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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.


The Literary Elephant



Review: The Lying Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s also talk about missed opportunities.

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

Have you read any great mysteries lately?


The Literary Elephant


Review: The Woman in Cabin 10

If you like psychological thrillers that consume your mind and make you question everything you’ve been told,  it would be a travesty to miss Ruth Ware’s books. Her debut novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, sends readers into a breathless literary panic, but her new book, The Woman in Cabin 10, which I’ll share with you today, conveys a drawn-out anxiety that eats at the very soul.thewomanincabin10

About the book: Laura “Lo” Blacklock, travel journalist, has won the chance to be on the maiden voyage of the private luxury cruise ship, Aurora Borealis around the fjords of the coast of Norway. Days before she is to embark, however, Lo experiences one of the worst scares of her life as her apartment is burgled while she’s inside. Taking her anxiety medication helps keep the fear at bay for a little while, but the cruise ship is surprisingly small and claustrophobic, and she’s afraid to sleep. On the very first night, she wakes from a blissful drunken haze to hear a woman scream in the cabin next door, followed by a splash that sounds like a body being heaved over the balcony. Her proof? A vanished smear of blood and a tube of mascara lent to her by the woman in the supposedly empty cabin. Lo can’t stop visualizing the woman, helpless and alone in the freezing water, but the worst is that no one seems to believe her story. No one seems to be missing from the ship, and Lo’s credibility as a drunk woman on anxiety medication who was recently burgled is thrown into question. Even Lo begins to wonder if she’s imagined the whole thing, but she can’t quite let it go.

“I leaned over the balcony, just as I had the night before … and suddenly I was absolutely and completely certain that I had not imagined it. None of it. Not the mascara. Not the blood. Not the face of the woman in cabin 10. Most of all, I had not imagined her. And for her sake, I could not let this drop. Because I knew what it was like to be her–to wake in the night with someone in your room, to feel that utter helpless certainty that something awful was going to happen, with nothing you could do to prevent it.”

In a Dark, Dark Wood provided readers with a steady, unsettling build-up leading to a couple of grand scare scenes, but The Woman in Cabin 10 runs readers in circles, gnawing at the same questions that seem to produce different answers every time. The opening scene of The Woman in Cabin 10 features an intruder that left me worried that this new book would be rife with similarities to Ware’s last story and thus lose it’s surprise factor, but this is not the case at all. Much like Lo’s nerves when she’s off her anxiety meds, this novel is one constant heightening drumroll of suspense that takes fear to a whole new level.

“I had been afraid before. I’d been scared out of my wits. But I had never despaired, and it was despair that I was feeling now.”

The magnitude of Lo’s feelings of helplessness in this novel are further increased by snippets at the end of each section of the novel (there are eight parts) that include emails, website gossip, and news articles from the outside world as Lo’s acquaintances on the ground begin to realize that something horrible must have happened on the boat. These alternative mediums of narration are a fascinating addition to the plot structure. Ware made a risky–and effective–choice to use these bits of correspondence from farther in the future than the reader has seen yet through Lo’s eyes. We know Lo will lose communication with the outside world before she does. We know a body has been found before Lo has any idea whose it will be. It’s important to pay attention to the dates in these sections, because they are pertinent to the story and they do add a lot of tension to Lo’s persistent questions about what is going on. Over and over she asks herself which of the ship’s passengers could be a murderer, and every time a different answer presents itself. She’s spiraling into anxiety, and then all hell breaks lose.

“Somewhere outside the sun was rising and falling, the waves were lifting and rocking the hull, and life went on, while I sank into the darkness.”

The best part of this book, however, is that the reader, along with Lo, must question whether Lo has seen and heard what she thinks she has. It is very possible to like Lo, to root for her to solve the mystery and escape alive, but still to question her reliability. Is she going crazy? Are we going crazy?

“I felt as if I hadn’t slept properly in days–which perhaps I hadn’t, and my chin kept nodding onto my chest and then jerking back up as I remembered where I was, and what I’d escaped from. Had it been real, that nightmare on the beautiful boat, with its coffin-like cell, far beneath the waves? Or was this all one long hallucination?”

thewomanincabin10_2My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Ruth Ware has done it again. It would be hard to choose a favorite between her first two books, and I can’t wait for the next one. Furthermore, not only is the plot great, but this book is beautiful. I know people say it’s unfair to judge a book by its cover, but the cover is important. It’s the first part of a book you see, the first part you touch. It was hard to photograph it well (apologies for my lack of camera prowess), but not only is the picture itself dark and compelling, but those water drops on the cover are embossed into the cover paper, and shine in the sun like real water. If the light hits this book right, it looks like there’s real water spattered all over it.It’s darkly gorgeous, and completely fits the book’s theme.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you haven’t read Ware’s first book, In a Dark, Dark Wood, please do that now. Ware is a master at taking beautiful settings to a whole new level of scary. In her debut novel, a small bachelorette party taking place in a glass house in a lonely forest meets deadly trouble–but is the danger outside of the house, or already in with them? Read my complete review here.
  2. Caroline Kepnes’ books about the murdering Joe Goldberg, You and its sequel Hidden Bodies, don’t have a lot specifically in common with Ruth Ware’s books, except that they are psychological thrillers unlike anything I’ve read before. This duo (so far) is a creepy and compelling love story in which no one is safe. Check out my complete reviews here.

What’s next: I’ll have another review for you, on E. L. James’ Grey, in a couple of days, but tomorrow I’m planning to share with you my August book haul and wrap-up, and my September TBR. I’m still not sure about doing this every month, but it worked well for August so I’ll give it a second try. Stay tuned for that, and for more reviews, including Grey, the latest addition to the Fifty Shades series. This one is narrated from the perspective of the dominant/stalker/sadist/CEO extraordinaire, Christian Grey.

Until then,

Set sail with The Woman in Cabin 10 and see what you’ve been missing.

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