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Review: Washington Black

Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black was my 7th Man Booker longlist title (of 13), and my 3rd read from the shortlist (of 6). So I’m officially halfway through. Washington Black was just released in the US last week, so I chose this one next based on availability.

washingtonblackAbout the book: Wash is a young slave on Faith Plantation in Barbados. His life is hard, but he’s got a friend, and he will follow where she leads. At least, until the new master’s brother visits, and selects Wash as his new assistant in scientific endeavors. Removed from the life of a field worker, new opportunities open for Wash– though he is still another man’s property. Titch is against slavery morally, but his attempts to remove Wash from hideous treatment in the sugar fields does not necessarily lead Wash to a better life. Circumstances lead Titch to escape Faith in a flying ship– a “Cloud-cutter.” Wash leaves with him, beginning a grand and terrifying journey through a harsh world that shows little respect for him, no matter how learned Titch has made him.

Washington Black is one of those books that I was happier to reach the end of than I was during any point while reading. The first section is a promising introduction to the story, detailing life on the Barbados plantation and ending with the odd pair– Titch and Wash– setting off through the sky in their own invention. But from there, the story wanders a bit aimlessly as years pass before Wash finds a sort of goal to work toward as well as the additional emotional complexity of a forbidden love. But much of the middle sections– indeed, much of the entire book– relies on telling rather than showing, as Wash seems to be relating his adventures from some point in the future. From this perspective, Wash notes moments of confusion or misunderstanding in his younger self, though he offers little in the way of explanation or growth that he may have gained through further experience.

“I was young and terrified and confused, it is true. But it is also true that the nature of what happened isn’t fixed; it shifts and warps with the years.”

I had two main issues with this book, issues that indicate this simply wasn’t the right book for me rather than that the novel is flawed. First, this is a very specific story. The events of Wash’s life are probably not events that have happened to any other people or characters ever in existence– and I found little to relate to or to learn from such specificity of experience nearly 200 years past. It’s not a broad look at culture or personality so much as a close-up of one man’s suffering. Some of the underlying messages might apply more widely, but the generalization of the underlying messages was my other issue with this story– I didn’t find that Washington Black had anything new to say on the injustices of slavery it highlighted. A white man taking credit for a black man’s work. A black man taking the blame for a white man’s actions. A white man trying to end slavery at least for one child, by giving him tools the world will not allow him to use. These are important pages in history, but I’ve encountered them before, in other stories. I found it frustrating to read such a unique tale to find only familiar morals.

“I felt Titch was trying to liberate himself from me. And again he would do it under the guise of granting me safety.”

But there is no mistaking the competency of Edugyan’s prose or the intelligence behind her words. There are bits and pieces of this story that will stay with me long after the plot fades, abstract ideas and emotions.

“There was but a thread between life and death, and he had stumbled blamelessly onto the wrong side of it.”

I’ll also remember the scientific aspects of the story: primarily the cloud-cutter and Ocean House. I didn’t look too closely at the premise of Washington Black before diving in, but with such a focus on science so early in the story I was hoping for something a little more zany, like The Underground Railroad. I knew there was no magical realism aspect to Washington Black, but I was disappointed with how quickly the cloud-cutter seemed to fade from its pages. I think the biggest failure of this novel is its hesitance to follow the science to more adventurous conclusions; Edugyan introduces some fascinating concepts, but lets them linger in the background of Wash’s life as he turns his attention instead to the scientist: Titch.

I probably would never have read this book if it hadn’t turned up on the Man Booker longlist the year that I decided to read every nominated book. Its spot on the shortlist led me to pick it up even sooner. But because I did find and read it because of the Man Booker longlist, I can’t help but compare my experience reading it to my similarly disappointing experience with Warlight. Though I preferred Ondaatje’s prose to Edugyan’s, I was pleased that Edugyan offered more directionality of narrative– and yet despite these minor differences, I spent much of my time with both books waiting for a reason to care about the main character and closing the book in the end without any real sense of connection.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I don’t regret having read this book, but I don’t think I’ve gained anything from reading it beyond crossing off another title on my trek through the longlist. My goal is to finish reading the shortlist before the winner is announced (I still have The Overstory, Milkman, and The Long Take to read), and then wrap up the longlist titles I have left (Sabrina, Normal People, and In Our Mad and Furious City). Next up for me will be The Overstory, which is really the only title I have left that I have doubts about enjoying. If I can get through that one, I should have no trouble with the rest.

In lieu of further recommendations, I’m linking the rest of my Man Booker reviews (so far) here, in order of favoritism: Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, Warlight, and Snap.

Is there a book you’re glad you read even though you didn’t enjoy reading it? Why did you feel that way?


The Literary Elephant


Review: The Water Cure

Sophia Mackintosh’s The Water Cure is Man Booker title #6 for me, and this is why I’m reading all thirteen nominees this year: because this one didn’t make the shortlist but I absolutely loved it.

thewatercureAbout the book: Three daughters grew up on a sheltered island with only their parents and supposed “damaged women” for company. They’ve been told that the world outside their borders is full of toxins and contaminants that will harm and eventually kill them, and men are the most toxic of all– excepting their father, of course. In their little safe space, the daughters (and the women who come to them for healing) undergo daily exercises and therapies to combat the dangers of the world, including the emotions inside themselves. Young adults now, they have known no other life, but are thrust into the unknown as their family begins to break apart and men from the outside appear on their beach, seeking hospitality.

“Strong feelings weaken you, open up your body like a wound. It takes vigilance and regular therapies to hold them at bay. Over the years we have learned how to dampen them down, how to practice and release emotion under strict conditions only, how to own our pain. I can cough it into muslin, trap it as bubbles under the water, let it from my very blood.”

I did have a few hang-ups with this book, but I was willing to overlook almost anything for the delightfully unsettling atmosphere. Complimentary elements include: otherworldy setting details, questionable narrators, mysterious circumstances, and complex interpersonal dynamics. This place is vivid.

The world outside the girls’ boundaries is less clear; it’s hard to be sure whether this is taking place in present-day, or in a dystopian future, or some other fantastical world. But I was so immersed in the girls’ lives that the unanswered questions didn’t bother me, especially because the girls themselves don’t seem to know anything factual about the outside world either.

“Every time I think I am very lonely, it becomes bleaker and more true. You can think things into being. You can dwell them up from the ground.”

Other small issues include lagged pacing in the middle while everyone in the story is basically waiting for the other shoe to drop, as well as a few surprises in the girls’ knowledge and mannerisms that don’t quite match their sheltered upbringing, and a couple of plot developments that felt a bit rushed/contrived. Any one of these could have been major issues in another book, but Mackintosh’s writing and control of her characters is so smooth and capable that the story moves quickly onward before it snags and sinks. The Water Cure is short, sharp, and to-the-point.

One of the biggest upsides, on the other hand, is the characters. Mackintosh has created this beautiful array of men and women that are not flatly likable or unlikable, but draw the reader in completely. Despite a little initial confusion while figuring out which sister was which, it quickly becomes apparent that each character is unique and built from the specific circumstances that have shaped their lives. And the best part is that it is clear that they know more than they are letting on, that they speak about healing and openness and purity but that they also contain hidden depths, their own dark secrets and an awareness of the obvious cruelty in their “therapies” that they won’t admit out loud.

Which is another plus– the cures and treatments and exercises are presented on a surface level (by the daughters) as helpful in inoculating female emotions from attachments to the men that will inevitably hurt them, but the actual dynamic between men and women, between parents and children, teachers and students is much more intricate than is shown at that surface level. There is wonderful ambiguity here that leaves the reader free to decide whether the men are toxic, whether the daughters have been fortified or damaged by their parents’ efforts, and which acts might have been borne of the very sort of love that is so expressly forbidden.

“There is a fluidity to his movements, despite his size, that tells me he has never had to justify his existence, has never had to fold himself into a hidden thing, and I wonder what that must be like, to know that your body is irreproachable.”

I was also fascinated by the interspersed entries from the Welcome Book that the girls peruse, entries written by the women who come to the island in search of healing and cures. Some are more specific than others, but all speak to the specific hurts of women. These sections do not further the plot, but they do add to the atmosphere and serve as a reminder that much of the girls’ knowledge of the world outside of their home has been gleaned second-hand from people seeking to escape it.

“It’s an old story and I’m so tired of telling it– the oldest story in the world and yet I can’t put it down, I can’t stop it from dragging on my body, so don’t make me tell it again. The story doesn’t end or even begin with me. You can imagine. You can tell it to yourself.”

So darkly dreamy. Brutal, and yet the reader floats through the story.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had a wonderful time with this weird little book and can’t wait to see what Sophie Mackintosh writes next. Next for me on the Man Booker list is Washington Black, and from there I’m planning to focus more on the shortlist titles I haven’t read yet before rounding out the longlist.

My Man Booker reviews (listed in order of most to least favorite): Everything Under, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, Warlight, Snap. If you read and loved The Water Cure (or plan to), I also recommend picking up Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, another short, dark, magical novel; this one made the shortlist.

What’s been your favorite Man Booker read this year (from the 2018 longlist or any previous winners/nominees)? Or any others up for awards that have caught your eye?


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Silence of the Girls

Booker Prize Winner Pat Barker’s new release, The Silence of the Girls, was one of my Book of the Month selections for September. It’s a somewhat-modernized retelling of Homer’s The Iliad with a heavier focus on some of the female characters– primarily Achilles’s new slave woman, Briseis.

thesilenceofthegirlsAbout the book: Briseis has married a king and done well for herself, even if her husband prefers another woman and his mother hates her for her apparent barrenness. She’s royalty. At least, she is until her city falls to Achilles. The men are killed, the goods looted, and the women taken to the encamped Greek army on the shores of Troy– Briseis among them. To the Greeks, she is no one. Maybe an important slave because of her previous royal ranking, but a slave nonetheless. She is given to Achilles as a war prize. In his huts and throughout the army compound, she becomes acquainted with the other women and the notable Greeks, just as the war is reaching its dramatic climax.

“I didn’t feel like anything that might have a name.”

The Silence of the Girls is a beautiful book that gives women a voice in a tale that’s been dominated by men for thousands of years. It gives a girl that Homer doesn’t honor with much mention a whole life, thoughts, opinions, and wishes. For that alone, I wanted to love this book, but in the end, I only liked it.

I have quite a list of pros and cons. First, this is a modernized retelling. It still takes place in ancient Greece on the same shores of the legendary city of Troy, but all of the dialogue comes from present-day Britain. This tactic makes the characters more reachable and human than those wisps of imagination, the gods. Giving them present-day mannerisms allows for updated commentary and an easier reading experience.

“It was astonishing the way really quite intelligent women seemed to believe that if they carried their eyeliner beyond the outer corner of the lid and gave it a little upward flick, they’d have Helen’s eyes.”

But the modernization didn’t work for me across the entire board. Briseis’s notice of and reaction to the unfairness of her circumstances is too modern in places to fit its story. The worst part of her slavery in The Iliad is that it is a common practice, it is the norm; though Briseis is not the only female slave whose main job is to warm some important man’s bed, she reacts to it in a way that reveals modern knowledge that such customs will be overturned, that there will be a time and place where women are closer to equals. This change made the book less of a cultural/historic learning experience and more of a modern outrage toward gender inequality, which could have been a clear enough theme through a more subtle handling of perspective.

Things do change. And if they don’t you bloody well make them.’

‘Spoken like a man.’ “

One of the biggest differences between Barker’s work and Homer’s is that The Silence of the Girls is more of a nuanced study of human character while The Iliad uses godly interference as reasoning for many outcomes. I loved the balance of gods and men in The Iliad, but to Briseis the gods are distant beings who don’t hear prayers or intervene. I missed the gods, personally, but their absence does allow for a deeper characterization. I was particularly moved by Patroclus in this version of the story, and hated Achilles with a passion I’ve never been able to summon for him before.

Which leads me to another pro/con: that Briseis’s story becomes Achilles’s almost as soon as she becomes his slave. To an extent, I liked what Barker does to control the narrative, showing the way ancient girls were silenced in greater history not just by taking their voices but every choice they could possible make:

“I’d been trying to escape not just from camp, but from Achilles’s story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story– his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter. Here I was, again, waiting for Achilles to decide when it was time for bed, still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play in it.”

But that was also a frustrating element for me because it made the plot predictable. I think the fact that I had just read 3/4 of The Iliad (primarily because I wanted to read this Briseis retelling), took out any surprise I might have found in the storyline. Reading The Iliad with an eye out for Briseis’s tragedies put a lot of the ideas that The Silence of the Girls explores into my mind before I read it: the horror and brutality of being pulled from one’s home, seeing one’s family killed, and being treated as an object by your enemies were all emotions I was able to pull from the plot of The Iliad and the premise of The Silence of the Girls alone, and seeing them played out over a full 300 pages didn’t change the way those concepts affected me.

And then there were a few truly baffling moments, like this one:

“Even though it made no sense, to me or to anybody else, that the two most powerful men in the Greek army should fall out over a girl.”

(Why not? Helen started a major war. The same war, in fact, that this Greek army is fighting for.)

But despite a few dissatisfactions, I did find The Silence of the Girls to be a much pleasanter reading experience than The Iliad; it’s a quick, compelling read, and I think ultimately I would recommend it in place of The Iliad,or at least, to be read before The Iliad. It’s not so much a change from the original as a fairer presentation of the traditional story. Color picture rather than the black and white classic. I think I was simply expecting too much going in to appreciate the strong simplicity Barker weaves, though I might have loved it more under other circumstances.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This has been one of the highlights for me from my BOTM choices this year. I liked it better than Madeline Miller’s Circe, the other Greek mythology retelling I’ve read in the past months, but it didn’t impress me as much as I expected to be impressed. I’m more interested in finally picking up Miller’s The Song of Achilles to round out my Trojan War reading experience, but I think I need a little break from Troy. I’ll read The Odyssey first, for a change of pace.

What’s your favorite retelling?


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Emigrants

I probably won’t be able to generate much interest in this book, but I’m going to talk about it anyway.

My grandma, whose family is originally from Sweden, lent me this 4-book series, Vilhelm Moberg’s Emigrant Novels, about a family emigrating from Sweden to America in the mid-1800’s. The series is a fictional account written by a Swedish author in the 1900s after a fourth of Sweden had emigrated. I’m going to be reading the entire series, but this will be my only full review, featuring book one: The Emigrants; the rest will be mentioned only in my wrap-ups.

theemigrantnovelsAbout the book: The Nilsson family has lives on a small farm in Sweden. Karl Oskar’s father wore out his health clearing stones from the land over many years in the hopes that his sons would inherit better land than he had, and Karl Oskar begins his adult life as a farmer. He and his wife and their young children put every effort into the farm, but they have several bad years that it seems they’ll never be able to return from. Meanwhile, Karl Oskar’s brother, Robert, is employed as a farmhand elsewhere because Karl Oskar’s land cannot be further divided. But his employer is cruel and Robert ends up on the run. Both brothers dream of starting over in America, but they have little reliable information about the New World, and the dangerous sea voyage can take several months, if the ship manages to arrive. Everyone but the two brothers is against the move– but the Nilsson brothers are determined.

“His emigration was taken as a reproach, an insult even, to the parish as a whole and to each individual: the community and the people here were not good enough for him.”

This first volume is not a complete story in itself. It covers life in Sweden for the Nilssons, their decision to emigrate, and their sea voyage. The end of the book is just the end of a chapter (though an important chapter), and it’s necessary to read the entire series to take in this story. I know that’s a big commitment for someone without personal history involved. The writing is a bit dry in places, as it covers a lot of information rather than a lot of action (though there is plot), and it can be long-winded and repetitive. This is writing meant to evoke a time and place, so some interest in that setting is required for enjoyment.

“And he wondered if it were worthwhile to live, if he must remain a farmhand.”

So what’s to love? Well, American history. Swedish history. There are the major events of national history taught in schools, and then there’s one’s personal history. The Emigrants is full of characters that feel like my family.

And this is why I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be convincing many new readers to pick this up. It’s the familiarity that pulls me through, and I know that’s specific to me and to my family’s history. (Also other families in my area, I live in a Swedish/Norwegian area.) The names are familiar to me, the way they farm is familiar to me, their big noses and personalities and values are familiar to me. I know their religion. Even the climate seems very similar. My great-grandparents and their parents lived through journeys like the one described here. I’ve never had a reading experience like this before, and it’s been incredible.

“Here ships have sailed for thousands of years, but on this path wanderers leave no footprints.”

I often find that books about farming are boring. I don’t know why, because farming itself doesn’t leave one with enough time to be bored. There’s just something about manual labor and leaving one’s fortune to the whims of the weather that just doesn’t seem to translate well into literature. But Moberg brings these characters to life in a way that propels the narrative through layers of description. Each character has his/her own distinct relationship to farming and opinion of emigrating. They bear the emotional struggles of losing a child due to poverty occasioned by drought, and of losing to fire the entire season’s harvested grain, and taking responsibility for the lives of one’s family in the decision to risk the months at sea. Some characters are considered insane for trying to break with their community church to follow their own beliefs. One farmhand is ridiculed by his employer, another is injured. Everyone must leave something behind. Despite the heavy detailing of day-to-day life on the farm and on the ship, Moberg also infuses this novel with emotion and psychology, humanity that the reader can relate to even without personal experience with Swedish farms and sailing. It’s a beautiful documentation.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though I’m loving the personal connection I feel with this story, the writing is not the most stimulating. There are some very engrossing life-or-death moments, but otherwise this was a slow read for me. I’m determined to read the series, but it still seems a bit daunting. I think I’ll have a greater appreciation for the storyline as a whole once I’ve read the entire set.

Further recommendations:

  • A Man Called Ove is a great novel set in Sweden, by Swedish author Fredrik Backman. This one’s a more modern tale, and more humorous, but also captures a piece of Swedish life. Specifically, this novel follows a man who’s wife has died and whose decision to follow her to the afterlife is interrupted and derailed.

Which books do you enjoy because you feel a personal connection to the story?


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Iliad

I had been meaning to read Homer’s The Iliad for YEARS. I read long excerpts for class and on my own, but I never actually made it through. Until now! It wasn’t the most enjoyable experience (more on that in a sec), but it’s an incredible story.

theiliadAbout the book: Paris has taken Helen to be his wife in Troy; she was Menelaus’s wife first, and he raises an army against Troy at the injustice of having her stolen from him. Heroes on both sides fight for honor, though Paris plays little part in the fighting, leaving the battle against the Greeks to his more capable brother, Hector. At the opening of the book, two of the chief Greeks are at odds with one another: Agamemnon has slighted Achilles, who then refuses to fight though he could turn the tide of the war. But even as Achilles holds himself apart from the battle, he does not remain untouched by it– he sends his closest companion into danger alone, and learns of his own impending fate at Troy.

There were two things about this book that combined to make finishing difficult for me: 1) I was already 100% familiar with the story so no part of it was at all unexpected, and 2) I disliked the edition I read. It seems to be a very literal translation (by Samuel Butler), which in theory is where I would’ve wanted to start and it is the copy I own. But the grammar and wording is clunky in places, and it felt like some of the artistry of the story is lost in trying to match the language so directly. None of the other excerpts I’ve read from other authors have been this awkward to read, and I was pretty close to giving up.

“On this, with fell intent he made towards the city, and as the winning horse in a chariot race strains every nerve when he is flying over the plain, even so fast and furiously did the limbs of Achilles bear him onwards.”

What worked for me in the end was to read only a couple of chapters at a time. I do plan to pick up a more liberal translation at some point with the hope of enjoying the telling of the story more, as opposed to just appreciating its bones.

What I did love about The Iliad is the duality to the story, the way that the men are fighting the war, but also the Gods are fighting the war; in some ways the players remain separate, but ultimately they’re all playing off of each other to the point where it’s hard to tell who’s really in control of events. I also find it so easy to root for both Hector and Achilles, even though they oppose each other. Both sides are humanized and compelling.

“No man may fight Achilles, for one of the gods is always with him as his guardian angel, and even were it not so, his weapon flies ever straight, and fails not to pierce the flesh of him who is against him.”

I’ve also noticed a personal change in my reading of this story. I was such a naïve reader when I first tried picking this story up; I would follow any character or any narrator anywhere, taking everything at face value. Now that I’m a smarter reader, and especially lately as retellings are being published with stronger female leads, I’ve been paying more attention to characters like Helen and Briseis, and respecting the role that the women play in such a man’s story. The Iliad is about war, a man’s occupation– the women only cry for their husbands in the background, or are offered as prizes in competitions. Even so, they have fascinating stories between the lines. A big part of the reason I pushed myself to finish The Iliad this month is that I’m looking forward to reading Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls within the month as well, a retelling of the Trojan war from Briseis’s point of view. (I’ll probably be reviewing it early next week.)

I know that Greek stories like The Iliad were originally meant to be sung from memory, not written and read. And I do think it’s impressive that such a long and detailed account could have been narrated this way. But I am not a listener of epic poems in ancient Greece, I am a reader in 2018. And there is something that doesn’t work for me in reading this book: the level of detail. I am very much a reader who likes to hold every detail in my head as I go, but there are so many specifics in The Iliad that no matter how many times I read it I will never keep every minor character distinct in my mind, which made this a frustrating read at times. There are 10 pages (in my copy) devoted entirely to listing the names of principal fighters on both sides of the battle. 10 whole pages. That was the hardest part of the book for me to get through.

Even after the naming of the fighters, there are a lot of individual skirmishes that occur during the battles in which the narrator describes each blow dealt by this lesser character to that lesser character, going from pair to pair, none of whom matter much on an individual basis in the grand scheme of the plot. I want to appreciate this level of detail, the way Homer shows which side is winning or losing by showing each man that stands or falls, but it’s an overwhelming amount of names.

In the end, though this wasn’t the translation for me, I was reminded of how much I love The Iliad‘s bones– the politics, the emotion, the mythology, the grit. It’s no wonder this tragic story has survived thousands of years, and is still captivating new readers all the time.

“For all our grief we will hide our sorrows in our hearts, for weeping will not avail us. The immortals know no care, yet the lot they spin for man is full of sorrow.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a great story, and undoubtedly well-crafted. I was sad to feel during this read that some of the magic had been lost in this translation, but I loved the story anyway and look forward to reading it again someday in a more artistic rendering. I’m also planning to finish The Odyssey within the year (because I read Circe a few months ago and because Goodreads won’t count this toward my 2018 reading unless I finish both books in this bind-up); it’s translated by the same person so I’m a bit wary, but I feel like I’m on a roll so I might just keep it going in the background.

Further recommendations:

  • Virgil’s The Aeneid also looks at the Trojan War (though mainly the aftermath), including the best surviving description of the Trojan Horse scheme. I actually rated The Aeneid higher, but that might come down again to translation. They’re both great stories, though while The Iliad is Greek, The Aeneid features the (mythologized) account of the birth of Rome.

Are you a fan of any particular mythologies or ancient cultures?


The Literary Elephant


Review: Cross Her Heart

I read and loved Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes last year, and was excited to see her newest release, Cross Her Heart, available through Book of the Month Club for September. I knew going in that this new thriller lacked the sort of genre-bending twist that sold me on Behind Her Eyes, but even with that expectation I was disappointed by this run-of-the-mill thriller.

crossherheartAbout the book: Lisa has a good job, a daughter she’s proud of, a great friend… and nightmares about her dark past. No matter how much better she’s doing and how well-hidden she is, Lisa cannot escape what happened years ago. When signs from an old “friend” begin turning up in the present, Lisa doesn’t know how to cope. Ava doesn’t know how to deal with her mother’s newfound paranoia, and no one knows what to do when Lisa’s cover is blown and she’s spirited away to a safehouse– too late to save herself and Ava from the schemes of someone desperate for revenge.

“Life Is a series of deals, that’s what I’ve learned. Most get broken.”

I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what went wrong here for me– I think it was just a bit of everything. I will mention a few specific complaints, but I want to lead by mentioning that I’ve read quite a few thrillers now and my main problem lately seems to be that they’ve gotten predictable now that I know what to expect. This bothers me because I think thrillers, as much as any other genre, should hold up even (especially) if the reader is well-versed in the genre. But Cross Her Heart bored me within the first 10 pages, and never really improved.

One of the first issues I had with this book was characterization. I absolutely loved Marilynn’s character, but she is not the main focus (a tragedy) and the characters that do receive more attention are far more clichéd and unexciting. Ava is a selfish, naïve teenager whose mistakes are obvious from the start, and Lisa is the irksome mother who says her child matters more than anything, and yet she has no idea what’s going on in Ava’s life and makes no effort to keep her safe when scary things start happening around their home. And then there’s Simon, the sort-of love interest who really has no place in the story beyond giving depth to Lisa’s (and Marilynn’s) work life, which again, is not the main focus here. Other coworkers are clearly only present to add possibilities to the list of potential threats, and the people from Lisa’s past are flat and stereotypical, full of evil that lacks an underlying motive.

“I know that rage can lead to terrible things. Can leave someone with regrets like tombstones that have to be carried through life, backbreakingly heavy and deserved.”

Furthermore, the stakes are low. Lisa, the main target, states plainly and repeatedly that she’s willing to die for her daughter. If Lisa doesn’t mind dying, why should the reader mind for her? And with Lisa standing as this person’s sole target, why should I worry about anyone else? I couldn’t even bring myself to care about Ava potentially being stuck in the crossfire– she runs open-armed into the danger, and isn’t a very sympathetic character.

This cast is presented through a range of first, second, and third person perspectives. The sections are labeled by name and (predictable and tired) time stamps: Before, After, Now. The reason this format ultimately failed for me is that it allows for a repetitive duality to the reveals. Every plot twist is shown through at least two characters’ perspectives, hinted at in a sort of bland and overt way by one party and then expanded on by the next. This method muffles a lot of the novel’s shock and suspense.

The biggest obstacle though, is that this is not a mystery one could plausibly solve before the detectives. Pinborough withholds her clues. From the first chapter, it’s clear that the author (and many of the characters) know more than they’ll share; the mystery is a mystery only to the reader. When the author has to play her cards so close, you know the answer’s just too simple.

“Someone can do a terrible, unforgivable thing, and yet you forgive them if you love them. The heart is such a strange thing.”

And that ending– it’s just a little too neat. There are hardly any witnesses to the final act, the witnesses’ credibility should be questionable to the police, and even if the police have no trouble seeing the light there isn’t much to witness. Unless the culprit has made a full confession off-page, I just don’t buy how quickly things turn happy after the big showdown. In my experience, what is true matters a lot less than what people believe to be true, and there are a lot of beliefs that require overturning for this ending to work.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There was absolutely nothing gripping about this story for me. I wasn’t surprised, I only cared about one lesser character, and the writing style didn’t impress me. I think plenty of readers will be satisfied with the content of this novel, but I was hoping to be wowed. Sadly, Cross Her Heart was enough of a disappointment that I think I’ll be crossing Sarah Pinborough off my list of future interests; I think Behind Her Eyes was a one-off for me with this author.

Further recommendations:

  • Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger is a twistier case that mixes past accusations with present-day drama. The main character of this story must also confront signs of danger in and around her own home and decide whether her friend is the person she claims to be.
  • Another big hit in the thriller world this year with a few thematic similarities (past crimes forced back to the present, teenagers gone missing, false accusations, etc.) is Riley Sager’s The Last Time I LiedThis one’s about a woman who goes back to summer camp where her friends went missing years ago, and new disaster strikes. Though if you’re really looking for a great thriller (and something more different), I can’t recommend Sager’s previous novel, Final Girls, highly enough. This one’s a slasher thriller about a woman who avoided a violent killer once– only to be targeted again.

Do you have a go-to mystery/thriller writer who always comes through? Or have you been disappointed by a thriller author you’ve loved in the past?


The Literary Elephant

Novel Progress 9.18

It’s been two months since my last writing update, instead of one. I could make excuses, but the truth is that when I went on vacation, I came back to three weeks of procrastination in which I made very little progress on the book I’m trying to write. I felt guilty about that for a while, but now that all systems are a go again, I think that time off was helpful. I came back to my project with fresh perspective, and for a couple of weeks now I’ve been sitting down with the novel in front of me every day again, getting a little farther.

So this is where I’m at: I’m mostly finished with chapter 7 (of 9); I’m doing a final read-through just to make small edits and double check details, but the content’s all there and the word count won’t change by much. I’m 500 words short of my chapter goal of 10k, but I’m okay with that because I’m still around 73k toward my total project goal (90k), with two 10k chapters left to finish. Today should be my last day in chapter 7, except for my final read-through of the whole project.

And speaking of the whole project, I have a reader who’s going to go through and check for plot holes and typos, and since my three weeks of procrastination put me behind schedule, I had to pause work on chapter 7 to make another pass through chapter 1 before I passed that off. I really wanted to get through the entire draft before I went back to the beginning again because I get sucked into making small edits and then I get derailed, but I love chapter 1 and it’s in great shape and going through that was exciting and encouraging and helpful. Also, it didn’t take long, so I’m hoping that when I do my final read-through of the project that the rest of the chapters will go as quickly and easily into the final draft stage. It’s still a bit weird that my first complete draft will be more or less my final, but that’s what I get for working out of order and editing as I go– very little obvious progress, and then everything all at once.

Everything all at once: after I close out of chapter 7, I will have only two chapters left. 8 is already half-written, and 9 is not started, but both chapters are fully outlined. I’m usually not an outliner, but I have so many perspectives and plot arcs coming together here at the end of the book that every time I wrote about a character I made a note about where their next section should take them, and at this point there just aren’t many sections left so they’re all accounted for now. I just have to go back through and write out the content that I have planned. And I’m going to be swamped with work in about 3 weeks, so I’m probably going to push ahead and make a lot of progress now through the end of September. The same surge happened at this time last year with great success, so I’m feeling hopeful. I don’t know if I’ll quite make it through the end of chapter 9 in three weeks, but I’m going to work hard and see what happens.

As I am getting closer to the end, part of the problem with procrastinating is that I’m having wild swings of confidence/lack-of-confidence about this project. With the end in sight, I’m thinking more about what comes next. For so much of this project I’ve been putting off thoughts of publication because I couldn’t publish something that I hadn’t even written yet anyway. But now that I’m looking ahead to being done soon, I’m worrying a lot about what comes next. I need this book to be published. But I know there’s no guarantee. So I go back and forth between being so excited because I think the book is turning out great and everything in my life has led me here blah blah how can it not get published? And then the next day I’ll remember that so many writers never get published, I have no connections in the publishing world and I have terrible luck and who would ever publish my work? So for about a month now I’ve been going through some pretty intense euphoria and depression and it’s getting in the way of my writing. By this point, I’m just so emotionally exhausted that I need it to be done and out of my hands, one way or the other.

Another issue I had with chapter 7 that made it drag was that even though I had most of the chapter written before this round through it, I had to rewrite a lot of that content. Working out of order landed me with an almost-complete chapter that had all the wrong details; I’d tried to write this first part of the concluding sequence before I knew all of the characters and understood how the setting would develop and wasn’t aware yet of what the emotional atmosphere would be at this point in the novel. So while I sill wanted to use the same basic storyline, I had to go back to old chapters to match up setting details and character names/descriptions, and fix discrepancies in dialogue and actions. I’m afraid there’s going to be a bit of this going forward with chapter 8 as well, in the half-chapter that I wrote probably a year ago. Hopefully now that I’ve had some practice with this process it’ll go faster.

I’ve always written that way, back and forth and out of order. I write whichever part is strongest in my mind so that I don’t lose the words, and then I come back and fix it later. I know the urge to edit as you go is a struggle lots of writers have to deal with, and I think I’ll always be that way, but I’ve learned a lot from the writing and reading I’ve been doing in the last two years and few months while this project has been ongoing, and I think when I finish this one and start my second book, I’ll be ready to try a new approach. I definitely don’t think every book that I write will take me two and a half years, but I had to start somewhere and I’m glad I took the time to make this one as good as (I think, at least) it’s turning out to be. And now I know more for next time. And there will be a next time– whether I’m ever published or not, I don’t see how there could ever be a time when I’m alive and not writing. Which is why I’m really hoping for some luck  in my literary agent search, because I’d much rather make writing a career than a time-consuming hobby. All the words I’ve read that other people have written have shape my life, and I want to share the love by adding to the conversation; hopefully my words will reach the people that need to hear them the way other writers’ words have found me.

How’s your writing project going? Have you had any particular struggles or successes lately?


The Literary Elephant