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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
On Writing is exactly what it says in the sub-title: a memoir. But it’s more than that. While the first third of the book recounts key events in King’s life that perhaps make him the writer he is, the second two thirds attempt to describe how he goes about the craft of writing.
This is the third time I’ve read this book, and I’ve given it five stars so it’s obvious I like pretty much all of it. The advice King offers is priceless, and I believe it will make most people who follow it much better writers.
The parts I didn’t like were those describing the grisly medical procedures he underwent as a child and as an adult following the road accident that almost killed him. The reason I didn’t like these was not because they were badly written or unnecessary, but because I vicariously experienced them.
A recommended book for anyone interested in Stephen King, or improving their writing.
Who Moved My BlackBerry is the hilarious story of Martin Lukes and his struggle to reach the top of the corporate ladder and become “22.5 percent better than his bestest”.
The book is written entirely as a series of emails from Martin to his coach, his wife, and colleagues at work. The writing is tight, with very little description, apart from what someone would write in an email, which makes the story fast paced, especially if you are used to reading countless emails every day.
What I liked about the book was the amusing but uncomfortable reminder that I myself often slip into using many of the corporate phrases used by Martin, the protagonist. Reading it has made me hyper-aware of the awful business clichés used in our daily lives.
Initially I felt the story would be complex and hard to follow due to the email-based narration. However, the complete opposite is true. I really enjoyed this book, and recommend it to anyone who works in an office and wants to be a better person!
Back in the 1990s, I wrote regular book reviews for computer industry magazines. It was a great little gig and I enjoyed reading the books and seeing my writing in print. I also got to keep the books after reviewing them, and ended up with a large collection. I’m sure I still have some of them.
My review of The Skin of Culture above mentions “the growth of new media such as E-mail and videoconferencing”. We are now living and working in a world where both technologies are so ubiquitous they are taken for granted.
In the review of Rewired above, I mention approaching the next millenium. It feels quite strange to realise we are now two decades into that millenium, and that I wrote those words over twenty years ago.
There were lots of different industry magazines like this, including Computer Weekly, Computing, Microscope, and several others. Some, like Computer Weekly, have now gone digital only.