Under the Dome – Stephen King

This epic boxset-like novel features a huge cast of characters and dissects, like little else, the intricacies of small town politics – and the dangers we face as the world’s resources become more limited.

It begins when a mysterious see-through dome descends on the small town of Chester’s Mill, killing birds, animals and humans as it does so, and trapping the town’s population. The US government begins looking into the causes and possible solutions, but it’s clear very quickly that the dome dwellers are on their own.
We meet an array of Chester’s Mill residents. Rennie, a small time politician who sees this as his chance to hold power, finally. He engineers situations – like a food riot at the supermarket – to justify more police and greater police violence, eventually recruiting some of the most horrible twenty-somethings to police the town. It turns out he’s a big time criminal who is brewing crystal meth, and is in fact stealing the dwindling town supplies of propane to keep the meth factory going.
We meet his unstable and ill son, Rennie Jr, who is in the midst of a horrific killing spree, which would have happened regardless of the dome, but whose mental and physical ill health is exacerbated by the the dome.
We meet Barbie, an army veteran cooking in the town diner, who is in fact leaving town when the dome comes down following a run-in with Rennie Jr and his pals. Blocked by the dome, an army official from the outside – Colonel Cox – asks him to lead the town, a suggestion that Rennie does everything in his power to stop.
And we meet Julia, the local paper’s editor who is intent on speaking truth to power, not least to Rennie and his gang of thugs, even as her paper and her life are constantly threatened by Rennie.
From here ensues hundreds of pages about the politics, intrigue and terror of a small town population trapped in a confined space with limited resources and growing despair about being freed, as a small few try to turn the situation to their advantage.
In short bursts of 3 or 4 pages, King takes us through the lives and emotions of probably nearly a hundred people – and it’s truly gripping. You start to connect to loads of them. Andy Sanders who turns from a naive politician to a gun-toting meth addict after his family dies. Sam Bushy who is horrifically raped by the new police recruits and kills plenty of them in return. Rusty, a medical assistant who becomes the town’s surgeon after the only qualified surgeon dies.
And as the story goes on, gradually there are less and less of them – very few in fact. So few that the apparent hero at the start – Barbie – appears far from that by the end, not because he’s turned away from heroic but because events conspire against him and the other good guys almost entirely.
I can’t help feeling that the final 100 or so pages, where King tries to bring a supernatural explanation and finale to the dome, are a bit of a let down. It’s the townspeople, their relationships, the insight into how terrified and cornered people behave, that are so mesmerising. You can’t help making the jump from this story to the impact of climate change, and thinking it does not bode well for us.

Stieg Larsson – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I’m not sure what makes the perfect crime novel, but gripping writing, strong characters and deeper themes must be a mix that comes close. The first in Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl’ trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems to have all this.

The story is sophisticated and summarising it is tricky, but the essence is that an investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, is hired by Henrik Vanger, the CEO of a large Swedish family business and head of the big Vanger family, to investigate a girl who went missing over thirty years ago. Lisbeth Salander is a strong but emotionally troubled investigator and hacker who ends up helping Mikael. In the process they get close, discover a host of horrific secrets within the Vanger family’s history and then uncover headline-making criminal business dealings from a rival business leader, Wennerstrom.

It’s an excellent plot, as much international thriller as crime fiction.  And the main characters are very well drawn. Lisbeth, with her inner-determination but difficult life and social problems, is  particularly interesting. The fact that it was translated from Swedish make it all the more remarkable.

But what elevates the book, I think, is what it says about abuse, journalism and business.

The most prominent theme of the novel is the abuse of women by men in positions of power. Heads of families abusing daughters, business leaders using their money and status to exploit vulnerable girls, carers abusing those they are caring for… It makes for grim reading, but this is at the heart of the book. The book’s chapters are peppered with facts about sexual abuse in Sweden. And most interesting is Lisbeth’s attitude towards abuse: she experiences abuse from men on a number of occasions, never blames herself, and always seeks revenge.

We see, as well, as very idealised view of investigative journalism, with Blomkvist and the magazine he works for, Millennium, struggling to make ends meet but battling on and stopping at nothing to uncover the truth behind Wennerstrom’s activities.

And Larsson draws a strong contrast, which he makes explicit toward the end of the novel, between the valuable role of businesses in the ‘real’ economy that make things and create jobs, and the rent extracting role of the stockmarket, which simply enriches a few at the expense of the many.

The vitriol against those abusing their power is present throughout the book, both through the rage of the main characters but also in the narrative as a whole. Sometimes this makes the novel seem a little simplistic: investigative journalism is useful but perhaps not as saintly as Larsson depicts it, and the distinction between the stockmarket and the real economy is far from so easy to draw.

But these are small gripes. This is a top quality book that gripped me and got me thinking.

The end of the world running club – Adrian J Walker 

Both the concept and the execution of this book work – it begins when thousands of asteroids hit the earth, effectively destroying the infrastructure of human civilisation and killing nearly all the inhabitants of the UK and, though we don’t know for sure, probably the world. Ed is a half hearted father and husband whose family, after some dramatic scenes, is rescued shortly after the disaster. Being separated from them is a revelation for Ed, who suddenly realised that he may miss little else of civilisation, but his family is vital. The story follows his battle to get from Edinburgh to Falmouth on foot in 30 days before a ship leaves with his family and he loses them for good.

At its core this a page turner thriller. Ed, and his band of companions that he travels with (neanderthal Bryce, posh Richard, old Harvey and female Grimes) are thrown from one horrific situation to another – destroyed motorways, gun-toting aristocrats, a Manchester run by murderous gang, an obliterated Birmingham, and much else besides. The surprises keep on coming.

And at the same time there are some powerful themes running through it. There’s a strong tension, in particular, between the nuclear family being the ultimate value – Ed is absolutely fixated on finding his family because now, when he can see clearly, it’s all that matters – and the importance of wider solidarity, which we see through the close and mutually sacrificing nature of the group travelling to Falmouth together.

And what comes out through this is the relevance of Zizek’s psychoanalytic maxim: ‘we don’t want what we really desire.’ What Ed says he wants is his family, but what he appears to revel in is the finding of his family – the challenge, the pursuit – which is ultimately about him, internally, becoming something else and not about his family at all. When you get to the book’s finale, without giving anything away, you can’t help but wonder whether actually finding his family – as opposed to searching for them – was what he really wanted.