Recently I’ve Read … Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

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Mr Mercedes is the first in a trilogy featuring retired detective Bill Hodges. The second volume, Finders Keepers, is also out now and the final instalment, End Of Watch, is to due to be released in the UK this summer.

Although Mr Mercedes was a  bit patchy, I will definitely be continuing with this series (although not yet as the Finders Keepers eBook is currently £13.99 in the UK Amazon store. £13.99?! For an eBook!). This is largely on the strength of the characters – not just Bill Hodges himself but Jerome Robinson and Holly Gibney, who end up assisting him in his informal and increasingly risky investigations here. The growing affection between the three is rather touching and it is intriguing to see them developing into a tight band of dogged investigators as the book progresses.

 King places his central character in a rather interesting situation, too. When we first meet Hodges, he appears to be suffering from depression. Separated from his wife and somewhat distanced from his daughter, he is struggling to fill his days post-retirement. The majority of his time seems to be spent watching trashy talk shows (the US equivalent of Jeremy Kyle by the sounds of it) and contemplating ending his life.

But that all changes when Hodges receives a letter from Mr Mercedes – so called because he recently killed eight people by ploughing into them with a stolen Mercedes at a job fair. The Mercedes killer is targeting Hodges, taunting him because this highly commended detective retired without being able to catch him. Mr Mercedes has been watching Hodges; he knows the retired detective is close to the edge and hopes his taunting will push him over. Another victim for the Mercedes killer. Except the killer’s campaign has the opposite effect: instead of pushing Hodges closer to despair, it brings him back to life. Much of this novel is about regaining purpose and achieving a sense of belonging. This was Mr Mercedes’ strength for me: it was great to watch Hodges coming back to life, rediscovering a sense of purpose and even creating a new family of sorts with Holly and Jerome.

King also adds a particular twist that really lifts this novel and makes it that bit different to other thrillers on the market: we know who Mr Mercedes really is. Brady Hartsfield’s identity isn’t a secret from us readers, just from Hodges et al. This lends an intriguing cat-and-mouse element to the narrative: will Hodges and his sidekicks discover Hartsfield’s identity before he can kill again?

King’s genius with the pithy one liner is also in evidence here, along with his gift for staging the most darkly comic scenes. I did find the pacing of the novel a bit uneven, though. In the beginning, I found King’s tendency to dwell on very small details quite tedious and thought it slowed the narrative down almost to a standstill. Things certainly picked up but the ending was a little bit of a let down. I don’t want to give too much away, of course, but things felt rather anti-climactic given the amount of tension King had managed to build up in the final act.

As a thriller, then, this could be better and Mr Mercedes didn’t quite live up to the promise of its intriguing set-up. It is also worth pointing out that, although King is working outside of his usual horror genre here, there are some very graphic depictions of violence and the novel also features an incestuous relationship. At times, it was hard going to spend over 400 pages in the company of the highly disturbed Brady Hartsfield. Overall, though, there was enough here to hold my interest and I am looking forward to the next two instalments (once they are more reasonably priced, that is!).

Recently I’ve Read … Cinder by Marissa Meyer

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Cinder is one of the more high profile YA novels of recent years. The debut novel by Marissa Meyer, it is the first volume in the Lunar Chronicles series, which wrapped up late last year with Winter. The series is much discussed on book blogs and in BookTube videos, and a film adaptation of Cinder is apparently in the works. All of this means that, when I resolved to read more YA titles this year, Meyer’s novels were near the top of my list.

Having read Cinder, though, I am yet to decide whether to continue with the rest of the series. On one hand, there is some good stuff here. For a relatively short book, Cinder is packed with ideas. As the title suggests, this is a loose retelling of the Cinderella story and the way in which Meyer transmutes this well-known fairytale is both deliciously wry and wonderfully inventive.

She sets her story some distance into the future in a place known as New Beijing. We never get a clear idea what happened to ‘Old’ Beijing but we do find out that there have been a further two world wars since our time and that humankind has suffered a ‘Fall’ of some description. There are post-apocalyptic, dystopian tones here.

Cinder herself is a renowned mechanic who also happens to be a cyborg. Both she and her handsome prince, in this instance Prince Kaito (known as Kai), have a fine line in sarcasm and there are some nice, witty exchanges between the two. The wicked stepmother is still in evidence, but we have only one ugly stepsister in this instance (and ugly on the inside at that): The other is actually rather nice and is Cinder’s only human friend. All of these characters are affected by letumosis (helpfully autocorrected to legumes), a deadly plague that is sweeping across the planet.

This ‘micro story’ in which these characters are involved is tethered to a ‘macro story’ that, presumably, will run throughout the series. This involves a growing enmity between the people of Earth and the Lunar; a race with powers of psychic control ruled over by a – you guessed it – wicked queen (Levana).

And so we move onto the ‘on the other hand’ bit. Whilst the novel is absolutely packed with brilliant ideas, none of them are really explored in much depth. It is strongly implied that humanity has fallen but the nature of this Fall is never made clear. And the novel is set in New Beijing, which seems such a specific, considered choice but we get so little sense of its culture that it could have been set anywhere. More is made of the fact that Cinder is a cyborg but not enough. She is excluded, persecuted, feels like an outsider. But the broader implications of her nature are overlooked. To what extent is she human? What implications does this have for humanity? Is she, in some ways, more human than the humans? As with the implied Fall, Meyer sidesteps the opportunity to explore deeper themes and, as a consequence, the novel feels superficial.

The writing is also rather shaky in places. Even when unjust and horrible things happen to Cinder, the events are conveyed in stilted, somewhat flat language that fails to evoke much emotion. Berated by her stepmother in the most awful of ways, Cinder merely responds by ‘stomping her foot’, thus sucking all of the tension out of the scene in a millisecond.

I have to be fair here, though, and say that although I was hugely dissatisfied with the story, I was never bored and it did hold my interest. There are also some very well executed action scenes towards the end. This could have been so much more than a pacy blockbuster, though. Ultimately, I feel that this is a novel that starts out as being inventive and becomes a narrative full of wasted opportunities. It touches upon so many potentially thought-provoking themes that are never fully explored.

Recently I’ve Read … Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall 1783-1787 by Winston Graham

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Winston Graham’s Poldark novels have twice been adapted by the BBC (once in the 1970s and again last year). On this evidence, it is easy to see why.

Ross Poldark lends itself perfectly to dramatisation with its quick scene changes and brisk pace. For some reason, I had expected a somewhat dry novel, made unwieldy with swathes of lengthy description. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Graham is a writer of such skill that he is able to convey a lot with a little. He creates characters with real psychological depth, and reveals so much about them, through dialogue, interaction, and pithy, genius-level one liners. A great example of this technique is this description of the banker George Warleggan, a man of humble origins who is taking advantage of social change and making something of himself, as seen through the eyes of the more aristocratic Francis Poldark (Ross’s cousin):

Francis raised an ironical eyebrow. George was a good friend and an indulgent creditor, but he could not refrain from bringing into a conversation the price he paid for things. It was almost the only sign left of his origins. (Graham, 1945)

The novel’s central relationship is between Ross Poldark, a soldier who returns from war to find the woman he loves betrothed to his cousin, and Demelza, whom he takes in as a maid when she is just a tomboyish urchin of 13.This is a far from conventional romance (though it should be pointed out that the romance does develop when Demelza is 17 and not 13!) but the gradual deepening of the bond between the two and the increasing tenderness between them is beautifully conveyed. Again, Graham illustrates this growing intimacy with just the tiniest of details:

Ross and Demelza ate their cakes and took a sip of brandy from the same flask and talked in lowered voices of what they saw. (Graham, 1945)

There is a large cast of characters in this novel and the majority are completely three-dimensional. However, Ross and Demelza are the most compelling by far and the novel does lose its sparkle when it pans away from them (I would hate to come across as a complete misery here, but I found some of the ‘comic’ scenes particularly tedious). Luckily, the pace of the novel means that we are never far away from another Ross and Demelza scene – hurrah!

Ross Poldark covers a period of social change and touches on themes of class and social injustice. There is something almost Dickensian about it: we meet characters from all walks of life, get to know them intimately (there is such psychological realism here) and see how they are affected by the society they inhabit.

I was thoroughly smitten with this novel, both as a very tender love story and as a staggeringly brilliant piece of writing.

Oh, and viewers of the most recent BBC adaptation may be interested to know that that scything scene does appear in the book. I am not sure it has been depicted accurately though so I may have to watch it again …

Recently I’ve Read … Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

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I don’t think I could have picked a better book to drag me out of my post-Christmas reading slump. Opening Eleanor and Park is like diving into a great big box of feelings.

This is a love story that manages to be heart-rendingly beautiful and starkly realistic at the same time.

Eleanor and Park are both outsiders, though to varying degrees. Eleanor is the new girl who would stand out anyway with her less than svelte-like frame and mop of flame red curls. Much to Park’s initial discomfort, her lack of interest in conformity makes her stand out even more. Park’s Asian heritage and less-then-traditional masculinity mark him out as an outsider but, somehow, he has managed to buy himself enough social currency to exist – relatively peacefully – on the fringes.

The novel’s setting seems quite specific – an American high school in the mid-1980s – but its content is universal. Rainbow Rowell skillfully captures the thorny politics of teenage friendships and what it means to be the outsider. She also unflinchingly evokes Eleanor’s difficult – often traumatic – home life.

What Rowell captures most skillfully of all, though, is the heady feelings of first love. Her writing is deeply romantic without ever being mushy or sentimental, largely thanks to sharp, concise one-liners like this:

Park had the sort of face you painted because you didn’t want history to forget it (p. 144).

Rowell endows Eleanor with a wisdom beyond her years; whilst Park dreaming of a happy ever after, she – quite understandably given her starkly different circumstances – is more clear-sighted. This clear-sightedness breathes a certain melancholy into the narrative, making the novel even more emotive:

Eleanor had never dreamed anything as nice as this, as nice as Park, sleepy-soft and warm … Warm through. Someday, she thought, somebody’s going to wake up to this every morning (p. 322).

We never get to know whose vision of first love wins out – Park’s idealistic version or Eleanor’s more realistic take – thanks to a heart-thuddingly ambiguous ending. I have read two of Rowell’s novels for adults – Landline and Attachments. These novels made me an instant Rowell fan, illustrating her ability to create three-dimensional characters you really care about and marking her out as that rare thing – a writer who can make you laugh out loud. However, I felt that both novels had very rushed endings that left swathes of the narratives unresolved. In contrast, the ambiguity of Eleanor and Park‘s finale is perfectly judged and strengthens, rather than weakens, the novel.

All in all, a stirringly romantic book that still manages to be unsentimental and thought-provoking in parts. Simply life-enhancing stuff.