The Quick, by Lauren Owen

The Quick, by Lauren Owen
Publisher: Random House
ASIN: B00H4EM4WW
528 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

Lauren Owen’s debut novel is a difficult one to assign a rating. Overall it is an above-average book and will be of interest to many readers. However, the enjoyment of it I think will vary quite substantially from reader to reader, in a not-too-easy to predict fashion. If the plot (including the ‘twist’) is something you find intriguing, you should definitely check this out. It is extremely well-written and Gothic-moody, but its execution and the ultimate direction of its plot may cause some frustrations.

Some have considered discussion of what this book is about to be a spoiler. Given the implications of the title, I don’t take this to be the case. Though not mentioned in the novel’s summary ‘blurb’, I think it unfair to try and rope people into reading a story they may have no interest in. Knowing what the story ultimately about doesn’t spoil much, in fact it probably makes the surprise transition from the first third of the book to the remainder far easier to go along with. So without further ado, if you REALLY REALLY don’t want to know anything more about the novel, you’ll have to stop reading.

Potential Spoilers Follow

“The Quick” starts off as a fabulously engrossing Gothic story about a secret society, and of a sister and brother living in a large empty home in the absence of their parents, under the care of a servant as their father is away. The first third of the novel focuses upon the brother, grown up and at university, as he makes roommates, friends, and eventually romantic ties with a gentleman he meets there. Throughout this portion of the book the story is filled with a literary richness, excellent characterization, continued foreboding Gothic tensions, and drives forward certain expectations on how one suspects the plot may unfold.

These expectations are then shattered when tragedy strikes and the focus of the novel shifts to bring in the identity of this secret society brought up back in the prologue. Vampires. The remainder of the novel is a story about vampires, what the society is about, why they have done what they’ve done, and what the ramifications will be for both the brother and the sister. After a portion of the novel written in the form of diary by a man associated with the vampire society (to explain their characteristics and background history to the reader) the novel continues the ‘action’ of the plot by shifting back to the sister, who now arrives in search of her brother.

The dual focus, split in the book, between the brother and the sister is not a major problem. With the sudden plot twist of bringing in vampires, this split focus is perfectly valid. The shattering of reader expectations based on the first third of the book isn’t even necessarily a bad thing. It’s great to have cliched expectations shattered. The problem becomes when one potential expected plotline is simply replaced with another completely different one that begins to feel even more cliched and predictable. Sadly, I feel this is largely what happens with “The Quick”.

Vampire novels have been done to death. Here it is made somewhat unique by giving it a strong classic literary and Gothic style as opposed to the more recent takes on the subject. The addition of these vampires in an organized society led by one particularly visionary individual gives the vampire plotline even greater potential to take on something new in this novel. This individual does not merely look on the normal “Quick” humanity with ambivalence or disdain. Rather he views them with a sort of pity, claiming a desire to use the society’s powers and influence to not simply survive and feed, but to try and find ways to improve and better humankind. This is a very interesting concept.

Unfortunately, the concept is never developed. Instead the novel becomes a rather standard (though consisting of great prose) novel of fighting against the vampire society’s plans. The supposed ‘well-meaning’ intentions of the vampire leader turn out to be disingenuous, mainly a victim of power corrupting, turning him into a typical vampire monster and thereby negating any potential exploration of a vampire doing great things while also having to rely on predation.

Those who simply adore well written Gothic novels, fans of vampire fiction, and the like will enjoy this book greatly, even if they don’t love it. Those unsuspecting and disinterested in the vampire plot may feel misled, and those that fell in love with the literary beauty of the first third of the novel may become disappointed by its turn into rather predictable genre fiction, albeit with a continued ‘literary’ style of prose.

Three Stars out of Five

The Tyrant’s Daughter, by J.C. Carleson

The Tyrant’s Daughter, by J.C. Carleson
Publisher: Random House
ASIN: B00EMXBD9S
304 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast of NPR Books and someone mentioned that young adult books often focus on how the actions of adults affect the lives of children, but rarely how children drive the lives of parents or other adults. That made me think about this novel and how Carleson’s work follows both directions of impact. The majority of this novel is about how the life of Laila (and the lives of her fellow young) are dictated by their family and culture. Yet, the novel also addresses the lack of freedom inherent even in the lives of the adults, whether they be parent, dictator, or (apparent) CIA officer. Furthermore the novel is that coming-of-age tale where the child begins to exert more freedom and actually turn the tables of control over so that they are now steering the course of their parent’s life.

I finished “The Tyrant’s Daughter in one day. It is an ‘easy’ read, but it is also full of great ideas, intriguing characters, and compelling plots. The story is profound and it is populated with realistic people; the text flows naturally. Nothing in this book seems superfluous, and Carleson nicely makes use of her personal experience to craft a taut thriller amid the literary underpinnings of Laila’s story.

I appreciated just how well this novel mixes entertainment with significance, conflict with insight. This is a book I would have enjoyed even when younger.

Five Stars out of Five

Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

10112885Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 140006788X
602 pages, hardcover
Published August 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

A novel that combines cult cinema with a literary thriller, I had high hopes when winning this one and it didn’t disappoint. I hadn’t read Pessl before or even heard of her previous novel, which received many accolades, but after this I’m excited about reading more of her.

I intentionally read this one slowly, savoring it in the darkest hours of night, relishing the mysteries and eerieness of its pages. For its length, it’s actually a quick read, but I found that leaving the story at various points despite wanting to know the truth behind it all as much as the protagonist only added to the novel’s haunting power.

Night Film is hauntingly real, yet on the fringe of bizarre and disbelief, much like the films of the fictional director the story centers around. Having watched cult films for years, even searching for those rarities that are spoken of with reverence and whispers of warning: a film banned for being too intense, a film surrounded by stories of oddities and curses. This is the world of the characters of Night Film.

The mood and realism of Night Film is augmented by the novel’s inclusion of faux web pages. letters, and other items that are interspersed in chunks at various points. At first I looked at this with wariness that it was a gimmick, and it is arguable that their inclusion is unnecessary – that the information within them could have been conveyed within the ‘normal’ text of the novel. Yet, I realize not without the same effect on the reader. Nothing compares to a chilling phrase ending a paragraph followed by turning the page to a creepy photograph.

The plot you can gather from the blurb, and to give any more details would spoil the book. Suffice it to say the novel proceeds on several levels through layers and layers of partial truths and shadows. At the end the protagonist and reader are given an answer, but much like the films of the fictional director in the story, those answers will have a certain measure of ambiguity. What is important, is the journey to them.

While Night Film is dark, and creepy, it is not scary. It is not pessimistically dark, it is not sad. It is just an extremely effective atmospheric thriller that resides on the edges of the supernatural and the unknown. In some ways it is like a Stephen King story – though a very different writing style. The absolute highlight of the novel comes toward the end in a series of chapter-less pages describing a harrowing journey into the heart of the novel’s themes and structure. The rest of the novel was enjoyable, this part was just utterly wonderful.

With mysterious characters and subtle revelations made throughout the novel it is also a book that could be reread with a fresh take and appreciation. It’s curious to wonder how filmable the book would be, given its subject. It may be possible, but I think it could take a director like the one invented here to pull it off.

I hope Pessl writes future novels like this one, or that she is just as talented dealing with other themes or styles. Heartily recommend.

Five Stars out of Five