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.

Book Review: The Girl With All the Gifts (2014)

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Review #97

Melanie is a very special girl. She is the smartest in her class, and is always trying to please her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau. Melanie is always very careful to follow the rules. Every day when the soldiers come to her cell, she makes sure to sit very carefully as they strap her arms and legs onto a wheelchair and cover her face with a plastic mask. As one soldier aims his gun steadily at her face, she jokes and says she doesn’t bite. No one laughs. No one laughs much anymore; not with the hungries prowling around outside of the army base where Melanie lives.

Then she gets to attend class with Miss Justineau and the other children, all of whom are bound into their own wheelchairs. Miss Justineau says Melanie is a genius. Melanie loves to tell Miss Justineau about all the wonderful things she’ll see and do after she grows up. She doesn’t understand why this always makes her beloved teacher look so very sad.

Of all the ghosts, ghouls, and monsters that can be found in horror novels and movies, zombies tend to be very hit or miss. The majority of zombie fiction is overly gory, with soulless villains that cannot think or feel or be understood and are therefore not terribly interesting. The ones that transcend the genre, novels like Mira Grant’s Feed or Max Brooks’ World War Z, choose to focus less on the walking dead and more on the people who are struggling to survive in a world where they are no longer the apex predators. The Girl With All the Gifts, like the aforementioned books, tells a very human story in the middle of an inhuman world. It combines the hard medical science of Grant with the intensely personal stories of Brooks to create something unique and fantastic.

This is a novel in which each of the characters has their own struggles and victories, flaws and strengths. The young schoolteacher finds herself doubting her own judgement when it comes to the fate of her students. The scarred and surly army sergeant is forced to confront his long-held biases about the world he lives in. Even the mad-scientist, who has sacrificed her own moral compass in her desperate journey to find answers, is relatable. By focusing on a small group of compelling individuals, author M. R. Carey is able to make the zombie apocalypse a more personal story.

As the leading protagonist, Melanie is a triumph. She is young and naive, hopeful and eager and engaging. She is smart and resourceful, but at the same time she’s a scared little girl who is struggling to understand the world around her. Carey walks a tight edge and risks making Melanie a little too perfect, but in the end she is just as fallible as everyone else and her motivations are often alien to the adults around her.

I won’t say too much about the overall plot, as experiencing it for the first time was half the fun. Melanie and the others are living on a protected army base approximately sometime after the majority of the population as succumbed to the “zombie” pandemic. The stumbling, rotting, and forever hungry remnants of the human race aren’t reanimated corpses, but are instead the victims of a type of fungal infection. The scientific explanation behind the hungries was one of my favorite aspects of this novel, as I had heard of this terrifying phenomenon taking place in the animal world and could readily imagine the destruction it could cause if it ever found a way to infect mammals.

I’ve been rather disappointed by thrillers lately, but The Girl With All the Gifts went a long way towards restoring my faith. This novel is exciting, suspenseful, and tightly written. It never lags for a second once the plot is set in motion. And it tells a story about what it truly means to be human, and humane, in a world where humanity has become endangered.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Girl With All the Gifts here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Friend Request by Laura Marshall (2017)

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Review #96

When Louise Marshall receives a friend request on Facebook from Maria Weston, she is surprised to say the least. When they were in high school together, Louise wasn’t too kind to Maria. In fact, she was a bit of a bully. So why would Maria be reaching out after twenty-seven years? Plus there’s the fact that Maria is dead. Isn’t she?

My most recent post was entitled I’m Breaking Up With the Modern Thriller Genre. I explained how the recent trend towards unnecessary plot twists, shoddy characterization, and clumsy foreshadowing has killed my enjoyment of recently popular thriller novels. Friend Request by Laura Marshall was the book that broke this reader’s patience.

In this novel are the same tired cliches and overused stereotypes that have made the thriller genre an exercise in frustration. There are the obligatory flashbacks that serve no true purpose except to drum up a false sense of suspense. In this case, we visit Louise and Maria as they go through their senior year of high school in 1989. Instead of giving us a window into this time period which may have been fun or added relevant details to the overall plot, instead we just have Louise continually torn between her desire to be part of the popular crowd and her budding friendship with the new girl at school. There’s potential here for an insightful look at the long-term affects of teenage bullying, but Marshall never really connects the dots.

We also have multiple plot twists which serve no real purpose and fail to offer any surprises. When I think of novels such as Ender’s Game, Fight Club or any of Tana French’s Dublin Murder series, the thing that stands out is that all of the elements of the pre-twist narrative fall into place once the twist is revealed. If you go back and re-read any of these novels, you can logically and rationally follow the plot with the knowledge of the twist already in place. However, the plot twist in Friend Request is a cheat. It’s utterly out of left field and literally made me face-palm once I realized that this was what Marshall had spent so much time and effort building towards. I love a good plot twist but they need to make sense within the larger story, and the one in this novel fell completely flat.

I may have liked this book more if I hadn’t experienced a recent run of similar faux-thriller novels which can all be boiled down to “white woman with quirky but interesting career is somehow surprised when the past comes back to haunt her”. My frustration with Friend Request is ultimately due to my overall frustration with the current state of the thriller genre itself. I’ve decided to take a break and focus on a few other genres for awhile. Perhaps with some time I will be able to come back and appreciate this novel on its own merit.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Friend Request here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

I’m Breaking Up With the Modern Thriller Genre

 

 

thriller

Dear Thriller Genre,

You and I used to be so close. We would stay up all night together, cuddled up on the couch with a glass of wine or a mug of hot chocolate. There was a time when I used to want to spend time with you more than any other genre out there. I will always treasure the tingles I got from turning your pages.

But something happened a few years ago. You changed, thriller genre, and not for the better. I think it all started with The DaVinci Code, when millions of people began noticing how a few well-placed plot twists could reel a reader in and keep them glued to your pages. People love to hate Dan Brown, but I really enjoyed DaVinci. I thought it was the first step on a whole new journey we could take together.

Then along came a little novel called Gone Girl. Now don’t get me wrong, this book was amazing and kept me captivated for all of its four-hundred page running length. Gillian Flynn didn’t pull any punches and every aspect of her novel came together to form a cohesive plot-line. It’s remembered for having a crazy twist around the halfway mark that turned everything on its head.

Unfortunately, my dear thriller genre, too many of books published in the years since Gone Girl have taken the “crazy plot twist” aspect of the bestselling novel while neglecting the “cohesive plot-line” part. They’ve exchanged memorable characters for clumsy foreshadowing. There is now a puzzling trend to have a last page “final twist” that is left unresolved, like Michael Myers coming back for one last scare. It’s all just starting to feel terribly cheap and lazy.

Not to say that these aren’t talented authors who are contributing to the thriller genre. I just think that the publishers understand that these “predictably unpredictable twisty” thrillers are huge sellers right now, and are choosing the books that they publish with the idea that they can use the tagline “The Next Gone Girl” over and over again.

I’m hoping that this current trend will die off in a few years, thriller genre, because I really do admire the authors that have contributed to your lists in the past. I’m just weary of being continually disappointed every time I hear about this great new thriller, only to find that it contains the same exact tired tropes arranged in slightly different ways.

This is not to say that I am giving up on thrillers entirely, just that I’m going to have to be a bit more discerning. I’m not going to be taking recommendations from “most popular” lists. I’m going to begin avoiding some of the most popular thriller authors that are currently writing. There are a few writers out there who haven’t forgotten what it means to truly draw in their readers using tension and suspense, and I’ll continue to read their work.

I hope I don’t sound ridiculously pretentious. I definitely don’t consider myself a “high-brow” reader, one who feels that certain genres or types of books are beneath them. But of all the modern thrillers I’ve read this year, only a slim few have managed to bring me anything in the way of surprise or originality.

So for now, thriller genre, I’m afraid I’m going to have to quit you. Hopefully the annoying changes that I’ve seen in recent years will begin to wane once there’s a new trend for publishers to follow. At which time, I’ll be waiting with open arms.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: You by Caroline Kepnes

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Review #93

When a beautiful young aspiring writer enters his bookshop, Joe Goldberg is immediately enthralled. He realizes they are destined to be together so he does what seems natural to him, he invades her life. By finding out where she lives, entering her apartment uninvited, and stealing her phone, Joe manages to insert himself in her life almost seamlessly. His obsession grows as the young woman begins to trust and even love him. Increasingly possessive, Joe becomes determined to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of his happiness, even if means killing people to do so.

First things first, this book was amazing. It is one of those novels that pulls you in from the very first page and then you can’t function normally in the real world until you finish it. It’s one of those novels where you sacrifice sleeping at night so you can read a few more chapters. If I were a smoker, this would be the kind of book that would have me chain-smoking out of pure nervous energy as I flipped the pages as quickly as possible.

You is non-stop tension from beginning to end. The narrator is a psychopath with delusions of grandeur. Joe truly believes that entering a strange woman’s apartment and masturbating on her bed is a perfectly natural way of expressing his adoration for her. Anything that he sees as a hindrance to their “love” is a threat that must be removed without hesitation or remorse. He is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Author Caroline Kepnes makes the bold choice to write her novel using the second-hand voice. I typically find this style of narration to be tedious and annoying, but here it gives us a look into Joe’s mind in a way that first or third hand perspective would not have done. It is a chilling, cold, reptilian brain that is all the more nerve-wracking because on the outside Joe would seem like a perfectly normal guy who works in a bookshop. But under the surface he is calculating and manipulative. Since we only see the female character through Joe’s eyes, she is basically a hyper-sexualized depiction of feminine perfection.

It’s almost sick how compelling Joe’s character is. I felt a little demented myself after spending so much time in his head. And even though you can probably guess the ending from the first chapter of the book, it got there in an entirely different way than I had originally anticipated.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It is twisted and dark and brutal. It may be triggering for survivors of rape or sexual assault. It will definitely make you think twice before striking up a conversation with a stranger.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find the sequel.

My rating: 5/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl (2018)

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Review #92

 

Beatrice and her friends were a tightly knit group at their prestigious Rhode Island boarding school, until a tragedy struck which left Beatrice’s boyfriend dead at the bottom of a quarry. Jim’s death was ruled as a suicide, but Beatrice never quite believed that could be true. Years later, she attempts to reconnect with her friends at Wincroft, the seaside mansion where she spent so many happier days. After an awkward evening with too much alcohol, a man appears at the door. For Beatrice and her friends, time has become stuck. They will continue to repeat the same day over and over until a decision is made. Only one of them will get a second attempt at life.

Marisha Pessl’s Night Film will definitely make the list of my favorite books I’ve read this year. It was so incredibly unique and creative, and it kept me guessing the whole time without feeling gimmicky. Neverworld Wake is a very different kind of novel; it is oddly repetitive and stale at times, and the characters lack the complexity that I felt so compelling in Pessl’s other novel.

I can’t say too much about the plot without giving away some important spoilers, suffice to say that it involves a kind of purgatory that Beatrice and her friends find themselves trapped in. Too much of the novel is devoted to Beatrice idly following her friends around as they devote themselves to whatever distractions entertain a person who is stuck in limbo. If her explorations contributed anything to the plot, or if they advanced the characterization of the other men and women, this would have been less tedious. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for most of the novel, and the characters remain flat and lifeless caricatures. I felt a lack of curiosity towards the fate of Beatrice and her friends, mostly I just wanted them to do something other than bitching at one another.

This novel is geared more towards a YA audience than Pessl’s previous works, and that may have contributed to the lackluster narrative. Where Night Film was filled with sex and murder and danger and suspense, Neverworld Wake avoids all of the above and suffers a bit for it. Not that sex and murder are intrinsically necessarily for a good suspense novel, but the adult themes do serve to heighten the tension.

On a positive note, I admired the controlled way that Pessl unravels her plot. She leaves small clues like bread crumbs scattered throughout her narrative, and only after finishing the novel can you follow them backward to a full understanding. Pessl avoids the smug “Have you figured it out yet?” foreshadowing that characterizes too many YA thrillers. This puts it in a higher echelon than comparable novels such as We Were Liars or The Last Time I Lied.

I hope that Marisha Pessl does not intend transition to YA permanently. Not that she doesn’t have the talent for the genre, but because it is a rare and delightful thing to find a thriller that keeps its fangs.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Neverworld Wake here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James (2018)

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Review #90

Vermont, 1950 Idlewild Hall is where parents send daughters that had deemed lost causes. Whether illegitimate, inconvenient, or simply rebellious, girls find themselves dropped unceremoniously at Idlewild. Once there. four girls forge a tight bond of friendship until one of them vanishes without a trace.

Vermont, 2014 Twenty years after her older sister was found murdered on the now-abandoned grounds of Idlewild Hall, journalist Fiona Sheridan returns to her hometown in rural Vermont to cover the story of the school’s restoration. Confronted with memories she has worked so hard to bury, Fiona becomes determined to uncover the mystery of her sister’s death.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that split perspective narratives are difficult to do well because one of the narratives will almost always end up being more compelling. In The Broken Girls, the chapters set in 1950 move at a faster clip and have a stronger voice. Even though these chapters vary between the four girls who reside at Idlewild, they still manage to accomplish more character development than the chapters written from Fiona’s point of view.

The problem is that Fiona spends an inordinate amount of time repeating herself about how broken up she is over her sister’s death, and lamenting that she and her police officer boyfriend may not be meant for one another. Not until the final seventy pages or so does Fiona’s narrative begin to pick up momentum and by that point the tension is lost.

The Broken Girls is billed as a paranormal suspense, but seems to be lacking both paranormal and suspense. The “ghost” story is glaringly underutilized; at no point does the spirit of Idlewild present any kind of threat or intrigue.

Author Simone St. James does get points for her creepy, Gothic atmosphere, I could almost feel the chilly and crumbling halls of the neglected school. I also greatly enjoyed the way that St. James depicts life as a girl in 1950 as a prison. That the girls of Idlewild consistently rebel against the tight strictures imposed by the adults around them made me silently cheer for their victory.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Broken Girls here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage (2018)

Image result for baby teeth book Review #89

What would you do if you found yourself unable to love your child? What if your child didn’t love you?

Eight-year old Hanna is sweet and precocious for her father, even if she is unwilling to speak. But for her mother Suzette, Hanna is a manipulative and destructive child who seems hell-bent on destroying the relationship between her parents. As Suzette becomes increasingly strained by Hanna’s behavior, Hanna’s tricks become more sophisticated as she decides that she may have to remove her mother from the picture altogether.

I read a lot, and I mean a lot of horror novels, but this debut novel by author Zoje Stage scared the pants off me. The premise is entirely ridiculous and utterly silly but it’s crafted within enough care to keep the level of suspense heightened until the very end.

The split narrative varies between mother and daughter so that the reader comes to sympathize with both characters. It would be easy to write off Hanna as a deranged child psychopath like Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son, but that would be too easy. Instead we can understand Hanna’s skewed viewpoint and how she has somehow come to view her mother as the enemy. She is never depicted as a “demon child” so much as a confused and disturbed little girl. We can also understand how Suzette has reached a breaking point when it comes to parenting a increasingly difficult child.

There is a hint of Rosemary’s Baby in Suzette’s relationship with her husband. He is too often absent, and since Hanna puts on her best face for her Daddy, inclined to side with her. As the father, Alex is the least developed character and too often plays the role of biased mediator. There are many instances where he says that his wife is “over-reacting” and that there daughter is simply “under stimulated” at home. This is a fairly lazy plot device in 2018 when most parents are more involved in their children’s upbringing.

This book is sure to be controversial with the mommy crowd, particularly the ending. As a currently childless woman, I found the ideas presented in Baby Teeth to be simultaneously disturbing and highly entertaining. It was certainly a compelling read from beginning to end.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Baby Teeth here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (2006)

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Review #84

Shortly after a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital, Chicago journalist Camille Preaker is summoned back to her rural Missouri hometown to cover the brutal murders of two young girls. This means that Camille must get back in touch with her family, who she has been estranged from for many years. Her neurotic, hypochondriac mother doesn’t seem overjoyed to see her eldest daughter. Her half-sister has grown into a beautiful and manipulative teenager. And her stepfather seems content to sip cocktails and watch from the sidelines. While investigating in a town that seems increasingly hostile, Camille must struggle to maintain her own mental health while trying to find out everything she can about the deaths of two girls who begin to evoke memories from her own past.

Six years before Gone Girl became a runaway bestseller and changed the thriller genre forever Gillian Flynn published her debut novel, Sharp Objects. It’s easy to see Flynn’s obvious talent as well as how she grew as an author with her follow-up books. Sharp Objects is a shorter novel that immediately dives into a dark and haunted place and stays there for the duration.

Everyone in this book seems to be suffering from some form of deeply unhealthy obsession. Even the town itself has a kind of malignant tumor that infects the overall atmosphere. Camille’s family is a warped and twisted caricature of love. Her mother Adora demands control over everyone in her life and is willing to excise anyone who defies her authority, even her own daughter. Camille’s thirteen year old half-sister Amma has learned how to play her mother and everyone else in the town, consummately changing personalities to fit people’s individual perceptions. For Camille, who is dealing with a history of self-arm and anxiety, this is the worst place she could possibly be.

Gillian Flynn deserves props for presenting an honest and unflinching portrayal of mental illness. Camille’s fragile mental state is never romanticized, but neither does it define her entirely. She is more than her illness, and works every day to better herself. At the same time she is ashamed of what she believes to be a weakness, and self-medicates with drugs and alcohol to dull her pain. The longer Camille remains with her family, the stronger the urge to self-harm becomes.

I really enjoyed this novel for its dark and twisted portrayal of familial bonds. The tangled relationship between Camille and those who are supposed to love and support her are described in a realistic if incredibly destructive manner. I could easily relate to Flynn’s protagonist who has to hold on to her inner strength when it becomes nearly impossible to do so.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Sharp Objects here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: There’s Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins (2017)

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Review #80

 

Makani Young is struggling to adjust to life in Osborne, Nebraska. After a life spent growing up on the beaches of her native Hawaii, the small football-obsessed town is incredibly dull. Makani is relieved to be away from the dark past that haunted her back home. She’s making new friends and possibly even a boyfriend. But when her fellow classmates begin turning up dead in a series of increasingly gruesome murders, she wonders if her past hasn’t come back to haunt her.

The first twenty or so pages of this novel are brilliant. A teenage girl home alone begins to notice that random objects in her house appears to have been moved ever so slightly. She attempts to ignore her growing sense of fear and goes about her evening, but keeps feeling as though someone is watching her from the windows. When she least expects it, the killer strikes. It is a fun and tense homage to the campy openings of horror films such as Scream or Urban Legend.

It is then followed by nearly one hundred pages of a book that more closely resembles a late ’90’s teen rom-com. Author Stephanie Perkins previous works were romance novels with titles like Anna and the French Kiss. This is her first foray into the thriller genre, and it is easy to tell that she had difficulty putting aside her romantic inclinations. The relationship between Makani and Ollie is sweet and genuine, but altogether tedious when the more interesting parts of the novel focus on a deranged killer as he stalks teenagers and dismembers them in creative ways. The juxtaposition of the romance and slasher genres doesn’t quite mesh and often feels like two entirely different books that got accidentally squashed together.

Perkins also makes the interesting choice to reveal the identity of her killer halfway through the plot. Not just to the reader, the characters actually see him and identify him to the police a little past the midway point in the novel. This took away a lot of the suspense that had been building up. If the big question is “Who is the insane killer?” then answering that question with more than one hundred pages left to go drains away the energy. It also led to a messy and somewhat confusing climax.

Overall, I can admire that Perkins attempted to break out of her comfort zone and offer her readers something entirely different. I would like to see another thriller novel from her, just to see whether or not the suspense aspects of the plot have managed to supersede the romantic elements.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find There’s Someone In Your House here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!