Tag: Thriller

Into The Water, by Paula Hawkins

“We tell our stories differently, don’t we, you and I?”

into-the-water-rainandabookBack in school, for a while – before Harry Potter took over – we were all hooked on to R. L. Stine’s Fear Street series. There was one book in particular that was more popular than the rest – Fear Street Super Chiller Goodnight Kiss 2. The reason being the big reveal happened on the very last page. Those who had read it tricked those who didn’t into reading the last page before finishing the book, thereby spoiling it.

I never read Goodnight Kiss 2 even though it has been on my TBR for eighteen years or so. The only reason it’s still on my TBR is cos I’m still curious to find out what’s on that last page. I don’t even know the what the story is about!

And with that we come to Paula Hawkins’ latest, Into The Water, whose big reveal also happens on the very last page. Rather underwhelmingly. Into the Water is one of those books that meanders so far away from the point that not only do you get impatient, but also bored. It’s an odd mix of emotions, one directly contradicting the other.

In the beginning, we are told that Nel Abbott is dead. It is hinted that it was a murder. The characters, of course, insist it was a suicide, especially Nel’s daughter Lena. Nel’s body was found one morning in the Drowning Pool, where several “troublesome” women have died before her, including Lena’s best friend Katie. There is this not so subtle undercurrent of “These were all murders”. Woven into this mesh of POVs (oh so many POVs! Did an editor even see this?) are detectives Sean Townsend (whose mom died in the same pool) and Erin Morgan (who lives in a house which used to be occupied by Sean’s mom) (seriously, what is up with this unimaginatively titled pool!)

We are, as readers, directed to care about all the murdered women. We can’t. Or at least (this being my review) I couldn’t. I wanted to know about Nel – not these old murders that the characters were insisting on digging up. I didn’t know these other dead characters, why would I care if they’re dead? I couldn’t care much for Nel either, and don’t even get me started on how irritating her sister Jules (“not Julia”) was. The subplot of rape that caused the sisters to grow apart was sketched so poorly that it made me angry – it felt like it was forced into the narrative.

I know a lot of what I’m saying sounds like I hated the book. I didn’t. Or I don’t want to, but that’s mostly cos I like Paula Hawkins as a writer. I liked Paula Hawkins as a writer. Even when I read The Girl on the Train, I felt it started off real slow, but I was blown away by the end. I thought the comparisons to Gillian Flynn were unfair, cos Hawkins is clearly a superior writer, who didn’t need someone like Flynn to piggyback on to market her book. But Into The Water proves these comparisons are justified. One of the reasons I hate Flynn’s work (and for that matter Jessica Knoll’s work) is the undercurrent of woman-hate in her stories. In Sharp Objects, for instance, Flynn’s MC blames and shames rape victims. Something similar happens in Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive, and even in Into The Water. The story is about “troublesome” women who got murdered. By troublesome, Hawkins is referring to women who were unhappy in marriages, or women who fell in love with men who weren’t available to them. That’s a narrow definition of “troublesome” and a most unfitting one at that. A regressive narrative, wouldn’t you say?

And the writing! Gosh. Red Herrings are great in a thriller, but when three people come forward and say they committed the murder and the author goes on and on for pages about how, yes, they did commit the murder, but then reveals on the very last page that nope, someone else altogether committed the murder, it just takes the sting out. I read the final confession of the murderer, flipped the page and saw “Acknowledgments”, and went, “Huh?” in underwhelmed bewilderment. I was in a public place when this happened, and the lady seated next to me asked, “Is everything all right?” I didn’t want her to think I was crazy, so I said, “Oh, nothing, I was just reading a stupid book.”

I know I may be too old to read Fear Street now, but every instinct tells me the last page of that will still be better than the last page of Into The Water. This is easily one of the most forgettable books I’ve read, and that makes me sad, coming from the same writer as The Girl on the Train.

Paula Hawkins, I’m not mad. Just disappointed.

Rating: 2.5*

Amazon | Goodreads

Advertisements

Shadow In The Mirror, by Deepti Menon

imagesShadow In The Mirror: A Thrilling Quest for Redemption is a book whose subtitle does not quite go with the plot. It starts with the suicide of a pregnant woman named Nita. Vinny, a journalist, who is covering the story receives a note that says Nita did not commit suicide, but was murdered.

I honestly believe this story would have been much better had the whole scene with the note been avoided. We are told in the first chapter that it was a murder, and because we know it, we identify the murderer just a few chapters later. If the reader was convinced that it was suicide throughout, and if the murder angle was revealed only at the end, the word “thrilling” in the subtitle would have been justified. In this case, there’s not so much as a twist as a blatantly obvious conclusion with regards to the identity of the murderer. There’s not a lot of redemption either – those who are mad stay mad and those who are sad stay sad. Those who are dead (thankfully) stay dead.

With that said, the most interesting character in this story overrun with too many characters is in fact the murderer. Not that she/he committed the murder, but her/his history, as revealed in the chapter set in 1962, Dark Icy Winter. That was one twist that I did not see coming, and was totally impressed with that storyline.

The language is simple, and therefore this was a breezy read.

Too breezy.

And with that, we come to the flaws: the plot is wafer thin. Too many characters running amok in the story, but almost nothing of substance. Nothing meaty. All their backstories felt rushed, and there was too much telling and absolutely no showing. Do not tell me again and again that a character has “always” been a certain way (friendly/moody/artistic/level-headed/business-minded/whathaveyou), show it to me! Given the number of characters in the book, a little more care could have been taken to turn it into a character study of sorts – jealousy, possessiveness, effect of aging etc. Alas, it was a wasted opportunity – only the murderer’s psyche was fully delved into.

Some characters added nothing to the plot, such Kavita’s maid or the whole Gautam angle.

The prose is covered with a thick layer of adjectives, adverbs, cliches, and dead idioms and metaphors. While in the beginning, every setting was described in purple, this reduced as the story progressed. There was, however, no shortage of extra adjectives. Even the cliches and idioms take away from the reading experience and you wish the style of writing could have been better.

The plot takes you from 1958 to 1994. I noticed some inconsistencies in the timelines that I can’t quite wrap my head around. If you look at the dates preceding the chapters, technically this should make sense. But if you close your eyes to the dates and read only the plot, you feel there are some things off. For example, Roma and Vinny were once classmates, so let’s assume they’re of the same age. In one chapter, Roma is said to be older than Nita: “Roma had been shrewd enough to realize the immense advantages of playing tag with a girl, who despite being slightly younger than her, would catapult her straight into the upper bracket of society.” On the other hand, towards the end, it is revealed that Vinny is younger than Nita. Also, in 1989, Roma has a teenage daughter who runs away and becomes a model – considerable amount of time should have passed between these events but there’s definitely a mismatch. And there are several instances where the story jumps in time, but the same does not translate on to the page (no extra line gaps/section breaks). One such instance is: “Vinny brought with her all the normal upheavals that a brand new baby does. . . late nights, erratic feeds, colic and the smell of vomit and Johnson’s baby powder everywhere. “Mummy!” trilled Vinny one day when she got back from kindergarten.” When did kindergarten happen out of the blue? We were talking about colic, weren’t we? You feel at times that the author’s thoughts are not being correctly conveyed through the writing.

On the whole, Shadow In The Mirror is OK. It’s not a new story, but it definitely takes a longer route to reach the usual destination. It’s fast-paced (albeit at the cost of character development) and it keeps the reader mildly curious. Read it if you want a break from heavy literature.

Goodreads | Amazon

PS: I received a PDF copy of the book from Readomania. My review is honest and unbiased.

The Fire Child, by S. K. Tremayne

27874165You know this story. You’ve read this cliche before. A not-so-well-off photography professor Rachel Daly* meets an extremely wealthy man several years her senior. David Kerthen** is widowed; his wife Nina died in one of the mines on his thousand-year-old family property. He now lives with his eight year old son Jamie***. Rachel falls in love with David (of course) and even more so with his pale-faced, raven-haired son. Following a whirlwind romance, the two marry and Rachel leaves her poverty-stricken London life behind (to the envy of her friends) and moves to the Carnhallow House with David.
The Kerthens are an old family, who owe their wealth to their luck with the mines in the area. They were cruel, and did not care about those who lost their lives in the mines.
Caught in the memories of an old world is David’s mother Juliet. Through her, Rachel learns of the legend of the fire children. Soon after, Rachel’s stepson Jamie begins to act strange. He’s convinced that he’s a fire child and that his mother is coming back. Rachel herself begins to feel Nina is in the house – she can sense her presence, see her, smell her perfume, hear her voice, and what not.

*Has sad eyes
**Is a “‘broken’, womanizing lawyer”, who’s interestingly very much devoted to his first wife (no sign of any womanizing) and is very inarticulate for a lawyer.
***Kid can’t spell “write” but can spell “dinosaur”

The beginning of the story felt a lot like Rebecca to me. In fact, there’s this line in one of the chapters “Last night he’d [David] dreamt of Carnhallow again.” which, I know I’m probably looking for connections here, but it sounded a lot like the opening sentence of Rebecca to me. But that feeling quickly passes.

At the outset, let me mention, this is not a bad story. On the whole. But it’s been executed poorly (“poorly” being the kindest word I can think of right now). For one, it drags on and on and on and then leads to a laughably rushed ending. Why does it drag on? Because every third paragraph is a description of the sun and the sea and the mines (or, in the latter part, the snow and the sea and the mines) At one point, a character goes on to describe in detail the view from a supermarket. Just… why? We get it, it’s lovely, move on. Repetitions aside, there are these annoying inconsistencies throughout the book. I may sound nitpicky, but on one page Rachel tells us she does not tan, but she describes her “tanning shoulders” a few pages later. Minor detail, yes, but such things rub me the wrong way.

Everyone in this book is an overthinker and an overreactor. Either I’m missing chunks of the story, or these people are plain crazy. They go from state A to conclusion Z without analyzing (or at least merely considering) B to Y in between. For example, when Juliet describes the legend of the fire children, Rachel reads a lot into it and acts terrified. I went back to Juliet’s line a few times to check what I missed. Why did I feel Rachel’s reaction was unwarranted? Similarly, on what basis did David hire a detective to get details of his wife’s past? What convinced him she was hiding something? And here’s another inconsistency – he tells her to go through Nina’s old notes to restore the house, but when she does so, he’s convinced she’s snooping and trying to get him into trouble. So much goes unexplained, and yet we’re given such unnecessary detail about the bloody sunshine, FFS!

(Oh, by the way, the detective’s report adds even more cliches and stereotypes to this already unoriginal set of characters)

Gonna sound nitpicky again – my copy is an ARC, so I understand this will probably be fixed in the final – but there, were, bloody, commas, everywhere! It got so annoying, pausing where no pause was needed.

Now, why I said this is not a bad book is because there were parts of it that were genuinely spooky – and that’s more than what I can say for the new crop of horror/thriller writers. But nothing ties up properly – the motivations, the backstory, none of it. It is all implausible, and I can’t, for one second, believe the plot in its current form. It’s amateurish to the worst degree. All that foreshadowing (again, done badly) leads to no resolutions and by the end, you have a lot of unanswered questions looking up at you like a bloody hare in your hands.

Note: I received an ARC from Netgalley. This review is honest and unbiased.

The Wolf Trial, by Neil Mackay

“If werewolves existed, Willie, I would have seen one by now.”

“You have not seen England, sir, and it exists.”

28486967I think for me, the most exciting part of the story was the fact that it is based on a true story. The Wolf Trial is the story of a sixteenth century serial killer, Peter Stumpp (Stumpf, in the book) – one of the first ever recorded accounts of a serial killer – who was believed to be a werewolf. When I learned this, I decided to read a little about the original Peter Stumpp before proceeding with the book. Terrible times, I tell you.

Neil Mackay has made a few minor changes to the story (for instance, in reality, Stumpp/Stumpf insisted that he was a werewolf acting under the orders of the devil), and his book follows a debate in which a lawyer and a priest (with the town being on the latter’s side) argue whether he is to be tried as a man or a werewolf. The lawyer, Paulus is a skeptic (see quote above) and an academic, whereas the priest, Fromme is a… well, a priest. The story is narrated by an 80-year old Willie, who was once Paulus’ assistance and who was present during the hunt and trial of Peter.

Mackay’s writing skills are noteworthy. I loved how atmospherically eerie this book was. The whole time I felt I was in some deep dark woods. It reminded me of the beginning of Dracula (if you recollect my review, that is the only part of Dracula that I enjoyed).

However, there are certain things that I did not like – such as the dialogue. The prologue made me think it was set in maybe early 1900s. Even in the rest of the book, the dialogue does not sit well with the image I have of the sixteenth century. Contrast this with, say, Murder at Cirey, which came out last year but is set in the eighteenth century. Perfect dialogues, and they add a lot to the atmosphere and the setting. Given that this book is already rich in terms of atmosphere, it would’ve truly benefited from better dialogue.

Another thing is, while it is understandable that a book about a serial killer will have a certain amount of violence (I mean, obviously!), in The Wolf Trial, the violence does not quite blend in. What I mean is, it feels like it has been added to give it some sensationalism, as if the author thought of going a little over-the-top because this is a book about a (gasp!) werewolf, so there has to be some OTT violence. I’ve read up about the man’s crimes – horrifying. Mindnumbingly so. All the more reason to present it more clinically than dramatically.

Last, and most importantly, while Mackay has great writing skills and a great story to tell, there is something a bit “un-thrilling” about this thriller. It was not a compelling read, and there were times when I had to fight the urge to skim or speed-read or simply put it down.

All things said, it is commendable that Mackay used an account of the world’s first (known) serial killer and weaved a story out of it – I would have never learned of Stumpp/Stumpf of Germany otherwise.

Goodreads | Amazon

Note: I received an ARC of this book from Freight Books/Netgalley. This review is honest and unbiased.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson (Millennium Trilogy # 3)

“When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women and the men who enable it.”

7677839(See also, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson (Millennium Trilogy # 1))

Fiction must ring as true as non-fiction to the reader, just as non-fiction must be as engrossing as fiction.

This is a book that’s as cold, as precise, as categorical as if it were a true account of certain horrific events. Larsson’s writing reminds me of that of Frederick Forsyth and Ken Follett. Except that Larsson has a singular motive and it is crystal clear – to highlight crimes against women in every way possible.

Part 1 of the trilogy could be read as an independent book. As I stated in my review, I needed a bit of breathing space after reading it, because it was dark and brutal. I had no clue what was in store for me in the final book.

Book 2 and Book 3 are actually part 1 and 2 of the same story. We learn Lisbeth’s true history and uncover a massive government and secret service operation. We learn things that can never be un-learned.

The Millennium Trilogy Parts 2 & 3 is one of the most ambitious political thrillers I’ve read – which is saying a lot, since political thrillers are generally ambitious. In the hands of an author less skilled than Larsson, this subject matter would have injured itself. Not only that, Larsson gives a lot of back story to each character, no matter how unimportant. No other author could have accomplished that form of storytelling while not sounding boring. Larsson does so, and keeps the reader hooked. He makes the reader eager to listen, and he makes each character sound like someone you want to read about – no matter how insane or dull they are. Yes, I want to know what the characters are eating, wearing, just tell me (ordinarily, as is clear from my other reviews, I list this as a drawback)

The best part of this book is the snippet of history that precedes each major section of the book. Each snippet describes historical armies made up of only women soldiers. The author says how these rarely get documented or talked about. It was fascinating to read about the Libyan armies and the Amazons.

This is a story of abuse. If you thought Dragon Tattoo was graphic, this is a lot worse in terms of violence (and by “this”, I’m fusing Part 2 and Part 3 as one book). Are there completely unbelievable bits? Yes. But we’re back to the statement I made about less skilled authors not being able to carry it off. We hang on to every word. We believe every incredulity.

To give you a high level picture, I don’t think I have ever:

-Felt like I was on the roof of a bullet train, desperate to keep my balance (while enjoying that feeling)

Celebrated the death of one of the bad guys (or maybe I did, way back when Bellatrix Lestrange died. But that was a long time ago)

-Gasped audibly at an unexpected twist

-Screamed the following words at a page during a courtroom scene: BUTCHER THAT BASTARD!

I know those sound like hyperbolic statements that I am making impulsively. But wouldn’t you rather read the book and find out for yourself? It’s a whirlwind of a ride, I assure you.

As to why I have not summarized the story: the quote at the beginning of this post is the summary. Reading that quote made me feel like I was hearing it directly from the author. Like all his characters were put in this world, just so he could say that one line.

Oh, Mr. Larsson! You wonderful, brilliant man. Thank you!

My one regret remains that I’ve had these books since 2012, and only now did I read them.

Amazon | Goodreads

I have to put a note here about the translation: The book has been so flawlessly translated from the original by Steven Murray (pseudonym: Reg Keeland). Not once did I feel I was reading a translation or that something was lost or broken. Completely flawless!

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson (Millennium Trilogy # 1)

“She was perfectly content as long as people left her in peace. Unfortunately society was not very smart or understanding.”

Publishers advised Joanne “Jo” Rowling to use two initials instead of her real name because theysreesha-divakaran-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo feared boys wouldn’t read a book written by a woman.

More recently, and closer home, someone I know refused to read The Girl On The Train just because it was written by a woman. This is someone who usually holds my book recommendations in high regard.

These snippets tell you a little about the world we live in, don’t they? But how are they relevant to the book I’m reviewing today? Because nearly every person who recommended The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to me is male. The exact same book, same plot, same words could have been written by a female author, and these same people might have very well dismissed it as a rant. Why? Because this book comes down hard on crimes against women. It does so in the sharpest, yet most chilling way possible.

The original Swedish title of this book, when translated to English, reads “Men Who Hate Women”. At first glance, that might sound like an outrageous, MRA title, because a book generally favours those mentioned in the title, or so we’re conditioned to believe. For instance, if a book is titled “Men Who Made History” or some such, you’d automatically assume the book is a favourable commentary on the lives of these men. However, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (or Men Who Hate Women) contains some of the angriest, most violent commentary against misogyny and hate crimes. Let’s discuss the story, shall we?

Summary: On his 82nd birthday, Henrik Vanger, former CEO of the Vanger Corporation, receives a framed flower, Leptospermum (Myrtaceae) rubinette. It is revealed that he has been receiving these for years, always on his birthday. He is convinced that the murderer of his niece is sending them to him to taunt him, as she once gave him the same flower before her disappearance and suspected demise in 1966. He has been obsessed about her disappearance ever since.

Mikael Blomkvist, a famous journalist and founder of the Millennium magazine is convicted of libel against Hans Erik Wennerstrom, a rich crook against whom Millennium did an expose of sorts (I kept imagining Trump) but were unable to provide evidence. He co-founded the magazine with Erika Berger, a former classmate and occasional lover. Post discussions with her, he steps down from Millennium’s board.

During this time, Henrik’s lawyer has asked for an investigation to be performed on Blomkvist, because he wants to hire him to solve the mystery of his niece’s disappearance. The investigation is performed by the other protagonist of this story, Lisbeth Salander, a twenty-four year old hacker with a terribly troubled past.

Blomkvist, albeit reluctantly at first, accepts Henrik’s assignment. After a certain course of events, Blomkvist decides to meet Salander when he finds out she is the one who performed an investigation on him. He also discovers she has hacked into his laptop. Soon after, they become partners and try to solve the case together. They unearth several skeletons in the Vanger closet, and compile a list of murders and hate crimes against women that took place around the same time Harriet Vanger disappeared (give or take a decade). Do they solve the mystery? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

In short, this 465 page book has everything – half of the Vangers were Nazis, the remaining half were torturers of all other kinds imaginable. Nearly all the women have been subjected to domestic violence, rape, every crime possible, and yet, most of them emerged stronger (not a spoiler) (also, the book is divided into 4 parts, and each part gives you a statistic about violence against women). There’s politics, journalism and an intriguing financial crime drama. And of course, the whodunit plot that holds the whole thing together. It’s all intertwined into a seamless fabric.

That said, the book isn’t without its faults – some of the things seemed too convenient (for example, Blomkvist became famous on the basis of a hunch he had about some bank robbers). In some places, Larsson seemed to be trying too hard to push the point of strong women (to go back to how this review began, Blomkvist reads only novels by women authors). Not that this is a bad thing, but it sounds like he’s gone beyond driving home a point, that he just wants it drilled into people’s heads (why am I complaining? From a purely literary standpoint, of course). While I loved how all the various plot points closed, I felt Salander’s bit was a little cliched. But this one’s just me.

Overall, I give this book a 4.5 and recommend it to everyone. Be warned though, there is some disturbing content, and some scenes of brutality.

Goodreads | Amazon

PS: This review only covers the first book of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

A Head Full Of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay

22999175Plunging right into it. No preamble. Not now, kids, I just can’t be bothered.

Summary: Merry Barrett narrates the story of her sister Marjorie’s battle with schizophrenia as a teenager. Merry, now 23, was eight years old when she began to notice the changes in her fourteen year old sister and hear her scream at night telling “them” to “get out of her head”. Marjorie, who once entertained Merry with stories, now rarely invites the younger girl to her room. When she does, she tells her dark, macabre-tinted stories that leave Merry upset. When the medication stops working (or Marjorie simply refuses to take any), their fanatically religious father decides to take the kids to church and also decides to get Marjorie exorcised. Their mother scoffs, but he disregards her. In addition to bringing a priest home, he also decides to make a reality show about his daughter’s condition, titled “The Possession.”

Format: The story is told from Merry’s POV. The book is divided into three parts and each part begins with a chapter written in a blog post format, followed by a chapter where Merry is interviewed by the bestselling author, Rachel, who’s writing a book about the Barrett family and the TV show they were once part of. This is followed by chapters in which Merry describes what “really” happened.

The Good: About 1/3rd of the book was eerie. While the “scares” employed mere shock-and-disgust techniques, the atmosphere of the first part was definitely creepy. The book pits science against the church and how many people suffering from mental illness do not get the medical aid they need because their families are busy believing that they’re “possessed”. The story also questions deep-rooted patriarchal belief systems, and a lot of questions the “possessed” Marjorie poses to the priest make you go, “Yeah, take that, patriarchy!”

The Downright Terrible: Let’s forget about the shock tactics (warning: involves vomit, faeces, menstrual blood), let’s also forget the eerie atmosphere the first few chapters established. What does the book have to make the reader finish the book? Questioning patriarchy is great, all thumbs up, but why clobber the reader on the head with it? Since this is a horror book, shouldn’t Marj be doing scarier things than engaging in discourse with the priest? That is all she does. Kid, the demon in you talks way too much. As a result, there isn’t any, how shall I put it…  excitement? Then there’s adult Merry’s super annoying blogger voice. She explains every. Single. Thing. Where’s the subtlety? Where’s the Show, Don’t Tell? And she makes too many references to popular films/books of the horror genre. And may I add, she is SO enthusiastic (so fake). The whole blog post format was unnecessary (the posts seemed like unflattering fillers) and could have been completely avoided. It adds absolutely nothing to story – only takes off the burden of “thinking” from the reader. The 23 year old Merry repeatedly mentions she does not remember much and the show, hearsay, fading memories have all added to what really happened. But when the POV shifts to 8 year old Merry, she gives scene-by-scene, day-by-day descriptions of events, right down to the clothes she was wearing.
The worst of all was the ending – I had a doubt about the narrator from the beginning, which has grown a bit in size since I found myself on the Acknowledgments page rather abruptly – no explanations whatsoever. I cannot mention the doubt here cos it could be a possible spoiler, but not knowing isn’t really killing me either. Basically the ending was jumbled and underwhelming and I honestly don’t care if I’m right or wrong at this point.

Goodreads | Amazon

PS: Never falling for this man’s recommendations again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!