Tag Archives: murder mystery

Review: The Alienist

I am making forward progress on my 2017 reading challenge! I came across Caleb Carr’s The Alienist through Book of the Month Club, and it caught my interest immediately with its premise as a grisly murder mystery set in New York’s Gilded Age. When I realized it also fulfilled one of the open slots in my reading challenge that I’d been having trouble finding a book for, I knew I had to read it.

thealienistAbout the book: New York Times reporter John Moore is pulled into an unprecedented murder investigation by his college friends Dr. Kreizler, an early American psychologist (or “alienist”), and Theodore Roosevelt, president of New York City’s board of police commissioners. The year is 1896, and society shares a distrustful view of behavioral science, at best. The idea of hunting a serial murderer who blends in with the masses and chooses his victims randomly in a city as large as New York seems such an impossible task that Kreizler and Moore are forced to undertake it secretly, as even such authorities as the police commissioners and city mayor argue that there is no use in even attempting such unconventional methods. But the killer is in the midst of a crisis, both escalating his crimes and daring Kreizler to catch him, and Moore cannot in good conscience let the murderer roam free. So begins a race to save undervalued lives, in which the hunters also become the hunted, and nothing is certain or safe.

“There are moments in life when one feels as though one’s walked into the wrong theater during the middle of a performance.”

The murder mystery portion of this book is full of details to commend it. First there are the characters: the investigative team is made up of different races, religions, and genders. One of Kreizler’s assistants is still a child himself, which helps balance the fact that the murderer’s victims are also children. All of Dr. Kriezler’s assistants are criminals; they’ve been pronounced sane, but their pasts are dark and tragic. The murders themselves are gory and sensational, with just the sort of gruesome nature one expects from a horrifying thriller. The action scenes are fast-paced and tense, the psychology is contemplative and impressive. And the victims are young immigrant boys working as prostitutes who dress as women– a category of citizen either spat upon, taken advantage of, or overlooked entirely by most of New York. Moore and Kreizler’s investigative team advocates fiercely for these boys’ right to a proper investigation; they are among the few who are outraged by their treatment and attempting to right the situation, rather than claiming, as many of their fellow citizens do, that the boys “had it coming” or that the city is “well rid of them.” It’s a surprisingly diverse and inclusive book with positive morals for the time period it presents. For all these reasons, I enjoyed The Alienist, and would recommend it to anyone looking for literature focused on the Gilded Age.

“Kreizler emphasized that no good would come of conceiving of this person as a monster, because he was most assuredly a man (or a woman); and that man or woman had once been a child. First and foremost, we must get to know that child, and to know his parents, his siblings, his complete world. It was pointless to talk about evil and barbarity and madness; none of these concepts would lead us any closer to him. But if we could capture the human child in our imaginations–then we could capture the man in fact.”

But there were also several reasons I enjoyed it less than I should have, based on its intriguing premise and well-crafted mystery.

The first is that this book seems to struggle with deciding whether it wants to be a fictional mystery, or a nonfictional account of the seediness of New York in 1896. The combination shouldn’t have been a problem, but I found that while I was wondering about who the killer of child prostitutes could be, it was rather annoying to be interrupted with very long informational paragraphs about the history of fingerprinting as admissible evidence in court. The narrator of the book does announce that he’s writing this story from a future time (for no apparent purpose other than to share plenty of these historical details once their significance has become apparent), but the writing so routinely skews toward assuming its readers know nothing of life in the 1890’s, and then explaining in depth aspects that fiction readers often need much less prompting to believe. I could have done simply with a one-sentence reminder that police do not practice fingerprinting as a regular means of criminal identification in 1896, and enjoyed the story more. I know this is a subjective aspect to criticize– some readers must appreciate a real history lesson wrapped up in their high-stakes murder stories. Usually I would count myself among those ranks, but I found the educational nature of this book excessive; it was difficult even to feel that the story was truly set in the Gilded Age, with the narrator providing so much more detail about the time period than people generally feel the need to do about their own setting. The Gilded Age felt like a fictional backdrop Moore was exploring rather than the world that The Alienist‘s characters lived and breathed.

Additionally, there’s the matter of Moore himself. He’s a very passive part of the mystery. His area of expertise is the criminal realm of New York (on which he has spent much of his career reporting), but from the very beginning of The Alienist he knows his paper wouldn’t publish anything about the sort of story he’s investigating with Kreizler– which leaves me to wonder how well his “criminal knowledge” and the murder case actually overlap. As the book unfolds, it seems the answer is: not much. He contributes to the group discussions, and does his share of the leg work in the investigation, but essentially he could be anyone. He’s just a warm body, with a specialty much less significant to the hunt than the others. This could have been a much different story from one of the other perspectives, which leaves me to wonder… why Moore?

And the final hangup, for me, was the cringe-worthy “Aw, shucks” nature of the narration. The characters seem excessively fictionalized because of their cutesy dialogue and gestures. In the midst of a serious and gruesome crime spree interspersed with heavier philosophical dialogue and mortally dangerous situations, we find lines like this:

” ‘Well, Sara wasn’t the only one trying to be professional!’ I protested, stamping a foot.”

This is a Harvard alum speaking, a reputable New York Times reporter pulled in on a special murder investigation. He’s gone off topic to gossip about a misperceived romance, speaking with another grown man, emphasizing his failure to behave professionally and trying to further his point by stamping a foot. The novel is peppered with other such corny nonsense and cliches, most notably, as happens immediately after this line, when Moore is demanding to be filled in on some detail he feels excluded from moments before the realization he should’ve had early hits him “like a brick wall.”

But now that I’ve highlighted my complaints, let me send you back to my first paragraph of review that’s full of the things I loved about this book, because those were the reasons I persisted in reading all 500 pages. I remained interested to the very last paragraph in discovering not only who the murderer would turn out to be, but why he had become such a notorious killer. As that seemed to be the purpose of the book, I must say it was a successful novel for me, even though I had much difficulty with the style of its narration. There are some valuable lessons in here, if you’re willing to look for them.

“Every human being must find his own way to cope with such severe loss, and the only job of a true friend is to facilitate whatever method he chooses.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The Alienist is the first book in a historical fiction/mystery duology. It reads fine as a standalone, and I think the second book follows the same characters (from a new perspective) on an entirely different case. But from the synopsis and the reviews I’ve skimmed, I’m afraid the same things I found issue with in this one persist; although I’m glad I read The Alienist, I won’t be continuing on to read its sequel, The Angel of Darkness.

Further recommendations:

  1. Leslie Parry’s Church Of Marvels is set in the same place and time period, but contains much less blatant information about the era– the setting is woven beautifully into a story with connections to the city’s asylums and pleasure dens and general areas of disrepute. The mystery unfolds through alternating perspectives and proceeds at a thrilling pace.
  2. If you’re looking for more history in your murder mysteries rather than less, try Erik Larsson’s The Devil in the White City. This nonfiction book’s subject, real murderer Dr. H. H. Holmes, is the primary subject of Larsson’s Devil. Although this one’s not set in New York, it does also take place in the 1890’s, and features another burgeoning U.S. city of interest– Chicago. This is a book that reads like fiction, but makes no attempt to hide its intent to inform.

What’s next: I’m currently flying through Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder. I’m hoping to stay on track to finish my reading challenge before the end of the year, and The Wonder is my next step in doing that. It’s set in an Irish village and focuses on a girl who can apparently live without food– a miracle? The situation is further complicated when a nurse who’s traveled to see the girl finds herself racing to save the child’s life.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Lies She Told

It was the blend of fiction and reality in this thriller’s premise that drew me in. The blurred line between what we create with our imaginations and what we draw from our real lives is one of the most fascinating points of literature for me, so when I saw that Cate Holahan’s Lies She Told was supposed to feature a thriller writer whose latest book reveals eerie clues about a murder close to her own life, I jumped on board.

About the book: Liza and her husband, liesshetoldDavid, are trying to become parents. Liza is taking experimental fertility treatments because she wants to be a mother so badly, but David is pulling away, immersing himself in work, giving up. Liza has not given up, and is also struggling to produce another best seller to revive her dwindling book sales. She’s under so much pressure writing her latest thriller that she lives in a haze, filtered through the eyes of her fictional main character. The hormones from the fertility treatments and the extra alcohol she’s been consuming in response to an upcoming writer’s conference are further muddling her mind, so when lines start to cross between the murder committed in her novel and the real case involving David’s missing best friend, she’s more confused about the truth than anyone.

“The faithful often find themselves blindsided. They don’t suspect anything because they can’t imagine doing something so awful themselves.”

Unfortunately, the intrigue stopped there for me: with the premise. This is one of those books that seemed great in theory, but the execution of the story did not live up to my expectations. That said, I’ve seen some pretty good reviews for this book, so it’s possible that my expectations were too high.

The biggest problem for me was the predictability; I was able to guess almost every reveal before it was delivered, which made the big surprises fall flat. It wasn’t until the last fifty pages that something happened that I truly hadn’t been expecting, though at that point it was getting late and I was getting tired, and as soon as I had been given the information I could see all the clues I had overlooked. I love thrillers that have all the answers woven in before the reveals, so that the big surprises have not only surface shock value, but the shock of highlighting all the clues in retrospect. When the reader could have pieced the puzzle together, but didn’t– that’s a winning thriller, in my opinion. Lies She Told, on the other hand, uses very transparent clues that send the reader little warning signals whenever key details come up. The narrator very blatantly dismisses facts that seem odd, and thus the reader knows exactly what to pay attention to.

One aspect that seemed most promising at first is the metafiction component. Liza’s chapters about Beth, the main character of her new thriller, are interspersed throughout the novel. The back-and-forth format between Liza’s real life and Beth’s supposedly fictional murder make a nice contrast (not difficult to follow at all, though the parallels are clear and fascinating), and provide great opportunity for Holahan to write about writing a thriller. Again, this is something that I love in theory, but that fell flat for me in this novel. Somehow, it felt like a call for attention whenever narration was devoted to the writing process of a thriller, like Holahan was pointing out what her aims were in certain sections so that no matter what else was happening the reader could note that she was paying attention to the right things– not the fact that Tyler’s arms resemble kettlebells, not the cheesy, uncomfortable position shifts in the sex scenes, not the psychiatrist-falling-for-his-patient trope. Instead of fun insights, it felt like seeing the writer’s mental checklist, the mechanics behind the creativity, and those metafictional moments became magic-less moments instead of intriguing ones. The most interesting opportunities, like the one when Liza is asked where her book ideas come from, are dismissed too easily. “They’re just there.” She makes no attempt to consider the question deeper, and from that alone the smart reader knows that this, too, is an important detail.

“To be a writer is to be a life thief.  Every day, I rob myself blind.”

Furthermore, something about the writing style more generally was disagreeable to me. While I respect Holahan for her interesting and vivid metaphors, some of them felt so extremely unusual that they’d pull me out of the story or leave me thinking about something entirely separate from the plot. Take this one, for example:

“Ignorance is never bliss. It is to walk around with a cancer in your colon, one that could be cut out safely within seven years but is instead allowed to grow, undisturbed, while you focus on other matters, unaware that it is spreading to your gut, infiltrating your bone marrow, your blood, all your vital organs until it has twisted your body into something grotesque and unsustainable. Until you’re too sick to survive. I need to know.”

Vivid, right? And yet, what are you thinking about by the end of it? I, for one, was no longer thinking about ignorance or bliss. There are no primary characters with cancer in this story, or any sort of relatable sickness, and yet we have this very close image of it, in excruciating detail. It’s memorable, which I appreciate in a metaphor, but it strays from the story. It convinces me that cancer is terrifying, not that Liza can’t go on without learning what her husband may or may not be up to behind her back.

Of course, even after all of these mildly disappointing factors, my opinion of this book might still have been salvaged if it hadn’t been for the bland ending. Liza’s ending, on the one hand, is strong and eventful. But then she thinks she can do something different for Beth in her novel, and that’s where the story ends– on Beth’s very uneventful “justice.” I was expecting a punch in the final paragraph, a “just kidding, she’s been tricked, something sinister is still at work,” but instead the ends are neatly tied in the least dramatic way possible. Everyone is primed to be on their worst behavior, and somehow, nothing happens. Some people like neat endings where everyone wins, but I am not one of those people.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I wanted to like this book. I really did. I love Book of the Month and I’m always so excited about starting any of the books they’ve selected. At first I thought this one was just starting slow, as some thrillers do, but my appreciation for the book just never grew. Again, I want to reiterate that I don’t think Lies She Told is a bad book. It just wasn’t the book for me.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’re looking for a murder mystery with domestic intrigue and carefully planted clues about what’s really going on, try Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go, a masterpiece thriller that starts slow and builds to intense suspense, with a perfectly creepy ending.
  2. If you’re looking for a mystery completely out of the norm that’s guaranteed to surprise you, try Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes, a previous Book of the Month thriller that quickly became one of my favorite books of the year due to its shocking twists.

Coming up Next: My next review will feature George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, the third book in his Song of Ice and Fire series. I have high hopes for this volume, and I’ve been doing that “saving the best for last” thing by leaving this one until the end of the month. But now, down with the Lannisters!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Every now and then I like to pick up an Agatha Christie book, because no one writes complex murder mysteries like Agatha Christie. This time, I picked up her 1933 Hercule Poirot novel, Murder on the Orient Express, because 1. it’s going to be a movie later this year that I’m interested in seeing, and 2. it fulfills a slot on my 2017 reading challenge: a book based on a true story.

About the book: Hercule Poirotmurderontheorientexpress (world-famous detective) needs to make quick arrangements to get back to London, which lands him on the almost-full Stamboul-Calais coach of the Orient Express. What he doesn’t know is that he has hurried onto a train in which a murder is about to take place–and when it does, who better to solve it than the renowned detective? There is a doctor on board, and a director of the train line, who follow Poirot step-by-step as he interviews each of the surviving passengers on board, examines their luggage,  and uses logic to assemble a solution that sorts truth from lies–and identifies a shocking murderer… or murderers. To complicate matters, at the same time the murder was being committed, the train hit a snowbank and has been unexpectedly stopped on its track, away from stations and civilization–which means that the culprit/s must still be on board, feigning innocence and posing further threat to those remaining.

“All around us are people of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never, perhaps, to see each other again.”

This murder features a complex but logical conclusion. Poirot is an observer of psychology, and extremely skilled in putting together clues and discrediting lies with cunning attention to single words or phrases, or the exact placement of items. Christie presents the clues… and then Poirot shows all of the characters the “obvious” solution they’ve been missing all along, the truth that’s been hiding in plain sight.

In this particular case, though, I don’t think there is any possibility for the reader to guess the final solution before it is given. Poirot discusses the clues in the narration, but he also holds back details. For instance, there’s an important grease spot in this story that is noted briefly as a clue. But Poirot does not point it out to the others on his team until he knows what it means. And until he confides its meaning to them, the reader would not be able to figure out the answer to its presence because the crucial placement of the spot is not divulged in the narration until the time when the solution is presented. Although this is only one small clue, it is a good example of withheld information– and when there is information withheld from the reader, the possibility of the reader being able to reach the same logical conclusions as Poirot decreases. It is possible that the reader could make a wild guess and be right about the murderer/s and motives, but it’s not possible for the reader to follow the clues to that conclusion. For that reason, this book will appeal more to readers who like to be led through a well-crafted mystery, but not as much to mystery readers who like trying to solve the case themselves before the solution is revealed.

“But have I not heard you say often that to solve a case a man has only to lie back in his chair and think?”

The only downfall is the wide cast of characters. Christie presents around a dozen characters with equal importance, giving only the most necessary details about each of them, one after another. It can be difficult to keep them straight throughout much of the story, and furthermore, it can be difficult to attach any sort of like/dislike to any of them when they’re all given this equal weight in the narration. If the reader can’t keep them separate in mind and maybe choose a potential murderer or two to stake a guess on, it can be harder for the reader to feel invested in the characters, and thus in their story.

Additionally–and I’m still on the fence about whether this is a strength or weakness–there’s quite a bit of diversity in this book, and it’s noted in the narration. Normally that’s a good thing, but here it’s also used as a sort of plot device. Different characters are judged in their ability to murder in certain ways by their nationality. I do not pretend to have any psychological training or skill in identifying patterns of murders, but it seemed odd to me that an Italian would be more suspect of a murder simply because it was a stabbing than an Englishman. Or for an American woman to have a more likely murderous temper than a Swedish or German woman. I appreciated seeing multiple nationalities, multiple languages being spoken, etc. but I did think that they were played upon rather oddly while Poirot and crew fished for suspects.

About the ending: there are some interesting twists in this book, but none so great as the end solution to the mystery. I was more pleased with the ending than any other part of the book, because the end is both terrifying in its implications and humorous in the conclusion that the investigators choose to accept. The book wraps up quickly, but is stronger for doing so. I wish I could say more without spoiling the book, but I will say that it’s my favorite end to a Christie novel so far.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was nearly a 5 star book for me, but I had so much difficulty keeping a few of the characters straight. There was a helpful chart with the layout of the train carriage and the passengers’ sleeping berths on it, and I did reference that repeatedly, but some sort of appendix that would’ve given me the key details on each character would’ve helped further in keeping the names attached to the right facts. But either way, this is definitely one of the best (maybe even the actual best) Agatha Christie book I’ve ever read. I was not bored or overly confused at any point, like I occasionally am in Christie’s complicated mysteries. I want to read more Christie. And I want to see the new movie adaptation for this book.

Further recommendations:

  1. Choose And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie if you’re looking for a similar mystery. This one features ten characters stranded on a small island, where they all begin to die one by one. Everyone is suspect until they’re dead–but will the mystery be solved before there’s no one left?
  2. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a great new psychological thriller with one key detail in common to Orient Express: a murder has been committed on board a ship at sea, which means that the killer is still on board. In this book, though, the journalist investigating the case finds herself also in danger of being killed, and her attempts to find the truth are further complicated by the fact that no one else on the ship will admit the dead woman ever existed.

What’s next: I’m currently reading George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings, the second book in his Song of Ice and Fire series (perhaps more commonly recognized by the name of its first book, A Game of Thrones.) Check back soon to see if the second volume is as fantastic as the first.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Final Girls

When Riley Sager’s slasher thriller Final Girls appeared in the Book of the Month selections for July, my first thought was that it was the wrong time of year for so much gore and horror. But there’s been so much talk about it being the thriller of the year that I had to pick it up, even though it’s not October yet.

About the book: Quincy is a Final Girl. final girls.jpgDuring her sophomore year of college, she spent a weekend at a cabin with five friends, and was the only person to leave alive. How does one come back from something like that? Quincy is still figuring it out. She’s got her baking blog, her victim money, her loyal boyfriend: Jeff, and the cop who rescued her from the massacre ten years ago: her friend and protector Coop. It’s been both a blessing and a curse that she can’t recall the hour of bloody gore that ended her friends’ lives, but now it’s time for Quincy to remember. One of the other two Final Girls has been found dead, and the second just showed up at Quincy’s door, for friendship or blackmail, no one’s quite sure. Could she and Quincy be the next targets? And why is Quincy so afraid that He is still out there, the lone killer she remembers running from through the woods around the cabin, the murderer she saw shot the same day she escaped? She’s right about one thing: the danger is still out there, and no one is safe.

“I’m his creation, forged from blood and pain and the cold steel of a blade. I’m a […] Final Girl.”

You know those cheesy old horror flicks that are as funny as they are scary, where the kids make stupid choices and can’t stay upright when they’re trying to run and some crazy guy (or lady) in a mask walks around slowly with a bloody weapon and kills them all? At first, this book seems exactly like reading one of those movie scripts. It’s complete with new college students staying alone in a cabin in the woods, most of them more concerned with teenager things like birthdays and losing their virginity than with the safety precautions they laugh at. There’s love and love triangles, the ominous glimpses of a single, all-purpose knife, an illicit party with illegal substances, the inevitable ghost stories, and they’re all wrapped up in their own worlds. Enter: escaped asylum patient. Even ten years later, Quincy’s life looks a little cheesy. She’s got a bland boyfriend, a cutesy blog, a permanent Xanax prescription, and she’s most definitely not one of those Final Girls, she’s moved past that.

Except she hasn’t. Just when you think you’re in for an eye-rolling cliche, Quincy shows that all of those details are a shield, and the real Quincy is pretty messed up underneath. The reader has to think twice (at least) about what she’s capable of… and what condemning secrets are hidden in that missing hour she’s blocked from her mind. No one believes she’s really forgotten that night, except maybe Quincy from force of trying.

“I became a blur, a smudge of darkness stripped of all my details.”

Once the mystery starts, all resemblance to those cheesy horror films fades until the only similarities left are the murders themselves and the constant ominous details, the literary equivalent of the scary movie sound effects and slow pans over sharp edged objects and moving shadows. Everything is described with reminders that death is the focus of the novel, and murder is never far from the reader’s mind even in relatively safe scenes:

“I close my eyes, wishing sleep would grab me by the throat and drag me under.”

“I fall silent once I’m actually inside. I don’t want Pine Cottage to know I’m here.”

The best part of this book (and any good thriller) is the unpredictability. Almost every single character looks suspicious, with the exception, perhaps, of the bland boyfriend, Jeff. No one is who they appear, although some characters are more up-front about their true nature than others. I always make a guess about the killer when reading a mystery or thriller, and this time I was truly shocked– so shocked that I couldn’t stop reading until I knew everything, which led to my reading this entire book in one day. The balance was just so perfect–that light cheesiness at the beginning that kept the book fun and self-aware, and then the more intense plot twists and increasing danger as the mystery picked up. I didn’t love all of the characters, but I loved the story that was forged between them.

” ‘What’s that name the papers call you?’ ‘Final Girls.’ I say it angrily, with all the scorn I can muster. I want Detective Hernandez to know that I don’t consider myself one of them. That I’m beyond that even now, even if I no longer quite believe it myself. ‘That’s it.’ The detective senses my tone and wrinkles her nose in distaste. ‘I guess you don’t like that label.’ ‘Not at all,’ I say. ‘But I suppose it’s better than being referred to as victims.’ ‘What would you like to be called?’ ‘Survivors.’ “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This has absolutely been one of my favorite thrillers this year, and you can bet that I’ll be recommending it to all my thriller-reading friends. This book was published under a pseudonym, so I don’t know if the author will stick with that and keep publishing more books like this, but I hope to see another Riley Sager thriller on shelves in the future because I know now to pick those up immediately. Final Girls has reinforced my interest in the genre, and my appreciation for Book of the Month Club. I can’t wait to read my August selections.

Further recommendations:

  1. Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes was a BOTM selection earlier this year, another thriller-with-a-twist. This one veers into another genre at the end, which would spoil the book to talk about, but if you’re looking for mysteries with shocking twists, this is the one. It starts a little slow as a sort of domestic mystery, but the pace and the stakes pick way up at the guaranteed-surprising end.
  2. Anything by Gillian Flynn would be a good fit for Final Girls fans. If you haven’t read or seen Gone Girl yet, you’re missing out on the thriller that made me fall in love with thrillers, and if you don’t want to read that one you should pick up Sharp Objects or Dark Places, both of which are fantastic and will probably scare you.

Coming up Next: I’m just finishing Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, a short fantasy novel about the place where the world as we know it meets the world of faerie. Tristran Thorn, the main character, has one foot in both worlds and needs them both as he sets out on a dangerous quest to retrieve a fallen star for the girl he wants to marry.

What are you reading for a thrill this August?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Into the Water

I remember when I picked up Paula Hawkins’ debut thriller, The Girl on the Train. It was the end of summer, 2015. I was in my favorite bookstore in my college town, browsing before I checked out the books I needed for classes. At that point, I had never heard of Paula Hawkins or The Girl on the Train. I had barely any experience with thrillers in general. I picked it up on a whim, and I loved it. So when I heard she had a new book coming out in 2017, I had to check it out. Here’s what I thought about Into the Water.

intothewaterAbout the book: Nel and Jules Abbott grew up in Beckford, near the Drowning Pool. They’d heard the stories of the women who had died there under all sorts of circumstances. Jules thought she had left that place behind for good, but Nel was too obsessed to ever let it go–until her obsession cost her her life in that same infamous section of the river. Now that she’s dead–exact cause to be determined–Jules must return to settle her affairs and take up custody of Nel’s teenage daughter. The investigation hits a snag, though. Not long before Nel’s death, a teenaged girl committed suicide in the Drowning Pool, and the deaths seem to be connected by some unlikely thread. Someone has all the pieces–is it the local policeman and his family? The mother of the girl who committed suicide? Nel’s daughter or sister? The “psychic” trying to keep a standing in Beckford? Everyone’s connected, and yet each story is distinct, a braid of woven threads rather than a single strand. But until the mystery is solved, there’s no telling who’ll be next to go into the water.

“You didn’t tell the truth, you never did–the stories you’d been telling weren’t the truth, they were your truth, your agenda.”

About the layout: Jules Abbott, sister to the most recently deceased woman, addresses her narrated sections to Nel. At first seems confusing, because she’s the first narrator of the book and early in the section there’s also a general “you” being used; it took me a minute to figure out that a sort of second-person narration was in play (although she also narrates herself as “I” and “me,” in the first-person narrative style), and then it took me almost her entire first section to understand who that “you” was aimed toward. Once that’s cleared up, though, it’s one of the most interesting aspects of the book. The fact that Jules seems to center all of her thoughts around her sister, to address every impression and emotion first to “you,” someone who is gone, is deeply compelling and unsettling at once.

“You were never the princess, you were never the passive beauty waiting for a prince, you were something else. You sided with darkness, with the wicked stepmother, the bad fairy, the witch.”

Then we have Lena solidly in the first person; she’s the daughter of the dead woman, and although she does care deeply about certain characters, she’s the youngest and the most self-centered, which makes this other switch in narrative style equally fitting for her character.

“I lay on my bed in silence. I can’t even listen to music because I feel everything has this other meaning that I didn’t see before and it hurts too fucking much to face it now. I don’t want to cry all the time, it makes my chest hurt and my throat hurt, and the worst thing is that no one comes to help me. There’s no one left to help me.”

Other than these two exceptions, the characters of Into the Water are given short, alternating sections of third-person narration.

“She was not the woman she used to be. She could feel herself slipping, slithering as though she were shedding a skin, and she didn’t like the rawness underneath, she didn’t like the smell of it. It made her feel vulnerable, it made her feel afraid.”

I would hardly call this book a thriller. A mystery, a murder mystery, but not a thriller because of the nature of its tension. Into the Water is not a breath-snatching, heart-pounding hurricane wave of clues and deceptions and danger, but an unrelenting current of unease, of nagging suspicion and dark inevitability. The evil lies not with a single person, but spread through everyone in the town. Whether Nel jumped or was pushed, no one in this tale is innocent, and the secrets are bound to wash up after the storm of deaths and accusations passes.

“I thought how odd it was that parents believe they know their children, understand their children. Do they not remember what it was like to be eighteen, or fifteen, or twelve? Perhaps having children makes you forget being one. I remember you at seventeen and me at thirteen, and I’m certain that our parents had no idea who we were.”

I’m not convinced any of these characters really know who they are at present, either. This is as much a story of self-discovery as a revelation of the people each character thought they knew so well. None of them are particularly likable, but they’re captivating. They’re creepy. They’re the best sort of characters to read about in the dark, maybe with the sound of water moving in the background.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was not the page-turner I expected, but considering I hadn’t known anything about the story going in, I’m not sure I can justify having expected anything. I liked the mystery, though. I liked the flawed characters and their messed-up secrets. Well, I didn’t like them particularly, but I wanted to see what had made them that way and where it would lead them. It wasn’t my favorite book of the year or anything, but I had no trouble finishing it in just a couple of days and I’m still 100% committed to reading whatever Paula Hawkins publishes next, so I’d call it a success.

Further recommendations:

  1. For a more thrilling tale of water-related intrigue, check out The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. (Or just read it in preparation of Ware’s new release coming out in July, also related to drowning.) In this one, a journalist on a new leisure boat must get to the bottom of the absence of one of the passengers that no one else on the boat will acknowledge ever existed.
  2. If it’s the characters who kept you going in Into the Water, check out Erika Carter’s Lucky You, a literary fiction book about three women and one boyfriend who go off to live in the woods to escape civilization. They’re looking for a change, looking for answers in their unhappy lives, but the problems lie within themselves and none of them can get off their respective paths of self-destruction.

What’s next: I’m currently reading my next Cassandra Clare book, as part of my quest to read all of her novels this year. Now that her newest release, Lord of Shadows, is almost out in the world, I’m pretty eager to catch up to that point. I’ve got a few more to read first, though, starting with Clockwork Prince, book two in the Infernal Devices trilogy. It’s a reread for me, but I don’t remember much, so you’ll have to wait for my upcoming review to see what trouble Tessa and her new Shadowhunter friends will be finding in Victorian London this time.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Big Little Lies

I’m a little late on the Big Little Lies train, but I couldn’t let the train pass altogether without hopping on. I’ve been meaning to read a Liane Moriarty book for months, and although this one wasn’t originally my first choice, I love a good book-to-TV adaptation and I had to check it out.

biglittleliesAbout the book: On the Pirriwee Pennisula, children come first. Maybe children always come first, but for this batch of kindergarten moms, mysterious bullying in their kids’ class divides the parents even more dramatically than the children. Although the child being hurt won’t confess the identity of her abuser, she does select a scapegoat who, along with his mother, takes the brunt of the blame. No one can be sure whether this little boy is bullying or not, so of course the parents get involved, instructing their children to stay away from him or to be especially nice to the poor wrongly-accused child, depending on their opinions in the matter. Things get even more out of control at a parent event where the truth about the bullying finally comes out–as do some other upsetting details of wrongs that have been committed at the parents’ level. There’s adultery, abuse, even murder–proving that the bullying isn’t confined to the kindergarten class. Jane, Madeline, and Celeste are the three friends at the middle of it all, but even they can’t stop the madness. Someone is going to get hurt. Maybe everyone. Isn’t it possible that the bickering at the adult level is teaching the children to behave the same way toward each other?

“Did anyone really know their child? Your child was a little stranger, constantly changing, disappearing and reintroducing himself to you. New personality traits could appear overnight.”

About the layout: the book opens on a scene at the school trivia night, a parent fundraiser gathering complete with costumes, alcohol, and…death. Our narrator for this scene is a woman who lives across from the school and hears the screams and sees the ambulance coming in. After that, the narration goes back to the beginning of the school year, focusing on the three main parents’ interactions with each other and their children. The timeline proceeds as a countdown, marking how much time is left before the fateful trivia night. Mixed into this chronology, though, the reader also sees dialogue boxes from interviews with the parents and the police detective that come after the trivia night. This way, we see multiple perspectives on the main events both from a present perspective and a future one, after it all blows up at the trivia night.

I don’t want to say this book is catty, because it’s more than that. There are minor characters who seem to be present solely for their cattiness, but it wasn’t the little dramas and confrontations that kept me invested in the story, it was the overarching tension of waiting to discover the child bully and his/her motivations. The thing about Big Little Lies is that it’s full of opinions–sometimes the character who presents them can indicate whether or not they’re meant to be taken seriously, but sometimes it’s up to the reader’s judgment. There are mildly infuriating comments, but there are also comments whose agreeableness surprised and delighted me–comments about how people should treat each other, how to cope with difficult news or events, how unfair the world is in some regards. Here’s one I found interesting:

“I mean, a fat, ugly man can still be funny and lovable and successful…but it’s like it’s the most shameful thing for a woman to be.”

Personally, I really liked the writing style. I found it wonderfully revelatory of different sides of human nature. Except for the catty characters, everyone is sympathizable. Even the “bad” guys, the parents that are set against the main protagonists, aren’t unreasonable. What would you do if your five year-old daughter was being secretly bullied for months? Maybe a lot. It’s great to see a story where every side has its merits. I must have been reading a really early edition of the book, though, because there were a lot of mistakes, typos and mixed up names and details. I mean, no one’s perfect. Sometimes mistakes are missed in published works. This one just seemed to have an unusually high number of them. Even that, though, didn’t turn me off of the writing. Moriarty makes some excellent choices with her adjectives. I would say the writing style was the high point for me here.

The downfall, though, was this:

“Ever since Madeline had first mentioned Saxon’s name on the night of the book club, there had been something niggling at Celeste, a memory from before the children were born…That memory slid into place now, fully intact. As though it had just been waiting for her to retrieve it.”

This is my least favorite thing to see happening in any book, but especially in mysteries and thrillers. It is such a cop out for the biggest clue of the story to have been in the character’s possession the whole time, to be conveniently picked up at the most shocking moment. You may have listened to me rant about this before. The thing is, with mysteries of any pace, the fun is trying to guess whodunit and whether it was the candlestick in the library or the knife in the kitchen, etc. It’s an injustice to the reader to make them guess for 400 pages and then say, “oh, I’ve been holding back the key detail so you never really had any chance at it anyway.” The best mysteries/thrillers are the ones with all the details woven in before the pieces are assembled, in such a way that the big reveal is both obvious and unexpected when it arrives. The memory that Celeste suddenly retrieves here? It could have been woven in earlier to better affect.  I would have given this book a whole extra star if it hadn’t been for the short excerpt above. But alas…

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The fact that I liked the writing style and the story in general up to the point of the misplaced memory indicates to me that I should try another Moriarty book. What Alice Forgot is currently sitting on my shelf, but I’ve also heard good things about The Husband’s Secret. I don’t really know much about either one, but I’ll be eager to give one or both of them a try this summer now that I’ve had a taste of Moriarty’s writing. I’m not sure yet about when I’ll watch the Big Little Lies episodes. Now that I know the whole plot, I think I want to let it settle a bit before I watch.

Further recommendations:

  1. For a mystery/thriller with multiple layers (and the key details woven in perfectly without ruining the surprise ending), check out Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes. The protagonist of this story is also a young mother with a small son and drama in the divorce, but this one is about so much more than family and social ties. And, of course, the writing is also superb.
  2. Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger is also a good choice for readers interested in a teacher tormented by trouble both at school and at home. Although this protagonist isn’t a parent, she must deal with the school drama on top of suspicious and slightly terrifying events occurring at her home that seem to revolve around murder. Things get so much more complicated when it looks like all the incidents are connected.
  3. You should also try Shari Lapena’s The Couple Next Door if you’re a Big Little Lies fan. This one’s a mystery about a missing baby–the parents go next door for a dinner, leaving the baby asleep in her crib, and return to find her gone. The four at the dinner each have their own secrets–and one of them knows what happened to the baby. Or at least, they thought they did…

What’s next: I’m reading Sarah J. Maas’s YA/NA A Court of Wings and Ruin, finally. This is the third book in the Court of Thorns and Roses series, and I’ve been dying to find out what will happen after the cliffhanger of book two. But book two was a bit of a guilty pleasure, and I didn’t like book one as much, so I’m trying to keep my expectations at an appropriate level while also admitting that I probably will read all 700 pages of ACOWAR in just a couple of days.

Do you like to stay on top of popular book trends, or just read what you feel like, when you feel like it? Do you read popular books after the popularity has waned?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: And Then There Were None

Agatha Christie is a staple of the mystery genre for a reason. I recently read one of her best-known stand-alone novels, And Then There Were None, which did not disappoint. This one’s a thrilling classic.

About the book: Ten people have been lured to Soldier Island, all under false pretenses of andthentherewerenoneemployment or a summer holiday vacation. By the end of the very first night, however, they discover that they’ve all been lied to, that some of them have kept secrets from each other, and that the systematic elimination of every one of them has already begun. The next morning, after a thorough search, the already-dwindled party realizes that they are in fact alone on the island–if there really is a murderer, he or she is hiding in plan sight, posing as one of the potential victims. Can they discover who it is before it is too late?

“He said: ‘Oh, yes. I’ve no doubt in my own mind that we have been invited here by a madman–probably a dangerous homicidal lunatic.’ “

The characters–the heart of any novel, in my opinion–have been expertly crafted. Not a single one of them is lovable, and yet they are all uniquely colorful and curious beings. Every single one of them is accused of murder; some of them admit freely to killing, and yet, they are all so afraid to die. There is something wonderfully freeing about meeting morally suspect characters: they seem perfectly capable of doing absolutely anything, from making the most heroic sacrifices to the darkest betrayals. The characters of And Then There Were None are not necessarily good people, but they are good to read–wild cards one and all. The most chilling aspect of the tale is that under the premise of the killer hiding among the others, he or she must necessarily be acting the part of a frightened victim as well as the truly terrified ones. He or she must be crazy enough to set up an elaborate ten-murder scheme, but also sane enough to remain undetected even as everyone begins to look at each other suspiciously.

” ‘Many homicidal lunatics are very quiet unassuming people. Delightful fellows.’ “

As for the technical aspects of the story: the narrator is an omniscient third party, who focuses on one character at a time and can describe that target so closely that his or her very thoughts are exposed. This is a precarious technique for a story in which the murders are ongoing and the narrator must not reveal which character is the culprit. Christie handles it fantastically. There are times when this narration allows for the reader to make guesses as to the killer, and times when it helps the reader by supplying information to eliminate one. Christie keeps readers on their toes by seeming to close all the doors of possibility, and then pointing out a window that has been left open. This mystery would not be possible without the narrator Christie gives it.

I am also particularly fond of the format Christie employs in this novel; the chapters are further divided into distinct subsections. The action frequently flows without break from one into the next–even in the middle of a conversation–and the subsections are relatively short, which together make the book easy to read and read and never stop. There’s nothing especially unique about this layout, but it’s my personal favorite: a nearly continuous stream, presented in bite-sized pieces.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This one had been on my TBR for a little while, but I was in no hurry to read it. Then out of the blue a friend lent me her copy and I decided it must be time. I’ve read some Agatha Christie stories prior to this, and enjoyed them, but none of them have stuck in my mind. This one, I think, won’t be leaving any time soon. I was completely caught up in the story, and the plot was masterfully crafted. The reader sees each character’s thoughts and actions, and still cannot deduce who is the culprit. I can’t resist that. I’ve heard of a YA book entitled Ten that is supposedly very similar to this one, and I think it might be interesting to check that out in conjunction with this one. Perhaps in the next month or two while this one’s still fresh in my mind I’ll find a copy for a comparison.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a 2016 thriller in which a woman goes missing on a small boat. The only passenger who believes the woman existed at all is a journalist who realizes the killer must be one of the other passengers. As she persists in seeking the murderer–convinced that anyone aboard might be next to die–it becomes apparent that the journalist herself may be a target.Check out my complete review here.
  2. Robert Galbraith’s (J. K. Rowling’s) The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first book in a modern mystery series set in London. A detective down on his luck, along with the secretary who’s more of a partner despite the fact that he can barely pay her, sets out to work against the police and popular opinion to find a murderer from a cast of seemingly innocent characters. No one could have done it–but yet, one of them did. Check out my complete review here.

Coming Up Next: I’m currently reading the final book in the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, titled Winter. I’m looking forward to seeing how the myriad plot threads from the first three books finally come together here–and how the story will look after reading Fairest, a companion novel following the villain’s perspective. I’ve already read Fairest and will include my review of that book and how it relates to the series along with my thoughts on Winter.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant