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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_put_Bella_in_the_Wych_Elm%3F

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.

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Thanks for reading.

 

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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.