Black Chalk

End Date:  November 21

Author:  Christopher J. Yates

Published:  2015

Genre:  Suspense / Thriller

Pages:  352 (paperback)

Selected By:  Lady Esbe

Average Score:  Scoring It Was OK Book

“It was only ever meant to be a game played by six best friends in their first year at Oxford University; a game of consequences, silly forfeits, and childish dares.  But then the game changed: the stakes grew higher and the dares more personal and humiliating, finally evolving into a vicious struggle with unpredictable and tragic results.  Now, fourteen years later, the remaining players must meet again for the final round.  And who knows better than your best friends what would break you?– from the Goodreads summary.

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Gigglemug Reviews

Lady Esbe:Scoring It Was OK Book

First, I would like to apologize to my fellow readers for this selection.  The blurb caught my attention.  Heck, even the first few chapters had me wondering how this would play out.  Unfortunately, I can say it was carried out poorly.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the pace.  I enjoyed the seemingly disjointed telling of the tale, which becomes more apparent as to the reason at the end of the novel.  However, overall, I’m sorely disappointed in the characters, the actual events of the novel and ultimately the resolution.

We are introduced to a hodgepodge group of students in their first term at Oxford (in various schools) that are self-proclaimed outcasts.  You have the charismatic, but off social butterfly of Jolyon.  You also have the obligatory sexist pig who specializes in deflection via humor in Jack.  We have the snooty, manipulative goody two shoes of Emilia.  The obligatory weird artist in Dee is too cliché for words.  The brilliant and diabolical scientist turned stalker in Mark.  Finally, the obligatory self-conscious and always trying to prove himself American in Chad.  Now, any of these characters I would consider “normal” under any circumstance.  However, the author has them try too hard to be different and social outcasts.  In actuality, none of them would be. Then you add in the mysterious “Game Soc” and we have ourselves a very strange and sadistic party.

The novel jumps back and forth in time, to the present as we follow Jolyon’s crazed existence and fourteen years in the past when the quintet first set about to play the “game” that Chad and Jolyon create.  Now this game seems to be a hodgepodge of board game rules and apparatus thrown together (dice, cards, etc).  While they pull all these things together, they never truly explain how the game is played, but I guess that isn’t to be the focus, but what the consequences of losing a round would be.  We can thank Jack for the sadistic turn that the consequences take.  As each round progresses, the consequences become harsher and causes more trauma to the actual players of the game and those who are the subject of said consequence.  Now, the warning given prior to the game beginning by the three wardens (as that’s the only way I can think of them) of Game Soc, is that the game will turn ugly and that friends would no longer trust each other, much less be friends.  Well, with a warning like that, sure, let’s play this game! (Imagine a very false smile and a voice dripping with sarcasm).

What disturbs me so about this book and causes the most discontent is that the characters are so flat.  There is no growth by anyone, unless you call basically becoming agoraphobic, growth.  *****SPOILER ALERT***** >>>  Jolyon is always striving to be liked and the center of attention.  He doesn’t like conflict all that much and quite frankly, he’s a self-centered little snot, who plays the victim throughout.  Chad will always be the socially awkward American, who doesn’t quite fit in and attempts to be “in” with his crowd.  He’s constantly disappointed and even until the end he can’t seem to best his favorite rival.  Emilia absolutely wracked my nerves from the word go with the batting of the eyelashes and attempting to exert her will through her feminine charms.  Even after her exit from the game, she still attempts to manipulate Jolyon and Chad with her trite attempts.  As for Dee, oh Dee, poor “I want to be a weird artist” Dee, she’s basically an emo child who is trying so desperately to be so tragic, but she comes off like a laughable attempt of angst filled child (think Justin Bieber).  Jack, well, Jack is there for comic relief; at least, that is my hope.  He’s biting, sarcastic and downright the epitome of someone covering for their “shortcomings”.  Finally, there is Mark.  At one point, I thought Mark was the most sane of them.  However, being a bitter loser, he reminds me of so many stories you see on ID Network, where things don’t go as someone plans and then they become a stalker.  Even for the sake of revenge, of a perceived wrong, it was just too much.  <<< *****END SPOILER*****

This book was meant to be a psychological thriller and quite frankly it fell wildly short.  It was easy to see where the author was headed at each turn.  It was easy to foretell who would be who’s bane of existence and their motivations.  However, the haphazard explanation of Game Soc, it’s purpose and the reason they exist was woefully lacking.  If this book’s course and plotting had been there, I would have finished it in a matter of a day or two.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  I had to drag myself through it.  When I read, I did enjoy the writer’s style of writing and pace.  However, the story itself left me annoyed.  In fact, I finished yesterday and started over a week ago, this is unusual for me when the book isn’t over 600 pages.  In addition, there is the issue of me being so irritated at the end, I could not begin to write a review because, well…it would not have been so tame as this and I was at such a loss to put my disappointment into words.

I will not belabor it.  It was badly executed beyond pace and style.  Good thought, characters were too flat, and well it was just very CW (hey, I like Supernatural and Arrow on occasion, but this was bad).  Again, my apologies for this selection.

Lady Esbe’s Favorite Character:  NO ONE!

Esbe read the mass-production paperback version of this book.

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Elle Tea: Scoring No Like Book

It was the best of games, it was the worst of games.  Or, to be perfectly honest, it was the vaguest of games.  And that’s my biggest issue with this whole novel: the entire premise is based around a game, yet we never learn the specifics of just what this game is or how it is played – we’re told it somehow involves cards and dice, and there are three stacks of repercussions from which each player may choose… But even the rules are ambiguous and are often made up as the players go along.  The only definite is that each player must allow themselves to be humiliated – in fact, each player must actively take part in their own humiliation – in order to proceed to the next round. If there are even really rounds, which there aren’t.  The group just sort of shuffles along, meandering from one stack of humiliating episodes to the next, mediated by GameSoc, a trio of mysterious strangers for whom these psychotics dance.

“Perhaps biting your tongue was the only thing that kept the worst parts of you hidden from the world.”

And the stars of this little quizpot who fancy this sort of game to be a great getting-to-know-you exercise?  Well, I was hoping for regular people who had been placed in an impossible situation and forced to fight their way out, to grow up at gunpoint, so to speak – I was envisioning something along the lines of Crazy Eights meets Saw.  But the six characters in Black Chalk who make up our team of players are clearly sociopaths prior to even forming their gaming cult – and just to be clear, these are most assuredly not six “best friends,” as the summary leads us to believe.  These people barely knew each other at the onset of this game, having only been introduced a few months (and in some cases a few weeks) prior to the initiation of said game.  These are relative strangers who might have been friends had things proceeded differently, who were beginning the complicated process of laying a foundation for friendships, and who all agreed that a fun team-building exercise should involve taking everything people have told you in confidence thus far and using it to publicly humiliate them and possibly – if you play the game properly – ruin their reputations and futures for all time.

Now doesn’t that just sound like a swell way to get to know new people?

Volenti non fit injuria.  To the consenting person, no injury is done.”

Because of the nature of their game and its tendency to become more and more shocking with each round, they become alienated from the Oxford student body as a whole, turning their “game” into an insular little mini-community for those with sociopathic tendencies.  These are allegedly intelligent people – each one got into Oxford on their own merit, after all – but they each have their own mental and emotional issues that set them apart from everyone around them: the ringleader is an obsessive-compulsive amnesiac who cannot remember basic functions and requirements for daily living, such as bathing or putting on specific articles of clothing, without the use of mnemonic devices – a spattering of trigger objects he leaves in precise locations where they might be viewed on an exact schedule so that he can give the world and himself an illusion of normalcy, and the remainder are a motley collection of various psychoses, ranging from I-didn’t-get-enough-hugs-as-a-child to suicidal tendencies, stalking, sadism, and repression.  What about any of these says, “I know what we should do!  We should prod and poke at all of our tenderest and most deep-seated issues, we should really test the limits of our breaking points, for a bit of cash!”

“Because any friendship was a path and paths always led elsewhere.  To more paths and new places.”

And to clarify that, as well, we’re not talking about a great deal of money here.  The actual amounts are a bit convoluted to follow, as each player puts in a bit, GameSoc puts in a bit, and then there’s some wrangling later on with amounts being added and taken away, but if I am remembering correctly these six people initially decided to play this game for what amounts to something like £15,000, which is about $23,000 USD.  If I was the type of person who jumped to perform at the sight of money, there is absolutely no way in hell I would risk ruining my reputation at school let alone the whole rest of my life from my early twenties onward for so paltry a sum – if it’s not enough for me to live on, to buy a house and car outright and be set for life in the event I’m completely ruined in the winning of this game, I’m not playing.  No way, no how.  And you only get that $23,000 if you win – the other five risk walking away with nothing at all, or, at best, breaking even.

“Of course winning is everything.  Why else do you think we call ourselves the human race?”

So it can’t be about the money after all, right?  It’s not enough to live on.  It’s not enough to ruin yourself over.  So, essentially these people are playing because they get their kicks watching the others suffer.  That is not normal behavior.  These are not normal people.  And that they found each other and fed off of each other is lucky for the remaining students at Oxford, who can just sit back and watch these six assholes demonstrate destructive symbiosis.

“‘You should try everything once.’  ‘That should be a defence for murder.'”

I know.  It sounds like I absolutely hated this book.  But I’ll give credit where credit is due: I did think the first few initial chapters were quite good, and I was interested when it seemed that the entire story would be told from the point-of-view of someone laying out how they began without any issues, without any psychoses, and the path they took, the consequence of their playing this game, that led to their current state of paranoia, obsessive-compulsiveness, and agoraphobia.  And Yates does an excellent job moving this story along with a rapid pace for the first three-quarters of the novel; it isn’t until you get to that homestretch that it begins to drag and drone on, eventually hitting upon what I found to be an absurd and far too “neat” resolution.

Elle’s Favorite Character:  It was Ms. Em’s voice I heard most often throughout the reading of this novel.  She and I once discussed A Song of Ice and Fire, a series I was shocked to find that she actually hadn’t and wouldn’t read because, in her own words, “Nothing good happens to anybody!  It’s just suffering and more suffering, and no one is good, they all do bad things!  There’s no one to root for!”  I professed at that point that I had never, in my whole life, read a book in which I couldn’t get behind at least one character for some reason – even the most misguided characters often eventually reveal a redeeming quality of some sort, and if they don’t, there is a sidekick or minor character who will.  But Yates has broken the seal on that bottle for me, at least: there is no one in this book, not a single soul, that I cared for or about.

Elle read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.

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BillMo: Scoring It Was OK Book

I almost thought that this book had potential… but how wrong I was – how very, very wrong I was.  I usually try to take note of any quotes or characters we come across during our readings that I like, but the only notable thing I found likable was a single quote that is entirely inappropriate to include here (suffice it to say that it has to do with, as they say in The Boondock Saints, “… that certainly illustrates the diversity of the word.”).

Every character in Black Chalk was looking out for number one, and they could care less about what happened to those around them.  For example, there is a pretty large turning point in the book, an event that occurs that has an effect on everyone, and only one character knows the truth about what happened and why.  This individual should clearly tell that truth to someone – a parent, a professor, someone – but for the sake of the game they do not.  I mean… what?  How could anyone – why would anyone – keep that information secret for so long, keep it bottled up and allow it to eat at them for the rest of their lives, simply because they thought they might have a good chance at winning this stupid game?

And the game… *****SPOILER ALERT***** >>> The whole premise of the book is about a game – a fourteen-year game – and I just find it hard to swallow (and I’m sure you will, too, dear reader) that any individual would endure so much for so long and exude so much effort to simply give up.  I mean… really?  Seriously?  That was all it took – just wear the opponent down, wait them out, and eventually they’ll tire before you?  <<< *****END SPOILER*****

This almost seemed like a poorly-executed episode of Criminal Minds, except the “bad guys” get away with their less than savory behavior.  To sum up my review all I have left to say is:  really?

I would recommend this novel to anyone whose choice of literary entertainment tends towards things that remind them of just how awful humans can be to one another and whose choice heroes are those obsessed solely with self-preservation.  To hell with everyone!

BillMo’s Favorite Character:  Nobody.  These were terrible, terrible people.

BillMo read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.

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The Divine Ms. Em:Scoring It Was OK Book

Review to Come.

Ms. Em’s Favorite Character:  To come.

Ms. Em read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.

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