Tag Archives: thriller

Fierce Kingdom: So… Being a Mom Makes You a Better Human? What?

Gin Phillip’s “literary” thriller (the claim to ‘literary-ness’ is a dubious one. I’ll accept if the only criteria for being ‘literary’ is to describe child’s breath as ‘warm’ and ‘milky’ 15 000 times in the span of a 300 page novel) Fierce Kingdom follows Joan and Lincoln (mother and son) as they try to escape shooters in the zoo. This plot takes several things for granted that are worthy of pause:

1. Joan needs to have an exhaustive understanding of zoo layout. No flimsy paper maps for her. So in a stroke of good fortune we find she and Lincoln visit the zoo almost daily and so she knows all the ins and outs of zoo topography. Phew. Makes sense. Because what else is a woman to do with a four year old except not-work so she can take the kid to the zoo every. day.

2. Joan needs to not have a cellphone. Yes. Those pesky devices that keep us tethered to the world and make hostage plots so… lacking in suspense. So Joan *throw it away*. Because that’s exactly what you would do when held hostage and hiding. You would throw your phone away. Literally throw it away. Well thank goodness. I wouldn’t have wanted to be able to communicate with the outside world either.

3. Joan needs to have absolute moral clarity on the purpose of her life: Keep Lincoln Safe. And she needs to encounter a classic ethical dilemna (baby crying while Bad Men With Guns approach) in order to test and be sure about her Purpose. And to stand firm. And then she needs to abnegate that Purpose within 20 pages without any rationale, reflection or consideration. Because this book is full of ethical quandries that are not to be taken lightly. Noted.

4. This last one is perhaps the most disturbing for how little it ruffled this reader: we need to accept and expect that mass shootings occur with enough frequency as to not be particularly noteworthy. To instead be a plot premise from which other questions and issues might be considered.

So with those stipulations noted there are other… troubling aspects of the book.

The reader needs to care about Joan and Lincoln in order to make any of the suspenseful elements of the book work. We need to be worried about whether and how and when they will escape. Except this reader found Joan to be… irritating. The sort of put-together perfect-mom that you see in tampon commercials: making her own yogurt while sorting laundry and doing yoga stretches while she teachers her baby Mandarin and plays lullabies on her harp. Like she just happens to think every. little. thing. Lincoln does is precious and perfect and evidence of his sensitivity and genius. And not once during the three hours they are held hostage at gunpoint does she think ‘Gosh I wish I had someone here to help me,’ or ‘Why won’t this kid stop whinging about being hungry?’ She is, in other words, not entirely believable as a character. I only know some mums, but the mums I know are excellent people and often-to-most-of-the-time excellent mums. And part of what makes them excellent is that they are also their own person. They have ideas, and needs, and wants, and thoughts that are often about their kids, but often about other things, too. And it might just be me (hey, it really might just be me) but I’m more interested in reading about a mom character who is a character and also a mom, than a character who is only known or considered by way of being a mom. It’s just really, really hard to care about an archetype without a personality, history or future attached to it. And maybe the most troubling part, but Joan seems to think – and the reader seems to be expected to reflexively think, too – that being a mom is the highest calling and the most sacred duty. Which isn’t for me to say it is, or it isn’t. Just that the novel presents this as an Unassailable Truth. Like OF COURSE being a mom makes you a better and more worthy human and full of Purpose. Other non-parent-people are nice and good, too, and probably shouldn’t be shot by mass shooters, but… is it so bad? I mean… what are they really living for anyway? So… troubling.

And then there’s the quality of the writing which is at once polished and predictable. It reads smoothly, which is nice because it allows the reader to focus on plot! Some exceptions: the descriptions of the setting are muddy and confusing, I had a hard time picturing where they were or how they were navigating particular enclosures or forests. It feels like maybe Phillips was writing this to be optioned for a movie and so could ‘see’ her scene playing out this way and just trusted the reader would go see the adaptation? The other exception is in descriptions of Lincoln. This poor kid has no character development (except he likes to tell stories about super heroes. Oh wait. That didn’t conjur a complex character for you? Wait, I’ll add that he likes to be snuggled.) and endless descriptions of warm breath. Yawn. Oh and the tired and repeat analogy to ‘animal instincts’. I get it. I get it. You’re a mother protecting her cub and you’re in a zoo. Please. Spell it out for me.

So many complaints! But you’ll still read this one. I know you will. Because it’s the sort of book that can’t be resisted. The Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train (that these women are called ‘girls’ in the title ought to be warning enough) except now… she has a baby to protect. So once you’re finished let me know if I’m just grumpy.

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Snowdrops: How I Accidentally Read a Russian Mystery Novel

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I had one of those afternoons where I ended up wandering around the public library sipping lukewarm decaf coffee and waiting to meet someone. You know, one of those library visits when you’re not properly looking for a book to read (you already have a mass stack waiting at home), but you browse because you browse. And you end up finding on the spinning carousel a murder mystery set in Russia and shortlisted for the Booker Prize and you think, yeah, I’m in the mood for something plot driven. So you checkout A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops.

It’s a fast read and an enjoyable one, but probably not a novel I’ll remember reading (without this blog). Set in Moscow it follows an American expat lawyer as he falls in love with a Russian… some kind of woman. Written as a letter to his fiancee, the reader knows from the outset that all of the drama is safely in the past, but also that something dramatic and terrible happens because our protagonist, Nicholas, has withheld the story from his fiancee until now – just days before the wedding (which raises questions about the viability of their marriage, but whatever). (It’s also a fast read because it’s short: think big text and double spaced. So it’s satisfying to read over breakfast or on the bus because you finish a reading session and find you’re already halfway done. It would, in fact, be ideal airplane reading because you’d enjoy the thing and finish it on your flight.)

What exactly the dramatic and terrible something is propels reader speculation throughout and is, I suppose, the substance of the ‘mystery’: what has happened or will happen to Nicholas that will be so bad he’s had to withhold it for so long? I’ll admit that by the end of the novel I wasn’t convinced that what he did was all that terrible, more that he was so stupid as to not realize what he was doing until it was too late. As a fiancee I’d be far more concerned about marrying someone so daft than someone with a checkered past. Oh well.

So yeah. If you’re in an airport looking for something for a flight, or want a book to read while you ride a stationary bike and train for your summer triathlon season (not that I would know anything about reading under such conditions…), I wouldn’t argue against this one (which is clearly not the same thing as arguing for it).

 

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Filed under Bestseller, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner

The Girl on the Train: Over-hyped, misogynistic nonsense

I admit I bought in to the hype around The Girl on the Train. I heard about it three times in two days and couldn’t resist the summer blockbuster appeal. I bought in to the point of buying the book (something I rarely do what with the existence of libraries and the scarcity of free money), though I got it for $10 as a ‘Heather’s Pick’ at Chapters (my local and fantastic bookshop was sold out and I had to have it Right Now). I’m embarrassed by the whole thing. (Would I be as embarrassed if it had been a better book? Or if J. hadn’t warned me that it wasn’t as great as people were saying?). Continue reading

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I am Pilgrim: Arrogant

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Terry Hayes wants you to know he’s written screenplays. He really wants you to know that Nicole Kidman was in one of them. And that he’s kind of a big deal. How do I know this? Well, not just from the eight pages of acknowledgements (thanking, get this, his Norwegian editor ‘the first of many international publishers’ to pick up his book) and the author biography, but from his self-satisfied, falsely-modest, made-for-the-movies protagonist. Our polyonymous protagonist who on every page reminds the reader of what an exceptional spy he is (but oh-no, he really didn’t want this kind of responsibility and power), how materially privileged he is (but no really, he was adopted so he understands alienation and he never really wanted to be a billionaire anyway) how patriotic and brave he is (but seriously, the firefighters on 9/11 were the *real* heroes),  what a genius he is (no for real, he dropped out of Harvard medical school because it wasn’t meaningful enough) and how self-sacrificing he is (of course not, he’s just too dangerous for friends or permanence). Continue reading

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, British literature, Mystery, Popular Posts