SLEEPING BEAUTIES
by Stephen and Owen King
(Hachette, $33)
Reviewed by Helen van Berkel

Stephen King is back to his old best in Sleeping Beauties, his latest horror, this time written with his son Owen.

Women around the world mysteriously fall asleep and fail to wake again; small tendrils of white webbing cover them in a waxy layer and it appears nothing will wake them. Those who try, whether accidentally or deliberately, find themselves at the receiving end of the affected woman's furious and bloody murderous revenge.

About the same time, a mysterious woman, with apparent magical powers and the ability to read thoughts, appears in the woods. Within days the world falls apart as men, without women to "tame" them - or out of grief for their loved ones - turn to violence and fury.

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In classic King style, the story is told through colourful vignettes from the lives of all the players. We are sometimes told of the same scene from the point of view of different players and although you wouldn't describe Sleeping Beauties as in any way a book that aims to provide insight into the lives of others, that's what you get among the sometimes blood-and brain-matter spattered violence and fantasy. Much of the action is set in and around a woman's prison as a world without women descends into chaos.

King has the ability to make you like people even if their behaviour is socially unacceptable; such as the dog control officer who has anger management issues. His internal conversations reveal his self-serving excuses and though you do not forgive the worst of his attitudes, you do gain a little understanding.

Sleeping Beauties is a great wodge of a book - more than 700 pages - that needs two hands to read on the bus. There is way too much information in some places, which explains why so few of King's novels are more successful in print than on screen but as always, he offers a meaty read that will make you cringe in places and laugh in others.

An underlying theme of "women good, men bad" is somewhat tiresome even as you look forward to the next stage in the action for each of the individuals.

Although this is a fantasy novel through and through, the two writers do skilfully balance the unreal with the real in King's usual masterful fashion.

Family links in a noir-ish light
MANHATTAN BEACH
by Jennifer Egan
(Corsair, $38)
Reviewed by Maggie Trapp

Jennifer Egan's new novel, Manhattan Beach, opens with a young girl, Anna, sitting in a Niagara blue 1928 Duesenberg Model J while her father, Eddie Kerrigan, drives towards Coney Island. Anna senses her father is uncharacteristically apprehensive.

We eventually learn he's headed to his potential new boss' house in Manhattan Beach. This boss, Dexter Styles, is a New York City gaming kingpin. Soon Eddie will go missing and Anna will spend much of the novel working to understand her father's choices and fate. Along the way, she will fashion her own vexed bonds with Styles.

This is a layered, beautiful book in which Egan expertly immerses us in the world of pre-World War II New York City. We become acquainted with Houdini-like episodes, girls in peplum skirts, men with brilliantined hair, soda shops, streetcars, wartime ship-repair divers, and battleships in dry dock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

It gives New York a noir-ish cast and reading it is like being wrapped up in a Rex Stout detective novel while being invited to share the intimate inner life of a young woman in the way you are when you read an Alice Munro story. Manhattan Beach is a finely detailed and compelling book that is at its heart about the complex connections between fathers and daughters.

Egan's monumental novel calls to mind the knotty father-daughter connection in another recent novel about World War II, Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. Parts of Manhattan Beach also recall Christopher Nolan's 2014 film Interstellar.

Like Doerr's book and Nolan's film, it ushers us into an expansive representation of what feels like another world. Yet what keeps us there is not only the epic feel of the story but also the moving, subtle, nearly inexpressible depiction of a daughter and her father and how they lose and find each other over time.

As in her previous works, Egan writes passages so well-crafted that they lift right off the page and sing. After Anna listens to her mother calmly taking in Anna's aunt's aria of gripes, we read, "Anna's mother always said just enough to keep Brianne talking; she was the maypole around which Anna's aunt braided the ribbons of her knowledge and gossip and ghoulish revelations." Later, when Eddie is out at sea: "The night was cool and clear, with a rolling sea just visible under a paring of moon.

"Eddie couldn't see the ships around theirs, but he perceived their density, five hundred feet away fore and aft, a thousand feet abeam, nosing together through the swells like a spectral herd." This, like much of what we read in this novel, is gorgeous, redolent prose and a pure pleasure to consume.

That time we went to Munich
MUNICH
by Robert Harris
(Hutchinson, $39)
Reviewed by James Robins

History has been profoundly unkind to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. His infamous "Peace for our time" proclamation became a tragi-comic slur as the troops mustered in 1939.

Appeasement - Chamberlain's policy towards Adolf Hitler's claims on Czechoslovakia - became a byword for capitulation and grovelling. The cult of Winston Churchill looms large above this skewered legacy; "Poor Neville will come badly out of history," the old bulldog once said. "I know, I will write that history."

The journalist-turned-novelist Robert Harris (Fatherland, Pompeii) attempts to exhume Chamberlain from the casket of condemnation in his new book Munich. It's a suspenseful, if baggy, fictionalisation of the 1938 conference where Britain did its best to avoid total war over what Chamberlain once derisively called "a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing".

Harris wriggles his way into the smoke-plumed meeting rooms of the British and German foreign ministries with two cypher-ish creations: Hugh Legat, a young upper-crust private secretary and Paul Hartmann, ensconced deep in the Reich. They went to university together and, as the storm gathers, they are forced to reunite covertly through back-channels, conducting espionage to save their respective countries from conflict.

Legat and Hartmann's proximity to the heights of power allows Harris to closely observe the central players: Hitler inevitably passed off as a brute, Mussolini a preening matinee idol, Goering corpulent and the French hand-wringing.

Harris saves his more rigorous characterisations for Chamberlain himself, a "corvine profile ... hard, stubborn; belligerent even ... a Victorian figure." The negotiations themselves are, well, negotiated with subtle clarity; Harris never feeling obliged to lecture the intricacies.

He has an undeniable touch for pace and intrigue, for leaving narrative threads tantalisingly suspended, although, at times, his research clogs his prose with the desiderata of the period: florid descriptions of architecture and hotel tablecloths, typewriters, telephones, car models and cigarette brands. "Dinner was chanterelle soup followed by veal and noodles." Mercifully, we don't hear about dessert.

All the while, Harris makes his case that Chamberlain was doing his best with what circumstances gave him. The Munich deal gave Britain time to rearm and when Hitler went on to threaten Poland, the Fuhrer was revealed to be a warmonger. Of course, Harris runs headlong into Churchill again and cannot avoid him. After all, Churchill was clear-eyed on Nazism as early as 1934.

The price of appeasement in the short-term implies a foggy view of the future.


Smiley's Circus is back in town to weigh the past and present
A LEGACY OF SPIES
John le Carre
(Viking $37)
Reviewed by Greg Fleming

A Legacy of Spies sees le Carre returning to familiar ground - the political and moral turpitude of the Cold War. It involves a (brief) appearance by his most famous protagonist, George Smiley, and enough familiar faces to lure back le Carre fans of old.

One of those, Peter Guillam, an old confidante of Smiley's, helms proceedings here. The underlying theme will be familiar to readers of le Carre's work - how much of our human feeling can we dispense with in the name of freedom, would you say, before we cease to feel either human or free? Although many may have wished for the seemingly ageless Smiley to be more intimately involved, his underling Guillam makes the most of his time in the spotlight after being summoned from an idyllic retirement in Brittany by a letter from the Circus (le Carre's term for MI6).

The plot concerns the deaths of two operatives shot by the Stasi as they try to climb the Wall and is, in part, a prequel to 1963's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the meat of the book consisting of field reports and Guillam's flashbacks, both operational and romantic. All in the dustbin of history one might have thought, except that the victim's progeny are questioning the deaths and threatening to sue and Guillam is their best hope of unravelling the botched operation.

So Legacy is le Carre, at 85, taking stock, weighing the past against the present and finding both wanting, although the present perhaps more so - the young Circus boffins are portrayed as self-serving, venal, pedants with funny names - the snarky Secret Service lawyer Bunny with his "eyes to slits" and "rictal grin" is classic le Carre; another is called Pepsi.

Le Carre returned to the material after being asked to adapt one of the Cold War novels after the success of the recent The Night Manager TV adaptation. That project was shelved but le Carre's interest was piqued and this short novel is the result.

For the most part, le Carre looks back from a post-Brexit world with guarded affection at the work of his washed up, self-exiled spies despite the fact their legacy lies in tatters around them. Some have suggested this knotty, brittle novel may be his last book; I'm not so sure - the confidence, precision and scope evidenced here suggest otherwise.

And if ever we need the master of spy fiction at the top of his game it's now.

Gracie stars in zany murder mystery
ALL OUR SECRETS
by Jennifer Lane
(Rosa Mira Books, $30)
Reviewed by Andrew Laxon

Life is looking pretty grim for 11-year-old Gracie Barrett. Her mum and dad can't seem to stay together for five minutes; her best friend, Shelley, has moved to Dubbo and the other kids at school are giving her a hard time. And there's a serial killer stalking the streets of her small town, murdering the children who were conceived at the infamous River Picnic eight years ago.

This is the starting point for Wellington writer Jennifer Lane's first novel, a hugely enjoyable mash-up of small town horror and coming-of-age story, with plenty of quirky and sometimes downright weird humour thrown in.

It's set in the imaginary town of Coongahoola in the backblocks of New South Wales, where Lane grew up. Gracie is struggling to deal with her hugely dysfunctional family: womanising dad Robbie, angry, plate-throwing mum Nell, toddler twins Lucky and Grub and younger brother Elijah, who is one of the River Children, born after the 1974 picnic. Holding the chaotic clan together is Robbie's mother, Grandma Betts, a pillar of the local Catholic church, who prays constantly for her son and his family.

When the killings start, most of the townsfolk immediately suspect a religious sect called the Believers - Bleeders to the locals - who have set up camp by the river and are buying up most of the town. Gracie is horrified when her mother seems to be coming under the spell of the Believers, particularly their odious leader, known to his followers as Saint Bede.

Much of the fun of the book comes from Lane's terrific construction of Gracie's voice, which bounces around the details of the plot in apparently haphazard fashion, yet manages to avoid all the boring stuff which slows down so much adult storytelling. We get the minutiae of a kid's world in early 1980s Australia: Parramatta Eels T-shirts, Abba's Arrival on the cassette deck, the arrival of a certain pizza restaurant franchise in town.

Gracie casually exposes the self-centred motives of adults and children, including a series of darkly comic set pieces at the dead children's funerals. Yet in the confusion of adolescence, she often can't see the obvious either.

The story mixes offbeat and scary towards the end as Gracie discovers the identity of the murderer, yet fails to realise it. Leaving aside a slight implausibility - a serial murderer would surely not hesitate to kill a potential witness - it's a satisfying resolution, with a bonus few chapters thrown in to explain the mystery of the River Picnic and the eventual fate of the Bleeders.