That's What She Read
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The Witch Elm by Tana French reads less like a thriller and more like a mystery. Even then, it is less a whodunit and more of a search for the correct psychopath. All of this with elements of a family drama, a coming-of-age reckoning, and a reflection on the idea of memory. Toby’s story doesn’t appear to be complex, and yet there are more layers to it than a good lasagna. And yet, you will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out just how big a tree needs to be to hide a man.
Ms. French puts poor Toby through the shit in The Witch Elm. Not only does he face a brutal assault at the hands of burglars in his home, but he must also deal with his favorite uncle slowly dying from brain cancer. Because that is not enough for one person to experience in a matter of weeks, she then adds a murder mystery at the family home on top of all that. Yet, for the most part, Toby handles all of it better than I would on my best day. Just thinking about dealing with all that is enough to send me into an anxiety-filled paralysis.
As most of her novels are more character than plot-driven, this is exactly the point. She takes Toby and pushes him to see what his breaking point is. How she does this is brilliant, fascinating, and cruel, as she questions the very nature of memory. She starts with the obvious with Toby’s memory loss due to the brain injuries he suffers. Her shift towards the frailty of memory as a whole is subtle and yet terrifying, as she points out again and again that two people will remember two very different events. While Toby questions the very nature of his relationships with his cousins, you too can’t help but question the validity of all of your memories. Eventually, the term unreliable witness has a completely different meaning as you watch Toby repeatedly reconcile his memories with the stories others tell him.
Because Ms. French is a writing master, she doesn’t stop with memory though. She throws in the complications of family dynamics. Here too, Toby realizes that the relationships he thought were so important may not have the same importance to other family members. This hurts in any relationship, but there is something particularly bittersweet when this happens among family. For Toby, it throws yet another level of tension into an already intense situation.
The Witch Elm is the type of story where the whodunit is less important than the reasons why and what happens next. That doesn’t mean that the whodunit reveal isn’t chilling. In fact, it is so matter-of-fact as to be very disturbing upon reflection. Still, after everything Toby experiences, everything we learn about the reasoning behind the murder is essentially anticlimactic. While not totally predictable, one can infer a lot before the big reveal, and the whole scene is less than satisfactory, which again is Ms. French’s plan.
If anything, The Witch Elm is a tough read that reiterates that life rarely provides satisfactory answers to its problems. I expected the intensity and the level of disturbing given the other French novels I read. I was not prepared for the emotional aspect of the story. Toby bears so much, and you can’t help but empathize with him as he waffles between anger, grief, confusion, anxiety, and everything in between. All while obsessing over the size of that damn tree.
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Loggers be crazy
2021-04-15 15:00 UTC by Michelle
Deep River by Karl Marlantes is one of those novels that is deeply personal to the author, something he shares with the reader in his author’s notes at the end of the story. Unfortunately, because of the personal nature of the story, the storytelling suffers. It is not because the author is not capable, but rather an overly-enthusiastic attempt to include every single detail of the subject while paying homage to family history.
At its most basic level, Deep River is a fascinating story about Finnish immigrants who settle in Washington state and become players in the logging industry against the backdrop of the growing laborers’ rights movement. There is a lot to love for those who enjoy family sagas of this kind. Family is the heart of the story. The Koski siblings continuously prove that blood is indeed thicker than water, as they weather changing fortunes, political and religious differences, as well as a growing divide between urban versus rural dwellers.
Plus, Mr. Marlantes brings turn-of-the-century logging back to life in all its brutality and insanity. Unfortunately, this is also where Deep River starts its descent because Mr. Marlantes spares no word or description when it comes to logging. Paragraph after paragraph, page after page, he details readers with every aspect of logging life. Granted, loggers were insane to do what they did and deserve their chance to shine. Sadly, the story suffers while they get their chance.
The other area in which Mr. Marlantes proves to be a bit too effusive with his descriptions is with the laborers’ rights movement. While workers’ rights are at the very heart of the Koski family story, his explanations of each side drag on and on. As in the case of the descriptions of logging, while he goes into ideological detail, the story comes to a halt.
In both of these instances, a good editing session could greatly improve the flow of the story while maintaining the detail Mr. Marlantes wants. These bits are interesting by themselves but detract from the overarching story so that it all becomes a bit of a slog to get through.
One true flaw with Deep River is with Aino Koski. While Mr. Marlantes does not portray any female in the best light, preferring instead to stick to various caricatures of women such as the ice queen or the submissive wife, I find Aino to be particularly troublesome. For one, she is utterly incapable of separating ideology from reality when it comes to her belief in communism but has no problems facing reality in every other situation. She is idealistic to a fault and too unrealistic, which is so odd given that Mr. Marlantes takes pains to portray her as supremely pragmatic and realistic.
I particularly struggled with accepting that she turned her back on her child and that any mother would choose an ideology versus caring for her baby. I mean, she literally leaves her infant daughter behind to go help striking workers with only a few sentences describing her guilt at doing so. It isn’t as if she doesn’t love her child. In fact, the birth of her daughter and the feelings that having a child creates in Aino is the one rare scene in which Aino shows that she is capable of emotion. So, to have someone as stoic as Aino willingly give up that love and devotion and put strangers ahead of family in importance flies in the face of what we know about her character. It is almost as if Mr. Marlantes does not understand the mothering instinct at all.
With all that said, I finished Deep River with a greater appreciation for loggers and for those workers who risked everything to fight for shorter workdays, safer work environments, and better benefits. As workers continue to fight for the opportunity to unionize, there are lessons to learn from those early struggles. There is a part of me that continues to mourn the loss of the immense old-growth trees Mr. Marlantes loving describes, but you have to give props to the crazies who felled them with nothing more than wire cable, saws, and muscle. Insane.
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I fell in love with Clare Mackintosh through her strong thrillers. Her sleight-of-hand twists never cease to amaze me. Except, After the End is not one of her thrillers. Instead, it is a deeply personal and heartrending story of parents forced to make an unthinkable choice and their lives after making that choice.
One sign that we left a typical Mackintosh far behind is how she tells her story. Told through the eyes of each parent, After the End has a bit of a choose your own adventure feel to it. Not only do we see the story through both Pip’s and Max’s eyes, but we also follow each of the two paths from the choice Pip and Max must make. Both versions are equally brutal in the constant emotional battering that occurs. It truly is a case of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t, and Ms. Mackintosh shows all of it without mercy.
Personally, I found nothing redemptive about either path. My heart broke over and over again as Pip and Max each weather their new normals, if only because I kept dwelling on what could have been had one thing been different. Because of this, either ending upset me because I could not accept them. I still want a third path, one which would be just as emotional and upsetting but which, to me, remains true to Pip and Max as a couple. Call me a romantic or someone seeking some form of happiness in this story that has little.
Intense in a completely different way, After the End is still an excellent read, if only because it makes you cherish what you have and improves your empathy skills for those for whom the story is their reality. Just don’t look for it to make you feel good or help escape reality. Ms. Mackintosh is a bit too good at what she does for that.
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There is no doubt that The Infinity Courts by Akemi Dawn Bowman has an interesting premise. After all, for as long as progress occurs, humans harbor a fear that the technology we crave could prove to be our downfall. So, when the Alexa surrogate known as Ophelia turns out to be real and has found a way to take over Ms. Bowman’s version of an afterlife, she simply feeds into that fear.
Unfortunately, what The Infinity Courts has in potential because of its premise, it lacks in execution. Frankly, the main character, Nami, is insufferable. She spends ten percent of her afterlife worrying about her loved ones still alive and lamenting her death, which I can get. Her death is a tragedy, and she has every right to mourn the end of her life just as she was on the cusp of adulthood. It is how she spends the rest of her time that causes all the problems.
Nami spends 80 percent of her afterlife repeatedly asking herself the same questions about humanity and mankind’s inherent goodness. Once again, I can sort of understand why this is an obsession for her. After all, Ophelia takes over Infinity because she deems humans unworthy and too evil to create an environment in which electronic minds can coexist with human minds. Yet, almost every other page has her asking the same damn questions. After four hundred pages, I cannot stress the tediousness of her lamentations enough.
To make matters even worse, Nami spends the rest of her time ignoring all the well-meant advice and plans of her fellow colonists because she determined that her ideas are the only ones with merit. Maybe it is my age showing, but Nami ignoring the experiences of others rubbed me the wrong way. She professes to be so mature and yet so scared to do anything, but she is way too quick to ignore hard-won lessons and plans. She espouses the importance of seeing all sides, but she turns a blind eye to everything the colonists tell her. The hypocrisy, however unintentional, really bothered me.
Combine that with a completely predictable and unnecessary love story, and The Infinity Courts becomes another lackluster fantasy story. In truth, it is at least 100 pages too long and requires some major editing to limit the number of times Nami agonizes over whether humans can be good, the not-so-veiled analogy between the Residents instead of BIPOC or LBGTQ+ notwithstanding.
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In her latest novel, Jennifer McMahon uses grief, mental illness, and a mysterious spring-fed pool to create another downright spooky novel that has become her hallmark. In The Drowning Kind, secrets and a New England lack of emotion rule the day, creating a family dynamic in which secrets trump everything. Combined with a house that is more castle than cozy and a mysterious pool that holds its own secrets, the story is everything you expect it to be.
Jax’s relationship with her now-deceased sister is every bit as complex as you would expect when one of the siblings suffers from bipolar disorder. We get to know Lexie only through Jax’s memories. As she reviews her memories using her training as a therapist, they carry all the complicated emotions that come with someone struggling with anger, guilt, and grief. At the same time, it becomes obvious to the reader that Lexie’s behavior before she died has nothing to do with her illness and everything to do with whatever she was researching. Some of the tension built throughout the novel deals with the disconnect between Lexie’s final days and Jax’s belief that she was in the throes of a manic episode.
At the same time, we travel ninety years into the past to follow the story of one Ethel O’Shay Monroe, a young wife yearning for a child and the chance to be a mother. A chance trip to a Vermont resort known for its healing waters brings her one step closer to fulfilling her dreams. As she learns more about the pool, and as her own story starts connecting the dots to Jax’s, we begin to understand even more about Lexie’s last days, and it is a lot more than anyone expects.
The otherworldly element that exists in The Drowning Kind serves as a reminder of why so many people are afraid of water. After all, it isn’t just a fear of drowning that prevents people from swimming in deep water. There is also a fear of the unknown people must overcome. Ms. McMahon expertly capitalizes on both fears in the pool that plays such a large part in Ethel’s, Lexie’s, and Jax’s lives.
To me, The Drowning Kind is quintessential McMahon, well-executed in its intensity and spookiness. In fact, The Drowning Kind is downright scary. I read it while home alone for a week and had more than one uncomfortable moment in bed wondering just what was out there waiting for me. It’s been a long time since any book made me worry about the monster under the bed, which is why I will always recommend Ms. McMahon to anyone looking for something spooky to read.
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- Phoenix Flame disappoints
- Down Comes the Night
- Competence strikes a wrong note
Good books have the power to make you ignore your to-do list and forget about your bedtime. Fantastic books do all of that but also make you think about them constantly so that normal interactions or sleep become a thing of the past. The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni is a fantastic book.
For one thing, Kiva is such a sympathetic character. After all, she arrives at Zalindov at the age of seven and is still alive and mostly thriving after ten years, in a place where the life expectancy is not nearly that long. The fact that Kiva is in prison as a child immediately piques your interest because you automatically wonder what is happening in a society where they allow children imprisonment. Soon, her fierce desire to remain alive, her empathy, and the seriously messed-up life in which she lives keep you reading.
While you are reading about Kiva’s desperation to keep one prisoner alive and to find out the unknown source of the mysterious illness, you forget about such things as anticipating what is going to happen. You become so absorbed in watching Kiva fight her feelings for Jaren that you don’t attempt to try to figure out what is going to happen. So, when Ms. Noni starts dropping plot twist bombs, you don’t see them coming, and your shock only adds fuel to your reading fire.
Before you know it, you are racing to the end, desperate to find out how Ms. Noni will resolve certain situations, all the while tempering your expectations because The Prison Healer is the first book in a series. It is way past your bedtime and you know you have to get up in very few hours, but you are going to finish the book no matter what, and then IT happens. Ms. Noni drops the mother of all plot twists on the very last page of the book. It isn’t a cliffhanger, but it is something that shakes your entire understanding of the book to its core. You know your head is going to be swimming with thoughts about the book in light of this new information for the remainder of the night. And you love every excruciating minute of it.
This is The Prison Healer. Ms. Noni knows how to write one hell of a story that is compelling without any plot twists, but wherein the plot twists make it that much better. I cannot wait for others to read this so that I can experience their shock and awe at what Ms. Noni can accomplish. At the very least, it will give me something to do instead of stalking her to find out when the release date of the next book in the series is.
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Alma Katsu typically writes horror novels, so imagine my surprise when I find out that her latest novel, Red Widow, is a spy thriller. Not only that but she used her 35 years as a spy/analyst in the CIA as fodder. With that type of experience, I had high hopes for this look at modern-day spycraft. Unfortunately, much like her last horror novel, I found Red Widow a bit of a slog.
I imagine that some of my disappointment with Red Widow stems from the fact that I pretty much guessed the plot a quarter of the way in. This meant that there was nothing about it that was a surprise, which is not exactly what you want when you are reading a spy novel. I mean, spying is all about keeping secrets and things not being what they seem. I don’t want the secrets too easy to discern.
Also, I find it rather frustrating that Russia remains the Big Bad Enemy in the spy world. I mean, sure, Putin is an evil man who essentially brought Russia back being ruled by a Tzar, but is he really the biggest threat the country faces? I struggle with this. Yes, there is some mention of China and cyber warfare in general, but the focus of Red Widow is strictly Russia and Russian double agents. It all feels more 1980s and not at all present day.
Plus the grey line between “right” and “wrong” is so very flexible depending on the situation and the people involved. One situation involving an agent may be morally reprehensible and forbidden by the powers that be, and yet the very same situation involving a different agent will see that agent receiving accolades for that same action. I get that the world of spying changes every minute of every day based on new information, but holy hell. At least pick a moral yardstick and consistently use it.
For what it is worth, Lyndsey is pretty tough as an agent. She has the thick skin necessary for working in a male-dominated workplace. Plus, she has the smarts to go toe-to-toe with any of her fellow analysts. She does a lot of hand-wringing about her previous assignment and how she left it, which is annoying. When she focuses on the task assigned to her, the story picks up speed and interest. Unfortunately, she spends as much time focused on the task as she does on her long-term situation.
Red Widow surprised me in the rather negative image of the CIA Ms. Katsu paints. She makes a point to emphasize the hypocrisy of its leaders, the ongoing silos in which the analysts continue to work, and the continuous power struggles among the analysts as they use their access to information to get ahead of their counterparts. She also mocks the CIA’s inability to play by its own rules. I wasn’t expecting this at all given her experience.
This is the fourth Katsu novel I have read, and I will admit to only liking two of them. The most recent of her novels left me disappointed because they were missing the magic of her previous novels. Red Widow takes it one step further by being predictable and tired in its rehashing of the Russia/US enmity that made up every spy novel from the 1970s and 80s…and 90s. Perhaps my expectations were too high for someone with thirty-plus years of experience working at the CIA herself, but Red Widow is not at all what I expected or wanted in a modern-day spycraft novel.
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Namesake by Adrienne Young is the second half of a fabulous duology involving one of the toughest heroines you will ever meet. Fable is not just physically tough, but she has the mental fortitude to go up against the most heartless of merchants/mercenaries. This time around, we get to see Fable pit her wits against even more cutthroats and ruthless characters, and she doesn’t disappoint.
After a year of not going anywhere, the tropical setting of Namesake is enough to instill wanderlust in even the most agoraphobic of readers, and what a setting it is. Ms. Young brings the tropics to you with gorgeous descriptive passages that makes you want to find an old schooner and learn how to sail.
Namesake is exactly what you want in the end of a character’s story. Ms. Young closes out Fable’s story with numerous big reveals and clever twists, enough to keep you on your toes and prevent you from guessing how it all will end. At the same time, she makes sure to provide readers with closure, finishing Fable’s journey to find where she belongs in a way that is satisifying as well as enjoyable. Everyone gets what they deserve, even if it isn’t quite what you expect. I highly recommend both Fable and Namesake for the story, for the setting, and most definitely for Fable herself.
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Down Comes the Night is Allison Saft’s debut novel. As a debut, it is a perfectly adequate story involving two war-torn countries on the brink of another disastrous war and two enemies who learn to look beyond the surface to see the truths lying underneath. As an enemies-to-lovers fantasy, there too is it acceptable. While the story fails to wow you, it does enough to entertain as it drives home its lesson that emotions are not a form of weakness.
To me, Down Comes the Night is really more of a coming-to-age story. Wren must find her path as she waffles between her love for her best friend, wanting acceptance from her aunt, and following her heart. The story is Wren’s journey as she uncovers secrets, learns some hard truths, and discovers love where least expected.
The romance within Down Comes the Night is sweet but lacks any chemistry between the two characters. Even one very intimate scene is missing the heat one expects with such tropes. While I still enjoyed the trope, I missed the butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling a steamy, chemistry-laden relationship creates.
All of this reiterates that Down Comes the Night is a decent debut novel. After all, it follows a predictable path with one or two minor surprises to jolt you out of any sense of complacency. Ms. Saft’s writing is basic and simplistic, but I do think she shows promise. With a little maturity and more experience, I believe Ms. Saft has the makings of a good writer of young adult fiction.
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While the first book in the Havenfall series was adequate, I hoped Sara Holland’s sequel, Phoenix Flame, would focus more on what I liked and less on what I didn’t. Unfortunately, she doesn’t. Phoenix Flame is a rather boring sequel with nothing really new to learn.
In fact, there isn’t much of anything in Phoenix Flame. The characters undergo no major development. Maddie continues to make highly emotional and less rational decisions. The love story faces trouble, as any good love story in a trilogy does during the sequel. Even the time we get to spend in one of the other realms proves to be less than interesting.
Phoenix Flame includes one eye-rolling reveal after another. While Ms. Holland expects these reveals to be major shocks, I found them highly predictable and not at all the game-changers they should be. If anything, they prove how formulaic the entire story is.
I went into Phoenix Flame hoping for more maturity and more mystery. I definitely did not get more maturity. It is as if Maddie learned nothing from her previous experiences. I also did not get more mystery. While we do get to spend time in one of the other realms, what happens there could occur just as easily on Earth. The story shifts from a power struggle between the realms to a search-and-rescue with no discernible ending. After two books, I don’t know where the finale will go, and I have no desire to find out.
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