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Book review: The Witch Elm by Tana French

The Witch ElmThe Witch Elm by Tana French

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have yet to read a Tana French book that I didn’t love, or at least like very much. The Witch Elm is no exception.

Toby has led a charmed life: popular, handsome, athletic in school; hip job, beautiful girlfriend, nice flat as an adult. There have been no hiccups worth mentioning throughout his life. Toby never even thought of his life as “lucky” until, after an evening out with “the lads,” he walks into a burglary in progress in his flat. The burglars nearly beat him to death.

As Toby struggles to recover, he decides to stay with his uncle Hugo — recently diagnosed with brain cancer — to help care for Hugo and further his own healing process in the quiet of the family estate. His girlfriend Melissa accompanies him. They settle into an easy routine: Melissa commutes to her job in town, Toby helps Hugo with his genealogy research, the rest of the family — aunts, uncles, cousins, parents — congregate on Sundays for a congenial lunch that lasts most of the day. It’s all very homey and comfortable…and then the children discover a human skull in the bottom of the garden.

All congeniality and comfort disappears in the path of the police investigation. And Toby — whose memory is unreliable with gaping holes after his near-fatal beating — does not come over well in the eyes of the detectives on the case. Convinced he is their prime suspect, Toby decides to do a little investigating on his own.

The novel sets a meandering, leisurely pace: we are nearly a third of the way through the book before the body in the garden makes an appearance. This is perfectly in keeping with storytelling from Toby’s point of view: Toby is damaged and it takes him considerable time to process information. He often has to wander down several mental tracks to get to a particular conclusion. The languid pacing didn’t give me as much of an issue as it did some reviewers, although I will admit to the middle third of the novel being somewhat of a slog. Regardless, the slow build-up in tension and deliberate spacing of the reveals worked for me.

Only one piece of action didn’t ring true — can’t discuss because it’s a spoiler, but it takes place close to the end and sets up the final drama of the story. When I read it, I thought: “No way, I can’t see that person reacting in such a fashion.” But even with that quibble, I was satisfied by the ultimate resolution.

Nice job, Ms. French. Bring on the next novel, please.

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R.I.P. XI Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #5)The Secret Place by Tana French

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Holly Mackey, a 16-year-old student at St. Kilda’s School in Dublin, walks into the police station early one morning and hands a PostSecret type card to Detective Stephen Moran. The card — actually, a photograph — showing a candid shot of Chris Harper, a young man who had been murdered the previous year, had been pinned to a school bulletin board with the caption “I know who killed him.”

RIP 9 Peril the Second

Detective Moran immediately takes the card to Antoinette Conway, the detective who had been in charge of the fruitless investigation into Chris Harper’s murder. Conway reluctantly decides to include Moran in her renewed investigation and together they descend upon St. Kilda’s in the hope of turning up something more concrete than a blurry photograph and an enigmatic caption.

Once at the school, Moran and Conway quickly narrow down the list of students who had opportunity to place the photograph on the bulletin board to two sets of cliques: the “mean girls”, Queen Bee Joanne and her minions; and the “weird girls”, including Holly Mackey herself. Throughout a long day and well into the evening hours, the detectives interview the girls, one at a time, digging and probing and prodding, doing their best to penetrate a shield of teenage obstinacy and purposeful misdirection.

In between the present-day interviews, the story pops back in time to detail the events leading up to Chris’s murder, with a chilling countdown to death each time the young man makes an appearance on the page.

RIP 11Who placed the card? Who killed the boy? Tana French kept me guessing right up to the last moment, and did so in a spectacularly well-written fashion. I have yet to read one of her novels and be disappointed.

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Reviewed for R.I.P. XI “Peril the Second” Challenge. Click the badge to find out more about this annual event.

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Book review: Faithful Place by Tana French

Faithful Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #3)Faithful Place by Tana French
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tana French takes on Frank Mackey in her third outing with the Dublin Murder Squad. Mackey, as you may recall, is with the Undercover division of the Dublin police department, and takes his responsibilities as the coordinator of undercover operations and operatives very seriously. In Faithful Place, however, his work gets shunted aside as he is sucked back into his old neighborhood to deal with family drama and his own history.

At 19, Frank was prepared to run away to London with Rosie Daly, the love of his life, and together take the music world by storm. But she never appeared for their rendezvous and, although Frank himself left the neighborhood soon after, he never left Dublin. He never heard from Rosie again. Frank spent many years wondering where she was, imagining her life, while he married and had a child and divorced and built his career with the Dublin police, and eventually stopped wondering. Then one day, his sister calls to say the wreckers had found Rosie’s suitcase in an abandoned house on their street, and would he please come back home to help them decide what to do.

Frank, desperate to know what happened to Rosie, allows himself to be pulled back into the sick family dynamic he fled more than 20 years previously. And, try as he might against it, he easily falls into the old pattern of family interaction as if he’d never left. Ah, Irish guilt. Nothing like it. As he investigates the discovery of the suitcase and comes to a conclusion about what really happened to Rosie, Frank struggles also to deal with the legacy of his family and his neighborhood: the reputation, the history, the neighbors, the bad blood…so much bad blood.

With Faithful Place, Tana French again creates a taut mood and tight story, and three-dimensional characters who live and breathe and bleed and grieve. Wonderful stuff. I can’t wait for the next book.

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Book review: The Likeness by Tana French

The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad, #2)The Likeness by Tana French
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In an effort to discover a killer, Detective Cassie Maddox is put undercover after a young woman who bears her a stunning resemblance is discovered murdered. Said young woman was known as Alexandra Madison, or Lexie, the alias Cassie used in a drug sting operation some years prior. So who is she? And why was she stabbed and left to die in a tumbledown crofter’s cottage on a remote country lane?

Pleading amnesia as a result of the attack to cover any gaps in knowledge, Cassie takes Lexie’s place in a house shared by four other young people. She begins to live Lexie’s life: going to school, working on the house, fixing dinner, talking with her roommates — a life so ordinary and comfortable that Cassie’s boundaries start to blur.

I thought about her differently that night. Before, she had been an invader or a dare, always something that set my back stiffening and my adrenalin racing. But I was the one who had flashed into her life out of nowhere…I was the dare she had taken, years before the flip side of the coin landed in front of me. The moon spun slowly across the sky and I thought of my face blue-gray and empty on steel in the morgue, the long rush and clang of the drawer shutting her into the dark, alone. I imagined her sitting on this same bit of wall on other, lost nights, and I felt so warm and so solid, firm moving flesh overlaid on her faint silvery imprint, it almost broke my heart. I wanted to tell her things she should have known, how her tutorial group had coped with Beowulf and what the guys had made for dinner, what the sky looked like tonight; things I was keeping for her.

Tana French takes us deep into Cassie’s psyche, and by extension into Lexie’s, with heartbreaking prose and keen observation. Her phrasing is so sharp it cuts. She imbues her characters with grit, determination, bravado, so much sheer humanity…even the minor players have dimension. She gradually builds the tension and darkens the atmosphere — Lexie’s world isn’t so safe after all — but leaves us guessing about the killer until the very end. And even then, are we really sure what happened?

Well done. Very well done.

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