BOOK REVIEWS

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

After reading an article that called Stephen Graham Jones “the Jordan Peele of horror literature” I was really looking forward to The Only Good Indians. Sadly, Jones’ novel never quite lived up to its eerie premise. Then again, this may the case of ‘it’s not the book, it’s me’ or maybe I have just become inoculated to horror fiction (the last horror books I’ve read—The Bright Lands, Revenge, Empire of Wild—did not elicit any feelings of fear or anxiety in me).


Anyhow, just because I did not find The Only Good Indians to be a particularly good piece of horror doesn’t mean that I would want to discourage others from reading it (if you are thinking of picking up this book I encourage that you read some of the many positives reviews here on GR). So, before I move onto my criticisms, here are some positives.
Jones’ is an undoubtedly imaginative writer. It is refreshing to read stories that do not implement Western myths, and the vengeful deity at the heart of The Only Good Indians is inspired by the Native American myth of Deer Woman. I appreciated the way Jones’ calls out stereotypes about Native Americans (for example by having his characters fear that they will become another ‘statistic’ or that their behaviour will fuel harmful stereotypes). There was also a brief scene in which Jones contrasts the views and attitudes of younger and older members of the Blackfeet tribe. Jones’ use of repetition and onomatopoeias (such as: “the story her stepdad told her isn’t the real story, isn’t the one with feet on the ground and smoke in the air, bang bang bang.”) could also be quite effective.

And now, onto the things I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy (mild-spoilers below).
The pacing…is kind of all over the place. Maybe I approached this book with the wrong exceptions but I wasn’t too keen on the way Jones’ structured his story. The four friends mentioned in the summary are not at the core of this story. We have one chapter focusing on one character, then we spend quite some time with another character, and then we move to two other characters. While I understand that geography was in the way of our deity’s hunt for these men, I do think that weaving their storylines together would have created some more suspense. By the time we move to the last two characters, we know what will happen (and yes, surprise surprise, it does happen). Their stories felt kind of disjointed, their relationship with each other a mere echo. The story never builds a momentum but rather it thrusts us in scenes in which shit has already hit the fan. Take Lewis. From the very first page we meet him, he’s kind of lost it. There is no slow descent into madness. Because we only see him at his worst, I never had time to care for him. There were quite a few chapters that cut off before a scene had reached its zenith, and we are only retroactively told of what came next, so that the narrative lost a lot of its urgency.
The characters…well, they are kind of the same man. They are kind of messy, selfish, not too bright. They articulated themselves in the same exact way, they had no real interests or drive, they kind of just exist. When having sex with his girlfriend Lewis makes a joke about going “bareback” which yes, Lewis himself admits is a “stupid joke” but that this joke re-appears later on…yeah, it didn’t make me feel particularly sympathetic towards him. The only time he showed some depth is when he acknowledges his own conflicted feelings about being with a white woman (and of the possibility of fathering children outside his community). Other than that, Lewis remains a static character. I think that making his story a bit longer, and of slowing down his mental breakdown, would have made him a more dimensional character. The other two guys were mostly forgettable (one is a father, the other one has a girlfriend).
The female characters were hard to digest as they would have been far more at home in a novel published in the 80s. They are physically and emotionally strong, paragons of strength who when needed can transform into sexy temptresses (which begs the question: why would they ever choose to be with or flirt with these four walking-disasters?).
The younger characters were less one-dimensional but they play such small roles that they didn’t really make a huge impact on the story.
Now, onto the most disappoint thing of this book: the horror element. Jones’ horror relies on gory descriptions. I didn’t feel chilled or disturbed by the content of this book. While I do find scenes that depict violent deaths (blood and gore galore) to be somewhat disgusting, for the most part I was unshaken by Jones’ reliance on splatter which would have more in common with B-horror movies than Peele’s Get Out. These explicit scenes were not very shocking or terrifying, in fact, they had the opposite effect as their gaudiness could be unintentionally funny.
The final section was corny as hell, and didn’t really fit with the rest of the novel.

As I previously said, although I did not have a very high opinion of The Only Good Indians I wouldn’t discourage others from reading this novel. I don’t think I would have finished this novel if I’d read the book myself. The audiobook narrator gives a really good performance and he definitely kept me from DNFing this.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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The Devotion of Suspect X (Detective Galileo #1) by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect X is an unusual detective novel. By the end of the first chapter readers witness the murder that is at the centre of this novel. We know the identity and motivations of the perpetrator. What follows is a compulsive game of cat-and-mouse between ‘detective Galileo’ and Suspect X. At times this felt like a chess game, in which two highly intelligent individuals try to outmanoeuvre each other.
The final chapters of this novel took me by surprise and answered some of my niggling questions regarding the actions of a certain character. Still, [SPOILERS] I’m not quite certain why he just didn’t leave the ex-husband in the river or whatever it was…why let the police find a body in the first place? The ex-wife would have been questioned but if they had no proof of the guy being dead, surely they would have soon moved to more urgent cases…especially considering that this guy wasn’t exactly a model citizen and his disappearance could have been chalked up to loansharks or something…but then we wouldn’t have a novel so…[END SPOILERS].
I think this is a novel that to best appreciated this novel one should know very little about its plot and characters before picking it up. If you like tales of suspense, police procedural, and clever mysteries, you should definitely give The Devotion of Suspect X.
The only thing that kept me from giving this book a higher rating were the characters themselves. I found some of them to be a bit wooden, and I also wasn’t particularly keen on that ending.

My rating: 3 ¼ stars

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Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby

“You were never out of the Life completely. You were always looking over your shoulder. You always kept a gun within reach.”

Blacktop Wasteland is a thrilling, adrenaline-fueled read that gives a fresh new take on the One Last Job™ premise. S.A. Cosby’s pitch-perfect debut novel is brutal, twisty, and hella gritty. Blacktop Wasteland will have you at edge-of-your-seat from its very first chapter—in which our ‘hero’ takes part in a drag race—until the novel’s finish line. Although Cosby’s noir narrative is reminiscent of Walter Mosley and Dennis Lehane, his dynamic voice brings something new to the crime fiction scene.
Set in a small-town in rural Virginia, Blacktop Wasteland follows Beauregard Montagerom, nicknamed Bug, a family man who works as a mechanic at his own garage. Beauregard’s attempt to live an honest life is hindered by money troubles: business is bad and unforeseen expenses keep cropping up. Going against his wife’s wishes, Beauregard agrees to one last job. The heist, however, doesn’t go quite as planned…and things rapidly go south.
Blacktop Wasteland has a lot to offer: an action-packed storyline, charged dialogues, and compelling yet morally grey—if not downright corrupt—characters.
This is one gripping novel. While things do get violent and messy, Cosby manages to vividly render Beauregard’s complicated family dynamics, as well as the motivations of those connected to the heist. The way the story unfolds took me by surprise, and in the latter half of the novel, my jaw may have hit the floor once or twice.
Alongside some pretty epic moments—Beauregard, for all his faults, is one smooth guy—the story manages to pack quite a few emotional punches. Cosby doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities of crime, poverty, and racism.
Cosby’s descriptions were terrific, especially where cars were concerned (“the car shivered like a wolf shaking its pelt” , “the motor went from a roar to the war cry of a god”). They could also be startlingly humorous (such as “explanations were like assholes. Everyone has one and they are all full of shit”).
Reading Blacktop Wasteland felt like being taken on an exhilarating ride. This novel is smart, dark, funny, and—as previously mentioned—seriously gritty.

My rating: 4 ½ stars

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The Bright Lands by John Fram

At first, I was intrigued by The Bright Lands: a small town in Texas, missing teen(s), possible evil entities…I kind of expected it to be a modern take on Twin Peaks by way of Stephen King. Sadly, however, The Bright Lands never delivers on its intriguing premise. The writing leaves a lot to be desired, the dialogues are at best clumsy and at worst embarrassingly clichéd, the characterisation is sparse and tends to rely on tired stereotypes, the storyline is unfocused and unnecessarily convoluted, and the supernatural elements felt out of place.
The novel doesn’t really have a protagonist. We jump from character to character, without gaining any insight into who they are, most of whom are indistinguishable from each other. We are first introduced to Joel Whitley, who is in late twenties and lives a nice apartment in New York. He gets a series of texts from his younger brother, Dylan, who happens to be the star of his football team, if not their small town’s golden boy. Worried for him, Joel returns to his hometown of Bentley. Joel is understandably not keen to return to his homophobic community, especially after what happened before he left.
When Dylan disappears Joel reconnects with his ex-girlfriend, Sheriff’s Deputy Starsha Clark who still hasn’t forgiven him for ‘misleading’ her. Dylan’s teammates and his girlfriend are clearly hiding something, and there are rumours about a place called ‘the bright lands’.
Many of the town’s inhabitants begin to have nightmares hinting at some sort of Big Evil.
Joel never felt like an actual person. We know he’s gay and that his brother is missing. Other than that? Not much. His life in New York for example is only vaguely alluded to (only in those instances in which Joel notes that he now has plenty money) and his relationship with his mother is non-existent (for the matter she only has a cameo here and there…weird given that it is her son who is missing). He mostly reacts to things for plot reasons, but he really has 0 interiority.
The football team and cheerleaders are one-dimensional. They speak in clichés and their motivations are lazily unconvincing.
The adult men in this town are a similar shade of rugged bigot, the women and the girls instead are ‘badasses’.
What I’m getting at is that the characters were utterly ridiculous. Which would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that I was supposed to take them seriously.
John Fram tries to incorporate in his story topical themes such homophobia (which reigns supreme in Bentley), racism, police incompetence and corruption…but the way he addresses these is questionable. Suggesting that all homophobes are actually closeted gay or bi-curious men…is yeah, not great. The novel’s portrayal and treatment of queer men leaves a lot to be desired.
There is a lot of not telling, not enough showing. Chapters end in predictable cliffhangers, usually with a character learning or seeing something important, and it takes sometimes a few chapters before we return to that character and we get to read what all the fuss was about.
The latter half of the novel is utterly ludicrous. I can sort of see what Fram wanted to do…but I can’t say that he manages to pull it off. For one, I just didn’t buy into it. Second, the whole supernatural subplot was laughable…and this novel was meant to be a ‘horror’? Mmh..
The Bright Lands lacks emotional weight. The characters seem really unfeeling, or perhaps they just don’t register that they are feelings things such as anger or grief. They merely go from A to B.
This was a bland novel….and I’m not sure I will approach Fram’s future work.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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The Less Dead by Denise Mina — book review

The Less Dead is a gripping, if bleak, piece of tartan noir. When sex workers, drug addicts, migrant workers, and otherwise marginalised groups are victims of murder, they are called the ‘less dead’. Their deaths are less important, not as ‘impactful’. Denise Mina’s novel, in a similar vein to recent releases such as Long Bright River, is less interested in its ‘serial killer’ storyline and more concerned with depicting the realities and experiences of women whose lives have been punctuated by sexual abuse, violence, and addiction.
Set in Glasgow, the novel introduces to thirty-something Margot Dunlop, a doctor still grieving the recent death of her mother. Margot is struggling to cope, with her break up from Joe, her longterm boyfriend, and with her pregnancy. She finds herself wanting to learn more about her birth mother, Susan, only to learn that she was brutally killed years before. Susan’s was one of the nine victims of a serial killer who preyed on sex workers. Since Susan’s death Nikki, Susan’s older sister, has received a string of menacing letters who could only have been written by the murderer. While Nikki seems eager to get to know her niece, a disbelieving Margot is hesitant to venture into a ‘world’ she thinks little of. When Margot also starts to receive crude letters, she’s forced to reconsider.
As Margot learns more of Susan, a young woman who refused to labelled as a victim, and her birth family, she finds herself challenging her own biases.
Mina presents her readers with a thought-provoking interrogation of class. The women she writes of, their struggles and traumas, are rendered with striking empathy. Margot, however, comes across as a far less nuanced character. Her remoteness seemed unwarranted and unexplained. She’s curt to the point of being brusque, she makes a few decision that aren’t truly delved into, making her seem out of character for the sake of the plot. Nikki, by comparison, not only felt truly real, but she’s really admirable. Margot’s relationship with her ‘problematic’ best friend and her ex detracted from the overall the story. These two characters didn’t seem all that believable.
While the third person present tense narration did add a sense of immediacy, or urgency if you will, to the novel, it did occasionally did frustrate me. There are certain conversations that don’t have quotations marks and they also became a bit gimmicky (it made sense in certain scenes, but the more this happened the less ‘meaningful’ it became). Another pet peeve of mine were the sections from the ‘culprits’ perspective. These were brief and struck me as salacious, as in ‘glimpse the thoughts of a deviant mind’ (as if this individual’s letters didn’t convey their state of mind).
Mina’s story is certainly evocative and gritty. The scenes focused on Nikki were easily my favourite. Margot’s ‘personal’ struggles, on the other hand, just didn’t grab my interest. Perhaps this is because I didn’t particularly warm to her character, whose wooden personality reminded me of the narrator of Long Bright River.
Nevertheless, I did find Mina’s examination of the way in which women such as Nikki and Susan are treated by their society to be both incisive and affecting. While Mina doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities and daily horrors of addiction and prostitution, she doesn’t make her characters into ‘pitiable’ stereotypes. The thriller elements give the narrative an element of suspense, and the tension between Margot and those connected to Susan did gave the story a certain ‘edge’.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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If It Bleeds by Stephen King — book review

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“News people have a saying: If it bleeds, it leads.”

If It Bleeds presents its readers with four unnerving short stories. Yet, while Stephen King certainly excels at creating disturbing scenarios, there is something oddly comforting about his books. His distinctive voice feels familiar, and his stories are infused with a certain American nostalgia. King is a gifted and empathetic storyteller who is unafraid of entertaining dark possibilities. These stories in particular seem all too relevant for these uneasy times. King taps into anxieties about technology, media, and data privacy. Characters have to battle their own vices and make sense of what can only be evil. By thrusting his ‘ordinary’ characters into uncanny realities King challenges their perception of themselves and of the world. If It Bleeds features revenge, ambition, violence, apocalypses (?), corruption, and faustian pacts. But there are also plenty of moments in which human connections triumph: friends looking out for each other, dancing on the streets, moments of kindness.

MR. HARRIGAN’S PHONE: ★★★★✰ 4 stars
A very King-esque story. From the setting to the characters, this first story is great. I liked the atmosphere, the discussions around technology, and I was invested in the narrative.

THE LIFE OF CHUCK: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars
This story has a very interesting structure. There are some moving moments, especially towards the end. I was a bit confused but that was probably intentional.

IF IT BLEEDS: ★★★★✰ 4 stars
Holly is a blast and this story cemented my love for her. Her ‘peculiarities’ make her all the more relatable. Her pursuit of justice makes her into an admirable charter and it was fascinating to read of the way her investigation unfolded.

RAT: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars
Although I really like it when King writes about writers I found this last story to be simultaneously grotesque and hilarious. Also reading about a ‘snot-clotted bandanna’ during these pandemic gave me the heebie-jeebies.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars

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Trouble Is What I Do by Walter Mosley — book review

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“I was so hardened to suffering that somehow even the casualties of history fell outside the borders of my self-imposed sovereignty.”

In spite of its short length Walter Mosley’s Trouble Is What I Do packs a punch. This is noir at its finest. Mosley doesn’t waste words, and we can tell that by the fact that each description and dialogue in his novel has a certain significance.

“Slowly, he lowered onto a chair, looking at me as if I was the bad news he’d been waiting for his entire life ”

The very first opening pages of Trouble Is What I Do grabbed my attention. Mosley’s first person narrator is Leonid McGill who as a ‘crook’ turned P.I. is all too familiar with navigating the crime world. When Phillip Worry, known as Catfish, a 92-year-old bluesman, asks Leonid to deliver a letter it would seem like a fairly straightforward task. Except that this letter is addressed to Penelope Sternman, heiress of one of America’s most wealthy and influential families, and the contents reveal her black lineage. Her father, Catfish’s son, is a corrupt racist who will stop at nothing in order to keep his parentage secret.
Thankfully, Leonid is the man for the job. Aided by old ‘friends’, he sets out to deliver this letter.

“Catfish had given me drink and song and trust. These were sacred gifts and, in a way, I was born again.”

Leonid’s distinctive narration makes him stand out from other P.I.s. He is charming, incisive, and, unlike many other detectives, doesn’t take himself too seriously. He doesn’t need to throw his weight around, his reputation precedes him: “This man you’re walking up on is Leonid McGill. He’ll break half the bones in your body for business and the other half for fun.”
Yet, in spite of his past, readers will be able to see how humane he is. His moral compass does waver, but only occasionally. Speaking of his past, Mosley manages to give Leonid a lot of history without rehashing his whole life story.
The dialogues are snappy, in equal measure amusing and tense. Leonid’s lyrical narrative provides us with evocative descriptions that truly bring his world to life.
Leonid’s engrossing assignment provides a relevant commentary on race that doesn’t provide readers with simple answers. The ending is surprisingly heart-rendering.
I would definitely recommend this to fans of James Lee Burke and Dennis Lehane or for those who are interested in reading a more poetic take on noir.

“At one time I blamed my father’s abandonment for these sins, but I had learned that in the end, wrong is wrong and every man has to carry his own water.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Please See Us by Caitlin Mullen — book review

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“There is something bad in the air and in the water now, something rotten and wrong. A moral disease.”

While Please See Us gives its readers a slightly more innovative “missing women” type-of-story. Providing us with a panoramic of Atlantic City Caitlin Mullen’s novel follows Clara, a young psychic, and Lily who has only recently returned to the city. Between their first-person chapters we have those of Luis, a mute and deaf janitor who works at the same spa as Lily, and those of ‘the Janes’, victims of an unknown serial killer. The quasi-supernatural element gives this rather tired type of story a bit of an edge.
As more women are killed Clara and Lily find themselves embarking on an investigating of sorts.

What Mullen does best in this novel is render Atlantic City’s underbelly. The characters in the story feel stuck in what they rightly perceive to be a city in decline: addiction, prostitution, crime. Life in Atlantic City is not easy and ‘the Janes’ know this better than anyone. Mullen succinctly describes their fears and desires, as well as their circumstances. Some embrace their lifestyle, others believe that they deserve to be degraded and used by men, while some are battling against depression or addiction.

While Mullen manages to make ‘the Janes’ sympathetic without making them strictly likeable, her two main characters were pretty annoying.
Clara, who was raised by her aunt, has led a rather unsupervised life. Alongside her aunt she steals and cons people. Yet, her visions are no farce and she believes that a girl who recently went missing is in danger. Lily, who used to move in New York’s art sphere, finds herself working as a receptionist at a casino’s spa. Her breakup has given her quite a shock and she no longer feels as certain of herself as she used to.
Both Clara and Lily had very self-dramatising narratives. They seem constantly startled by the most ordinary things, and they both go around judging people in the same way…which struck me as weird. They see someone and they seem able to deduce that person’s character and story…Clara, for all her ‘street-smarts’ makes a ton of idiotic choices. Part of me wanted to give Lily a good shake. Much is made of the reason behind her breakup and when we get the details…well, it seemed very over the top. Her ex was hard believable as he was a mere caricature of the modern ‘artist’.
Clara and Lily’s chapters were aggravating and full of platitudes that made me roll my eyes. Mullen tries hard to make Lily have an artist’s worldview but to me these attempts seemed exaggerated: she tries to interact with Luis by making an obscure art reference, and she things stuff like this:
“That’s what I loved about portraiture—how it captured the way a person’s personality, their past, their secrets, their desires or disappointments, settled into their body, their face.”
Give me a break.
So many of Clara and Lily’s observations and inner monologues were pure cheese. One of them things this of Luis: “[His] personality was buried deep within his layers of silence”.
Speaking of Luis…what was the point in his character? For much of the novel Mullen makes these not so subtle hints that he is not quite ‘right’. He is repeatedly harassed and beaten up while the police stands by and does nothing (I mean, really?) and most people think he is a creep. Why is there this tendency to portray janitors this way? Let alone mute and deaf individuals?

The storyline takes its time to set off. What Clara and Lily do isn’t necessarily an investigation but a series of not always logical/organised attempts to discover where these missing women are.
There are quite a few female characters who said cringy stuff like ‘as a woman’ and things on those lines which…who speaks like that?
With the exception of two men who have very small cameos, all the guys in this book are basically the same: sadistic, predatory, violent, rapists, 100% vile.
The serial killer was the typical fanatic who stars in novels like these.
The way the ending unfolded irritated me. Shit finally hist the fan and then within a few pages its sort of over.
All in all there was a lot I did not like about this novel. Clara and Lily’s voices were pure cringe. The story was too slow and perhaps it would have benefited from being a tad more complex.

The Jane chapters and the portrayal of Atlantic City were the most absorbing aspects of Please See Us. Would I recommend this one? Not so sure…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Law of Lines by Hye-Young Pyun — book review

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“The future was a dark corridor. And though she would grope her way through it, the door at the end would be locked tight.”

After reading that Hye-Young Pyun’s novel The Hole won the ‘Shirley Jackson Award’, I was intrigued to read her work. Thanks to NetGalley I was able to read The Law of Lines in exchange for a review.

Within its first few chapters The Law of Lines introduces us to two seemingly unconnected young women: there is Se-oh, a recluse whose indebted father attempts to take his own life by burning their house down, and Ki-jeong, an unenthusiastic teacher who receives a call informing her of the death of her younger half-sister. Confronted with such personal and sudden losses both women find their lives spiralling out of control.

“Those sounds and sentences were lost to her now. His unconditional love, his wordless yet tender gaze, his steely look of fatherly responsibility. All gone. They were each different, but to her they were all synonyms for a father.”

Se-oh begin to understand the depths of her father’s desperation and holds the debt collector who hounded him responsible. Seeking retribution Se-oh begins to stalk the collector and entertains increasingly violent fantasies. However her past, the reason why she became a recluse, catches up to her and Se-oh has to confront whether she herself is accountable for her father’s death.

“The whole time she had stayed locked up at home, she had imagined the outside world as a place that could swallow her whole at any moment. But in truth, it was a place that paid her no attention at all.”

Ki-jeong has led a rather restrained existence, ensuring that she always abided the rules of her society. Ki-jeong is aware of her faults. For example, she knows that she isn’t a very inspired or driven teacher. However, when one of her most privileged pupils plays a cruel trick on her and threatens both her career and her reputation, as well as calling into question her moral integrity, Ki-jeong looses control.
Reeling from their losses, both of these women feel let down by their country’s system of justice. Amidst a backdrop of violent and vengeful thoughts Se-oh and Ki-jeong embark on separate investigations, trying to uncover the causes that led to death of their relatives and it is by assigning blame to others they relieve their own guilt.

“Ki-jeong knew that, of all laws, this—the way one thing leads invariably to the next—was the only of life’s laws that she could not find fault with.”

The beginning of Pyun’s novel is incredibly absorbing. She immediately establishes an atmosphere of uneasiness and of moral degradation: the world she depicts is populated by spiteful, malevolent, or apathetic individuals. Those in authoritative positions abuse their powers. Greed, corruption, and cowardice seem to drive the majority of these characters. It is her characters’ malice perhaps that Pyun turns to the most. Malice seems to creep its way into her character’s thoughts, blurring the lines between right and wrong, good and evil.

“She’d felt the unfamiliar thrill that comes only when you amplify your malice.”

Se-oh and Ki-jeong narratives interrogate the difference between victim and perpetrator. Is entertaining a violent fantasy really better than actual violence? Does vengeance condone one’s wrongdoings? Pyun traces the source and effects that malice and violence have on her characters’ minds.

“When does evil intent become evil itself? Is it evil simply to imagine and harbor an idea? Does it begin when a thought is put into action? And if that action fails, then did evil never exist to begin with?”

Throughout the story an air of squalor lingers over most scenes. These unpleasant characters have filthy habits (such as spitting) and grimy morals. Debt collectors torment those who are indebted, waging psychological wars against them. Young individuals are trapped into pyramid schemes and find themselves into nightmarish scenarios (a bit a la Sorry to Bother You).
Pyun emphasises humanity’s darkness by focusing on the seedy behaviour, physical appearances, or living conditions of her characters. She is almost unrelenting in the way in which she delves into the notion of evil.

“There’d been good, and there’d been bad. That was all. At the time, she’d thought that all of it was bad. Because happiness had flitted on by while bad things had a way of lingering.”

More than once I was reminded of Park Chan-wook’s The Vengeance Trilogy. Pyun’s novel is a bleak one. Yet, as gripping as the first half of The Law of Lines was, in the latter half the story looses its momentum. Ki-jeong sort of disappears and there we get a lengthy account of what drove Se-oh into hiding. When these characters paths finally cross, I found their interaction to be somewhat underwhelming. The ending too seemed rather ill-defined.
All in all, I am unsure whether I would recommend this book to other readers. There are some wickedly clever moments, plenty of interesting observations on Korean society as well as some fascinating discussions about justice. Once the storyline lost its initial edge however I didn’t care much for what I was reading. Perhaps certain things were lost in translation but I do think that the story could have been more complete.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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A Beautiful Crime by Christopher Bollen — book review

40535984.jpgA Beautiful Crime is a tantalisingly suspenseful part thriller part romance, one that brilliantly captures the landscape, aesthetics, and politics of Venice.

“The love of the city had killed its people. Quite simply, Venice had been visited to death.”

The opening of the novel has a terrific hook. We know that someone at some point is going to die. But who? And how?

“When you see an opportunity, take it. You can brood over the ethics later.”

Vaguely reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley but starring two much more sympathetic, and empathetic, protagonists, A Beautiful Crime follows a tense cat-and-mouse game in which readers are never sure who is deceiving who.

Nick is a twenty-five year old from Ohio whose move to New York didn’t exactly result in a clearer idea of who he is or what he wants to do. His older boyfriend doesn’t seem to understand Nick’s restlessness. When Nick meets Clay, who is just two years older than him and from New York, sparks fly.
In spite of their different backgrounds, they fall hard and fast for each other. Clay, rumoured to have murdered his best friend after having tricked him into making him his heir, needs a lot of money and fast. Together they decide that the easiest way to get so much money is to con someone who has more money than sense. It just so happens that the person Clay hates most in the world fits the bill.
In order for their plan to succeed they go to Venice since it is where Richard Forsyth West, aka their mark, is currently staying.

Christopher Bollen maintains a taut tension throughout the course of his narrative. Readers, alongside Nick and Clay, will fear that some hitch might reveal and ruin their plans. What may appear as simple conversations will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. And while we know that objectively what Nick and Clay are doing is wrong, we are still rooting for them to succeed.
Time and time again, in both New York and Venice, Nick and Clay wrestle with their morals as well as their greed, desire, love, and any personal vendettas they may or may not harbour.

Bollen’s writing style presents us with some breathtaking and insightful descriptions of Venice. As a former resident of the comune of Venice I am perhaps a bit too critical when I read novels that feature this city. So, I’m happy to say, or write, that Bollen’s depiction of this city is truly true to life. He really does render its beauty and incongruities, providing an interesting commentary on Venice and its inhabitants, of its fatal dependency on tourism, and of the way it is perceived by the rest of the world.
Although both Nick and Clay view Venice through the eyes of an outsider, the Venetians we encounter along the way, from Daniela to Battista, give us an insight of the ‘real’ Venice.

“What would Venice be like without any Venetians living in it? There were only fifty-three thousand of these rare humans left, and the number was shrinking by a thousand each year.”

Venice is much more than the glamorous backdrop to Nick and Clay con as in many ways it plays a central role in the story. It is a city or romance and of ruin. It fills Nick and Clay with equal parts awe and melancholy. The dizzying spell it casts on those who live there is clear. There were moments in which Bollen’s portrayal of Venice brought to mind Thomas Mann’s in Death in Venice. In both of these works Venice appears as a labyrinthine and suggestive city one that might very well bring the worst out of people.

“Nick was hallucinating. Hew was mistaking marble ballrooms and gilt facades and velvet-upholstered gondolas for real life. People went mad in Venice because it lacked the reality check of poverty and ugliness and ordinary struggles. ”

Alongside this high-stakes con we read of Nick and Clay’s relationship. Part of me wanted to see more of them together but in order for their plan to succeed it is vital they are not seen together, so it made sense that they didn’t get share many scenes. Their feelings for one another add a moving note to the story.
Both the secondary characters and the ones who had only small cameos were nuanced and fully fleshed out. At times it was difficult to discern whether someone’s intentions were good or bad which made the story all the more compelling.

“These monsters, Nick thought, and at the same exact moment, These wonderful people.”

Bollen does a terrific job in rendering the ‘artsy’ community of Venice and of giving us an amusing impression of the ‘inglese italianato’ (or perhaps in this case the Americano italianato/the Italianised American) those types of art and cultural enthusiasts who like to play at being intellectual.

I also appreciated the novel’s engagement with issues such as racism (Clay is black), class, and privilege. Wealth, youth, and beauty also make their way into Bollen’s narrative. Both Nick and Clay have to confront their own desire for wealth and of what they would be willing to do for their own safety.

I only spotted two mistakes in Bollon’s Italian which is so refreshing! Usually books set in Italy by non-Italian writers are not only riddled with clichés but with easily avoided mistakes (such as papa instead of papà). Bollon not only captures Venice but he also mentions the Venice-Mestre dynamic.

Bollon’s engaging prose offers plenty of amusing descriptions (“the silent brag of an attractive companion”), easily renders a beautiful landscape, and provides thoughtful character studies.

A Beautiful Crime is an exhilarating novel that will have you flipping pages like there’s no tomorrow. In spite of its dark moments and of the unease the pervades most of its scenes, Bollen’s narrative maintains a beautiful momentum. Through striking depictions of love, friendship, and, of course, Venice A Beautiful Crime is a thrilling read.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

Some of my favourite quotes

“He believed in friendliness the same way he believed in his youth: he thought both could save him. His youth and friendliness were master keys to all future rooms.”

“The world promised Nick nothing at that age but showed him glimpses of its finest possibilities.”

“For him, walking around as a gay man in his hometown was tantamount to being out on bail: he was free to go about his business, but everyone treated him with a heightened suspicion, as if unsure whether he had committed a crime.”

“Nick saw it as a chance to be delivered from the purgatory of mid-twenties aimlessness.”

“In the stronghold of dry, hot days, visitors clotted the streets like human glue, and cruise ships barged into San Marco’s Basin with horns that blasted louder than any church bells.”

“Wheelie suitcases had become the unofficial soundtrack of Venice, a city that had triumphed for millennia on the very absence of wheels.”

“It was a secondhand high to watch a first-timer take in the city.”

“Another person’s idea of normalcy was always a foreign country, just as your borders on that dominion were constantly expanding or shrinking, ejecting proud, long-standing residents while taking in exciting new émigrés that would have been denied entry the year before.”

“In the hush of early evening, Venice changed from past to present. ”

“Nick preferred to think of people as messy whirlpools of wants and desires, as unpredictable bundles of urges even when the appropriate bait was placed in front of them. ”

“Nothing else could touch him, large or small, because he’d filled his quota on pain. But the loss of a parent doesn’t immunize a person from betrayal any more than surviving a shark bite protects its victim from a car crash.”

“Nick found himself impressed by his own bullshit. It was undeniably top-quality bullshit. It sounded so erudite and convincing, even to the one who was spewing it.”

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