Book Review: The Witch Elm by Tana French


This is the book description from Goodreads:

“Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life: he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of when we no longer know who we are.”

I’ve read Tana French before, In The Woods, so I knew I was in for a good read. She has an admirable vocabulary that she uses deftly, tossing in seemingly random descriptions of even the most unimportant detail, thus painting a vivid picture that pulls you into the story. I don’t feel bogged down by these details – I think they add to the story. The narrator in The Witch Elm, Toby, tells his story in a conversational tone that makes you feel like you know him. But you don’t. Neither does he.

I could see the scenes as if they were in constant motion, actively creating the story. I sometimes forgot that I was reading a book: letters and spaces on a piece of paper. The story was alive. It was like I could see and hear the guys talking in the booth next to me. She has the ability to make your mouth water and to make you think you can smell the dirty streets of Dublin around you.

And the tension. Her beautiful imagery lulled me into a dreamlike state, where everything was just happening and I was an observer until suddenly something would go wrong in the story, so abruptly that it was shocking. The twists made me slightly dizzy as if my blood sugar had plummeted. She builds up to the twists so that you know they’re coming and dread the unknown, and of course, you can’t stop reading until you have the answer.

Her writing is refreshing like listening to someone speaking without a stutter or stammer when everyone else is doing so, and it’s easy to read quickly because it flows. She’s sparse with punctuation, so the sentences aren’t choppy, except when she writes short sentences and fragments to up the tension. She uses long stream-of-conscious sentences that keep the long narrative passages moving. I feel like I don’t have to put any effort into reading her writing. It’s like remembering something I already know.

One thing that I noticed throughout The Witch Elm is that she uses references to light in a way that an artist or photographer might, creating glare or casting shadows. Everything is crystal clear because it’s so well described. So many minor details make it real, such as the detective shaking a pen and scribbling with it before beginning to write down an interview answer, or a doctor’s smile indicating how much time he’d give his attention to them.

Her use of humor is understated, but sometimes she’d throw something in that made me almost burst out in laughter, and I felt a bit naughty because the subject itself was not funny. But it gave me a short relief from the subtle, creeping tension that had built up. Sometimes I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I did both at different times throughout reading this novel. The book included those emotions I love to experience when I read.

When researching what a witch elm was, I found this, which I think you’ll enjoy:

But The Witch Elm isn’t the book I had hoped it would be, in spite of all of these accolades. I felt the plot slowed down in the middle, perhaps due to too much dialogue. There was one plot point that was predictable, and I hoped she wouldn’t go there before I got to the reveal, but she did. It’s been done too many times before. The predictability in this one section disappointed me.

And although I loved the overall plot, except for the point mentioned above, there were sections of the book, starting somewhere in the middle, where the plot was dribbled out and I felt like it took too long to get to the next plot point. The tension was gone by the time I reached that point. It felt like the slow reveal, at times, was too slow.

I have a friend who reads mainly mysteries and crime thrillers, and although he likes Ms. French’s plots, he doesn’t get lost in the writing the way I do. He does get bogged down in the details. He just wants the facts without all of the language that pulls me in. He, perhaps, wouldn’t have even finished the book because of the slow part that started in the middle of the book.

I am giving this book 4 out of 5 stars, and because of my friend, I’m recommending it to adults who love a good mystery or crime thriller and don’t mind, or in fact, love, that it’s made up of beautiful language and lucid description.

If you liked this review, please follow my blog. You can find me on Twitter @ecclespenor

Thanks for reading.



Book Review: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

This is the book’s description from Goodreads:

“Anna is not sick, but she might as well be. By age thirteen, she has undergone countless surgeries, transfusions, and shots so that her older sister, Kate, can somehow fight the leukemia that has plagued her since childhood. The product of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, Anna was conceived as a bone marrow match for Kate — a life and a role that she has never challenged… until now. Like most teenagers, Anna is beginning to question who she truly is. But unlike most teenagers, she has always been defined in terms of her sister—and so Anna makes a decision that for most would be unthinkable, a decision that will tear her family apart and have perhaps fatal consequences for the sister she loves.”

From the opening of the book I was hooked and had a difficult time putting it down, although at times it was difficult to read because of all of the physical and emotional suffering experienced by the characters. After reading the prologue, I had that feeling I get when I begin a book or movie and know instantly that I’m going to love it – it always sends a tickle down my spine and sometimes brings tears to my eyes. And this book did not let me down.

In spite of the many difficult medical terms, the book was an easy read, and I didn’t want to miss one word of its beautifully written prose. When I say easy, I mean mentally, but not emotionally. It was a tearjerker early on.

The characters, who each told the story from their own viewpoint, were painfully human. I liked that the story was written from all of the main character’s viewpoints, which made for a more well-rounded story. Everything that happens to us, everything we do, is seen much differently by others. Although I could usually tell which character I was reading simply by their voices, there were a couple of times that characters sounded too much alike and I had to look back and see who was speaking. Otherwise, the various points of view were artfully done. At times, the teenagers seemed to speak too eloquently, at least compared to the teenagers I know, and it reminded me that these weren’t characters speaking, but an author writing a story. But mostly I was lost in this story’s world.

This book contained a couple of twists that took my breath away. They were so perfectly orchestrated as part of the plot that I didn’t see them coming. There was a lot of backstory, as the author brought us from the time of the onset of Kate’s illness through where we’d leave off with these characters years later, but it wasn’t an information dump. The story moves between different times and viewpoints seamlessly.

This book made me FEEL, which is what I must have from a book or movie to like it. In fact, in spite of the horror these characters were going through, it made me feel that I had missed out, not having had children myself. The love between the characters was palpable, and I felt that I didn’t experience all of the love I could have since I didn’t have children – both love given and love received. So the book made me think too, and made me relate my story to the character’s stories, something else that makes me like a book. It made me examine my life.

I rate this book 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it for adults and young adults.

VIVOS update

VIVOS is my first novel, which I’m trying to get published traditionally. It compares most closely to The Handmaid’s Tale. I started writing it in April of 2014, and it’s been quite a journey. Now it’s a completely different book from the one I first envisioned, the one I sent to my beta readers.

I recently revised the last one-third of my manuscript due to a revise-and-resubmit request from a publisher who wrote me a passionate and detailed email suggesting ways to improve that part of the book. I shared the publisher’s response with my editor, and she said it was the most positive rejection letter she’d ever seen. I read VIVOS with that email in mind and agreed that I could make VIVOS better. What was once a New Adult Dystopian novel has matured into an Adult Dystopian Thriller novel with an exhilarating ending. Shea Donovan, the protagonist, has a more satisfying character arc. The story is darker and more suspenseful. Here’s a brief description of my novel:

“VIVOS takes current world issues and fast-forwards them to the year 2034. Anti-heroine, Shea Donovan, a snarky twenty-two-year-old with bipolar disorder, tells her dark story with self-effacing irony and evolving cognizance.

Genetic disease and apocalyptic weather drive Shea and her family underground, where twelve senior men, called the Elders, run Vivos, a religious shelter for the Elite. Believing that life aboveground has been extinguished, the Donovans settle into a spartan existence characterized by surveillance and increasing punishments. Soon the Elders announce that God has commanded them to repopulate the earth by breeding with all fertile females age sixteen and above. When the time for Shea’s breeding ceremony arrives, she panics and blacks out. She awakens in the desert brutalized and alone. Battling bipolar symptoms and unsure of the distinction between reality and illusion, Shea’s quest for survival and saving her family clashes with her deep-seated desire for revenge.”

I have been working hard to get VIVOS published. I have sent out 72 queries to agents and publishers, resulting in six full manuscript requests. Three of those requests were for the old VIVOS, and it was rejected by all three. Three of those requests are recent and are all from publishers. They are for the new VIVOS, which is a much better book. I am encouraged by the recent interest in my novel.

Book Review: Spilled Blood by Brian Freeman

This is the description of the book I found on Goodreads:

“A taut thriller about two rural Minnesota towns locked in a deadly feud–and a teenage girl caught in the crossfire. Linked by the Spirit River, the two towns couldn’t be more different: in affluent Barron, a powerful and secretive scientific research corporation enriches its residents, while downriver in blue-collar St. Croix, victims of that company’s carcinogenic waste struggle to survive. The bad blood between the communities escalates into open warfare when the beautiful Ashlynn, daughter of the corporation’s president, is found shot dead–and a St. Croix girl, Olivia Hawk, is accused of the crime. Reluctantly, Olivia’s mother summons her estranged husband Christopher, a Minneapolis lawyer, to come defend his daughter. As Christopher struggles to unravel the mystery of Ashlynn’s murder and save his own daughter, he uncovers some ugly truths that endanger the residents of both towns. And looming over everything are the chilling, apocalyptic threats from a murderous psychopath known only as “Aquarius.””

This story was good – there was a lot going on and it tied up all the loose ends and provided a satisfying, although unbelievable ending. It has twists and thrills as I expected from what I’d heard about the book. I did not guess who the killer was, or who Aquarius was. But it came across as flat and one-dimensional. There wasn’t enough emotion to make me care about the characters, although there were ample opportunities for emotion: a murdered teenager, characters dead or dying from cancer, a man trying to save his daughter from prison. Emotions were mentioned, but the author was telling us about the emotions rather than showing us the emotions. I like a story that makes me feel something, and this story fell short. I also found some portions boring due to dialogue running on for several pages, or the formulaic descriptions given of each person when they were introduced to the reader. I was aware of the author when I read this book, instead of getting lost in the story. I think this may be a great read for a reader who just wants the facts of a story without the emotions, however.

I give Spilled Blood by Brian Freeman 3 out of 5 stars. I do plan to read another one of his books in the future.

41-year love affair with a book


“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” – C.S. Lewis

I have a confession to make: I’ve been in love with Gone With The Wind, the novel, for 41 years – ever since my mother gave it to me when I was 13. I’ve read it every year for 41 years, having just completed it a few days ago. And after this reading, I’ve decided that it won’t be an annual ritual. I will give this beloved book, with the detached cover, the packing tape binding, and the well-thumbed pages, a rest. It’s time.

It may seem ridiculous to some to read a book 41 times. Why did I do it?

  1. It gave me comfort. As a gift from a mother who was only marginally in my life, shortly after my dad died at the young age of 46, it made me feel that I had a connection with her that I otherwise did not have. Also, having read it so many times, I could read it even when anxiety had overtaken my thoughts, when understanding an unfamiliar book would have been impossible. It became like a welcome friend.
  2. I love the story, the characters, the writing, the setting. I simply adore the book.
  3. As a novel writer, I love that Margaret Mitchell was able to write such a long and magnificent book without the benefit of a word processor or writing software such as Scrivener. I love that she completed her manuscript in only three years and that she was rejected by 38 publishers before finding one who would publish her novel. It gives me the incentive to keep writing and to keep submitting VIVOS to publishers until one says “yes.”
  4. I always looked forward to “escaping” to the antebellum South each year, wondering what it would have been like to be a Southern belle from a cotton plantation. I find the Civil War fascinating and the story inspired my interest in it.

And why have I decided not to read Gone With The Wind every year anymore?

  1. There are so many great books out there that I want to read, and I’m getting behind on my TBR pile.
  2. I’ve decided to do book reviews, both as a part of my blog and to support fellow and sister writers by reviewing their books on Amazon, Goodreads, and Barnes and Noble, so I have to be reading new books. Leaving reviews is a great way to help a writer. I hope other writers will give me the same support someday.
  3. I don’t write historical fiction, and I need to be reading what I’m writing, which is currently science fiction, and in the future, crime thrillers or murder mysteries, if all goes as planned.
  4. I recently celebrated my fifth wedding anniversary with my husband, Rob, who has completed my life in a way that hadn’t happened until I met him in 2013. I no longer need to revisit my “relationship” with my mother each year. I no longer need to rely on my relationship with the O’Haras, Hamiltons, and Wilkeses.
  5. As I’ve been reading some of the classics lately, I’m feeling dissatisfied with some of the dated references. Gone With The Wind, of course, has slavery, and Rhett Butler’s treatment of Scarlett at times was reprehensible. I’ve read some of the old murder mysteries that were written by men, and have been appalled at the way men treated women in these books: hitting them, touching them or otherwise being too familiar with them, calling them “doll” and “sweetheart” when they were neither. I’m not a big proponent of political correctness because I think it’s gone too far, but certain topics can be a turnoff – at which point I put the book down, I don’t ban it or burn it or tell others not to read it.

I’m entering a new chapter of my life. Will there be another book that I feel compelled to read more than once? There have been only a few books that I have read twice.

What books have you read more than once, and why?


Book Review: I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

If you liked the movies The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl, you will like this book. I Let You Go gave me the same surreal, unbalanced feeling that I felt while experiencing the movies, the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. It’s suspenseful and emotional and has some great plot twists. I think it was written for any adult, male or female.

One thing that stood out to me was the three separate points of view: first person; second person, which is so rarely used; and third person all being used in the same book, and used very well. I sometimes find it difficult to read a book that reverts between different points of view, but in this case, it added to the unease I felt while reading the book, to the off-balance feeling I was experiencing, which added to my enjoyment of the book.

I give I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it for anyone who likes suspense thrillers.

Beautifully Said: Quotes that Fit my Novel, Vivos

As I’ve been working on my novel for about 2 years now, I find that certain quotes or songs resonate with me because they remind me of my story.  In Vivos, my protagonist deals with her fears in the dystopian society she lives in.  This is a quote I found on fear that reminded me of Shea Donovan’s fears, although not every part of it fits my book.  I think it is beautifully written.

From The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes:  “Fear festers in the imagination.  It’s not fear’s fault.  That’s just the way it’s made.  Nightmares breed.  Allies become enemies.  Subversives are everywhere.  Paranoia justifies any persecution, and privacy is a luxury when the Reds have the bomb.”

Vivos is about life.  Not only about being alive, but about living your life as you choose, and to the fullest.  This beautiful quote by poet Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets, sums it up perfectly:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Part of the lyrics to Sheryl Crow’s “Home” fit Shea Donovan’s discovery of a life she loves with a man she loves.

“Home” by Sheryl Crow

“I woke up this morning
Now I understand
What it means to give your life
To just one man
Afraid of feeling nothing
No bees or butterflies
My head is full of voices
And my house is full of lies

This is home…”

In spite of the tension in Vivos, Shea Donovan has a snarky and irreverent sense of humor.  Please see my post “Meet Vivos‘s protagonist, Shea Donovan” for some Sheaisms.  I don’t know if they’re “beautifully said,” but they’re fun!

Thanks for reading – Colleen Eccles Penor

Beautifully Said: Our Country, Our Military

Having served in the U.S. Army as a military police officer for 4 years, I have a deep respect for all those men and women who have served, or do serve, our country, honorably.  I’m third-generation Army on my mother’s side:  my maternal grandfather, my mother, and then me.  My dad was a Marine.

Even before joining the military, though, I loved my country.  The United States of America is truly a great nation.  Traveling around the world strengthened this feeling.  Sure, I visited some great places, but would I want to live there?  No.  I know we have our problems.  But every time I hear The Star-Spangled Banner, I cry, especially when they get to “And our flag was still there!”  Every time I stand for our American flag and place my hand over my heart, I cry.  Every time I see a flag draped across a casket, I cry.  So this post is dedicated to the men and women who fight and defend our country, past or present.  My examples may not refer to American military heroes, but they are about the military and are “Beautifully Said”.

My dad introduced this poem to me, which refers to the Great War 1914-1918.

In Flanders Fields


Poppy photographed on the First World War battlefield of the Somme near the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.


Flanders Poppy on the First World War battlefields.

by John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

On the sign outside the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sheridan, Wyoming:  “The price of freedom is visible here.”

And some photos that don’t need captions.

Image result for photo of soldier with folded flag at the vietnam war memorial

Image result for photo of soldier with folded flag at the vietnam war memorial

Image result for photo of soldier with folded flag at the vietnam war memorial

And yes, I cried while researching this and posting each item.  Please feel free to include your own “Beautifully Said” items related to loving our country or our military heroes in the comments.

Colleen Eccles Penor

Beautifully Said: Pets

Shadow dressed as a witch and Stormy as a devil for Halloween a few years back.  They weren’t too keen on the idea.

I lost my beloved pets in 2013.  Shadow, my 60-pound chocolate lab, went in January that year due to an acute case of pancreatitis.  She was 12, and she had so much energy right up to the point that she got sick, that I thought for sure I’d have her for a couple more years.  I didn’t get to say goodbye because she died in the night at the vet’s office.  Stormy was my 85-pound black lab, and she died in July of 2013.  She had really long legs and had a blown ACL since 2010, and I think the other one went too.  One morning she couldn’t walk.  She also had heart problems and laryngeal paralysis for a few years.  So I got to say goodbye to her because I had to make the difficult decision to put her down.  I knew it was her time to go, and I got to talk to her and hug her before she went.  It was easier than getting the call in the early morning to learn about Shadow’s death.  Still, I wish that neither one had suffered, even for a minute.

Yes, I’m crying right now.  They were my kiddos, and we took care of each other.  They brought so much joy into my life.

I saw this in the veterinarian’s office I went to for so many years, although I couldn’t read it every time because it makes me cry.  The author is unknown.

I hope to be reunited with my girls someday.

Please share this with friends who have pets, or who have lost them.  Please share your stories here about the beloved pets you’ve lost, or a picture, poem, quote:  anything about losing a pet that you believe is beautifully said.

You can follow me on Facebook and LinkedIn as Colleen Eccles Penor and at Twitter @ecclespenor.  Thanks for stopping by.

Meet Vivos’s protagonist, Shea Donovan

Shea Donovan is 22, spoiled and directionless. She lives off a trust fund from her wealthy parents. She hasn’t declared a major, but is attending some humanities and wellness courses. Attending may not be an accurate word—she’s enrolled in classes and attends when she feels like it. A boyfriend recently broke up with her, and she’s been acting out, since: partying, smoking and one-night stands. This is in variance to her fitness habits: she runs five miles per day, lifts weights, and does yoga—even with a hangover.

What she wants more than anything in the world is to be loved. Romantic love has eluded her. She doesn’t get along with her mother, and sometimes feels that her mother hates her. Her older brother, Jace, was once her best friend, but he’s a drug addict now and is unreachable.

Shea is trained in survival skills, as her parents are survivalists. She knows how to fire a rifle and a pistol, knows unarmed self-defense, and attended a 2-week survival course in which she learned to pack a survival pack, set snares, find shelter, find and purify water and build fires. Still, she lacks confidence in her abilities.

She’s beautiful and intelligent, but doesn’t realize it because she has low self-esteem. She has bipolar disorder.

And she’s funny, even in a world that has gone bad. Those who have read parts of my book call her “snarky” and “irreverent.”

Some Sheaisms:

If my face gets stuck like the face I make for her benefit, I will be one crazy-looking broad.

I may have run over the toes of some guy who was standing next to his car, but that’s his tough luck. Get your flippers clipped, buddy. The shoulder is my little piece of paradise.

I let lose a string of swear words that would make a stand-up comedian cringe.

Wait, if you act like a pain in the ass and no one is around to witness it, are you still a pain in the ass?

I doubt if he weighs more than I do, and I only weigh 130 pounds, which is to say my driver’s license says 120.

Shea Donovan has been fun to write.  I hope you’ll get to know her better once her story is complete.