book review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

42983724

 

DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD by Olga Tokarczuk
translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
★★★★★
Riverhead, August 13, 2019

 

A subversive feminist noir mystery set in a remote Polish village, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead both dazzles and defies categorization. Olga Tokarczuk’s seventh novel (her fourth to be translated into English) follows Janina Duszejko, an elderly woman living as a recluse on the outskirts of a Polish town close to the Czech border, who spends her days reading horoscopes and translating the poetry of William Blake. But it’s a far cry from an idyllic life for Janina, whose beloved dogs have gone missing and whose neighbors keep mysteriously turning up dead.

Read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can also read a piece I wrote on Women in Translation Month HERE.


You can pick up a copy of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead here on Book Depository.

Advertisements

book review: The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn

29501521

 

THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn
translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger
★★★★★
Orenda Books, 2016

 

What a bizarre, enchanting, darkly chilling little book. I am not in the habit of quoting others’ reviews in my own, but there’s a blurb from crime writer Rod Reynolds on the book that says ‘A masterclass in suspense and delayed terror, reading it felt like I was driving at top speed towards a cliff edge – and not once did I want to take my foot off the pedal’ – and I think that sums it up better than I could.

I’ve had this book on my shelf for years, and I can’t remember where or how I first heard about it, but I think I had it in my head that it was going to be a fairly standard thriller, which I had been in the mood for. But it was no disappointment to me when it turned out to be a different beast entirely. The Bird Tribunal felt to me like a modern-day Scandinavian Rebecca, following a young woman living in the shadow of her enigmatic employer’s first wife, but with all the dreary atmosphere and profound social isolation of Wuthering Heights. But though I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as a thriller, and I think it might disappoint readers who are specifically seeking out twists and turns, the tension and sense of growing dread I experienced while reading this were palpable.

The relationship between Allis and Sigurd is a tender, terrifying thing; this is the hook that gets its claws in you from the offset. Through Allis’s first person narration we’re drawn into her obsession with Sigurd, a distant, surly man who employs Allis as a kind of housekeeper while he awaits his wife’s return. Though Allis is blind to so many of the warning signs that the reader has access to, her obsession with Sigurd doesn’t feel unnatural or unrealistic or frustrating – reading this book isn’t like watching a train wreck so much as feeling like you’re the one steering the train. I wouldn’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this as the sense of discomfort I felt while reading it was pretty significant, but the fact that I stayed up until 1 am finishing this after taking Benadryl two hours earlier since I couldn’t tear myself away kind of says it all.


You can pick up a copy of The Bird Tribunal here on Book Depository.

book review: Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

41837243._sy475_

 

LOCK EVERY DOOR by Riley Sager
★★★★☆
Dutton, July 2019

 

I can’t think of another contemporary thriller writer that does the page-turner as well as Riley Sager, and here he’s come up with yet another brilliant premise: a young woman answers an ad to be an apartment sitter in a swanky building in the Upper West Side – and she’s being paid $12,000 to do it, so what’s the catch? (I think the less you know going into this book the better, so I’ll just leave it there.) I imagine that Lock Every Door‘s pace will be the main drawback for some – our protagonist Jules does play amateur detective to no avail for about half the book – but with the way Sager writes, she probably could have been playing a game of chess and I’d have been equally as thrilled.

And no spoilers, but I loved that ending. I imagine it’s also going to divide opinions, as it’s not the most… conventional thriller resolution, but I thought it hit that perfect sweet spot of ‘I really should have thought of that, but I never would have thought of that.’ In my opinion this isn’t as strong as Sager’s debut Final Girls (which is pretty hard to beat), but I liked it a lot better than his follow-up effort The Last Time I Lied. I found Lock Every Door to be creepier and more original, and its protagonist more convincing. I do think Final Girls and The Last Time I Lied are more traditional crowd-pleasers, so maybe stick to one of those for an introduction to Sager, but I loved this; this is the most fun I’ve had with a thriller in ages.


You can pick up a copy of Lock Every Door here on Book Depository.

book review: The Missing Years by Lexie Elliott

40953912

 

THE MISSING YEARS by Lexie Elliott
★☆
Berkley, April 23, 2019

 

Beginning with the terrifically gothic premise, The Missing Years is an easy book to like. Ailsa Calder, a young woman living in London, finds herself inheriting half of an old Scottish manor when her mother dies. Though she initially wants nothing to do with it, she’s unable to sell it unless the joint owner agrees; the problem being that the other half belongs to her father, who disappeared without a trace twenty-seven years ago. So Ailsa moves into the manor with her half-sister, and from the very first night, she can’t shake the suspicion that something is deeply wrong with the house.

The atmosphere in this book, as I’m sure you can imagine, was pitch-perfect, and that’s really the main reason I’d recommend it. The setting of a creepy old house in the Scottish Highlands is hard to mess up, and Lexie Elliott mercifully uses it to its potential. The potentially supernatural element (is the house actually haunted?) is mostly kept ambiguous until the conclusion, which is how I prefer it when a supernatural element encroaches on a thriller; it’s always interesting to me when characters feel like they’re losing their grip on reality.

The problem with this book for me was that it was severely under-edited. This is a very slow-building mystery, which is fine, but when your book is a slow burn, you still need something to propel it forward; instead I felt like The Missing Years was just spinning its wheels for about two-hundred pages. I felt like I was slowly being driven mad by the sheer amount of repetition here – I wasn’t sure I could take another instance of Aisla anthropomorphizing the house without losing the last shred of my own sanity. I’m not kidding, there is barely a page where Aisla doesn’t reflect on the feeling that the house is watching her, which I thought was a rather ham-fisted addition to what was otherwise a fantastically rendered setting.

I still mostly enjoyed reading this, and I’d suggest picking it up if the setting appeals to you, but if you prefer your thrillers on the fast paced side, it’s probably best to skip this one.

Thank you to Berkley for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pick up a copy of The Missing Years here on Book Depository.

book review: The Killer In Me by Olivia Kiernan

41802885

THE KILLER IN ME by Olivia Kiernan
(Frankie Sheehan #2)
★★★★☆
Dutton, April 2, 2019
(Too Close To Breathe)

 

Every time I’ve read a thriller recently I’ve been left with the thought ‘do I actually like thrillers or am I just reading these out of habit.’ Well, it turns out I do still like them! I just wish they were all on Olivia Kiernan’s level – her Frankie Sheehan series is shaping up to be one of my favorites… which is odd as I really dislike police procedurals most of the time. So more power to Kiernan for being able to hook me on a formula that I’m not wild about.

And while I enjoyed Kiernan’s debut, Too Close to Breathe, I think its sequel The Killer in Me is superior in just about every way. More intricate plotting, more sophisticated writing, and more of that ‘can’t put it down’ factor. So while it’s always fun to go into a sequel being familiar with the characters, you could easily read The Killer in Me as a standalone. There are five murders at the heart of this novel, though two took place 17 years ago, as Seán Hennessey has just been released from prison where he served a sentence for murdering his parents, though he continues to profess his innocence. But when a series of eerily similar murders begins to occur, naturally Seán is the number one suspect. It’s a great premise, and Kiernan manages to expertly balance her various subplots so that it’s difficult to predict exactly what it’s all building up to.

Incidentally, I did have the exact same complaint about The Killer in Me as I did about Too Close to Breathe, which is that Frankie tends to make leaps the size of the Grand Canyon while doing a psychological profile on the killer(s), which invariably turn out to be accurate. So that’s a bit annoying, but you can’t have everything. All things considered, I think Olivia Kiernan is a brilliant new voice in the Irish crime genre, and if you like your thrillers on the dark and psychologically distressing side, you won’t want to miss this series.

Thanks so much to Dutton for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pick up copies of Too Close to Breathe and The Killer In Me over on Book Depository.

book review: The Hiding Place by C.J. Tudor

40091283

THE HIDING PLACE by C.J. Tudor
(UK title: THE TAKING OF ANNIE THORNE)
★★☆☆☆
Crown, February 5, 2019

I was all over the place with this book. It was at times gripping, laughable, chilling, confusing, and dull, so I’m not having the easiest time gathering my thoughts and deciding on a rating.

To be honest I’m not exactly sure what the main mystery here was supposed to be so I’ll spare you from too many plot details, but basically, when Joe Thorne was a teenager his sister Annie died, following a period where she went missing for 48 hours before turning up again. Now Joe is a teacher at his old school and he has reason to believe that whatever happened to Annie is happening again. That doesn’t give you a good sense of just how convoluted this was, but I guess that’s the gist.

So that’s criticism number one: there are too many plot threads. Half of them are unnecessary and half of them are left unresolved. There’s also a supernatural element that is only halfheartedly integrated into the story, and the lack of answers we receive about this felt to me like Tudor didn’t have any of the answers herself and fell back on the lazy excuse of ‘well it’s supernatural, I don’t need to explain it.’ Since so much went unexplained, the ending was all kinds of anticlimactic, and the ‘final showdown,’ if we can call it that, was probably one of the worst thriller scenes I’ve ever read. But hey, at least Joe has no illusions to the contrary about what kind of book he’s in. “And then, feeling very much like a character in a bad thriller, I say: ‘I think we should talk.'”

And that’s another problem, the desperate attempts to overcompensate for dull moments with humor that doesn’t land. In the first half of this book in particular you could hardly go a page without cringing due to something like this:

“Never go back. That’s what people always tell you. Things will have changed. They won’t be the way you remembered. Leave the past in the past. Of course, the last one is easier said than done. The past has a habit of repeating on you. Like bad curry.”

… which was frustrating when the strongest thing about this book is its atmosphere. When your book manages to be as creepy and downright terrifying as this one can be at times, you shouldn’t sacrifice the tone for these silly throwaway lines. And the thing is, this book was properly brilliant at times. Certain scenes, particularly the flashbacks, were tense and vivid and gripping, and I had plenty of moments of not being able to put this book down because I needed to know what happened next. So in that way, it was one of the more fun reading experiences I’ve had recently. Unfortunately I was rewarded for racing through it with an altogether terrible ending.

So on the whole, where this is good, I actually think it’s better than The Chalk Man. Where it’s bad, it’s worse by far. The Hiding Place is certainly more ambitious, but The Chalk Man is more consistent. (I’ve also seen many reviews comment on the transparent similarity to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, but as I haven’t read any King myself I can’t personally comment on that – I just wanted to mention it for everyone else’s consideration.)

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

book review: The Stranger Inside by Laura Benedict

39599967

 

 

THE STRANGER INSIDE by Laura Benedict
★★☆☆☆
Mulholland, February 5, 2019

 

The Stranger Inside has a pretty enticing premise: Kimber Hannon returns home from a week away only to find herself locked out of her house. When she notices someone inside she calls the police, who get him to open the door; he produces the paperwork complete with Kimber’s forged signature and insists that he’s renting the house for six months. Overcome with frustration, Kimber rushes inside her house, only to have the man grab her and whisper in her ear ‘I saw what you did.’

So that was a great opening, but it’s all downhill from there, I’m afraid. Which was more of a mess, the plot or the characters? Let’s start with the latter: Kimber has to win some kind of award for being the most insufferable protagonist in literary history. I truly do not believe that a protagonist needs to be ‘likable,’ but they sure as hell need to be interesting or sympathetic or something to hook the reader, especially in a thriller. I could not have cared less about Kimber: she’s selfish, remorseless, and emotionally immature, and why should I care that it all stems from a troubled adolescence when none of it is satisfactorily examined. At one point she befriends the wife of a man she had an affair with just because she thinks it would be funny to get back at him, without a second thought about the wife’s feelings, and we’re supposed to sympathize with her when she starts to realize this woman is actually a person? I really did not get the impression that Kimber was deliberately constructed to be a compelling antiheroine; I think she was supposed to be a flawed person who still deserved our sympathy, after everything. It didn’t work.

The plot itself was all kinds of ridiculous, with varying degrees of success; at times it was ridiculous and fun but at other times it was just ridiculous and boring. There were just too many convenient plot devices and moments that demanded suspension of disbelief. The pace at which information was revealed was haphazard at best, and it was a shame, because even the moments that should have been shocking were neutered by weak storytelling.

Now I’m going to end this review by going into spoiler territory, which I don’t often do, so that just goes to show how much the ending pissed me off.  [HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILER] Regarding the twist that Kimber didn’t actually kill Michelle: Why does Kimber deserve this narrative absolution?! She hasn’t displayed an OUNCE of guilt throughout the entire book; at one point when she’s accused of being a murderer, this is Kimber’s reaction: “[S]he has never imagined her sister’s death to be a murder, herself an actual murderer. In her head it’s always I killed Michelle or I accidentally killed Michelle or I took my sister’s life.” … how does that make it ok?! You literally pushed your sister off a cliff?!?! I’m pretty sure if I killed my (nonexistent) sister I’d be eaten up with guilt, regardless of how ‘accidental’ it was? Maybe the potential emotional impact of this ending could have been earned if there were even a hint of a possibility that Kimber cared anything for Michelle, but it felt like (literally) handing a get out of jail free card to a person you desperately want to see go to jail. Not even remotely satisfying. 

Also, love that the mentally ill character turns out to be evil. Real original, that!! [END SPOILER]

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