Review: Billy Summers by Stephen King

If you disassembled “Billy Summers” and left its pieces scattered like detritus for another author to reconstruct, the result would likely be a fairly conventional thriller. But that’s the magic of Stephen King, isn’t it? Literary tropes are his playthings, there to be manipulated and contorted into something exceptional.

The titular Billy Summers is a former US marine turned contract killer, who is — wouldn’t you know it — also something of a white knight. We empathise with Billy because of his wartime experiences in Iraq, which we learn of through excerpts of the semi-fictional memoir he writes as part of his cover in the lead-up to his final hit. That’s right: “Billy Summers” is a classic ‘one last job’ story. And of course, that job goes horribly wrong.

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Review: Later by Stephen King

This is the first time I’ve finished a Stephen King novel and thought, “Boy, that could’ve done with a couple hundred more pages.” Which isn’t to say the 240 here aren’t packed with incident, or that “Later” won’t end up being one of the best damn entertainments of the year. I just wish the core ideas at the heart of it had more time to germinate, and that the connective tissue between its major scenes expanded upon.

Jamie Conklin sees dead people. I know — you’re read and watched this one before. But like every device in fiction, it’s not the concept that makes a novel, but its development. “Later” is framed from Jamie’s perspective, looking back on his childhood as the only child of a New York literary agent. He’s aware of his supernatural ability, but tries to ignore it, and does so successfully — mostly. The dead don’t interact with Jamie unless he initiates contact, and unless their bodies were mangled in death, they look like everybody else on the street.

But dire circumstances dictate Jamie harness his “powers” to help his mother finish her late client’s manuscript. And when his mum’s girlfriend — a crooked, dope-addicted cop — witnesses Jamie in action, she realises how effective he could be in saving lives… and illicitly enhancing her own. Trouble is, Jamie has angered a darker, demonic presence, who wants revenge.

Jamie’s young voice doesn’t come off as particularly contemporary, which jarred at first, given the story is ser in the recent past; but it bothered me less as the story progressed. I didn’t love King’s explanation as to how Jamie got his abilities in the novel’s coda, either. It fits thematically, I suppose, but left me feeling a little sour. But “Later” is such a cracking yarn, easily consumed in one poolside sitting. Its story beats echo some of King’s epic works, but confined to the shorter page count of the classic pulps. No, it’s not vintage, but I had a really fun time with it.

ISBN: 9781789096491
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 272
Published: 1st March 2021
Publisher: Titan Publishing Group
Country of Publication: GB

Book Review: Lisey’s Story by Stephen King

9781444707892Stephen King’s masterful psychodrama “Lisey’s Story” sustains a throb of dread throughout its chunk, dollops of the weird, surreal and nightmarish served throughout to form a potent concoction; one of King’s most introspective and haunting tomes.

Two years after the death of her husband, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Scott Landon, Lisey begins clearing his workspace, cluttered with detritus only writers accumulate. It’s not the peaceful, purgative process she might hope it to be: academic vultures are desperate for access to Scott’s archive of unpublished works — to pick over his corpse — and one named Joseph Woodbody has gone so far as to hire a crazed killer to scare her into donating them to the University of Pittsburgh.

But what nobody understands — nobody but Lisey — is how Scott conjured his idea. Or rather, where. Scott had a supernatural ability to visit another world, where his imagination could run riot, and the darkness and light of his subconscious manifested extraordinary beauty and inconceivable  horror. It is a place called Boo’Ya Moon, and to confront her own demons, and the ghosts of Scott’s past, it’s a place Lisey must also venture.

“Lisey’s Story” is an unflinching examination of the darkest recesses of the human mind. It is King at his finest: an epic tale, quietly told, about marriage, family, loss and creativity; about the glimmer of happiness at the end of a long road of suffering.

ISBN: 9781444707892
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 704
Published: 13th September 2011
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Review: If It Bleeds by Stephen King

9781529391541Stephen King is never more virtuosic than when he’s at his most concise. I love “The Stand”, and “Duma Key,” and “Under the Dome” — but it’s in the shorter form, where his ideas are honed knife-sharp, that his stories become incandescent.

“If It Bleeds” is a collection of four novellas that demonstrate King’s storytelling pliability. The titular novella — a sequel to “The Outsider” and the Mr. Mercedes trilogy — is the most straightforward and (dare I day) ‘generic’ of the bunch. Holly Gibney notices something peculiar about a reporter, Chet Ondowsky, reporting on an explosion at a middle school, and soon learns it’s no coincidence he’s first on the scene at incidents of mass casualties. “If It Bleeds” is a clever mashup of police procedural and pulse-pounding horror, and is entertaining as heck, but is definitely King writing at his ‘safest.’

My favourite story is the collection’s opener, “Mr Harrigan’s Phone,” about an iPhone possessed by a supernatural force hellbent on punishing wrongdoers. But of course, it’s about far more than that; it’s the humanity of the characters, and King’s examination of their willingness (or trepidation) to utilise the ‘ghost in the machine’ that makes it a standout, and one of King’s most haunting stories in recent times.

“Rat” is another classic that sees King mining familiar ground, but still digging up gold. Drew Larson is a struggling writer, cut off in the wintery backwoods by a cataclysmic storm, where he encounters a talking rat he is certain must be a consequence of a fever dream. But when the Rat asks what price Drew is willing to pay for personal success, and they agree terms, Drew’s life is unalterably changed. As unsettling as it is intriguing, as King — through Drew — contemplates creativity and the writing life.

“The Life of Chuck” is the strangest, most beguiling story of the quartet, transpiring in reverse chronological order as it unveils the biography of Chuck Krantz, beginning with the end of the world, as Chuck lays dying from a brain tumour, and ending with his childhood, where he learns ‘every year you life, that world inside your head will get bigger and brighter, more detailed and complex.’ It’s not esoteric, but it’s definitely King at his most nuanced, and effective.

A strong collection from King, which will sate his legion of fans, and likely inspire new ones. These stories showcase the breadth of King’s powers, and would be perfect for any reader keen to sample his work for the first time.

ISBN: 9781529391541
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 384
Imprint: Hodder & Stoughton
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publish Date: 21-Apr-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Institute by Stephen King

9781529355406Lately Stephen King has seemed determined to thrill rather than chill, forsaking the spine-tingling spookiness of his seminal (and my favourite) books — hello, Pet Sematary; hi, It; good to see ya, Cujo! — in favour of telling exhilarating, completely absorbing, rollicking reads, replete with the kind of dazzling pyrotechnics and fantastic characters only he could conjure. The Institute is exactly that: a masterclass of entertainment, in which paranormally blessed kids are conscripted into a secret government lab in Maine (naturally) and forced to endure horrific tortures.

The book opens with Jack Reacher-like wanderer Tim Jamieson ex-(decorated) cop taking a job in the small South Carolina town of DuPray. King lays all his cards on the table: this guy is going to be a hero. We’re rooting for this guy. The question King dangles is, what force is he up against? We don’t get an immediate answer. Instead, smash-cut to Minneapolis, where the super-intelligent Luke Ellis is kidnapped from his own home while his parents are murdered, and transported to the facility known as ‘the Institute,’ run by the evil Mrs Sigsby. After the first hundred pages, readers know Luke and Ellis’s paths will cross: but when, and how? And what will the ramifications be?

Cancel all your plans and settle in for the ride. This is escapism at its purest and finest.

ISBN: 9781529355406
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 496
Imprint: Hodder & Stoughton
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publish Date: 10-Sep-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Outsider by Stephen King

9781473676404A brilliant addition to Stephen King’s impressive body of work, The Outsider is meticulously plotted and impossibly compulsive.

Don’t pick up  The Outsider unless you have some time on your hands. Its first 200 pages are so high-octane and frenetic, you’ll be hard-pressed to put it down until you’ve unravelled the novel’s mystery and discerned who lives and who dies. Here more than ever before, King keeps his foot hard on the throttle from beginning to end.

When an eleven-year-old boy is found brutally murdered in a town park, eyewitnesses identify the culprit as Little League coach Terry Maitland. DNA evidence and fingerprints verify their accounts: as unlikely as it might initially seem to the lead investigator, Detective Ralph Anderson, there is no doubt that this well-loved family man committed this unforgivable atrocity. Enraged by what he considers a personal betrayal, Anderson makes a spectacle of Maitland’s arrest. It’s only afterwards he learns about Maitland’s watertight alibi. Impossible, because their evidence is irrefutable, too. Which means — what? A double? An evil twin? A clone?

Eventually The Outsider tapers into comfortable King territory; most of the answers the author provides aren’t especially innovative or shocking, but the journey to that endpoint  is intoxicating. You know, of the stay-up-all-night-and-forget-everything-else-in-your-life  variety. This is a book peopled by rich characters faced with unimaginable scenarios: they carry their scars — physical and moral — around with them. It is a story of real life, despite its blatant impossibilities; of human frailties, and violence and its effect. The Outsider is never better than when it explores its characters’ feelings of grief and loss.

Anybody who blew through the Bill Hodges trilogy — who’ll whoop with delight when a character from that series makes an appearance here — will devour this genre-blending freight train of a novel. The pace is frantic, the writing snappy, the characters unforgettable. Strap yourself in and prepare for one hell of a ride.

ISBN: 9781473676404
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Imprint: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
Publication date: January 2016
Dimensions: 234mm X 153mm
Availability date: June 2018

Review: Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King & Richard Chizmar

large_9781473672093Stephen King and Richard Chizmar revisit one of King’s most popular locales in Gwendy’s Button Box, a quietly haunting novella that satisfies on every single level but one: readers will wish it was longer.

We open in 1974 when 12-year-old Gwendy Peterson is offered a magic box by a man named Richard Farris, whom she meets at the top of one of the cliffside Suicide Stairs in Castle Rock, Maine. There are eight buttons on the box, and a lever that dispenses silver dollars and chocolate treats that Farris claims will help Gwendy lose the weight that has resulted in her nickname “Goodyear.” Despite some reservations — Gwendy’s been told by her parents not to talk to strangers, let alone accept gifts from them! — she takes the box from this mysterious man, then watches him disappear.

Sure enough, Gwendy begins to lose weight. But that’s not all that happens. It seems her luck, in totality, has changed for the better; indeed, she’s happier than she’s ever been. Until the day she presses one of the buttons, when everything changes, not just in that moment, but forevermore, when the temptation to use the box again ratchets up to an impossible degree.

Gwendy’s Button Box follows the titular character through high school and beyond, capturing the joy of childhood and adolescent friendships and first love. But it’s all cast under the dark shadow of the box and its power. The novella is a potent, engrossing blend of the traditional coming-of-age tale mixed with King’s trademark terrors. It’s riveting from beginning to end. King and Chizmar make quite the team. Let’s hope they meet again. Maybe with a higher page-count next time!

  • ISBN : 9781473672093
  • Publisher : Hodder & Stoughton General Division
  • Imprint : Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
  • Publication date : June 2017
  • Bind : Hardback
  • Pages : 176

Review: End of Watch by Stephen King

EOWThe opening pages of Mr Mercedes found retired detective Bill Hodges contemplating suicide, driven to this low point by the sadistic ‘Mercedes Killer,’ Brady Hartfield. It makes sense then that End of Watch – the final novel in the King’s trilogy – revives this theme, and augments it to the nth degree.

Mr Mercedes and Finders Keepers flirted with the supernatural elements that have become King’s trademark – but End of Watch goes all in. Hartfield might be confined to a wheelchair, but through a variety of circumstances, he has developed psychic powers, which enable him to fulfil – or attempt to fulfil, at the very least – his destiny as the self-described ‘Suicide Prince.’ It’s up to Hodges, his Finders Keepers partner, Holly, and their pal Jerome, to stop Hartfield once and for all.

End of Watch is just as engrossing and relentless as its predecessors, though it lacks that sprinkle of magic that made Mr Mercedes and Finders Keepers true standouts. Brady’s plot doesn’t lack imagination – his progression from invalid to body-hopper is fantastic, and the manner in which he plagues teenage minds and leads them to ending their own lives is truly haunting – but the overall set-up, leading to the climactic confrontation between Hodges and Hartfield feels undercooked, and plays out predictably. This whole series has keen King play homage to, as well as deconstruct and revitalise, the conventions of the hard-boiled crime novel – its grand finale deserved something a little more spectacular, if not in scope, then at least in execution.

That aside, King’s Mercedes trilogy has been a blast, a true reading highlight from the past few years. End of Watch brings satisfactory closure, and while I’m saddened we won’t read more about Hodges and his crew, as always I’m excited for where King takes us next.

ISBN: 9781473634015
Format: Paperback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division
Publish Date: 7-Jun-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Fireman by Joe Hill

FiremanCormac McCarthy’s literary masterpiece The Road presents a hopeless, post-apocalyptic world navigated by an adult and a child. The specifics of the extinction event are not clarified. It doesn’t matter why society crumbled, just that it has, because all that matters for its populace now is survival. The Road is a novel about the repercussions of the unspecified catastrophe that decimated society; decidedly post-crisis. Joe Hill’s The Fireman takes a different route, set at the very beginning of society’s decline, as the Dragonscale pandemic seizes hold, drawing patterns on people’s skin and eventually literally igniting them, causing them to spontaneously combust. Whereas the characters in The Road are surrounded by nothing but absolute despair, in The Fireman trappings of pre-pandemic lives still exist; tangible reminders of what once was. Both worlds are perpetually dangerous and unpredictable. And both novels are hallmarks of the narrative malleability of the post-apocalyptic concept.

Though operatic in scope, The Fireman is centred firmly around Harper Grayson, a school nurse who becomes a volunteer at her local hospital when society starts to decay, and school becomes a thing of the past. When Harper discovers she, too, is infected by Dragonscale — and pregnant! — she vows to bring her baby safely into the world. Her husband Jakob has other ideas, disgusted by the mere thought of bringing another human into a world such as this, and attacks Harper, determined to abort her life and their child’s. During her escape she encounters John Rockwood — the near-mythical figure known as The Fireman — who welcomes her into a secluded camp of infected survivors, who have learned to control their infection. Jakob, meanwhile, joins the Cremation Crews; marauders who kill the infected on sight. Thus, the board is set, the terrain unknown. Husband and wife are destined to meet again; the question is, in what circumstances?

Survival in a Dragonscale-infected world is unglamorous, and Joe Hill doesn’t pull any punches as he exposes readers to the bleak reality of a world beginning its rapid spiral. He showcases a warped evangelical religion based on ‘the bright’ – an aftereffect of the Dragonscale infection – and demonstrates, as these types of stories so often do, that man’s greatest threat to its own survival is itself rather than the wider crisis. The characters that populate these pages are diverse and vibrant, with distinct follies and histories. Harper is an empathetic heroine, far stronger than we (and she) first realise; desperately clinging onto survival against all odds, as everything she’s ever known degenerates. The Fireman is a mammoth tome: to work, it needs a superior protagonist, and Hill has granted his readers a supremely memorable one.

The Fireman is Joe Hill’s most ambitious novel yet, and will inevitably be compared to his father’s seminal work. The thing is, these comparisons are warranted. Hill’s latest novel is indeed reminiscent of Stephen King’s greatest work – but never derivative. Like King, Hill is a master storyteller – it’s in his blood, clearly – and this novel elevates him into a new literary stratosphere. It has been a long, long time since I was last able to lose myself in an epic like this.

Australian Publication Details
ISBN: 9780575130722
Classification: Fiction & related items » Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 608
Imprint: Gollancz
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 17-May-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

US Publication Details
ISBN: 9780575130722
Publish Date: 17-May-2016
Format: Hardcover
Imprint: William Morrow
Publisher: HarperCollins
On Sale Date: 17 May 2016

Review: Finders Keepers by Stephen King

Stephen King Finders Keepers - coverStephen King’s Finders Keepers tells the story of two young men – Morris Bellamy in 1978 and Peter Saubers in 2009 – who discover, and become obsessed with, the work of esteemed novelist and Salinger-like icon, John Rothstein.

Disgusted by the ending of the final Jimmy Gold novel, and determined to see his creator pay (or find evidence that he planned to make amends in future works), Bellamy plots and executes his revenge; a late-night assault on Rothstein’s remote homestead, which sees the author killed, and a trove of notebooks and thousands of dollars stolen. But before Bellamy can authenticate his loot, he finds himself in prison for a different crime, and sentenced to life in prison. His final act before he’s locked away is to bury his treasure in a secluded recreational park not far from his family home. However many years pass, unless he is physically unable to do so, Morris Bellamy will return for the notebooks. Cut to 2009, and Peter Saubers happens across the money and notebooks; and while the money provides much-needed assistance for his financially-strapped family, it’s the notebooks that make the biggest impact. For a time, Peter’s discovery seems every bit an impossible blessing. Until Morris Bellamy walks into his life, hell-bent on recovering what he feels is rightfully his…

Finders Keepers is the second novel in the Bill Hodges series, and there are plenty of overt links between the two books; Peter’s father was injured during the Mercedes killings that were the focus of Mr. Mercedes, and Hodges is still dealing with the repercussions of that novel’s climax. But this continuity feels shoe-horned in places. Hodges doesn’t make an appearance until well over a hundred pages into Finders Keepers, and his involvement in the novel’s central conflict is a tad contrived. It’s an odd choice by one of fiction’s grandmasters, because Saubers and Bellamy are strong enough characters to carry the novel alone, and indeed they both do for the most part. Hodges isn’t an essential cog in this wheel. His appearance doesn’t diminish the novel’s potency – in fact, there’s some nice build-up to a third Hodges novel – but this story’s spotlight should be cast on Saubers and Bellamy. They are the key players, and they are the characters who resonate.

That perplexing narrative choice aside, Finders Keepers is Stephen King in fine form.  Filled with the author’s signature blend of ingenious plot, complex characters, and smooth prose that’s able to keep readers riveted through the final pages, he remains an unrivalled storyteller. As readers, we should rejoice that King is nothing like the reclusive Rothstein. What would the literary landscape look like without his output?

4 Stars Excellent

ISBN: 9781473698987
Format: Paperback
Pages: 384
Imprint: Hodder & Stoughton
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publish Date: 02-Jun-2015
Country of Publication: United Kingdom