three Tana French reviews: In the Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place

In addition to Agatha Christie, my other recent obsession has been Tana French. As a self-proclaimed lover of thrillers and Irish lit, it’s been a source of shame for a great while that I’ve never read any Tana French, so I finally decided to rectify that, tearing through the first three books in her Dublin Murder Squad series in under a month. I’m currently on a French hiatus in order to catch up with some of my other reading, but I intend to pick up where I left off in early 2022.

IN THE WOODS by Tana French
Dublin Murder Squad #1
Penguin Books, 2007

Each book in this series follows a different detective on the (entirely fictional) Dublin Murder Squad, and the series begins with Rob Ryan, who has memory loss around a traumatic event from his childhood, where he went out with his two best friends in the woods, and was the only one to come home. Twenty years later, Rob’s friends have never been found, and he’s working as a detective (a career choice that he insists is entirely unrelated), currently on a case involving a dead teenage girl who was found in the same Dublin suburb where Rob grew up.

The thing I’ve heard praised about French the most often is her writing, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s difficult to find thrillers that hit that sweet spot of propulsive/entertaining while actually displaying genuine literary skill, and I couldn’t be happier with how French manages to walk that fine line. Her mysteries are well-crafted and her books have that can’t-put-it-down factor, but the thing that really stands out about them is her brilliant character work and her deft hand at depicting the dark, fragile corners of human nature.

I only had two complaints while I was reading this, the first of which actually resolved itself—for a while, I found the depiction of Rob and Cassie’s friendship a bit tiresome; I felt like French would often go the extra mile to hammer the reader over the head with how special the bond between them was… but then by the end of the book I was stupidly invested in their relationship so I suppose Tana knew what she was doing there. The other thing is that French has this one habit that bothers me, where her narrators often turn to the reader and say something along the lines of “I know what you’re thinking”/”I know you must be wondering”/”I know how this sounds,” etc, and I find that whatever they’re next about to say rarely lines up with what I am actually thinking, leaving me with the vague sensation that they’re talking to someone over my shoulder rather than me. This is a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things but it did irritate me often enough to mention.

Anyway, I thought this book was fantastic, and while each book in this series can absolutely be read as a standalone, if you’re interested in getting into Tana French I do think this is a really good place to start. Without getting into spoilers, there’s a certain detail about the ending, about the way this book resolves itself, that I know a lot of people find objectionable to the point of being a dealbreaker. I actually knew this detail ahead of time, so I actually wasn’t fazed by it—but I like to think that if I hadn’t known, I’m not the sort of reader who would be too bothered by something like that. Anyway, just a warning that you may not find this book as satisfactory as you hoped—but I still really think it’s worth reading in spite of that.

THE LIKENESS by Tana French
Dublin Murder Squad #2
Penguin Books, 2008

My favorite in this series so far, by a mile. Let’s get the absurd premise out of the way: before working on the Murder Squad, Cassie used to be an undercover agent, and in one of her old cases, she went by the alias Lexie Madison. Cut to the present: a dead body shows up, and the victim is not only identical to Cassie, but she had Lexie Madison’s ID on her when she died. In order to investigate the case, Cassie is sent back undercover, posing as Lexie and living with Lexie’s housemates, a group of university students.

Like I said, it’s absurd. But that’s okay. Fiction is fiction for a reason. What I actually found mildly irritating toward the beginning was just how much time was spent on French trying to justify this premise to the reader, by means of Cassie trying to justify her decision to take this ridiculous case to herself and to anyone else who would listen. Nothing about this is realistic and we could have all saved ourselves 100 pages if everyone just accepted that from the start.

That said, I really adored this book. With traces of The Secret History, The Likeness depicts with aplomb the insularity of academic and the fiercely obsessive quality of close friendship. Once Cassie gets into the house, this book—unlike Cassie—never takes a false step. The characters are all brilliantly rendered on their own, but as a group, their dynamic sings in a way that I find it particularly challenging for authors to capture in an organic, convincing way.

This book is just fun and indulgent and moving and sad, and it keeps you guessing from start to finish. I had the best time reading this.

Dublin Murder Squad #3
Penguin Books, 2010

Faithful Place is the first book in this series to follow a detective who isn’t working on the novel’s central case. It follows Frank Mackey, an undercover agent who gets a call from his younger sister—the only person he still speaks to from his poor, inner city Dublin family that he cut out of his life decades ago. A suitcase has been discovered, which belongs to Rosie Daly, the girl Frank had been in love with as a teenager. The two were planning on running off to England together, but Rosie never showed up that night, and Frank found a note from her which made it sound like she was going off on her own. He had never spoken to her again, assuming she had made her own way to England—but the discovery of her suitcase overturns his assumption that she had managed to make it out at all.

What I liked about this book is what I like about all of French’s books: solid mystery, distinct character voice (I’d actually describe French’s writing style as less “lyrical” in this book than in the first two in this series—which suited Frank to a T), the ability to get to the heart of her characters and connect the reader to what drives them.

What I disliked about this book was everything else. This book was overwhelmingly domestic, to a degree that was just never going to work to my personal taste. The biggest thing at stake here is Frank’s personal relationships: with his daughter, with his ex-wife, and with his estranged family. Any time I see the words marriage, divorce, parenthood, etc., in a thriller summary, I click swiftly away, so this is the sort of thing I never would have picked up if it hadn’t been a part of this series, and I can’t exactly fault a book for not being everything I personally wished it would be.

That said, I do think this is a notably weaker offering than the first two books in this series. Frank’s belligerence gets tiresome very quickly, and all of the conflicts in this book get very repetitive. I also found the whole setup very stereotypical: poor Irish family has too many kids and an alcoholic, abusive father—shocking! (I know French herself is Irish, and I don’t mean to imply that the family dynamic was handled insensitively—just that I thought there were opportunities for a fresher dynamic that French could have taken but did not.) I definitely didn’t mind reading this, but I’m hoping for more exciting things from the three remaining titles in this series I still have to read.

three Agatha Christie reviews: Death on the Nile, Endless Night, and The Mysterious Affair at Styles

I’ve been on a bit of an Agatha Christie kick lately—in spite of the fact that I always love her books, I realized recently that I had gone a couple of years without picking one up, and wanted to quickly remedy that. Friends Callum and Jess decided to join me for a buddy read, and we opted for Death on the Nile, in an effort to beat the spoilers from the film coming out soon. So we started there, and then just… haven’t put her books down since. Here are my reviews of the three that I’ve read in the past couple of months:

(Hercule Poirot #17)
originally published 1937
William Morrow

Though I ultimately enjoyed this book, it was oddly underwhelming in places. For one, I didn’t think there was anything particularly interesting or evocative about the setting, which I had assumed was going to be one of the book’s strongest assets, and for another, this marks the first Agatha Christie I’ve read where I actually guessed the ending pretty early in, so this one went out with more of a whimper than a bang.

That said, Christie sunk her claws into me with this one. This is the first of her novels that I’ve read in a couple of years, and I was reminded of what’s so special about her. Her character work is thoroughly unmatched within this genre, and even when the ending doesn’t bowl you over, there’s something inarguably suspenseful and propulsive about each of her books. Death on the Nile isn’t a new favorite, but I’m glad to have read it when I did.

originally published 1967
William Morrow

To say I was enamored with this book is an understatement. If you haven’t read much Christie, I wouldn’t recommend this as a place to start, as it feels somewhat distinct from everything else that I’ve read by her, and I don’t think it gives the most accurate indication of her usual style. That said, this quickly skyrocketed to my favorite of her works, overtaking And Then There Were None, which is high praise in itself.

This book is a slow burn; more character-driven than mystery-driven. In fact, you don’t even know what the mystery is for about half the novel. Endless Night follows young couple Michael and Ellie—a working man and a rich socialite who fall in love in spite of protestations by Ellie’s family—who are determined to buy a piece of land in a remote village and build a house there. Michael Rogers is possibly my all-time favorite Christie protagonist: he’s an insufferably pretentious young man with delusions of grandeur, but his voice is so convincing and engaging, and there’s something so authentically insecure at the heart of his character, that he pretty much embodies that type of character that you love to hate or hate to love.

Despite its slow beginning, I couldn’t put this book down from the very first page. What Endless Night lacks in plot it makes up for in its sinister, Gothic setting, its genius foreshadowing, its expert characterization, and its subtle integration of the supernatural. This isn’t going to be for everyone; specifically, this isn’t for the reader who needs their mysteries to be chock-full of twists and turns, but if you’re a Christie fan, this is a brilliant hidden gem that you need to check out asap. The problem with mysteries (at least for me) is that once you know the reveal there isn’t a whole lot of motivation to ever go back and reread the book, good as it may have been, but I know this is one that I’m going to want to revisit again and again. I loved it so, so much.

(Hercule Poirot #1)
originally published 1921
William Morrow

I was so looking forward to reading Christie’s first novel: was she a literary genius from day one, or was her debut noticeably weaker than her later works? The answer, as it so often is, is somewhere in the middle. It was almost charming to note the ways in which Christie grew after The Mysterious Affair at Styles, but some of her trademark skill was present in this book as well. What she did so well here—what she always does well—is Poirot’s slow, deliberate discovery and analysis of seemingly insignificant clues, where he’s always a step ahead of the reader, but to a stimulating rather than maddening degree. Where this failed for me was in its downright clumsy exposition and noticeably weak character work, especially regarding the narrator, Hastings, and his friendship with Poirot. Still, this was an enjoyable read, and she had me totally fooled with that twist.

What’s your favorite Agatha Christie novel?

book review: Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

NIGHTBITCH by Rachel Yoder
Doubleday, 2021

This should have been a short story. I can’t sit here and say that Nightbitch is an entirely unsuccessful project, because I think it does in fact accomplish exactly what it sets out to do — I just found my patience for it wearing thin the longer I spent with it. 

I’ve expressed my personal disinterest in books about motherhood before, so I always knew this book was going to be a bit of a gamble for me, but I had hopes that it would be a bit more “disaster woman who happens to be a mother,” rather than “mother who happens to be a disaster.” That wasn’t a problem, in and of itself — when it became clear to me how little my own vision for this novel overlapped with Rachel Yoder’s, I course-corrected my expectations as best I could. And I actually came to appreciate the relentless, brutally honest depiction of a young woman’s inability to cope with the demands of motherhood. This book is visceral and furious, and Yoder gets her claws into the reader.

But the longer it goes on, and the more the magical realism slant starts to take over, the more its impact starts to wane. For something so graphic and carnal, this book ironically has very little meat on its bones; it never justifies its length, its metaphors all wear themselves out — it says absolutely everything it has to say, and then it keeps going. And going. And going. It’s not even a very long book, only around 250 pages, but it isn’t able to sustain even that. Any appreciation I had for this book’s themes became eclipsed by my frustration at Yoder’s insistence at presenting this to the world as a novel, instead of what I think could have been a punchy and memorable piece of short fiction. Instead, I haven’t thought about this book once since I finished it.

Thank you to Netgalley and Doubleday for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The Women of Troy by Pat Barker | BookBrowse

Doubleday, 2021

Set in the liminal days following the Trojan War, The Women of Troy follows Briseis, who the reader may have met in this novel’s precursor, The Silence of the Girls. Briseis begins that story as a free married woman in Troy and ends up a captive and slave of Achilles, the Greek fighter to whom she was given as a war prize when her city was sacked. Though Pat Barker begins The Women of Troy right where the last book left off, the sequel reads comfortably as a standalone. The two novels together, however, form a fuller picture of the life of Briseis.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse and a piece I wrote about Cassandra of Troy HERE.

book review: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Grove Atlantic, November 30, 2021

Small Things Like These is the second standalone novella by award-winning short story writer Claire Keegan. It tells the story of Bill Furlong, a man born to a single mother in a small Irish town in the 1940s, who now in the 1980s runs his own coal and timber business, and who, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, meets a girl at a Magdalen Laundry whose physical state and predicament concerns him. 

With shades of A Christmas Carol, Small Things Like These is the story of a man wrestling with his own morality when doing the right thing means going against the Catholic Church, which has a stranglehold over his town. What I found so affecting about this book was Keegan’s deft touch — her prose reads effortlessly and the horrors of the Magdalen Laundries are elucidated not through graphic, violent descriptions, but in the harrowing small moments of abuse captured. Character and setting are rendered with impressive detail given the scarcity of pages, and I found this to be a great place to start with Keegan, whose backlist I’m keen to explore now.

Thank you to Netgalley and Grove Atlantic for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The Burning Girls by CJ Tudor

Ballantine Books, 2021

The Burning Girls follows Jack, a vicar who relocates from Nottingham with her daughter Flo to a small town in Sussex, a town that has a rich and eerie history involving Queen Mary’s purge of Protestants in the 1500s, and an unsolved mystery of two missing girls from the 1990s. Jack and Flo get drawn into the town’s mysteries almost immediately as a strange series of events begins to unfold, and Jack also has secrets of her own, because she’s a thriller protagonist so of course she does.

I mostly had a fun time reading The Burning Girls, but the whole thing fell apart for me at the end. This is a book that’s trying to do so many things and fully committing to none of them; I was rooting for it to all come together but it just didn’t. Threads are left open, subplots are left underdeveloped, the inclusion of certain details remains incomprehensible. I guessed the main twist out of left field very early on, so the whole time I had my eye on ‘evidence’ that would prove it, and I ultimately felt that it was so poorly executed it could hardly justify itself.

I also found the representation in this book incredibly concerning. The only Black characters are unhinged abusers committing welfare fraud, the only character with depression is a domestic abuser, the only gay character is closeted and self-loathing, and the less said about the character with dystonia, the better. None of these stereotypes are presented to be subverted or challenged or compensated with good representation elsewhere; it’s just a concerning blend of harmful tropes to absolutely no end.

Anyway, I’m not sure where to go from here with CJ Tudor — this is my third book of hers, and I’ve yet to give any of them higher than a 3-star rating, but I guess there’s something that keeps drawing me back to her. I should probably just accept that I enjoy her settings and premises more than I enjoy her writing (which I found especially corny here).

Thank you to Netgalley and Ballantine Books for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Disoriental by Négar Djavadi | #WITmonth2021

DISORIENTAL by Négar Djavadi
Europa Editions, 2018

Both a multigenerational family saga and an intensive primer on modern Iranian history, Disoriental is translated from the French with skill and humor by Tina Kover; the resulting novel is an absolute tour de force. We meet Kimiâ Sadr in the waiting room of a fertility clinic in Paris, and the pages that follow tell the story of her family’s history, unfolding in a nonlinear fashion and focusing largely on her father, journalist and radical activist Darius Sadr.

This is a complex book both in terms of structure and subject, but Djavadi manages to navigate it with finesse, making this an unexpectedly smooth reading experience. I’m firmly of the belief that it’s not an author’s responsibility to educate the reader about their country’s history and culture, and I’m not sure what Djavadi’s intentions were with this novel, whether she envisioned it primarily in the hands of international readers, but as someone who knows shamefully little about Iranian history, I never felt out of my depth and I appreciated the level of detail — informative but not overwhelming. 

The story itself is hard to sum up in brief, so I’m going to take the easy way out and not attempt to, but Disoriental is a darkly funny, affecting, thought-provoking work that I’m happy to have read; maybe the highlight of Women in Translation Month for me.

book review: Madam by Phoebe Wynne

MADAM by Phoebe Wynne
St. Martin’s Press, 2021

Mamma mia where do I begin.

Despite having a deliciously enticing premise, Madam fails on just about every level. Set at the fictional Scottish all girls’ boarding school Caldonbrae Hall, Madam introduces Rose, a bright young ingenue of a teacher who gets a job as the head of Caldonbrae’s Classics department — notably and oddly, she’s the school’s first outside hire in over a decade. She arrives at Caldonbrae and quickly discerns that there is fuckery afoot. 

The entire function of Rose’s character is to unearth the fuckery. There is so little interiority to her character that there is never a sense that she is a real person living this experience; she is transparently a thriller protagonist bumbling around chasing clues, and she does an agonizingly terrible job at it. Every time a character starts to reveal something and then realizes they’ve said too much, Rose lets it go — quite the impressive regard for boundaries, given the fact that when she isn’t walking away from people mid-conversation, she’s asking everyone and their mother impertinent questions that go nowhere. This is, quite literally, the entire book. The fuckery is, of course, eventually unearthed, and yes, it was indeed the most obvious explanation that you guessed by page 50, but anyway, what happens at this point in the book? Rose actually takes the fate of her students into her own hands? She allies with someone to bring about systemic change? She realizes resistance is futile and makes a plan to get the hell out of Dodge? No, she basically just… asks more questions. More specific questions, this time around, to be fair to her.

Anyway, I mentioned briefly that Rose is a Classics teacher, so let’s go back to that. Having been raised by a second-wave feminist, Rose has internalized a lot of her mother’s values (she wouldn’t go as far as to call herself a feminist though, heaven forfend! Sidebar: I’m not sure that in 2021 we still need novels that spoon-feed feminist ideology to the reader by adding a spoonful of sugar to the medicine, holding our hand and reassuring us that “women are people too” isn’t a radical, scary notion, but… Phoebe Wynne disagrees, I guess). Anyway, Rose is drawn to female characters and historical figures from Greek and Roman mythology and history, and spotlights a handful of them — Antigone, Dido, Medea, Lucretia, et al. — in her classes. The integration of classics into this novel is so ham-fisted, so unsubtle, so unnecessary, it bears asking why it had to be the classics at all. The Secret History (a very different project with very different aims that I am not attempting to compare to Madam on a deeper level, to be clear) would not be The Secret History if it were about a group of chemical engineering students — the classics are so integral to that novel’s themes and framework that it would crumble without that element. If We Were Villains would not be If We Were Villains if the students were studying Jane Austen instead of Shakespeare. This isn’t a criticism; it shows how deliberately constructed those novels are. In Madam, the classics are merely an arbitrary addition that could have been substituted with impactful women from any period of literature or history and netted the exact same result: a half-baked commentary on how History Has Not Been Kind To Women.

Aside from being thematically careless, this book was just poorly written on a sentence-by-sentence level. Inexplicably, most scenes are recounted in the pluperfect tense:

“Earlier that morning she’d knotted her unruly hair into a thick plait[…]” 

“Rose had gazed at the delightful picture they all made, touching her own blazer with a tinge of shame.”

She’d stopped by Anthony’s office on Friday to see if he wanted to go for a walk together over the weekend.”

Why? Why are we being narrated scenes that already happened rather than just… being shown those scenes? The whole thing takes on a very tell-don’t-show style, which I believe can work in certain circumstances, but this ain’t it. Also, the details in this book are all in the wrong places. It’s set at a boarding school, and the school itself is barely described — we are usually up to date on the state of Rose’s hair, though. I also think it should be a cardinal sin for a book to start with a journey (in this case: Rose on the train to Caldonbrae), end the chapter when they arrive, and start the following chapter the next morning. We don’t see Rose settling into her flat, we don’t see her walking around the school, we don’t see any of it. The exposition is just terrible. Characters are also introduced at such a lightning speed that I couldn’t keep track of who anyone was and I had no sense of how many students or teachers were at this school.

Changing gears now: as other reviewers have noted, the white saviorism and the tokenistic portrayal of a group of Japanese students is downright shameful. Diversity does not need to serve a narrative function, and indeed, it’s often better when it does not, especially in the hands of a white author writing about non-white characters. Here, the function is both extant and obvious: it’s to illustrate by comparison how progressive Rose is. And I quote:

“The general spread of white faces made Rose uncomfortable despite the small handful of Asian girls, who seemed to group together. This lack of diversity leaked across the staff, too — not at all appropriate or modern for the nineties, she thought.” 

Speaking of diversity and representation, I’m not sure why some people are calling this book queer? It’s not. There is one (1) lesbian character, not the protagonist, and she’s a self-loathing alcoholic, so… not sure why that’s something to celebrate, but whatever.

Anyway, back to the above quote, gross depiction of Japanese students aside — this book is set in the 1990s. That sweet spot for dark academia novels, where authors have the convenience of writing virtually about the present-day, but where the characters don’t have cell phones and laptops which would destroy both the atmosphere and undermine the characters’ work at solving the mystery. That’s all fine and well, but if you take out all the references to Queen and Batman Begins, this book feels like something out of the 1800s. You will hear no disputes from me about the fact that misogyny is alive and well and that certain individuals and institutions hold antiquated values, but those conservative values are satirized to such an extreme here that they start to feel utterly absurd. And the problem is that this book is not trying to be satire. I’m supposed to take it at face value, even when it’s pushing my suspension of disbelief further and further past its breaking point.

Which brings us to The Fuckery. As discussed, I found it very obvious, but that is honestly the least of my damn concerns. The details here were just… so, so ridiculous, trying so hard to be provocative. The “Worship” scene (if you know you know) is the most unintentionally funny thing I have read in my entire life. This was supposed to be a horrifying scene and I just couldn’t stop laughing at the fact that someone actually greenlit this garbage. I could practically see Phoebe Wynne rubbing her hands together in glee for having shocked the reader with something so DARING and TABOO when it actually just served to undermine the impact of whatever psychological abuse was going on here by turning the whole thing into a dark, fucked up cartoonish pantomime. 

This was just an incoherent, poorly-constructed project that had no ardor, no artistic integrity, and no intrigue. It was bizarrely terrible and did not have a single redeeming quality and it made me feel cynical about my profession (I’m an editor) and if you take anything from this review let it be this: read literally any other book! Please! I don’t care how good the summary is! I suffered so you don’t have to!!!

Thank you to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone

MIRRORLAND by Carole Johnstone
Scribner, 2021

Pitched as Gone Girl meets Room, Mirrorland tells the story of identical twin sisters Cat and El, who survive a bizarre, insular childhood in Edinburgh by inventing Mirrorland, an imaginary, Narnia-esque world that lives under the pantry stairs. Years have gone by and now we follow Cat, who’s estranged from her sister and living in Los Angeles, until she gets a call from El’s husband, Ross, begging her to return to Edinburgh as El has gone missing, which involves returning to the house they grew up in, as Ross and El are now living there.

That this is the author’s debut novel is very apparent; most of the problems are with its poor pacing and its inexpert synthesis of the mystery and childhood trauma narratives. Flashback passages are shoehorned into the present-day narrative with an abruptness that almost feels deliberate, almost feels like a commentary on trauma, but which mostly ends up feeling poorly written. These flashbacks were so detailed and so repetitive that I mostly found myself skimming them as they failed to advance the characterization or the present-day narrative in any way; they did, ultimately, contain clues that tied into the mystery, but I ended up guessing most of the twists anyway, even without giving large segments of this book my full attention. 

I’m struggling a bit to rate this one as I weirdly did enjoy reading parts of it — once it really got its momentum up, around 50-60% in, I couldn’t put it down — but the negatives far outweigh the positives of this reading experience. I’d skip it unless there’s something unique about this premise that appeals to you.

Thank you to Scribner and Netgalley for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Seek You by Kristen Radtke | BookBrowse

SEEK YOU by Kristen Radtke
Pantheon Books, 2021

In the first pages of Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, Kristen Radtke’s sophomore work, she explains that radio operators call out across frequencies with what is known as a “CQ call,” named as such because “CQ” sounds like the first syllable of sécurité, or “pay attention,” in French. In English, radio users took to calling it “seek you.” In this graphic work of nonfiction, Kristen Radtke explores this concept of reaching outward, turning the CQ call into a metaphorical representation of 21st century American existence.

With a muted palette of mostly blues, greens and oranges, Radtke illustrates a series of graphic essays, each devoted to a different sociological study or phenomenon or observation on loneliness.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse and you can read a piece I wrote about graphic works of nonfiction HERE.