Tag Archives: mystery

Review: Night Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep. Me too.

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Still Lives

From Book of the Month Club’s selections for May, I chose Maria Hummel’s Still Lives, an upcoming artsy mystery release that hits shelves June 5th. I particularly like that BOTM sometimes offers final copies of books before their release dates.

stilllivesAbout the book: Maggie Richter has a decent job as copyeditor at the Rocque Museum. Less decent is the amount of work she’s had to put into the upcoming exhibition of paintings for her ex’s new girlfriend, Kim Lord. Worse, on the night of the show, Maggie gets roped into staying for the event, where she will surely have to see her ex with the rising artist. Except Kim Lord doesn’t arrive. She may just be late, or pulling a stunt for her show (which is full of paintings of Kim posing as famous murdered women), but as days pass, her fate looks more and more gruesome. As visitors flock to the museum to check out the missing woman’s gory art, Maggie falls deeper and deeper into the mystery– especially when it begins to look like someone’s got their eye on Maggie.

“Over a century later, immense, overcrowded, and corrupted, that’s still the Los Angeles that people fall in love with, the Los Angeles that drew Greg and me, and Kim and her paintings, and even […]. It’s also the city where monstrous appetites meet private hopes, again and again, and devour them. Where ambition is savaged and changed to devastation, where a brilliant artist can […] while her party goes on, cups are raised, and bright beats begin to play.”

I had some mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it’s addictive and completely readable. I was constantly wondering what had happened to Kim Lord, and how Maggie and her secret investigation would tie in to Lord’s disappearance. I appreciated that Maggie is not a policewoman or journalist, or at the center of the official investigation. The L.A. setting came alive for me in a way that L.A. usually doesn’t, and the commentary ran deeper and in different directions than I usually see underlining this sort of missing female case. Furthermore, I must admit that though art intrigues me, I don’t know much about it; the way art– and particularly modern art– was addressed in this book was easy and entertaining to follow, and the narration didn’t get too caught up in trying to describe the visuals, but spoke instead of their significance and their place in the art world, which I found more engaging than an attempt to explain the colors and shapes that are better seen than imagined. The writing is full of evocative metaphor and specific character details that keep the narration fresh, and the subject is compellingly macabre.

On the other hand, I did experience some moments of doubt and confusion. There are so many names thrown into the first part of the book that I didn’t feel like I had time to connect with any of characters enough to tell them apart. I kept confusing Jayme and Janis with each other, I think there were two different men named Bas, and Greg Shaw Ferguson was sometimes referred to as Greg and sometimes as Shaw. Kevin and Ray seemed to have basically the same purpose in the story– to keep Maggie interested in sleuthing for clues when she shouldn’t. Kevin’s supposed attraction to Maggie makes no sense given her behavior and dialogue around him, and Ray has absolutely no reason to share information with Maggie or ask for information from her; they’re just fast friends that push Maggie through the story when she needs it. Then there’s the fact that Maggie is friendly with every person at the museum, and no matter what else is going on she’s quick to agree to all kinds of outings with them that don’t relate to the mystery in more than abstract ways. Maggie’s feelings for her ex change abruptly and with no apparent reason. Clues that lead to the first arrest in the case are never explained. In Maggie’s greatest moment of danger, she avoids and lies to people who would probably have helped her if she admitted what had happened already.

None of those are plot holes, exactly, but I did believe Still Lives could have benefited from answering more of the questions it poses.

And speaking of plots: this one wanders. Maggie makes assumptions and follows leads that go nowhere. Or go somewhere that doesn’t lead to Kim, at least. Still Lives is not the sort of book in which the reader can take note of all the clues at the beginning with any chance of figuring out the answer to the puzzle at the end. The reader learns the truth along with Maggie, and Maggie doesn’t take the straightest route through her discoveries. Delving into the lives of the main characters is as important in Still Lives as delving into the whodunit and why. But other than occasionally wondering ‘why are we going down this road?’ the insight into character is an aspect that I considered an asset to this book. But it can be important to know going in whether to expect a twisty high-stakes thriller with the evidence laid bare, or a more leisurely examination of motive and and means; Still Lives falls into the latter category.

My only real disappointment resulted from the fact that this book was sold to me as a feminist read. Other than a few comments on the injustice of the high percentage of females in cases of stalking, disappearances, grisly homicides, etc. there isn’t much to be found in the way of feminism. The lack of romance is a plus, but singledom does not equal feminism. I even felt that the crime’s answer, when discovered, and the final action that the culprit takes against Maggie, subverted any idea of feminism that might have been credited to the book. The motive follows a very un-feminist trope I don’t like to see in literature (or in life), and on top of that the criminal acts in the way they do without expecting their crime to solve the problem they were upset enough to commit a crime over in the first place. That sounds vague, but… spoilers are evil.

I’ll be back, I promise inside to so many people. It’s hard to see my destination, or who I’ll find there. I only know that I’m going.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was just a bland read for me. None of my complaints were big enough to inspire hatred, but none of the things I appreciated were big enough to inspire love, either. If you’re looking for escapism and an unpredictable mystery, Still Lives would be a good choice. It’s a quick and entertaining read, and I enjoyed it, but… I’m ready to move on.

Further recommendations:

  • Dan Brown’s Origin, for fans of modern art in recent literature. This is the latest Robert Langdon series novel (though it can be read as a standalone), which examines the clash of science and religion, with a focus on art and architecture. Most of the art in this book is real, though I do recommend looking up corresponding images as you move through the story to get the full experience.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Origin

I’ve been reading Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series since 2012, but I’m realizing it doesn’t suit me quite as well as it used to. There are still people– family and friends– that I share this series with, so when Robert Langdon book 5: Origin was released at the end of 2017 I knew I would end up reading it even though it didn’t excite me as much as the releases of book 3: The Lost Symbol, or 4: Inferno did. When I received Origin for my birthday, someone wanted to borrow it right away (and I don’t lend my books until I’ve read them) so I picked it up right away and let myself form entirely new opinions about this series.

originAbout the book: Robert Langdon, renowned Harvard professor of symbology, is attending a speech in politically-turbulent Bilbao, Spain. The speaker, Edmond Kirsch, is a former student of Langdon’s, and uses an excerpt from one of Langdon’s lectures in his own presentation. But after Langdon’s part in the program concludes and Kirsch steps up to announce a prophecy/discovery that he claims will change the world and all belief systems, all hell breaks lose. Langdon and Kirsch’s friend Vidal are thrown into mortal danger and spend the rest of the night running for their lives as they attempt to upload a pre-recorded video of Kirsch’s interrupted announcement. The video is supposed to answer two questions: What is the origin of human life? What is human destiny? Science and religion disagree on these points, maybe enough for their leading figures to do whatever it takes to keep Kirsch’s truth hidden.

“These two mysteries lie at the heart of the human experience. Where do we come from? Where are we going? Human creation and human destiny. They are universal mysteries.”

I’ll admit, there’s plenty to like about this book. It’s both immediately entertaining and lingeringly provocative. It contains culture and characters from outside of America, a heavy focus on technology that gives the book a more modern tone than previous Robert Langdon novels, and a tense but considerate marriage of the opposing beliefs of science and religion. The plot’s major players come from diverse backgrounds– a professor, a futurist, a priest, a prince, a museum curator, an ex-military man, a media specialist, an Artificial Intelligence system… There’s art, a death threat, architecture, science, a chase through the dark, plentiful conspiracies…

“Well, the meek are supposed to inherit the earth, but instead it has gone to the young– the technically inclined,those who stare into video screens rather than into their own souls.”

So many ingredients for a phenomenal story are present.

But the problem (my problem, at least) is that they feel like ingredients. The whole book feels like an elaborate gimmick, completely fictitious, almost as though the AI itself researched The Novel and pieced this story together without the human element that typically drives a book forward. Maybe that’s too harsh. Origin isn’t inhuman or even unemotional, but it feels formulaic. It feels like Dan Brown is trying to recreate his Da VinciCode success by building the same story with a new base rather than constructing a whole new tale. It feels forced. It feels like more telling than showing.

And here’s where I admit that my reading tastes have changed considerably since I read Brown’s Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, and it’s possible I’m just getting bored with the series.

But while I’m considering that possibility, let’s look at some of the things I didn’t like about Origin.

First, it’s long-winded. This is a book for readers who don’t mind deviating from the plot to learn about the art and architecture that’s only minimally relevant to the actual story. It’s the sort of book in which 5 pages pass from the point when a character decides to input a password to him succeeding in entering the password, where nothing at all is obstructing that process. The majority of the book takes place in under 12 hours, but it’s a long book. The introduction to Origin‘s premise takes over 100 pages.

A bigger issue for me is the fact that characters conveniently “forget” and “remember” information at the best possible time to fit the narration. When something happens that is meant to shock the reader, Langdon is also shocked. Then in the next paragraph he suddenly “recalls” key information that solves the momentary mystery, and he recalls it so well that he can go on to deliver an entire lesson about whatever he “forgot” that he knew so well. But there are also plenty of instances when a character makes a big discovery but does not share all of the information with the reader until the shock value is gone. It’s a very manipulative method of narration, fabricated and inorganic. Langdon reads more like a guide through Brown’s ideas and research than like his own person.

But he’s probably acting the same as he has throughout the entire series, and it just hasn’t annoyed me until now. Fans of the Robert Langdon series will likely enjoy this volume as much as previous volumes. The stakes may be a bit lower in this one than older novels (in Origin, only a couple of people ever seem to be in danger, and the greatest risk is that the world will have to survive without Kirsch’s announcement, just as it always has), but it does contain some great ideas, as usual.

“Dialogue is always more important than consensus.”

The most fun I had with this book involved keeping an internet tab open to look up pictures of the art/architecture/locations described. I really wish Brown’s books would come with color photographs, because under the mysteries they’re also basically guidebooks to certain art scenes. I got sidetracked looking up “The world’s 20 deadliest staircases” (one of them is featured in an action scene in Origin) and other intriguing images while reading this one. I highly recommend looking up any of the places/pieces that you’re unfamiliar with while reading because it definitely enhances the reading experience.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I liked what this book was trying to do, but I did not like the way it was narrated. It reminded me of a cheesy/basic Hallmark movie in novel form. I don’t know if Origin was worse than the other Robert Langdon books, or if Brown’s writing has always been this way and I just haven’t noticed until now. I’m not sure whether I’ll read any more books in this series (assuming it’s still ongoing), but I guess if I don’t I’ll never know whether the problem is Origin or if I’ve truly outgrown these books.

Have you read any of the books in the Robert Langdon series?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Rainbirds

It’s so weird that I’ve read my Book of the Month Club pick early. Somehow I got into the habit of saving it for the last few days of the month, but now March is only half over and I’m done reading my March book, but it’s still too early to start anticipating what the next selections will be. I have plenty to read in the meantime (including some backlogged BOTM books), but still. It’s weird. This month I chose Clarissa Goenawan’s Rainbirds.

rainbirdsAbout the book: Ren Ishida’s sister, Keiko, has died. Due to an estrangement with her parents, Ren is the one who goes to Akakawa to collect her belongings and make inquiries with the police. She was clearly murdered, and though there seem to be no leads, Ren decides to stay in town for awhile and uncover what truths he can by virtually stepping into his sister’s life. He takes her job and living accommodations on a temporary basis, makes friends and acquaintances, and jogs the route along which she was killed. He learns a lot about his sister’s life, but at such a pivotal moment in his own career and love life his time in Akakawa is sure to change Ren’s life too.

I chose this book because I’ve read so little fiction set in Japan and I wanted a glimpse of that culture. Also the cover is bright and beautiful and perfect for spring. But ultimately I chose it because I’ve been in the mood for some contemplative literary fiction lately and I’d heard that this book was supposed to explore the grief of a man who had just lost his sister. I did find that here, but it wasn’t at all what I expected.

“Remember this, Ren. Sadness alone can’t harm anyone. It’s what you do when you’re sad that can hurt you and those around you.”

My first surprise was that there’s an element in this book that’s a little… paranormal? Magical? Ren has dreams about real people who are not actually present in his life. The dreams are maybe trying to tell him something, but in the end I found them more tone-setting than revelatory. Some of the details of these dreams are not at all realistic, and they don’t always seem directly symbolic, either. But they do have their place in Ren’s journey to the truth.

I suppose I would say Rainbirds fits into the mystery genre more than any other.  Though most of the clues are stumbled upon or gifted to Ren, he does the work of piecing them together himself. This book is full of surprises and the reader spends much of the tale trying to piece together what happened right along with the characters. But that element felt more like a background intrigue in a deeper story of self-discovery. Ren is grieving, recovering, and growing in this book, and though he is focused on his sister, it is a focus centered around saying goodbye and moving on with his own life. He never intends to stay in Akakawa indefinitely.

“She would never call me again, so I didn’t want to hear the phone ring. I closed my eyes. What was I doing here, all by myself in this town?”

Unfortunately, so much of this story centers around emotion, and I just didn’t feel it. Ren’s narration is thought-provoking and completely readable– once I’d picked the book up I couldn’t put it down, and the chapters flew by– but his reactions are so mild that mine were, too. I expected outrage and devastation from Ren’s confrontations with the murder suspects and the new insights into Keiko’s life, but I found only tepid wariness and surprise. When he considers that he might be in love, his attention shifts to his “urges” rather than any hint of excitement or pain. He speaks bluntly on occasion, but the only indications that he is as affected inside as his outward speech suggests are simple things like a refusal to drink his coffee, or a desire to stand out in the rain. There can be power in a quiet book, but with this one I needed more fire. As much as I enjoyed this plot and these characters, I know I’ll forget them quickly because they lacked the spark that would give them importance in my character-driven book-loving heart.

“There are enough single people in Japan to form a colony. There’s no need to involve me.”

On a smaller note, I found it a little confusing and conflicting that Ren could to care so much about his sister but doesn’t want to keep any of her things. I save everything, but I know not everyone does and there’s nothing wrong with either option. Still, I was left a little cold at the burning of some of Keiko’s belongings, the selling of her most personalized possessions at a bad price just to be rid of them, the requesting that his friend dispose of the urn after the ashes are scattered because Ren’s got other plans. I guess I just wanted to understand his reasoning better than the phrase “I don’t need these things” allows.

“I loaded my belongings into the trunk of the car. ‘I don’t know how I ended up with more things.’ ‘That’s always the case,’ Honda said with a laugh. ‘As time goes by, you get more and more baggage. It’s why we do spring cleaning every year, isn’t it?’ “

I was also a little put off by some of the male characters’ attitudes toward women, incluing Ren’s. There are times he’s very respectful toward certain women, but other times not. He recalls early experiences with sex as “conquests,” he lies about his identity to pick up women with his friends, he’s relieved to be caught cheating on one particular occasion because he’d been wanting to break up with his girlfriend and just didn’t know how to do it. Luckily, these were mostly small details woven into the backstory rather than major plot points, but I just don’t enjoy reading about women being perceived that way.

Despite my hangups, Rainbirds was one of those books that stuck inside my head to the point where when I wasn’t reading, I was constantly thinking about what would happen next and how the pieces of the puzzle would fit together. So I spent a couple of days reading more than I planned, and sped through the whole book. It wasn’t just the mystery that kept me wondering, but the new relationships Ren was forming, and the revelations being unearthed from his childhood. I was hooked on the characters all around, even if I did know that interest would wane when I reached the end of the book.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I had fun reading this book, which I think explains my rating. It wasn’t a bad experience, but I didn’t feel like it was the sort of book I should have fun with. I just didn’t connect with the grief and loss and love at the core of this story, though I did enjoy reading about Japanese culture and the characters’ unique backstories. I’m glad I read this one. But I know I’m going to be looking for something very different in next month’s BOTM selections.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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

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