Book Review: Skeleton Crew

Skeleton Crew by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s no doubt that Stephen King is a master of his craft. Skeleton Crew is a collection of short stories written over seventeen years of his life, from just before he started college, aged eighteen, through to 1983, when he was in his mid thirties.

One of the things I most look forward to reading in King’s story collections is the introduction. Skeleton Crew contains a short but good one, written in his usual style. The tale of his conversation with a friend he refers to as ‘Wyatt’ is hilarious.

Four of the stories leapt out at me as being outstanding. The Mist, Mrs Todd’s Shortcut, Nona, and The Reach. These contain all my favourite ingredients from a classic King recipe: a strong sense of place, wonderful scene-setting, nostalgia, great characters, and a swimmy, dreamy narrative.

There were a few stories I didn’t like so much, but I read them all through to the end and they usually came good in some way. One of these was The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet, which I struggled with. This one had a slow start, and I couldn’t place when it was supposed to be set, due to what seemed to be a historic narrative voice. I was very near the end when I began to realise it was actually contemporary.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. Anyone who enjoys a good short story with a horror twist should read this. It’s quite an old book (although not as old as me), published in 1985, but the stories themselves feel timeless.

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Book Review: The Discomfort of Evening

The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Discomfort of Evening is narrated by Jas, a ten year-old girl who lives on a dairy farm with her parents and siblings in a northern village in the Netherlands. Her brother dies after falling through ice while skating, and the family begins to fall apart as her parents become depressed, first over the death of a son, then over the loss of their entire herd during the foot and mouth outbreak. Jas tries to make sense of these events and deal with them through a series of uncomfortable rituals.

Without doubt, this is the strangest novel I have ever read, but also one of the most beautiful thanks to the poetic nature of the prose. The subject matter is uncomfortable and upsetting in many places, covering topics such as sexual experimentation, incest, and animal cruelty. As such, it is definitely not a read for the faint-hearted or easily offended.

A few things I really liked: I loved the narrative voice of Jas, and her childlike way of thinking. I also loved the imagery and scene-setting description that is abundant throughout. The way Rijneveld shapes the main characters and brings them to life was also brilliant.

What I didn’t like: Some of the scenes involving animal cruelty were difficult for me to read. I’m an animal lover so these bothered me more than some of the other difficult themes.

It’s worth noting that this novel, Rijneveld’s debut, recently won the 2020 International Booker Prize. I would recommend it, but I would first reiterate that it is not for the faint-hearted or easily offended.

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Book Review: Normal People

Normal People by Sally Rooney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Normal People is the story of Marianne and Connell who grow up in a small town in the west of Ireland. The novel covers their relationship over four years as they finish school and go on to study at Trinity College in Dublin.

Reading about their lives and the way they are clearly in love with each other is frustrating, and at times I wanted to bang their heads together to help them see what is right in front of them.

The book is beautifully written, with great dialogue (even though there are no quotation marks), and the scene-setting descriptions are wonderful. The characters are engaging and as I reader I grew to care deeply about them over the course of the story.

The only thing I didn’t like, initially, was that lack of quotation marks, but as I got used to reading without them, I came to realise they aren’t actually that necessary.

I absolutely recommend this novel. Quiet and beautiful. Just superb.

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Book Review: Friend Request

Friend Request by Laura Marshall.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

Friend Request is the story of a woman who receives a Facebook friend request from a girl she used to know at school. A girl who died twenty-five years ago.

As soon as I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. I loved the premise, and the sample I read through the Kindle app hooked me in within a few pages. Laura Marshall has a charming writing style that is easy to read but engaging and suspenseful at the same time.

I have tried to think of something I didn’t like about the novel, but I honestly can’t think of anything. Friend Request has the lot – a great premise, engaging prose, well-rounded characters, good scene-setting description, and a twisting, turning plot that was difficult to guess.

An accomplished debut novel that has made me eager to read more of Laura Marshall’s work. Recommended!

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Book Review: Last Orders

Last Orders by Graham Swift
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Last Orders is the story of a group of men who take a short road trip from London to Margate to dispose of the ashes of their lifelong friend, Jack Dodds, stopping off at various places on the way.

The book makes extensive use of London dialect for the entire narrative, which I liked. I really felt the narrator, Ray, was speaking to me. The book leaps about from character to character, place to place, and time to time, which I enjoyed, but I will confess I had to resort to an online character list in order to keep track of who all the characters were initially.

Some scenes are beautifully descriptive, and moving, but rendered in that London dialect which gives them a unique charm and a deceptive simplicity. I can understand why this novel won the Booker Prize.

Highly recommended, but be prepared to refer to a character list. It will bring the book to life.

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Book Review: The Brotherhood

The Brotherhood by Jerry B. Jenkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Brotherhood is the story of Boone Drake, an ambitious rookie cop who wants to take on the Chicago underworld, facing some tough personal challenges along the way.

The first few lines of this novel grabbed me straight away. I knew it wasn’t my usual reading genre, but the opening was so slick and tight I had to keep reading. After a couple of chapters I was fully invested in the main characters and wanted to see it through.

Here in the UK, Jerry Jenkins isn’t as well-known as he is in the US, so the Christian subtext took me by surprise. I didn’t object to it, and felt it was important in the development of Boone’s character, but personally I felt there was a just a teeny bit too much. Some people might be put off by this.

Overall, I thought this was a great read, and I’m considering trying The Last Operative as my next Jenkins novel.

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Book Review: The Cement Garden

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Cement Garden is the dark story of four siblings who live together in a large house overlooked by tower blocks. First they have to deal with the death of their father, then their mother; then they do what they have to do in order to keep their family together.

The first paragraph had me hooked, and after three pages I was riveted. The plot is deceptively simple, the characters all distinct and well-developed. The first chapter and the last chapter perfectly close a loop of tension that hangs throughout, which was both satisfying and disturbing at the same time.

Scratching around to find something I didn’t like, I will say the paragraph structure was a little unusual in places, especially those involving dialogue. For example, two different people sometimes speak in the same paragraph; or one person will speak, then another person will think about what has been said. This threw me a couple of times until I got used to it.

Definitely a recommended read. I’m totally blown away by this novella, and will be reading more of McEwan’s work.

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Book Review: Needful Things

Needful Things by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Needful Things is the story of a new shop that opens in a small town in Maine, and the subsequent events that unfold around the customers and the residents of the town as the proprietor of the shop begins to do business.

The setting is Castle Rock, a place many King fans will recognise, and feel at home in. Some of the characters from King’s earlier works make a reappearance, including Ace Merrill (from The Body, a.k.a. Stand by Me), who is one of the main antagonists.

I haven’t read a Stephen King novel for a few years and had forgotten how much I enjoy his work. While I don’t care so much for monsters and spooks, I am a big fan of King’s prose. The way he imbues his characters with amazing depth, giving them wonderful quirks that bring them to life. The short but simple descriptive passages. The suspense.

It’s hard to say what I didn’t like about the book, because it’s down to my own personal taste; as an older man, I admit I now find it more tricky to suspend my disbelief in the supernatural. However, I recognise this, and therefore haven’t let my personal feelings cloud my judgement in this review.

What I loved was the characterisation, especially the main protagonist, Alan Pangborn. The way King shapes him through the course of this novel is truly masterful. I’ll remember that character and his shadow puppets for a long time, if not the rest of my life.

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Book Review: My Legendary Girlfriend

My Legendary Girlfriend by Mike Gayle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My Legendary Girlfriend is the story of Will, a hopeless romantic who is still trying to get over being dumped by the love of his life three years before. The book is set over the course of a single weekend, and is a hilarious glimpse into the life of a man who is bitter about pretty much everything.

Most of the book is set in the protagonist’s one-bedroom flat in North London where he has telephone calls with the various people in his life. There is a great mix of happy, sad and funny moments, and Gayle keeps the plot flowing well, even though much of the narrative is internal dialogue.

The only thing I didn’t like about the book is the use of adverbs. I noticed on average one per page, and I found them distracting. There’s something about them that leaps annoyingly off the page, and even when I try to focus intently, they won’t go away, instead continuing to doggedly claw at my attention. This is just my own personal preference though, so don’t be put off.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable book, and Gayle has created an loveable character in Will. I look forward to reading more of Mike’s books.

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