The One Sentence Summary: A young boy writes to an imprisoned serial killer, asking for help to find the body of his uncle, whose disappearance at ageThe One Sentence Summary: A young boy writes to an imprisoned serial killer, asking for help to find the body of his uncle, whose disappearance at age eleven sent the whole family awry.
The Meat and Potatoes: Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb has a troubled home life. His father left when he was young; his Nan stands at the window all day waiting for her son Billy, who disappeared in childhood; and Steven’s mother, upset over being ignored after the disappearance of her brother, takes out her frustrations on her children with the same coldness and bitterness that her mother showed her. Steven thinks that if he can just find the bones of his Uncle Billy, his whole family would be fixed. After years of aimlessly digging holes where Arnold Avery, Billy’s suspected killer, had buried his other victims, he writes to the killer in prison. “I am looking for WP. Can you help me?” This simple request opens the door, and Steven soon finds out that, much worse than obsessing over a serial killer, is the serial killer obsessing over you.
Blacklands is both a crime novel and an exploration into the after-effects of a violent crime on the family left behind. Bauer spends as much time delving into the psychological state of the family as she does setting up the ultimate showdown between Steven and the killer. Even though it is written in the third person omniscient POV, Bauer does a fantastic job of putting us in the heads of even minor characters.
Blacklands is set in Exmoor, England, a small rural village surrounded by wild moors, and the small-town, isolated feel really pervades the story. Bauer’s descriptions are fantastic, and you can really see, smell, and feel the landscape of the moor: the spicy scents, the prickly vegetation, the thick brambles, and the cool sea mist.
Bauer also incorporates images into the novel, which is fairly unique to the genre. Rather than just presenting the typed text of Steven’s letters to Avery we are given an image: simple notebook paper with handwriting that could either be taken as the carefully crafted print of a child, or an adult in a rush. In seeing Steven’s actual writing we get more of a feel for his character.
The Praiseworthy: Bauer’s scenes are very well thought-out and plotted. Each of them pulls its weight, often accomplishing several different objectives at once. For example, towards the beginning of the novel we are told about Steven repairing his Nan’s shopping trolley, substituting all-terrain wheels from a buggy for the rickety metal wheels. This scene leads into a reflection which ends up underscoring the whole novel (“Decide what you want and then work out how to get it”), as well as setting up subtle indicators of his Nan’s love for him, despite her coldness (she proudly shows off the heavy-duty wheels to friends and walks with it even when not shopping). Another great example of a scene that accomplishes several things at once is midway through the novel when the guards at Avery’s prison are opening the inmates’ correspondence and vetting the photographs. This scene depicts the photo of Exmoor sent by Steven slipping through, despite Avery’s therapist’s understanding that the sight of Avery’s old burial ground would be unhealthily exciting to him. At the same time, the scene shows the reader that the guards have been confiscating nude photos of another prisoner’s attractive wife, which (view spoiler)[sets up a physical confrontation between this prisoner and a guard, facilitating Avery’s escape. (hide spoiler)]
The bulk of Blacklands is what I would characterize as good writing, but there are several places where Bauer’s writing really stands out. As Steven becomes more and more obsessed with the serial killer, a photograph he sees in school of our solar system within the vast Milky Way galaxy provides an interesting opportunity to delve further into the killer’s psyche:
No wonder Arnold Avery did what he did! Why shouldn’t he? Wasn’t it he, Steven Lamb, who was the fool for caring what had happened to a single one of those microbes on a dot inside a speck of light? What was everyone getting so hot under the microbial collar about? It was Avery who saw the bigger picture; Avery who knew that the true value of human life was precisely nothing. That taking it was the same as not taking it; that conscience was just a self-imposed bar to pleasure; that suffering was so transitory that a million children might be tortured and killed in the merest blink of a cosmic eye.
And he revisits this thought when he gets lost in a sea mist on the moor:
Steven felt himself shrinking under its blind vastness. The image of the galaxy came back to him. He was an atom on a microbe on a speck on a mote on a pinprick in the middle of nowhere.
The revelations aren’t restricted to Steven’s character; the killer Avery also has some very well-crafted moments of his own:
Many years ago he had played poker. He hadn’t known what he was doing really and was nervous of losing and making a fool of himself. But it was only when he picked up a pair of aces and saw another two drop on the table that he’d started to shake. That was how he knew that the trembling that now coursed through his hands, over his shoulders and across his cheeks to his lips was a god thing. He held an unbeatable hand.
The Shortcomings: I only found one significant problem with Blacklands: Bauer has a tendency to overuse (and occasionally improperly use) dashes. At first this was just something I noticed, but as I continued through the novel it became distracting, then annoying, and then aggravating. Bauer often uses a dash when a simple comma will do: “Something chemical had been released in Avery’s brain—something that sharpened his lust and dulled his more sensible senses.” She also employs dashes in places where they are simply not necessary and could be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence: “It was slow going and painful and—by the time he reached the stile that led him through the backs of the houses to the road—both his socks had holes in them.” She uses dashes to offset phrases that do not require the added emphasis of the dash over the comma: “He didn’t want or need their friendship but—even after eighteen years—he was still genuinely uncertain as to why some killers got respect in prison while he was vilified.” And sometimes she makes several of these errors at once; consider this sentence which contains three dashes: “The dozen guards—who just moments before—had been picking their noses in boredom, ran to help, batons flailing—like a poorly trained pub football team losing its shape because they were all chasing the ball.” Amazingly, on the page that this sentence appears (a page containing only 223 words) there were nine dashes total. Granted, not everyone will be as distracted by or even notice the abuse of dashes like I did, but it’s the kind of thing I would have expected an intrepid editor to fix.
The Verdict: I would recommend Blacklands to readers who enjoy crime novels with unique, engaging settings and a strong psychological aspect. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The One Sentence Summary: A woman who testified thirty years earlier that her brother slaughtered her entire family begins to investigate the crime afThe One Sentence Summary: A woman who testified thirty years earlier that her brother slaughtered her entire family begins to investigate the crime after doubts about her brother’s guilt begin to surface.
The Meat and Potatoes: When Libby Day was seven, her mother and two sisters were killed in their rural Kansas farmhouse, their blood used to paint satanic symbols on the walls. Ben Day, Libby’s moody fifteen-year-old brother, was convicted of the murders, largely on the basis of Libby’s testimony. Now thirty years later, the charity fund that she has been living off is nearly gone and Libby can’t bear the thought of getting a job. She’s contacted by Lyle Wirth, a young man who is president of the “Kill Club”—a group of true crime fanatics who are obsessed with finding the truth about the “Farmhouse Satan Sacrifices”—and he pays Libby to do some freelance investigating into the murders of her family. Though all her life she’s believed Ben was the culprit, Libby uncovers some inconsistencies that make her as hungry for the truth as the members of the strange club she’s become involved with.
Dark Places is written in the past tense, using first person point of view for the chapters narrated by Libby, and third person for those narrated by other characters. The story opens on Libby in the present day as she begins to investigate the murders of her family. Libby’s present day account alternates with chapters through the eyes of other characters, on the day of the murders. This combination of present and past gives us an overall picture of the crime, bit by bit. Evidence is referenced in the present chapters and then we are able to see exactly how the events unfolded, from the eyes of the characters. For example, we are told early on that both the axe and the shotgun used to murder Patty Day (Libby’s mother) and Debby Day (Libby’s sister) belonged to the Days themselves. As the past chapters progress, we see Patty load the shotgun and leave it in the front room after being threatened by Libby’s father, Runner, and that the axe is mistakenly left in the house after being used to chop wood for the fire. In alternating between the present and the past, Gillian Flynn allows us to follow the crime on multiple levels while we try to solve the mystery ourselves.
Flynn also does a great job of dropping the details subtly into the narrative. Early on in the story we’re given information on the injuries that Libby has sustained (references to her “mangled hand,” her “bad foot,” and her missing toes). We’re left wondering exactly how these injuries occurred, and it isn’t until later that it is revealed. The evidence is presented in a similar fashion. In the present day chapters we see the murders clinically, through case files, crime scene photos, and evidence that doesn’t fit with the theory of Ben as the sole perpetrator. In the present chapters we hear the evidence described, and in the past chapters we actually see the events that resulted in the evidence.
The characters Flynn has created in Dark Places are three-dimensional and realistic. Libby is not the stereotypical heroine. She plays on people’s sympathies and cashes in on being the sole survivor of a tragedy. She is lazy, mean-spirited, quick-tempered, and self-indulgent. She is also very selfish, and in fact, she has no interest in the murders until she is offered money to investigate. Libby is actually a very unlikable character, but is a realistic portrayal of someone who had to go through something so traumatic early in life. The other characters are similarly complex. Ben Day is not what you expect of the (possibly) wrongly accused. He is deeply flawed as well, and both in Libby’s present day talks with him in prison and in the past chapters narrated from his viewpoint, we can see that although he’s a generally good (albeit moody) person, he also has a darkness inside him. Even though the evidence seems to be pointing away from him, the reader continues to wonder throughout the story whether he is the killer after all. Patty Day is one of the better characters in the novel, a hard-working single Mom struggling to raise her four children and keep her farm afloat. Though her intentions are good, even Patty admits she isn’t as responsible as she should be, commenting that she doesn’t have the energy to devote to her children. She’s even relieved that Ben spends so much time alone in his room, rather than being concerned by it, because that way she doesn’t have to deal with him. Although the characters Flynn creates are not “good,” she imbues each with enough humanity that we can sympathize with them and understand their actions, even if we don’t condone them.
The Praiseworthy: Dark Places is a wonderful example of a well-crafted mystery; it gives us all the information we need to solve the crime, dropping it in subtly so that when the killer is revealed we see it, but didn’t see it coming. Flynn does this quite well; I found myself taking note of the relevant details, but was not able to put it all together until just a few pages before the climax. For example, (view spoiler)[the “Angel of Debt,” who was the murderer of Patty and Debby, is mentioned by the Kill Club in the first few chapters of the book, as a theoretical serial killer (unrelated to the murders of the Day family). (hide spoiler)] The writing in Dark Places is solid throughout, and there are many instances of great writing as well. The narration in Libby’s perspective often slips into a rambling stream-of-consciousness that is quite realistic:
But he wasn’t home when we went to bed, and when I woke up the light was on. I remember a flush of relief because Ben was home because his light was on and the fight was over between him and my mom at least for today because the light was on and he was talking behind the door, maybe on his new phone, or to himself, but the light was on.
Flynn’s writing also has a number of gems of language, constructions of words that are almost poetic in their meaning:
[Eight hundred dollars.] The figure actually made her laugh. Did the guy really think that was her pocket change? Could he not look around and see how poor they were, the kids in shirtsleeves in the middle of winter, the kitchen freezer stacked with cheap meat, each marked with a long-gone year? That’s what they were: a home past the expiration date. (emphasis added)
Dark Places also contains simple writing that strikes a chord with the reader on a deeper level; writing that one can identify with:
It was surprising that you could spend hours in the middle of the night pretending things were OK, and know in thirty seconds of daylight that that simply wasn’t so.
The Shortcomings: Because the chapters alternate between past and present, we’re often left on a cliffhanger, with issues unresolved between chapters. While many people love this style of writing, it is my personal preference to have things mostly settled chapter to chapter. However, this style bothers me most when the cliffhangers are very contrived. In Dark Places, although I remained very curious about the events unfolding at the end of each chapter, I didn’t find the carried suspense too distracting.
The Verdict: I would recommend Dark Places to readers who enjoy crime stories, and are seeking a mystery that allows them to follow the crime on a number of different levels. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The One Sentence Summary: An Edinburgh detective is called to investigate a murder in his childhood home on the Isle of Lewis and in doing so, has toThe One Sentence Summary: An Edinburgh detective is called to investigate a murder in his childhood home on the Isle of Lewis and in doing so, has to confront his past.
The Meat and Potatoes: Detective Fin Macleod hasn’t been back to the Isle of Lewis, where he was raised, in years. But when the mutilated body of a murder victim is found there, bearing the same post-mortem injuries as a case he’s investigating in Edinburgh, he’s sent back to investigate any possible connections. The Lewis victim was a bully from Fin’s childhood though, and everyone on the island seems to have a motive for murder. While questioning his former friends and neighbors Fin delves into his past, which may have more to do with the present murder than he realizes.
The Black House is a novel primarily written in the past tense, in third person limited point of view, from the perspective of Fin, the main character. Upon Fin’s return to the Isle of Lewis though, he’s reminded of events from his past. Often these are immediately explored in a chapter narrated by Fin in the first person. These first person explorations of the past provide good context and perspective for the characters and events in the narrative present, and help the story to unfold on multiple dimensions.
The characters that Peter May creates in The Black House are three-dimensional and interesting, and he lets their depth unfold gradually. When we’re first introduced to Fin, for example, he seems like an all-around good character, but through his revelations of the past we find many shortcomings. He does the reverse with the murder victim, Angel Macritchie, who at first is presented as an unmitigated b*stard, but then softened when we learn of the deep friendship he developed with Calum Macdonald, who was crippled by a prank of Angel’s in childhood. The only character who is exactly as she seems is Marsaili Macdonald, a sweet and fairly innocent girl whose goodness is a foil against which we see Fin’s flaws.
May’s choice of The Isle of Lewis as a setting, a dark, cold, harsh location, is perfect for a story about a murder and the recollection of tortured childhood memories. At first Lewis is described negatively, as a place that Fin was glad he was able to escape from, but through the story a respect and admiration for the land comes through. A large portion of the story also takes place on An Sgeir, a rocky island miles from Lewis where a group of hunters make a yearly pilgrimage to hunt the guga, the gannets that inhabit the island. Even more harsh and inhospitable than Lewis, An Sgeir, and the mystery of what happened there during Fin’s first trip out with the hunters, provides an added dimension to the story.
Although billed as a crime novel, the murder isn’t the main story in The Black House. Fin’s story is the true story of interest, and the crime is a vehicle to explore Fin’s past. Although there is the standard criminal investigation including a postmortem examination and the questioning of witnesses, no new light is shed on the crime through these inquiries. Slowly it is revealed that the murder has its roots in the past, and it is through the slow revelations of Fin’s childhood that the murder is ultimately solved.
The Praiseworthy: May does a fabulous job with the perspective shifts throughout the story. The transitions between the chapters in the narrative present, given in the third person, and chapters in the past, given in the first person, are natural and absolutely seamless. I make it a point to note point-of-view shifts, but I didn’t even notice the first transition because it was done so naturally.
May also excels at creating a true and realistic narrative voice. Take this sentence of narration for example: “There was still a tremor ran through me each time I took a sip from it.” In Standard English this would more properly be phrased, “A tremor still ran through me each time I took a sip,” but instead the narrator says it the way a native Gaelic speaker would, which is true to the voice of the story.
Another exceptional bit of writing comes when the mystery is solved and (view spoiler)[Fin realizes that it was his best friend from childhood, Artair, who committed the murder. Suddenly all of the pieces fall into place and he imagines the murder as if he were watching it. This imagined scenario is written as narration that intrudes upon the present scene. Here is just a snippet:
‘Fin, what is it? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’ He looked at her without seeing her. He was in the boatshed at Port of Ness. It was Saturday night and it was dark. There were two men there. One of them was Angel Macritchie. The other one moved into the moonlight. It was Artair.
In this way we get to see the scene as it happened, without it being revealed too soon in the story. Also, we can imagine the rising tension that Fin feels as he “sees” his friend murdering a man. (hide spoiler)] The Shortcomings: The only negative that I would note is that the prologue is written completely in italics. The purpose of italics is to emphasize and set something apart from the rest of the text, but this is unnecessary for the prologue as it’s already set apart in virtue of being the prologue and designated as such. In addition, the prologue is written in the present tense, which further sets it off from the rest of the story. The italics are unnecessary and just distracting.
The Verdict: I would recommend The Black House to readers who enjoy crime novels with a strong character-driven story, psychological emphasis, and well-crafted writing. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The One Sentence Summary: Survivors of the global zombie war relate their experiences in individual interviews.
The Meat and Potatoes: It’s sometime inThe One Sentence Summary: Survivors of the global zombie war relate their experiences in individual interviews.
The Meat and Potatoes: It’s sometime in the distant future, the dead have risen, consumed more than half the world’s population, and been beaten back. Now that the planet has been retaken by the living, it is time for a look back.
That is the setting of Max Brooks’s World War Z. The narrator is a researcher who has conducted a comprehensive study on the outbreak, the war, and the aftermath. These are the interviews that were deemed “too emotional” for the final report, compiled by the narrator to put a human face on the tragedy. The interviews are with individuals of all races, backgrounds, and nationalities, some civilian and some military, in order to give us, piece-by-piece, the whole story. For example, early on we’re given an account of a revolt in the Russian army, and their unique method of quashing the rebellion. Later, military leaders from other nations discuss the lessons learned from this incident and how it changed their policies. This provides us with a wonderful view of the interconnected nature of this “global war.”
The world Brooks creates in World War Z is very different from our own. Aside from the dead munching on people’s brains, the entire geopolitical scheme is foreign. Prior to the text, the narrator describes the setting of each interview. We get labels such as “the Holy Russian Empire,” the “United States of Southern Africa,” and descriptions such as the “glittering metropolis and bustling harbor” of Havana. Brooks drops these on us, leaves us to theorize, and then slowly explains how the zombie war spawned these changes.
World War Z also contains a healthy dose of social commentary. Early on in the crisis Brooks describes the creation of a reality show in which a varied group of celebrities hide from the zombie menace in a well-stocked mansion behind high walls. He tells us of the Army taking a stand at Yonkers, heavily televised, employing all the high-tech equipment necessary to impress the viewers, but useless against the zombies. We’re also taken north with people escaping to climates where the zombies would freeze in the winter, with no concept of how they were going to survive in that kind of climate. (In the good times everyone gets along, sharing supplies and singing campfire songs; in the bad times, they steal, kill, and cannibalize.) Brooks also showed us how the majority of the workforce would be all-but-useless in such a global crisis. The survivors in the safe zones had to produce food, clothing, weaponry, and a host of other things on their own, and the highly-educated executives and CEOs, their narrow education and experience now useless, had to receive training from immigrant laborers to become productive members of this new society. These are just a few examples of the detail and intrigue of World War Z.
The Praiseworthy: Brooks’s story is richly detailed and imaginative, with every possibility considered and taken to its conclusion, which then feels inevitable. For example, the zombies in Brooks’s world are the traditional slow-moving reanimated corpses who can only be stopped by destroying the brain. With the outbreak and the slow understanding of the true nature of the crisis, many humans try to escape to the sea, hoping a ship will provide them protection against the undead. Many of these refugees are infected themselves, and in their panic trying to swim to ships leaving port, drown and reanimate at sea. The result is millions of zombies walking the ocean floor, requiring divers to wage an underwater war.
—But we aren’t told this story with such pedestrian simplicity. Instead, we see through the eyes of 1) an Indian man trying to escape via a shipyard whose purpose was actually to deconstruct aged ships for scrap metal, 2) a Chinese sailor serving on a nuclear sub that was taken to sea for safety, and 3) an officer in the Navy’s Deep Submergence Combat Corps, tasked with eliminating the zombies remaining in the ocean.
The format Brooks chooses to tell his tale is unique and refreshingly literary for popular fiction. Rather than the simple narration with an omniscient or limited point of view that is common today, we’re given essentially a collection of short stories on the theme of the zombie war, related through the first-person perspective of survivors, via interview with a visible and individualized fictional narrator (who also speaks to us directly in the introduction). In this way, we feel connected with every character, every setting, and every event that transpires in World War Z.
The Shortcomings: Some readers, conditioned by “pulse-pounding,” “adrenaline packed” books that read like action movies may find the interview structure and the exposition of the story a bit slow. However even these readers should gain some satisfaction from piecing the story together themselves rather than being told chronologically what occurred.
The Verdict: I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy good, experimental literature, with creative, unconventional subject-matter. ...more