Tag Archives: mystery

Review: The Wonder

Here I am, checking another last-minute item off my 2017 reading challenge with Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder.

About the book: Nurse Lib Wright trainedthewonder under the famous Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, but three years later her career has come down to spending two weeks with an impoverished family in Ireland, making sure an eleven year-old girl doesn’t eat. Anna, the “miraculous” child who claims to have been surviving for four months without food, has been generating a lot of attention. She has fans and believers knocking on the door every day, but there are skeptics as well, and even worse, the folk who accuse the family of terrible trickery or abuse. Lib and another nurse have been called in to watch over the child every moment of every day for two weeks, to set the public straight at last on whether or not any morsel of food is passing into Anna O’Donnell’s mouth. Lib expects to have discovered the trick to the ruse within a matter of hours, or days at most, but instead she encounters many surprises. As the first week turns into the second, Lib questions what she thought she knew, what her job requires, and how far a caretaker should go to ensure her patient’s health.

“How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized– as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock. For Anna, during this watch, each day had to pass like one endless moment.”

The narrator’s skepticism is over-the-top in the beginning. From the premise of the book alone, I knew that there was some question, some mystery, as to whether Anna was indeed a miracle. Lib is so certain that she is not, and that someone in the house is slipping food to her in a way that the nurses will easily detect, that she is completely blinded to other possibilities. It is not until her mind opens to other suggestions that Lib becomes an interesting character. Her doubt makes her more dynamic. She quickly grew on me then, though I did not particularly like her until this predictable line on page 11 (more than a third of the way through the book, my only real complaint about The Wonder):

“It was then, sitting up in the dark, that it occurred to her for the first time: What if Anna wasn’t lying?”

And yet, even in those hundred-plus pages before the characters become so much more sympathetic, the mystery of Anna’s health drives the reader forward. The Wonder is set in mid 1800’s Ireland, touches on the seven year famine of only a few years before, and makes the reader fully aware of every bite they eat while reading. It raises awareness for those people who cannot eat, who cannot afford to eat, who choose not to eat. It brushes against the history of nursing, and the legality that’s tied to healthcare. The Wonder is rooted in Irish customs, filled with historic ways of life and turns of phrase from that country’s culture, and yet its topics feel relevant today, across oceans. There are still eating disorders, parents making choices for their children, children becoming unwittingly involved in problems far bigger than themselves. Donoghue does an excellent job of grounding this novel in the past without alienating modern readers.

“That was what hunger could do: blind you to everything else.”

But the most notable element for me is the religion found within the book. The Wonder is a perfect example of a novel that deals heavily with religion– in this case, Catholicism– without becoming inaccessible or burdensome to readers of other denominations. It neither advocates for or against the religion, though it contains key characters from both sides of the debate. Even though Anna’s and Lib’s experiences with religion have shaped them and play important roles in the events of this story, the reader does not close the book with a sense that Catholicism is “right” or “wrong,” or that any of The Wonder‘s characters have been especially victimized or liberated by their religion or lack thereof. The focus lies on the characters, not their church. It’s a refreshing view.

“That had probably been the making of the man. Not so much the loss itself as his surviving it, realizing that it was possible to fail and start again.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had only read Donoghue’s Room before picking up The Wonder, which I enjoyed though it didn’t send me out immediately searching for more books by the same author. However, The Wonder came as a pleasant surprise– it’s nothing like Room, but it’s a strong novel anyway. Some authors tend to write the same worlds and stories over and over again with surface changes only, but The Wonder proved to me that Donoghue has a good range, and it encouraged me to keep an eye out for more Donoghue books I might want to check out in the future. None of her other already-published books are calling out to me, but I’ll definitely watch for upcoming releases.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like reading about women who see something they don’t like in the world and set out to change it, try Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. This one deals with racism and feminism rather than religion and health, but I think readers of either of these books would enjoy the other. They both tackle serious topics from the perspective of a woman who is used to being overlooked or looked down upon, and are packed with both history and lessons for the modern reader.
  2. If you’re looking for more Donoghue, I do suggest picking up her older novel Room if you haven’t done so already. The difficult themes handled here are rape and imprisonment, but different though Room is from The Wonder, its subjects are handled just as tastefully and powerfully. Also, the novel is narrated primarily from the young child’s point of view, which adds an extra level of intrigue to an unusual situation.
  3. If you’re most interested in Anna’s part of the story and want a YA option for further reading on negative adult influence toward the children in their care, try Robin Roe’s A List of Cages, narrated from two teen perspectives and focused on the abuse of the foster system. This one also deals with mental health in children.

Coming up next: I have several short classics coming up as I work through the rest of my reading challenge list. I usually don’t review classics, but since I’ll have more than one this month I’m going to post mini-reviews for each of them instead of longer paragraphs in my monthly wrap-up. I’m currently reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, an epistolary novel set in 1930’s Georgia and focusing on racism.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: The Alienist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Good Daughter

I’ve been vaguely wanting to try one of Karin Slaughter’s books for a few months now, so when I saw her newest release, The Good Daughter, on the New Books shelf at my local library, I picked it up on a whim even though Spooky Books Month (aka October) has passed.

thegooddaughterAbout the book: When Samantha (Sam) and Charlotte (Charlie) were young, their lives were ripped apart. Two men in ski masks with a debt to settle came to their door, looking to cause some trouble with their father, Rusty Quinn, hated lawyer and protector of the hideously guilty. Rusty wasn’t home at the time, but that didn’t stop the bad men from taking out their anger on the rest of the family. Twenty-eight years later, the two Culpepper men that Charlie identified as the culprits are 1) dead, and 2) on death row. But a school shooting at the local middle school brings the remnants of Charlie’s family back together, and a single, unexpected thread ties this shooting to the horrors of Charlie’s past. In both cases, the truth seems obvious from the start, but the truth will turn out to be messier than anyone expected.

“You could only ever see a thing when you were standing outside of it.”

This book is not a thriller. It’s barely a mystery. You might call it horror, if heinous fictional crimes horrify you. At it’s core, this novel is a sort of extreme family drama, an exploration of unusual characters and the rough sides of their lives. It’s a slow-burn crime novel for the reader who’s more interested in the madmen and their survivors than in the endless twists and turns of a fast-paced plot. The Good Daughter is a long novel, and it focuses primarily on the gray area of morality.

“The hairs on the back of her neck rose up. She always felt this way when she came into the Holler. It wasn’t only the sense of not belonging, but the knowledge that the wrong turn, the wrong Culpepper, and physical danger would no longer be an abstract concept.”

Because the novel is so character-driven, it relies on intrigue rather than suspense to propel the reader through the story, and the ease with which the reader keeps turning pages depends on his/her interest in the main characters– the Quinn family members. This made the book a little harder for me to work through because I didn’t like Charlie. You know those characters in horror movies who run in the wrong direction and then fall down a lot for no apparent reason? And when they finally get out of the danger zone they stupidly run back in? That’s what Charlie’s like. I know fiction is boring if nobody ever does what they’re not supposed to, but I just can’t like a character who makes the wrong choice every time, knows it’s wrong, and can’t offer any explanation other than “I had to.” The secrets of Charlie’s past do eventually shed some light on her recent behavior, and there were certainly moments when I felt utterly pitiful about the tragedies of her childhood, but it was never quite enough to reconcile me to the complete ridiculousness of some of her actions.

But the plot is engaging, and the writing is engaging. Even before it’s clear what the mystery is, the reader feels the pull to know more because it’s clear something isn’t right, even if we’re not sure how it’ll play out. The blurred line between “good” and “bad” makes everyone in the novel infinitely more interesting; it’s so hard to know who to trust, and which characters are not as they first appear. Legality and morality do not go hand in hand. The good guys are corrupt, the bad guys walk free, and Rusty stands in the middle, forgiving everyone and confusing the reader’s sense of right and wrong.

“A trial is nothing but a competition to tell the best story. Whoever sways the jury wins the trial.”

The twenty-eight years between The Good Daughter‘s key crimes allow for an even richer sense of characterization. We see some people grow and change, we learn things about the people that are gone that weren’t revealed earlier, and we see a progression of motives. Almost every character undergoes significant alteration in the course of the novel, which gives this book its sense of realness and keeps the reader going even when the plot stalls. Again, let me point out that this is a book you read for the characters, because the mystery wrapped up in their lives is only something to be stumbled upon as the subjects piece themselves back together.

“Their adult selves might very well be strangers, but there were certain things that age, no matter how cunning, could not wear away.”

On a final note, there are a lot of repetitions in this book– repeated words and phrases, whole passages lifted from one chapter and planted in another. In my opinion, there’s value in showing the same scene from multiple perspectives when each telling shares something new. But there’s also a point, especially in a book I’m reading for the first time, when I get tired of feeling like I’m already rereading before I’ve even reached the end of the novel. The sort of parallels and contrasts that become apparent in scenes that require repetitions are most interesting to the readers who will notice a repeated scene with only a couple of key words to go on. The plethora of regurgitated words in this book feel like an insult; the author does not trust the reader to make connections, and is trying to do too much of the reader’s work instead of trusting the reader to make the necessary connections. This is the biggest flaw of The Good Daughter, and is especially noticeable because it’s the only real problem with the writing style. Slaughter has a wonderful sense of detail, always sharing just the right things to offer insight into character and hiding the clues that’ll come back later with just enough misdirection. The crimes she describes and the ways they fit together are completely engaging and virtually unforgettable. The only issue with the language is that the repetitions cause striking descriptions to become stale after frequent use.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. One of the big reveals I guessed, but one I missed completely. In the end, I know that the details that will stick with me from this novel are the secrets that will take the fun out of a reread. Other than the repetitions though, I did like Slaughter’s writing, so I think I’ll try again with another of her novels and hope that it’ll be an even better experience.

Further recommendations:

  1. Gillian Flynn writes great suspense novels with The Good Daughter‘s sort of horrifying grit. I suggest Sharp Objects or Dark Places, especially if you appreciate Slaughter’s characterization of Charlie. These are novels that are both character-driven and fast-paced, with suspenseful plots on the surface and a depth of more challenging themes and developments running beneath.
  2. Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water is a great choice of character-driven mystery for the serious crime reader who’s more interested in intricate weavings of character history and motives than fast-paced twists and reveals. This is a book for the reader of unlikable characters and the stickiness of truth and power.
  3. The Lying Game by Ruth Ware is another slow-burn mystery that’s more insightful than frightening. It also features two related crimes, one from years past that is dredged up by a recent catastrophe. This one is also very atmospheric.

What’s next: I’m just starting Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season. It’s been a busy month for me so far, which means my reading has been slower than usual, but I think it’ll pick up now as the holiday season approaches. All I know about The Bone Season so far is that it’s a fantasy novel at the beginning of an ongoing series, and it will fulfill a slot in my reading challenge. I’ve heard good things about the world-building, so I hope it will surprise me with its greatness. I need a great, quick book to get me back in the swing of things.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Silence of the Lambs

This year I picked up Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs as my Halloween read, but I ended up being so busy working the whole week that it went a little long. I watched the film once in high school, but most of the details didn’t stick, so almost everything in the novel seemed new and surprising to me.

About the book: FBI agent Jack Crawford is thesilenceofthelambshunting a serial killer that takes his victims’ skin. It’s taking a lot of time and effort from the FBI, but help comes from an unexpected source. Clarice Starling, FBI trainee at Quantico, is pulled aside to make a routine call on Dr. Hannibal Lecter. She’s not the first to be sent to him for answers about his crimes, and no one expects much from the visit. She’s supposed to be able to say she went, she spoke, she wrote up the report on the likely one-sided conversation. Except Dr. Lecter, nick-named Hannibal the Cannibal, former psychiatrist and evil manipulator of the human psyche, does have something to say to Clarice. He tells her something about the serial killer Crawford is hunting. When it becomes clear that Dr. Lecter knows who the killer is and the FBI doesn’t, Clarice’s involvement with Lecter and the current case increase, just as things begin to spiral out of control…

“Starling put her head back, closed her eyes for one second. Problem-solving is hunting; it is savage pleasure and we are born to it.”

About the format: the narration is third person omniscient, although it most often follows Clarice Starling. She is the link between Lecter and his vast knowledge of humankind, and Jack Crawford with the power of the FBI behind him. There are, however, several chapters dedicated to Crawford’s life, to Lecter’s, and even to Buffalo Bill’s skin-seeking endeavors, as well as his latest victim. These sporadic changes of pace keep Clarice’s search from becoming dull.

The Silence of the Lambs is a fantastic mystery. It’s weird enough to capture the reader’s attention, technical enough not to be dismissed as overly fictional, and bold enough that the reader never knows what’s coming next. Unless you remember the film, of course. Harris uses an exquisite level of detail, some for characterization, and some to lay the groundwork for plot twists ahead. There’s enough of both that the plot twists remain unpredictable and the characters feel real and sympathetic. Everything is a clue– whether it’s a clue as to how someone will act, or a clue for catching the killer.

The only things that felt odd to me in this novel were the author’s continual use of full names long after the reader had a solid grasp on the main characters. Jack Crawford is almost always Jack Crawford, rarely Crawford and even more rarely Jack. Clarice Starling is occasionally Starling, but the narration always introduces her fresh in each chapter as Clarice Starling. Dr. Hannibal Lecter gets his professional title as well as both first and last names. This one, at least, remains intriguing because it reminds the reader that Lecter is both a frightening criminal and a renowned intellectual. He’s evil, but the reader can’t help rooting for him a little. And then there’s Buffalo Bill, who has several names, some more real than others. But this is only a minor detail, and at least the reader can be assured of never forgetting who is who, or which character is being observed at any given moment. The only other small detail that bothered me was the sentence fragments at the beginnings of the chapters. Harris uses these often to set the scene, but then moves back into full sentences as he goes back to plotting and characterization. His full sentences are so well-crafted that the fragments confused me almost every time, leaving me wondering where the other half of the sentence was hiding. Again, this is a small detail, a stylistic choice that doesn’t affect the story greatly.

On the other hand, I’d like to talk about my favorite aspect of the novel: the technical descriptions. The level of detail about the moths, the prison cells, the motives and methods for removing human skin, the workings of the FBI, Crawford’s medical care for his wife, the appearance of the body of one of Buffalo Bill’s victims. Harris certainly knows what he’s talking about, and by providing so much detail beyond the bare minimum that the reader needs to understand the basic workings of the plot, he gives this novel such a sense of reality. And reality, of course, is what makes a horror book so terrifying. Anything can happen in a book, but it’s the fear that there really are deranged humans out there who might kill for skin that keeps the reader gripped in the tale. Harris doesn’t let the threat of death carry the story– so many stories involve death. There’s something about the human body being harvested for its materials, regardless of who is inside the skin, that Harris conveys to the reader and persuades him/her to be frightened of. It comes off as way more than a plot device because through the details we see Buffalo Bill as a person, as much as anyone can; we see his obsession with moths, his love for his poodle, his longing for his mother. “The devil is in the details,” they say. And yes, he is.

“You’ll have to earn it again and again, the blessed silence. Because it’s the plight that drives you, seeing the plight, and the plight will not end, ever.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is quite possibly the best mystery/detective book I have ever read. I need to read more Thomas Harris, particularly the original trilogy about Hannibal Lecter. The Silence of the Lambs is actually the second book in the series, so I think I’m going to go back and read book one. Lecter is highly intriguing as a villain, made all the more complicated by the fact that he’s not always a villain in The Silence of the Lambs. I’m eager to learn more about him.

Further recommendations:

  1. Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm, book two of the Cormoran Strike trilogy. I enjoyed all three of the books in this detective/murder series, but I found book two particularly grisly and horrifying in a way that Thomas Harris fans may appreciate. Book three, Career of Evil, may also be of interest as it delves into the mind of the mysterious killer.
  2. If you’re looking for less detective work and a little more straightforward horror, try Stephen King’s Bag of Bones. I know Halloween has passed now, but it’s never too early to start planning for next year, and this ghost/haunted house story is a perfect fit for any time of the year that you’re looking for a scare.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading one of my reading challenge books, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. It’s a romance between a young French woman and an older Chinese man (it’s no Lolita though), and it touches on some beautiful and devastating facets of impossible dreams and unchangeable fates. It’s really short, so I hope to have more details for you in a review coming soon.

Sincerely,

The Literary ELephant

 

Review: Lies She Told

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: 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