The first was Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk, given to me by latropita. I had loved both Fight Club and Lullaby (the latter of which I got signed by Chuck Palahniuk), so I was looking forward to this one. Out of the three I've read, I like it the least, but that doesn't mean it's not really good.
One problem is that it has the least likable narrator. Victor Mancini is a sex addict (who describes his sex acts in great detail) who fakes choking in restaurants so that other people will "save" him and feel responsible for him and send him money that he uses to pay for his mother's hospital care. He's kind of a loathsome guy, but he's also incredibly self-loathing. Unlike Fight Club and Lullaby, which I felt had a very strong narrative drive, Choke is largely plotless; you never really know where it's going, or that it's going anywhere. It's mostly Victor's internal monologue, his commentary on society, how he feels about himself, his memories of growing up. It's a collection of thematics hanging on a thin narrative thread. The choking thing, which I thought was a major part of the book (look at the title!), is mostly in the background, barely important. So part of my initial disappointment about the book was the Vegemite Effect.
Although the narrative structure seemed to be a departure for Palahniuk, the writing was vintage Chuck, filled with all his hallmarks. You know how he writes. You know he likes the repetitive phrases. They either work for you or annoy you, sometimes both.
The book was enjoyable and funny enough, but I just wasn't feeling it. Until the end. The ending really pulled the book together for me and made me appreciate it as a whole so much more. I don't want to say why because I think, as I do about most stories, that it has more impact if you're not expecting it. I'm not talking about some OMG TWIST ENDING thing. The final chapter, the closing images, the last sentence, the ultimate message...it stays with you.
(I have no fucking idea how they made a movie out of this. We'll have to see. Sam Rockwell! Kelly Macdonald! Anjelica Huston!)
The second book was Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn, recommended to me by evilstmars. Gillian Flynn is a former Entertainment Weekly writer, and while I have no memory of anything she specifically wrote, I do love Entertainment Weekly. If you're looking to creep yourself out without even knowing you're doing it, this is the book for you. It's very disturbing but in an understated way. Everything is very grounded, and nothing is over-the-top; you feel like you're reading about real people, like this could have really happened.
The story revolves around a journalist, Camille Preaker, who reluctantly goes back to her hometown to investigate a couple child murders. The town of Wind Gap is one of those small towns that seems idyllic on the surface until you start listening to all the gossip and discover the human nastiness that lies beneath the surface. And, again, it's not like this place has some ridiculous Big Secret like they're sacrificing out-of-towners or something. It's just...regular stuff.
But Camille is FULL OF ANGST OMG. First of all, she used to be a cutter, and not just any old cutter: she cut words into her skin. It's a neat little narrative gimmick that allows the author to give character insight by simply mentioning related words on her body. Second, her little sister died when she was younger. Her mom is an acerbic, unloving bitca. Her half-sister is a wild child. Her stepdad is barely there. Flynn has no desire to put the fun back in dysfunctional. But a lot of the book focuses on Camille's attempts to better understand her mother and sister after having left them so many years ago.
The murder mystery is just a vehicle for the real story, which is about Camille's family and the town of Wind Gap. You sort of figure out who the murderer is along with Camille; there's no magic "Aha!" moment. It's not that kind of book.
Hell, Stephen King called it an "admirably nasty piece of work, elevated by sharp writing and sharper insights." Even Stephen King got creeped out by this book! That's when you know you've won.
One day, I'll read a happy book.