Reviews

Review: THE OUTSIDER, by Stephen King

Once a staunch Stephen King fan, in later years I was often disappointed by his works, finding them less engaging than I was used to in the past, and for several years I gave up on keeping updated with his new production, but for some reason the premise of The Outsider compelled me to try again, and now I’m glad I listened to my proverbial “book vibes”.  Even though this is far from a perfect story, certainly not comparable to the heights of The Stand, or Salem’s Lot, just to name a couple, which I consider the peaks of Stephen King’s career, The Outsider went a long way toward reviving my faith in this author.

The novel starts in the immediate aftermath of a brutal rape/murder perpetrated on a child: forensic evidence and some witness statements seem to point the investigators in the direction of Terry Maitland, an apparently flawless husband and father of two, beloved teacher and the coach of the city’s junior baseball team. Fueled by the gruesomeness of the act and the need to quickly secure the murderer to justice, lead detective Ralph Anderson puts aside some of the discrepancies that surfaced in the course of the investigation and arrests Maitland publicly, during one of the pivotal baseball games of the season.

While the man keeps protesting his innocence, evidence to support his claim – and which contradicts both the forensic findings and the witness statements – comes to the fore: at the time of the kidnapping and murder of the young victim, Maitland was in another city, attending a conference with some colleagues, not to mention being caught on camera by the TV crews covering the event.  Despite the doubts caused by this paradox, and the sheer impossibility of a man being present in two places at once, the justice machine moves forward without pause, the ripples caused by the following events expanding in a dramatic and unpredictable way.

Even though this story starts as a mystery/thriller, anyone who has read any previous work by Stephen King can imagine that the explanation for such an impossible occurrence resides in the realm of the supernatural, and after a while it becomes clear where the story is headed, but it hardly matters that the reader is able to picture how events will develop, because this is the classic case in which the journey is more important than the destination.  And The Outsider is indeed a compelling journey, one that makes it difficult to put the book down.

One of the narrative strengths of Mr. King’s storytelling is his ability to describe the dynamics and mindset of small communities, and here the citizens of Flint City – the place where the first part of the novel is based – are no exception: once presented with a possible target for the (quite understandable, of course) shock and rage following the heinous crime, they are more than ready to focus them on Maitland, uncaring of the fact that until the day prior to the arrest he was an upstanding and respected citizen, one to whom many of them brought their kids for baseball practice, a person they liked and trusted.  Once the mob mentality has taken over, they forget all too easily the “innocent until proven guilty” tenet, and become deaf and blind to any kind of evidence that might sow doubt about the man’s guilt, transforming the citizenry into a blood-thirsty horde not unlike those that stood at the foot of the guillotine waiting for heads to roll.

While reading these pages, especially those concerned with Maitland’s arraignment and the descriptions of the crowd surrounding the tribunal, I often thought that we don’t need to look for the supernatural or the downright horrific to feel dread, because human nature is more than enough, and sometimes it can manifest in ways that give the lie to the more nightmarish of Lovecraftian creatures. And I confess that I was more frightened by the portrayal of that maddened crow whose fear and need for retribution debased them to a nearly bestial level, than I was about the actual “monster” of the story, because I know that this latter was generated out of the author’s inventiveness, while the mob mentality is an unescapable fact of life.

Another fascinating aspect of this story comes from the dichotomy between hard facts and the uncanny, and the ability of the human mind to bridge the gap between the two: King’s characters often find themselves challenged by the weird and the unbelievable and are forced to test their mettle against something their minds refuse to consider as part of the world. In this case, as in previous stories I read, they might emerge triumphant but  are never left unscathed – the price to be paid for victory and survival is the loss of innocence, of the belief in the predictability of the universe surrounding them.

Still, as I said before, The Outsider is not a perfect story, and there are some details that kept nagging at me and prevented me from fully enjoying it or from giving it the higher rating I envisioned as I was still immersed in the narrative.  For starters, the slow, meticulous buildup of tension seems to come to an end far too quickly and far too easily: the mundane way in which evil is vanquished feels too abrupt and almost comical – a sharp contrast with everything that went on before.  Another, and stronger, issue I had concerned the portrayal of women, since their characterization made me think that the novel might have been written (or set) in the ‘60s rather than in the present.  Jeannie Anderson is one such example, her supportive demeanor toward her husband looking more the product of a “stand by your man” attitude rather than being half of an equal partnership; then there is the only woman detective in the Flint City Police Department, and her role is that of being hugely pregnant more than offering any investigative contribution.

The greatest disappointment, however, came from the character of Holly Gibney, a private investigator: hers is a peculiar personality, one saddled with psychological and behavioral problems that counterbalance a sharp, inquisitive mind, and as such she could have been a very intriguing figure in the economy of the story, but her lack of self-esteem and her inability to fully accept the acknowledgement of her value seemed geared to undermine any contribution she offered to the task force.  Which ended up being kind of annoying…

Nevertheless, I did enjoy The Outsider and I consider it a welcome return to my old “Stephen King haunts” after such a long time…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: 13 MINUTES, by Sarah Pinborough

 

My previous experience with Sarah Pinborough’s work through her novels Mayhem and Murder led me to expect only the best from this author, but I have to say that with 13 Minutes those expectations were more than exceeded: from start to finish this story kept me glued to the book in an adrenaline-rich rollercoaster that gave the label of ‘unputdownable’ a whole new level of meaning.

16-year old Natasha is rescued from the icy river in which she fell, and literally brought back to life by the paramedics, since she was clinically dead for 13 minutes. No one knows how she ended in the freezing waters, least of all Natasha herself who suffers from retrograde amnesia, so the investigators are looking both at attempted suicide – although nothing in Natasha’s life appears to lead in this direction – and at foul play.

This latter option seems to gain some substance when Natasha notices the strange behavior of her two best friends, Jenny and Hayley, who seem to be hiding something: the three of them, dubbed “the Barbies” by their school mates because of their looks and popularity, used to be a close knit group standing at the top of their peers’ social standing, equally admired and envied by everyone, but now there seems to be an insincere overtone in Jenny’s and Hayley’s demeanor, something that alarms and arouses Tasha’s suspicions.  For this reason she places some distance between herself and the other two Barbies, and reconnects with Rebecca, who used to be her best friend when they were younger and was mercilessly discarded when Tasha opted to move in more glamorous circles.

For her own part Becca, despite the devil-may-care attitude developed after being shunned by Tasha, is all too eager to resume the friendship and is able to silence her qualms about ditching her new friend Hannah, a plain but steadfast girl with whom she’s become close, in her turn adopting the same heartless approach exhibited by Tasha in the past: she’s aware of the profound injustice of the whole situation, but at the same time she is consumed by the need to get to the bottom of the mystery and in that way regain her place by Tasha’s side.

From this point on, the hints and clues about what might really have happened in that fateful night are laid out in a breadcrumb trail that offers misdirections and red herrings rather than answers, until the final revelation that comes as a shock and a surprise – at least that’s what it turned out to be for me since I could never have figured out that this was the intention of the author all along.

The first consideration that came to my mind once I closed the book was that I’m glad to have gone through my teenage years without major troubles, never having had to face the kind of peer pressures that Sarah Pinborough describes in this novel: granted, when I was a teenager (which was a very, very long time ago…) there was none of the aggressive viciousness described here, none of the sick thrill of ganging up on a victim for the simple pleasure of seeing to their moral and social destruction – of course there were closed groups and cliques even back then, but those who were not part of them were simply left to their own devices, not targeted as the victims of choice in the guise of Stephen King’s Carrie, for example.

Here though, physical looks and social standing seem to be the parameters by which people are measured, with those at the top (in this case the Barbies) laying down the laws ruling the microcosm represented by the school environment. Such a volatile mix is also compounded by the presence of social media and their swift diffusion of news, comments and judgements which can make or break one’s image with a viral swiftness of propagation.  When considering the ease with which the mere perception of an individual can be changed on the sole basis of a post or a comment that’s shared almost instantly across the web, it’s uncomfortably evident that this is nothing short of a lethal weapon that’s being wielded by people who seem ignorant of its inherent danger – or are they?  While it’s clear that teenage years are the most difficult transition time in the growth of a human being, it’s also evident that what used to be unthinking childish malice ends up becoming a well-honed knife these young people know how to wield with unerring, cruel precision.

On this disturbing background, the main characters all come across as quite unlikable, a mix of shallowness and immaturity that does not spare even Becca, who on the surface prides herself in not caring for the Barbies’ less… grounded interests, but deep down feels the need to belong, to be accepted, and for the sake of this acceptance does not think twice about adopting the other girls’ mean standards of behavior.  What’s interesting here is that the story changes its point of view every time the author switches from one character to another, and after a while it becomes clear that many of them – if not all – are unreliable narrators, some of them because they don’t have all the clues to move forward, and some of them because they are lying outright, as the reader discovers at some point.

And this is indeed the major strength of 13 Minutes: Sarah Pinborough leads her readers through a merry chase in which she keeps offering ambiguous leads that take them toward dead ends, each time building what seems like a sure development only to pull the rug from under their feet at the last minute, and leaving them clueless and disoriented and back to square one. Manipulation is indeed the code word here: of emotions, needs and desires visited by characters on each other, and of expectations and perceptions offered by the author to her readers and then dismantled with a snap of her fingers.

I am unable to recall a story that both baffled and impressed me in such a way, but one thing is certain, that my admiration for Ms. Pinborough’s skills reached new heights and confirmed her in the “must read everything she writes” position she already enjoyed.

Very highly recommended…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: SOMEONE LIKE ME, by M.R. Carey

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

With an author like M.R. Carey, who made himself known with such outstanding works like The Girl with All the Gifts and The Boy on the Bridge, there is no question that the announcement of a new book of his would catch my attention, and my curiosity: Someone Like Me deals with a totally different genre compared to the two previous books I read, but still it offers a compelling, impossible-to-put-down experience.

Reviewing Someone Like Me proved to be something of a reviewing challenge, however, because I found myself walking the thin edge between description and spoiler and trying to avoid the latter as much as I could, since there are some revelations, in the course of the book, that should be met on their own, so this post might sound a little vague, for which I apologize in advance.

The story revolves around two main characters, quite different from each other: Liz Kendall is a single mother, who is trying to raise her two kids – child Molly and teenager Zac – while facing the aftermath of the divorce from her husband Marc, a violent man prone to domestic abuse.  Returning the children to their mother after a court-sanctioned weekend with them, Marc enters into an argument with Liz and blinded by rage tries to throttle her: in the past Liz never reacted to Marc’s violence, partly because she did not have the strength of character to resist and partly because she thought that offering herself as a target she would turn Marc’s rage away from the kids.  This time, however, something seems to take control of Liz’s willpower: grabbing a broken bottle from the kitchen’s floor, she hits her former husband’s face, shocking him so much that he breaks the assault for a long enough time to allow the neighbors to intervene and call the police.  The authorities’ involvement shines a spotlight on Marc’s past and present behavior, and Liz is able to obtain a restraining order and to start the process of removing the ex-husband’s poisonous presence from their lives, but the incident also seems to have woken up something that Liz did not even know she harbored…

Fran Watts is a sixteen-year old girl burdened by a dramatic past: ten years before she was abducted by a very disturbed man who thought she was a monster and kept her captive for a couple of terrible days before the police found her and arrested the man. Since then Fran has tried to deal with the nightmares from that experience, but there seems to be no amount of medication or psychological counseling that can help her completely: there are times when the reality around the girl seems to shift in small but still frightening details – a bedcover changing color, a differently shaped armchair or a different image in the pictures hanging on the wall.  These alterations of the surrounding reality make Fran somewhat skittish, and therefore a loner since she has been dubbed as ‘weird’ at school and she can only rely on the support of her widowed father and the friendlier of her hallucinations, the fox Jinx, a character from a cartoon series Fran loved as a child, the only one of the unreal elements plaguing her mind that the young girl feels comfortable with.

These two apparently unrelated individuals do indeed share a certain element of commonality, and here comes the tricky part of the review, because talking about it would be a huge disservice to the readers of this gripping book: what I can safely share is that it’s an interesting take on a well-known theme, and one that kept me turning the pages in a compulsive way until the end.  Since I need to steer away from that avenue of discussion, I can only concentrate on the characters – and as I’ve come to expect from M.R. Carey’s work, they are both interesting and realistically drawn.

Liz, despite having endured Marc’s abuse, is not what you could expect from a victim: she does suffer from many insecurities, granted, and she knows she was not strong enough to defy her husband’s progressively worsening attitude, but she found her strength and courage through her children and the need to protect them from the physical and psychological abuse that the man might have visited on them.  We see through her recollections how she used to be a different person, one with a strong spirit and some dreams (like her love for performing music with her band) that were slowly subsumed, as it often happens in these cases, by her acquiescence to Marc’s desires first and to his violence later. Yet she does not see herself as a victim, does not act like one, because all her drives have been channeled into making Molly and Zac two strong, self-reliant kids, so that her success in that respect is what gives her the motivation to remake herself into a different person and what makes her a very relatable – if not completely positive – character.

Fran stands somewhat at Liz’s opposite end of the spectrum: even though the repercussions of the kidnapping have left unhealed scars on her soul, she has learned to draw strength from that past and the knowledge that she survived it, despite the nightmares that still afflict her. She is very independent and more mature than her age would entail, one of the sides of her character I most admired being her constant strife to avoid burdening her father with her troubles: the relationship between the two of them is indeed one of the highlights of this novel, one based on affectionate jokes that hide the deeper concerns each of them harbors for the other.

The main concepts around which the novel revolves are those of identity and of the road not taken, of the way life’s experiences shape people’s characters and inform their psychological makeup – in a way the subject of parallel universes is touched on, but in a different, novel way that gives this story an added level of intensity.  This is the best I can do without spoiling the overall arc of Someone Like Me, and I can only add that it’s a story that builds up at a relentless pace and keeps you glued to the pages with no chance of coming up for air.  And if the final resolution seems to come a little too easily, or the inevitable fallout looks a bit on the light side – at least in comparison with the highly dramatic events piling up over the course of the story – I can still call myself satisfied with the overall result.

In my opinion, this book manages to surpass M.R. Carey’s previous novels in narrative strength and characterization, and considering how strong those earlier stories were, you can get an idea of how compelling this one is.

Highly recommended.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: STILLHOUSE LAKE, by Rachel Caine

Sometimes it’s good to expand beyond one’s reading preferences, if nothing else to sample the skills of a known author in a different genre: it’s the case of Rachel Caine, whose Great Library books I quite liked and who choose to branch off into thrillers with Stillhouse Lake.  This is a genre I used to read extensively once upon a time, but have not visited for quite a while, and this novel helped in reminding me that you don’t need supernatural elements like ghosts, demons or vampires – just to quote a few – to instill horror in a reader: there are instances where plain, old human evil is more than enough.  If not downright worse.

Gina Royal believed she had the perfect life: a loving husband, two wonderful children, a good house and no financial problems. That is, until a freak car crash revealed the horror behind the façade: what went on in the garage where her husband Mel had built his off-limits-to-everyone workshop had nothing to do with do-it-yourself projects and everything to do with the abduction, torture and murder of a number of young women.  Arrested and tried as an accessory to Mel’s foul deeds, Gina was later found innocent by the law but not by the public opinion, so she was forced to change her name and try to stay ahead of the haters, always on the move, with the protection of her children as her paramount goal.

The titular Stillhouse Lake is a remote rural location where Gina – now Gwen Proctor, the latest in her assumed identities – seems to have found a modicum of stability for herself and her teenaged kids, fourteen-year-old Lanny and eleven-year-old Connor.  The years have marked them all deeply: apart from the aftermath of what they have called The Event that destroyed their entire world, their rootless life and the constant need to look over their shoulder, leaving as light a footprint as possible, have severely hindered the children’s normal growth.  Just imagine what it might mean for a modern teenager to have to limit access to the internet, or to a smartphone’s functions, not to mention the need to keep guarding one’s words so as to avoid dangerous slips of the tongue: Lanny and Connor had to learn to cope with their lack of friends and of a peer group to share experiences with.

Still, Gwen’s family seems to have finally found a sort of balance, a sense of home they have been missing in recent years, when the past comes crashing back on them with a vengeance: faced with the contrasting need of picking up stakes once again, or standing her ground and fighting for the right to have a normal life, Gwen will need to tap all her newfound confidence and courage if she wants to defeat old ghosts and provide as normal a future as possible for Lanny and Connor.

As I was saying, human cruelty easily provides more material for scary plots than your run-of-the-mill critter ever could: in this case we are offered a closer look on a kind of victim that’s frequently ignored when dealing with serial killers – the perpetrator’s close relatives.  Once a serial offender is discovered, there’s a question the general public can’t help asking: how could their immediate family not be aware of what was going on?  How could they not see the signs?  Gina/Gwen is a case in point: her husband Mel brought his victims to the family’s garage, where he proceeded to slowly torture and then kill them, and public opinion finds it hard to believe that she was unaware of it all. Yet, seeing things from her perspective, it’s easy to understand the hows and whys of such… selective blindness: for instance, Mel was outwardly the model husband and father, and only a few enlightening flashbacks show how his mask did slip now and then, and how a woman like Gina – one with a yearning to feel loved and needed – might have rationalized those episodes and closed her eyes to the deeper, darker implications of Mel’s behavior.  Moreover, a personality like Gina’s would be the perfect clay in the hands of such a skilled manipulator like Mel, whose depths of depravity surface only from the letters he sends her from the prison, messages where he reveals his true face with the abandon of someone who feels finally free from the need to hide the dominant side of their nature.

Learning the truth is both traumatizing and liberating: as we meet Gwen for the first time, she’s in a shooting range for the final stages of obtaining a handgun permit and we see clearly how she’s determined to take her life into her own hands, to be the one who makes the choices: as she says at some point, that trauma made her stronger and she will not go back to being Gina, weak and easily controlled Gina, any longer.

Another kind of darkness in this story comes from the people who refuse to let Gwen and her children rebuild their life, hunting and haunting them with the sins of the monster who shared their home: I’m not talking about the victims’ relatives, whose pain and rage is understandable but who very rarely transform their desire for revenge into concrete actions, but rather those ghouls who enjoy delving into bloody crimes, either by a form of morbid fascination or an unexpressed desire to emulate the killer (and from where I stand, the border between the two is frightfully thin…).  In Stillhouse Lake, these people fill message boards with their plans of exacting revenge for Mel’s crimes on his children, often graphically exemplifying such dreadful ideas, and not even realizing that their purported need for justice is indistinguishable from a serial killer modus operandi.  The anonymity the Internet offers to these individuals, the possibility to express the foulest of thoughts with impunity, is something we can observe daily with various degrees of intensity, and it offers a gloomy commentary on the general status of the human soul…

Besides these interesting psychological observations, Stillhouse Lake is an intense, gripping story that makes for a compulsive reading and ends with surprise development that will carry the story into the next book with undiminished momentum.  No one could ask for more in a suspense-filled novel.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE SHINING GIRLS – Lauren Beukes

16131077Genre blending often produces interesting results, and this fascinating novel is no exception.

The premise: Harper Curtis is one of the many homeless drifters barely surviving in the Depression era, until one night he stumbles on a peculiar house that opens on different time-lines, and he finds both shelter and a terrible purpose there, that of killing the “shining girls”, young women of great potential. Already a profoundly unstable character (to say the least), Harper is somehow compelled by the House to contact his victims when they are young and then find them when they are grown up, to end their lives in a most gruesome way.  He keeps acting undisturbed through the various eras – from the late ‘20s to the early ‘90s – leaving on his victims some tokens from other time periods, with no one questioning these out-of-place items until the only survivor of his attacks, Kirby Mazrachi, launches on a hunt for her assailant and starts collecting evidence, even though many leads seem unconnected.

Besides this fascinating premise, the story is an absorbing read thanks to its structure: each chapter alternates between characters – the Shining Girls – and their killer, with time jumps that are never jarring despite the back-and-forth nature of their placement. There are two connecting threads that tie it all: Harper and his would-be victim Kirby.  Harper is an amoral, self-centered creature who hungers for the immediate and unhampered satisfaction of his needs, with the same narrow focus of a child. He is a doubly repulsive character, because in his evilness he seems indifferent both to his acts and the suffering they cause: he makes it all look like work, like something to be done to complete a task, and he somehow comes to believe it’s the House that requires this gruesome task from him.  It’s never explained whether that is true, but in my opinion the relationship is that of a catalyst (the House) finding the perfect vehicle (Harper) to carry on some obscure purpose.  Harper feels too much perverse satisfaction in hunting down his victims, in observing them while he savors the outcome, to be the House’s mere instrument: when he approaches them for the first time he’s nothing short of creepy – some of them, like Kirby, are even able to perceive this in some way – and in some instances he can’t refrain from dropping a few hints about his purpose, or to state outright his future intentions, secure in the invulnerability afforded by the time hopping. Once he even warns his prospective victim this way, managing to impress her so profoundly that she wastes her life on drugs, losing the “shine” that made her attractive, so that Harper peevishly regrets that loss, not so much for the missed potential, but for the loss of his own perverse amusement.

Potential is indeed the fuel that makes all these girls shine: they are all young women driven by strong motivations and the energy to carry them through – the social worker battling for women’s rights, the war widow working in a naval shipyard and fighting her own war against racial prejudice, the architect dreaming of bettering humanity’s living conditions, and many other brilliant individuals. It’s easy to see how they would have changed the world or at least the people around them, and it’s just as easy to see how such brilliance disturbs Harper, the epitome of the underachiever, the man who goes through his own life without a sense of purpose except that of removing a disturbance in his dreary path.  At some point he tells one of them: “You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this.”   Because he’s of course blameless, the fault is hers alone – it’s the kind of deep conviction the news have sadly made us aware of every time we read about women abused by partners, whose main goal seems to be the annihilation of any spark of energy, life and will to fly above the restrictions they feel empowered to impose.

For this very reason, when Harper learns that Kirby survived, he’s enraged beyond measure: because she defied his will and dared survive.  Kirby Mazrachi is indeed a survivor: the brief flashes about her past that don’t concern the bloody assault speak of a difficult childhood that blossomed into strong independence and a streak of stubbornness, the very same qualities that help her survive the grievous wounds inflicted by Harper and the even more difficult aftermath. She is a great blend of strength and frailties, of dogged determination and brittleness, a true heroine who is aware of her wounds and the chinks in her armor, but is ready to fight them to achieve her goal: it’s this combination of opposing traits that makes her stand out – shine indeed – and makes her believable. Kirby is an unstoppable force of nature, as reporter Dan Velasquez learns while he mentors her during the young woman’s internship at the Chicago Sun-Times: first he tries to discourage her attempts at finding the killer, in the misguided hope of protecting her, even from herself, then he understands that despite what happened in the past Kirby does not need to be saved – and in an interesting twist at the very end of the book she does take the role of savior, both for herself and him.   The relationship between the damaged survivor and the jaded reporter, their verbal skirmishes and the growing affection that might or might not turn into something deeper, are some of the best elements of the story, that ends in a perfect, circular way that nonetheless is not devoid of uneasiness, because given the nature of Time we are aware that some events, some terrible occurrences, are still happening somewhere in the past.

And it’s a chilling thought…

My Rating: 8,5/10