Author Notes – How Gillian Flynn taught me to love the female protagonist.

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Call it a result of playground mean girl trauma, those prickly remnants of high school girl-on-girl crime, or feeling out of sorts in my own female skin, but I have always had trouble relating to female characters. Strange then, that it took psychopathy-personified Amy Dunne, to prompt a definitive female character love in this reader.

Don’t get me wrong. Prior to, I had quite a few female favourites. Claire Abshire from The Time Traveller’s Wife. Lisbeth Salander, kick-ass Millennium Trilogy anti-heroine. Hunger Games tribute, Katniss Everdeen. The list goes on. I admired these women, saw something of my own story in them. But, as a reader, I felt jaded. And then I cracked open Gone Girl and met Amy Dunne.

I think a lot of readers were most likely introduced to Gillian Flynn through this, her third novel. It was, of course, an instant bestseller and lit a fuse that sparked the more popular than ever domestic noir trend. It is a menacing, uncomfortably intimate portrait of a marriage gone awry, and it made me fall in slightly morbid love with a new type of female character: intriguing, intelligent and very, very bad. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I needed to find a scorned and unapologetically calculated woman on the page. And Gillian Flynn delivered. She made me love a female character.

I have since added her older titles to my collection, as well, and her women have continued to enthral me. In Dark Places I found Libby Day, cracked and broken.  “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ,” Libby says. “Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.” And reading that I knew, that as a flesh-and-blood woman, I have felt that same meanness. I have spent many nights taping over my own cracks in the dark, polishing them to present a flawless delusion to the world. And reading about Libby Day, I felt like just maybe it would be okay to show those cracks sometimes.

In Sharp Objects, Flynn’s debut, I was gut-punched by the dysfunctional mother-daughter dynamic between Adora, Amma and Camille Preaker. Another deeply emotionally unhealthy set of women. There is a line in this novel, which reads to the effect that not all women are fit to be mothers and not all girls are fit to be daughters – and again, I related. I needed to see the lack of motherly instinct, the opposite of what is seen as feminine. And I loved those characters. For being flawed and dangerous, to each other and themselves.

Womanhood is brutal. It’s frightening to be judged and stereotyped. By society, by men, often by ourselves. I think that’s why I appreciate the bravery of painting women in the often unflattering light Gillian Flynn does. I think there’s something necessary in encountering this type of female character, of delving into the darkness and the unthinkable. Perhaps we all need to find our own brand of flawed and dangerous.

Visit the incomparable Ms Flynn’s website here.
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Final Girls by Riley Sager

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“We were, for whatever reason, the lucky ones who survived when no one else had. Pretty girls covered in blood.”

Okay. I know that July is still a long way off, but I’ve been itching to write about this book ever since I finished reading a proof copy a few months ago. It is pure crime-junkie heroin, has been tipped as the ‘first great thriller of 2017’ by none other than the master himself, Stephen King, and it is absolutely worth all the hype already brewing online.

If this debut is anything to go by, I hope that we’ll be reading a lot more from Riley Sager in future. Her razor sharp writing carves a plot that will thrill even the most jaded of crime readers. College student, Quincy Carpenter, is found blood-soaked and traumatised at the scene of a forest cabin massacre that claimed the lives of her six friends. She is instantly dubbed a Final Girl by the tabloid vultures – a nickname first given to Lisa Milner several years before when she survived a sorority house rampage, and also to Samantha Boyd, another last-girl-standing following a horrific bloodbath. Despite the media fascination, the three girls never meet, but ten years later when Lisa is found with slit wrists, an apparent suicide, Samantha unexpectedly makes an appearance. Soon Quincy’s attempt at post-massacre normality is disrupted as the volatile Samantha forces herself deeper and deeper into her everyday life. Events spiral recklessly, the plot twists come fast and voracious, and you’ll be breathless and stunned at the end of it all. That final twist will knock your socks off.

This is seriously good reading – definitely one of the books I’ll be eagerly recommending to fellow bookworms this year. And, if you simply can’t wait until mid-year to get your hands on a copy, head over to Dead Good and feed that psychological thriller appetite with a first chapter extract.

Author Notes – Elizabeth Kostova

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This year, I not only want to write more about the books I have read and loved, but I want to write about the writers behind those stories. About how I came to be introduced to their writing and why I’ve continued to add these authors’ books to my shelf.  Authors who have inspired my own love of words and writing, who have taught me to see the world a bit differently, and who just write so darn well that their stories cause me to neglect my to-do list.

“To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history…”

A couple of years ago, in my hometown, a most splendid event occurred – a bookshop opened. I would later start my bookselling career in that very bookshop, but that is a tale for another time. Back then, I was just another bespectacled bookworm perusing those sacred bookshelves. I had recently finished Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series, was suffering severe Lestat-withdrawal, and needed a quick fang-fix. I stumbled upon something much, much more engrossing: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. This novel introduced me to the legend of Vlad Tepes, triggered an endless fascination with Eastern Europe (a someday-trip still tops my bucket list), taught me to accept that even though a character might readily share an enthralling and intimate narration of her family history, you might still never learn her name, and made me long for a dragon tattoo long before I met Lisbeth Salander. It also made me an instant fan of the author.

Later that same year, I greedily devoured her second novel, The Swan Thieves, a story of art and obsession, whose characters showed me the many facets of that thing we call love. Again, I found her writing and use of language arresting. Her slow burn plots are intriguing and deeply satisfying, perfect fiction fare for a history junkie such as me. And she doesn’t rush a story – as is evident by those impressive page counts – her narratives unfold slowly, but deliberately. She writes characters you long to meet and draws real life places in ways that make you itch to grab your passport. There’s an intelligence and elegance to her story telling that makes it hard to pull yourself away once you start reading. This year, she will release a third novel, The Shadow Land. Needless to say, I am sinfully excited to get my hands on a copy, come April. It has been seven years since the release of The Swan Thieves and I’m aching to return to the folds of Ms Kostova’s creative mind.

Criticism? She might be a bit too slow on the uptake for some readers. Fast-paced, quick reads you will not find in her repertoire. Her books require a reader’s patience and appreciation for the art of storytelling.

If you have a taste for folklore, the nearly forgotten and haunted histories of Europe, and the characters that inhabit them, Elizabeth Kostova should certainly be on your shelf. Best read on a wintry night, with a cup of Turkish coffee in hand and an eerie wind rattling the windows.

 

Author photo: Mike Kepka, The Chronicle

We Were Liars by Emily Lockhart

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“We are liars. We are beautiful and privileged. We are cracked and broken.”

The second I finished this book, I had to flip back to the beginning and skim the pages front to back hunting for the subtle little clues that may hint at the shocking end twist – and they were rather unnerving when spotted. This novel is clever, the writing superb and, if her other books prove to be as addictive, Emily Lockhart may well be my new favourite YA author.

I’m not too keen to write about the plot of this novel, at the risk of revealing too much. I didn’t read any reviews prior to reading it myself, and I do think its haunting impact is so much greater going into it blind. This is certainly not your standard YA fare. Even though an obligatory teen-romance does play out beneath the summer sun, it is so central to the novel’s dark tragedy that a touch of sentimentality is easily forgiven. This is much more a story of family dynamics, loss, guilt and the sometimes misplaced passions and impatience of youth. Of coming of age, while traversing the ever changing terrain of relationships and coming to terms with life’s inherent traumas.

I enjoyed the languid accounts of summers past and present, and devoured the darker turns which are revealed slowly and kept me eagerly turning the pages – perfect pacing! Lockhart’s writing is sophisticated and vividly beautiful, several passages left me with those delicious language-nerd goosebumps only exceptional writing can achieve:

“Welcome to my skull.
A truck is rolling over the bones of my neck and head. The vertebrae break, the brains pop and ooze. A thousand flashlights shine in my eyes. The world tilts.”

“He cried like a man, not like a boy. Not like he was frustrated or hadn’t gotten his way, but like life was bitter. Like his wounds couldn’t be healed.”

“One day when no one else was around, I went into the craft room at the back of the ground floor. I touched Gran’s collection of fabrics, the shiny bright buttons, the coloured threads. My head and shoulders melted first, followed by my hips and knees. Before long I was a puddle, soaking into the pretty cotton prints. I drenched the quilt she never finished, rusted the metal parts of her sewing machine. I was pure liquid loss.”

Exquisite.

If you’re a reader who likes your YA to veer into more serious territory, this needs to be on your shelf. Dog days in this novel are bittersweet with the sting of private drama, and chances are that not a single character or event will be quite what you initially suspect.

Black Eyed Susan by Julia Heaberlin

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From Part 1:
“My mother she killed me,
My father he ate me,
My sister gathered together my bones,
Tied them in a silken handkerchief,
Laid them beneath the juniper-tree,
Kywitt, kywitt, what a beautiful bird I am!
– Tessie, age 10, reading aloud to her grandfather from ‘The Juniper Tree’, 1988”

Whenever I see a phrase such as “Thriller of the year” slapped on a book cover, I feel a tiny pang of sympathy for the story that needs to fulfil such a promise. Those exact words are stamped in the top left corner of my copy of Black Eyed Susans, and even though it’s a sure-fire way to tease out my inner book critic, this book not only lived up to every expectation, but I now count myself a Julia Heaberlin fan for life.

Tessa Cartwright is a Black-Eyed Susan, the clever nickname given by the media to the victims of a sadistic serial killer. As a 16-year-old, she was found dumped in a shallow grave – the ground covered in a spread of black and yellow flowers – with the unidentified bodies of three other girls. Alive. Her testimony helped put away the Black-Eyed Susans killer, even though she remembered very little as to his identity. But now, nearly two decades after her ordeal, the case has been reopened, the faceless Susans’ bones will be dug up and subjected to modern forensics.  And, chillingly, someone has planted a patch of yellow petaled flowers beneath Tessa’s bedroom window. Either it is a cruel gag by a serial killer fanatic, or an innocent man is on death row for the crimes of a killer that’s still on the loose.

I loved this book. It has all those little aspects that makes for a great thriller. Pitch-perfect writing. Seamless suspense. Taut plotting that kept me engaged and itching to discover the who, what and why. The points of view alternate between teenaged Tessa, post-attack and preparing to testify, and present day Tessa, a single, overprotective mother and artist. Present and past intertwine perfectly as adult Tessa tries to unravel her monster’s true identity. I certainly did not guess at who the killer was until just before the reveal – and it was completely unexpected!

One of the book’s most engrossing aspects, were the scattering of minor characters – lawyers, forensic scientists and activists and their pro/con views on the death penalty, which is a major plot line as it becomes increasingly clear that an innocent man may be executed.  The modern forensics used to identify the unknown Susans was fascinating and excellently researched – the descriptions and methods delighted my inner CSI nerd. There is also a nod to the O.J. Simpson case, which teenaged Tessa follows during the preparation for her own trial. I thought the inclusion of that bit of American true- crime history was quite clever, as it ties in well with the justice system’s reasoning in Tessa’s case and their initial conviction of the Black-Eyed Susans killer.

With this book, Julia Heaberlin certainly has conjured an elegant and sinister thriller that entertains and chills, and creeps into your subconscious just like a tangle of black-eyed Susans. Highly recommended.

The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

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“I watched the house. It watched me back through long, baleful windows.”

If you peruse my bookish scribblings on the regular, you’ll know that should you hand me anything written by my favourite of favourites, Gillian Flynn, I’ll be a most blissfully content little bookworm. And while The Grownup is a mere 65-page tumble into Ms Flynn’s dark literary conjurings, it is a very satisfying one indeed.

A young woman, dabbling in the fine art of faking psychic intuition (and moonlighting as a sex worker, on the side), is approached by a woman named Susan Burke, who is convinced that the Victorian mansion – aptly called Carterhook Manor, a name bound to delight anyone fond of dwellings cloaked in mystery – she shares with her family, is possessed by a malevolent entity. Even more troubling, the house seems to influence her 15-year-old stepson, Miles in a peculiar way. Miles is the type of cold, calculated teenaged boy you dread encountering in a dilapidated hallway even more than you would a little girl ghost. Our initially sceptic protagonist is equally uneasy about both his strange behaviour towards her, as well as his seemingly unperturbed attitude towards the unnerving occurrences within the manor. And once she learns the truth about the mansion and its current inhabitants, in a most delicious twist, she finds herself entangled in a set of very unique circumstances.

Besides her excellent writing, Flynn has a talent for creating characters that are particularly devious, damaged or emotionally stumped. In this novella, just like her books, I deeply enjoyed her diversely damaged cast: the neurotic mother and wife, the lady drifter looking to make a quick buck and unafraid to exploit others or herself, and then the addition of Miles. Creepy, creepy Miles.

This story had me goosebumpy and chewing a thumbnail to the quick, long before the final page. A highly recommended read.

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

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“The wife is always the last to know, right?”

I’ll admit it took quite a while for me to get into this latest literary offering of domestic noir. I’ve read the words “Gone Girl” in reviews and that comparison never fails to make me feel a bit squeamish, as few books truly manage to capture that special thrill as excellently as Gillian Flynn does. And sadly this one did not.

I thought the setup for this book was quite intriguing: a couple leaves their baby girl home alone while they attend a party at their neighbours’ house, they agree to check on her every half hour and since they’re just next door, what could possibly go wrong? But, you guessed it, they return home in the early AM and find that baby Cora has gone missing. Who took her? Why? The detective assigned to the case has little hope to find her alive and, disturbingly, his suspicions immediately turn on the parents. Are they really involved, can their version of events be trusted, can they trust each other? It becomes a twist-and-turns dash to find the baby and uncover the truth of what happened that night.

It’s a parent’s worse nightmare plot and it reveals just enough at times to keep you interested, and once I did get into it I read most of it in a single sitting. Did I thoroughly enjoy it? Not really, but almost. The plot fell flat quite quickly, and even though a few red herrings are thrown into the mix in the form of character’s anxieties about their actions, perceived guilt and the revelation of family secrets, it is rather predictable. Most bizarre is a strange final chapter that seems to have been tacked on at the last minute; completely unnecessary. What I did enjoy most was the narrating style. It’s not the best written book I’ve ever read, but I liked being a fly on the wall and watching these characters’ reactions to their unusual circumstances. They doubt, lie and suspect not only each other but also themselves. That rapid spinning out of control as things become heated, is something I always enjoy encountering in a novel. And, I did keep reading because I just had to know what really happened to baby Cora. Well done on keeping me hooked, then.

To me, what makes a domestic thriller just that – slither up your spine thrilling – is that the reader is confronted with the idea that a trusted spouse, friend or a neighbour has something sinister up their sleeve. The amateur criminal inevitably overplays their hand and it’s watching those slip ups and caught-in-the-act instances unfold, that makes this genre so compelling. These things could be happening in the house next door and, sometimes, they do. I do think if you’re looking for a quick read to help you out of a reading slump, this might be for you. Otherwise, there are better and more chilling tales of what goes on behind closed doors.

Paper Towns by John Green

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“I could never stop thinking that maybe she loved mysteries so much that she became one.”

I haven’t read a whole lot of John Green, but I like the way he turns the boy-meets-girl YA trope into something you don’t feel embarrassed to have read. He has a way of pouring a bit of edge and cool onto what could be sappy and pastel-clouded in the hands of someone else, while still retaining that all important sentimentality that makes you long for stolen glances in school hallways past. You only need to skim the blurb on the back cover to know that Paper Towns has this recipe down pat.

Quentin Jacobsen, who also goes by the ever so funky (do the kids still say that?) abbreviated nickname, Q, has been in love with the same unattainable girl since childhood. One Margo Roth Spiegelman. Of course, she of the most impressively unsuburban of suburban names, hardly shows and interest in him. Then one night she climbs through his window in a very Dawson’s Creek fashion and declares him her partner in pursuit of revenge on several classmates who have wronged her. But the next morning, Margo is missing. She’s run away before, but this time is different. This time it feels final. And Q – his fluttering heart beating with young love and gallant endeavours – sets out to find her, following a set of cryptic clues Margo left behind. As he unravels the clues, Q learns a thing or two about putting unattainable girls on pedestals and getting one’s heart broken in the process.

I liked this book. The characters are nerdy-cool, the dialogue witty, and even though the plot is a bit of an eye-roller, I rather fancy the idea of a love-struck boy setting out to save his first love from whatever peril he pictures her to be in. But… as is my glass-half-empty way, I also smirked shrewdly at the touch of conceit to both Margo’s knack for drama, as well as Q’s rose coloured glasses brand of heroism. Still, I enjoyed having my inner teenaged heart ripped to shreds along with Q’s. His journey to find Margo turns into quite an adventure complete with abandoned buildings and a near-death experience, and there’s a grand lesson there about people and situations not being what they seem. I also have to add that those clues mentioned before, are really quite clever.

No one writes this type of YA quite like John Green does. It will definitely make you laugh, maybe shed a tear, and it has that slivering shadow of darker adult emotion and actions to it if you read just deep enough. You might just finish this one in a single sitting. A word of caution: please avoid the train wreck movie adaptation. Margo and Q’s story needs to be read to be appreciated.

The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr

florabanks“I am really here.
Yet I know I am not.
I am inside something that must be buried in my head.
I am layers deep in my own brain.”

Reading this book is like eating bittersweet cotton candy. It’s such a wonderful story about everyone’s favourite brand of treacled torment: the perils of first love. And yes, the pile of teary tissues on your duvet will grow with every turn of the page.

Flora Banks is 17. She has just kissed a bespectacled and forbidden dream-boat on a beach. And she remembers it – which is a rather big deal for Flora, because she suffers from anterograde amnesia. Helpful sticky-notes, scribbles on her arms and her parents’ and best friend’s guidance shape her day-to-day world. She has not remembered a single event since she was ten. But now Flora cannot forget that kiss. There’s just a slight obstacle: the boy on the beach is moving to the Arctic. Convinced that he is the key to unlocking her memories, Flora decides to risk leaving her sheltered life and travel to the Arctic to find him. But, as she soon discovers, this is not the type of book where the young lead gets her miraculous and dreamy ending.

Flora is definitely the sweetest character I have met in a long time. Her naivety and bravery and her absolute believe in that cure-all called love, is so endearing. I rooted for her from the very first page and I applaud Emily Barr for how incredibly well written this character is. Not only is it difficult to write a convincing 10-year-old, but to write about an almost adult trapped in her 10-year-old self’s memories, and do it with such depth, is truly something special. I was initially worried that I would grow bored reading about a character who has to remind herself of where she is and what she is meant to be doing, every few pages, but the plot moves along quickly and the story stays interesting throughout. Flora’s is an unforgettable journey with a beautiful soul.

The One Memory of Flora Banks is slated for release in January 2017. Perfect for fans of John Green, or anyone who has just suffered a broken heart and needs something to read while they hibernate beneath the covers and devour an, upon reflection, appalling amount of chocolate truffles.

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

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A breeze shook rain out of new leaves onto their hair,
but in their pursuit of eternity they never noticed the chill.

So, for the first time in my adult life, I own a garden.  No, no, not just a slip of dirt housing a die-hard cactus battling for survival as I nourish it with the dregs of my bottled water: An actual plot of soil. A little lot of earth with the potential to become a wilderness of flowers and foliage and, quite possibly, play host to an array of succulents once I realise that anything more dainty is doomed to scorching on my side of the country.

I have toiled and weeded and planted – all within the past week of my moving in – and I type this with slightly battered city girl-hands that never dreamed that they’d be expected to handle a shovel and sow seeds. Yesterday afternoon, I thought I might as well admit that my idyllic gardening reveries have gone to rest in the puffy clouds above. This is back-breaking stuff. I nearly wept after accidentally destroying a little gecko’s home and I did not really need to make the acquaintance of those wondrous creepy crawlies Mother Nature keeps buried beneath her soil. But then… Having my hands in the mud, really feeling the earth, shaping and moulding this piece of neglected land into something pretty – it’s difficult to put into words how humbling that is. And, naturally, this reminded me of a book. A book I read a while ago, but haven’t been in just the right mood to write about until now: Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer.

One of my favourite books is The Poisonwood Bible, simply because of Kingsolver’s incredible writing and her ability to paint characters and situations that are deeply affecting, but never sentimental. I think a reader’s first encounter with an author’s work becomes the standard to which all subsequent novels are held, for better or worse, and this novel was no different for me. Prodigal Summer has that same lush, compelling prose, but it’s quite different in every other aspect and it did fall just a little short of dethroning its predecessor.  The story dragged a little here and there and sometimes I found it a bit too easy to put it down and carry on with my day. But I am nit-picking, in truth, because overall I really enjoyed this book.

Set in and around an Appalachian farming community, the plot follows three characters that could not appear any less connected at first glance, but whose lives become more and more intertwined as the story progresses. There is Deanna, who is living by herself in the woods. She has absconded from the rush of modern life and found her peace in solitude. That is, until a young hunter unexpectedly enters her secluded life. There are lessons to be learned for both of them. Then we meet Lusa, an etymologist at odds with her recently deceased husband’s family. Lusa was definitely my favourite character. I really related to her feeling of impostor syndrome, and I really rooted for her and was just as surprised as she was by the actions of people she never dared hope would support her. Lastly, there is Garnett. He is endearing and sweetly oblivious, and has been trying to revive the American chestnut tree for most of his life. He provides a bit of comic relief from the heavier thread that runs the length of the book. And then, the grandest character of all, and present on every page – the Appalachian countryside itself.

I am convinced that no one could ever write about nature and all its facets in the same sensual and reverential manner as Kingsolver does in this book. It is an absolute pleasure to immerse yourself into her rich descriptions of moths and coyotes and chestnuts and the people who adulate everything Nature creates. I felt as if I could just reach out to the page and lay my hand upon a moss covered tree trunk or bring my nose right down to the rain-drenched soil and take in its scent while reading this.

This is absolutely the perfect novel to read outside on a balmy afternoon, slouched in your favourite garden chair, with your toes wiggled in a patch of grass.