The Turning Point: A Year That Changed Dickens and the World (Jonathan Cape £25) makes the case that 1851 was a transformative year, says Laura Freeman in The Times. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has written a portrait of the novelist “at the height of his literary powers and the peak of his prodigious energies”. Douglas-Fairhurst describes his approach as “slow biography”, but this book “whizzes along”. He is a “shrewd, amusing and original guide” in his examination of the year when the Great Exhibition was staged and Dickens started work on Bleak House – “the greatest fictional experiment of his career”.
Prince Albert believed the Great Exhibition would unify mankind, but Dickens deemed it “the most giant humbug ever mounted on a long-suffering people’s shoulders”. His reaction was not as extreme as that of William Morris, who was so appalled by the rampant materialism, he had to escape and be sick in the bushes.
This is not a book for newcomers to Dickens, says John Carey in The Sunday Times. “Microhistory, it turns out, necessitates many pages of detail that… may seem extraneous.” Douglas-Fairhurst emphasises the author’s “obsessive need to control other people”. He organised a company of amateur actors, “rehearsed them mercilessly” and toured the provinces. He ran Urania Cottage, a refuge for fallen women, with “autocratic fervour”. Contributors to his weekly journal were subjected to his constant rewriting of their copy: “Brighten it! Brighten it!” Only Elizabeth Gaskell stood up to his editing.
Douglas-Fairhurst is clear-sighted about Dickens’s failings, says Anthony Quinn in The Observer, not merely in his treatment of his wife, Catherine – he tried to have her declared insane in the years before their separation – “but in his reactionary attitudes to class, race and women’s liberation”. Yet The Turning Point is “more admiring than admonishing”, and the way it builds incrementally towards Bleak House, the project “that had been fermenting in his head all year”, makes for a satisfying finale.
Available as an audiobook on Kobo from 2 September.
No matter what he writes, Stephen King will always be considered a horror novelist, says Neil McRobert in The Guardian. Yet in his latest novel, Billy Summers (Hodder & Stoughton £20), “he is in full noir mode”, with the tale of an assassin on “the requisite one-last-job-before-he’s-out”. It may meander and pay scant regard to the rules of narrative structure, but this is “his best book in years”.
The tale unfolds in small-town America, says Adam LeBor in the FT. It is an “unforgiving world”, portrayed in sharp detail. Billy, a former US Marine who honed his skills as a sniper “in the backstreets of Fallujah” during the Iraq War, is posing as a writer while he waits to carry out his final hit. In an engaging twist, he starts to write his memoir and soon finds himself, “against his will… building a life under a false identity”.
His plan goes dangerously awry when a woman who has been attacked is dumped near his bolthole. The “real strength of the tale” is their relationship. Summers’s motives for helping her are complex, but King shows that killers can have a “moral core, especially when they seek to make amends”.
Available as an audiobook on Audible.