Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Mystery (page 1 of 4)

Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn

Back in 2006, before Gone Girl took over all the best-seller lists and became shorthand for the unlikeable female narrator, Gillian Flynn released her quiet debut: Sharp Objects. It didn’t take long to catch on. Even back then, the seeds of what makes Flynn’s books so popular (especially with women) were beginning to sprout.

Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Sharp Objects follows Camille Preaker, a journalist for a small Chicago newspaper, as she’s drawn back to her hometown to report on the abduction and murder of two young girls. At first, Camille doesn’t seem particularly unusual – sure, she’s a bit of a drinker, and she clearly has some unresolved issues with her family, but who doesn’t? Gradually, as the events of Sharp Objects unfold, you realise how dark she really is, and why those issues with her mother and her hometown might never be untangled.

And who are the other players? Well, the dead/missing girls, of course: Natalie Keene and Ann Nash, both boisterous young girls with rebellious streaks. There’s also Camille’s sisters: Marian passed away when Camille was still very young, but Amma is still around. She’s 13 years old, and a master manipulator. Amma and Camille’s mother, Adora (what a name!), is a strict disciplinarian and judgemental as heck. She comes from old money and she knows just how to wield her influence, inside of the family and out of it. The men in the story recede right to the background: Camille’s editor Frank Curry, long-time small-town cop Chief Vickery, and the big-time city detective called in to help out, Richard Willis.

Camille gets pushed and pulled, from pillar to post, as she tries to craft a neat story out of a very messy situation. Returning to your hometown is stressful under normal circumstances, but when you’ve got an editor breathing down your neck for copy, a mother who doesn’t want you around, two dead girls with their teeth pulled out, and a history of mental instability… yeah, you’re not going to have a good time. Eventually, though, she does figure out who killed the little girls. I’ll respect the convenant against spoilers, for once, but I will say that the conclusion is fairly predictable (aside from a couple of fun twists right at the very end).

The plot of Sharp Objects isn’t quite as propulsive or gripping as Gone Girl, but it’s still highly readable. It’s also much darker, if you can believe it. It turns out Flynn never shied away from mining the depths of female psychopathology to turn our collective stomachs. This book mixes together the “beautiful woman with dark secrets” idea with the essence of Southern Gothic, and the results are very good. Flynn has said that she was working at Entertainment Weekly as she was writing Sharp Objects, and she initially struggled to maintain the “moist, gothic tone” of her draft manuscript – she “didn’t want it to be EW bouncy”. I’m glad she stuck at it.

(Oh, and, of course, the trigger warnings: violence against children, alcoholism, sexual assault, and – the biggie – self-harm.)

After the super-mega success of Gone Girl and the corresponding film adaptation starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, Sharp Objects got the screen treatment, too. It became a 2018 HBO mini-series, and won considerable critical acclaim. Viewers praised the visuals, directing, and performances of Amy Adams (as Camille) and Patricia Clarkson (as Adora). It sounds like it’s worth checking out.

So, it would seem that Flynn is no one-hit wonder. Even though Sharp Objects didn’t quite live up to her most popular book, it was still good enough to convince me to check out the rest of her back-list. Plus, Flynn has hinted that she’s working (slowly) on a new one – so I’ll be staying tuned for news on that front, too.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sharp Objects:

  • “The author is not good and the editing is terrible. Lack of research. Weird, untrue statements about farming” – PaigeB1920
  • “We get it, you’re bitter and woke and you wish all your old high school mates were miserable. Most people actual just want good for others. Get over yourself. And get over high school.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Please tell me you have better things to do than read about a serial killer who kills little girls and pulls their teeth. I do.” – SAF/ALF
  • “The descriptions are so detailed, that I have to wonder about the author’s own mental health. The characters are sick, the details are sick and the town is sick. Not a redeeming thing in this story. I have to wonder about Reese as well. I gave three stars because it is well written for a sick story.” – Happy Thoughts

The Silent Treatment – Abbie Greaves

Frank has done something terrible, but he hasn’t told his wife of forty years, Maggie. In fact, he hasn’t actually spoken to her for six months, even though they’ve otherwise continued their lives together as normal. Not a single word, over shared meals or in a shared bed under a shared roof. Over the course of The Silent Treatment, the reasons for Frank’s sudden silence are revealed – and it turns out Maggie has a few reasons for keeping mum, too.

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It’s a compelling premise, so I was eager to dive into The Silent Treatment. The story unfolds in a dual narrative, of sorts. First, Frank narrates their love story, telling it to a comatose Maggie in her hospital bed. Then, Maggie’s voice comes to the fore, in a series of letters she wrote to Frank prior to her hospitalisation.

I suppose I can’t really say more without “spoiling” The Silent Treatment. With that in mind, I need to offer a bunch of trigger warnings, each of which represents a major plot point (which is disappointing, I hate it when books are predicated on triggering twists). So, there’s suicide, miscarriage, infertility, post-natal depression, self-harm, addiction – quite the litany, isn’t it?

But The Silent Treatment is a surprisingly wistful read, not at all as sharp as that list of trigger warnings would suggest. I imagine it would hit much harder to highly sensitive readers, but I’m a hardened ol’ cynic (unless something happens to a dog), so it didn’t “move” me the way it moved the writers who blurbed it. The closest I got to tears were the parts that made me want to call my Mum and apologise for being such a stubbonly angsty teenager.

As I read, I found there was too much alluding to the Big Bad Secret(s) the characters were keeping, and not enough propelling me forward to the reveal. A lot of The Silent Treatment could have been avoided if Frank and Maggie had read The Five Love Languages – or just, y’know, talked to each other. As the title suggests, both of them retreat into silence instead of being open with each other and confronting their problems as a team. It doesn’t seem like a particularly happy or healthy marriage, despite how often they declare how happy they are.

Plus, in the end, the “payoff” was lacking. It didn’t clang for me – I was more left thinking “oh, that’s it?”. The Epilogue was a bit trite, too.

Perhaps it’s a case of misleading marketing; the blurb positions The Silent Treatment as a story about a relationship breakdown, but really it’s about how tough it is to (a) deal with infertility and (b) parent an addict. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I’d known that going in.

I wanted to like it, but it didn’t live up to the promise of its premise. There are a lot of fascinating reasons why someone might not speak to their spouse for six months, but sadly the reasons for that scenario in The Silent Treatment made it seem mundane. I’m sure there are other readers to whom this book would be better suited, it just wasn’t for me.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Silent Treatment:

  • “I felt no empathy with any of the characters, far too much detail of their feelings for each and far too descriptive of their feelings for their child. All parents feel that way, it is not unusual to love your child and be devastated if they choose the wrongs path in life. Not necessary to write a book about it!” – Amazon Customer
  • “This is likely a weepy film. Sentimental codswallop to be honest. Would two people with intelligence and love for each other really make such a hash of all the most important things in their lives? I was hoping for something more nuanced and more true to life but this isn’t that book. Unless you enjoy shamelessly melodramatic weepies with very little plot to them I suggest you avoid this book and find a better use of your time.” – EV
  • “I just didn’t believe that two people who professed to love each other so very much could live through a period of six months without talking. It’s just too childish. They were of a similar age to me but had my partner refused to speak to me for any length of time, I’d have walked out, not taken a bunch of tablets that made me into a vegetable. That’s just passive-aggressive.” – MalMonroe

The Nothing Man – Catherine Ryan Howard

I think this might be the year I finally catch up on all the books that slipped by me during the pandemic lockdown(s). A few weeks ago, it was The Secrets Of Strangers, and now it’s The Nothing Man. Corvus Books (and Allen & Unwin) sent me this one towards the end of 2020 – better late than never, right?

The Nothing Man - Catherine Ryan Howard - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Nothing Man here.
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This one didn’t really catch my eye until I read – and loved! – 56 Days. That book made Catherine Ryan Howard an automatic-buy author for me, and luckily I already had The Nothing Man on the to-read shelf.

It turns out it’s got a cracker of a premise. The Nothing Man is the moniker given to the man who assaulted and murdered a series of people in the early 2000s, in their Cork homes. They called him that because the Gardaí had “nothing” on him. This isn’t a whodunnit, though. You know from the very first chapter that Jim is The Nothing Man.

Nowadays, Jim is working as a security guard in a supermarket. When the story begins, he’s just learned that a book has come out about his (as yet unsolved) crimes – he spots a woman purchasing a copy from a display at his work. It’s a memoir by the sole survivor of The Nothing Man’s last attack. At just twelve years old, Eve Black suffered the loss of her entire family at his hands, and now she’s writing a book about her experience, in the hopes of gathering new information to crack the case.

So, we’ve got a book-within-a-book situation in The Nothing Man. It’s a really clever way of having the two perspectives play out: Eve’s search for her family’s killer, and Jim’s present-day life as an undetected “former” serial killer. The chapters alternate between extracts from Eve’s book, and Jim’s reactions as he reads them. He quickly realises how close she is to stumbling onto the truth of his identity, and he feels backed into a corner. He’s going to have to find a way to thwart her before his facade is broken down.

The Nothing Man is a very creepy, very detailed crime novel. You should know before you pick it up (trigger warning time!) that it contains graphic descriptions of violent sexual crime, and twisted psychological games – and one particularly horrible instance of cruelty towards a dog 🙁

That said, it’s so well-written and propulsive, it’s difficult to put down – even when it turns your stomach. Howard masterfully balanced Jim and Eve’s perspectives, giving the “victim” just as strong a voice and an active role in what unfolds (something all-too-often missing from crime thrillers, with passive dead girls left voiceless in the narrative).

Plus, The Nothing Man culminates in a satisfying ending that seems, granted, a little unrealistic – but not overwrought or overdone.

This is the perfect fiction book for fans of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark. Howard even cites that specific book as inspiration in the Acknowledgements for The Nothing Man. If you’re looking for a book to give a true crime aficionado – or if you’re one yourself, looking to try something different – this is the one to go with. Catherine Ryan Howard remains a must-read author for me!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Nothing Man:

  • “I was truly scared to read more, but was too anxious to stop!” – Teresa C
  • “I am Irish and I tend to steer clear of books set in Ireland like the plague because they are more often than not leprechaun inducing hokum. I bought this book because it kept popping up in my recommendations – I confess I had never heard of the Author and didn’t realise that the book was set in Ireland. When I finally got around to reading it, the penny soon dropped and I will admit my heart sank. What was ahead? Donkeys carrying turf around a bog? Twenty chapters of people roaring drunk in pubs? Would everyone be dressed in flatcaps and Aran jumpers?
    What followed was one of the most original thrillers I have ever read and frankly could have been set anywhere in the world. What a refreshing change!” – Nicci
  • “I tend to read in bed before going to sleep. Not a good idea with this book” – ET1959
  • “The author writes very fluently, drawing you in to the story and making you feel engaged with the characters. I didn’t empathise strongly with the mass murdering psychopath to be fair but that’s probably a good thing.” – NeilS

The Plot – Jean Hanff Korelitz

The Plot has a jaw-dropping, amazing, oh-my-I-must-read-this-immediately premise. I challenge any booklover or creative type not to immediately run out and grab a copy once they hear it: can’t be done! As per the blurb, The Plot is “a psychologically suspenseful novel about a story too good not to steal, and the writer who steals it”.

The Plot - Jean Hanff Korelitz - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Plot here.
(And don’t lose the plot about the affiliate links on this page – they just mean I’ll earn a small commission for referring you.)

So, get this: at Ripley, an arts school in regional Vermont, once-promising writer Jacob Finch Bonner is languishing as an instructor in a low-residency fine arts program. He calls it a “special purgatory” for washed-up writers like himself, teaching fiction writing to students like Evan Parker – arrogant, self-indulgent, with no idea the misery that awaits them in their dream careers.

Evan Parker’s writing extract doesn’t seem like anything special, no different to the dozens of extracts Jacob Finch Bonner has to read every year (are you getting that he’s cynical, yet?). But in a one-on-one workshop, Evan Parker describes the plot of the book he’s planning to write, and… it’s stupendous. (Korelitz very cleverly talks around it, describing but not revealing this magnificent plot to the reader, at first.)

And here’s where The Plot gets interesting. Evan Parker dies, sadly and suddenly, not long after the workshop concludes. He passes without ever having published his game-changing bestseller-for-sure novel.

Three years later, Jacob Finch Bonner has written and published the story as his own. It’s gone on to have all the success that Evan Parker predicted it would: top of the best-seller lists, film adaptation in the works, and a spot in Oprah’s book club. All seems to be going well, until Jacob Finch Bonner receives an email from that reads, simply: “You are a thief.”

Who could possibly know that he stole the plot? Who would care? What are they going to do with that information? You can see how The Plot sucks you in. This is a literary mystery of the highest order.

The emails keep coming, and then they escalate. TalentedTom creates a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and an Instagram feed. Jacob Finch Bonner’s neurosis and fear of being found out begins to eat him alive. As he tries to track down this person threatening to expose him, Jacob Finch Bonner is pulled further into his stolen plot than even he realises.

The tone of The Plot is like a snarkier version of Less – meets Crime And Punishment, meets I Know What You Did Last Summer. It’s a delightful take-down of the publishing industrial complex and the Writer As Martyr archetype, as well as a complex psychological portrait. As Elisabeth Egan wrote for the New York Times review: “If you’re a reader who likes stories where a terrible decision snowballs out of control, this book is just what the librarian ordered. Welcome to a spectacular avalanche.”

Apparently, the rights to a TV series have been secured, but I think The Plot really shines because it’s written in a book format. I’m not sure the story would shine on screen the way it does on the page, and the delicious irony of the skewering would be lost. So, if it’s ever made, I don’t think I’ll be watching.

What I will be doing, though, is looking for more books by Jean Hanff Korelitz! I’d not heard of her before reading The Plot, but I can see from her author bio that she has a decent back-list, so I shouldn’t have too much trouble tracking some down. If she can write something this five-star out-of-this-world great, she’s well worth closer attention.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Plot:

  • “Incase you need to know the author’s politics, don’t worry, she will remind you of them throughout the book. Whether it is complaining that enough tax dollars aren’t going toward Obamacare, mansplaining, or gentrification, the plot is constantly interrupted with self righteousness.” – Amazon Customer
  • “If you like suspense/ torture books you will probably enjoy, though a bit slow in middle.” – DFfifth
  • “I actually gave up halfway through and skipped to the end. Using someone’s idea maybe be morally reprehensible but it is not illegal so 200+ pages of worrying about getting caught was just boring.” – A. L. Caissie
  • “As a survivor of a BFA creative writing workshop and — briefly — the wife of a grad student on his way to becoming a professor, the setting and shop talk of academia and the publishing business were drearily familiar to me. But the pages and pages of rambling exposition in lieu of actual storytelling gave me gas.” – Valued Customer

The Secrets Of Strangers – Charity Norman

So, I’ve had The Secrets Of Strangers sitting on my shelf for… a while. Like, years. I received an advance copy back in March 2020. My apologies to Allen & Unwin for the delay in getting to it, but in my defense, a lot of things slipped past the goalie for all of us that particular month.

The Secrets Of Strangers - Charity Norman - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I was curious about The Secrets Of Strangers because it sounded, from the blurb, a lot like what happened the day of the Lindt Cafe siege here in my city, except that it’s set in London (and it turns out, having read it, it’s not all that similar at all).

It’s a busy morning at the Tuckbox Cafe when a young man walks in with a shotgun and fires. Most people manage to scatter, but a small group are trapped and become hostages. Over the course of the novel, their histories and secrets come to the surface.

Neil is an older man, sleeping rough with his dog, Buddy. He came to the Tuckbox Cafe just looking for some warmth and some tea on his birthday.

Abi is a lawyer, running late to court. She’s defending a woman who shook her infant child, on the same day she finds out her fifth cycle of IVF hasn’t resulted in pregnancy.

Mutesi is a grandmother who works as a carer in a nursing home, and has seen more than her fair share of loss. She’s just coming off a night shift, and she meets her daughter-in-law and grandson at the Tuckbox, as she does every week.

Rosie is one of the cafe staff members working when the shooting starts. She also happens to be sleeping with her boss. She hides in the kitchen cupboard, terrified, for hours.

Sam is the gunman, a camel whose back has broken under one too many straws.

Outside of it all is Eliza, a hostage negotiator with young kids at home, charged with getting everyone – including the gunman – out of the Tuckbox Cafe safely.

The stories of all of these characters – hostages, hostage-taker, negotiator – are told in alternating viewpoints across chapters. The plot is a lot more character-driven than you might expect of a crime thriller. The Secrets Of Strangers isn’t so much about the events in the cafe itself as it is what led up to them, and what’s motivating each of the characters as the situation unfolds.

I actually really appreciated how Norman depicted how long and (believe it or not) boring these situations can be. Adrenaline can only rush for so long; after a while, your mind starts to wander, you need the bathroom, you get thirsty, your phone goes flat. When a siege stretches into its eleventh or twelfth hour, as it does in The Secrets Of Strangers, people get tired and the dynamic shifts. There isn’t a neat narrative arc playing out.

Allegiances shift over the course of the novel, too. Your perception of who the “real” villain is will likely change. I’m not sure how I felt about that, though. The resolution felt simultaneously too neat and a bit problematic (IYKYK). The Secrets Of Strangers had a hurt-people-hurt-people, sympathy-for-the-devil type of message, and I just didn’t really vibe with it. But it was a compelling read nonetheless, and Norman clearly has a real talent for writing page-turners.

Pick up The Secrets Of Strangers when you want a beach read on the grittier side that you can devour in a day.

Want more? Read my review of Charity Norman’s seventh novel, Remember Me, here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Secrets Of Strangers:

  • “It’s a well-written page turner that keeps you wondering how and if they will all get out alive, but fear not, nothing bad happens to Buddy the dog. 4.5 rounded down for the (admittedly well-executed) present tense.” – Joanna J
  • “I was initially drawn to this book as I myself work in a cafe.” – Carolyn
  • “It was easy to read and I did want to know what happened but I wasn’t thrilled.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Was a bit like a social workers case load! Not really my kind of book.” – Amazon Customer
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