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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Stephen King

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To purchase Joyland

Title: Joyland
Author: Stephen King
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013
Length: 283 pages
Availability: Joyland - US
Joyland - UK
Joyland - Canada
Joyland - India
Joyland - Deutschland
Joyland - Italia
Joyland - España

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Our Assessment:

B : the storytelling very good, but reliance on supernatural hokum as plot device limits impact

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 10/6/2013 Randy Dotinga
Entertainment Weekly B+ 22/5/2013 Darren Franich
Financial Times . 5/7/2013 Christopher Fowler
The Guardian . 12/6/2013 M. John Harrison
Independent on Sunday . 9/6/2013 Laurence Phelan
The LA Times . 6/6/2013 David Ulin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/6/2013 Walter Kirn
The Observer . 22/6/2013 Alison Flood
Publishers Weekly . 8/4/2013 .
The Telegraph . 7/6/2013 Tim Martin
USA Today . 3/6/2013 Brian Truitt
Wall Street Journal . 31/5/2013 Tom Nolan
The Washington Post . 2/6/2013 Bill Sheehan

  From the Reviews:
  • "At its heart, this is a captivating story filled with more light than dark, more sweetness than horror, and plenty of grace. While Joyland isn't the traditional kind of Stephen King book that will make fans turn pages until the wee hours, it'll keep plenty of readers warm all night long." - Randy Dotinga, Christian Science Monitor

  • "The mystery isn't too mysterious. The ghost hardly appears. Not that much happens, really. A nifty but out-of-nowhere climax suggests that Joyland is really an overgrown short story. Yet the book also features some of King's most graceful writing." - Darren Franich, Entertainment Weekly

  • "The best noirs place us firmly on the side of the deluded sleazeballs, not ordinary Joes. Kingís innately decent nature stymies any hope of gathering darkness. More problematically, a handful of pop-cultural references are not enough to provide a sense of period." - Christopher Fowler, Financial Times

  • "King is a genius at pulling his readers into the affective space of an ordinary central character. We feel the faintest resistance as we enter." - M. John Harrison, The Guardian

  • "But if King seems not much interested in the specifics of his own murder-mystery -- the whodunnit or why -- it might be because he's tilting at universal concerns. He uses a corny plot and stock characters to get at the feelings and fears that coalesce in the collective consciousness. And Joyland describes being young with the necessary vigour, and the slow agony with which a broken heart heals with the necessary tenderness. It's explicitly a novel about false appearances, but the feelings are real." - Laurence Phelan, Independent on Sunday

  • "(I)t's also an homage, in some sense, to the disposable culture of the early 1970s: pulp novels, LPs and independent amusement parks, such as the one where much of the action here takes place. It's hard not to see the influence of Donald Westlake, and not just because Joyland is dedicated to him (.....) Joyland, however, is written with a lighter touch, an air of if not nostalgia then wistfulness." - David Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Itís an exercise in mock-Gothic Americana whose tone is more important than its plot, mostly because it barely has a plot, only occasional drafts of chilly menace. (...) This is fairly light stuff, but what adds a layer of interest is Kingís affection for the slang and customs of the midway. (...) The novel is like a plump wad of cotton candy; it fills the mouth with fluffy sweetness that quickly dissolves when the reader starts to chew. Thatís by design." - Walter Kirn, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Joyland is a far gentler, deeper, more thoughtful book than the one it masquerades as." - Alison Flood, The Observer

  • "King brings his usual finesse to this taleís mystery elements, and makes Devís handling of them crucial to the novelís bigger coming-of-age story, in which Dev adapts to the carny life and finds true romance." - Publishers Weekly

  • "But material that might disintegrate in other hands is held together by Kingís evident enjoyment of his material and by his consummate skill, rarely surpassed among contemporary writers, at moving a story along. (.....) (I)f Joyland doesnít linger long in the mind after the final page, at least its readers will have gone into it with their eyes open. This really is a book to judge by its cover." - Tim Martin, The Telegraph

  • "Thankfully, King doesn't go the milquetoasty Nicholas Sparks route. His relationships are always grounded and, while maybe not meeting readers' romantic expectations, are satisfying in how they play out." - Brian Truitt, USA Today

  • "Joyland presents itself as a hair-raising thriller (which indeed it is), but it is as much a bittersweet romance, a tribute to older times and sounder values, a celebration of family and friends and love and the wonder of existence." - Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal

  • "As in so much of Kingís work, quotidian details pervade the narrative, providing a solid foundation for the dramatic, sometimes otherworldly events. (...) Equally convincing is his meticulous re-creation of life within the insular society of a mid-level amusement park. (...) The melodramatic aspects of the story are great fun, but the real strength of Joyland stems from Kingís ability to connect with his characters directly and viscerally." - Bill Sheehan, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Joyland is narrated by Devin Jones, looking back now from the present to events four decades in the past, when the then-University of New Hampshire student took a summer job (and then lingered a bit longer) at the Joyland amusement park in North Carolina. It's a nostalgic look back at an experience that marked his transition to adulthood -- his first great heartbreak (and getting over that), the making of lasting and true friendships, a variety of (both hit and miss) encounters with mortality. And, just so he couldn't get too grounded in the real, there were also some experiences with the supernatural (the wonder of life apparently can't be entirely reality-based -- a dollop of hokum was needed to make sure he didn't come to believe things are all that simple). Oh, yes, and there's an old murder-mystery (or several) to clear up -- to spice up the coming-of-age story that, at heart, dominates Joyland.
       Devin was twenty-one back in '73, and he had it all planned out: his future with the girl of his dreams, Wendy Keegan, his career as a writer (of: "the kind of short stories they publish in The New Yorker"). Of course, the dream of Wendy is shattered very quickly (but even four decades later she remains: "a scar and a memory"), and his writing-ambitions didn't work out quite as planned, either, but he seems to have done okay for himself.
       Seen from forty years down the road, he describes 1973 as: "the last year of my childhood". He wasn't immature back then, but he was inexperienced; Joyland, then, provided experience galore. Still, as he warns early on:

     When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.
       Devin left for his summer job still believing in his future with Wendy, even when all the signs were there that she was ready to move on, and once he's safely distant (her summer job is in Boston) she disassociates herself from him pretty quickly. Devin is heartbroken, and pines away for a while, but his demanding job and his new friends help him get by (if not completely over it -- and no new woman figures in his life until months later, as it is two of his summer house-mates (and new friends), Tom and Erin, that are the ones who hook up).
       There's something nostalgic about amusement parks anyway, and while in 1973 the corporatization of the industry -- most notably, but not solely, its Disneyfication -- was already being felt, Joyland remained an old-fashioned holdout. So Devin gets the full amusement park education: "What did I do at Joyland that summer ? Everything." King enjoys describing the day-to-day carny life, and he does it well. There are the quirky characters who run the place, and there are all the different jobs that Devin tries his hand at -- worried at first about his complete ignorance, then quickly learning what it takes.
       The kids are busy with their jobs, and there's little free time, so Devin barely has a chance to look into the gory murder-cum-ghost story he learnt about when he first came to interview at Joyland. Years earlier, a Linda Gray had taken the Horror House ride with an unidentified man -- and taken it to a horrible end: they found her body and slit throat in the Horror House the next day. Despite there even being pictures of the man she had been with, the case remained unsolved; meanwhile, the occasional sightings of a girl with a blue Alice band -- just like Linda had -- continue .....
       Eventually, Tom, Erin, and Devin check out the ride for themselves, but only one of them gets a sense of anything supernatural. But they remain curious and, for example, when Erin gets back to college she does some more research into the case -- or cases, since there were a string of similar murders around that time.
       It takes Devin quite a while to work Wendy out of his system. Working at Joyland helps, and when he befriends Mike, a young boy suffering from muscular dystrophy -- and Mike's very attractive mother, Annie -- he has yet more to distract himself with. Helping the doomed Mike -- and especially helping him realize his great dream, a visit to Joyland -- in particular helps him move on with his life.
       Annie's father is a deeply religious man who has a touch of supernatural acuity -- and Mike seems to have inherited that touch and sense. Eventually, of course, that comes into play -- and the murder-cum-ghost story reaches its dramatic conclusion. There's some atmospheric tension (boy, does King lay that on thick ...) and an exciting enough show-down, but given that it's set in motion entirely -- and ridiculously -- deus ex machina the resolution falls a bit flat.
       Joyland is nostalgic in a number of ways. There's the memory of friends lost -- it's no surprise that the fatally ill Mike didn't last the four decades, but in the present day Devin mourns at least one more soul from those times. But in fact there's a constant facing of and dealing with mortality in the novel, from Devin having lost his mother just a few years before his Joyland adventures, to deathly-ill Mike, to several near-death experiences which Devin finds himself involved in. Hovering over it all (though generally very distantly in the background) is the spirit and tragic tale of the murdered Linda Gray.
       King does nostalgia well, conjuring up the early 1970s, and the peculiar world of childish dreams and behind-the-scenes reality of amusement parks nicely. Joyland is a revel in that past, an old man looking back at his youth and what still seemed a world of wonder. The ugly reality of a vicious murder isn't even really out of place here -- but the reliance on the supernatural in the resolution is pretty weak and disappointing (not helped by the fact that it's entirely too neat and convenient).
       King does tension fairly well, too, so despite the holes in the way the Linda Gray-murder is resolved, the action-packed finale (and a bit of (sensible) finagling by Mike and Annie after the fact) is certainly exciting enough. But the whole Linda Gray-storyline is just a sort of added layer to what is fundamentally and primarily a nostalgic coming-of-age account -- a frill King felt obliged to use to spice things up a bit, but was unwilling to put much energy into. The specter of the dead girl hovers rather distantly for much of the story, and when it (or anything to do with it) figures in the story it isn't grounded in anything that feels real or substantial; it's entirely supernatural. And, allowing for anything, the supernatural -- as presented here -- is deeply unsatisfying.
       Leaving aside these spirit-world bits of hokum, Joyland is very well told. King presents the everyday (especially the slightly-past everyday of yesteryear) in a way that's reassuringly familiar yet also compelling enough in its small observations and insights that makes for a good read. He's in fine form here -- there are few sentences that don't ring true, or that fall flat -- and even if he doesn't develop the characters beyond his narrator very deeply, there's enough here that one feels one casually knows them (exactly the way one knows most people in real life).
       Indeed, there's enough to it to recommend Joyland quite strongly -- though it's a shame King chose to rely on the oldest, cheapest tricks (i.e. the supernatural) for a significant piece of the story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 June 2013

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Joyland: Reviews: Stephen King: Other books by Stephen King under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Stephen King is among the world's most popular writers.

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© 2013 the complete review

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