Dark Places by Gillian Flynn | A ménage of deliciously dark characters

dark-places 3Maybe you’ve read Gone Girl. Maybe you watched the film. I read the book during an uninspiring literary week and a whole lot of Oscar hype. I never ended up watching the movie.

Most people I know claim to have had their minds blown by Gone Girl. For good reason too, I realised once I started reading the book. The characters were delightful shades of grey. Some were downright dark and murky. And if you found yourself rooting for one, you soon changed loyalties, or at least caught yourself thinking of it, at some point during the book. But once it was done, and I blame the fact that I read it in the midst of a whole lot of on and offline chatter, I thought it was good, but not mind-blowing. Like, it isn’t on my list of all-time favourites in the genre. It isn’t even in the top 10, to be honest.

What did blow my mind though is Flynn’s second novel, Dark Places. Any book that spends its entirety deconstructing the build-up to a gory night in small-town America – the stuff of nightmares, this — is not a book you want to pass up. No seriously, I actually dreamed of axes and Satanic symbols painted in blood on walls two nights in a row. Could this be the 21st century version of The Shining’s flood of blood? In my imagination, it totally is!

Just like Gone Girl, we have again a set of characters who are deliciously dark with shades of grey. There’s Libby, who survived a bloody massacre that brutally killed her mother and sisters when she was 7 years old. Her brother Ben, the only person to go down for the murders even though there were several discrepancies at the murder scene. There’s Lyle, treasurer and spokesperson of sorts for the Kill Club that’s obsessively trying to find out what really went down that night. And a bunch of other very shady characters who have been constructed beautifully to give the plot depth and intrigue.

I really like Flynn’s style of writing and her knack of stitching multiple narratives together. This is actually written from three perspectives. Libby’s voice is in first person and unfolds the mystery in the present. Ben and Patty, their mom, alternate in third person, building up to the fateful ‘event’ over one single day. Flynn also weaves in intricate character details and back stories in a crafty manner that lend her novels a certain X factor that makes them impossible to put down.

Dark Places is definitely a contender for my list of most intriguing murder mysteries of all time. However, I have it on good authority that her first book, Sharp Objects is actually her best. Guess I’ll reserve my judgement until I read that one. But in good time. I want a few months of reads that are anything but fast paced thrillers to really relish this one. Mostly because I really don’t want to overdose on the genre or find myself getting Flynned out.

Also published on The Caterpillar Cafe

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The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

 

rosie 1Sweet. That’s the only word I can think of to describe Australian bestseller, The Rosie Project.

It’s a sweet novel about a sweet man who is a more independent, social and likable version of The Big Bang’s Sheldon Cooper. But there is still something slightly, how do you say it, weird, about Don Tillman. He has his day planned down to the minute, compulsively points out people’s errors and follies and takes his meals based on the Standardised Meal System.

He is also a highly self-aware individual who knows that he isn’t easy to like, has a small number of friends he can count on his first four fingers and has confined himself to being the one making social errors when out on a date.

But he also knows that if this were the animal kingdom, his above average intelligence, salary and physique would make him highly desirable to females. Now, if only the real world worked like that.

He thus comes up with the Wife Project comprising of a detailed questionnaire with multiple choice questions to find a suitable partner. But as with all stories featuring people with very specific demands — non-smoker, PhD or equivalent, punctual and meat eater — what he really ends up desiring, very involuntarily, is the curve ball hurled at him – a “barmaid” who smokes, is always late and is a vegetarian who will only eat sustainable seafood. Now, for someone who has their entire day chalked out for optimum efficiency, eats the same meal on the same day of every week, who counts their units of alcohol as carefully as they do their calories, this isn’t an ideal situation. But if our character isn’t about to spin out of control having voluntarily or involuntarily dived into situations that are alien to him, we wouldn’t have a story that was half as interesting, would we?

So we have here a book, that starts out nicely, gets to the mid-point very nicely and ends very nicely. Therein lies the problem. It’s nice. It’s sweet. It’s highly readable and Don is seriously likable. But that’s about it. The story doesn’t get any more interesting than that. Ok, so there’s that whole Father Project bit, where he’s helping Rosie find her biological father, that’s adding a bit of drama and entertainment. But even that doesn’t isn’t immersing enough to keep you at the edge of your seat.

‘Don, can I ask you something?’

‘One question.’

‘Do you find me attractive?’

Gene told me the next day that I got it wrong. But he was not in a taxi, after an evening of total sensory overload, with the most beautiful woman in the world. I believed I did well. I detected the trick question. I wanted Rosie to like me, and I remembered her passionate statement about men treating women as objects. She was testing to see if I saw her as an object or a person. Obviously the correct answer was the latter.

‘I haven’t really noticed,’ I told the most beautiful woman in the world. 

There’s no denying that Don is a great character. He’s everything  a true romance novel hero isn’t, and that is a marvellous change to read. He has quirks that you will love and quotable quotes that you’ll enjoy memorising. But Rosie’s character is a little flat,  predictable and lacking in colour. She has daddy issues, tries to come across as a rebel and feminist when she’s really a highly qualified doctorate candidate who just wants to be loved and accepted. Quite typical of most heroines written in that role, if you ask me.

The Rosie Project is a sweet book that makes for a nice read. I don’t regret the time I spent on it at all! It has its moments and it’s hilarious in parts. But did I want to read the sequel the minute I finished with the last page? Not really. In fact, I thought this book itself was quite drawn out with nowhere to go after the first half was complete. I recall looking at the progress bar on the Kindle and wondering, “Wait, only 49% in?” “Only 62%?” “What more is left to happen?”

But in its defense, it is pretty well written so you don’t find yourself forced through the second half even though you know, more or less, how it is going to pan out. So in that respect, it is worth the read. But am I going to bother the sequel? Highly unlikely.

Also published on The Caterpillar Cafe on March 9, 2015

The Boy who could see Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

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There’s nothing ordinary about Alex Broccoli. He lives in a room at the top of his council house that has no heating. But he seems to prefer it that way. He wears clothes he found in a trunk that once belonged to an old man who lived in the house before him. He feels smarter in a jacket and bow tie anyway. He loves onions on toast more than anything else in the whole wide world. Especially, since you can buy a whole week’s worth of onions for very little money. And he also happens to see demons.

In fact, he has his very own demon. His name is Ruen and he comes in three avatars – Old Man, Ghost Boy and Monster — that switch based on how playful, serious or scared he’s feeling at that moment. Alex doesn’t have many friends which is why having Ruen helps. But he also knows that he can’t take everything his demon tells him at face value because he has a penchant for evil. He’s the “evil Alex” if you may.

Yes, there’s nothing ordinary about the protagonist of Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s The Boy Who Could See Demons, but then again, he isn’t a normal boy living a normal life. He’s the child living in what was once, and still threatens to be at times, a very troubled part of the UK. In fact, they even call that dark period in Northern Irish history the Troubles and this story is set in the current generation that’s still suffering the aftermath of all that went down.

Set in the backdrop of present day Belfast, The Boy Who Could See Demons, deals largely with issues of mental health among children and signs of depression in adults. It also adds fantasy to the brew with instances that linger even after the book is over. Like when Ruen ‘composes’ A Love Song for Anya and it happens to be the very same tune that haunts Alex’s therapist, the only person who has seen his condition before from a very close range. How else would Alex know personal, intimate details about her daughter’s life, death and mental health issues?

Of course, these are smaller parts of the book that leave you wondering. What you really walk away with is an insight into a disturbed adolescent’s mind given his environment at home. What you also see here is a beautiful yet dangerously flawed mother-son relationship that has you biting your nails until the climax.

But most importantly, what Carolyn Jess-Cooke paints here is the picture of a Northern Ireland that’s emerging from its own ashes and learning to live in a renewed environment without forgetting about its troubled past.

It’s very rare to find a book you go to bed and wake up reading. A page turner, this one, as the author expertly weaves a tale that is at the same time sad, fantastical, hopeful, at times, and ruinous too.

Verdict: This is the perfect book for readers across genres with a story that gives you some harsh, hopeful and riveting facts masked in the imagery of fiction.

This review originally appeared on The Caterpillar Cafe on December 3, 2013

The Unbearable ‘Silence’ of Snow

snowDo you ever get to a point in a book when you absolutely know that there’s no chance in hell you’re going to finish it? I eat such points for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Or so I thought.

I’m reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow on my commutes to work and honestly, the last two times I had to try really hard to stop myself from dozing off on the shoulder next to mine. True story.

It started off being poetic – The Silence of Snow – when we meet a poet who hasn’t written anything substantial in four years. His name is Ka and he’s going to Kars and in case you aren’t Turkish or a Wikipedia addict, the word for snow in the language is Kar. So we meet Ka (funny, the first few times I read his name I couldn’t help think of Kaa the snake from Kipling’s Jungle Book) who has journeyed all the way to Kars, a decrepit city towards eastern Turkey to cover the local elections and to investigate an “epidemic” of suicides for an Istanbul based newspaper. But that’s just something he’d like to have people believe. In reality, he’s there to find Ipek, a beautiful woman from college whom he wasn’t in love with but remembers as being very beautiful. Maybe if he marries her he will write poems again. Or maybe he’ll encounter misery and he’ll write really beautiful poems again. If nothing else, at least the strife, poverty and the miserable beauty of snow will intervene.

Ka whispered to the girls that Kars was an extraordinarily quiet city.
‘That’s because we’re afraid of our own voices,’ said Hande.
‘That,’ said Ipek, ‘is the silence of snow.’

So where in the book am I as this feeble attempt at a rant is being written? The revolution has begun and having rested his head in Ipek’s lap for a few minutes Ka is on his way to The Rooms of Terror. I don’t know why I’m not inclined to go on. It’s not like I hate the book. If anything, I like it! It’s just that the intensity of the symbolism is getting to me. The poetry of the unfolding plot — revealing to us all those who die following their conversations with Ka about their dreams and desires blissfully unaware of what is to happen in two hours and twenty seven minutes… Then there’s the snow itself and Ka’s convoluted associations of it with God, the West, the East, love, hope, death , religion, revolution and who knows what else! It’s blanketing everything in its wake and yet it isn’t freezing anything stiff. If anything it’s serving to unify all the houses, people, themes and motifs. Maybe that was Pamuk’s intention.

Beautiful as it sounds – The Silence of Snow – I’m going to put this on my bookshelf because sometimes, silence can be as jarring as a five year old playing the drums! Or maybe this read requires a different setting than the one I’m in right now. Somewhere quiet where I can peacefully allow myself to be transported to Kars, to soak in the tale of the conflicted poet who hasn’t got a clue, but believes the poetry is coming out of his eyes, ears and fingers and if he doesn’t get it down in the nick of time it’ll be lost forever. Yes, I’m giving up… for now… I must… before I go Little Match Girl on myself.

First published on April 24, 2012 on The Caterpillar Cafe

The Unbearable Silence of ‘Snow’

pamukDo you ever get to a point in a book when you realise there’s no chance in hell you’re going to finish it? I eat such ‘points’ for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But not this time.

I’m reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow on my commutes to work and honestly, the last two times I had to try really hard to stop myself from dozing off on the shoulder next to mine. True story.

It starts off poetic – The Silence of Snow – as we meet a poet who hasn’t written anything substantial in four years. His name is Ka and he’s going to Kars and in case you aren’t Turkish or a Wikipedia addict, the word for snow in the language is Kar. So we meet Ka (funny, the first few times I read his name I couldn’t help think of Kaa the snake from Kipling’s Jungle Book) who has journeyed all the way to Kars, a decrepit city towards eastern Turkey to cover the local elections and to investigate an “epidemic” of suicides for an Istanbul based newspaper. Or so he’d like to have people believe. In reality, he’s there to find Ipek, a woman from college whom he wasn’t in love with but remembers as being very beautiful. Maybe if he marries her he will write poems again. Or maybe he’ll encounter misery and he’ll write really beautiful poems again. If nothing else, at least the strife, poverty and the miserable beauty of snow will intervene.

Ka whispered to the girls that Kars was an extraordinarily quiet city.
‘That’s because we’re afraid of our own voices,’ said Hande.
‘That,’ said Ipek, ‘is the silence of snow.’

So where in the book am I as this feeble attempt at a rant is being written? The revolution has begun and having rested his head in Ipek’s lap for a few minutes Ka is on his way to The Rooms of Terror. I don’t know why I’m not inclined to go on. It’s not like I hate the book. If anything, I like it! It’s just that the intensity of the symbolism is getting to me. The poetry of the unfolding plot — revealing to us all those who die following their conversations with Ka about their dreams and desires blissfully unaware of what is to happen in two hours and twenty seven minutes… Then there’s the snow itself and Ka’s convoluted associations of it with God, the West, the East, love, hope, death , religion, revolution and who knows what else! It’s blanketing everything in its wake, according to the imagery, and yet it isn’t freezing anything stiff. If anything it’s serving to unify all the houses, people, themes and motifs. Maybe that was Pamuk’s intention.

Beautiful as it sounds – The Silence of Snow – I’m going to put this back on my Bookshelf because sometimes, silence can be as jarring as a five year old playing the drums! Or maybe this read requires a different setting than the one I’m in right now. Somewhere quiet where I can peacefully allow myself to be transported to Kars, to soak in the tale of the conflicted poet who hasn’t got a clue, but believes the poetry is coming out of his eyes, ears and fingers and if he doesn’t get it down in the nick of time it’ll be lost forever. Yes, I’m giving up… for now… I must… before I go Little Match Girl on myself. (*Breathes*)

First published on The Caterpillar Cafe on April 23, 2012