Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

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Title: Child 44
Author: Tom Rob Smith
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: 2008
Rating: 3.5/5

I’ve always liked serial-killer books and movies. Both fictional and non-fictional. But it wasn’t until after I’d finished Child 44 that I realized it was based on the life of probably the most prolific serial-killer in the Soviet Union, Andrei Chikatilo, the Butcher of Rostov. He claimed to have committed more than 56 murders and was convicted of 52 i 1992. The fictional version of Chikatilo is just as active, but much earlier.

“The survival of their political system justified anything. The promise of a golden age where none of this brutality would exist, where everything would be in plenty and poverty would be a memory, justified anything.”

Child 44 takes place in Stalin’s Soviet Union where everyone’s a suspect of anti-state activities or thoughts and being arrested is basically a gulag or death sentence as the state is infallible and thus never arrests innocent people. The general population is poor and lives in constant fear of the state and its agents. One of these agents is Leo Demidov, security officer with the MGB. He and his family enjoy small luxuries like running water and fruit. So what do you do when you begin to suspect that a serial-killer is on the loose in a country where there are no unsolved crimes, and where suggesting so could land you and your family in the gulags for 25 years? Do you risk becoming an enemy of the state to save a bunch of strangers? Well I’m not saying. You’ll have to read the book for yourself. And there are definitely worse things you could be reading.

Even if you don’t like gruesome serial-killers, this book is worth reading for the portrayal of life in the USSR in the 1950’s. It’s bleak, unsettling – or downright scary –  and very engaging. Sure, I don’t know enough to completely evaluate the accuracy of the historical or societal aspects of the book. But I’m not sure it matters. Maybe it wasn’t such a horrible place to live and maybe people didn’t get arrested or sent away at the drop of a hat. While a pretty big deal historically and from a humanitarian point of view, I don’t think it matters a whole lot  whether or not these things are accurate, (I think they are, but maybe I’m just falling for some Western propaganda here), because it makes for one hell of a darkly atmospheric setting and helps propel the action along very nicely. Even without a serial-killer, this would have been an interesting read. The cruel inner workings of the agency and the daily lives of the citizens are what made me gobble up Child 44. Leo’s struggle within the system is a gripping story in itself and it made me want to learn even more about this place and time. Thank god the author left a list of inspirational reading at the end!

“Trust but check. Check on those we trust.”

It’s not that I mind the serial-killer story at all. I just wasn’t too excited by it and I almost got annoyed with those convenient thriller coincidences. I didn’t find him so scary –  I’m not very squeamish with these things – though I’m sure a lot of people would.  And it wasn’t all that hard to figure out the whodunnit. Another small complaint would be that the characters are a bit thin. There’s some development, but not a lot and little background information. Had there been more characters, they probably would have been difficult to tell apart. But there aren’t . The dialogue too is sparse and often uninteresting. But let’s be honest, Child 44 never pretended to be high art and that’s just fine. And either way, the story is so fast-paced that you hardly have time to notice or mind.

 

California by Edan Lepucki

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Title: California
Author: Edan Lepucki
Publisher: Little, Brown
Release Date: 2014
Rating: 2/5

The world, as we know it, has ended. Society has more or less collapsed, natural disasters have killed off thousands or maybe millions, the rich have fortified themselves in luxury cities for those who can pay, and some people go into the vast wilderness to try their luck away from the crumbling cities. Frida and Cal are two such people. Living in complete solitude, they try to make due with what little they managed to bring from L.A. and whatever they can grow, forage etc. Cal loves it, Frida not so much. When Frida suspects that she’s become pregnant, they set out in search of a settlement. Then it all becomes a game of trying to guess what’s going on, what’s been going on and who’s shady or not. It’s less exciting than it sounds.

I’m up for anything post-apocalyptic and California started out promising, with a lot of “hmm, what happened there?” to keep me reading. Unfortunately, the answer was often “meh, not very much.” Lepucky has good ideas for sure, but the execution is so-so and the drama simply not dramatic enough. I was promised shocks and shades of 1984 and The Road. Those comparisons almost make me want to start throwing punches. Ok, the mood started out great and eerie, the same with the setting and the potential for being unsettling or even creepy. But it doesn’t last for long. As soon as Cal and Frida goes in search of other people, that’s it, it’s all down hill from there. Not that I mind the storyline so much, and there were some pretty good elements, but the twists weren’t twisty and the creepiness wore off quick. One critic said that what makes Lepucki’s vision unsettling is its total plausibility. And I agree. Reality can indeed be bland.

Am I sounding a bit harsh? Maybe. And I guess I can forgive someone for not writing the scariest book of all time – scary books are insane scarce. I suppose I can also forgive someone for not producing big gasps with their twists. It’s not an easy thing to do and this is a debut novel. But what I have a very hard time with is lack of subtlety. Every emotional change in the characters, every opinion and thought is spelled out. If you’re not in the head of a certain character, that character will no doubt say exactly how they’re feeling out loud. Almost to the point of “grr, I am very angry now!” or “you are feeling this way right now, aren’t you?” “yes.” It annoyed me to no end. If you can’t make emotions and states of mind come across without expression them directly, well, you’re not a very good writer in my book. This is my main complaint about California and it is a fairly big one. If you don’t mind not having to gauge any situation or relationship between characters yourself, then you might not find is as bothersome as I did. But I prefer subtlety.

Bottom line, good ideas poorly executed.

 

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

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Title: Wise Blood
Author: Flannery O’Connor
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Release Date: 1952
Rating: 5/5

Flannery O’Connor died at the age of 39 after publishing only two novels and 32 short stories. Wise Blood is the first of those novels and it’s Southern Gothic at its finest. What a shame she didn’t have more time.

“I preach the Church without Christ”…” where the lame don’t walk, the blind don’t see, and the dead stay dead!”

Wise Blood is a strange little book, but it has everything a Southern Gothic story needs; violence, religious fanatisism and grotesque characters. It’s grim, bleak and often absurdly funny. Simultaneously depressing and hilarious, a rare feat. Unlike most books I’ve read in this genre, I find that the characters in Wise Blood have little to no redemptive features. It seems that they’re not supposed to be realistic characters, but more a study in the way characters can work in fiction. That doesn’t make for a less interesting and entertaining read.

We have Hazel Motes, a war vet waging his own private war against a “blind” preacher with a degenerate daughter. He’s given up on the Christian truth and decides to start his own church, The Church Without Christ, to preach the opposite. In his anti-religion (and anti-sin, anti-soul, anti-redemption) campaign, he ends up engulfed by religion and images of Christ. His attempts to reject religion seem to have the opposite effect. He’s certain a new Jesus will emerge and that he is a prophet. He’s unsympathetic and unkind, but has lines that almost rival Joseph Heller in absurdity. I chuckled more than once.

Then there’s Enoch Emory, an 18-year-old zoo-keeper who hates animals, was thrown out of his house, has no friends and is obsessed by a mummified corpse in the local museum. He’s a despicable character too, but it’s hard not to be interested in someone who only does what his wise blood tells him, even if that is attempting to force about the Second Coming of Christ or putting on a gorilla costume. Arguably, Cormac McCarthy has based a few characters on Enoch.

“Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”

Within a very short space of time, O’Connor deals with some pretty big issues; faith, heresy, redemption (maybe not so much) and modernity – what the hell does it all mean? She does it with a steady hand and a tongue in her cheek. The narrative, like the characters, is disconnected. The language is sharp and on point, with dialogue written in the vernacular – something I just can’t get enoug of. I’m sure someone could show a straight line from Faulkner to O’Connor to McCarthy. The latter is obviously heavily influenced by the previous two. I’m a big fan of McCarthy, but I have a feeling O’Connor may just be his equal, if not more than that.

This is why I love to read.

“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it”