Tag Archives: fiction

Review: End of Watch (Bill Hodges Trilogy Wrap-up)

CW: suicide, murder, gaslighting, racism, homophobia, fatphobia, cruelty to hospital patient, cancer

Almost a year after I started, I have finally finished reading the Bill Hodges trilogy, which concludes with End of Watch by Stephen King. For more thoughts on the trilogy, you can check out my full reviews of the previous books, Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, though I’ll also do a small series wrap-up below. It should all be spoiler-free, except any characters mentioned at this point have obviously survived books 1 and 2, etc. All in all, I see End of Watch as a fair conclusion to the series, though it failed to live up to the promising start of the trilogy for me.

endofwatchIn the novel, Hodges’s old partner on the police force calls Hodges in on a case that looks like a standard murder/suicide. One of the deceased was also a victim of the Mercedes Massacre (an intentional hit and run at a job fair), a case Hodges helped close. Though the police don’t want to look further into these new deaths, some strange clues lead Hodges back to Mr. Mercedes- aka Brady Hartsfield- at the brain injury ward of the local hospital. But is Brady still impaired? There have been some rumors on the ward that he might be faking, that strange things have been happening around him. Has he found a way to keep killing without leaving his room? And if so, how can anyone stop him?

“Dead people never look more dead than in police photos.”

Right away I was much more excited about the premise of End of Watch than I had been about book 2, because this final volume harks back to the Mercedes Massacre in a big way- an element I enjoyed in the first book and found lacking in the second. In End of Watch, we see into Brady Hartsfield’s disturbed mind once again as he attempts to resume murdering the citizens of this trilogy’s unnamed Ohio city. Furthermore, we see King return to his well-known sci-fi/horror brand in this volume rather than sticking strictly with a PI/police style mystery as in books 1 and 2. Everything boded well for me to enjoy this one.

Though ultimately I did like the basic plot and the return to some of the trilogy’s earlier threads, it just didn’t quite come together here as well as I’d hoped based on the similarities to Mr. Mercedes. In the first book, Hodges becomes freshly involved with the hunt for Mr. Mercedes for close personal reasons- Hartsfield comes after him purposefully, trying to capitalize on Hodges’s depression to goad him into suicide; in End of Watch, Hodges’s involvement in the latest case is less exciting: meddling has become a habit, and with his health coming into question he’s looking for closure (how trite). Additionally, a common issue for me with King’s work (more pronounced in some stories than others), is the ease with which the characters manage to jump to the right conclusions. They stumble upon the answers they’re looking for, or somehow know just where to look. They make no wrong turns. Intuition runs high, and actual detective work remains minimal. I found this particularly problematic in this trilogy as a whole, which purports to be a crime mystery series, but specifically it seemed most pronounced in End of Watch.

I also had some of the same complaints with this final book as I did reccently in Finders Keepers; though the writing seemed a bit more considerate towards marginalized characters, there are still a couple of racial and homophobic slurs in use, fatness is shown as something to be ashamed of, and women are fairly insignificant. Most of these annoyances come up in the killer’s thoughts and dialogue, which supports the possibility that they are knowingly used for characterization rather than an indicator of the author’s personal opinions, but I found them distasteful nonetheless. Fortunately, it’s toned down a bit from the last volume, at least.

The most worrisome element for me in End of Watch was the extreme emphasis on suicide. The National Suicide Prevention hotline is mentioned both in the text and in an author’s note at the back of the book, but I would still caution anyone sensitive to this topic to enter with caution, if at all. Though we see in book 1 how effective Hartsfield can be at persuading his victims to kill themselves, that’s only one small stepping stone in Mr. Mercedes whereas it’s the main conflict in End of Watch. Not only do several teens and young adults attempt (and mostly succeed at) suicide, but we see Hartsfield maliciously whittle down their self-esteem to convince them to do it. He capitalizes on anything these characters have been bullied about- their weight, their sexuality, their intelligence, etc. It’s plenty unsettling to see these young and vulnerable people taken advantage of in this way, and also a bit concerning that many of the characters who are victimized are the “misfits”- not straight, white, thin, and pretty. It’s difficult to say whether King meant to emphasize how difficult life can be for bullied teens, or whether he simply found them the most expendable.

“Four in the morning is usually an unhappy time to be awake. It’s when unpleasant thoughts and pessimistic ideas come to the fore.”

All in all, a mixed experience. I enjoyed the sci-fi element and was suitably horrified by the villain’s capabilities and intent; I found the plot solid if a bit convenient and predictable. The thematic focus seems to shift towards the importance of found family and supporting one’s friends, but I don’t pick up Stephen King novels for wholesome morals; they feel gimmicky to me amidst the grisly deaths and psychological terror. End of Watch, like the rest of this trilogy, isn’t really a book that’s meant to teach- it’s pure entertainment.

Was I entertained? With Mr. Mercedes, the answer is a whole-hearted yes. I thought the plot was well-crafted, the characters strong and interesting each for their own reason, and the writing acceptable. (I did read it almost a year ago, so it’s possible I just didn’t pick up on as much or don’t remember it as clearly.) With Finders Keepers, I was entertained, but I spent a decent portion of my reading time marveling over how bad that book seemed, so I wouldn’t say it was an entirely positive sort of entertainment. I liked the concept, but didn’t think much of it was executed well. With End of Watch, I’m not sure I can say I was entertained. The trajectory of the novel seemed obvious to me from early on, so I spent most of the read just waiting for the big showdown I expected at the end to arrive.

Across the entire series, my favorite elements were 1) seeing the Mercedes Massacre from every angle- its conception, its execution, its aftermath. I thought King did a great job of conveying how far-reaching a tragedy like this can be for a community, and at every turn it felt woven into the fabric of these characters’ lives. And 2) the main characters. I feel the need to caveat though that I appreciated them more early on, as they were still morphing into the people they would become. But watching Hartsfield deteriorate? Watching Holly stabilize and find her independence? Seeing Jerome succeed in school and save the day in his spare time? These are the moments I’ll remember from this trilogy, and the reason I’m still interested in reading further about Holly in The Outsider (and potentially in the upcoming If It Bleeds), despite some dissatisfaction with King’s style of late.

Final ratings: Mr. Mercedes – 5 stars. Finders Keepers – 2 stars. End of Watch

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to like this one so much after my dismal experience with Finders Keepers, but sadly it never seemed more than fine. Still, I’m glad I took the time to see where the storyline from Mr. Mercedes went in the end, and this trilogy certainly gave me some food for thought in my journey through King’s work. And, honestly, it’s just so nice to finish something! I feel like I’ve gotten worse in recent years about starting series and reading projects that I take forever to finish, if I ever do. And if my possible buddy read pans out, I’ll be knocking out The Outsider soon as well, the Holly spin-off. Progress is being made.

Thanks for bearing with me this far if you’re still here. I know this has turned into a particularly long and meandering review. It was probably a mistake deciding to finish this at 1:30 am.


The Literary Elephant



Review: Lanny

CW: death (mentioned, not detailed), missing child, child in danger, ostracism

I’m finally getting into some Booker Prize 2019 nominees! I’ve discovered over the last year that I really enjoy reading from prize lists while they’re fresh, but I am taking it a bit easier with this one. Even so, There are some titles on this year’s longlist that I’ve been really looking forward to picking up, and Max Porter’s Lanny was first up.

lannyIn the novel, Lanny’s mother arranges for a local artist to give her young son private art lessons. Lanny’s father questions the man’s intentions in spending lots of unpaid and unsupervised time with a child, but otherwise it is an ideal situation for everyone- the man and the boy are fast friends, and Lanny’s informal lessons mean less time for him to spend at home where his mother works, or wandering the small village and its surrounding landscape alone, which he does often. At this time Lanny is perhaps closer to nature than people, and fascinated with a local mythic being called Dead Papa Toothwort; this magical creature, though seemingly an extension of the land, is fascinated by human civilization- and Lanny.

“Then Dead Papa Toothwort leaves his spot and wanders off, chuckling, jangling in his various skins, wearing a tarpaulin gloaming coat, drunk on the village, ripe with feeling, tingling with thoughts of how one things leads to another again and again, time and again, with no such thing as an ending.”

Though short on plot, Lanny has plenty of heart. This is a charming book with lovable characters that’s half magical realism, half literary fiction- sometimes a perfect blend of both, though most often the ratio is skewed either one way or the other.

This story is divided into three very different sections.

In the first, we become acquainted with Lanny and his parents, the outcast artist, and the village where they all live. We begin to see the dual faces of the community, in which newcomers and oddities are accepted publicly though perhaps not sincerely. Dead Papa Toothwort’s magical presence ebbs and flows, seeming at first rather whimsical but gradually spooling into something larger and more complex that will take up real space in the narrative. Dead Papa Toothwort catches bits of conversation that he spins together into an impressive tableau of modern human life; these are beautifully rendered on the page as the fragments curl and bend and even overlap each other, but as the bits and pieces are not strictly cohesive they seem to lend a tone to the narrative rather than supply useful content, which makes them a bit dry to read, despite their visual draw. I found this section a bit boring, to be honest, as nothing much is happening yet and the style felt a bit gimmicky to me at this point.

The second part introduces a calamity to the plot. In this portion, the magic takes a step back as the narration instead shifts from person to person, most of them anonymous, showing the many varied opinions and actions prompted by one disastrous event that both unites and divides the community. This portion of the book is absolutely brilliant- a nuanced study of how we react to tragedy, how living in a group shapes and reshapes our experiences, how wide an umbrella “human nature” may be. I also found the crisis itself very moving and compelling at this point. If the entire book had been written this way, it would surely have been a 5-star read for me.

Instead, the third portion brings the magic back to the forefront as a wild daydream guides our characters to a conclusion they’ve proved unable to reach without Dead Papa Toothwort’s assistance. The resolution of this tragedy throws realism entirely out the window- which is fine, though I tend to prefer magical realism that leans toward ambiguity.

There is a final passage- a sort of epilogue- from several years farther out; this I appreciated nearly as much as Part 2. These final pages ease back on the magic again and bring together the full implications of Dead Papa Toothwort’s role and reach. They suggest an intriguing theme that, despite the excess of magic in the lead-up, is really not so far-fetched or unheard of. Porter manages to approach a familiar point of curiosity in an entirely new and innovative way.

“I am thinking of my baby lying next door asleep. Or possibly he’s not asleep. Possibly he’s dancing in the garden with the elves or the goblins. We assume he’s asleep like a normal child, but he’s not a normal child, he is Lanny Greentree, our little mystery.”

All in all, I found Lanny a mostly enjoyable read; though I didn’t love every moment I spent with it, I am impressed with what it accomplishes. It’s a story full of fascinating dualities- the community and the self, human and nature, life and death. It’s style is unique and captivating. I can fully understand the enthusiasm it has been met with, and its placement on the Booker Prize list.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a quick read with plenty of depth despite its foray into magic. Some parts were quite a bit stronger for me than others, which made this one hard to rate; I’ve been wavering between 3 and 4 stars. (I’m also still wavering on a final rating for my previous read- clearly I’m having an indecisive week!) In any case, I appreciated Lanny enough that I’ll want to read Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers as soon as possible.

Links to my other Booker Prize longlist reviews: Lost Children Archive, My Sister, the Serial Killer


The Literary Elephant


The Literary Elephant


Review: Finders Keepers

CW: murder, living with serious injury, theft, racism, homophobia, sexism, fatphobia, child abuse (tying wrists, pushing through window, threatening at gunpoint)

Finders Keepers is the second book in Stephen King’s Bill Hodges trilogy. I read book one, Mr. Mercedes, in a buddy read last year, and have been slow to continue despite thoroughly enjoying that first book. The prospect of an upcoming buddy read for another King novel (The Outsider) has finally motivated me to finish the series- today I’ll talk about Finders Keepers, and End of Watch (book 3) should be up later this week. No spoilers of course, as usual, though I’ve got plenty of complaints to air.

finderskeepersIn the novel, a writer-turned-recluse is robbed and murdered in 1978. Most of the crew that committed this crime were in it for the money, but one wanted the unpublished manuscripts and miscellaneous written work. To avoid getting caught for the crime, the books are packed away, only to be discovered by a teenager in 2014. One becomes desperate to sell the books on the black market, one becomes increasingly desperate to keep them, and neither is quite in control of the situation once a shady book dealer realizes what they have. Retired cop Bill Hodges and his PI buddies are brought into the case by a friend who wants to settle the matter before official police become involved.

“MacFarland may think [Morris is] too old to be a wolf, but what his parole officer doesn’t know is that Morris has already killed three people, and driving a car isn’t the only thing that’s like riding a bike.”

Finders Keepers is very much a bookish book. A bookish horror, one might say. It’s crammed full of references to titles and authors from a wide variety of genres; two of the main characters are big readers, and one is a bookshop owner, where part of the novel takes place. Sadly, bookish books don’t always work for me- name dropping and copious bookstore visits don’t quite make up for quality characterization and plot. Though King is generally known for his convincing characterization and unique plots, I found both elements severely lacking in this novel.

In fact, there were quite a host of aspects that just didn’t work for me here. First and foremost is that for a second book, Finders Keepers barely fits into the trajectory of the trilogy started by Mr. Mercedes and concluded in End of Watch. The few characters carried over from book one are largely unessential in this story, their appearances more like unnecessary cameos rather than a link to the rest of the series. The Mercedes Massacre (from Mr. Mercedes) does help lay the ground for the events of this volume, but any injury for Tom Saubers could have led these characters into the same situation. A bit of overt foreshadowing to indicate that the next volume will pick up the threads left dangling at the end of Mr. Mercedes comprises the only tenuous connection between Finders Keepers and the rest of the trilogy. In my opinion, this novel should have been a stand-alone with Hodges removed, and the other two books could have formed a nice duology.

My main problem with the plot actually has more to do with the novel’s structure. Though I usually enjoy irony, much of the suspense is removed from this story by the fact that we follow multiple characters who know different parts of the mystery. By the time Morris is panicking about where the manuscripts are, the reader has already learned their location from Pete’s perspective. Furthermore, I believe Hodges (and crew)’s sole purpose in this book is to guide the reader through this “mystery,” though by the time Hodges catches up to what is going on, everything is already clear to the reader- it’s the other characters who could use a guide.

On the subject of characters, I feel the need to address King’s poor representation of female characters- again. The last few King novels I’ve read have been much older (see: The Stand), and it’s been easier in those cases to chalk up the sexism as the product of an unenlightened era, but Finders Keepers was published in 2015. We’re way past the point where a raped woman should be presented as a villain for trying to convince her attacker’s parole board that he should remain imprisoned. And shame on King, for making her apologize to her rapist for that effort. But even outside of unsavory plot points, there were just some really awful lines making casual appearances in this book. Here’s just one example:

“Holly smiles, and Hodges thinks- as he always does- that she should do it more often. When she smiles, Holly is almost beautiful. With a little mascara around her eyes, she probably would be.”

If Holly is going to smile, it had better be for her own sake rather than to reassure Hodges that she is beautiful.

And women are not the only victims of this treatment.  The word “fat” is also thrown around copiously as a negative descriptor; villains are frequently referred to as “fat fucks,” etc. I noted at least one (each) racial and homophobic slur. Even if terrible remarks only crop up as characterization for old white men, it’s just gross for things like this to keep showing up- there are other ways to show that a character is evil (or in Hodges’s case, outdated). Instances like these are exactly the reason that his pro-lesbian messages in Elevation felt insincere to me.

But, terrible writing choices aside (and I swear it’s not always this bad), Finders Keepers does have a couple of redeeming features. The basic premise is interesting and engaging, and once we move past the mystery portion of it, the conflict is intense and unpredictable. Its morals are worthwhile for any reader, though I like to think that most are sensible enough not to kill for unpublished works from their favorite authors in the first place.

“Pete was coming to the conclusion that creative writing couldn’t really be taught, only learned.”

It is also interesting, the more of King’s work that I read, to see some of his ideas being recycled. Finders Keepers bears some striking similarities to King’s Misery in regards to theme and tone- both explore the quandary of whether a published work belongs primarily to its creator or to the audience who receives it- and reminds fans that no piece of literature is worth the writer’s (or anyone’s) life. In terms of plot Misery is a very different work (and the one I would recommend to anyone who can stomach a bit of body horror), but both seem to lead back to the same basic seed of idea; it’s intriguing to see the ways in which a thought can evolve over the course of about 30 years. Insights like these are why I keep going with King’s books, even though some of the stories really don’t work for me; it’s incredible to be able to follow a prolific writer’s trajectory through the many ups and downs of a long and remarkable career.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I can’t deny that it held my attention, though I think there were a few instances when I slipped into hate-reading it, which is compelling for a different reason. Overall, this has been a real contender for my least favorite Stephen King novel, though the other least favorites that come immediately to mind were disliked for different reasons, which makes it hard to hold them up side by side. In any case, I’m still intending to finish the series and my full read of King’s oeuvre; fortunately, End of Watch is looking like a vast improvement so far.

Is there any particular book that you wish you could remove from a series that you otherwise enjoy?


The Literary Elephant



Top of the TBR 8.12.19

Top of the TBR is a weekly post I created that will showcase any books added to my Goodreads TBR recently, with a short explanation of why each title caught my interest. I’ll aim for 5-10 books per post; in weeks that I’ve added more than that, I’ll hold some back, and in weeks that I don’t have enough, I’ll include titles I haven’t discussed yet. Each title will be linked back to its Goodreads page for anyone interested in exploring further, as I’m not a fan of copy/pasting synopses. Anyone who wants to take part in this series with me is absolutely welcome! Please link back to any of my Top of the TBR posts so I can see what you’re reading! 🙂

Here are some of the new books I’ve added on Goodreads over the last week:

29501521The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn, trans. by Rosie Hedger (Pub: Sept. 2013)

How I found it: I read Rachel’s excellent review!

Why I added it: “Modern day Scandinavian Rebecca” was the real clincher, but honestly everything Rachel had to say about this book sounded pretty much perfect. I love suspenseful books that aren’t quite thrillers, and interesting character dynamics. Plus, bonus points for brevity at 185 pages.

Priority: Middling. This is going to be another week of repeatedly announcing I have too many books already on my plate this month to be picking up anything new, sadly. But I do want to incorporate more translations into my regular reading, which should help bump this one up the endless TBR list!

10329563And Yet They Were Happy by Helen Phillips (Pub: May 2011)

How I found it: I read my first Helen Phillips book, The Need, last week. After, I went looking for more of her work.

Why I added it: I really liked The Need, though I found I had an unexpected bias toward it in that I had already read a book with a very similar topic. I want to try again with Phillips’s writing, and this story collection looked as good a place to start as any.

Priority: Low. My library does not have any Phillips books other than The Need, so I will have to acquire a copy. I also have a ton of other story collections on my radar already.

41035725The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (Pub: Feb 2019)

How I found it: Naty mentioned some time travel book recs that look really appealing in her Recursion review post!

Why I added it: I used to really love time travel stories, but haven’t been reading them much in recent years. I did read H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine earlier this year, which fascinated me, and the synopsis of this one sounds just like something the old time travel reader in me would have loved.

Priority: Low. This one is available at my library, but I want to let Recursion fade a bit in my mind before I jump into anything remotely similar, especially after struggling a bit with Recursion because of its similarities to Crouch’s previous release.

264. sy475 The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (Pub: 1881)

How I found it: I recently read James’s The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller, both of which I enjoyed immensely. I looked into reading more from the author.

Why I added it: I actually don’t know much about this one (it might be about a lady seeking a marriage?), but I really didn’t know much about the other two either and had a good time with both. This is, I think, one of James’s biggest classics, so I chose it mainly for that reason.

Priority: Low. I’ll probably want to buy my own copy because this looks like a hefty book, and I’d like to work through a few more classics I already own before I purchase another. (We’ll see how long this plan lasts.)

44423086Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford (Pub: May 2018)

How I found it: Callum is apparently a wizard at finding the most beautiful book covers (I think this one is shiny irl) to match stories that also sound like brilliant reads.

Why I added it: Every sentence of this synopsis makes this book sound even better. Here’s just the start: “In house in a wood, Ada and her father live peacefully, tending to their garden and the wildlife in it. They are not human though.” You should go check out the rest now. It’s an Irish magical realism tale, with possibly some horror and feminism mixed in.

Priority: Middling. If my schedule wasn’t already so packed, I’d probably want to pick this up right away. As it is, I’ll probably wait to get my hands on a copy with this stunning cover, which I don’t think is quite out yet. (I’m noting the original pub date for each title in this post, not necessarily for the specific edition I want to read.)

22318501The Bad Seed by William March (Pub: 1954)

How I found it: Melanie mentioned this one as a favorite when we got to talking about nannies that are afraid of the children they watch (in literature). The Turn of the Screw kicked off this discussion, though that story doesn’t quite seem to go in this direction. In any case, I was intrigued.

Why I added it: I can’t really think of any books I’ve previously read that fit this trope, but I do like a good psychological exploration and just horror in general, so it sounds like something that would interest me. Melanie also notes there’s a nice classic black-and-white film version that I’m intrigued to look into!

Priority: Middling. Though not available at my library and I (still) have a ton of other classics already on my radar, it would be fun to try and get to this while I still remember The Turn of the Screw clearly.

43521668The Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, trans. by Sondra Silverston (Pub: Oct. 2017)

How I found it: I read Callum’s enticing review!

Why I added it: There’s nothing like WIT month to remind me that I really should read more translated books! I still have a few I intend to get to this month, but I am happy to stock up my TBR with more recs for the future. This one sounds so appealing, as it follows a wrongful sexual assault accusation and looks to explore the ways in which the blame game can backfire- without invalidating a system which works well for others.

Priority: Middling. Like The Bird Tribunal, I really want to get to this one soon, I just know it won’t happen this month. And again, this edition isn’t quite out yet in the US.

26114444Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter (Pub: Aug. 2015)

How I found it: I just finished reading Porter’s 2019 Booker Prize nominated Lanny, and while the magical realism element didn’t entirely work for me, I adored the writing and was completely hooked by the themes (Review coming up this week). This previous title had already been on my radar; it was an oversight for it not to have already been on my TBR, and this seemed an appropriate time to correct that.

Why I added it: This looks like a short and impactful exploration of grief (and magic). I finished Lanny with an urgent need to pick this up.

Priority: High. It’s only 128 pages, and available through my library. It would be great to pick this up in September, largely because I have a couple of very large books I expect to read that month and could use a bit of balance.


That’s all for this week! It looks mainly like an extension of what I’ve been reading lately (or meaning to read in the case of the WIT books…).

Have you read any of these books, or recognize them from your own TBR?


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Need

Though I’ve been struggling with traditional thrillers lately (recent exception: Lock Every Door), I have been loving many books marketed as thrillers that actually lean more toward psychologically suspenseful character studies (think: My Sister, the Serial Killer). Helen Phillips’s The Need certainly fits that bill.

theneedIn the novel, Molly is home with her two small children when she thinks she hears footsteps in another room- an intruder. While trying to keep her son and daughter quiet, she goes back and forth between believing someone is inside her house, and dismissing the notion; but eventually, intruder or no, she must emerge from her hiding place. What she finds is truly frightening, but as days pass afterward, the terror takes on another flavor as the initial danger subsides only for another disturbing possibility to take its place.

“The need to go home. The need to dispense with this intruder, this nightmare, and return to two small impeccable bodies. The excruciating need.”

It’s hard to describe the true nature of this novel without giving away its only real thrill: the answer to the question about whether there is an intruder, and who. Phillips sets it up as a surprise; though it happens early in the chronology of this tale, the narration switches back and forth (through a series of short chapters) between Molly’s awareness of the possible intruder in the present, and the events of the otherwise uneventful day leading up to it. While drawing out the suspense, this tactic also allows the reader to invest in the characters and understand their usual dynamic. The slowing of pace also serves as fair warning to the reader that The Need is a  careful exploration rather than a string of shocking twists.

Ultimately, I would say that The Need is Dark Matter‘s fraternal twin. Where Blake Crouch (Dark Matter‘s author) uses science to ground his plot and excite his readers, and lets his characters fall flatly by the wayside, Phillips uses a very similar scientific/magical element, but lets that go largely unexplained while instead delving deeply into the complex moral and emotional consequences of it for her characters. Unfortunately, reading one means spoiling some of the other (I’m mentioning this potentially spoilery similarity only because I had to read 70 pages before realizing I might not have picked this book up if I had known- though I am grateful that I stuck with it). If you are planning to read both, I suggest reading Dark Matter first, for the sole reason that it uses as plot twists what The Need adopts as simple premise.

Though it is a rather quiet and quick read, The Need packs a lot of food for thought into its 250 pages. Thematically, it focuses on motherhood and family, and how traumatic events both do and don’t change a person at their core. It’s very much a book about identity. And while it may not be full of high-stakes plot twists, the first suggestion of an intruder creates a foundation for suspense that doesn’t let up until the last sentence has come and gone. Molly does fear for her life, despite other distractions, and rightfully so. Even her thoughts on motherhood tend toward the dark side:

“It had always seemed a bit deceitful to Molly, the way we put our children to bed in soft pajamas, give them milk, read them books, locate their stuffed creatures, tell them that all is well, there’s nothing to be scared of, as though sleep isn’t one-sixteenth of death. When they resist the prospect of sleep, of long dark lonely hours, intuiting that this is indeed a rehearsal for death, we murmur to them, we rub their backs, pretending they will never die.”

I found Phillips’s prose insightful and intelligent; though very little “happens” in the novel, it caught and held my attention so thoroughly that I sped through the book in two sittings. The tone is delightfully eerie, the main character wonderfully fleshed out and believable, the ties to paleobotany fascinating. Phillips gives the reader an astute look into just how far a mother’s instincts can drive her, as well as demonstrating how blurry the line between “self” and “mother” can become. The horror genre might be a better fit than thriller for this story, though I think neither quite hits the mark for how pervasively human it feels.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I actually just bumped my Dark Matter rating down from 5 to 4 stars as well; Phillips’s book made it clearer to me what Crouch’s had been lacking, just as reading Dark Matter before The Need made it hard for me to pretend that I didn’t already understand the implications of this situation the second time around. They’re a very interesting pair- for me, equally matched.  I do want to try more of Phillips’s writing so that I can try again without an unexpected subject bias; I’m thinking of trying And Yet They Were Happy, but am open to other suggestions!


The Literary Elephant

Review: Lock Every Door

CW: murder, missing person, cruelty against those in poverty

Final Girls is one of my all-time favorite thrillers. The Last Time I Lied was less exciting as a follow-up, though still entertaining. With a 2/2 track record, I could not miss Riley Sager’s 2019 release, Lock Every Door. I wasn’t quite confident enough to buy a copy outright this time around, but I should have been!

lockeverydoorIn the novel, Jules answers a vague ad for an apartment-sitting job. She’s just broken up with her boyfriend and needs a temporary place to stay. She’s also just lost her job and needs some quick money. But the gig turns out even better than she could have imagined: the apartment is a luxurious two-story place in the Bartholomew, famous for housing the rich and famous, and the pay is phenomenal. Jules can’t believe they’re even letting her through the door, much less willing to pay her to live in such a fancy place. Some of the rules are a little weird, but Jules moves in anyway. When one of the other apartment sitters goes missing though, Jules can’t deny that there might be more to the Bartholomew than meets the eye.

The bulk of this story takes place over six days, alternating between past and present narration; until the two meet, the past contains the meat of the story while the present serves as quick, tantalizing glimpses of the fallout to come. When the story lines merge, the narration spirals through several more climactic days before reaching its final conclusion.

” ‘I really don’t think this is a good idea,’ Nick says.

‘You said you wanted to help.’

The two of us are in the kitchen of 12A, standing shoulder to shoulder as we stare into the open dumbwaiter.”

After the initial introduction of characters and premise, it actually took me a while to warm up to this one. Sager does a lot of things right with Lock Every Door, but sadly he gives us a main character of the sort that appears in cheesy horror films, making obvious, life-threatening mistakes. Though Jules’s backstory and perspective are unusual and fascinating, her actions are frustratingly careless; it wasn’t until the plot picked up in the second half that I was able to fully invest in this story.

“Nick was right. This is not a good idea. I’m literally inside the walls of the Bartholomew. Any number of bad things could happen.”

But there is plenty to hold the reader’s attention in the meantime. First, the narration provides a wonderful set of creepy details to lend the proper atmosphere, including gargoyles perched around the building and an ancient dumbwaiter in Jules’s apartment; the narration doesn’t try too hard to force these elements into the plot (it bothers me when thriller/horror stories try to cram too many unrelated creepy elements into one plotline), but their presence keeps the reader alert and unsettled as any good thriller should. There’s also just enough suspicious activity surrounding the Bartholomew to keep the reader curious about what exactly is going on. Even Jules herself offers a distraction from her poor detective skills with an interesting exploration of what it’s like to be the one left behind in a Missing Person situation (or two), and how thoroughly the strain of poverty can break a family down. Though her specific situation is uncommon, her feelings of ordinariness and inadequacy occasionally come across as disturbingly relatable.

“I’m a dime a dozen, and everyone is looking for a quarter.”

By far the most compelling part of this novel is the mystery itself- the red herring, and the final solution. I thought it was superbly crafted; I caught all the key clues and still wasn’t quite able to solve the puzzle- the very best type of thriller experience! Furthermore, the themes behind the mystery are engaging and conducive to further thought, unlike the standard “girl finds herself running for her life from new lover / new lover’s ex” situations that really are a dime a dozen. Lock Every Door is a wild story, but (for me, at least) the concept is just plausible enough to leave me questioning the ways in which the wealthy and powerful might be abusing their levels of influence. It was almost convincing enough to allow me to overlook how very bothersome I found Jules. Almost.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though not quite on par with Final Girls (which somehow manages both to spoof the slasher thriller genre and also provide a captivating story that fits within it), I did find Lock Every Door a step up from The Last Time I Lied and am eager to see what Sager will come up with next. There’s no word of a fourth release yet, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out, and I might even look into buying my own copy of Lock Every Door for a future revisit. All in all, quite a success, and I think my luck with thrillers is really turning around this year!


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller

CW: death, ghosts, vague hints of child molestation or other unspecified activities of the sort, sexism, general upper-class snobbishness

I found a vintage edition of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller some time ago and have long thought that both stories in this volume sounded perfectly appealing to me. But it wasn’t until learning this year that Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key (which I intend to read) might loosely connect to James’s classic, and the second season of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House (which I intend to watch) is also based on Bly Manor from The Turn of the Screw, that I was finally motivated to pick up this slim Gothic volume.

theturnofthescrewanddaisymiller In The Turn of the Screw, a new governess is hired to care for the two young children residing at Bly Manor; the deaths of their parents has left them in the care of an uncle who has no interest in raising children, and has instructed the governess to oversee them without contacting him for any reason. The governess is charmed by the uncle and the children, and wishes to comply, but two issues complicate the matter. The first is the boy’s unexplained expulsion from his boarding school. The second is the appearance of two figures around the house, who appear to be the ghosts of deceased former employees at Bly. The governess does her best to keep the household running smoothly, but soon discovers she’s in over her head.

“An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred.”

By far the longer piece in this volume, The Turn of the Screw is formatted as a ghost story dictated by the governess (dead by the time this story is shared) and read aloud to a group of eager listeners safe around their own fireplace. This framing device seemed a bit unnecessary (and outdated- originally published in 1898) to me, as the governess’s unexplained death doesn’t seem to add anything of import to the tale of her life, nor are these background listeners crucial to the story in any observable way.

As for the governess’s account, it is atmospheric and eerie almost from the get-go, her fear and tension apparent in every chapter. Interestingly, what she is afraid of remains vague and nameless through the book. It appears that she is not afraid of the ghosts, nor of the children, but rather the fact that the ghosts appear to the children. Her every seemingly ordinary interaction with them is disected into what the governess sees as horrifying implications: whether the children are aware of the ghosts, whether they know the governess is aware of them, whether they are concealing interactions with the ghosts from her, etc. It’s all very unsettling, but the reader must do a bit of guesswork to make meaning of it. For example, one particular “horror” is the governess’s realization that the two ghosts, while alive, were having an affair that the children may have been aware of. No further information is given- are we to assume the children were somehow made complicit in this affair, somehow involved inappropriately in the adults’ exploits? For the governess’s fright to be taken seriously, the reader must find some sort of significance in this revelation (one of many), into which no further insight is granted by the narration.

As a result, the themes of the story are a bit muddled, and perhaps more than desirable is left up to the reader’s own intuition. Immediately upon finishing this story, I thought it made little sense. As the days passed, however, I found my thoughts continually returning to this puzzling story, and came to appreciate that The Turn of the Screw can be read two ways: straightforwardly, as a ghost story in which supernatural forces are at play and manipulating the living; or psychologically, as an examination of the governess’s mental health with the possibility that her interactions with the children reveal increasing paranoia rather than ghosts. I appreciated this story more with time, as I was able to look at the plot as a whole and examine it from several different angles, each as plausible as the next. I came to see its lack of concrete answers as a strength, rather than a weakness, though I do think it’s a book to be applauded for its ambiguity rather than any particular perspective that might be found within.

In Daisy Miller, we leave the ghosts behind for a satirical sort of romance.

A young man (named Winterbourne) leaves his studies for a brief visit to his aunt in another city. While there, he meets a girl named Daisy Miller, a polite but unconventional person whose family possesses enough money to allow them to do as they like, without much reproach. Though most see her as an “uncultured” American, Winterbourne nonetheless follows her to Italy during the winter holiday. Though he likes her, he doesn’t seem to understand that he can’t fit her into a traditional relationship; his desire for her company and his sense of propriety compete for precendence, to disastrous effect.

“Winterbourne wondered how she felt about all the cold shoulders that were turned towards her, and sometimes it annoyed him to suspect that she did not feel at all. He said to himself that she was too light and childish, too uncultivated and unreasoning, too provincial, to have reflected upon her ostracism, or even to have perceived it. Then at other moments he believed that she carried about in her elegant and irresponsible little organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced.”

I found Daisy Miller much more immediately engaging and thematically rich. Daisy is wonderfully outspoken and sure of herself, a character that has truly stood the test of time (this story was originally published in 1878). Though there is very little plot, Winterbourne’s gradual shift of opinion is fascinating- even humorous- to follow. When he arrives in Italy, he goes first to visit another woman, so as not to appear too eager to see Dasiy. When he does see her, he’s annoyed to discover that she’s become close friends with another man. Daisy (and James’s narration) notes this double-standard and doesn’t let him get away with it. In the end, Winterbourne will learn the truth Daisy has been enacting all along- that some things are more important than society’s opinion. Much to my delight, it presents as a bleak rather than trite case of “lesson learned.”

The only downside to Daisy Miller, on the tail of The Turn of the Screw, is that while thought-provoking, Daisy doesn’t require nearly as much contemplation upon completion. It’s messages are more readily apparent, and easier to file away.

In this sense, the two stories in this volume read rather opposite for me- I wasn’t won over by The Turn of the Screw until I could mull over the full story and draw my own conclusions, whereas Daisy Miller convinced me immediately but didn’t hold my attention long afterward. Together though, they make for an intriguing- if unusual- pair, and I’m glad to have finally read them both!

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Individually, I’d rate these each the same, which makes a cumulative rating convenient this time around. I don’t think I’ve ever read Henry James before, but I enjoyed the experience enough that I’ve now added his Portrait of a Lady to my TBR.


The Literary Elephant