Book Review: The Girl With All the Gifts (2014)

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Review #97

Melanie is a very special girl. She is the smartest in her class, and is always trying to please her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau. Melanie is always very careful to follow the rules. Every day when the soldiers come to her cell, she makes sure to sit very carefully as they strap her arms and legs onto a wheelchair and cover her face with a plastic mask. As one soldier aims his gun steadily at her face, she jokes and says she doesn’t bite. No one laughs. No one laughs much anymore; not with the hungries prowling around outside of the army base where Melanie lives.

Then she gets to attend class with Miss Justineau and the other children, all of whom are bound into their own wheelchairs. Miss Justineau says Melanie is a genius. Melanie loves to tell Miss Justineau about all the wonderful things she’ll see and do after she grows up. She doesn’t understand why this always makes her beloved teacher look so very sad.

Of all the ghosts, ghouls, and monsters that can be found in horror novels and movies, zombies tend to be very hit or miss. The majority of zombie fiction is overly gory, with soulless villains that cannot think or feel or be understood and are therefore not terribly interesting. The ones that transcend the genre, novels like Mira Grant’s Feed or Max Brooks’ World War Z, choose to focus less on the walking dead and more on the people who are struggling to survive in a world where they are no longer the apex predators. The Girl With All the Gifts, like the aforementioned books, tells a very human story in the middle of an inhuman world. It combines the hard medical science of Grant with the intensely personal stories of Brooks to create something unique and fantastic.

This is a novel in which each of the characters has their own struggles and victories, flaws and strengths. The young schoolteacher finds herself doubting her own judgement when it comes to the fate of her students. The scarred and surly army sergeant is forced to confront his long-held biases about the world he lives in. Even the mad-scientist, who has sacrificed her own moral compass in her desperate journey to find answers, is relatable. By focusing on a small group of compelling individuals, author M. R. Carey is able to make the zombie apocalypse a more personal story.

As the leading protagonist, Melanie is a triumph. She is young and naive, hopeful and eager and engaging. She is smart and resourceful, but at the same time she’s a scared little girl who is struggling to understand the world around her. Carey walks a tight edge and risks making Melanie a little too perfect, but in the end she is just as fallible as everyone else and her motivations are often alien to the adults around her.

I won’t say too much about the overall plot, as experiencing it for the first time was half the fun. Melanie and the others are living on a protected army base approximately sometime after the majority of the population as succumbed to the “zombie” pandemic. The stumbling, rotting, and forever hungry remnants of the human race aren’t reanimated corpses, but are instead the victims of a type of fungal infection. The scientific explanation behind the hungries was one of my favorite aspects of this novel, as I had heard of this terrifying phenomenon taking place in the animal world and could readily imagine the destruction it could cause if it ever found a way to infect mammals.

I’ve been rather disappointed by thrillers lately, but The Girl With All the Gifts went a long way towards restoring my faith. This novel is exciting, suspenseful, and tightly written. It never lags for a second once the plot is set in motion. And it tells a story about what it truly means to be human, and humane, in a world where humanity has become endangered.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Girl With All the Gifts here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Friend Request by Laura Marshall (2017)

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Review #96

When Louise Marshall receives a friend request on Facebook from Maria Weston, she is surprised to say the least. When they were in high school together, Louise wasn’t too kind to Maria. In fact, she was a bit of a bully. So why would Maria be reaching out after twenty-seven years? Plus there’s the fact that Maria is dead. Isn’t she?

My most recent post was entitled I’m Breaking Up With the Modern Thriller Genre. I explained how the recent trend towards unnecessary plot twists, shoddy characterization, and clumsy foreshadowing has killed my enjoyment of recently popular thriller novels. Friend Request by Laura Marshall was the book that broke this reader’s patience.

In this novel are the same tired cliches and overused stereotypes that have made the thriller genre an exercise in frustration. There are the obligatory flashbacks that serve no true purpose except to drum up a false sense of suspense. In this case, we visit Louise and Maria as they go through their senior year of high school in 1989. Instead of giving us a window into this time period which may have been fun or added relevant details to the overall plot, instead we just have Louise continually torn between her desire to be part of the popular crowd and her budding friendship with the new girl at school. There’s potential here for an insightful look at the long-term affects of teenage bullying, but Marshall never really connects the dots.

We also have multiple plot twists which serve no real purpose and fail to offer any surprises. When I think of novels such as Ender’s Game, Fight Club or any of Tana French’s Dublin Murder series, the thing that stands out is that all of the elements of the pre-twist narrative fall into place once the twist is revealed. If you go back and re-read any of these novels, you can logically and rationally follow the plot with the knowledge of the twist already in place. However, the plot twist in Friend Request is a cheat. It’s utterly out of left field and literally made me face-palm once I realized that this was what Marshall had spent so much time and effort building towards. I love a good plot twist but they need to make sense within the larger story, and the one in this novel fell completely flat.

I may have liked this book more if I hadn’t experienced a recent run of similar faux-thriller novels which can all be boiled down to “white woman with quirky but interesting career is somehow surprised when the past comes back to haunt her”. My frustration with Friend Request is ultimately due to my overall frustration with the current state of the thriller genre itself. I’ve decided to take a break and focus on a few other genres for awhile. Perhaps with some time I will be able to come back and appreciate this novel on its own merit.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Friend Request here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

I’m Breaking Up With the Modern Thriller Genre

 

 

thriller

Dear Thriller Genre,

You and I used to be so close. We would stay up all night together, cuddled up on the couch with a glass of wine or a mug of hot chocolate. There was a time when I used to want to spend time with you more than any other genre out there. I will always treasure the tingles I got from turning your pages.

But something happened a few years ago. You changed, thriller genre, and not for the better. I think it all started with The DaVinci Code, when millions of people began noticing how a few well-placed plot twists could reel a reader in and keep them glued to your pages. People love to hate Dan Brown, but I really enjoyed DaVinci. I thought it was the first step on a whole new journey we could take together.

Then along came a little novel called Gone Girl. Now don’t get me wrong, this book was amazing and kept me captivated for all of its four-hundred page running length. Gillian Flynn didn’t pull any punches and every aspect of her novel came together to form a cohesive plot-line. It’s remembered for having a crazy twist around the halfway mark that turned everything on its head.

Unfortunately, my dear thriller genre, too many of books published in the years since Gone Girl have taken the “crazy plot twist” aspect of the bestselling novel while neglecting the “cohesive plot-line” part. They’ve exchanged memorable characters for clumsy foreshadowing. There is now a puzzling trend to have a last page “final twist” that is left unresolved, like Michael Myers coming back for one last scare. It’s all just starting to feel terribly cheap and lazy.

Not to say that these aren’t talented authors who are contributing to the thriller genre. I just think that the publishers understand that these “predictably unpredictable twisty” thrillers are huge sellers right now, and are choosing the books that they publish with the idea that they can use the tagline “The Next Gone Girl” over and over again.

I’m hoping that this current trend will die off in a few years, thriller genre, because I really do admire the authors that have contributed to your lists in the past. I’m just weary of being continually disappointed every time I hear about this great new thriller, only to find that it contains the same exact tired tropes arranged in slightly different ways.

This is not to say that I am giving up on thrillers entirely, just that I’m going to have to be a bit more discerning. I’m not going to be taking recommendations from “most popular” lists. I’m going to begin avoiding some of the most popular thriller authors that are currently writing. There are a few writers out there who haven’t forgotten what it means to truly draw in their readers using tension and suspense, and I’ll continue to read their work.

I hope I don’t sound ridiculously pretentious. I definitely don’t consider myself a “high-brow” reader, one who feels that certain genres or types of books are beneath them. But of all the modern thrillers I’ve read this year, only a slim few have managed to bring me anything in the way of surprise or originality.

So for now, thriller genre, I’m afraid I’m going to have to quit you. Hopefully the annoying changes that I’ve seen in recent years will begin to wane once there’s a new trend for publishers to follow. At which time, I’ll be waiting with open arms.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager (2017)

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Review #95

Ten years ago, Quincy Carpenter and a group of fellow college students ventured into the Pennsylvania woods for a party weekend at an isolated cabin. Forty-eight hours later, Quincy stumbled out of the forest, covered in blood and screaming that her friends had all been murdered. She was the sole survivor.

Now, Quincy has a loving fiance and a successful baking blog. She feels that she has finally managed to shed the image of the “final girl” that the media tried so hard to pin on her. But when a fellow survivor turns up dead and another appears on her doorstep, Quincy finds herself reliving the painful memories she has worked so hard to forget.

I reviewed another of author Riley Sager’s works earlier for this website, and thought that he relied too heavily on unnecessary plot twists and clumsy foreshadowing. For the bulk of Final Girls, Sager manages to avoid the ridiculous plot twists and focuses on a more character-driven story. Quinn is a relatively sympathetic character, although she does ramble on a bit too heavily about the same three subjects: Xanax, baking, and her fiance. I much preferred the enigmatic Sam Boyd, a fellow “Final Girl” who shows up at Quinn’s home and immediately makes herself at home. In my mind, she was Eliza Dushku’s character Faith from Buffy. We want to like her, but we are never sure whether or not we can trust her.

Sager’s use of flashbacks continues to be a thorn in my side. The sections that take place in 1989 are utterly useless. They do nothing to advance the overall plot, and they are far too short and deliberately vague to make us care for the fate of Quinn’s doomed friends. Just as in The Last Time I Lied, these sections felt clunky and heavy-handed. Sager relies too much on continuously stating “that one terrible thing that happened”, as if by repeating himself it will serve to drum up an atmosphere of suspense. Instead it just began to feel tedious.

I think I’m going to start avoiding the “popular” thrillers that crop up like daisies every year. Obviously there are a great deal of people who love them, or they would not constantly be popping on on my radar. However, I seem to forget that these novels are nearly always going to rely on the cliched tropes and nonsensical plot twist endings that have come to define the modern interpretation of the genre. I am tired of finding myself perpetually disappointed.

The ending for Final Girls in particular, was utterly ridiculous.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Final Girls here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

 

Book Review: You by Caroline Kepnes

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Review #93

When a beautiful young aspiring writer enters his bookshop, Joe Goldberg is immediately enthralled. He realizes they are destined to be together so he does what seems natural to him, he invades her life. By finding out where she lives, entering her apartment uninvited, and stealing her phone, Joe manages to insert himself in her life almost seamlessly. His obsession grows as the young woman begins to trust and even love him. Increasingly possessive, Joe becomes determined to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of his happiness, even if means killing people to do so.

First things first, this book was amazing. It is one of those novels that pulls you in from the very first page and then you can’t function normally in the real world until you finish it. It’s one of those novels where you sacrifice sleeping at night so you can read a few more chapters. If I were a smoker, this would be the kind of book that would have me chain-smoking out of pure nervous energy as I flipped the pages as quickly as possible.

You is non-stop tension from beginning to end. The narrator is a psychopath with delusions of grandeur. Joe truly believes that entering a strange woman’s apartment and masturbating on her bed is a perfectly natural way of expressing his adoration for her. Anything that he sees as a hindrance to their “love” is a threat that must be removed without hesitation or remorse. He is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Author Caroline Kepnes makes the bold choice to write her novel using the second-hand voice. I typically find this style of narration to be tedious and annoying, but here it gives us a look into Joe’s mind in a way that first or third hand perspective would not have done. It is a chilling, cold, reptilian brain that is all the more nerve-wracking because on the outside Joe would seem like a perfectly normal guy who works in a bookshop. But under the surface he is calculating and manipulative. Since we only see the female character through Joe’s eyes, she is basically a hyper-sexualized depiction of feminine perfection.

It’s almost sick how compelling Joe’s character is. I felt a little demented myself after spending so much time in his head. And even though you can probably guess the ending from the first chapter of the book, it got there in an entirely different way than I had originally anticipated.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It is twisted and dark and brutal. It may be triggering for survivors of rape or sexual assault. It will definitely make you think twice before striking up a conversation with a stranger.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find the sequel.

My rating: 5/5

You can find You here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Journey Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino (1999)

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Review #91

When a local pawnbroker is found murdered in an abandoned building in 1973, Detective Sasagaki begins the hunt for his killer. He eventually links two young people that seem to be connected with the crime. One is the sullen, brooding son of the murder victim, the other is the beautiful and captivating daughter of the prime suspect. The story of these individuals spans the course of twenty years as Detective Sasagaki pursues his murder suspect to the point of overwhelming obsession.

The cover states that author Keigo Higashino is the “Japanese Stieg Larrson”, and I did find a lot of similarity to Larrson’s Millenium trilogy. Journey Under the Midnight Sun occasionally suffers from too many characters, to the point where I had difficulty remembering who a specific character was and what their place was in the overall plot. Also similar to Larrson, too many of these characters have very similar surnames which added to my initial confusion.

The two central characters are Yukiho and Ryo, young children at the beginning of the novel whose lives are shaped by their relationship to one another. Yukiho seems to be blessed with preternatural beauty and grace. After the events that set the main plot into motion, we follow Yukiho through her expensive prep school, into marriage, and eventually life as a successful business woman. Wherever Yukiho goes, men fall in love with her and women envy her. As she moves through life, a series of unfortunate events seem to occur to those who would deny Yukiho the things she desires.

Ryo is the maladjusted son of the murdered pawnbroker. Unlike Yukiho, who was able to attend a prestigious school and university, Ryo is instead sent to the local public school. He discovers an interest in the emerging world of computer technology, and finds himself working alongside a group of people who steal video games and sell them on the black market. As Ryo sinks deeper into a dark world of crime and isolation, secrets from his past threaten to consume him.

The setting, which begins in the early 1970’s and spans nearly twenty years, is a fascinating look at the changes that occurred in Japanese society as it was swept up in the technological revolution and became a powerhouse in the computer and video game industries. The rise of Tokyo real estate prices, the beginning of the digital black market, and the loss of “traditional” class and gender roles all paint the portrait of a rapidly changing world where people could either change with the times or risk become obsolete.

This novel was a twisty-turny rollercoaster ride of a thriller. Despite the overabundance of supporting characters, they all have an important role to play and once I got them puzzled out they sprang to life with motivations and desires of their own. Journey Under the Midnight Sun is the written equivalent of film noir complete with chain-smoking detectives, alluring femme fatales, wide-eyed innocents, and devastating betrayals.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Journey Under the Midnight Sun here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage (2018)

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What would you do if you found yourself unable to love your child? What if your child didn’t love you?

Eight-year old Hanna is sweet and precocious for her father, even if she is unwilling to speak. But for her mother Suzette, Hanna is a manipulative and destructive child who seems hell-bent on destroying the relationship between her parents. As Suzette becomes increasingly strained by Hanna’s behavior, Hanna’s tricks become more sophisticated as she decides that she may have to remove her mother from the picture altogether.

I read a lot, and I mean a lot of horror novels, but this debut novel by author Zoje Stage scared the pants off me. The premise is entirely ridiculous and utterly silly but it’s crafted within enough care to keep the level of suspense heightened until the very end.

The split narrative varies between mother and daughter so that the reader comes to sympathize with both characters. It would be easy to write off Hanna as a deranged child psychopath like Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son, but that would be too easy. Instead we can understand Hanna’s skewed viewpoint and how she has somehow come to view her mother as the enemy. She is never depicted as a “demon child” so much as a confused and disturbed little girl. We can also understand how Suzette has reached a breaking point when it comes to parenting a increasingly difficult child.

There is a hint of Rosemary’s Baby in Suzette’s relationship with her husband. He is too often absent, and since Hanna puts on her best face for her Daddy, inclined to side with her. As the father, Alex is the least developed character and too often plays the role of biased mediator. There are many instances where he says that his wife is “over-reacting” and that there daughter is simply “under stimulated” at home. This is a fairly lazy plot device in 2018 when most parents are more involved in their children’s upbringing.

This book is sure to be controversial with the mommy crowd, particularly the ending. As a currently childless woman, I found the ideas presented in Baby Teeth to be simultaneously disturbing and highly entertaining. It was certainly a compelling read from beginning to end.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Baby Teeth here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (2006)

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Review #84

Shortly after a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital, Chicago journalist Camille Preaker is summoned back to her rural Missouri hometown to cover the brutal murders of two young girls. This means that Camille must get back in touch with her family, who she has been estranged from for many years. Her neurotic, hypochondriac mother doesn’t seem overjoyed to see her eldest daughter. Her half-sister has grown into a beautiful and manipulative teenager. And her stepfather seems content to sip cocktails and watch from the sidelines. While investigating in a town that seems increasingly hostile, Camille must struggle to maintain her own mental health while trying to find out everything she can about the deaths of two girls who begin to evoke memories from her own past.

Six years before Gone Girl became a runaway bestseller and changed the thriller genre forever Gillian Flynn published her debut novel, Sharp Objects. It’s easy to see Flynn’s obvious talent as well as how she grew as an author with her follow-up books. Sharp Objects is a shorter novel that immediately dives into a dark and haunted place and stays there for the duration.

Everyone in this book seems to be suffering from some form of deeply unhealthy obsession. Even the town itself has a kind of malignant tumor that infects the overall atmosphere. Camille’s family is a warped and twisted caricature of love. Her mother Adora demands control over everyone in her life and is willing to excise anyone who defies her authority, even her own daughter. Camille’s thirteen year old half-sister Amma has learned how to play her mother and everyone else in the town, consummately changing personalities to fit people’s individual perceptions. For Camille, who is dealing with a history of self-arm and anxiety, this is the worst place she could possibly be.

Gillian Flynn deserves props for presenting an honest and unflinching portrayal of mental illness. Camille’s fragile mental state is never romanticized, but neither does it define her entirely. She is more than her illness, and works every day to better herself. At the same time she is ashamed of what she believes to be a weakness, and self-medicates with drugs and alcohol to dull her pain. The longer Camille remains with her family, the stronger the urge to self-harm becomes.

I really enjoyed this novel for its dark and twisted portrayal of familial bonds. The tangled relationship between Camille and those who are supposed to love and support her are described in a realistic if incredibly destructive manner. I could easily relate to Flynn’s protagonist who has to hold on to her inner strength when it becomes nearly impossible to do so.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Sharp Objects here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager (2018)

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Review #76

Thirteen year old Emma Davis is beyond excited to be a camper at the exclusive Camp Nightingale in upstate New York. She immediately becomes enamored with Vivan, Allison, and Natalie, her three older bunkmates who take Emma under their wing and treat her like a little sister. Vivian’s favorite game is Two Truths and a Lie, and the girls spend their nights playing. It all ends one night when Emma awakens to find that her new friends have vanished without a trace.

Fifteen years later, Emma is a rising star in the art scene. She is haunted by the memories of the missing girls, and finds herself painting them and them covering them up over and over. Her work eventually catches the notice of Franny Harris-Smith, the former owner of Camp Nightingale. The camp is re-opening, and Franny offers Emma a job teaching art to a new group of girls. Emma agrees and returns to Camp Nightingale in the hopes of finally solving the mystery of the missing girls and ridding herself of the ghosts and guilt of the past.

This novel is an entry in the increasingly popular genre that I like to call the “predictably unpredictable thriller”. These novels have become more and more prevalent following the runaway success of Gone Girl and include such entries as The Girl on the Train and The Woman in Cabin 10. Things to look for in the predictably unpredictable thriller include a deliberately enigmatic plot that seeks to squeeze every possible drop of mystery out of its storyline before finally revealing its secrets. Expect clunky and unhelpful foreshadowing. The reveal itself will unwind in about fifteen stages, and will contain just enough logic that it cannot be considered a cheat. The final ten or so pages will typically include one final twist that leaves everything that came before open to interpretation. Like the Halloween films, these novels can’t be satisfied without one final scare, no matter how unnecessary.

Honestly, that about sums up everything you need to know about The Last Time I Lied. None of the characters are particularly interesting because they only exist to say ominous things and drop hints that more often than not turn out to be red herrings.

So far it sounds as if I hated this novel, but that truly isn’t the case. Riley Sager is a competent author and the overall storyline was compelling enough that I finished the book in two days. It’s more that I find the whole psychological thriller genre to have jumped the shark. Instead of a series of events which serve to unravel a mystery that makes sense when viewed as a whole, it’s becoming more and more common to cram in as many twists and turns as possible. The problem is that too often those twists and turns come at the expense of a cohesive plot.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Last Time I Lied here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: The River at Night by Erica Ferencik (2017)

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Review #59

When her outgoing and tenacious friend Pia suggets a river rafting trip in the isolated woods of Maine, Wini is uncertain and afraid but ultimately agrees to attend. Together with their other friends Rachel and Sandra, the four women meet up with a young man named Rory who guarantees them a rafting trip that is unforgettable and “off the grid”. But their off the grid adventure quickly becomes disastrous when the unexpected occurs.

Reading this novel, I was strongly reminded of Neil Marshall’s 2005 horror film The Descent. The Descent is a film about six female cave divers who find more than they bargained for in the depths of the Appalachian caverns. It has strong similarities to The River at Night. An almost complete lack of meaningful male characters. The love/hate relationship that often exists in groups of female friends. The sense of humility that people feel when confronted with the sheer power of nature. Since The Descent is one of my all-time favorite horror films, I was immediately drawn in to the story of the four woman who venture into the wilds of Northern Maine.

There is also an element of the classic “cabin in the woods” genre. We are given numerous descriptions of the dangers of the region before the women embark on their trip. They stay at a pokey little lodge the night before their trip, and one of the women begins to feel apprehensive about their upcoming expedition. There’s even a scene with the archetypal “guardian at the gate”, in this case an overweight shirtless man and his cronies who have recently shot a deer, who warn the group to turn back, that this river “does not belong to them”. All that was missing was for one of the group members to begin making statements like “What could go wrong?” or “I’ll be right back”.

Despite all the apparent cliches, this genre has maintained its popularity because it’s really good fun. The River at Night is no exception, it promises a suspenseful and thrilling adventure in the woods and that is exactly what it delivers. I was easily drawn into Wini’s narrative. She is a woman nearing middle age who is beginning to realize that she hasn’t accomplished much with her life. Her friends are all in a similar situation, having dealt with disease, divorce, and raising children for so long that their true selves seem to have been lost in the muddle. The rafting trip represents a chance to reclaim a piece of their fearless youth, and it is only once things begin to go awry that they realize how impossible a task they had set for themselves.

Ferencik has an imperfect grasp of foreshadowing which caused me to raise an eyebrow now and then. She will make an ominous statement about future events, only for said event to occur in the following paragraph. That doesn’t exactly keep me on my toes. And some of the troubles that beset the group seemed a bit contrived. But these were minor flaws which did not take away from my overall enjoyment of the novel.

Overall, The River at Night offers a fun and exciting addition to the nature thriller genre. Reading this novel felt effortless, like stepping into cool water on a hot summer’s day.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!