Lightseekers by Femi Kayode

Lightseeker is a propulsive thriller that combines a who/whydunnit with a thought-provoking social commentary. Set in Nigeria, Lightseeker is predominantly narrated by Dr. Philip Taiwo, an investigative psychologist who has recently returned to Nigeria after having spent years in the United States. A husband and a father of two, Philip struggles to readjust to Nigeria’s sociopolitical climate. When he becomes convinced that his wife is cheating on him, he finds himself giving in to his father’s request to investigate the mob killing of three university students that occurred a few years beforehand. Their deaths were linked to their being members of a confraternity, but one of the victims’ fathers, who is connected to Philip’s own father, is adamant in his belief that his son would never join a cult. Philip takes the opportunity to get away from his marriage troubles and finds himself travelling to a village near Port Harcourt. Here he is aided by his driver and guide Chika, who is employed by the victim’s father, and who seems to have many hidden skills. The two soon pick up on the hostility that locals harbor against outsiders, especially those who are seeking to unearth a recent and tragic occurrence. Not only are the local authorities unwilling to help them, but they seem intent on obstructing their investigation. The locals instead see them as a threat, often refusing to talk to them. The students at the university seem more open to discussing the killing but it is only when the rapport between Philip and the locals worsens, to the point where his well being is at stake, that he begins to understand what occurred.
Not only did the story have a strongly rendered setting but the author was able to incorporate diverse and numerous issues within Philip’s investigation. Religious tensions between the town’s Christian and Muslim communities, class and educational disparities, cultism and herd mentality, politics and corruption, as well as the long-lasting consequences of colonialism. Because Philip is not from this town and has yet to fully readjust to Nigeria, we mostly glimpse and understand things through his ‘naive’ eyes, which makes for an immersive experience. The shifting dynamic between Philip and Chika was compelling and I appreciated the way their bond develops.

Now, on the things that didn’t quite convince me. One, well, it’s a crucial one. Once Philip decides to accept this request to investigate the Okriki Three he never seems to really doubt that their deaths were not ‘simply’ the horrific result of a mob killing. And the thing is, he believes this with no substantial proof. The locals’ unwillingness to discuss it or the police’s general shadiness can be understood as a sign of their guilt over their role in the mob killing. Yet, he ‘knows’ that something else is going on…and I didn’t really buy it. Early on he really had nothing to consolidate this belief and yet throughout the course of the narrative, he operates under that assumption. The narrative also shifts to a different point of view, and these chapters are very brief and intentionally ambiguous…and I found them cheap. I have never been a fan of mysteries that provide us with short, and corny usually, chapters from the ‘bad guy’s’ perspective. That the bad guy in question here is clearly experiencing a severe mental disorder was also…dodgy. True, this time around the person is not a psychopath but their (likely) disorder is still routinely stigmatized in the media and popular culture.

My last issue has to do with the female characters in the novel. On his flight to Port Harcourt Philip just happens to be seated near an attractive girlboss who, quelle surprise, is somehow connected to his case. He seems to entertain the possibility of cheating on his wife because this woman is such a girlboss. Fair enough, I don’t particularly mind reading about characters who behave badly or have bad thoughts. However, the language he uses to describe her and refer to her combined with the story’s running gag (Philip declaring that a happy marriage can be achieved by never contradicting your wife in an argument/discussions because “women be like”…especially ‘nagging’ wives who are often mad about nothing…and the thing is, his wife seems far more reasonable and clear-eyed that he is. She barely has any ‘page-time’, but I wondered why Philip would brag about his ‘tactics’ when the only conflict in his marriage seems a result of him having (recently) seen something that has led him to jump to certain conclusions. I hated that he is not quite ‘proven’ right but that what he had seen had escalated into something to be concerned about. Even more frustrating, she blames herself! Like wtf! Also, how could Philip, an investigative psychologist who is shown to be fairly intuitive, be so ready to believe the worst about his wife? Especially given the fairly banal nature of what he’d seen? The woman who helps Philip in the investigation serves the function of a plot device: adding further tension to the troubled marriage subplot and aiding Philip in his investigation when the story needs it.

While the resolution to the mystery was a bit dragged and not particularly satisfying, I did find the majority of this story gripping and I look forward to whatever the author writes next.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Trees by Percival Everett

“Money, Mississippi, looks exactly like it sounds. Named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony and with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away.”


Percival Everett is an author that has been on my radar for a while now. And in many ways, The Trees does showcase the hand of a talented writer, as the book showcases plenty of quick-witted dialogues and clever descriptions, all topped by an unsparing yet humorous social commentary. It did take me a while to adjust to the tone and direction of his story as I thought that The Trees would be something in the realms of something by Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley, or S.A. Cosby. I was surprised when I was confronted by an almost absurdist tone, one that brought to mind certain films by the Coen brothers, which usually abound with minor yet memorable side characters. The satirical way in which Everett depicts small towns and small-town ‘mentalities’ reminded me of certain books by Stephen King, as they both succeed in bringing to life—often more for the worse than the better—those who inhabit smaller communities in rural America. For the first few pages in fact I believed that The Trees had a historical setting, given the opinions and behaviours voiced and showcased by the family appearing in that opening sequence. It is only when more modern things are mentioned or make an appearance that I realized that the story had a contemporary setting.
Everett effectively renders how insular, bigoted, and reactionary the people of Money, Mississippi are. They are a rural community, one that is teeming with poorly educated racist white-nationalist who struggle to find employement and fulfilment. Their bubble of insularity is burst when their town becomes the setting for a series of mind-boggling murders. The white murdered men appear to share an ‘unpleasant’ (this is an understatement of course) connection and at each crime scene, there is also another body, that of a Black man who eerily resembles Emmett Till, the victim of a lynching. Another odd detail is that the white men are castrated (which of course gives way to a repetitive verging on the homophobic gag which i frankly could have done without).
Two detectives from the Bureau of Investigation and the local authorities, who are both inept and racist, attempt to get in their way. As more men die in the same peculiar circumstances the detectives find themselves looking for answers in the past. Are these murders an act of retribution? If so, by the hands of whom? The disappearing body of Emmett Till adds a dimension of surreality to the murders, so much so that I started to wonder whether Everett would go the route King did in The Outsider.
Everett favours no perspective and throughout the book, he switches between the townspeople of Money to the detectives. I, like other readers, of course, preferred those sections that focused on the detectives and their investigation. They had a good if slightly cliched dynamic but their banter was entertaining and they play off each other quite well. If anything I found myself wanting to spend more time with them and less with the often cartoonish people of Money. That is not me saying or suggesting that people such as the ones we encounter in Money do not exist. I have come across Jordan Klepper’s videos (where he interviews trump supporters) and boy oh boy…still, Everett is quite heavy-handed in his use of satire, so much so that most of the characters populating his novel are closer to caricatures than fully-dimensional individuals. There were many instances where I found the humour crass and distracting as it took away from otherwise poignant or important scenes where characters discuss lynching, racism, and police brutality. I also did not like how the author writes about fat people, it reminded me of Family Guy tbh. So not my kind of ‘humor’. I could have also done without the very cliched female characters we get in this novel, in particular, the detectives’ no-nonsense strong-willed ‘ally’. This is the type of character often penned by male authors, with good intentions I’m sure, but I just find this type of characterisation lazy.
The pacing was somewhat uneven. There were several instances where I found my attention drifting away or where I found myself growing weary of the unrelenting satire, especially in those instances where it takes on a sillier tone. There are several storylines that do eventually come together but in a not quite satisfying manner. There are some loose ends or certain parts that just did not feel that convincing or well-executed. The ending in particular didn’t really work for me. Maybe if we’d been given insight into that part of the story from the get-go I could have adjusted more to it but we don’t so I was really sold on it. Still, I can recognise that just because I thought that the content of the story was at odds with the narrative tone does not mean that you will feel the same way so if you are curious about this book I recommend you also check out some 4 or 5-star reviews. This was less of a crime/thriller than a dark occasionally OTT satire which I wasn’t quite in the mood for. Still, I’ll definitely check out more books by this author. I appreciated the issues he tackles in The Trees, in particular on addressing racist violence both in the past and in the present. Ultimately however the tone of his narration eroded much of my interest in his story so that I found myself reading less out of a desire to do so and more so out of a sense of misplaced duty (on the lines of, i am already halfway there, might as well finish this).

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

With its strong sense of place and dynamic dialogues Bluebird, Bluebird makes for a solid Southern Noir, one that will definitely appeal to fans of crime authors such as Walter Mosley, Dennis Lehane, and S.A. Cosby. Bluebird, Bluebird follows Darren Mathews, a Black Texas Ranger. After helping out a friend in need Darren’s job as a Ranger is now on the line. He and his wife are on a break as she is tired of his devotion to the Rangers and believes that he should instead become a lawyer. Darren is fully aware of the faults within his department—from racial profiling to brutality and corruption—he has a strong sense of justice and seems determined to make a change. A friend of his convinces him to look into two recent murders in Lark, a rural and predominantly white small town. In less than a week, two bodies washed up in the bayou: first, a Black lawyer from Chicago, and then a 20-year-old local white woman.
Darren’s presence in Lark causes quite a stir as Lark’s law enforcement and its residents aren’t keen on ‘outsiders’, especially those who ask too many questions and seem determined to uncover long-buried secrets. Darren knows that this was a racially motivated murder and is determined to solve the case, even at the cost of his own safety.

Bluebird, Bluebird was an engrossing and deeply atmospheric whodunnit. It has some hard-boiled elements to it, snappy dialogues, and presents its readers with an incisive examination of race, justice, and belonging in a Southern state whose past and present are still marred by racial injustices. The author capture Darren’s inner conflict with clarity and empathy: on the one hand he loves Texas, on the other, he knows far too well how dangerous a place it is (over the course of the narrative Darren comes face to face with members of the Aryan Brotherhood). His character did fall a bit too neatly in the gruff noir detective who has a drinking problem and despite his not always amenable demeanour or actions, his heart is in the right place. The wife of the murdered lawyer also has a role in the story, that of an ingenue from the Big City who spends most of the time crying (falling into Darren’s manly arms) or screaming during gun shootings. To be perfectly honest, I could have done without her. Darren’s poor wife is a mere blip in the story, she gets two or three mentions but otherwise, her character is utterly irrelevant.
Locke’s storytelling is great even if she does employ the dreaded “[He] let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding” which earns her a minus (i have come to loathe this particular phrase). But, thankfully, for the most part, her writing is definitely compelling. The descriptions about the bayou, the long seemingly deserted roads, and other Southern landscapes are incredibly vivid. The dialogues too, as I mentioned already, have this ping-pong quality that makes the book hard to put down.
While Bluebird, Bluebird didn’t quite hit me the way Blacktop Wasteland did (if you haven’t read that novel and you are a fan of southern noir novels, do yourself a favour, read it) I still enjoyed reading it and I will definitely be checking out its sequel.

my rating: ★★★¼

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A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar

“How do you explain the unique physiology of girlhood friendships, the telepathy formed fast and fierce between hometown strangers?”

In A Prayer for Travelers Ruchika Tomar disrupts the traditional coming-of-age story by rearranging the chronological order of her narrative, so that the novel’s opening chapter is actually chapter number 31. The non-chronological chapter order takes some getting used to, and there were times when I struggled to keep track of ‘when’ we were or the context of a certain scene. But, this structure, which swings readers back and forth in time, propels A Prayer for Travelers, adding a layer of tension to Cale’s story.

A Prayer for Travelers transports readers to a small and isolated town in Nevada. After being abandoned by her mother Cale lives with her grandfather Lamb and grows up to become a solitary girl who spends most of her time reading. Rather than making friends, she watches from afar others, in particular, three other girls who are a year or so older than her. At times Cale seems to yearn to be part of their clique, but more often than not seems satisfied in observing them at a distance. It is magnetic and freewheeling Penélope Reyes who Cale is fascinated by the most.

After Lamb, Cale’s only point of reference, is diagnosed with cancer Cale feels lost. It is Penny who Cale clings to. The two form a tentative friendship while waitressing at the same diner. Over the course of the summer, the two spend most of their time together, yet Penny remains a cypher of sorts. After one of their escapades ends in act of horrific violence, the bond between the two is tested. The morning after, Penny goes missing and no one but Cale seems interested in knowing what happened to her.

Each chapter takes readers to a different period in Cale’s life so that it is only by the end of the novel that we gain a full picture of her childhood, her time with Penny, and the events leading to and after Penny’s disappearance. This unorthodox structure lends an air of mystery both to Cale’s life and to the people around her. Early on we are given hints of what is to come or what has gone before, but it is only around the halfway mark that readers will be able to really catch up with Cale’s story.
In addition to this clever structure, Tomar succeeds in bringing to life Cale’s stultifying environment. From the desert that surrounding her dead-end town to the heat that makes people take cover indoors. It is no place for young people, as there are few if any jobs going and one is always under scrutiny. Things are done a certain way and anyone who tries to ‘upset’ the system incurs the risk of angering the wrong kind of people. As Cale is quick to discover, the police are of little help.
Cale’s interactions with others, from the detectives to Penny’s old friends and a classmate of theirs, are underlined by a sense of unease. This adds to the story’s already atmospheric setting, as we see just how isolating and brutal Cale’s town is, especially for girls like her and Penny.
Although the relationship between Cale and Penny is the undoubted core of the novel, their feelings towards each other are not always easy to discern. In many ways, their bond remains elusive just like the girls themselves. Both Cale and Penny are difficult to pin down yet Tomar captivates many of their anxieties and desires.
Their experiences are not easy to read. Cale’s secluded childhood with her grandfather leaves her in many ways unprepared for ‘life’. Most of the time she doesn’t know what she wants from the future and spends her time obsessing over Penny.
Both Cale and Penny go through traumatic experiences, each reacting in a different way. Tomar shows how the victim of a sexual assault will often blame themselves and how blind others can be to someone’s despair and trauma.
The ‘resolution’ to the mystery felt almost anticlimactic. Then, perhaps I was so focused on keeping track of ‘when’ I was that I may not have been able to fully appreciate those chapters.
Other than the ‘ending’ and the inclusion of visuals chapters (which just had an image or one/two words) I found this novel be truly engrossing. A teensy part of me wished that Cale’s feelings towards Penny had been explored in more depth (her fixation on Penny is quite something).

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as this kind of structure will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But, if you are looking for a coming-of-age/suspense story in a similar vein to Winter’s Bone and A Crooked Tree, you might want to give A Prayer for Travelers a try. I will be definitely re-reading this as I loved Tomar’s piercing writing and seesaw storyline as well as her story’s focus on female friendships, trauma, and survival.

my rating: ★★★¾

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The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz

 

When I started reading The Gone Dead I was expecting a thriller, something in the realms of When No One is Watching or with the setting and tone of Sharp Objects. What The Gone Dead is not so much of crime/thriller story but a narrative that focuses on depicting a certain community, exploring its racist history and its existing racial tension as well as providing a sobering picture of the socio-economic struggles experienced by many of its inhabitants (such as poverty and addiction). The supposed mystery that drives the narrative is not a mystery, not really. Readers will probably be able to tell what truly happened to the main character’s father, a Black poet who died in a small town on the Mississippi Delta in the the early 70s in what was at the time deemed to be an accident. Although many of the chapters focus on his daughter, Billie, who is in her late thirties and through her grandmother’s death has recently inherited her father’s house, many switch to secondary, even tertiary, characters, providing us with glimpses into their perspectives and lives.
As with many stories focusing on a character returning to their small hometown after years away, Billie’s amateurish investigation into her father’s death inevitably puts her in danger.

Before I move onto the reasons why I did not particularly love this novel, I first want to talk about what Benz excels at, and that is the setting. Benz vividly portrayal of this small community emphasises many of its shortcomings: there is a general small-mindedness, a racial divide, a distrust of strangers, a reverence of the olden days. Benz’s capture the atmosphere of this town and many of Billie’s encounters with the locals are pervaded by a sense of unease.
In addition, Benz’s social commentary is sharp-witted and her dialogues are on point.

The storyline itself suffers from pacing issues. Benz reveals much too soon certain details about Billie’s father’s death so that the story lost much of its momentum in the very first part of the novel. Billie herself is not a particularly compelling or fleshed out character. The people around her, even if at times a bit one note, were far more interesting. Whereas the author really explores the setting, from its history to its present day, Billie remains a half-formed thing. She seemed to exist only from the moment she steps into her father’s old house, before that, nothing. Her past and current jobs, relationships, and friendships remain largely absent. That she never thinks of her life before venturing into this small town seemed weird to me. Her personality too was almost nonexistent. She is her father’s daughter, and that’s it. She makes lots of stupid and impulsive decisions and then goes on to be amazed by the dangerous situations she lands herself in.
There is a quasi-love story which felt really out of place, especially considering her initial suspicions towards this guy (and to be honest, he was bland).
I would have liked to learn more about Billie’s father himself, as the man ultimately remains but a vague impression of a poet. Billie’s mother, who is dead by the start of the novel, receives a similar treatment (she was white and a Medieval historian, and that’s that).

While I liked The Gone Dead‘s grittiness, ultimately, the story and characters failed to grab me. Nevertheless, I would probably read something else by Benz.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Searcher by Tana French

 

“He doesn’t like the feeling, or the fact that he recognises it and understands it perfectly; it’s as familiar to him as hunger or thirst. Cal never could stand to leave a case unresolved.”

If I’d read The Searcher without knowing the author’s identity, I’d never have guessed that it was a novel by Tana French.
Because the narrative in The Searcher is told in the third-person, it felt far less intimate and intricate than the Dublin Murder Squad series (which, with the exception of The Secret Place, have a first-person pov) so it took me awhile to warm up to French’s prose. While I understand that ‘sticking’ to the same writing style book after book must get tiring, I can’t say that I particularly liked French’s ‘new’ style (in fact, while reading I found myself longing for her ‘usual’ prose). And even if The Searcher was by no means incompetently written, the language French uses wasn’t quite as literary or complex as the one in her previous novels.

Onto the actual story: after becoming increasingly disillusioned with the police force Cal, our main character, retires from Chicago’s police force and decides to re-locate to the fictional Ardnakelty, a remote small village in the West of Ireland. Here he spends his time fixing up his decrepit new house and bantering with his neighbour.
The narrative moves at an incredibly slow pace…which would have been fine by me if pace had been sacrificed in favour of characterisation. But Cal isn’t an incredibly compelling or complex protagonist. What we get instead are long and detailed descriptions about Cal painting his desk or doing up something in his new house. While he goes on about his day he starts to feel as if someone is watching him.
After some more time passes he meets Trey, a kid from a poor and disreputable family. Trey’s brother is missing so he enlists Cal to find out what happened to him. Cal, who wants to keep his head down, is initially reluctant to get involved, however, as he spends more time with Cal (fixing up his furniture, hunting) he decides to help Trey.

French brings to life the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere of a small village. In a community where everyone seems to know everybody’s business, Cal quickly realises how difficult it is to escape the shadow of your family. Although Trey is only thirteen, Ardnakelty residents believe that because he comes from a ‘rotten’ family he’s bad egg.
Cal makes slow progress in his ‘investigation’. He has little authority in the village, so he has to play up his ‘Yankee’ persona in order to get some answers. Still, the people he questions are reticent to talk and soon enough Cal realises that he has ruffled some of the locals feathers.
French vividly renders Cal’s environment, on the very first page we get this stunning description:
“The sky, dappled in subtle gradations of grey, goes on forever; so do the fields, coded in shades of green by their different uses, divided up by sprawling hedges, dry stone walls and the odd narrow back road.”
The Irish countryside is by turns idyllic and menacing, just as the people who inhabit the land. Much of the banter Cal has with his neighbour or with other men at the local pub carries a not-so-friendly edge. Seemingly harmless exchanges carry the possibility of danger. Yet, even if Cal is aware of this, and of the possibility of upsetting or antagonising the entire village, he’s unwilling to give up his search.

The mystery often took the backseat in favour of scenes detailing Cal’s daily routing (fixing up the house, fishing, going to the local store, phoning his daughter). There were also quite a lot of conversations about topics I didn’t particularly care for (look, I like dogs as much as the next person but my mind will start going blank if I have to read a few pages describing ‘pups’).
The dynamic between Cal and Trey was the most compelling aspect of this book. I did wish that some scenes of Trey interacting with his family could have been included as they would have given a fuller picture of his life.
Even if I wasn’t as interested in Mart or Lena, their words always rang true and they could provide some amusing moments. Cal, on the other hand, sometimes said things that didn’t entirely convince me. While he did question himself and his own behaviour, and I did appreciate that he struggled with the meaning of ‘doing the right thing’, his character was a bit of a blank at times. Although we are given his view on his job, on his feelings about police brutality, racial profiling, and corruption, as well as an impression of the kind of relationship that he has with his daughter and ex-wife, Cal’s main characteristic is that he is ‘American’. And sometimes what he said sounded a bit too American, even in those instances when he wasn’t playing up this role. His motivations for picking Ireland as his new home were also left unexplored. And what did his daughter think of this relocation? We simply know that she’s busy working but we don’t learn of her reaction upon discovering that her father had chooses to retire and move across the ocean.
The mystery storyline takes a rather predictable direction and I never felt any real sense of suspense. There were quite a few scenes that were just boring and added little to the overall story.
At the end of the day, The Searcher doesn’t offer a new spin on the Town with a Dark Secret™. The more I think about it the less I like this novel. It has a kind of Hot Fuzz sort of story (minus the laughs): we have a protagonist who ‘can’t switch off’ who goes to a small village and learns the meaning of friendship and finds out that there is a reason why locals don’t want him to investigate certain things.
An okay read but nothing like French’s usual.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 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 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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Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz — book review

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I like to think of myself as a “serious” Agatha Christie fan. With the exception of one or two books—aberrations of some sort—I have always enjoyed reading Christie. I also happen to be a huge fan of the Poirot ITV series (starring the impeccable David Suchet) on which Horowitz has worked on. As Horowitz demonstrates in Magpie Murders, he knows a lot about whodunnits, particularly those that are considered to belong to the ‘golden age’ of detective fiction.

Magpie Murders is both a homage and satire of the detective genre. In a similar vein to The Silkworm, this novel focuses on a writer, Alan Conway, whose latest—and last—manuscript brings about some drama. In Conway Horowitz presents readers with the epitome of the self-important and unpleasant writer, and it’s easy to see why his editor—and one of the narrators—Susan Ryeland wants little do with him. Yet, asshe informs us in the very first pages of this novel, Conway’s last manuscript will change her life.
Knowing this, we then read the manuscript alongside her, and Horowitz utilises the device of the story-within-a-story perfectly, giving each narrative more or less the same length. Conway’s novel is full of easter eggs, many of which Susan decodes later on, and I had a lot of fun reading this quintessentially British whodunnit. The narrative, for Conway’s novel and Susan’s story, shows a self-awareness in its use of certain tropes and devices.
This was a fun read that kept me entertained from its opening page to its final one.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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