Book Review: Pointe by Brandy Colbert (2014)

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Review 2.5

Theo is better now.

She’s eating again, dating guys who are almost appropriate, and well on her way to becoming an elite ballet dancer. But when her oldest friend, Donovan, returns home after spending four long years with his kidnapper, Theo starts reliving memories about his abduction—and his abductor.

Donovan isn’t talking about what happened, and even though Theo knows she didn’t do anything wrong, telling the truth would put everything she’s been living for at risk. But keeping quiet might be worse. [Source]

*Warning: This Review Contains Mild Spoilers*

Theo is having a rough year. She’s traveling into Chicago three times a week for ballet rehearsal, with the auditions for professional companies looming ever closer. She’s haunted by the ghosts of her eating disorder and her time spent in a rehabilitation clinic. Her former best friend has just been found after being abducted four years ago, and it turns out his abductor is her ex-boyfriend

If Pointe had chosen any one of those subjects and focused its plot solely on Theo overcoming that obstacle, this novel might have felt less scattered. Instead, Theo’s life is a tragedy gumbo, with a new secret or disaster looming on every horizon. No wonder she’s falling apart; I felt my blood pressure going up just reading about it.

It was disappointing that a book entitled Pointe seemed to focus so little on ballet. Author Brandy Colbert obviously did quite a bit of research into the technical aspects of the dance, but the emotional power of ballet is often lost. Professional dance demands a level of passion and dedication that a very, very talented few possess, and Colbert does not adequately convey Theo’s love for ballet. She claims to want to be a professional ballerina, and yet she smokes cigarettes and marijuana as well as regularly drinking alcohol. More importantly, she takes no happiness in it.

One thing that I could appreciate in Pointe is the realistic and modern approach to teenagers and high school life. It’s tricky for adults to write about juveniles; too often we either trivialize or hyperbolize their struggles. While Colbert does tend towards the dramatic, she does so in a way that feels authentic more often than not. I could feel Theo’s exhaustion, that feeling of utter emptiness that can accompany depression. The dialogue of the various high schooler’s is also natural and unforced, which again is easier said than done.

I won’t say much about the abduction storyline except that its inclusion in the main synopsis is a red herring. I think the publishers wanted to keep the true focus of their novel under-wraps, so they pitched it as a mystery/kidnapping story when in reality the themes are much darker in nature.

This novel was too much of a downer for me. No life, no matter how tragic, is without it’s tiny moments of joy;  but that’s how Pointe often felt. I sympathized strongly with Theo as she battled her various demons, but it all just became too much.

My rating: 3/5

You can find Pointe here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

*This novel may be triggering to survivors of rape, kidnap, eating disorders, or sexual abuse*

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan (2018)

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Review 2.4

Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.

Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.

Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love. [Source]

Depression is such a tricky subject to write about. It’s so mercurial in nature, so difficult to define and diagnose and treat. The Astonishing Color of After triumphs as a portrayal of depression from all perspectives. The repercussions of Leigh’s mother’s suicide reverberate down the plotline when Leigh becomes convinced that her mother has transformed into a bird. Fearing for her mental state, Leigh’s father sends her to Taiwan to visit her grandparents for the first time. Once there, Leigh begins the long, slow process of healing.

The Astonishing Color of After blew me away with its depiction of depression and the effect it can have on a family. Instead of focusing on Leigh’s mother as she battles her inner demons, the perspective is Leigh’s, which helps to convey the constant stress and strain that mental illness places on family members. Humans can adapt to almost anything, and it’s sad that the warning symptoms of suicide can be overlooked because we see a person as always being “up and down” or just “having a rough patch”. For Leigh, her mother’s depression was just another part of life until it wasn’t.

Leigh’s adventures in China add a welcome lighter tone to the story. All the descriptions of the Mandarin language and culture and food made me miss my days spent living there. One scene set in an outdoor night market was particularly vivid, I could almost taste the stuffed bao buns and room temperature beer. For Leigh, the trip to Taiwan offers a chance to grieve her mother while learning more about her childhood and the circumstances that drove her to cut off all contact with her family.

The Astonishing Color of After evoked a stronger emotional reaction than I had anticipated. The combination of magic realism with the themes of loss and grief was a heady mix, and I found myself ugly crying towards the end. But it was a cathartic, healing kind of cry. The kind you didn’t know you needed until it’s over.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Astonishing Color of After here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2018)

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Review 2.3

 

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.

This novel is proving difficult to review because it’s about so many things. The relationship between mothers and daughters. The close-mindedness of so-called progressives. The risks that are taken when one chooses the road less traveled; and the risks that are taken when one chooses the road well paved. Little Fires Everywhere is multi-faceted and nuanced. It takes the time to set up its characters so that their actions feel rooted in real world consequences. There is no outright antagonist in this novel, each of the characters follows their own course with a series of small actions, each of which lights a small spark that eventually build into an inferno with the power to change lives.

How much time has to pass before a time period can be considered historical fiction? This novel, which is set in the mid 1990’s, often felt like a time capsule. The whole world sat perched on the edge of a technological whirlwind which was about to change how we communicate, travel, work, and live. The setting does not play a major role in the proceedings except perhaps to show how much the attitudes of middle class white families have changed over the past twenty years, but the occasional references to President Clinton and outdated technology were kind of fun.

Little Fires Everywhere‘s plot does not move at a breakneck pace; instead it settles in for the long haul and prefers a story well told. Celeste Ng is an author who cares very deeply for her characters, and this love and attention to detail comes through in her writing. I felt a strong emotional bond with Izzy, who is struggling so hard against the regulations of her parents. I also identified with Pearl; I was often the new girl at school and it’s never easy. I admired her easy self-confidence as much as I understood her desperate need to be part of a group of friends.

I really enjoyed this novel. It was surprisingly funny and occasionally heart-warming. I think that it could have many interpretations based on where a person is in their life.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Little Fires Everywhere here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Willow by V.C. Andrews (2002)

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Review 2.2

Wealth. Extravagant parties. Celebrity status. These are things Willow De Beers could only dream of until now. After discovering deep family secrets in her adoptive father’s journal, Willow bids farewell to her North Carolina college town and sets out in search of her birth family amid the ritzy glamour of Palm Beach

In my childhood home, like so many in the mid 90’s, there was a dusty shelf on the bookcase filled with old V. C. Andrews paperbacks. My parents were extremely strict about policing what I watched on T.V., but were much more casual about what I read. When I was around ten or eleven years old, I picked up Flowers in the Attic, and my eyes were opened. It was my first encounter with a book that dealt with overtly sexual themes such as incest and rape, and I had no idea what was happening in the more “adult” scenes. Nevertheless I found that I enjoyed the high melodrama and the continuous cycle of betrayal and forgiveness. All through high school, while I was taking AP Literature and preparing to begin my degree in English, these books were my guilty pleasure.

This past Christmas I had the chance to spend the holidays with my family back in the States for the first time in many years. While I was sitting and catching up with my parents I took a glance at the family bookcase and there they were. The same tattered V. C. Andrews paperbacks I had read and re-read so many times. They had dwindled in number over the years, no doubt lost to garage sales and thrift stores. I was immediately hit by a wave of fond nostalgia, and when I returned to Canada I decided I wanted to revisit V. C. Andrews by reading one of her books that was new to me. On a whim, I chose Willow, which is the first novel in the five-book De Beers series.

Why is any of this important? Because the nostalgia factor here is very strong, and definitely swayed my opinion on the book. If a person who was not previously familiar with V. C. Andrews read Willow, they would probably see it as the most ridiculous and silly kind of smut. But for me, going back into that world was so relaxing. It was like taking my brain off at the end of a long day.

Willow has all of the trademarks that make V. C. Andrews the bestselling author of trashy family dramas. The title character suddenly finds herself dealing with the ritz and glamour of Palm Beach high society. The upper echelons of the upper class are pictured here as if they have been drawn by someone who had only the rudimentary idea of what wealth is. I’ve certainly never run in those circles, but somehow I find 6:00 am beluga caviar feasts as people toast themselves and how fabulous they are a bit far-fetched. Such though is the charm of V. C. Andrews, whose books have always focused on the super-rich and their dazzling lifestyles. Even though this novel is set in 2002, the characters behave as if they are perpetually trapped in some long ago era. The women are shallow and ornamental, the men strutting and arrogant. It’s all just so deliciously silly.

I haven’t said much about the plot, but that’s because the plot is largely inconsequential. What matters is that Willow De Beers is suddenly transported to a life of fabulous wealth and dangerous secrets. How and why she got there aren’t treated with any great importance.

Books like these are impossible to review. Objectively, Willow is terrible. The characters are paper-thin, there is virtually no plot. It’s mere window-dressing, but sometimes the window-dressing can be a lot of fun. I doubt I’ll read the other four books in the DeBeers series, but I’m glad to have read Willow.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Willow here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. And on dusty bookshelves in Midwestern households everywhere.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book vs Film: The Martian

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This is one of the very rare instances where I prefer the film to the book. In no specific order, here is why. Spoilers abound.

The basic plot: Astronaut Mark Watney has been left for dead on Mars after an accident occurs during a sandstorm. He must rely on his wits and ingenuity to survive, while back on Earth a team of scientists work together to find a way to bring him home.

1.) Ridley Scott can be very hit-or-miss, but he is a genius when it comes to science fiction. I say that in full recognition of the lukewarm Prometheus and the oddly disjointed Alien: Covenant. The future presented in The Martian isn’t as high-tech and gloomy as Alien or Blade Runner, instead it deals with technology that is probably not that far off, as well as plenty of tech will be familiar to the average viewer. Scott incorporates the scientific and technical elements seamlessly into the plot. At one point, when Watney is building a hexadecimal communication system, the mathematics takes a running jump to the level that only a computer engineer could understand. Scott wisely decides not to spend too much time explaining how this system works, instead relying on the trusty science fiction fallback of “it works because science”.

Ridley Scott has long ago mastered the art of using practical effects as much as possible, and when he does resort to CGI he deploys it with a skill and grace that other directors should aspire to. After this year’s overly frantic Ready Player One and the abysmal Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, it was a pleasure to watch someone use special effects to enhance a well-told story.

And, oddly enough for Ridley Scott, this film almost has an upbeat feel. Most of which is due to the soundtrack. Speaking of which…

2.) It’s one of my all-time favorite soundtracks. Full disclaimer, I’m currently listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire while drinking a glass of wine on a Saturday night. I have a thing for disco. That said, the disco music, which is mentioned in Weir’s novel as the only thing left for Mark Watney to listen to after his team’s departure, is an inspired choice. The combination of the desolate Martian landscape, the lone and lonely figure isolated on a foreign planet, and the cheerful tunes of ABBA is perfect. I was reminded of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, another film which uses peppy, upbeat music as a background for rather depressing events. Because of this The Martian maintains an optimistic tone despite it’s admittedly bleak subject matter.

3.) Ridley Scott attracts some of the most talented people for his films. Star Matt Damon carries the film on his back. His delivery of Mark Watney is funny and sad and scared and cocky all at once. He definitely earned his Best Actor nomination. Filling out the cast are talents such as Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, and  Donald Glover in a small but hilarious role.

4.) I haven’t talked much about the book yet. This is because, for me, the book didn’t have as great an impact as the movie. I enjoyed the novel, but it was a more straightforward science fiction story. The movie brought a sense of comedy and levity to the difficult proceedings that is lacking in Andy Weir’s novel.

I also feel that technological and mathematical concepts presented in The Martian are more easily understood in a visual format. The novel often feels bogged down in mathematics, and I occasionally struggled to picture what was actually happening as Mark Watney improvises different ways to stay alive on a lifeless planet.

I can’t think of more than ten instances where I’ve truly preferred a film adaptation over the original novel. Even though I have to admit that this is one of those cases, it is only because Andy Weir gave the filmmakers such a great concept in his novel. While I truly enjoyed Weir’s The Martian, I absolutely love Ridley Scott’s film interpretation. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go listen to more disco.

Book Review: Haunted Nights edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton (2017)

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Review 2.1

Sixteen never-before-published chilling tales that explore every aspect of our darkest holiday, Halloween, co-edited by Ellen Datlow, one of the most successful and respected genre editors, and Lisa Morton, a leading authority on Halloween. 
In addition to stories about scheming jack-o’-lanterns, vengeful ghosts, otherworldly changelings, disturbingly realistic haunted attractions, masks that cover terrifying faces, murderous urban legends, parties gone bad, cult Halloween movies, and trick or treating in the future, Haunted Nights also offers terrifying and mind-bending explorations of related holidays like All Souls’ Day, Dia de los Muertos, and Devil’s Night.

 

A book of short stories, all of which center around Halloween and its traditions, may seem like an odd choice for holiday reading. I had originally earmarked this collection for part of my Booktober horror-novel marathon, but the wait list at the library was a lot longer than I had anticipated. Instead I got to enjoy these stories under the glow of my Christmas tree, and it ended up being the first novel I finished in 2019!

Haunted Nights was published by Blumhouse Books, which some horror fans may recognize as the production company behind many popular horror movies such as Grave Encounters, Insidious, and Get Out. All the stories center around some aspect of Halloween or one of the other holidays associated with death and the spirit world. As in any short story compilation, Haunted Nights has its highs and lows but overall, I felt that most of the stories hit their mark and delivered upon the atmosphere that editor Ellen Datlow was striving for.

Ranging in length from twenty to forty pages, the short stories in Haunted Nights are great for a short reading session. The stories vary from the bleak and depressing “All Through the Night” to the delightfully creepy “Sisters”. My favorite was probably John Langan’s “Into the Dark”, which reads like the script for one of the found-footage horror films I’ve come to love and expect from Blumhouse.

Halloween is my favorite holiday, and I read scary novels all year round. I would definitely recommend Haunted Nights as a kick-off to the Halloween season. This would be a great book to curl up with on a windy October night while you’re home alone.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Haunted Nights here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda

 

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Review #1.108

Paul Strom has the perfect life: a glittering career as an advertising executive, a beautiful wife, two healthy boys and a big house in a wealthy suburb. And he’s the perfect husband: breadwinner, protector, provider. That’s why he’s planned a romantic weekend for his wife, Mia, at their lake house, just the two of them. And he’s promised today will be the best day ever.

But as Paul and Mia drive out of the city and toward the countryside, a spike of tension begins to wedge itself between them and doubts start to arise. How much do they trust each other? And how perfect is their marriage, or any marriage, really?

This novel initially reminded me of You by Caroline Kepnes, which is high praise considering that book was one of the best thrillers I’ve read in a long time. Paul Strom, the narrator from Best Day Ever is just as manipulative and misogynistic as Joe Goldberg, perhaps even more since he is blanketed in a thick layer of smugness. There is also an echo of Patrick Batemen in Paul’s pretentious focus on luxury and etiquette. Basically, he’s a slimy narcissistic bastard living in a fantasy world where everyone respects and obeys his every whim. Kind of like if Walter Mitty had been a sociopath.

Unlike Beck, the focus of Joe’s fixation in You, the Mia Strom is not an immature, vain, twenty-something but a grown woman trying to assert her independence after years under her husband’s thumb. We only see Mia through the eyes of Paul, who has a rather unevolved perspective on a woman’s place in a marriage. He is utterly blind to the inner machinations of his wife, and is therefore unable to see the distinct warning signs in her suddenly pointed questions.

In my review for You, I mentioned that the plot, while gripping and page-turning, followed pretty much the expected course from beginning to end. We all knew what was going to happen to Beck, and watching it unfold was a highly enjoyable journey. One thing that I appreciated about Best Day Ever was that it felt unpredictable without relying on the “surprise twist” that has become overly common in recent days. I never knew quite where author Kaira Rouda was taking me, but I had a lot of fun getting there.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Best Day Ever here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. Please ignore the horrid cover art for the copy available on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (2018)

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Review #107

The story of two girls living eight hundred years apart—a modern-day Syrian refugee seeking safety and a medieval adventurer apprenticed to a legendary mapmaker. 

Following the death of her husband to cancer, Nour’s mother wants to be closer to her home country and her family. In the summer of 2011, Nour and her family move from their apartment in New York City to Homs, Syria. But Syria is changing, and not for the better. Shells and bombs become a daily occurrence, and when their house is destroyed Nour and her family are forced to flee across the Middle East and North Africa as refugees.

Eight hundred years ago, a young girl named Rawiya disguises herself as a boy and becomes an apprentice to al-Idrisi, a world-famous cartographer who is embarking on a journey to make a map of the known world. Along the way, Rawiya ferocious mythical beasts, epic battles, and real historical figures.

The gorgeous cover art for Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars is what initially attracted me to this book. I knew little to nothing about the plot, and therefore had no expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find a novel that uses the Syrian Civil War as a backdrop for a story about family, bravery, and finding a place to belong.

A lot of attempts have been made recently to capture the refugee experience. The Map of Salt and Stars tells a deeply personal story. Nour doesn’t care why her neighborhood is suddenly being bombed. She doesn’t understand the political tensions between Libya and Algeria, or why refugee boats are shelled before they can reach shore. All Nour knows is that she has lost everything but her mother and two sisters. She knows that she wakes up every day in a different place, often cramped with groups of other people, all of whom are running away from the destruction and danger of war. By keeping laser-focused on Nour and her plight, Joukhadar ensures that the reader forms a close bond with her.

Also contained within the pages of The Map of Salt and Stars is the story of Rawiya, a young girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to become an apprentice to the esteemed cartographer al-Idrisi. Her 11th century journey with him along a route similar to the one taken by Nour as she flees from country to country. I enjoyed Rawiya’s story and the fresh perspective that it offered. Most of our ideas of the ancient world are from the Greco-Roman viewpoint, but The Map of Salt and Stars shows it through Muslim eyes instead. While Europe was buried in the Dark Ages, the scholars and scientists of the Muslim world made terrific advancements in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. They also made some of the most detailed maps of the time period, and that is where Joukhadar sets her story.

The Muslim names for the ancient cities of the Mediterranean were unfamiliar to me, and I often found it difficult to know exactly where the ancient adventurers were at any given time. There is a map included along with the table of contents, but it is a bit inconvenient to switch back and forth to the map on an eReader. This may have been one of the reasons why Rawiya’s story fell short in comparison to Nour’s. Rawiya’s struggles against mythical beasts feel far removed from reality, where Nour must fight against an enemy that is far more real and more dangerous.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Map of Salt and Stars here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Midnight Watch by David Dyer (2016)

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Review #106

As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead.

I was ten years old when James Cameron’s Titanic was released, and like millions of young girls in 1997, was completely obsessed with the film and the boyishly handsome, adorably baby-faced Leonardo DeCaprio. Twenty years later, my love for Leo has never faded, and neither has my interest in the story of Titanic and its place in history.

The Midnight Watch has the odd challenge of trying to sustain a narrative using characters that were only indirectly involved in the events of April 14, 1912. The story of the Californian, which was the nearest ship to the Titanic on the night of its sinking and could potentially have saved the lives of the 1500 people who died that night, is more of a footnote in the larger context of the Titanic story. The failure of the Californian to respond to the Titanic’s distress signals is one of the countless bits of misfortune that all came together to cause one of the most famous maritime disasters in history. Even James Cameron, whose insistence on historical accuracy during filming bordered on obsessive, did not include the Californian in his film. stating that switching perspectives to another ship took away from the feeling of isolation that the passengers on the Titanic must have experienced that night. In a way this book reminded me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, another instance of “background” characters being given the full spotlight.

Author David Dyer needed to present a cast of characters strong enough to make us forget that our old favorites such as Captain Smith, Thomas Andrews, Bruce Ismay, and Molly Brown are conspicuously absent. He splits his narrative between Second Mate Herbert Stone, the watchman who first saw the white distress rockets sent up by the sinking ship, and Steadman, a bulldog journalist on the hunt for the truth about the Californian. Stone is plagued by guilt and indecision when he wakes up the morning after his midnight shift and learns the fate of the Titanic. His story is sympathetic, but pales in significance when viewed next to the deaths of over a thousand people on the Titanic. Steadman is the archetypal hard-jawed bourbon-soaked workaholic newspaperman from the turn of the century. His only defining characteristic is that he somehow manages to chase down leads and secure interviews with various higher-ups all while being soddenly drunk.

I did enjoy Dyer’s meticulous attention to detail, particularly when describing the Californian and its crew. Dyer worked for years as a ships officer, and he is clearly writing from a place of experience. I don’t know much about naval terminology besides port and starboard, so I enjoyed learning a little bit more about steamer ships. Also, it’s refreshing to read a completely different perspective on a well-known event. One of the things I love most about historical fiction is its ability to help me think of an issue from a variety of angles. The Midnight Watch offers a unique and creative approach to the enduring legend of the Titanic.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Midnight Watch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository!

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Witch Elm by Tana French (2018)

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Review #105

 

Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life: he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

This is author Tana French’s seventh novel, and marks her first departure from her fantastic Dublin Murder Squad series. For The Witch Elm, French doesn’t stray too far from her distinctive style, and it’s clear that she feels the most comfortable when writing detective-style novels. Which is fine by me, since she’s amazing at it.

I’ve had a rather bad run of luck this year with thriller novels, but have always enjoyed French’s work. Her use of foreshadowing feels organically woven into the narrative, as opposed to awkwardly shoehorned in. By slowly building a sense of tension using small clues and a few shortly but intensely written passages, French ensures that when the plot reaches its climax, it feels like a genuine reveal as opposed to a cheat. I also have to give props to French for avoiding the horribly cliche “flackback” plot device that has been become nearly ubiquitous in modern thrillers. There is a reason I have never been disappointed by her novels, and her mature and richly descriptive writing style has a lot to do with that.

The main difference between The Witch Elm and French’s previous works is that the main narrative is written from a civilian’s viewpoint, rather than a detective. I did find myself missing the police perspective. Toby, as the main character, just wasn’t terribly sympathetic. He is privileged, entitled, and oblivious to the struggles of those around him. His love for his girlfriend Melissa was a saving point, but their relationship always seemed a little too good to be true. Hugo, Leo, and Susanna as the supporting characters were more interesting than Toby, and I would have liked to know more about their lives.

I won’t give away too much of the main plot, only that I kept expecting French to take a turn for the supernatural. Ivy House somehow gives off a misty, Gothic feel from the outer suburbs of Dublin. The creepy atmosphere of The Witch Elm reminded me of the forest passages from In The Woods, which literally gave me goosebumps when I was reading them. I would love to see Tana French venture into the world of horror. It would definitely be a combination of two of my favorite elements.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Witch Elm here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.