Review: The Woman in Cabin 10

If you like psychological thrillers that consume your mind and make you question everything you’ve been told,  it would be a travesty to miss Ruth Ware’s books. Her debut novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, sends readers into a breathless literary panic, but her new book, The Woman in Cabin 10, which I’ll share with you today, conveys a drawn-out anxiety that eats at the very soul.thewomanincabin10

About the book: Laura “Lo” Blacklock, travel journalist, has won the chance to be on the maiden voyage of the private luxury cruise ship, Aurora Borealis around the fjords of the coast of Norway. Days before she is to embark, however, Lo experiences one of the worst scares of her life as her apartment is burgled while she’s inside. Taking her anxiety medication helps keep the fear at bay for a little while, but the cruise ship is surprisingly small and claustrophobic, and she’s afraid to sleep. On the very first night, she wakes from a blissful drunken haze to hear a woman scream in the cabin next door, followed by a splash that sounds like a body being heaved over the balcony. Her proof? A vanished smear of blood and a tube of mascara lent to her by the woman in the supposedly empty cabin. Lo can’t stop visualizing the woman, helpless and alone in the freezing water, but the worst is that no one seems to believe her story. No one seems to be missing from the ship, and Lo’s credibility as a drunk woman on anxiety medication who was recently burgled is thrown into question. Even Lo begins to wonder if she’s imagined the whole thing, but she can’t quite let it go.

“I leaned over the balcony, just as I had the night before … and suddenly I was absolutely and completely certain that I had not imagined it. None of it. Not the mascara. Not the blood. Not the face of the woman in cabin 10. Most of all, I had not imagined her. And for her sake, I could not let this drop. Because I knew what it was like to be her–to wake in the night with someone in your room, to feel that utter helpless certainty that something awful was going to happen, with nothing you could do to prevent it.”

In a Dark, Dark Wood provided readers with a steady, unsettling build-up leading to a couple of grand scare scenes, but The Woman in Cabin 10 runs readers in circles, gnawing at the same questions that seem to produce different answers every time. The opening scene of The Woman in Cabin 10 features an intruder that left me worried that this new book would be rife with similarities to Ware’s last story and thus lose it’s surprise factor, but this is not the case at all. Much like Lo’s nerves when she’s off her anxiety meds, this novel is one constant heightening drumroll of suspense that takes fear to a whole new level.

“I had been afraid before. I’d been scared out of my wits. But I had never despaired, and it was despair that I was feeling now.”

The magnitude of Lo’s feelings of helplessness in this novel are further increased by snippets at the end of each section of the novel (there are eight parts) that include emails, website gossip, and news articles from the outside world as Lo’s acquaintances on the ground begin to realize that something horrible must have happened on the boat. These alternative mediums of narration are a fascinating addition to the plot structure. Ware made a risky–and effective–choice to use these bits of correspondence from farther in the future than the reader has seen yet through Lo’s eyes. We know Lo will lose communication with the outside world before she does. We know a body has been found before Lo has any idea whose it will be. It’s important to pay attention to the dates in these sections, because they are pertinent to the story and they do add a lot of tension to Lo’s persistent questions about what is going on. Over and over she asks herself which of the ship’s passengers could be a murderer, and every time a different answer presents itself. She’s spiraling into anxiety, and then all hell breaks lose.

“Somewhere outside the sun was rising and falling, the waves were lifting and rocking the hull, and life went on, while I sank into the darkness.”

The best part of this book, however, is that the reader, along with Lo, must question whether Lo has seen and heard what she thinks she has. It is very possible to like Lo, to root for her to solve the mystery and escape alive, but still to question her reliability. Is she going crazy? Are we going crazy?

“I felt as if I hadn’t slept properly in days–which perhaps I hadn’t, and my chin kept nodding onto my chest and then jerking back up as I remembered where I was, and what I’d escaped from. Had it been real, that nightmare on the beautiful boat, with its coffin-like cell, far beneath the waves? Or was this all one long hallucination?”

thewomanincabin10_2My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Ruth Ware has done it again. It would be hard to choose a favorite between her first two books, and I can’t wait for the next one. Furthermore, not only is the plot great, but this book is beautiful. I know people say it’s unfair to judge a book by its cover, but the cover is important. It’s the first part of a book you see, the first part you touch. It was hard to photograph it well (apologies for my lack of camera prowess), but not only is the picture itself dark and compelling, but those water drops on the cover are embossed into the cover paper, and shine in the sun like real water. If the light hits this book right, it looks like there’s real water spattered all over it.It’s darkly gorgeous, and completely fits the book’s theme.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you haven’t read Ware’s first book, In a Dark, Dark Wood, please do that now. Ware is a master at taking beautiful settings to a whole new level of scary. In her debut novel, a small bachelorette party taking place in a glass house in a lonely forest meets deadly trouble–but is the danger outside of the house, or already in with them? Read my complete review here.
  2. Caroline Kepnes’ books about the murdering Joe Goldberg, You and its sequel Hidden Bodies, don’t have a lot specifically in common with Ruth Ware’s books, except that they are psychological thrillers unlike anything I’ve read before. This duo (so far) is a creepy and compelling love story in which no one is safe. Check out my complete reviews here.

What’s next: I’ll have another review for you, on E. L. James’ Grey, in a couple of days, but tomorrow I’m planning to share with you my August book haul and wrap-up, and my September TBR. I’m still not sure about doing this every month, but it worked well for August so I’ll give it a second try. Stay tuned for that, and for more reviews, including Grey, the latest addition to the Fifty Shades series. This one is narrated from the perspective of the dominant/stalker/sadist/CEO extraordinaire, Christian Grey.

Until then,

Set sail with The Woman in Cabin 10 and see what you’ve been missing.

The Literary Elephant

 

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Review: With Malice

Here’s another chilling end-of-summer read: a trip to Italy, friends who betray each other, a deadly car accident, and so much more fill the pages of Eileen Cook’s newest YA novel, With Malice. The truth has never seemed so important, or so flexible, as it appears in this book. If you love thrillers that leave you uncertain about who to trust, don’t miss this story.

About the book: Eighteen year-old Jill wakes up in a hospital badly battered and confused, with no memory of the past six weeks. She quickly learns that the educational trip to Italy she’d been looking forward to for months has already come and gone, that she was involved in a highly-publicized car accident abroad, and that her best friend of more than 10 years is dead. As Jill settles in to a rehab facility and deals with her parents and lawyers making important decisions to deal with the possibility of murder charges from the Italian police, she struggles to remember what happened on the trip and whether it’s as bad as she thinks–was the car accident actually part of a murder scheme? Jill is forced to confront the problematic nature of truth over and over–whose is the right version, whether her memories can be relied upon at all, and whether the truth even matters when she’s faced with such ill public opinion and the police are out for blood.withmalice

“It doesn’t matter what’s true–what matters is what people believe.”

The structure of this book adds to the reader’s sense of uncertainty. Between chapters of Jill’s confused perspective, the reader is provided with testimony from friends and relatives of the girls involved in the trouble in Italy, including parts of police interviews, updates on news and social media sites, text messages and notes that are being considered as character evidence, etc. Seeing so many facets of the story makes it clear that everyone sees something different. It can be difficult to determine which of the conflicting pieces are most accurate.

“Maybe I didn’t want to believe what I might be capable of doing.”

Best aspect: Jill’s trip to Italy was an exciting one–the mystery of Jill’s forgotten past is the most engaging aspect of this novel. The chapters of testimony were for me the most interesting pieces of the story, and I was constantly wondering what had happened leading up to the car crash. The interviews and such that are provided in these in-between chapters are a fun alternative medium to traditional narration that give a great level of characterization to all of the people involved in Jill’s story.

Worst aspect: Jill’s present circumstances are less exciting than her past. While Jill is relatively safe in the rehab facility, the biggest tension points of the plot are her slow progress in remembering what happened in Italy, and her lawyer’s attempts to suppress her from saying anything that can be used against her in a potential court case. Otherwise, not much is going on for Jill at rehab, and I was a little disappointed that Cook didn’t raise the stakes for this part of the plot. There’s the threat of potential jail time constantly hanging over her head, but otherwise Jill has it pretty easy at rehab. She’s stressed and healing and worried about the kind of person she is, but she doesn’t really do much in the present. I think that if I had seen a little more excitement after the crash than the rehab facility had to offer, that would’ve tipped me from liking this book to loving it. There was so much tension and interest in the Italy trip, but I wished that level of excitement could’ve been maintained after Jill had woken up in the hospital, as well.

Another consideration: Jill is not necessarily a likable character. Sometimes it can make a book harder to read if you can’t quite understand or connect with the main character, but I find I rather enjoy that technique. I liked being uncertain about Jill, and I think having some doubts about her character suit the story well. Characters seem more believable when they’re flawed and capable of doing bad things.

“Who we are is what comes out when shit goes bad. You can’t tell anything about a person when things are great. If you want to really know someone, be there when everything goes to hell.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Eileen Cook was not on my radar before I came across this book recently in a bookstore, but she does have quite a few other YA books published. I’m not in a hurry to read all the rest of them, but I did like With Malice enough that I’ll keep an eye out for more new Cook novels. With Malice didn’t quite have the fast-paced wow factor that I expected after reading its synopsis, but I did particularly enjoy how multi-faceted this story made its characters and truths seem. I love books that don’t wrap up too neatly at the end, and this is definitely the sort of story that will leave readers thinking–not just about the characters confined to the novel’s pages, but about big real-life concepts including memory, truth, and friendship. It’s a great mix, and while With Malice didn’t quite make it onto my list of favorites, I did enjoy it and I see real potential here that leaves me excited for future novels by this author.

Further Recommendations:

  1. Ruth Ware’s debut novel In a Dark, Dark Wood also features a female character who was involved in a car “accident” and wakes up in the hospital trying to piece together what happened and whether she is still in danger. This one’s a non-stop thriller, more NA than YA, but an absolute fantastic read if you like With Malice. Check out my review of Ware’s book here.
  2. If you want to stick to YA and love a good book that explores the gravity of truth, don’t miss e. lockhart’s We Were Liars, which features a main character much like Jill, forced to face a close tragedy of the past that she doesn’t quite remember, with far-reaching consequences. Check out my review of lockhart’s book here.

Coming up next: last month I read Ruth Ware’s first novel, and I was so impressed that I rushed out to buy her new book, The Woman in Cabin 10. This new story is thrilling in a whole new way–Laura Blacklock, an aspiring journalist, finds herself trapped on a boat with a possible murderer, and no one else on board seems to care or even acknowledge that the murdered woman exists. Watch for my next post to find out all about the craziness of Ware’s latest psychological masterpiece.

Truly,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Girls

Looking for a book about a grisly murder spree, cult-like drama, the manipulability of human nature, and what it’s like to be a girl? It’s all wrapped up in one fascinating package in Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls.

About the book: Evie Boyd is a fourteen year-old girl in California. The year is 1969. Every minute of her life is taken up by discovering what it means to be a girl and assessing the ways her world is shaping her. When she meets Suzanne and the other girls, she is swept up in the the loving atmosphere of a new sort of family where finally, finally, she finds the attention she’s been hungering for. It’s an era where a girl can run away from home just because she’s bored, turning up days later for food and money without anyone wondering whether something is wrong. Perhaps there were warnings she missed, signs she didn’t want to see. Evie is older now, and an encounter with a young couple interested in the murders of 1969 sends her thoughts back to that summer when she chased what she thought was love and found herself obliquely involved with a horrible crime.

thegirlsThe Girls reads something like a stream-of-consciousness narration, slipping easily back and forth between the present borrowed house and unexpected guests, and the past on the ranch with Russell, Suzanne and the girls. The story, however, is clearly well-formed, as though the streaming thoughts are an old habit, a story picked over for years, every detail overturned for hidden meaning and objective explanations that convey the innocence and desire of the fourteen year-old girl with all the insight of the woman who grew from her. Evie considers the nature of girls with the closeness of someone who was one but has grown distant, almost as though she no longer feels she belongs to the species. The qualities are still there, still surface slowly when some change in Evie’s world stirs them up, but Evie has retreated from the world–or the world has pushed her out. She no longer feels a part of something bigger. This may be why she can see so clearly how her gender affected her life; the book is full of commentary on the rules and limitations of girlhood.

“I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board.”

It’s more than a piece of Evie’s identity, though. Being a girl may feel a bit like having a particular role thrust upon her, but even when she isn’t acting, the fact that she is a girl defines her. It makes her parents lenient and generous. It makes men notice her. It is the link in her friendship with Connie, the reason Connie’s older brother tolerates but pities Evie’s romantic attention, the reason the young neighbor boy would do anything she asks. It is the reason fourteen year-old Evie practically worships the ground Suzanne walks on–Suzanne, the older, beautiful girl who makes things happen without trying and exists so effortlessly. Evie loves Suzanne, in the way that a girl loves the symbol of what she wants to be, but everything else that’s happening confuses her feelings. Suzanne is connected in Evie’s mind to the stages in which she loses her virginity, connected to the crimes that continue to instill fear in Evie years later, and connected to adult-Evie’s ability to walk about the world freely rather than spend her life behind bars. Evie wants love so badly when she meets Suzanne–the close attention she receives from no one else, and the promise that she is desirable. Suzanne sees that need in Evie, and uses it.

“Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get.”

There is markedly little tension in this book; the reader is informed early on that a notorious murder took place and that Evie was closely involved with the perpetrators, if not the act itself, which makes the culmination of the story less mysterious. We see Evie’s dull future before her colorful past, a glimpse of how things have ended up before we know exactly why. Although the level of suspense in The Girls is minimal, the story is, nevertheless, a page-turner. Emma Cline depicts Evie’s 1969 life so visibly that it’s a shock to look up from the book and see the modern world still chugging onward. Having Evie narrate from the future allows for the book to prompt us onward–teenaged Evie doesn’t notice warning signs or understand much of what was happening outside of her own experience, but future Evie can weave those details into the story, foreshadowing to remind the reader that despite how innocent it seems to follow wherever the world should take her, Evie comes very close to disaster. Maybe she even wishes she’d gotten closer. These retrospective thoughts push the plot along and leave room for Evie’s speculation on what it means to be a girl, those relatable insights that bring the real horror of the murders to the reader by proving it could have happened to her, or perhaps to any of us, caught up in ideas of love and malleable to change. Evie only wanted to be noticed, as we readers want to be noticed, as Suzanne wanted to be noticed by Russel, as Russel wanted to be noticed for his music.

“You wanted things and you couldn’t help it, because there was only your life, only yourself to wake up with, and how could you ever tell yourself what you wanted was wrong?”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. The story is so clear you can almost see it–I’ve rarely encountered authors so adept at both physical descriptions and the sort of philosophical musings of meaning that Evie attaches to her memories of that fateful summer. Evie has a shrewd eye for the world around her, but it’s the umbrella statements about girlhood, life in the 60’s, and love that really draw the reader in and show how easy it might have been for Evie–or anyone–to be involved in hideous murders she had no personal desire for. Her statements about the lives of girls show how fragile humanity is, how thin the line between right and wrong and reason, and how difficult it remains for Evie to determine which side of the line is better in the end.

Further Recommendations:

  1. Caroline Kepnes’ You is another great example of a novel that tests the theory that everything is black and white. Joe Goldberg does some bad things, but maybe he does them for good reasons. Maybe that makes it okay. Maybe you want him to get away with murder. Check out my review here to find out more.
  2. I hesitate to recommend a book I haven’t read yet, but this one’s a well-known classic that I think would go really well with The Girls: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which is another story about what it means to be a girl in this world, and how sometimes that can be tragically taken advantage of. Lolita is on my TBR list for September, so you can look forward to a more complete review in coming weeks and perhaps add it to your TBR, as well!

What’s next:Eileen Cook’s new YA thriller With Malice is a great book to pick up before the fall season really sets in. Two friends take one last adventure before their high school graduation sends them in different directions, but the trip to Italy turns into a disaster. One girl comes home in a body bag, and the other can’t remember anything that’s happened in the last six weeks. Now people are saying it might not have been an accident.

Until then,

This one’s groovy.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Station Eleven

Summer is winding down, my reading itinerary has been derailed, but I’m making a comeback. Today I have for you Emily St. John Mandel’s science fiction novel Station Eleven, which will shock readers with it’s depiction of the overlooked fragility of the modern world and the capabilities of humans pushed to their limits. This book will unravel your impression of 21st century life.stationeleven

About the book: The Georgia Flu has wiped out over 90 percent of the population. No one can be sure exactly how many are left, because travel and communication are basically non-existent except by foot, and face-to-face dialogue. Kirsten makes a two-year circuit of makeshift towns with the Traveling Symphony, a small group of caravans that passes through settlements to perform Shakespeare plays and orchestral concerts, a means of making their lives about more than survival. “Survival is insufficient,” is the motto of the Traveling Symphony. The symphony members also encounter a self-proclaimed prophet, the curator of the Museum of Civilization, and mysterious trouble on the road as they search for two missing members outside of their usual territory and rebuild their lives. Everyone has been devastated by the flu. Everyone has changed to fit the new world forced upon them. Everyone has lost someone they loved.

“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”

The main reason this book read so slowly for me was the fact that it didn’t have much of a main plot arc. There are several story lines that the narration examines, and we see many of them out of their chronological order with occasional areas of overlap. I truly love this technique. I admire stories that are so all-encompassing that they don’t need to be told linearly, and multiple perspectives is a great way–especially in sci-fi or fantasy works–to show the details of the world that the author has constructed. These aspects of the layout drew me in to this book, but it also made it a bit slower to read, without the usual increase of tension that most novels rely on to keep the reader hooked. There is one plot arc farthest into the future is broken into chronological pieces, each one leaving the reader uncertain about whether the end of the section is just a pause in a continuing narration, or one of the many unfortunate ends this book discloses. Many of the threads of this story do feel oddly unfinished–marriages, careers, relationships, journeys, lives–but it’s very fitting with the subject matter of the book. With limited communication abilities and the lack of regularized law, it’s entirely possible to lose sight of someone for one moment and simply never see them again. The world has been fragmented–and so have the plot lines.

There may not be one central arc of tension, but each of the characters presented in Station Eleven has his or her own ups and downs, mysteries to be solved, problems to resolve, etc. that keep the story flowing. They are all subtly tied together in a way that keeps the chapters connected even between character and decade switches. The characters of this story don’t need to be relatable because they are the windows to the world. Whether they are likeable or not, they share with the reader the way that lives unfold in this time:

“They spend all their lives waiting for their lives to begin.”

Best part: Although the tension in the book didn’t keep me as invested in turning pages as I’d hoped, the hauntingly beautiful prose and implications presented in the text were more than enough to make me want to finish reading. The world in which this story takes place post-flu is completely alien, and yet so eerily plausible. The ghosts of our current way of life are everywhere in these pages, and it leaves the reader with the terrifying impression that life in the 21st century is flimsier than we ever thought. Station Eleven makes a post-electricity, post-Internet Earth not only clearly imaginable, but perhaps closer than any of us would like to contemplate. Is it the apocalypse? Divine intervention? Sheer bad luck? The characters–ordinary people, one and all–can speculate, and some are certain one way or the other, but none of those possibilities hits the point: what happens to those who go on living at the end of the world? Is survival enough? St. John Mandel makes it obvious that even in survival there is beauty:

“He was just another dead man on another road, answerless, the bearer of another unfathomable story about walking out of one world and into another.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book didn’t send me through all the emotions, like most books I love, but it made me reconsider my reality in a way that I believe fiction should. One of the reasons I most like to read fiction is to gain a better understanding of the real world. Everyone lies, but in fiction at least the story is presented as a lie, and it’s up to the reader to fish out the truths therein. Because they are there, in every far-fetched tall tale adventure; little pieces of the author and his/her impressions of the world are stuck to the pages. Station Eleven wasn’t at all what I expected, but it will certainly stick with me.

Further Recommendations:

  1. Life as We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer is the first book in a YA series about the end of the modern way of life in consequence of a large-scale natural disaster. Like Station Eleven, Pfeffer’s books focus on the unmatchable pain and glory of survival in a collapsed world where new life begins.
  2. You may also like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, my favorite modern classic dystopian novel. This one takes place after a new world has been established on top of an old one, but the greatest changes are the new moral codes the humans have adopted, which prove nearly impossible to overcome. You can read more about this book here.

Coming up Next: New fiction author Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls. Set in the 1960’s, this book is about a girl who finds herself almost accidentally involved in a cult that could destroy her.

Don’t take anything for granted–read now.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Hidden Bodies

Hello, all. There’s still a little time for a fantastic summer read, and I have another great one for you. Today I have a review of Caroline Kepnes’ phenomenal second book, Hidden Bodies, which follows her addicting debut novel, You. My review of the first book can be found here.

About the book: Joe Goldberg is a stalker. He’s a murderer. He lies, steals, and cheats at life in every possible way. When Amy screws him over in New York, he follows her across the country to LA to exact his revenge. She’s a little slippery, though, and in the time it takes him to set up a plan and put it in action, he’s found a life for himself there. He’s found Love, at last. Maybe he can change once he has what he wants–but something keeps getting in the way. He left his DNA at the scene of a crime in You, and that mug of urine hidden in the back of a closet nags at him from across the country. Maybe he can change, but he always must be careful about his criminal past. It’s on the verge of catching up with him, just as he’s preparing to leave it behind.

Joe is an incredible character. He’s creepy and wonderful. His moods change faster than he can blink, sending him plummeting into anger or despair over the tiniest details but also making him incredibly easy to please, if only his various loves can go about it the right way. It’s a delicate balance that sends the reader into fright and anger at the injustice of Joe’s killing sprees, but also makes the reader cringe at the thought of his being caught and losing his chance at finally finding happiness with the love of his life. Joe is the kind of character you would be terrified to meet in real life, if you were lucky enough to see through his friendly demeanor in time to see him for the crazed murderer he is. And yet, in the pages of this book, you love having him out there in the world, free to carry on with his lies and schemes. Maybe you want him to get caught, but never to be stuck behind bars. Joe is the story. He’s the character you hate to love, but can’t quite help sympathizing with. He feels real.hiddenbodies

“I don’t believe in love at first sight. But I do believe in electricity, the way it can recharge you. I am healing.”

Joe is optimistic. He believes love is out there. No matter how many times his dreams are crushed, no matter what he does to girlfriends gone wrong, he never stops believing that love is out there, that he will find it, and that everything will be fine once he does. And so he carries on, taking in every detail about everyone to always have the advantage; whether he needs a friend, needs to keep tabs on an enemy, or just needs to know what someone will do, he observes. He participates in life, but he lives in his head, in his observations. He interacts, he loves, he is loved at times, but still he’s most at one with his own psyche. His voice is compelling, shrewd, but most importantly, entertaining. He seems completely oblivious to the irony of some of his complaints:

“…and thank God that I am me, that I didn’t get sick like this, that I don’t covet imaginary friends and pry into places where I don’t belong.”

I was afraid that by the second book, Joe Goldberg’s quest for love would begin to seem repetitive. He’s always looking for love. He’s crazy, so it always seems unlikely to end well. He always reacts to being let down by love with personal offense and criminal activity. And yet, this second book is not repetitive. First, every girl he “loves” is unique. He doesn’t seem to have any particular type, and he’s quick to adjust his perspective and expectations. In this book, while he’s searching for Amy (who makes an appearance at the end of You), he meets a girl named Love. She and her brother, Forty, are rich and trying to “make it in Hollywood.” Joe, who seemed so rooted in New York in the first book, becomes entwined with Love’s family and even makes an attempt of his own to “make it in Hollywood”. Love is no Beck, no Karen, or Amy. With Love, Joe is different. Some of his goals change. Part of what makes him so interesting as a character is his ability to adapt and move on. For this reason, he never has regrets. Maybe he kills three people who get in the way of his ideal relationship. When that relationship doesn’t work out, he doesn’t feel bad about the extra deaths. He doesn’t seem to feel remorse for any of his crimes, unless they involve mugs of urine that might end in his demise, and even then, he only regrets the evidence, not the crime. It’s hard to imagine any sort of perfect match for Joe. He kills, and he thinks,

“They forget that the sweetest thing in life is to be alone, as you were born, as you will die, soaking in the sun, knowing that you put the cactus in the right place, that you don’t need someone to come along and compliment your work, that someone who did that would, in fact, just be getting in the way.”

Love, however, does not seem to be in his way. One of the best parts of Caroline Kepnes’ books, though, is that just when you think you know what to expect, she throws a great plot twist into the mix. The reader is so focused on Joe, so sure of his instability, that it’s easy to forget that the other characters can be just as unpredictable. Joe sure can pick ’em. His life is full of interesting and slightly deranged people, leaving the reader to wonder if everyone really is that crazy, and normalcy is just a facade.

I think the biggest reason you can’t help loving Joe’s character, though, is that despite his craziness, he has the occasional normal thought. He makes a comment and you think, “yes, I completely agree.” It leads you to trust his impressions of people, which also leads you to the gray area where maybe you have to trust him when he says someone has to die, because there are some times when he’s exactly right about the world:

“…it’s like the difference between a movie and a book: a book lets you choose how much of the blood you want to see. A book gives you the permission to see the story as you want, as your mind directs. You interpret. […] When you finish a movie you leave the theater with your friend and talk about the movie right away. When you finish a book you think.”

Hidden Bodies will certainly leave the reader thinking. You can choose how much crazy you see; you can choose to love or hate Joe Goldberg, but this is he kind of book that you can’t put down, no matter what you think of him.

A warning: this book contains a lot of profanity, and a lot of sex. If that bothers you in a book, this may not be the one for you. For me, that just made it feel more real. When something bad happens, Joe swears in his head, like many people do. When someone offends him, he doesn’t hold back from mental name calling. When he meets a pretty girl… You get the picture. Maybe it’s a flaw of his character, but it’s a great one. Allowing the reader into Joe’s thoughts–even the unsavory ones–heightens the impression that this is the real Joe, that the reader has full access, that he or she is right there in his head with him for the duration of his marvelous ride. He’s a truly captivating narrator.

“And this is my fault. I did not check for a pulse. I did not finish my job. In spite of everything I’ve learned from the mug of piss, I didn’t put that knowledge into action. I’m like an asshole in a sitcom who learns the same fucking lesson every week and this is my life.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book is truly addicting, and nothing like anything I’ve ever read before (except for its predecessor, You, obviously). I wanted it to go on forever, and I will be waiting on the edge of my seat for the next Joe Goldberg installment. There’s not one scheduled to release any time soon, but I will be watching. It’s that good.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood is another thrilling summer read that will have you turning pages as fast as you can, wondering whether anyone is safe from a vicious killer. (She’s also got a new novel out this month that I will be reading soon, The Woman in Cabin 10. I’ve heard good things.) You can read my review of this book here.
  2. Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) is the third book in the Cormoran Strike series, but could be read as a stand-alone novel. If you like seeing the world from the killer’s perspective, this one has sections written like that, and is a masterfully done murder mystery. Learn more about the books of this series with these links: The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, and Career of Evil.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a novel in which a deadly flu has scourged the earth and ended life as we know it. The writing is beautiful, with seemingly unrelated characters connected in unexpected ways, and survival means something different for everyone.

Stack up the bodies with Joe. Don’t hide this book in your TBR stack.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

If you’ve been anxiously awaiting the eighth story in the Harry Potter series, you are not alone. J. K. Rowling’s newest Harry Potter installment has arrived, and it does not disappoint. Looking for more reasons to rush out and buy Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? Read on!

About the book: Nineteen years after Harry Potter has finished his seventh year at Hogwarts and faced Voldemort for what everyone hoped was the last time, his children head off to Hogwarts and find trouble of their own. Albus Severus Potter, Harry’s second son, has a difficult relationship with his father and finds his Hogwarts education an uncomfortable experience. He does have one close friend, though–Draco Malfoy’s only son, Scorpius. When Albus and Scorpius learn of a chance for adventure that Harry refuses to take, they seize it, though it may lead them straight into Voldemort’s clutches. Harry, Ginny, Ron, Hermione, Draco, and Headmistress McGonnagal must devise a plan to save the children and maybe even the world.

About the layout: This Harry Potter story was written (and performed) as a play. The book is formatted with acts and scenes rather than chapters, and consists mainly of dialogue and stage directions. Watching the story must be an incredible experience, but reading it is certainly magical as well. The Harry Potter stories are so action-heavy that this format works well for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. There are also many interesting relationships in this book, which the plethora of dialogue reveals and examines. It’s been a couple of years since I last read a play, and I was a little skeptical about this change of form for the Harry Potter series, but I think many of the same qualities from the novels are highlighted in the play as well and this format is a great fit.

The book itself is also beautiful. Even compared to what I normally expect in a hardcover book, this one stands out. The covers are heavy and sturdy (they’ll stand a lot of rereads!), the cover sheet is durable, and even the pages themselves are thick and crisp. The colors are gorgeously Gryffindor-esque, and the design is neat and attractive. Normally I care more about the story than the aesthetic, but beautiful books are worth noting.harrypotterandthecursedchild

About the characters: of course we have some of the old gang, tangled up in mischief as usual. Including our favorite characters from the novels as adults here is a way to acknowledge the time that has passed since the first kids who read the Harry Potter series who have grown into adults themselves, and also to include the adults who have fallen in love with the Harry Potter series although they may not have been able to read it as children. Adult Harry is a prominent figure, but this book also heavily features a few members of the next generation: young Albus Potter, Scorpius Malfoy, and Rose Granger-Weasley give readers a great reminder of Harry’s early Hogwarts days. They are what keeps this story in line with the rest of the series as a children’s tale. In no way are these new children a repeat of our favorite children from the first seven books, but they do strongly remind the reader of Harry and crew’s early days at Hogwarts, trying to fit in and resolve problems relating to the Dark Lord. Albus and Scorpius are just as entertaining as Harry and his friends were as children, although they face their own challenges. Albus’ rocky relationship with Harry is one of the main tensions in this story (people expect great things when you’re Harry Potter’s son), and Scorpius, who has challenges of his own regarding rumors of his parentage, proves to be an apt buffer for Albus:

“SCORPIUS: …He will always be Harry Potter, you know that, right? And you will always be his son. And I know it’s hard, and the other kids are awful, but you have to learn to be okay with that, because–there are worse things, okay?”

Scorpius is a great sidekick in Albus’ attempt at rebellion, but he’s more than that, as well. When he gets stuck in a sort of alternative universe, Scorpius battles his own obstacles and balances the weight of good for one versus good for all:

“SCORPIUS: The world changes and we change with it. I’m better off in this world. But the world is not better. And I don’t want that.

There are also some great tributes to dead characters who couldn’t quite make a full appearance in this story. Snape appears in Scorpius’ alternative universe, accepting his fate and passing on his blessing. Dumbledore occupies a few important portraits at Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic, offering his usual sage and slightly infuriating advise:

“DUMBLEDORE: Harry, there is never a perfect answer in this messy, emotional world. Perfection is beyond the reach of humankind, beyond the reach of magic. In every shining moment of happiness is that drop of poison: the knowledge that pain will come again. Be honest to those you love, show your pain. To suffer is as human as to breathe.”

This story has a great format, a great cast of characters…and a great plot. I love stories that play with time, and this one certainly does that. There seems to be only one Time-Turner left in existence, an  of course it’s the Potters who find it. This opens up all sorts of possibilities involving Voldemort’s potential return to power, and Rowling uses those to send the reader down a wonderful and suspenseful path. As much as Harry would like to step in and spare his loved ones, even he has his limits. Much like Harry and his friends had to partake in some dark battles as children, so too do the children of this book find themselves face to face with danger.

“HARRY: We have no idea where they are or when they are. Searching in time when you’ve no idea where in time to search, that’s a fool’s errand. No, love won’t do it and nor will a Time-Turner, I’m afraid. It’s up to our sons now–they’re the only ones who can save us.”

So intense. I couldn’t put it down. I read the whole book in just a few hours, quite by accident. Some people say that reading a play should take about the same amount of time as watching it, and maybe for some people that’s true. It took me a little longer–I think reading both the dialogue and stage directions takes a little longer than seeing and hearing them simultaneously. But I also think that I read a little slowly, trying to take everything in as fully as possible to provide the most thoughtful reviews. Even if it took a little longer than watching the play might have, this book was still a remarkably quick and addicting read, easily consumed in a single afternoon.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read all year, maybe even the best. It’s a perfect mix of old and new, both reminding the reader of where the rest of the series has taken us, and then soaring to new heights again. It’s incredible to be able to see what has become of our favorite fictional children and imagine that they’re still out there, in their own magical world, living and laughing and saving the world from evil and destruction. Without giving spoilers, I can’t explain just how many resolutions this story provides for the series, but in so many ways it gives readers a proper Harry Potter send-off. If you’ve read the rest of the series, this book is not to be missed.

Further Recommendations:

  1. If you want another middle grade series full of magic and adventure, the first place you look should be in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. This is another series that enchants me just as much as an adult as it did in my childhood. The movies, in my opinion, are nothing to judge the series by. The books are fantastic.
  2. If you just can’t get enough J. K. Rowling, and are looking for something a little more adult, check out the Cormoran Strike series. These books, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, feature a private detective operating out of modern-day London. You can find my review of the first book here.

Coming Up Next: Caroline Kepnes’ Hidden Bodies, the sequel to her fantastic debut novel You (you can find my review of that here) is finally being crossed off of my TBR list. I’ve been looking forward to this second story about modern stalker Joe Goldberg and his deadly quest for love for months. (stay tuned to find out if it lives up to expectations!)

From the magical world of books,

The Literary Elephant

Review: After You

The Me Before You book and movie was pretty popular in June, but have you read its sequel yet? Now that I’ve finished it, I’m sharing Jojo Moyes’ After You here today, and I liked it even better than the first book. Why? Let’s see…

(P.S. if you haven’t read Me Before You yet, SPOILERS AHEAD.)

About the book: After You opens on Louisa Clark’s life 18 months after Will’s death, and takes place mainly around her new home in London. Ironically, she has a bad accident after hearing an unexpected voice on her rooftop, which she soon learns belonged to Will’s teenage daughter, Lilafteryouy. After a stint in the hospital, Louisa must patch up fraying relationships in her own family, help Lily as Will would have done, learn to cope in the group grief sessions she attends, and, of course, figure out how to put the past behind her enough to live.

A few familiar faces make their appearances, but as Louisa settles into a new city there are also new characters to pay attention to, one of whom is Ambulance Sam. From the moment she sees him hovering over her broken body in his paramedic uniform, she feels a sort of gratitude toward him that she can’t forget, even though she expects never to see him again. He is so influential that his words become a sort of mantra:

“I keep hearing the voice of the paramedic who treated me: You never know what will happen when you fall from a great height. I am apparently very lucky…I don’t feel lucky. I don’t feel anything.”

That one sentence about falling from a great height sticks with Louisa and comes up over and over throughout the novel with new connotations each time. Ambulance Sam also refuses to be forgotten, and begins to wake emotions in Louisa again–even ones she doesn’t want, ones she thought were dead. It’s certainly not a typical romance between Sam and Louisa. She doesn’t want a relationship at all, and there’s Will coming constantly between them, though he couldn’t be further away. In some ways, Sam’s presence is more of a reminder of Will’s absence in Louisa’s life than loneliness would be, but even without Sam she could never escape the affects of helping Will end his own life.

“So here is the thing about being involved in a catastrophic, life-changing event. You think it’s just the catastrophic, life-changing event that you’re going to have to deal with: the flashbacks, the sleepless nights, the endless running back over events in your head, asking yourself if you had done the right thing, said the things you should have said, whether you could have changed things had you done them even a degree differently…[But] even if I managed to wipe the whole thing from my memory, I would never be allowed to disassociate from Will’s death.”

It seems everyone has heard of Will’s controversial death, and stares and whispers follow Louisa everywhere in her hometown. At least in London she can hide in anonymity, but there are always things to explain, and once people know about Will they treat her differently. Still, even in subdued clothing or her hideous work uniform, Louisa does her best to remain optimistic despite everything that seems to be working against her:

“Most of the time, I was reasonably content with my life. I had been to enough group sessions now to know that it was important to be grateful for simple pleasures. I was healthy. I had my family again. I was working. If I hadn’t made peace with Will’s death, I did at least feel like I might be crawling out from under its shadow. And yet…something primal [was] telling me that I was in the wrong place, that I was missing something.”

Maybe that something is Lily. In the teenage whirlwind of chaos and disorder, Louisa finds a project and an unexpected companion. Lily’s certainly difficult, and it would be hard to call her a friend, but having someone to keep an eye on gives Louisa a new focus and renewed purpose. In the first book, I thought Louisa’s character seemed a little weak. She had absolutely no ambition or drive in her life beyond short-term projects. Although she still has trouble looking very far into her future in After You, Louisa definitely seems like a sturdier character. She has opinions. She makes her own choices, for her own sake. She’s choosing her own path, instead of stumbling along one that she was planted on with the outcomes already decided. There are certainly challenges still to be dealt with, and some of them knock Louisa right to the ground, but she’s learned to get back up now:

“I felt a little better. I did. I reminded myself of something else Marc had said: that no journey out of grief was straightforward. There would be good days and bad days. Today was just a bad day, a kink in the road, to be traversed and survived.”

Although one of my favorite aspects of Me Before You was the addition of the other characters’ perspectives in chapters scattered throughout the book, I also really appreciated in this one that the focus remained almost solely on Louisa. There is one chapter in Lily’s perspective, which helps introduce a plot point more efficiently than Louisa’s voice could have done, and it seems fitting that the only additional perspective in After You should belong to Will’s daughter. Lily herself is an apt addition to this story who helps Louisa move forward without letting her or the reader forget about the past. Louisa realizes she’s not the only one suffering from Will’s death, even if she’s the one who knew him best at the end of his life.

“Sometimes I look at the lives of the people around me and I wonder if we aren’t all destined to leave a trail of damage…I gazed around me, like someone suddenly handed clear glasses, and I saw that pretty much everyone bore the brutal imprint of love, whether it was lost, whipped away from them, or simply vanished into a grave.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Although I was oddly satisfied that Will stuck to his decision on ending his life, and I appreciated the stylistic choice of including multiple character perspectives, I enjoyed everything about After You more than its preceding novel. After You struck me as far less predictable, and held so many more possibilities. Louisa became a stronger character, minor conflicts among her family members finally reached their conclusions, loose ends were wrapped up conclusively, but the end of the novel still left room to the imagination for Louisa’s future. For me, the plot of the first book felt very separate from the characters, as though the characters had just been planted into a ready-made plot, which left me disliking most of them; whereas in the second book the plot seemed to be worked around the characters’ personalities–their choices felt more apt, the events flowed more smoothly, and I liked almost everyone.

I would recommend this sequel to anyone who’s read or seen Me Before You in book or movie form. I did think the first book was richer than the film, but they’re so close in content that you could dive into After You after either format. After You seems more like the end to the first story than a whole new story, and I do think it’s worth experiencing both pieces, even if there were things you didn’t like about the first part.

Further Recommendations:

  1. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling) is another story set in London with characters that feel realistic–one of whom is coping with being crippled–who fight to keep a struggling private detective business open. Each character has his/her own emotional backstory which make relationships between them particularly interesting. You can find my review of this book here.
  2. For a bit more of a thrill, Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood is also set around modern day London and features a young female narrator. This book is a perfect summer read for someone who liked the Me Before You duo but wants a little change of pace. You can find my review of this book here.

What’s Next: I’ll be reviewing the new Harry Potter installment, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. This one is formatted as a play, which makes it a quick read, and the characters, as always, are highly entertaining. Stay tuned for an update soon!

Because the aftermath is as important as the main event,

The Literary Elephant