Tag Archives: Mystery

L: Review of Ware’s “The Woman in Cabin 10”

Life got busy; these things happen. Luckily, I found a hot minute to type up some musings, so here goes nothing.

I just want a book to be scary!! Is that too much to ask?!?! Ruth Ware’s most recent novel, The Woman in Cabin 10, was included in a list of “October Reads” and we all remember how much I obsessed over SWEET (the dust-jacket blurb comparison is uncanny), so I really just threw myself at this book in full-fledged desperation. Firstly:

In this tightly wound story, Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant. But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong…

As is often the case, I think all the hype that preceded this book’s release was a contributing factor in my semi-disappointment. But… I don’t think I’m really disappointed in the text itself. It did everything it promised. I think I have myself to blame for the fact that it just wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped. Maybe I watch too many scary movies, read too many scary books? Maybe my understanding of “scary” does not align with the general public’s “scary,” so I have gypped myself out of a whole slew of typically scary books. Regardless, I didn’t consider this book to be scary even for one moment. I found it to be adequately suspenseful, but those words are not synonymous in my mind.

So, we’ve determined that the hype set it up as a good “scary” read, and I’m afraid I have to disagree, but who cares, right?! On the other hand, it was also often paralleled with The Girl on the Train and I will go right ahead and concur, good sirs! Except, in all the ways that I found The Girl on the Train to be unlikable, I found The Woman in Cabin 10 to be utterly victorious. The characters were likable!! Imagine that! We have a protagonist who is still a hot mess, no doubt, but Lo Blacklock is familiar and relatable in ways that remind the reader of herself, or at least that one friend about whom you find yourself saying “bless her heart.” Lo is the spirit animal version of every woman when she’s set aside thriving & is just worried about surviving. Thankfully, Lo’s particular circumstances are not familiar to most of us, but the novel is written in a way that makes it seem entirely plausible and personal. Readers are able to relate to Lo’s trepidation, fury, mistrust, and desperation without actually experiencing the horrible events that result in such feelings. Thank goodness!

The mystery aspects of the novel were great! I kept thinking, “wow, I just cannot wait to see how all this gets resolved” because, let me tell you, it was a tangled web she wove. No one was safe, no one could be trusted, and every moment was a potential clue. I thought the mystery itself was masterfully written, but I will say that I found many aspects to be repetitive. For instance, insomnia reared its ugly head enough times that it eventually felt like beating a dead horse. “Yes, OKAY! She’s so incredibly tired. Got it. What else?!” Similarly, there were entire swaths, paragraphs and eventually pages, that I felt were just there to take up space. I counted 18 pages towards the end that recounted Lo’s panicked thoughts that could have been summed up in one page. I noticed Ware repeating herself and rephrasing the same thoughts many times throughout the book. Maybe this was a plot device? Who am I to judge? However, I do know that my students do this in order to use up more space on a page requirement, so… that’s not out of the realm of possibility for me.

I’d love to read In a Dark, Dark Wood in order to experience more from Ware without preconceived ideas of what the novel will be. I thought The Woman in Cabin 10 was good enough for some, but just not for me.

Scarier, please!

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L: Review of Alexandra Sirowy’s “The Creeping”

Dig if you will this picture: you’re home alone, reading before bed. Your chapter ends with a creep-tastic home invasion while the main character is sleeping, something you’re getting ready to do. Now, instead of visions of sugar plums, you know you’ll have visions of knife-wielding maniacs…

Thanks, Psychological Thrillers!!

I live life on a mission trying to find a book that can effectively scare me. Most fail, not because I’m so tough, but either because the Boogey Man in question is a bang in the attic or demented car, or because the writers think scary = disturbing and they go for the gross-out factor. Nice try. Want to know what’s scary? Terrible things that can actually happen. Thus, psychological thrillers win the day!

Enter Alexandra Sirowy’s The Creeping.

Eleven years ago, Stella and Jeanie disappeared. Stella came back. Jeanie never did.

Now all she wants is a summer full of cove days, friends, and her gorgeous crush—until a fresh corpse leads Stella down a path of ancient evil and secrets.

Stella believes remembering what happened to Jeanie will save her. It won’t.

She used to know better than to believe in what slinks through the shadows. Not anymore.

The story technically addresses parallel plot lines: one being the apparent reemergence of a threat from Stella’s childhood and the other being Stella’s experiences with friendship, peer pressure, and budding relationships. One is hella serious; children are dead and Stella needs to remember a horrific childhood experience in order to find the killer. The other is juvenile as can be; Taylor is super hot but cray dumb and Sam is so sweet but totes not popular. The two are seamlessly intertwined, meaning that they are addressed with equivalent levels of urgency. “Yes, I’ve found a dead body but the school gossip just saw me talking to a loser and I don’t know which is worse!!”

I’ve seen reviews admonishing this elevation of high school drama to be on par with a loose murderer, and I have to say… I disagree. I get it. In no way do I consider gossip prevention to be as important as the threat to Stella’s life, but pubescent minds factor things differently. What is important in high school? Popularity. Who you date. Who your friends are. This novel exemplifies (albeit rather dramatically) how priorities are relative and, to this particular high school girl, crushing on a nerd is just as tragic as a rampant serial killer.

In terms of content, it was consistently unsettling, and I mean that as a good thing!! The intention (as evidenced by the title) obviously was to be creepy, and it utilizes suspense and realistic, relatable situations to capitalize on the psychological aspects of being a psychological thriller. The language was a dizzying blend of mature and immature verbiage and content, which mirrored the parallel plot lines. Profanity and sexual references were peppered throughout, whether discussing boy toys or unearthed corpses. For this reason, I’m not sure I’d make it available in my classroom, at least not for just any student. Mature students could easily enjoy this book as much as I did, but as a teacher, I’d need to know my students well enough to know who can brush off such vivid depictions of murder and sexual rendezvous and instead siphon meaning from the discussions about friendship, relationships, and bullying.

This book was fun fun fun! The ending drew on for four chapters after the big climax, so that could’ve been better, and the resolution/explanation felt a bit rushed, but otherwise it was good stuff! And it felt Halloween-ish, because of the scariness, so I’m including a couple other scary ones I’m jazzed to read. Check them out!!

 

 

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L: Review of Nova Ren Suma’s “The Walls Around Us”

I like books that pick a “thing” and just run with it, even if that “thing” isn’t necessarily my thing. Dinosaurs? Bring it on. Horses? OK, see you there. Focusing on a specific theme can maximize upon immediate appeal for horse- and dinosaur-loving readers, and it can offer insight for casual amateurs, like myself. However, themes should inform, never isolate, the novice reader, and I’m afraid that’s the vibe I got from Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us.

On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement.

On the inside, within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom.

Tying their two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries…

What really happened on the night Orianna stepped between Violet and her tormentors? What really happened on two strange nights at Aurora Hills? Will Amber and Violet and Orianna ever get the justice they deserve—in this life or in another one?

Did you notice the casual mention of dancing in the teaser above? It was all, “Nbd, there’s dancing.” Let me set the record straight: this novel is all about dancing. In the recipe that is The Walls Around Us, there’s like 1 teaspoon of murder to 6 cups of ballet references. We learn about the outfits, the hairstyles, the feelings onstage vs. the feelings offstage, the injuries, the tricks of the trade, and of course, the official names of the dance moves in all their French glory.

Now, I took dance classes in middle and high school, so I assumed I’d be fine. I can picture a pas de bourrée just as well as the next reader, and the murder mystery set in a Juvenile Detention Center really upped the appeal, so I took the bait. The dance-to-murder ratios, however, that were present in the teaser were essentially reversed in the story, so that my interest in the prison/murder plot line was overshadowed by the boring “Dance Life” story.

Aside from the focus on ballet, I found the storytelling to be a bit drawn out; the perspective swapped between two central characters, one of whom (the prisoner) seemed to spend her first 5 chapters telling the exact same story in different ways. The suspense built and built with each retelling of the same few moments, so that when explanation was finally given, it was utterly anti-climactic. It felt like an afterthought on the author’s part, as though Suma focused so heavily on the bizarre nature of those first few moments that she spent too little time coming up with a valid explanation for her readers. It was interesting, then exhausting, then disappointing.

My other qualm with The Walls Around Us was that it was an entirely realistic mystery novel until, BAM!, things got paranormal. I love paranormal things, so that is not my issue; the issue was that it seemed like another desperate grab for resolution on the author’s part, as though she had cooked up a scenario that could only be resolved through paranormal intervention. I’m convinced that Suma had the bare bones of a good story that she then insulated with literary packing-peanuts, just words and moments that took up space. “More dance references! Let me retell that story one more time! Hey, let’s throw some paranormal stuff in there!” No, Suma. You ruined it.

Good things? It was an original idea, I think. I haven’t read anything like it before, so it had that going for it. The writing was also crafted so that readers were often challenged to feel pity  for convicted felons. That takes some skill.

Otherwise, I do not recommend this novel to anyone; that’s not to say you wouldn’t enjoy it, though. Read it or don’t. See if I care.

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L: Review of Tim Wynne-Jones’s “The Emperor of Any Place”

My strategy of picking books based on interesting covers has led me in the right direction, again. This book called to me from the shelf, with the yellow map lines, the island in a churning sea, the solitary silhouette, the Japanese symbol, and the very peeved, Einstein-haired bird watching over it all. The whole thing was a giant question mark to me so, upon reading the dust jacket synopsis and finding out it was about WWII, I welcomed it into the family that is my TBR collection.

When Evan’s father dies, Evan finds a hand-bound yellow book on his desk—a book his father had been reading when he passed away. It is the diary of a Japanese soldier stranded on a small Pacific island in WWII. Why was his father reading it? Who was the American soldier also stranded there? And what could this possibly mean for Evan?

Aside from the interest piqued by the cover and synopsis, I had no expectations going into this novel. I’ve never read anything by Wynne-Jones, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from him, either. I was pleasantly surprised, though!

This book was a rare treasure: a book about a book. About 1/3 of the book takes place in the present day and 2/3 of the book are the journal entries of a Japanese soldier and an American soldier who find themselves enemies allied in order to survive on a deserted island, self-named Kokoro-Jima. The present day events are tied to the journal entries and, as Evan reads along, we share his surprise as he gains information as to how his own life is tied to the two inhabitants of Kokoro-Jima.

The writing was some of the most fluid and effortless language I’ve ever read. I truly felt as though I was tangled up in the thought process of a teenage boy. The main character, Evan, is a seventeen-year-old who just lost his father and is dealing with the mysterious nature of the book found on his father’s desk, the calls from the author’s son, and the appearance of his hitherto unknown grandfather, as if the overwhelming loss of his father and best friend wasn’t enough. The emotions are raw and real, sometimes surfacing at unwanted times and other times being choked down (as is often the case in real life), while the characters were relatable, pitiable, witty, and sometimes loathsome. All of the main characters were male and the story within the story was about war, an often male-dominated topic, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by man-stuff, adrift in a sea of testosterone. As a female reader, I was just as interested and impacted as any male reader.

The novel does take unexpected turns towards the paranormal, a fact which other readers have found irritating, according to other reviews. I rarely consider the fantastical to be irritating, an in the context of this book, I actually thought it was brave. War is such a difficult topic, as is the idea of being stranded without hope of rescue. Some may think that the including spirits and monsters makes light of a serious situation, but I disagree. I think the paranormal aspects made the soldiers more relatable, in terms of their reactions to the unfamiliar. And even if it did make light of war, so what? When faced with the unknown, is the known still relevant? When stranded on an island, is the enemy still your enemy? When faced with a REAL monster, is the “monster” inside your enemy still fearsome?

In terms of YA readers, this book would be a great supplemental text when learning about WWII (or any war, really). It challenges the idea of “enemy” in a way that is digestible but still potent for young readers. It would also be a good read for kids dealing with the death of a close friend or family member, or someone who might be estranged from extended family. Despite the YA title, the novel felt mature. Despite the serious issues it addresses, it still felt light and fun. Wynne-Jones is undoubtedly a talented writer, whose work I will continue to seek out in the future.

 

 

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L: Review of Paula Hawkins’s “The Girl on the Train”

Someone reassure me: have you ever read a book that you know was good, but wasn’t good for you? I think I’ve mentioned my ongoing issue with reverse projection and that some books and the issues addressed within them just become too personal for me. Well, Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train was just such a book. I can tell that it was a good book. The writing was effortless; the plot was unique and mesmerizing; it took all of two days for me to complete. I can see why other people would like it, and yet I cannot say that I liked it. Not at all, actually.

First things first:

girlonthetrain

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Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

I’ve been trying to pinpoint the exact reason why I feel icky about this book, and I think I’ve settled on the fact that everything in the book was miserable. I’m talking about every character, every situation, every relationship was unhappy, uncomfortable, and depressing. It was truly 300 pages of depression. There’s infidelity; there’s alcoholism; there are misfortunes aplenty, and I continually had to close the book and remind myself that this was a fictional story. It is not my life. It is not reality, at least for me, and hopefully not for anyone ever, because yikes! What awful people with awful lives! I still can’t get over it.

However, it must speak to the author’s talent if she is able to affect me so strongly with her story. And like I said, the writing, the action, intrigue, plot twists, everything was there and all of it made for an interesting, quick read. MY problem of projecting the problems of characters within books or movies onto myself is no concern of this author, and in that case, she did her job. I was interested the whole time. I imagine that The Girl on the Train technically counts as a “thriller” and definitely counts as a mystery. It maintains the suspense well enough (you’ll figure it out before the book spells it out for you, but then you just get to feel smart for figuring it out) and is relatable and believable throughout, hence my resulting sadness.

My depression from reading this is my own concern, and it always passes. So, while I personally will give this book maybe 2 stars for being just too darn miserable (seriously, 0% happiness or positivity for 323 pages; just varying levels of misfortune), I can’t say that I don’t recommend it to people who like mysteries, or “thrillers.” Give it a try. Whatever. I’m working on recuperating, myself.  Need brain floss, ASAP!

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L: Review of “Inferno” by Dan Brown

​I work in a dangerously small town, the kind that considers itself “modern” for having a Subway, so I wasn’t surprised upon visiting the local library that my pickings were depressingly slim. However, I was desperate for something, absolutely anything, to entertain me until my book on hold came in from across the state. It’s times like these that I turn to Dan Brown. That’s how I came across his other works way back when, and just like that I found myself departing from the library with Inferno in hand.

I know why I expect so little from Dan Brown novels: they’re all just so similar (same Robert Langdon; slightly different dilemma) that I anticipate Inferno being the same as The Da Vinci Code being the same as The Lost Symbol being the same as Angels & Demons. I’ll go ahead and make it clear that Inferno is indeed the same unnaturally all-knowing Symbologist traipsing around one of the world’s most influential centers of art/culture/history/religion with a beautiful and helpful but non-romantic ladyfriend in order to save the rest of the oblivious world. However, the passion that I feel for Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno” planted a seed of slightly higher excitement and expectation for this novel, in particular.

Inferno

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Much like Andy Weir in my last post, Dan Brown astounds me when thinking about the amount of research that would have to go into writing this novel. Not only does Robert Langdon, Brown’s recurring main character, go into vast detail about the minutiae of Dante’s most popular work, but equalling mind-numbing detail is applied to countless other books, poems, paintings, and historical sites that are someway remotely connected to “Inferno.” The novel follows Langdon, who cannot recall anything from the last 48 hours, through Italy in an attempt to save the lives of himself and this installment’s “Bond girl” and to find out how in the world his unfortunate and dangerous current state is connected to Dante and “Inferno.” I found the twists, turns, and ultimate ending to be altogether unpredictable, which is refreshing in this era of “been there, read that,” and I truly enjoyed it from beginning to end.

The best part of the novel, however, was the almost “behind the scenes” feel of the endless descriptions. Brown is a master of detail and the product of this effort is that I genuinely felt as though I was standing in Florence, staring up at the vast ceilings or gilded doors, the pigeon-topped statues or floor-to-ceiling paintings, or the fragile detail of Dante’s death mask. As Langdon found the hidden passages behind paintings or sprinted through rafters, I felt as though I was getting a VIP tour of a city I’ve never seen, much less via hidden corridors above the city streets. I found it hard to read this novel when I didn’t have access to a computer, as nearly every paragraph contained beautiful descriptions and secret details about the many paintings and historical landmarks peppered along Langdon’s journey that I absolutely needed to see to believe.

If this review was based solely on the plot of Inferno, it would still be a positive review, as it posed a true question of societal norms and the inevitable dangers of our over-populated planet; fortunately, the plot is also supported by extraordinary details and connections that only enhanced my fascination. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a good mystery, a thriller, a historical or literary expose, or anyone who loves Dante. I think you’ll be equally pleased.

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