test, to build a successful stockbroking business in `thirties Nebraska, was admirable. It also had an effect on his son.

Malcolm Gladwell would recognise the outlier's outlier in Warren Buffett. His character, his background, and his environment have made him the Mozart of capital accumulation. We must remember Malcolm Gladwell's thoughts on why some people's success is freakish, an outlier: they were shaped to be the right people to do exactly the right things at exactly the right time. Alice Shroeder's "The Snowball: Warren Buffett And The Business Of Life" isn't just about Warren Buffett, it is also about the life blood of America's world changing power in the twentieth century: business. Warren Buffett knows business and, specifically, American business. When a ratings agency downgraded U.S. debt in 2011, Warren Buffett was perplexed. He stated that America's wasn't a AAA economy, it was a AAAA economy. His words were reported across the globe because of their $40 billion authority: a fortune earned from the economy in which he still believed. It's Buffett's belief in American business that Schroeder captures in this book. Allied to encyclopaedic understanding and great skill, Buffett has accumulated an immense fortune and great fame. Alice Schroeder portrays this unique man with a detail her subject would recognise and approve of.


Duma Key
Duma Key
by Stephen King
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

2 of 7 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Duma Key Is A Poor Novel, 12 Mar 2012
This review is from: Duma Key (Paperback)
Duma Key is the worst Stephen King novel that I have read. It is also a bad novel.

I am a Stephen King admirer. I've read 7 of his novels and 2 of his short story collections. King always tries different things as a writer. He avoids highfalutin literary pretensions, getting on with the storytelling. Tens of millions of people have bought his books, so he must be doing something right. This is why Duma Key was such an unwelcome surprise. It is a long, unrewarding, bad book. It is a boring book. It is a lazy book. It is a self indulgent book. It is a book that is not worthy of Stephen King.

Stephen King has written 40 odd bestselling novels. I suppose, then, that I should forgive him the odd clunker. I resent doing so because many of Duma Key's faults are so obvious. I spent 650 torpid pages trusting that Stephen King was playing possum: the great man was only feigning to write a bad book; he would conclude things spectacularly, delighting me and rewarding my faith. This did not happen: the resolution was even worse than the rest and the rest was awful.

Some of the book's ideas had potential. Duma Key could have been a powerful thriller. Some of the plot elements could have been used to create real excitement. Some of its psychological elements could have been very unsettling. As it is, I am wondering how so adept a story teller could have made so many basic errors.

Duma Key needed a lot of editing. It is so baggy, windy, and slow that the The Stand's 1400 pages seem a model of concision by comparison. King is obviously unaware of how long winded his book is because he actually thanks his editor and copy editor at the close. I did not.

The story needs work. We follow a man who has been completely dislocated from his former life. He becomes involved in an 80 year old mystery in the course of a convalesence. The structure is part straight narrative and part teasing allusion. The narrative is tedious because it is slow and uninvolving. The allusion is tedious because it is elliptical and uninvolving. The mystery is revealed to us patchily: slowly at first, then in great clumps of supernatural guff. The resolution would be hilarious if it hadn't taken so long to get there.

The balance of the book is bizarre. It meanders langourously for over 400 pages. Events take tens of pages to unfold.We are left in the company of the tedious protagonist and his banal thoughts repeatedly and for far too long. The main characters don't meet for 130 pages. Hope that things will then pick up soon fade. We trawl through another 300 pages at a glacial plod before the pace finally quickens. But now everything is frantic and the effect comic. It's as if a narcoleptic pub bore has suddenly ingested amphetamines and helium. We skitter towards the lame resolution in such a hurried and perfunctory way that I was left wondering whether Stephen King and his editors are on speaking terms.

One cannot help but mischieviously wonder how some of the story came to King. At least one of the book's key moments is more Kubrick's Shining than King's. Another element sails in straight from John Carpenter's The Fog. With Carpenter having directed an adaptation of another King novel, one wonders if the director's imagery was rattling round King's subconscious for 15 years or so.

The supernatural element of the story does not work. This is not because it cannot work; King, of course, has made a fortune from supernatural tales. He should know that the supernatural needs to be handled with care in any story because it can quickly and easily seem preposterous. Indeed, when we think about it, most horror books are preposterous. We don't think that they are because of the skill of the author. They are so skilfully written that we are taken in and believe. The faults in Duma Key mean that we are not taken in. We are repelled rather. We look at the book with detachment. Any atavistic dread we might have felt is dispelled by a 50 page description of a camp romp in beach shorts and rucksacks. By that stage the power of the book to shock, thrill or even interest us has gone.

The characters in this book are paper thin and dull. As one spends hundreds of pages in their company, one fervently wishes them painful deaths. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen nearly often enough. The hero's wife, Pam, may be the most boring character in any book that I have read. I was actually expected to read details of dull Pam's affair with a depressed, 60 year old accountant. I'd have had more fun reading the `phone directory. If Pam is not the most boring character I have encountered, then her daughter, Ilse, is. This is an old King fault. He has a habit of making his good characters very good, with lashings of extra good so that we are quite certain that they are good. It can make me wish harm upon them which cannot be the intended effect. Here, Ilse is so good that she is dating the star in a gospel group. Meanwhile, the hero's new best buddy tries to win our sympathy as he reveals he lost his family in circumstances that are supposed to be tragic but just seem lazy and fantastical. With one exception, none of Duma Key's characters are remotely interesting. They have their allotted role in the plot but leave us with nothing. The exception is Mary Ire who is allowed a moment of a surprise, the only one in the book.

The dialogue is dreadful. Like the characters, it is there solely in the service of the plot. It has no life of its own and so it has no life. Every character talks like a white, middle class, middle aged man or a white middle class, middle aged man again indulging his liberal sentiments and pretending to be a black woman. There is little in the dialogue to differentiate one character from another other than the odd tic or Spanish phrase. There is no levity and no wit. The dialogue is so poor it often cannot be allowed to speak for itself; our hero bores us further by uninspiringly thinking about what's just been said. Towards the end, it gets worse: the dialogue is either hilarious or perplexing as characters spew gouts of exposition at each other.

Yet again, Stephen King cannot resist a tedious litany of cultural references. It is a recurring King fault. Being reminded of a couple of Florida authors or long ago rock songs just jars us back into reality, defeating the author's objective. And of course we know where these references come from don't we! From a white middle class, middle aged man; it's the author popping up and getting in the way on each occasion that he tries to make things more real.

It is maddening: this could have been a very good book but promising elements of the book are not well realised. The psychological aspects were promising: the effect of the hero's accident and brain injury; his recovery from trauma; anger management; psychology and creation in art; telepathy and intuition expressed in art. These elements are some of the book's few highlights. They could have been combined with an effective sense of location to produce a genuinely arresting psychological thriller. One gets some sense of Duma Key as a place apart from the modern world where the climate and isolation summons magic. But, like everything else in this book, the execution is slap dash and the potential is not realised.

Duma Key is a 700 page frustration. If you are looking to buy a Stephen King book, buy something else: Salem's Lot or The Shining perhaps. Duma Key should only be read by the most devoted King completists who will wonder why he allowed this to be published.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 9, 2012 2:20 PM BST


Duma Key
Duma Key
by Stephen King
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.97

1.0 out of 5 stars Duma Key Is A Poor Novel, 12 Mar 2012
This review is from: Duma Key (Paperback)
Duma Key is the worst Stephen King novel that I have read. It is also a bad novel.

I am a Stephen King admirer. I've read 7 of his novels and 2 of his short story collections. King always tries different things as a writer. He avoids highfalutin literary pretensions, getting on with the storytelling. Tens of millions of people have bought his books, so he must be doing something right. This is why Duma Key was such an unwelcome surprise. It is a long, unrewarding, bad book. It is a boring book. It is a lazy book. It is a self indulgent book. It is a book that is not worthy of Stephen King.

Stephen King has written 40 odd bestselling novels. I suppose, then, that I should forgive him the odd clunker. I resent doing so because many of Duma Key's faults are so obvious. I spent 650 torpid pages trusting that Stephen King was playing possum: the great man was only feigning to write a bad book; he would conclude things spectacularly, delighting me and rewarding my faith. This did not happen: the resolution was even worse than the rest and the rest was awful.

Some of the book's ideas had potential. Duma Key could have been a powerful thriller. Some of the plot elements could have been used to create real excitement. Some of its psychological elements could have been very unsettling. As it is, I am wondering how so adept a story teller could have made so many basic errors.

Duma Key needed a lot of editing. It is so baggy, windy, and slow that the The Stand's 1400 pages seem a model of concision by comparison. King is obviously unaware of how long winded his book is because he actually thanks his editor and copy editor at the close. I did not.

The story needs work. We follow a man who has been completely dislocated from his former life. He becomes involved in an 80 year old mystery in the course of a convalesence. The structure is part straight narrative and part teasing allusion. The narrative is tedious because it is slow and uninvolving. The allusion is tedious because it is elliptical and uninvolving. The mystery is revealed to us patchily: slowly at first, then in great clumps of supernatural guff. The resolution would be hilarious if it hadn't taken so long to get there.

The balance of the book is bizarre. It meanders langourously for over 400 pages. Events take tens of pages to unfold.We are left in the company of the tedious protagonist and his banal thoughts repeatedly and for far too long. The main characters don't meet for 130 pages. Hope that things will then pick up soon fade. We trawl through another 300 pages at a glacial plod before the pace finally quickens. But now everything is frantic and the effect comic. It's as if a narcoleptic pub bore has suddenly ingested amphetamines and helium. We skitter towards the lame resolution in such a hurried and perfunctory way that I was left wondering whether Stephen King and his editors are on speaking terms.

One cannot help but mischieviously wonder how some of the story came to King. At least one of the book's key moments is more Kubrick's Shining than King's. Another element sails in straight from John Carpenter's The Fog. With Carpenter having directed an adaptation of another King novel, one wonders if the director's imagery was rattling round King's subconscious for 15 years or so.

The supernatural element of the story does not work. This is not because it cannot work; King, of course, has made a fortune from supernatural tales. He should know that the supernatural needs to be handled with care in any story because it can quickly and easily seem preposterous. Indeed, when we think about it, most horror books are preposterous. We don't think that they are because of the skill of the author. They are so skilfully written that we are taken in and believe. The faults in Duma Key mean that we are not taken in. We are repelled rather. We look at the book with detachment. Any atavistic dread we might have felt is dispelled by a 50 page description of a camp romp in beach shorts and rucksacks. By that stage the power of the book to shock, thrill or even interest us has gone.

The characters in this book are paper thin and dull. As one spends hundreds of pages in their company, one fervently wishes them painful deaths. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen nearly often enough. The hero's wife, Pam, may be the most boring character in any book that I have read. I was actually expected to read details of dull Pam's affair with a depressed, 60 year old accountant. I'd have had more fun reading the `phone directory. If Pam is not the most boring character I have encountered, then her daughter, Ilse, is. This is an old King fault. He has a habit of making his good characters very good, with lashings of extra good so that we are quite certain that they are good. It can make me wish harm upon them which cannot be the intended effect. Here, Ilse is so good that she is dating the star in a gospel group. Meanwhile, the hero's new best buddy tries to win our sympathy as he reveals he lost his family in circumstances that are supposed to be tragic but just seem lazy and fantastical. With one exception, none of Duma Key's characters are remotely interesting. They have their allotted role in the plot but leave us with nothing. The exception is Mary Ire who is allowed a moment of a surprise, the only one in the book.

The dialogue is dreadful. Like the characters, it is there solely in the service of the plot. It has no life of its own and so it has no life. Every character talks like a white, middle class, middle aged man or a white middle class, middle aged man again indulging his liberal sentiments and pretending to be a black woman. There is little in the dialogue to differentiate one character from another other than the odd tic or Spanish phrase. There is no levity and no wit. The dialogue is so poor it often cannot be allowed to speak for itself; our hero bores us further by uninspiringly thinking about what's just been said. Towards the end, it gets worse: the dialogue is either hilarious or perplexing as characters spew gouts of exposition at each other.

Yet again, Stephen King cannot resist a tedious litany of cultural references. It is a recurring King fault. Being reminded of a couple of Florida authors or long ago rock songs just jars us back into reality, defeating the author's objective. And of course we know where these references come from don't we! From a white middle class, middle aged man; it's the author popping up and getting in the way on each occasion that he tries to make things more real.

It is maddening: this could have been a very good book but promising elements of the book are not well realised. The psychological aspects were promising: the effect of the hero's accident and brain injury; his recovery from trauma; anger management; psychology and creation in art; telepathy and intuition expressed in art. These elements are some of the book's few highlights. They could have been combined with an effective sense of location to produce a genuinely arresting psychological thriller. One gets some sense of Duma Key as a place apart from the modern world where the climate and isolation summons magic. But, like everything else in this book, the execution is slap dash and the potential is not realised.

Duma Key is a 700 page frustration. If you are looking to buy a Stephen King book, buy something else: Salem's Lot or The Shining perhaps. Duma Key should only be read by the most devoted King completists who will wonder why he allowed this to be published.


A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1)
A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1)
Price: 3.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears A Crown, 7 Feb 2012
Shakespeare had abject Richard II say:

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;

This is the game of thrones. It's the story of Harold I, Richard II, Charles I, Louis XVI, Abraham Lincoln, Maximilian I, Wilhelm II, Azana, Petain, the Shah, Allende, Ceausescu, Mubarak, Gaddafi. It's the story of those subject to them too: the willing and unwilling actors; those seeking preferment; those seeking replacement; those seeking a peaceful, quiet life. It's lonely at the apex; there's many below who'll see you off.

I have never liked fantasy literature, Dungeons & Dragons, or World Of Warcraft. The Rings and Hobbit leave me cold. To me, fantasy is as dull as black t-shirts, mascara, pentangle pendants and a prison pallor. I associate fantasy with nasty figurines of "trolls" on bedroom shelves, next to a Cure CD.

I bought Game Of Thrones a year ago because of the HBO poster publicity. I loved the title. I couldn't face tackling this doorstep until August. By Christmas Eve, I'd finished the series.

Perhaps I have missed out on many gems of fantasy literature, but I'm not convinced; Game Of Thrones and the other books in the series feel different for the two basic reasons: the nature of the world, and what happens there.

Everything is askew, but our heritage keeps us oriented: noble girls marry at 12; champions mete out justice in mortal combat; feudal barons are perfidious; raiders pillage from the sea; merchants from afar bring exotic cargoes; might is right. This is a coherent and believeable world entirely removed from our own but a hybrid of many familiar pieces of our past. There are resonances of the classical and ancient in walled desert cities. In the series there are shades of the Vikings, the Jesuits, Lepanto and the Wars Of The Roses. Westeros has much which is anglo saxon and mediaeval. The dynastic, internecine struggles are worthy of the Italian Renaissance states. Daenerys Targaryen would recognise the old Middle East and Asia. This is why the world, alien as it may be, feels coherent and credible. And the more one is in it, the more fantastic and credible it is. It's ideal for a storyteller: we're removed from the familiar, freeing us, but we know enough for the story to rattle on; there's no need to forever explain things.

And what characters! These aren't shoehorned, modern characters on some dozy magical quest. This world is different from ours and the characters play to different rules. But they're very human. The characters are memorable, round, flawed, real. Each chapter is the point of view of a principal character. They have all the qualities, good and bad, that we know: strength, courage, heroism, weakness, cowardice, villainy. Their intentions are sometimes known to us, sometimes hidden. They act for many reasons but rarely one reason; these are complex people. They're characters that can sustain our interest for the series, keeping us guessing.

The dialogue is robust, never showy. It always drives the story forward. Each character has an individual voice, a difficult thing to realise with so many, and so much ground covered. The dialogue is, of course, faux olde worlde. It seems as genuine as an Oak Park tudor pile at first, but then one realises it's Martin's world; this is how they speak. So long as it's consistent and coherent, we soon accept it. The recurring maxims, proverbs and songs add complexity and authenticity to the language world. My only reservation is that some of the humour plods.

The story is relentless; the equal of the world Martin has created. Game Of Thrones begins more than a decade after a ruling dynasty has been overthrown. This is the only moment of stasis in the series. A deposition has consequences of course, and in Game Of Thrones we are soon tossed about by waves of ever expanding flux. One must be alert for twists and clues on every page. There is constant tension as one never knows what might happen next. The violence is sudden and merciless. There are ever present feudal obligations and confused family loyalties. To be on the losing side is to risk everything. Expedience trumps gratitude, fear hollows out relationships, mistrust dogs every move, a misplaced word can mean death. Weakness, naivete, loyalty, trust, complacency, want of foresight, can condemn.

This must have been a very difficult thing to realise. The series is a massive undertaking yet the writing feels spare and lean. Every page is full of detail: court machinations, customs, religion, songs, rumour, misreporting, gossip, slander. For any student of history, this is a thrilling alloy of a thousand years. It's a work of fiction which reminds us that the figures in our own history were human. The span of years, the glamour of Hollywood, HBO, The History Channel, the dryness of old scrolls and academe can sometimes obscure that. The figures of history were as human as we are, playing for their lives in their own games of thrones.

These books will appeal to anyone who likes to get stuck into a strong, involved story. It may even please fans of the fantasy genre.


Full Dark, No Stars
Full Dark, No Stars
by Stephen King
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.18

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hits & Misses But The King Juggernaught Rumbles On..., 5 Feb 2012
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This review is from: Full Dark, No Stars (Paperback)
Stephen King has been one of the world's bestselling authors for over 35 years. He is wealthy. Many of his books have become films or television series. The rate at which he continues to produce new fiction shows an undimmed discipline and determination. How has he been so successful for so long? This is a man who found his metier, excelled, and still pushes himself to do more. He has a strong bond with a wide readership. The bond exists because of King's consistency, his openness, and his generosity. Stephen King readers are used to having their expectations met. His work involves the reader and keeps the pages turning. He is not a flowery literary writer. He is a story teller. In a job which requires more than the usual isolation and dedication, he has proved himself to be remarkably candid with, and generous to, his readers. Danse Macabre, the Bachman books, his work with Peter Straub, volumes of short stories, On Writing, his various forewords and afterwords, all these could be seen as diversions for a bestselling novelist, but King wants to give a bit more of his work and of himself. Full Dark, No Stars is part of this tradition; not long after Under The Dome, and not long before 22.11.63, he has the material for a book of four short stories as well as an afterword and, in this paperback edition, a bonus short story.

The first story, 1922, has hints of James M Cain and Charles Dickens. It doesn't really work; King never seems to find a convincing voice for the piece. This is the 1922 Nebraska of The History Channel and Hollywood. The story keeps one going to the end but there isn't enough there to be memorable and the main conceit - the old "Is this real, or is he mad?" routine - isn't executed well enough. There is something of real worth in the story; I didn't feel it was fully brought out.

The second - like three of the four main stories - is the story of a strong woman. We don't have the voice problem here because it's set in the usual King world. This a story that poses a disquieting question: what about the murderers and rapists who aren't discovered? Are there many of them? What happens to the disappeared we see in the newspaper appeals and on the side of milk cartons? How many monsters are out there, and are there other monsters shielding them from justice? The victim psychology in this story is just credible enough. The action can be confusing, but there is tension. The Jodie Foster references are clanging. King thinks that sprinkling his books with pop culture references brings the reader into the story, making it more real. The opposite is true. A case of mistaken identity, and a dialogue with a pragmatic sat-nav machine give the story some complexity. The pay off is straight out of the Stieg Larsson school of sexual politics and shows King au courant in his own way.

Fair Extension, the third story, is the one that I enjoyed most because I have a weakness for schadenfreude. Gore Vidal said: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies." That's the epigraph for this tale. The story, as King cleverly concedes, is as old as time, but the refreshing absence of any moral balance gave it all the pleasure of a nice hot bath.

A Good Marriage could be more aptly titled A Cartoon Marriage; the nauseating Disney-like union of this couple wasn't spiced with anything to make it real. The account of their romance and marriage may have been intended to suggest banality but that doesn't mean it has to be boring to read. The dialogue thoroughout sounded like it was coming straight from King's head rather than from the characters: no tics, no nuance, just the same beige homely stuff from all involved. Of course, it becomes apparent that the marriage is not cosy at all but, by now, the characters are all so cardboard, we pray for their gory destruction. What gory destruction there is seems too neat in spite of the schlock factor. It's more of King's trouble with writing action. Here, the action is a transparent method of progressing the plot, which is thin. The forensic points lift the story a bit before we arrive at a very lame ending, no pun intended.

The afterword is an interesting insight into King's thinking and methods and a generous edition to the collection.

The paperback bonus story, Under The Weather, is half baked. It's set in Manhattan with a Mad Men section that seems purposeless. The twist appears far too early and doesn't justify the effort of reading even these scant pages. As an animal lover, I was at least pleased that the dog was looking after herself, as pets ultimately always will.

Here's a collection that will please Stephen King fans. There's enough in it to keep the reader involved but there's nothing that is truly memorable. King has written better short stories and will again, but this is good enough for now. There are signs here that Stephen King still has much more to give, and giving seems to be what he likes to do best.


Under the Dome
Under the Dome
by Stephen King
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Familiar Tale Under The Dome, 3 Feb 2012
This review is from: Under the Dome (Paperback)
Under The Dome is a book of 900 pages and an effective measure of Stephen King's development since his last doorstopper 31 years ago. Where the writing in The Stand was patchy and baggy, Under The Dome is consistent and lean. The cast of characters, major and minor, is handled much more skilfully. For Stephen King fans, Under The Dome will deliver the usual rewards: we are held, compelled, and propelled.

Are the usual rewards enough after 40 odd novels? We've been under Stephen King's dome for 35 years and every blade of grass is familiar to us, perhaps over familiar. The town in this story is a Maine small town filled with characters who are the usual stock and trade of a King novel: the small-town-punk-bully; his easily led friends; the settled-for-too-little-brainy-liberal; the fat-ageing-honest-policeman; the malevolent-town-big-shot; the nice-guy-hero-outsider. The punk-bully and his friends deliver the same after closing time beating to our new hero as they did to Nick Andros 31 years before in The Stand. His story is repeating itself.

The characters are not very complex; they're either good or they're bad and that's about it. So wholesome and dull are the good people of the little town that one would soon be driven to desperate acts were one confined with them. Like many a Stephen King hero, Dale Barbara is colourless, but good. As usual, only the bad guys have any real nuance or character development, principally "Big Jim" Rennie who's "feelin' it" moments are a fine insight into the puffed up village Napoleon. Other black hat characters have nice turns too.

We have the oft-repeated struggle between good and evil within the dome, with an added element: the dome itself. The dome is the most interesting character in the book. Its arrival is sudden and unexplained. It is unyielding, immovable, irresistible. It is as if the town has been chosen to experience a hitherto unknown law of physics.That experience is nicely played: the alarm of the townspeople; the pragmatic acceptance; the emotional disintegration. The dome affects their lives often only slowly but the pressure builds as the the physical environment deteriorates and people unravel.

The Stand and Stephen King's latest tome are separated by three decades but, unhappily, they share a common fault: very lame endings. One can see Under The Dome's resolution coming like a smokestack in Kansas. The explanation of the dome - why need there be an explanation?! - is very silly indeed. It's our old friend deus ex machina. In Under The Dome we see both the gods and the machine. Each is absurd. That's a let down after such an investment of time.

There are parallels in the book with things that are happening in the wider world. We see religion perverted for commercial and political purposes, we see local government corruption and criminality, we see people using high office for selfish and dishonest ends, we see a struggle with the press, and all of this played out before a flock of sheep. It's no secret that Stephen King is a nice WASP liberal, but when these issues are presented in such a cartoon fashion they can seem facile. The most powerful point is simply made by the build up of pollution on the inside of the dome through the activity of the town's people. Whatever your environmental politics, the novel makes the simple point that anything pristine - welcome or not - is quickly tarnished by the muck we put into the air every day of our lives.

As a thriller, Under The Dome is OK and will involve Stephen King's fans and initiates alike. For those who have been waiting for this talented, popular and unique writer to step up a level and really shock, this will be a familiar disappointment.
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