“Yeah, so I read Ruth Ware’s new book.” Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway

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Ruth Ware, the author of thrillers including In a Dark, Dark Wood and, the better known, The Woman in Cabin 10, is back with a thriller spanning several generations.  Harriet, or rather, Hal, is a young woman trying to keep a step ahead of violent loan sharks by reading Tarot cards on the pier.  She learned about the cards and how to read people from her mother, but her mother’s recent death in a car accident has left her about to lose the flat they shared and possibly much, much more if she can’t figure out how to pay off her growing debt. 

Fortune, however, shines on her.  She receives a letter letting her know she is in line for an inheritance due to the passing of her grandmother.  The only catch; Hal realizes that there has been a mistake. The woman who passed isn’t really her grandmother.  Hal, however, is desperate. She is adept at reading others and figuring out what they want to hear. These skills should serve her long enough to attend the reading of a will, collect whatever money is being doled out, pay off her debts, and then live without fear of death nor a too troubled conscience. She can play quiet and demure while meeting some new Uncles and their families.  She makes a living out of putting on an act.  But things are never that easy. 

This thriller follows two stories; Hal’s and her Mother’s.  There is hidden, forbidden love, the condescending attitudes of the wealthy, murder, betrayal and buried secrets.  It has all the ingredients of a good thriller. And I won’t go so far as to say that it isn’t good, but to be more accurate, I’d say it is a proficient thriller.  If you like her other books, you’ll like this one, though probably not quite as much.  The story takes a long time to set up; in contrast, the book itself feels rushed. The resolution is not satisfying.  Ware does a good job setting up false leads and red herrings, but the truth’s unraveling is muddled.  However, by this point, you don’t care enough to go back and try to think it all through to see if it really makes sense or reaches a little far. You are just glad it is done so you can tell people, “Yeah, I read Ruth Ware’s new book.” But you won’t have a clear idea what to say after that.

With an intriguing concept, Prisoner of Night and Fog delivers.

click the image to buy now or get it at your local library

click the image to buy now or get it at your local library

“Uncle Dolf.” It’s a creepy way to refer to Adolf Hitler and portrays him in an unfamiliar light.  Anne Blankman weaves a captivating tale about what it is like to be Hitler’s niece in Prisoner of Night and Fog. Gretchen Muller and her violent brother, Reinhard, are two of Uncle Dolf’s favorites; after their father’s questionable death saving Hitler’s life, Hitler watches over them and shapes them to be a part of his National Socialist Party.  Reinhard is happy to be the tool Hitler asks of him, but Gretchen begins to question the party’s beliefs and the “truths” she has been told.

Gretchen’s search for answers leads her to befriend a reporter named Daniel Cohen.  Daniel is brave, relentless, and handsome.  He is also a Jew.  Gretchen knows it is dangerous to be seen with Daniel, but her search for truth and growing desire for Daniel leads her into increasingly perilous situations.

Blankman’s YA novel offers readers mystery, romance, intrigue, and the constant threat of danger.  She does a nice job creating a compelling story with interesting characters in a well-known, historical setting. This book would be great for teachers to use as a captivating personal narrative alongside a study of the Nazi’s rise to power.  The book offers a satisfying conclusion while maintaining enough danger and tension that readers will be quick to pick up the sequel, Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke.

Review: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Click the picture to buy now or find a copy at your library

Click the picture to buy now or find a copy at your library

Set during World War II and the years that follow, Warlight is a coming-of-age novel by Michael Ondaajte, the author of the acclaimed book, The English Patient.  Following the stories of siblings Michael and Rachel, and to a lesser extent the shadowy collection of characters who move in and out of their lives, including their parents, the novel is also a homage to the unnamed men and women who worked in Britain’s secret service and the price they paid as a result.

Two of the most interesting characters in the book come from the assortment of people that hover around the children: the rogues known as The Moth and The Darter.  Somehow, however, The Moth doesn’t get fleshed out in the manner of The Darter, even though The Moth is the children’s primary care-giver. The Darter is the story’s most interesting character, more so than any of the book’s protagonists, and I couldn’t help thinking that these are the type of characters at which Ondaatje is best; think about Carvaggio, the thief from The English Patient.

The book has an interesting setting, but suffers from a primary protagonist, Michael, who really doesn’t make you care that much about him.  In addition, the story suffers from too many, too easy coincidences; the pace isn’t well-maintained, the narrative is poorly structured, and many readers will not finish this book.  Save yourself the trouble and skip Warlight unless you find it necessary to declare to the world that you have read all of Ondaatje’s published works. 

Gods of Howl Mountain is a robust and rowdy read.

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Gritty, hot-blooded characters dominate this story and the North Carolina mountains on which they live.  It is a tale to quicken your pulse and have you hoping that a little backwoods justice will be dealt to the deserving. 

Rory Docherty has returned from the Korean War with a wooden leg and a desire to know who attacked his mother and killed her young lover all those years ago, leaving her unable to speak and in an institution.  Rory runs whiskey in his 1940 Ford, Maybelline, powered by an ambulance engine.  Granny May, a former prostitute, is the local folk healer, a wood witch trying to raise her grandson, Rory, and ensure he doesn't succumb to the darkness he saw during the war which still gives him nightmares. 

The book is well-written; the prose is vivid and leaves intense impressions.  Occasionally, you'll bump into a sentence that tries too hard, that may have one too many descriptors or use a word in a way that is just a little too clever, but everyone who has tried to write descriptively has done the same.  

My one word of caution: if the opening chapter is off-putting, ignore the feeling and keep reading.  This chapter isn't indicative of the rest of the narrative; the chapter feels overworked, and the insistent references to Rory's car as "the machine" serves as an example of a section which tries to be too clever and becomes annoying.  

The rest of the book displays Taylor Brown's skill in exposition.  There are many examples of how he uses language to really paint a picture and bring the story to life; one which stands out describes the butchering of a pig.  Brown handles the scene deftly, using just the right language to make something somewhat gruesome verge on, if not quite beautiful, the poetic:

...They dragged the fatted animal across the yard, each holding a leg. They spread the hind-legs and pierced the ankle tendons on the outer hooks of a singletree, then threw a rope over a low-hanging branch and hauled the animal off the ground like they would an engine.
     Granny stepped forward with her razor and sliced the big vein in the neck, just back of the jawbone. She set out a stone jug to catch the streak of blood, life-bright in the gray dawn. She used it for making blood sausage. Once it was bled, they lowered the animal into the near-boiling water of the pot, going to work on the bristles as they heaved it streaming from the water. They dunked it again and again this way, scraping down the hide.
     ...The sun found the bare skin glistening over the wash pot, pink-scalded and ready for the knife. Granny made the cut, a long red vent from nethers to chin, careful not to puncture the organs. She cut the entrails out, letting them fall glistening and ropy in the tub at her feet...They salted the meat white, their red-stained hands leaving little prints on the icelike shapes and hunks...They talked little as they worked, and Granny didn't know if it was the nature of the work or something else.
Click the image to buy now or get it at your local library or bookstore

Click the image to buy now or get it at your local library or bookstore

This is a book twisting with tension.  The action scenes could easily be taken right off the big screen, and will likely be there someday soon (I'd be surprised if this wasn't made into a move; I just hope they get the nuances right).  Something about Rory brings to mind Cool Hand Luke, and the vengeance that burns inside him seems to hint at old-school Charles Bronson violence.

Gods of Howl Mountain is Taylor Brown's third novel, but the first book of his I have read.  Now, I'll need to find his first two books.

A character-driven, historical fiction, Manhattan Beach proves Jennifer Egan can write a traditional novel.

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Jennifer Egan is a writer at the top.  Her work appears in prestigious magazines like The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and Granata. Her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award.  Her newest, Manhattan Beach, is a work of historical fiction set in WWII era New York with a strong female protagonist, a missing father, and gangsters.  It is a good read and well-written; it will also require patience as it is a bit of a slow-burn.

Three characters dominate this book, Anna Kerrigan, her father, Eddie, and Dexter Styles.  In fact, the book opens with Anna and her father in the car on their way to meet Dexter Styles at Dexter's house on the beach.  Anna is eleven at this time, and the two men are meeting about a business matter.  Anna is a great character; bold, astute, and ambitious.  This paragraph, on the second page of the book, describes an interaction between Anna and her father; it is a great summary of Anna:

She thought he might slap her. He’d done it once before, after she’d let fly a string of curses she’d heard on the docks, his hand finding her cheek invisibly as a whip. The specter of that slap still haunted Anna, with the odd effect of heightening her boldness, in defiance of it.

Anna and her father adore each other.  He takes her on his "business" trips often, but when the book opens we learn that he believes it is time to stop this practice mostly because Anna is so perceptive and getting older.  Also, her father is having to find other means to make money in order to buy a special chair for his other daughter, Lydia. Eddie's story is as interesting as Anna's own.  He worries sometimes if his family isn't happier when he isn't home. He also worries about his relationship with Lydia. Knowing how he thinks, what he intends, and and what he goes through for his family, endears him to the reader.  The following is a good description of the Eddie and where he is in his life at the start of the book. Interestingly enough, you'll hear echoes of this paragraph from Anna as she becomes an adult:

He was aware of having reached an end. He shut his eyes and remembered today: the beach, the cold, the excellent lunch. A white tablecloth. Brandy. He thought of the chair. But it wasn’t just the chair that had driven him to Dexter Styles: it was a restless, desperate wish for something to change. Anything. Even if the change brought a certain danger. He’d take danger over sorrow every time.

Add to this the gentlemanly, smooth-moved Dexter Styles, and you've got a good story.

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Talking about the characters' stories brings me to the one problem with this book.  There is a stretch of more than a hundred pages where the book develops slowly. One of the characters is dropped for a large portion of the book (in Egan's defense, it is done for a reason...I won't say more as it could be a spoiler, but it is that same frustration you get when your favorite character isn't even mentioned in a particular book in a series like A Song of Ice and Fire, which Game of Thrones is based on).   Anna does develop during this portion, but even her story seems to crawl a bit. Maybe this is designed to build tension, because you know in your gut that something big is going to happen: it is just delayed longer than you want to wait.

And something big does happen. The payoff is worth the wait, if you are a patient reader. Those readers who only like thrillers because they burn through pages like lit matches nipping at fingertips will find themselves growing impatient and, likely, put the book down. If you don't mind a little longer exposition, then you'll forget about your impatience as you ravenously finish the story. it is a satisfying book and will be considered one of the bests of this publication year.