Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Stephen King, Paul Morley and Kristine Barnett.

Joyland by Stephen King

Joyland is a Bildungsroman narrated by Devin Jones, an old man looking back on the summer of 1973 when he worked at an amusement park. Its ‘whodunit’ detective story-like genre appears to be only held together by King’s infamous style; it does not appear to leave a lasting impression, unlike some of his other work.

The Independent’s Laurence Phelan believes that although the plot is “corny”, King “describes being young with the necessary vigour, and the slow agony with which a broken heart heals with the necessary tenderness”, although “there isn't a lot of suspense, detective work, or peril, there are too few suspects”.

Writing for The Telegraph, Tim Martin is of the opinion that “material that might disintegrate in other hands is held together by King’s evident enjoyment of his material and by his consummate skill, rarely surpassed among contemporary writers, at moving a story along”.

Tom Cox of The Express thinks that: “it feels like coasting, pleasantly, on a hang glider, at a height that, while impressive, doesn't quite give you the bigger, more spectacular view that you hanker for”.

The North (And Almost Everything In It) by Paul Morley

The North (And Almost Everything In It) divides critics in terms of the overall success of Paul Morley’s writing. Some wonder whether this arguably overlong book (it is 592 pages in length) drifts away from explaining the north-south divide in England. They all agree to some extent, however, that Morley’s emotional attachment to the north is endearing at times.

Sean O’Brien of The Independent is of the opinion that although the book is “often funny and occasionally inspired”, it is also “overlong, padded out with inserted captions dealing with northern facts and faces”. Additionally, O’Brien suggests that the book is flawed as “Morley is a journalist, strong up to 800 metres but sometimes struggling over longer distances”.

Stephen Armstrong, writing for The Sunday Times, comes to a similar conclusion: “Morley leaps between history, geography, reflections on famous northern figures, a memoir of moving to the north as a child…This ambitious mix struggles to fulfil his subtitle’s promise — the north and almost everything in it — but it is packed with raw emotion and ambivalent passions.”

The Spectator’s Philip Hensher is more damning of Morley’s personal link to the north: “The truth is that this book — which persuades us that everything comes down to the author’s personal experience of a tragedy, and which goes on about how brilliant at comedy northerners are while not being funny at all”. He also believes that “this book is really about working-class culture in Manchester and Liverpool”, rather than the being about what the title suggests.

Look out for our review by Stuart Maconie in Thursday's issue of the New Statesman.

The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius by Kristine Barnett

The Spectator’s Charlotte Moore is sceptical towards the book. According to her, the book “is misleading, and disheartening. One can never, in any case, be certain of what affects the outcome [of autism]”. She believes that “their story deserves to be told... but it is not a full depiction of autism”.

In contrast Maureen Corrigan. writing for The Washington Post, holds more admiration for Barnett. She is of the belief that “Barnett’s woman-warrior battle…to defy the experts and unearth Jake’s personality and potential is inspiring”.

Tina Moran of The Express is in agreement: “This is a truly inspiring story told in a humble, easy manner that doesn’t encourage pity or sympathy so you root for the family throughout and can only marvel at the unexpected and astonishing turn Jake’s life took.”

Joyland is King's second book for the Hard Case Crime imprint following The Colorado Kid (2005). Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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Val McDermid Q&A: “I have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon”

The crime writer on her heroes, joining a band and winning Mastermind. 

Val McDermid is the author of 39 books, the majority being crime fiction. She was the first student from a Scottish state school to attend St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She also sponsors the McDermid Stand at Raith Rovers’s football ground, named  in honour of her father, a club scout.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on my father’s shoulders in the town square in Kirkcaldy at Christmas time. I remember the impossibly tall Christmas tree covered in lights. And there was a coin-operated machine about the size of a table football game that featured plastic figures of pipers and drummers moving back and forth to the tinny sound of “Scotland the Brave”.

Who was your childhood hero?

Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were my heroes. I’m not much given to hero worship, but I still admire them both.

What political figure, past or present,do you look up to?

I had considerable admiration for the late John Smith. I think he would have made very different choices from those of Tony Blair. And I do have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways opened my eyes to the reality of life for many of the immigrants who come to this country; the price they pay and the persistence they show in trying to make a decent life for themselves and their families. It puts a human face on the empty posturing of so many politicians.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The life of Christopher Marlowe – the same as it was last time, when I won.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’m happy where I am. Chances are, any other time or place, I’d be a lowly peasant with no way out.

What TV show could you not live without?

It’s a toss-up between University Challenge and Only Connect.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’m currently sitting for a longitudinal drawing by Audrey Grant, an Edinburgh artist. It’s a fascinating process.

What’s your theme tune?

“First We Take Manhattan” by Leonard Cohen. It’s got energy and indomitability. It’s about not giving up or giving in.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

Early in my career, I asked Sara Paretsky for advice. She said: “Never do anything that isn’t tax deductible.” I’ve done my best to stick to that.

What’s currently bugging you?

How long have you got? Almost every element of Westminster politics, for starters…

What single thing would make your life better?

A clone to do the stuff I don’t want to.

When were you happiest?

I’ve never been happier than I am now.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I’d like to think I could have been a singer-songwriter. I’ve recently started performing again in a band with a bunch of friends – Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers – and it’s the best fun I’ve had in ages.

Are we all doomed?

It’s hard not to think so, but I remain optimistic.

“Insidious Intent” by Val McDermid is published by Little, Brown on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear