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

The Death of Mrs Westaway Photo.jpg

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.

In the mood for something different? The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faveron Patriau.

(Click the image to purchase the book) I took this picture in a mock-up of an alcatraz cell in a hotel in San Francisco the day before I was able to tour alcatraz.  There were a lot of tourists taking photos...They gave me plenty of room as I began staging and taking pictures of this book...lol

(Click the image to purchase the book) I took this picture in a mock-up of an alcatraz cell in a hotel in San Francisco the day before I was able to tour alcatraz.  There were a lot of tourists taking photos...They gave me plenty of room as I began staging and taking pictures of this book...lol

This is a book full of many pieces; it is a mystery and a love story; it is a surrealistic search for truth and a text on friendship; it is a story of madness, tragedy, and the bonds of sibling affection.

The narrator, a psycholinguist named Gustavo, is trying to find out what really happened with his friend and fellow bibliophile, Daniel, and the murder or murders in which his friend is involved.  The dead girls include Daniel’s fiancé; Daniel’s mistress, a prostitute he convinced to act as his maid and live with him and his fiancé; and a girl at the mental asylum (murdered by having pages torn from books carefully pressed down her throat) Daniel’s mother was able to get him in to avoid prison for the murder of said fiancé.  Also thrown in the mix is the bizarre, tragic tale of the fire that claimed Daniel’s beloved sister, Sophia. 

When Daniel goes to the asylum, Gustavo does nothing to contact his friend. It isn’t until three years later when Daniel reaches out to him with a cryptic confession and tales that are more fable and allegory than truth that Gustavo’s guilt at leaving his friend behind pushes him to pursue the truth.  The search will take Gustavo into a world of mental illness, strange policemen, and antique book dealers who may also trade in human body parts.

This book is Kafkaesque in that the lines between what is real and unreal are blurred to the point of being incorporeal. The stories Daniel tells Gustavo and the reality of his stay in the asylum, the murders, and even the officers investigating the death at the asylum all take on surreal qualities. A good example is this description of an unexpected encounter Gustavo has with a woman in a small room:

…there was a woman: branches of black hair falling over her shoulders to her stomach, her head tilting downward, and her fingers jutting out from her hands like nightsticks. She was emitting a faint reptilian groan and wiggling her body from side to side, as if she too was being rocked by the breeze, another larva in that room of half-made beings…The woman, sitting with great difficulty upon a box, her legs hanging inches from the ground, appeared like a quiet dwarf or a beastly bird barricaded into a corner of its cage in a zoo of shadows…Out of nowhere, she snapped her head forward at me, and in the grayish glow of the room I saw her featureless, amphibious face, her skin striated in parallel lines of withering flesh, her salamander smile infested with fangs and pustules of filthy cartilage.

She also lays an egg with a fortune inside which states, “Don’t believe anything.” Surreal.

What this book does well is keep the mystery intact; it keeps the readers questioning who David really is, what crimes he is capable of and the lengths to which he might go to cover them up.  It leaves you guessing about motives throughout the book, revisiting and revising what you know and what you think you know.  What it doesn’t do so well is weave the side stories the Antiquarian reads us into the narrative in a meaningful way. Also, the sub-story about selling human body parts has a purpose in the story but isn’t integrated in a manner to successfully tie it all together and make it feel like it was worth the effort.

(click the image to purchase)

(click the image to purchase)

This book foremost reminds me of another I read years ago: Artificial Respiration by Ricardo Piglia. I can’t accurately recall an adequate summary of its content, but I can say that it left a lasting impression and is an incredible book and I would recommend it over The Antiquarian if you were only going to read one of the two.  Other books that you might like if you like these kinds of books would be Kafka’s The Trial or even his short story, “The Metamorphosis.”  Bruno Schulz also wrote a book of short stories titled Street of Crocodiles which would offer you shorter travels in this vein of fiction.

Ultimately the book is a worthy read.  The unraveling of the truth as the narrative closes is engaging and held my interest, but it didn’t convince me the book was better than my initial response to it. Read Artificial Respiration first; if you like it, or any of the other books mentioned, then you’ll enjoy the offerings Gustavo Patriau is giving in The Antiquarian.

Dangerous Curves Ahead: The Woman in the Window is the thriller you want.

Get it at your library or bookstore or use the button for Amazon

Get it at your library or bookstore or use the button for Amazon

The Woman in the Window is the thriller you’ve been wanting for this year’s exciting reads list.  This is an extremely quick read, with short chapters and just enough scene description to keep the story rooted in a specific place.  The agoraphobia adds a good twist, with the protagonist’s psychologist profession giving the story an added layer.  Add in an affair, a car accident, alcohol, multiple prescriptions, the neighbor’s secrets, and a handsome tenant in the basement, and you have the recipe for a …well, you know where this is headed.

The writing is comprised of short, quick sentences; in fact, there are few real paragraphs.  This propels the book at great speed.  Also, the author, AJ Finn, uses the language of time a lot.  For fun, I flipped through about a dozen pages and saw multiple descriptions of a minute passing, a moment, half an hour, a reference to a certain time, etc…  When you put that together with the terse sentences, you become acutely aware of the mechanics behind how Finn makes the book work.  Here is one example based on the chiming of a grandfather clock:

    As he does, I watch his face. The grandfather clock starts to toll ten o’clock. I’m holding my breath.
    For a moment, nothing. He’s impassive. “Our street. At sunrise,” he says. “Or—wait, that’s west. So it’s sunse—
    He stops.
    There it is.
    A moment passes.
    He lifts his wide eyes to me.
    Six tolls, seven.
    He opens his mouth.
    Eight. Nine.
    “What—” he begins.
    Ten.
    “I think it’s time for the truth,” I tell him.

And then, three page turns later, we have the clock fill the silence right after a revelation, the sound adding more tension to a weighted silence:

    “And then?”
    “She left.”
    “She went back to her hotel?”
    Another shake of the head, slower.
    “Where did she go?”
    “Well, I don’t know then.”
    My stomach twinges. “Where did she go?”
    Again he lifts his eyes to me. “She went here.”
    The tick of the clock.
    “What do you mean?”

It’s quite well done, really, Finn’s use of the seemingly banal, unassuming tick of a clock, that one tick out of them all, which becomes so loaded.

In many ways, this book felt like a reflection of The Girl on the Train.  In one sense, disappointingly so; still, there are enough differences that you’ll mostly forgive the similarities and enjoy the ride.  There are twists you should see coming, and twists you may not.  I guessed the crux of the main plot long before it happened, but I was totally surprised by a twist I would normally see chapters ahead.  The pace of the narrative is so quick you sometimes don’t have time to think it out.  In addition, I had a real hard time accepting one action by the antagonist during the denouement, but otherwise enjoyed the book and it’s “dangerous curves ahead” plot line.  This book will land on the best thrillers of 2018 list and may be the book people start saying about their next thriller, “it’s like The Woman in the Window.”

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Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

I gravitate to books about bookstores and libraries. So, when I first heard about Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan, I knew I had to read it. However, I’d mostly forgotten about it by the time it arrived and had somehow got the premise confused and was expecting a quirky love story, something along the lines of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin, (a delightful book I’ve got to review).

Wrong; this is a literary thriller. I’m sure there are a thousand different ways to describe what that actually means, but for our purpose let’s just say it is a smart thriller not only concerned with keeping the pages turning and the suspense high, but also with developing a cast of characters whose motivations and lives are complex, confusing, empathetic, and mirror our own.

When Lydia finds Joey, one of the lost boys whose only solace is found in the Bright Ideas Bookstore, literally hanging in the stacks with a childhood photo of her in his pocket, she has unknowingly just begun a journey to unravel Joey’s past and what, if any, connection it could have to her own.

And Lydia has secrets; her last name isn’t really Smith. Running from a childhood trauma that put her on the cover of Time magazine, she has been hiding her true identity for over a decade. She doesn’t even share her secrets with her boyfriend, David.

And Daddy issues? What about Dad? Why does she refuse to answer his phone calls? What is he hiding from in a remote cabin in the woods.

If that isn’t starting to excite you, let me tease you with this: text puzzles. Joey has left Lydia clues that she has to decipher cut into different books in the bookstore. I was extremely pleased that our author didn’t just tell us about the puzzles, he presented several to us so we could see what Lydia sees and experience a little of the thrill of discovery she felt unraveling them.

There were a few things that bugged me. I’ll try to cover them without giving major spoilers, but if you want a reading experience unencumbered by my own quibbles, you might skip the rest of this paragraph. I couldn’t wholly accept the sibling relationship that is revealed to us. I can’t even tell you why, and the twist it provides leading to the books revelation I enjoyed tremendously. Also, the tension created during the confrontation and confession section was well-done, but it left me feeling like the book’s resolution could have been stronger, somehow. 

Still, this is a solid book; a genuinely good read. If you want a smart thriller with great characters in an interesting setting with the bonus of little plot puzzles made out of books, I think you will enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed it.

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