Book Review: Three novels by Ruth Ware

I didn’t immediately jump on the Ruth Ware bandwagon after reading In a Dark, Dark Wood back in 2016. I liked the book just fine, but I wasn’t feeling the immediate pull to read everything from the author.

Three years later, I decided to give it all a go, starting with Ware’s fifth novel, The Turn of the Key, which was published this summer. This one does a stellar job of using setting as a character since the story takes place in an old Victorian home that’s been internally updated to be a smart house. You get old haunting vibes with the knowledge that anyone could be watching you via cameras.

Rowan Caine answers an ad for a nanny at Heatherbrae House in the Scottish Highlands, but what she doesn’t realize is that she’s walking straight into a nightmare. A child is going to die (not a spoiler) and she’s going to prison for murder (also not a spoiler).

The story is told in epistolary form (via letters from Rowan to her lawyer), which can get tedious at times, but it’s still a clever way to tell a story when it’s almost entirely in flashbacks. The narrative is highly suspenseful throughout and even creepy at times. It’s definitely my favorite of Ruth Ware’s books.


I was so pleased with The Turn of the Key that I immediately went on to The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ware’s fourth novel.

Harriet Westaway, “Hal”, lives modestly in Brighton as a tarot reader on a pier. One day she receives a letter informing her that she is the chosen recipient of a substantial inheritance by her grandmother in Cornwall. That would be great news if Hal’s grandparents hadn’t already died years ago.

However, since she’s desperate for money (to pay off loan sharks) and tired of living pound to pound, she decides to attend the funeral to see if she can get away with accepting the inheritance without anyone being wise to her scheme. Of course, it’s not going to be easy.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway is less suspenseful than The Turn of the Key, but it still kept my interest because I wanted to untangle the knot. Each member of the Westaway family had a secret to keep, and it was a fun ride with Hal to see where each puzzle piece fit.

This book was advertised as an “unputdownable thriller,” but I challenge the “thriller” part. I did get through it quickly because I wanted to know how Hal was related to everyone – or if she even was related to them at all.


Since I was on a roll with Ruth Ware books, I finally picked up her second one, The Woman in Cabin 10, which was published in 2016.

The story begins with a burglary. Lo Blacklock is a travel journalist (dream job!) and had the unfortunate experience of a traumatic break-in. To escape the fear she feels at home, Lo leaps at the chance to take part in a luxury press tour on a Scandanavian cruise. One night on the water, she sees what she believes is a woman being tossed overboard to her death. Lo cannot let this go, despite a full search aboard the ship and everyone reassuring her that she didn’t see anything.

A few things: The initial burglary put Lo in a state of constant anxiety, so her narration was irritating to the point that I didn’t want to hear any more in her voice by the middle of the book.

Secondly, the pacing seemed to drag. I understand the need to create claustrophobia on a small cruise liner, to agitate the reader so he/she *feels* the tension, but I became too frustrated with the slow pacing (combined with the tight living quarters and Lo’s anxiety) that I could not finish the book.

That’s right. I didn’t finish it.

Of course, I wanted to know how it ended, so I read a summary online and immediately felt relieved that I didn’t suffer the rest of the book for that storyline. The Woman in Cabin 10 has been my least favorite Ruth Ware book thus far. I don’t recommend it.

I’ll give The Lying Game a go soon. Then, I’ll be up to speed.

Book review: Behind Her Eyes

I love a story with a good twist. Better yet, I love a story with several good twists. I enjoy the shock and surprise of learning I was completely wrong.

Behind Her Eyes presents two narrators – Adele, the pretty yet fragile wife of a local psychiatrist, and Louise, a single mom and the psychiatrist’s secretary. David, the psychiatrist, is the third person in the triad, but we don’t have a POV from him.

Here’s the catch – the Louise and David had a clumsy kiss in a bar prior to her starting the job, before they knew they’d be working together. So, when Louise and Adele meet and strike up a friendship, there’s already a secret in play. It’s a big mess, but that isn’t the point. There is something else going on in the story that looms larger than their little white lies.

The quick pacing kept me enthralled, particularly because more lies lead to more secrets and you know it’s all going to come to light eventually. The question is WHEN and HOW, so I kept going.

Then there’s this other plot point that starts to creep in, one that involves lucid dreaming, and I started to feel like I was reading The Anatomy of Stars, which I didn’t enjoy. Finally, in the last couple of chapters, the purpose of the lucid dreaming is revealed.

To be honest, I enjoyed this book tremendously – until its finale. I don’t want to spoil it, but the ending seemed directly lifted from a 2005 film. (Click here if you want to know what movie I’m referring to, and if you’ve seen it, you’ll be spoiled.) In fact, my brain went right there: Oh, this is exactly like that movie... So, that left me unimpressed. (Granted, if you haven’t seen the movie, it won’t matter and you’ll probably get a good kick out of the end. ūüôā )

Book review: I Found You

I’m not sure if double or triple timelines is a trend that authors are choosing independently or if literary agents and editors are pushing for it. Either way, I keep choosing these books. I don’t mind necessarily, but it’s a format that I’ll soon need a break from.

I Found You takes place primarily in a seaside town in England called Ridinghouse Bay. Cynical single mom Alice wakes up one morning to find a man sitting on the beach outside her house. She approaches him only to find out he has no idea who he is or what he’s doing on the beach. Instead of leaving him there, she welcomes him back to her house for a shower, a hot meal, and eventually, a short-term place to stay until his memory returns.

A second part of the book takes place in London and focuses on Lily, a newlywed whose husband would normally go to work and come home like clockwork. When he doesn’t come home one day and cannot be reached on his cell phone, Lily calls the police and thus begins a missing person search. Matters aren’t helped when Lily realizes she knows little to nothing about the man she met and married in a whirlwind romance.

A third narrative takes place as well, but this time it’s in the past (1993) and follows Gray and Kirsty Ross, a brother and sister on summer vacation with their parents in Ridinghouse Bay. All was well and good until a charming young man, Mark, starts paying too much attention to Kirsty, and Gray doesn’t trust a single thing the local boy says.

I Found You is a true mystery in that the first overarching question readers have is if the man on the beach is Lily’s missing husband. The second question is how Gray and Mark from 1993 fit into the future narrative. The answers come at the beginning of the third act (last third of the book), and then the question becomes, “How will this all turn out?”

I wasn’t blown away by I Found You in the way I was with Sometimes I Lie, which remains one of my favorites, but it was still a good read and one that kept my interest until the end. It reminded me of a Liane Moriarity book, so if that’s your type of fiction, give it a go.

Favorite books I read in 2018

In 2017, I settled into a genre that doesn’t seem to be waning. I’ve always enjoyed a good whodunit, but that’s morphed into thrillers and mysteries that do a good job of hijacking my brain. The best books are the ones with top-notch character development, a plot you can’t dissect, and pacing so swift that you can’t look away for a moment without wondering what might happen next.

Not all of my favorites from 2018 are thrillers, but most of them are. (Keep in mind these aren’t necessarily books that debuted in 2018.)


The Secrets She Keeps follows two storylines – Agatha is a pregnant thirty-something who works at a dreadful grocery store. She longs to have her ex-boyfriend back in the fold of their impending family. Life is pretty miserable. Meg, on the other hand, is a pregnant mommy blogger who enjoys a happy, public life married to a handsome sportscaster. Agatha’s life is notably less desirable than Meg’s, and after watching the pregnant blogger shop in the store where she works, a plan starts to form. Obviously, Agatha is jealous of Meg, and it’s this emotional drug that keeps her watching and waiting. When their stories finally align, the pacing and tension is everything you need it to be.


As soon as I finished Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, I knew it was going to be a 2018 favorite. Additionally, I recommend you listen to this book instead of read it because the narration by Cathleen McCarron is an absolute delight.

Eleanor Oliphant is a special lady. Thirty years old and full of quirks, she is likely somewhere on the autism spectrum, though fully capable of living an independent life. Her mother is a constant nag, and her co-worker Raymond provides a lovely contrast to Eleanor’s cut-and-dry lifestyle. Unfortunately, something bad exists in Eleanor’s history, an event we don’t yet understand. However, as memories unfold, the tragedy comes to light, and Eleanor’s life will never be the same.

The book is a perfect mixture of serious and funny. There are laugh-out-loud moments followed by pure heartache. Gail Honeyman deserves all the applause.


If you’ve asked me for a book recommendation in 2018, it’s likely I told you to read Sometimes I Lie. Hoo-boy, it was good.

Told through three timelines – Now, Before, and Then – we learn about Amber Reynolds’ life. During Now, she’s in a coma. Before puts the pieces together of how she wound up in that coma. Then includes passages from a diary written by a young girl in 1991 and 1992.

Lest you think three timelines is hard to keep track of, no worries. The story is impeccably written, an admirable feat for Alice Feeney, as Sometimes I Lie is her debut novel. If you love fiction at all, read this one.


If you asked me for a book recommendation in 2018, it’s also likely that I told you to read Homegoing, which is not a thriller. It begins in 18th Century Ghana, where two half sisters, Effia and Esi, don’t know the other exists. Effia is married off to a wealthy and influential Englishman who oversees the British slave trade headquartered on the Gold Coast. Esi, the daughter of a tribal warrior, is sold into slavery and is kept in the dungeon of the same castle where her half-sister lives. She eventually passes through the Door of No Return to board a boat headed for America.

Thus begins a 300-year journey that follows the descendants of Effia (in Africa) and Esi (in America). It is exhaustive, emotional, and absolutely necessary to read if you have any interest in trying to understand the African American story. I was shocked to learn that Yaa Gyasi did not win the Pulitzer for Homegoing, but I was pleased to know she was at least in the running. Before my boys graduate high school, they will read this book.


My final favorite book I read in 2018 is The Word is Murder, which I love even more whenever I think of it. Anthony Horowitz was given the go-ahead by the Conan Doyle Estate to write two Sherlock Holmes novels, so he was well-equipped to craft The Word is Murder.

To explain this book well takes more than a paragraph, so I encourage you to click on the link above or do your own research if you want to know more. Essentially, Horowitz writes himself into the book as the narrator and main character. He’s an established novelist, doing just fine, when ex-detective Daniel Hawthorne (the obsessive, sharp Sherlock character) asks for his help to document a murder investigation. After some hesitation, Horowitz morphs into the Watson role, and the pair investigate the murder of Diana Cowper, a woman who walks into a funeral parlor one afternoon to prepay for her future services and is found murdered in her apartment later the same day.

If you have any interest in Sherlock Holmes at all – the TV series or the original works – The Word is Murder is a must-read.


And since I also appreciate knowing what books people DON’T recommend, I suggest you pass on The Last Mrs. Parrish, The Anatomy of Dreams, There Will Be Stars, and possibly Witch Elm, which currently remains unfinished because it is dreadfully slow.

Book review: The Last Mrs. Parrish

The quickest way to describe this book to you is to reference “Single White Female” and point to that level of crazy jealousy. That is Amber. She wants Daphne Parrish’s socialite, wealthy life so badly that she’ll go to any length necessary to have it. She’ll wiggle her way into Daphne’s good graces, charm her children, and keep her distance – albeit publicly – from her husband, Jackson. This is all part of the plan, after all. Get in, settle down, and eventually replace Daphne altogether.

That is, if everything goes according to plan. (Spoiler: Things don’t always go according to plan.)

I’ll admit that I almost didn’t read this one on account of being on Reese’s Book Club list. I’m not sure why that was a near-deterrent, but it was. Now that I’ve read it, I could’ve skipped it. Amber is a whiny character who needed a good slap every day. I cringed at every scene with her because she was that obnoxious. Even with a good twist at the end, I didn’t fully connect with the characters and felt like they could’ve been named anything and lived out their lives anywhere. So, perhaps it’s a pass for you.

Book review: The Ruin

Twenty years ago the body of Hilaria Blake was found in her home. An apparent overdose left her two children – Jack and Maude – orphaned. It was the sort of case that didn’t feel quite right, but when the most obvious conclusion is all you have, that’s what you go with. At least, that’s what Detective Cormac Reilly believed at the time.

Fast forward 20 years and Jack Blake’s body has been found in the river Corrib in Ireland. The police are quick to rule it a suicide, a truth girlfriend Aisling Conroy cannot seem to grasp. When sister Maude shows up to investigate her brother’s death on her own, the heat turns up in Galway.

Recently transferred from Dublin to Galway, Detective Reilly finds himself unearthing Hilaria Blake’s overdose case while grappling with her son’s supposed suicide. Things don’t align. Something doesn’t sit well. There is another link to the story which he resolves to uncover.

The Ruin moves at a swift pace, which I always appreciate. Sometimes I like to dwell in details, but when it comes to thrillers I want to run to the end. I want to untangle the knot as quickly as possible, as long as the author gets her words in. The Ruin impressed me because this is a debut novel. McTiernan was a lawyer in her former life and only jumped into fiction because she loved crime thrillers so much. So yeah, I enjoyed this mystery a great deal, and it was recommended to me since I’m a fan of Tana French, another Irish author.

However, I will tell you that The Ruin is a quicker and more interesting read than Witch Elm, French’s latest, which is currently sitting aside unfinished because the pacing is so darn slow.

Book review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

I’m late on this review, but it is not a reflection on its quality. I listened to it on audiobook this summer while training for a race, so I had plenty of time to dive into the details of the Golden State Killer, also known at the EAR (East Area Rapist).

If this title and author is unfamiliar to you, it’s important to know right off that Michelle McNamara passed away before she could see her book in print. She’d been following the case, and subsequently writing about it with the intention of getting her work published, when she reached an untimely death in April 2016 at age 46. It was her husband, Patton Oswalt, who worked with his wife’s research partner to see this book finished.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark chases down every lead suspected to be connected to a violent predator who committed upwards of 50 sexual assaults and at least ten murders. For a decade this person eluded detectives in Northern California, and eventually the case ran dry. The Golden State Killer has been the focus of myriad stories and articles, but no one could every piece it all together in a way that fleshed out a real person.

McNamara was hyper-focused on the case. It kept her up at night and occupied her mind at the most inopportune times, such as when she was walking the red carpet with her Hollywood husband. Essentially, she was obsessed with it, but perhaps that worked to her credit. After all, she honed in on a few details that eventually led to the arrest of a suspect.

It would be irritating to read this book without the events that unfolded in the spring of 2018. A man was arrested. More information came to light. It’s just a shame McNamara wasn’t alive to see it for herself.

Book review: The Lady in the Tower

One of my favorite historians is Alison Weir. Not only is she thorough and detailed, but she writes in a way that feels like you’re reading fiction. She’s an effective storyteller, and it just so happens that the story she’s telling is true.

My interest in Anne Boleyn is not new, but it was made stronger after visiting Hever Castle in October. I wanted to dive into her family’s history even more after that visit, to read new (to me) details about Anne’s final days and flesh out her life as much as possible.

The Lady in the Tower did that, and more. I knew Thomas Cromwell was already at the core of her downfall, but I did not realize the degree to which he attacked her from all angles. What a wretch he was! I also did not realize that much of our recorded history from that time is credited to letters written by Eustace Chapuys, Roman Ambassador to England under Charles V. He was a meticulous writer, and much about Anne’s Tudor experience is known because of him.

I don’t expect anyone to pick up this book on my recommendation unless there’s already an interest in the British monarchy, specifically the Tudor period. However, if that’s your jam, you’d do well to read anything by Alison Weir, including The Lady in the Tower.

Book review: Burntown

Burntown has been on my TBR (To Be Read) list since I heard about it. Already a big fan of The Winter People and The Night Sister, I knew Burntown would be worth the wait. I wasn’t wrong.

There is something that happens in a Jennifer McMahon book that I’ve yet to see replicated as well in others. She manages to marry mystery/thriller with the slightest paranormal in a way that seems totally natural. I’m not a fan of paranormal as a genre, but when it comes to McMahon, I’m all in.

Burntown begins with a scene from the past Рa young boy watches while his mother is murdered. 

Then we jump forward. All grown up, Miles Sandeski has a family of his own. He makes things, builds things with his hands, including a machine based on Edison’s design to reach beyond the veil between life and death. Somehow, the machine works and he can hear his mother’s voice, which tells him her murderer – a man named Snake Eyes – is not gone. In fact, he’s watching Miles, waiting for another opportunity. The family is not safe, and then a flood sweeps in, washing away the Sandeski’s home. Miles and son Errol are gone. Miles’s wife survives for a short time, but then, it’s only their daughter, Eva.¬†

In an attempt to live some version of a cursed life in Burntown, the underbelly of Ashford, Vermont, Eva changes her name to Necco and lives in a car with her boyfriend. The murderer is now after her. The cycle continues. 

Though the main character is Necco, we also hear from two other women – Theo and Pru, who each have their own journey that intertwines with Necco’s. When these three finally team up, the pacing of the story quickens towards a resolution.

The Winter People continues to be my favorite of McMahon’s so far, but Burntown is special in a way that leaves me – if I’m being honest – a little jealous. McMahon is darn good. She knows how to craft a creepy story that’s totally bizarre and equally believable. Once the ball was rolling, I was locked in. We knew Snake Eyes was going to resurface. We knew the Edison machine was going to be important. We knew that Necco was going to succeed. BUT HOW? How does it all come together?¬†

You have to read Burntown to find out. 

Book review: Frankenstein

One of the perks of developing my own English class for our co-op is selecting works I love and think are important for young people to read. Out of 15 students, more than half dreaded reading Frankenstein. A few were neutral, which left a few who were actually eager to dive in and see what this novel was all about. I’m happy to report that I welcomed a group of converts into the Pro-Frankenstein Club. (Not everyone loved it, but many did!)

For the sole purpose of encouraging non-students to read Frankenstein, I decided to offer a short book review here. 

Often labeled the first work of Science Fiction, Frankenstein is a frame story that begins with letters from a ship captain, Robert Walton, to his sister, Margaret. Walton is terrifically lonely on his expedition to the Arctic and has no one (his equal) to share in the adventure. Just when he thinks he’ll be alone forever, a downtrodden man near death is found floating on an iceberg. Pulled aboard, Walton learns the man’s name: Victor Frankenstein. Once he’s strong enough, Victor tells Walton his tale.

Enter Frame Story Level I: Victor grew up in a perfect family, loving and generous. He had an interest in science, and though it wasn’t necessarily shepherded well by his parents, it wasn’t squashed either. During his teen years, he explored different areas of science, incorporated philosophy, and began to question what he may be capable of. One night, when he was 15 years old, he watched a storm brewing and saw lightning strike a tree and enflame it. This gave him a curious idea involving electricity.

Years later, his curious idea morphed into the desire to create a new species. Thus became the monster, but upon seeing what he’d created, Victor abandoned the creature and ran away in fear. Chaos ensues.

It’s important to know that readers experience a few more layers of storytelling, hearing more than just Victor’s side. Though the language isn’t modern, and it can be exhaustive at times, the themes and ideas explored in Frankenstein are well-worth the wrestling. Whether or not Mary Shelley knew of her own genius, I’m not sure, but she presents several important questions to readers that still apply today:
1) When does life begin?
2) What is our responsibility toward life?
3) What are the dangers of blind ambition?
4) How far should we go scientifically when lives are at stake?

If reading Frankenstein is too daunting, I highly encourage you to listen to Audible’s version narrated by Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey, the Beast from Beauty and Beast). You will not be disappointed.¬†

Book review: Magpie Murders

My experience with The Word is Murder was so delightful that I immediately investigated other Anthony Horowitz novels and selected a New York Times bestseller, Magpie Murders, to read next. As I hoped, it too was outstanding and I may have a new favorite author.

Magpie Murders is a double puzzle set up like a frame story (a story within a story). In the beginning, we hear from Susan Ryeland, a book editor who’s just been given novelist Alan Conway’s latest thriller. She has been editing Conway’s¬†books for years, and though she doesn’t care for him much as a person, she enjoys editing his work because he is the best whodunit mystery writer of the time. He has mastered the cozy murder¬†mystery in small English villages, an equation that people continue to love (myself included). His fictional detective, Atticus P√ľnd, is beloved by readers everywhere. So, Susan introduces readers to Conway’s latest novel with a slight warning, and we dive into Conway’s work. In other words, we step into the frame story.¬†

There’s been a double murder at Pye Hall – first the housekeeper, then the master of the house. Atticus P√ľnd must untie all the strings to determine who is guilty. Conway’s novel follows a classic Agatha Christie model – a collection of interconnected characters, each with a sliver of a motive. The entire first half of the book is Conway’s novel.

However, just as P√ľnd has solved the mystery, the book ends unfinished. The last chapter is missing, and that’s when we snap back to Susan, the editor, who’s just been told that Alan Conway, the writer, is dead.

Thus begins the second murder to solve. Not only is Susan frazzled by not knowing who killed the fictional housekeeper and master of the house at Pye Hall, now she has to figure out what to do regarding her client’s untimely death. Susan uses what she’s learned from a career of editing murder mysteries to solve the crime of who killed Alan Conway and figure out what happened to his last chapter.

To be honest, Magpie Murders was a slow start, but that’s only because I didn’t fully appreciate what was going on. From the book summaries I’d read, I didn’t grasp the frame story aspect, so when we skip from Susan’s point of view to the various characters in Conway’s novel, I had to work a little harder to stay focused.

However, once the mystery was fully underway, I was hooked. It was brilliant, and once again Anthony Horowitz wowed me. 

If you are a fan of British mysteries, Agatha Christie, and the classic whodunit, you’ll love Magpie Murders.¬†

Book review: The Word is Murder

If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes, whether the original Doyle stories or the Benedict Cumberbatch show, then The Word is Murder is for you. 

Reading a brief summary doesn’t do the story justice, particularly when you have to start with the fact that Anthony Horowitz, the author, is also the narrator and main character. Horowitz is already an establish crime thriller novelist in real life, but with this book, he writes himself into the story as a proverbial Watson when a fictional Sherlock-type comes knocking at his door.¬†

One morning, Diana Cowper, mother to a famous British actor, walks into a funeral parlor and prepays for her own service. That afternoon, she’s found dead in her home from an apparent murder.

To crack the case, ex-detective Daniel Hawthorne (the obsessive, crazy-smart Sherlock type) enlists the help of Anthony to document the investigation for the sole purpose of writing a book about it. After a series of “thanks, but no thanks,” Anthony eventually bends to the will of the persistent detective and the pair goes off to figure out who murdered Diana.¬†

Not only is the plot clever and classically Sherlock, but it also has the sort of twists and turns that make for a good crime thriller. I listened to it in a matter of days because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to Diana. Also, I so enjoyed the banter between Hawthorne and Horowitz, as it is pitch-perfect to Holmes and Watson.¬†

Now I need to go back and read the rest of Horowitz’s work since I learned that he was commissioned by the Conan Doyle Estate to write two Sherlock Holmes novels – The House of Silk, which was mentioned in The Word is Murder, and Moriarty. He was also commissioned by the Ian Flemming folks to write a James Bond novel. All of the personal references in The Word is Murder are true – his achievements with Foyle’s War and the Alex Rider series, as well as his contributions to TV and film.

What’s fictional, however, is the murder of Diana and Daniel Hawthorne as the investigator. But from the way it’s written, you surely wouldn’t know it.¬†¬†

Book Review: The Secrets She Keeps

Now that half marathon training exceeds an hour (and nears two), I’m in the market for wholly absorbing thrillers to help me pass the time while I run. After Sometimes I Lie and Something in the Water, I wasn’t sure I’d find a third book that was good as those two.¬†

I’m happy to tell you I DID. The Secrets She Keeps is every bit as absorbing, addictive, and mind-blowing as I hoped it would be.

Agatha is a pregnant thirty-something who works at a London grocery store. There, she watches Meg, a pregnant mommy blogger, do her shopping. Agatha is unmarried and unnoticeable. She lives in a lowly apartment and lures her ex-boyfriend, Hayden, back into the fold with news of her pregnancy.

Meg, on the other hand, is attractive, married to a handsome¬†and famous sportscaster, and they have two healthy, happy children with an “oops” baby on the way. This is why Agatha watches her. Meg’s life looks too perfect to look away.

Their lives eventually intertwine in a terrible way. Told in Agatha’s and Meg’s alternating but distinct voices, the narrative digs into the harrowing depths of infertility, mental instability, grief, envy, and fa√ßade. Honest to goodness,¬†The Secrets She Keeps kept me locked in from start to finish.¬† I listened to it at every free moment. Pitch perfect narration was a mere bonus, particularly during Agatha’s chapters.¬†

If you’re into thrillers, read it.¬†

Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

It is only May, but I could easily give you my five favorite books of 2018, Eleanor Oliphant included. I am on a roll.

To start, I listened to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine on Audible, and it was a delightful experience in account of Cathleen McCarron’s impeccable accent and narration. I went on handfuls of long runs while listening to this book without a care for the distance. The story is solid, but the narration on its own is a delight. (Take a listen to the sample preview, if you have a moment.)¬†

Thirty-year-old Eleanor Oliphant is an unusual, quirky person. Put plainly, she’s awkward and not consistently suited for all social interactions. She speaks bluntly and struggles to understand why certain social norms exist. We don’t know a lot about Eleanor at the start of the book, but we know she lives alone, works in the accounting department at a design firm, and is burdened by less-than-lovely conversations with her mother. She¬†exists rather than lives.

The plot charges forward when Eleanor is thrust into a predicament. She and co-worker Raymond see an old man collapse on the street and Eleanor struggles to navigate appropriate responses. Through this unscheduled event, Eleanor and Raymond develop a friendship, or at least, a consistent interaction that Eleanor eventually perceives as a friendship. 

As the narrative unfolds, we learn that Eleanor has the sort of tragic past one reads about in the newspapers. Buried memories begin to surface and it isn’t pretty.

Though some of the subject matter, as it pertains to Eleanor’s upbringing and early 20s, isn’t funny at all, the book is a near riot. I was the goofball giggling to herself along the Greenway somewhere between seven and ten miles. Gail Honeyman nailed character development. She built a whole, believable, endearing woman with words and inference.

I highly, highly recommend this one.

Top Ten Favorite Books of 2016

In 2015, I read 53 books, verifying to myself that I could, indeed, read 50 books in a year. For 2016, I gave myself a break and set a goal of 40. If all pans out by New Year’s Eve, I will have finished 46 books (45¬†on paper, one audio).

Of those, I chose ten favorites with ease. Numbering them 3-10 was even easier, but depending on the day, my top two choices¬†could be swapped. It could go either way. That’s what happens when a book¬†reaches Ken Follett and Khaled Hosseini levels. Those books have their very own shelves.

To be on my Top Ten, the¬†book has to be all-consuming.¬†Not only does the writing have to be fluid and paced, the plot¬†has to be imaginative¬†and addictive. The book has to take over my whole brain so that I’m thinking about it while I’m driving and running and I must¬†ten minutes here and there to read. It has to hit me in the gut or keep me up at night or break my heart. I want to feel it.

The genre doesn’t matter. On this list are thrillers, post-apocalyptic stories, fantasy and contemporary narratives, well-known¬†authors, not-so-well-known authors, and subject matters that range from fashion and terrorism and murder to historically and culturally specific events. Each book is linked to my original review. Enjoy, and Happy Reading in 2017!

10. From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant. Funny, quirky, and strangely troubling as it pertains to our national security. All Boy Hernandez wants to be is a fashion designed. How unfortunate to be mistaken for a terrorist! Be careful who you trust!

9. Station Eleven. This was the first book I read in 2016 and it was such a great choice! Though I’m not usually into post-apocalyptic fiction, I found Station Eleven to be endearing and unique in its focus on a traveling symphony in a post-apocalyptic reality. When there is no electricity, no means of transportation, and no way to communicate with one another, you must whittle humanity down to its very basic form and see what survives.

8. Long Man. Set over the course of three days in 1936, Annie Clyde Dodson refuses to surrender her¬†property to the government and the TVA. It doesn’t matter that it will all be under water soon anyway. She won’t do it. But¬†just when her resolve reaches fever pitch, her three-year-old daughter Gracie goes missing. With all her might, Annie Clyde must keep the government at bay and find her daughter alive. The pacing of this book is so steady, so even. It was hard to put down.

7. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Clay lands himself a job at a bookstore and immediately knows the place is super weird. The contents, the layout, the patrons. All weird. But he needs the job so he can’t be picky. It isn’t long before Clay is swept into a centuries-long adventure that feels like an Indiana Jones movie. This book gets extra points for its attention to detail in typography. Design nerds will love it.

6. You. Before this one, I’d¬†never read a book written in second person, but now that I have, my standards are very high. We read You from the point of view of Joe, a sick, twisted, vulgar young man who is transfixed by Beck, a girl who is cute and oblivious to so much attention. Readers are in Joe’s mind so deep that it’s hard to crawl out. And actually, I didn’t really want to. (The sequel, Hidden Bodies, is on my must-read list.)

5. Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Having just read this one, it is still fresh and tender in my mind. It is 1987 and June Elbus has just lost her uncle to AIDS, a confusing and troubling disease that the 14-year-old doesn’t understand. Finn was a renowned artist and also June’s godfather and closest confidant. While her family just wants to move on with their lives, June is unable to, especially after Toby, Finn’s partner, who is also dying, extends an invite to grieve together. The two develop a secret, sympathetic friendship that teaches June about life and love in more ways than she imagined.

4. The Winter People. This one had me on the edge. Unable to read it at night, I hurried to The Winter People first thing in the morning and read it over the stove top while cooking¬†dinner. When it got dark outside, I put it down. Set in West Hall, Vermont, over two time periods, it¬†focuses on the¬†murder¬†of Sara Shea (1908) and Alice (Present Day), who lives in Sara’s old house and has gone missing. Sara’s old diary has been unearthed, and there are things that happen in the woods behind the house. And then there’s that closet that’s been boarded up, and the strange passageways inside the house that only a few people know about. There are a dozen little mysteries that form one big crazy equation, and Ruthie, Alice’s daughter, sets out to solve them all. IT IS SCARY GOOD.

3. The Snow Child. Having just finished this one a couple of days ago, I’ve pinpointed a new reason why it moved me so. Beyond its magnificent style and elegance, more than its magical¬†setting, The Snow Child tugged on a part of my heart that has long since healed. Infertility is a wretched beast, and the loss one feels when she’s told she cannot bear children is unlike anything else I’ve experienced. When Jack and Mabel, painfully childless, build a girl out of snow, it’s done in fun, with imagination, with a nod to what might’ve been in another lifetime had things worked differently. And yet, when a girl appears in the Alaskan wilderness,¬†the couple doesn’t know what to do with her. Call out to her? Bring her inside? Is she even real? The Snow Child is beautiful in so many ways. If you’re going to read it, make sure you read it in wintertime.

2. The Devil of Nanking. Grey is a 23-year-old Brit who’s traveled to Tokyo to find a survivor of the 1937 Nanking Massacre. She’s spent a decade trying to prove something she believes to be true, and this survivor supposedly has footage of some kind that confirms it. This story is nail-biting and brutal. Like The Winter People, I read it at every free moment. The author is vivid in her¬†details, even the most horrific ones. I’ve never read another thriller like it. It is perfect.

1. The Secret History.¬†Donna Tartt is good writer. A damn good writer. The Goldfinch proved it, but The Secret History solidified it. Though it’s nearly 600 pages, you don’t even notice it because the pacing is lightning fast. You don’t have time to sit around and wish the book would end already. Richard Papen is our narrator who¬†tells the story of how he and his college classmates¬†killed Edmund, nicknamed¬†“Bunny.” Richard is troubled by what they did and¬†by how they managed it after the fact. We’re all a little mad, but some, I believe, are more mad than others.

Book Review: The Little Friend

The Little FriendThis is the third book I’ve read by Donna Tartt. Compared to The Goldfinch and The Secret History, it fell a bit short. While I wasn’t nearly as captivated by the characters or setting or plot, Tartt is still a masterful storyteller. She has a unique way of placing readers inside the scene instead of keeping them on the periphery. She knows how to show instead of tell.

The Little Friend begins with the jarring knowledge that nine-year-old Robin was found hung from a tupelo tree in a small, fictional town in 1960s Mississippi. Autopsy reveals that he was strangled first, then hung, a curious tragedy that never got solved. The story picks up a decade later with a family that never recovered.

Our main character is 12-year-old Harriet (think Harriet the Spy), who was only a baby when her older brother died. Her sister, Allison, was barely four, but the remnant of her brother’s brutal death left her lifeless and emotionally stunted. The same goes for their mother. (Their father ran off to Nashville for a new life but does well to send money home.)

There is also the grandmother and her three sisters, a quad of old spinster women who busy themselves with the keeping of tradition.

Harriet is presented as the most mature person of the bunch, save their maid, Ida Rhew, who seems to know and see all. But as Harriet sets off to find and punish the person who murdered her brother, she creates a storm of trouble for herself, her family, and the Ratliffs, the family whom she suspects is behind the crime.

The book is 555 pages and heavy on character development. (The most exciting parts of the book occur in the last 50.) It’s a Southern Gothic novel fraught with racial inequalities, white trash families, and the very worst of a heritage we wish never existed. It moves slowly in the way that’s irritating, even when the sentences are beautifully written. Yes, it’s my least favorite of the three (plot-wise and otherwise), but I still love how Tartt weaves a narrative. I’d pass on The Little Friend and¬†forever encourage you to read The Secret History. It’s outstanding.

Book Review: The Secret Place

the secret placeWell, the streak was bound to end. They can’t all be great.

Unlike Into the Woods, Faithful Place, The Likeness, and Broken Harbor, I did not enjoy The Secret Place. In fact, I struggled to finish it.

In keeping with the Dublin Murder Squad standard plot equation, there’s been a murder and you, as the reader, have a couple of hunches right off the bat. You follow the investigators – this time, it’s Detective Antoinette Conway, a brisk and seasoned officer, and a tag-along from Cold Cases, Detective Stephen Moran. Together they look into the year-old murder of a high school student from a high-brow, all-boys boarding school. The suspects? Two rival groups of four girls from the sister school.

And that is exactly what I didn’t like about the book: all the dang teenagers.

This is why I don’t read Young Adult. I’m not interested in teenage emotions, teenage drama, teenage anything. I don’t want the angst, the eye-rolling, or the verbal drivel of OMG! and other obnoxious phrases like “totes amazeballs.”

I’m a little disappointed that this is where Tana French went with her fifth book. Perhaps it won’t bother others the way it bothered me, and if that’s the case, I apologize for the negative review. All the other elements of the plot were true to the series – suspense, cliffhangers, subtle clues, and damaged people. It’s just unfortunate that the damaged people in The Secret Place were too irritating to ignore. You’ve been warned.

Book Review: Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church

HereticsTo be a heretic in earlier centuries Рthat is, to denounce a proclamation from the church at-large Рwas worse than aligning yourself to another religion entirely. Better to be a Muslim or Jew than to be a self-professed Christian who believed something other than what The Church was teaching.

Man, talk about living in the tension!

Heresy was less about rebellion and more about devout believers searching for truth. Sure, there were folks who sought to poke the papacy for the fun of it, but according to Jonathan Wright’s research, most believers were after the heart of God, looking to find Him (or Her?) in places where The Church said He didn’t exist.

Because Wright is an agnostic, Heretics comes across as an objective dissection of how The Church broke apart (again and again) and subsequently spread throughout its 2,000 years of history. It goes deeper that¬†the obvious hell-raisers, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, to look at rare ancient and medieval believers who were heavily influenced by their political and social order. Wright asks his readers to keep their judgment at bay and try to understand the scope and spectrum in which these heretics lived. It’s easy to sit on the other side of the Reformation and think, “Gosh, they were all nuts!” Instead, considering the certain death (by boiling, hanging, disembowelment, etc.) that heretics¬†experienced, these people were brave in their convictions, and it’s quite possible that without their efforts, you wouldn’t have the freedom to worship in your own church of choice today.¬†


“If we want to know why Christianity turned out as it did, why some battles were won and others lost, and why the battles had to be fought in the first place, we could do much worse than walking alongside the heretical cavalcade. Our first port of call is the early church. It was there, in the buffeted communities of cities like Carthage, Antioch, and Ephesus, that heresy was invented. It was there that the search for Christian unity took root. It was also where everything began to unravel and where Christianity began to prove just how fragmented, puzzling, and enthralling it could be.”


It’s a curious thing to consider¬†heretics as potential heroes of the Christian faith, particularly when¬†many of the topics over which¬†heretics argued¬†do not align with my own belief system. But, had they not existed, had they not challenged The Church, had they not died to preserve their own spiritual liberty, then maybe I wouldn’t have the freedom to work out my faith today. Perhaps religious¬†heresy is less about the authenticity of transubstantiation and more about the freedom to solidify¬†one’s own belief about the sacrament of communion.

For those who interested in Church history, I highly recommend this book.

Buy Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church here. 

Book Review: The Secret History

I’ve read enough books in my life to know not to be swayed by the remarks on the cover. Every book is “enthralling” and “captivating” and “stunning.” I get it.

But friends, The Secret History is all of those things. It is more. Like The Goldfinch, I devoured it in a matter of days, which is saying something since it’s nearly 600 pages. I echo the New York Times review: It is “forced, cerebral, and impeccably controlled.”

The Secret HistoryIn first person, we hear from Richard Papen, our storyteller, main character, and participant in a murder. He’s from an uninteresting blue-collar town in California, where he’s bored and unnoticeable. He pulls together enough funding to attend a small private college in Vermont called Hampden and it’s there that he comes to life among an intimate group of Greek scholars led by a¬†mesmerizing and enchanting professor. He is only the sixth student allowed to be in Julian Morrow’s class, an intoxicating invitation that finally gives him some level of purpose. They create for themselves a secret society. Among the group¬†is Francis, high-strung and wealthy, Henry, the dark, obsessive leader, the attractive and inseparable¬†twins Charles and Camilla, and Edmund, nicknamed Bunny, the¬†obnoxious and¬†unfortunate soul who is killed by his classmates.

This isn’t a spoiler. We know they kill Bunny by the end of the first page. The book is Richard’s retelling of the history – how it happened, why they did it, and, more importantly, what happened after.

It helps to have even the tiniest knowledge¬†of Greek¬†literature so you recognize¬†simple references¬†to the works of Homer, Sophocles, Plato, etc. It’s not necessary, just helpful. Donna Tartt doesn’t talk above¬†our heads, so even if you remember nothing from Philosophy or Ancient Literature class, you’ll be fine.

However, it’s helpful to keep in mind just how screwball¬†Greek characters are, specifically Dionysus, the god of wine and madness.

The writing is masterful. No one can touch it. The hint of one secret is the doorway to the room where everything is laid bare. One secret unravels a hundred secrets and it’s this level of enticement that kept my eyes in the book at every waking moment. You cannot read this book too fast, but nor would you want to. Even now I wish I’d slowed down if only to enjoy it a little longer.

Buy The Secret History here. 

 

 

Book Review: The Enchanted

The EnchantedSet in present day between the damp, stone walls of an old prison, we are told the sobering story of what life looks life for a small selection of death row inmates. Primarily we hear from the unnamed, mute man who observes the goings-on of the prison, along with some hallucinatory elements that let the reader know just how far gone this gentleman is mentally and emotionally – that he sees small men hammering in the walls, little sparkling motes swirling overhead while he reads, golden horses that stampede down the corridors… It is through his eyes that we learn about this enchanted, doomed place.

It’s also through him that we learn about The Lady, the one who works to trade executions for life sentences, who investigates horrid pasts and interviews inmates and subjects herself to details she shares with no one. The lady is¬†dedicated and burdened.

There’s the fallen priest who administers last rites, even though he’s technically not allowed to. There’s the warden, whose wife is dying of cancer. And then there’s York, the lady’s current case, who has accepted his impending¬†death and makes the lady’s¬†investigation difficult.

That about covers the plot of The Enchanted, but I haven’t even told you what it’s really about. It might surprise you that we never really know what these men did. We know the results of what they did, and we see how they behave inside the prison toward one another, but details are only alluded to, not freely given, which I appreciate since our own imaginations can take us to those dark places just fine.

This is a difficult book to read on account of its content. Let this be a warning to¬†you in case if you’re sensitive to real-life horror stories, the sort of things that make you believe without a doubt that evil exists in the world. But it’s also a book that tugs at your heart, drawing out the tiniest bit of empathy for these horrible creatures because it’s too easy to connect the dots from childhood to adulthood. It’s a book that leaves you wondering if there are any good solutions.

Finally, there is one twist. One solid twist and it sneaks in quietly at the end. Don’t miss it because it’s perfection. It comes at the right time when you cannot read about these people anymore. When you finish The Enchanted, you will¬†be glad to leave the prison. You will feel sad and you will wonder¬†about the differences between real life and fiction.

Interesting note: When the author isn’t writing books, she’s working as a death penalty investigator.

Buy The Enchanted here. 

Book Review: Night Film

There are about ten pages I would cut from Night Film, but they don’t transpire¬†until the last sliver of the book, and by then, you are sprinting so breathlessly through the narrative¬†because you cannot turn back¬†from the resolution that is so very close. I forgive Marisha Pessl for those ten pages because the rest of the book is¬†really fantastic.

To say this book is a page-turner is to cheapen it with clich√©, so instead I’ll say that¬†Night Film¬†has usurped a book in my Top Ten list. I’m not sure which one gets the ax in order to make room for Pessl, but I’ll think on it and let you know.

It’s important to note before we go any further that Night Film is a psychological thriller. It’s also bit¬†horror and a hair supernatural, two genres¬†I don’t usually enjoy. In fact, there was one point during the story that I sat back, stared at the wall, and considered, “Shall I go further?” and then I realized that was a silly question. There was no turning back.

Night FilmNight Film begins with an eery prologue, a technique I don’t always love. If you’re gonna start a book, then just start it. I don’t like bait. But here, it works. Scott McGrath is a journalist (and our narrator) who’s nursing some professional wounds after failing to procure¬†a reliable story about the elusive, enigmatic cult movie maker Stanislas Cordova. He’s also nursing a broken heart after losing his wife to a more successful man. So he’s running around Central Park in the dark when a girl in a red coat emerges from nothing. Wherever he runs, there she is. She is real, but not. He can’t decide. It spooks him. He’s unnerved, and thus begins the book.

The girl, we learn, is Ashley Cordova, the movie maker’s daughter and she’s just turned up dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft. Apparent suicide. The Cordova family is fraught with tragedy – too many to tragedies to be normal, McGrath discerns. And so, the puzzle sucks McGrath back into the twisted world of researching Cordova’s underworld of grotesque movies, which can’t be seen just anywhere, by the way. Think Stanley Kubrick, but darker. The man stays hidden and unseen. Think J.D. Salinger, but more ghostly.

McGrath collects two sidekicks along the way – Nora and Hopper – two young people with their own sordid histories (unrelated)¬†and strange connections to Ashley (related?). I am being careful here because there is too much room for spoilers… In this book is every mind-bending possibility of why Ashley killed herself, if Ashley killed herself, and what has gone so magically, desperately wrong in the Cordova family that has allowed¬†the patriarch to¬†entice people into his grip for decades willingly, eagerly, knowing they may not be able to leave. In his darkness is his power. McGrath cannot leave him alone.

I must mention the extras. Pessl went further than text on a page by creating¬†website pages, article clippings, photographs, and other remnants from Cordova’s life, which are all available to read and absorb inside in the book. Right after the prologue you’re¬†given some twenty pages of web content from the New York Times that map out this bizarre man for its reader, which is unique way to set up a character¬†you spend a lot of time wondering if you’re ever going to meet. Is it a lazy way to build a character? Some might say that, but I’m curled up in my bed thinking it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s fun. It’s different. It’s enticing.

I feel like I’m failing this review because I’m not giving you details, but I simply can’t give them to you. They must unfold for you in their natural habitat. You must read this book. You must get sucked into Cordova’s¬†world and figure it out for yourself.

Buy Night Film here.