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.

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.

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.