Small town secrets and lies…

Orient by Christopher Bollen

P1020504

Proof copy – you cant see the black page edges.

This is a thriller about small town America writ large – and chunky, weighing in at 609 pages. However, it was totally gripping right from the start as each page peels away all the secrets and lies that foster in the particular community on Long Island where it is set.

Amazingly, Orient is a real place, a village of less than 1000 people right at the tip of the North Fork of Long Island; an island itself connected by a strip of causeway to L.I.  The people of Orient are, of course, nothing like the characters in the book – and appear to have welcomed the attention that Bollen’s novel has brought to the area. Bollen wrote this article about the real Orient for the New York Times T magazine, and makes it sound rather a lovely place. I haven’t been to Long Island, but I have holidayed on Cape Cod and can imagine many similarities between the two areas.

The Prologue sets up the novel for us right from the start:

When people try to picture me, they undoubtedly recall only the last time they saw me, just before I went missing. There’s been a lot of speculation about the night I left the far North Fork of Long Island – how a nineteen-year-old wanted for questioning in a string of murders managed to elude police and vigilant local drivers, both parties hurrying too slow through the pale marsh frost and winter Sound winds that turn the coast beds into grisly scrap yards of ice. That part is simple: I ran. What seems lost, in the growing storm of blame, is how I got there in the first place. …

I came to Orient at tail end of summer, and I went by the name MIlls Chevern. I arrived mostly innocent. Do you remember seeing me on those last warm days?

UK Hardback cover

UK Hardback cover

Mills Chevern is rescued by New York architect Paul Benchley when he finds him sprawled in the hallway in front of his neighbour’s appartment. Mills is a sofa-hopping junkie trying his luck in NYC, a frequent visitor to Paul’s neighbour. When Paul offers to save him by taking him out to his late parents’ house in Orient to help clear it, nothing more expected other than hard work and some company, Mills jumps at the chance to clean his act up becoming Paul’s defacto foster-kid.

They arrive in town on the day of the annual end of summer picnic hosted by Paul’s Orient neighbours, the Muldoons. It’s obvious from the start to Mills that there is no love lost between the Muldoons and Benchley. Nearly everyone is suspicious of Mills, and Paul’s motives for bringing this edgy outsider into their community – except for Beth Shepherd, an artist who has recently returned to Orient from the city too with her Eastern European artist husband.

It’s not long before the tensions in the small town are exposed.

  • The Muldoons are stalwarts of the Orient Historical Society, that seeks to preserve the area and is promoting a new scheme to buy property owner’s development rights to stop Orient becoming like the Hamptons
  • Adam Pruitt, who has started a security firm to rival Bryan Muldoon’s is trying to drum up business by raising residents’ paranoia over what goes on at the Plum Island Animal Lab – a government facility on a nearby island.
  • There are huge tensions between the ‘year-rounders’ as exemplified by the Muldoons, and the incomers, like the rich artists Luz and Nathan from NYC who bought the old Oysterponds Inn and putting in pools etc.
  • Beth’s husband Gavril is friends with Luz and Nathan, but now they’re all here, Gavril is so absorbed in his art, her own has faltered and she’s pregnant but can’t tell him… yet.

Then Jeff Trader is found dead, his body tied by rope underwater so he drowned. Is it murder or suicide? Jeff was the local handyman, he had keys to all the houses in Orient so he could do everyone’s odd jobs and they’ve gone, he was often drunk. Magdalena, an old lady and long-time resident who is the voice of reason on the Orient Historical Society board, knew there was something wrong and thinks he was murdered – and the jar of keys is missing. She asks Beth to find his workbook, she’s sure there’s something in it, and Beth takes Mills along for the ride.

The Bug Lighthouse, Orient

The real Bug Lighthouse, Orient

Mills will, in coming weeks, find himself always in the wrong place at the wrong time as the tensions in the village ratchet up and more people die. They want a scapegoat, and as we know from the prologue, Mills is it. Mills and Beth place themselves in great danger, but are compelled to pick away at all the secrets and lies that everyone in town has, including their own!  Watching over it all is the Bug Lighthouse, a metaphor for an all-seeing eye that knows everything.

Orient is a complex thriller. The different tensions in the town drive the plot first this way, then that, adding more and more questions that need to be answered as events happen and new information comes to light. I never guessed whodunnit until their identity stared me in the face. It’s cleverly constructed too – starting with the entire large cast of characters nearly all together in the one place at the Muldoon’s picnic. This pool of possible perpetrators gradually declines throughout the novel as they die or are otherwise eliminated from Mills’s and Beth’s enquiries.

You can see how inhabitants such as the Muldoons come up with their schemes to protect their heritage with, so they think, good intentions – for the benefit of their community, not realising that such conservative views will polarise local opinion, and probably lead to the wrong kind of rich people being the only ones who can afford to buy properties there like Luz and Nathan.  The conflicts between new and old money, history versus progress set against family infighting and unneighbourly selfishness, add a rich texture to Orient and the characters are intriguing, all getting their spots in the limelight.

Summer may be gone and winter approaching – but things are just beginning to hot up in Orient, and the suspense (maintained throughout the 609 pages) is killing!  Highly recommended. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK via affiliate link, click below:
Orient by Christopher Bollen. Pub April 2015 by Simon & Schuster. Hardback 624 pages.

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Sweet sixteen?

The Fever by Megan Abbott

FeverWhen I read Megan Abbott’s previous novel Dare me (reviewed here) last year, I knew she was an author to watch, moving into psychological thriller territory with her tale of High School cheer-leaders, having previously concentrated on 1950s noir.  She seemed to get into the brain of these sporty girls perfectly and the novel although lacking a bit of pace in the thriller department was full of fascinating insights into the cheer-leading world that we don’t really have in the UK.

The Fever is again set in a High School, but couldn’t be more different in terms of drama. The story is told from the viewpoints of the Nash family. Father Tom is a popular teacher at the High School. Divorced, he’s bringing up two teenagers: the older one is Eli – an ice-hockey star and object of many girls’ affections; Deenie is sixteen, sweet and good at school.

At sixteen, all a lot of the girls want to do is talk about boys and brag about how far they’ve gone and with whom. It’s hard to keep a secret of this sort in school, but Deenie has one she’s desperate to tell her best friend Lise about. Before she can do that though, Lise has a kind of seizure in class in front of everyone. They’re all shocked and when Lise has another seizure at home hitting her head badly she ends up in hospital. Over the next days several more girls will go ill too with a variety of symptoms including Gabby, Deenie’s other best friend.

It’s not long before worried parents are blaming it on the vaccine – the girls all had their HPV shots shortly before it happened. This rang alarm bells with me (I’m strongly pro-vaccination!). The medics aren’t finding anything though. The girls have another secret apart from their initial forays into sex – four of them, Deenie, Gabby, Lise and Skye went swimming in the lake – the fenced-off lake that’s full of toxic algae. What if something else is causing the illness amongst the girls?  Is the school hiding something?  Gossip, panic and rumour-spreading quickly escalate the situation in this small town, especially when some of the affected girls post videos on social media.

The relationships between the girls are also complicated. Deenie in particular is perplexed by Gabby’s deepening friendship with Skye, who’d previously been a hanger-on to their threesome, she can’t help seeing Skye as taking her friend away from her.

Once again, Abbott proves she can get into teenagers’ brains to chart all their insecurities as they are on the cusp of becoming young women. This time though more than that, she also captures Eli’s confusion as he begins to understand the power that he has as an objection of attraction  and in Tom we see a father watching his children growing up and away from him, proud of them yet sad at the same time.

The drama and tension build up nicely all the way through The Fever and there are plenty of red herrings along the way to distract us from the real cause of what has happened. I read the book is one long sitting which is the perfect way to devour a psychological drama. I will enjoy seeing where Abbott goes next as she ventures towards Gone Girl territory. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Feverby Megan Abbott. Pub Picador, July 2014, hardback, 256 pages.

 

Two *Five* Star Books for you …

One of the greatest pleasures of reading and blogging is to discover books that I adore, that few will have heard of, and then to bring them to a wider audience. Recently I read and reviewed two such novels for Shiny New Books. Below are tasters of my reviews with links to the full thing…

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding

american sycamore
It is lovely to be able to heartily recommend a début novel published by a smaller independent publisher – American Sycamore is exactly that and it deserves a wide readership.

Set in the 1970s, it’s a coming of age story of two siblings, Alice and Billy Sycamore who grow up in a small town by the Susquehanna River in north-eastern USA. I know that coming of age novels aren’t to everyone’s taste, but this one is very special. The descriptions of character, landscape and the river which runs through it are amazing and the meandering story is told by a narrator you warm to instantly. (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams

into the trees

Imagine a house in the middle of the forest, somewhere you feel safe, at home; somewhere to hide away perhaps? What springs to mind? One such place I instantly thought of was the seven dwarves’ cottage in Snow White. Then I thought of the gingerbread cottage in Hansel and Gretel – except that wasn’t exactly a safe house until they’d disposed of the wicked witch.

I hasten to add that Into the Trees is no fairy-tale. It is a thoroughly contemporary novel, not even a reworking of a fairy-tale and yet, you can’t help thinking of them all the time when reading it. Forests in themselves are potent symbols of nature, spirits and earth-magic, remember the forest of Fangorn, home of the Ents, and Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest in Lord of the Rings for instance. Add a house in a clearing and you’re back in Grimm territory, or is it more like the Cullen’s modern glass sanctuary in the Twilight film? Whichever, you know that something bad happened when someone came knocking at the door looking for Snow White …

This novel isn’t a thriller – you encounter the key event in the prologue.  Instead it explores the effect of living in the forest before and after this event on a family.  Deep, complex and superb writing – dare one hope for a happy ending?  (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

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Source: Both courtesy of the publishers – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding. Published February 2014 by Seren Books, paperback original 200 pages.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams. Published April 2014 by Faber & Faber, Hardback 352 pages.

School’s out, summer’s in, time for Panic…

Panic by Lauren Oliver

Panic_HC_JKT_des4.inddScene – a small town in middle America, school’s out for summer. For those who’ve graduated high school, finding a full-time job will be a priority unless you’re one of the lucky few who are off to college. The town of Carp is small and poor – no-one has any money.  But there is one way out… to win ‘Panic’ – the annual top secret knock-out challenge for high school grads, with a pot this year of $67k for the last one standing at the end of the summer.

Lauren Oliver’s new thriller for older teens and up explores the lives of this year’s players – they all have their reasons for wanting the money.  The first challenge is to announce you’re in by jumping from the rocks into the lake at the quarry. Heather only decides at the last minute after she sees her supposed boyfriend snogging another girl.

 “Announce yourself!” Diggin boomed out.
Below Heather, the water, black as oil, was still churning with bodies. She wanted to shout down – move, move, I’m going to hit you – but she couldn’t speak. She could hardly breathe. Her lungs felt like they were being pressed between two stones.
And suddenly she couldn’t think of anything but Chris Heinz, who five years ago drank a fifth of vodka before doing the jump, and lost his footing. The sound his head made as it cracked against the rock was delicate, almost like an egg breaking She remembered the way everyone ran through the woods; the image of his body, broken and limp, lying half-submerged in the water.
“Say your name!” Diggin prompted again, and the crowd picked up the chant: Name, name, name.
She opened her mouth. “Heather,” she croaked out. “Heather Nill.” Her voice broke, got whipped back by the wind.
The chant was still going: Name, name, name, name. Then: Jump, jump, jump, jump.
Her insides were white; filled with snow. Her mouth tasted a little like puke. She took a deep breath. She closed her eyes.
She jumped.

This is the start of a summer that will test Heather, her best friends Nat and Bishop, and outsider Dodge to the limit.  The challenges in Panic are top secret, and announced by coded signs and text messages.  Heather and Nat initially decide to make a pact to share the winnings – half of $67k would be life-changing for either of them – but the pact will put more pressure on the pair rather than lessen it.  Bishop, the girls’ best friend is very quiet about the whole thing, he’s not taking part, just supporting.  Dodge is the surprise element. He’s out for revenge against Ray Hanrahan, whose older brother Luke caused his older sister to be badly injured and crippled in her year.  His best way forward is to side with Heather and Nat for now until the numbers reduce, but he expects Hanrahan to play dirty…

The challenges are all really dangerous – from walking a high-up plank between two water towers, to stealing something from a trigger-happy red-neck’s house amongst them.  The players tend to pull out rather than get taken out, but nasty things do happen.  When it gets down to the last few – anyone who’s seen the films American Graffiti or Rebel Without a Cause can guess what form the final challenge will take – however, who will be doing it?  The police of course, are always one step behind. They know it takes place every year, but the code of secrecy between the players and their friends is solid, the police will only be able to react when something happens.

Despite the severity of the series of challenges they have to go through, there was never quite enough danger for me – but then I am probably more used to the even more full-on goriness of adult thrillers – you have to remember the primary audience for this one. The stakes were high but The Hunger Games it ain’t, thankfully you don’t have to die. Most of the players retire through sheer terror one way or another but this for me downplayed the gladiatorial nature of the game.

The story alternates between Heather and Dodge who have contrasting motivations for playing.  Heather just wants to for her and little sister Lily to be able to escape the trailer park and her slutty mother.  Oliver does succeed in making you care for Heather, but she lacks back-story and is not a complex character, whereas Dodge is more interesting psychologically, although less likeable for it. The tension between Heather and Bishop, the best friends who are obviously made for each other, could have been built up more too. There’s no doubting Heather’s courage and determination once set on her path.

This novel doesn’t dwell on the past – we get few snippets about previous years’ games which again, could have added some more depth and more tension as you imagine what the next challenges could be this year.  It was certainly page-turning in fits and starts, and had its little twists and turns, yet was pretty transparent and predictable. It felt real enough though, bored penniless teenagers looking for thrills – don’t get any ideas! …

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Panicby Lauren Oliver. Pub March 2014 by Hodder & Stoughton, hardback 408 pages.

 

Which path should one take? A novel choice…

Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge

I had just come home from a festival in Nevada, the theme of which was Contact with Other Worlds, when my mother, or, I should say, one of my mothers, called to tell me that my grandfather had died.

Thus begins Luminous Airplanes, a quirky novel right from the outset, particularly so for the book is backed up by a website which continues its branching narrative – billed as a ‘Hyperromance’ – giving you an additional experience a bit like a those ‘Choose your own adventure’ books. However, the novel works on its own perfectly well without the website, so we’ll concentrate there.

It’s the 1990s, and the unnamed  narrator works in computers in San Francisco after dropping out of a History course at Stanford. He has a happy life in California, currently single but still friends with his ex-girlfriend Alice. When he hears that his grandfather has died and that he’s missed the funeral, he considers not going back to his hometown, but he knows that his mothers won’t do the home clearing – they’ll just arrange for it all to be chucked, so he gets in his car, (which used to belong for Norman Mailer), and sets off across the country to Thebes…

It was for my sake that my mothers ran away from Thebes. They didn’t want to have their child in a little town in the Catskills where things happened so slowly that people were still speaking French six generations after the first settlers arrived. By Thebes standards, my mothers were more like weather than like people: they changed fast, and they moved on. They took me to New York, where they were going to be famous artists, only they had no idea about money and knew how to do nothing, nothing.

Yes, it does say ‘mothers’ above.  He was brought up by twin sisters Marie Celeste and Celeste Marie: Marie being his birth mother. Still a teenager, Marie fell for her father’s lawyer: Richard Ente was a handsome fifty year old who ran from town when the romance was uncovered. Understandably, our narrator is obsessed with finding out about his absent and deceased father.

Back in Thebes, he is reunited with his neighbours, the Regenzeits, a Turkish family. Siblings Kerem and  Yesim run the Snowbird Ski Resort on the edge of town, which had been developed by their father Joe, and was the subject of the lawsuit for which his grandfather had employed Ente. Yesim was his childhood sweetheart, could he re-kindle something?

So our narrator jumps from a path of an easy life back into one of uncertainty and  with many questions needing to be answered – branches to be explored if you will. Some of them are paths that have been gone down before, but time has changed them. What happened the first time will affect what happens now, and like the labyrinth in the early computer game he was addicted to as a teenager, how will he know exactly where he is?

This quirky tale of dysfunctional families is told with a wry voice, that is always taking us off in different directions, flashing back in time non-linearly – sometimes to childhood, at other times to teenage or college years or the recent past, before returning to the now of the novel.  Along the way we hear about his history thesis on a Christian cult that believed the world was going to end, his favourite book about the history of flight, amongst other digressions, but gradually as he gets to grips with his grandfather’s things, the answers to some of his questions begin to reveal themselves, and he is able to realise his place in the world.

It’s a strange sort of coming of age story when the narrator is almost a thirty-something – but there is a definite sense of this, perhaps better expressed as reaching an emotional maturity.  It’s all done with a light touch, even when things get really serious, it’s witty but not hilarious.

As quirky novels about dysfunctional families go, the best I’ve read in a long time was The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (reviewed here).  Luminous Airplanes adds a small town mentality to the mix and was a great read but lacked the Fang’s madness.  The narrator, who let’s face it, is a bit of a slacker, was too content to let things happen to him – although I did warm to him when he couldn’t get into Murakami’s Norwegian Wood; a book I’ve failed with too. I also loved being reminded of that old computer game Adventure aka Colossal Cave, which I used to play at lunchtimes back in the mid 1980s – “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike”.

I enjoyed this book a lot and had fun pootling around the website for a while too. One for fans of quirky family novels. (7.5/10)

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I was sent this book by the publisher. Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click through below:
Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge. Pub Aug 2012 by 4th Estate, Trade Paperback 256 pages.
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

For blacker than black, read super-noir

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Scene: A diner in Central City, Texas; it’s the early 1950s.  A man walks up to the counter to pay his bill…

The proprietor shoved back my money and laid a couple of cigars on top of it. He thanked me again for taking his son in hand.
‘He’s a different boy now, Lou,’ he said, kind of running his words together like foreigners do. ‘Stays in nights; gets along fine in school. And always he talks about you – what a good man is Deputy Lou Ford.’
‘I didn’t do anything,’ I said. ‘Just talk to him. Showed him a little interest. Anyone else could have done as much.’
‘Only you,’ he said. ‘Because you are good, you make others so.’

This is our first glimpse of Deputy Lou Ford, a respected and stalwart member of the community.  A police officer so at ease with himself and his job, that he doesn’t even carry a gun.  He has a beautiful girlfriend Amy who wants to marry him, he has a house. surely he has everything he wants?

But Lou’s outward persona is just a façade. Inside he harbours deep, dark secrets of the murderous kind. Lou is the only one left in his family.  Only he now knows the truth of what happened with his adoptive brother Mike, it killed his Dad.

Then one day, Lou gets the opportunity to avenge his brother, to get back at the man who was responsible for getting Mike pushed off a girder. The sickness that he has successfully hidden all these years bubbles up to the surface, but Lou believes that he can get away with it.  However best laid plans …

It doesn’t take many pages for us to get the measure of Lou, he’s told us his secret by page 15, and from then on in, we know how the story is going to end – but not how.  The suspense is killing!

Reading Lou’s story, I immediately wondered whether he was the prototype for Jeff Lindsay’s ‘Dexter’ (a forensic blood spatter expert who only murders criminals as an avenging force), but whereas Dexter’s sickness is channelled, Lou’s takes over.  There’s certainly no humour in Thompson’s novel either, it’s blacker than black noir through and through.

The entire novel is told by Lou. He tells us his mind, what he’s really thinking –  when outwardly, he’s the patient lawman.  Even when the net is starting to close in on him, he’s sure they can’t pin anything on him, ever deluding himself. Lou tells us, with obvious relish in the detail, about each blow he strikes in his killing spree.

Thompson’s protagonist is a nasty piece of work, the most amoral man I’ve met in a book since the last noir novel I read which was published just a few years before this one – (Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon). But Thompson’s killer is, in a way, worse than Simenon’s because he is an officer of the law!

Whereas James M Cain can lay claim to having created the biggest femme fatale in crime fiction – that is Phyllis Nirdinger in Double Indemnity, published a few years earlier, I think Jim Thompson has come very close to the ultimate male equivalent with Deputy Lou Ford, and has instilled in me a need to read more of his books, which means I have to award it (10/10).

P.S. I’ve now ordered the DVD of the 2010 film – Will report back.

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (originally published in 1952, paperback).
The Killer Inside Me [DVD]– directed by Michael Winterbottom, starring Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson.
Further noir reading & viewing:
Double Indemnityby James M Cain
Dirty Snow (New York Review Books Classics)by Georges Simenon
Darkly Dreaming Dexterby Jeff Lindsay
Dexter : Complete Season 1 [DVD]