Tag Archives: NA

Review: Again, But Better

Earlier this month I mentioned in another post that I don’t read YA contemporary romance anymore, and here I am eating my words. In all fairness I did not pick up Christine Riccio’s Again, But Better because of its synopsis. I’ve been following Riccio’s writing updates on her Booktube channel since early 2016; though my interest in YA content (and thus most of her videos) has severely declined, I stuck with her writing series.

When Again, But Better was finally published this spring, I had to check it out because 1) seeing a physical, finished product after watching a complete stranger talk about it conceptually on my phone screen for several years seemed like a fascinating experience I couldn’t pass up, and 2) there’s been a lot of backlash against Booktuber books, which some believe are published for their easy marketability rather than story quality; that’s a judgment I didn’t feel I could chime in on without ever having read a Booktuber book. After waiting on a long hold list, I finally got my chance this month to pick up Riccio’s book. Results: It’s not the most accomplished debut I’ve read, but I certainly don’t resent its publication!

againbutbetterIn the novel, Shane leaves New York for a study abroad semester in London. Though she’s been making good grades and pleasing her parents with her progress toward a medical degree, she’s not happy with her college experience and is eager for a fresh start. So eager, in fact, that she signs up for a creative writing program in London that has nothing to do with her major, and takes an internship at a travel magazine. And, best luck of all, she’s rooming next to a cute boy who makes her want to stick to her resolution to try new things! But of course, it’s all too good to be true. When the trip takes a sour turn, Shane’s left wondering what she would do with a second chance.

“I was trying really hard to do what I thought was the right thing for so long, and turns out maybe the right thing was the wrong thing… It’s hard to come to terms with that.”

Riccio states in an author’s note before the novel proper that this is a fictional story, based on her own experiences. I think the extent to which Shane is Christine will be fairly obvious from the start for readers who have any familiarity with the author. Her sense of humor and personality (such as I have gleaned without having met her) seem to be a direct match with her characterization of Shane. If you pick this up because you enjoy Riccio’s social media presence, I think you’re far more likely to find this an appreciable book.

Again, But Better is divided into two parts that each take up about half of the book’s space. The first half features Shane’s semester abroad in 2011. (There are so many pop culture references that forgetting the year is impossible.) The second half features Shane’s second chance. Both parts are immersive and entertaining, though perhaps longer than necessary. The transition between the two is abrupt, with an unexplained magical element tying the two together; this feels like lazy writing- the magic is easy, convenient, and totally unviable as an option for readers looking to take advice on second chances from this story- but it allows Riccio to demonstrate her point clearly and keep the story light, so I suppose it serves its purpose in the end.

” ‘Could we have gone through a wormhole?’

‘Magic is more plausible than a wormhole,’ I argue.

‘Wormholes are scientific.’

‘Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.’

‘Shane it’s magic; that’s why we can’t understand it.’

‘Hogwarts could be real!’

‘I can’t believe this is a serious conversation I’m having.’ “

The constant attempts at humor were somewhat exhausting and unnecessary in my opinion, but the characters ultimately struck me as believable. Shane is painfully awkward, the love interest is flawed but kind, their roommates bring new and worthwhile perspectives to the mix. Though I would argue that both halves of the story could have endured some shortening without losing anything vital, Riccio does an excellent job of circling back on even the smallest scenes to imbue meaning; every inclusion is deliberate and the layering of detail complex. The writing is not without skill, though I’m sure time and experience will hone it further.

I did have a few small hangups with the premise, though. Thematically, this is a story about stepping out of your comfort zone (particularly in college, though not necessarily limited to that environment) and taking chances. Making room for your dreams instead of focusing only on obligations. I can get behind that. And while I don’t think the narration means to present study abroad as the cure for introversion, and it certainly doesn’t present introversion as some sort of serious personality flaw that must be overcome at all costs, I did find the implication that the key to jump-starting your life is to travel and abandon your major a rather privileged and simplistic stance. Additionally, I think the book skirts one of the biggest issues it raises: how to make that grab for independence. Shane learns the hard way that she can’t make her stand on her parents’ dime, and though their lack of support adds an interesting challenge to the narrative, the story skips straight from that conflict to Shane’s settled life several years later. Of course, Again, But Better is a fictional romance, not a self-help book. I love that it depicts a young woman falling in love without giving up her own goals. But I did feel a bit of disconnect between its apparent aim to inspire and its lack of realistic suggestions.

But, Riccio says in her acknowledgments:

“I hope you enjoyed my first book. I hope it made you happy in some way or another. I hope you laughed. I hope it made you want to face your fears.”

I did enjoy the read, parts of it made me happy, I laughed twice, and I did close the cover in the end with the mindset of wanting to take a chance in my own life. In this, Riccio’s intent seems to have been met. She also states that this was the story she wanted to read when she was twenty (Shane’s age), and I am quite sure that if I had read this as the naive, introverted twenty-year-old that I was, I would have loved this book. It does have a lot of elements that were missing for me in the books I was reading at that time- modern college-aged protagonists, a search for elusive independence, proof that failures and disasters even of one’s own making are survivable, familial discord, YA pop cultural references, Beatles appreciation, etc. It might not have been a perfect fit for me even then, but I would have appreciated knowing I wasn’t the only one skipping parties to stay in and read. And as such, I’m grateful that other twenty year-olds who struggle to find their place in college will have the opportunity to discover a book they might relate to in that way.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. All in all, an interesting reading experiment. Would I read more from this author? I’m not sure. Though I enjoyed this book and am curious to see where Riccio goes with her writing career, this isn’t a genre I reach for often and I don’t particularly want to read another self-insert story. I picked up Again, But Better to cap off my experience with her writing videos for this novel; in the future, I’ll decide whether or not to pick up her work based more directly on my interest level in the synopses.

How do you process reading a book written by someone you know, or feel like you know? Do you find it difficult to separate the author from the story?


The Literary Elephant

Skewed Goodreads Ratings

“One learns most clearly what not to do [when writing] by reading bad prose.” -Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

The thing about Goodreads ratings is that they’re not accurate. They are not the opinions of random, objective readers. Almost every single person who contributes a review or star rating for any given book has picked up that book for a reason and went into it with expectations that will affect their concluding opinions of it. Have you noticed that ratings for books in a series tend to be rated higher as the series goes on, even though the overall ratings are fewer? That’s probably at least partially due to the fact that the readers who make it that far in the series are readers who’ve already found something they liked in the first book and know they’ll find what they’re looking for in subsequent novels. There are exceptions, and of course it is possible that the books in any given series do actually improve, but I think it’s also worth noting that the people who read (and rate) book 2 are usually people who liked book 1. And by book 3, even more readers who were on the fence have been weeded out, thus driving ratings up even more.

That’s just an easy example. We also have people who rate books they’ve DNF’d (unfair, in my opinion), people who rate books before they’ve read them, people who know the author, or have been given a free early copy, or had to read a book for a class and wound up letting their feelings about the class show in their review of the book. No matter how it happens, anyone who checks for reviews on Goodreads before picking up a book should be aware that almost every single person who’s left their opinion in the reviews section has been biased in some way. They believed the Booktube hype, or have read something else by the same author, or found the title on a list of reputed “good books”, or are in love with a particular genre. Most of those readers aren’t people who saw the title in a bookshop, picked up the book without knowing anything at all about it, and reviewed it completely impartially. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but it’s not the norm.

Don’t be fooled: I love Goodreads. I check the ratings there before I pick up a book, often. But it’s important to note that sometimes books are rated highly not because they’re good, but because they contain whatever their readers were looking for when they picked them up. Case in point: Elle Kennedy’s Off-Campus series.

I’ve been highly stressed lately, and in times of stress I reach for guilty pleasures. I often go for something I’ve already read and know will be a guilty pleasure, but this time I picked up something new. In the Off-Campus series, Elle Kennedy has written four NA romance books. They’re pretty short and easily readable–I read all four in four days. I’m talking about these here because they’re rated highly on Goodreads; every single book in this series is rated above 4 stars, and they’re not good.

That’s not to say they’re all bad. I’ve read worse. I gave each of the books in this series (The Deal, The Mistake, The Score, and The Goal) 3 stars for my enjoyment level, which is certainly not my lowest rating. They’re cheesy, predictable, somewhat sexist books with transparent plot mechanics. But even though the plot is obvious and feels fictionalized, it is a functioning plot. It makes sense, at the very least. The mechanics are in working condition, even if they are more visible than they should be. Even though it’s clear from the first two chapters who’s going to end up with whom and which major obstacle they’ll have to overcome, there’s emotion in there. There are abundant sex scenes, if that’s your thing. And that’s why I think these books have been rated so highly. The people reading these ab-covered books are the people looking for predictable bodice-rippers starring college hockey players who believe they’re God’s gift to women. The abs on the covers attract a certain audience. There are some topics these books handle well– every main character has something difficult in their present or past: a rape, an abusive parent, a sick parent, a dead friend, an unexpected pregnancy, etc. These details are dealt with carefully and respectfully. It’s the “puck bunnies” I have a problem with. The use ’em and lose ’em mentality of the men in this book. And that’s why I’m not posting full reviews for each of the books in this series. They’re all very much the same and I had the same complaints about them all. Admittedly, I liked them enough to read all four, but I think it’s like Stephen King says: we learn what not to do in our writing by reading bad books, and that’s as important a lesson as reading examples of what we should do.

Sometimes you just have to read a bad book or two. Or four. There’s nothing wrong with reading whatever the heck you want, literary merit be damned. I just wanted to use this opportunity to talk about the Goodreads rating system, because I was shocked that the third book in this series is rated higher than some books well-known for their goodness. The Score, an NA romance novel about a horny hockey player who falls in love with a girl who’s ashamed she had a one-night stand with him, is rated higher on Goodreads than Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s important to keep in mind when using Goodreads that it’s not a tool for rating literary goodness. It rates enjoyment. Sadly, those are two very different categories. And further, enjoyment levels are affected by the fact that readers always, always have expectations of the books they’re reading.

The reading world would be a different place without Goodreads. A lonelier place. But, like any other tool, we must use it wisely.

How do you feel about the Goodreads rating system? Also, does anyone have any better NA reading recommendation for me?


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Queen of the Tearling

Erika Johansen’s popular NA/adult fantasy trilogy starts with: The Queen of the Tearling, a beautiful book inside and out. I had been putting off reading this trilogy because I wanted to have them all in matching paperbacks on my shelf before I started. But this book tied for the win in my Choose My Next Read interactive post for June, so I read it by request, and I’m so glad I did.

thequeenofthetearlingAbout the book: Kelsea, sole heir to the Tearling throne, has been raised by a foster family for most of her life. 18 years have passed between the death of her mother, the infamous Queen Elyssa, and Kelsea’s own coronation. When the Queen’s Guard arrives on her nineteenth birthday at the cottage where Kelsea and her adoptive parents have been hiding on the outskirts of the Tearling kingdom, she has no choice but to go with them and rule the Tearling for as many days as she can survive. Between the assassins, her greedy uncle who wants the throne for himself, the mysterious and dangerous Fetch who takes matters into his own hands, and the powerful Red Queen of the neighboring kingdom with her sights set on making the Tearling bow down before her, Kelsea’s chances of survival are slim. The kingdom is in shambles–the bad guys want to take advantage and win control for themselves, and the good guys are so cautious about preventing further damage that unless Kelsea can prove herself a powerful force for good, she’s in danger even from the people that should be on her side. It will take a miracle to right all the wrongs in the Tearling–is Kelsea that miracle, or is she just a lost girl who’s been lied to all her life?

“The future was only the disasters of the past, waiting to happen anew.”

About the layout: the entire book is written with third person narration that primarily follows our main character, Kelsea, but also shifts to focus on other characters who are crucial to the central action of the story.

Kelsea makes a great main character. She’s not quite a “chosen one” in the typical way that a seeming nobody is plucked from obcurity and placed on a pedestal, but she is thrust into responsibility and expected to save the entire kingdom. She’s intelligent and brave, though she’s clearly inexperienced; it’s a great balance of power and naivité.

“If there was a God, he would feel like this, standing astride the world. But Kelsea was terrified, sensing that if she wanted to break the world in half she could do it, of course she could, but there was more here than she knew. Everything came with a price.”

My favorite parts of the book, though, may have been the sections that were not focused on Kelsea. Every now and then there appears a section focused on an alternative point of view, highlighting a character who’s important but standing on the periphery of the main action. These sections never fail to impress by proving that characters who could have been rather flat are actually full of personality and unique motivations. This is a multi-faceted tale that’s well-thought-out and intriguing from every angle.

Beyond the characters, this is a high fantasy trilogy that’s set in the future of the modern world, which blends fact and fiction in an interesting way. The Tearling seems like a whole new made-up land, but every now and then there are references to real places and details known from our present world. Mostly these familiar details take the form of real-life countries and places, and real-life literature. Rowling’s books get a direct reference, and Tolkien’s. They’re small details, but they give the whole book an extra shot of reality that keeps the reader a little more personally invested.

“Even a book can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and when that happens, you blame the hands, but you also read the book.”

I also appreciate the way magic works in this book. So many times in fantasy, magic is something that comes unexpectedly from within a person and it appears in fairly predictable ways–but in The Queen of the Tearling, magic is not widely understood or expected and it’s linked to the Tearling sapphires rather than Kelsea herself.Very few characters seem to understand the significance of the sapphires or their power, and Kelsea is not among them. The magic the sapphires possess is a force of its own, affected by her anger but almost a character in its own right. The power is something that Kelsea borrows rather than possesses, which is refreshing.

“She’d checked her sapphires often, but they simply hung there, heavy and cold. For today, at least, they were only jewels.”

The only aspect that I might find complaint with was the passage of time. There are a few specific deadlines that are significant in the story, mostly revolving around the “shipments” that the Red Queen demands, which make the reader want to keep track of the timeline of events in the book, but each new section of narration often jumps into the meatier parts of the action before clues are given regarding how much time has passed since the last segment. It’s not impossible to follow, but it’s a little more difficult than it needs to be.

A warning: there are some graphic scenes, and references to rape. The violence of the book is bloody and deadly, but usually takes the form of quick self-defense. The rape discussions are never actual scenes of rape, but rather stories about crimes past. None of these moments are particularly unreadable, but they’re meant to make the characters (and the readers) uncomfortable with the ways of life that have settled in the kingdoms at this time. I believe the point of the trilogy is for these wrongs (and others) to be eliminated, but in the meantime there are some of these uncomfortable elements occuring in the background.

This is a series, though, where the bad guys tend to get what’s coming to them.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I knew I would like this book, though I’d heard that there were a lot of politics to it and that always makes me hesitate. Sometimes politics bore or confuse me, but nothing about this book bored or confused me. I would definitely say that it’s advanced enough not to be a YA book, but there are probably teens who could comfortably read it anyway. I wish I had read this sooner, although I do appreciate being able to read all the books at once instead of waiting for publication dates. I’m definitely going to be reading book two, The Invasion of the Tearling, in the very near future.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like adult high fantasy with multiple perspectives, check out Brent Weeks’ The Black Prism, which is the first book in the Lightbringer series. This is also a book about a kingdom on the verge of disaster, but the villain is slippery and hard to pinpoint because everyone in the book is morally gray.
  2. If you’re looking for a fantasy book with a strong female lead in the NA age range, try Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses, the first book in a trilogy full of oppressed faeries and the mortal girl who may be able to save them all, but could very likely lose herself in the process.

What’s next: I’m going to be reading Sarah Healy’s upcoming (June 27) release, The Sisters Chase this weekend. It’s one of my Book of the Month Club picks for June, and it’s not on my official TBR for the month, but it’s what I’m in the mood for. It’s a gritty tale about two sisters whose parents have died and left them to fend for themselves–they’re fiercely protective of each other but make many questionable choices as they juggle the past and future and travel across the country.

A reminder: there are still just a few hours left to check out the July edition of Choose My Next Read and vote for a book you’d like to see me review next month!


The Literary Elephant


Review: A Court of Wings and Ruin

Aaaagh it’s finally arrived! I will admit this series (Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series) has been a guilty pleasure for me from book one, but just like everyone else who read ACOMAF in 2016, I had to find out what was going to happen in book three, this new May release, A Court of Wings and Ruin. As usual, no spoilers ahead for book three, but you should check out A Court of Thorns and Roses and A Court of Mist and Fury before reading further, as it’s pretty impossible to do a series book justice without mentioning things that have happened earlier.

About the book: Feyre is spying on Springacourtofwingsandruin Court, pretending to have preferred Tamlin all along, with Rhysand and the rest of the Night Court’s Inner Circle preparing for war back home and worrying about their new High Lady. The snags in Feyre’s plan come in the form of Lucien’s suspicions about her lies, and Ianthe’s outright evilness and determination to ruin everything for Feyre. Plus, of course, there’s Tamlin, who’s trying to be less controlling but still has too many strikes against him. Feyre does have an opportunity to get closer to some key players in Hybern’s army, though, who are using the Spring Court as their portal both to Prythian and, through the wall bordering it, into the mortal realm. But even if she can pull it off and escape the dangers Spring Court poses for her, will the information she gleans be enough to give the Night Court an edge in the coming battles? Hybern’s forces are enormous–the Night Court will need all the allies it can get, and deciding who to trust presents a whole new set of risks and challenges. Deals must be struck. Bargains must be upheld. Monsters must be unleashed. Hybern’s people fight for a single cause, while the High Fae would rather be at each others’ throats than stand together for their common interests. And nothing–absolutely nothing–can prepare Feyre for the war set in motion, and the losses it will bring.

There’s a lot of pressure for greatness on A Court of Wings and Ruin after the phenomenon that was ACOMAF. Without making this too much of a comparison between the two, I’ll attempt to answer whether ACOWAR lives up to the challenge.

First, a note on the layout: I didn’t feel that there was much to gain in the sections at the beginning and end of this book written from Rhysand’s perspective. Rhysand’s chapter at the end of ACOMAF felt more vital to that story–he was in a different place than Feyre, and was telling his Inner Circle something new pertaining to the plot. But in ACOWAR, though it was nice to see how Rhysand’s thoughts lined up with Feyre’s and with the things that he told her, they felt like…gold foil, some extra decoration on top of the real substance of the book, and I, personally, would always rather have the gritty substance than the gilded fluff on top of it. Is that just me? Am I the only one who skims superfluous detail, all the place description and the clothing and material objects, to pick out the kernels of plot and character? Either way, I don’t think Rhysand gives the reader anything new with his narration in this book.

Next, I’d like to acknowledge that this is basically a whole book about a man (okay, faerie) saying, “I want women to be equal to men, starting with you, you can do whatever you want,” set in a fantasy world (albeit with equality between humans and faeries also up for debate). And yet, even with all that promotion of female power, there is definitely not as much character growth in this volume as in the previous two (thought the characters are still just as irresistible). I would even go so far as to say that the potential character growth I expected to see in this book with a lot of the secondary characters feels postponed. I think it’s important to keep in mind while reading this book that there are three more books expected in this series; although those next three books will be presented from other characters’ perspectives rather than through the eyes of the now-familiar Feyre, there are a lot of loose ends left in ACOWAR that suggest to me those next three books are going to be more coherent to the main plot than traditional companion novels. Of course, I don’t know anything for certain about the future books, but I hope that those next books in this series are going to answer some questions about Feyre’s family and friends because none of their stories are resolved by the end of ACOWAR.

But back to the main plot. I thought it was funny that basically everything I’d heard about this book before I started reading revolved around Feyre spying at Spring Court, pretending to Tamlin that her time with Rhysand was a lie. She’s spying and sewing seeds of discord and doing all her Feyre things, sans Rhysand, but that only lasts about100 of the 700 pages. She’s at Spring Court for a quick matter of weeks, and then she’s thrown back into the preparations for war she began with Rhysand and the Night Court in book two. By the time I got to the end of the book, it hardly even felt like those first hundred pages were part of book three because so much else was going on afterward. Basically, all hell breaks loose, but it’s difficult to talk about without spoiling the survivors and the battlefield surprises. In the end, this is a book of war, of fighting for equality and freedom and safety, and the strength it takes to win those battles.

“Even for an immortal, there was not enough time in life to waste it on hatred. On feeling it and putting it into the world.”

“Remember that you are a wolf. And you cannot be caged.”

I was worried that after ACOMAF this one would let me down. I tried to manage my expectations. While I didn’t like ACOWAR enough to call it a new favorite, it didn’t disappoint me, either.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I believe that’s the same rating I gave A Court of Thorns and Roses, but without a doubt I would say I liked ACOWAR better than book one. And neither of them compare to book two. But…I am completely on board for book 4. It’s going to be an easier wait than the wait for ACOWAR was, but I’ll be ready to pick it up as soon as it’s published. And in the meantime…I may even pick up Throne of Glass. I’m under the impression that the Throne of Glass series is not quite as beloved as Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series, which makes me hesitant. Should I read more Sarah J. Maas? Or just wait patiently for the next ACOTAR release in 2018? (Patiently, ha ha, what a joke. This is why I prefer to read the entire series at once, usually starting right before the last book is published when it’s really popular still but I won’t have to wait.)

Further recommendations:

  1. Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy kept creeping into my thoughts as I was reading ACOWAR, and I think it would make an interesting read in comparison with the first three ACOTAR books. I was surprised how many similarities I saw–are all the fantasy trilogies so alike nowadays? Anyway, these first three books in Bardugo’s Grishaverse (starting with Shadow and Bone) feature a girl thrust into a new world of power who must form new alliances while preserving old relationships, and fight for her own independence as well as the salvation of the man she loves. If you’re a Sarah J. Maas fan who hasn’t read Leigh Bardugo’s books yet… what are you waiting for?

What’s next: Now that I’ve finished rereading all the good parts of ACOMAF (basically all the parts, to be honest) and put Feysand away, finally, I’m starting my other much-anticipated May release, Paula Hawkins’ new thriller, Into the Water. I’m excited to see where the popular The Girl on the Train author is going with this new novel.


The Literary Elephant

Review: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Do you crave books that veer so far from “normal” that the reader must question absolutely everything that’s been told, including the characters’ identities? Search no further that Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a psychological thriller that begins so ordinarily only to leave you wondering whether a single statement can be trusted.

imthinkingofendingthings“Something that disorients, that unsettles what’s taken for granted, something that disturbs and disrupts reality–that’s scary.”

About the book: A young woman and her fairly new boyfriend, Jake, take a short road trip to the farm Jake grew up on. Before they even arrive, however, Jake’s girlfriend is thinking about ending the relationship. What should be a nice meal shared with Jake’s parents turns into a strange evening full of odd coincidences, confused conversations, and a chase through an empty school building late at night. Nothing is quite as it seems, but only the girlfriend seems to notice that anything is amiss. Before long, the reader will begin to wonder whether anyone will make it home from this trip at all.

“Questions are good. They’re better than answers. If you want to know more about life, how we work, how we progress, it’s questions that are important. That’s what pushes and stretches our intellect…Not knowing is human.”

Best aspect: there’s so much commentary, slightly philosophical in nature, about humanity in general. Whole paragraphs about what’s worth living for, whether loneliness is an acceptable condition, how people interact with others and the world; these statements begin as broad generalizations that many readers can likely relate to, but then morph into something a little more twisted that  change the reader’s perspective on what is happening in the story. These little nuggets of “wisdom” seem not only to apply to various facets of life, but to the book itself. In the quotation above, the narrator is championing questions and uncertainty–qualities this book is filled to the brim with. Another example: in stating that thoughts are closer to truth than actions, the reader is guided to pay more attention to what’s inside the characters’ minds than the motions they make in the world. These relatable signposts keep the reader invested in the puzzle and offer clues at the same time.

Worst aspect: when the explanation finally arrives for all the oddities in this plot, it is so brief, and so strange, that much is still left to the imagination. The reader must inhabit the narrator’s mind and make his/her own assumptions about the narrator’s decisions on including certain details. This would be an aspect I could better appreciate if a little more space in the story was dedicated to it. From the slow, ordinary start to the novel (which helps make the uncanny coincidences more unsettling later on), to the gradual build in tension, the reader’s uncertainties about the story feel well-paced and necessary to the reading experience of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. The answers, however, are so compact and drive toward such a hasty end that the only way to truly grasp everything is to follow the narrator’s advice and start over from the beginning with the knowledge about the characters you’ve gained by the end. I love a book that makes me want to read it more than once–I’m a little less fond of books that force me into a second read.

“Both fictions and memories are recalled and retold. They’re both forms of stories. Stories are the way we learn. Stories are how we understand each other. But reality only happens once.”

One definite plus about my experience with this book, however, was that I picked the perfect time of year to read it. I didn’t add a lot of extremely creepy or scary books to my October TBR this year, but this one surprised me with its unnerving plot and shiver-inducing details. This short novel is fraught with eeriness, from mysterious men staring in through bedroom windows, to a dark, dank cellar lined with spooky paintings, to a secret inhabited closet in a locked and deserted school. Reality goes off its rails as one simple thought, “I’m thinking of ending things,” leads to its only possibly conclusion. This book is absolutely frightening not only because of the monsters outside, but the ones within.

“What if suffering doesn’t end with death? How can we know? What if it doesn’t get better? What if death isn’t an escape? What if maggots continue to feed and feed and feed and continue to be felt?”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I would’ve thought this book was perfect if it weren’t for the drastic difference in pacing between the opening and ending. The concept for this novel is particularly appealing to me, and I found the questions and answers equally disturbing and appealing. Halloween really is the perfect time of year for this book. Not only was I pleasantly uneasy while reading this book, but all those little philosophical snippets fed my curiosity about the meaning of life. I’m Thinking of Ending Things has the sort of depth that encourages multiple reads, and will reveal new vantages to the same questions every time. And it’s short, so those potential rereads aren’t daunting. I haven’t gone through it a second time yet, but I probably will at some point. If you like creepy puzzles, pick this one up.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood is another psychological thriller with a creepy puzzle and surreal setting. These characters will also lead you to second guess everything you know about what’s happening in the novel, and the and the answers will surprise and tug at your heart. Read my complete review here.
  2. You may also like Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, a truly frightening psychological thriller in which the narrator’s curiosity for truth will lead to dangerous places, even inside the self. This one’s perfect for this time of year.

Coming up Next: I’m reading Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses, the first volume of a popular YA (though I’d consider it NA) fantasy series. There’s been lots of hype about this one’s sequel, but stay tuned to find out whether the first book about the faeries of Prythian and the mortal who may be able to save them all lives up to expectations.


The Literary Elephant

Review: In a Dark, Dark Wood

Today I have for you my hands-down favorite summer read so far. It is chilling. It is emotional. It is fast-paced and frightening. This is the perfect read for a warm summer night in the countryside. I’m talking about Ruth Ware’s debut novel In a Dark, Dark Wood.

When I read the premise of this book, I was interested, but for some incomprehensible reason I put it back on the bookstore shelf twice, and in the end only checked it out of the library. I think it was that the premise did not accurately convey what was in the book. None of it was wrong, but there’s oh, so much more to it.

About the book: Nora Shaw is happy with her new life. But then she receives an email from Clare’s new best friend: Clare is getting married, and her friend is organizing a hen weekend for Clare before the wedding. It’s short notice, and Nora hasn’t spoken to Clare in ten years, but the best friend is insistent and Nora’s good friend Nina will attend with her. Despite misgivings, they drive inadarkdarkwoodout to the glass house in the middle of the woods to meet a new cast of friends Clare has acquired, none of whom have anything in common. Nora begins to suspect that someone else is out there in the woods, watching them, and coming much too close. Tensions are high, and strange noises begin to terrify them all. Something terrible happens when an outsider appears in the house. Nora wakes up in the hospital with vague memories of running through the woods covered in blood, a car crash on the main road, and a certainty that someone is dead. She can’t remember what she’s done or what’s happened to herself or the rest of the group, and the doctors and police are less than forthcoming. The worst part is, if she’d known whom Clare was marrying she wouldn’t have attended the hen weekend at all. And if she’d paid more attention to all that trouble ten years ago, none of them would’ve been in their present situation at all. Now that the truth is coming out, it is far, far too late.

More to love:

First of all, the layout of this book is incredible. A head injury causes a gap in Nora’s memory that the narration goes back and forth across, between the events leading up to that terrible night in the woods and the aftermath, finally coming to meet in the middle. The transitions are so smooth and well-constructed that the time frame is never confusing and the arc of tension through the story keeps on a steady rise until the final climactic moment runs its course. In addition to these two story lines, the reader is also given hints about the ten year-old drama which is freshly opened by Clare and Nora’s reunion. This is not something that can be simply buried in the past–it will never be forgotten, even by those like Nina who never quite understood the whole story.

Secondly, Nora has an alluring narrative voice. She provides immersive commentary on how she sees the world around her through the eyes of a writer, and continually points out that as a writer she’s a practiced manipulator of truth and possibility, which occasionally leaves the reader wondering just how far she can be trusted. Furthermore, as a writer, Nora has become incredibly observant–noting awkward silences, peculiar mannerisms, and unspoken tensions in social situations that make it easy for readers to understand and sympathize with her character. I love characters that seem so realistic that the reader almost expects them to walk off the page, and Nora is certainly that. She’s also very self-aware, which gives her the chance both to demonstrate what kind of person she is, and what she thinks about the kind of person she is:

“There are days when I don’t hear a single human voice, apart from the radio, and you know what? I quite like that. It’s a good existence for a writer, in many ways–alone with the voices in your head, the characters you’ve created. In the silence they become very real. But it’s not necessarily the healthiest way to live.”

Nora is, by choice, a very solitary creature. This makes her reactions to the setting of the hen weekend and her interactions with the other people in the house particularly interesting, because everything makes her uncomfortable. Between the inconveniences of the snowy weather, the secluded location, and Clare’s crazily determined best friend, Nora is essentially trapped with them all for the weekend. The emotional distress Clare has caused and the feeling of entrapment heighten Nora’s senses, and she picks up strange details:

“He turned to look out of the great glass window, out into the forest…After a moment I follow his gaze…you could see the blank white lawn stretched out, a perfect unbroken snowy carpet, and the sentinel trees, their trunks bare and prickly beneath the canopy. It should have made me feel better–that you could see the blank, unspoiled canvas, visual evidence that we were alone, that whoever had disturbed the snow before had not come back. But somehow it was not reassuring. It made it feel even more stagelike, like the floodlights that illuminate the stage, and cast the audience into a black morass beyond its golden pool, unseen watchers in the darkness.”

And if things in a single timeline aren’t creepy enough, future Nora is frantically trying to remember what horrible predicament she was in by the end of the weekend, leaving foreshadowed clues through the beginning of the story and tense comments about the stakes and obstacles that still stand in her way toward the end:

“The brain doesn’t remember well. It tells stories. It fills in the gaps, and implants those fantasies as memories. I have to try to get the facts… But I don’t know if I’m remembering what happened–or what I want to have happened. I am a writer. I’m a professional liar. It’s hard to know when to stop, you know? You see a gap in the narrative, you want to fill it with a reason, a motive, a plausible explanation. And the harder I push, the more the facts dissolve beneath my fingers…”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars, most definitely. I love modern psychological thrillers. I love reading about characters that seem so real and normal you could run into them on the street and become friends under the right circumstances. I love stories where someone dies–you just know the writer is open to all of the possibilities if she/he is willing to eliminate major characters, and it prevents the plot becoming predictable. I love books that are a little creepy, a little tragic, a little romantic. I love broken timelines. I love stories that are so captivating I have to read them cover to cover in a single day. I didn’t even need to read the premise of Ruth Ware’s second book, The Woman in Cabin 10, before rushing out to buy it (I will most definitely be reading and reviewing that one within the month). In a Dark, Dark Wood is a jaw-dropping, skin-crawling, perfectly twisted summer read that I highly recommend to thriller readers.

Further Recommendations:

  1. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I’ve already recommended this one occasionally, but the movie’s coming out soon and if you have any interest at all in a twisted, thrilling murder set around London with very realistic characters, now is the time to pick this one up. You can find my review for this book here.
  2. The Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. This is another great thriller with a manipulated timeline. Although I did not relate as well to the main character of The Luckiest Girl Alive, she is undoubtedly strong, mysterious, and possibly even more intriguing because of her unpredictability. You can find my review for this book here.

Coming up Next: I will be reviewing After You, the satisfying sequel to Jojo Moyes’ best-known novel, Me Before You. Be sure to check it out if you liked Me Before You, because I think the sequel is even better, and still closely linked to the events of the first book. I may also be posting a July book haul and August TBR list because I’ve acquired some great books for my shelves and I’ve got an ambitious reading plan for the next few weeks.

What have you read lately that gave you a delightful scare?

The Literary Elephant