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.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era