Monday, March 10, 2014

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

I put this book on my holds list at the library with great reluctance.  It was immensely popular, and I usually hate immensely popular books.  They make me sad for America – this is what we think is great literature these days, guys? Sparkly control-freak vampires and neurotic pseudo-intellectuals?  Candy-fluff romance?  Eeeeew.  And at first blush, this sounded like chick-lit to me...unhappy  wife, rough spot in the marriage.  Blah blah blah.  But Gone Girl actually deserves its hype.

On the morning of their anniversary, Nick Dunne comes home from work to find his wife, Amy, has disappeared.  There are signs of a struggle in their home, but no ransom note, no clues to a kidnapper, are forthcoming.  As the days pass, the police’s suspcions come to rest more and more squarely on Nick.  The book slowly unravels from a whodunit, to a whatisit, ending in a whoa-wait-what?  Told from Amy and Nick’s alternating perspectives, the reader slowly becomes aware that both of them have unexpected secrets and motives for the events set in train that anniversary morning.  It’s engaging, original, and has a couple of deliciously horrifying twists. 

Stop reading here if you don’t want to know any further details of the plot.  Come back and read the rest of this post after you finish the book if you want to know more about what I thought.  Seriously, spoilers ahead.  STOP NOW!


Still with me?    Ok, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The thing I liked best about this book was how you didn’t know who was telling the truth for half the book.  You start off with Nick’s perspective on discovering the disappearance and the disorder in the house, but you feel like he’s not quite telling you everything he knows.  He definitely doesn’t confess to being guilty of whatever happened to his wife; but he does paint himself as a basically decent guy, and Amy as shrewish, controlling woman.   Then you start getting Amy’s perspective through her past diary entries.  And she tells the opposite story; she’s the one who’s trying to make their marriage work in a difficult situation, but Nick becomes increasingly distant and hateful, to the point that she’s afraid for her safety with him.   So for the first half of the book, you’re reading along and thinking “Which one of them do I believe?”  Then you get to the second half of the book and all becomes clear.   The intricacy of the plot revealed in this second half of the book is pretty amazing; I couldn’t have come up with it in fifty years of trying.

Another thing I really liked about this book was the sheer evilness of the villain, when s/he was revealed.  (I’m about to give away something big; stop reading here if you don’t want to know.) I read a post on Gillian Flynn’s website about one of her earlier novels, in which she explained how keenly she felt the lack of really intrinsically evil females in literature, who aren't bad because they were jilted and out for revenge, or because daddy didn't love them enough, or what have you.  She wanted to write about women who were bad just because they were bad, like Hannibal Lector or Nurse Ratchet or...or...Emperor Palpatine, for Pete's sake. I haven't read Gillian's other novels (although they are on my list), but I have to say that in the case of Gone Girl, she succeeded.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Chaos Walking Trilogy, by Patrick Ness


Patrick Ness is a fairly recently discovered author for me, and he's fast becoming one of my favorite YA writers.  His Chaos Walking series, including The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and The Answer, and Monsters of Men, is one of the best YA science fiction trilogies I've read in quite a while.  And I say that only have read the first two (I'm impatiently awaiting the arrival of the third title in my holds list at the local library).

All three books are set on New World (which is relatively Earth-like, but definitely not Earth).  The story begins in the small village of Prentisstown, where inexplicably, there are no women, and all the surviving men have been cursed with telepathy.  They can all hear each other's thoughts, all the time, involuntarily.  You can't hide your own thoughts, and you can't keep from hearing other men's thoughts.  They call the resulting omnipresent buzz of thought "Noise."

The main character is a young man called Todd Hewitt, who is about to turn fourteen and thus become an adult in the eyes of his society.  In fact, Todd is the last boy in Prentisstown, because of the aforementioned lack of women.  A traumatic turn of events forces Todd to flee the town with only his dog.  As he journeys away from everything he knows, he encounters two beings:  an alien, and a girl.

When Todd meets the alien, we learn that the cause of the Noise among men was a virus released by the native dominant species of New World (called the Spackle by the human settlers because of their characteristic vocalization).  We hear the old, old story - humans arrive in a new place, discover that place is already claimed by others, and set about taking over the place by violence.  The humans won the war, but the Noise virus was the Spackles' last great attempt at fighting back.  Telepathy is the Spackles' normal method of communication, by the way; their ability to vocalize sounds is limited.

When Todd meets the girl (Viola), he realizes that she is the first of the second wave of settlers heading to New World.  Viola and her family were in a scout ship coming ahead of the main body of settlers, but their ship crashed, killig everyone aboard except Viola.  Viola and Todd set off toghether to find Haven, a semi-mythological paradise town, Todd in hopes of finding a new home, and Viola in hopes of warning the oncoming colonization ships of the situation on New World.  They are pursued by the Mayor of Prentisstown, who quickly develops into a complex and well-realized villain.  The Mayor wants Todd to see him as a father figure, but Todd hates him for his misdeeds during the Spackle War.  Viola eventually finds her own nemesis, Mistress Coyle, who opposed the Mayor during the Spackle War and does again during the present conflict.

And conflict there is, in spades.  The Mayor is no longer satisfied with Prentisstown; he wants to be President of New World, and he's starting the takeover with the town of Haven.  The people of Haven, of course, are having none of that; they're familiar with the Mayor's action during the Spackle war and quickly set up resistance to his occupying army.

There's a lot more to the story here that's I"m trying not to give away.  Instead, let me talk about some of the things I think make these books so great.  First, they deal with really hard questions.  When is it justified to kill in defense of yourself or your own?  When does defense become aggression?  How far would you be willing to go to depose an evil leader?  These are questions that adults wrestle with, and I really like the way Ness presents them to his audience.  The situation - in the far future, on a different planet - is just removed enough pre-teens and teens might be able to consider it dispassionately; but on the other hand, the characters are easy to relate to, allowing readers to put themselves in Todd and Viola's shoes.

The second thing I really like about these books is the relationship that develops between Todd and Viola.  They have the beginning of a shy, gawky, devoted love for each other.  And it's actual love - concern for the other's well being, putting your partner's needs above your own - not the instant attraction "oooh, he's handsome let's fall in bed" reaction that so many love stories default to these days.  And, call me a prude, I like that I'm 2/3s done with the series and there are no signs of their relationship turning physical.  Todd and Viola actually take time to get to know each other and be sure of their feelings and their future.  Trust me on this - I'm a veteran of 15 years of love and 11 years of marriage built on just such a start. 

The only caveat I'll offer here is that these are YA books.  Personally, that doesn't turn me off; a good story is a good story, regardless of the exact audience the publisher aimed it at.  But I can see how some adult readers would be turned off by the YA label.  Also, I know that reading a dialect turns some people off - think Huck Finn.  I thought the dialect Ness invented was well done - it fit the people who were supposed to speak it, if you ask me - but there it is.

I've just picked up third book in the trilogy as I finished composing this post and am devouring it at great speed.  I'll post an update if the ending is a stinker, but I don't think it will me. 

P.S.  While I'm on the subject of Patrick Ness, let me also drop a recommendation for his When A Monster Calls.   It's Ness's vision of an idea from Siobhan Dowd, who sadly died from cancer before she could write it.  Dark, funny, painful, and devastatingly accurate; anyone who has lost a loved one to a lingering illness would recognize themselves in this book.