Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Stephen King, Robin Harris and Charles Shields.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

In the Telegraph, Tim Martin writes that "although the awkwardness of this overlong and overstuffed book is not confined to its title, it also delivers a lot to praise and enjoy... King's minute attention to detail and ear for language, as well as his evident relish for a juicy pulp premise, carry this 700-page book through its welter of red herrings and soap-operatic longueurs."

According to Rachel Cooke in the Observer: "In love with his conceit - he has written a time-travel story in which a man can move between 2011 and 1958 at will - King has delivered a self-indulgent book that is too long (a whopping 740 pages), too complicated and too barmy for words."

Martin writes that "King does eventually take an attractively unhinged stab at answering the question [of whether America would be better if JFK had lived], even if it boils down to the sage genre commonplace that the past doesn't like to be messed with."

In the Independent, James Kidd comments that the novel "is arguably literature's first romantic-time-travelling-conspiracy-thriller." It is "an exciting, intelligent if overlong book that underlines all King's powers as a novelist while exposing some of his flaws. Twenty-first-century King is a strange beast: populist and high-minded, artless and self-conscious."

The Conservatives: A History by Robin Harris

In the Spectator, Andrew Gimson writes that "If David Cameron and his friends wish to know why they and their policies are so despised by some Conservatives of high intellect and principle, they should read Robin Harris. His book is a marvel of concision, lucidity and scholarship, with penetrating things to say about Peel, Disraeli, Salisbury, Baldwin, Churchill, Macmillan and the rest."

Kwasi Kwarteng in the Telegraph calls the book "incisive and entertaining". He writes that although it struggles with the party's origins, "naive enthusiasm is an attractive feature of this lively book. Harris makes no secret of his preferences. Peel is castigated as a disastrous leader who was aloof from his party."

Gimson comments that "much of its savour derives from Harris's disgust - the word is not too strong - with the various forms of bogusness, including intellectual cowardice veiled by complacent politeness, which recur so often in the history of the Conservative party."

According to Douglas Hurd in the New Statesman: "Robin Harris starts out confidently enough, gliding skilfully through the history of the Tories in the 18th century... But the pace and mood alter as Harris nears modern times. He begins to show the colour of his own opinions. This, surely, is a pity. The first half of the book is historical analysis, often shrewd; but then the author becomes a polemicist and casts aside any pretence of objectivity."

Hurd concludes that "Harris writes well and with considerable force, but there are two books here in one cover. The first is a decent account of Conservative origins; the second is a warning of trouble ahead. These are both legitimate subjects for argument, but they should not be confused."

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles Shields

In the Boston Globe Steve Almond writes that the biography "provides a definitive and disturbing account of the late author... Shields is an exhaustive researcher with a knack for prose that is absorbing without being flamboyant."

David Ulin in the LA Times writes that the biography "is a problematic portrait, sketchy and pedantic by turns. Even without Vonnegut, Shields has done a lot of research, but although he loads the book with information, he never develops an integrated overview."

Ulin notes that Shields only met Vonnegut twice, thus the biography "steers clear of any real sense of who Vonnegut was."

In the New York Times Christopher Buckley observes that "Shields has a deep affection for his subject and does what he can to rebut charges of hypocrisy, but in this he is not entirely convincing. Vonnegut the staunch anti-Vietnam War spokesman couldn't be bothered to help his wife campaign for Eugene McCarthy... The champion of saving the planet and the Common Man also, we learn, owned shares in strip mining companies, malls and corporations with antiunion views."

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories