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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit