Book Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

4/5 Stars

Sometimes I’m in the mood for a good crime novel. I like mysteries. I like whodunits and cop dramas and psycho-thrillers. I like them when they’re done well anyways. Unfortunately, it’s often hard for me to pick one up because the genre on the whole is pretty mediocre. It’s the genre that defines commercial fiction, that defines rehashed and recycled plotlines and clichéd characters and predictable stories. So even when I’m in the mood, I find it hard to pick up yet another alcoholic-detective-seeks-redemption-in-solving-dead-end-case kind of novel.

I want something more than that but I don’t know where to find it. I’ve idealized the crime novel and struggle with the fear of disappointment every time I pick one up. More often than not, I decide it’s not worth the risk. When I picked up Gillian Flynn’s second novel, Dark Places, I felt that same uncertainty wash over me. I bought the book a few months ago, thinking the plot sounded out-there enough to be different, dark enough to not feel like a cheap thrill. Then I forgot about it.

Yesterday, Dark Places practically jumped off my bookshelf and landed in my lap. I was in the mood, and Flynn was there for me. I had actually forgotten what the premise of the book was, but somehow knew it was what I felt like reading. I didn’t even scan the book jacket again. (Sometimes the same catchy teaser than makes me buy a book in the first place can talk me out of cracking the book once I have it.) I just started reading…

Gillian Flynn does not disappoint. I haven’t read her debut novel, Sharp Objects. But halfway through Dark Places I ordered it. And I added Gone Girl to my shopping cart as a reminder to keep my eyes peeled for the paperback (I have a weird thing about hardcovers, I don’t like holding them… ). Dark Places is exactly what I was looking for in a crime novel, a darkly atypical whodunit with an endearingly unlovable heroine.

I’m usually not that into books that switch perspective too often, I find it hard to get invested in any of the characters. But in Dark Places Flynn does the near impossible, making me equally interested in Libby Day’s present story as with the those of her brother Ben, and her mother Patty 25 years earlier—the day that Libby’s mother and two sisters were slaughtered at the family’s farm.

For years, Libby has believed her brother to be the murderer of her family. At seven years old, she testified to that fact and Ben has been serving a life sentence ever since. Libby spends the rest of her childhood being handed off from one distant relative to another as she becomes an increasingly dysfunctional and destructive child. She becomes a barely functioning adult, living off the dregs of a trust fund created for her when she was “Baby Day” the lone survivor of the Day family massacre. When the trust fund finally runs dry, Libby is forced to think about moving on with her life.

When she’s contacted by the Kansas City Kill Club, a group of true-crime enthusiasts bent on proving that Ben Day is innocent, Libby finds a way to profit once more from her disturbing past. She agrees to interview the key players from that fateful night, for a fee. Libby doesn’t plan on changing her mind about Ben, but as the truth emerges Libby becomes more and more obsessed with finding out what really happened to her family.

Flynn’s descriptions of people are poignant and painfully real. She has a way of breathing life into the unlikeliest of characters. Or rather, people so ordinary they shouldn’t make good characters. The lowest and dirtiest of her creations, the kind of people you avoid eye contact with on the street, Flynn makes them matter. She doesn’t make them likable, she makes them real. She gives every one of her characters, minor or not, a story of their own. And she does it well.

Libby Day starts out a bitch, and she pretty much ends up that way too. But she makes realistic movements towards change and growth. I appreciated the fact that Flynn didn’t try to make her into something she wasn’t, there are not great life-changing revelations for Libby. She just ends up a little less messed up than before. She connects with people in a realistic way, remaining mostly reserved, but giving in to a couple of kindred spirits. She isn’t a nice person, but she doesn’t try to be so it’s hard to hold it against her. The secondary characters are like that too. None of them are people you want to be friends with. But they’re people you believe in. That’s tough to accomplish.

The only reason that I’m not giving this one 5 starts is that I found the ending a bit too much. There was too much going on, it stretched the credibility of the plot (which is saying something, when you’re reading about Devil worshipping cult massacres). I felt almost like Flynn had two ideas for an ending and couldn’t pick, so she just went with them both. Sadly, either choice on its own would have held up. Together it was just a bit too messy (no blood-spattered pun intended).

But that being said, it was a hell of a ride. I’m more than willing to give Flynn another go. There are bits of Dark Places that I will re-read just for the language. Her simple prose hides some real imagery gems. I’m looking forward to Sharp Objects arriving in the mail. I’ll be looking to Flynn to satiate my next few hard-boiled crime novel cravings. Definitely.

Book Reviews: Reader Requests!

I’m waaaaay behind on my book reviews. So here is a list of some of the books that I’ve read recently. Let me know which ones you would like to see a review for, and I’ll do those ones first.

Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman

White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi

Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen

Sugar Queen, Sarah Addison Allen

The Peach Keepers, Sarah Addison Allen

Glimmerglass, by Jenna Black

A Red Herring without Mustard, by Alan Bradly

I know why the caged bird sings, by Maya Angelou

The Birth House, by Ami McKay

There is a sad lack of SF on this list, but that’s because I’ve already left it too long to do proper reviews on some of the recent SF I’ve read. The above books are simple enough that I can let time and other novels get between me and the books without losing too much… I’m working on a review for Alistair Reynolds’ “Revelation Space” but I need to skim it for a refresher. So, anything spark your interest?

Horror Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Oh god.

It took me so long to finish this book. I’ve probably tried to read this thing at least a dozen times in my (not-so) short life, and I always made it to the end of Jonathan Harker’s journal and then BLAM! I’d hit the wall of drivel that is Mina and Lucy’s journals and letters to one another. Instant boredom.

Well this time, I pushed through. Mainly, because I started reading it as a free-download on my iPhone when we were motorcycle camping this summer and I had no other choice. Phil fell asleep within 10 minutes of my reading aloud, without fail. Even in the scary bits. But, low and behold, things do get interesting again! And I got far enough into it that I had to finish, even when it bogs down again innumerable times throughout.

I don’t know, maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood to read Stoker. Sometimes I can breeze through the classics without trouble—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein didn’t last a day in my hands, nor did the Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights—and sometimes they make me want to bang my head against the wall until I pass out. Dracula has moments of genuine brilliance, it really does. There are subtle scenes in this book that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck the way modern horror never can with its tell-all style. Stoker had a gift for horror. Unfortunately he drowns it in tedium.

In part, I think, I take issue with his structural choice—the letters, journals, telegrams, and newspaper clippings—which, although it is an intriguing idea, didn’t really pan out the way I’d hoped. This style, I believe, was used to add “credibility” to his story. The Victorian gothic was all about making readers believe in the stories of horror they read so avidly (similar to the travel fiction that was popular before and after), and I can see how this stylistic approach would achieve this for Stoker’s readers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate for modern readers. What we have instead is a text that dissociates the reader from the narrative, by putting us at an arm’s-length of the action, rather than immersing us in it. This, combined with the necessarily repetitive nature of multi-faceted POV’s really bogs down the pace of the story.

The story, I should point out, was excellent. I think Dracula would not have suffered had it been pared down by 200 or so pages. But the real meat of the tale is great. Stoker drew from a lot of vampire mythology to create a text that has defined the genre for more than a century afterwards. Having just finished I am Legend I can see a lot of Matheson’s choices as a reflection of the myth that Stoker built (indeed, Matheson’s protagonist initially uses Dracula as a kind of how-to manual for killing vampires). Until Anne Rice picked up the torch in the ‘90’s, redefining the genre for a new generation, I would argue that no one has had such an influence on vampire literature as Stoker has.

So. Was it a slow go? Yes. Was it worth it? Definitely. I think anyone with an interest in mythology and folklore should read this book; it’s full of interesting tidbits and really makes you think about how stories evolve and are passed down through the ages. Also, anyone with an interest in modern vamp-lit should give it a try, to see what the original blood-sucking fiend was all about. Unless your reading level has stagnated at Stephanie Meyer’s slush bucket of sparkle vamps and angst-ridden puppy-lovers, you don’t want to hurt yourself. Was Stoker the first to pick up the vampire myth and bring it to a new audience? No. But no one can deny that he popularized the genre, and I believe there was a reason for that. It might have taken me two months to get through (an unheard-of marathon for me), but I’d do it again!

Book Review: Deliverance by James Dickey

I mostly intended to review science fiction and fantasy books on this blog, in keeping with the theme of my own novel. But I’m taking a break from SF for a bit, and I wanted to share my thoughts on this book with you.

I watched the movie, once upon a time, though I thought I knew what it was about and I thought it wouldn’t interest me. I was surprised to be wrong in both cases. And then surprised again when I discovered that Deliverance is a book as well as a movie, written in 1970 by one of America’s best known poets.

Or so they say. I don’t know much about American poets.

But after discovering that, despite its reputation, the movie was more about outdoor survival than cornholin’ hillbillies I decided to give this previously unknown (to me) American classic a try. And Dickey doesn’t disappoint!

I really liked this book, though I hovered between a three and four star rating. What had me leaning toward the three was the dialogue. All of the dialogue felt unnatural and forced, like watching old movies where every line is so thought out and perfect that you can’t imagine a person actually speaking that way. Even the use of colloquialism came off as contrived and stilted, and I had trouble picturing the characters as having a conversation. It was like they were speaking into a void, not playing off one another at all. And on top of that the narrative voice is inconsistent with the narrator’s speaking voice, which bothered me. Except for the usage of the word “I” to denote who was speaking, I would never have believed it was the same person. Perhaps this was done for stylistic reasons, but I felt it was awkward. This could be simply that I’m not sure what

This problem with dialogue is almost exacerbated by the pure and beautiful prose in between. Really, Dickey is a poet. He conjures stunning images with remarkable simplicity, and is well-able to evoke the spirit of that wild Georgian river and the fear and grandeur it inspires in four unskilled men who attempt to master it and themselves.

This is a very manly book—it is about men, and as near as I can tell (as a woman) it delivers a view of the world that is purely masculine. Indeed, the only appearances by women are like bookends to the story; they appear at the beginning and the end to offer contrast to the heart of the story. This didn’t offend me. It is interesting to see, actually, how little women and feminine imagery seemed to play in this text. Some reviewers have mentioned homoerotic undertones in Deliverance, and although I can see why they might interpret it that way, I felt it was something more than that (or less).

Ed, the narrator, and to a lesser degree, Drew and Bobby, idolize the über macho Lewis, whom they have followed into the wilds of southern Georgia. Lewis is the kind of man who doesn’t feel alive until his life is threatened—a disillusioned suburbanite who throws himself into thrill seeking hobbies to distract himself from his own mortality. Though the other men are mostly satisfied with their lives, Lewis’ need for adventure is contagious and they find themselves agreeing to a white water canoe trip that is completely out of their league.

The book is rife with comparisons between the men, physical and psychological, and most of this centres upon Ed’s idealization of Lewis’ masculinity and physical prowess. There is a sexualized kind of flavour to this idealization as well, though I felt it came out of Ed’s desire to be like Lewis rather than some repressed urge to sleep with him. Sure, Ed admires Lewis’ glistening thigh muscles a few times, but he does so through a lens of hero worship.

For Ed, this trip is about his own masculinity. He needs to prove to himself that he can be like Lewis, and when they get out there on the river, he needs to prove to himself that he can best nature. Nature is an interesting character in the book as well; the river plays as integral a role in the story as any of the four men. But Dickey keeps nature a nearly androgynous entity, and when he stray from this even nature becomes a masculine force. This is an odd departure from tradition in western literature, I think, especially for bodies of water which are nearly always described in feminine terms. Dickey’s nature is all crashing white water, sharp rocks, rigid cliff-faces, and roaring in the ears. It emasculates the group as surely as do the sodomizing hillbillies the book is so famous for.

Bobby coasts through to survival, but never manages to reclaim what he lost during the rape—it is suggested that he was a lesser man to begin with, and he is certainly diminished in the end, so much so that Ed cannot even look him in the eye again when they return to the city. Lewis, too, is reduced by the trip, though it is the river that bests him, not the men.

Ed’s reclamation of his own manhood comes as he climbs the rock face to the top of the gorge to face the gunman. Although he manages to kill his rival, it is really the climb itself that is representative of Ed’s growth, and which symbolizes the change in him. What is interesting is that climbing the cliff is one of the most sexualized scenes in the text, akin to the rape, as if by climbing the cliff Ed is taking something from nature which it does not want to give. When Ed looks down upon the river, from halfway up the cliff wall, he imagines he can see his own face in the rocks below—he has made nature his own, and he will survive because of it.

This is definitely a book I would recommend to people with an interest in the outdoors. I think it’s likely necessary to the enjoyment of the text. Dickey’s writing feels very true to the experience of being far from civilization, he seems to understand the vulnerability of man in nature. But I’m not sure it’s a thing that you can understand if you’ve never been there yourself. Not that you have to be flying down a gorge in a canoe to understand the power of nature, and it is easy to imagine that kind of fear without doing it oneself. Yet I can see how the subtlety of Dickey’s prose—particularly in Ed’s more reflective moods—might be lost on someone who hasn’t spent a night in the woods. Dickey believes in that power, even in the calmness of a moonlit campsite on the edge of a tranquil stretch of water. And I do too.