Thursday, 17 January 2013

Starring - London Life

"The day Louisiana teenager Rory Deveaux arrives in London marks a memorable occasion.  For Rory, it’s the start of a new life at a London boarding school.  But for many, this will be remembered as the day a series of brutal murders broke out across the city – gruesome crimes mimicking the horrific work of Jack the Ripper in the autumn of 1888.

Soon “Rippermania” takes hold of modern-day London, and the police are left few leads and no witnesses.  Except one.  Rory spotted the man police believe to the prime suspect.  But she is the only one who saw him.  Even her roommate, who was with her at the time, didn’t notice the mysterious man.  So why can only Rory see him?  And more urgently, what is he planning to do about her?

In this edge-of-your-seat thriller, full of suspense, humour, and romance, Rory will learn the truth about the secret ghost police of London and discover her own shocking abilities."

The Name of the Star is the first of Maureen Johnson's novels I’ve read and one which I saw mention of on Twitter.  On my reading it’s an interesting combination of both the familiar and less familiar which affords it a measure of originality in terms of premise and overall effect.

Johnson takes on previously explored territory with her main protagonist, Rory, a teenager who must adjust to newly acquired powers which mark her out as different from her fellow classmates.  In this, the layers of “difference” which ensure Rory stands out from the other students who reside at the Wexford boarding school become multiple, given she has also travelled from America to study there.  Thus, we see British school life very much from the “outside looking in” and Johnson provides a realistic sense of teenage insecurity in the face of the unfamiliar. 

Change during adolescence and exploration of or the sudden onset of supernatural powers as a metaphor for physical change is also a notable concept (Ginger Snaps comes to mind in this regard, for one), however, Johnson concentrates predominantly on emotional territory for the purposes of her narrative, save for the occasional attack of hormones in connection with an on-going romantic subplot.  This is apt in light of the overreaching story arc, which concentrates on a Jack the Ripper “copy cat” killer who must be unmasked by Rory and the members of the team of “ghost police” working within London and with whom Rory becomes familiar as a result of being the only key witness to the continuing investigation.

It is with the Ripper investigations that the narrative begins to build pace and a true sense of menace.  Rory is forced to assist, given it is her life which is ultimately on the line, for reasons which become clear at an early stage in the novel.  Furthermore, time is running out.  The “copy cat” nature of the crimes mean the reader has a clear sense of timescale as the team seek to “out” the killer. 

Johnson concentrates on the so-called “Canonical Five” Ripper victims for the purposes of her narrative, meaning the events which form the basis of the novel take place within a timeframe of just over two months.  During this, we are also treated to re-envisioned forms of the “Saucy Jack” postcard and “From Hell” letter, which formed well documented aspects of the historical police investigations and add to the sense of fully realised world building in this speculative modern day thriller which deliberately mirrors the events of the autumn of 1888.  

In connection with the investigation, the manner in which Johnson highlights the power of the media and manner in which this is responded to by the public is worth noting.  Similarly to 1888, “Rippermania” spreads throughout London and the murders committed by the “copy cat” killer are sensationalised. 

Historically speaking, Johnson has done her research.  The crimes are known to have caused somewhat of a frenzy at the time they were committed, particularly in light of recently instigated tax reforms which resulted in the production of cheap mass circulation newspapers.  For this, Johnson substitutes television press coverage.  Aspects of the crimes are also captured via CCTV footage.  (It is here that the speculative element of the plot becomes particularly important in establishing the extent to which this both helps and hinders police investigation.  This makes for an interesting twist on the concept of the crime thriller - here there is no forensic evidence on which the police can concentrate, notwithstanding technological advancement).      

Characterisation is strong throughout and we get to know the members of the “ghost police” team to a reasonable degree prior to the final confrontation with the unmasked killer, whose motives for the killings is clearly explained.  The “worlds collide” scenario and short timeframe for the race towards the showdown (and 372 pages of the hardback version of the novel) do not afford quite as much opportunity to get to know additional secondary characters, notably Jerome, Rory’s love interest.  Slightly more is documented concerning Jazza, Rory’s roommate.  However, arguably, this would have detracted from the sense of urgency we encounter as the developments within the investigation take on an ever increasing sense of urgency.  Equally, the distinction between Rory’s “school” life and “ghost team” experiences also serves to emphasise the sense of separation she experiences when first becoming aware of her new capabilities.

All told, The Name of the Star has much to recommend it and, noting a sequel is forthcoming shortly, I will be on the lookout for it. 

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Don't You Dare

“Beth and me wedged tight, jeaned legs pressed against each other.  The sound of our own breathing.  Before we all stopped believing a tornado, or anything, could touch us, ever.  Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy are tough, inseparable, invincible.  No pair more charismatic or sophisticated.  No pair more dangerous.”

Megan Abbott's Dare Me is a psychological thriller poised at the edge of the insecurity which accompanies adolescence.  The narrative centres upon Addy Hanlon, a sixteen year old girl and her cheerleading squad, who have just been introduced to their new coach, Coach French.  It is with this introduction that everything changes and the structure which had once seemed to secure begins to dissolve.

Abbott’s second novel revisits similar territory to her first, The End of Everything, concentrating on adolescent girls as it does.  In Dare Me, however, the author ramps things up, producing a subtle and nuanced tale of what can happen when life as we know it starts to take on unfamiliar characteristics.

Beth Cassidy, leader of the cheerleading squad has been used to ruling the roost and manipulating her fellow team members until Coach French arrives at their school.  Almost immediately, the coach disrupts this, removing the recognised leadership structure which has been in place and substituting girls within the team for one another, causing them to strive to prove themselves worthy of their new and unfamiliar positions. 

Both the team and its coach are rife with issues, with teenage drinking and bulimia proving to be the least of their problems as the narrative progresses.  Whilst initially seeming standoffish, Coach French makes the mistake of letting the girls in her squad become too familiar with her life outside of the school building and the discoveries this leads to are what lead to a tense power struggle between Beth and the coach, as Beth becomes privy to secrets her coach would rather she had never discovered.  Meanwhile, Addy is struggling to work out what is going on and who she should trust, balanced between her previous friendship with Beth and new understanding with Coach French – the biggest question being who is responsible for murder, the aftermath of which the novel commences with.

Dare Me delves into the darker side of human nature, exploring marital difficulties and their potential side effects, as well as providing a realistic portrayal of adolescent bullying and the vulnerability of teenage girls and dangers of unspoken attraction.  Abbott takes care to ensure Beth Cassidy does not simply come across as sociopathic in her wilful destruction of the lives of those around her – she displays vulnerability in her interactions with Addy, her former best friend who has been side tracked by her visits to Coach French’s house.  Ultimately, it is this loss and not that of her cheerleading position which wounds her severely.

The narrative also exposes the competitive nature of teenage girls, both in the context of their cheerleading capacity and otherwise.  We see the training and physical demands of the sport and manner in which this can destroy those it seeks to empower via injury or substance misuse.  Ultimately, this also reinforces the underlying message that life has a competitive edge to it and the struggle for survival of the fittest.  This is no more poignant than in the case of Beth, who is borne aloft to the heights, only to be cast down with force.

Despite the murky depths the narrative plumbs, it ends in a more salutary fashion, with the decision to “live by choice” not “chance”.  We do, however, see recognition from Addy concerning the losses encountered in reaching this position of strength – those of Beth, from whom Addy has taken something she refuses to name; knowing if she does so she will be forced to confront it fully and appreciate its significance in a realistic manner.  In this instance, it is the individual who appears to be strong who is ultimately confirmed to be the more vulnerable, hiding this beneath an apparent brittle exterior.  As with a number of instances in the overall narrative arc, matters are more complex than they appear to be at first instance, leaving us with a lasting sense of the complexity of human emotion, psychology and behaviours.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Dark Spaces

Having read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl fairly recently, I was keen to sample some of her earlier work and availed myself of a copy of her second crime thriller, Dark Places, to see whether it stood up to scrutiny, notwithstanding the significant interest which has surrounded Gone Girl post publication (caveat - albeit with good reason!).

Libby Day is a mere seven years old when her mother and two sisters are murdered in what is subsequently termed by the press as “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinakee, Kansas”.  She flees their farmhouse, the scene of the crime, through a window into freezing weather conditions.  Despite losing a finger and a number of toes to frostbite as a result, she survives to testify at the trial of her fifteen year old brother, Ben, who has been accused of the killings.  It is her testimony which ensures a successful conviction.  The narrative commences twenty five years later, as Ben Day serves his prison sentence and the deeply troubled Libby seeks to eke out the last remaining remnants of a trust fund created from public contributions for the victim/survivor whose situation has now been overtaken in the minds of society by more recent crimes.

Much like the more recent Gone Girl, Dark Places utilises fluctuating narrative points of view and swings between both past and present to clarify the events which have led to the situation within which the remaining siblings find themselves – the key question being was Ben Day in fact responsible for the murders of his mother and two sisters and what precisely took place on that eventful day?  The dual narrative is key to the slow reveal, emphasising the potential fallibility of memory and recall – particularly when subject to significant trauma; demonstrating the gaps between what Libby has convinced herself constitutes the truth and what actually took place.  Unsurprisingly, the two do not always marry up and we therefore find ourselves in the familiar company of an unreliable narrator – a technique recently seen to have been utilised to superb effect within Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl

Whilst initially Libby asserts first-hand knowledge of the identity of the killer of her family, we soon learn she was hiding when the murders took place – thus, her only knowledge of them stems from what she heard, as opposed to saw.  This contrasts starkly with what she revealed within her testimony at trial and her assertions within the decades which have followed.  Soon enough, she has agreed to investigate the murders substantively at the request of the self-named “Kill Club”, a secret society obsessed with discussion surrounding notorious crimes – for a fee.

Dark Places is clearly an evocation of small town life in Midwest America.  It is, however, much more than this.  Flynn utilises the deaths of familial members as a catalyst for closer examination of a supremely dysfunctional family and its constituent parts.  In this, no aspect goes unconsidered.  The reader becomes privy to the troubled marriage of the since separated parents and the money worries which have led to the disintegration of the family farm and business, as well as the isolation experienced by their son, Ben, at school and within his own predominantly female family unit, which leads him down the path towards becoming the eponymous “troubled teen”.  Ultimately, the reputation he gains himself leads to serious accusations, even prior to the charges levied against him for murder.  Further, one of the daughters takes pleasure in collecting gossip which can be utilised for potential blackmail purposes to bolster her sense of self-importance – despite her pre-teen age.  Clearly, this raises some interesting questions concerning how much of the manner in which matters play out results from the dysfunctional family life we have been privy to and how much the family becomes subject simply to happenstance and the “wrong place wrong time” scenario, also opening up scope for debate. 

Libby Day herself is a similarly damaged individual; both physically and figuratively, scarred by the experience of the night from which she escaped as survivor and its psychological effects.  She has become a petty thief and hoarder of objects garnered from others.  She is also someone who appears to be incapable of holding down a “normal” job – hence her reliance upon the “Kill Club” fund for her survival.  We are informed she has displayed childhood aggression in the aftermath of the murders.  As such, she resembles the “dark” individuals Flynn chose to examine in her preceding novel, Sharp Objects; something she appears to take interest in as an antithesis to more typical female heroines encountered elsewhere.  For some, this will make her difficult to empathise with, notwithstanding her childhood trauma.  (How much of Libby’s inability to move forwards in life results from the wilful decision not to confront her past and reiterate the “truth” she knows to be subject to question?)  Conversely, for others, this will render her more realistic, as someone who struggles to overcome the events which have, ultimately, shaped the individual she has become.

Ultimately, family becomes important in more ways than one, once it becomes clear that it is not merely the money produced by the “Kill Club” which motivates Libby’s continued investigation concerning the murders.  Latterly, she admits she would have continued without the incentive of payment in her search to confirm the truth surrounding the events of “that night”.  Despite it being clear that her brother is reticent during discussions with her to reveal the true extent of his knowledge surrounding “that night”, Libby is also willing to believe in his innocence, if proven – despite her prior testimony.  The contributory information provided by Libby’s – now homeless – father is also vital to the continuing investigation.  This, too, points to further evidence in connection with the issue of family which comes to the fore at the denouement of the novel.

Arguably, events take a turn towards the slightly less believable in the manner in which the ultimate “reveal” plays out.  However, loose ends are suitably well tied up and the main protagonist, Libby, has demonstrated a move towards a slightly more functional way of living, having confronted the events of her past. 

In conclusion, a satisfying, well-constructed thriller which delves into the reality of a small town family and the secrets this may hide.  Dark Places also delves into the psychological darkness which may be left in the aftermath of violent trauma and struggle not to succumb.  Both chilling and thought provoking.               

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Why I Write

I write because I always have done.  The habit crept up on me early on in life and seems to have stuck – whether I like it or not.  Sometimes characters whisper their dialogue to me at inopportune hours of the morning.  Now, I know it’s easier if I humour them and write it down with the pen and paper I keep handy for such moments.  If not, the low level whispers have a habit of becoming more insistent until their point is made and their story is told.  This makes me their conduit.  I appreciate the magic carpet ride each narrative creates; the opportunity to associate with individuals I would never otherwise have the opportunity to meet.  I am a fan of stories, whatever their guise.  Sometimes I’m lucky – sometimes the stories address themselves to me directly.  If I listen hard enough, I’m fortunate to hear them; irrespective of whether they whisper or whether they shout.  I spread their word; casting a line for an audience.  Once upon a time, someone lends an ear.