Psychological thriller about unsolved murders and a suppressed past
Content warning: self-harm, child abuse
I am still trying to make some headway in my reading challenges for the year, so I have been trying to double up a little bit and combine both the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge and the Mount TBR Reading Challenge into one. This was apparently a book that fits all of the criteria of my reading profile: a fiction book that is mysterious, dark, tense, fast-paced and 300-499 pages long. Specific! I actually have read a book by this author previously, and I had picked up another of hers from the Lifeline Bookfair some time a go and was keen to see what it was like.
Photo is of “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn. The paperback book is sitting inside a dolls house between a doll’s chair and a doll’s bed with a blue and white floral bedcover. There is a wooden table with a basket and a miniature bread roll inside. The cover is plain black with embossed dark blue text.
“Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn is a crime thriller novel about a journalist called Camille who is asked to investigate a disappearance in her home town. Reluctantly, Camille takes on the assignment to cover the story of the second missing girl in a short period of time. When she arrives, she braces herself to see her estranged family while she interviews local police and the victim’s family. However, the longer she is in town, the clearer it becomes that despite the wealth and splendour of her family home, there are some very dark secrets that she thought she left behind. Despite seeming relatively stable if uninspired in her job, as the book progresses we start to see just how much of a toll Camille’s childhood has taken on her. Camille also has the opportunity to get to know her much younger, precocious teenage sister and becomes determined to protect her. The question is: who really needs protecting?
This is a compelling, disturbing story that examines the way trauma can ripple through families regardless of class with devastating effects. Flynn juxtaposes Camille’s mother’s pursuit of beauty and perfection with the emotional and physical scars Camille bears from growing up in that environment. Flynn is a very good at building and maintaining tension, and just like in “Gone Girl”, no matter how challenging the subject matter becomes, it is almost impossible to look away. There is a TV adaptation which is just as good with excellent acting.
I think the only thing about this book is that at times it feels almost provocative for the sake of it, kind of the same way that Camille’s little sister Amma is provocative for the sake of it. There were parts of this book that left me deeply uncomfortable; not just the fallout from terrible crimes, but the ethics of Camille’s own decisions.
Content warning: family violence, coercive control, physical abuse, sexual assault, disability, trauma
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“To the Sea” by Nikki Crutchley is a crime thriller novel about Ana and her family who live on a coastal New Zealand property they call Iluka. At 18 years old, all Ana has ever known is the house, pine plantation and cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In her family, everyone has a role to play: Ana and her mother Anahita manage the housework, her grandfather Hurley builds furniture, her uncle Dylan looks after the land and her aunt Marina organises artist retreats to supplement the family’s otherwise self-sufficient existence. Everything they need is at Iluka and there is no reason for Ana to ever leave. However, when she meets a man on the beach one day who seems to know who she is, and photographer Nikau on an artist retreat takes an interest in her family, Ana begins to ask herself questions like why she has no father. As the narrative shifts between Ana and her mother Anahita 20 years earlier, the answers to Ana’s questions grow more and more deadly.
This was a dark and tense book that showed how insidious and entrenched gender roles and violence can become in a family. Crutchley juxtaposes the sinister events of the books against an beautiful if unforgiving landscape, and I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the harsh coastline. It is a bit strange to write this, but there was considerable creativity in cruel ‘punishments’ meted out by Ana’s grandfather and some of the scenes feel etched into my memory. At the heart of this story is control, and as the book progresses it is gradually revealed why Hurley and, by extension, Anahita, are so obsessed with controlling everything and everyone in Iluka. This book is an excellent reminder of how two siblings who grow up in the same family can have radically different experiences. The different ways that Dylan and Anahita relate to their father highlights the diversity in how abuse and control can play out, even under the same roof. Crutchley prompts to the reader to think about the meaning of safety and how far is too far to keep a family ‘safe’.
Although overall this is a strong novel, there were some parts that did not feel as strong as others. Some of Ana and Anahita’s chapters probably weren’t necessary to the plot and could have been pared back to quicken the pace of the book. I also thought that some of the peripheral characters like Nikau felt a bit less developed. While I appreciate we were getting the story largely through Ana’s eyes, I think some of the later events would have felt more significant if the characters were more fleshed out. There was also a reveal at one point about a character’s identity which I had guessed way, way earlier in the book and I wasn’t sure that story arc added much either (except perhaps to reinforce the idea that people are awful and the outside world should be shut out completely).
A tense and well-written book that explores in depths the dynamics of an insular family.
Content warning: family violence, child abuse, animal abuse, emotional abuse
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I actually read some of this author’s work when I was a teen and particularly enjoyed her biopunk novels, though this one is a significantly different genre.
“Shelter” by Catherine Jinks is a thriller novel set outside a small country town in rural Australia. Meg is a middle-aged woman who lives alone in a small property. A survivor of family violence herself, she agrees to take in a young woman called Nerine and her two small children and let them hide out for a while. Despite the secrecy, remoteness and lack of reception, Nerine is adamant that her violent ex while find a way to track them down. As more and more strange things happen, Meg begins to wonder if it is her own ex-husband they should be worried about and how safe her hideaway really is.
This is a tense read and Jinks really demonstrates her prowess at setting pace and a sense of place. Meg is a believable character who is at once capable and independent yet ultimately very vulnerable. The scars left on her psyche by her ex-husband grow more and more evident as the pressure in the book continues, and I felt that Jinks really captured the long-term harm that being in an abusive relationship can have on you and how insidious emotional abuse in particular can be. Throughout this book, Meg second-guesses herself and her hesitation and lack of faith in herself ultimately impacts the way other people treat her and leaves her open to further exploitation. Heartbreakingly, I felt that Jinks wrote about how abusive families can impact children very authentically and the scenes with Ana were particularly compelling and upsetting.
However, this is not a feel good story and ultimately the ending felt very unsatisfactory. I appreciate the point I believe Jinks was trying to make about the justice system and how an emotional abuser can continue to indirectly cause you harm long after the relationship has ended. However, as the climax of the books unfolds and the impact of what happened becomes clear, I found it a little hard to suspend my disbelief. I know that Jinks has likely been inspired by (slight spoiler if you click through) this case, but I think that the Epilogue just felt a bit off to me. As I finished the book, I had a bitter taste in my mouth and I’m not sure Meg got a fair shake of the stick. Perhaps that was Jinks’ intention.
A complex, challenging and deeply uncomfortable novel that explores emotional abuse from a fresh and disturbing perspective.
Knowing that I was shortly going to be visiting some Scandinavian countries, I knew I needed to stock up on appropriate reading material. What better to start with than some Nordic noir? Luckily for me, the Lifeline Book Fair was on recently, and I managed to score a copy of a book by a very well-known Swedish author. We were staying on a very cool hostel on an actual ship, it was freezing cold, and on one afternoon it started hailing. The atmosphere couldn’t have been better.
I actually forgot to take a photo while actually in Sweden, but I managed to take this one just after we took off so I’m saying that it’s in the air space, and it counts.
“The Ice Princess” by Camilla Läckberg and translated by Steven T. Murray is a Swedish crime fiction novel about writer Erica who returns to her quiet coastal hometown to sort through her parents’ house after their funeral. However, overshadowing her loss is the mysterious death of her estranged childhood friend Alex. Found frozen in her bathtub after an apparent suicide, things don’t add up and police start looking for suspects. Feeling that their friendship ended unresolved, Erica’s writing is rekindled by a new project: a biography about Alex. Her own investigations lead her to team up with police officer and schoolmate Patrik, and together they begin to unpack the dark truth.
This is a classic example of readable crime fiction with all the elements: grisly murder, awkward but lovable woman protagonist, small community drama and terrible family secrets. Läckberg is a clear, no-nonsense writer who focuses on place and character rather than the forensic minutiae of other writers in the genre. The book is in some ways a little more of a cozy mystery rather than a thriller, though it is not without its grit. Läckberg addresses issues of alcoholism, poverty, homelessness, class, domestic violence and child sexual abuse. Murray’s translation feels very faithful, and he manages to capture elements of Swedish culture while maintaining the universality of the characters.
I think one downside to reading crime fiction that was written some time ago (this was originally published in 2003) is that what was clearly relatively groundbreaking back then feels extremely familiar today. Crime fiction is incredibly popular, and Läckberg’s style is obviously of some influence to more recent authors. Some of the twists I guessed, some I didn’t, but I think probably what frustrated me the most was how one-dimensional some of the characters were. There is quite a bit of Bridget Jones in Erica who is loves to shop and worries about her weight, though it is tempered by her warmth and care for her sister. All the men seem to be into sports. Läckberg uses a technique where she switches perspectives between her characters and contrasts their self-perception against the observations of others. While this brings some nuance to the book, it does bog it down a little.
An easy read that while simple in some ways is complex in others. An impressive debut, and I would be interested to see how her style grows in her later novels.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“Broken Humanity” by Karine Vivier and translated by Kirsty Olivant is a crime thriller about three people who are linked by the disappearance of a little girl. Alice is a young girl whose life changed forever when her mother brought home a new partner. Now, instead of going to school, she must help her stepdad by befriending children and bringing them to his van, or else languish in a locked cellar. Judith had just planned on leaving her daughter in the car for five minutes while she went into the shop, and when she comes out after getting stuck at the checkout to find her daughter gone, she can’t stop blaming herself. Denis Papin has been released from prison and is trying to start a new, understated life despite being convicted of a terrible crime. However, when a little girl goes missing, he is suddenly a prime suspect.
This is a well-written, well-translated book that speeds along at a cracking pace. I often get asked to review crime thrillers and I blanch when they are 400 or 500 pages long because I know they are not going to be a quick read. This is a very quick read, and I am so, so appreciative of that. Even though it is a short, snappy book, Vivier covers a lot of different themes. I think that the most interesting of these is the theme of blame, and how we blame ourselves as well as others. Blame is something that permeates the stories of each of the main characters.
The critical thing for a good thriller is making sure that plot is watertight. I think that Vivier has all the elements there, and the story starts off strong, but I think that some of the later chapters lose the threads a little and miss some opportunities for that incredible dramatic thriller ending that readers hang out for.
A very easy read that touches on some difficult and interesting themes.
This book was part of either a Christmas present or birthday present (I can’t quite remember) that I finally got around to reading. I hadn’t heard a lot about this particular story, but the author’s previous novel “The Dry” received a lot of acclaim so I was keen to see what all the fuss was about.
“Force of Nature” by Jane Harper is a crime thriller about a corporate bonding activity gone wrong. Five women the same company go on a weekend hike together in a fictional Australian mountain range. Chairwoman Jill, senior staff Alice and Lauren, Bree and her twin sister Bethany. However, when only four return at the end of the weekend, a full-scale search is launched with police, emergency services and volunteers to find missing Alice. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk arrives at the ranges to assist with the search, but he has a particular interest in Alice’s welfare. She’s a key informant in an investigation he’s conducting, and the story that she was separated from the others suddenly isn’t sounding so convincing.
The first thing to say about this book is that it is actually kind of a sequel to “The Dry” (which I didn’t realise) and although I think it is OK as a standalone novel, there are some character-building aspects to Aaron that I felt like I missed out on a bit started from this book. Nevertheless, Harper does an admirable job of immersing the reader in the wilderness, and I particularly enjoyed how she used torrential rain to set the mood throughout the book. I also liked how she connected the events in the present with Aaron’s past.
However, I found the premise of this book so unbelievable that I simply couldn’t settle into it the entire way through. First of all, no corporate team-building company would ever leave five inexperienced hikers in the wilderness without a radio or a satellite phone for a weekend. It was just completely unrealistic that any company would be insured for that kind of activity without an emergency plan. If someone fell and broke their neck, there was absolutely no mechanism for them to call for help. Basically they had to get from point A to point B, and if they didn’t after 3 days, then the company would come looking for them. The man who runs the Executive Adventures program, Ian Chase, just seems so bumbling and incompetent compared to the incredibly organised and safety-focused people I have met who run programs like Outward Bound in real life. The fact that there was simply no contingency plan really made the premise difficult for me to accept, and unfortunately this ended up tainting the rest of the story.
I can see what Harper was trying to do in exploring the intricacies of female work, family and friend relationships by putting five women in a high-stress situation. This book definitely passes the Beshdel Test. I particularly liked Alice’s backstory and discovering more about what was going on in her personal life. However, Lauren’s and the twins’ stories felt a bit more clunky, and Jill just didn’t really get a fair shake of the stick. Ultimately I was much less interested in the catty, shallow behaviour of the women and far more interested in Aaron’s story, which (not having read the preceding book) was possibly the point.
Ultimately, this book didn’t grip me in the way one wants to be gripped by a thriller. A title like “Force of Nature” is a big one to live up to, and at the end of the day, I would have liked something a bit more hard-hitting, gritty and deep. I did like Aaron quite a lot though, and I am tempted to go and give “The Dry” a crack.