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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The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel — book review

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“We can be sad, distraught, confused, pleading, forgiving. But not furious. Fury is reserved for other people. The worst thing you can be is an angry woman, an angry mother.”

Once again I find myself in the minority but I just didn’t find The Familiar Dark to be a very riveting read. From its gratuitous and cliched opening pages (in which two twelve year olds are murdered) to its stagy finale, I had a hard time believing in the story I was reading.

Some of my favourite books, such as Winter’s Bone and Sharp Objects, depict rather bleak realities, but they do so convincingly. Here, Eve Taggert’s narration is so exaggeratedly ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ as to be hard to buy into. Although she says that she has spent all her life in the same small town, she often describes its people’s ways through comparisons (saying things on the lines of ‘in other places people would react differently/here rules are different’). Given how insular her world is, it seems weird that she would so often view her town and her family through an outsider’s lenses.

The many metaphors about darkness and poison also struck me as contrived. Eve’s circumstances spoke for themselves. Abuse, neglect, sexual harassment, rape, poverty, and addiction are the norm in her town, especially for women. Would she really waste her time thinking of allusions or similes for ‘darkness’?
In spite of her truth seeking/no bullshit attitude she conceals certain knowledge from the reader…for what purpose? To ‘shock’ us? It seemed weird that Eve, who is able to see through her community and the dubious intentions of the people around her, would lie to herself and to us about someone’s identity.

Eve’s narration aside, I did find the novel to be evocative. The dialogues where for the most part believable as was Eve’s grief. Her search for the truth behind her daughter’s murder is filled with both tense and sorrowful moments. Her rage was also convincing, as were her reflections regarding the limited options women in her position have.

The Familiar Dark sacrifices realism for the sake of dramatic twists. Moments of poignancy or insight into Eve’s life are often lost beneath the author’s overemphasis on ‘darkness’.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Everything You Want Me to Be : Book Review


Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia

★★★✰✰ 3 stars

Last summer I read Mejia’s latest novel Leave No Trace: A Novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought it had a suspenseful and fast-paced story with alluring main characters.
While Everything You Want Me to Be is an undoubtedly well-written novel that juggles different point of views and timelines, I mostly found it to be extremely dull. rather flat.

Each of the three narratives was well-rendered and I was always able to tell whose pov I was reading from. So, while I think Mejia is a skilled writer, I did find her story and the characters to be incredibly boring. As believable as they were, I found myself caring little for them. Their arcs were predictable so much so that it was easy to see what would next happen. This sort of plot has been so overdone that this novel might ‘work’ for those readers who aren’t all versed in this genre.
While Mejia succeeds in rendering the atmosphere of a small community, I mostly felt annoyed and unaffected by her characters or their struggles.
Hopefully the next novel I read by Mejia will showcase more of her talent.

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Broken Harbor by Tana French

Broken Harbour is a gripping novel that portrays – with much intensity – complex relationships between friends, partners and family members. French, as per usual, pays close attention to the human psychology rather than focusing solely on the ‘crime’ itself.

Tense and frayed relationships aside, the story is one peppered with doubt: throughout the investigation, we can never be quite sure of what has happened to the Spain family.
French deftly renders feelings of animosity and of a growing sense of unease: there is a constant sense that the truth behind the Spain case is an unpleasant one, and thanks to some foreshadowing, one that will cost Scorcher dearly.
Scorcher is a complex narrator whose method prior the case was ‘by the book. The Spain case however forces him to behave unexpectedly. His own connection to Broken Harbour inevitably turns the case into a personal matter. Alongside for the ‘ride’ is Richie, his rookie partner. Their interactions make us see, in my opinion, Scorcher at his best. Scorcher is a fully rounded character and his investigation makes the story come off the page.
French has also a knack for depicting different types of people. All of her characters offer realistic incongruities and much depth. Both the people involved in the Spain case and Scorcher’s own family make an impact on the storyline.

French’s eye for the smallest details serve to add further layers to the novel as a whole. We reassess the same characters and situations again and again, never quite sure of certain character’s motivations.

Nothing is as it seems, and it is only through Scorcher’s investigation that the truth slowly begins to unravel. Brimming with suspense and filled by all too believable characters, Broken Harbour is an engaging and powerful book, one that makes the reader question their own ideals and perception of right and wrong.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In the Woods by Tana French

What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this – two things: I crave the truth. And I lie.

An incredibly intense and absorbing read. In the Woods is so much more than a ‘crime’ novel. French creates incredibly vivid characters. She also has a knack for dialogue: that is to say that the conversations, arguments and discussions had by her characters felt incredibly real to me. The way in which she narrates this mystery is completely encompassing. I eagerly read chapter after chapter, my head filled by the main character’s meanderings: despite acting like a right ol’ dick, I still loved being in Rob’s head. He was so…believable. His fear, uncertainties and desires. All of it. I was taken in by his story, unable – and not wanting – to leave.
In short, I was really taken by In the Woods.
I don’t think I can do this novel justice… just go and see for yourself.
A few quotes:

I am not good at noticing when I’m happy, except in retrospect. My gift, or fatal flaw, is for nostalgia. I have sometimes been accused of demanding perfection, of rejecting heart’s desires as soon as I get close enough that the mysterious impressionistic gloss disperses into plain solid dots, but the truth is less simplistic than that. I know very well that perfection is made up of frayed, off-struck mundanities. I suppose you could say my real weakness is a kind of longsightedness: usually it is only at a distance, and much too late, that I can see the pattern.

In all my career I had never felt the presence of evil as I felt it then: strong and rancid-sweet in the air, curling invisible tendrils up table-legs, nosing with obscene delicacy at sleeves and throats.

Human beings, as I know better than most, can get used to anything. Over time, even the unthinkable gradually wears a little niche for itself in your mind and becomes just something that happened.

 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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