Tag Archives: mystery

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

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Review: The Blinds

When I came came across Adam Sternbergh’s new release, The Blinds (via BOTM), I was hesitant. It’s described as a speculative Western thriller, which sounded both chaotically fun but also a bit wackier than my normal reading material. The prospect of futuristic cowboys threw me off, but Sheriff Calvin Cooper does not disappoint– considering he’s one of the biggest criminals in town.

theblindsAbout the book: Caesura, Texas– aka The Blinds– is an experiment. 48 convicted criminals have signed on to have their past crimes and traumas wiped from their memories so that they can live in the “safe” environment of Caesura, under new names. 100 miles from civilization, with only a weekly supply truck and a police-use fax machine for contact with the outside world, Caesura has been constructed specifically for this experiment. But eight years after its inception, the experiment may be falling apart. There are deaths. Fires. Vandals. Liaison officers are coming in to investigate, and the outside world is clashing with the closed-off Caesura community. What happens when 48 of the nation’s most notorious criminals who remember their criminality but not their crimes are nudged out of their comfort zone?

“This may not be a prison, and it may not be purgatory, but it’s sure as hell not a paradise, either. This is the Blinds.”

About the format: The book is divided into sections by day, Monday through Friday of one eventful week in western Texas. These sections are further divided into chapters, and the chapters are further divided into smaller sections within. The narration flows smoothly from one character’s perspective to another, sometimes between sections, sometimes between paragraphs with no clear division of where one character’s experience stops and another begins. In this way, the reader is given a sense of the Blinds on a wider scale, which also makes it harder (and more fun) to guess who’s involved in what.

Now let’s talk about the premise. The implications of the memory wipe alone is highly intriguing, but the town… a whole town of convicted criminals fenced in together who may or may not remember key details of their past activities is the perfect literary recipe for disaster. They’re even allowed to leave whenever they want– with the caveat that no one who leaves is allowed to come back. That’s what hooked me. The idea of those 48 criminals, strangers living together by choice, suddenly provoked by the outside world. But Sternbergh is not an author who wins readers with a strong premise and then leaves them dissatisfied with a boring plot– the town is a constant mystery, between the unexplained deaths inside it and the unexpected attention from its outside connections. The characters are a ceaseless surprise with how far they are willing to go, and for what, or for whom. And just when you think you’ve got it down, there’s another level of conspiracy revealed. And none of it would be possible without this unique cast of fogged villains.

“It’s hard enough to live with what you’ve done. It’s immeasurably harder to live with knowing you’ve done something, but not knowing what exactly it is you did.”

The characters are excellent. The writing style, and the present mysterious situation in Caesura, reminds the reader of each character’s humanity, vulnerability, and the promises that have been made to them about their quality of life in Caesura. No matter what crimes they’ve committed in the past, they are all (slightly muddled) citizens of a small town– neighbors, friends, assistants. They work together: the town has a nurse, a librarian, a repairman, a bartender, a commissary man… They’re all just people, looking for a break from the real world, and a fresh start. Some of them will turn out to be surprisingly evil. Some surprisingly good. They are all morally gray (at best), and yet the reader can sympathize with so many of them because at heart, they’re all just fighting to survive.

“The minds of the innocent are simple and so easily explained. The minds of the guilty, however– they are endlessly fascinating, once you really roll up your sleeves.”

I would not call this a thriller, exactly. A mystery, certainly, but the pacing is not as break-neck suspenseful as I usually expect from a thriller. There’s an interesting style used for the reveals in this book though– a little hint that someone knows more than they should about some crime or other, and then the next section of their perspective proceeds as though the reader knows about that crime and that character’s involvement, but then something further happens. The surprise is rarely ever a dramatic whodunnit moment; the surprise comes in the fact that the murder everyone’s concerned about is only the beginning– and that the characters who thinks they’re in charge are just players in someone else’s plot. The surprise comes from the “wait, there’s more?” moments, which happen repeatedly and never disappoint.

It’s not the kind of horror book that will give you nightmares, but be prepared for some criminal details that boggle the mind. There’s not much gore or senseless maliciousness described, but keep in mind that there are at least 48 criminals in this book that even the prisons didn’t want to hold on to.

“Some stories are probably better lost forever, never remembered, never told.”

But The Blinds is not one of them.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a great read. It’s the kind of well-plotted, well-characterized book that anyone who appreciates adult literature should pick up, regardless of genre preference. I wasn’t sure about this one when I looked up its genres, but I’m immensely glad I stepped out of my normal reading zone to give The Blinds a chance. I’ll be keeping an eye on this author in the future, but more immediately I will use this experience to try stepping out of my normal reading zone more often. There are some gems out there in the rarely-reached-for genres. (Who even knew Speculative Western Thriller was a genre?)

Further recommendations:

  1. Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is another speculative fiction tale with a unique sort of “prison.” In this book, the failing U.S. economy drives whole communities into experimental towns in which the population spends six months in prison voluntarily (half at a time), which creates enough employment and resource for the other half of the town to live on. And every six months, the citizens switch, until things start to go awry…

What’s next: I’m picking up The Bane Chronicles next, a collection of short stories written by Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, and Maureen Johnson. It’s the next stop on my tour through the Shadowhunter books, now that I’ve finished The Mortal Instruments. It’s all about Magnus Bane and his warlock exploits.

Have you dabbled in any unusual genres lately?

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: The Lying Game

I’m still mentally kicking myself for putting Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood back on the shelf that first time I saw it, because when I did finally get around to reading it, it instantly became one of my favorite books of the year. I also loved Ware’s 2016 release, The Woman in Cabin 10. So of course, I pre-ordered The Lying Game and read it within the first week of receiving it, but this review will be different from those other two, because Ware’s 2017 release is a whole different creature.

thelyinggameAbout the book: Isa spent one eventful year at Salten House boarding school, in which she made three best friends who played a game of lies. The game alienated them from the rest of the girls in the school and the townfolk in the village, reinforcing their friendship. But there were rules to the game–rules about lying to each other, and knowing when to admit the truth, and those rules have been broken. Now, seventeen years later, a body has surfaced near the Mill where the four girls spent their free time before expulsion from the school, and their lives begin to unravel. Isa hasn’t seen any of her friends in years, but she packs up her infant daughter and travels to Salten immediately when she gets the message. Despite changes that might have driven the four apart over the years, they are still inextricably linked by a lie they’ve been telling since that night at the Mill… a lie that incriminates them all, but will be even more deadly when the truth surfaces.

“We have been lying for almost twenty years, the three of us. But now, at last, we know why. Now, at last, we know the truth.”

The best things about They Lying Game are 1: the atmosphere, and 2: the characters. Ware does a fantastic job drawing unique characters with complicated backgrounds, and on top of that the location feels almost like a character itself. There are dark corners, strange noises, problematic storms, and isolated spaces. The dilapidated Mill house is as much essential to the story as the people who inhabit it. The Reach they all swim in is as much a friend as a threat waiting to pull someone down into its depths. The Lying Game is full of seemingly ordinary details that are twisted just enough to turn dangerous. The main character’s mounting anxiety creates plenty of opportunity for shadows to take on a life of their own. And Ware lets them have it.

“Why didn’t I realize? Why didn’t I realize that a lie can outlast any truth, and that in this place people remember? It is not like London, where the past is written over again and again until nothing is left. Here, nothing is forgotten, and the ghost of my mistake […] will haunt me.”

The downside: this pacing is so slow. The tension is almost all internal worry with very few cues from the outside world to indicate that there really is something amiss. I would classify this as a mystery rather than a thriller, unlike Ware’s previous books. It felt a lot like the shift between Paula Hawkins’ first book, The Girl on the Train, and her new, slower novel, Into the Water. Both sorts of mysteries have their merit, and The Lying Game is still full of psychological intrigue, but I think it’s important to know which variety you’re picking up, because finding a different pacing than you’re expecting can affect your experience of the book.

Let’s also talk about missed opportunities.

First, there’s very little actual danger. The main character, Isa, has a small baby, still breastfeeding, who goes everywhere Isa goes and is never far from her mind. There’s so much focus on the baby that she’s an obvious vulnerable point for Isa. Every time Isa leaves the baby alone with someone new or leaves her sleeping alone in a different room, I thought something would happen with the baby. But on the few instances when there seems like a possibility for the baby to be in danger, the problem is solved before it even becomes a problem. I probably sound like a creep, wishing for something terrible to happen to an infant, but in any sort of murder mystery the main characters’ vulnerable points should be pushed in the narration. A missing baby or a baby held hostage as Isa gets closer to the truth would’ve really ramped up the stakes in this one, but instead baby Freya seems only to be along for the ride, rather purposelessly.

“All at once, I have a strong urge to snatch up my sleeping baby and press her into my breast, hugging her to me as if I can fold her back inside myself, as if I can protect her from this web of secrets and lies that is closing in around me, dragging me back to a decades-old mistake that I thought we’d escaped. I am starting to realize that we didn’t, none of us. We have spent seventeen years running and hiding, in our different ways, but it hasn’t worked, I know that now. Perhaps I always knew.”

Secondly, the Tide Mill is a secluded house, deteriorating on the edge of a body of water. The electricity is faltering and unpredictable, the wooden walkway leading to the house from the shore is completely covered with water in high tides, there is no reliable car on the premises for anyone to make emergency trips into town– instead, the quickest way to civilization is through miles of dangerous marsh. Eventually, the house does become a part of the plot. But none of the details that make it a great spooky setting come into play. When the main character finds herself alone in the house with a potential killer, there’s very little fear because the house is familiar and everyone inside it has been a friend to her. The Lying Game does atmosphere well– but it could have used that atmosphere once its established. Instead, it misses that opportunity.

But at least it’s not too predictable. I had it narrowed down to two choices for the killer, and even though one of them turned out to be correct, the mystery still didn’t end the way I expected.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m disappointed that I didn’t like this book more, because I absolutely loved Ware’s previous two books. It’s not even the fact that it wasn’t really a thriller that disappointed me– I love a good slow mystery as well. It just felt like there was so much unrealized potential in The Lying Game. Nevertheless, I was still drawn in by the writing and the setting, and Ware remains one of my favorite novelists. I will absolutely still be picking up Ware’s next book, whatever it may be.

Further recommendations:

  1. Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water also involves a body washing up from the water, although this one really did drown–the question is whether the drowning was intended, and by whom. This one’s also a slower psychological mystery, though the stakes are higher.
  2. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go is an excellent mystery/thriller that seems to start slow and then increases quickly. Even that slower-paced beginning turns thrilling when the reader discovers all the secrets perfectly concealed in the first part of the book.
  3. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is full of domestic intrigue in a group of friends whose children are involved in a bullying scandal at the local kindergarten. The politics of the parent group, combined with the unsolved mystery of what’s happening in the kids’ class, keeps the reader guessing and ends with a shocking death.

What’s next: I’ve recently finished reading Riley Sager’s Final Girls, a slasher thriller also released in July that’s a lot more pulse-pounding than The Lying Game. This one’s way more than suspenseful– it’s like watching a gory horror film unravel in your mind. Stay tuned for more details.

Have you read any great mysteries lately?

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: The Perfect Stranger

I read Megan Miranda’s 2016 thriller All the Missing Girls (narrated backward, to surprising effect–link to my review below) last fall, and was eager to pick up her 2017 (loosely termed) companion novel, The Perfect Stranger.

About the book: Leah Stevens’ journalism FullSizeRender (14)career (or more accurately, her quest for the truth) has tanked and sent her life spinning off in a new, unprecedented direction. Eager to escape the fallout, she runs into an old roommate at a bar and agrees instantly to relocating to a small west Pennsylvanian town where she’ll acquire her teacher’s license in a hurry and work at the local high school. Her chosen roommate, the enigmatic Emmy, is running from her own past, like Leah. Leah doesn’t pry. But when crime becomes a problem in the previously quiet town and Emmy doesn’t come home, Leah must risk having her own history dredged up to report Emmy missing. As the cops start the search–led by the attractive Detective Donovan, who’s after truths of his own–Leah is forced to admit that there are a lot of important details she doesn’t know about her friend. When strange links keep appearing between the death and destruction sweeping through town and Emmy’s suspicious actions, Leah is more shocked than anyone to realize that the common denominator to all the town’s emerging problems is the name Leah Stevens. Somehow, even Leah is involved, though everyone has a different opinion on whether she’s a suspect or a victim–or still in danger.

“I had brought myself to a place where people stop caring who you are or what happens to you. The type of place where people don’t look too closely or for too long.”

With many thrillers, the scare comes from the twists and turns, the implications and surprises of the wrong person being in the right place at a bad time. With this one, the creepiness emerges not through the plot twists, but through Leah’s internalization of everything that’s happened in her life. She’s got a history of being accused rather than helped or believed when she tries to tell someone the truth, so she holds everything closer now. Truly, there’s not much action at all for the first two thirds of the book, and yet that was the part that hooked me. The scary parts of this book are the surety that some things will not work out right for the narrator in the end. She has done things wrong that will prevent her from going back to her old life and being re-accepted by the people she’s left behind. There are truths she can’t ever reveal about others because they’ll cause problems for her, too. The scary part is seeing that something dangerous is going on now, and there’s nothing she can do about it.

With her experience as a crime reporter, Leah’s accustomed to proximity with the morbid and frightening, and dismisses it easily. When the trouble starts in Pennsylvania, when she realizes it started long before her move to Pennsylvania, Leah sees that she’s been in danger longer than she ever realized.

“The problem was with me. I had become effectively desensitized to the danger of words.”

Leah’s close relationship with the main detective on the case is both helpful and hindering. He’s the kind of guy who, like her, is willing to bend the rules to uncover the truth. This means that he’s willing to share more information with her than he should, sometimes, but also that when it suits him he’ll use her to reach his own goals, regardless of the consequences for Leah. They need each other, but they can’t quite trust each other. He’s a compelling character in his own right–he’s not the cop that shows up in most thrillers, and that’s why I liked him. He’s just a guy. Sometimes he’s part of the problem. He feels even more real than Leah sometimes. Megan Miranda does supporting characters well.

On another note, while the reader is always looking carefully at every word the characters speak, looking for double meaning and hidden motives in thoughts and statements? Megan Miranda takes a new tack in The Perfect Stranger–or, at least, a less common one. She points out that the reader should be thinking more about what’s not present than what is, which makes the story more of an engaging read, trying to assemble pieces that aren’t even there.

“Sometimes it’s what’s missing that’s the answer. Sometimes that’s the story. The missing knife. Or the No comment, or the demand to speak to an attorney. Sometimes what they don’t say is all the evidence you need.”

My thoughts in context with All the Missing Girls: after the unique structure (the backwards chronology) of Megan Miranda’s first adult thriller, I expected something more from The Perfect Stranger than a straight-forward thriller; and thus, I found myself a little disappointed. I also had been under the impression that these were companion novels–even the cover designs seem to suggest that–but they really don’t have anything beyond genre in common. However, while the story wasn’t quite what I expected, it did interest me enough that I read the whole book in three sittings, in just over 24 hours. Also, the writing style seemed much improved in this newer volume. I didn’t experience those cringe-worthy moments of seeing the writing trying to point something about itself out to the reader the way I did in All the Missing Girls, which made the narration more pleasant in this one.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. While not my favorite thriller of all time, I did not regret reading this one. These are the sorts of thrillers that don’t wrap up neatly, that leave some hidden truths still secret at the end. I like that. I’ve given both of Megan Miranda’s thrillers the same rating, but if I really had to choose a favorite I’d probably say I liked All the Missing Girls better. There are pros and cons to each, of course. I would read another one if Megan Miranda were to publish a third adult thriller in upcoming years, so I’ll be on the lookout for that.

Further recommendations:

  1. All the Missing Girls, firstly, would be a good choice for fans of The Perfect Stranger who haven’t yet read Megan Miranda’s first adult thriller.
  2. If you really want to read a mystery/thriller with a startling (and downright spooky) ending, check out Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes. I’m talking about the kind of ending that leaves readers with the creepy-crawlies, the kind of ending that you never see coming though all the clues are there.
  3. If it’s disturbing characters you’re after, and surprising tactics like Megan Miranda’s backwards narration in All the Missing Girls, don’t miss Caroline Kepnes’ You, a creepy “romance” thriller in which the narration is provided by the unbalanced stalker.
  4. And finally, if you like the struggling/ruined journalist aspect mixed with small-town intrigue, try Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, where one writer goes back to her hometown to write a story that she did not expect to turn personal.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Leigh Bardugo’s Ruin and Rising, the third and final book in the Grisha trilogy, which I started earlier this year. I can’t wait to see how it’ll all end, and then to dive into the Six of Crows duology soon, as well. Although I don’t particularly like all of the characters in this trilogy, I can’t wait to find out what Ravka’s fate will be, and what will become of the Darkling. I’m determined to finish this one before the end of April, so expect a review soon!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant