Of being in two places at once: a review of Stephen King’s “The Outsider.”

Detective Ralph Anderson wants justice, and he wants it bad. Evidence, incontrovertible forensic and witness evidence, pegs Terry Maitland, a baseball coach, for the sadistic sexual murder of a young boy. And ‘Coach T’ coached Anderson’s own son. So, in the first of many gripping passages, Anderson arranges for a public arrest, in the middle of a junior baseball game, of Terry Maitland.
But then Terry exhibits none of the classic traits of a guilty perp. He looks Anderson in the eye, with none of the tics and signs that would give him away. And evidence stacks up that Coach T was indeed elsewhere, at a book signing, very public, on cctv, with friends.
How, then, can someone be in two places at once?
The first quarter is Terry’s struggle for justice, and the violent disintegration of the murdered boy’s family. It culminates in a violent scene at Terry’s arraignment that gives one hell of a rug pull, a real visceral gut punch.
From that point on the story incorporates Holly Gibney, a character from King’s ‘Mr Mercedes’ set, an obsessive-compulsive woman open to the supernatural. And Holly, Ralph, and their friends embark on their quest for the truth, before another violent death of a child, and another case of someone seemingly being in two places at once.
Part crime and mystery thriller, part supernatural horror, this is King giving his fans possibly what he does best, pulp page turners of compulsive readability. I’m not sure if this will rate as one of the author’s classics; the second half is not as tightly wound, claustrophobic or horrifying as the first. There are a lot of scenes of character’s being folksy together that should really have seen the red pen. But this is a great, unpretentious slice of King with some vivid and unforgettable scenes.
The audio book is narrated by Will Patton, who brings accomplished character acting and gravelly, PI tones to the task. His halting, fluttering delivery of Holly’s lines is a joy, conveying the dep concentration this character needs to keep her shit together. He’s one of those narrators that seem to be an all-star cast in one.

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‘The road goes ever on….’ A review of Rob Inglis’s narration of J.R.R Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”

Rob Inglis is the perfect choice to read these epochal works. He has gravitas and a lightness of tone that matches both the bright radiance and dark terrors of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. He is a great character actor, bringing life to Hobbits, men, elves and monsters. He lends the songs melody and charm, history and tradition. The temp quickens in the more dramatic passages in a way that makes you sit up and listen. Sheer brilliance. His reading of this work has calmed me at night so that I drift into sleep, as well as completely commanded my attention and made me forget everything else on my commute into work.

The tale itself is well familiar to me and many others, but if you are new to this world, welcome and I envy you, to see it all with an explorers eyes for the first time. Frodo Baggins inherits his Uncle Bilbo’s ring when Bilbo leaves the Shire, exhausted after the adventures of ‘The Hobbit’ and by his possession of the ring, which draws from its bearer a heavy cost, as well as magical boons such as an unnaturally long life. This may be granted but it comes with a dep fatigue of ‘being spread too thin.’ It also belongs to the darkest power in the land, Sauron, who now seeks the ring as it is the key to dominance of all life. The wizard Gandalf sets Frodo, his gardener and friends Sam, Merry and Pippin, on a quest to find out what to do with the ring. They meet up with Aragon, ‘a ranger from the North,’ and journey to the Elves of Rivendell to take Council, where the fellowship grows, and they begin their epic quest to destroy the ring….

The Lord of the Rings is the last word in world building, J R R Tolkien having invented whole languages, histories and mythologies for his world through his life, informed by his career as a soldier in World War One and by his academic career as an Oxford Professor.
Just typing this makes me feel ‘not worthy’ and ‘stretched too thin’ to do this work justice. just sink into it, and be renewed.

“Winder!” W-I-N-D-E-R! Now go and clean ’em!” A review of the Audible Production of Charles Dickens’s “Nicholas Nickleby”

This audible production of Charles Dickens’s classic Victorian melodrama has been released in nineteen parts (mirroring Dickens’s original print serialisation), averaging about two hours each. It has it’s own epic, sweeping theme music, and a ‘next time on Nicholas Nickleby’ teaser trailer to the next episode, which cleverly utilises Dickens’s original chapter headings.
Left Destitute after his father’s death, Nicholas, his mother and sister Kate travel to London looking naturally for family help from his Uncle Ralph Nickleby. Unfortunately Ralph is anything but natural, he is a debased, scheming Usurer or money-lender, who has utterly disregarded his humanity in his quest for wealth. Ralph sets Nicholas on his apprenticeship to the schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, who with his family run a brutal boarding school regime where physical, mental and emotional abuse are the norm. Nicholas is driven to an act of rebellion that leads to him going on the run with the friendless, abused, damaged and abandoned lad, Smike. This is only the start of Nicholas’s adventures, however, and through the course of the novel we shall encounter theatrical troupes, ruined dressmakers, suffering servants, heroic philanthropists and a range of heroes, villains and grotesques, moments of high comedy, incredible dramatic coincidences, edge of the seat drama, social criticism and satire that hits its mark every time.

What a joy this production is. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s narration is a wonder of character acting; from the rasping, biting tones of Ralph to the free ranging witterings of Mrs Nickleby, the wheedling whining of Squeers, the quietly spoken heroism of Nicholas, and much more. Narrator and writer seem perfectly matched,and the result is one of the happiest, most compelling listens I have found on audible. It is first class, and its production values and use of music lift the mood and atmosphere further.

My recommended audio-book of the year and definitely in my top five of all time.

A review of Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One”

Set in a dystopian near future where humanities desire for bigger and better entertainments and lifestyles has exhausted the planet, and a massive multiplayer virtual reality video game playground ‘the Oasis’ gives escape to the masses, this is perhaps best known for its extremely liberal geek referencing.

Owen Watts lives in a high-rise trailer park with a bitter, dysfunctional Aunt. Like many his escape is the Oasis, a massive immersive video game that takes our current Virtual Reality Technology and stretches it to the bounds of what could be achieved- the ability to travel to entire theme park worlds, build up a virtual fortune, and even attend school in a VR environment.

Then the Oasis’s creator, James Halliday, or ‘The Anorak,’ dies and leaves a amazing bequest; whoever solves a series of progressing quests will win the ultimate ‘Easter egg,’ ownership of the Oasis, and a fortune, enough to change the world.

Wade has a flash of inspiration and solves the first quest using his Avatar ‘Parcival,’ meeting a fellow questor, Artemis, along the way. Along with his best friend H and a rag tag band of questors, Wade must solve further quests and riddles and beat a murderous Corporate Behemoth IOI, with arch-baddie Sorento at the helm, for control of the Oasis.

The books main kicker is that Halliday was an 80’s pop culture obsessive, and he has themed his VR creation accordingly. So, to find the ‘Egg,’ questors must be word perfect in all aspects of 80’s pop culture lore, from movies, through to tv shows, video games and music.
And this is what gives the book it stylistic flourish that has alienated some but that others have embraced; it is a deep bath of pop culture referencing, and, if like me you grew up in the 80’s, it is massive fun having your favourites referenced, and being reminded of other chestnuts you long forgot.

It is a pacy story, energetically told, and for me the 80’s lore helped to give the book much of it fun and charm and was a crucial competent in its world building.

Less successful are the chunks of adolescent philosophizing in the book, and a real creaky tin ear for human relationships. It’s had to put your finger on it, but the real-world segments are grating, the characters become irritating when they take off their VR headsets and haptic gloves.  A shame, because the whole thrust of the book is that we ignore our real lives to live in our virtual or digital ones at our peril.

Overall, though, this is massive fun, and Will Wheaton is a great choice of narrator for the audio book, capturing the spirit of an 18-year-old geeky guy out on an adventure.

A review of “The Poems of T.S. Eliot” read by Jeremy Irons

The poems of T.S. Eliot are puzzle-boxes; intricately woven riddles, conceits, ideas, imagination and social criticism. But you don’t solve them as you would the Times Crossword. You keep turning them over, and over, finding the main themes, solving the smaller riddles, recognising the purposefulness ambiguity of some of it.
Eliot wrote of the disillusionment, cynicism, and corruption that followed the First World War. It applies to his times and all times, and is powerfully resonant in our current age. His work is full of his own frustration and anxiety about the role of the poet in a time of tribulation and suffering when so many are giving their lives.

“…..My words echo
Thus, in your mind,.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose leaves
I do not know.” (Burnt Norton)

The brutishness of modern man is typified by the recurrent character of Sweeney, as in Sweeney among the Nightingales:

“Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh…”

Eliot often references the classical world of literature, myth and mythology, and then subverts them with the jarring imposition of characters like Sweeney.

Eliot’s own unhappy marriage bleeds into the poems, strikingly at times. He and his wife Vivienne both had mental breakdowns, Eliot eventually leaving his wife alone and unvisited in an asylum.

“‘My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.'” (The Wasteland)

And his Christianity, a profound Anglo-Catholicism that stared death in the face, offering a very hard won redemption. Eliot did not offer any easy Grace.

“A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)” (Little Gidding)

These themes all blend, crytallise and dissolve in his well known, epic poems, The Wastelands and The Four Quartets. And the sense that there is hidden meanings always to be unlocked, stacked within each other like Russian Dolls, always delights me when I come to Eliot.

And then there are playful, delightful Practical Cats, where the words fizz and dance off the page, brilliant for smaller readers, and wonderful to read aloud. These are poems that grow with you.

This reading by Jeremy Irons is wonderful. That actors gravitas, humanity, and emotional range are perfectly suited to these works. This is one I will revisit time and again.

A review of Michael Marshall’s “We are here.”

I first read Michael Marshall Smith, as he was then, over 10 years ago. He wrote powerful, original, imaginative science fiction; funny, tragic, and brilliantly written. Such work includes Spares, Only forward and One of Us. Then he started writing more in the thriller genre, dropping the ‘Smith’ part of his identity, and I read the ‘The Straw Men’ trilogy. These were horror-thrillers, the kicked that Thomas Harris kicked into orbit with ‘Man-hunter’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ The horror, rather than the humanism and the humour of the earlier works, is what I remember.

And since then he appears to have stayed predominantly in the thriller genre. ‘We are Here’ has elements of that, and something new, urban fantasy of a Neil Gaiman flavour, with the occasional horror reference. This is territory that Stephen King and others have explored. Believe hard enough in someone, and they just might appear….

The story has a strong opening. A serial killer on the run reviews his career before burning burning to death in a motel room, apparently aided by the voice in his head that urged him to kill, now literally in the room with him.

Jump to an author on a trip to New York to meet his publisher. A chance bumping into a stranger in the street, not once but twice, unsettles him, especially when said stranger says ‘remember…’.
Are these incidents related. This made me eager to find out more. Then we move to an ex intelligence operative John Henderson, and his girlfriend Christine, who decide to investigate a complaint from one of Christine’s friends that she is being stalked. Again, we wonder about the connection.

And we are kept wondering for a very large section of the book. There is a very slow reveal. And unfortunately, a bit like me at 49, it gets very baggy in the middle. There appears to an urban sub culture, planning something, and there is a flavour of the supernatural about their affairs and how they are organised, with ‘corner-men’ and ‘journey-men’ and so on. This is what reminded me of Neil Gaiman. What are they? Ghosts? The recently departed? Some kind of other supernatural beings?

When the reveal comes you’ll either snort with derision and slam the book shut or keep going. I think most of you will keep going.

In the last quarter things hot up and there are some gripping set pieces where you genuinely don’t know what will happen. And horrible things do happen to good people. The chief baddie, Reinhardt, is a type of demonic gangster with apocalyptic plans. And I didn’t honestly know if they would be brought to fruition.

As it happens I still don’t. The novel ends in a tangle of unanswered questions. At one point there is a reference to a lot of deaths told in a few short sentences. Characters disappear, literally, in clouds of smoke. I honestly don’t think Michael Marhsall knew himself how to close. A shame, as this has has some cracking scenes and ideas, but they don’t really gel into a coherent whole. The characters are also incoherent and hard to realise imaginatively. I definitely did not have this problem with his earlier work.

The audio book is narrated in the dead pan, sardonic tones of the PI genre by Jeff Harding. His narration of the female characters grated a little, others have done this tricky feat a lot better.

Go with this if you are patient and appreciate novelists who take risks. There are definitely moments that will reward you, as there are ones that exasperate.

A review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (audio-book version read by Rob Inglis).

The story of Bilbo Baggins, his unexpected party, then journey, with Gandalf the wizard and thirteen dwarves, to slay a dragon and seize it’s plunder, can give us new gifts whenever we come back to it.

If you’ve only ever seen the movies (that despite some voices are not all bad) you owe it to yourselves in this magical, compact piece of story telling enchantment.

It is a fantasy quest where not one word, not one action, is superfluous or wasted (this is why many took so vehemently against the films and their stretching the tale to three epic movies).

It’s funny, charming, thrilling and profound.   There are worlds of enchantment, and always we sense behind events the massive, coherent universe, with it’s own myths, languages and histories, that Tolkien built, exploring further in his Legendarium (including the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings).

It’s not as whimsical as you may suspect or remember.  There is real tragedy here, real horror and character development and complexities (as in Thorin’ journey and his corruption by dragon gold) and the final siege speaks to us of how our own affairs between nations can become so intangibly fixated on our own interests, sometimes noble and right (Bard) and sometimes corrupted by greed and paranoias about entitlement and ancient grudges (elves and dwarves).

For these reasons and more it is the archetypal book written for children and beloved by adults.

The audio-book version read by Rob Inglis is perfect.  He breathes his love for the tale (I suspect) into his reading.  He has rich style that balances gravitas with a lightness of touch that keeps us listening keenly. His renderings of the different characters is superb, communicating perfectly the home-bird reticence of Bilbo and his growing courage, Gandalf’s wisdom and authority, the dwarves distinct characteristics including blustering pomposity as well as courage and quick temper, and the ultimate menace of Smaug.  The songs are wonderfully performed, and I could quite happily listen to them all repeatedly.  There’s also a main instrumental theme that is entirely appropriate, that opens and closes the tale.  Other than that, any effect other than the narrator’s voice does not intrude.