loulamac’s #CBRV review #52: Joyland by Stephen King

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The Master’s latest offering is set in the magical world of a fading New England amusement park in 1973. Wonderfully, the fact that the novel shows much of the behind the scenes workings of the place does nothing to diminish that magic. King creates a place that is timeless yet aging, mysterious yet every-day, down-at-heel yet enchanted. As the reader you are as sucked into it as the book’s narrator and hero, Devin Jones.

Dev is a 21 year old college student who, rather than staying on-campus to work in the cafeteria, takes a summer job at Joyland. He is soon dumped by his first love and nursing a broken heart, for which his tasks manning the carny rides and dressing up as Howie the Happy Hound, Joyland’s mascot, provide some small distraction. He makes friends amongst the summer staff and old-timers, and becomes fascinated by a young woman and her terminally ill son. The thread that holds it all together, and makes the story more than just a memoir, is Dev’s interest in the unsolved murder of a young woman that happened on the (rumoured to be haunted) Horror House ride four years before.

There’s everything you’d expect from a King novel – a naïve young hero who’s about to go through life experiences that will make him grow up, the lasting friendships he makes during a time of adversity, a strangely gifted child, an older mentor, a charming dog – and more. The short (for him) novel is packed with lump-in-throat and wry-chuckle moments, and in its air of nostalgia, loss and celebration is reminiscent of The Body (later filmed as Stand By Me). The feel of King’s more accomplished work is present elsewhere too – the section where Dev is interviewed for the job at Joyland is like the good twin of Jack Torrance’s application to the Overlook Hotel – but overall the book is very much its own. The solving of the ghost story/murder mystery is secondary to the emotional journey our young hero goes on, and if I have any criticism it’s that the revelation of the identity of the killer and the final showdown are a bit clunky, but only by King’s stratospherically high standards. I can’t wait for Doctor Sleep.

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loulamac’s #CBRV review #51: About Face by Donna Leon

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Another dead-Kindle-holiday-desperation read, and it wasn’t up to Jack Reacher standards, not even a little bit. People I know whose opinions I respect are fans of Donna Leon, and so I had no qualms about picking this up. And then I read the first chapter, was so bored I could hardly believe it, but managed to plough through it in a day and a half anyway.  About Face is something like the 428,956th Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery. You’d think with that kind of practice (not to mention acclaim) that the book would have something to recommend it. It doesn’t.

At a dinner party at his in-law’s, Brunetti meets an intriguing blonde, who as well as reading lots of Cicero, also has a frozen face due to what seems to be excessive plastic surgery. This woman’s husband has made a business proposal to Brunetti’s father in law, and so Brunetti does a little bit of digging into him. At the same time, a Major in the Caribinieri comes to visit Brunetti. He’s on the trail of mafia-connected criminals who are illegally transporting toxic waste, and needs some help. Before long the Major is dead, Brunetti has drunk lots of coffee, and I had lost the will to live.

Brunetti is meant to be charming, thoughtful and insightful. I just found him smug and self-consciously quirky. The other characters are little more than cardboard cut-outs, and the dialogue is wooden. For some reason, Leon seems to think that detailing what he has for lunch and the pasta shapes his wife uses with different courses adds to the sense of how terribly Italian it all is. Bore off. I won’t be reading another one.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #49: Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

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It’s not fashionable to like Amis’ later novels. The received wisdom is that since his glory days of Money, London Fields or The Information (my personal favourite), he has steadily become more eccentric and less ‘in touch’ with the world he lives in, and London in particular. While this may be true in some ways, how he puts words together is still a delight (I even enjoyed The House of Meetings). While Lionel Asbo isn’t as much of a return to form as The Pregnant Widow seemed to be, it’s still well worth a read.

Lionel Asbo is a serial jail-bird pit bull-owning thug. He lives with his orphaned nephew Des Pepperdine (the nearest you’ll get to a sympathetic character in an Amis novel) in the fictional London neighbourhood of Diston, where life expectancy is fifty-four and on average single mums have six kids. Lionel (or Loyonoo as he pronounces it) has had so many ASBOs served against him (his first when he was still a toddler) that he has changed his name by deed poll. While Lionel is serving yet another prison sentence he wins £139,999,999.50 on the lottery, and is thrust into a world of ‘lotto lout’ limelight, getting barred from five star hotels and dating Jordan-esque glamour models. Des, meanwhile, is studying at university and living in Lionel’s old high-rise flat with his pregnant girlfriend. The bulk of the novel charts the way in which each of the cast of disreputable and broken people react to Lionel’s new-found wealth.

It is true that the characters and plot are outlandish. It seems Amis is trying, in his inimitable heavy-handed way, to create a dystopian fairy tale for our fame- and wealth-obsessed times. In Asbo though, he has created as threatening and compelling character as he has managed to do for years. There is a great sense of dread and pressure that pervades the book. The prose is every bit as complicated, winning and prone to linguistic acrobatics as you would expect it to be, but it’s the simple descriptions that do it for me. Early in the novel, Asbo is debating whether his latest offence should be classed ABH or GBH:

‘Criminal law, after all, was the third element in his vocational trinity, the other two being villainy and prison.’

Asbo’s Alma Mater Stallwort prison is described as ‘looking like a terrible school for very old men’; and the scene where Asbo treats his brothers to a swanky dinner, knowing that they all desperately need a hand-out and that he has no intention of giving them a bean, is as good as any Amis has written.

I did get annoyed on one point of detail. Lionel is named after the great light entertainer Lionel Blair, because his mum, with five sons already, had run out of Beatles to inspire the name of her sixth son. Mention is made of how she even named one of the five after the ‘forgotten’ Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe. If she’s such a huge fan, why didn’t she name Lionel after Pete Best, the drummer before Ringo? Don’t make such a point of making a character a loopy Beatles fan and then get that wrong. Annoying.

This book may be over the top, so much so that it’s an easy target for all the blinkered Amis-haters out there. If you’re one of them, then don’t bother reading it. If you’ve got an open mind though, and can go with the distorted and disfigured world presented, then you’ll enjoy it.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #47: A Wanted Man by Lee Child

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Picture the scene. I’m on my summer sunshine holiday, charging through books as I sunbathe and glug beer (check out my multi-tasking), when my Kindle dies. Thank god I’m at my Grandpa’s villa, and my Grandpa has a bit of a trashy thriller habit. THANK GOD. I’m not averse to a bit of Jack Reacher, so this fall-back position wasn’t too bad.

The book opens in Nebraska. There is one unreliable eye-witness to a bloody murder, and Special Agent Julia Sorenson from the FBI’s Omaha field office is sent to investigate. Meanwhile Reacher, en route to Virginia to meet the woman-on-the-end-of-the-phone from 61 Hours, is picked up hitchhiking on the interstate. The group that picks him up has a strange dynamic, and it’s not long before Reacher realises something is up. And boy is it. We’ve got a missing cocktail waitress, undercover FBI agents, mysterious Middle-Eastern connections, and Reacher has a broken nose. Excellent.

A Wanted Man is the seventeenth Jack Reacher novel, the fourth one I’ve read, and I must say, Lee Child doesn’t let you down. The prose is skilfully simple; the plot is sufficiently complicated to keep you interested, but not so much that it feels contrived; the characters are well-drawn enough that you care about them; and Jack continues to be preposterously charismatic, in his ‘rough edges’ kind of way. Child is as mad about him as ever, one glowing paragraph describes him as:

‘A wild man. But not really. Underneath everything else he seemed strangely civilised. He had moved with a kind of considered grace, calm and contained. He had spoken the same way, thinking ahead… Straight to the heart of the matter. Knowledgeable, and confident. His gaze was both wise and appealing, both friendly and bleak, both frank and utterly cynical.’

I suppose Child feels the same as all of us, we’d like to either be Reacher or go for a beer with him. Hanging out with him while he fascinated yet more women and foiled another set of bad guys was good fun.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #42: The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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‘Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.’

Sherlock Holmes’ second adventure opens, aptly enough, with a chapter entitled ‘The Science of Deduction’. By now, we’ve met Holmes, and been amazed by his logical mind. In this opening chapter, with cocaine-induced energy, Holmes explains his deductive process to a disapproving Watson. Watson doesn’t like it when Holmes takes drugs (‘”Which is it today?’ I asked, ‘morphine or cocaine”’), but Holmes doesn’t like it when his brain lacks stimulation. Thank goodness then that before the chapter is out, the lovely Miss Mary Morstan arrives at 221b Baker Street, bringing an appetising mystery with her.

Miss Morstan is the daughter of an officer in the Indian regiment. Ten years before, on his return to London after many years abroad, he disappeared without a trace. Six years later, Miss Morstan began receiving, every year, ‘a very large and lustrous pearl’ in a small box. Holmes’ interest is piqued, and the twosome now a three (with Watson very much smitten with Miss Morstan), they start their investigations with the son of Morstan’s friend and colleague, Major Sholto. Before long, Holmes is travelling through the netherworld of London’s docks disguised as a seafarer, hunting a pygmy savage and a one-legged convict who have made off with Indian treasure.

Holmes is of course accompanied (not hampered on this occasion, not quite) by a member of the London constabulary, who as ever he holds in complete disdain: ‘When Gregson, Lestrade or Athelney Jones are out of their depths – which, by the way, is their normal state – the matter is laid before me.’ This time it’s the blustering Athelney Jones who is along for the ride, and we also encounter Holmes’ unofficial detecting assistants the street Arabs.

The story itself isn’t as gripping or emotional as A Study in Scarlet, but as with the earlier book, Holmes’ observations and Watson’s exasperation with him are a joy to read. As Holmes says of himself; ‘there are in me the makings of a very fine loafer and also of a pretty spry sort of fellow.’ When he’s spry, and on a case, he’s the most fun.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #40: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

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I am one of the rare breed who didn’t lose their mind over Gone Girl. Let me put that a different way, I nearly lost my mind over everyone else losing their minds over Gone Girl when it really isn’t much good (you can read my review here), so I started Sharp Objects with some trepidation. I’m pleased to report that while I found the main character tiresome, and the plot a joke, I didn’t hate this book. Hooray!

Our narrator is Camille Preaker, a thirty-something Chicago-based reporter. She’s also a recovering self-harmer. The whiff of a possible serial-killer sees her editor sending her back to her home town, Wind Gap Missouri. A little girl has been murdered, and another has gone missing, and Camille is tasked with getting the ‘inside track’. Her return to her family home is not auspicious; Camille’s mother is self-absorbed, aggressive and bent on manipulating and punishing her eldest child. There’s also a step-father, who is extremely thin and extremely weird; a half-sister who is a mean-girl Lolita out of the home and a childish doll that is literally dressed up by her mother when in it; and a middle sister who died under mysterious circumstances. As you can imagine, being back at home is quite stressful for Camille, who has just about kicked the habit of carving words on her body that has left her with only a small patch of skin on her back that is un-scarred. As she gets involved in the investigation, she also gets ‘involved’ with the out-of-town detective on the case. They even manage to have full penetrative sex without taking off any clothes or revealing any skin at all. That’s a gift. The longer Camille is in Wind Gap, the more fragile she becomes. Particularly as she comes to realise that beyond being odd and oppressive, there is something very sinister going on in her family’s home that just may be connected to the murder and disappearance.

As it’s Gillian Flynn, the plot rattles along (and the book was mercifully brief), but you also have to wade through her usual smug, knowing prose. Everything is ‘vacant’ (‘empty’ being too ordinary perhaps), and there are too many unnecessary coincidences, like the narrator’s sister dying on her thirteenth birthday. The plot stampedes around being all Grand Guignol and gothic, and is completely over the top. The ‘twist’ at the end is pretty special too. The characters are reasonably well drawn, Camille’s mother in particular, who comes across as a ghastly cross between a David Lynch character and a matriarch from a Tennessee Williams play. All in all, I did enjoy it, but I still remain to be convinced by Gillian Flynn. She ain’t all that.