book review: The Burning Girls by CJ Tudor






THE BURNING GIRLS
★★☆☆☆
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: 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: House of Glass by Susan Fletcher





HOUSE OF GLASS by Susan Fletcher
★★★★★
Virago (UK), 2018




Callum brought House of Glass to my attention ages ago and now that I’ve finally read it, I have to echo his recommendation and add my own disbelief that this book has flown so under the radar. Fans of Laura Purcell and Sarah Waters, get on this! Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think this book ever got a US publisher; it’s a shame, as there is certainly a huge market for this kind of atmospheric British historical fiction over here — a market that is indeed so oversaturated that it’s only natural for some real gems like this to slip through the cracks.

Sort of a slow burn coming of age story à la Jane Eyre meets a modernized Gothic horror novel like The Silent Companions, House of Glass follows Clara, a young woman with osteogenesis imperfecta living in London with her stepfather in the wake of her mother’s death in 1914. She becomes entranced with gardening and is eventually summoned to a manor in Gloucestershire with the task of curating a private greenhouse for the eccentric, frequently absent owner. This is the first time Clara has really left home or done anything on her own given the limitations that her disorder has caused in her life, so it’s partially a novel about Clara finding her way in the world; and it’s also partially a Gothic mystery as Clara attempts to uncover the secrets of Shadowbrook manor.

Again, this novel is quite the slow burn; the mystery element isn’t even introduced until partway through; you do spend quite a bit of time on Clara’s childhood and background. But I do think that ultimately serves the themes of the story quite nicely so I don’t think that’s a negative at all; I just want to firmly clarify that this is a mystery novel much more than it is any kind of thriller.

Susan Fletcher’s writing is strong, her characters are brilliantly crafted, and she interacts with tropes and archetypes from the classics — Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Northanger Abbey — in such a deliberate way, I was really won over by how cleverly constructed this book was. It’s certainly a fun and gripping read on the one hand, but its literary merit shouldn’t be underestimated. Just a very solidly good book all around.

book reviews: Home Before Dark and Survive the Night by Riley Sager




HOME BEFORE DARK by Riley Sager
★★★★☆
Dutton, 2020


I read this book over a year ago and annoyingly never got around to reviewing it — I’m only returning to it now as I’m about to review Riley Sager’s newest offering, Survive the Night, and I’m a completionist. So, here we are. Let’s see if I can come up with a few sentences. 

I’ve read all of Sager’s books now and this isn’t one of my favorites from him; I’d put it second to last, with only The Last Time I Lied below it.

Meaning: I still liked it quite a lot.

Set in a decaying Victorian estate in Vermont (can’t go wrong there), Home Before Dark is a sufficiently eerie and unsettling haunted house horror story which indulges a lot of genre’s tropes, but which doesn’t ultimately subvert them in a very interesting way. I think I had more problems with this novel’s resolution than any of his others, but still, Sager is the absolute master of gripping, pacy thrillers, and this one is no exception; definitely recommended if it catches your eye.




SURVIVE THE NIGHT by Riley Sager
★★★★☆
Dutton, 2021


In the style of a somewhat modernized film noir, Survive the Night tells the story of Charlie, a New Jersey college student looking for a ride home to Ohio on a cold winter’s night. At the college’s ride board (this is set in the 1990s, pre-the sort of technology that we’d use today for this kind of arrangement), she meets Josh Baxter, also heading in that direction, so she gratefully accepts the ride. The only snag: Charlie’s roommate and best friend was recently murdered by a serial killer. The longer Charlie and Josh spend in the car and the more they get chatting, the more Charlie starts realizing that certain details in Josh’s story aren’t adding up, and she starts to wonder if she’s trapped in the car of her roommate’s murderer.

I read this in a single sitting — I think it’s Sager’s most successful page-turner to date, which seems almost counterintuitive; you’d think that a girl being trapped in a car wouldn’t exactly make for the most gripping of reads, but this might be his most tense, terrifying work yet. The set-up may sound simple, but the way this story unfolds could not be more unpredictable if it tried. 

This book DOES however include the cringiest line I’ve ever read in the history of my entire existence, so I cannot in good conscience recommend it without warning you that this is a series of sentences you are going to have to read with your very own eyeballs — apologies for subjecting you to this:

She’s no longer the scared, self-loathing girl she was when she left campus. She’s something else.

A fucking femme fatale.

File this under: more reasons I try to avoid thrillers by men.

Anyway, after my eyes were done rolling into the back of my skull, I pushed onward and yeah, what can I say, I had a lot of fun reading this. Certain elements of the resolution were brilliant, others were a bit silly, but all I can really ask of a thriller is to keep me guessing and keep me on my toes, and Sager always delivers on that front. I’ve become less confident through the years about his ability to write women — see above quote (I thought his female protagonist in his debut, Final Girls, was written brilliantly, which lured me into a false sense of security) — so the more of his books I read, the more the shine does slightly wear off, but I doubt I’ll be able to quit him any time soon; his books are too damn addicting.

book review: The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson





THE GIRL WHO DIED by Ragnar Jónasson
translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
★★★☆☆
Minotaur Books, 2021




I have a rule that I don’t read thrillers by men; I break the rule every now and then (usually for Riley Sager, whose works I discovered when I still thought he was a woman), and I thought The Girl Who Died sounded so up my alley that I figured I’d also take a chance on new-to-me author Ragnar Jónasson. A few chapters in, the main (female) character, on her first night in a brand new town, is feeling restless and unsettled and can’t shake the feeling that someone’s watching her. She decides to clear her head by… going for a walk. At night. In the pitch black. By herself. This is why I don’t read thrillers by men.

Anyway, this was fine. I thought the premise was brilliant: in the 1980s, Una, a young teacher from Reykjavik, takes a post teaching two students in a small Icelandic town called Skálar which is so remote only ten people live there. (Skálar was a real town, but Jónasson explains in a forward that he took artistic liberties as it hasn’t been occupied since the 1950s.) Una receives a less than warm welcome and can’t shake the feeling that even though this teaching position was advertised, none of the locals want her there.

I had a lot of problems with this book but I’ll stick to my two main criticisms. The way Una’s ‘alcoholism’ is treated is absolutely laughable; this woman will drink a single bottle of wine in a week and the whole town will be whispering about how she must be an alcoholic, the ridiculous nature of which isn’t remotely addressed; it’s like the reader is also meant to question Una’s credibility, seeing as Una herself starts to after a while (which leads to a moment which is just ridiculously outlandish if you can’t buy that Una actually believes her sanity is slipping away — which, sorry, I couldn’t!). For one thing, is there anything more tired than alcoholic narrators in thrillers, and for another, if you’re going to use that trope, at least… do it convincingly? 

There are also chapters interspersed throughout Una’s story, each about two pages long and fully italicized, from the perspective of an unknown character. Again, this isn’t a convention that I’m ever particularly wild about, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen it executed in a way where there was LESS payoff than there was in this book. As in, these passages could have been cut out and not a single thing would change about this book’s resolution.

What Jónasson does well is create Skálar’s atmosphere, so if you like eerie, slightly spooky books set in remote Icelandic villages, it’s worth a read, but mystery fans are bound to feel a bit underwhelmed by this one.

book review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart


WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart
★★★★☆
Delacorte Press, 2014






I read this because it’s allegedly a retelling of King Lear. It… isn’t really (and I’ll talk about that more when I one day inevitably do a blog post on retellings of King Lear) but I actually liked this a LOT more than I was expecting to. Usually when I read YA my overriding feeling is ‘this wasn’t written for me,’ but I actually didn’t feel that so much; this largely felt like an adult thriller when I was reading.  Yes, it contains Teenagers Experiencing Emotions, but that isn’t something I have an issue with; there was this sort of cool detachment to the writing that I felt worked in its favor and it was a fantastically paced, cleverly structured book that wasn’t weighed down by the protagonist’s navel gazing.  And yes, there’s The Twist—it didn’t blow my socks off because it ended up being something I’ve seen done in other books, but I actually thought the execution here was really fantastic and it was definitely worth the wait.  I did feel like the whole thing came together successfully, and it’s hard to talk about without giving anything away, but suffice to say this book was just delightful escapism if you prefer your beach reads to have a sharp edge. 

book review: The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton | BookBrowse




THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER by Stuart Turton
★★★★☆
Bloomsbury, 2020



In 1634 on the day that world famous detective Samuel Pipps is set to board the Sardaam from Batavia to Amsterdam in handcuffs, the ship is approached by a leper who climbs atop a crate to declare a frightening prophecy: “The Sardaam‘s cargo is sin, and all who board her will be brought to merciless ruin. She will not reach Amsterdam.” The man then bursts into flames and dies moments later, at which time it’s discovered that, despite the prophecy he just announced, he has no tongue.

While the opening of this standalone mystery is explosive, The Devil and the Dark Water is a slow burner. It mostly follows Arent, Samuel Pipps’ bodyguard, a gruff yet honorable man intent on proving the innocence of his accused employer. It also follows Sara Wessel, a noblewoman trapped in an abusive marriage hoping to make a new life for herself in Amsterdam. The two form an unlikely friendship as the ship comes under siege by dark forces in the form of a demon called Old Tom that has a terrifying link to Arent’s past.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the Dutch East India Trading Company HERE.

book review: Out by Natsuo Kirino




OUT by Natsuo Kirino
translated by Stephen Snyder
★★★☆☆
Vintage, 2005



What Out does successfully is depict the utter exhaustion and desperation of the working class (focusing on a group of women working in a boxed-lunch factory in the outskirts of Tokyo).  This book is as bleak and gritty as it gets, but I liked that; I liked that Natsuo Kirino had no interest in shying away from the horrific realities that drove these characters to make the decisions that they did.  It’s also hard to come away from this book without admiring Masako Katori, its central character; she’s a brilliant creation and a fantastic focal point.

The entire time I was reading I was planning on giving this 4 stars – 1 star deducted for Snyder’s egregiously clunky translation.  Just one example among many passages that caused me to roll my eyes into the back of my head:

“Why?”
“Because you’re a smart-ass.  I’m going to teach you about the big, bad world.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” she said.
[…]
‘Because you’re a smart-ass,’ he’d said.  She couldn’t let him get away with that.

So reading this was not entirely smooth sailing, but for the most part I found it admirable and compelling enough to compensate for the fact that it is not ostensibly a page-turner.

But then we got to the end, which… oh boy.  It’s hard to talk about without spoiling, but, in essence – this book starts to lead toward an inexorable conclusion, and it does arrive there, so that isn’t the issue.  The issue is how it unfolds, which… I personally found more offensive than I can even adequately describe, lol.  Ok, fine, spoiler: it involves a rape fetish that we got to experience through two (2) different perspectives in excruciating detail.  To say this served no purpose, was tonally incongruous, and bastardized Masako’s character – would all be an understatement. 

I’m glad I finally read this as it’s been sitting on my shelf for years, but it also felt like a shame that I decided to pick it up for Women in Translation Month (I’m reviewing it rather belatedly) when it ended on a note that I found to be so fundamentally antifeminist it kind of cancelled out the brilliant character work that had come before.

book review: The Lost Village by Camilla Sten





THE LOST VILLAGE by Camilla Sten
translated from the Swedish by Alex Fleming
★★★☆☆
Minotaur Books, April 6, 2021



The Lost Village, originally published in Swedish as Staden in 2019, has a rather striking premise: in the 1950s, all 900 inhabitants of a remote Swedish town vanished without a trace.  There were only two people left behind – a newborn baby and a woman stoned to death in the town square.  In the present-day, documentary filmmaker Alice has been obsessed with this town since she was a child, as her grandmother’s entire family disappeared in the incident (her grandmother had moved away and was living in Stockholm at the time), and Alice decides to make an excursion to the town with a small filmmaking crew to uncover the truth about what happened.

And the premise is indeed the strongest thing about it – it kept me turning pages simply because the central mystery was so bizarre and fascinating.  There are dual timelines, past and present, with the present-day getting more of a focus, and I thought this balance was done well.  The tone was also fantastic – I wouldn’t necessarily describe this book as creepy or gothic in atmosphere, but there was this sort of gently thrumming sense of terror throughout the whole thing (not dissimilar from Midsommar which this is probably going to be compared to quite a bit).

That said, my first issue with this book cropped up within the first few pages, which is simply that the writing is quite amateurish.  I’m not sure whether the clunkiness can be ascribed to the original prose or to the translation (I’m inclined to think the former – my issues weren’t typically with word choice as much as poorly written exposition), but either way, it took some getting used to.

I also found the treatment of mental health to be rather cringe-inducing.  Mild spoilers: It’s pretty obvious one character’s possible ‘psychosis’ is set up to be a red herring in a rather half-baked attempt to provide a meta commentary about the stigmatization of mental illness, which… isn’t half as progressive as thriller writers seem to think it is.  For one thing, try to read this exchange without rolling your eyes into the back of your head:

“I saw them in your tent,” he goes on.  “In the toiletry bag, when I was borrowing your toothpaste.  Abilify.”  He pauses.  When he goes on, his voice is heavy.

“Abilify is an antipsychotic.  Right?  That’s what it said on the packaging.”

And for another thing… why?  We know mental illness is stigmatized.  We know.  This is not a particularly clever or incisive or subversive commentary on that fact.  Maybe as a writer you could try to come up with a more creative way to sow seeds of doubt into a group of friends than the dramatic reveal of – gasp – Abilify

Anyway, it’s hard to comment on the resolution without giving anything away, so I’ll stay vague.  I found some parts satisfying, some annoyingly convenient, and some just raised the question how did the initial investigation overlook this?

So on the whole, I just found this frustratingly uneven in execution.  I certainly did enjoy reading this more often than not, I’d just encourage you to lower your standards if it piques your interest.

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