my life in books: In the Woods
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I’m not big on police procedurals–or John Grisham or Patricia Cornwell (I don’t need to be bored by lawyers and doctors, thanks)–but Tana French‘s Edgar Award winning novel In the Woods sounded quite intriguing. I really love a story about characters with a haunted past that must confront it and experience a transformation of sorts in the process. Sadly, that’s not exactly what I got with this book.
As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.
Twenty years later, the found boy, Rob Ryan, is a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad and keeps his past a secret. But when a twelve-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods, he and Detective Cassie Maddox—his partner and closest friend—find themselves investigating a case chillingly similar to the previous unsolved mystery. Now, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him and that of his own shadowy past.
Richly atmospheric, stunning in its complexity, and utterly convincing and surprising to the end, In the Woods is sure to enthrall fans of Mystic River and The Lovely Bones.
This was a book I enjoyed while reading it and that, in fact, turned out to be quite the page-turner. The real problem crept on me in the aftermath of my finishing it, in those moments when you close the book and ruminate on all the words you just took in.
Bottom line: it was an unsatisfying ending that left a signifiant plot thread just dangling with no sense of closure, with barely a thought given to it in the final pages. The whole draw of the book for me was this connection between Rob’s past and the case he was investigating. I don’t want to spoil potential readers, so I’ll just say that the end didn’t exactly have the coalescing I was anticipating.
I also don’t appreciate the author’s attempt to be clever when she claims that we, the readers, have been duped just as Rob himself was. While this may be true from some readers, it certainly can’t be the case for all. For example, I was not duped. There is a scene in the novel that I suspected was planted as a means of foreshadowing and I thought that it might have a payoff later. It did. So for the author–or more appropriately, I suppose, Rob–to assume I was as fooled as he was is a bit insulting.
Another problem is Rob Ryan himself. By the novel’s end I just didn’t like him anymore. He came off as pathetic, obsessive and foolish. Typically, character stories involve some sort of redemptive angle, or at least an attempt to examine a character’s faults and to learn from them. Of course, not all stories must end this way; a tragic end is often a more powerful way to go, so long as it is apropos to the character(s) journey and/or the writer’s subjacent message. But that is something that must be earned. I’m not saying In the Woods ends tragically per se, but to me, it ends with the character no wiser than when we met him at the beginning. And that is sort of tragic because, really, what’s the point of that?
There’ some good stuff in there, however. Tana French crafts exemplary prose. The words are so deliberate and lulling. There’s a poetry there. But what good are beautiful words without the benefit of a well-designed story?
There is a follow up to this novel. It’s called The Likeness. It is not a sequel, nor is it an origin story. Rather, it takes place awhile after In the Woods and the first person storyteller this time around is Cassie, Rob’s former partner. I did try to read it. Tried. I got to precisely page 100 before I just had to set it aside and resign myself to not finishing it. 100 pages of setup is just way too much. I felt as if nothing were happening. Page 100 is actual where it appears something is about to happen, but by that time, I was not invested enough to care.
Can I recommend In the Woods? Look, it’s not bad. It just needs some tightening up and an ending that at least addresses one of the biggest mysteries within the story. Perhaps Tana French intends to write another book that does indeed delve ito this mystery. But to be honest, I don’t care. I expected a resolution this time around. It almost felt promised. What I can suggest is reading the the prologue. It’s a beautiful piece of prose and it will give you an idea of what this author is capable of. I so enjoyed the style of her writing, I only wish that enjoyed the story she had to tell. So I will keep my eye out on her future endeavors and hope I won’t be quite so disappointed next time.
my life in books: Shadowland
Alyson Noël‘s third installment of her The Immortals series, Shadowland, left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. The series as a whole, I feel, has vast potential but the bulk of the narrative often comes off as contrived, convenient and predictable.
That’s not say there isn’t some entertainment here, or some value. But as with many young adult novels and series, the core of the story relies heavily on a teenage love affair that is supernatural in nature and therefore, ridden with complications and conflict. And of course, the girl protagonist at the heart of all is so deeply infatuated, that her life is essentially defined by this boy’s mere existence. Not a great message to be sending to the demographic, but stories of intense romance can be given a little liberty and some forgiveness for this contrivance. After all, what makes Romeo & Juliet, for example, so timeless and beloved is it’s very insistence that life is worth nothing without love.
Ever and Damen have traveled through countless past lives–and fought off the world’s darkest enemies–so they could be together forever. But just when their long-awaited destiny is finally within reach, a powerful curse falls upon Damen…one that could destroy everything. Now a single touch of their hands or a soft brush of their lips could mean sudden deathiiplunging Damen into the Shadowland. Desperate to break the curse and save Damen, Ever immerses herself in magick–and gets help from an unexpected source…a surfer named Jude.
Although she and Jude have only just met, he feels startlingly familiar. Despite her fierce loyalty to Damen, Ever is drawn to Jude, a green-eyed golden boy with magical talents and a mysterious past. She’s always believed Damen to be her soulmate and one true love–and she still believes it to be true. But as Damen pulls away to save them, Ever’s connection with Jude grows stronger–and tests her love for Damen like never before…
I feel like the each story in each book is simply a new conflict to keep the two lovers apart. And there is nothing wrong with that except that the characters remain–more or less–unchanged. Ever and Damen both struggle with own moral compasses and both are also both vaguely aware of their selfish compulsion to be together, no matter the consequences. But each book merely introduces a new antagonist(s) connected with Damen’s shady past and each of these villains makes it their mission to keep Damen and Ever apart. Because, obviously, a bunch of immortals with nothing but time and a profound vendetta have nothing better to do than to taunt Ever, who–for all intents and purposes–is just an innocent girl, never complicit in the acts her beau took part in centuries ago. Yes, that was sarcasm there.
The saga of Ever and Dame is just a long and redundant tale thus far, a tautology that bogs down the narrative. Certainly there are other elements within the story to draw from and create conflict with, but instead the author dwells on the focused romance, as if nothing else exists. Of course, little else does exist to these two characters.
Now, the whole idea of Ever and Damen not being able to touch for eternity is an intruguing idea and certainly reminiscent of the lovers’s plight in the tv series Pushing Daisies. It has the capacity to create this potent and volatile sexual tension but instead the author introduces a slight loophole. So throughout this novel the two do “touch” through a sheet of energy that barely separates them. I was disappointed that Ever and Damen could embrace or hold hands and even kiss; it takes away much of the power of their situation if they are able to find a way to circumvent it.
Characters need growth in order to form a true connection with the reader. One could argue that there is growth here. Damon, for example, feels this “curse” is karma coming to collect on him and so he willfully changes his routins and behavior. He rids himself of material things, adopts a new wardrobe–one without designer labels–and gives away his car. He insists Ever explore her connection with the mysterious Jude to see if something sparks there. But where one might see growth in these changes, I simply see a whiny martyr. But thats just me.
There’s far better Young Adult paranormal/fantasy book series out there, none that–in my opinion–surpass the epic The Mortal Instruments. (And yes, that includes you, Twilight!) Will I keep reading The Immortals? For now, yes. I’m three books in and harbor a small hope that Alyson Noël can salvage these characters, who remain frustratingly two-dimensional and unidentifiable. She has a good idea here; it just needs some nurture, a little more substance, and a bit of nuance. The devil’s in the details, after all.
my life in books: A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens‘s perennial classic A Christmas Carol is a book that I had never read. A story that has been adapted countless times and in various incarnations. And so I thought it was time to give the source material a read.
Perhaps what makes Charles Dickens a prolific–and still relevant–author is his upbringing. As a child reared in the classist British society in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, he was witness to and apart of great social injustices of the time. These experiences with societal hardships are easily seen throughout his library of published works, and in fact, many of them are built around such concepts and observations, such as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.
A Christmas Carol is certainly drawn from such societal elements, using class and poverty to weave the tale of the cranky, cheap and greedy (and you can now add legendary and infamous to that list too!) Ebenezer Scrooge. I don’t need to go into specifics. After all, is there anyone who doesn’t know what A Christmas Carol is about, that doesn’t know about the four ghosts, the inevitable redemption of the grouch, Tiny Tim, the uplifting and celebratory message?
Instead I will just state that if you have never read this book–or more appropriately, novella–it’s a swift (under 100 pages) and good read. What’s most remarkable about to me is that this story is so timeless and classic, so rich and profound, that in all its various adaptations–the movies, the television episodes, the operas, the plays, etc.–those stories remain incredibly faithful to the original work; it’s quite astounding. Perhaps that speaks to the story’s success, that everyone who has adapted it felt little need to change the major plot points and qualities of the characters.
A Christmas Carol is widely credited with reinventing Christmas, making it the holiday like the one we experience today, one filled with compassion and generosity. I guess we have Charles Dickens to thank for making this the best time of year, for imagining a holiday that is many a person’s favorite. It’s certainly mine. I can’t wait for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; my daughter is three years old now and is sort of starting to understand more and more things. I’m so excited for her to experience the holiday this year! And it’s a holiday we wouldn’t quite have the way we do, if it weren’t for A Christmas Carol.
my life in books: The Missing
Sometimes I just browse my local library’s shelves and peruse the backs and dust jackets of random books and check a few out. Shiloh Walker‘s The Missing is one of those books I came across. It had an intriguing premise and I was in the mood for a story that had a little romance in it after reading a number of novels that were of quite a different persuasion.
Her psychic gift drove away the man she loved— and years later has drawn him back to her…
As a teenager, Taige Branch hated her psychic gift. No one could understand—except for Cullen Morgan, the boy who stole her heart. He did his best to accept her, until his mother was brutally murdered—and he couldn’t forgive Taige for not preventing it.
Now a widowed father, Cullen Morgan has never forgotten Taige. But what brings her back into his life is another tragedy. His beloved little girl has been kidnapped, and Taige is his only hope of finding her. Working together against the clock, Cullen and Taige can’t help but wonder whether—if they find his daughter in time—it isn’t too late for the overpowering love that still burns between them…
Once I got into it–and it didn’t take too long–I definitely found The Missing to be a page turner, although I can also deem it forgettable. And though it was classified in the fiction section at my local library I feel like it almost belongs more to the romance categorization. The story is not inundated with the purpley prose I assume so common in the romance genre, but there is a sprinkling of that in there. Strangely, one of the most prevalent thoughts I had upon completing this book was how highly sexualized it was. There’s a more than a few sex scenes in the book and they do get a bit explicit and that is not something I often encounter in the things I read. Sex scenes are usually brief or introspective, perhaps slightly nebulous or merely suggestive. Not so descriptive and capturing the blow-by-blow (minds out of the gutter, people!) such as this novel does. And I have to admit, when I read “cock” it makes me think of erotica, as it is a word that fits in swell in that genre–and maybe romance, too, though I haven’t really read much romance to know for sure–so it sorts of takes me out of a story I am trying to take more seriously than some light porn.
Overall, the prose is fluid and unabashed. A benefit to the novel is its third person perspective. You get a large dose of Taige and a sampling from the other characters, most notably Cullen. It makes the narrative’s scope widen and the implications of events and their effects on the characters more widely understood than if it were only focusing on the singular Taige instead. There is a somewhat minor mystery at the core of the story–the catalyst that ignites the reunion of Taige and Cullen–but I am afraid it is so absolutely predictable that I’m not sure if it was meant to a real mystery at all. But I suppose that’s all irrelevant because in the end, this is a story about a love so intense it survives time and guilt and tragedy. And in that respect, it is a successfully executed story.
However, one of its shortcomings is Cullen. He feels very underdeveloped to me. Even now, though I only finished the book about two weeks ago, I can’t get a clear sense of him. The only things that stand out are that he is a dedicated father and is pining for Paige. He doesn’t have many distinguishing characters I can recall, neither physically nor psychologically. He could be any guy. Taige, on the other hand, is strong and willful and compelling. And because we are introduced to her as a teenager and witness the grief and horror her gift supplies, she is easy to sympathize with and root for.
A second slight failure is the poor attention to the way the law works and how crime is investigated. But because Taige is a psychic guided by her sixth sense, you can give into suspension of disbelief and accept what liberties the writer has taken to tell her story.
A good read. I don’t know if it is a book I will remember much about as time goes by, but I was entertained and intrigued well enough through the journey. I may give the author another go around at some point.