'You're the meanest of all! You're the one who drugged me!'
I almost wish I didn't "have" to write this review, because, though this is a flawed book,'You're the meanest of all! You're the one who drugged me!'
I almost wish I didn't "have" to write this review, because, though this is a flawed book, it's a book that gave me one of the best reading experiences I've had: a thrilling, searing and disturbing little novel that totally hooked me.
Okay, so I admit, I came to this novel slightly prejudiced. I have grown to absolutely hate the narrative choice of constructing the entire plot around one secret that the protagonist refuses to divulge. Charm & Strange is an incredibly well-written variant on this plot, but it couldn't quite make me overcome my hatred of this deliberately elliptical way of pretending at discussing an issue without discussing it. However, due to Kuehn's incredibly readable "psychological study" of her main characters, this cosiness was, thankfully, almost entirely removed.
Still, I wish that Win's big secret had come out a little sooner, because I wanted more. I wanted more of Win's realisations, Win's family - especially his older brother, Keith, who was probably my favourite character in the novel, and his and Drew's dynamic was the undoubted highlight - and the impact of what had actually happened, rather than Kuehn's intriguing and well written but ultimately frustrating writing around these subjects. I enjoyed her crafty and incredibly disciplined tactic of peeling away layers of Win's psyche, but there was a point when it just wasn't enough for me and I wanted more clarity.
As a result, I just COULDN'T get hooked to the present ("matter") sections. I found that I was skimming them without intending to, in an attempt to get back to Win's claustrophobic childhood summer at a house in New Hampshire with his large and eerie family. None of the present characters had the emotional pull for me that young Drew (Win's past alter ego) or Keith, Drew's tragic elder brother (who I loved so much that I actually feel like crying when I think a bit about what a book from his perspective would have looked like, I mean, god damn). Because of the tragedy of the "antimatter" sections, the "matter" sections felt like a nowhere near as interesting counterpoint to me.
Yet, reading Charm & Strange was a little like having a hole burned in my heart. I wanted to save Drew, and Keith, and Win (Win and Drew are different people - kind of) and I just felt so sad for everybody. The sense of sadness, guilt and intensity that Kuehn projects throughout the novel is unforgettable and incredibly painful. No, it's not without its flaws (to me), but there's no denying that this one promising debut....more
There is nothing remotely enjoyable about "Dark Places" and still I loved it.
Gillian Flynn really must keep writing, in the words of Camille from "ShaThere is nothing remotely enjoyable about "Dark Places" and still I loved it.
Gillian Flynn really must keep writing, in the words of Camille from "Sharp Objects", "until [she] can count on her last days on one hand", because crime fiction is a lonely place for a feminist with a potent hatred of cliché, and she is a dark shining light.
Let's start with Libby Day. Oh, God, how I loved Libby Day. Gillian Flynn takes hold of the "surviving female victim" trope and makes it into something dark, utterly realistic and yet original. Libby is a victim, and we don't need to talk about whether the novel or the author defines her as such, because Libby defines herself as such. Flynn does not shy away from the fact that Libby has lived through a truly horrendous event, but she doesn't ever make it look pretty or glamorous. Libby is totally selfish and broken and, no, there's nothing sexy about that. Libby is not the strong and feisty female survivor, nor is she the fawning Mary-Sue. She's a weak and depressed kleptomaniac, lazy and childlike, who falls back on her reliable victim status as a way to cover up for her total inability to do anything. She threads the narrative with dark humour that I relished - she complains that, if another girl hadn't had her face burned off in a fire that killed her entire family, she might have been able to live off the sympathy money a little longer, because she'd have more. She plays on her victim status whenever she gets mocked or called out (because "nobody laughs at a victim.") She insists that, at the creepy crime fare she attends, she wanted her family to have the biggest gore booth because "my dead people were the best."
And yet Libby is wonderful, too. She's flawed, yes, but it really was Libby who kept pulling me back into the narrative. She’s darkly comic and totally realistic. Her arc is palpable and great, a woman who patches herself together and gets there in the end, slowly and painfully but with a kind of grim determination you wouldn’t expect from a woman who, by her own admission, has no stamina. She's my favourite kind of heroine, and I won't forget her.
The pain in "Dark Places" is real. That's what killed me. Everybody hurts, really hurts, and I hurt with them. Patty's woes over losing the farm, Libby's kleptomania, Ben's desperation to "be a man" when he's not even old enough to know what that is. Reading this is like being trapped in a slow-closing vice. It just squeezes tighter and tighter and tighter and then it begins to hurt and it hurts more and more and more but still it won't stop. I couldn't stop reading this and, just as I did with "Sharp Objects", I marvelled at the intensity and the joy of Gillian Flynn's talent. It’s all in the writing. Even after "Sharp Objects", I underestimated this in a stupid way, because I didn't think it was possible for Flynn to hit me so hard in the core again. She did. I felt so bad for Patty, going to be dead by the end of the day and STILL trying to do the right thing, STILL trapped in a situation that seems utterly hopeless and trying to find something to do about it when we know nothing will change the fact of her death and, perhaps even sadder, Libby’s total abandonment.
Again, though, the surprising highlight of "Dark Places" is the minor characters that flit as shadows around the corners of the dark dirty backwater they all inhabit. A minor character who had a far larger impact on me than I was expecting would be Krissi Cates, the young girl who grows into a washed-up stripper, who accuses Ben of child molestation in 1975 and gets tracked down by Libby in the present day.
She's lying - that is obvious immediately - but she gets both a raw, honest and sympathetic portrayal from Flynn. In the 1980s, she's an attention-seeking little brat, but Flynn gives a very realistic and harrowing look at the Satanic panic of the ‘80s, where "well-meaning" parents and shrinks manipulate (consciously or not) their children into accusing innocent people. Krissi's description of how/why they did it and the eventual karmic retribution on her and her family is deeply moving. It might have been fun – “like a sleepover” – but Krissi gets what she deserves in the end. That’s without even going into Crystal or the mysterious man in the cowboy hat and his scary, spine-chilling section towards the end.
But I can’t give it five stars because, frankly, I thought it totally failed as a mystery.
Not that I guessed it. Though I did, and I’ve honestly never felt so bad about foreseeing a plot development! I just was like, oh, I’m so sorry, you tried so hard, you did everything right, and then I came in and guessed what was going to happen before it did using totally ridiculous methods and thought patterns…(view spoiler)[it was because I guessed that Patty was probably involved in her family’s demise, because I know how fond Gillian Flynn is of the maternal characters who are not just bad mothers but profoundly horrible people (though Patty is not horrible, and her wish that she could take it back as she died almost made me cry). With this in mind, I picked up quickly on that mentioned-and-then-dropped Angel of Debt, and boom! The mystery came together. (hide spoiler)]
The plotting of this book is, let’s face it, not good. It kills me to say it because I LOVED Gillian Flynn’s knotty, dark, literary writing. I really loved it! But in the plotting area – let’s be generous and say that it was lacking. It was just so contrived, so much, especially when you remember that the 1980s segment takes place in a SINGLE DAY. I’ll give this to Gillian Flynn – she did capture the element of feeling that your whole life was going to shit in a very short space of time, the intensity of being trapped and wanting to get out and not knowing how. It kind of works when you are swept up in the pace of the novel (despite it not being brisk exactly), but the second I started reflecting on it, the whole thing pretty much disintegrated in front of me. It felt almost like Flynn was writing without an outline and, so, when it came to the part in the 1980s segment when she had to stop building the blocks up and start knocking them down, she just went back and ‘patched up’ the plot strands.
I know it’s a feature of Flynn’s grim Southern world that everything that does go bad will, and there will be nobody to help you when it does. But let me break down how she ‘explains’ the fact (red herring) of Ben being accused of Satanism and child molestation:
Exhibit #1: Ben has a minor ‘relationship’ with Krissi Cates, a grade-school girl, which is obviously him trying to be nice and her misinterpreting it through her crush. He even, at one point, gets an erection in front of her grade-school desk. Explanation: Ben was just being a good brother, wandering through his sisters’ school on impulse to see if they were okay, and then started thinking about his slutty and pretty nasty girlfriend Diondra while on his little trip. This brings out the erection, at which point he runs into his teacher (well, everything that does go bad will, right, Gillian?) AT WHICH POINT he turns around and happens to see that the desk he’s in front of belongs to (DUN DUN DUN!) Krissi Cates.
This bugged me because to me it’s so contrived. Okay, so a teacher meeting up with you while you’re trying to deal with, ahem, a situation? Awwwwkward. But it could happen to anyone (well, not me, I’m a girl, lucky me). A teacher then finding you with an erection in front of a grade-school girl’s desk? Which you just happened to wander to, apropos of nothing, even though you know she already has a crush on you and she’s already (unknown to you) accused you of Satanic child molestation? Um…
Exhibit #2: Ben makes jokes about Satanism on the day he ‘kills’ his family. (view spoiler)[Oh, no, you really must understand, Ben was just trying to impress these guys (hide spoiler)]…how? For what reason? It’s never that well-explained and it just seems like Flynn knows she has to connect another dot here.
Exhibit #3: BEN MAKES RITUAL ANIMAL SACRIFICES! Well, I can’t wait to see how Flynn gets Ben out of this one (if she indeed does): (view spoiler)[she indeed does. Oh, no, you really must understand – sure, Ben was there, but not only was he totally pushed into it by his psycho girlfriend (what a bitch!) but he didn’t want to do it in the first place and felt totally scared and creeped out by the whole thing even though, yes, he was on drugs at the time! But you must understand, reader, he didn't mean anything by it! (hide spoiler)]
(Huge spoiler follows) That's without even getting int the (view spoiler)[fact that Diondra murdered Michelle THE VERY SAME NIGHT that Patsy, in a totally disconnected series of events, decided to kill herself through the Angel of Debt so that her children could have the life insurance money). (hide spoiler)]
Yeah, these things didn’t sit right with me. They didn't feel like you wanted to zip through the pages and shut Ben up. No, I was just beginning to wonder if I believed in the Devil (I don't), because he clearly had it in for Ben if he did. Ben seemed almost like a character in a – but still, Dark Places is highly recommended. Though only for a day when you are feeling particularly happy. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I'm pretty sure that Gillian Flynn writes just for me.
I'm aware of how narcissistic that sounds, but hear me ou"Women love vulnerability. Most women."
I'm pretty sure that Gillian Flynn writes just for me.
I'm aware of how narcissistic that sounds, but hear me out: Sharp Objects is so full of things I love that it's impossible for me to properly, objectively judge it.
Like Gillian Flynn, I am obsessed with women who do Very Bad Things. Not in real life - I can't read about real-life killers - but in crime novels. This is especially difficult as crime fiction is, by and large, populated by women who are weak, spineless victims, either there to be raped/tortured/kidnapped/brutally murdered/fall in love with the troubled detective even though she is way out of his league and far more attractive and attentive than he is. If you absolutely loathe this trope, I feel confident in saying that you will like Sharp Objects. Somehow, somewhere, Gillian Flynn is linked to me and she knows that women like me exist - women who roll their eyes whenever the oh-so-hot, intelligent female lead fawns over the broken male detective and devotes herself to putting him back together/having great sex, who shudder through the pages of women being hoodwinked by killers and brutally tortured, who wince with the endless supply of misogynistic killer perspectives.
Sharp Objects is a beacon of extremely dark light in this stuffy genre. Camille Preaker, the washed-up journalist at the centre, is riddled with words that she cut onto her own skin. There is nothing attractive or aspirational about Camille's despair; though she is both pretty and broken, it's obvious that she is not one of those pretty broken women that also populate crime novels, damsels in distress for the male lead to save. There is also a cop, Richard, from Kansas investigating the murders at Windy Gap, and let's face it -- we all know that, at some point, they're going to wind up in bed together. But Flynn is no fool: there's no real blood in the relationship between Camille and Richard, they're both using each other, there are no cliches about their great sex or mad lust for each other.
Their relationship is also not particularly important. I am fascinated with dark and complex mother/daughter relationships and Flynn delivered the goods on this one, too. There's more than a hint of Southern gothic - though they're in Chicago - about the "bond" between Camille and Adora, which has become frayed and knotted by the death of Camille's younger sister, Marion, when she was thirteen, their huge rotting mansion and Camille's thirteen-year-old sister, Amma, a kind of Lolita parody. This is all about relationships between women. My favourite scenes were between the groups of women who were friends as teenage girls and have grown up into a bizarre clique of bitchy, hypocritical yet dead-on women, from Jackie and her gang of fifty-something boozers to Katie and her little group of sanctimonious, gossipy mothers. Their conversations have a superb rhythm and are full of intricacies and realism.
The best thing about Sharp Objects is the atmosphere. I love books set in small American towns - I'm obsessed with "Twin Peaks" and "American Gothic" for those reasons - and books set in less-exposed areas of America (i.e. not L.A., Boston or New York), which is why I'm obsessed with "The Killing." I also love the dusty, drab yet strangely quaint atmosphere of Windy Gap, full of totally bizarre yet realistic characters who loll around bars and big houses all day, being very cruel to one another and themselves. There is also something totally evocative yet oppressive about it, vivid and gritty. Creepy is the perfect word for Sharp Objects; it's one of those get-under-your-skin novels, and that it does. There is a kind of totality to Sharp Objects; from minor characters to the narcissistic and spoiled Meredith, girlfriend of the prime suspect, to her boyfriend (prime suspect mostly because of his un-masculine reaction to his little sister's brutal murder, i.e. crying) and the endless conversations of the little female cliques. Gillian Flynn seems totally devoted to her subject, and it's a joy to read.
It's not perfect, though. Perhaps more flawed than I'm willing to admit, because, as you can probably tell from the review, this is one of these books that hit me hard and give me just what I want. Gillian Flynn is a great writer, full of chilly restraint - (“Sometimes I think illness sits inside every woman, waiting for the right moment to bloom. I have known so many sick women all my life. Women with chronic pain, with ever-gestating diseases. Women with conditions. Men, sure, they have bone snaps, they have backaches, they have a surgery or two, yank out a tonsil, insert a shiny plastic hip. Women get consumed.”; "Sometimes I think I won't ever feel safe until I can count my last days on one hand.") but the plot is somewhat underdeveloped, despite the great characters and atmosphere.
The main meat of what happened to Camille's sister Marion was immediately obvious to me (view spoiler)[Munchausen's by Proxy, that is (hide spoiler)] so it annoyed me that it took Camille so long to figure out the same thing. Although Flynn genuinely surprised me with the final twist (view spoiler)[that Amma, not Adora, was behind the killings, (hide spoiler)], which was fitting and perfect. The epilogue felt rushed, with a lot of things crammed into few short pages. I would have liked to see more time spent on Camille's cutting because that was the only aspect of the novel that felt something like shock value to me - more, "oh, look how damaged my protaganist is!" than a genuine exploration of what it meant to be that damaged, if it makes sense, more like a character quirk (as though thousands of scars spelling out words were something 'quirky' and 'fun' like pink hair or hipster clothes). Still, I loved this book and it is highly recommended for anyone who is sick of formulaic crime novels.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
(OT: did you guys notice that I finished this literally 3 years to the day that I first added it to my to-read shelf? Synchronicity.)
She's still the Q(OT: did you guys notice that I finished this literally 3 years to the day that I first added it to my to-read shelf? Synchronicity.)
She's still the Queen of Contemporary YA, okay.
You may say the buzz kind of went against this one; I struggle with any book that comes to me with a label like Important. It just seems displacing to me, in that it seems like a full stop. Also, really unpopular opinion, so please don't everybody scream at me and/or hunt me down and kill me:
I didn't really think this book engaged with rape culture in a way I hadn't seen before.
Don't get me wrong. Rape culture is toxic and real. I read this novel over a week where Emma Sulkowicz was basically slandered by a national blog for carrying a mattress around Columbia, despite the fact that she never publicly named her rapist. So, for me, this kind of hit at a bad moment, in that I felt Sulkowicz's story really hit what is painful and wrong about rape culture - the implication of the victim. The notion that, if you're the victim of a (sexual) crime, and you are not a perfect angel of light and goodness, you're obviously a manipulating, lying shrew. Stories like this have become more and more common, and honestly, I kind of felt like Courtney Summers was going for the 'easy' buttons as far as rape is concerned. Yes, Romy is isolated, she's mistreated, and she's disbelieved. But, for a novel that came with such buzzy promise of being such a vicious look at what it is to be a sexual assault survivor, I was left disappointed. Too much of what is in here felt familiar, and not in a cringing "welcome to society" way. There are just far too many familiar elements - the powerful boy, the well-known family, the sort of half-assed refusal to believe the girl.
Despite Summers' interesting - if slightly superficial - take on internalised and institutionalised misogyny, sometimes this book really did feel like it could have been any one of the many YA novels about outsider girls who are raped by powerful and important boys. Now, that is an important subject, and I really, really don't want to upset or insult any survivors who have responded to this book, but it started off really pulsing one of my nerve endings - the message that Romy sent to Penny about Kellan prior to being raped by him - but quickly backed off for plainer, safer ground. She briefly dances with the idea of social media as part of Romy's drunken rage, and the twitter segments were very interesting and eerie looks at modern society, but they were all too short and too shallow. There, that's two words I never thought I'd write about a Courtney Summers novel.
Onto my next big problem with this novel, then we can get onto the good:
Hands up who reads a Courtney Summers novel for the plot.
That's not to say that her plots are bad. It's just that them, by themselves, are not frequently what excites me to read on. A girl mourning her dead father? Sorry, I've read 60,000 of those books. A girl being bullied by the mean girls she used to call friends? Read that, too. A girl who's gone off the rails after a nonspecific but terrible incident? Read that, too. This is not meant to insult Courtney Summers - what makes her The One for me is her writing. She is someone who just nails everything that is sharp, and painful, and brilliant about contemporary YA. She has the voice, she has the conversation, she has the atmosphere. It's become something of an Internet-review cliche to say that she made me 'feel,' but, fuck, okay, Courtney Summers makes me feel every damn time. She writes and I read, and sometimes it feels like she's essentially driven me into a wall, but it somehow manages to be addictive and amazing amid the pain and the "oh no god why"s.
But, when I look back on her books, I admit that the plot is one element I'm less keen to throw platitudes at. The narrow scope of Cracked Up To Be's ending hurt it for me. Some Girls Are couldn't think of a way to end without a deus ex machina. Fall For Anything kind of fizzles out. But, ultimately, it doesn't matter, because Courtney Summers has all the other cards. I read for her characters. I read because I am fucking desperate for things to turn out well for them.
I felt that with Romy. I really did. I personally thought she reacted believably and her voice was just agonising. The problem is that All The Rage is literally all plot. It's one of the most bizarrely plot-filled of Courtney Summers' novels; there's dual-timeline, there's mystery, there's suspense...and not one element of it came off for me.
Penny, the girl who goes missing after Romy gets drunk and loses it, is a total nonentity. No character development whatsoever. Romy's school also feels like such a...non-place. Some Girls Are had one of the best depictions of a mean girl clique that actually felt like something that could happen in a real school, in that they were mostly being vicious and evil to each other. All The Rage wants to be a searing depiction of rape culture and isolation, but it's seriously let down by Summers' disinterest in developing any of the other teen characters except for Romy and Leon, the obligatory good guy. Rape culture is terrifying because of the way it can get inside your head, too. A fantastic feminist I know once told me that the 'real problem' with misogyny was women who feared/hated men and developed reactionary views towards them, not (he explicitly said this) a justice system that refused to protect women and, you know, men raping/killing women. I mean, sheesh. Too much of this felt binary and unoriginal.
So, as for all of Romy's supporting characters, I can vaguely remember their names and not one damn thing else about them. However, years after I finished Some Girls Are, the memory of toxic, sociopathic Anna, monstrous, victimised Kara, angry Michael, and even minor characters like Liz and Bruce are stuck with me like glue. They felt like real people with real dynamics. All The Rage is all Romy, and literally nobody else. I wish I was exaggerating. Not one element of the plot development of Penny's disappearance comes off, because they're all such nothings. Could anyone tell me anything about Tina or Penny? Anything? The only supporting character that felt like there was any feeling behind it was Aleks. I read the entire thing, and I have literally no idea if we saw the person who did...the thing that happened beforehand. All the Rage is a lot of strong feeling, but it's not really well-developed or considered beyond that. The revelations are pretty shoddy and uninspired, frankly, and since nobody's friendships were really well-developed enough, I just didn't care. I know how much Courtney Summers cares, and I felt it with Romy, but far too much of what I've described above just felt...phoned in to me. Characters thin as cardboard and plot development that moved nowhere except the most predictable and unsurprising routes.
Now, onto the great stuff.
This is Courtney Summers' best written book. How, dear reader? Let me count the ways:
Then she's better off dead.
I can see in her eyes that even if she thinks Penny deserves to be found, she doesn't think Penny deserves to be looked for by us.
I make sure to tell her I love her because, more and more, I'm thinking about the things I say before I leave.
I hope it's not a girl.
I want you to look at me.
What makes this brilliant, is that so much of it doesn't sound all that impressive out of context. It's not one of those purple prose novels where you can pretty much feel the author breathing down your neck, telling you to CRY. In context, it's phenomenal - sharp and soft and intense and real. Some of it actually made me say 'ouch' out loud, that's how great it is.
Bizarrely enough, for all the points I've listed above, this also has Courtney Summers' best adult characters by far. Todd is naturally a reader's favourite, Romy's stepdad (or maybe just her mum's boyfriend? I'm unsure) who just radiates warmth and love, and parallels with her storyline in such a fascinating way, but I also loved Romy's mum. Courtney Summers has long indulged in that YA writer's cliche of having the parents busy, completely absent, just nondescript paper dolls who seem to get like one scene a book, if they're lucky. Despite the subject matter of Fall For Anything, this felt like Summers' first book where she actually put deep, intense thought into how the adults in her books would interact versus their teenage kids, and it works so perfectly.
I also thought Helen was a potentially incredibly interesting character due to the little bit of backstory she shared with Romy. I mean, as a feminist, I've got to say, that's one of those questions that sticks with me. The feminist liberal left (of which I generally count myself a proud member), are very fond of the...blaming people for only siding with the victim when it's convenient. But there's an excellent, complex point to be made there. Of course, it's true, but at what price do you believe your own son guilty of a thing like that? How do you cope? How does a mother do it?
Romy was great. I mean, really wonderful. Shame she hadn't operated in such a vacuum. This also felt like Courtney Summers' most 'real' novel in a way. Although her writing was really on top form, there seemed to be less smartness and more...intelligence, consciousness of Romy coming from a lower-class background, of Romy's history, of the town's history, Romy's job, Caro and Ava in relation to Romy and Leo, and all the other little tricky things that I didn't realise I was missing from her novels until she included them. Summers really tapped into that in a way that felt real.
I was disappointed - but I think I was mostly disappointed by the hype. Courtney Summers' best writing, but not her best book - which is to say, still a great read, if a flawed one....more
"Pieces of Us" is a dark, beautiful, brilliant book.
It's so...REAL. Even though I haven't experienced anything that the characters went throu4.5 stars
"Pieces of Us" is a dark, beautiful, brilliant book.
It's so...REAL. Even though I haven't experienced anything that the characters went through, Gelbwasser's writing is bleak and sparse and perfect. It builds a world that felt so much like the real one, filled with no black and white but gray and characters that were so much like characters I felt I knew. This is a book that will make you angry and make you sad and occasionally (very occasionally) make you happy.
It's painted in utterly colourful three dimensions. That was the utter highlight of "Pieces of Us" and, quite frankly, I do think Alex, Julie, Katie and Kyle are some of the best characters ever. They were just so refreshingly complex. It would be really easy to hate Alex and Julie - especially Alex, the angry, misogynistic, abusive asshole. But Gelbwasser gave him so many layers and an almost rationale behind his total prick exterior so it wasn't easy to dismiss him. Nothing about "Pieces Of Us" is remotely easy; as much as I hated Julie for her treatment of Katie, Gelbwasser makes it impossible not to understand why. Even with Julie and Katie's mother, who egregiously favours her oldest daughter until...something happens, has a life and a reality that is almost hard to handle. Everyone has a viewpoint and everyone has a voice. Actually, everyone had a surprisingly distinctive voice! I never thought I'd see four POVs pulled off this well.
Actions are complex, too. That sounds weird but, even though my heart ached for Katie with the videotape, it's totally understandable that Julie would have created the situation utterly by accident. I particularly loved the way Gelbwasser treated Kyle and Alex's backstory and current actions. What happens to Kyle is especially sensitively handled and Gelbwasser handles the pain of her male characters really interestingly, because it was there and it was never undermined, even though it's uncommon for writers to handle the pain of guys without a) losing their voice; or b) slipping into angst. Gelbwasser did neither. She doesn't let Alex's past excuse his actions, but they do inform them. It's such a delicate balance to strike but Gelbwasser gets it really well.
A lot of nasty stuff happens in Pieces Of Us. There are a lot of Big Issues bandied around - rape, abuse, suicide - but Gelbwasser's writing is sparse and taut and it never seems like an overdone dysfunction junction. Instead, it is a beautiful, heartfelt and fantastic novel about relationships and change.
It would have been an unquestionable five stars if not for the sudden change of pace near the end - I felt that Gelbwasser perhaps moved too fast on the section which depicted Alex's sudden brutality towards Katie and Katie's total breakdown. Neither of them really had enough of a voice or a detailed viewpoint in that and it felt...off. It seemed like Gelbwasser had suddenly realised that she needed to finish the novel soon and so had frantically cranked up the otherwise unhurried but excellent pace into overdrive. Suddenly the relationships were changing and stuff was going down but I felt disconnected from it. Also, she seemed to paint more in black and white a little towards the end - Julie and Alex felt too much like the narcissistic villians ganging up on helpless victims Kyle and Katie, with their sudden onslaught of unjustifiable brutality towards those characters with not much voice-time given to why, but I did love the way Julie's story ended - so sad but perfect, that she would finally get what she wanted at such a horrible price. I thought that Katie and Kyle's friendship needed more development if it was going to wind up where it did. But I'm still going with 4.5 stars for the brilliant depiction of raw and real life.
There are a lot of things to love about Shirley Marr's "Fury", but top of the list has to be, in my mind -- guts.
Not just because "Fury" is edgy. It iThere are a lot of things to love about Shirley Marr's "Fury", but top of the list has to be, in my mind -- guts.
Not just because "Fury" is edgy. It is, but when I say 'guts', there's more to it than just the dark, nasty undercurrent than runs under the twisty, lovely plotting and sucker-punch scenes.
But, when I say guts, I'm talking mostly about the characters. One character is top of that list, Eliza Boans, the fierce and fantastic heroine of "Fury." I always find it hard when authors try to portray strength; most of them use more telling than showing. It's really not easy to do, but Marr makes it look so, so easy.
That's the thing that there is to love most about Eliza: her guts. (I know, how many times can I use that word in this sentence? We should play a drinking game.) I almost wrote 'courage' or just 'strength', but there is much more to Eliza than just 'courage.' Eliza is a fearless yet terrified main character that I just love for how much goddamn fight she has in her. This is one of those books that really earned its title (unlike a certain other book with this name...) in that, yes, I felt the fury. It coursed through every page of the story, really propelling the acts forwards. It almost seemed to bleed from the book. It almost feels too easy to dismiss Eliza as One Angry Girl, because, no, fury forced most of this story forwards in the most terrifying train-crash way, and I loved every word of it.
Remember my rant about the other Fury, about how it was everything to despise in YA literature as it was a shallow, underdeveloped, unlikeable and paper-thin story based on an interesting premise?
This "Fury" is nothing like that. What I love most about "Fury" is that it treats its audience with respect and depth. "Fury" is chock-full of enjoyable references, from Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, mythology (especially Greek mythology) and tragedy. It's so fresh and clever, but never overly clever or pretentious. Just as I was rolling my eyes, thinking, "Oh my God, poor little Eliza, suffering through her rich white girl life in uber-luxurious Australia", she would turn around and dose me with her own acidic wit and I would feel stumped again. Shirley Marr knows all the tricks.
*coughs* *clears throat* (Excuse me. This reviewer is engaging rabid feminist mode. She will return to normal in several lines.)
And, yes, something else to love about "Fury": it's about feminism. Not in the big, important, chest-bashing Margaret Atwood way, but in a way that really cut into me as a reader. It's about what it's like to be a friend and a young woman in this crapsaccharine Australian furniture store, when you get rid of all the petty rivalry and bullshit, Eliza tells us this without ever sugar coating or overstating it. I can see you all giving me squinty eyes - sure, murder, selfishness, narcissism, designer labels and mean girls, Beth, it sounds sooooooo feminist. But there is a satirical beauty to how Marr deals with what might seem like a hackneyed plot. Do not underestimate Eliza Boans. Or more to the point: underestimate Eliza Boans at your peril. The eventual murder scene is one of the best scenes I've ever read, simply for the pure, unadulterated and stomach-churning viciousness that underlines it all. All these mean girls have deep and dark and real friendships, and there is a black heart that throbs at the centre of "Fury."
But mostly important, just in case I've made this book sound so dry and ohmygodwon'tyoujustshutupaboutsociologyalready? - it's incredibly fun. Reading "Fury" made me feel like a lot of YA has been hampered by clichés and expectations and won't somebody think of the children?!. It's just off the hook, with originality, wit and wildness, brilliant mythology gags (like such outlandish but somehow-it-works scene where the characters don masks, old-fashioned dresses and make like the original Furies) and a glittery surface of dresses, money and ass-kicking that gives the seriousness of the themes real fun and freshness. Particularly the amazing ending, which made Eliza's kickass mother sharpen into focus as one of my favourite secondary characters ever and their final scene together was just amazing. I particularly liked the idea that true judgement had perhaps even eluded the characters. "Fury" isn't about learning a lesson. It's about the emotion that gives the book its title - and everything else is up to the characters. ...more
The Page Turner is well-written. Leavitt's writing is sparse, cool and to the point -- it's poignant but not pretentious, to the point but no2.5 stars
The Page Turner is well-written. Leavitt's writing is sparse, cool and to the point -- it's poignant but not pretentious, to the point but not underwritten, and evocative and non-judgemental towards its characters. I read this one in less than a day; it was very engaging, well-paced and addictive. Still, it wasn't one of those books that would linger long in the memory. Also, the writing for the settings was totally weak -- I don't like pages upon pages of description, but given that this is set half in Italy and half in America (Kansas and New York), I would have liked to be immersed in the foreign settings a little more, to give a sense of shifting scenery. As it was, the solipsistic characters could have just been wandering around blank canvases for 250ish pages and I wouldn't have known it.
If I had to choose one word to describe The Page Turner, that word would be "elegant." This is a very elegant book. It - both characters and writing - are incredibly restrained. This is a very, very good thing, given how melodramatic the plot was! I can honestly say I didn't notice the overcooked melodramatic contrivances of the plot, such as the endlessly weeping stage mother forever making convenient discoveries and having convenient blind spots or the endless bed-hopping by characters that initially met in a totally foreign country but managed to live mere miles away when the plot suited them. The characters' flaws and charisma was well-documented, especially Pamela, Paul's pushy, unlucky mother; despite her habit of being incredibly embarrassing, I really felt her love for Paul and her desire to be a good mother and her total unawareness of how embarassing she was being felt totally believable.
The problem with elegance is that, well, it's not suited to the entire book. While restraint worked for all the scenes in which the plot was building - such as Jacob's quiet breakdown over his dog's death - it leaves the entire book feeling a little nothingless. As with most suffering characters in melodrama, these players are extremely fucked-up, for want of a better phrase. Case in point: Richard, a former child prodigy struggling with the fact that he is approaching middle age. He's been in a romantic relationship with his much-older manager for twenty-five years, since he was...very young. (I'm not sure if this is an inconsistency because he tells Tushi, his friend, when they're having a heart-to-heart, that they've been sleeping together since he was fifteen, but he said much earlier that they "carefully didn't mention the first five years, when it was illegal" - is there any state where it's illegal to have sex with a twenty-year-old? I thought the maximum age was 18, which means that Richard would have been a grand total of 13 when he and Joseph started up. Ugh. Seriously dangerous implications there, especially given that Joseph has been the most sympathetic character so far. Nothing quite like some borderline paedophilia to darken a character.) So, yes, to sum up that rambling - Richard has had a fairly awful past, given that he hates fame, he hates being a trumped-up pianist (and he's a child prodigy who started travelling and performing since he was fourteen), his mother is out of the picture, he spends no time at 'home' and most of it in random hotel rooms, he picks up teenage boys for sex, he's perilously afraid of being used for his fame, he's had absolutely no father figure through his entire life - well, he seems to consider Joseph a father figure, and given all those previous ramblings about the sex...well, yeeeesh.
But The Page Turner is like a French film where everyone suffers oh so prettily. I didn't want it to turn into all the screaming and shouting and breaking things (all of the things I praised in the book earlier), but there's no dramatic arc whatsoever. The entire book builds and builds and builds -- and then just fizzles. I don't mind a somewhat open ending, but this ending was open to the point of being unfinished! Richard and Joseph argue - but that's all. The last conversation between Pamela and Paul is so forcefully symbolic that I found myself rolling my eyes. Good writing, but seriously faulty plotting. There's no real emotion here - for instance, when Paul thinks that he will never be a concert pianist because his old, senile, unfulfilled teacher told him so, I just didn't care. Leavitt has a lot of skill, but I felt that he failed in his attempt to show raw emotion -- it just didn't exist. The characters were just husks. The characters were compelling and well-drawn, but ultimatey empty....more
A beautiful, brief, utterly terrifying glance at a horrific world. Far Away is not really about character. It's about evocation. And the worl4.5 stars
A beautiful, brief, utterly terrifying glance at a horrific world. Far Away is not really about character. It's about evocation. And the world that Churchill crafts, this totally realised, chilling world where even nature is part of an obscure bhuman battle, is magical and yet totally believable. I just wanted a little more....more
Sorry, maybe that sounds fluffy and pretentious and vague. Because "Cannery Row" is n4.5 stars, oh so close to the magic 5
"Cannery Row" is about life.
Sorry, maybe that sounds fluffy and pretentious and vague. Because "Cannery Row" is none of those things. It's a beautiful, fluid novel about the life of minor characters in an area of California called Cannery Row. That's it. It's more like a series of vignettes than a story, but it was oh so heartbreaking. I could feel my heartstrings being tugged. Yet - it didn't feel like Steinbeck was trying to make me cry. (Though he almost made me. Several times.) There is something about Steinbeck's prose that just gets to me. He manages to perfectly balance larger observations about the movement of life - particularly in the beautiful prologue and the odd paragraphs where the tense shifts from past to present. Steinbeck has a wonderful prose style - a mixture of literary yet simple and direct that just affects me. Particularly the story about Frankie. While Steinbeck's prose is gentle and euphonic, almost mirroring the slow movement of life, he has a very stripped-down style that just hits me right there. "There was nothing he could do." Yet there is also long, ornate passages such as this one -
"[Cannery Row's] inhabitants are, as the man once said, 'whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,' by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, 'saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,' and he would have meant the same thing.”
Also, the juxtaposition between what Steinbeck tells us and what he doesn't is amazing. For example, at the end, he never tells us that Doc is crying. Doc just wipes his eyes with the back of his hand, and we know. That is what I love about Steinbeck - the trust he places in his audience. He isn't like some of other 'great' Literary-with-a-capital-L writing, like Vladimir Nabokov, who puts great Intellectual trust in their readers, knowledge to know French and obscure literary and movie references. But he puts trust in them (us) all the same: he trusts us to know these characters, to understand what they're feeling, and recognise it. I just loved that. But more than anything, there was a real sense of life in this book. Particularly the beautiful paragraph where Mack and the boys plunge into the pond in search of frogs, and the frogs all run out of the pond in a desperate attempt to escape. Maybe you won't believe me, but there is incredible comedy and pathos in that one paragraph. Such as in the last line of the book, where Steinbeck takes us down Cannery Row to the animals that sleep around them. Steinbeck infuses his animal characters, like Darling, with a comic life that makes them feel just as real as the human characcters. Just as much as the humans that populate it, Cannery Row feels like a living place. Steinbeck says of Doc that "his mind had no horizon", and that is what I think of when I think of Steinbeck.
Actually, no, I'm sorry. "Cannery Row" isn't about life. It's about living. Highly recommended....more
As Bindy would say, I devoured this book. It's long, but I actually ripped through it. And I loved it. I want to give this book to the people4.5 stars
As Bindy would say, I devoured this book. It's long, but I actually ripped through it. And I loved it. I want to give this book to the people who treat YA as some kind of bastard genre -- I've been wrestling with On The Road for weeks. I zipped through this in one night.
Jaclyn Moriarty - you are one clever bitch (that's supposed to be a term of endearment). Bindy Mackenzie compelled me all the way. Until the last 70ish pages, it remains a fairly typical (but still very good!) high-school read about finding yourself and maybe toning down your more obnoxious features. What I loved about this book was that it didn't perpetuate the negative you-must-change-everything-about-yourself-to-get-what-you-want message, but it was realistic about Bindy's flawed, unlikeable but oddly endearing personality: it didn't make her (m)any friends. However, I can't help but compare this to Finding Cassie Crazy, and I preferred the latter in many ways.
But why didn't this earn the full five stars? The writing is funny, excellent, speedy and surprisingly subtle for what initially appears to be quite an unsubtle book. It's a winner in the writing stakes -- but it wasn't an all-out winner for me until the last section. I know that Jaclyn Moriarty doesn't redo this until Dreaming of Amelia, but I miss her multiple narrators, especially her boys! My favourite parts were those that dealt with other narrators. It's not that I didn't enjoy Bindy immensely, I did, but this is a case of Moriarty's greatest strength being one of her few weaknesses (did that sound pretentious enough? :D): Bindy is such a full-on narrator, so idiosyncratic and relentless, and that is very enjoyable, but such an extreme personality. Besides, I still have huge crushes on all the boys (except Matthew Dunlop, you nasty scumbug!) from Finding Cassie Crazy. I couldn't quite get there with Finnegan A. Blonde, and I wanted to. I just found myself occasionally tiring of Bindy going around in circles for portions of the plot.
Moriarty does a simply superb job of balancing Bindy's flaws (numerous!) with her..."inner vulnerability" is such a cliche, but there's no better way to describe Bindy. She denies all her weaknesses, pushing them down as far as she can, but no-one can deny that she's lonely. However, while Bindy is extremely endearing to the reader, Moriarty is also a great writer for showing us exactly why her classmates dislike her so much. While I was desperately flipping to the next page, I couldn't help saying to myself "would you want to be friends with Bindy Mackenzie?" The truth is, although we are similar in many ways, at the start of the book, I would not. This sounds like a criticism of Moriarty - it isn't. I have a special respect for authors who can make their first-person narrators very well-balanced. Bindy is.
The supporting cast is, for the most part, great. I loved meeting up with Emily again and getting updates on all the other Ashbury girls. However, contributing towards that half-star off perfect score, I couldn't feel for Astrid. Moriarty did her best, and Moriarty really is *the* best, but she couldn't make me feel for petty, shallow, mean Astrid. While I said above that I totally understood where the supporting characters were coming from with their disdain for Bindy, I felt that what Astrid did at Hill End, while not the worst thing ever, was a horrible thing to do. The effect it had on Bindy had me cringing for her. Although Moriarty tries to redeem Astrid, and it was only right because no-one is 100% cruel and unsympathetic, her idiosyncratic voice (although the "like you knows" did make me laugh) made it difficult for Moriarty to truly communicate Astrid's regret. It also slightly (only slightly) spoiled Emily for me, to think that she could be hanging around such a mean girl. However, the rest of the supporting characters are typically Moriarty endearing. Especially Sergio, and yes, Finnegan. While I couldn't have the same kind of emotional engagement with them that I felt with the Cassie guys, I still loved them.
Honestly, and trust me on this one, it's better if you go into the book knowing pretty much no more than what I've written up there. The less you know about the plotline I am going to discuss, the better it is. And it really is fantastic -- the sheer enjoyment and rollercoaster relish of it is one of my favourite reading feelings. While I'm not going to into specific plot details, I didn't see this change of pace coming, and it's better if you don't, either. This section of the book more than earned the half-star, but because of issues mentioned above, I can't really give this the perfect five. However, for those who have read it, have no intention of reading it or are one of those people who just have to look under spoiler tags (I sympathise):
(view spoiler)[the TWIST that this book takes in its latter half! Wow. The last section of the book was 5-star all the way with me, because it literally had me a) rocking backwards and forwards in fear for Bindy; b) gasping at the brilliance of every plot twist; c) panicking about what was going to happen next; d) going "JACLYN MORIARTY I WANT TO DANCE AROUND IN YOUR BRAIN FOR YOUR INTELLIGENCE/BRILLIANCE/WRITING TALENT." When Bindy was writing the letter to Finnegan, I was screaming for her. When the other FAD members took over, I was cheering for them. It was just...despite the audacity, despite the plot twists, despite the larger and life characters...it was so real to me. The supporting cast really came into their own (save for Astrid), and I LOVED it when Sergio *climbed the school* to try and save Bindy. It was amazing, unpredictable and a true rollercoaster ride. (hide spoiler)]
I want to be like Jaclyn Moriarty when I grow up. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
In short, Cracked Up To Be is a fantastically written, intense novel by Courtney Summers. In fact, if I had to pick one word for Cracked Up, it wouldIn short, Cracked Up To Be is a fantastically written, intense novel by Courtney Summers. In fact, if I had to pick one word for Cracked Up, it would be that: intense. It's a fantastic, gritty character study of "Perfect" Parker Fadley, who's bitter and sarcastic and cruel to everyone - but especially to herself. If you want a rollercoaster ride in the head of a sometimes-unlikeable, extremely three-dimensional, complex and compelling character, Cracked Up To Be is that novel. The love triangle is unique but off-kilter: Parker's ex-boyfriend, Chris, and Chris's new best friend, Jake. In fact, the romantic relationships are so slightly twisted and multidimensional that they don't deserve the cliche "love triangle." We're not sure which one of these guys Parker should be with, if either of them. Chris and Jake are characters in their own right, with strange but fascinating relationships with Parker, and there's none of that nonsense about Chris and Jake fighting over Parker or anything. Cracked Up To Be is not what you'd expect.
It also feels almost like a satire of typical YA novels - in Typical YA Novels, Parker would be the queen bee bitch who eventually got her comeuppance while someone like Becky was the lead character. But not with Courtney Summers. In Cracked Up To Be, Parker is the ex-queen bitch who is self-aware, brutally honest and so true to life. You don't get time to bitch about Parker's whinging about stuff that most of us would kill for, because you get it. You're right there along with her. While most YA heroines are softer versions of Parker - unhappy, desperate, angry, bitter about someone or something. But most of these other characters get some kind of vindication for their actions, a well-that-makes-it-okay justification. Summers never does. If most other YA girls are fluffy milkshakes, Parker is a shot of alcohol: she really hits you with it. Summers' beautiful minimalism keeps the story chugging along, but also gives us Parker's amazingly crafted voice.
I should have adored Cracked Up To Be with no reservations. I felt constantly on the cusp of it: this was going to be on of my favourite books! Yet it never really got there, although it got pretty damn close. I think that the reason for that is that while Cracked Up To Be is a sucker-punch character study of Parker Fadley, the plotting felt a little 'off' to me at times, especially when Summers tried to move away from Parker's head into The Bigger Picture, especially the bad thing that Parker did. (A side note - I loved it that Parker's Bad Thing was something she did, not something that happened to her.) (view spoiler)[For those of you who've read it, that is what happened to Jessie, Parker's best friend, whose rape she witnessed, after which she was murdered. (hide spoiler)] This was a fantastic revelation, one so much darker and edgier than most YA books are willing to go. However, I think that Summers gave this plotline short shrift in many ways in that she only viewed it through Parker's eyes. I know that it's a one-POV novel, but (view spoiler)[although I could understand, in an objective way, why this was such a horrible thing to do/happen, I didn't really feel it. Summers is so wrapped up in Parker's fucked up, fascinating head, but she never captures the sense of true tragedy that a brutal rape and murder is. While she showed us Parker's feelings towards this in a truly intenese manner, I felt that we needed at least one scene of Mr. and Mrs. Wellington or at least more scenes of fleshing out what happened after Jessie's body had been discovered after the revelation about Jessie's murder. I think we needed some more scenes that showed the fallout from the murder and some proper closure with Jessie's killers and what happened to them - even if what happened to them was the most horrendous answer of 'nothing', I wanted to know. (hide spoiler)] I know that things don't wrap up in a neat bow in real life, but at least wanted to know that they didn't.I It just felt quite skimmed over and rushed to me towards the end. Some scenes were deliberately jarring and that was fantastic, but I wanted Cracked Up To Be to move out of teenage solipsism, away from Evan and Chris and Becky, and to show what had presumably been tormenting Parker the whole time: the huge ramifications of her act. The gut punches only really come from internally, not externally. I wanted some more external reaction to the situation, because, like I said, Cracked Up To Be is about something horrible that Parker does, not something that happens to her. In my mind, when something horrible happens to someone else, there's a thread missing if you get too swallowed up in your bystander's pain and suffering. Instead, Cracked Up To Be is solely about a teenage girl tormented by her own head for what she has done. And it's a solid four out of five, but I still feel a little disappointed.