book review

DARK PLACES by Gillian Flynn

5886881

Publisher: Broadway Books
Pages: 452
Genre: Thriller

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” As her family lay dying, little Libby fled their tiny farmhouse into the freezing January snow. She lost some fingers and toes, but she survived–and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, Ben sits in prison, and troubled Libby lives off the dregs of a trust created by well-wishers who’ve long forgotten her.

The Kill Club is a macabre secret society obsessed with notorious crimes. When they locate Libby and pump her for details–proof they hope may free Ben–Libby hatches a plan to profit off her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club… and maybe she’ll admit her testimony wasn’t so solid after all.

As Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns, the narrative flashes back to January 2, 1985. The events of that day are relayed through the eyes of Libby’s doomed family members–including Ben, a loner whose rage over his shiftless father and their failing farm have driven him into a disturbing friendship with the new girl in town. Piece by piece, the unimaginable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself right back where she started–on the run from a killer

 

First Impressions: It’s set in Kansas, my home-state. I can confirm that there are plenty of dark places in Kansas, and I’m not just talking about the Republican Governor’s office.

Review: Irascible Libby Day is the type of person you probably wouldn’t like if she existed in real-life, but on the page she is compelling and complicated. She is the only real survivor (if you don’t count an older brother languishing in prision for the rest of his life) of a brutal massacre of her family when she was only 7 years old. Now in her thirties Libby has rejected every opportunity or attempt to become a contributing member of society. She is crippled by even the simplest tasks, preferring to shut out the world or take handouts over an honest days work. Libby is acerbic and prickly to anyone who shows even the slightest interest in helping her or changing her mind.  Getting Libby to the point where she questions the truth of the statements she made against her brother all those years ago, is like pulling teeth for the reader. But there is a part of her that knows the light was never truly shown on what happened that night. The Kill Crew, a secret organization investigating the truth behind murders, is finally able to tap into that small voice living in her subconscious. A voice that compels Libby to track down all the players of that infamous night. On a mission that takes her from Ben to her father and to minor characters who become major characters, Libby learns that the events of that night may not entirely be finished as long as she is still alive.

The story takes a methodical pace, jumping back and forth between Libby’s present day journey and the day of the murders.  The flashbacks are split between Ben Day (the eldest) and Patty Day (the mother). This helped to deepen the emotion of events leading up to the Satan Sacrifice Kinnakee. Their juxtaposition will figure heavily in the events of that night. Patty is torn apart by the revelation that their town believes Ben may have molested a young girl. Ben is a secretive and morose teenager who thinks only about escaping their small town with his now-pregnant girlfriend. And even though you only meet the mother and Ben on one day, they come off as fully developed characters grappling with a multitude of emotions and uncertainties.

Flynn sets up some great payoffs in certain scenes. The interaction between Krissi, the child supposedly molested by Ben and Libby is intriguing mostly because of the truths they are hiding from the other. The note that Libby leaves for Krissi at the end was the perfect ending to that scene. Another entertaining scene occurs between Libby and her father at the superfund site. The settings are far from glamorous but they contain interesting details that add to the  mood & characterization.

As Libby uncovers who Ben spent that day with, the truth seems to trace back to Ben’s pregnant girlfriend. But Flynn has just a couple more surprises waiting for us just when we think we figured it out. The truth is an elusive concept, and finding a resolution doesn’t exactly settle well with us. The conflicting emotions and uncertainties that remain after the final sentence are what make this novel a success.

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Overall: We all know that Flynn’s novels are bleak and gritty. I like getting to the core of characters and their shortcomings. A dark place exists in all of us and it’s the plot development that really puts this novel apart from others. Looking forward to reading Gone Girl now.

About the Author

Gillian Flynn is an American author and television critic for Entertainment Weekly. She has so far written three novels, Sharp Objects, for which she won the 2007 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for the best thriller; Dark Places; and her best-selling third novel Gone Girl.
Flynn, who lives in Chicago, grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. She graduated at the University of Kansas, and qualified for a Master’s degree from Northwestern University. 

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DOLLFACE by Renee Rosen

Publisher: NAL Trade
Genre: Historical, Women’s Fiction
Pub Date: November 5th
Format: Paperback, Acquired from publisher

America in the 1920s was a country alive with the wild fun of jazz, speakeasies, and a new kind of woman—the flapper.

Vera Abramowitz is determined to leave her gritty childhood behind and live a more exciting life, one that her mother never dreamed of. Bobbing her hair and showing her knees, the lipsticked beauty dazzles, doing the Charleston in nightclubs and earning the nickname “Dollface.” 

As the ultimate flapper, Vera captures the attention of two high rollers, a handsome nightclub owner and a sexy gambler. On their arms, she gains entrée into a world filled with bootleg bourbon, wailing jazz, and money to burn.  She thinks her biggest problem is choosing between them until the truth comes out. Her two lovers are really mobsters from rival gangs during Chicago’s infamous Beer Wars, a battle Al Capone refuses to lose. 

The heady life she’s living is an illusion resting on a bedrock of crime and violence unlike anything the country has ever seen before. When the good times come to an end, Vera becomes entangled in everything from bootlegging to murder. And as men from both gangs fall around her, Vera must put together the pieces of her shattered life, as Chicago hurtles toward one of the most infamous days in its history, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Initial Thoughts: A story about the city I currently call home. The gangsters are notorious here but I like that Renee is trying to give a feminine angle to the traditional gangster story.

Review:  I am thankful to Renee Rosen for making this novel about the women. Stories about gangsters usually keep the women on the periphery as helpful and often times bumbling and superficial characters while the real men duke it out for domination. This is a love triangle set against the vibrant and seedy backdrop of depression era Chicago. As a reader you can tell that historical research was done for this book and done well enough that the sights and sounds of depression era Chicago really come to life. It is the  characters in front of that backdrop don’t have the same dramatic effect.

Vera Abramowitz is a single gal determined to be independent during an era when most are scraping to get by.  She has a job as a typist which pays just enough to keep her slaving away. One night out on the town with Evelyn at a speakeasy introduces Vera to two different male characters. The first part of the novel focuses on Vera’s two love affairs each with a tie to the local gangs. One for the south side (Al Capone) and the other for the north side gangs. Each man fulfills a different desire for Vera making it hard for her to choose one fate or the other. An unexpected pregnancy, leads her to choose marriage and a family with Shep Green of the north side gang.

 Vera’s girlfriends are all tied to the North Siders, though she tries and fails to make friends outside of Shep’s world. For a time, Shep and Vera exist comfortably without a care until the north side gang leader is gunned down by Capone and Shep is arrested in his attempt at retaliation. The once fiercely independent Vera is forced to survive on her own and without the money from the bootlegging, Vera realizes she must do something or be forced into poverty. That thing is bootlegging, a venture that eventually has her crossing paths with Tony again. Of course.

When Shep is finally released, her life spirals out of control.  As Vera races to save both of the men she loves, she finds she is powerless to stop the greater forces of hostility and the hunger for power that drove Chicago to become the gangster capital of the world.

Ultimately, this story lacked real bite. When it came to character development and the life and death stakes of being tied to a gang ,it was all watered down. Though Vera was on the outside of the gang, her character was at times annoyingly helpless while in other situations she was surprisingly resourceful. This contradiction bothered me. There was enough action to keep the novel flowing from chapter to chapter but the tension fell flat just as the novel was coming to its crescendo. Rosen worked to fit her storyline into the fabric of historical fact, and the turn of events at the end came off as melodramatic instead of tragic and heartbreaking. Though the emotion fell flat, the events and reality of life during that era rang true, so I would recommend it.

Overall: Historical buffs will be impressed by an authentic depiction of Chicago and its notorious gangsters. Lovers of women’s fiction will appreciate the wide range of female characters represented even though the main character Vera leaves a little to be desired.

Rating: 3.5/5

Quote: “Raid!” someone shouted. “It’s the feds! Raid! Everybody clear out!”

All at once people began hollering as they shoved past us, rushing towards the stairs. A dealer rammed into me, nearly knocking me over, while he and another barkeeper raced around, trying to get rid of any traces of liquor. I saw one of them pull a handle on the side of the bar and all the bottles on the shelves went whoosh and disappeared through a trapdoor. Two other men bolted past me, grabbed hold of the bar and flipped it upside down, making it look like an innocent hutch. Within seconds all the slot machines were spun around; their flip sides were disguised as bookcases.

“C’mon, we gotta get out of here.” Tony grabbed my hand and weaved me through the crowd, heading for the doorway. The alarm blasted again and again while everybody charged toward the staircase, knocking tables and chairs out of the way. I trampled over someone’s lost fedora and nearly tripped on an abandoned pocketbook.

“Wait!” I turned around, my heart pumping like mad. “Where’s Evelyn? Evelyn!”

“Who the hell’s Evelyn?”

“Evelyn. My roommate.”

“Forget Evelyn,” Tony shouted back, “unless you wanna see the inside of a paddy wagon.”

About the Author:

Along with DOLLFACE, Renée is also the author of EVERY CROOKED POT, a YA novel published by St. Martin’s Press.Renée has contributed to many magazines and newspapers, including Chicago Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, Complete Woman, DAME, Publisher’s Weekly and a slew of now sadly defunct publications. She lives in Chicago where she is at work on a new novel also coming from Penguin/NAL in 2014.

Visit her at http://www.reneerosen.com
@ReneeRosen1

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