Book Talk: My Stephen King Top 5

I don’t particularly like doing Top Fives anymore because I genuinely believe that such countdowns are lazy and cheap ways of pumping out content. Sometimes however, you just want a greasy, fatty take-out meal over a proper dining experience. Or perhaps you find your eyes drawn to the woman in the tracksuit rather than the glammed-up lady in the stunning evening dress. Awful analogies aside, I am going to be cheap today and do a Top Five.

If you read my review on Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing, you may be aware that am finally branching out into the works of authors other than Stephen King. With this in mind, I decided that I would share my five favourite King books since I have read almost every one by this point. I’m not done with Stephen King at all but it’s time for a break and time to broaden my horizons when it comes to fiction.

There’s no order to this list by the way; these are the five that I enjoyed the most and have read several times as a result.

1. Needful Things (1991)

need-1Needful Things was supposed to the “end” of King’s fictional town of Castle Rock and the book’s conclusion certainly supported that promise. However, the author has recently returned to the ‘Rock with Elevation and Gwendy’s Button Box (the latter set in the past to be fair) so who knows. Regardless, this book follows my favourite Stephen King formula: richly-detailed small town life from the perspectives of multiple characters. The reader gets to know the various characters (plus their deepest secrets) before all paths finally cross for a dramatic finale. Central to the story is the evil Leland Gaunt and his shop, the titular ‘Needful Things’. Gaunt exploits the desires and fears of the townspeople to turn everybody against one another and incite destruction and chaos. The way he masterfully manipulates the residents makes for excellent reading and the dark playfulness of his sinister antics is a joy to witness. For me, Gaunt is up there with Randall Flagg as one of the best villains in a Stephen King book. As for Needful Things as a whole, it represents the ‘old’ style of Stephen King where the pieces (in this case, the people) are carefully and lovingly crafted before a giant fist is slammed against the playing board, upsetting everything as the plot threads converge. It’s a real shame that this style of King storytelling isn’t as frequent anymore but 2017’s Sleeping Beauties (co-written with son, Owen King) was at least very reminiscent of these types of book.

2. Joyland (2013)

joy-1I haven’t reviewed Joyland here on Unfiltered Opinion but I did review it over on my other blog back when I thought it was a good idea to add variety to a videogame-focused blog by talking about books and B-Movies (spoilers: I quickly regretted the idea). You can find the complete review here but I will quote a portion of my own words here to summarise Joyland.

“The story is short but powerful and contains a small splash of the supernatural but is largely grounded in reality and tells the story of Devin Jones, a young college student who takes a summer job at a carnival-style amusement park called Joyland. It is there that he meets new friends, has new experiences and tries to move on from the first girl to break his heart. There is a central plot strand running through Joyland that focuses on a series of unsolved, heartless murders – the last one occuring at Joyland – that Devin finds himself investigating but this isn’t really the main premise of the book.

Joyland is actually a story about love, being young and foolish and growing up. We’ve all been there at Devin’s age and through his eyes I was able to recall my own similar experiences, thoughts and heartache. I found that I really cared about the characters in this book – Devin especially – and wanted the best ending for them but as we know from real life, the ideal isn’t always possible and our naive, young selves have to learn these lessons along the road.”

I didn’t know what to expect from a Stephen King book with a pulp-style cover published under the Hard Case Crime label but it turned out to be one of the best ones I have read thus earning it a place on this list. Usually it’s the more monolithic epics that I can’t get enough of but Joyland proved that small can be beautiful when it’s perfectly formed.

3. Christine (1983)

chris-1Being a fan of cars and classic steel in particular, I was always going to be drawn to a book that revolved around a car. The fact that Christine is an evil, sentient killer car was the icing on the cake. The basic plot of a car coming to life and murdering people sounds dumb and comical, almost like something you’d have read in a Goosebumps book as a kid but Christine is so much more than that. While it’s true that the book IS about the car, the bulk of the storytelling revolves around the nerdy, unpopular Arnie Cunningham who buys Christine – a derelict ’58 Plymouth Fury – and gradually falls under the car’s evil spell. Arnie’s personality slowly morphs into that of the car’s previous owner, the unsavoury Roland LeBay, and he transforms from an awkward highschool loser into an angry, bitter and unpleasant young man in a symbiotic relationship with his car. Everybody around Arnie is inevitably drawn into the swirling vortex of evil radiating from Arnie, Christine and their pooled “unending fury”. The book is just so well-written and you can’t help but love the characters – both the good and bad – and there is a nostalgic throwback to teenage life in the 70’s. Christine is one of Stephen King’s oldest works but remains a solid favourite of mine.

[side note: the John Carpenter movie adaptation is well worth checking out. It cuts a lot of the detail from the book (as you’d expect) and changes a few scenes but overall, it is an authentic representation of the characters and the tone of the book]

4. IT

it-1Where do you do begin with this enormous book? IT is probably more well known for its two big-screen adaptations and Tim Curry’s famous performance as the evil clown, Pennywise. The original book however is the best as far as I am concerned. It focuses on a group of friends from the recurring town of Derry and flicks between their childhood years and the present where they, as adults, return to Derry to finish the battle with the evil that they fought once before as children. The genius of IT (as I saw it anyway) was that you got the superlative, almost gratuitous descriptive writing of King, supernatural horror and the perspectives of children and their concept of fear – all in one tale. Viewing the world through the eyes of the characters as children brings back a lot of memories of how we probably saw the world and our fears as minors – hence Pennywise the clown. Some have criticised the book’s finale for losing the plot completely and it’s easy to see why that might be. The evil infecting Derry takes the form of a giant spider in the sewers beneath the town and defeating it the first time involved the children all having sex with the only female member of their gang (really). For me though, IT is one of the best of Stephen King’s sprawling epics, up there with The Stand and Under The Dome. As a bonus, there is a very brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-it implied cameo from Christine.

5. The Eyes of the Dragon (1987)

DSC_0180I reviewed this book here on Unfiltered Opinion not too long ago after reading it for the second time. I recalled being pleasantly surprised with The Eyes of the Dragon the first time around purely because it was further below the radar than most big-hitting Stephen King books and yet I enjoyed it immensely. I expected a cooler response to it the second time around but found myself surprised again. It turned out that I liked it even more despite all of the excellent Stephen King books I had read since my first journey to Delain and the sinister mechanations of the evil sorcerer, Randall Flagg. This is one of the few examples of Stephen King doing fantasy in a classic medievil-style setting but perhaps he should have ventured there more often because Eyes is simply fantastic. Most of the book’s appeal stems from the villainous Flagg and how King writes him. To quote my own review of the book…

“King’s infamous villain is central to this book’s plot and – outside of The Stand and The Dark Tower – is his most major role which makes The Eyes of the Dragon‘s “lesser” status in Stephen King’s back catalogue even more of a shame. Here, Flagg is a sorcerer and advisor to the King of Delain, plotting chaos, anarchy and destruction through intelligent manipulation and deception. He poisons the King and successfully convinces everybody that his son, Peter, is the culprit. Flagg is afraid of Peter’s good-hearted nature, strong will and keen perception – traits that would make it impossible for Flagg to maintain his toxic influence over the throne and to put his plans for Delain into action. With Peter safely imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit, his younger brother Thomas inherits the throne. Thomas is a bitter boy with far less wits about him who relies on Flagg completely to make decisions and be a King. Thus it is Flagg who rules Delain through Thomas, finally having his opportunity to begin unleashing darkness on the people.

Flagg should be an utterly one-dimensional villain. He is, after all, pure evil without a shred of goodness within, flying in the face of the concept of balance which says that nobody can ever be one-hundred percent good or evil. Flagg is disease and plague personified; a malevolent demon in human form who lives to destroy, ignite apocalyptic anarchy and incite mass bloodshed – all for his own entertainment. As rotten as Flagg is however, King writes him in such a playful manner that you can’t help but like him.”

I feel that this is the wildcard of my Top Five; a book that shouldn’t be here ahead of certain other big names from King’s back catalogue but it is impossible for me to deny my adoration for Eyes of the Dragon so here it is.

Honourable Mentions…

Ten other books from Stephen King that came very close to making my Top Five.

  • Salem’s Lot
  • The Stand: Complete and Uncut Edition
  • The Dark Half
  • Desperation
  • 11.22.63
  • Under The Dome
  • Mr Mercedes
  • Skeleton Crew
  • Bag of Bones
  • From a Buick 8

Book Talk: The Kind Worth Killing (Peter Swanson, 2015)

worth1Upon finishing The Kind Worth Killing, all I could think was “wow”. Granted, my buzzing response to this book could well be down to the fact that my fiction intake has been 90% Stephen King over the past few years. Am I perhaps overreacting and viewing Peter Swanson’s thriller as ‘fresh’ just because it’s something different written in a different author’s style? I won’t rule out the possibility but the fact is that I seriously enjoyed this book and couldn’t put it down. I devoured it like a starving man presented with a McDonalds.

The Kind Worth Killing was first published in 2015 and it has been on my radar ever since I read a magazine recommendation (FHM of all places…). It’s taken me four years to get around to picking up a copy but it was well worth it. The basic premise sold to me by that magazine recommendation is that Ted Beaumont is on his way back to the US when his flight is delayed. He meets a beautiful stranger – Lily Kintner – in the airport bar and they agree to play a game. Since they agree that they will never see each other again, they decide to take it in turns to reveal absolute truths about themselves, no matter how personal. Ted reveals that he knows his wife has been cheating on him and jokes that he wants to kill her.

After hearing his story, Lily takes Ted aback by revealing her view that the death of a person such as Ted’s wife is no loss to the world and she even offers to help him do the dirty work. What begins as a random airport meeting and a flippant musing about Ted’s wife’s adultery rapidly escalates into plotting an actual murder. Ted is initially on the fence and inwardly concerned at how easily he agrees to murder his wife but his misgivings don’t last long. After all, Miranda has suckered him in with calm lies and expert manipulation to get at his wealth. For Lily’s part, she has killed before – several times in fact. Ted doesn’t know this but suspects it and continues to go along with her anyway. The fact that Lily is described as being incredibly beautiful in a delicate, waif-like way probably helps. It’s clear that Ted is fascinated by Lily and falling in love with her even as they plan a murder.

“What I really want to do is kill her” I smiled with my gin-numbed mouth and attempted a little wink just to give her an opportunity to not believe me, but her face stayed serious. She lifted her reddish eyebrows.

“I think you should” she said, and I waited for some indication that she was joking, but nothing came. Her stare was unwavering.

I can’t go into much more of the plot without spoiling it and it really is a story that doesn’t deserve to be spoilt. Each chapter switches between the different perspectives of the characters, initially limited to Ted’s present and Lily’s recollection of her past. These perspectives are from a first-person standpoint so the reader becomes a guest of the characters’ headspace and privy to their true motivations and views of the other main characters. The book is broken into three main acts with each act climaxing in some big twists. The end of the first act for example turns the entire book on its head and leaves you wondering just what else is going to happen. Plenty of surprises, double-crosses and didn’t-see-that-coming developments follow. As a result, I found it incredibly hard to put The Kind Worth Killing down and regardless of any other reason(s) for why I enjoyed it so much, that is a cast-iron sign of a good read in my opinion.

Swanson does a great job of making you like bad people. This book has several unsavoury characters and rotten personalities and even though I wanted some of them to get their just desserts, I was no less fascinated by them. Lily in particular was the star of the book for me. Calm, calculated, somewhat aloof and with a very different regard for life, she would probably be described as psychotic by our society. The fact that she has already killed several people and isn’t particularly perturbed by her actions would cement this. However, through Lily’s own perspectives in the book, you get to know her and even sympathise with her motives. She is dangerous and clinical but at the same time, I couldn’t help rooting for her to the end. It also made me ponder on the subject of beautiful psychos in fiction and cinema and why we – men – are so attracted to them despite what they are capable of. That’s a topic for another post though.

There were only a few criticisms that I levelled at The Kind Worth Killing but it wouldn’t be a review if I gushed over the book without mentioning them. The first is that it’s difficult to relate to the characters because most seem to be incredibly wealthy with little of the surface level hardship in their lives that us ‘normal’ folk battle against day-to-day. This didn’t detract from my liking for the book’s cast but it also felt very convenient and and a little unrealistic. Speaking of unrealistic, a lot of the events that happen in the book are incredibly far-fetched and people get away with so much, so easily. Obviously this is fiction so realism has to take a backseat to a degree but when the book is set in the real world and dealing with crime and murder, then the ease at which plans are made and successfully followed through does stick out a bit.

Those minor gripes aside, The Kind Worth Killing is a genuine page-turner that I can’t recommend enough. If you love thrillers and villainous characters that you can’t help but love then this is for you. If you want to be kept guessing and unable to predict what happens next then this is also for you. I will definitely be looking for Peter Swanson’s other books after this.

Book Talk: The Eyes of the Dragon (Stephen King, 1987)

DSC_0180I’ve ran out of new books at the moment and so every printed word I have been ingesting of late has tasted very familiar. In normal, non-smartass speak, I have been revisiting some of the stuff in my collection and the latest is Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon.  This is one of my favourite Stephen King books of all-time and I may be in the minority when I say that as the book has always felt like a second tier King book to me; one of his lesser known or celebrated works. It’s understandable. After all, Eyes doesn’t have the iconic rep of the likes of Carrie, Cujo or The Shining and it isn’t a big fat epic in the vein of The Stand, IT or 11.22.63.

It’s also a fantasy story and one of very few that King has ever written, certainly the only one that goes for a medievil, sword-and-sorcery-inspired fantasy setting. It certainly stands out from his typical horror and sci-fi styled works.

The Eyes of the Dragon doesn’t have the same rich depth and exhaustive world detailing that the likes of The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire possess but nonetheless, this is still classic King and the book’s world comes alive in your mind’s eye with little effort as a result. It’s no classic of the fantasy genre but this is missing the point because Eyes is all about one thing as far as I am concerned.

Randall Flagg.

King’s infamous villain is central to this book’s plot and – outside of The Stand and The Dark Tower – is his most major role which makes The Eyes of the Dragon‘s “lesser” status in Stephen King’s back catalogue even more of a shame. Here, Flagg is a sorcerer and advisor to the King of Delain, plotting chaos, anarchy and destruction through intelligent manipulation and deception. He poisons the King and successfully convinces everybody that his son, Peter, is the culprit. Flagg is afraid of Peter’s good-hearted nature, strong will and keen perception – traits that would make it impossible for Flagg to maintain his toxic influence over the throne and to put his plans for Delain into action. With Peter safely imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit, his younger brother Thomas inherits the throne. Thomas is a bitter boy with far less wits about him who relies on Flagg completely to make decisions and be a King. Thus it is Flagg who rules Delain through Thomas, finally having his opportunity to begin unleashing darkness on the people.

Flagg is a very popular villain in the Stephen King “universe” and that’s because he is just so well-written and a joy to read despite his utterly evil intentions.

“Do you think it strange that Flagg would know something about Thomas that Thomas didn’t know about himself? It really isn’t strange at all. People’s minds, particularly the minds of children, are like wells – deep wells full of sweet water. And sometimes, when a particular thought is too unpleasant to bear, the person who has that thought will lock it into a heavy box and throw it into that well. He listens for the splash…and then the box is gone. Except it is not, of course. Not really. Flagg, being very old and wise, as well as very wicked, knew that even the deepest well has a bottom, and just because a thing is out of sight doesn’t mean it is gone. It is still there, resting at the bottom. And he knew that the caskets those evil, frightening ideas are buried in may rot and the nastiness inside may leak out after awhile and poison the water…and when the well of the mind is poisoned, we call the result insanity”

“Thomas said nothing, but Flagg had been well pleased. He saw that Tommy was thinking about it, all right, and he judged that another of those poisoned caskets was tumbling down into the well of Thomas’ mind – ker-splash! And that was indeed so”

Flagg should be an utterly one-dimensional villain. He is, after all, pure evil without a shred of goodness within, flying in the face of the concept of balance which says that nobody can ever be one-hundred percent good or evil. Flagg is disease and plague personified; a malevolent demon in human form who lives to destroy, ignite apocalyptic anarchy and incite mass bloodshed – all for his own entertainment. As rotten as Flagg is however, King writes him in such a playful manner that you can’t help but like him. Reading this book again makes me sad for this style of Stephen King story which we rarely receive anymore outside of short story collections. True, Flagg made a brief appearance in the recent Gwendy’s Button Box (as the enigmatic Richard Farris) but I’d love to see this incarnation of Flagg again, the age-defying evil wizard who lives for mischief and the promotion of woe.

Dark Tower fans should also read The Eyes of the Dragon as I believe there is a reference to Delain and some of the characters there (linked to the ending of Eyes which I won’t spoil here). Those are some of the extremely few Stephen King books that I have yet to get around to unfortunately, aside from the first installment which I read many years ago.

DSC_0181

Lastly, there are also some lovely medievil-style illustrations by David Palladini in this first edition hardback copy I have. I can’t confirm whether or not these have survived for subsequent paperback imprints but I would hope so.

In conclusion, I have really enjoyed revisiting The Eyes of the Dragon. In truth, I did wonder whether or not I had recalled it with rose-tinted specs and was apprehensive about reading it again in case I didn’t rate is as highly second time around. Happily, I had the opposite reaction and enjoyed it even more. There are some real gems in Stephen King’s 1980’s and 90’s back catalogue that often get overshadowed by the more well-known books and this is certainly one of them. Give it a try.

Book Talk: Elevation (Stephen King, 2018)

SKE-1The last book I read by Stephen King shares a few similarities with Elevation. Both this and Gwendy’s Button Box were very short books that went against what I’ve come to expect from King (I finished Elevation in two sittings; probably could have done it in one) and both are set in the fictional town of Castle Rock. On the subject of the latter, I was surprised to see King returning to his classic locale after the apocalyptic destruction wrought on the town by a certain Leland Gaunt and his dark machinations. Even the inside of Needful Things‘ (1991) dustcover stated that it was the end for Castle Rock:

“With a demonic blend of malice and affection Stephen King  says farewell to the town he put on the map”

But that was then and this is now. As the opening of Needful Things says, we’ve been here before. There’s no reference to Castle Rock’s destruction in Elevation but there are at least a few tiny nods to previous stories (such as Cujo) that took place here. Retruning to the ‘Rock is like putting on that comfy pair of well worn-in and intimately familiar trainers.

The book centres on Scott Carey and his mysterious condition that sees him constantly losing weight despite remaining unchanged physically and in terms of appearance. The second main plotline is to do with Scott’s new neighbours, married lesbian couple Deirdre and Missy. Scott gets on with Missy but her wife Deirdre is cold and untrusting, harbouring unhappiness towards the locals and their stubborn, old-fashioned reluctance to accept homosexuality.

The book puts a lot of emphasis on people’s willingness or capacity to change. The town is stuck its ways and many of the inhabitants elect to either look down on Deirdre and Missy, make fun of their relationship or simply not make the effort to get to know them based on pre-existing prejudices. On the flipside, when Scott takes an interest in his new neighbours and attempts to build bridges and show that not everybody is so ignorant or unwilling to accept others, Deirdre repeatedly ices up on him and refuses to change herself, preferring to hold onto the idea that Scott is just trying to play the unwanted part of a white knight.

I have to admit that, when I was first getting into this book and meeting the characters, I did worry that Elevation was going to be too much of a social commentary with thinly-veiled messages about how we should all be more accepting. After all, my favourite Stephen King books are his classics from the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s where the plots were more about the supernatural and gory details. These days it seems that these once-central elements are sometimes mere vehicles for the writer to explore relevant, real life themes and issues, disguising these commentaries as stories. Sleeping Beauties was one such recent example that let me down because as much as I enjoyed the book, I didn’t appreciate the concluding message that seemed to blame men for all of the world’s problems. The book as a whole felt like it was inspired by female empowerment and real world events.

I’m sure that my impressions of Sleeping Beauties could have been totally wrong and affected by personal bias (given that I are man) but the fact is, I read books as a form of escapism and don’t ever appreciate it when they preach to me or try to keep my head grounded in reality. So I was wary about Elevation when the story of Scott Carey’s bizarre illness began to share space with Deirdre and Missy.

[side note: I am ultimately aware that it is a writer’s business where he chooses to take his craft and what ideas he chooses to explore, regardless of whether or not everybody agrees. That’s the beauty of art and free speech, baby.]

To be honest though, I needn’t have worried so much. Yes, there is a bit of a message there but this is more Stephen King doing what he has been doing for decades now and profiling traditional, small American towns and the more old-school, unyielding attitudes that still exist there. Obviously I’m not American and so I am unqualified to say whether or not King is accurate in this respect but it feels like he probably is. We have lots and lots of rural village communities here in England for example that hold onto their traditional values and resist social change in the same way so I can kind of relate.

All of this aside though, Elevation is a decent read and despite being another short book, it kept me interested right until the end, wanting to know what happens with Scott and his neighbours as well as his weight loss. I won’t go into spoilers here but I’ll just say that the ending is a bit of a let-down. Continuing the similarities with Gwendy’s Button Box, the finale is a bit of a weak payoff and it didn’t satisfy me, much like the book in general which was more of an appetiser than a complete meal. The writing is still classic King though so you’d be hard-pressed not to enjoy it if you are a fan of the author. Like Gwendy’s Button Box, it’s another case of a book being carried by the quality of the writing and the creation of likeable characters.

To conclude, I would recommend Elevation to Stephen King fans but maybe try to get the book cheap, rent it from a library or whatever. The cover price here in the UK is £14.99 which is steep for such a thin book which only spans 132 pages.

Book Talk: Gwendy’s Button Box (Stephen King/Richard Chizmar, 2017)

SKGW-1This is a book that I’m honestly struggling to write anything about, possibly because I reached the end and thought “Is that it?”. Yes, it was one of those sorts of books with an anti-climactic conclusion and no clear answer as to what the whole point was. It’s also very short and can easily be finished in a single sitting thanks to the brief chapters and ‘easy reading’ style . Gwendy’s Button Box is a straight-to-the-point novella that doesn’t labour on exhaustive detail or in-depth character exploration.

So far you will certainly be forgiven for getting the impression that I didn’t like this book but that’s not entirely fair. Gwendy’s Button Box was enjoyable and had the familiar, welcoming King ‘feel’ that I – as somebody who has read almost everything by the author – immediately appreciated. It just felt bare-bones and more like a short story from one of his many compilations rather than something that warranted a standalone book. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that many short stories by Stephen King are arguably more rewarding to read than Gwendy’s Button Box.

But let me try to explain.

Gwendy Peterson is an average, unremarkable twelve year-old girl. She wears glasses and is teased at school for her chubbiness so she spends the summer of 1974 running up Castle Rock’s “Suicide Stairs”, a set of rusted, zig-zagging steps that lead up the cliffside to Castle View park, in order to lose some pounds in readiness for life at middle school. One day she meets the mysterious Richard Farris, a suited man with an eerie MIB vibe who gives her a “button box”. Against all instincts, she accepts the box. This box dispenses small chocolates which suppress her appetite and help her lose weight whilst also seemingly improving life around her in general. It also dispenses mint, uncirculated silver dollars.

The box also has different coloured buttons on the top. Farris informs Gwendy that these buttons have immense power and represent the different continents of the world. Pushing them, it is implied, could destroy entire continents in an instant. The red button however is different.

“Whatever you want and you will want it, the owner of the box always does. It’s normal. Wanting to know things and do things is what the human race is all about. Exploration, Gwendy! Both the disease and the cure!”

Then there is the black button, described by Farris as “Everything”. We assume that this final button is a way to annihilate all of existence. Eagle-eyed or long-time readers of King’s books will recognise the “R.F.” initials of Farris’ name and link him to Randall Flagg, a recurring, name-changing entity of evil from the Stephen King “universe” so it’s obvious that the box is probably bad news in some capacity.

From there on, the book follows Gwendy through her teenage years and into her early twenties. Eating the chocolates appears to improve her life no end. She loses weight and blossoms into a beauty, gains popularity at school, earns high grades and experiences all manner of success. her life turns out to be perfect. Well, mostly.

Gwendy becomes extremely protective and obsessive with the box and keeping it secreted from her parents, ditto for the growing mound of extremely valuable Morgan silver dollars which would doubtlessly raise questions given their rarity and market price. Gwendy also becomes acutely aware of the massive responsibility that owning a box with such power brings. The responsibility to ensure that nobody else finds it, presses a button and wipes out an entire segment of the earth for example. Gwendy also becomes a stranger to her old friends once newfound popularity gives her new ones, gaining a sense of selfish entitlement along the way that sees her forgetting where she came from before the box’s magical gifts.

It’s a great premise for a story but it doesn’t ever become much more than that. The book speeds through the years, only stopping to linger on important, noteworthy events. It almost feels like a full-fat novel with everything bar the main plot points cut out and thrown away. Gwendy is a likeable character but nobody else in her life gets any real development and exist purely as unexplored support acts. The book also finishes on a flat note with a conclusion that is unexpected but only because it is so tame and lacking in an anticipated plot twist or explanation.

Farris, it seems, lives to give the box to random people and see what they do with the power. He tells Gwendy that the bad things that happened while it was in her possession weren’t really her fault and that many, many bad things have actually been averted by somebody else (with less morals and self-control) not having it in their grasp. But that’s it. There’s a distinct lack of overall payoff and the book feels as if it is a basic outline ripe for expansion or even a mere preview of something bigger. It’s almost like watching a strip-tease video and having the video cut out before the underwear is discarded.

What there is here is good – make no mistake about it – but if you have consumed all of Stephen King’s previous works then you may well find yourself frustrated and disappointed that Gwendy’s Button Box couldn’t have been more fleshed-out and gripping. Certainly, you couldn’t be blamed for deciding that it should have been part of the next short story compilation. This book left me wanting once I’d finished it and I’m still not really sure what to think about it. If you’re a King fan then I’d still recommend it but I’d also have to recommend restrained expectations.

Book Talk: Fire And Blood (George R.R. Martin, 2018)

F&B-1If you’re a huge fan of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (more universally known as just ‘A Game of Thrones’ these days thanks to the runaway success of the TV series which uses the title of the first book in the series) as I am then you will probably be resigned to the fact that Martin is probably never going to finish the series. Has he lost control of the plot and characters or is it a simple creative block of sorts? It’s a debate for a different time but what I do know is that I can’t have been the only one who saw the mammoth 700-page Fire And Blood on store shelves and thought “so he hasn’t finished The Winds of Winter but he had time to bash this out?”

Sadly, it’s easier to sum up a reaction with a meme these days so here’s one for the internet generation that more or less reflects my reaction to the release of Fire And Blood:

conmeme1

I haven’t read any reviews or taken a look at other people’s opinions on this book but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a general feeling of deflation amongst the Ice and Fire devout; downright fury, even (though, as a card-carrying bookish nerd, I feel obligated to point out that we are – fortunately – probably not able to turn that fury into a credible form of anger).  I reckon there are even those who see Fire And Blood as an elaborate form of trolling…

Martin: “Guess what, loyal fans? New book releasing soon!”

Fans: “Ohmygod! It’s The Winds of Winter!” *throws panties at the stage etc.*

Martin: “Actually…no. It’s a partial – PARTIAL – history of Westeros. Suckers!”

Anyway, enough of the memes and silliness. This is me reviewing the book as an Ice and Fire fan and without any prior knowledge of what other people are saying. And you know what? I think it’s great.

Fire And Blood is a richly-detailed recounting of Westeros’ history beginning with the reign of Aegon the Conqueror and concluding with the regency of Aegon III. That might not sound like a lot but five other Targaryen kings sat the Iron Throne in between the first and third Aegons plus a Queen and a few short-lived pretenders. That’s a lot of history to get through.

Obviously – this being a factual (of sorts) retelling of a hundred and thirty-something year’s worth of events – it doesn’t read the same way as a typical ‘thrones book. There’s no character perspectives for example and therefore no way of knowing the innermost thoughts and motivations of the characters. Instead, the book is presented more like a history lesson and you are guided through the years of politics, intrigue, wars and betrayals in exhaustive detail. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the book must be boring in that case though because it really isn’t. As I said, it doesn’t read like one of the regular books but the same level of detail and explicit information is still correct and present. It’s unmistakably a George R.R. Martin work and returning to the land of Westeros with its familiar houses, regions and customs is like coming home after a long, shitty day at work and snuggling up on the sofa with your significant other.

It’s also nice to be ‘in the moment’ and discover the history of these ancient Kings and legendary characters that were only previously mentioned as long-deceased artifacts of the past in the main books and the ‘present’ timeline. Now we can find out about their personalities and motivations.

The best part of reading this book was that despite the shift in style, it didn’t take long to become a page-turner. It’s a historical text but given that this is the first real in-depth exploration of Westeros and it’s Targaryen years, you still don’t know exactly how everything moves from point A to point B. In other words, Fire And Blood still has the ability to shock albeit not with quite the same savagery as the main books. Characters that you have been reading about for many chapters can suddenly get killed off via treacherous murder, illness or random accidents just as in the main books. The trade-off is of course the fact that you don’t get quite as invested in the characters (especially knowing that they will ALL die at some point given that this is history) but even so, I still found myself with a few favourites that I really didn’t want to lose to villainy.

The book also features many excellent, high-quality illustrations by Doug Wheatley. I’m not sure if these have been printed elsewhere in other Ice and Fire spin-offs but in any case, it was nice to finally see a visual interpretation of these Targaryen lords and ladies. As an added bonus, there are dragons too and who doesn’t like those?

F&B-3
Aegon the Conqueror with the legendary Balerion, The Black Dread.

In conclusion, I genuinely believe that Fire And Blood should only be a disappointment to casual followers of the Ice and Fire saga. Major fans will understandably be disappointed that they are still waiting for The Winds of Winter but they should definitely put aside their disgruntlement at having to see yet another stop-gap book hit the shelves rather than the next ‘proper’ installment. All the rich detail that you’d expect is here and I can honestly say that I couldn’t put the book down once I’d read a few pages. The superb presentation is a welcome bonus and I would definitely welcome the second volume which should take us from Aegon III up to Aerys II.

Just…try and make Volume II one of the stop-gaps AFTER The Winds of Winter please, George?