Review: The Dinner, by Herman Koch

Two Dutch couples meet for dinner in an expensive restaurant:  Paul and Claire, Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette.  Their meeting at first seems purely social, and something they do together from time to time.  But from minute details strategically placed in the narrative, the reader begins developing a different picture.  Just before leaving the house, Paul discovers disturbing content on his son Michel’s phone, but chooses not to mention it to Claire.  Paul detects signs of distress when Serge and Babette arrive at the restaurant.  We learn their son Rick was involved in a crime, as was Michel.  But what do the parents actually know?  What will they do about it?  And how did two boys from “good families” get into this situation?

Paul narrates the events of that evening, filling in family history along the way.  The result is a kind of cross between We Need to Talk About Kevin (troubled teens committing horrific acts) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (disturbing scenes unfolding over a meal).  Neither family is what they seem at the outset.  Paul is an unreliable narrator, failing to see the damage resulting from his behavior over the years.

None of the characters are likeable; in fact, they are all pretty horrible.  And the story is unpleasant, too.  Normally that would be enough to make me hate a book.  Why didn’t that happen this time?  Because I was really intrigued by Koch’s writing.  I liked the way he meted out relevant details, first in tiny fragments and then in increasingly obvious chunks.  He deftly showed us not only the nature of the boys’ crime, but events that directly and indirectly made it possible, and made me question who really was the guilty party in this case.  The book was hard to put down and I finished it in just a couple of days; however, its dark, disturbing nature means it’s one I cannot recommend unequivocally.

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Review: In the Woods, by Tana French

This was a thumping good mystery. Well, 3/4 of it anyway, until it fell apart. Here’s the premise: 12-year-old Katy Devlin is found dead, the apparent victim of foul play. Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are assigned to the case. It just so happens that twenty years earlier, two of Rob’s 12-year-old friends disappeared from the very same housing estate. Rob was found, bloody and alone. The others were never found; the case was so notorious Rob changed his name and went to boarding school. Rob remembers nothing from that horrible day, but can’t help wondering if the two cases are linked in some way. He begins a parallel investigation, without revealing his personal interest to his superiors. And there’s one more angle: a land use dispute over a new motorway, with a barely perceptible whiff of corruption.

With three concurrent investigations, the reader meets a myriad of characters and joins Rob and Cassie in poring through forensic evidence. As with any good mystery, we begin making connections and we develop theories. And we come to like Rob and Cassie: they make a great team on the job, and have an unusually deep friendship.

But there are a couple of things that go wrong in this book. I will describe them without spoilers, although it’s difficult to convey their full impact. The first problem is Rob. My husband and I have a recurring and inconclusive conversation about whether authors can write authentically about a character of the opposite sex. I suspect this book is one where most men would say about Rob, “guys aren’t like that.” It’s not that he had a highly developed feminine side, he just did and said things a typical guy wouldn’t do, especially with Cassie (I’m sorry I can’t be more specific). Second, there was a character whose true self was revealed when the case was solved, but their voice wasn’t authentic, and they had improbable traits given some basic facts we already knew about them.

Lots of people would probably disagree with me about this. The mystery was realistic, and the book was a page-turner from start to finish. I enjoyed reading it.  So if you’re intrigued, I say go ahead and read it.  And then let’s talk about it!

I read this as part of a group read hosted by Rebecca @ Love at First Book.  I can’t wait to discuss the ending with the group!

Review: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was then, as I stood in that cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment from which I had come. Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them, really, when it came right down to it? Why, of all people, had they chosen to tell me?  (p. 199)

Richard Papen transferred to Hampden College in New England, after attending one year of college in his California hometown.  He immediately fell in with a select group of students studying Classics: Henry, Francis, Bunny, and twins Charles and Camilla. Their professor fostered camaraderie among the group, and isolation from the rest of the college and its social scene.  From the first page, we know that Bunny dies, and that the rest of the group played some part in his death.  The book showed how these events came to pass, and the profound impact Bunny’s death had on the others.

This book was seriously creepy, and as Donna Tartt set the stage for Bunny’s demise, the suspense grew.  I couldn’t put it down, even though it evoked feelings like watching Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Strangers on a Train, and invaded my sleep for several days.  I really don’t want to say much about the details, because it would spoil the story.  Suffice to say this was a shocking and yet somehow realistic portrayal of friendships gone bad.

Characterizations are one of The Secret History‘s strongest elements. Richard, as narrator, is the everyman through whom we see the others.  We learn of their personalities, their histories, and their dysfunctional behaviors.  We can even (almost) understand the circumstances leading to Bunny’s death, and sympathize with its aftereffects on their lives and friendships.  And oddly, these strong characterizations were also the book’s main weakness.  None of them seemed like 19-year-olds, even ones who attend a prestigious liberal arts college.  It wasn’t just their unfettered access to ridiculous sums of money, but also their extreme independence from adult figures, and some elements of their conversational style.  As much as I was caught up in the suspense, I was also conscious of suspending disbelief.  But if you can do so, you will fully enjoy this novel.

Review: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

On her fifth wedding anniversary, Amy Dunne goes missing.  A neighbor calls her husband Nick, to report the front door wide open and the cat out on the lawn.  Nick rushes home from work, and inside the house he finds signs of a struggle.  Police and detectives arrive and begin their investigation by questioning Nick.  This seemed like a perfectly natural way to gather the first facts, but then Nick, as narrator, something that sent chills down my spine: “It was my fifth lie to the police. I was just starting.”

Why did he lie?  Which of his statements were true, and which false?  Did Nick have a role in Amy’s disappearance?  This is just the beginning of an intense, fast-paced thriller.  Nick and Amy tell their story in alternating chapters.  Amy’s chapters are diary excerpts beginning several years earlier, when she first met Nick.  She describes their romance, their marriage, and the circumstances that caused them to move from New York City to Nick’s hometown in Missouri.  Meanwhile, Nick’s chapters describe the investigation and more recent events in his life with Amy.  By the time the two narratives converge, the reader has a complete picture of their marriage.  Or do they?

Whenever I thought I was onto something important about Amy’s disappearance, Gillian Flynn would take the plot in a dramatically new direction.  Previous facts were shown to be fiction.  Mysterious clues were explained, and seemingly normal events suddenly appeared suspicious.  There’s not much that can be said about Gone Girl without revealing critical plot details.  Suffice to say this story of a troubled marriage, and the psychological drama between the couple, is a page-turner that will keep you guessing from start to finish.

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood and her sister Constance live in their stately family home with their invalid uncle Julian.  Constance is a recluse, afraid to go into the town.  Merricat takes care of all the family errands, and endures the stares and catcalls from townspeople.  Several years before, five other family members died after arsenic was put in the sugar bowl.  Constance was acquitted, but the town won’t let them get on with their lives.  So they pass their days quietly.  Constance is in her late 20s and handles most of the cooking and household management.  Merricat is 18 and helps out with certain tasks but prefers the outdoors and the company of her cat, Jonas.  One day their cousin Charles appears on the scene, and attempts to insert himself into their lifestyle and into the family affairs.  Charles is smarmy, and while his motives are unclear you can be sure they aren’t good.  Constance appears to be falling for it, and only Merricat is suspicious.

But then, as often happens in creepy stories, there’s a cataclysmic event followed by a significant plot twist designed to make you question  everything you’ve read so far.  Unfortunately, the cataclysmic event was foreshadowed, and I spotted the twist long before it happened. I was disappointed, having read many reviews about how wonderfully creepy this story was.

Shirley Jackson was the author of several novels and short stories, often involving elements of horror or the occult.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle was published in 1962, and perhaps it just doesn’t hold up well when compared to modern works of a similar nature.

Review: Cold Earth, by Sarah Moss

Imagine you are part of a group of archaeologists sent on assignment to a remote area of Greenland.  As you’re leaving home, a virus spreads, sparking fears of a pandemic.  Your group is isolated and safe, but will your friends and loved ones be OK?

That is the premise behind Cold Earth, Sarah Moss’ debut novel.  The archaeologists are a diverse group:  two American (Ruth, Jim), two English (Nina, Ben), one Scottish (Catriona), and their leader Yianni, originally from Greece.   Only Yianni and Nina knew each other before the dig.  Each member brings unique history and neuroses.  Ruth comes across as haughty and vain, but this masks deeper emotional scars.  Nina is plagued by nightmares, visions of what may have happened to the original settlers.  And she claims someone is lurking outside her tent in the middle of the night.  Others find the dig site disturbed overnight, and some see mysterious lights and shadows.  It’s all rather creepy.

For a while, group members maintain email contact with family, and keep up with the news via a single laptop and satellite internet connection.  But suddenly, their communication is cut off.  Is it an everyday flaky technology problem, sabotage by their mysterious visitor, or evidence of the pandemic’s global impact?   Their feelings of isolation fuel fears that they will be unable to return home.

The story of Cold Earth is told via letters written by each group member as they face the possibility of their own mortality.  It’s a clever technique, with each character’s point of view revealing minor details that build suspense while also providing “aha” moments.  There were a few small flaws in this novel, where Moss could have done more to dispel my inner cynic, but for the most part I found this book difficult to put down.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 4