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."

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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue