Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Man, I’d love to know what Gillian Flynn thinks about right before she falls asleep.

Sharp ObjectsSharp Objects was her debut novel and my favorite of the three (the others being Gone Girl and Dark Places). The story unfolds over a couples of weeks from the first person point of view of Camille Preaker. She is a journalist in Chicago and a recovering cutter who is sent back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on the murders of two young girls. The incidents happened nine months apart, but based on the fact that both girls were strangled and their teeth were removed post-mortem, police think the crimes are connected.

Camille is anything but prepared to go home. She grew up unloved and promiscuous, living in the shadow of her middle sister’s early death, counting the minutes until she could leave for college and a life far, far away. Wind Gap is the kind of small town that cannot keep its people in check. Gossip, secrets, fraught with the kind of boredom that breeds drugs, alcohol, and abuse of all kinds. Camille faces everyone and everything with hesitation – former friends who feign interest, locations that hold ferocious memories, and the ever-present cold rejection from her mother. There’s also the bewildering behavior of her youngest sister, a half-sister, who behaves one way at home and another way when she’s out. It’s Crazytown.

There’s very little I can say without getting deep into the plot. At 250 pages, it’s a quick read and the pace is stellar. The characters are ripe, a few being the epitome of a psychopath by possessing a trio of perverse behaviors: sexual deviance, cruelty to animals, lack of empathy. Sharp Objects is vulgar in every way. It exposes the way we hurt ourselves to gain sympathy, the way we hurt others to relieve our own pain, and the way we rationalize warped behavior because we’re desperate.

A quick note: By page 48, I knew the guilty ones. On page 195, Camille had figured it partially. Neither Camille nor I knew exactly how the crimes played out until the very end.

Flynn writes in a way that leaves nothing out, nor does she add what’s unnecessary. We are brought to the point on every page and strung along with her garish and graphic language. In Sharp Objects, I’m reminded of Chuck Palahniuk. It’s not full-on Chuck Palahniuk, but it’s a whiff. There is plucking, gouging, scraping, and, of course, cutting.

For those who want a peek into that world, I highly recommend this book.

Buy Sharp Objects here. 

Book Review: The Senator’s Wife

the senator's wifeHmm. What to say about this one…

To start, I picked it up at the Charleston County Library last week. It was on sale for one dollar. For a beautiful cover such as this, it was worth a dollar. As for the story, I suppose it was worth a dollar too. Maybe two dollars, maybe three.

In truth, I hesitate to be critical of any book because I’m not published. It’s as simple as that. When I’m sitting among published writers as an equal, perhaps I’ll be more comfortable with giving negative reviews, but until then, I must be judicious.

The Senator’s Wife revolves around two women in 1993 and 1994 – Meri, a thirty-something newlywed who buys a semi-detached with her husband, Nathan, in a quiet New England town. On the other side is Delia – the seventy-something wife of former senator, Tom Naughton, a man known for his infidelities. Delia and Tom are informally separated and speak little of his indiscretions. He lives in Washington (where at the frivolity is) and Delia splits her time between New England and Paris. Their adult children aren’t thrilled about the arrangement.

Meri and Delia develop a friendship that includes the swapping of advice and comfort. Meri is still trying to figure out what marriage and family is all about (she and Nate eventually get pregnant) and Delia is there with little nuggets of wisdom.

So why is this book not my favorite?

1. It’s painfully detailed. Normally, I embrace the details. Details help paint the setting. They color the characters. They put you smack dab in the middle of the story. However, Sue Miller seemed to add every tiny snippet of detail whether or not it mattered to the story. Towards the end, I was tempted to skim paragraphs because I just didn’t care to follow Meri or Delia around on their daily tasks. It became tedious.

2. Nathan is a red herring when he could’ve been a big player. Miller sets up Meri’s husband to have potential. He’s self-centered, a touch controlling, and oddly quiet. He was ripe for conflict! But, no. He’s just there.

3. The conclusion was unsatisfying. Not in the way Gone Girl was unsatisfying, mind you. I didn’t want to throw The Senator’s Wife across the room. Instead, I sat there and said, “That’s it?” Sure, there was conflict. There were bad decisions and embarrassing moments and one scene in particular that was horribly uncomfortable.

But – I wanted more. I wanted a big kaboom! I wanted to say, “Wow, I totally didn’t see that coming!”

I didn’t say any of those things.

That list aside, I can say that the format and overall narrative was fine. It was a fine book. It was okay in the way that a beach read is okay, minus the humor. The story trucks along and then it ends.

The real loss here is that I’m not tempted to read more from Sue Miller. Anyone can write a so-so book, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect an author’s entire body of work. Maybe The Senator’s Wife is the only ho-hum book in the lot, but maybe it’s supposed to be one of her better ones. This not knowing gives me pause.

Buy The Senator’s Wife here. 

Book Review: The Circle

This image must have been used for promotion since it pinpoints the release date (which was in 2013), but I included it in this post because the description of The Circle is dead on.

the circle

Imagine that Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google decided to mesh their businesses into one. They set up one account that’s entirely YOU – all of your information in under one name, one file, floating in the cloud. They set up closed-circuit cameras everywhere and encourage expect you to post photos and videos from all of your daily activities, because it would be selfish of you not to share every aspect of your life with others. You are to comment on other’s posts and invite everyone into your network. Everything you do online is tracked, sorted, tagged, and rated in the business’s database for easy access. This is all so we can be in community with one another, connected in every way possible, and entirely invested in each other’s lives.

Yes, I’m feeling claustrophobic too. But I tell you what friends, you need to read The Circle. It is the best cautionary tale of our time.

Mae Holland is twenty-four years old and just landed a job at The Circle, a company designed to meet your every need online and otherwise. Of course it’s based in northern California. Its campus is all-inclusive – meals, dormitories, lecture halls, health clubs, and everything else one might need to enjoy life. In between all the perks are the work stations and glass walls – because everything at The Circle is transparent. Transparency, according to the The Wise Men who created the company, is the only way to live. If we’re all laid bare, no one can keep secrets and then no one can get hurt.

Mae immediately buys into the notion that The Circle’s ideology is sound. If our best interests are at the center of these programs, where’s the harm? And sure, she’ll swallow a sensor so The Circle’s medical team can monitor her vitals 24/7.

Oh friends, if I could implore you to read one book this year, it’s this one. It feels blasphemous to type this review on a blog, knowing I’ll post it on my Facebook page and then link it in my Twitter feed. Everything about The Circle makes me want to go off the grid and go back to a time of snail mail and passing notes and not needing a single password to conduct my life. If ever there was a story that makes me question the power of technology and social media, it’s this one.

Conceptually, The Circle is a home run. The characters, however, are straight up archetypes. They are as predictable as they come, though in this case that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I found myself so wrapped up in the company and its on-goings that the characters were secondary to the plot. That almost doesn’t make sense, but if you consider that companies like The Circle already exist, you”ll spend all 497 pages wondering if this level of insanity will exist in your lifetime.

And then you want to delete every social media account you have.

Buy The Circle here. 

Book Reviews: Seventy-Seven Clocks and Dark Places

seventy seven clocks coverI have no experience with Christopher Fowler books, but based on Seventy-Seven Clocks, I won’t be trying out his work again anytime soon. I picked up the book for two dollars at a used book store in Georgetown last September. A crime novel? Okay. A Peculiar Crimes Unit? I’m intrigued!

Right away you know Christopher Fowler is a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fan, and while I’d like to think this series of crime stories is an homage to Sherlock Holmes, it failed to hook me in every way. Where Doyle was succinct and clever, Fowler was repetitive and predictable.

London Detectives May and Bryant of the Peculiar Crimes Unit have to figure out who’s behind a string of bizarre deaths – rat poison, snake venom, spontaneous explosion – and catch the guy before another member of a large, prominent family dies. The peculiarity of the story is interesting enough to keep reading, but the space between crimes is long and the constant retelling of the facts is boring. I wanted to like this book but indeed I didn’t. I was even tempted to quit halfway through, but there’s something very unnatural about that. I’ve only done it once – with A Casual Vacancy – and it still feels like I abandoned someone.

Buy Seventy-Seven Clocks here.

Let’s move on to a book that rocked my socks off. Dark Places. Good golly.

For all the ways Gone Girl made me question denouements, Dark Places left me wondering what goes on in Gillian Flynn’s head. Does she sleep with a nightlight on? Does her husband keep a constant eye on her, you know, just in case?

Dark placesLibby Day lives in a very sad reality. She was seven years old when her teenage brother, Ben, murdered their mother and two sisters. Quite violently, in fact. The family was losing their farm, their jerk of a father only came around for hand-outs, and Ben had begun dabbling in devil worship. Two decades later, she’s living on the fringe. Nearly broke, the kleptomaniac has no real relationships, no self-respect, and no hope. She only thinks of suicide casually now, so there’s a plus.

In a desperate need for money (and a subconscious need to find out what really happened all those years ago), Libby agrees to do some detective work on the murders on behalf of the Kill Club, a group of obsessed people who role play and plead innocence for the incarcerated. They all say Ben is not guilty.

Seriously, they’re all so messed up.

The truth finally surfaces, and once I was on the cusp of that truth I couldn’t put down the book. Gillian Flynn – again – tells a completely CRAZY story of people whom I can barely imagine, but she does it so beautifully that you sort of don’t care that Libby isn’t lovable or that the Kill Club people should find other ways to spend their time. Her storytelling is impeccable. Five stars for sure.

Buy Dark Places here. 

Book Review: Nightwoods

NightwoodsSmall town North Carolina, early 1960s, two children who light fires and kill chickens. Unspeakable things happen when a crazy person infects your family, dipping his poisonous finger into your tranquil country life.

Luce lives at an old lodge that used to serve as a vacation spot. She lives simply, quietly, and uses her small stipend from the lodge’s owner to keep her afloat. No one comes to stay at the lodge anymore, so she tends to her garden, sits on the porch, and thinks. All is disrupted when her sister, Lily, is murdered and her niece and nephew come to live with her at the lodge. They are disturbed children, not only from witnessing their mother’s death at the hand of her husband, Bud, the children’s stepfather, but also from years of presumed abuse also at his hand. Luce, ever patient, must learn to mother the children, to communicate with them without violence, and continue living peaceably in her Appalachian sanctuary.

All is upended when Bud returns to town looking for money.

Nightwoods is so tightly written that you cannot skip a sentence. I picked it up thinking it would be a quick read at 250 pages, but no. Each sentence is important. Nothing can be skimmed. There is no punctuation to indicate speech, something that was initially hard to get used to but eventually became a pleasure to read.

When the coffee was ready, the sisters rowed themselves opposite Luce on the settee. Each one drowning half a cup at one go and then firing up a smoke. Three difference brands.

The unaccustomed caffeine came on like a vibration in Luce’s back teeth and frizzed static into her thoughts.

She blurted out some of what she’d come prepared to say. I’ve been thinking a lot about when I was in school, and about the care of children. Lily’s girl and boy live with me now. My mother wasn’t a model for anything but crazy. And it’s not like I’m thinking back and trying to force any of you into being sweet ladies. You had hard expectations. If we were called upon, you made us step up and answer for ourselves. These children aren’t easy.

The eldest sister cracked two notes of smoker’s laughter, indistinguishable from a TB cough. Said, You want us to tell you how to be a mother? If so, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Sometimes I had to read a sentence twice to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and if that sounds like too much work for you, I get it. However, Frazier is nearly poetic with his writing, so much that it makes me think my own work is elementary. Despite its complexity, Nightwoods is not a story you can leave unfinished. The last quarter of the book flies because it’s hard to put down. Everyone’s in the woods and you want to know who makes it out alive.

Buy Nightwoods here.

Book Reviews: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton and American Sniper

NoaNoa is on death row in Pennsylvania for the murder of a girl her age. In a few months, she’ll be dead and she’s come to terms with it. She doesn’t even argue about being guilty or not guilty. Then the mother of the victim comes to visit her in prison and starts talking about applying for her clemency. They have five months to sort it out.

The story is written in first person but none of it is in chronological order. In between Noa’s accounts are letters written from the mother of the victim to her dead daughter, a strange but useful way to reveal information about the murder to the reader. By the last third of the book you know everyone is hiding something and it’s a quick race to the end to find out Noa’s fate and whether or not justice is truly served.

Unlike In the Woods, also a murder mystery told out of order, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton doesn’t weave so tightly that you have to pay attention to every single sentence. You can just read it and not spend time overthinking or trying to piece together the crime because the author is making you work for it. You know what’s up by the half way point, or at least you know the people in play are fishy. Yet, the ease of the narrative doesn’t take away from the thrill. You read fast because you care about Noa and you want to know if her X-day ever arrives.

Buy The Execution of Noa P. Singleton here.

AMERICAN-SNIPER-CoverPrior to starting Noa, I ended up reading American Sniper. Even though it’s a thick paperback, it was the quickest read ever because the writing was on a fifth grade level. The content is fully mature, but the writing was entirely like reading Dick and Jane. Plus, in the interest of full disclosure, when Chris Kyle got lengthy about describing the different sort of guns he used, my eyes glazed over and I skipped paragraphs. (I categorize guns by color, size, and weight. Is it black? Is it long and heavy? Short and gray?)

I’m glad I read it because it solidified that the book and the movie are separate entities. Sure, it’s the same Chris Kyle, the same wife, the same wars, but American Sniper The Movie is Hollywood script and therefore required a character arc, a plot, a climax, and a resolution. American Sniper The Book is Chris Kyle’s full account of his experiences growing up a cowboy, his experience in BUD/S, his definition of what it means to be a SEAL, and his overall intense passion for and focus on defending his fellow soldiers. You get the bigger picture, not just a glimpse of four tours and a career-long vendetta to kill an enemy sniper.

The movie was entertaining, provocative, and important, but the book is far more telling of who Chris Kyle really was. Upon finishing it, you knew Chris Kyle was anything but a coward.

Buy American Sniper here.

Book Review: In the Woods by Tana French

It’s important to note that In the Woods was Tana French’s first novel. Not only was it warmly received, but it spurred another four murder mysteries that also did well on the market. I’m encouraged by this, especially since the word count of In the Woods surpasses the average for first time novelists.

inthewoods_usOverall, the narrative is beautifully written. French’s ability to capture the emotion of the moment and convey it to the reader is on point and at length. Told in first person by Detective Rob Ryan, you feel as if you’ve sat down for an interview with him, a secret conversation where he tells you things he can’t tell other people. It’s intimate that way, but it’s also deeply disturbing.

Two crimes occur in Knocknaree, Ireland, one in 1984 (the disappearance of two children) and one in present time (the murder of a twelve-year-old girl). At first the crimes don’t seem related, aside from both occurring in the wood near town.

Yet there is a big connection and his name is Detective Ryan, but his memory is shifty and his nightmares are vivid, so it’s only a matter of time before his secrets implode.

There are only two negatives about this book. One, some of the narrative was too long. It’s important for us to be in Detective Ryan’s head, sorting through his memories and processing evidence, but sometimes his inner sermons were really long. Sometimes he conveyed important information pertinent to the crimes, but most of the time it was an emotional outpouring that eventually became unnecessary. We knew the guy was suffering. We didn’t need to continue beating that horse.

Second, I had a pretty good hunch who was involved in the murder early on. I’m not sure if that’s because the character was too archetypal or if I knew it on my own senses. Still, I read most of the second half waiting to see how the character was going to be revealed, which I supposed was a mystery inside the mystery.

Other than those two things, the book was thrill.

Next up: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton.

Buy In the Woods here.

Two days in Horrorstör

I don’t normally finish books in two days, but this one was a quick read. The short page count helped, but it was primarily the tension in the story that kept me enthralled. Once I was in ORSK, I couldn’t leave until the mystery was solved.

First, the cover. If you’ve been in an IKEA, the design concept is entirely familiar to you. In every way the book is designed to make you think of IKEA. The author even references IKEA just in case you’re not sure. The store, in this case, is ORSK, the American version of IKEA and it’s designed to entrap its customers in a counterclockwise maze of home goods and office furniture (just like IKEA). You can eat meatballs in the cafeteria and peruse the make-shift kitchens and living rooms and pretend they’re your own  (just like IKEA). Everything is hard to pronounce so you can’t call anything by it’s actual name (just like IKEA). You get the gist.

Gotta love the back side:


The story begins with Amy, a dissatisfied ORSK employee, who’s asked to participate in a secret overnight shift to help determine why strange things are happening at the store – odd smells and stains, broken pieces of furniture, other unexplained occurrences that aren’t being caught on the security cameras. Along with Amy’s boss, a third employee agrees to the overnight shift and thus begins the adventure. The entire book lasts one full night in ORSK.

I cannot overstate the brilliance of the book design. Every chapter is named after a piece of furniture that applies to the content of the story. In keeping with the horror genre, the chapters (and furniture) become more gruesome.

Horrorstor chapter

The front matter of the book offers you a showroom map so you can keep track of where the characters are throughout the story.

Inside Horrorstor

This is not just about the solving of a crime. It’s a true horror story with blood and pus and other things that made me squirm. I don’t normally read this sort of fiction but aesthetics of Horrorstör captured me. I love IKEA, with its cheap batteries and meatballs with gravy. I read this book if only to enjoy the parody of the Swedish box store. In the end, it was a thrilling and creative read.

Buy Horrorstör here. 

Edge of Eternity and the 50 Book Challenge

So I finished the third and final installment of Ken Follett’s Century trilogy, Edge of Eternity, and I can say with certainty that he’s still one of my favorite fiction writers. However, this was my least favorite of the three (Fall of Giants and Winter of the World), but that’s only because the pacing of the book was imbalanced, as were the politics of the characters. The bulk of the book is spent in 1960s – a huge chunk just in 1968 – and then all of sudden we jump to the mid-70s and get a short whiff of the 80s. Then boom – the Iron Curtain falls and the book ends. It was a glorious end, but we arrived there swiftly, which is odd to say about a book that’s more than a thousand pages.

The political persuasions of the characters would’ve been fine had there been a better balance of sides, however the only conservative Republican character was a self-centered, deceitful white man who was distasteful in every way. The only other characters that were equally despicable were the Communist leaders. It was an obvious slight that became annoying in the end.

Still, Follett is a beautiful writer and, per usual, I’m left feeling sad that his characters and I have parted ways. I’m mourning appropriately by starting a new book, Horrorstör.

Speaking of books, I’ve joined a group of BookTubers and thousands of fellow GoodReads members by taking the 50 Book Challenge – reading 50 books in one year. Click on the image in the sidebar to keep track of what I’m reading.

One down, 49 to go.

Book challenge start

Buy Edge of Eternity here.