Cruel Mercy is my first foray into the Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy series following the burly, fiercely determined, and strongly moral Scotsman (of which this book is the sixth).
I was a little apprehensive to dive blindly into a series following a character I had not yet read anything about—I imagined attempting to read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince without having the faintest idea of what a Muggle was, or a Dumbledore, or what expecto patronum meant, or barely even knowing that Harry Potter was the one with the glasses and the unlikely scar on his head shaped like a weather phenomenon.
Fortunately, the only thing I felt after being glued to the pages of Cruel Mercy, was that I needed to find the other books in this series as quickly as possible!
While you’ll definitely be missing out on some important character building—I couldn’t help but feel that Pharoah, McAvoy’s boss, and Roisin, his wife, are extremely important characters who do more than occasionally call on the phone in the previous installments--Cruel Mercy does an excellent job of working as a standalone novel while introducing new readers to a vivacious, intelligent, and rugged detective in a fish-out-of-water situation.
McAvoy is sent across the pond to New York City to investigate the disappearance of his wife’s brother, and a lot is resting on the investigation since the two people he was last seen with, an up-and-coming Irish boxer and his promoter are attacked in an apparent mob hit in the woods upstate.
There is a tangled web of lies, mob secrets, and long hushed-up mysterious deaths and disappearances that don’t seem connected at all until McAvoy starts digging deeper than is wanted by everyone involved.
The U.S. authorities are deep in the pockets of the rival mob groups and have their own aims in sight, including keeping McAvoy in the dark. But it only takes one black sheep, or one solitary figure who wants to see justice done. . .
The plot of this book is so complex and completely bursting with very realistic details about the city, the organizations involved, and the potential corruption, that it definitely was one of the most realistic crime fiction books I have ever read. Things are not black and white, there is not just a cast of four or five characters, it isn’t always about a serial killer with multiple personality disorder.
David Mark’s book shows a full spectrum of ideas, I learned about the underground boxing world, mob factions and families, corruption in police departments, and seeing the U.S. through the eyes of a foreigner (always an enlightening experience).
It is definitely a dark book, especially in flashbacks where we eventually realize there may be no hope of escape or release for the characters therein, but I think, in the end, it is a redemptive one and one that reflects on the struggles of our own times.
We do not live in times that are black and white, we live in the murkiest grey. Whether it seems easy to label people one way or the other, it is not—just look at our most current election cycle, people being branded one thing or the other, it is so easy in these times of instant media.
I think it is important, maybe more important than ever to read fiction that speaks truths.
We need to delve into what makes us uncomfortable about not having things strictly separated into right and wrong, true and false, black and white. And sometimes, fiction speaks truer than fact. Sometimes the light at coming full circle in a story helps you hold onto what really matters.
And now, a special interview with author David Mark!
Shelf Stalker: First, a few warmup questions. What are you currently reading?
David Mark: As ever, I’m reading several books at once. I sometimes wish I had more eyes. Am loving The North Water by Ian Maguire, and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. I tend to leave books in different rooms of the house and read whatever I’m nearest.
SS: Who are your top three authors and why do they inspire you?
DM: John Connolly, because he has shown how to keep an ongoing series fresh and relevant. Sebastian Faulks, because his use of language is so beautiful it makes me want to kill him out of jealousy. And Hilary Mantel, as she is Hilary Mantel.
SS: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
DM: I would quite like to be invisible, but as a novelist who spends most of his life in a darkened room, I’ve kind of already got my wish. So I think I would opt for some sort of mind-reading powers. I’d love to know what on earth people are thinking, or if indeed they actually are. Characters in novels have to have some degree of consistency and causality to their actions. Sadly, real life is not so obliging.
SS: Though this book could definitely be read as a standalone, it could be some readers’ first foray into the series—as it was mine, though I think I’ll go back and start from the beginning now. You’ve got me hooked! For readers who might not be familiar with the McAvoy series, what are a few important (or interesting) things to know about this Scottish detective and his past experiences before diving in?
DM: I’m pleased to hear that it works for newcomers as well as seasoned McAvoy fans. That was the idea. I would rather new readers approached it without knowing too much of what has come before but here’s some of the basics. Aector McAvoy is a sergeant on the Major Incident Team in Hull, Yorkshire. He’s a huge Scotsman with a tendency to blush and knock things over and who looks like he would be more at home holding a claymore and wearing a kilt in a bygone age. His life revolves around his wife and children, whom he adores, and his boss, Trish, who is a little bit in love with him. He’s brave, but doesn’t really believe he’s any type of hero, and while clever, he knows he’s not a genius. He follows the evidence wherever it goes, which is why he has so many scars. He doesn’t like upsetting people, and if he hits you hard enough there is a good chance your head will come off.
SS: This is the first McAvoy book set in the United States, or anywhere overseas for that matter. What was the motivation to take Aector so far away from his comfort zone?
DM: I know that McAvoy is synonymous with Hull and I don’t intend for that to change but I felt the time was right to remove a few of his comforts. Without his wife, Roisin, and his boss, he is never quite as sure of himself or whether he is on the right path. Given that there are some real moral ambiguities in this story, I thought that would be an interesting dynamic. I had planned to write a very different kind of New York novel. I had in mind something that was very Ed McBain or a Manhattan version of David Simon. But it occurred to me that to do those kind of stories justice, I would need to write with an authentic voice. I would need to write from the perspective of somebody who knows those streets and given that I had never been to America before, that just seemed absurd. So I decided that the "stranger in a strange land" concept might be a better fit. I wanted the reader to experience New York through the eyes of a blundering outsider, and that is definitely a voice I can find within myself.
SS: While reading this book, I really felt like I had a good picture and feel of that crazy city that never sleeps and the places described. I heard you were able to visit NYC while doing research for the book. Can you share some of that experience? What are some of the most striking differences from your hometown?
DM: There is an air of madness to New York. It’s not just one city—it seems like several different places all crunched together. The result is this patchwork of disparate cultures and influences. And yet it fits together to form this one homogenous entity that is inherently New York. People identify as New Yorkers before they identify as Americans. In that regard, it’s not dissimilar to my usual setting. People in Yorkshire say they are from the North. That’s the bit they’re proud of. In almost every other aspect, it’s a whole new world. If people in Hull were given access to the kind of foodstuffs that Manhattan has to offer, the whole of the UK would sink inside six months thanks to increased bodymass.
In terms of how I researched the book, I’m not 100 percent sure I can remember. There was a lot of drinking! But it would be fair to say that I don’t feel able to write about a place until I have experienced it and there was no way I could write the book without at least breathing in the New York air. So in essence it was a case of coming up with some good ideas for locations and trying to find a real place that worked. If I needed an old church and a boxing gym and two Irish bars, it was a case of looking at a lot of websites and coming up with a shortlist of places that might be right. It was important to me that I didn’t just pick places at random. Certain characters would only visit certain locations and live in certain types of place. There has to be a truth to your fiction. Characters need to behave like real people. Eventually I had a good long list of places that the characters would be likely to visit and where I would enjoy taking McAvoy and I booked myself and my partner a three-day break. We stayed in the hotel that would eventually become McAvoy’s hotel room and dined and drank in the restaurants and bars where he spends his time. We stood shivering outside the police precinct where the New York detective who becomes his ally would have worked. It is such a city of contradictions. It seems to be at once incredibly affluent and utterly destitute and proof of both can be glimpsed in the same panorama.
SS: Might you also talk a bit about your writing process? Your daily process while you are writing as well as what is it like to write a series—keeping all those plot threads straight! Wow!
DM: I’m very lucky that I have the kind of mind that is perfectly suited to writing fiction and which is horribly ill-suited to everything else. I take notes now and again and sometimes find scraps of paper with random words and aide-memoirs scribbled upon them but by and large I think of my skull like one of those candyfloss machines. I just swirl a stick around in there and ideas stick to it. The story I’m living and breathing then squats there in my head and pushes everything else out. Sometimes I look at the clock and I’ve lost a day and I realize I haven’t been to the bathroom since dawn. I write a chapter a day, no matter what. I’m at my desk by 9 am, drinking coffee and grinding my teeth. It’s delightfully masochistic. I kind of enjoy the agony of it, which sounds very pretentious for a writer of dark thrillers! As soon as it’s done, my brain just kind of flatlines for a bit. Then it starts preparing for the next project. Two years later, when the book is in people’s hands, I’ve largely forgotten what it was about. Sorry!
SS: What is essential to writing good crime fiction? Do you stick to some sort of formula or do you break all the rules? Do you read a lot of crime fiction or thrillers as well?
DM: I read everything I can get my hands on. I love thrillers and psychological fiction but it is rather difficult to read them for pleasure now that it’s my day job. It’s hard not to read with an air of comparing the market. I don’t really take any notice of rules, either in the writing process or in life. Actually, I do have one—if the novelist has mentioned the make and model of a car by the end of the first paragraph, the book isn’t for me. And for God’s sake, don’t start off with a dream. For me, it’s just a case of meeting interesting people and twisting preconceptions on their head. Listen to the radio a lot. People who phone DJs are particularly inspiring—they always seem like the sort of person who could be a killer or the killed. Listen to your inner voice. When some dullard is telling you about their tedious problems, think of ways to kill them, and why. It’s less risky than actually doing it. And you think I’m joking.
SS: Do you have plans for many more adventures with McAvoy and company? Where might he travel next?
DM: I’ve just got back from Iceland, and some of the next book will happen there. My American publishers still haven’t made an offer for that one yet so if you want to read it, start bombarding them with demands.
SS: Thank you so much for your time! I so enjoyed reading the book and look forward to more mysteries and crimes to solve with Aector!
DM: Thank you. If you ever come to Hull, I’ll show you around.
Get your copy of Cruel Mercy or the other DS Aector books
Find out more about David Mark
Find out more about the publisher, Blue Rider Press (Penguin Random House)
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A month into the new year, I’m still looking back. Though I read over 100 books last year, I didn’t quite squeeze in everything I wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still satisfied with my numbers. A great year. When you consider that most of the population didn’t even crack the cover of one book. . . well, I know the people reading this are the exception to that sad statistic!
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking back, as I’ve spent this January in a fierce re-read of the Harry Potter series with my boyfriend, who never had the joy of reading these magical books. How sweet, how beautiful to delve back into this world, like spending time with an old friend who you know so much about, but still has some surprises up their sleeve.
Harry Potter represents childhood and growing up for so many of us. Maybe those books were the first escape you ever learned, the first fiction you ever clung to outside of your own reality. I know the magic was strong for me.
It has definitely been a way to escape this month, into a place that is familiar, but where evil seems insurmountable and yet the light finds cracks, however small, to break through. That’s something then, when the real world outside seems only worse every day, in a way that I can’t really affect change.
Following Harry, Ron, Hermione, and all the others on their journey to their final battle has put me in mind about so many things. About my younger self and how I saw the story then: my anger and disbelief as some characters passed from its pages, my triumphant realization of figuring out things before the trio, my reveling in their magical moments, and the wistful loss when I’d shut the book and come back to myself, realizing that magic wasn’t real at all.
Books preserve things. Perhaps not so dissimilar to Riddle’s diary, books keep a record of the moments they encounter, the readers that inhabit them. While a piece of my younger self might be embedded in these books, being revealed to the light for the first time in many years, I’m preserving a new piece of myself and the current turmoil around me in the pages for the next time they awaken.
With all that in mind, I decided to do a short round-up of my top ten books of last year, though the time for top lists has been out of vogue for some weeks now. That doesn’t mean that these books are any less good than they were when everyone else was being more timely about top lists, nor that they shouldn’t be picked up and read this year.
It's also sort of a year in review for me and for this blog, as I started it at about the end of January last year.
Weirdly, I didn’t do reviews for some of these books and so plan to cover them more fully as their paperback dates approach. If I did review them, the link is there, so click away if they sound intriguing to you. I’ve also listed the dates they are due to come out in paperback, for your wallet, and perhaps so this list still seems relevant.
Of course, I still have a list of books from last year sitting in a tall stack beside my bed (it’s just sitting there, haunting me every day, threatening to crush me in my sleep) and a lot of them look like potential top books: Hagseed, Thus Bad Begins, Barkskins, The Mandibles. . . Ah, well. Another year, another stack! And next Tuesday, four more books coming out that I want to get. . .
This list is in no particular order, though it may, psychologically, be in some sort of order.
The Girls—Emma Cline
I knew this one was instantly in my top 10 the moment I began it. I read it first in March when the second (or third or fourth?) wave of advance copies were making rounds and then read it again in June when it came out. Gosh, this book really gets it. This coming-of-age story centers on a girl who wishes to become more, but finds she is stunted by society, the time period of the 1960s, her situation, and even the supposed friends she surrounds herself by. Well, how are you supposed to know when you are only 14 and experiencing life for the first time? But what happened then freezes Evie—she is more of an antihero than a portrait of perfect girlhood advancing into womanhood. Rippling sentences, superb characters, this is an excellent debut. (May 9, 2017)
Imagine Me Gone—Adam Haslett
I did not know when I was struck by this incredibly simple but ingenious cover that the book therein would be one of my favorites of the year. Yes, I admit it freely: I do sometimes buy books solely based on design alone. I’m definitely a sucker for a well-designed book—but I think publishers know that. (Three of the books on this list [though not this one] were by Mendelsund, and he’s no newb.) Haslett’s book is an intensely character involved miasma of truly thought-provoking writing. He’s dealing with heavy-hitting topics in a very internal way, depicting a mind under siege, a conflicted family, and people that effortlessly come off the pages. Not to be missed. (February 21, 2017)
An epic, sprawling, incredibly ambitious debut, this is one that will truly envelop you. For African American fiction, it was Whitehead’s Underground Railroad that got all the 2016 attention, and while that was excellent, Gyasi’s work definitely wins out in my book. The book is almost set more as interconnecting short shorts that follow one family as it branches out down the lines of slavery. Beginning with two sisters, who never even knew they were related, every other chapter tells of the next generation of one side or the other. One side tells a story of Africa, while the other side tells a story of American slavery and the two intermingle heartbreakingly, heartwarmingly, and with such exquisite storytelling, I can’t imagine what will come from Gyasi next, I can only tell you that I will read it immediately and love it. (May 2, 2017)
The Crow Girl—Erik Axl Sund
Crime fiction hitting my top list! Truly a surprise. Though I do like to muck around with crime fiction/suspense/thrillers/mystery books, generally I find them disappointing, over-plotted, too generic, and I solve them much too easily. This book, actually 3 books when it was originally published, is none of those things. Sprawling and epic, this book has an extremely realistic characters and a complex and uber-dark plot that I found way more interesting than even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series that so captivated the world. Scandi-noir is on the rise again, but be warned, it does not hold back. This book may scar you. (June 27, 2017)
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial—Maggie Nelson
I don’t read a whole lot of nonfiction (so sue me) but I try to branch out a bit here and there. This book is astonishing, incredible, and completely worth reading in every way. Nelson writes about the resolution of the murder of her aunt, Jane, and how she coped with finally finding out what really happened after growing up with a horrible mystery in her family. As a devotee of crime fiction, I was like GIVE IT HERE, but this book also has so much more to offer—an insistence on relating to why our society is so obsessed with crime and continues to be, in increasing numbers. A personal story filled with indelibly gorgeous writing, only the way Nelson could do it. Find it immediately. (April 5, 2016, paperback original)
Mongrels—Stephen Graham Jones
This guy. He somehow pumps out these literary lowbrow horror genius masterpieces and this one is no exception. A werewolf coming-of-age tale? Bet you didn’t see that coming. Werewolves have never been explained quite like this, but honestly, if they’ve made it this far in modern society, it seems like Jones has their number. One of the most original writers I have ever read, he never ceases to surprise in the most honest (and sometimes gory) ways. (January 24, 2017)
Before the Fall—Noah Hawley
A small private plane loads up, takes off, and less than 20 minutes later, crashes into the ocean, leaving only two survivors, a four-year-old boy, and a struggling artist who wasn’t really supposed to be there anyway. What this book encapsulates is the unraveling of what happened on that plane: was it an accident? A planned hit on a high-powered business man? Murder over love? What went on in the cabin of that plane and how it captivates a nation, pushing in on the private lives of the two survivors is the main thrust of the story, casting the artist in the light of hero and villain as the people around him try to create a sensational story. Does what happened even matter to the media? Or the world? Brilliantly written as well. I’d love to see a movie version of this. (June 6, 2017)
I didn’t read as much poetry this past year as I usually do, but this collection is standout for sure. Her use of the page and white space gives the reader time to really think about her use of the language, while the denser parts force the reader onward, reading through the difficulty even without grasping the meaning of every line and every word. It seems almost omniscient at times and at others, hopeful in a heartbreaking way. (No paperback date available)
The Fat Artist and Other Stories—Benjamin Hale
I love reading short story collections. I think they lay bare writers in a way that novels do not; there is no place to hide in the condensed space of a short story. While a lot of good collections came out this year, I’ve chosen this one for my top list. The stories within are consistently great and even challenging, showing a wide range of creativity, character work, and writing styles. Hale mixes humor and darkness and absurd situations. I particularly adored the title story, where a failing experimental artist makes himself the main exhibit. (May 30, 2017)
All Things Cease to Appear—Elizabeth Brundage
This book was a quiet wonder. Simply brilliant and sneakingly dark, set against a stark wintry, country landscape, it tells the story of a murder backwards. We already know who gets murdered from the first chapter but not the murderer’s identity, and then the story rewinds to the beginning. A beautiful, haunting story of more than one broken family with so many more repercussions than just whodunit, this one left me breathless. (February 7, 2017)
This is a book for deep winter, a cuddle-up-with-hot-cocoa kind of book, a keep-the-light-on-all-night kind of read. You don’t have to be a fan of Nordic noir or Scandinavian crime novels to get into this book. It has a truly unique and compelling story that honestly kept me guessing and kept the pages turning!
It is told from three alternating perspectives, with each one leaving off in such a way that you are almost forced to continue, compelled from one section into the next.
Peter is a police detective who is married to his job (though he can’t quite muster up that same type of commitment to people) who is called to the scene of a grisly murder—a woman had been horribly brutalized and left decapitated in famous clothing CEO and womanizer Jesper Orre’s house. No one knows who she is and Orre himself has gone missing, but the scene is uncannily similar to a crime committed some years ago.
Hanne consulted on that case and she is brought in to look at this one too. But Hanne has a secret to hide—she’s got early onset dementia and she doesn’t want anyone to know, especially Peter, with whom she shares a painful history.
Emma is Jesper Orre’s secret girlfriend and her side of the story is told from the past, slowly leading up to the present where Peter and Hanne are trying to solve the murder. She though they were in love, about to be married even, but when strange things start happening to her, she thinks Jesper is to blame—but who can she go to for help? Who would believe her, since their entire relationship was a secret?
You’ll have a sinking feeling in your stomach throughout the book—is she the girl in Jesper’s apartment? The only way to know for sure is to read on. . .
This book gave me that very satisfying moment where I had just enough clues and all of a sudden, everything clicked into place. I didn’t feel that the plot had been fed to me and I didn’t feel gypped, as though I hadn’t been given a chance to figure out what was going on.
There was a perfect balance of hints given where I probably could have figured it out sooner, if only I’d been paying attention! Sneaky author! These are my favorite types of books—the ones that make me crave to be smarter next time!
The bleak atmosphere and more intricate police procedural bits of the story that are commonly found in crime novels (especially Nordic ones) are really softened by the depth of character that Grebe reaches. Through the rotating chapters, the reader sees their internal worlds, like Peter and Hanne’s struggles that are going on outside of the investigation, and that turns them into 3D people rather than just characters on the page.
Emma is more of an enigma; I never knew quite what to expect with her, but I loved her independence and spirit in the face of her adversity. As time winds her toward the conclusion you find yourself hoping more and more that she is not the girl who is headless on the floor of Orre’s apartment.
I don't want to give the story away—but there are plenty of twists and a pretty shocking revelation in store. The book moves so quickly because of the shifting perspectives, but there are details you don't want to miss out on!
I really enjoyed the translation—I felt I was stalking the streets of Sweden and scarfing cardamom buns with the characters! (Not quite sure what those are, but they eat them like U.S. cops eat donuts!)
All in all, this is worth a read. In a sea of less than interesting thriller-types, this one will weather the storm. If you need to get out of the house after the Christmas hullaballoo (aka, get away from your family. . .) head on down to your local indie and pick this one up. But don’t say I didn’t warn you—you’ll be glued to the pages until you turn the last one.
Get your copy of The Ice Beneath Her (out 12/27)
Find out more about the author, Camilla Grebe
Find out more about the publisher, Ballantine Books (Penguin Random House)
I am a true crime buff—I listen to all the podcasts, read all the books, and know about all the cases I can get my itchy fingers on. Serial, you can bet I’ve listened to it—twice. Making a Murderer—yep, don’t even get me started on documentarian ethics. I’ve seen The People vs. OJ Simpson and the new shows on my own hometown murder, JonBenet Ramsey.
Yes, I know about Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker, how Ted Bundy stalked his victims pretending to have his arm in a sling, and all about John Wayne Gacy, who was inspiration for everyone from Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs to Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Twisty the Clown on the “Freakshow” season of American Horror Story.
I also know about the cases you’ve probably never heard of either. Ever heard of the Long Island serial killer? The vampire of Sacramento Richard Chase? How about Robert Hansen, the Butcher Baker? Don't google "death of Tim McLean" unless you're ready for a bizarre and horrifying murder on a bus in rural Canada. We're barely scratching the surface here.
I love Ann Rule, got way too into Zodiac theories with Robert Graysmith, and do what is probably considered a bit too much research on serial killers, strange murders, and crime. Sue me. I find the human condition interesting—and after all, the worst monsters are real. (Tagline via Sword and Scale, my favorite true crime pod.)
If you’re nodding your head, if you’re itching to join in, if you feel like this describes you, you’re in the right place. But interestingly, the book I’m about to describe is fiction. It’s not a true crime story at all, although it is set up to feel like one.
His Bloody Project is a novel that I’m hard pressed to really categorize. It’s got elements of crime and horror, but isn’t really either of those things entirely. It is a bit epistolary, as it is told in letters, journal entries, and other documents. What I can say for sure is that it is a psychological riddle that leaves the reader at the center, putting together the statements and pieces to make up their own mind about what really happened.
Make no mistake. You know there was a crime, and you know who committed it, though for much of the book, the details are cast in shadow. This set up left me with this pit of dread in my stomach that just grew and grew—so effective! I knew that murder was coming, I just didn’t know exactly how it would happen.
About half the book is an account by convicted murderer Roderick Macrae of how it came to be that he did what he did. The other half is autopsy reports, some reports from criminal experts who interviewed him, the trial transcripts, news clippings, and other writings that round out the details of the mysterious case.
Not sure if this will be a spoiler for some people, but what the book doesn’t give you is solid answers: the, this is why he REALLY did it—we know for sure! But that’s what makes it so realistic, so true to life. Sometimes we can’t understand people’s true intentions, the “why” we are searching for.
Even more interesting is what I felt I was able to put together, based on all the information given, and how it was given. The book is set in 1869, a time when criminal psychiatry was not nearly as advanced as it is now. There are diagnoses that were simply not available to them because they didn’t exist yet. I recognized qualities in Roderick that make me suspect who he is, who is hiding inside him.
It is also set in rural Scotland, where there was a huge bias against the farming communities of the highlands—those people who were continuing to live in the old Scottish way rather than conforming to the English way of living (and speaking). Despite Roderick’s seeming high intelligence and eloquence in his diary, everyone is exceedingly biased against him and thought he was destined to become a criminal.
It was like being at a real trial—feeling the injustice of it all, sensing that I knew some truth about Roderick, his mind, and his situation that they weren’t quite understanding or getting to, feeling that I had all the pieces there and I somehow had to put them all together!
It’s no wonder this book made the shortlist for the Man Booker this year. I love a book that makes me think and put together the narrative myself. One that has me piecing together the elements like a detective.
In the end, did Roddy even have a chance? That’s the question I’m left wondering. I’d love to chat with anyone else who has read this one! Any thoughts on Roderick? Why he did it? Who he is? Come on, true crime buffs—you know you want a piece of your own mystery to solve!
Get your copy of His Bloody Project
Find out more about the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet
Find out more about the publisher, Contraband
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“What’s the real way to make a horror movie?” (256)
You are an actor, but you’ve never been in a movie yet. All of a sudden, your agent calls: you’ve been given the chance of a lifetime, the role you’ve been waiting for, your big break. But you have to get on a plane to the Amazon right now, leaving everything behind, no time to let anyone know what’s going on, barely even time to pack a bag. You don’t know what the role is, or even what it movie is about, but you have to decide right now.
Do you go? Could you leave everything behind? Or would you wait for something with less unknowns?
We Eat Our Own is a literary psychological horror novel that also delves into political turmoil as well incorporating interesting film history throughout.
The main plot is that famed Italian horror director Ugo Velluto is filming a new experimental documentary-style film deep in the Amazon in the 1970s. Think The Blair Witch Project, but this is about 30 years before that movie was made. His American actor for the leading role of Richard, is cast late due to another actor dropping out.
The actor (only called “Richard” by the book) flies to South America, but nothing seems to be quite right—the director doesn’t really care that he is there, no one will give him a script, he can’t call home or potentially even leave, they are doing dangerous stunts that are nothing like movies in America... What is going on?
At the same time, the area of South America they are in is in dangerous political turmoil due to guerillas, drug traffickers, and even a mysterious American who runs the hotel they are all staying at. If the film doesn’t kill him, Colombia might.
Each chapter is told by a different character, some characters repeating frequently, some only being used once or twice. The book borders on experimental at times, with main actor Richard’s sections being told in second person—like my opening paragraph—which is very unusual for novels.
Even from the start, there is a sinister tone to Richard’s sections; there is always some sort of reference like: “Here’s what you don’t know…” which makes the reader uncomfortably omniscient, with this growing sense of dread that something terrible is coming, something horrible is going to happen to Richard.
The other chapters are not in second person, but they use other alienating features, like the lack of quotes around dialogue, which can make the reader lose track of who is speaking as the dialogue runs together a bit.
Interspersed throughout the main plot of the movie set, and a side plot of a few young political guerillas (that comes into play later, you’ll see!), there are transcripts from a trial that make the reader aware that everything we are experiencing in the Amazon has already happened, and Ugo is on trial for something, though we aren’t sure what.
Being a horror movie buff, what really drew me to this book in the first place was the idea that it was inspired by the cult exploitation film, Cannibal Holocaust, along with the Italian giallo tradition, a type of horror movie with crime elements, often featuring a slasher, most prevalent throughout the 70s.
I really enjoyed the chapters from the point of view of the special effects team, a husband and wife who have worked with Ugo on many of his previous films. It’s obvious that Wilson did a lot of research about special effects in horror movies to write these scenes.
There is great detail about how bodies and body parts are created out of gelatin molds and sometimes (when you are in the jungle with no resources) even butchered animals to create horror effects. I loved every second of it.
It’s a mix of schlocky horror like Cannibal Holocaust, with literary horror like Heart of Darkness, and documentary horror like The Blair Witch Project. An ambitious and experimental novel that is deeply unsettling and written to great effect.
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Find out more about the author, Kea Wilson
Find out more about the publisher, Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
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This is a story of rags to riches to rags—Charles Wang had nothing but urea when he came to America and he turned that piss into a thriving multi-million dollar cosmetics industry in California. Us Americans will put anything on our faces… Two wives, three children, a few bad decisions and then the 2008 economic collapse comes and all of a sudden, Charles has nothing.
It’s all gone faster than you can say, do you want a side of fried rice with that.
OK, I should probably not be a stand-up comedian like Andrew, the middle Wang child, aspires to be, but if you even had a slight chuckle there, you would probably be on board for a lot of the satirical, fun-loving, and witty humor that Chang is constantly tossing around. Some of it is so subtle and quick, it’s easy to miss.
Once the Wangs lose it all, Charles takes his wife Barbra (who renamed herself after Barbra Streisand) and embarks on a wild cross country road trip, collecting his two younger children, Grace and Andrew from their respective schools and then journeying to New York State to meet up with his oldest daughter, Saina. What his plan after that could be, is anyone’s guess.
Grace, the youngest is a burgeoning fashion blogger, while Saina was an extremely respected avant-garde artist who had a recent show that was not well-regarded. It was so bad in fact, that she’s gone into hiding to regroup and restart. She’s also having boyfriend trouble.
That’s the setup for this wild adventure ride. What could go wrong?
While it’s definitely humorous and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, it is also introspective about race, identity, and different levels of economic hardship—all of which are things that have been thrown harshly into the spotlight due to the results of this long and difficult election.
The Wangs are all trying to figure out who they are and where they belong in this new American landscape. For Charles, it’s just another step, a step forward, a step backward—he’s been through it all and he’s always come out the other side on top.
But for his children, they have never known anything but security, wealth, and being able to do basically whatever they want. What does this uncertain future hold for them? During the book, each kid starts to explore who they are and what they really want to do, despite potentially not having the means to do it. They start to learn what it means to work for something that you love, something that you want, just like their father did.
Throughout, the chapters switch back and forth between the perspectives of all the characters, so you really get to see each of their intimate thoughts, superficial, private, groundbreaking or not. How their lives intersect and separate felt so realistic; they are a family, but they each have their own separate lives, worries, and hopes for the future.
At the same time, they mold together like a real family, with past experiences that sometimes come out on the page, and sometimes are just felt through character interaction.
My favorite part of the book is probably when Andrew goes to an open mic standup night and totally bombs. Just. Completely. Sucks. It was a perfectly written scene that made me cringe and wince and try to look away from the page but I couldn’t stop reading—it was so realistic, it was like being there. Great writing!
The book delves into identity, both cultural and racial. I felt like the Wangs were sort of stuck in a limbo space, as though they didn’t really belong in America and they didn’t really belong in their homeland of China, though Charles is pretty intent on returning to that land that he hasn’t seen since he was in his early 20s.
So where is home then? Where do they belong as Chinese-Americans? And what sort of identity are you left with when the ground you stand on is ripped out from under you?
I had some questions left as I finished the book, but as I thought about the open-ended nature of the story, especially for some of the characters, it felt perfect, it felt like the American way. Like leaving space for them to write their own American Dream, just like Charles did.
This book was a joy to read and I loved the experience of Chang’s delightful writing. An excellent and ambitious debut.
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Find out more about the author, Jade Chang
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Find out more about the publisher, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt
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This is a book for times like these.
Things you thought never had a chance in the world of happening, things the whole world is watching in horror, things there’s no possible way back from, things like that are occurring.
Think 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, hell, even Hunger Games.
Then mix in Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, and American Psycho.
Is that the world we’re creating for ourselves? The world of people we are surrounded ourselves with? I wonder. For now, we still have books to turn to, books to bring creative release and to supply us with worlds to explore and provide us with understanding, escape, and some form of solace.
This is Samuel Bradbury’s story. His is not a happy one—I’ll warn you now—and he doesn’t end up in good places. His mother leaves early and he’s (barely) raised by his religious, emotionally abusive, and absent father. No one understands him and from an early age, Samuel had bad impulses, urges to kill, and he doesn’t feel a bit bad about it. He only feels he’s becoming something more.
He’s telling his story from a point later in his life, when an eager governor gets backing to create a criminal zoo—if your crime was bad enough, you are locked up for the pleasure of the paying public. To make matters worse (or better, I suppose, depending on your point of view), you can pay an extra fee to join the criminal in their cage and torture them for just a few minutes. If the criminal lasts one year in the zoo, they are released to a normal prison to live out a life sentence.
They asked for it, right? Take a human life and treat it like nothing but dirt and you deserve to be subject to the worst that humanity can offer.
The book raises so many interesting and provocative questions. From the beginning, I felt sorry for Samuel. He is mistreated and emotionally stunted and abused his whole childhood, and even suffers from a bad head injury that went without proper treatment; without a doubt that could contribute to some of his psychopathic tendencies.
But there’s also something off about him. He doesn’t seem to feel at all. And, he has a sister who was raised in the same circumstances who turned out just fine. So, it’s the age old serial killer debate: nature vs. nurture?
I think it’s a bit of both. Perhaps you could be born with a bit of wiring out of place, a tendency toward sociopathic behaviors. But those behaviors can be channeled into good. With the neglect, injury, and confusion that Samuel went through as a child, his mind shut down and turned against his humanity.
But does that mean he is unfixable? Irredeemably broken? Should he be turned into a scapegoat, forced to suffer through unspeakable torture at the hands of supposedly normal citizens who have some cross to bear, some deep wound they think will be healed if they can cut his face with a switchblade?
And that’s not even mentioning the voyeurs. Sure, we all enjoy watching movies—I’m the biggest horror fan you know. But if it were real, if you could go watch people being tortured right in front of you, would you do it?
They are still people after all. The most inhumane, monstrous acts throughout history have always been done by people. And don’t we become the monsters if we treat them with as little regard as they treated their victims?
Doesn’t that make us just as bad as the criminals?
Where is the line drawn?
It feels prescient to be reading Criminal Zoo during election week. I feel like the emotions that comes out of the people who visit the zoo in this book is the same anger, hatred, and confusion that came from many voters this week—as shown by the results of the election.
Is this who we are? Is this what it means to be American? To support hate, bigotry, racism, sexism, and divisive, angry speech? I don’t think the criminal zoo is the way. I don’t think that anger is the way. We need to come together to show the world that we are bigger than this, despite the results. Or this could be our future.
We didn’t see this coming. What will be next?
Get your copy of Criminal Zoo
out November 15, 2016
Find out more about the publisher, Rare Bird Books
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As the weather gets colder, we look for books to snuggle up with and keep us warm!
Alice Hoffman’s newest centers around a tragedy that completely stops Shelby Richmond’s life and sends her into an internal spiral. She holes up in her parents’ basement, buys weed from the kid she used to make fun of at school, and hides away from the world.
The details of this tragedy are slowly revealed throughout the first half of the book, so I don’t want to give anything away, but what is more interesting is how Shelby reemerges into the world—her starts and stops, her mistakes, her successes, and her truly lovely and real personality that comes heartbreakingly to life on the page.
Finally moving out of the basement in Long Island and into an apartment in New York City, Shelby discovers a love for animals: working at a pet store, rescuing drugged dogs from homeless people who use them for money, and later, even saving a monster (you’ll have to read the book to figure out what that means).
Her compulsive rescuing and need to care for these (adorably sad sounding) creatures perhaps comes from her desire to have control over situations that she feels need fixing. When she can make the situation better for the dogs, those dogs that really deserve it, she feels empowered and in control—nothing like the night of the accident, the night she is always trying to forget.
Because Shelby can’t change what happened that night, and she’s been blaming herself all these years, not letting herself move forward.
All the while, she receives intermittent illustrated postcards from some unknown person, urging her to “Do something,” or “Say something.” These notes weigh heavily on her—someone notices her; someone has not forgotten.
Where Shelby falters is with people. She isn’t sure how to accept love from or give love to others and is wary of romantic relationships and friendships alike. What can she give? With the dogs, it is different. They rely on her. They need her, and in return they love her. It makes sense.
But people are so much more complicated and you can get hurt. It takes some rambunctious children, and some time, before she can ease back into letting people into her life.
Hoffman interweaves a brilliant and strong narrative of a young girl trying to find her way in life and redefine who she is without everything she used to be. It is a story about loneliness, dogs, heartbreak, and letting the world find you just as you are—whole and ready to face it.
The postcards come back at the end in a fitting finish. (I have to go find my copy of Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man now!) I liked how it tied up the story and gave Shelby closure and a new beginning all at once.
I truly enjoyed this book. It is a quiet yet filling narrative that offers a real-to-life story that you can still escape inside. Shelby isn’t a perfect heroine, but she is someone who has been through everything that life has thrown her way and she still came out the other side. Something we can all aspire to.
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The Woman in Cabin 10 definitely intrigued me, but at the same time pushed me away—I was not into Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. I expect so much more from my books than what those offered. The characters were flat and I figured out the plots easily. I thought there would be more of a twist, or an extra twist, but no, there wasn’t. I want to be challenged when I read a book!
I know I’m in the minority with my dislike of these bestsellers and honestly it’s great that those books sold so well—so many people reading! So much money being pumped into great imprints like Riverhead, who was able to springboard new ideas and new innovations, probably due a lot to the wild success of Hawkins’ book. I love that.
But what to do? Do I continue to read these types of books that don’t really get me excited about the depth and potential of crime fiction, or do I become ignorant of what the masses of pop culture are reading? A bit of both I suppose. (You won’t catch me with a copy of 50 Shades if you catch my drift…)
So after reading all the rave reviews for In a Dark, Dark Wood but being a bit hesitant to read it, I finally came around, bought both Ware’s books and plunged in. I decided to start with Cabin 10, though I generally read books in chronological order when it comes to situations like this (it took me so long to get to The Goldfinch because I decided I HAD to find hardcover copies of her other two books and read those first), for some reason, Cabin 10 spoke to me. And with books, you gotta go with your gut.
Here’s the brief synopses:
The Woman in Cabin 10: Lo, a journalist, is invited on a new private cruise ship to bring some media attention to the boat. She has been mostly ignored at her job, so this could be her big break. On her first night there, she borrows mascara from a woman in the cabin next to her, cabin 10.
Later that night after dinner and plenty of drinks, she returns to her room and hears something—or someone—being thrown over the side from cabin 10. She alerts security, who goes over to search the room with her, but it is spotless. No one was even registered to that room, but she knows she saw the woman there earlier.
Lo thinks the woman has been killed and of course no one believes her story. She’s trapped on a boat with a murderer—it could be any one of the guests or crew.
In a Dark, Dark Wood: Nora hasn’t heard from her college friend Clare in years but from out of the blue she gets invited to Clare’s hen-do (British for bachelorette party) at a cabin in the woods. Despite her misgivings, she decides to go.
But there are secrets and old feelings that come up and the weekend getaway is going to take a dark turn, one that lands Nora in the hospital not remembering what happened. Can she put the pieces back together and figure out what went wrong?
After having read both, I definitely enjoyed Cabin 10 more than the debut novel, but I can see what the appeal of Dark Wood was when it came out. These are more experiential and reactionary than intellectual, which is great. It is good to have a mix of what you read.
They are fun, easy reads, perfect for beaches, weekend trips, casual readers, and anyone who is into light reading with a touch of scary intrigue. They were basically one-sitting books for me—I honestly raced through them, because I wanted to find out if all my theories were right!
Ware is great at evoking a tone and creating a leading character that is relatable, fallible, and human. Both books focus on a central female lead who is thrust from a position of relative security into an unknown situation that rapidly deteriorates around her. She is a bit of a loner, a quiet writer type, someone who is very introspective and not much given to action.
The main, glaringly obvious fault for me was that Lo and Nora were the same person. The way they spoke, acted, thought, even the very specific way they took their coffee all made me think they were so obviously created by the same person, who was writing a bit of herself into her protagonists.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with drawing from life to write characters, but it shows a weakness to me that these characters are so similar. It makes me wonder if Ware is capable of creating a different type of heroine, of writing a different sort of narrative.
Which brings me to the format. Both of these narratives are basically locked-room mysteries. The characters are all stuck together in one space and can’t or don’t leave until something happens to release them.
At the cabin, Nora and her only ally Nina keep each other there—it’s just a weekend, we just have to make it through the weekend, they say. On the cruise ship, Lo is physically trapped. She can’t leave because they are stranded in the middle of the ocean where no one can hear them scream.
Both books also employ flash-forwards in the narrative to mix up the reader and elevate tension. I think this technique was handled more deftly in Cabin 10, which uses press-like clippings at the end of each chapter that disorient the reader and cause dread; based on the content of the clippings we don’t know if Lo will survive the book or not.
There are lots of little details placed all throughout the text that are there if you want to unravel the mystery. Especially in Dark Wood, I thought they were obvious as road signs—every detail in that book is there for a reason. Seriously. Talk about a Chekov’s gun. Sheesh.
And all that talk about her past and seemingly throwaway dialogue bits that get boring when Tom is just talking about himself contains important pieces to the mystery of whodunit. You can figure it out! Because nothing action-y or scary really happens for so much of the book, it’s easy to get complacent. But all those hints are there.
In Cabin 10, it is much of the same, but I think the details are hidden better among the larger cast of characters. Everyone is suspicious. Lo has to investigate on her own. With the crime happening up front, there is more room to play with the rest of the plot. And, Ware leaves a few things for the reader to either find or not find—which I truly admire. Spelling out everything like at the end of a Scooby-Doo episode is not an ideal way to end your book.
I don’t dismiss a book as bad just because I figured out the twist or the secret. That is what makes these types of mystery/thrillers fun; I want to be able to figure out what happened before the characters get to the finish.
It is even better when there are pieces I didn’t figure out, little surprises still left that I missed. There should be enough clues left in the text—smartly—that I could figure it out if I was really looking. That type of interactive reading is so much fun. But I don’t think it should be easy. I don’t like to feel like an idiot as a reader, like an author thought that I wouldn’t get it.
I felt like a savvy Sherlock Holmes when I discovered I’d been right about the plots of these two books—such a good feeling! You don’t get that from reading any other type of book. It’s so fun to solve a mystery like that and I guess that’s why I keep coming back for more thrillers like these.
Overall, these books are definitely a lot of fun and I recommend the second one. If you are looking for something that isn’t especially taxing intellectually, but that you can really sink your teeth into, either of these will do the trick.
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Get your copy of In a Dark, Dark Wood
Find out more about the author, Ruth Ware
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Find out more about the publisher, Scout Press (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster)
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It’s October and you’re looking to snuggle down with a good read. I can help with that! If you’re looking for something to really get into, a book with a lot of interesting moving parts, I suggest Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch.
This is the third novel by Koch translated into English and all three have sold well. After reading this, I promptly went and borrowed the first two, The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool, from my mom, who avidly read them as they came out. (Moms are always right, aren’t they? I should’ve listened to her!)
Dear Mr. M begins as voyeuristic letters written to a well-known author in Norway. The stalker-like letters, which are almost more like diary entries, detail moments in the author’s life and even his wife and child’s movements throughout their day. Creepy, no?
But there is something else, details from a shared past that keep popping up. It seems that this shadowy figure behind the letters is harboring some pent-up feelings about one of Mr. M’s books, a book that although fiction, is based on true events.
These true events are ones that the letter writer was involved in, where a teacher who had an illicit affair with one of his high school students goes missing after last being seen by the student and her new boyfriend. They, of course, are suspected.
Then, there is an abrupt narrative switch and all of a sudden we are back in time, a fly on the wall learning about the true events that led up to Laura’s relationship with her teacher, Mr. Landzaat, and how she falls for her new (age-appropriate) boyfriend Herman and the ultimate disappearance of the teacher. It is almost shocking how the narrative voice switches.
There is yet another switch to the author Mr. M’s perspective and we watch as he handles his decline into authorial obscurity, overshadowed by younger, better writers, and haunted by the fact that he probably reached his pinnacle long ago and most people no longer bother to buy his books or even know who he is. Isn’t this what authors everywhere fear? Gaining fame from one book and then never being able to equal it?
Where the book really picks up is in its intersecting narratives. Past and present, fact and fiction, truth and lies. It contains a sort of meta-narrative, thinking about books that use real events but distort them.
Sometimes the narrator, the letter writer (I won’t give away his identity as identity goes far in this book), goes outside of the book to think about the structure of it, discussing how he is telling three different stories and how the reader might receive them.
The way Koch handles these seemingly disparate sections is truly unique. The book almost feels like three novellas that happen to tangentially intersect and then meld completely into one by the end.
The mystery that I suppose you could say is central to the book, what happened to Mr. Landzaat, is not nearly as important as how it is told. And this is so timely for us as a culture right now!
With shows like Making a Murderer literally making up the public’s mind for them without telling the full story, it is easy to see how information can be manipulated to tell one story over another. If you’ve seen this show and by the end were completely convinced of Stephen Avery’s innocence, think again—everything is not as that documentary presented it. And do some research! Don’t just believe everything you see!
If you are interested in true crime, I also recommend the new Amanda Knox documentary on Netflix. She is the American student who was studying abroad in Italy and along with her Italian boyfriend, was convicted of brutally murdering her English roommate. They were both acquitted and are now free. It’s an amazing look at how a version of a narrative gets way out of hand and how police prejudice (not to mention shoddy police work) and media vilification can create a verdict.
In the book, you might be wondering why there is so much focus on things that are only tangentially related to that main mystery—isn’t that what the book is about, after all? Don’t you just want to know what happened all those years ago!?
I would argue that while the plot centers around that mystery, the book itself is more about the metafictional aspect of building a story. About the manipulation of words and how people use them to tell truths or lies and how that may change over time.
Mr. M used the intriguing tale of two students who may or may not have offed their teacher to write a novel that tells a tale of its own. But is that how it happened? Not according to the letter writing stalker. Whose truth is the real truth? What story can we really believe?
The complexity of the plot, intricacy of the characters, and tone that this book created reminded me a lot of The Secret History by Donna Tartt, a truly magnificent novel that similarly contains a mystery that isn’t as important as the story and the characters that are built up throughout the book.
There is this magical quality about them that serves as a building warning throughout; the reader knows something is off, something bad is going to happen or has already happened, but it has yet to be revealed. That tension is everything.
Though there are three stories contained in this book, there are really four if you count the book itself, which contains all of them, as its own sort of truth and record. In the end, that book brings the narrative back to the fictional landscape that the whole story really lies on. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that while reading.
But that’s the final layer: the reader. Without someone opening the book and deciding to read it, none of the stories can take place and interact, because the real work of the story happens in your mind. The real unfolding is an active process that can only take place once the physical book is here, with you, in the room. Then you too become part of the story, yet another layer, yet another part of the story.
So take it. And begin.
Get your copy of Dear Mr. M
Find out more about the publisher, Hogarth (Penguin Random House)
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.