Gerald’s Game by Stephen King

kings-geraldsgameThis novel, which is now well over two decades old, always fascinated me (for admittedly prurient reasons), but for some reason I never got around to reading it until now. What finally got me moving was learning that Netflix was producing a film version. I knew I would probably get around to seeing that, which would spoil the story. And original novels tend to be better than their adaptations.

The story concerns a middle-aged couple who head off to their private summer house to try and inject some passion back into their marriage. Gerald handcuffs his wife Jessie to the bedposts, with her permission (something that probably seemed a lot racier in the 1990s than it does now). Unfortunately he dies, leaving Jessie confined and alone, with no hope of rescue.

None of the above is much of a spoiler, as the majority of the story takes place with Jessie in cuffs. You might wonder how the author could maintain the reader’s interest, with so little actually happening. Well, there are some things that do physically occur in the bedroom, but the bulk of the action takes place inside Jessie’s head. Her emotions (panic, terror, despair) are described vividly and realistically. But we also take a journey into the past, where Jessie (aided by a part of her subconscious that she embodies as an old friend) revives some repressed memories of childhood trauma.

Some criticisms. The first half of the novel drags. King is overly verbose in describing the psychological state of the protagonist, and at times I was impatient for something to happen. But ultimately the story finds its feet and comes to a satisfying conclusion. The one part that lacked realism for me was the memory block. Child abuse is never to be taken lightly, but there are real children who suffer far greater things than Jessie, who carry those memories throughout their lives. In reality, it takes a lot for a child to remove an event from conscious awareness. King makes a huge melodramatic leap here, for the sake of getting his story from A to B, and it feels false.

Overall, Gerald’s Game is a worthwhile read. The Netflix movie is a faithful adaptation that does justice to the original novel (which you should read first).

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

kings-fulldarknostarsHere we have another volume from King in the tradition of Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight – a collection of four short novels under one roof.

We open with 1922, a tale about a man who plans to murder his wife over an inheritance dispute. In order to make it work, he has to involve his teenage son in the matter. This slant gives a rather common theme a unique flavour.

Big Driver is reminiscent of the movie I Spit on Your Grave. It’s a revenge story about a woman who is raped and left for dead. Highly derivative, but superior to the film in terms of the realism of the protagonist’s actions. And it has its original moments. My personal favourite of the pack.

Fair Extension is the only tale in the volume that has a supernatural element. It’s the old “pact with the devil” scenario. A dying man gets to extend his life, only the price he has to pay is something other than his soul.

Imagine a wife discovering that she never really knew her husband. In A Good Marriage, the accidental discovery of a hardcore porn mag is only the tip of the iceberg.

These are all stories of domestic life gone awry, where circumstance has forced good people into impossible situations, where the choices they are forced to make are difficult, and in some cases unconscionable. This is the dark side of the white picket fence. King is on form.

Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire

I have a liking for stories that go places where most authors fear to tread. If the author is insightful and courageous, you end up with fiction that tells the truth about life. My last outing into this territory was Stephen King’s Rage, a tale about a student who holds his classmates at gunpoint. Emily Maguire’s Taming the Beast is a story about another school-related taboo: the forbidden sexual relationship between teacher and student.

Sarah Clark is a fourteen-year-old girl who feels like a bit of a misfit; her English teacher, Daniel Carr, is thirty-eight and is married with a daughter. Recognising Sarah’s intelligence, he pays her special attention, loaning her books. They spend lunch-times together, having private discussions, alone in his classroom. Then one day he makes a move on her, and she accepts. A passionate secret love affair develops, where they both can’t get enough of each other. On Mr. Carr’s side, there is a lot of conflicting emotion: the fear of Sarah’s naivety getting them caught, the guilt over what they are doing, the fear of losing his wife and daughter. Disturbingly, the sexual relationship between Daniel and Sarah becomes violent at times, but they both seem addicted to each other regardless. Central to the book’s theme is the metaphor of “the beast with two backs” – when two people become like one organism, and cannot be satisfied when apart, no matter how badly they treat each other. Recognising the destructive nature of their relationship, Mr Carr breaks it off, resigns from his job, and moves himself and his family to another town far away. Sarah is heartbroken.

All this takes place in a few chapters at the beginning of the book. The majority of the story concerns Sarah in her early twenties. She has become excessively sexually promiscuous, having hundreds of previous lovers in an attempt to recapture what she lost with Daniel. But no one will do. Then, out of nowhere, he reappears in her life, divorced and available. And both of them still want each other. This time the relationship becomes even more destructive and violent than before. But the two seem powerless to resist. Caught in the crossfire is Sarah’s longsuffering best friend Jamie, who has been besotted with Sarah since she was a girl.

What I got from this book was a portrait of a completely self-absorbed woman – one whose view of sex is intirely about me, me, me. Everyone exists to serve her. She even seduces Jamie, despite the fact that he is a husband and father. All around her is the emotional wreckage of the people she has vampirically drained. And central to her “psychosis” is that age-old bullshit story of finding “The One” – the idea that there’s one special person you’re meant to be with and no one else will do, and to be alone is to be incomplete. The thing is, what I’m seeing in the story is not what the author intended. By all appearances, the author defends the idea of finding The One. She just wants to replace the romantic stereotype of this age-old tale with something raw and animalistic. Frankly, I’m not convinced. In the real world, people enter sexual relationships, and for a while it’s exciting, even obsessional, but after time the sex becomes familiar. Love isn’t this monstrous thing that drains so much from people that it almost kills them. What planet are you on, Maguire?

The genuine insight of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is absent here. All I see is a piece of pretentious melodrama with added shock value. This was the story of a self-absorbed little tart with delusions of profundity. Emily Maguire attempts to out-Nabokov Nabokov, but hasn’t got what it takes.

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

From the author who penned the classic teen angst novel The Catcher in the Rye, we have nine short stories collected in one volume. The stories are univerally domestic in nature, mostly consisting of conversations between regular people. They are saved from being boring by their sheer oddness, with titles like “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” and “For Esme – With Love and Squalor.” The characters often possess eccentric traits, and Salinger tells their stories with an edgy realism devoid of any melodrama. The downfall of the stories is that most of them are anticlimactic, ending on a note that leaves the reader unsatisfied, and more than once confused. Either that, or I’m just thick.

Admittedly, the sheer oddness (yet believability) of the stories sometimes made them stick in the mind long after reading, as I pondered “What the hell was that all about?” My favourites were “The Laughing Man,” a tale about a boy scout leader who tells a ongoing saga to his boys on the bus about a disfigured superhero of sorts; and “Teddy,” the story of a ten-year-old boy who possesses a spirituality beyond his years.

All things considered, though, this was a book that I found more tiresome than enjoyable.

Branded by Robert Swindells

Put yourself in the shoes of young teenage boy, Dale Ward. You’ve got a mum, a dad, a younger sister called Kayleigh and an older brother called Gavin. Life is fairly typical for you, until one day the police arrest your older brother for raping and murdering a girl in an alley – a girl who was one of many. Gavin is found guilty and put in prison for a long time. The press have a field day with you and your family. Your family goes into witness protection. Suddenly you’re no longer Dale Ward but Glen Parish. On the surface, your life seems normal again. But underneath, you know you’re the younger brother of a serial killer.

What an absolutely enthralling premise for a novel. How do you reconcile the loving brother you’ve always know with the monster who brutally murdered girls? Why did he do what he did? Will you grow up to be just like him? How will anyone tell Kayleigh? Are you and your family safe in our new lives, or will the press hunt you down again?

You’ve got to hand it to Swindells. He can pick really his ideas. I’ve enjoyed all of his young adult novels. There’s a grit and an honesty to them that I really appreciate, and this one is no different.

The only downside I found was that, for some reason, Swindells is pulling of a Cormac McCarthy act with this novel. McCarthy (The Road, No Country for Old Men) is known for making some strange decisions with punctuation, such as omitting all quotations marks. Swindells mimics the style here. It doesn’t work for me. In fact, I don’t know that it works for McCarthy, either. All it really does is add a bit of confusion between dialogue and narration, occasionally breaking the flow of reading. Just a small gripe. Otherwise, highly recommended.

Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Veronika is a young woman who possess all the success that life has to offer, and yet she is empty. And so, one day she chooses to overdose on sleeping pills. What surprised me about this was that Veronika wasn’t what I would call depressed; she was just sort of empty. I know very little personally about suicidal tendencies, but I have always thought that you would have to be in a fairly tortured state of mind to choose death over life.

Then I had an odd experience while reading this novel. A young woman contacted me by email, told me she had wanted to die since she was fifteen, and asked me advise her how to do it in such a way that it would look like an accident and save her parents some shame. This request was based on a misinterpretation of an essay I wrote online called “How to slowly kill yourself and your children.” That was just a shock title for an essay about the long-term effects of food additives! We talked for a few emails before she broke contact, and all I could think was, “This is Veronika.” She seemed possessed by an inexplicable feeling of emptiness about life that I couldn’t get to the bottom of, but which was quite real to her.

In Veronika’s case, the suicide was interrupted. She was rushed to hospital and saved, but unfortunately suffered irreparable heart damage that would kill her within a week. Now she has a week to live in the certain knowledge that she will die. The week is spent at Villette mental hospital where Veronika, of her own volition, starts to undergo a change and starts to affect the lives of the other patients. Interestingly, I learned that the author has spent time as a patient in a mental hospital, and that certainly raises the calibre of book above mere fable.

The running theme of story is an examination of what insanity actually is, hinting that the real madness is what’s going on in the world outside the walls of Villette, defined as sanity purely by strength of numbers. Here and there, the book diverts from Veronika’s perspective to delve into the past experiences of the other patients. These were insightful journeys.

As I was reading, I kept wondering how a book with a title like this was going to end in a way that would be satisfying without indulging in melodrama. But Coeho pulls it off. The ending was delightful.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I’ve been putting this review off, because I wasn’t sure how to tackle it. I knew I liked this novel, liked it a lot, but I couldn’t figure out why I liked it. The book has certain traits that, at face value, are going to look like negatives. For one, the drama is so mundane. It’s the tale of several consecutive days in the life of a 1950s boarding school student, right after he gets the news that he has been expelled. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, goes from place to place across New York, meeting various people in an effort to kill time, because he’s determined not to head home and face his parents before they’ve had a chance to hear the bad news and simmer down for a couple of days. Nothing earth-shattering happens during those few days. The highest dramatic point is when Holden foolishly hires a prostitute, then gets bullied by her pimp over payment. Holden isn’t even a particularly likable character at times. By his own admission, he is a habitual liar, and frequently enjoys spinning a yarn to those he converses with.

So, what’s to like? Well, despite Holden’s conversational lying, the narrative itself is brutally honest. It’s written in the first person – Holden writing a journal at the request of a psychiatrist after the events of the novel. The most interesting aspect of the story is in following his state of mind. Holden is both capable of youthful exuberance and depression to the point of wishing for death. I felt he was an honest portrait of the turbulence of teenage life. Although his was a lot more turbulent than mine, I could still relate to some of what I was reading, and I think perhaps that’s where my fascination with this novel lies. There were also some heartwarming moments, particularly the scenes with Holden and his kid sister Phoebe.

I was surprised to learn that The Catcher in the Rye has had a rocky road from its publication in the 1950s to the present day. The book has been banned here and there over the years. I honestly don’t see what all the fuss is about. Not only did the book not strike me as harmful, I would go as far as saying that it might be the sort of thing that would help a depressed reader away from a suicidal tendency.

One of my favourite reads of 2007.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This short novel chronicles an adventure in the life of a sea-faring drifter called Marlow around 1900. Most of the action takes place aboard a steamboat travelling up the Congo river. Marlow’s destination is deep into the jungle, to the farthest point any white man has travelled. His aim, to find and retrieve an Englishman called Kurtz. Along the way, Marlow learns a great deal about Kurtz, through people at the various stations along the river. It seems Kurtz has set himself up as a feared leader among the natives.

I’m conscious of the fact that I’m not making this book sound very interesting. If anything, the plot itself is fairly uncomplicated and run-of-the-mill. But the strength of the story lies in the way that Conrad describes what his characters go through. You might expect Marlow to marvel at the beauty of the jungle, but what happens is quite the opposite. The jungle is described as a terrifying place, almost prehistoric in nature. What Marlow experiences most of all is the fear of leaving civilisation so far behind. And when we finally meet Kurtz, we don’t find an Englishman who has brought civilisation to the uncivilised, but a man who has abandoned civilisation, seduced by the anarchy around him. The author himself was a mariner, and I get the feeling that some of what he’s writing is autobiographical.

I found this to be a difficult novel to understand fully. Other reviews have described it as dealing with moral struggles. I felt the story was much too vague in that respect. The novel is also difficult to read because of the way paragraphing has been handled. At one point, a single paragraph ran across three full book pages. Why? Well, the story is written from the point of view of Marlow, aboard a boat on the Thames, narrating his adventure to his shipmates. The entire story is written as one large quotation. I’ve seen this done very well, such as Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. But Conrad seems to feel this this format won’t allow him to space his paragraphs out in normal fashion. For instance, when two people are speaking together, Conrad rarely if ever takes a new paragraph each time the conversation switches between persons. Instead, quotes are sandwiched together, one after another, along the same paragraph.

I got some enjoyment out of this novel, but as I was reading it, I found myself being glad that it was so tiny (under 100 pages). With prose that was this awkward to read, I couldn’t have faced a longer book.

Unbeliever by Robert Swindells

Is religion a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a question I don’t feel comfortable answering, because it’s something I’ve kept changing my mind about over the course of my life. One thing I will say, though: It’s a dangerous thing. It can change your life; it can give you peace and happiness; it can torture your mind; it can give your life purpose; it can change your whole personality; it can revolutionise your lifestyle; it can make you throw your common sense to the wind. And those things are what this novel is all about.

Malcolm Henshaw becomes involved in a Christian sect known as “The Little Children”. Their beliefs are pretty outlandish in today’s scientific world, but Malcolm is convinced he has found God. He is on a quest to eliminate “wrong living” from his life, and more importantly, the lives of his wife and daughters. It’s religious fundamentalism. No fun, too much damn, and completely mental, as the saying goes. Malcolm’s teenage daughter Annabel comes off worst, with her natural interests in boys and pop music abruptly taken away by her father’s legalistic demands. It’s not long before the family is thrown into domestic chaos.

This story struck a real chord with me because I lived a lot of it. I’m the guy who once “got saved” and drove his mates round the bend, completely blind his own coldness and disloyalty. It took me a long time to work through that phase of my life, but at least I came out the other end reasonably sane (and a whole lot less gullible). Some people don’t.

The book touches on some very important issues: Is religion a means of controlling people? Is it about having a comforting crutch to lean on when life is dark? Can praying sometimes just be an excuse for cowardly inaction? Don’t get me wrong; this not an anti-God book. It’s not even an anti-religion book. All it’s trying to do is make young people cautious about believing everything they hear. I applaud Swindells for daring to write honestly and brutally about a taboo subject. I urge every young person to read it. It’s an eye-opener.

Abomination by Robert Swindells

“Abomination” makes this novel sound like a trashy monster yarn. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a heart-warming story about a twelve-year-old girl called Martha doing her best to fit in at school when cruel circumstances force her to be very different from her peers. No, she hasn’t got some horrible deformity to deal with (if you’re still thinking along the “monster” line); it’s her parents. They are religious nutcases. Belonging to a vaguely Christian cult known as “The Righteous”, they force Martha to eat plain food and wear home-made clothes. Most importantly of all, Martha must never, ever, bring a friend home. And as a result, she has no friends. Enter Scott, the new kid at school. A moment of absentminded kindness to Martha causes him to be branded as much an outcast as she is. And so, they find comfort in each other. But what will happen to their friendship when Scott wants to visit her house? She can never let that happen, for her family has a dreadful secret.

Swindells has a knack for short, snappy chapter divisions that keep you reading. It’s that syndrome where you turn ahead and think, “Ah, the next one’s only three pages. I’ll read on.” And before you know it, you’ve got half the novel read. I had this one finished in two days flat. The main credit must, of course, go to the engaging storyline.

Some great themes going on: childhood cruelty to one’s peers; coping with being different; how religion can warp the mind; smearing over evil by calling it good. Real life never gets romanticised with Swindells. And that’s why his books are so good.

Father to the Man by Adrian Plass

Somehow it feels as if there should be a drum-roll or something to precede this review, as it happens to be the first ever piece of Christian literature I’ve included. Quite odd to have it sandwiched between a load of horror novels, perhaps, but this reviews section was started with a view to reporting on everything I read, so why break the habit?

Father to the Man is a collection of seven stories, most of which feature an aspect of the parent-child relationship in one way or another, whether the child be of primary school age or grown up and coping with a parent’s death.

The first story, “Nothing but the Truth” begins with the enigmatic line Dying was a doddle. And so we have the story of a dead man walking around in spirit form, waiting to see what happens next. Rather than treating us to some elaborate effects-driven What Dreams May Come-type experience, Plass takes the reader to a very ordinary interview situation, where the protagonist is asked to talk about some key moments from his past. As I write this, I realise how boring the concept sounds; but let me tell you it was rivetting. The protagonist reveals his innermost feelings about the death of his father; expressing his heightened fear that death is the end of existence, despite all he believes about God. There is a raw honesty running through this story, and the others, that is a rare find in literature.

“Stanley Morgan’s Minor Misdemeanour”, the third tale in the volume, is another favourite. It concerns a Christian man who, although married with kids, has never quite come to terms with his own sexuality. A brief encounter with a pornographic magazine when he was sixteen has haunted him ever since. The “quiet compatibility” he has with his wife has never seemed to satisfy the hunger for some kind paradise glimpsed elsewhere. Without wanting to spoil the rest of the story, I’ll just say that it’s essentially about seeing through illusions. And if you read between the lines, you might think differently about the use of sex in the media today; through TV adverts and pop videos, etc., we’re all being encouraged to take fantasy a little too seriously, and I reckon it’s anything but healthy for the human mind.

Unfortunately I found many of the endings to these stories a little confusing or disappointing. Sometimes it’s as if Plass is dancing around the edge of something really meaningful, and just when I think I’m about to be enlightened, I end up scratching my head instead. So, whilst that does somewhat spoil things, this book still scores well above average for its brutal honesty and in-depth look at human life and relationships. And it’s pretty funny to boot.

Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon

Having read McCammon’s outstanding short story collection Blue World about a decade ago, and having heard consistently good reports about Boy’s Life, this has been a novel I’ve wanted to read for many years. It’s disappointing, therefore, that I have to report that it doesn’t quite live up to the hype.

Things get off to a good start. We are introduced to life in a 1960s small town called Zephyr, told through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy called Cory. Whilst helping his dad do the milk rounds in the early hours of one morning, the pair are witness to a car driving into a lake. Cory’s dad attempts to rescue the driver before the car sinks, only to discover the man unconscious, beaten to a pulp, handcuffed to the steering wheel with a length of piano wire around his neck. So begins the mystery of who this mysterious man is and who murdered him.

The disappointment for me began when I realised McCammon intended to keep this plotline well and truly in the background, rathen than using it as the driving force behind the novel. The duration of the book takes place over one year of the boy’s life, split into four roughly equal seasons. Each individual chapter has its own theme, and these themes are so varied that at times it almost feels like reading a short story collection. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but among these chapters you’ll encounter a sea monster, some ghosts, a bicycle that has a life of its own, a zombie dog, a dinosaur and a sprinkling of voodoo magic; for the a single novel, I can’t help thinking things are getting a little overcrowded.

The real theme of this novel is recapturing one’s childhood. This is a theme I have some appreciation for, but McCammon gets down to some in-your-face philosophising that I didn’t find particularly true. He puts on his rose tinted glasses about the past, and insists we adults are all dissatisfied with our lives and wishing we could just be children again. He forgets about the selfishness, ignorance, cruelty, name-calling and insecurity of childhood, insisting that the world is full of magic if only we could see it again. Things get blown out of all proprortion when Cory sees an eyeball in the headlamp of his new bicycle, and the bike often steers him out of trouble. I guess bikes without headlamps must be blind, eh?

OK, I’ve been very critical, but let me state for the record that I liked the people in this story. I got to know them fairly well, and I often enjoyed myself when McCammon took me off to one side on a mini adventure. These adventures ranged from the excellent to the below average. So, it’s with regret that I give this novel three out of five stars.

Undercover White Trash by David Kilpatrick

With the word “undercover” in the title, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a novel about crime. It’s really a story about an elite advertising executive, Edward Vincent Prescott III, who makes a terrible blunder in his campaign for the BillyMart wholesale consumer store. The blunder doesn’t cost him his job, however; in a maverick move, his boss suggests that he spend several months undercover as a member of the blue-collar society. It’s an opportunity to research the target audience first-hand. So, Ed Prescott prepares to leave his rich life behind (at least temporarily) and embark on his mission. First, he heads for a BillyMart store (a place he would never normally shop) to check out the people. After singling out one family and following them home to their trailer park, he decides to rent the trailer opposite and observe them more closely. Prescott doesn’t know it yet, but his stay with the “white trash” is going to change him more than he could ever have predicted.

I discovered the author, David Kilpatrick, through his website, and got particularly interested in him because of his blog. It is both honest and sensitive but sometimes hard-hitting, and usually full of dry wit. One of Kilpatrick’s best lines, in describing a particular woman’s attractiveness, was, “I’d be on her like a hobo on a ham sandwich.” That just cracked me up. I figured that if this guy can write like this on the fly in his blog, then his fiction has got to be good. He has written four novels, but I got particularly interested in this one due to him mentioning that some of the events in it were true (but he’s not telling which ones).

Both the title of the book, and the author’s sales pitch, led me to believe this would be a raw read, where humanity at its worst is put under a microscope. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The story is sensitive, concerning itself mostly with exploring the issue of friendship between people at opposite ends of the class spectrum. What a great theme. Another thing that becomes apparent as you read it is that you have absolutely no idea where the story is heading; there is no clear goal for the protagonist to achieve (other than advertising research); no disaster to be averted; no one to save. Usually that makes for a boring read, but not in this case. Each chapter was consistently interesting, and kept dragging me back for more.

Kilpatrick’s style is happily loaded with the same dry wit that you’ll find in his blog. His novels are self-published through print-on-demand, which usually means you get a novel loaded with typos and poor sentence structure. For once an author has done the necessary editing work, and despite the occasional missing comma, you have a smooth read.

I look forward to reading the rest of David Kilpatrick’s novels in due course. This one, at least, deserve a mass-market publishing deal.