Review: Girl in Snow

If I had not received this book free via NetGalley, I would not have finished it.

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka sounds promising, but the reveal is badly paced with obvious red herrings. Even though the mystery lost my attention, there’s potential in Kukafka’s prose—it’s occasionally lyrical with unique imagery. Summary from Goodreads:

When a beloved high schooler named Lucinda Hayes is found murdered, no one in her sleepy Colorado suburb is untouched—not the boy who loved her too much; not the girl who wanted her perfect life; not the officer assigned to investigate her murder. In the aftermath of the tragedy, these three indelible characters—Cameron, Jade, and Russ—must each confront their darkest secrets in an effort to find solace, the truth, or both.

My biggest gripe is that too much time is spent on descriptions and redundant flashbacks. Because the book starts after Lucinda’s death and the sections are titled “Day One,” “Day Two,” and “Day Three,” most of the character-building moments happened before page one. Kukafka flashes back to the core moments of each relationship instead of relying on the strength of her present-day scenes. It’s not satisfying to be hit over the head with expository matter after carefully picking out the same information from well-crafted clues in an earlier scene.

The flashbacks aren’t the only distraction. There’s a curious fixation on gross/unsightly things. As an example, a description of Lee as “clean-shaven” is chased by a paragraph that describes the nicks around his mouth and how he must have looked with toilet-paper squares stuck to all his bloody cuts. There’s nothing wrong with describing a clean-shaven face this way—it’s certainly vivid—but no one is ever described without taking them down a few notches. The vast majority of characters have bad skin, smeary make-up, dripping sweat, pimples around their mouths and sprinkled across their sagging cleavage… Not even inanimate objects are safe! Misshapen beads are described as “tumorous.” I think this is all to contrast with Lucinda Hayes’s beauty, but it’s emphasized to the point of silliness. The more over-the-top descriptions are funny when I don’t think they’re meant to be.

This grossness reminded me of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. I stopped reading Flynn’s book after a background character was described as having dried scrambled eggs in her hair. (I admit this is a weird place to draw the line.) In college, I ran across an article that suggested every character should have something ugly about them. This was to warn writers against creating physically ideal characters that are hard to relate to and hard to imagine. It’s easier to picture a crooked nose than a “perfect” nose—what does a perfect nose look like anyway? It’s a good piece of advice, but Kukafka takes it too far.

These two points are the kind of complaints that would have been less noticeable if the overall story had been more compelling. A taut mystery provides a lot of cover for errors in craftsmanship. Since I wasn’t particularly concerned about who killed Lucinda Hayes, the energy that should have gone into asking whodunnit all went to nitpicking.

Overall: 2.4 (out of 5)
Taking on three points of view to solve a murder is ambitious and two of the characters (Cameron and Jade) have unique, if unlikeable, voices.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: Intruder in the Dark

intruder-in-the-dark_coverGeorge Bellairs’ Intruder in the Dark begins with Cyril Savage’s arrival in Plumpton Bois to collect an inheritance from his great-aunt, Miss Melody Johnson. Impatient, he inspects the house early, only to find that it has been ransacked and the cellar door is locked. He breaks it down and is killed by a blow to the head. There’s some debate over the motive for this crime—whether the intruder was a random robber or connected to Miss Johnson’s past—so Superintendent Littlejohn and Inspector Cromwell are called from Scotland Yard to sort it out.

This was my first Littlejohn and Cromwell mystery and I was pleasantly surprised—it was hard to put down! Their investigation comprises a series of interviews with the townsfolk, who all have different impressions of Miss Johnson and her family depending on their place in the town. Since Littlejohn and Cromwell split up for their interviews and confer afterwards, they’re rarely in the same scene. They’re both competent and inquisitive, but they blurred together in my mind, as neither displays many unique traits. In contrast, the townsfolk are vividly written. I came away with a strong impression of the background characters and suspects. I suppose I should keep reading this series to learn more about Littlejohn and Cromwell—perhaps they’re better established elsewhere. Any suggestions?

Each interviewee has a little bit of suspicion and pettiness about them, which makes them memorable and occasionally entertaining, e.g. Mrs. Murphy:

“What sort of woman was Sarah Rasp, who used to be the Johnsons’ maid?”

“A sly, secretive sort. You might also call her sinister…”

Mrs. Murphy made a point of reading most of the paperbacks covering romance, crime and horror before she put them in the rack in the shop for ready sale. It added greatly to her vocabulary of pithy words and phrases to use against her enemies. (Loc 950)

What complicates the mystery is that its motivations stem from events fifty years before. Bellairs conveys the passage of time well by making the past feel suitably distant. Many witnesses are either deceased or missing and everyone has had decades to get their story straight. My favorite moment was this epiphany by Littlejohn:

Littlejohn realised that in his contacts with these old people, these relics of events of more than half a century ago, he was among those in whom the fires of passion and enthusiasm were extinguished for ever. Many of the characters had quitted the stage long since. Their shadows were all that remained for those left behind to hate or despise. (Loc 1896)

Once the mystery is closed, the book ends without additional fluff. The most awkward part of crime fiction is when everyone has to stand around after and congratulate each other on their cleverness (because this is really the writer congratulating himself/herself). Usually, I skim this bit, but Bellairs has a knack for timing without any wasted words. I look forward to reading many others. (And I do mean “many”—he was quite prolific!)

Overall: 4.8 I loved the small town vibe and pace of the mystery. I would have liked more development/information with Littlejohn and Cromwell, but if I can get this from other books in the series, the lack of it here isn’t really a ‘flaw,’ and they were otherwise competent and clever.

Nota Bene: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Ipso Books (via NetGalley)

Translation: Read it!

Review: The Book of Evidence

book of evidence_coverIt seems fitting that my first five-star is for an Irish author read for the Reading Ireland Month 2016 challenge. Further, WordPress just pinged me to congratulate me on five years. A newly discovered author + a stellar book + a happy fifth + an uptick in optimism = a five-star review. Who knew?

You’d think I’d just hit “publish” on a list of superlatives, but as much as I love John Banville’s The Book of Evidence, I understand why some might call it bleak or meandering. More than with other books, I’m aware of how my personal preferences color my opinion here. The Book of Evidence is precisely the kind of book I could never write and it leaves me awestruck. It’s a master class in writing.

The story is told in first-person from Freddie Montgomery’s cell, where he is being held for murder. From prison, he recounts the events that led to his downfall: in debt to rough people, he abandoned his wife and child to return to Ireland. After learning that his family had sold the paintings he’d hoped to sell himself, he kills a young girl when stealing one back. The two biggest plot points (the murder, Freddie’s arrest) don’t occur until the latter half of the book and the reader knows to expect them from the book’s early pages (and back cover). Any/all surprises and tension come from small revelations in the characterizations of Freddie, his mother, and a family friend.

As a writer, I want to know my readers will be able to distinguish between me and my characters. This inclination is the seed of weak writing because while I’m worrying what people might think of me, I’m penning a half-assed character. Reading The Book of Evidence reminded me how effective it is for a writer to push all-in. More importantly, at no point did I think that Banville had a deep desire to bludgeon anyone just because he wrote the scene so convincingly. In Atonement, Ian McEwan describes this hangup:

Self-exposure was inevitable the moment she described a character’s weakness; the reader was bound to speculate that she was describing herself. What other authority could she have? Only when a story was finished, all fates resolved and the whole matter sealed off at both ends so it resembled, at least in this one respect, every other finished story in the world, could she feel immune […] (6)

The pacing of The Book of Evidence is top-notch. All major plot points are on the book jacket so tension can only rise from a careful unveiling of small details and sharp writing. This story is wholly execution dependent—it hangs on the strength of Banville’s prose. Ordinarily, I like books that progress quickly and don’t take ages to unspool known quantities, but Banville convinced me that his elegant prose is worth patience. In his hands, passages that dwell on psychological or philosophical elements are illuminating rather than pretentious.

Other possible irritants are smoothed away by Freddie’s self-awareness:

Coincidences come out strangely flattened in court testimony—I’m sure you have noticed this, your honour—rather like jokes that should be really funny but fail to raise a single laugh. Accounts of the most bizarre doings of the accused are listened to with perfect equanimity, yet the moment some trivial simultaneity of events is mentioned feet begin to shuffle in the gallery, and counsel clear their throats, and reporters take to gazing dreamily at the mouldings on the ceiling. These are not so much signs on incredulity, I think, as of embarrassment. It is as if someone, the hidden arranger of all this intricate, amazing affair, who up to now never put a foot wrong, has suddenly gone that bit too far, has tried to be just a little too clever, and we are all disappointed, and somewhat sad. (60-61)

Coincidences do happen in real life, of course, but they don’t hold up well in fiction. Just an acknowledgement of this fact (and a well-written one!) is enough that I didn’t grumble about the situation in question. This passage is typical of Freddie’s self-awareness. He doesn’t try to excuse himself, but points to his nature and the sequence of events.

There are flashes of dark humor and twists which reveal Freddie to not be wholly truthful. It’s hard to know how to read him despite his apparent frankness, but the crime itself is unambiguous. It’s like something out of McCarthy: neither stylized nor obfuscated, it’s brutal and revealed in a matter-of-fact tone. It hits even harder given that the preceding theft is a comedy of errors. Freddie is so normal in his recitation of mundane details that I am able to imagine whatever he describes with unexpected clarity, even things that are foreign.

How did this not win the 1989 Man Booker Prize? The Remains of the Day has been added to my queue for no other reason than to see how it squares against The Book of Evidence.

On Freddie’s reunion with his mother:

Hello, mother, I said, and looked away from her, casting about me crossly for something neutral on which to concentrate. I was annoyed already. She has that effect on me, I have only to stand before her and instantly the irritation and resentment begin to seethe in my breast. I was surprised. I had thought that after ten years there would be at least a moment of grace between our meeting and the first attack of filial heartburn, but not a bit of it, here I was, jaw clenched, glaring venomously at a tuft of weed sprouting from a crack in the stone steps where she stood. She was not much changed. Her bosom, which cries out to be called ample, had descending to just above her midriff. Also she had grown a little moustache. She wore baggy corduroy trousers and a cardigan with sagging pockets. She came down the steps to me and laughed again. You have put on weight, Freddie, she said, you’ve got fat. Then she reached out—this is true, I swear it—and took hold of a piece of my stomach and rolled it playfully between a finger and thumb. This woman, this woman—what can I say? I was thirty-eight, a man of parts, with a wife and a son and an impressive Mediterranean tan, I carried myself with gravitas and a certain faint air of menace, and she, what did she do?—she pinched my belly and laughed her phlegmy laugh. Is it any wonder I have ended up in jail? Is it? The dog, seeing that I was to be accepted, sidled up to me and tried to lick my hand, which gave me an opportunity to deliver it a good hard kick in the ribs. That made me feel better, but not much, and not for long. (42)

How does The Remains of the Day beat this? I can’t wait to find out.

Overall: 5.0

Translation: Read it. If you know me IRL, you’re even welcome to borrow my copy. I might pick up a loaner version for this purpose. It’s a bit grim, but I have cheery loaners for after…