In the second half of this year, I told myself I was going to branch out more from my usual genres (YA, mysteries, psychological thrillers) & readIn the second half of this year, I told myself I was going to branch out more from my usual genres (YA, mysteries, psychological thrillers) & read more "different" novels. One of the main blind spots in my reading is non-fiction; I've only ever really read "academic" non-fiction, usually with some literary/poetic topic. Even worse, non-fiction is a genre I've found myself thinking snobbishly about in the past, assuming it was nothing more than a tawdry, self-serving trek through some of the bleakest and most unpleasant things in human history, usually written to titillate, terrify, and, yet, in some strange sense, reassure, to say - this happened elsewhere. This happened to someone else.
In the same week (I was on vacation), I read Robert Kolker's tremendous Lost Girls, a wonderful tribute to the identified victims of the Long Island Serial Killer, prostitutes found murdered on Long Island in the '00s. While Lost Girls is heartening evidence of what a great book can be made from utterly subverting the tropes of the true crime novel, and showing that true crime can, in fact, be better when unburdened by any of these previous formal constraints. People Who Eat Darkness, on the other hand, shows what a truly fascinating novel can be made out of such constraints.
The facts of the case are really not necessarily surprising: there is a man, there is a woman, there's a terrible sexual crime. Still, I recommend not reading any more detailed summaries of this case if this sounds like something you would even slightly enjoy (or perhaps "feel interest in" is a better description). What is truly striking and startling about this book is that it seems there is nobody better than Lloyd Parry to tell it. I was reminded of lines by Richard Siken:
So, with the caveat that the first chapter is perhaps the slowest, this entire book is a testament to what a wonderful writer Parry is. Not one aspect of this case is neglected. That the Blackmans suffered a terrible loss is never underplayed. That Lucie is the real victim here is never forgotten. None of the other details that Parry unearths - about the sex trade in Japan, the cultural positions of genders, the questions of culture clashes and the nouveau riche (among other things) - are allowed to overwhelm this. This is, at times, a painfully human story. It's also an education - about loss, about culture, about the manner in which to write a wonderful "thriller" that never loses it heart. The chapter entitled "The Verdict" - told from Lloyd Parry's own perspective, a sudden switch with the potential to go wrong - is breathtaking and haunting not simply because of its swerve, but because of the emotional implications.
Even when this book plunges us into the depths of depravity, evil, and moral ambiguity, it remains clear-eyed, evenhanded, and heartbreakingly well written. One criticism? One criticism. In a book so exacting as this one - both in terms of research, scene setting, and characterisation - the final pages strike a single wrong note. There are two pictures at the end of the book: one is of Lucie Blackman; the other is of her killer. They also occur in that order. I think this was wrong, and Lucie Blackman's picture should have gone last. I respect the possibility that this was to reflect the fact that her killer's face was one of the last things Lucie saw, but I still feel like, with the enormous emotional power with which Parry writes about the affect of evil and loss, that Lucie's picture should've gone second.
Nevertheless, this is still a book with a brilliant sense of scale and, in quiet lines, an ability to make me stop & reassess. At points, it functions almost like a tiny ethics lesson (it's possible that you have to read this in its proper context). For example:
It is exciting to imagine ourselves in extreme circumstances in which we are tested, morally and physically; in our own minds, we always pass such a test.
This section goes on longer, but I won't quote it in case I spoil something. Suffice to say, the best thing about this book is quite how well suited Parry is to write it. There really couldn't have been anyone better.
I love Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare so much, more than I can explain - so much so that I am considering frittering away thousands of pounds to contI love Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare so much, more than I can explain - so much so that I am considering frittering away thousands of pounds to continue studying him. I love Shakespearean tragedy. I love his plays. I even love whiny, sceptical, moody Hamlet.
So, for me, the retelling is both fertile and suspicious ground. On one hand: yes. I love reading new slants, hearing words and contexts picked out and rearranged, being prodded and invited to ask - is this still Shakespeare? On the other hand, why would I read this book when I could just read Shakespeare's original, or see any one of many wonderful productions of his various works?
"Nutshell" is perhaps one of the most successful retellings of its kind, in this case. The idea is incredible. The decontextualisation of what might be described as Hamlet's "love/hate relationship" with Gertrude - and the tenderness that underlies both of those - is phenomenal. So is the new twist on the questions that haunt the revenge tragedy part of Hamlet. What can Hamlet, not yet born and so both everything and nothing, do? What should he?
As long as it sticks to these primal nerves, Nutshell is frankly great. But McEwan can't help being…well, Ian McEwan.
I wanted to learn about Trudy. We learn endless amounts about Claude and John (especially John), yet nothing of Trudy. I know T.S. Eliot picked his bone with Gertrude, hated Hamlet for being about a problem like Gertrude (namely, a bland and unknowable one), but this is no excuse. Hamlet's dead father is certainly no more graspable in the original than his mother, yet McEwan's John is such a vital and well-developed presence.
Some things should've been jettisoned, some things should've been developed. The ghost I really could've done without. Yes, I know it's in Hamlet. However, I personally felt the better "ghost" was when Trudy is haunted by the eulogies to John in the newspaper. Elodie is a baffling addition. Another problem. When McEwan grasps at the underlying questions in Hamlet - which I would argue are in fact the whole play; there is a reason why Hamlet is just so long and foggy and slow in comparison to a more traditional Shakespearean "revenge" tragedy, Macbeth - he excels. He spins. Hamlet (unnamed, as unborn) lives in Trudy's womb. He worships her. He hates her. The most extraordinary moment in "Nutshell" is when the foetus dreams of being his mother's accomplice, despite being in no such position, simply by being born; knowing that his mother is unprepared for him - plans to give him away, it appears - the baby pitifully pleads that Trudy can't do that, for then she deprives herself of the best alibi: that of the nurturing mother, of which the son is an inescapable piece.
Such extraordinary moments are littered throughout. Yet too often, McEwan's own irritating archness and overt cleverness - a particularly unflattering carnival trick, like the exaggerated showman - gets in the way. This manifests itself less damagingly in the incident of the book turning out more and more like a traditional "will they get away with it" 'thriller' of sorts, complete with inscrutable police more clever than they appear and Roald Dahl references (a frozen leg of lamb is suggested as the murder weapon).
However, perhaps the most unbearable aspect of any truly good book I've read in a long, long time is the baby's incessant fucking monologues. I can accept that this foetus needs to know more than is possible by human development. I understand that he needs to be able to be a keen, witty observer of Trudy, John, and Claude. However, what I cannot accept is a baby's apparent ability to monologue on the state of current affairs. I know Trudy listens to the radio. I get that he inflicts insomnia upon her so she'll listen to podcasts. I don't care. The fact remains that this is a pissing cheat, and, more importantly, seems to signal a deep lack of confidence. The baby chatters on for WHOLE CHAPTERS on global warming, the refugees in Calais, Syrian refugees, and the state of the nation. He also has a love for wine, which would be comic if not for McEwan's insistence upon over-egging and overplaying it. This might've been an attempt to turn the foetus into a kind of "prince," (a king of infinite space, if you will), but having comprised a decent 65% of this fairly short book, it just seemed both too clever-clever and incredibly self-important, both in the sense that a) it seemed like McEwan meant the stuff he was writing more than he was willing to admit, and b) it just was neither funny, nor especially insightful.
This is beside the point, but as Trudy lives in central London and has apparently at one point slept with two millionaires - her husband and his brother both inherited 7 million each, largely spent now - I wondered if it wasn't a bit of a missed opportunity to make her clearly so uninterested in "Hamlet." He doesn't even have a crib, which is a plot line that bizarrely seems to go nowhere; there are a few suggestions that Trudy is deeply negligent and behaves as if she is not having a baby at all, but I wanted this to be more expanded upon. After all, what WAS she planning to do with the baby once he was born? Even so, I still felt that, given all the coverage which suggests being a rich - or, even worse, in Trudy's case, no longer rich but expected to put up the pretence of such - mother is competitive, spiteful, flashy hell, like being queen without the perks, I wondered if this wasn't something of a missed opportunity. I wanted to see Trudy hobnob with the unbearable mothers, or mothers-to-be.
When rooted in the genuine human (or subhuman, or nearly-human) drama, however, this book is genuinely brilliant. Though the less said about the rest the better, I still thought this innovative novel was worth 4 stars. ...more
This is one of the saddest, most harrowing, horrifying books I've ever read. Despite an occasionally dragging plot, I read it in 24 hours and it madeThis is one of the saddest, most harrowing, horrifying books I've ever read. Despite an occasionally dragging plot, I read it in 24 hours and it made me cry. And, incidentally, it was absolutely the wrong book to read during Storm Frank. The entire house shook for most of it, and I've been cold for 24 hours....more
Sorry for the incredibly predictable quote at the top there, guys, but I thought you needed a wa1.5 stars
"Every woman adores a fascist…" - Sylvia Plath
Sorry for the incredibly predictable quote at the top there, guys, but I thought you needed a warning: that above quote is basically the entire principle of the novel. The Gone Girl comp is painful for me. That book is my favourite of 2013, and one of my favourite books of all time; I was incredibly excited about this book, not because of that comp, but because of the interesting & exciting premise. Unfortunately, the result is more like 50 Shades of Grey meets a pale, brutally-murdered corpse of Gone Girl.
50 Shades of Grey? Yep, there's a devilishly handsome, accomplished architect that neither of the two (lame, weak, poorly-developed) women are able to resist; there's BDSM; there's even a frigging contract. I'll tell you this, though, guys: I've had more erotic headaches than this book. Seriously, this book is so replete with awful erotica cliches, I was cringing throughout, from such golden lines as:
Yes please, Daddy.
Or Edward, the architect, sticking his finger up some woman's vagina in the middle of a massive society party for famous architects (or something), and causing her to go weak at the knees with the daring & impossibility of this all.
The problem is, there's potential here - real potential. I loved the description of One Folgate Street, and a few of the set pieces, such as when Jane finds Emma's sleeping bag abandoned in a hideaway in the house. I loved the idea, and the continued ideas - especially Edward's interrogation of Jane through his "questions." I thought Jane's final decision was lovely and moving, and pointed towards a wholly different, quieter, but BETTER novel lurking inside the empty, glassy shell of this one: a contemporary novel about one woman's (not two's) impossible choices, longing for a child, and conflict with the control-freak father of that child.
However, this book shows, frankly, what a wonderful success Gone Girl is, and why it's been so hard to repeat (except with The Girl on the Train, which had the luxury of at least being an entirely different novel behind the "Girl" veneer). The characters here are not well-developed; what was so wonderful about Gone Girl was its utterly unique ability to keep the twists within the focus of what we already knew about the characters. When Gone Girl twisted, it felt like whole new possibilities jumped up within the range of what we had already been teased & knew. In The Girl Before, on the other hand, characters are kept ambiguous and dully unlikeable in order for anything to be possible.
Worse than that, though, when The Girl Before runs out of places to go, it lurches haphazardly into cliche and a straight-up Gone Girl ripoff, unfortunately borrowing the worse aspect of it: (view spoiler)[Flynn's penchant for false rape accusations, a pattern which is almost exactly duplicated here, with Emma falsely accusing not just one man but THREE SUCCESSIVE MEN of raping her (hide spoiler)]. This choice, never totally justified by Flynn herself in her far superior novel, is even less convincing here, and in fact feels like complete, straight-up misogyny, leaving "the girl after", Jane's, later rallying cry: what would you do, if you were a woman in my place? feeling even more hollow & unbelievable, as hardly one moment in this both plodding and yet laughably over-the-top thriller suggests that Delany has no idea how women would respond to anything.
I'll admit that it also bothers me that JP Delaney is a pseudonym for Tony Strong, writer of contemporary mysteries frankly not that different from The Girl Before (a false attempt at muddying gender, not wholly a bad thing but when usually a woman faced with institutional prejudice, a la George Eliot, or a false attempt at suggesting a debut author?). Yet the far more damning criticism of this novel is that it flounders between inexplicable, which requires the characters to straight-up lie for no good reason, to the utterly, utterly conventional - perhaps the worst thing for a novel in the post-Gone Girl era. From the psycho ex to the final confrontation, any word of this novel regarding the so-called "mystery" is nothing that ardent psychological-thriller fans won't have seen before. ...more
This book has the distinction of having one of the best Book Is I've ever read. Separated into two clear halves, Book I of Kolker's book deal4.5 stars
This book has the distinction of having one of the best Book Is I've ever read. Separated into two clear halves, Book I of Kolker's book deals with the lives before of the five victims of the Long Island Serial Killer. This book is simply brilliant. Really, the number of impossible tricks that Kolker pulls off are amazing. Kolker doesn't judge these women. He details the factors that led to their lives shaping up the way they did - poverty, drug abuse, rape, neglect. Yet they are presented as so much more than this. They are human beings with flaws and wonderful traits and dreams. Reading back numerous sections of this first book, I was struck again and again by how it was impossible to tell that Kolker had not known these women in life. The almost novelistic thrust towards their deaths is devastating and brilliant.
Of course, the friends and family of the women should be thanked. But it is also Kolker's unobtrusive and deceptively simple way of assembling scenes that shines through most of all. This is fair and real book.
Unfortunately, Book II changes too much. There are still a few brilliant chapters, mostly when Kolker sticks close to his potent interests - in prostitution, in choices, in impoverished people (mostly women). There is an excellent chapter where Kolker goes with Kristina, a prostitute, out onto the streets of New York City and observes the people she sees. But, ultimately, this section is convoluted and feels a lot more workmanlike, occupied more by the practice of detailing what happened rather than drawing any larger structure or story out of it. Some of the sections on Long Island, especially the conversation between Robert Kolker and the prime suspects are convoluted and foggy, rather than intentionally bizarre. The squabbles in between family and friends of the deceased aren't quite recounted with the clarity and precision, especially not the atmosphere, that they could be, or that Book I is. The entire tone of Book II is like a kind of summing up, rather than the heartfelt, vibrant human story of Book I.
Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book, especially for people who assume that true crime is a genre mostly concerned with recounting the horrible details of the murders and/or killers. This is a truly successful attempt at a different slant on this genre, and it works brilliantly. Kolker has such a clear-eyed and fascinating view of social inequalities that all I can hope is when they eventually catch the Long Island Serial Killer, he will write an equally compelling account of the then-finished investigation. ...more
Frankly, for how often people in this novel write this, the reader themselves may find themselves staring at the 1,400+ tigh4.5 stars
"I cannot go on."
Frankly, for how often people in this novel write this, the reader themselves may find themselves staring at the 1,400+ tightly-packed remaining pages in horror, and thinking, if only you bloody hadn't.
No, I did not read it all. I think my abridgement probably totalled over 1,00 pages though, which, in three days, is not bad. I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed this once I started. It's a surprisingly modern novel in many ways; though Clarissa may be a perfect, luminous "angel" - aren't many of the eighteenth-century heroines? - Richardson spares no blushes in his totalling of Clarissa's treatment and the novel was bizarrely addictive. It's thrilling in places, Clarissa is no passive fool, and the dialogue sparkles between Clarissa and her best friend, Anna, and particularly Clarissa and the horrible Lovelace, a preening, self-indulgent, narcissistic villain of whom writers of twenty-first century psychological thrillers would be proud. It really does feel like a pioneering classic in places, stretching its use of form and Richardson's talents.
Until it pushes its conceit too far. After the immediate fallout from Lovelace's sexual assault of Clarissa, the novel just seems to run out of steam, a sad thing given that there were still at least 500 pages to go. I read an abridgement of the Penguin edition that my supervisor recommended and, despite missing out chunks of the text, when Belford repented his actions and Clarissa levelled up so completely in sainthood that one could be forgiven for expecting her to suddenly grow wings at any moment, it seemed like I had missed absolutely nothing. (Unlike earlier in the text, where I could tell that I was missing nuances of the plot by skipping letters.)
Nevertheless, I'm giving this one 4 stars because...it's the classic, okay? I enjoyed this one a lot more - and read it a hell of a lot faster - than Richardson's other novel, Pamela, despite the fact that Pamela is about 1/3 of the length (still no mean feat - you will wonder if anybody in the eighteenth century experienced hand cramp.) In many ways, they could almost be two different variants on the same story, both featuring a virtuous young woman being pursued by a rakish and seemingly unreliable potential lover. However, while Pamela is stilted, dry, dull, and slow, Clarissa is dark, mesmerising, and fluent in its sustained skill. Its main dark topic - rape - is handled with a sensitivity, comprehension, and quiet devastation that many modern authors could learn from. Am I really giving 4 stars to a book for it not being Pamela? Yes. Yes, I am....more
I really wanted to give this one 4 stars. It was probably closer to 4.5 for the first 30% or so - I loved it. I lov3.5 stars
Damn you, Caroline Kepnes.
I really wanted to give this one 4 stars. It was probably closer to 4.5 for the first 30% or so - I loved it. I loved what a twenty-first century take it was on stalking, I was horribly compelled by Joe's voice, and Kepnes's writing is just fantastic. I crashed through this when I was supposed to be doing my university work like an addict. I was amazed by her skill at pulling off an absolute boat load of pop culture references while seeming true to her character's voice and actually adding something to the book, rather than seeming dated and uncomfortable. The dialogue was dead on and I loved the whole satirical edge on "twenty-somethings today" without seeming obnoxious or patronising. My only complaint at this stage of the novel was that I was personally uncomfortable by some of the black humour. That doesn't mean it wasn't skilful - I just have quite low tolerance for mean spirited black humour.
Nevertheless, I found this incredibly promising and well-written -- until I realized that I wasn't actually all that keen on the way the plot developed, particularly from around 60% onwards.
Firstly, Joe's luck was staggering. There are six incidents (four of them major) that I can think of where he gets away with his actions not out of ingenuity but sheer blind luck. I really feel guilty for picking holes like this because it's so well-written, damn it, that when I was reading, I sort of went along with it for most of the novel until the final act pushed me over the brink. All writers need to do this to some extent, of course, but looking back on the novel, it seems like the entire plot was comprised of Joe getting into scrapes from following Beck around, and then just happening to wiggle out of them by random coincidence. I didn't mind the fact that he fooled the police in Rhode Island, or I would have minded a lot less, if it hadn't been preceded by Benji's convenient problems, (view spoiler)[ then being exonerated by the random and unlikely boat crash (even though he was suspected in the first place); Peach never once seeing Joe's face when he tried to kill her in Central Park; Beck not seeing Joe on the Charles Dickens ferry; the, again, very convenient way Joe dispatched of Peach despite not exactly planning to do it like that or knowing it would end up that way, and, the biggest one of all, the one that made me say, "Okay, Kepnes, time out": Beck's death. (hide spoiler)]
I could have forgiven all of this, though, because a similar accusation has been levelled at one of my favourite contemporary novels, Gone Girl. Gone Girl sailed by on its unlikelihood because the character work was so fantastic that I hardly noticed, and, though it did not always explain things in the most plausible way, there was a decided effort by Flynn at tying it together. (Although, on another note, this book is really nothing like Gone Girl and I wish everyone would stop comparing every goddamn psychological thriller since 2012 to Gone Girl.) It seemed like Kepnes had her events in place and her ending decided, but couldn't tie the two together, so sort of slopped them together a bit unconvincingly and crosed her fingers. Good (and frequently great) writing papers over the cracks but can't totally hide the implausibilities and holes.
Onto the character work. Joe is an incredibly compelling villain protagonist. He really is monstrous, but Kepnes balances it perfectly; he's not too moustache-twirling but I never felt like she was buying into Joe's myths of himself. I was initially impressed with the characterisation of (Guinevere) Beck, Joe's paramour of the moment, an aspiring writer who is also a self-centred flake, likes to be worshipped and may or may not be a bit of a stalker herself. At first, Beck is a woman with the messy parts left in, the ugly parts, and I really respected Kepnes's characterisation of her (and it might sound pathetic, but an attractive woman who masturbates? An acknowledgement that that is actually an acceptable thing?)
But, as we started to get a better sense of Beck-the-person, not just Beck-the-Joe-construct, I began to feel wary. Beck, from her first appearance, is all about sex. She wears a jumper without a bra. She exposes her underwear. She flirts with everything, everyone, she goes on Craigslist for daddy-issue sex, even her best friend is a predatory lesbian who gets off to pictures of her. At first, I assumed that this was Joe's stalker-gaze, distorting Beck-the-person but, particularly in the last quarter, we learn some things about Beck that affirm this view of her. She writes sex-crazed stories and, in a final revelation, she is essentially exposed as a slut. I disapprove of that word. I would never use that word in normal conversation, I don't believe in that, but with the revelations that Beck has (view spoiler)[slept with her psychiatrist, seduced him after weeks of aggressively trying, got him to buy her a Macbook, then withdrawn her affections abruptly because he left his wife and it got too serious (hide spoiler)], it feels like that's the word Kepnes is trying to prompt, to put in my head. I know that Kepnes is a woman herself and I did really like her portrayals of Karen and Beck, and her portrayal of the believable friendship between Beck and her friends, and I at first admired her portrayal of a woman who is not the male fantasy of womanhood, but then, the more we saw of Beck, the more I became suspicious of the fact that she seems like another kind of female stereotype, not the manic pixie dream girl but the narcissistic, manipulative, cheating whore.
This, again, would've been fine if Beck had her own voice. When Joe read her psychiatrist's notes, I believed that we might be about to see a Gone Girlish (yes, that book again) twist on the horizon, where, suddenly, Beck gets her own voice and - surprise! - she's just as bad as Joe but not in the pathetic, crawly way that she is, wheedling and seducing and sweet-talking. Or maybe she isn't. Even if she hated Joe, or she really was a manipulative nymphomaniac, or she had to ultimately lose to him, I wanted to see her at least try and match him as his obsession got out of control. I wanted to see her try. I wanted Beck to affirm herself outside of the identity that Joe had made for her, her friends (and the odious Peach) had made for her, Benji had made for her, even her web presence had made for her. But it never came. I'm almost sure that, even though Joe's insidious voice will be stuck with me for a long time, I won't be able to remember very much about Guinevere Beck at all, except that Joe thought he loved her.
I also am slightly side-eyeing all you people who are like, "Kepnes made us root for Joe, showing us that it's not stalker=bad, stalked=good!" I mean, what? Yes, Joe is a fascinating character. He's great to read about. I admit that I hated Peach more, because who couldn't hate such a pretentious, arrogant, and controlling person? (And her name is Peach.) Beck might've been hugely flawed (I'll admit that I accidentally spoiled myself for the "revelation" regarding her family so I have a softer view of that than I might've had if I hadn't seen it coming) but Joe is a serial stalker and murderer. There is a line. This is the line. I feel uncomfortable about the readers who "rooted" for Joe because I'm concerned that somebody could buy into this, "I'm only harassing you because I love you and I want to protect you but I also want you to have sex with me as I wish and wear what I like and do what I want at all times, while I am reading your e-mails, hacking your texts and plotting to do away with those who 'mistreat' you (and get in the way of you doing what I want and living out my fantasy of us being together).
But, ultimately, and this is the unforgivable sin (I really am starting to sound a bit like Joe himself), it becomes a little stale, and, worst of all, predictable. Beck finds out and things unravel, more or less, how they might be expected to. I particularly hated the fact that her way of trying to get through to Joe is to seduce him again. Beck can be as bad and as ugly inside as Kepnes wanted - I'm not taking my issue with that - I'm taking my issue with the fact that, ultimately, she's boring and tropey by comparison. The opportunities to develop her aren't taken and, when in a crisis, she always does the most predictable and shallow thing. As such, she remains a weak sauce to Joe's main course, and I felt like this bought into some uncomfortable things about the portrayal of violence - physical or emotional - against women in fiction. Don't look at the woman. She's not important. She reacts how women do, she does the things women do, and, ultimately, she can't compete. Look at the man. Look at him.
I will, however, Caroline Kepnes, read whatever you write next, because that's how much I love your writing. Even though you sometimes let me down, you deserve me. I know this about you, and I'm only telling you this for your own good. You'll thank me eventually....more
If you loved, loved the other books in this series, you'll probably at least like this one. I've read 3-4 of the Hill/Jordan books, usually s1.5 stars
If you loved, loved the other books in this series, you'll probably at least like this one. I've read 3-4 of the Hill/Jordan books, usually sporadically and out of order, but most of them are definitely a cut above the standard crime novel. McDermid has a way of writing her killers-of-the-book and (particularly) her victims-of-the-book which makes them actual human beings. I've never felt such sorrow for a victim as I have in her second book in the series, "Wire in the Blood." I know I negatively reviewed them when I first read them, but I re-read them a few months ago and appreciated what good novels they are.
This one, however, lost its punch for me. I would never usually spend this long reading a book (save the 900-page monstrosity that is Henry Fielding's Tom Jones) but I actually quit reading it altogether. I didn't exactly plan to go back to it but I saw it on my Kindle screen and thought, damn it, I've paid for it now, I might as well finish it. Some of McDermid's usual talents have deserted her for this one. The victims are quick strong-woman sketches, and then they're brutally-murdered with conveyor-belt precision.
Confession: I have never been particularly enthralled by the relationship between Hill and Jordan. Crime novel convention dictates that the attractive cop must have a relationship with his/her companion, be it partner, murderer (in the case of Silence of the Lambs and Heartsick) or, in this case, psychologist. This book is definitely self-contained, and can be read alone, but follows on directly from the previous book in the series, The Retribution, in which disposable supporting characters were either murdered or mutilated at the hands of another savage killer of women. The blurb says that "Guilt and grief have driven a wedge between long time crime-fighting partners psychologist Tony Hill and ex-DCI Carol Jordan", and this is certainly true, but their methods of coping are so traditional and bog-standard - Tony is lonely and isolated and guilty, Carol is lonely and isolated and angry - that my eyes glazed over.
I usually like McDermid's epic take on the crime novel, where all people have a voice, but due to repetition and the general tick-box averageness of the novel, it felt padded by about 200 pages. This might have more impact to someone who really, really cares about Hill and Jordan - and I certainly like them as characters - but there was no particular originality or spark in the tale of their grieving.
Which brings me neatly to the case-of-the-book. A control-freak man is kicking women to death and gluing up their labias - a horror show which is so blatantly designed to bring Hill and Jordan back in the same room together that it left a bad taste in my mouth. The blurb also says "when the evidence begins to point in a disturbing direction, thinking the unthinkable seems the only possible answer", which seems to be total false advertising to me. At least in McDermid's first, The Mermaids Singing she delivered pretty richly on the promise that Tony would be changed forever by his run-in. As you might guess, the blurb implies that Tony comes under suspicion for the murders. This is the biggest wash ever.
Neither of the two non-Tony POVs ever doubt - Carol and Paula, Carol's once-junior, now promoted - that Tony is innocent. Nor does the reader. (I know, I know, all you Hill/Jordan fanatics are coming after me with pitchforks: "OF COURSE WE WOULDN'T THINK THAT OF TONY!!!") Even worse, though, I never doubted that Tony would get out and be exonerated, and - worse still - neither does Tony. The killer brutally murdering women who just happen to look like Carol Jordan (and, yes, it does turn out to just be a coincidence) is so blatantly a catalyst for Carol to emerge from her little isolated cottage and get back to police work that it made me roll my eyes hard. There's no dramatic tension in this particular plot contrivance at all. I almost wished that McDermid had just written on the pages concerning this, "Look, I have to bring my two lead characters back in the same room somehow."
A much-noted things in other reviews is the introduction of DCI Fielding, played by Siobhan Lahbib in "Wire in the Blood", the television series, who was Carol's replacement after Hermione Norris, who played Carol, left for pastures new. I can understand why McDermid needed to change up Fielding's character as, in the TV series, she is a little too much of a Carol-substitute, so, even though Lahbib is really good from what I remember, there's not a whole lot of distinction. Still, that is no excuse to relegate strong, interesting, maternal Alex to the supporting, non-POV role of a bureaucratic pen-pusher who could come with a sign over her head saying "CONFLICT."
We only see her through Paula's perspective and Paula constantly unfavourably compares her to wunderkind Mary-Sue Carol Jordan and accuses her of being a clueless bull in a china shop who won't listen to her own underlings, pursues innocent men and just wants to get a result (and the reader is meant to agree). Of course these police officers do exist, but I'd prefer for Alex to have her own POV so she could be her own character, rather than a mindless antagonist and Carol foil (by being everything Carol's not - by which I mean a mindless, idiotic dictator who rules over her team with an iron fist). This is irritating and unforgivable and made attractive, strong, sympathetic, intelligent, always-right Carol even more of a Mary-Sue. Paula is almost as bad - the only interesting thing about her is that she's a lesbian and she takes in the son of a murder victim (and it was nice to see Dr. Blessing again). Nevertheless, this plot thread comes to nothing - like almost all of them in C&B - and Paula's voice and outlook is nearly indistinguishable from Carol's.
As a character study of survivor's guilt and recovery, it's a limp part-failure. If you are really invested in the characters of Hill and Jordan, their endless trudge to be back together - in however small a capacity - might seem thrilling. For me, it just felt like every other depiction of guilt I've ever seen in a crime show (Carol thinks she should have died instead! Carol blames for Tony for not being psychic! Tony blames himself! Tony stares lovingly at Carol! Carol is having none of it!) with absolutely no variation.
In another review, I saw a Hill/Jordan fan agonising over a quote from one of McDermid's interviews, saying that she could never conceive Hill and Jordan in a normal relationship. Well, it's starting to show. Having smoothed out most of the uglier aspects of their characters (Tony's impotence gets not even one mention, which wasn't surprising, as McDermid admitted to regretting this choice. Yes, it's dark, but it's one of the few distinguishing strokes in the Hill/Jordan novels), we're left with a "will-they-won't-they" which is stuck in total stalemate, and so lacks any punch or verve. Although C&B closes out on a note of mild hope for Hill/Jordan shippers, it confirmed for me what McDermid's novels' central relationship have become by book eight: one baby step forwards, one massive shove backwards. This is wearing for me. Another tune, please.
As a detective novel, the police work is even worse. It's non-existent. Everything we need to know about the killer (and I mean everything - motives, means, opportunity, even job type and how he knows the victims) is revealed in his POV. Interesting components of his back-story, like his stepmother and father, are never seen. Instead we're left with a misogynist killing women and revealing all his vital information in the chapter before the team are supposed to know it, which makes the tiny segments of "police work" feel like trudging through endless wheel-spinning pages to play catch-up. As a result, Tony's supposed genius and Carol's return to work seem psychic, convenient and dry. Tony is the only other suspect and it comes to one of the least exciting conclusions I've ever read.
Fingers crossed for a return to form in book #9....more
Quick caveat to apologising for not reading or reviewing so much anymore. I'm an English Lit student and it's pretty much killed reading for pleasureQuick caveat to apologising for not reading or reviewing so much anymore. I'm an English Lit student and it's pretty much killed reading for pleasure for me. But along came "The Shining Girls", and Karen's review compares it to "Gone Girl", one of my favourites and the big buzz book of summer 2012 and I need to get on this shit.
Then I read it.
And I don't know what's wrong with me, but it's as simple as this - I don't understand the hype.
Looking at the blurb, I do. The premise is both devilishly simple and rich with possibility. The marketing is excellent; the blurb is fascinating, the comparisons apt.
What a shame about the book.
Okay, that may be a little harsh. But understand that this review comes from a place of deep disappointment and confusion.
The Shining Girls is bland. I never thought I would type that word when I looked at the gorgeous cover, the spooky blurb or listened to the crazy hype. I thought I could be disappointed or disgusted possibly, but I never thought I'd be so...lost. For a novel that seems so genre-based, it lacks distinctly in any kind of plot. For a novel that strives to be both genre-based and literary, it meanders through cheap exploitation and genre cliche.
Harper, a drifter from the 1920s, kills women who "shine" through history. Why are they chosen? No idea. Possibly because they could make things different for women throughout history, and they try to help women. This is fascinating to me. Beukes's ladies are all awesome women helping each other, who are my favourite kind of people, especially book people. But they all seem rather...low-rent examples of this principle, or maybe Beukes was afraid of stimulating some of the more tricky areas of fantasy/sci-fi (especially to the uninitiated reader, as The Shining Girls is very mass-appeal - which is not a bad thing at all), like alternate history. These women were radical, but I wondered if they were really the best examples of proto-feminism that Beukes could dig up, especially as Harper is motivated to do most of this by a magic house. Kirby, for instance, does nothing of any great interest or significance, mostly piecing together parts of history that the reader already knows or quickly finds out. Since this has all happened already in the past, Kirby has very little effect on any of it.
For those reasons, the time-travel/speculative element of The Shining Girls is pretty much a wash. Beukes does nothing interesting or remotely surprising with it. It has no noticeable effect on the plot. Harper wanders between time periods with their occasional "this is the 1970s/1990s/1930s" markers in the same way that a serial killer from a standard crime fiction novel might move between cities. Her attempts to combine the speculative element with the crime fiction element are admirable - is the house evil, or does Harper make it evil? how much control does Harper have over which women to choose? - and possess interesting potential, but the answer to these questions is mostly "to some degree" (no definitive answers). Beukes tries to be ambiguous but ends up vague and abstract. All that is solid melts into air.
This is mostly achieved by Beukes's workmanlike writing and the total lack of character depth. Harper is a bogeyman, utterly defined by the horrible things he does and lacking anything of a character beyond it. Kirby is slightly better, another feisty-but-damaged protagonist, albeit one with something a little more interesting about her, though her so-called romance is dreadful. There's no insight that will surprise anyone even passingly familiar with crime fiction. I've always wanted more female characters in crime with depth, too, so I was initially hopeful that this book might buck the trend with genuinely vivid female characters in the other time periods.
No. They die. Over and over and over and my eyes glazed over by the end of it. Every other chapter of "The Shining Girls" reminded me of the standard crime prologue, where a woman is introduced, given a shred of depth in a few paragraphs, then brutally killed to set the tone for the Bad Guy. Over and over and over. These horrendous segments earned this book the one star rating. It wasn't the horrible violence that I opposed. Beukes is less graphic in places than many other writers - though, seriously, more pretty and promising twenty-something women being killed? These felt manipulative, cheap and repulsive. Of course they moved me at points. Can you read a chapter about a strong woman being brutally murdered and begging to see her children again because she's too young to die and not be moved? I doubt it, though I did feel beaten into apathy by it all when the ridiculous climax rolled around. At least there's only a couple of this in most books.
I'm sorry, guys. Read Karen's review instead. She loved it and she gave it an excellent review. I was so bitter by this dry, miserable book that I found myself genuinely wondering if any of the people who've buzzed about it have actually read it. ...more
This book starts well, but then quickly deteriorates into a well-written but ultimately lifeless and icky little endeavour. The writing is brisk and cThis book starts well, but then quickly deteriorates into a well-written but ultimately lifeless and icky little endeavour. The writing is brisk and clean, but the whole thing was just a bit too British for me - and this is coming from someone who has lived in England her whole life. It's a dark and disturbing little novel, but it's utterly bloodless and restrained in a way that should be more effective, but also leaves it feeling toothless and contradictory, a psychological thriller that wants to be about sexual obsession and a descent into madness but feels almost jokingly middle-class.
In an attempt to keep everything harmonious, as well, Hancock has her characters behave in the most ridiculous ways. So, as the blurb says, Sonia kidnaps Jez by keeping him in the house, drugging him and lying to him. I don't consider myself a very streetwise person, but by the time I'd fallen into a druggy sleep several times, been tied up and being repeatedly told that I can't leave the house by a woman that seems more than a little unstable, would I really assume that it was in the name of a birthday party? Honest to God, I know Hancock tried to explain it by saying that Jez was sheltered and naive, but there's sheltered and naive and then there's apparently the type of fifteen-year-old that lacks even the most basic comprehensive skills and has never turned on a TV or read a newspaper. I assume it was an attempt to keep any blood or violence out of the novel, as Jez fighting back would've necessitated, but instead it just seemed ludicrous bordering on funny.
Speaking of which, the supposedly sexually charged flashbacks of Sonia and her obsession from the past, Seb, having sex, kissing and practicing a kind of thirteen-year-old version of BDSM or whatever were cringey rather than atmospheric. ("No sex, please, we're British!") Hancock's writing is definitely good, the pacing is quick and compelling, but the whole thing is just a vague type of icky, like a thin layer of sticky substance I want to wash off, instead of a deeply disturbing and intense experience. Sonia insists she's not violent, nor does she want to hurt Jez, but the total lack of introspection in her voice just leaves the thing feeling sort of half-baked and underdone....more