Fiction Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian

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4/5 Stars

Well, Gillian Flynn has done it again. For me, at least. Sharp Objects is another gritty mystery that I didn’t see coming. I had some idea of what Flynn was capable of, having read Dark Places last year. And yet her ability to draw up a truly disturbed protagonist still surprises me. And, unlike Libby in Dark Places, Sharp Objects’s Camille is both more disturbed and more accessible. I actually liked her.

Now, don’t get me wrong. When I read Dark Places I actually liked that I didn’t like Libby. I liked that there wasn’t a single redeeming character in the entire novel. It’s refreshing and, in my twisted brain, realistic. A world full of shitty people is far more believable to me than one full of moralistic high-roaders and do-gooders. Call me a cynic. Sharp Objects is similarly set up in that there are almost no redeeming characters. But I found myself liking Camille, as well as her boss Curry and his wife. That’s not to say that they’re any less screwed up. If anything Camille has more reason to be a degenerate underachiever than Libby did, and I appreciated her ability to empathize in spite of her own issues.

But one doesn’t pick up a Gillian Flynn novel for a quick pick me up. You don’t read her books to feel good about yourself or about life. If that’s why you read, stay the fuck away from Flynn. But if you’re in the mood for something dark, if you want to take a good hard look at the underbelly of North American life, she’s a pretty safe bet.

Flynn’s strength lies not in her novel’s settings or her world building. We never get a clear picture of the town of Wind Gap itself, though we do see the characters’ more intimate spaces—bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms. What she does well is paint a fantastic inner landscape. She carves out a piece of her characters’ brains and lays it bare. You see everything. The confidence, the pride, the confusion, the self-loathing, all the twisted little things that people sometimes think and don’t like to admit to. In fact, it amuses me to read some of the negative reviews of this book and the vitriol aimed at Flynn for her “sick” characters, their gratuitous sexuality, their perversion. The lad[ies] doth protest too much, methinks. I was never mentally, emotionally, physically, or sexually abused as a child and I’ve thought and felt some pretty fucked up shit. Camille’s uncensored thoughts could easily be anyone’s. If you are repulsed by this idea, I’d like to suggest that you are in serious denial about what goes on inside your own head. It’s either that, or I’m crazy. And while I’d be okay with either explanation, I’m leaning towards the likelihood that most people are way more screwed up than they like to admit.

Flynn’s characters are nasty pieces of work. You’re not supposed to like them, or even to sympathize with them in most cases. The people of Wind Gap are no exception. The town is rife with the problems caused by small town conventions and boredom. Alcoholism, drug abuse, hidden sexual excess, and cruel gossip all rear their ugly heads. And I’ve lived in enough small towns to know that this is more than just a stereotype, whether you live in a Mid-Western town in the US, a small prairie town in Western Canada, or a remote northern community on either side of the border. Granted, not all towns will end up with a double homicide of preteen girls. But all towns harbour child abuse, substance abuse, income disparity, cliques, and worse. It could happen anywhere, and when it does, people are always surprised by what goes one behind closed doors. Flynn is not afraid to show us what goes on behind those doors, whether they be in a character’s home or in their head.

I really liked Sharp Objects. It was dark, it was gritty. It had just enough empathy to make it feel worth reading. And the story itself managed to catch me off guard, even when I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. Flynn manages to paint a very disturbing picture without, in my opinion, being gratuitous with it. And she gets bonus points for an ending that I didn’t see coming. Or rather, that I did and then allowed myself to be lead astray which is even more difficult to achieve. Rather than being disappointed in the ending, like I was with Dark Places, I felt Sharp Objects wrapped up neatly. It was satisfying, if that’s a word I can use for a book like this. It seemed appropriate.

Go ahead. Read it. I dare you.

Fiction Review: When the Devil Doesn’t Show by Christine Barber

2.5/5 Stars

15793141I won When the Devil Doesn’t Show in a Goodreads First-Reads Giveaway a few months ago. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Barber writes a good crime novel. The dialogue was snappy and believable, the plot line was interesting and complicated enough to keep me and the characters guessing. The characters themselves are mostly well-developed and realistic. But in the end the novel fell a little flat for me, which prevented me from giving it a three or four star rating.

One thing that bothered me was actually the blurb on the back of the book (I won’t summarize it here, check it out wherever you like to creep books!). Granted this is more her publisher’s problem than Barber’s, but the description is inaccurate to the point of being misleading. It’s as if the blurb was written before the book was finished and Barber changed her mind mid-process. For example, there is no second house fire. The crimes are connected by a series of home invasions, the first of which ended in a house fire. Second, Montoya doesn’t make the connection to the laboratory on the Hill until very near the end of the book, when things are starting to wrap up. In fact, he’s not the one who makes the connection at all. Most of the book is spent following the path of an escaped convict and his possible cohorts.

Maybe this isn’t a big deal for some, but to me a crime novel about thugs conducting home invasions has a totally different feel than one about a cover-up at a nuclear testing facility run by the federal government. If I had purchased this book expecting the latter, I would have been sadly disappointed.

However, Barber does deliver on her publishers promise in another way. She paints a vivid and enticing picture of Santa Fe life and culture. Her characters are varied and interesting, from many walks of life. If she continues to use them in future novels they are the kind of characters that I would be interested in reading about as they evolve. I haven’t read the novel preceding When the Devil Doesn’t Show, which she mentions a couple of times. One certainly doesn’t have to know the first novel to follow this one, but I think I might seek it out just to fill in some blanks in the characters’ relationships.

While I enjoyed Barber’s setting and characterization, what I ultimately had an issue with was the plot. The initial plot, or what I thought to be the initial plot, had a lot of potential. But as the novel progressed, I felt Barber moved further and further from her intended story until it kind of became something else. It didn’t feel like a smooth transition. The more we find out about the characters’ motivations, the less the story makes sense until, in the end, the reader is left wondering what the hell actually happened to start the whole thing. The connections between the antagonists is pretty flimsy. We get a little glimpse into how they might be connected, but without understanding any of their motivations the ties are tenuous at best.

SPOILER: For example, what set off Martez to begin with? Competition between scientists can only be taken so far. Especially after the revelation that he tried to poison his co-worker and give her unborn children birth defects. This would achieve nothing in the way of scholarly competition had the plot worked and, in fact, would potentially work against him if the woman had miscarried as she likely would have continued working there. Doesn’t make sense. And as for his relationship with Tyler Hoffman, are we to believe that they had a relationship before Hoffman went to jail? Did Hoffman hook up with Lupe after his prison escape or before he was incarcerated? If Hoffman and Martez had no previous relationship would Martez really be willing to enlist his help to eliminate his competition at the lab, and would Hoffman have been willing to do it?  END SPOILER This is the point at which the plot kind of loses some steam. Lack of characterization of the protagonists, combined with the cliff-hanger ending, culminated in a serious anti-climax. I felt a little let down at the end of this novel.

The pacing was great, and the plot flowed well right up to the end. Really the last chapter is the only one that I felt kind of bogged down, and part of that is because I started to realize at that point that the loose ends would never be dealt with. I also felt that we saw a bit too much of the tertiary characters. They interrupted the flow of the main narrative and often didn’t add much to the plot itself. These extra snapshots would have been better used on the antagonists, to give a more well-rounded understanding of the characters and their motivations.

I will likely pick up a novel by Christine Barber again. At least to see if my issues with this book are consistent with the rest of her work . If When the Devil Doesn’t Show is indicative of her usual writing style, I wouldn’t try more than one more. But at this point, I felt her strengths outshone her weaknesses as a writer and she deserves another chance.

SF Book Review: Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer

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3/5 Stars

This first book in Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax trilogy tackled a lot of interesting ideas and touched on some interesting subjects. Unfortunately, I had trouble reconciling Sawyer’s high-concept plot with his flimsy and contradictory characters. Much of the book came across as unnecessarily preachy, and by the end of the trilogy it was more like beating a dead horse. Of the three, Hominids was the most intriguing novel and ultimately why I chose to continue with the trilogy. Humans did little for me, and felt a bit like a bridge between #1 and #3 and nothing else. Hybrids had potential, but I think the plot got bogged down in Sawyer’s extreme social commentary. This review is mainly of Hominids, although I can’t promise that the other two novels aren’t colouring my perception of it in hindsight.

I have no issues with the science behind Hominids. Granted much of it went over my head, and I’m not much of a hard-SF fangirl to begin with. But it didn’t get in my way, and Sawyer seems to have a good grasp of the concepts that he’s employing. I just went along with it, for the most part. I did find it interesting to read now that we have a little better understanding of prehistoric relations between human and Neanderthal than at the time that was published. For example, studies are showing that most people of European decent actually have some Neanderthal DNA which contributes to our ability to fight certain kinds of cancer and other diseases. Neanderthal may have been absorbed by modern humans rather than wiped out. Interesting, but inconsequential to this review 😉

My issue with Hominds is really an issue with Mary. A Catholic geneticist studying human evolution? Her attachment to the Catholic church makes absolutely no sense. Her work flies in the face of her religion, yet she somehow manages to make excuses for the inconsistencies in her belief as far as it is needed for her professional self. Meanwhile, she gives her personal self little leeway, being ashamed of using birth control throughout her failed marriage and refusing to divorce her estranged husband for fear of excommunication. Throughout the novel she steadfastly defends the more ridiculous notions of her religion with a blindness that is disturbing to witness in a supposed scientist.

And Mary is not the only religious scientist in the novel. I don’t think there was a single atheist character, other than the Neanderthals. As if being human and being religious were one and the same. As an atheist, I found this a little hard to understand and, frankly, to stomach. I couldn’t tell if Sawyer was intentionally pointing out the inconsistencies between religious belief and scientific progress, or if he is himself struggling with two opposing world views and using his confused characters to sort out his own issues. Mary’s confusion distanced me from her and really just ended up being irritating.

Her religiosity is not the only issue. Mary is fickle in her moods and opinions, continually on the defensive about her own position, closed minded, and shallow. This is really difficult to reconcile with what we are told of her being a brilliant scientist. She comes across as a caricature of a woman: jealous and suspicious of attractive females, angry at all men for the failures of a few, constantly insecure about her own body, etc.

Her relationship with the Neanderthal Ponter Boddit is confusingly shallow. It is as if she becomes attracted to him solely because of her negative experiences with human males, whom she blames for all of the world’s problems. This becomes more of an issue in the later novels when we are asked to believe in their relationship without any kind of understanding of what attracts each to the other. But in Hominids it’s more superficial. Why would a woman who has been recently raped be attracted to the biggest, most masculine male she finds? Granted, Ponter is a gentle giant. But Mary often comments on his size, his strength, even his massive penis (which she catches a glimpse of one morning), while at the same time she seems to be repulsed by masculinity in her own species.

The subplot occurring in the Neanderthal world is really what kept this book alive for me. Ponter’s observations of our world are interesting at first, but quickly come across as preachy (not in Ponter’s voice but in the author’s). While things are different in the Neanderthal world, they clearly would not be suitable solutions for our own. And there are obvious issues with the Neanderthal way of life as well, as we see in Adikor’s legal fight after the disappearance of Ponter. Hominids provides the best balance between the two worlds where, increasingly throughout the trilogy, Sawyer seems to lean towards idealization or idolization of his own creation in the Neanderthal society.

Overall, I think Hominids is definitely worth the read. The trilogy itself is pretty quick and easy, and I don’t regret finishing it. But there are some serious flaws in the characterization that make it difficult to be truly satisfied with the outcome of the plot.

Indie Press Book Review: Asymmetric Angels by Essa Alroc

3.5/5 Stars


17182976I won Alroc’s first novel in this series, Strangely Sober, in a First Reads Giveaway. It was the first independently published novel (and the first review copy) I’d ever read, and I was a little nervous about it. But I was pleasantly surprised by Strangely Sober (you can read my review of it HERE)and even more so by Asymmetric Angels. I’ve read some great and some terrible indie press since my induction into the category last year. And Alroc’s novels remain pretty firmly near the top of my indie-reads recommendations. I’m giving it 3.5 stars.

Who should read this book? People with a dark sense of humour, a love of quirky characters and bizarre plot lines, and lovers of the mystery/crime fiction genres.
Who shouldn’t read this book? People who get hung up on realism and take themselves really seriously at book club meetings.

Of course, as with any independently published book there is a concern about editing. I think the hardest part of being a self-published author is the fact that resources such as professional editors are either paid for out of pocket (at exorbitant cost, trust me) or bypassed in favour of the less reliable, but more economical, beta-reader editors. Unless the author is very lucky, or very well connected, this often amounts to friends and family. So editing can be a major concern for a nit-picky reader (like myself). However, Alroc seems to have done a very thorough job with her editing. There are a handful of typos, but no glaring grammatical blunders, and nothing that got in the way of my enjoyment of the text.

I actually preferred Asymmetric Angels to its predecessor for a number of reasons. While the characters and plot are still a little “out there” for traditional publishing (a shame) Alroc has a natural skill for pacing. I literally sat down and read this novel in one sitting. She is able to tie together multiple character POVs, and jump between them, with the panache of a professional writer. Her pacing is better than many big name writers in the crime fiction genre, and her characters are infinitely more entertaining than most.

This was true of Strangely Sober as well, but Alroc has definitely tightened up her plotlines and reined things in a bit with Asymmetric Angels, and it works in her favour. Asymmetric Angels feels more grounded and focussed. I’m sure Alroc has a ton of ideas for Sal and her crew, but she managed to keep the number of capers in her second novel down so that we could focus on Angel’s current predicament. We get to know the characters a little better in this novel, and we get to see their softer sides which, after an introduction like Strangely Sober was necessary to humanize them. Especially Sal.

Dare I say it? Asymmetric Angels, though it pushes some boundaries, could easily be picked up by a daring agent/publisher, polished, and sold to the masses. The trouble is, finding that daring agent/publisher (if such people even exist anymore).

I’m not going to summarize the plot for anyone. The jacket blurb does that well enough. But I will say that I enjoyed Alroc’s decision to bring her antagonists a little closer to home. The ridiculous Reverend and his gay-bashing bible thumpers, though they should be satirical, are disturbingly close to the real-life born-again crowd. The battle between the drag queens and the holy warriors is both hilarious and sad. Alroc touches on other real life issues, such as domestic abuse and mental illness. Admittedly in an extreme way, but she doesn’t make light of these situations either. Overall, I’m very impressed.

My biggest issue with Strangely Sober had been the relationship between Sal and the over-protective control freak, Cole. This is largely resolved in Asymmetric Angels, first by separating the two so that Cole’s control freak instincts have to work at a distance and later by Sal putting her foot down once and for all. Thank the gods!

Alroc has clearly set up the ending to make room for another book in the series, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for it. If Alroc’s evolution as a writer between the first two novels is any indication of what she is capable of, I think the third novel in the series will be extremely promising.