Something about the dark month of January makes me enjoy getting caught up in a good thriller. Last year I read Fiona Barton's “The Widow” about a missing child and a mysterious woman hovering near the centre of the case. Emma Flint's debut novel “Little Deaths” is similarly about a case involving missing children and a misunderstood woman, but it's also about so much more than that. Ruth Malone is a 26 year old woman who is separated from her husband and raising two children by herself in Queens during the 1960s. One morning she opens the door to her children's room to discover they've vanished. A police investigation gets under way to discover what happened, but the default assumption is that Ruth is at fault. The police and public don't consider her to be a conventional mother. She enjoys drinking. She's promiscuous. She doesn't seem to give a damn about society's opinion of her. She's condemned even before they interview her. Flint gets at the shocking and sexist way moral judgement supersedes fact in this tragic case.

Ruth's story is based on the case of Alice Crimmins who was wrongly imprisoned after her children were murdered.

Ruth's story is based on the case of Alice Crimmins who was wrongly imprisoned after her children were murdered.

It's fascinating the way the author portrays Ruth's sense of self consciousness. She's scrupulous about her appearance and she feels the process of putting on make up is the routine that would bring Ruth to life in the mirror.” At the same time, she feels an inward sense of disgust and takes fierce possession of her own habitat and sense of being: “The dirt in the apartment was her dirt, it was her sweat, her smell, her looseness, her leaking wet body that had betrayed her.” This harsh sense of criticism for her bodily functions and surroundings reminded me somewhat of Ottessa Moshfegh's protagonist in her novel “Eileen” but Ruth is more accomplished at appearing beautiful and serene despite inwardly breaking down. She's overcome by grief, but because she doesn't express it in conventional ways it makes people extremely suspicious. More than simply subjecting a grieving mother to endless accusatory interviews, the police shockingly interfere with her personal life contacting potential employers to warn them against hiring Ruth and sabotaging her personal relationships.

Although the reader frequently gets flashes of Ruth's perspective, the story is primarily told through Pete Wonicke, an ambitious young reporter. At first I wished the story would focus more exclusively on the complexity of Ruth's view point, but as the story progressed I saw how essential it was to see it from Pete's perspective. He gradually understands how unfairly Ruth is persecuted and fights for her justice. Not only does he get a clearer understanding of her life, but also the lives of other women forced to live on the margins and who've been horrendously mistreated for going against the grain of social norms. This cleverly makes us question our own assumptions about people based on superficial impressions, ask how much our society has changed in the past fifty years and wonder how much our opinions are guided by inherited misogynist notions. It's a forceful story which skilfully builds a feeling of suspense all the way to its gripping conclusion.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmma Flint
6 CommentsPost a comment

I think SJ Watson’s new novel “Second Life” has one of the best teaser blurbs I’ve read in a long time:

“She loves her husband. She's obsessed by a stranger. She's a devoted mother. She's prepared to lose everything. She knows what she's doing. She's out of control. She's innocent. She's guilty as sin. She's living two lives. She might lose both.”

What a succinct and enticing way to draw a reader in!

The tone is apt because this psychological-thriller is written in a similar fast-paced style narrated from the point of view of emotionally-torn Julia Plummer, a married photographer living with her husband Hugh and son Connor in London. Although they have a relatively cosy and happy life, it’s been rattled recently by Julia’s younger sister Kate who asks for custody of Connor. The teenage boy is really Kate’s son, but Julia and Hugh have cared for him since he was a baby because of Kate’s instability. In the novel’s opening we learn that Kate was murdered in Paris under mysterious circumstances. Julia used to have her own wild side before settling down. Partly as a way of dealing with her grief, she becomes entangled in an online romance which spills over into real life. Her stable life is threatened by the new secret second life she begins to lead while also searching for answers about her sister’s death.

Central to the story is the notion of parallel lives that people lead. Early in her adult life Julia spent some untamed years in Berlin where she had an intense affair with a man named Marcus and established a reputation as an artistic photographer. Her lifestyle spun out of control with tragic results, but finding Hugh and establishing a stable home life saved her. However, she still desires the undomesticated aspects of this earlier time which are realized within her affair. Sex isn’t usually only motivated by desire; factored into Julia’s experimentation are her insecurities, yearning to freely express herself or, as she admits at one point, “It’s the simple thrill of being wanted.” As is common in modern life, cybersex is a way for people to test out repressed aspects of their sexuality. It’s a common paranoid fear that you may end up chatting up online and then meeting in real life someone who turns out to be a psycho. While this rarely happens in reality, this novel is a thriller so it’s not possible for Julia to meet a decent man looking for fun or for her unleashed desires to stay in neat little compartments. Occasionally her lover becomes a bit too much of a comedy villain during the story. But what drives the narrative and makes it a compelling read are the true motivations and mounting mystery about the real identity of this charming, seductive rogue who enters her life.

We all operate on different levels of self-delusion in order to justify our actions and not be weighed down with guilt. This ranges from large lies like Julia’s initiating an affair in order to investigate clues to smaller lies like breaking her diet to eat chips because she thinks she deserves it. Throughout Julia’s narrative the reader learns about the different ways she’s deceiving herself so that while facts continuously come to light we question the reliability of what she’s telling us. Lies abound in this story and it adds a compelling complexity when the reader questions not only the characters she meets but the narrator herself.

This raises larger issues about the distinction between identity and self-presentation. At one point she observes that “we’re wearing masks, all of us, all the time. We’re presenting a face, a version of ourselves, to the world, to each other. We show a different face depending on who we’re with and what they expect of us. Even when we’re alone it’s just another mask, the version of ourselves we’d prefer to be.” This is another way of putting William James’ theory that people have a different self for every social situation that they participate in, but it adds a level of complexity about the way individuals choose to see a more idealized self when alone. As the different lives Julia leads between her husband and her lover become increasingly complicated, she herself is uncertain who she really is when alone.

A really poignant aspect of this novel is its depiction of Julia’s struggle with alcoholism. During her time in Berlin she developed an addiction to alcohol and drugs. Although she’s been sober for many years it’s still a struggle, especially in moments of stress. What Watson captures so well is the psychological steps the addict goes through when facing temptation. Rather than impulsively following the desire to drink when it comes up, Julia has learned to pause and think through the emotions which are making her want alcohol. By being conscious of this she can deal with these emotions in a way other than drinking. She’s also learned techniques for dealing with social situations that include drinking where she doesn’t need to divulge the nature of her illness. This representation of someone’s way of dealing daily with alcoholism felt very true to life and meaningful.

“Second Life” makes a gripping read in the skilled way it captures the moment to moment logic of its sympathetic narrator and drops well-timed suggestive hints which prompt the reader to experience pleasurable “ah-ha” moments of understanding. It also presents a complex understanding of sexuality when the distinction between fantasy and reality becomes blurred. While I was able to guess a couple of the twists along the way, it succeeds as a thriller by delivering a surprising ending which I didn’t see coming.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSJ Watson
3 CommentsPost a comment

To start out with, I have to make a confession that I’m a bit of an outer space geek. I’m not that into Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. What I’m more excited by are factual books and programs about space. One of my favourite before-bed activities is to read an oversized book someone bought me about the universe or watch the excellent BBC 1999 miniseries The Planets which provides a well-documented history of space travel. Ever since a holiday I took to Death Valley where I got to ride in a convertible with the top down and stare at the crystal-clear star-filled night sky I’ve been entranced by the stranger-than-fiction fact of the universe. So ever since hearing about Andy Weir’s massively popular novel “The Martian” described as a Robinson Crusoe story on Mars I’ve wanted to read it – especially since I actually read “Robinson Crusoe” earlier this summer. This novel is a true phenomenon as it was originally self-published, topped the Amazon bestseller list through a swiftly growing fan base and has since become a huge best-seller that’s edged into lots of top books of 2014 lists. It’s also being made into a film starring Matt Damon which is due to be released late in 2015. With all this hype, I was expecting a meditative story about man’s isolation in the universe as well as a riveting adventurous tale. I found the book to be entirely about the later.

The book starts in the middle of the action with astronaut Mark Watney suddenly finding himself stranded on Mars when the crew of the Ares 3 mission are forced to evacuate because of a large dust storm. He’s been slightly injured but able to secure himself in a small habitat that’s been set up on the planet. However, the other crew members of his mission assume he died from his accident so continue on their journey back to Earth and Mark has no ability to contact NASA to let them know about his predicament. All he has on this barren dusty planet is the relatively small habitat, a short supply of food, exploration equipment that’s been left behind and a few potatoes. How to get out alive? The novel is about Mark’s struggle to survive. It’s made up of alternate first person accounts by Mark logging in diary entries (Mark emphatically declares “I might die, but damn it, someone will know what I had to say.”) and passages about what’s happening on Earth and in the mission’s space ship.

There are some good, tense moments in this novel. However, after a while, it came across as a bit repetitive despite an impressive array of new obstacles that are put in Mark’s way. I got slightly bored through parts of it where the structural formula of each section starts to read like science – science – dilemma – scientific solution. It was a bit like watching an episode of Star Trek Enterprise where the viewer is presented with a seemingly impossible technical problem which is swiftly solved at the end of the show with a scientific solution that could never have been foreseen by us dumb civilians. Worried about freezing cold oxygen and nitrogen coming out of your regulator? Use the 1500 watts of heat from a buried lump of plutonium to constantly reheat the air. Duh! I’m being a bit harsh as it is all quite clever and I’m sure Weir did a massive about of research. All the science mumbo jumbo is made palatable for readers because Mark dumbs down the language and maintains a jocular tone in his diary entries. His tone gets a bit hokey at times, but is entertaining.

Less successful are the scenes between NASA technicians, publicity staff and mission crew members. Many exchanges occur with somewhat stilted dialogue and, although there was some character development between these people back on Earth, I didn’t care much about these characters. While Mark struggles with maintaining basics like eating and breathing, a media storm whips up on Earth where all of civilization wonders how Mark will survive. Although I realize NASA was under pressure because of this to help rescue Mark I did start to wonder: how much is it costing to save one man who willingly took this high-risk job? Not only is there the money which no doubt could have gone to helping thousands of lives on Earth. A Chinese scientist also remarks upon the mission to rescue Mark that “The operation is a net loss for mankind’s knowledge” as other important scientific space mission are abandoned in order to aid Mark’s retrieval. Mark himself acknowledges that attempts to save him must have cost “hundreds of millions of dollars.” I know the reader is supposed to be gripped and root for Mark’s survival, but even though he’s a nice guy I couldn’t help wondering if all that sacrifice is really worth it. It makes Weir’s overarching statement about the inherent goodness of humanity and the innate desire to help our fellow man falls a bit flat.

The Schiaparelli Crater on Mars

The Schiaparelli Crater on Mars

For a book that takes place on another planet and in outer space, there is very little description about what any of these extraordinary locations look like. However, Weir is good at describing Mark’s gradual physical breakdown from living on the Martian territory and the cringe-worthy smells that arise from breathing re-circulated air in a confined space that allows precious few bathing opportunities. Apart from the extremely occasional observation about the environment: “I never realized how utterly silent Mars is. It’s a desert world with practically no atmosphere to convey sound” all of Mark’s entries on Mars are about the minutiae of the science and technology he has at hand. Granted, he had already been on Mars for his mission before the book started so perhaps he was no longer awe-struck and he’s more consumed with immediate survival. However, he admits to having long periods of down time which he primarily spends watching old episodes of the show Three’s Company he found on another astronaut’s hard drive or reading pulp novels. He’s more reflective about these bits of ephemera than the condition of being stranded on another planet. Even when he has moments to appreciate the spectacular nature of his location such as this moment when he reaches a crater: “I got up to the rim, and damn, it’s a beautiful sight. From my high vantage point, I got a stunning panorama” there is no further description offered. He might as well be a tourist describing the view over the Grand Canyon. Granted, his character is a scientist not an artist, writer or philosopher. However, I would guess most scientists that pursue space travel so rigorously do so because they harbour underlying questions about the meaning of our existence in such a big empty universe. Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco is startlingly eloquent when pondering the meaning of humanity and the cosmos. Personally I would have enjoyed Mark’s narrative more if he were more than just a dry-natured, straightforward goofy guy.

This is where this novel diverges sharply from “Robinson Crusoe.” For all of Defoe’s questionable insights into human nature, at least he spends some time contemplating a man’s existential position when physically cut off from the rest of humanity. To be honest, the 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars is even more intellectually searching with long passage of time devoted to Paul Mantee’s looking at wonder at the alien landscape and experiencing a piteous sense of isolation. Also, the film poster of a spaceman in a torn suit clutching a near naked man is much more appealing and enjoyably kitsch than the cover of “The Martian” but that just shows my personal taste.

Although I was expecting somewhat more of a literary novel, this book is not much more than a well-conceived straightforward thriller as it’s all about the plot rather than showing any reflective insight about life or doing anything interesting with language. Weir has a background in computer science and that very much comes across in his writing style. That’s totally fine as parts were thrilling and the novel gives a thoroughly convincing (at least from my extremely limited knowledge of science and technology) account of the logistics of trying to live on Mars as well as launching a wild NASA rescue mission. I just want a bit more from the novels I read and it felt like the author avoided any opportunities there were to bring alive the awe-inspiring fact of outer space or describe what must have been a visually spectacular place. In other words, I feel like this book is passive entertainment but in no way enriching. However, I am excited about seeing the upcoming film. With such a massive budget it will no doubt be spectacular and thrilling and actually show the beauty of space.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAndy Weir
2 CommentsPost a comment

The Deep South has inspired countless fantastical tales and Christopher Rice is adding to this tradition in his taut fantastical thriller “The Vines.” A former plantation is the setting for a story of betrayal, lust and revenge informed by the region’s rich history of old-fashioned traditions, intolerance and heated passion. Here we’re in the confident hands of an author that understands the sensory experience of such a specific location where there are the “familiar ticking sounds of a great house cooling in the late hours of a night in the Deep South.” The proprietress Miss Caitlin’s birthday party is spoiled when she discovers her husband in flagrante delicto with a conniving female member of staff. The result of her despair and anger over this sets off a chain of events which raise from the earth buried resentment and fury. The grounds of former slave quarters have been smoothed over to make the location suitable as a wedding venue and tourist site. Nova, the daughter of the estate’s gardener, is a feisty intelligent college student who is very aware of the plantation’s tainted history and the nefarious supernatural events that trouble those who inhabit it. When Caitlin’s estranged best friend Blake enters the scene he carries with him his own complicated history of loss due to a homophobic attack that separated him from the love of his life. Revelations cause all the characters understanding of the world to be upturned and “suddenly no one seems knowable, every promise the seed of betrayal.” The truth is rooted out as a paranormal force takes form. The true motivation behind this power and the crime committed against Blake’s boyfriend come as unexpected surprises that had me gripped throughout the many twists in the story.

The author paces his novel well to immerse the reader in the full experience of this creepy Southern landscape. Moreover he introduces a refreshingly complicated sense of morality and the real meaning of revenge in his story: “They are seeking their own twisted form of justice, and this fact leaves her with the despairing realization that all forms of justice are somehow twisted at their core.” This puts forward a concept that justice isn’t necessarily about administering what’s right, but subjectively addressing what’s most pressing for the prosecutors involved. The author overcomes the simplified concept of spirits or ghosts seeking to redress a balance for some wrongdoing by putting forward the challenging inverse notion that “It is not the living who are haunted by the dead – it is the dead who are haunted by the living.” Moreover, for the living, the crimes of the past don’t simply cause despair but haunt the mind in ways which impinge upon any true feelings of contentment. At one point a character realizes “That’s what guilt truly is… a fishhook’s tug on the third or fourth minute of every happy moment.” The dynamic tortured characters in this story add credence to the expressive forms of unwieldy vengeful emotions overflowing from the supernatural powers at play. It’s what makes this novel not only a riveting read, but one that is also heartfelt.

Christopher Rice’s new novel “The Vines” delivers fully in the suspense and charm that you want from a Southern gothic thriller. It combines the edgy fantasy of ‘True Blood’ with a cheeky Tennessee Williams’ wink. A clever, fast-paced, enjoyable read.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson

In the dramatic opening of “Caught” a young man named Slaney has just escaped from prison. He seeks to meet up with his friend Hearn again so they can immediately embark on a new scheme of importing marijuana into Canada – the very thing which landed him in jail previously. At the same time Slaney is being followed by a detective named Patterson who hopes to gain a much-needed promotion from bringing this escapee to justice. The stories of these two diametrically opposed characters are told in parallel to each other. Both men are desperate in their own ways and need to find different methods of concealing their identities to achieve their goals. More than a gripping thriller, “Caught” is a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of identity, life choices and time.

Slaney is humbled by the beauty of the world having been incarcerated for four years. In sensuous detail the environment around him is described as rich in smells and colours. The first half of the book recounts a series of colourful episodes Slaney experiences trying to make his way to his friend while evading capture. He encounters idiosyncratic people who are in their own ways trapped by the circumstances of their lives. There is a lonely bride stuck in a sweltering hot hotel room, a gambler who desperately tries to hock his wife’s vacuum cleaner and two exotic dancers who want to share a joint with him. Their stories could easily unfold into larger narratives but we only see snippets of their lives as juxtaposed against Slaney’s newfound freedom. There is a tense understanding that the choices he makes now that he’s sprung himself free will determine his future so that he is simultaneously experiencing “two possible lives formed and unformed…” on a moment by moment basis.

Naturally for Slaney time has taken on a special meaning having spent the precious first few years of his adult life in prison. The repetition of a highly regulated life while being incarcerated flattened out the meaning of passing days for him. The author writes that “In prison he had thought time was an illusion. But now he believed time was a natural force, like the hurricane, except he believed that it could be harnessed.” His perception of time changes from passively letting it flow through him to energetically seizing it for his own use. Having sprung free of his shackled existence Slaney is galvanized to take advantage of opportunity and claim the share of luck that he believes he’s owed.

Moore captures the heart-racing fear of being on the run when in moments of high tension the environment turns vibrantly alive and threatening: “a thin bank of trees, mostly skinny birch, the white trunks like bones, and the leaves so green they seemed lit up and the branches were trembling hard with the breeze.” The landscape becomes imbued with Slaney’s psychology. His heightened sense of awareness when he comes close to being caught twines around the landscape and how he perceives it. This skilful method of writing draws you into the narrative and makes you feel what’s at stake.

I particularly liked a shocking habit that the author creates for a character named Ada who shows a voracious appetite for reading. While sailing on a boat Ada reads book after book. But instead of shelving each title as she finishes them she drops the book over the side of the boat. This powerful image of setting free and destroying the book that’s just been consumed is both a devastatingly horrific idea and a romantic notion of making reading a singular experience.

One of the most difficult issues the novel deals with is the notion of trust. This includes the degree to which we can trust other people and the trust that life will yield fresh opportunities for us. Jaded from his early experiences Slaney finds it difficult to embrace trust in either sense. For him “trust was just another form of laziness.” To put his trust in people feels like having a lack of initiative for him. Likewise Patterson has his own issues with trust as he feels that “Trust was an unwillingness to think things through.” He is a man that has learned that caution and preparedness are actions which can eradicate the need for trust. These strong-willed and cavalier beliefs jostle against the need both men find for showing faith in other people. They gradually learn that their fates cannot be strong-armed into being, but must be guided in sync with the wills of others.

Lisa Moore reveals her own narrative process when she describes how Slaney’s consciousness has been transformed by his experiences: “Time was not linear: it looped, concentric rings within rings.” Throughout the book the past is continuously intruding upon the character’s thoughts while he’s in the present. Memories of Slaney’s great love and his daughter fold into each moment of existence preventing him from making a great leap forward into the future. The endless process of looking back to the man he could have been if his choices had turned out differently is where Slaney is truly caught. Moore’s novel describes how a journey to break out of this cycle is extremely difficult, but necessary.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLisa Moore