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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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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