Book Review: Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

Having loved every Stephen King novel I’d ever read up until this point, it was with high expectations that I opened Salem’s Lot.

For a number of reasons, reading this book took me longer than it should have done. But when it was over, I nonetheless found myself feeling somewhat disappointed.

The plot was straight forward enough: small town plus creepy old house plus vampires equals scary story.

And as one would expect from a writer of King’s calibre, once the story reached its all-out man versus monster stage, I couldn’t turn the pages quickly enough. But my main issue with Salem’s Lot is that it took me far too long to get to that point.

The novel was near-500 pages long so it would’ve been foolish not to suspect a certain amount of build-up, but I found the setup dragged in a way I hadn’t felt with other King novels. Perhaps it was the number of characters involved, most of whom I felt little affinity towards, maybe this was down more to my disrupted reading of the novel more than the characters themselves, but by the time things got sordid I found myself caring probably less than I should have done whether most of these characters lived or died.

The honourable exception to this was protagonist Ben Mears, the wandering writer who charms local girl Susan Norton and her parents with his quick wits, who had a kind of nonchalance to him that won me over fairly early on.

Once Ben and his less interesting fellow characters started getting into trouble the novel became the usual King-powered white-knuckle ride until the last page, however my overriding thought as I closed Salem’s lot was that it took a little too long to get a seat on the roller coaster.

 

Rating: 3/5 – Slow start, but once in full flow exactly what you’d expect from Stephen King.

Book review: The Great Gatsby

Knowing my recent holiday would be a busy one I decided to take The Great Gatsby as my book. I had already read it but that had been eight years ago, so I felt reacquaintance with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic was acceptable.

For readers who have somehow managed to avoid Fitzgerald’s magnum opus thus far, it focuses on title character Jay Gatsby through the eyes of finance yuppie Nick Carraway, whose friendship with Gatsby grows throughout the novel.

Gatsby is the sort of man most of us wish we were. He is rich and successful, he lives in a mansion by a lake and has developed a reputation among the Long island glitterati for throwing flamboyant parties.

He is a man who on the surface has everything he wants, but once we scratch beneath that we realise he has nothing. For the only thing he truly desires is already-married Daisy Buchanan.

Gatsby’s dilemma causes us to challenge the notion of what it means to be wealthy and also the concept of the ‘American Dream’ that was at large in the 1920s – the time of publication.

The novel teaches us that there are certain personal voids that no amount of wealth can fill and demonstrates how people will often busy themselves in other endeavours either because they believe the thing they truly want to be inaccessible or because they believe the pursuit of greatness in a particular field to be the best means of indirectly attracting the thing they truly desire.

Though this book will be one hundred years old in six years, there has been very little change in the narrative of western culture with regard to wealth since it was first published. Becoming rich is still the answer to everything in western culture and Jay Gatsby by that logic should be one of the happiest men alive.

His story is as welcome a reminder now as it was ninety-four years ago that happiness is not something that cannot be achieved by simply amassing a suitably abundant figure in one’s bank account.

Rating: 4.5/5

Probably the best short read in history. So… yeah, if you’ve somehow avoided until now, go and get it ticked off the list!

Book Review: Factotum by Charles Bukowski

Henry Chinaski the shameless yet strangely lovable aspiring writer and semi-autobiographical creation of Charles Bukowski returns in Factotum, where he continues to eke out a boozy, promiscuous existence only this time he does so via a series of menial jobs.

It is a lifestyle that Bukowski, as he did in Post Office succeeds in glamourising (up to a point) as Chinaski although a common bum in the eyes of society, has a series of entertaining adventures and meets memorable characters along his road as a journeyman. The falling off point preventing anyone from abandoning the structures of one’s own life coming via the perpetual danger of permanent homelessness that Chinaski flirts with. As he flits from town to town, resigning from one job and being sacked from next, Chinaski walks a novel-long tightrope over a pit of hopelessness that it is unlikely he will ever climb out of if he falls for good.

For a man in such bleak circumstances, he has fun with it. No sexual encounter is too dirty and there are no depths to which he will not sink for his own survival or gratification.

Though his fight for survival and brief bouts of pleasure are entertaining, they highlight just as Post Office did, the seemingly inescapable cycle of soul-destroying jobs and desperation people with failed career plans live in.

Chinaski’s admirable strength is that however grim things seem to get and however many jobs he loses, he dusts himself down, hits the road and turns up somewhere else in search of easy money and loose women.

Though most of the world see Henry Chinaski as a loser, he is in many ways a hero who never says die. His second outing only serves to solidify his legacy as the rogue who whatever the circumstances, refuses to let life beat him into submission.

Rating: 4/5 – Brave, honest and hilarious. Bukowski once again manages to make life on the brink of ruin look like a whole lot of fun.

Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

As book titles go, The Tattooist of Auschwitz leaves little room for ambiguity, but beneath the obvious crux of the plot is a love story that gives hope to those in the bleakest of predicaments.

The story gets its title from the Slovakian Jew Lale Solokov whose ability to speak several languages lands him a job tattooing new arrivals at Auschwitz and Birkenau with the numbers that will serve as their new identity.

It is a job that gives Lale a better life than he otherwise would have in a concentration camp although like most work it is not without its drawbacks, in this case having to appear amiable towards SS officers.

But when he falls in love with prisoner number 34902 (otherwise known as Gita) while tatooing her, Lale’s time at Auschwitz becomes about much more than making his hellish existence that little bit more comfortable, turning instead into battle for survival, escape and eventual marriage.

Throughout his struggle, Lale encounters several men in similar situations to himself. Men willing to call their oppressors their colleagues in exchange for preferential treatment who can do nothing but stand back and watch as their fellow prisoners are slaughtered.

With decades of hindsight, it is easy to condemn such actions as those of spineless, cowardly people, but when one stops to consider the plight of such men, their actions are less of a slight on the individuals involved and more of an illustration of the evil of the camps themselves.

The Nazi’s created an environment stripped of everything except fear and the natural human instinct to do whatever possible to survive. In such places, desperation not principles lead one’s actions.

Like any story set in a concentration camp, the Tattooist of Auschwitz can be a bludgeoning read at times, but the overall message of this real-life story is one of optimism: that however horrendous one’s surroundings are, it is always possible to find love.

 

Rating: 3/5 Classic love-in-hopeless-surroundings story, the only difference is that this one actually happened! Flits from horrific to charming page by page.

 

Book Review: Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

As a rule I like to keep my reading as varied as possible, but having read Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People barely a month ago I felt compelled to read her debut, Conversations With Friends.

Normal People grabbed me because of its complex main characters whose experiences at university spoke to me as a millennial graduate.

And having now read Conversations With Friends I can see that Normal People built upon the foundations Rooney had already laid with her first novel.

Conservations with Friends like Normal People is all about relationships. Namely four people two couples, one marriage and one affair that threatens to blow the entire dynamic between student lovers Frances and Bobbi, and married actor Nick and his writer wife Melissa to smithereens.

It is Frances and Nick’s affair that disrupt the four friends lives as they find an intimacy and comfort in one another that their actual partners fail to provide, and Rooney’s portrayal of their relationship is the undoubted strength of the novel.

The dynamic between the pair left me fascinated. Nick is in his thirties, has good looks, fame and money yet when he is alone with Frances it is she, the penniless student dreaming of becoming a writer, who has a hold over him.

There is a detail to Frances and Nick’s intimacy that suggests Rooney is writing from a place of total authenticity and as I found with Normal People, there is a definite sense that Conversations With Friends has its ear to the ground.

Same-sex relationships, issues surrounding mental health and self-harm as well as student austerity are all dealt with in a story that is engrossing until its end.

If I was going to nit-pick with Rooney, I’d say that Normal People’s Connell and Marianne aren’t quite as white-hot as Frances and Nick are here.

But regardless of which couple I find more interesting, there is no doubt that Rooney is scratching beneath the surface of something that many a millennial university graduate can relate to and producing stories that are as unique as they are contemporary.

I cannot claim to have had my finger on the pulse to the same extent: I picked Rooney’s novels up because I saw them in the book charts and decided to see what all the fuss was about more than anything.

But however I came to read them, having now read both of Rooney’s titles, I can say with confidence that the fuss is more than justified.

Rating: 4/5 Interesting characters dealing with modern-day problems. Contemporary fiction nailed.

Book Review: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

I read Wuthering Heights more because I felt I probably should have done by now than because it was crying out at me to be read, and this bore fruit as I trudged my way through it.

In the beginning, it had me. The early descriptions of Wuthering Heights and the moors cultivate a sense of isolation and build a contained world in which characters will later toil and it was easy to see why this aspect of the novel has received the plaudits it has over the years.

But then there was the story, which I found meandered around without grabbing me at any point and by the time I was halfway through, that early sense of excitement that I had picked up something that was outstanding from the first page, had petered out. A lot of the time, I was reading in fits and starts rather than an hour at a time which probably exacerbated my disharmony with the flow of the story. But when I look back on the best books I have ever read (even if I only managed a handful of pages in a particular sitting) I never felt the same distance to the storyline as I did here.

Everything is centred around the troubled, terrible Heathcliff and the main point I took away from Wuthering Heights was the idea that a damaged childhood often forges a damaging adult; although Heathcliff is by no means the first character to suffer from such afflictions.

It was not without its moments but overall, I was glad to see the back of Wuthering Heights. Maybe I’m a philistine, maybe there was something wonderful at work that I didn’t see, but for what it’s worth; I’d advise those considering a visit to Wuthering Heights to listen to four a half minutes of Kate Bush, rather than read 245 pages of Emily Bronte.

Rating: 2/5

Ever since its release this book has polarised opinion. I’d have to place myself alongside the cynics on this one.

Book Review: Post Office by Charles Bukowski

Anyone who has ever flirted with the idea of trimming some of the responsibility in their life can take a raw glimpse into a life of reckless abandon in Charles Bukowski’s debut novel Post Office.

Through scoundrel protagonist Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski, Bukowski explores a world of exhaustive menial work that funds an inconsequential life of sex, alcoholism, and gambling.

Although it is clear Chinaski has taken more than a couple of wrong turns at some point and should probably know better than to live the way he does; it occasionally appears that he has bypassed conventional wisdom and hacked the system as he enjoys an eventful life of instant gratification and simple work. The work itself is never made out to be anything other than an unglamorous slog, but the carefree and at times triumphant manner in which Chinaski goes about his life, at times, has one teetering on the brink of giving up the career and signing up as a postman for a simple life filled with cheap thrills.

But amid the triumphs Chinaski enjoys during his time at the US Postal service, there is an undertone of caution as the strain the job and the subsequent lifestyle Chinaski partakes in to tolerate it, begins to take its toll on his health.

While the post office may not be the titan it was nearly fifty years ago when the novel was first published, menial jobs are still at large in western society and while a 21st Century Henry Chinaski might no longer work for the post office, he might work in an Amazon warehouse or as a Deliveroo driver. Despite Chinaski’s best efforts, Post Office is a reminder that exhaustive menial jobs are seldom good for a person’s health. And in a society which despite advances in technology, is still full of such work, it is a message worth remembering.

Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

When popular student-athlete Connell and studious loner, Marianne, start a secret relationship it appears little more than an ill-conceived experiment, but as Sally Rooney’s Normal People progresses, it soon becomes clear that the unlikely couple have far more in common than it first appears. Not least their fondness of each other.

Although their initial fling begins at school, sparks begin to fly between the pair when they leave their small home town of Carricklea for Trinity College in Dublin; where despite their best efforts to pursue new relationships, they find themselves repeatedly drawn to one another in times of strife.

University is the place where both characters develop, in Marianne’s case, into a more outgoing personality, and in Connell’s case, into a talented writer. Although the platform University provides for self-discovery is never in doubt, it does not stop Rooney from critiquing some of the less wonderful aspects of undergraduate life that many millennial graduates will be able to relate to.

This is primarily done through the eyes of working-class Connell, who looks on in bemusement at his middle-class peers as he fights for a scholarship. To them, a scholarship is a badge to be worn, to him, it is a financial lifeline.  The pretentiousness intrinsic to certain spheres of university life is also examined in a number of scenes. The instance where one member of Marianne’s peer group’s is disgusted by the prospect of drinking champagne out of supposedly unbefitting glasses, being as good an example as any. With characters capable of such reactions ten-a-penny on campus, it is unsurprising that Connell, who wears Adidas trainers to lectures and (unlike his fellow students) does not boast an extensive collection of chinos, finds himself the perennial social outsider. The flimsiness that accompanies relationships with the more status-conscious element of the student cohort is demonstrated as the years go by; with several characters who are at one time mainstays in the social lives of Marianne and Connell, falling off the radar completely as the pair’s academic careers progress.

The frank portrayal of life at Trinity gives authority to a story of two characters who despite their differences and personal struggles, find security in one another. And when one puts down Normal People, their existence seems as real as the university they attend.

Rating: 4/5 A book that captures the essence of student life for millennials with two fascinating, complex characters.

 

Book review: The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkein

In the precursor to the Lord of the Rings detailing forces of good and evil are pitted against one another as they, like those that follow them, battle for something shiny. In the case of The Silmarillion, it is the jewels known as the Silmarils that give the book its title that are the at the heart of the conflict in middle earth.

The story concerns itself with the attempts of various elves and men to seize the Silmarils from dark lord Morgoth who steals them from their creator Feanor at the outset. It is a narrative that is not without its twists and turns, although the sheer number of different characters launching attacks on Morgoth and his forces on various occasions makes forging a bond with the main protagonists much more of a chore than it ever was in The Lord of The Rings.

That said The Silmarillion at no stage feels like it is trying to be anything other than a comprehensive chronicling of the events that preceded the Lord of the Rings and it is written with an authority that suggests the act of putting these events on paper was more one of thorough duty than invention.

The entire book is written with a certainty that gives it the feel of a sacred scripture more than a novel and while this may alienate some, it is a style, that like or not, must be hailed. It is a style that only a writer who has accounted for every last blade of grass and tree in the world he has created could ever produce. Tolkein’s boldness is such that we never stop to think of middle earth as being anything other than real, even at the mention of balrogs, orcs and elves.

It is this bold, confident and authoritative style rather than the story itself that makes The Silmarillion a masterful piece of work by a genius in full command of his world.

It will never be everyone’s favourite walk in the woods and nor was it meant to be, but regardless of its subject matter, it should at the very least be given the respect it deserves.

Rating: 3/5

Book Review: Carrie by Stephen King

Never has the phrase ‘fear the wounded animal’ been more apt than when discussing the title character of Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie.

A teenage misfit who is the butt of her more popular classmates jokes and the sufferer of draconian parenting from her uber-religious mother, Carrie has something astonishing brewing inside of her that is set explode on the biggest night of the school year – the school prom.

As her classmates arrive unaware of their unpopular peer’s special ability, us, the readers, are at this point fully briefed on the protagonist’s telekinetic abilities.

King readies us for the climax utilising scientific documents, eyewitness accounts, retrospective interviews and newspapers cuttings in titbits throughout the story so that by the time prom night comes we are braced for the action with a front row seat.

The account of Sue Snell, a classmate of Carrie’s considerably higher in the popularity food chain, is genuinely remorseful of Carrie’s erstwhile treatment at school and the story is ultimately one of caution.

Carrie appears weak, defenceless and cannon fodder for bullies but possesses power beyond the comprehension of all those around her.

Her story prompts us all to wonder if the odd kid who everyone made fun of at school is quite as harmless as they at first seem and a reminder that extraordinary abilities often come in surprising packages.

How Carrie deploys her phantasmagorical powers is, of course, to be discovered in the climax, which King teases us toward masterfully.

Rating: 3/5 A short read with no shortage of tension.