The Witch Elm by Tana French (audio)

I have read and loved several books by Tana French now, although I think The Likeness has been my favorite. Like I’ve done with a few, this one I listened to. These Irish mysteries are just so lovely done in the appropriate accent, that lilting, musical, rhythmic speech.

The Witch Elm is no exception: Paul Nugent’s reading is dramatic and gorgeous and full of character. I got everything I wanted out of the audio format here.

As a book, I have some pros and cons. Some of what Tana French does best is in full evidence. There is an overwhelming, overarching atmosphere of foreboding and gloom. The narrator, Toby, refers almost immediately to how everything changed, went horribly wrong, starting with “that night.” He talks almost immediately about the Ivy House, about how lucky he was to have it, how it scarcely seems possible it was ever more than a dream. When he starts his story with “that night,” then, and when we first encounter the Ivy House, the foreshadowing could hardly be heavier. This sort of thing could be overbearing, but I don’t find it so; I love Tana French’s style, and this is an important part of it. There is an underlayer too of nostalgia, of a yearning appreciation of a beauty just out of reach, that melds nicely with foreboding; this feels to me like French’s signature.

The mildest of spoilers here: Toby is somewhat an unreliable narrator. I think you feel this early on. For one thing, his admitted lucky, golden-boy aura and life experience makes him quick to wail about the slightest wrongs he suffers, and minimize his own agency in certain events. But that’s not exactly what I mean by unreliable narrator. I mean that classic, delicious literary feature wherein we’re not sure if we should trust the story as it’s told to us, because the narrator might be lying, or mentally ill, or confused. I love this stuff.

The plot, too, was strong, and I think this is another of French’s greatest talents. (I am still reeling at The Likeness.) I enjoyed its complexity, and the sense throughout that there was something I couldn’t see or understand, yet, that was just around the next corner. Certain connections that Toby insists upon are never proven, but this is part of his frustrating unreliability as narrator.

All good so far, right? My biggest criticism of this book is in its length and pacing. Look, I enjoyed it all the way through. But for a good stretch, in the second half, I felt that things could have been sped up more than a little bit. There is a delicate balance between drawing out suspense and letting it hang too long in midair, and I think it’s been poorly handled here. I enjoy French’s characteristic gloomy atmosphere, and the music of Nugent’s reading, enough that it didn’t bother me too much; I think readers with less investment will be bothered still more. We could have moved things along without losing anything. This feeling was exacerbated by Toby’s self-pity. While I think less-than-likeable lead characters are an interesting and often fruitful artistic choice, a whiny one who is allowed to spend too long wallowing can begin to grate. After writing these lines, I’ve checked a few reviews; most find The Witch Elm expertly crafted, but this Washington Post review is more in line with my own reactions:

It’s very eerie; it’s also quite hefty and static for long stretches. Whether you find the novel satisfying will probably depend on how much you care about action vs. atmosphere. French expertly crafts a cloud cover of thickening menace throughout this extended narrative, but the storm doesn’t break until the very end. By then, even the most patient reader may be excused for being exhausted from all the bleak moodiness that preceded it.

I love action and atmosphere, and I did enjoy this book, but again, I counsel caution for all but the most French-devoted reader (or one who knows she’s ready for a long, atmospheric build-up). (Bonus: the WaPo review is written by Maureen Corrigan. What fun.)

French’s characters tend to be a strength, but I think they waver slightly here. Toby is well developed (although not terribly likeable). His cousins and Uncle Hugo moderately so; there is enough meat there (if you’ll forgive the usage) to appreciate them. His girlfriend Melissa is a weakness, though. Her entire reason for being here is to serve as a ray of sunshine for Toby; she is indefatigably peppy and optimistic, which I find annoying in real life and less than credible on the page. The cops, on the other hand, feel quite real. (Recall that French often writes from their point of view. Hmm.)

A final qualification for this book: it’s tricky to give a trigger warning with a novel of suspense, like this one, and I rarely deal in trigger warnings anyway. But here I do think it should be said: if you deal with trauma regarding serious, terrorist-level stalking, heads up.

Despite my criticisms, I am here for more Tana French and on the whole enjoyed this one quite a bit. Look for me to get into The Trespasser sometime soon. As for a recommendation on this one, it depends on your capacity for patience and your commitment to French’s distinctive style. If you do read/have read The Witch Elm, I’d be very interested in your opinion!


Rating: 6.5 candlesticks.

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

I recently went to the local library and checked out a mystery novel just because I felt like it. The last time I got to do this was (I checked) October of 2016. Glorious.

So, I chose an old favorite, Michael Connelly, and just grabbed one I hadn’t read, starring a character I’d never met. LAPD Detective Renée Ballard works the night shift, or the “late show,” as punishment for raising a complaint when she was sexually assaulted by a superior. (Timely and timeless, this story.) One night at the station she finds a stranger rummaging through a filing cabinet whose lock he’s just picked; hand on her gun, she asks him for ID, and that’s how she meets mostly-retired Detective Harry Bosch. I immediately felt right at home.

Chapters alternate between the close third-person perspectives of Bosch and Ballard as they team up, rather off the record, to take on a cold case. In the Bosch tradition, it’s a case no one especially cared about even at the time, as the murder victim was one of those deemed society’s trash; but as we know, with Bosch, “everybody counts or nobody counts.” Action, high adrenaline, close calls, a twisty case, and problems with authority, all set to a dramatic and unmistakable LA/Hollywood backdrop: this is classic Connelly and what I came for. Nothing much has changed and I am so glad. Funny how the mystery novels I love can sort of do the same thing over and over again and still entertain me. I hope Bosch lives forever. (Also, it was nice that I was relatively fresh off the Bosch television series, especially since a recent case was referenced here.)


Rating: 7 green flight suits.

Shatter the Night by Emily Littlejohn

Note: I received an advanced copy for review. This book publishes on December 10, 2019.

Quickie review here. In a nutshell, dialogue and writing in general were very poor, but the suspense of the plot kept me going through to the end, which fact still surprises me.

This is the fourth in the Detective Gemma Monroe series, and the first I’ve tried. I won’t bother with any more in this series, not with the likes of Lee Child, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, and Tana French mysteries in the world. It took me just a few pages to laugh out loud at stilted dialogue (one of my pet peeves: two characters who know each other very well, discussing a third person they know very well, with first and last name and character’s background in dialogue – ugh!), and I continued to note less-than-credible police procedure and other basic factual matter all the way through this book. (Vampire bats in Colorado? A quick Google search says no.) These weaknesses – huge, glaring, obnoxious weaknesses – continued to annoy me from start to finish, and this is why I did not write a review for Shelf Awareness.

But I read the whole book! And you know I am quick to put down a book I don’t like and walk away forever. So, kudos to Littlejohn for a plot that kept me turning the pages (and probably a nod to the fact that I’m a bit stressed and it felt good to escape into something mindless). I enjoyed the mystery aspect itself, and there were enough goofy characters (possible suspects) that I didn’t guess the solution too far before Detective Monroe herself did. The ending, following the denouement, turned weak again: we took a hard left turn into sappy romance, even though the romance had itself looked a bit endangered earlier in the novel. Ah, well.

A far from perfect book, and one I might have put down at another time in my reading life, but credit for a plot that kept me til the end. Do I recommend this book? Not really.


Rating: 5 times the cops were shocked and called someone a ‘bastard.’

in a surprising departure: television

This post is long overdue, I guess, but it occurred to me rather late in the game to tell you about television series. During the van trip, strangely, I got into watching TV series that I could get through Amazon Prime.

This blog began, back in 2011, as a way for me to keep track of my reading for my own sake. I’m deeply grateful that other people read it and appreciate it, too. But on some level it remains a record I keep for myself, and so here we are. I wanted to remember what shows I’ve watched, and which ones I’ve especially liked.

Bones

The one that got me completely hooked is Bones, a mystery-per-episode (or often several) crime-solving drama series based in the fictional Jeffersonian Institute and starring a world-famous forensic anthropologist. It’s fairly silly, and relies too heavily on the sexual tension of a certain couple that we wait way too many seasons to see actually hook up. But I was thoroughly, entirely taken in; I watched all 246 episodes with relish and and someday, if laid up for months with nothing to do, I may watch them again. It’s goofy but I love it. (Based on the Temperance Brennan series of novels by Kathy Reichs, which I have not read, so there’s another project.)

Mystery series based on book series: you will note a theme. Also, lots of Brits.

I was quite impressed by Bosch, based on Michael Connelly‘s novels starring LAPD Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, which I have loved since I was a teenager. They’ve done a good job of capturing the title character, and the soundtrack (based on Harry’s love of jazz) is quite good. I’ll be on the lookout for future seasons; well done, Amazon.

Jackson Brodie of Case Histories

Case Histories is based on the novels of Kate Atkinson which star Jackson Brodie. Set and filmed in Edinburgh, this series features an excellent soundtrack of female country singer-songwriters (seriously, I would follow this show just for the music); Edinburgh itself is compelling and beautiful, but it’s also easy to fall for Jackson himself, who is a runner as well as a detective whose life is filled with ill-conceived sexual liaisons, a delightfully salty assistant, and the cutest, most precocious, wittiest young daughter imaginable, as well as interesting cases. Give me more Case Histories! And these are books I’ll need to read, obviously. (It’s always nice to get a two-for-one like that.)

Unforgotten is a modern London-set series which I appreciate for its two lead detectives, DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunny Khan. They are a likeable pair whose lives feel realistically imperfect, something not always true of our stars. Not everyone on this show is supermodel-beautiful, which again, is nice for reality’s sake. The narrative structure of each episode is interesting and a bit unusual: we switch around between the lives of various characters, including Cassie and Sunny but also including a number of others who at first have no apparent connection to the case at hand – although, of course, they will. I’ll keep watching this one.

Seattle PD’s Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder of The Killing

The Killing is based on a Danish series; this one is set in Seattle. It may seem formulaic at this point that there our two lead detectives are a man and a woman with perhaps a hint of sexual tension? but it still feels original here; I like these two and would continue with them, given the chance.

DCI Banks is another British mystery series, set in the more-or-less present, and one that kept me occupied for a time, but my rating would be only so-so. I found the characters I was meant to identify with only mildly appealing; I was often frustrated with them, and (slight spoiler) killing off one of them only served to engage me less. Meh. (Maybe it was just the one guy’s voice as he plaintively cries “Annie!” over and over that got to me.)

The ABC Murders is based on Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name, and stars John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot. I’m sure he did a fine job, but I was raised on David Suchet’s Poirot and it is too late for me to convert to a new version. While I suspect I would still enjoy reading Christie (a theory I should test!), this onscreen version dragged on. It felt dated by unusually slow pacing, but was made in 2018. Another series that was okay but not one I’m wild about.

DC Endeavor Morse and DCI Fred Thursday of Endeavor

Set in 1960s Oxford, Endeavor has my heart. I’m just in the middle of this one now, and I’m devoted to the title character, DC Morse (first name Endeavor. Which is weird, but not as weird as Hieronymus Bosch). This serves as a prequel to the long-running 1980s-90s series Inspector Morse; I have not seen that one. DC Morse is a prodigy within the department, but his odd methods, failure to bow to authority, and general nerdiness don’t play well with his superintendent. He does have a good relationship with DI Fred Thursday, and that relationship’s development seems to be part of the arc of the series overall. I’m having a good time with this one.

A few outliers are not mysteries.

Catastrophe is a comedy about a several-night stand between a visiting American businessman and an Irish primary school teacher living in London which results in a pregnancy and, surprisingly, marriage. A second child follows the first as the couple turns out to quite like each other, but (yes) catastrophes follow one upon another. Silly but good fun.

My Mother and Other Strangers caught me with its name, and this Masterpiece Theatre production has a charming, evocative, specific setting in a small Irish village during World War II. American soldiers are stationed in a village that does not appreciate their presence. The series is narrated (minimally) by an old man, years after the fact; he is the small son of the mother in question, and this is the story of his family (mom, dad, two kids) firstly, and of the village. I love the details of time and place, the sense of a small specific setting and its place in much larger historic events. The backward-looking perspective has elements of elegy and of nostalgia, and that mystery of the mother–she is present, but enigmatic–is compelling.

The Durrells in Corfu

And then The Durrells in Corfu, an absolutely addictive series based on three memoirs by Gerald Durrell: My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, and The Garden of the Gods. (More books to read! If they’re half as loveable as this series, I’m in.) British widow Louisa Durrell decides all of a sudden to move her four children from Bournemouth to the Greek island of Corfu, where the financially strained family will have a better chance of scraping by. Antics ensue. Corfu has no electricity, there are animals everywhere, and the Greeks vary in their willingness to accept strangers. But delightful characters abound. The four Durrell kids (ranging from teens to early twenties) are a hoot; the youngest (Gerald himself) adopts every creature he can put his hands on. I would follow this series anywhere.

Old news, but in the interest of completeness: I am up to date on The Walking Dead which I have long loved, although yes, they frustrate me more every season. I think I’m in to the end, but the producers seem determined to test the bounds of my love. And I’ve seen all of Breaking Bad, but had mixed feelings. I found Walter White a little less ambiguous than I think he was intended to be – I didn’t like him enough (even within the bounds of ambivalence, and I do love ambivalence) to be entirely patient with the extended length of his torture of the more-loveable Jesse.

What excellent series am I missing that would fit into this list?

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke

This scintillating murder mystery, set in Trump-era East Texas, with a black main cast and racial concerns, is gripping, gorgeously written and relevant.

Heaven, My Home is Attica Locke’s fifth novel, and the second starring Texas Ranger Darren Mathews (Bluebird Bluebird). In the time between Trump’s election and his inauguration, Darren has been assigned to look into the case of a missing child. In northeast Texas’s Hopetown, on Caddo Lake, Darren’s mission is not exactly to find the child, but to extract a confession–truthful or not–from a member of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT) for the murder of another ABT member. Darren’s life is a mess: he’s only just patched things up with his wife, and his mother is low-key blackmailing him in regards to the same murder.

He’s conflicted in several ways. A nine-year-old boy is missing, and Darren should save him, but this is a nine-year-old racist-in-training, and that training is going well so far. Darren knows justice should be absolute and blind, but the ABT man he’s being asked to frame was acquitted of another murder–of a black man–that he certainly did commit. Among the recurring questions of this novel: How far should forgiveness stretch?

Heaven, My Home is a rich, complex puzzle, with layers of characters: Darren’s not-very-maternal mother, the two uncles who raised him (a law professor and a Ranger, respectively), his lawyer wife, the Rangers he associates with and those he doesn’t, his white FBI buddy who prosecutes a black man for a hate crime. And, of course, the ABT and ABT hangers-on squatting in Hopetown, historically a freedmen’s community and the last enclave of a small band of Caddo Indians. This sounds complicated, and it is, but Locke’s absorbing prose, in a third person very close to Darren, keeps the reader well abreast of all the crisscrossing loyalties and betrayals intrinsic to these East Texas woods. This is a world where white families still remember which black families “stole” themselves away. Spouses cheat; close relatives feud; Darren is a deeply good man, unsure of how to right all of history’s wrongs.

There is a warmth and intimacy to the portrayal of Darren’s many internal struggles. This is a protagonist to love and sympathize with, although he is far from perfect. Locke’s expression of very real and contemporary anxieties is nearly painfully spot-on. Her East Texas is redolent of fried hushpuppies and catfish. For Darren, “it was not his East Texas. It was zydeco where he wanted blues. It was boudin where he wanted hot links.” It is a richly expressed place, filled with racial tensions and a fear of Trump’s coming regime.

Both a fascinating, smartly plotted mystery and a pertinent picture of the contemporary United States, Heaven, My Home is refreshing, dour and thrilling all at once. Readers will be anxious for more of Ranger Darren Mathews.


This review originally ran in the September 24, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 fingers.

The Asylum by John Harwood (audio)

This is a Victorian gothic mystery/psych thriller, and how it ended up in my iPod is another mystery which I cannot explain. I hit ‘play’ on it on a whim, and listened to the tracks from disc 1 and then there were no more. I was involved enough that I then went and paid for the audiobook (which I never do), and now I’m left unsatisfied with my purchase.

Georgina Ferrars wakes up in an asylum (a madhouse, she surmises, although the doctor in charge demurs at the term), with no memory of the past several weeks. She’s told she checked in under the name Lucy Ashton; her L.A.-monogrammed valise supports that claim. When Dr. Straker telegrams her uncle, the reply comes immediately: Georgina Ferrars is here at home. Your patient is an imposter.

It’s an engaging enough opening, and what unfolds from here continues to intrigue. It seems Miss Ferrars has a double, a new friend (or long-lost something-or-other?) named Lucia Ardent (note the initials), and the two look just alike. The question now is which is whom? Miss Ferrars is missing her two prized possessions: a dragonfly brooch that was a gift from her father to her mother; and a writing case, with her journal inside. If that journal could only be found, we might learn what happened in the missing weeks…

Solid plot so far, then. I found it a little bit exasperating to listen to the distraught young lady who (how Victorian) is wont to become faint at every shock, but okay, it’s part of the period setting. When the diary is located, we start learning more about the Ferrars/Ardent/Ashton history; here connections and plot lines get increasingly twisted, and I’m afraid Harwood got his threads a little entangled. There is a major reveal that just did not follow for me – I didn’t see how we made the logical leap – and, because I was listening to the audiobook while driving, I wonder if it was my fault, if I just missed a crucial moment. But I did go back and re-listen to some parts. And, too, a number of other readers on Goodreads were left confused as well. I’m inclined to think that if a larger portion of your readership missed something, maybe it’s on the writer and not the readers. (I have experienced this as a writer – I put the fact in, but everybody missed it – and even though I put the fact in, if they all missed it, I didn’t do my job properly.)

At any rate, the final third or so of the book – the protracted denouement – was far less compelling, and less believable, than what came before. Our heroine is alternately the fainting Victorian weakly woman, and a surprisingly scrappy, clever one; these quick shifts back and forth and back again did not ring true. The quickly complicating plot threads got too incredible for me. The final action scene, followed by the final proposal and answer, topped out the ridiculousness; it was a major letdown. Oh, and – spoilers in white text here; highlight to read – there’s a lesbian incest thread, for good measure.

Full credit for that first disc’s worth of tracks pulling me in; and more than half the book kept me engaged. After that, I was just hanging on out of increasingly incredulous curiosity about how this silliness would wrap up. Not particularly recommended. As I learned on Goodreads, Harwood has his fans, and some of them loved this book; some would recommend others of his over this one. I won’t be trying him again, but you’re welcome to.


Rating: 6 windows.

The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason

Playwright Tim Mason’s first adult novel, a rousing mystery set in Victorian England, has it all: thrills, engrossing characters, taut pacing and historical interest.


Playwright Tim Mason’s first adult novel, The Darwin Affair, is a rousing mystery set in Victorian England. In 1859, the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species poses a menace to the powers that be, and some of society’s upper echelon want him squelched. Amid the conspiracy lurks a tall, shadowy man with deep-set eyes; death seems to follow wherever he goes. The dogged Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field is on the case, although his findings are not necessarily welcomed by all. Field tracks his suspect from meat market to tavern to the royal court, from England to Germany, and even to the high-profile Wilberforce-Huxley debate on evolution at Oxford. Scenes of crashing action and adventure include a racing carriage on a collision course with a speeding train. With cameos by Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and a variation on Typhoid Mary rounding out the peripheral cast, this is a wild tale that engulfs the reader from start to finish.

Satisfyingly plot-driven, then, The Darwin Affair also offers very engaging characters: approachable Albert, Prince Consort; Queen Victoria, haughty but not humorless; a comic Marx; and a gracious, gentle Darwin.

But Mason’s less famous hero definitely steals the show. Field has difficulties with authority that will be familiar to fans of contemporary fictional detectives like Harry Bosch and Dave Robicheaux. Mason’s playwriting skills are evident in realistic dialogue and well-constructed, easily envisioned scenes. Readers of historical fiction, murder mysteries, action/adventure and thrillers will be equally entertained and perhaps edified: beneath the excitement lie thought-provoking questions about class and order, the interplay of science and religion and intellectual curiosity. The Darwin Affair has it all: thrills, engrossing characters, taut pacing and historical interest.


This review originally ran in the June 21, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 monkeys.
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