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.

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.