Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dark Places Review

As any who has read this blog can attest to, I got sucked into Gillian Flynn’s dark and scary brain this summer, starting with Gone Girl and then moving onto Sharp Objects. So on a stormy day last week, I bought her third novel (actually her second published one), Dark Places. Like the other two books, Flynn’s main character is a deeply damaged young woman from the Midwest.

Dark Places is the story of thirty-something Libby Day, the sole survivor of her family’s murder. When she was seven years old, her older brother, Ben, supposedly massacred her mother and two sisters. She escaped out of a window and lost a couple toes and fingers in the process due to frostbite (the murders happened in February).

Libby grew up tormented and angry. Her brother was put in jail for life while she lived off of donations people sent her over the years. Twenty-four years after the murder, though, the money is drying up. She has never been able to hold a job in her life – she can barely get out of bed some mornings and suddenly she has to figure out how to support herself.

Enter the Kill Club. She is contacted by a young man named Lyle who belongs to a group fascinated by unsolved murders. Lyle is particularly interested in the Day murders and like many of the people involved in the group, does not believe that Ben committed the crimes. He offers Libby money to appear at a convention of the Kill Club where she meets other supporters of Ben. They spark a curiosity in her to investigate the murder further. After all, she was only seven when it happened and was clearly coached through her testimony that damned Ben.

No matter how damaged Libby is by the events on that February night, she can’t help but use the Kill Club’s resources to start questioning the mystery. She is paid to track down different people involved with the case and question them about that night. Little by little the story starts to emerge. Each present day Libby chapter is followed by a flashback of either Ben or Patty, Libby’s mom, as they go through the day of the murder from the early morning to the murders.

The tension simmers slowly but intensely throughout the book as the reader tries to piece together what happened. Libby may be as messed up as the characters in Flynn’s other two books, but she was certainly a unique character, damaged in her own way. The Kill Club’s money drives her to action and allows her to investigate the murders slowly.

Like Flynn’s other two books, I finished this feeling unsettled. Not because the ending wasn’t satisfactory but just because it was a pretty messed up story. I guessed most of the twists in the other books (even though Flynn really did keep me guessing most of the time) but this book kept me wondering what had happened that night until the very end. I suspected a piece of it but turns out there was so much more to the story than I ever would have figured out on my own.

I seriously hope Gillian Flynn goes ahead and writes her next book soon because now that I’m done with all three, I’m not sure who else writes really good thrillers like this. Any suggestions? I prefer standalone books to a long series featuring one character but I’d appreciate recommendations for other great thrillers! 

Shadow of Night Review

I read Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches last year and mostly enjoyed it, although I could not recall all of the details of the plot when I picked up the sequel this summer. I remember the main points. Harkness is a history professor who capitalized on the supernatural craze going on in books these days. Her first book was marketed as a grown up Twilight. It told the story of Diana, a young historian who studies the history of alchemy. While on sabbatical at Oxford, she stumbled on a mysterious book that she could barely read as the text kept moving around. This awoke something in Diana, who is descended from a long line of witches, but who seemed to have no power herself. It also sent out some sort of signal to all of the creatures in the area who swarmed to the library to see the book.

In Harkness’s world, there are witches, vampires and daemons living amongst humans. They are ruled by a Congregation that does not allow them to interfere with humans nor to engage in personal relationships among themselves. The three groups of creatures tend not to interact much because of that. The vampires and witches are pretty traditional. No sparkly vamps here, thankfully. The daemons are interesting. They tend to be the most creative people in our history like Christopher Marlowe.

Anyway, Diana’s retrieval of the book sparks the attention of lots of creatures, but specifically Matthew, a vampire from the Middle Ages, who of course, pretty quickly falls in love with her and is determined to protect her. A lot of other stuff happens that I really don’t remember too much of. They start in Oxford, go to Matthew’s vampire family’s home in France for a while (I remember that part dragging on a bit) and then met up with Diana’s aunt Sarah and her partner, Emily, both witches, in Massachusetts.

Because Matthew and Diana are in love, they are a threat to the Congregation, who comes after them. At the end of the first book, they learn that Diana was spell-bound by her parents before their death to protect her. She has strange powers that she can’t really control, including the ability to time walk. Matthew and Diana decide that in order to hide from the Congregation and investigate more about the book (which was sent back into the bowels of the library and could not be retrieved again for some reason) and help Diana learn more about her powers, they have to go back in time.

Shadow of Night picked up where A Discovery of Witches ended. Matthew and Diana ended up back in Elizabethan times. I’m a little unclear as to what happened with the Matthew of that time period. Apparently he vanished because two Matthews could not exist at the same time. But really, where did he go? Would he be aware of losing time? I was sort of confused by this. Anyway, they end up in Matthew’s English country house where they meet up with TheSchool of Night, Matthew’s good friends.

They are summoned pretty quickly to meet Matthew’s father, Philippe, in France at the medieval version of the estate that Diana visited in the first book. In present time, Philippe is dead, after being tortured by Nazis during WWII. I didn’t remember any of that at all. So they take off to France where Philippe is very judgmental of his son’s forbidden relationship with a witch. Of course, Diana, being a bit of a Mary Sue, gets him to admire her pretty quickly after that. They’re there for a while, some celebratory stuff happens and then they have to head back to England. Matthew is a spy for the court of Queen Elizabeth so they move their household to London for a while and find Diana some medieval witches to study with to help her unleash her latent powers. She studies for about five minutes before they are off again to Prague where they believe their mysterious book, Ashmole 782, can be found. They stay there for a while and then go back to London.

Here is the issue of the novel. There’s a lot of traveling and a lot of (admittedly interesting) detail about the Elizabethan world (of which Harkness is a professor), however, not a lot actually happens. I think this happened in the first book too but I can’t quite remember. Harkness is clearly having fun describing how long it takes low maintenance Diana to get dressed in 1590 and introducing historical characters like Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I herself. But the narrative is slow. It was a long book but I finished the most recent Game of Thrones novel in five days and that was way longer. This took me almost two weeks to read, I think. It felt like a lot of filler designed to set up the third book in the trilogy.

Matthew and Diana also aren’t the most interesting characters. I can’t quite figure everyone out. Matthew is the typical stoic vampire, haunted by his more demonic past. But he has this blood rage that I don’t remember at all from the first book that is a big point in this novel, primarily, I think, to set up the motives of two other characters. Diana, of course, is this amazing witch who despite the block on her powers, is one of the most powerful types of witches out there. Clearly. They’re all magically in love with each other. While I hate to compare this to Twilight, it’s similar in that I don’t quite see what attracts these two to each other. That’s a problem. You can’t create a strong romance between two slightly underdeveloped characters and expect people to care. Maybe I’m being too picky though.

Anyway, if you’re into quasi-historical fiction or intelligent supernatural novels, check this out. Despite being a bit slow, there were some strong and interesting moments. I like a lot of the secondary characters who only made cameos in this book. Some chapters flash forward to the present where Diana and Matthew’s allies are gathering for an inevitable clash with the Congregation that will likely be the center of the last novel in the series. Those were pretty interesting although at the end something pretty major happened off screen in the present that I hope is explained further in the next book… although I probably won’t remember the specifics! 

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sharp Objects Review

I don't know why but there is something about summer that makes me want to read thrillers. Maybe it's the heat or my slow summer schedule that makes me crave something dark and disturbing. I also loved Mary Higgins Clark mysteries as a kid, which were nowhere near as messed up as Gillian Flynn's novels, but the darker elements (a killer dancing with his dead victims' bodies, an insane child molester stalking down a little girl) have always stuck with me. I spent a lot of summers reading those books, as well as tons of Agatha Christie novels. Maybe that's where my need for darkness in literature comes from. I'm not much for gore so I've never read Stephen King, although maybe I should.

Anyway, I downloaded a few different samples after finishing The Next Best Thing because I couldn't figure out what mood I was in and I ended up getting hooked on Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects pretty quickly. And finished it two days later. It was so good. Flynn has a seriously messed up brain. Like Gone Girl, the plot was intense, well paced and totally fucked up.

The story centers around Camille Preaker, a woman in her early 30s (I think), who works as a reporter for a second rate paper in Chicago. When a possibly serial killer situation emerges in her tiny hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, she is sent home to investigate before a better paper could pick up the story. She is very reluctant to return home to her family as she has a very tense, distant relationship with them, particularly her mother, Adora. She doesn't know her stepfather, Alan, or much younger stepsister, Amma, that well but her dealings with her mother were always particularly difficult.

When Camille returns home, one little girl has already been killed and one is missing. The first girl, nine year old Ann was found strangled in a creek, with all of her teeth missing. Now, ten year old Natalie is also missing and the town is obviously beyond concerned.

Camille struggles with her demons throughout the novel. She is a recovered cutter, who used to carve words into her skin, so often that her body is covered in words. She also drinks heavily throughout the story. And when you meet her mother, and the rest of her family, you understand why.

Camille is not necessarily a likable character. She could have become irritating and weak, but Flynn shows her strength and stubborn nature as the plot develops and keeps the reader from disliking her completely.

I have to say that I was suspicious of a few characters while reading who were behind that happened to the girls. However, Flynn kept me guessing throughout the story and while some of my suspicions were true, the end of the book was filled with enough twists and turns that I wasn't entirely sure I got it right until the very end. All in all, I was completely drawn into the story and I will definitely be reading Flynn's third (the second that she wrote) very soon.

Here's Gillian Flynn's website. There's an interesting essay under the "For Readers" section that talks about how she got into writing these seriously messed up books. I particularly liked this part:

"Libraries are filled with stories on generations of brutal men, trapped in a cycle of aggression. I wanted to write about the violence of women.
So I did. I wrote a dark, dark book. A book with a narrator who drinks too much, screws too much, and has a long history of slicing words into herself. With a mother who’s the definition of toxic, and a thirteen-year-old half-sister with a finely honed bartering system for drugs, sex, control. In a small, disturbed town, in which two little girls are murdered. It’s not a particularly flattering portrait of women, which is fine by me. Isn’t it time to acknowledge the ugly side? I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books. I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some. The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves — to the point of almost parodic encouragement — we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side. Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids. So Sharp Objects is my creepy little bouquet."

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Next Best Thing Review

As I mentioned in my last post, my enjoyment of a book can be seen through how long it takes me to read it. Case in point, I finished Jennifer Weiner's newest in two days. I love Jennifer Weiner. I first discovered her in college when I read Good in Bed. Later, In Her Shoes, became one of my all time favorite novels (I could definitely relate especially after living with my sometimes irresponsible younger sister). I've seen her speak at book signings and I follow her blog on occasion. I've read all of her novels. They're considered "chick lit" but Weiner is a smart and interesting writer. She is always railing against the literary world, claiming that men who write books about families and relationships are considered literary, while women are often thought to only write chick lit. She has a valid point. She also has studied the NY Times book reviews and commented over how many male authors are reviewed over women. Anyway, I like her as a person (albeit one who I only know over the internet). She's very real.

  • Good in Bed (2001): Loved. It's raw, intense and ultimately satisfying.
  • In Her Shoes (2002): My absolute favorite. I've read this one multiple times and I even like the movie.
  • Little Earthquakes (2004): I may revisit this when I have kids. It's all about new moms and when I read it, I was 22 and could not relate at all.
  • Goodnight Nobody (2005): Weiner's first mystery. Meh.
  • The Guy Not Taken (2006): Short stories, so I never read this.
  • Certain Girls (2008): The sequel to Good In Bed (although Cannie shows up in In Her Shoes, briefly). This was disappointing, especially the unnecessarily sad ending. 
  • Best Friends Forever (2009): Another meh.
  • Fly Away Home (2010): And another one... this time about political scandals. Meh.
  • Then Came You (2011): LOVED! After a few not so great books in a row, I really enjoyed this novel about four women and how one baby brings them all together. It's a GREAT book. Really moving.
  • The Next Best Thing (2012): And here we are, back to the real review.

The Next Best Thing is actually an expanded version of a previously published short story called Swim (currently FREE on amazon in e-book form). It's also a reflection of the year or so that Weiner spent in Hollywood, making a show for ABC Family called State of Georgia. For the record, I watched a couple episodes last summer and thought it was awful.

Ruth is a Hollywood writer, who worked for a production company where she was mentored and encouraged to write her own pilot. The novel follows the pickup of the pilot to what happens when it is filmed. Like Weiner's other books, Ruth is a fully realized character. Her background is filled in nicely throughout the book. We learn why she has scars on her face and body, why she was raised by her grandmother, why she is a TV writer and who she loves. On top of all of that, we follow her life during the period where her show, The Next Best Thing is made.

I don't know a whole lot about the Hollywood writing industry, except for anything hinted at in Entourage, but apparently this is filled with insider information. I was fascinated by the whole process and kept thinking about a lot of my favorite shows going through this very system. Some elements are thinly disguised from Weiner's own experiences. Apparently she wanted State of Georgia to be about a heavier girl trying to make it on Broadway. She wanted an unknown to play Georgia, but the network wanted (or had a deal with) Raven-Symone from The Cosby Show and Hanging with Mr. Cooper and tons of other Disney shows and TV movies. Weiner agreed since Raven-Symone had the look she was going for. However, once cast, the actress shed 30 pounds and then fought about wearing padding on the show. This very same situation happens in the book, among other possibly real life experiences that Weiner faced when working on the show.

Towards the end there is one chapter where the editor got lazy. At the start of the chapter, Ruth is wearing a silk top and pants. Later she mentions wishing she could go home and take off her skirt and spanx. Still later, she is wearing a dress. How did no one catch that? She never went home in that chapter! This drove me crazy. I know, I know, I'm picky, but really? That was SO obvious.

All in all, I really enjoyed the novel. It's a good summer, beachy book, without making you feel like you're reading something idiotic. If you're a Weiner fan already or just looking for something fast paced and enjoyable, check out The Next Best Thing!

NPR article about Weiner and the book.

USA Today review

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Unholy Night Review

Seth Grahame-Smith wrote Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the first of the "mash up" books to get popular, which I enjoyed. He later did Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I never read that one but I read  a bit about Unholy Night when it first came out and it reminded me of Christopher Moore's Lamb, of which I am a huge fan. However, this wasn't my favorite. I always know when I'm not really into a book because it takes me so much longer to read it. I just wasn't excited about picking this up.

Unlike Christopher Moore's books, the plot wasn't really funny. He had moments that seemed to verge into Moore's style but it just wasn't enough. The premise is that Balthazar, the infamous Antioch Ghost (a thief), is on the run from King Herod and ends up finding Joseph and Mary in the Bethlehem stable not long after the birth of Jesus (who is never named in the book). As he finds them, Herod orders the death of all boys under the age of two so Balthazar sort of falls into the job of being their protector, quite unwillingly. He, along with the other two "wise men" (also both thieves) attempt to escort Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt where they will be safe from Herod.
There are some clever moments. The Roman leading an army to find the escaped criminals is none other than Pontius Pilate, who later convicts Jesus to die. The plot goes full circle when it explains what happens in the end of the other two wise men. And the epilogue takes place during the great fire of Rome, and explains that Nero definitely wasn't involved at all. 

Anyway, it was just ok. Not as funny as I expected. A love story was sort of thrown in after the halfway mark and there were some facts that were simply wrong. I'm all for revisionist history but some things didn't quite work here. At one point, they are in a town where Abraham was supposedly buried with his wife, Sarah. Grahame-Smith mentions that Sarah was the mother of Issac and Ishmael, however, when I looked up Ishmael, using my kindle's dictionary, it specifically said that Ishmael was Abraham's son with his wife's maid, Hagar. That just seemed like a lazy error to me. There were a couple other little things like that which annoyed me.

I don't really recommend this one, but I included a review below, which seems to like the book more. Here's an excerpt: "If you can get past the notion of a pitchfork-brandishing Joseph (yes, that Joseph) in a manger (yes, that manger), you’ll find “Unholy Night” a surprisingly touching and sweet-natured tale of derring-do, magic and salvation, based very, very, very loosely on events familiar to many from Sunday school or, perhaps, Monty Python’s 'Life of Brian.'"

Washington Post Review

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Beautiful Ruins

I didn't figure out that Jess Walter was a man until half-way through the book when I went to his website to start putting this post together. It doesn't really matter to the story in the least, but finding out the author was  a man threw me a bit for some reason.

Anyway, that's irrelevant to the review. This was a great book with a lot of layers that jumps to different time periods. When I got to the end, it seemed at first like nothing really happened but it still felt cathartic.

Beautiful Ruins covers a lot of stories. The first is the story of a beautiful young American actress in 1962 who had a small part in the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film, Cleopatra. She ends up going to a tiny coastal village in Italy to meet someone. I'm not going to get more specific than that, except to say that her presence in this town is a purposeful mistake. That does make sense, trust me. There she meets Pasquale, a young owner of a failing hotel who is in awe of the actress. In the early 1960s, WWII still loomed over the heads of many people, including Pasquale, even though he was born at the end of (or maybe after) the war.

The story soon shifts to the present time to Claire Silver, assistant to the once famous producer, Michael Deane, who is connected back to the actress, Dee Moray, and Pasquale in the 1960s. Claire loves movies with a passion and is distraught by how Hollywood is more focused on reality TV than making quality films. On Fridays, anyone can come to Deane's office and pitch an idea. Usually Claire hears pitches from a string of people who had some sort of connection with Deane. On the Friday in the book, a young writer named Shane Wheeler shows up with a terrible movie idea about the Donner Party. Shane also happens to speak a bit of Italian, which comes in handy when an aged Pasquale Tursi shows up, looking for Dee Moray.

Despite the jumps back and forth in time, the novel works really well. You never get a full story out of any of the characters but you do get the beginning, middle and end of Dee's story and how each of these characters interacted with her from 1962 to the present.

The novel also plays around with different styles. There's the traditional novel, but then there's Shane's movie pitch, the first chapter from Deane's unpublished memoir, which was rejected since none of the claims in it could be proven (this comes close to the end and explains the entire situation that Dee Moray found herself in, leading to her short time in Pasquale's village), and finally, the one and only chapter of Alvis Bender's WWII novel. Bender is a drunk American who spends two weeks a year in Pasquale's hotel, pretending to write his great novel, which is more like a disillusioned WWI novel than the type of heroic stories told about WWII back then. Bender flits in and out of the story as well. The final two characters are Pat Bender, a middle aged, failed musician and Richard Burton himself. Burton features into the 1962 storyline, while Pat Bender's plot is told during 2008 and the present time.

The NY Times review below does this book more justice than I can, although it also gives a bit more away than I did. I have to include this one excerpt from it about the book's chronology: "As with any story that relies on scrambled chronology, it’s worth wondering how “Beautiful Ruins” would work as a straightforward narrative. Not as well. Moments of confusion would vanish, but so would the magic. Mr. Walter has always been more intuitive than linear, a believer in capricious destiny with a fine, freewheeling sense of humor. The deeply romantic heart of “Beautiful Ruins” is better expressed by constant circling than it would by any head-on approach."

This is a book about love. The love between spouses, between parents and children, the love of power, innocent first love and the wild, crazy, passionate love that grew between Taylor and Burton. Even though Elizabeth Taylor is not a character in the book, or even seen except in a photograph, her tempestuous affair with Richard Burton set the stage for the entire plot.

There's a lot of reasons why this novel might not have worked but it really did. The ending was lovely and satisfactory, the characters were interesting and it was an intriguing look at the American movie scene after WWII, something I find far more interesting than books about musicians. This is a sprawling, lyrical story that is in no way light and breezy but still could be easily devoured while sitting by a pool or in a beach chair. It definitely is a smart summer book. Enjoy!

NY Times Review 

NPR Review 

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble.