Raw (2016)

Movie–Justine, lifelong vegetarian, comes from a family tradition of vegetarian veterinarians (try saying that 3 times fast). The movie follows her first days at her new school with her upperclassman older sister and her new roommate, the brutal hazing she and the other freshman endure, and the bloody consequences that ensue. The freshman class is drenched in animal blood à la Carrie and made to eat rabbit liver. Justine is pressured into eating it by her sister, despite their vegetarianism. This proves to be a terrible mistake. Justine finds herself with an sudden and insatiable craving for living tissue: hair, raw chicken cutlets, and even human flesh… The nightmarishly oppressive and clinical atmosphere of her school provides the ghastly backdrop for Justine’s struggle, and inevitable failure, to control her urges.

When this movie was screened at the Toronto film festival, some of the viewers fainted, and it’s not hard to see why. One scene in particular that takes place after a bikini waxing gone wrong is very hard to watch. Also, be aware that this movie is in French with English subtitles in case that’s not your thing. If you like Raw, you might also enjoy the cerebral cannibalism found in Hannibal seasons 1-3.

Version Control by Dexter Palmer

Book–Set in the near future, Palmer’s novel follows Rebecca Wright, a thirty-something recovering alcoholic, and her physicist husband Philip. Philip has been working fruitlessly for many years on a causal volatility device (in layman’s terms, a time machine), and as far as he knows, has not been having much luck. Meanwhile, Rebecca has been having a nagging sense that something is not right; the president is not the right person, her friends’ personalities aren’t quite right, her life isn’t what it should be. Palmer has an interesting take on time travel that, without spoiling anything, powers much of the narrative. For me, the attraction of this book was the depiction of the near-future society, where the president delivers personalized messages to each citizen and cars drive themselves.

While the main character is not, in my opinion, likeable, she is very real and flawed. Palmer’s views on race, gender, marriage, and technology are very much on display here and, regardless of whether you agree with them, they are certainly interesting to read about and only occasionally preachy. Version Control is a perfect sci-fi and literary fiction blend sure to appeal to fans of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.

Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Book–Oliver Ryan, famous children’s book writer, and his loyal wife Alice, who illustrates his books, have a seemingly happy life until one night, after a very good dinner, he hits her, leaves, then comes back to beat her into a coma. The rest of the book is like peeling the layers of an onion. Nugent jumps around in chronology and in viewpoint, each character giving their take on Oliver, their past with him, and why he did it. From his harsh upbringing in a Catholic boarding school, to a fateful summer in France, to his current success, the reader gets more insight into Oliver’s character and motivations with every chapter. By the end, the reader should understand why he did it. Whether you find him sympathetic or a monster is up to you.

Like many books with this structure, it can get a little repetitive. We read tellings of the same scene from so many viewpoints that the details can wear thin by the second character’s take. Also, the story is full of too-convenient coincidences that stretch belief. Nevertheless, I read it in one sitting and found myself sucked in to Unraveling Oliver the way the best domestic thrillers suck you in. While I still found him absolutely monstrous at the end, I could see a different reader coming around to find him at least pitiable, if not sympathetic. This should appeal to people who like the recent spate of compelling Girl novels (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, etc). If you’re looking for your next read, try B. A. Paris’ Behind Closed Doors, or, in fact, any of B. A. Paris‘ domestic thriller novels.

Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough

Book – It is 1888, a hot, murderous summer in London, and Doctor Thomas Bond is assisting the police in their investigations. Inspector Abberline leads the investigation into Jack the Ripper, cutting up prostitutes in Whitechapel, but Dr. Bond is more concerned with another killer, more fastidious, whose victims they pull out of the river in pieces. His anxiety high, Dr. Bond turns to opium to calm his mind, but in the opium dens he meets a foreign priest and a Polish madman, who convince him that the monster stalking London is not entirely human after all.

There are probably dozens of novels about Jack the Ripper being a man possessed by a demon; this is the first I’ve seen where Jack is a footnote to a different monster. (The Thames Torso Killer was real, and really was active at the same time as Jack the Ripper, but for whatever reason he never became as famous.) Dr. Bond is a terrific character, too; wracked by anxiety and drug addiction, he never entirely believes in the supernatural thing that his companions warn him about, but he’s willing to do whatever is necessary to stop the killing. Fans of Hannibal and Alex Grecian’s Scotland Yard series will love this book and its sequel, Murder.

The White Road by Sarah Lotz

Book – Simon Newman has a very niche career – it’s the mid-2000s, and he and his best friend run a website of dark and creepy content. Desperate to attract subscribers for “Journey to the Darkside,” he hires a guide to take him through Cwm Pot, a notorious cave system in Wales where three cavers died in a flood. Simon escapes with his life, if barely; his guide does not.

But one success isn’t enough on the Internet, and the next one has to be bigger and even more dangerous, so Simon signs on to an Everest expedition, hoping to catch some footage of the climbers whose bodies have to be abandoned above 8,000 feet, where it’s too dangerous to try to bring them down. He learns the story of Juliet Michaels, who in the 1990s was trying to become the first woman to climb Everest without bottled oxygen, but perished on the mountain. And in her diary, he finds an eerily familiar story. It seems Juliet was haunted by a lost adventuring partner, just as Simon is. But were they haunted only by memories and regrets, or is there something else out there on the mountain with them?

Sarah Lotz has become my go-to writer for psychological horror: she excels at the kind of atmospheric tension-building that I love. The White Road isn’t seat-of-your-pants scary, but it provides the kind of ambiguous, worrying feeling that I enjoyed so much in, for example, Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. Once you’ve read this, pick up Into Thin Air to see just how real Lotz’s depiction of death on the world’s highest mountain can be.

As I Descended by Robin Talley

imagesBook–Roommates (and secret couple) Maria and Lily are students at the elite boarding school Acheron Academy. The girls excel at academics, extra-curricular activities, and popularity contests, especially Maria. The only problem, from their perspective, is that they are not the very best. Fellow student Delilah Dufrey holds this honor: she is valedictorian, captain of their soccer team, and a shoo-in for homecoming queen. Delilah is also at the top of the list to win the coveted Cawdor Kingsley prize, a full college ride and two years of free grad school to the winner. While none of the girls actually need the money, they all crave the status, and Maria wants to ensure that she gets into Stanford with Lily.

To ensure the prize goes to Maria and to stay together, Lily is willing to do anything, even exploit Maria’s belief in ghosts and the supernatural to convince her that getting the prize is foreordained. What follows is a a full-on, ghost-laden, Shakespearean tragedy that neither girl could have predicted where bad decisions pile on top of each other and lies beget more lies. Like The Tragedy of Macbeth that it’s based on, As I Descended is an exploration of the lengths that the desire for power can drive people to.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

dbd04a03f81f114a28fac1068a273e72Book—  His Bloody Project concerns the murder of a husband, wife, and child in a remote 1800s Scottish highland town. There is no question that local teenager Roderick Macrae is guilty. Framed as a series of historical documents found by the author, Macrae’s fictional descendant, the novel captivates not on the basis of who did the murders, but why he did the murders. We get views of Roderick from his neighbors, his lawyer, the newspapers, his priest, a famed criminal anthropologist of the time, and his own diary, each of them proffering viable explanations . Despite all of this testimony, I was unsure at the end what motivated Macrae and am still spinning theories to explain his reasons.

I was surprised to learn this novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. His Bloody Project has all the drive and atmosphere of a tautly written thriller and is more reminiscent of the documentary Making a Murderer than the literary fare that generally garners Man Booker prizes. If you enjoy this novel, I would recommend others with compelling, unreliable narrators in historical settings, such as The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell.

The Accountant (2016)

Movie – The Accountant opens with a scene of Christian Wolff as a child getting ready to do a puzzle while his parents speak to someone about his condition. As Christian is finishing the puzzle, one piece is missing and Christian has an episode because he cannot take not finishing something. Another autistic girl finds the missing puzzle piece on the floor and gives it to Christian so he can finish his puzzle. This gives the audience a peek into the type of autism Christian may have.

As an adult, Christian is a certified public accountant. He is a high functioning autistic person. Christian lives alone, and goes through life with his routine intact. A very important aspect to Christian’s autism is that he must finish what he starts. If he does not, it can have some very dire affects we see later on in the film. Some of Christian’s clients include heads of large criminal organizations. This causes the US Treasury Department to look into Christian’s work. It also makes Christian and his associate look at a non-criminal client to try to stay off the Treasury Department’s target list. This doesn’t work well as a cover.

The movie is a good opening act for what I am sure will be a series of action movies. It leaves itself open for possible sequels. Though somewhat predictable, the movie gives a small glimpse into one type of autism. One critic from UpRoxx went as far to call Christian Wolff a superhero for autistic kids. I can see it following in the footsteps of the Bourne series and even the more recent John Wick series. Recommended for fans of Ben Affleck, numbers, and action movies. There is some blood but not as gory as other action movies.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

indexBook–Based on some 200 cases of ‘fasting girls’ in the US and Great Britain throughout the 19th century, The Wonder follows Lib Wright, a no-nonsense nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, who is contracted to determine the veracity of the titular Wonder, a young Irish girl named Anna O’Donnell whose family claims she, of her own volition, has not eaten since her birthday several months ago. Together with taciturn nun Sister Michael, the two women watch Anna in shifts, Lib hoping to expose the O’Donnell family as frauds and secure her own reputation back home. Lib begins to realize, though, as she gets closer to Anna, that their watch is rather cruel. If, up until their watch, Anna has been fed in some covert way and their watch has put an end to it, they are complicit in starving Anna. As Anna begins to grow weak with undernourishment, Lib must decide if she will watch Anna’s slow death, as the village seems to wish her to do, or put a stop to it.

Set just after the Great Famine, the reader can easily see how Anna and her family have made a virtue of not eating. A child who claimed to be full quickly would be a source of relief to her struggling parents. The unique setting, religious faith, and a web of irresponsible adults and family secrets conspire to keep Anna trapped in her fasting and it is difficult to read. The reader feels culpable for Anna’s abuse just as Lib does. This intense read combines the richly detailed, thoroughly researched historical fiction that Donoghue is known for with the pulse-pounding immediacy of her 2010 breakthrough hit Room.

The Keep by Jennifer Egan

Book – In a remote castle somewhere in Eastern Europe, a young man joins the crew that’s working on turning the castle into an unplugged resort, a place you can go to really escape from everything. The crew is led by his cousin, who our narrator once abandoned in a cave when they were both children. In prison, a convict begins to write a story, trying desperately to impress the pretty young writing instructor he’s falling in love with. Which one of these stories is real, which one is true? Better not to try to figure it out, but just to go along for the ride – and what a ride it is.

I always enjoy stories with unreliable narrators, and this one has two, which is pretty terrific. The story in the castle is a little surreal and more than a little Gothic; the story in the prison is emotionally complex and exciting – not your usual writing-about-a-writer scenario. And I loved both of them, which is unusual for me; usually in a book with two parallel narratives I strongly prefer one or the other. Jennifer Egan is a strong, compelling writer, and I look forward to exploring more of her books. I’d recommend this to fans of Claire Messud and Haruki Murakami.