Tag Archives: mystery

Review: My Cousin Rachel

It’s been almost TWO YEARS since I read and loved Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a book that left me suspecting I’d found a new (to me) favorite author, so it was beyond time to try another of her books and seal the deal. This month, I picked up my second-ever du Maurier novel, My Cousin Rachel, in a lovely buddy read with Melanie (@ Grab the Lapels). Fortunately, we both loved it! I’ve linked to her review.

mycousinrachelIn the novel, Philip resides on his uncle’s estate, of which he is the sole heir. When he was orphaned as a baby, this uncle took him in; they are each other’s closest family, and remarkably similar in appearance, opinion, and habit. For his health, the uncle has recently begun wintering away from the property at Cornwall, where much to his surprise Philip one day receives a letter stating that his uncle has married their cousin Rachel and will not be returning home as early as planned. Before long more letters start to arrive- mysterious, accusatory letters, begging Philip to come quickly- which he does, but not before his uncle is pronounced dead. Angry and disbelieving of the supposed cause of death, Philip invites Rachel to stay with him in Cornwall, intending to punish her for whatever role she may have played in his uncle’s demise. But when she arrives, nothing goes quite the way he thought it would.

My Cousin Rachel is a gothic novel with an air of mystery, though ultimately it’s du Maurier’s insightful characterization and atmosphere that drive the reader onward. The ever-present question of whether Rachel had anything to do with her husband’s sudden death is never far from the reader’s mind, though so much else is happening in the foreground that it’s impossible to call this novel anything other than a masterful, layered work.

The entire novel is narrated from Philip’s perspective, which I found immensely interesting as there’s also quite a bit of commentary on- or at least implication surrounding-  the unfairness of traditional gender roles and stereotypes. It seems to have been written with a female audience in mind, as the criticisms lie mainly in understood but unspoken motivations and undercurrents in dialogue, rather than bold statements. Nevertheless, the hint of feminism is no less exciting for its subtlety. Perhaps moreso for the fact that it is apparent through the lens of a self-entitled young man.

” ‘Louise isn’t a woman,’ I said, ‘she’s younger than myself, and I have known her since she ran around in petticoats.’ “

Of course, Philip isn’t the only interesting character; the framing of the novel around his perspective is apparent even in the title, but he is not the titular character. Rachel herself is vibrant and enigmatic; she’s polite, ladylike, and impeccably behaved on the surface, but it’s clear from the start that she’s intelligent and secretive, and won’t take anyone else’s word for who she should be and what she should do. She is entirely worthy of the mystery revolving around her. Additionally, the handful of secondary characters each have their own unique angle into the story, each a necessary cog that keeps the central wheel spinning.

As for the mystery, it plays out perfectly. A slow setup of the situation in the opening chapters allows readers a chance to meet all of the key players and acquaint themselves with the central conflict- the debate over whether or not Rachel is guilty of murder- which begins to wind ever tighter as soon as Rachel arrives on the page. From there, the tension and pacing gradually increase as these disparate personalities bounce off of one another in lieu of much real plot; relationships become increasingly nuanced and disaster looms. The final clues aren’t distributed until the very end of the novel, keeping the reader hooked and questing for answers up to the very last page- and beyond. This is a book that stays with the reader, that keeps asking questions after the cover is closed, and that promises a rich reread as well.

But, despite everything that I loved about this reading experience, there were a couple of elements to it that didn’t quite win me over. (I believe they worked better for Melanie, so be sure to check out her review for another opinion!)

The first is Philip. I’ve already mentioned being impressed with some of what was accomplished with his characterization, so clearly he was a double-edged sword for me. He’s an engaging and readable narrator, and the perfect perspective from which to view this series of tragedies as a mystery, but he’s also not the most likeable character; in itself, that wouldn’t bother me as long as his characterization serves a narrative purpose, but I’m not convinced Philip’s mildly selfish, spoiled personality ever does. It’s not strong enough for me to hate him, nor for me to pity him. He’s single and childless, and his uncle is already dead, so the reader must care about Philip for his own sake, which I never quite did. I found the matter of Rachel’s potential crimes against his family an intellectual curiosity at most, and unfortunately was never emotionally invested in Philip’s fate.

” ‘You have grown up ignorant of women, and if you ever marry it will be hard on your wife. I was saying so to Louise at breakfast.’ / He broke off then, looking – if my godfather could look such a thing – a little uncomfortable, as if he said more than he meant. / ‘That’s all right,’ I said, ‘my wife can take care of all the difficulties when the time comes.’ “

I also found myself frustrated over the murkiness of a few of the characters’ loyalties, especially those of Rachel’s friend/lawyer, and those of Philip’s godfather. I was never quite clear on whether their actions stemmed from genuine feelings, or whether they were merely following the letter of the law and came across as a bit suspicious only because it fed into the pull of the main mystery. I don’t think a bit more clarity on their motives would have hurt the story at all, and so I was disappointed not to have it.

And last but not least, though I did find plenty of surprises in the plot, I also found some aspects very predictable, which is not necessarily a fault of the book but probably inevitable 70 years after a mystery publication with the level of popularity du Maurier’s work has always seen. Though I enjoyed all of it, I saw through some of it, which made me impatient at points. Not a big deal at all, and I can’t be more specific without spoiling things, but I wanted to mention a bit of potential predictability for mystery fans.

” ‘Sometimes,’ she said slowly, ‘you are so like him that I become afraid. I see your eyes, with that same expression, turned upon me; and it is as though, after all, he had not died, and everything that was endured must be endured once more.’ “

Ultimately, My Cousin Rachel lacked for me that sense of everything falling perfectly into place (such as I found in Rebecca), though I did appreciate most of the lingering ambiguity. At the end of the story, there’s still a major choice of belief left up to the reader, narrowed down to a simple yes or no question that even a strong opinion one way or the other will not banish uncertainty from. It’s cleverly crafted and fun from start to finish, entirely worth the read.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was really close to a 5 star rating, and even though it didn’t quite make it for me, the experience has cemented du Maurier as one of my favorite authors, and leaves me determined to read the rest of her work. Next up for me (though I’m not sure when I’ll get to it) will probably be The House on the Strand. I’ll also be watching the film adaptation for My Cousin Rachel as soon as possible.

Have you read or seen this one?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) caught my attention the first time I saw it’s title. Nominated for both the Man Booker International prize and the National Book Award prize for translated fiction earlier this year, it’s certainly been getting some buzz. In addition, Tokarczuk was just announced the 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. If those accolades aren’t enough, let me tell you a bit about this incredible book.

driveyourplowoverthebonesofthedeadIn the novel, an old woman living in a secluded Polish village looks after the houses of the folk who spend their winters elsewhere. She’s one of three who remain in the cold months- until one day, one of her neighbors comes knocking with a request for her to help him deal with the third man, who’s dead. She has occasion to do a bit of snooping in his house at that time, and will later tell anyone who’ll listen (and some who won’t) that animals have killed him in revenge (he was a known poacher). Most call her crazy and move on, but when more of the villagers turn up dead as the year wears on, it becomes obvious that something suspicious is going on. In the midst of this unresolved murder spree, Mrs. Duszejko continues to complain loudly about local treatment of animals, fighting against even legal hunting practices.

“Sorrow, I felt great sorrow, an endless sense of mourning for every dead Animal. One period of grief is followed by another, so I am in constant mourning.”

Though this book opens with a striking chapter that depicts neighbors dealing with their own dead in a desolate winter world, what first captured my attention about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was not the action but rather the singular voice of the story’s narrator. I don’t often enjoy books about animals, or books that ask readers to pity animals; I have enough natural empathy for living creatures, and don’t feel that my caring more about them will make any difference in the world, so I tend to find them repetitive, needlessly sad, and ultimately ineffective (for me personally- I respect that they are more successful with other readers). But Mrs. Duszejko gave me a human connection to this story that managed to keep me invested even though I didn’t always agree with her or feel interested in her arguments. Her perspective makes perfect sense for her character, though there are occasional moments when even the reader must question her sanity (just another brilliant move by Tokarczuk). Her viewpoint may seem a bit extreme, but there is something suspicious going on, and the way that her neighbors react to her claims can be as telling as the rumors floating through the village.

“Try to keep your theory to yourself. It’s highly improbable and it could do you harm.”

“Don’t get so upset about things. Don’t take the whole world on your shoulders. It’ll all be fine.”

Plot-wise, this book falls into the mystery genre, though it’s not really about the strange deaths of the local men- at least, not for Mrs. Duszejko. For her, the main contention of the book is whether or not anything will be done about the crimes against animals that she’s been diligently reporting. For that reason, it might be more appropriate to call this novel a character study. And that, for me, was the main flaw of the book- it’s structured as a puzzle in which our main character seems to have little interest throughout most of the novel. Of course the pieces come together for her (and everyone else) in the end, but my only real complaint here was that I didn’t feel like there was any driving force to propel me through the book. Convincing humanity to stop hunting/eating/taking advantage of animals seems like an obvious lost cause from the start, and that is the conflict Mrs. Duszejko is concerned with. Even though I enjoyed her odd life and opinions, I would put this book down at the end of the day, and feel no urge to pick it up again the next. It took me twice as long to read as it should have (judging by page count), even though I liked reading it. And I think at the end of the day, that comes down to a disconnect with the mystery element.

Otherwise, my only issue was that toward the end of the story the “villain” has to monologue an explanation of how they’ve gotten away with the crimes to that point. Most of the clues are scattered beautifully throughout the book so that they aren’t immediately obvious but easy to recall when they become important later. A few hints would have sufficed for the reader to piece the mystery together without being told quite so blatantly, but the solution is clever.

Also clever: seemingly random capitalization. I have a theory about this: Mrs. Duszejko capitalizes the things (in her first-person narration) that she has great respect for- things that play a powerful role in the way she lives her life. This list includes mainly naturally-occurring things, like Murk, Night, Animals… It also includes proper names of people and places, but enough common nouns are affected to lend the story a whimsical feel, though its topics are anything but.

” ‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘Its attitude toward Animals. If people behave brutally toward Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’ “

It’s hard to say much more without giving the best parts away, so I’ll say only that it’s a weird, wonderful little book sure to challenge the way readers think about the intricate bond between humanity and the natural environment. Mystery aside, it’s a powerful and timely look at the way we are using and abusing the earth we live on. Despite the narrator’s firm opinion on the modern treatment of animals, the book does not force the reader to take Mrs. Duszejko’s side, and leaves plenty of room for discourse. It’s a book that’s sure to stay with me in the same way that The Overstory now comes to mind every time I look at a tree. Tokarczuk brings Poland to vibrant life with this atmospheric little village, and her characterization of Mrs. Duszejko (and her potential madness) is worth reading even if, like me, you’re not initially sold on the animal rights themes. Even though the mystery was the weakest part of the story for me, there’s plenty of surprise in store for the reader, and plenty of commentary to love. Highly recommend.

“You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meaning for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I thought this was such an accomplished novel, and I’m very much looking forward to checking out Tokarczuk’s Man Booker International winning novel from 2018, titled Flights. She’s clearly a skilled writer. I’m so disappointed Drive Your Plow didn’t make the shortlist for the National Book Award last week, and now very curious about the titles that surpassed it there. Clearly I need more translations in my reading life!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Turn of the Key

I’ve always had such fun with Ruth Ware’s thrillers (I think I’ve read all of them!) so of course I picked up her 2019 release, The Turn of the Key. I really liked this one, though I think I’m becoming a bit too familiar with Ware’s style… I saw through some of the mystery, though I still found it an engaging read!

theturnofthekeyIn the novel, Rowan answers a nannying ad that sounds like a perfect fit for her; in addition to great pay, she’d have a room in a private home in exchange for looking after 3 or 4 children (the eldest being away at school for part of the story) in a remote Scottish smart house while the parents are away for work. The catch is that between leaving her old job and moving from London for the new one, she has no time to familiarize herself with the house or the children before her new job begins. The smart system that runs the house seems to be acting up, and the children are fighting the presence of yet another new nanny- apparently the last few have been scared away by the house’s tragic history. Can Rowan brazen it out and find her footing in what could be a dream job, or will the house and the girls get the best of her?

“Maddie’s expression was very different, harder to read, but I thought I could tell what it was. Triumph. She had wanted me to get into trouble, and I had.”

In case you haven’t picked up on it by now, let me mention again that I love classic retellings. Ware’s The Turn of the Key is a loose retelling of Henry James’s eerie The Turn of the Screw, which I read and appreciated for its atmosphere and strangeness earlier this summer. The reader does not need to know anything at all about James’s original story to enjoy this thriller, which is more similar in setup than in plot, but I found the small connections quite amusing.

The Turn of the Key is formatted as a series of letters to a lawyer that the incarcerated nanny hopes will help her case; as the story opens, she has already been arrested for the death of one of the children. This structure, which assumes the lawyer already knows the basic facts of the sensationalized case (such as the nanny’s ulterior motive for applying to this particular job, and the identity of the dead child) allow our narrator to hint at but largely withhold key details from the reader and thus frame her tale as a mystery. Some of the nanny’s direct pleas to the lawyer and guesses at his reactions to the most controversial moments of her narrative felt overdone and pulled me out of the main story, but overall I found it an effective framing technique. There is some extra significance given to these letters at the end of the book that lends purpose to the structure. Once it gets going, the mystery flows well and it’s easy to retreat into Rowan’s experience with the children and the house until the letters become more essential to the story.

“It sounded… well… as if there was someone pacing in the room above my head. But that made no sense either. Because there was no room up there. There was not so much as a loft hatch.”

For readers new to Ware’s work, I think The Turn of the Key would be an excellent place to start. As usual, she gives us a remote location, a house that feels almost like a character in itself, a handful of side characters that are difficult to decide whether to trust, and a narrator with a secret up her sleeve. Intriguing  questions are introduced immediately. Some things seem “off” pretty early on- Rowan is a qualified nanny who does seem to care about children, but we know right away that she had another reason to apply for this particular job, and little details in the story she gives her new employers don’t quite add up. Then there’s the malfunctioning smart system in the house, which seems in perfect working order except that it seems to be following orders no one in the house is authorized to access in the control menu. But though some aspects may be a bit transparent, Ware still manages to hold the reader’s attention and offers a movingly human solution to the mystery of the unpredictable smart house. I was thrilled to discover this isn’t just another reiteration of technology going rouge with the belief that it knows better than the humans.

Though I did think the source of the novel’s suspense and ultimate solution seemed unique enough, this isn’t a ground-breaking thriller. I haven’t read any of the other titles from the recent nanny-thriller trend, but still found notable similarities to other recent thrillers I’ve read- the strain from lack of sleep, the too-good-to-be-true ad, the certainty that the culprit must be inside (or very near) the house, etc. It’s a fairly standard representative of its genre, though undeniably solid for its lack of flare.

My only real hold-up here is that I think I’m becoming too familiar with Ware’s style. I’ve read all five of her books now, with a bit less enthusiasm for each volume, though I think that trend comes down to my knowing Ware’s style well enough by now that she can’t quite shock me anymore, rather than a decline in Ware’s capability as a writer. I believe that if I had read her books in any other order, I would feel the same after finishing them as I do now- that the mysteries are becoming a bit too transparent to truly surprise me. And yet, even so, I always enjoy the creepy atmosphere Ware provides, the realistically flawed protagonists, the uneasiness over knowing that every strange occurrence is not a supernatural terror but the work of a malicious (or at least misguided) human hand. Though I saw through some of Ware’s slight-of-hand tactics here straightaway, I was nonetheless drawn in by the creepy noises and touchy technology, the difficult children, the dynamic between Rowan and the family/staff at Heatherbrae. I found this a quick, easy, and mostly satisfying read, despite its failure to stand out from the thriller crowd, and I would highly recommend it to the right reader.

“I did hate them- in that moment. But I saw myself, too. A prickly little girl, full of emotions too big for her small frame, emotions she could not understand or contain.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. There’s just something about Ware’s writing that keeps me coming back, and I did have a good time with this one just as all the others. I’ll probably pick up her next book, as well. But I’m also content to put the thriller genre aside for a little while- at least until I need something spooky to pick up in October.

What’s your favorite Ruth Ware novel?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Miracle Creek

I have been moving away from mystery/thrillers over the last year or so because I haven’t been able to find books in those genres that manage to surprise and thrill me. But I saw Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek as a BOTM selection for April and thought a courtroom drama with current social commentary looked too good to pass up, even if it did have a mystery element. So I took a chance and read it this month.

miracle creekIn the novel, the Yoo family attends a trial in which one of their clients stands accused of starting a fire that destroyed the Yoos’ Miracle Submarine (a submarine-like enclosure that allows patients to receive controversial pure-oxygen treatments) and resulted in the loss of two lives as well as additional injuries. The woman arrested for this crime is the mother of a young boy who died in the fire, a boy who had been diagnosed with autism. The day of the explosion was the first and only day Elizabeth sat out during the treatment, after making sure her son’s oxygen helmet was hooked to the tank that was soon to be targeted by the arsonist. But as guilty as she looks, Elizabeth may not have been the only person on the premises with the opportunity and motive to start a fire; and if the jury leans in that direction… who committed the crime?

“The first time she hurt her son on purpose was six years ago, when Henry was three.”

There’s a lot to like about this book. The Yoos are an immigrant family from Korea who have been in the US for only a few years and have much insight to offer about that experience. Furthermore, most of their patients are special needs kids; as the narrative shifts through POVs, the reader is offered commentary on autism and cerebral palsy, as well as some of the struggle that comes with parenting children with these diagnoses. And for additional intrigue, the book also showcases the shortcomings of the US legal system as the attorneys become progressively more interested in winning the case without any regard for surfacing truths about what might actually have happened. Each of these aspects is delivered impeccably well and makes the book feel relevant and important rather than presenting as 300 pages of simple whodunnit entertainment.

“It scared Matt a little, how these lawyers could take a given set of facts and spin them in opposite directions… Matt got the feeling that Abe cared about the truth only insofar as it was consistent with his theory of the case; otherwise, not so much. Any new evidence that didn’t fit was not cause to reconsider his position, but something to explain away.”

Unfortunately, it was the mystery structure that threatened to ruin the story for me. Miracle Creek contains both of my mystery novel pet peeves, a combination that doesn’t happen often. The only sort of mystery I consider a success is one that hints at its solution throughout the story and still manages to surprise the reader when all is revealed. A solution that is possible to guess, but that I do not guess correctly. With Miracle Creek I correctly pegged the criminal immediately, and yet the narration makes guessing motive impossible until the author spells it out.

The first issue is specific to my reading experience, and perhaps not a fault of the book: I was able to guess the true culprit of the Miracle Submarine arson within the first twenty pages or so, which made the book’s attempts to confuse and shock me seem like transparent parlor tricks instead, once I knew who to watch for. This likely won’t be a problem for every reader, especially for those fairly new to the genre or those who can resist the urge to make a prediction.

But the second issue is something that I do consider a flaw in the book, though admittedly this criticism may also stem from my personal reading taste: the narration intentionally misleads the reader with numerous red herrings, promoting wrong assumptions, and even withholding key information while providing perspective chapters from the dishonest characters. On top of the added difficulty of investing in characters that are clearly hiding things from the reader, this tactic means that character motives and crime details are impossible to decipher throughout the book. There is no way to engage with the mystery (the “why” and “how” of it, at least. You can imagine how uncommon it is to be able to guess the ultimate solution and yet be entirely incapable of figuring out why that person committed the crime); Miracle Creek insists on using every slight reveal as a twist to further characterization, instead of allowing the reader a true glimpse of the characters before the facts are out in the open. This was the most frustrating facet of the book for me, and left me feeling like the plot was dragging me through the novel and that very little of the information precluding the climax is actually crucial to the mystery.

“That was the thing about lying: you had to throw in occasional kernels of shameful truths to serve as decoys for the things you really needed to hide. How easy it was, to anchor his lies with these fragments of vulnerable honesty, then twist the details to build a believable story.”

This quote is a nice reflection of Kim’s tactic in laying out the Miracle Creek mystery. Though the characters do not outright lie to the reader (to each other, yes), the narration is formatted with the intent of misdirecting the reader from the truth. This happens so often that the reader knows when the characters are making incorrect assumptions, at which point their waffling on about them becomes, frankly, a bit annoying. The red herrings are lightly camouflaged with juicy snippets of shameful truths that slowly reveal each of the characters for who they truly are.

Mystery aside, I did enjoy my time with these characters. I learned early on that first impressions are never accurate portrayals, and liked to see Kim mine each one for hidden depths that made each of them unique and interesting. They’re multi-faceted and compellingly flawed, with a nice mix of relatable traits and specific experiences to share. The medical aspects also seem well-researched and informative. In the end I appreciated everything about this book except for its attempt at mysteriousness. I wonder whether I might have liked Miracle Creek more if Kim had been upfront about the cause of the fire in the beginning, and simply followed these characters through the decisions they make during the trial without trying to shock her readers at every turn. I think that story might have made more of an impact for me.

But I would still highly recommend this book if the premise intrigues you, because I think my reaction has been a bit of an anomaly and I don’t see any reason why this book would be a disappointment to anyone who has a better time with the mystery than I did.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to love this book. When I read the first chapter about the night of the fire, I thought I really would love this book. Sadly, my struggle with mysteries and thrillers continues, instead. But I’m not sad I picked this one up. I would read more from Angie Kim in the future, and I’m still optimistic about my other unread 2019 BOTM selections, which I’m still hoping to catch up on soon!

Have you read this book? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Last Time I Lied

Last July I read one of my all-time favorite thrillers, Riley Sager’s Final Girls. When I realized he had another thriller coming out this July, I was immediately on board. The fact that it takes place at a summer camp made me a little wary (I felt like I had heard that story before), but I still couldn’t pass it up. I’m glad I didn’t.

thelasttimeiliedAbout the book: Fifteen years ago, Emma’s summer camp experience came to a crashing halt when the other three girls from her cabin vanished without a trace. She struggles to cope with the loss of her new friends, and is stunned when over a decade later, though no bodies have ever been found, the camp is reopening– and Emma is invited back. Franny, the owner of Camp Nightingale, almost begs Emma to come back to the first session of the reawakened camp, this time as an instructor. Despite several valid concerns, she agrees, hoping for a chance to unearth some missed clue and finally find closure. But from the moment she arrives back at camp, things begin to go wrong. Someone is watching Emma. Someone who knows she lied about what happened fifteen years ago.

“Everything is a game, Em. Whether you know it or not. Which means that sometimes a lie is more than just a lie. Sometimes it’s the only way to win.”

The Last Time I Lied is told in alternating chapters of the present timeline, and Emma’s first stay at the camp. In some ways this works well: there are eerie parallels between the summers despite the time jump and age differences. In other ways, this style of narration seems like a hindrance. The best thrillers, in my opinion, are the mysteries that the reader is unable to solve until the final moments, at the same time as the reader realizes the clues have been right there all along, cleverly hidden. The back-and-forth of the two camp stories in this novel, however, left me constantly feeling that there was more information I needed from the past to understand what was happening in the present, and the author was doling it out excruciatingly slowly rather than giving the reader a proper chance to guess.

Most of the chapters end on little cliffhangers, hints of treachery under the surface. Usually I like this technique, but it’s a little stilted here. A character will tell Emma a story, and Emma goes about her business, and two pages later thinks, “Oh, that might have been a threat.” Or she finds crows in her cabin, sees the window is closed, and takes two more pages to admit, “Well, maybe someone put them in here on purpose.” The pacing might have been better if Sager had let these revelations occur more naturally rather than trying to end every chapter with a bang.

Omnes vulnerate; ultima necat… All hours wound; the last one kills.”

Another pro/con: characterization. Sager is a master of motive, filling his stories with just the right balance of long-cons and impulse actions. Some characters have been holding grudges for years– others have been fine just fine until something small makes them snap. So rarely do thriller events seem to have any plausibility, but there’s just the right balance of intent and accident in The Last Time I Lied to keep the details from becoming too far-fetched.

The flip side of that coin is that I had a hard time sympathizing with any of these characters. I just didn’t find myself emotionally invested– they all felt a bit constructed, even if expertly so. Then there’s the lying game that Emma plays both times she’s at camp; the lies make it as hard to trust Emma as anyone else.

Then there are the plot holes. I won’t give anything away, but I will say there’s a legend about Lake Midnight that seems logistically unbelievable to me, as well as a sort-of romance that feels unlikely and unnecessary, and certain details of the terrain at Camp Nightingale that it seems odd more characters aren’t aware of. Some things just didn’t add up as flawlessly as I would have expected for a thriller/mystery plot web.

But it’s not all bad. The best element is the atmosphere. Sager uses the forced closeness of a group of virtual strangers to create strife, and compounds it with the natural dangers and mysteries of a landscape removed from civilization. With the night noises and weird shadows and the marks left on the land by people long gone, Camp Nightingale feels like a real enough place. 

Despite my myriad small complaints, I did appreciate the way everything came together in the end. There were a few big twists I wasn’t expecting, and the answers to the mysteries satisfied me completely. It ends not quite on a cliff-hanger, but with an exciting loose end. Ultimately, I think the ideas at the core of this book are solid– the execution seemed a little rushed, perhaps, not quite as put-together as Final Girls, though I did enjoy the underlying story just as much.

“What none of them understand is that the point of the game isn’t to fool others with a lie. The goal is to trick them by telling the truth.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. It’s possible I was a little extra critical of this book because I loved Sager’s Final Girls so much last year. The difference is that Final Girls is a slasher thriller; I went in expecting not to take it too seriously, to laugh a bit like I do when watching the old Scream movies. After loving Final Girls more than expected, and not expecting to laugh at this one, I’m not sure The Last Time I Lied had any chance of living up to my expectations. It was a decent read, though, and I’m eagerly awaiting another Sager thriller– hopefully next summer?

Further recommendations:

  • Similar to the summer camp environment is the boarding school environment: it features the same sort of quick and unexpected friendships, a temporary home-away-from-home, and a general air of teenage rebellion. If you liked The Last Time I Lied, you should also pick up Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game, which stars another set of four girls, a missing body, a lying game, and a past/present narrative.
  • And of course, if you’re looking for a good whodunnit thriller, don’t miss Final Girls. Riley Sager’s debut is fun and spine-tingling at the same time, and sure to surprise even the most careful reader. It’s a play on those old scary movies that we laugh at now for being so unrealistic, both embracing and overturning the tropes of that genre.

I’m on a rare  suspense novel binge this month. Next up: Belinda Bauer’s (Man Booker longlisted) Snap, and David Joy’s (August Book of the Month selection) The Line That Held Us. Have you read any great thrillers lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Night Film

I haven’t picked up any horror/mystery novels for a while, but summer nights are perfect for dark reads and it’s good to try new things, so I picked up Marisha Pessl’s Night Film in early June. (Yes, I know it’s July now and no, that was not a typo.) I’ve been struggling through this 600-page behemoth for over a month now, and last night I finally reached the end.

nightfilmAbout the book: Scott McGrath, disgraced journalist, is out for a run late one night when he has a strange encounter with a woman in a red coat. Soon after, Ashley Cordova is found dead. Ashley is the daughter of an eccentric horror film producer whose work is so controversial and terrifying that it exists only in illegal copies and secret underground showings– and the daughter may prove as enigmatic as Cordova himself. Police have ruled the death a suicide, but McGrath knows there’s more to the story and reopens the Cordova investigation that ruined his career years before. Two of his early leads, Hopper and Nora, attach themselves to McGrath’s investigation for better or worse; but the deeper they dig, the more it seems that nothing has been coincidental (including Ashley’s red coat), and everything is tied to an elaborate story part real and part fiction, a story that’s as compelling and creepy as one of Cordova’s films.

Freak the ferocious out— there were quite a few pages on the site devoted to Cordova’s supposed life philosophy, which meant, in a nutshell, that to be terrified, to be scared out of your skin, was the beginning of freedom, of opening your eyes to what was graphic and dark and gorgeous about life, thereby conquering the monsters of your mind. This was, in Cordovite speak, to slaughter the lamb, get rid of your meek, fearful self, thereby freeing yourself from the restrictions imposed on you by friends, family, society at large.”

The best part of this story is its atmosphere. Pessl writes with an eye toward the visual, coaxing the reader toward seeing this story like a film of the mind. The level of detail is rich and eerie, the metaphors evocative, the action scenes heart-pounding. The prologue draws the reader in completely, and the final chapters send the reader to new depths and heights.

“Just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, you realize you’re standing on another trapdoor.”

But this is a 600 page novel. I think it would’ve been a stronger story closer to 300. Pessl does an excellent job of following every plot thread to its conclusion, but this story does not need nearly as many threads as it provides. Some of these arcs are barely attached to the main web of the plot, and some branch off entirely. For example, there’s quite a bit of information given about McGrath’s ex-wife and their daughter, who he sees only occasionally. These characters are absolutely irrelevant to the mystery, as are the ex-wife’s new husband, the daughter’s nannies, and everyone mentioned in between.

So much of this story felt contrived, as well. Everyone McGrath wants to interview is willing to share everything they know about Ashley or Cordova himself– two of his leads are so interested in McGrath’s investigation that they become active participants in it, and this professional investigator is perfectly content, even grateful (by the end of the book he calls them his family) to let them tag along, though they cause as many problems as they solve. Most of the side characters are flat, including the policewoman who helps McGrath behind the scenes for no apparent reason, and the professor/uberfan who, no matter how much he hates McGrath, will step out of his classes and invite McGrath into his home to share Cordova information with him. McGrath is the only person who gains from his relationships with any of these people; why are they so willing to give him whatever he needs?

“Dottie never forgot that night. She said later she felt as if she were an hors d’oeuvre he’d taken one bite of, then put back on the tray.”

There are so many details that some are left floating rather awkwardly. For starters, McGrath talks about his habit of running around the reservoir at 2 AM in the prologue, but does not exercise again in the entire 600 pages that follow, and is rarely awake at that time of night. When he ruminates on the wreck of his career, he mentions that money has gotten tight, but then proceeds to throw “bonuses” at his assistants, bribes to whichever sources need incentive, props and tools to aid his investigation, etc. He spares no expense, though he doesn’t seem to have any income at all for the duration of this novel. And then there’s the black magic expert he calls to help with “the grimmest situation”– when his immediate concern turns out all right, he seems not to remember the grimness of the underlying problems beneath it. The narration is very near-sighted.

But let’s look at the horror aspects of the book. In some ways, Night Film feels like a mishmash of every horror story that’s been done before: there are headless dolls, hedge mazes, witchcraft, corrupt doctors/therapists, deserted mansions, underground tunnels, misty islands, bloody clothing, anonymous phone calls, black hooded cloaks, mythical creature symbols, and about every other basic spooky detail you’ve ever seen before. It’s impressive that Pessl manages to pull all this together into one narrative, but in my opinion the best parts of Night Film are psychological. The scenes when it’s hard to tell fiction from reality, when McGrath feels like he’s in a Cordova film, when someone isn’t who they seem, when unexpected motives come to light or the truth seems closer to home than is comfortable. Parts of this book made my skin crawl, and that’s what kept me reading. I also loved the ambiguity of the ending.

“The truth about what happens to us in this world keeps changing. Always. It never stops. Sometimes not even after death.”

Another pro: this book has some cool multi-media aspects. Within the novel, there are articles, notes, photographs, etc. that fans of Illuminae and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will appreciate. And further, there’s a Night Film Decoder app that allows the reader access to additional content on screen, including videos, journal entries, etc. I didn’t look at all of the app’s content, but what I did see was interesting and I would recommend checking it out while reading if you’re enjoying the novel.

Another con: though this seems to be an adult novel, it reads like YA. McGrath is a grown man, but Nora and Hopper (and Ashley) are in their early twenties, and Sam is 6, or thereabouts. The vocabulary of the novel isn’t too advanced, every mystery is overly-explained, and Pessl uses Italics more aggressively than I’ve seen any writer use them– on every page, practically in every paragraph, she shows the reader exactly where to look. There’s no subtlety (which is not to say that the mystery itself is predictable).

“The space around Cordova distorts… the speed of light slackens, information gets scrambled, rational minds grow illogical, hysterical.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There were some things I really liked about this book, but they were outweighed by the things I really didn’t like. I appreciated that it was a novel that woke strong opinions, and Pessl is certainly a competent storyteller– but this book was not for me. In my younger years I might have loved this, which is part of the reason I couldn’t bring myself to DNF even though I was slogging through so slowly, but present me still can’t decide whether it was really worth the read in the end or not. I probably won’t be reading any more from this author.

Do you like reading mysteries in summer, year-round, or only in October?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway

A brief history: I read Ruth Ware’s debut thriller, In a Dark, Dark Wood, back in 2016 and loved it. I was hooked on the creepy atmosphere, the footprints in the snow, the lost phone, the noises in the sleeping house. I felt the same about A Woman in Cabin 10— the rising sense of anxiety and sleeplessness sucked me in completely. There were some predictable plot elements, and there was a lot about The Lying Game I didn’t like, but the one constant is that I’ve always loved Ware’s writing. Until now. I just read Ware’s brand new release, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, and it disappointed me.

thedeathofmrs.westawayAbout the book: Harriet (Hal) Westaway is down on her luck, to say the least. The bills are piling up, and the loan shark she went to for help is calling in the debt Hal owes. It’s the off-season on the Brighton pier, where she works as a tarot card reader in her mother’s old booth. Money’s always been tight, but it’s gotten worse since her mother’s sudden death a few years back. So when she receives a letter from the lawyer in charge of Mrs. Westaway’s estate stating that Hal’s grandmother has died and left her an inheritance, Hal overlooks the fact that this Mrs. Westaway cannot be her grandmother, to attend the funeral and reading of the will. When Hal’s inheritance turns out to be something she wasn’t expecting, she must delve into the mystery of who the estate was supposed to be left to– and whether Hal shares a dark connection with these Westaways after all.

“She should have been afraid, and part of her was. But deep down, in the core of herself, the secret predatory self that she kept hidden and locked away, Hal knew. She would not run again. Someone had tried to scare her away once, and it had almost worked. But it would not work again.”

First, I would say it’s important to approach this book as a mystery rather than a thriller. The story of Hal’s family history is a slowly unraveling thread that doesn’t pose a lot of danger to her until the very end, and even then the reader can be fairly sure about how things will turn out. There seems to be a trend lately of thriller-writers going the way of the slower-paced mystery instead– and that’s fine, but it can affect the way a book is read.

The mystery was the biggest problem with this book for me– I was one step ahead of Hal at every turn. The plot points are so predictable and easy to untangle that I wasn’t reading for answers, I was reading to prove my guesses right. While the mystery itself may be unique and disturbing, many of the clues are completely transparent. The use of twins, of cousins with the same name, odd nicknames, disappearances… these are tricks the seasoned mystery/thriller fan has seen before and will see right through in this novel.

“She found herself gasping for breath, a kind of slow drowning, and then she could not speak any longer, only shake her head- but not in disbelief. It was a kind of desperation for this not to be true. But it was. And she had known it for longer than she had realized. Perhaps she had known it since she had come to this house.”

Yep. Me too.

The one thing that might have made this book better is characterization. The Westaways are no more than the sum of their parts– their histories make them who they are, along with a couple of mannerisms that differentiate them, but otherwise these characters have no personality. I could not connect to a single one. Even Hal, who the reader follows through the novel, is acting most of the time– giving tarot readings she doesn’t particularly believe in, and posing as a member of the Westaway family even though she doesn’t actually think she belongs. It’s hard to know what’s real about Hal, which makes her less compelling. Even the creepiest moments, the little things that worked so well for me in Ware’s previous books, fell flat for me in The Death of Mrs. Westaway because Hal is so ready to dismiss them. Something happens that should unsettle her, but she just muddles on through her uncomfortable stay at Trepassen as though nothing is wrong and she’s not remotely concerned. How could I be concerned for her?

“She was about to carry on downstairs when something caught her eye, a darkness in the dark, and she made her way back to stand in front of the closed door, running her fingers over the wood, feeling, rather than seeing, how very wrong she had been. There was a lock on the door. Two, in fact. They were long, thick bolts, top and bottom. But they were on the outside.”

The only things I appreciated at all in The Death of Mrs. Westaway were the allusions to Rebecca and even Jane Eyre. Mrs. Warren as the new and improved Mrs. Danvers was particularly interesting to read, though Trepassen, the big old country house that the Westaways stay in as they sort out Mrs. Westaway’s will, comes across as a totally new creature rather than a facsimile of Manderly or Thornfield Hall. I adore old creepy houses, though the cold in this one did nothing to frighten me.

Oh, I also liked the tarot aspect of this book; usually when tarot is involved in any novel it makes me roll my eyes because it seems like such a ploy for the writer to imbibe meaning and give the characters information they shouldn’t have been able to discover, but in this book Hal is pretty skeptical of tarot herself. She uses her cards as a sort of general filter for how she looks at what she already knows, and as an excuse to offer the sort of positive life advice that her customers won’t admit they need.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Somehow, despite all the things that went wrong in this story for me, I managed to finish it in 2 days without losing faith in the possibility that the next Ruth Ware book will bring me back to In a Dark, Dark Wood-level excitement. I will probably read whatever Ware publishes next, but I certainly hope I’ll have better luck with it than I did this time around. The thing is, I don’t think that The Death of Mrs. Westaway is a bad book. I think the issues I had with it are specific to my reading experience– other readers might not be able to guess every facet of this mystery and therefore will be able to enjoy it more.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’ve read and enjoyed The Death of Mrs. Westaway or The Lying Game, you should also pick up Paula Hawkins’s Into the Water, a small-town mystery about a woman who drowned in a lake that’s infamous for the female lives it’s claimed. This one’s also a character-driven mystery rather than a thriller, though it is atmospheric and peppered with Ruth Ware-style unsettling details– because of course the killer is right under everyone’s noses– and anyone could be next.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant