Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review: Broken Harbour (Dublin Murder Squad, #4) by Tana French

First published:- 2012

Read in:- June, 2014

Star rating:-

There are certain things I pride myself on - the ability to read through a tremendous racket without losing my thread of concentration, the audacity to share my blasphemous distaste for pizzas with pizza worshippers who then proceed to shoot me death glares, and more pertinently, the way I don't balk at rating a piece of mainstream literature 5 stars if it has shown the grit to discard gimmickry and preserve that golden human touch. 

How ingeniously Tana French subverts the formulaic plotting of a 'psychological thriller', poking and prodding at the darkness we prefer to bury under the gloss of make-believe contentment until it becomes a threat of gargantuan proportions. How masterfully she paints this picture of a family marooned at the thin divide between normalcy and utter chaos, dangling precariously from the edge of oblivion. How mercilessly she concocts such a heart-wrenching tragedy where the lines between culpability and innocence are blurred to the point that both merge into a single entity, where the victims are just as unwittingly drawn to the dark side as the perpetrators and the ones entrusted with the task of rectifying the wrongs done. 

Sometimes the ugliness of visible reality is nothing but the tip of the iceberg and the truth is like a lightning bolt from the blue, capable of shattering the glass mansion of denial we prefer to live in. The truth runs much deeper, past the shallow defenses offered by skin and flesh, inexorably slicing through our bones.

"In that moment I thought of Broken Harbor: of my summer haven, awash with the curves of water and the loops of seabirds and the long falls of silver-gold light through sweet air; of muck and craters and raw-edged walls where human beings had beat their retreat. For the first time in my life, I saw the place for what it was: lethal, shaped and honed for destruction..."

'Broken Harbour' is about the proverbial monsters of our own creation lurking in the shadows biding their time to harm what we cherish the most, the slow disintegration of that 'good life' we have put together bit by bit and how sometimes cause does not precede effect. And it is a sad acknowledgement of the fact that a horrendous fate may lie in ambush for the sinless and unsuspecting. 

For the ones who steer clear of 'murder mystery novels' for their stereotypical compartmentalization of crime and detective work, I dare you to read this particular Tana French creation and remain unaffected.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Review: The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad, #2) by Tana French

First published:- 2008

Star rating:-

Read in:- March, 2014

"We had worked together seamlessly, she and I. I had drawn her to this house, this life, every bit as neatly and surely as she had drawn me."

Tana French knows how to conjure up the most charmingly creepy characters out of thin air like nobody's business - damaged individuals who go about life like sentient, breathing time bombs about to go off and leave a trail of wreckage consisting of wounded hearts and shattered illusions in the wake of their committed mistakes. Call this tale of blurred identities a flight of her fancy where the basic premise induces one eye-roll after another. Call this The Secret History redux. Call this anything at all. But a beautifully worded commentary on the unpredictability of human behavior will remain as unputdownable under any other name, all criticisms notwithstanding.

A murdered girl with a fake identity made up and used by an undercover cop and her superior years ago, and that same undercover cop destined to unravel the mystery of her murder by pretending to be the dead girl brought to life - who are we kidding here? All of this sounds ridiculous on several levels.

But hey it's Tana French! When she tells you a story, you deferentially suspend disbelief, snuggle into the comfort of your blanket, and read till you hear the first bird gleefully chirping outside your window signalling the onset of yet another morning.

'The Likeness' is a story about people who breach forbidden boundaries in search of the ultimate freedom, refuse to fit into some generic, pre-determined cog in the wheel of society and develop a hermetically sealed, secretive world of their very own where no outside forces are allowed to operate. And it depicts how this painstakingly achieved state of domestic harmony comes apart at the seams when the personal needs of an individual jeopardize the unity of the close-knit group. Thus in the same vein as its predecessor, 'The Likeness' ingeniously utilizes its characters and events to introspect on the fallout of human foibles. But it is important to note here that it is not much of a standalone mystery. It is essential that readers acquaint themselves with the happenings of the first book in the series to grasp the motivations behind our headstrong, kickass female protagonist's actions and the fragile state of her mind. 

It has been 6 months since the spectacularly eerie and depressing events of 'In the Woods' and Operation Vestal blew up in the face of Detectives Rob and Cassie, damaging their relationship beyond any hope of salvation, and leaving them with emotional scars that run much deeper than they care to admit to themselves. Cassie has moved from the Murder Squad to Domestic Violence, Rob is stuck in some other unknown branch of the police department, both no longer on speaking terms. In the midst of this irredeemable mess, a baffling murder case surfaces where the victim resembles Cassie down to her last lock of hair and carries an alias Cassie had used years ago on an undercover drug bust and gotten rid of later on. With no leads to follow and the mystery over the girl's true identity steadily deepening, Cassie decides to revisit her undercover roots (much to the chagrin of her gentle and considerate detective boyfriend Sam O'Neill) by masquerading as the victim, who somehow survived the assault, and returning to the secluded Whitethorn House with its assortment of 4 other inhabitants who are all PhD students of Trinity like Lexie, the murdered girl. Cassie aka Lexie's return under extraordinary circumstances triggers a set of curious events which, in turn, reveal alarming aspects of the lives of the 5 students whose closeness not only hints at something inexplicably disturbing but reveals darker sides of their past lives.

To be fair, this installment of the Dublin Murder Squad series is slightly underwhelming compared to Ms French's brilliant debut. None of the occurrences narrated are as bone-chilling or spooky and an awareness of the wafer thin nature of the logic presented creeps in once in a while. The very Secret History-ish list of ensemble characters (Daniel is Henry, Justin is Francis, Rafe is a cross between Charles and Bunny while Lexie and Abby have shades of Camilla in themselves) evoke a keen sense of déjà vu and the ending disappoints since the emotional aftermath of the crime(s) is much less affecting here compared to the climax of 'In the Woods', which begs the question why I have still rated this 4 stars despite the flaws. 

A good way to answer this question will be to put my finger on French's accurate reconstruction of that feather light feeling of not being tethered to worldly considerations yet and that firm, transient belief in the fact that we'll always remain young and invincible, forever unyielding to civilization's ruthless demands - the wonderful friendships of student life which slip right through our grasp and melt away into oblivion like treacherous mirages as 'real life' hurls one gauntlet after another our way. And it is this thoughtful portrayal of that unavoidable tragedy, of having to grow up and grow out of the optimism of youth, that all of us eventually experience at some point of time which tugs at the heartstrings the most and transforms 'The Likeness' into more of an homage to the intrigue and vigor of youth from just a preternatural murder mystery.

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

First published:- August, 2014

Published by:-Viking Adult

Star rating:- 

Few other books have conjured up the ghost of my teenage years as successfully as this one, dredged up the hazy remembrance of that first, most agonizing heartbreak, the subsequent amateurish cynicism summoned up to preclude the hassle of emotional hangups and the feeling of having only just the foggiest notion of how the world works.

It is awe-inspiring how Tana French continues to incorporate such authentic sociocultural commentary into narratives which are usually taken to be written for the sole sake of providing cheap thrills. So blame her if I end up sounding like a smitten fangirl every time I review a book of hers. She is just that good even when she is writing out a logically fallacious scenario.

The teenage girls of 'The Secret Place' are much more than what C-grade teenybopper flicks and stereotype-riddled YA books make them out to be. They are capable of as much cruelty as kindness, as much self-sacrifice as vindictive selfishness. Here, the conniving, bitchy and backstabbing blonde isn't a cardboard cutout 'mean girl' symbolizing pure evil just as the archetypal good girls aren't as puritan. And a private boarding school turns into a zone of ineluctable conflict of interest where the realm of the personal frequently dovetails into that of the collective forming the intricate web of high school politics which implicitly governs the place.

...a place like this is riddled with secrets but their shells are thin and it's crowded in here, they get bashed and jostled against each other; if you're not super-careful, then sooner or later they crack open and all the tender flesh comes spilling out.

More impressive is how the four girls who lie at the heart of the mystery do not let their budding sexualities define their lives, or even sacrifice individuality on the altar of some contrived requisites of 'coolness' which teenagers are prone to do since rarely do they know any better at that age. Instead, they defy odds to carve out a private utopia for themselves, a clique which doesn't require the glue of some common ideology to survive - a secret place neatly tucked away in an obscure corner of their minds where they can be wholly unabashed of the unflattering sides to their personalities, sure of the fact that they will have each other's backs even when the world goes to pieces. 

...the whole point of the vow was for none of them to have to feel like this. The point was for one place in their lives to be impregnable. For just one kind of love to be stronger than any outside thing; to be safe.

In a way, the narrative of friendship and loyalty in the aftermath of a terrible crime is reminiscent of an earlier book in the series -The Likeness - which in turn was inspired by Donna Tartt's The Secret History. So fans of any of the former will be sucked right in even if they may have reservations about stories involving teenagers, specially teenage girls who are forever being dumbed down by writers looking to make a quick buck. Ms French here, true to her gift for impeccable characterization, adds many dimensions to their personalities. 

As the common refrain goes, calling books of the Dublin Murder Squad series mere 'crime novels' is almost like an outrageous insult. And this one's certainly no exception in this regard. There are two parallel 'before' and 'after' narratives devoted to uncovering the truth of the same murder. A story of the tragic collapse of a close-knit group of teenage girls who, even while trapped in the complicated tangle of sexual politics, fight to ward off influences which threaten to destroy their fortress of solitude. A celebration of the bond of friendship, how powerful and all-consuming an affair it can be and how unpredictably it can turn dangerous and even life-threatening. And, in the end, a poignant tribute to those charged years of adolescence, a unique phase of our lives we look back on with equal parts terror and fondness.

They are a forever, a brief and mortal forever, a forever that will grow into their bones and be held inside them after it ends, intact, indestructible.
**I received an ARC from Viking Adult via Netgalley**

Also posted on Goodreads and Amazon.

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