In the Woods by Tana French

In the Woods

In the Woods

Tana French (Adult Mystery)

On August 14, 1984, Jaime Rowan, Adam Ryan, and Peter Savage—all twelve years old—were playing in the surrounding woods of their small Dublin neighborhood of Knocknaree when the unthinkable happened.  Jaime and Peter disappeared and Adam was found in blood-soaked sneakers clinging to a tree with no memory of the event.  Flash forward twenty years and Adam Ryan, now Detective Rob Ryan, is investigating the murder of twelve-year-old Katy Devlin in Knocknaree.  Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, diligently work the case to find Katy’s killer while Ryan grapples with lost memories that may link the two cases together.  But Knocknaree is a small place.  What are the chances that two different child murderers live in the same village?

In the Woods is French’s debut novel and she handily presents an interesting and compelling police procedural.  Clocking in at 429 pages, she manages to hold our interest throughout her novel while creating a slow and steady momentum as our main characters flesh out four different threads of theories and begin peeling back multiple layers on two seemingly-connected murder cases.  Her characters are multi-dimensional and French gives us time to become familiar with them; however, the portrayals are a bit biased since we are seeing everything through Ryan’s eyes, our story’s narrator.  By his own admission, he lies and so we are already aware that throughout the case, we’re going to run into credibility problems.  (Personally, I don’t like unreliable or untrustworthy narrators, but I digress.)  The thing which pleasantly surprised me was the relationship between Ryan and Maddox.  French chose a professional relationship for these two versus the obligatory romantic/sexual conflict that readers often get when presented with a male/female partner pairing.  We see the ease they have around one another, as well as the mutual respect they share.  This platonic relationship allows the reader to concentrate on the case rather than muddy the waters with “will they/won’t they” expectations.

Despite these positives, I found this book fell short on multiple levels.  In the Woods starts off riveting and suspenseful and then—through a series of professional negligence (some folks should have lost their jobs), self-destructive decisions, and just plain sloppiness (or laziness) on the author’s part—the story begins to unravel and disintegrate right before our eyes.  Ryan is not a very likeable guy and he knows this: “I am intensely aware, by the way, that this story does not show me in a particularly flattering light.”  More often than not, he comes off as whiny and immature and his love for the bottle (which leads to more hangovers that I could count) makes me wonder how he manages to stay gainfully employed let alone be put in charge of a murder investigation.  Despite his horrifying backstory (which should have earned him at least a few pity points), it was simply impossible for me to connect with Ryan and feel any kind of sympathy for him.  Conversely, Cassie Maddox is bright, intuitive, hardworking, and a much more likeable character, which is probably why Tana French gave her the starring role in her novel’s sequel The Likeness (book two of six in the Dublin Murder Squad series).  Positives and negatives aside, the biggest problem I had with this book is the giant red herring that French made the cornerstone of her story.  I won’t divulge any spoilers, but I will say that by the end of the book, I was left feeling irritated, unsatisfied, and frankly duped.  I did stop myself from throwing the book against the wall so I guess this can be added to the positive column.

In the Woods won several awards and inspired an eight-episode series for the BBC and Starz.  Obviously, a lot of people thought that this novel and its sequel were the greatest thing since the melon baller.  However, between an annoying main character and a plot line that utterly evaporated, I hope to find satisfaction in French’s sequel.  Until then, any closure that I thought I would find in this book will remain elusive for I believe that it is still probably hiding somewhere.  Somewhere in the woods.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com

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A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

A Reliable Wife

A Reliable Wife

Robert Goolrick (Adult Fiction)

Ralph Truitt was fifty-four years old, rich, and alone.  He had been alone for twenty years and if the loneliness didn’t kill him, then another year in a bleak and barren Wisconsin winter might.  So, he placed an ad in the Chicago paper: “Country businessman seeks reliable wife.  Compelled by practical, not romantic reasons.  Reply by letter.”  He received many responses, but it was Catherine Land’s letter that he would choose.  He had read it so many times, he knew it by heart.  It was the first sentence that piqued his interest: “I am a simple honest woman.”  But letters can be deceiving and all this “simple honest woman” wanted—ever wanted—was to acquire both love and money.  Catherine would not live without some portion of both and Ralph Truitt was the ticket to her dream.  With a beautiful face and a sympathetic backstory, she was well on her way of inheriting a vast fortune…unless Ralph Truitt had other plans.

A Reliable Wife is one of those books that if you don’t stick with it, you would simply give up on it and unapologetically mark it as “Did Not Finish”.  With its foreboding and depressing backdrop of a 1907 Wisconsin winter, to its flawed and morally corrupt characters, to its underlying themes of lust and sexual fantasies, it really takes a herculean effort to weed through all of the debauchery and depression.  Thankfully, a nice story twist about midway through the book rewards those who stick it out and marks the beginning of a several plot turns that will keep the reader’s interest and make the remaining scenes of lust and unrequited passion a little more forgivable.

The story centers on three main characters: Ralph Truitt, Catherine Lane, and Tony Moretti (Ralph’s illegitimate son).  All three do their fair share of whining and complaining and mourning a past that is lost and hating themselves for who they might have been.  Interestingly, I found Tony’s character the most sympathetic of the three, although Goolrick paints him as the antagonist.  He is the only one who truly deserves to feel betrayed and abandoned and can safely shroud himself in the term “victim”.  Don’t get me wrong, all three have their reasons to mope and feel wronged by life, but only one trophy can be awarded and I don’t give out participation ribbons so Tony gets the prize.

Robert Goolrick gives us a tale of regret and remorse and poses the question of how far would someone go in order to make a person love them?  I enjoyed this work far more than his book Heading Out to Wonderful, which I only gave 3/5 stars.  Unlike the latter, A Reliable Wife felt consistent all the way to the end and proved to be a suspenseful and compelling read.

I’ll end this review with four important takeways that I learned from A Reliable Wife: 1) If you live in Wisconsin, get out of Dodge before the first snowflake falls.  Winter marks the beginning of crazy season and you’re apt to either kill yourself, kill your family, kill yourself and your family (not in that order), or maim yourself (and possibly your family); 2) If your mother is a fanatical religious zealot, chances are you are going to grow up to be a hot mess; 3) A promise is a promise.  No matter how ridiculous, immoral, unethical, or illegal the promise is, you have to keep it.  No backing out.; and 4) Money doesn’t bring you happiness.  No matter how good looking you are, well educated, worldly, well-spoken.  It doesn’t matter.  You are going to be miserable so just pin that badge to your chest and wear it proudly.  So take a lesson from Ralph, Catherine, and Tony, just live a poor life in the tropics with a good therapist and don’t ever, EVER, make any promises.  You can thank me later.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.target.com

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In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

In a Dark Dark Wood

In a Dark, Dark Wood  

Ruth Ware (Adult Fiction)

Twenty-six-year-old crime writer Leonora “Nora” Shaw lives alone…and she loves it.  When you’re alone, you’re in control and she likes it that way.  So when she gets an e-mail from a stranger inviting her to a bachelorette party for Clare Cavendish, Nora’s world unexpectedly is turned upside down.  She hasn’t spoken to Clare in ten years so the invitation is obviously unsettling.  Why her?  Why now?  But it’s only for the weekend and perhaps it would be nice to see Clare again.  After all, they had been best friends.  But since she’s arrived at the “glass house” in the middle of the woods, Nora only seems to be accumulating more questions than answers, and when you’re in a dark, dark wood, it’s so very hard to see any light of what is real or true.

I admit that I am sometimes influenced by the marketing blurbs that appear on the front and back covers of a book.  Some excerpts for In a Dark, Dark Wood include “Prepared to be scared” or “Read it…with all the lights on” or “An unsettling thriller”.  I have found, much to my disappointment, that all of these are a far cry from what you are actually given.  It’s certainly not the fault of Ware that expectations are set so incredibly high, but when you have Reese Witherspoon on the cover of your book promising a frightfest of epic proportions (she’s the one who warns readers to prepare for a scare), I have to wonder if my fear-o-meter is just insanely high or if Ms. Witherspoon is just a little scaredy-cat.

Without pitting Ruth Ware against Ruth Ware, I did find her second novel, The Woman in Cabin 10, to be a more satisfying and suspenseful read with the twist ending that I thought In a Dark, Dark, Wood would have.  To be fair, this book did have a lot of energy and some unexpected moments, but the end really did just fall apart.  I found it to be a bit predictable largely due to the generous amounts of clues that the author provides throughout the book.  Also, our heroine and narrator, Nora (who goes by several names), makes some really dim decisions and –for her being such an accomplished crime author—doesn’t seem able to think logically or rationally when it would benefit her the most.  Lastly, there are several gaping plot holes (we’re left questioning several characters’ intentions and motivations) and we really have to suspend any sense of logic in order to digest the series of events that happen at the end of the book.

For a quick read that you can read at night, by yourself, during a storm, in a spooky house, feel free to pick up In a Dark, Dark, Wood.  For a suspenseful and thrilling book that will leave you guessing until the end, I invite you to leave the wood and go toward the water with Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10—unless you’re Reese Witherspoon and then you should definitely stay away…or at least turn on the lights.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Dovey Coe by Frances O’Roark Dowell (YA)

Dovey Coe

Dovey Coe

Frances O’Roark Dowell (Young Adult Fiction)

“My name is Dovey Coe, and I reckon it don’t matter if you like me or not. I’m here to lay the record straight to let you know them folks saying I done a terrible thing are liars. I aim to prove it too. I hated Parnell Caraway as much as the next person, but I didn’t kill him.”

The youngest of the three Coe children, twelve-year-old Dovey would just as soon carry around a pocketknife than a pocketbook.  She’s wasn’t a skilled tracker like her brother Amos and she certainly wasn’t pretty and charming like her sister Caroline, but Dovey was loyal and honest and had a mind of her own.  You never had to guess what Dovey Coe was thinking because she would tell you exactly what was on her mind…whether you cared to hear it or not.  As you can imagine, this resulted in a few awkward situations and quite a number of bruised egos.  Such was the case with Parnell Caraway.  Son to the richest family in town, Parnell always got whatever he set his eyes on and at the present moment, his eyes were set on Caroline Coe.  No other girl in Indian Creek, NC deserved his arm more, but Caroline was set on going to college in Boone.  Covey was certainly not going to let the likes of Parnell Caraway tear her family apart, but would she resort to murder to keep her family together?

I am an absolute and unashamed pushover for plucky and feisty heroines: Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), Matilda Wormwood (Matilda), and Fern Arable (Charlotte’s Web) to name a few.  Dovey Coe handily earns a spot among these lovable, irrepressible, undaunted, and spirited young ladies.  Whether she’s confronting a school bully or the son of the man who owns half the town, Dovey is righteous in her convictions and uncowering in the face of injustice, unfairness, or just plain meanness.  No matter how few nickels she had to rub together, Dovey never considered herself or her family poor.  Her life was simple and satisfying and when something got her down, it wasn’t anything that a slice of her MeMaw’s chocolate cake or hammering a few nails into a two by four wouldn’t make right again.  Failure was not only not an option for Dovey, it simply wasn’t in her vocabulary.

Dovey Coe was shelved under the Young Adult section in my local library; however, the book is listed for ages nine to twelve and I highly recommend younger readers seizing the opportunity to meet Dovey and her entire family.  Older readers may feel the writing style is a bit simplistic, but the lessons Frances O’Roark Dowell lays out for her readers are ageless.  Loving who you are, standing up for what is right, defending the weakest among you, and finding joy in life’s smallest pleasures are things we should all aspire to do.  I think Dovey summed it up best when she said, “The way I seen things, us Coes had everything we needed in this world.  Some might see us as poor, but that was their problem.”

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (Mystery)

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler (Adult Fiction Mystery)

“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

Philip Marlowe is thirty-eight, single, and makes a living as a private detective charging clients $25 per day plus expenses.  It pays the rent.  Then a case arrives involving a very wealthy General Guy Sternwood.  The general is being blackmailed (again) and he wants Marlowe to handle the matter “personally”.  Over the next five days, Marlowe becomes embroiled in pornography, gambling, missing persons, and murder.  It’s just an average week in the life of Philip Marlowe.

The Big Sleep is a gritty, edgy crime novel where the skirts are tight, the brandy is served cold, and cigarette smoke permeates every square inch of a room.  Chandler’s writing is sharp and crisp and the similes and metaphors fly around faster than bullets: “He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money.” or “Her whole body shivered and her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust.”  Chandler wrote this book about fifty years before the introduction of “girl power” so readers shouldn’t be surprised at seeing women being objectified, marginalized, abused (they tend to get slapped around a LOT), and vilified.  But it really wouldn’t be the same book if some blonde-haired Trixie kept pulling Marlowe out of tight fixes.  Would it?

Chandler entertains us with a book that’s as humorous as it is dark.  The only downside is his penchant for overly describing everything.  True, we know exactly what a character looks like (down to his sock pattern) or how a room is laid out (as well as the color of the wallpaper), but the momentum of the story is dragged down by the weight of these excessive details.  Still, this is a small price to pay considering Chandler gives us such gems as, “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”  It’s good to be Philip Marlowe.

Reviewer’s Note: The version read was published in 2011 by Thinking Ink Media and should be avoided due to numerous editing errors found throughout the book.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

Ghost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite

In honor of Halloween, we’ll be reviewing ghoulishly scary and spooky books throughout the month of October.

Ghost on Black Mountain

Ghost on Black Mountain  

Ann Hite (Adult Fiction)

“Mama warned me against marrying Hobbs Pritchard.  She saw my future in her tea leaves: death.”

Nellie Clay was only 17 when she married 25-year old Hobbs Pritchard.  With just a feed sack of clothes, some trinkets, and a childhood full of memories, she leaves the only home she has ever known and moves to Black Mountain with a man she barely knows and the ghosts he has spent a lifetime creating.

Ghost on Black Mountain is a haunting tale of abuse, power, greed, and fervent love.  There is not a soul on Black Mountain that hasn’t been negatively impacted or affected by Hobbs Pritchard, and his toxic anger and avarice blanket the mountain like mist on a crisp autumn morning.  Hite does a credible job in conveying the torment and fear unleashed on a tightly-knit mountain community by a man consumed by evil and jealousy.  The author keeps the story interesting by having different female characters narrate and share their own histories and perspectives.  Near the end of the book, just when you thought you were safely out of the woods, Hite throws in an unexpected twist by introducing an unknown character.  Rather than stall the story’s progression with this sudden interruption, this shift actually adds to the story’s mounting tension and brings us ever closer to an inevitable tipping point.  As this character’s story is slowly unraveled, we become uncomfortably and painfully aware that the ghost on Black Mountain may never truly rest in peace.

Ghost on Black Mountain is Hite’s first novel and she gives readers a truly gripping and all-consuming story of good versus evil and the price one is willing to pay for redemption.  Like the ghosts on Black Mountain, this story and its characters will linger in your mind and lurk in your memory long after the last page is turned.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com

 

 

The Old Willis Place by Mary Downing Hahn (J)

The Old Willis Place

The Old Willis Place  

Mary Downing Hahn (Juvenile Fiction)

There are just two rules that siblings Diana and Georgie Eldridge have to follow: don’t let anyone see you and do not leave Oak Hill Manor.  But after the terrible thing happened, there would be many more rules to come.  All of these rules were easy enough to abide by until the new caretaker of the old Willis place arrived with his daughter.  Things would quickly get a lot more complicated.  Caretakers came and went (there were too many to count), but this one had a daughter—a daughter the same age as Diana.  Diana wanted a friend so badly, that she was willing to break any rule just to have one.  But at what cost?

This is a ghost story with some surprisingly heavy themes given that it is written for ages 7 to 12.  Besides dealing with theft, trespassing, and murder, we are given an older sister who, by selfishly putting her own wants and needs above all else, puts both herself and her younger brother in danger.  She lies to her sibling not once, but several times and flirts with severing the bond of trust that the two share.  Once trust is broken, can it ever be fully restored again?

This book is filled with plenty of action and suspense and, despite some scary and disturbing bits at the end, younger readers will become enthralled and immersed in this wonderfully spooky ghost story.  What I like most about this book is that Hahn delivers a powerful moral message that readers of any age can appreciate.  Despite suffering from separation, grief, loneliness, and fear, Hahn gives us two children who demonstrate the importance and value of extending mercy to the unworthy and offering forgiveness to the undeserving.  And that isn’t scary at all.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com