Book Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager

Thursday, November 12, 2020


Content Warning: graphic violence, murder, attempted sexual assault, suicide and discussion of suicide, murder, addiction, family dysfunction

If I was forced to guess, probably more than half of the books I read are thrillers. There's nothing quite like trying to anticipate the twists, theorizing, trying to decipher what are genuine clues and what are red herrings. But, although this is by far my favorite genre, there's a negative attached to reading so many of them: they become predictable.

A lot of the time, I'm able to figure out what's going on within the first half of the book. It isn't that the authors aren't talented, that the plots aren't interesting, or that the writing leaves something to be desired, but rather that anything you can imagine has been done before. So while I definitely enjoy the ride, I'm not exactly shocked by the twists and turns.

Final Girls, though - Final Girls is different. I was shocked. I was surprised, thrilled, astonished. But before I get ahead of myself, I'll tell you a bit about what's in store for you when you pick this book up.

Our lead character is Quincy Carpenter, one of the media's "final girls," a label she doesn't exactly relish. She is the sole survivor of a massacre that took the lives of several of her college friends. Two other so-called "final girls" round out the group: Samantha Boyd, who survived a mass murder at the Nightlight Inn, and Lisa Milner, the only girl to make it out of a sorority slaying alive. But when Quincy receives the news that Lisa has killed herself, she's shocked. That leaves two of them. And Samantha Boyd, who has been off the grid for a considerable length of time, suddenly shows up, inexplicably making the effort to connect when she never has before.

Throughout the novel, I entertained tons of different theories, trying to pinpoint the one that felt "right." In the end, I wasn't right about any of them! It was a refreshing take on the genre, and when I look back at myself in 2017, uninterested in reading this, I want to shake myself. If only I'd known!

Sager's writing is punchy and, in spite of the heavy subject matter, fun. In the beginning, I wasn't too sure of Quincy - she came off as someone who thought of herself as better because she had her life under control. As I continued to read, however, I found myself sympathizing with her, understanding the anger she fights to suppress, the way she feels her life a thread away from total destruction.

Quincy grows. By the end of the book, she's a world apart from where she started. All of the other characters were well-realized, too: I particularly liked prickly and unpredictable Samantha. She sticks out in my mind, and I have a feeling she will continue to do so for quite some time.

All in all, I'm pleased to say that Final Girls might be the highlight of my reading this year. Beautifully done, cleverly plotted, and chock-full of suspense, I'm very excited to pick up my next Riley Sager book. 

Book Review: Nothing Natural by Jenny Diski

Monday, August 10, 2020

Content Warning: violence, off-page rape and sexual assault, suicide, discussion of suicide and suicidal ideation, depression, discussion of mental illness, child abuse/neglect, victim-blaming

Rachel Kee is practical. No-nonsense. She lives in a small flat with her young daughter, Carrie, leading a life of self-imposed isolation. But Rachel, unlike most people, relishes her loneliness, thrives in it. Aside from her daughter, she socializes very little, and, as she tells us at one point during the novel, is always secretly plotting her escape back home when she is out with friends. For the last three years, however, Rachel has been seeing a man. Not "seeing" in the traditional sense; they don't go on dates, or plan a future together. No, they meet only for one thing: sadomasochistic sex. 

But suddenly, Rachel stumbles upon something that will change her life forever. Something ordinary, a part of daily life. A sketch over an article in a newspaper. The police are looking for a man and woman involved in the brutal rape of a sixteen-year-old girl in Scotland. Rachel's first thought as she's skimming the paper? "Two drawings, of a man and a woman. Artist's impressions. The man in the top drawing was instantly recognizable as Joshua."

Yet she feels amused as she continues to look at it, finds herself silly for thinking that, "this stereotype, who would look like any man with a three-day growth of bristles, steely brush of cropped hair and broad, deeply lined face, should be for her Joshua." Still, the more she learns, it isn't quite so easy to dismiss her recognition of the man in the sketch as the man who has become her lover...

I think it's worth mentioning here first that this is, in a way, semi-autobiographical. Not the actual meat of the plot, per se, but Rachel experiences many things and lives through many events that we know Diski also did. It's one of the reasons I find this book hard to review, particularly when it comes to saying the things that need to be said about its main character and the unfolding of her life. 

Diski was a talented writer, a woman who overcame and struggled with countless hardships, and so before I truly dive into the actual review, I want to give her credit for what she did with her life. So, in the words of many reviewers over the years, it really is not personal!

Let's start with Rachel. In the very beginning, I found myself liking her, agreeing with her statements about life and intrigued by her view of it. She's self-described as a person who does not like fuss or mess, someone who truly enjoys her time alone. Speaking perfectly frankly it was, at first, refreshing.

The cast of characters is otherwise rather sparse, fixating mainly on Rachel and her own inner thoughts, alongside her complex and confusing relationship with Joshua. There's Becky, her positive, bubbly best friend, a nice light amongst the usually dark and heavy cast. We also are allowed brief glimpses of Rachel's interactions with her adoptive mother, Isobel, who she feels - like most of her friends and acquaintances - judges her to unfair standards, particularly when it comes to Joshua. I thought their scenes together were interesting, rather potent, but unfortunately so small and sparse that there's little to be gained from it as a whole.

Another (unexpected) joy is Pete, the young man whom Rachel tutors. He's sixteen-years-old, in care, never adopted out to a family and considered by many in the social work system to be a lost cause. But he's bright, funny, immediately joking with Rachel and getting along with her. He also dresses like a skinhead, something Rachel finds a bit confusing, especially since he tells her he has no real interest or dedication to Nazism. Not to mention that Rachel herself is Jewish, an issue that later comes up between them, and which is dealt with succinctly and with a sensation of Pete showing that he has no real alliances (just a desire to fit in somewhere, somehow).

But there's a question I kept asking myself throughout this book: why? What, exactly, does Pete's narrative within the story do? There are things that I will not spoil here, but it felt as if Pete was in the story to do one thing and one thing only, and I found myself dissatisfied and truly distressed by the cheaply done outcome of his role. It serves a purpose, I guess, but to what end?

And why Joshua? So - he does what for her? He gives her the suffering, the pain, she's really craving? Many times throughout the book Rachel tells us that Joshua is charming, fascinating, clever. A manipulator, a player of games. The latter may be true, but the former is certainly never really shown. In fact, Joshua's scenes with Rachel are perhaps the least fascinating aspect of the novel. It's more the outcomes of her closeness with him, the way it changes her attitudes and feelings towards others in her life and the way she views her own small world, that is enthralling.

The thing that disappointed me the most was the actual plot. The premise is exciting, interesting - who isn't intrigued and horrified by the idea that someone close to them may be a monster? - and yet the execution fell terribly flat. The majority of the novel is actually Rachel reminiscing on the past, rather than focusing on the current events. The journey was well-done enough to keep me reading voraciously, but the end was odd, disjointed, slightly confused. And in spite of the fact that I'd spent hours in Rachel's head, I struggled to understand her motivation, the reason behind her behavior.

By the closing scene, I no longer liked Rachel all that much. She's spiteful, negative, keen on feeling better than others merely because she is serious and quiet and, until some vital moments later in the book, is capable of keeping her emotions under control. She comes off not as a likable, three-dimensional character, a woman with flaws and good qualities, but as someone too caught up in her own world of bitterness to really care for others. 

I don't recommend reading if you are struggling with depression, or if any of the various triggers listed above are personally distressing or painful for you. The writing itself is lovely, absorbing, but in characterization and plot it unfortunately falls short. It's worth a read, I think, if you're wanting something a touch literary to thumb through, but don't expect to come away feeling as if the novel's potential was fully realized. 

Let nothing be called natural
In an age of bloody confusion,
Ordered disorder, planned caprice,
And dehumanized humanity, lest all things
Be held unalterable! 
— Bertolt Brecht  

Four Unique Historical Novels

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

There's something I want to admit. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. And yet, as time goes on, I find myself growing bored. Not of the genre itself - never that - but of the fact that it seems as if we keep going over the same well-rehearsed time periods, types of characters, and settings. For instance: if you're looking for a historical romance, the entire genre is dominated by Regency England. There's a reason for that, granted, but is it so much to ask to see something a little different?

The same goes for WWII. Although that is, personally speaking, one of the time periods I'm most interested in, and I hope that we will never stop learning the lessons of the atrocities committed by such otherwise "ordinary" people, it isn't always what I'm looking for.

So many important and interesting time periods, events, and people are lost to us. So, in the spirit of expanding our minds, here are four historical novels with unique settings, characters, and eras!

Empress Orchid (Empress Orchid), Anchee Min

Time Period: 1850s/1860s
Setting: The Forbidden City, Bejing, China
My Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

Taking place during the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor, Empress Orchid is a firsthand account of the future Empress Dowager Cixi's life and rise to power. Referred to primarily as Orchid, the daughter of a low-ranking government official, through her eyes we are allowed to witness the politics and intrigue of Imperial China, and the many fascinating characters who populated its royal court. One of the main themes tackled in the novel is fate, and whether or not it is something that we can take into our own hands.

Orchid, not only as a woman but as someone with relatively little status, has already had her path chosen for her before even her birth - in Chinese culture, fate is decided by the stars, something unchangeable and predetermined - yet when she arrives in Bejing, she experiences not only a major culture shock, but also begins to come into her own as a young lady with ambitions and dreams beyond a simple life.

Despairing of her family's inevitable doom due to their lack of money, Orchid decides to take part in the "competition" to scout out future Imperial concubines. Through sheer luck and virtue of being beautiful, she is chosen, alongside seven other women (one of whom will become the Empress). Shocked and enthralled by the luxury of her new life, yet unable to help her own family in their poverty, it is in the gilded Forbidden City that Orchid claws her way through the ranks and becomes the woman who has been villainized and hated by history.

Speaking with perfect frankness, I was astounded by the beauty of this novel, its attempt to humanize someone who has been portrayed as so one-dimensional in nearly every other exploration of her life. It's difficult not to sympathize with Orchid, who is continuously forced to make the choice between which evil is worse. I think that Min really succeeds here in fleshing out this figure, and I often found myself trying to put myself in Orchid's shoes, to understand what it might be like to live a life of such loneliness, surrounded by both such beauty and cruelty. To put it succinctly: I highly recommend this, especially to anyone interested in Asian culture and history, or female characters who are not flawless and pure of heart!

Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

Time Period: 1970s
Setting: London, England, Sussex, England
My Rating: 

It's the early 1970s, and the Cold War is well and truly on. Our unlikely heroine is Serena Frome (rhymes with Plume, as she tells us in the opening lines of the novel), the daughter of a bishop, who has grown up in a rather sheltered and privileged world. Set apart from others due to her talent with mathematics, she's admitted to the University of Cambridge, which becomes the catalyst for her entrance into the world of spying...

Although there is a relatively strong plot, I think it's the characters that really make this novel shine. It stands out in my mind mainly because of its protagonist and her hapless male target, the relationship between them that involves more than a little cat-and-mouse. I'm a huge fan of character-driven stories, and as we closely follow Serena's experiences and her perspective on the world Britain was trying to survive in during this politically charged period, it's fascinating to watch her develop into the agent the MI5 are looking for.

There's actually very little spy intrigue - or, at the very least, that's actually the least interesting part of this story - but in spite of that fact, I found myself gripped nonetheless. A good chunk of the novel revolves around literature, particularly on how everyone interprets art differently. There's also an overarching sensation of loneliness, for although Serena takes on two important lovers, we get the feeling that they never really understand or know her for who she really is.

Oh, and, it's worth mentioning that despite the book being primarily a rumination on life, love, despair and secrets, there's a couple of twists in here that are expertly done! 

The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton

Time Period: 17th century, 1686
Setting: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
My Rating: 

Set during one of the most fascinating and luxurious periods of European history, The Miniaturist is narrated by the plucky eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman, a bright blossom of hope and optimism amongst the otherwise rather serious and grim circumstances that follow. She's been lucky enough to become the wife of a wealthy merchant trader, the mysterious Johannes Brandt, complete with a magnificent home and every material thing she could dream of.

But in this beautiful place, all is not as it seems. She's frightened of Johannes's sister, Marin, who has taken to running the household since her brother has never married, and who seems to not take too kindly to Nella's sudden intrusion. Not to mention that Johannes himself is distant, never cold, but never quite enthusiastic about her presence either. It's only when her new husband gifts her a cabinet-sized version of their home that Nella begins to suspect that there are many secrets lurking within this house that she will have to uncover. 

What I remember most about this rather extraordinary novel is its richness, the fact that it so easily and beautifully conveys the time period and all of its wonders and issues alike. Nella is sweet, undeniably and unmistakably naïve, and yet that is a huge part of her charm. She is essentially an innocent, especially to the kind of darkness that lurks just beneath the surface of society, who becomes entangled in a series of events that ends up changing her view on life, but never ruining or destroying the kind and accepting core at the heart of her personality. 

One of the most astonishing feats of this book, however, is how it makes you care about every character. Nella is, for all intents and purposes, joining a new family and breaking away from her own; there's several extremely touching moments, to the point of bringing tears to my eyes. The only aspect which brought my rating down from five stars is due to some of the representation in this book. Without spoiling anything, there is LGBT (as well as POC rep; Otto is still one of my favorite characters) rep, and while the character is presented very positively, the story line itself certainly leaves something to be desired.

I couldn't help loving this book, though, and I think it's most certainly worth your time. Deeply moving, with an ending that brought me fully to tears, I would highly recommend this to any lovers of history and interesting characters. 

The Salt Roads, Nalo Hopkinson

Time Period: 17th century; 1840s; 4th century
Setting: Haiti; France; Egypt; Jerusalem
My Rating: 

Okay, so technically I'm cheating a little with this one. It isn't straight historical fiction - it has rather strong elements of magical realism, fantasy, and even a little sci-fi - but I'm asking you to give it a chance. If you're reading this list because you also enjoy moving stories, uniquely told, set against the backdrop of intriguing time periods...then this one's most certainly for you.

At its base, this is the story of the Goddess Ezili, who lives in the bodies of three women across time and space: Mer, a slave and doctor in Saint-Domingue, the French colony that would later become Haiti; Jeanne Duval, a sex worker and the muse and lover of Charles Baudelaire; and Thais, a young woman sold into prostitution in Alexandria, Egypt. Although they are, in a way, only loosely connected, it's the experiences that they go through as black women that ties their narratives together. 

Full of beautifully rendered depictions of Haitian religions, African culture and love, torture, hatred and beauty, this is easily one of the most gripping and interesting books I've ever picked up. Hopkinson has a way of truly transporting you, of making you feel as if you are living in Mer or Thais or Jeanne's shoes. Each character has their own set of faults, their own feelings and experiences, in spite of the Goddess linking them all to one another.

Mer, however, is easily the best of the bunch - spirited and unbelievably clever and full of a simultaneous hope for the future and dread for the pain she knows is coming. In this special, gorgeously done novel we are able to witness firsthand the Haitian Revolution, the birth of Jerusalem and holiness, how love transforms but is also able to blind and injure. At times it is touching, funny, absurd, philosophical, honest and unflinching look at a part of black women's history. 

Highly, highly recommended. Oh, and as an added bonus: there is plenty of varied LGBT rep to be found here!

Film Review: Gretel & Hansel

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The opening segment of Oz Perkins's dark fantasy film is a story within a story. A female narrator tells us of "the beautiful child with the little pink cap," the apple of her mother and father's eye. When their darling daughter takes ill, and is predicted not to survive her second winter, her desperate father makes the proverbial deal with the devil.

It sets the tone for the rest of the film. The moral of the tale is that no gift can be given without something else being taken away. It's a theme that characters cling to, particularly our lead, Gretel (played here by a wide-eyed and feral-seeming Sophia Lillis). As in most fairy tales, Gretel is constantly plagued by the kind of threats that follow women everywhere.

In the hopes of helping to provide for her family, Gretel seeks employment with a strange man who will give her work as a housekeeper. When she arrives, sitting in his house with its stained glass windows casting spheres of color onto the otherwise shabby interior, we are immediately struck with a feeling of unease. It isn't just the man's appearance (something of an ageing, distastefully made up fop), but the manner in which he looks at her.

It's one of the more poignant arcs in the film. He asks her flatly about her "maidenhood," inquires if she is still "intact," in his euphemistic-laden speech. There's a horrified look in her eye, and her fury is palpable in the next scene as she walks home in a downpour. Accompanying her throughout all of this is Hansel (Sammy Leakey), who, Gretel informs us in a voice-over, is with her wherever she goes.

Like in many stories centering around a girl in the stages of early womanhood, Gretel has a strained relationship with her mother. It's her mother, in fact, who ends up sending her on this journey into the great unknown. The first sequences of the film are almost throwaway, aside from giving us the necessary background to understand why Gretel and Hansel are on their own, and until the Witch (Alice Krige) comes in, it feels strangely aimless.

At first, Gretel is wary of this strange woman. She treats them with kindness, which, in Gretel's view, is unwarranted. Again there is the suspicion of corruption and evil lurking beneath the facade of good things, of abundance and unchecked happiness. They eat at her table; she has two beds waiting for them, as if she were perhaps anticipating their arrival.

The film plays on a common fear. Don't we all feel that, when we are experiencing something wonderful or enjoying our lives with no setbacks, something is wrong? There's always a creeping doubt, a feeling that because we are happy, something is waiting for us around the next corner. In that respect, it works. But the stilted dialogue is heavy-handed, and instead of allowing us to figure out the moral of the story for ourselves, the script is constantly telling us how we should be experiencing the events.

There's an undercurrent of feminism, too, which presents itself primarily through the Witch. There might be something to be said about that, about how people view feminism through the age-old lens of its unspoken evil. Witches have been an object of hatred and fear not only because of their capacity for magic, but because they are often women free of any male influence, because they are powerful in their own right.

Visually, the scenes are beautifully set, the usage of color mesmerizing. It's nothing short of stunning. There is a scene towards the middle-end of the film where Gretel takes Hansel into the woods in the middle of the night, and a searing, deep scarlet light radiates from the darkness. Dark figures lurk in the forest, with their pointed witch's hats, their black cloaks.

In a way, it could be described as a sort of quasi-chamber play. Aside from a few inconsequential characters who feature in only one or two scenes, the three lead actors (Krige, Lillis and Leakey) dominant the screen for almost the entirety of the movie. We jump between the woods and the Witch's house, but aside from that, there are very few other settings. It lends the movie a certain strength, because Lillis and Krige are powerful in their quiet performances.

Another element which adds to the enjoyment is that there's no telling what time period this is intended to portray. It could just as easily be some strange alternate take on the 17th century as it could be a post-apocalyptic future. The wardrobe is distinctly and purposely vague, although it sticks to its old-world feel by putting the women in dresses and the men in traditional shirts and trousers. The vagueness is appealing, and if the story had taken some of that into consideration too, it would have felt that much more fascinating.

In any case, it must be given points for its sheer originality. While it is faithful in its own way to the traditional tale, Perkins wasn't afraid to strike out and make it his own. Gretel dreams, and in these vivid nightmares, the house takes on a new shape, seems to create rooms that cannot exist, shows her things that hide under its pleasant appearance. These scenes are striking, and Lillis does an excellent job of behaving as a trapped wild animal. It's no surprise, either, that Krige turns out a deliciously wicked performance here. She commands the scenes with easy grace, totally effortless.

 Jessica De Gouw isn't featured in many scenes, but she's also worth noting. She's ice-cold and communicates ruthlessness without speaking a word.

In spite of some flaws and the aforementioned heavy-handedness, I recommend you go and see it for yourself. The performances are pretty solid, and if nothing else, the aesthetic is absorbing and haunting. 

Worth Mentioning: A song plays over once scene - "My mother, she killed me, my father, he ate me, what a pretty bird am I!" - which is taken from another German fairy tale, The Juniper Tree.

Director: Oz Perkins
Screenplay by: Rob Hayes
Cinematography: Galo Olivares

Director's Quote: "It's awfully faithful to the original story. It's got really only three principal characters: Hansel, Gretel, and the Witch. We tried to find a way to make it more of a coming of age story. I wanted Gretel to be somewhat older than Hansel, so it didn't feel like two twelve-year-olds – rather a sixteen-year-old and an eight-year-old. There was more of a feeling like Gretel having to take Hansel around everywhere she goes, and how that can impede one's own evolution, how our attachments and the things that we love can sometimes get in the way of our growth."