Book Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware (2018)

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Review #78

Hal Westaway is in a tight spot. Struggling to make ends meet and hounded by loan sharks, she is becoming increasingly desperate. So when she receives a mysterious letter that alludes to a deceased grandmother and a possibly substantial inheritance, it comes as the answer to a prayer. There’s only one problem. Hester Westaway was not Hal’s grandmother. She realizes that the cold-reading skills she has developed as a tarot reader might help her to claim the money, and she embarks on a risky, last-ditch effort to the country estate of Trepassen. Once she gets there, Hal begins to understand that there is something very wrong with the other descendants of Hester Westaway and the inheritance she is there to collect.

I’ve read two of Ruth Ware’s previous novels, and found myself rather underwhelmed. In a Dark Dark Wood lacked any meaningful characterization, and The Woman in Cabin 10 left very little impression at all. I decided to give Ware one more chance because the cover art for The Death of Mrs. Westaway reminded me of the classic gothic horror novel Rebecca. And there are certain similarities to du Maurier’s work here. A neglected manor home in the wilds of England. A dead woman who continues to wield great power over those who come after her. A terrible secret that haunts those under the roof of the manor home. There’s even a Mrs. Danvers-esque character who sole function seems to be spouting ominous threats in the dead of night.

Hal Westaway would be an easy character to dislike if she weren’t quite so pitiful. After all, she does set out for the estate of Trepassen with the intention of committing fraud. However, Ware introduces Hal as a girl constantly teetering on the brink of destitution. She is young, alone, and trying desperately to keep her life together. We empathize with Hal, so it is easy to root for her despite her less than noble objectives. Riddled with guilt over what she means to do, her constant flip-flopping becomes a bit exhausting, but ultimately made sense and helps to keep her sympathetic to the reader.

It helps that none of the other characters are terribly likeable, and all of Hal’s newfound “uncles” are a little one-note. Harding is gruff and impatient. Abel is apologetic and emotionally damaged. Ezra is charming and irreverent. The other family members bring little to the table. Constantly lingering in the background is the malignant presence of the deceased Mrs. Westaway, who I would like to have seen fleshed out a little more. Her motivations are murky at best, and I couldn’t understand how anyone could be so truly unfeeling towards their family.

Overall this is a mystery novel that focuses on the secrets that always seem to haunt families with old money. I initially feared that this novel would follow the current popular model and end with a series of “shocking” twists and turns, but was presently surprised by the restraint shown by Ware. She employs echoes of the old gothic style, complete with myriad descriptions of decaying walls, gloomy hallways, and misty fields. While not a horror novel by any description, there is a certain amount of creeping tension that builds through the pages.

I enjoyed this novel much more than my previous two experiences with Ware’s work. It felt more mature and composed, as if the author had decided to stop catering to the expectation that there needs to be a thousand surprise reveals in order to make a satisfying climax. I’ll keep my eye out for Ruth Ware’s next novel.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Death of Mrs. Westaway here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Force of Nature by Jane Harper (2018)

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Review #48

A group of five women venture into the bushland outside of Melbourne for a corporate retreat. Three days later, only four of them return. One woman, Alice Russell, has disappeared. But did she leave of her own volition, or did she encounter some danger in the Australian forest? Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk is deeply invested in finding Alice, as she has important information regarding an ongoing investigation. However, he finds that each of the other four woman on the retreat have a different story to tell about their time in the wilderness.

I have a strange love/hate relationship with detective novels. Too often they are predictable and filled with cliched characters that operate as cardboard cutouts. Readers can expect a surly detective with a grim past. If his partner happens to be a woman, there’s an unspoken quasi- romantic connection between two of them. All the supporting characters speak from a script that seems designed to throw up red herrings. And yet, there are times when these basic tropes can either be turned on their heads, or given new life through deft writing that can make this somewhat tired and overused genre feel fresh again. Jane Harper’s second novel, Force of Nature, is definitely in the latter category.

I’ll keep this review short and sweet as to avoid any spoilers. Part of the narrative is devoted to Detective Falk and his partner as they join in the search for the missing Alice Russell. Interspersed are chapters from the perspectives of each of the four other women in the wilderness retreat as they go through the events leading up to Alice’s disappearance. I found the chapters from the women’s perspective to be more entertaining; they are all so comically unsuited to the outdoors and so utterly incompatible with one other it almost feels like a reality prank television show. After they venture off course and become increasingly lost and frightened, we can see how their conflicting personalities combined with a survival situation could have resulted in violence.

Novels like these are a guilty pleasure of mine. They do not necessarily enrich the mind in any particular way. I didn’t really learn anything from Force of Nature that caused me ponder its plot or themes in the days after reading it. However, it was a highly enjoyable diversion that kept me guessing from start to finish. Which is exactly what I was looking for at the time.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Force of Nature here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney (2017)

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Review #35

 

My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me: 
1. I’m in a coma.
2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore.
3. Sometimes I lie

Amber Reynolds wakes up in the hospital, unable to open her eyes or move her body. She can hear the people around her, but cannot respond. Amber is in a coma, but can’t remember anything about the accident that put her there. Alternating back and forth between the days leading up to the accident, her incapacitated present, and a series of diary entries from twenty years before, Alice tries to piece together the mystery of what happened before it’s too late.

Last year I wrote about publishers who feel the need to advertise the “surprise twist ending” on the front cover of their novels. It spoils my enjoyment of reading when I am constantly trying to figure out what the twist is before it happens. It screams of laziness and click-baiting. I began this novel in a state of mild dismay that the twist ending was given away on the front cover. Also, because the publishers have already seen fit to spoil the novel, I won’t lose any sleep about giving away a few plot points. You’ve been warned.

When choosing fiction novels, I tend to gravitate towards horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Even though this was a bit outside of my usual, Sometimes I Lie started off strong and captured my interest in the beginning. Amber tells us straight away that we cannot trust her memories, so her narration is therefore unpredictable and suspicious. She appears to suffer from a mild case of OCD, and is both selfish and self-centered. Therefore, she was relatable in a world where too many female characters are manic pixie dream girls. The chapters set in the early 1990’s are clearly written by a troubled child, and I immediately sympathized with a sad, lonely girl who is struggling to discern the difference between truth and fiction. Author Alice Feeney crafts her characters with care, and sets them loose in a world that has been built in a realistic manner.

Towards the end of the novel, however; things started to spin out of control. The first plot twist was interesting and honestly surprised me. The second one made things a little confusing. The third twist left me rolling my eyes and muttering about overkill. It wasn’t that Feeney set up red herrings; in fact everything fell into place by the end of the book with surprising ease. It all just felt so unnecessary.

In the end, if you are a reader who enjoys the “twisty thriller” genre, you will probably love this book. Personally, I enjoyed it, but in a superficial way. Sometimes I Lie was a fun diversion, but I doubt that I will remember much of the plot after a few months.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Sometimes I Lie here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar (2013)

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Review #16

 

In January of 1959, nine experienced Russian hikers lead by twenty-three old Igor Dyatlov began a hiking expedition deep into the Ural Mountains. Weeks later, all nine hikers were found dead under mysterious circumstances, scattered throughout the snow without proper clothing, bearing strange injuries, and with traces of radiation on their clothing. Known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, this occurrence has become a popular unsolved mystery. Everything from an avalanche to the KGB to the yeti to UFOs has been suggested to try and figure out what happened to the nine hikers. When documentary maker Donnie Eichar’s imagination is sparked by this story, he delves into the case files, flies to Russia, and even attempts to recreate the Dyatlov group’s journey in order to find a definitive explanation for the incident.

I first learned about the Dyatlov Pass Incident through a 2013 found-footage horror film called Devil’s Pass. The film is actually pretty good if you are a fan of found-footage horror films, and I was immediately intrigued by the unsolved mystery of the Russian hikers. I fell down a Wikipedia hole and tried to learn everything I could about it. I am a junkie for unsolved mysteries, so this was a delightful new find. When I heard about Donnie Eichar’s Dead Mountain, I immediately put myself on a wait list at my local library for the chance to learn more about this strange occurence.

Eichar’s book reads like a written version of an Unsolved Mysteries episode. He sets roughly half of the chapters in 1959, recreating the last few days of the doomed hikers. He manages to put a human face on the young Russian students, and uses diary entries and photographs to paint a picture of a group of young people who are passionate about nature and enthusiastic about life in general. This easily answers the most obvious question, which is why in the world nine people would go hiking in northern Russia in the middle of winter. Eichar also gives us a broad stroke lesson on the historical context of the time. Stalin has recently died, and while Russia is still under the heavy hand of Communism, the country is slowly healing from the cultural and military wars of the previous decade. These chapters are interspersed with others set in 1959, and told from the perspective of the rescue team workers who are utterly baffled by strange deaths of the nine young hikers.

The rest of the book takes places in 2012. We follow Eichar as he chases down lead after lead. He manages to track down Yuri Kuntsevich, the president of the Dyatlov Foundation. He flies to Russia and somehow secures an interview with Yuri Yudin, the tenth member of the original Dyatlov team who had to turn back on the first day due to illness and therefore managed to escape the fate of his friends.

Eichar manages to avoid the “conspiracy nut” path that I think could have been very easy to follow. He immediately discredits the idea that the mountain the hikers were found on (Holatchahl) is supposedly cursed by the local native groups and named “The Mountain of the Dead”. He argues that this is a mistranslation, and the mountain is in fact called “Dead Mountain” due to the fact that nothing grows on it. He discounts the theories of aliens and yetis without giving them much thought. Eichar is utterly practical and devoted to legitimate research and citable sources. He devotes a sizable chunk of the book to methodically listing out all of the possible things that could have caused the deaths of the Dyatlov party and systemically ruling them out. Afterwards, he presents his own theory which he believes can finally explain what happened on that February night. Whether or not you choose to believe him is left up to the reader.

Overall, I enjoyed this book because it appealed to the part of me that loves the inexplicable. I would definitely recommend it, but perhaps not on a ski trip.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Dead Mountain here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Burning by Jane Casey (2011)

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After the fifth girl is found brutally murdered and burned in a London park, Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan must hurry to find the killer before he strikes again. The only problem is that there are subtle differences between the most recent murder and the previous deaths. Has the Burning Man struck again, or is there a copycat killer on the loose?

This novel was recommended to me after I finished reading one of Tana French’s novels; and on the surface, Jane Casey’s The Burning does share some similarities with French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. DC Kerrigan is Irish, though the novel is set in London not Dublin. We focus on Kerrigan’s relationships and struggles with her fellow police officers. The police are treated as fallable, unlike some books in the detective genre where the lead officer is basically an omniscient God.

However, that’s where the similarities end. One of the reasons why I am such a fan of Tana French’s novels is that it never feels like I am reading the script for an episode of Law and Order. With Casey’s novel, there was a strong “police procedural” vibe that got a little tedious in later chapters. Casey also made the strange decision to split her points-of-view between two female characters using first person narrative. It might be a personal pet peeve of mine, but I find it’s much easier to do split-POV from a third person perspective. I can only occupy headspace with one character at a time.

Overall, The Burning was a very “by the book” murder-mystery. It kept my attention throughout, but didn’t provide anything particularly exciting. If you like whodunnits, you’ll probably like this novel.

I have other things to say but there are spoilers so scroll down if you dare!

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find The Burning here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

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The ending of this book was bullshit. The Burning took its time building to a climax. We solved the mystery. We caught the killer. And then it all got thrown in the toilet with a nonsensical “suicide letter” wherein the murderer explains their dastardly plot in exquisite detail like a second-rate James Bond villain. It was such a cop-out. Either the police needed to gain a confession through interrogation, or actually I was kind of hoping that in the end they weren’t going to have enough evidence and the killer was going to walk free. That would have been at least passingly original. It was almost like Jane Casey couldn’t figure out what to do, had to meet a deadline, so she just tacked on this “Morgan Freeman showing up to explain the plot” ending. It completely ruined the novel for me.