Book Talk: The Girl With A Clock For A Heart (Peter Swanson, 2014)

TGWACFAH“What if your college sweetheart, the girl of your dreams, suddenly disappeared? Twenty years later she’s back, she’s in trouble and she says you are the only one who can help her…”

That’s the blurb from the back cover of Peter Swanson’s The Girl With A Clock For A Heart and I will openly admit that it didn’t necessarily grab me by the throat. After all, years of consuming books, movies and videogames have probably desensitised me to most blurbs. Nevertheless, that same veteran imagination had been pleasantly surprised by the excellent The Kind Worth Killing so I had already decided to work through the rest of Swanson’s back catalogue, beginning here.

Straight out of the gates, I will say that I didn’t think this book was quite as enthralling as The Kind Worth Killing but that’s saying a lot when that book was sooooo good. This one is still a real page-turner. George Foss is just your average guy living a predictable, unexciting life; a fact that he is very much aware of and has come to terms with. Routine is turned on its head however when he chances upon his old college flame, Liana Decter. What should be a pleasant encounter is thrown into question however because Liana had pulled a vanishing act twenty years ago after involving George in a tangled web of deceit that concluded with George discovering that his girlfriend had likely killed on more than one occasion. George should stay the hell away from Liana – this he knows – but she represents a time in George’s life when he felt alive and the future hadn’t seemed so mundane. Not to mention the fact that Liana is incredibly beautiful and bewitching or that George has been searching for her on and off ever since, having never really gotten over what they’d had.

Against better judgment, George makes contact with Liana and finds himself once again embroiled in a dangerous, cryptic game of Liana’s doing. George is torn between preserving his own life – by rejecting Liana and the trouble she brings – and helping her, fuelled by the naive hope that she might just stick around this time. George has always been hurt, emotionally and physically, by Liana and her accompanying drama but at the same time, he finds himself powerless to refuse her. She is a sweet poison that he can’t fully expel from his life and part of him doesn’t want to.

“While she paid the check, Liana walked past again. This time George could stare at her retreating figure, that familiar walk. She had grown into her body too. George thought she’d been his ideal in college, but if anything she looked better now: long tapering legs and exaggerated curves, the kind of body that only genetics, not exercise, will ever get you. The backs of her arms were pale as milk”

The book hooks the reader by keeping them guessing and providing endless questions. What did Liana do in the past that was so bad? Why has she used multiple aliases throughout her life? What happened to her relationship with George? Most importantly, what does she truly want this time? Is she all she seems? The answers are drip-fed as the book alternates between past and present, neither timeline giving everything up until the parallel stories begin to explain one another and current events make greater sense in light of revelations from the past. I really enjoyed this structure and couldn’t put the book down as I simply had to find out what happened next. The opening prologue is pretty clever too because it actually forms part of the book’s finale (and you will see a good chunk of it repeated there to bring the book full-circle). At the outset however, it makes little sense other than acting as one of several hooks to snag a reader.

As with The Kind Worth Killing, Swanson shows his affection for the femme fatale. Liana is beautiful, slippery and masterfully manipulative. She gets what she wants and is rarely as she seems. Whenever George thinks he has her figured out or second-guessed, she surprises him again…and again and again. She is aware of her power over him but is she consciously abusing that power without harbouring any sort of romantic feelings towards George? Was what they had in college real? Does she love George at all in spite of how she moves him about like a chess piece?

I personally love the femme fatale archtype whether it’s calculating, manipulative women like Liana Decter, cold wet-work experts or mentally shaky psychopaths. I gave The Girl With A Clock For A Heart and Swanson extra points for another fascinating, mystery-shrouded female that you would want to ward off while you lusted after them.

“There was still some part of George that wanted to believe that Liana was innocent, that she was not behind the robbery and the murder. He wanted to believe this not because he thought she wasn’t capable of such crimes, but because he hoped she wasn’t capable of using him for those purposes. Just as George had always stayed a little bit in love with Liana, he hoped that she had always stayed a little bit in love with him”

My only criticism of the book is that the ending doesn’t quite live up to the twisty nature of the book as a whole. It feels as if the book blows its load a little too prematurely; not so early as to spoil the fun but a little sooner than I would have liked. The puzzle pieces are mostly all in place at a little over three-quarters distance and after a dramatic endgame for the main characters, the final explanations are delivered in a fairly flat fashion that somehow makes the unpredictable events seem obvious and no longer so wild. The conclusion also appears to set up for a potential sequel but I’m not convinced that a follow-up would work or is at all necessary for that matter.

That said however, I did enjoy The Girl With A Clock For A Heart and it certainly sustained my interest in Peter Swanson’s books. If you enjoy thrillers that go for a modern day noir feel with relatable characters, constant suspense and a sexy femme fatale then you will be well-served here. This was an addictive read that was difficult for me to put down and that’s usually all I need to recommend a book.

Movie Talk: Heat (1995)

Heat-Poster-1Release Year: 1995     Directed By: Michael Mann   |   Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Ashley Judd, Amy Brenneman, Kevin Gage, Natalie Portman, Dennis Haysbert, Danny Trejo, Jon Voight

[Not to be confused with “The Heat” (2013) or Heat (1986), Heat (1972), Heat (1996 Australian TV film)…how many times has this name been used? Jeez…]

I’ll go ahead and begin by stating that Heat is my favourite movie of all-time. It hadn’t used to be; that honour tended to switch between Terminator 2 and the first Kill Bill. Each time I re-watched Michael Mann’s crime masterpiece however, it crept up the order until I decided that, fuck it, Heat may as well be my favourite movie. I can’t say enough good things about it.

The film centres on professional thief, Neil McCauley (De Niro) and determined LAPD homicide detective, Lt. Vincent Hanna (Pacino). Both are dysfunctional individuals with their own code and the cat-and-mouse game between these two main players of the movie is one of its main draws. McCauley heads up a proven crew of organised thieves and is a loner by nature, living with the philosophy of not having anything in your life “that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner”. For McCauley, making the big scores is his life and all he wants to do. Hanna on the other hand is a workaholic cop that puts his job first at all times, even at the expense of his increasingly frustrated wife (Diane Venora) and step-daughter (Natalie Portman). Hanna is determined to take McCauley and his crew down and is unable to avoid putting the hunt aside to rescue his marriage.

The thing I absolutely love about Heat is that there are no irrelevant, filler scenes or dull moments – quite an achievement for a film that goes beyond the two-hour mark. Even the scenes that involve characters simply talking are enthralling because the writing and characterisation is brilliant. Obviously, the stars are De Niro and Pacino but the supporting cast are just an important. From the crazy Waingro (Kevin Gage) to the disillusioned Donald (Dennis Haysbert), there are so many memorable performances. Then there are the women who have to suffer for the actions and decisions of their other halves – just one of many subtle plot threads woven together to produce the epic tapestry that is Heat.

Another notable bit of genius is that it’s impossible not to like the characters no matter if they are good-hearted and innocent like Eady (Amy Brenneman), psychotic and violent like Waingro or greedy and unsavoury (most of the criminals). Heat is a character piece as much as it is a crime thriller or action movie and it feels natural to understand where everybody – good or bad – is coming from. Many of the characters blur the line between being wholly good or bad and this is probably what makes them so endearing as this is what it means to truly be human. We viewers may not partake in anything as dramatic as holding up armoured cars or putting big-time crooks behind bars but we can still relate to the characters and their motivations.

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[Source]
The action scenes are another highlight of Heat, particularly the gun battle in downtown LA as McCauley’s crew attempt to escape following their carefully-planned bank heist gone wrong. This kind of scene just wouldn’t exist today for many reasons. First up, there are no unrealistic and unnecessary explosions or dynamic action shots. There’s no music either. What you get is a group of guys simply trying to get away, using cars as cover while shooting at the LAPD, deafening bursts of assault rifle fire echoing off the buildings. It’s exactly what a real-life version of this scene would sound like and I’ve even read that their tactical retreat was used as a reference for police or military training (though how true this is, I can’t say). The whole thing feels raw and natural and is totally immersive.

The final showdown between McCauley and Hanna is another scene that would never be permitted today. Hanna gives chase to a desperate McCauley across the runways of LAX, even running across the path of a taxiing passenger plane at one point. As I understand, this kind of filming is now strictly prohibited in a post-9/11 world which is a shame but completely understandable.

Heat is a masterpiece of scripting backed up by superb performances from all actors involved. Every set-piece, every action scene and every conversation is special. I know I’m probably gushing over this fim and I haven’t said anything bad about it but really, I can’t think of anything. If you’ve somehow missed it then you should really rectify that mistake because – as cliched as it sounds – they really don’t make ’em like this anymore.

Book Talk: The Kind Worth Killing (Peter Swanson, 2015)

worth1Upon finishing The Kind Worth Killing, all I could think was “wow”. Granted, my buzzing response to this book could well be down to the fact that my fiction intake has been 90% Stephen King over the past few years. Am I perhaps overreacting and viewing Peter Swanson’s thriller as ‘fresh’ just because it’s something different written in a different author’s style? I won’t rule out the possibility but the fact is that I seriously enjoyed this book and couldn’t put it down. I devoured it like a starving man presented with a McDonalds.

The Kind Worth Killing was first published in 2015 and it has been on my radar ever since I read a magazine recommendation (FHM of all places…). It’s taken me four years to get around to picking up a copy but it was well worth it. The basic premise sold to me by that magazine recommendation is that Ted Beaumont is on his way back to the US when his flight is delayed. He meets a beautiful stranger – Lily Kintner – in the airport bar and they agree to play a game. Since they agree that they will never see each other again, they decide to take it in turns to reveal absolute truths about themselves, no matter how personal. Ted reveals that he knows his wife has been cheating on him and jokes that he wants to kill her.

After hearing his story, Lily takes Ted aback by revealing her view that the death of a person such as Ted’s wife is no loss to the world and she even offers to help him do the dirty work. What begins as a random airport meeting and a flippant musing about Ted’s wife’s adultery rapidly escalates into plotting an actual murder. Ted is initially on the fence and inwardly concerned at how easily he agrees to murder his wife but his misgivings don’t last long. After all, Miranda has suckered him in with calm lies and expert manipulation to get at his wealth. For Lily’s part, she has killed before – several times in fact. Ted doesn’t know this but suspects it and continues to go along with her anyway. The fact that Lily is described as being incredibly beautiful in a delicate, waif-like way probably helps. It’s clear that Ted is fascinated by Lily and falling in love with her even as they plan a murder.

“What I really want to do is kill her” I smiled with my gin-numbed mouth and attempted a little wink just to give her an opportunity to not believe me, but her face stayed serious. She lifted her reddish eyebrows.

“I think you should” she said, and I waited for some indication that she was joking, but nothing came. Her stare was unwavering.

I can’t go into much more of the plot without spoiling it and it really is a story that doesn’t deserve to be spoilt. Each chapter switches between the different perspectives of the characters, initially limited to Ted’s present and Lily’s recollection of her past. These perspectives are from a first-person standpoint so the reader becomes a guest of the characters’ headspace and privy to their true motivations and views of the other main characters. The book is broken into three main acts with each act climaxing in some big twists. The end of the first act for example turns the entire book on its head and leaves you wondering just what else is going to happen. Plenty of surprises, double-crosses and didn’t-see-that-coming developments follow. As a result, I found it incredibly hard to put The Kind Worth Killing down and regardless of any other reason(s) for why I enjoyed it so much, that is a cast-iron sign of a good read in my opinion.

Swanson does a great job of making you like bad people. This book has several unsavoury characters and rotten personalities and even though I wanted some of them to get their just desserts, I was no less fascinated by them. Lily in particular was the star of the book for me. Calm, calculated, somewhat aloof and with a very different regard for life, she would probably be described as psychotic by our society. The fact that she has already killed several people and isn’t particularly perturbed by her actions would cement this. However, through Lily’s own perspectives in the book, you get to know her and even sympathise with her motives. She is dangerous and clinical but at the same time, I couldn’t help rooting for her to the end. It also made me ponder on the subject of beautiful psychos in fiction and cinema and why we – men – are so attracted to them despite what they are capable of. That’s a topic for another post though.

There were only a few criticisms that I levelled at The Kind Worth Killing but it wouldn’t be a review if I gushed over the book without mentioning them. The first is that it’s difficult to relate to the characters because most seem to be incredibly wealthy with little of the surface level hardship in their lives that us ‘normal’ folk battle against day-to-day. This didn’t detract from my liking for the book’s cast but it also felt very convenient and and a little unrealistic. Speaking of unrealistic, a lot of the events that happen in the book are incredibly far-fetched and people get away with so much, so easily. Obviously this is fiction so realism has to take a backseat to a degree but when the book is set in the real world and dealing with crime and murder, then the ease at which plans are made and successfully followed through does stick out a bit.

Those minor gripes aside, The Kind Worth Killing is a genuine page-turner that I can’t recommend enough. If you love thrillers and villainous characters that you can’t help but love then this is for you. If you want to be kept guessing and unable to predict what happens next then this is also for you. I will definitely be looking for Peter Swanson’s other books after this.