Friday, September 17, 2021

Review: The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

Final Girl Support Group Grady Hendrix
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For those who don’t know about  final girls, here’s a brief explanation. The Final Girl is a horror/slasher film trope. Generally you start with a group of young women and men who go to a remote location, often a lake or cabin.  A silent killer picks them off, one-by-one, unless a couple are having sex or taking a shower then they will die together. This continues until only one person is left and this is The Final Girl who dispatches the killer…or thinks she has. Go to TV Tropes Final Girl  and you’ll enter into a maze of related inks that will occupy you for hours. TV Tropes also breaks down this book. Examples of final girl films include Friday the 13th (1980), Halloween (1978), Black Christmas (1974 and one of the first slasher films), and Scream (1996). Two of my favorite films subvert the genre. In Tucker and Dale vs Evil, (2010) it’s the two rednecks who are the good guys in danger from the college kids. It’s gory but a very funny parody of horror/slasher films. The Cabin in the Woods (2011) subverts the entire horror genre including the Final Girl and has darkly funny moments. It’s also a treat for horror fans to pick out horror references within the film.


The Final Girl Support Group is an action thriller set in a world where the events we know from horror/slasher films have really happened. It answers the question what happens 

“…After the cops eliminate them as suspects. After the press releases their brace-faced, pizza-cheeked, bad-hair-day class photos that inevitably get included on the cover of the true crime book? After the candlelight vigils and the moments of silence, after someone plants the memorial shrub?.

 The Final girl Support Group is narrated first person by Lynette, herself a final girl. Her  life is driven by the certainty that someone wants to kill her. Her only connection to people is throughout the support group and her one significant attachment is to a plant that she has named Final Plant or just Fine.

The Final Girl support group (so named by Lynette) has six members and has been meeting for 16 years. It’s led by Dr. Carol Elliott who has a major role in the story.  These final girls have very different backgrounds. Besides Lynette, there is the very wealthy Marilyn, the druggie Heather, Julie who was crippled while fighting her attacker, Dani who lives out in the country with her wife and horses, and Adrienne, the first final girl and survivor of the Red Lake Killings. They have been meeting so long that they spend a lot of time in the sessions quibbling (why no snacks) and triggering each other. The ever volatile Heather shoots back at Lynette that she isn’t a real final girl. We find out later why she says that and I think a significant expansion to the trope and one I haven’t seen expressed before.

During the most recent session, they learn that Adrienne has been killed. The always paranoid Lynette immediately assumes that one of the “monsters” got to her. Soon after, other incidents occur — coincidence or coordinated attacks. Soon Lynette finds herself under suspicion and on the run, trying to figure out who is behind the attacks, why have they started now, and desperately trying to save the other final girls even if they aren’t convinced of the danger. And much to Lynette's dismay, the security measures aren't proving very effective.


Earlier I called this an action thriller, and it is, but the author takes a serious look at the world of the final girls. Throughout the  book we experience the extent of Lynette’s precautions/paranoia and it’s an interesting look at how someone who is absolutely convinced someone(s) intends to kill her would interact with the world. He goes into her routines, establishing nightlines, never having her back to a door, always identifying possible exits, evaluating everyone for their threat potential. At a basic level, many of her precautions are good advice but here Lynette takes them to extremes. One of Lynette’s tricks to see if she is being followed is to memorize the shoes of people around her. Physical appearance and clothing can be altered but a stalker isn’t likely to change shoes.


The author also goes into the psychology of not only the final girls themselves but also their fans and the fans of the killers. There are extreme fans who want to marry the killers, emulate the killers, collect memorabilia of the killers and the crimes, and who vilify the final girls. I think this element elevates The Final Girl Support Group above being just another action thriller. He gives depth to the characters.


Periodically we get a page from D. Elliott’s session notes, police incident reports, police interview, final girl interviews, pages from books about final girls and the horror genre. These inserts contribute to an overall understanding of final girls and the horror tropes associated with them,


The author also does an excellent job keeping the suspense up and releasing significant bits of information at the appropriate time. I have to say that I didn’t see the who and why coming and this made it more enjoyable to read. I appreciate the author’s approach to this horror subgenera and the tropes associated with it.

For those who don’t know about  final girls, here’s a brief explanation. The Final Girl is a horror/slasher film trope. Generally you start with a group of young women and men who go to a remote location, often a lake or cabin.  A silent killer picks them off, one-by-one, unless a couple are having sex or taking a shower then they will die together. This continues until only one person is left and this is The Final Girl who dispatches the killer…or thinks she has. Go to tvtropes dot com and search “final girl” and you’ll enter into a maze of related inks that will occupy you for hours. Examples of final girl films include Friday the 13th (1980), Halloween (1978), Black Christmas (1974 and one of the first slasher films), and Scream (1996). Two of my favorite films subvert the genre. In Tucker and Dale vs Evil, (2010) it’s the two rednecks who are the good guys in danger from the college kids. It’s gory but a very funny parody of horror/slasher films. The Cabin in the Woods (2011) subverts the entire horror genre including the Final Girl and has darkly funny moments. It’s also a treat for horror fans to pick out horror references within the film.


The Final Girl Support Group is an action thriller set in a world where the events we know from horror/slasher films have really happened. It answers the question what happens 

“…After the cops eliminate them as suspects. After the press releases their brace-faced, pizza-cheeked, bad-hair-day class photos that inevitably get included on the cover of the true crime book? After the candlelight vigils and the moments of silence, after someone plants the memorial shrub?.

 The Final girl Support Group is narrated first person by Lynette, herself a final girl. Her  life is driven by the certainty that someone wants to kill her. Her only connection to people is throughout the support group and her one significant attachment is to a plant that she has named Final Plant or just Fine.

The Final Girl support group (so named by Lynette) has six members and has been meeting for 16 years. It’s led by Dr. Carol Elliott who has a major role in the story.  These final girls have very different backgrounds. Besides Lynette, there is the very wealthy Marilyn, the druggie Heather, Julie who was crippled while fighting her attacker, Dani who lives out in the country with her wife and horses, and Adrienne, the first final girl and survivor of the Red Lake Killings. They have been meeting so long that they spend a lot of time in the sessions quibbling (why no snacks) and triggering each other. The ever volatile Heather shoots back at Lynette that she isn’t a real final girl. We find out later why she says that and I think a significant expansion to the trope and one I haven’t seen expressed before.

During the most recent session, they learn that Adrienne has been killed. The always paranoid Lynette immediately assumes that one of the “monsters” got to her. Soon after, other incidents occur — coincidence or coordinated attacks. Soon Lynette finds herself under suspicion and on the run, trying to figure out who is behind the attacks, why have they started now, and desperately trying to save the other final girls even if they aren’t convinced of the danger. And much to Lynette's dismay, the security measures aren't proving very effective.


Earlier I called this an action thriller, and it is, but the author takes a serious look at the world of the final girls. Throughout the  book we experience the extent of Lynette’s precautions/paranoia and it’s an interesting look at how someone who is absolutely convinced someone(s) intends to kill her would interact with the world. He goes into her routines, establishing nightlines, never having her back to a door, always identifying possible exits, evaluating everyone for their threat potential. At a basic level, many of her precautions are good advice but here Lynette takes them to extremes. One of Lynette’s tricks to see if she is being followed is to memorize the shoes of people around her. Physical appearance and clothing can be altered but a stalker isn’t likely to change shoes.


The author also goes into the psychology of not only the final girls themselves but also their fans and the fans of the killers. There are extreme fans who want to marry the killers, emulate the killers, collect memorabilia of the killers and the crimes, and who vilify the final girls. I think this element elevates The Final Girl Support Group above being just another action thriller. He gives depth to the characters.


Periodically we get a page from D. Elliott’s session notes, police incident reports, police interview, final girl interviews, pages from books about final girls and the horror genre. These inserts contribute to an overall understanding of final girls and the horror tropes associated with them,


The author also does an excellent job keeping the suspense up and releasing significant bits of information at the appropriate time. I have to say that I didn’t see the who and why coming and this made it more enjoyable to read. I appreciate the author’s approach to this horror subgenera and the tropes associated with it.


Keywords: final girl, slasher and horror movies

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Review: The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatuji trans. by Ho-Ling Wong 1987/2015/2021

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji
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**UPDATED** 

A Little Background

I checked my book log and I'd read three Japanese detective novels prior to picking up The Decagon House Murders. They are: The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada; The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo; The Inugami Curse by Seishi Yokomizo. I enjoyed the books but never thought about the broader context of how the Japanese view crime fiction. By coincidence, all four books fall into what the Japanese refer to as honkaku mysteries. An article in The Guardian (link below) describes honkaku like this:

Honkaku translates as “orthodox”, and refers to the crafting of fiendishly clever and complex puzzle scenarios – such as a murder in a locked bedroom – that can only be solved through logical deduction. Writer Haruta Yoshitame, who is credited with defining honkaku, described it as “a detective story that mainly focuses on the process of a criminal investigation and values the entertainment derived from pure logical reasoning...Honkaku writers were scrupulous about “playing fair”.

If you are a reader of Golden Age detective stories, honkaku detective fiction should remind you of S. S. Van Dine's Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Fiction. Van Dine's rules one and two cover playing fair.

Newer works such as The Decagon House Murders are referred to as shin honkaku, or new orthodox. Honkaku fell out of popularity for a while due to the rise of the social school which emphasized natural realism. Matsumoto Seichō launched this movement with books including Points and Lines and Inspector Imanishi Investigates. The Decagon House Murders was instrumental in bringing honkaku back into favor. 

While looking for Japanese mysteries that have been translated I found a shin honkaku titled Death Among the Undead by Masahira Imamura which adds zombies to the country house setting. A locked room AND zombies, could a reader ask for more? I'm pretty sure I need to promote this to the top of my TBR stack.

My interest in making a more focused study of Japanese detective/crime fiction was sparked by the most excellent podcast, Death of the Reader hosted by Flex and Herds. They are an engaging duo with an interesting way of presenting the subject of detective fiction. One will read a book and the other will try to solve the case as they work through the chapters. They also have interviews with academics and authors and they do broader explorations of the detective genre and trace influences of the genre around the world.

I've just started my exploration of Japanese crime fiction and have links to some web articles, a dissertation, and another podcast episode below

The Decagon House Mysteries

Seven students from a university mystery club have an opportunity to spend a week on an island where a year before horrible murders took place. The main house (the Blue Mansion) was burned leaving only the Decagon house standing. Throughout most of the story, we know the students only their club nicknames taken from western Golden Age authors. They are: [Gaston] Leroux, [John Dickson] Carr, Agatha [Christie], Ellery [Queen], Van [S.S. Van Dine], [Baroness Emma] Orezy, and [Edgar Allen] Poe. Leraux, the editor of the club magazine declares that everyone is to write a story for the next issue. Their pleasant retreat takes a nasty turn when they find that they have been targeted for death. Unfortunately the island is without electricity or a phone and they directed the fisherman who brought them to the island not come by until the day of the scheduled pickup.

The action takes place on the island and on the mainland. On the island, fear sets in as the threat appears to be very real. On the mainland, several people — former members of the club — have received a mysterious letter containing the words My daughter Chiori was murdered by all of you. It is signed by Nakamura Seiji who died on the island. Chiori was also a club member who died of alcohol poisoning after a club party. Kawaminami Tata'aki doesn't know if it's a prank and decides to find out if any other club members who were at the party also received letters. On the island the club members are desperately trying to figure out who wants them dead and on the mainland Kawaminami Tata'aki is trying to figure out what the letters mean.

Update: Toward the end I had an idea of who is the killer might be but it wasn't a fully formed idea. However, Flex, on the The Death of the Reader podcast (link above), had the killer(s) nailed. He displayed pretty impressive analytical skills. After I have all of the Japanese mysteries they discuss, I'll be giving The Decagon House Murders episodes another listen.

You might think that remote location, picked-off-one-by-one plot has been done to death (sorry but it had to be said) but the author has a very clever approach to constructing the story especially the way the killer announces his/her intentions. The students simultaneously if someone from the outside is responsible or could it be one of them. Having a parallel investigation on the mainland works very well in advancing the story as details emerge that couldn't logically come from the students on the island.

I don't read Japanese but the translation has a good flow that makes for a smooth read. I was taken with the way the fisherman taking them to the island talks. I got a mental image of the Japanese equivalent of a New England fisherman. It is a neat way to separate him from the university students.

The story begins with Ellery  declaring that the mystery should be an intellectual game. Basically defending the honkaku mystery against the social realism school. He puts forth a bit of foreshadowing when he says"

What mystery novels need are — some might call me old-fashioned ¸— a great detective, a mansion, its shady residents, bloody murders, impossible crimes, and never-before-seen tricks played by the murderer. Call it my castle in the sky but I'm happy as long as I can enjoy such a world. But always in an intellectual manner.

I mostly entirely agree with Shimada Soji in the introduction who says about the characters:

As a result, his characters act almost like robots, their thoughts depicted only minimally through repetitive phrases. The narration shows no interest in sophisticated writing or a sense of art and is focused solely on telling the story. To readers who were used to American and British detective fiction, The Decagon house Murders was a shock. It was as if they were looking at the raw building plans of a novel.

I can't say that I was shocked by the characterization. I thought the author did a decent enough job giving the students individual characteristics and personalities. I read the introduction last and can't say I picked up Soji's analysis of the characters as I read the story. Of course, I can, in retrospect, see what he means.

The Decagon House Murders is a good story in the Golden Age style of mystery writing. Although I am early in my exploration of Japanese mystery stories, I would recommend starting with a honkaku story such as Yokomizo Seishi's The Honjin Murders and The Inugami Curse and then moving on to shin honkaku mysteries like The Decagon House Murders. Bear in mind that I didn't know about honkaku when I wrote those reviews. At some point I'll compile a bibliography of honkaku and shin konkaku mysteries.

References

Locked Room International — Take a look at the publishers website. they have a good list of books, articles, and recommended reading.

Honkaku: A century of Japanese whoduddints keeping readers guessing. From The Guardian, 27 April 2021.

Have you read ... Japanese crime fiction. By Matthew Castle on Rock Paper Shotgun, 18 March 2020.

Whodunit, How and Why? The Evolution of Japanese Detective Fiction Literature. From Jauns — UMD Undergraduate History Journal

Culture and authenticity: the discursive space of Japanese detective fiction and the formation of the national imaginary by Satomi Saito. PhD dissertation

The Honkaku Mysteries on Shedoneit podcast 

For a fun look the trope used in this book, go tot Ten Little Murder Victims on TV Tropes. Beware, though, it's hard to stop following links once you get started down that road.


Keywords: honkaku, shin honkaku, Japanese mysteries, Japanese crime fiction



Friday, September 3, 2021

He Started It by Samatha Downing (2020)

He Started It by Samatha Downing
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With her three books to date — My Lovely Wife (2019), He Started It (2020), For Your Own Good (2021) — I think Samatha Downing has achieved Marmite Author status. People seem to either dislike her style or like her a lot. Except for her first book, I am firmly in the can’t-wait-for-her-next-book camp. Her unlikeable characters, disturbing plots, and dark humor appeal to my reading tastes — noir is my favorite genre. 

 He Started It is a first person narrative from the viewpoint of Beth. Eddie, Beth, and Portia, three siblings, are on an unusual road trip. They are retracing the trip they took 20 years ago with their grandfather when they were children (ages 14, 12, and 6) though this time it’s only grandpa’s ashes they have with them. The road trip is stipulated in grandpa’s will. They have to take the same route, visit the same road-side attractions, and scatter his ashes at the final stop in order to inherit his sizable estate. Also on the trip are Eddie’s wife, Krista, and Beth’s husband, Felix.

Apparently the first road trip wasn’t a fun family experience and this repeat outing is proving to be anything but, with odd incidents starting to mount up including the possibility that they are being followed by a black pickup truck. 

 We only see the action through Beth’s eyes and the reader figures out early on that she isn’t a reliable narrator. She is following someone on Instagram but we don’t know who or why. She has a journal masked as a family saga novel that describes bits about the original trip but we don’t know whose journal it is or why she is keeping it secret. And apparently there was someone else on the first trip but we don’t get to know who that person was for a while.

Beth parcels out details about the first trip in small chunks, revealing the complete picture, slowly like pulling aside a curtain, as we read, chapter by chapter. Some readers might think this slows down the pacing but I enjoyed watching the picture emerge until the “ah ha” moments start getting closer together. She also starts filling in details about the other people in the car: maybe she and Felix aren’t in the best of places, what’s the deal with Eddie and Krista and their whirlwind marriage, and Portia is a stripper, not a waitress.

Downing is very good at slowly building the tension. The closer they get to the end of the trip, the faster things start to come together and the higher the sense of dread. If asked for one word to describe this book, I would say noirish. It’s maybe the last 25% that cements it as noirish for me. It’s there that we get the complete picture of what happened on both trips and the ending is pure noir.

For me, this is a really good, slow-to-build, suspense novel that delivers quite a few surprises. The plot is nicely constructed and I have a mental image of the author with an immense whiteboard with lines and arrows laying out the story. The characters might all be unlikeable but I really like what Downing does with them. They have quirks, mannerisms, and other characteristics that make them fun to read and try to analyze. 

 It isn’t a book for everyone but I recommend it if you lean toward the dark and can appreciate unpleasant people and situations. 

All of the road side attractions in the book visits are real. I didn’t know about several but would certainly visit if I found myself in the area; I’d be a sucker for the UFO Watchtower in Center, Colorado.


Keywords: suspense novels, road trip novels, roadside attractions novels

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Review: Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas (2020)

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
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To the outside world, the college, Catherine House, is mysterious, even cult-like. Upon acceptance, it is a full ride with no tuition, room and board are included. But there is a catch. In return, for three years (including summers), the students give up all contact with the outside world: no emails, no social media, no mobile phones, no computers, no letters, no going home for the holidays, no personal possessions. Everything is provided including clothing, toiletries, and school supplies. Despite these strict requirements, Catherine House counts famous scientists, presidents, Supreme Court justices, artists among its successful alumni. It's also like Fight Club —the first rule of Catherine House is you don't talk about Catherine House — and Las Vegas —what happens at Catherine House stays at Catherine House.

The college doesn’t police student behavior — unless it affects their academic standing — and wine and condoms are readily available. So it’s three years of rigorous academics, fueled by sex and alcohol. The school was probably once elegant but is now shabby and run down, peeling wallpaper, leaks, falling apart really.


Into this world comes Ines, a young woman with a troubled history. She has no idea why she was accepted after the rigorous selection process which involves interviews up to eight hours long. She’s probably suffering from a form of PTSD. Ines has a rebellious streak and doesn’t care to follow the status quo. She is particularly curious about the highly desired New Materials curriculum and wants to find out what’s happening within its locked labs. Ines also seems to have the attention of the cool, aloof, enigmatic director, Viktória. As the story moves through each year, the reader, and Ines, begin to wonder why she is at Catherine House. And why is Viktória so interested in Ines.


Whew, is that vague enough for you? There is much more I wanted to write but I didn’t want to give too much away. It’s better for the reader to watch things unfold. I would put the book in the "weird school/things aren't as they seem" genre. There is a gothic feel and a thin mist of horror at play here. With a change in viewpoint and direction Thomas could have a full-on horror story. I hope she does write another book in the Catherine House universe. Actually, I can easily see a trilogy worth of material here.


Catherine House is a first person narrative from the viewpoint of Ines. I know a lot of readers don’t care for the use of first person but it is necessary here. The reader has to see things from the narrow perspective of Ines, to only know what Ines knows otherwise you lose the fun of discovery. Most of the book is about Ines adjusting to life at Catherine House, coming to terms with her past, building relationships — basically Ines’ psychological development. But throughout the story, there are mysteries of Catherine House hovering around the edges.


I think the pacing is effective and doesn’t lag. Ines can be maddening but that works toward building her character. Thomas spaces out new information as Ines goes from the first through third years with the tension and suspense building in the third year.


This is Thomas’ debut novel and it’s a terrific launch for her career as a novelist. I hope to see another book from her soon. She is a real talent.



Keywords: fictional colleges, suspense novels, college life in fiction, weird colleges


Saturday, August 28, 2021

Review: For Your Own Good by Samatha Downing (2021)

For Your Own Good Samatha Downing
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First sentences: 

Entitlement has a particular stench. Pungent, bitter. Almost brutal.

Teddy smells it coming.

This tells you what you need to know about our protagonist, Teddy Crutcher, an English teacher at the elite Belmont Academy. Teaching the children of very wealthy parents means that Teddy doesn’t have to look far to find entitlement and, if there is one thing that offends him, it’s people who don’t meet his standards. Any exhibition of what Teddy perceives as entitlement — such as asking for extra credit —and someone, including fellow teachers, will have to be humbled. For Their Own Good. Ending up on Teddy’s legendary “shit list” can doom a student as we see. Teddy is supremely confident that he knows what’s  best for the students and the school and if a few bodies fall along the way, well, needs must. 


Teddy has his own personal issue with entitlement. He thinks he is entitled to more recognition. He resents the status afforded faculty who were also students at Belmont, a status to which he isn’t entitled. He does find some solace in his Teacher of the Year plaque that he displays prominently in his classroom and makes sure that it can’t be overlooked during a parent-teacher conference. As Teacher of the Year, Teddy will be delivering the main address at the annual memorial celebration, where he is certain he will shine in front of all the important people.


I didn’t care for Downing’s first book, My Lovely Wife; for me, it doesn’t live up to the promise and hype. With this, her third  book, Downing is firmly on my “watch for” list of authors. Her talent for delivering dark themes is really brought home for me in For Your Own Good. It is a darkly fun read and her depiction of the acerbic and snarky Teddy Crutcher is delicious. He is the teacher you love to hate. I’m wondering if “Crutcher” is a sort of Dickensian name but haven’t yet decided if it works on that level.


Besides Teddy, the story mainly follows three characters: Zach Ward, a student, whose parents got him on Crutcher’s shit list though Zach is quite a good student; bubbly Sonia Benjamin, teacher and Belmont alumna who violates one of Teddy’s sins of entitlement; and Courtney Ross who is actually a favored student but has her own problems because of Crutcher and whose lot is not helped by her overbearing mother. The action shifts mostly among these characters. There are two other characters that I would rather not mention because of possible spoilers.


I enjoyed the way Downing structured For Your Own Good. I’d say it’s propelled by “cascading events”. Something happens that causes something else to happen then that something has to be fixed. Teddy finds himself making adjustments so that the events he sets in motion meet his desired goals. She paces out her revelations well and also plants a clue that appears so minor at the time but has a lovely payoff.


I enjoyed everything about this book: the characters, the plot, the structure, the dark humor, the setting, the shifts in perspective. Oh, and you learn a bit about botany along the way. It was just the kind of book I needed to read.


I’ve just started reading Downing’s second book, He Started It, and it already promises to deliver another well plotted dark story.


Keywords: dark humor, crime fiction, academic fiction


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