Thursday, September 22, 2016

Those Creepy Lady Robots: A look at mad scientists

This week I’m taking a short break from books and am recommending the movie, Ex Machina, which is what I would call, a classic “mad scientist” story. And this is a brilliant one.

Just to give you the skeleton of the story - (and "skeleton" is a pun. You’ll get it later) brilliant, reclusive, billionaire computer programmer, Nathan lives alone in a state-of-the-art fortress in the mountains (we never quite know the location) where he works on his projects. Mainly robots of the female persuasion. Apparently there has been a contest back at Blue Book, the Search Engine company he founded, and young, eager, and equally brilliant Caleb, the winner of the competition gets to spend a week with the eccentric programmer.

Take a look at the picture above to the right. Ava, one of his robots we get to meet, is a see-through wisp of a young woman who, when her joints move, there are these ever-so-slight machine noises. Very clever. Very convincing.

The Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) in this movie is fantasticaly rendered. You owe it to yourself to watch it just for that.

And of course, the plot probably proceeds the way you think it will. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t have a story. All you would have are people using robots to do their household work. I already have that. "Filch", what we have named our Roomba brand robot vacuum cleaner has saved my body from the back-breaking work of vacuuming. Thank you Filch. Now, if Filch started rebelling and deciding not to work? That would be a movie. 

And that's precisely what happens here when all is not well with Ava and the other robot we meet - Kyoto (whose main jobs, it seems, is dancing and serving meals.)

Of course, there is that horrific, gasp-inducing ending. I will not spoil it for you. I will not even hint at it, but just that it is chilling and it still has me thinking, and wondering.

This moves me to another subject - Mad Scientists in general. They have been around a long time and favorite theme in literature and movies. From Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to 
The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Rcently, I listened to The Invisible Man, another "mad scientist" book as an audio book and loved it. In it, the scientist invents a potion which renders him invisible. 

And who can forget the weird 
piece of vegetation in Little Shop of Horrors yelling “Feed me! Feed me!”

More recently, there is the movie, I, Robot. And today, Ex Machina.

If you are interested in more Mad Scientist books, here's a list courtesy of Goodreads.

Why are we so fascinated with mad scientists? I think it comes down to wanting a kind of constant confirmation of our humanness. Because we ARE, in fact, developing robots like Kyoto and Ava. (See the links below.) Could they ever become human? Could they make choices and "think"?  Could Artificial Intelligence come that far? What makes a human, anyway?

I’m currently re-watching all of the old episodes of the X-Files on Netflix. I was a fan back in the day. In the 90s, when this series was filmed, we, as a culture, feared and were fascinated by aliens and demons. Remember all the horrific, but totally false allegations about devil worship and sacrifice that arose in the mid-90s? That is the stuff of the X-Files.

I find it interesting that we have changed as a culture from looking at demons and devils as the non-human “other”, and are fascinated by what we can invent ourselves. What is a soul? What makes a human person a human person? Do aliens and demons have these souls? And now, we ask, can robots have souls? And feelings? What do you think?

If you were creeped out by Ex Machina, take a look at these sites. This whole thing is a lot closer than we think or that Dr. Frankenstein would ever have imagined.

Click here for a look at some creepy lady robots. And here.  A
nd my personal  favorite.

What are some of your favorite Mad Scientist books or movies? Share them in the “comments” section.

In Two Weeks: Another literary thriller - The Ice Twins.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

How Stephen King Got Me Reading on a Kobo

I have enjoyed the stories and novels of Stephen King for a long time. He is a gifted writer with a brilliant imagination. I devour, especially, his short stories; Four Past Midnight , Everything’s Eventual,  and Just After Sunset.

And now, blog, readers, I come to today’s recommendation, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, another book of his remarkable stories.

But, there has always been one thing I didn’t like about his works. They’re too darn heavy. I mean physically heavy. Some years ago a friend gave me the hardcover edition of Under The Dome. A very nice gesture, a lovely gift from a friend who knew my proclivities, but after just a few chapters I had to put it down. 

I just couldn’t read it. Problem? It's too heavy. The darn thing was heavy and thick as a brick. About killed these old shoulders of mine. Because it was a gift, I really tried. I sat in a straight backed chair and placed it on my lap. Maybe that's the way you're supposed to read encyclopediac sized tomes. Didn't work. I like reading, propped up in bed, an easy chair, or lying on the couch, and that's that.

My friend Walter, told me this story. He was in New York City to speak at a conference.  He had a day to kill and decided to enjoy it walking around, seeing the sights and reading a novel. It too, was a tome.  Walter's solution: he would walk, stop somewhere for coffee or a glass of wine, read 50 pages or so, tear them off the book and put them in the garbage and then go on his way. At each reading, the book got lighter. He also mentioned that some observers were aghast, that he would mutilate a book like that.

For a long time The Stand was my favourite novel of all time. A number of years ago I pounced upon an uncut paperback edition of it in a dusty, used book store. But even the paperback was four inches thick. And thick paperbacks are more unwieldy to read than hardcovers, So, 
as I had learned from Walter, I broke the binding apart in three places and made three regular sized paperbacks out of it. Where there’s a will and all that. 

Maybe Stephen King novels are books you shouldn’t get too comfortable with in bed, without looking under the bed, or in the closet, and of course, making sure all door locks are securely fastened. Maybe they're meant to be heavy, to keep you on your toes.

This brings me to my Kobo Touch. My eReader is as light as a feather and always weighs the same no matter how many books I put on it. Now, I can read Stephen King with impunity. Maybe you have a Kindle or read on your iPad or iPhone, but I recommend it. This has transformed my Stephen King buying habits. (I don't have to wait until they come out in paper back and then tear them apart.)

Although, I love King’s novels, (some of the visual pictures still stick in my mind), it is his short stories which I enjoy even better. When I’d heard that he had a new volume of stories out with personal notes included for each one I was first in line.

Here is how Bazaar of Bad Dreams begins:

I’ve made some things for you, Constant Reader; you see them laid out before you in the moonlight But before you look at the little handcrafted treasures I have for sale, let’s talk about them for a bit, shall we? It won’t take long. Here, sit down beside me. And so come a little closer. I don’t bite.

After a beginning like that, how can you not be drawn in? You can almost see the wizened little man rubbing the skeletonous fingers of his hands together inviting you into the book.

Go in. Do. You won't be disappointed. 

Here are a few of the more haunting tales in the book:

Under the Weather 
You get to spend time with a very ordinary man going about his very ordinary and detailed business day at work (meetings, phone calls) while he keeps a horrific secret at home.

Bad Little Kid 
Oh my. What can we say about this one? I’m about King’s age and so I remember Nancy’s friend Sluggo from the funnies. (They were called “funnies” back then, and not comic strips.) It will make you see differently all of the bullying stories you’ve read in the papers. And, you’ll be on the lookout for this kid.

Mr. Yummy 
A story about age and death and family. As only King can tell it.

Mile 81

This one is reminiscent of Christine, his most famous car story. I will not drive by an abandoned rest area in Maine without thinking about this. And being from New Brunswick in Canada, we drive through Maine a lot.

A couple of things that set King apart are his quirky characters and his dialogue. With his dialogue alone, and you can see them standing in front of you. Every story has a quirky character or two.

I loved his personal comments throughout, almost as much as the stories themselves. He writes that he doesn’t always know the ending before he gets there. I like that, because I’m that way too, and I always figured it a liability. Maybe it’s not.

This tee shirt picture keeps coming up on my Facebook feed (Maybe it’s because I’ve “liked” Stephen King’s “page.") but I love the comment along the bottom: 

 We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.

To conclude - In King’s own words:

"I always feel like a street vendor, one who sells only at midnight."

In two weeks: Another movie review - Ex Machina.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

This Literary Thriller Needs to be Read More Than Once

Today I recommend The Lake House by Kate Morton, which fits into the category of Literary Thriller. This is the genre I’m personally drawn to time and time again. It’s where I always look, if I'm casting about for something “good” to read.

There was a time in my life when I thought “real” readers didn’t read mystery, and I was somewhat embarrassed about my mystery proclivity. That was before I was introduced to the late Ruth Rendell, and also long before I wrote mysteries of my own.

I’ve since gone on to read everything Rendell has ever written, and my one disappointment is that I never got to meet her.

Rendell proved to me that mysteries could be well-written. They didn’t have to be pulpish and predictable. Another author that I read early on was PD James

Both of these authors are gone now, but newer younger authors are taking their place; Kate Atkinson, Gillian Flynn (who I have reviewed for this blog), SJ Watson (who I have also reviewed for this blog), Kate Morton and others.

Morton’s The Lake House, the feature of today's blog, had me glued to the my Kobo eReader screen long into the night.

If you’ve followed this blog, you will know I have written here about the history of the mystery novel, beginning with 
pulp fiction. Now, I don’t want to cast aspersions and say that all pulp fiction is bad writing. It certainly is not. Yet most of it doesn’t have that literary bent that I personally enjoy in a book - musical sentences, compelling plots, and multi-dimensional and flawed characters. 

I have read two Kate Morton books so far, and both kept me riveted. My book club read The House at Riverton  which whetted my appetite. When a friend suggested that I might enjoy The Lake House, I bought it and downloaded it immediately.

The book, almost gothic in its scope, is in essence two stories, no I will amend that—it is multiple stories which span decades and generations. Every “story” is complete with flawed characters and its own plot.

The introductory character, the one that begins The Lake House is Alice, and we see her in 1933  burying a box of “evidence”:

The rain was heavy now and the hem of her dress was splattered with mud. She’d have to hide it afterward; no one could know that she’d been out.

The 2003 story begins with the character of disgraced police officer Sadie:

Sun cut between the leaves, and Sadie ran so that her lungs begged her to stop. She didn’t though; she ran harder, savoring the reassurance of her footfalls.

And of course, the stories, the many of them, intertwine like tangled vines, leaving the reader reading breathlessly until they all weave together satisfactorily at the end.

At first I thought I was going to get confused. I generally like one plot-one character stories, but I did not. I loved this, and will read more of her work.

This leads me to my subject premise— a book like this, a Gothic mystery which spans the years and involves clues, red herrings, blind alleys, and everyone’s own compelling story, needs to be read more than once. Read it only once, and you go from the beginning to the end. You find out “who dunnit.”

Read it again, and the writing springs alive, you can appreciate the placement of clues, why “that” bit of conversation was so important at that place, why “this” clue was placed here and not there. Give it a second reading and there is no feeling of being let down because you “already know” the outcome. No, a second reading will lead you to appreciate how the author did it, and why this falls into the category of Literary Thriller, and not Ordinary Pulp fiction.

Here is a list of Literary Thrillers according to Goodreads. Here is another.

In two weeks: Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King's short story collection.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

How To Start Something New, Part 2

When I wrote Part 1 - How to Start Something New, a Kayak Lesson, I had no idea that there would even be a Part 2 in this discussion. But, that was before I read Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, my recommendation for this week.

As you know, I’m a first line stickler, here’s how she begins:

Q: What is creativity
A. The relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration.

She then goes on to describe this mystery in the most curious way. She likens creative “ideas” to intangible things, such as things in the wind that can be caught. (I picture a huge butterfly net and someone running through a field of ideas). 

She encourages her readers to be aware and willing and waiting and listening for that next big creative “idea.” Although somewhat, at first, woo woo, I think she’s got something there, because it is, as she says, a mystery. I was intrigued. I continued reading.

And as I read, I found myself highlighting passage after passage and typing notes into my Kobo. This is good! Wow! Gotta remember this! With multiple exclamation points!!

She mainly calls upon her own experience as a writer, but she also mentions visual artists, gardeners, figure skaters, musicians and more. And I will add; cake decorators, interior designers, investment bankers, chefs, magicians and Olympic athletes (since we’re in that season). All would benefit by reading this book.

Here are some of my personal gleanings from Big Magic.

Gleaning #1: You’re never too old to begin something new. This was my premise in Kayak Lessons, Part 1. I wrote, that in my dotage I have discovered the joys of kayaking. She tells the story of a friend who began a new creative love and study when she was 84.

Gleaning #2: It all doesn’t have to be about money. In fact, creativity shouldn’t be about money at all. It should be about joy. Yet our society has made everything about money. Sad.

Gleaning #3: It involves some risk.

Gleaning #4: If you are a human, you have a creative gift to offer the world.

She writes a lot about joy, and doing things for pleasure, and it made me ask myself, what do I do for the sheer wonder of it?

1. Kayak - see my original post on the subject. I believe that as we get older, maybe especially as we get older, we need some activity which takes us out into nature - walking, hiking, cycling, skiing, golfing.

2. Colored pencil art - It has not even been a year since I started drawing. Odd for me because I was the first to tell people that “I can’t even draw a straight line”. Well, I’ve since learned that artists don’t need to draw straight lines. Thats what rulers are for.

As mentioned in my first blog on the subject, this has given me such joy. In case you want to look at the colored pencil art of a rank beginner, here’s my Pinterest link.

3. Guitar and singing - Music is such a great love of mine. I call myself an old folksinger, and every other week I sing at a local nursing home. I get to sing all my old favorite Joni Mitchell, Emmy Lou Harris and Carrie Newcomer songs to my heart’s content. I have a wonderful Martin D45 that I got new in my early 20s. (So, I guess it’s an antique noq, because I’m one.)

4. This blog - Ah, yes, this blog. I had long wanted to do a blog in which I recommend books and other things that I like. Note, I use the word “recommend” not “review.” This is not a book review blog where I dole out one and two star reviews and tell the world what’s wrong with Book A and Book B. No, we get too much negativity as it is. There are already too many people giving us one star reviews for everything we do in life. This is a personal blog. I wanted to ask the questions - this book that I loved reading so much,  how does this book affect me personally? I wanted to see if I could come up with something that was half review and half memoir. I don't know if I'm succeeding, but so far, I’m having fun.

5. My own writing - I began writing mystery novels in the early 1990s. Such a long time ago now. In some ways a lifetime ago. It used to be a joy, but somehow over the past few years it has become a job, a drudge, (sort of). Let me explain, Most writers, those of us who are not in the 1%, need to do all of our own marketing. We are called upon more and more to bear the brunt of everything. We get one star Amazon reviews, and we have to simply suck it up and move on. Somehow, over the past few years so much of the joy has been taken out of it for me that Gilbert’s book was like a breath of fresh air. I need to work to get back the joy of my first love. I’m working on it. Not there yet.

Now it’s my turn - What do you do for the sheer joy of it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

I will end with what Gilbert calls the creative paradox: 

My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me if I am to live artistically, and it also must not matter at all, if I am to live sanely.

I admit that I don’t often find that balance.

In the researching of this blog I learned that Elizabeth Gilbert also has a podcast. It’s entitled Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert. Look that one up on iTunes. I've added it to my iPhone list of podcasts. I'll let you know what I think.

In two weeks: The Lake House by Kate Morton. Loved, loved, loved this gothic thriller.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Mystery Novels in the Era of Fear

This week I’m endorsing and recommending The Cutting, the first in a new mystery/detective series by James Hayman. In a previous blog where I reviewed the Gillian Flynn novel, Sharp Objects, I linked to this very informative 1944 New Yorker article entitled, Why Do People Read Detective Stories?

If you can make it through the quaint verbiage and exceedingly long sentences, it is quite interesting, despite the underlying fact that the author does not have a host of enthusiastic and supportive things to say about the esteemed genre. There, that sentence should get you in the mood for the article. Still, if you are interested in the history of genre, this is an article well-worth reading. Since 1944, when the article was written, the genre has grown by leaps and higher leaps.

I have this theory, and if I were doing some sort of academic paper I’d research the whole thing into existence, but for now, it simply remains a theory of mine—I believe that the worse the world around us gets, the more we escape to the inside of a mystery novel, where at the end of the day, the bad guys are caught. 

Pulp fiction saw its birth in 1939 and a meteoric rise between the two Wars. It was a terrifying time. People were confused and scared. People were dying and being bombed. Whole cities were being decimated. People didn’t know who to trust or where to turn. At a time when rationing was the norm and people were learning to do without for the “war effort”, they needed some reassurance that things would turn out right in the end. Enter the detective novel. Enter authors such as Mickey Spillaine.

Eschewing the leather bound tomes of library quality, these were printed on cheap “pulp” paper, and for mere pennies you could immerse yourself in a place where justice prevailed and things came out right in the end.

Today, and I mean today—as in July 28, 2016—rather than "today" in some generic sense, our world is kind of a mess. Bad people are popping out of nowhere and killing innocents all over the world. People are confused and scared. People are dying and being bombed. Whole cities are being bombed out. 
People didn't know who to trust or where to turn. Again, we see a grand proliferation of crime novels in which good triumphs over evil and good is rewarded. 

Here’s another New Yorker article which sort of backs up my point.

I hope I’m not boring you too much. I find this stuff fascinating. This brings me finally to today’s endorsement, a mystery in the classic sense, with clues you’d better pay attention to (no matter how minute), a serial killer, and someone kidnapped with only days to live. Enter two new crime solvers, Detectives Mike McCabe and Maggie Savage.

All of these elements, plus the author’s deft way of getting it all down on paper, make The Cutting by James Hayman a really good read.

Detective McCabe is called to a horrific crime, where a young woman’s heart has been surgically removed from her chest, and her body left outside of a disused warehouse. This crime bears similarities to other crimes, non-local crimes, crimes from all over, and McCabe and his partner Maggie Savage are on the search of a serial killer, a smart, slick serial killer who outwits them almost at every turn.

Add to this, another young woman is missing from her morning run, and McCabe soon determines that the killer has her, but that she yet might not yet be dead. In mystery phraseology–"Time is running out."

This is a serial killer story with threads and strands which reach way back into the killer's history, back when he was almost normal. That’s the story, and I could not put it down.  

I'm always thrilled to begin with book #1 in a new mystery series with new characters that I can come to know through the series. McCabe himself is a likeable, interesting character, a single dad of a teen girl. There is the angst of trying to raise a daughter. There is the ongoing problem of an ex-wife who barely knows her daughter, and wants little to do with her. Plus, there is the new girlfriend, who may or may not end up with McCabe in future novels. I suppose I will find out. 

What drew me into this book, however, was the first line of chapter one:

Fog can be a sudden thing on the Maine coast.

I love Maine. My husband and I have spent fifteen summers sailing down on our 34' sailboat from our Canadian New Brunswick home and along the coast of Maine. Because we out on the water, we know about Maine fogs.
 Anyone writing about fog on the Maine coast will immediately get my attention. And this book did. 

I also wonder, what is it about Maine which births so many crime and horror novelists - Tess Gerritson and Stephen King only to name a few. 

If you like Gerritsen, you will love The Cutting. It will keep you guessing. It will keep you reading, and turning pages (or pressing the side of your Kobo) late into the night.

Next time: Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert’s (Of Eat, Pray, Love fame) book on creativity and fear.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Small Slices of (sometimes very odd) Life

I’m back to recommending short stories today. A few months ago I endorsed Wet Thaw, my friend’s little eBook of two stories, as well as Susan Berliner’s book, The Sea Crystal and Other Weird Tales.

In that blog, I mentioned in passing The Man Who Built Boxes and other stories by Frank Tavares.

Today I want to specifically focus in on that book and urge you, if you are a fan of the genre, to read it. (And if you are not a fan of the genre, you should be.)

I love the fact that these days short stories are easier to find and enjoy. Before the advent of Kindles, Kobos and digital material, readers were hard-pressed to find many short story collections for sale anywhere. Oh, I suppose you could meander into a dusty library and thumb your way through some literary journals, but beyond that, they were mostly out of reach. Not anymore. Now they are as close as your Amazon bookstore (which is where I purchased The Man Who Built Boxes.)

A short story is a slice of life—one day, one afternoon, one emotion, a couple of characters at most. Sometimes—not all the time, but sometimes—you are left hanging at the end. You often have to come up with your own ending to the story. I like that.

I first read this collection of a dozen stories about a year ago. I’m not even exactly sure how I found it or when and why I purchased it, but when I was casting about for something quick and easy to read, I found it on my iPhone’s Kindle app. I read the first story in the collection, My First Ex-wife’s Third Wedding, and to put it bluntly, I was blown away.

I have since discovered that the author, Frank Tavares is known as the “voice of NPR” radio. I did not know this. His name was unfamiliar to me. Being Canadian, the only NPR I know are the podcasts that I listen to (and totally enjoy, by the way). I also learned that he teaches communications and writing and that his many short stories have “appeared in a variety of literary journals…” You see, that’s my point. That’s what I’m talking about. Normal people don’t have access to literary journals. We don’t even know where to look. And that’s what makes our online world of “any kind of books you might want to possibly read” so really great.

I usually look for two things in the books and media I endorse here. Good writing and good story. These stories had both of these in abundance. Whether it’s the utterly convoluted relationships in the first story, My Ex-Wife’s Third Wedding; the very bizarre tale of Girl in a Box, or the heartbreaking character in Accident With a View, these are little slices of life you won’t soon forget.

I always include first lines in my blog, and so to whet your appetite, to draw you in, here are a few first lines.

Doin’ the Laundry -
Ron-Allen Tucker knew his wife had decided to kill him.

The Man Who built Boxes -
This time it hit John Dodge on the morning of this forty-third birthday.

Antonio’s Yard -
Antonio Enzo Marino was aware of the shift when he woke up a half hour early.

Secondly, there are his imaginative ideas themselves. Why Jimmy Mendoza Hated the Late Tamale Jones features a living man's conversation with his dead friend, who, while they are chatting at the funeral, picks up a cigarette. The story describes how the smoke "seeps from the autopsy sutures in his chest." I loved that very Stephen King-ish visual image. 

Here’s yet another sentence I loved (Loved it because I've done it myself.) -
She bought a paperback and hid herself in it.

In Antonio’s Yard, the earth itself is falling away, even as Antonio’s life and aspirations and hopes are also.

And then there is the story of a dying young woman who carries the tattoos of the faces of every person she has had a relationship with.

The title story is about a man who builds hundreds and hundreds of exquisite boxes, and whose entire house is filled with them.

Even now, I can hear my mother saying, “Who comes up with this stuff?”

The beauty of Tavares writing is that the stories seem like they could be real. His characters talk like us, behave like us. We can almost see ourselves in them. Back when I studied writing I remember one of the cardinal rules in dialogue is to write it the way people think they talk, not the way that they actually do talk.

Tavares has presented characters to us that feel so intrinsically real that we can almost identify with them, despite the very odd circumstances they they find themselves in.

At the end of this collection of a stories is a sample chapter of an upcoming book - Digging up Mr. Bradley. Well, I’m waiting for that book, Mr. Frank Tavares!

Next time - It’s back to mystery fiction with The Cutting by James Hayman.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Mystery/Horror of Sharp Objects

I admit to being a fan of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, both the book and the movie. There were reasons why this book garnered so much praise, a movie deal and more than 43,000 Amazon reviews. The writing itself is superb (The way she can turn a sentence is amazing!), but the plot was what “got” most people. And that ending! That ending had book clubs arguing and pounding fists and and pondering and discussing for weeks, some loving it, some hating it, but no one in between.  

I’m not here to write about Gone Girl, though. Today I am endorsing Sharp Objects, a much earlier book of Flynn’s, but just as much a psychological thriller as Gone Girl. Maybe even more so. If you are a Gone Girl fan, keep reading. If you like the psychological thrillers of Ruth Rendell, keep reading. If you relish a Stephen King novel, keep reading. If not, go get yourself a coffee and I’ll see you back here in two weeks.

Sharp Objects tells the story of Camille Preaker, a very flawed, very fragile young woman who works as a journalist for a two-bit newspaper. When two children are killed in the hometown she fled (never to return, she vowed),
 she is sent back there by her editor to get the full story. Are the police looking for a serial killer of children? Is that how horrific this thing is? Her editor wants the upfront story, and who better to get it than someone who grew up there? Because the newspaper is so low-budget, they can't even afford a hotel for her. She has to stay in her family home with a whole boat load of dysfunctional family members.

Trouble is, she left the huge mansion of a home and the town for a reason, but being who she is, she can’t share that with her editor. She can’t bow gracefully out of this assignment and hope to keep her job. And she desperately needs her job.

She goes.

So far so good. Camille Preaker seems like a normal young woman in a bit of a bind, and I’m in for a nice cozy mystery, looks like.

Not exactly.

Mid-way through the book I stop and re-read the past few paragraphs. What am I reading? Is this a mystery or a horror novel? Who IS Camille Preaker?

We soon learn that Camille has serious problems which are far greater than the family she left—and that’s enough of a spoiler for one day.

Once inside, I got hooked on the story, and finally, it was the unexpectedness of the plot elements which kept me coming back for more.

Flynn is an amazing writer. As is my wont, here is the first sentence of the book:

My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly. It was May 12 but the temperature had dipped to the forties, and after four days shivering in my shirtsleeves, I graved cover at a tag sale rather than dig through my boxed up winter clothes. Spring in Chicago.

It was the words which first drew me in, and then it was the story of the horribly dysfunctional family which made me read more. First there is the doting, controlling, hypochondriac mother, Adora. Allen, the silent father is next. And then there are the children—Camille, the main character and through whose eyes the story unfolds, the dead sister Marian, and then Amma, the new young sister who took her place.

Even though I wanted to put my hand over my eyes and turn away from the book at times, something always made me go back for more, until I finally reached the stunning conclusion.

Why are we attracted to evil in our fiction? Why do horror movies captivate us? Sometimes I like watching those Youtube videos with names like, World’s Scariest Walking Bridge or World’s Most Dangerous Road. Here you get to watch people racing down mountain tops on with a steepness going into oblivion on one side. Guard rails? In your dreams.

In real life you wouldn’t catch me mountain biking on the side of a cliff for any amount of money, but I can sit back and watch it on Youtube, because I realize that if they’re posted online like that, it means that everyone got down safely and everything turned out out alright in the end. I can breathe a sigh of relief.

And as horrible as the evil in Sharp Objects is, it is brought to full light in the end. And that satisfies something inside of us. We want to know that evil will be found out and punished.

That is what’s promised in horror, that ultimately, no matter how horrific the situation our characters find themselves in, evil will be discovered and punished and justice and goodness will win.

As for the mystery part, the reason mystery novels are so popular is because there is something in us that wants to figure out “who dunnit.”

Here’s an interesting New Yorker  article from 1944 on why we read detective stories.

One of the reason we are drawn to story in the first place is that it’s fun to “try on” other people’s lives, and “see what it’s like” to live in such a dyfunctional family (And I don’t care how dysfunctional you think your family is - the Preakers have got you beat by a mile!)

Back when I was a young mother I faithfully watched one daytime soap, Another World. A lot of my friends also did and we would get together for coffee and talk about the characters and plot, always reflecting that “those people” had it way worse than us! Our lives were normal by comparison. (When that finally went off the air for good in 1999, I said goodbye to daytime soaps for good. (Now, I only watch nighttime soaps like Nashville, The Good Wife and Longmire.)

I have been drawn to stores forever, and can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have a novel “on the go.” Back before online, I would feel bereft when I finished a book and there wasn’t another one waiting on the pile. I’d often have to wait before I could take a trip to the library or bookstore. Now, I can simply go online to a favorite online bookstore and download another onto my trusty Kobo.

So, if you like psychological thrillers, do pick up Sharp Objects and tell me what you think.

In Two Weeks: It’s back to short stories with The Man Who Built Boxes

by Frank Tavares