In a Dark, Dark Wood

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Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
Setting: Present day northern England
Pages: 352

In a Dark, Dark Wood is the debut novel of Ruth Ware. The story follows narrator Leonora Shaw (or Nora or Lee) as she is invited to her high school friend, Clare Cavendish’s, Bachelorette party. The Hen party is hosted by Clare’s neurotic friend Flo, in a glass house couched in a remote forest location in northern England. Nora hasn’t spoken to Clare in 10 years, and throughout the weekend she is forced to come to terms with traumatic events from her past all while navigating the bizarre and potentially dangerous scenario the Hen party has created in the present.

The Good: The structure that Ruth Ware creates for the first three quarters of the novel, alternating between scenes of the present moment in the hospital and flashbacks to the weekend spent at the glass house, does an excellent job of propelling the narrative forward and creating a high level of suspense. I didn’t find the novel to be scary as some people did, but there are definitely moments of high tension giving In a Dark, Dark Wood a well earned place among the thriller genre. The book is very fast paced and I found myself flying through it in a day. This should make it particularly attractive to those who don’t have much time, or have trouble motivating themselves to buckle down and finish a novel.

The Bad: At the risk of seeming ungenerous, this section is going to be a bit bulkier than “The Good.” My first problem comes from the narrator. Other reviewers have mentioned that she is a very unreliable narrator, however, I do not have a problem with this as such. I think the situation with her having various nicknames (Leonora, Nora, Lee, Leo) was a bit over the top. The constant fixation on her name was superfluous and while it did have relevance to the plot, I think Ware was beginning to beat a dead horse. Then, there is the matter of the Hen party guests. Every single one of these characters was a caricature. They were shallow, with nothing much to them beyond surface level. This made some of the dialogue painful to read, not because Ruth Ware has a poor writing style, but because she needs to take more time fleshing out her characters. As a result, the plot was relatively predictable for me. The whole premise, motive, and action that unfolded the drama was, as others have noted, a bit dubious, but it was original, so I am willing to forgive the slightly fantastic nature of the narrative’s events.

Overall, I would say Ruth Ware does an excellent job of creating a suspenseful atmosphere, but she needs to add more substance to her plot and her characters.

The Casual Vacancy

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Genre: Fiction
Setting: Pagford, United Kingdom
Pages: 503

The Casual Vacancy is a witty and gripping social commentary on contemporary British society, played out in the fictional town of Pagford, an idyllic little village in England where various types of unrest are fomenting beneath the town’s sunny and charming exterior.  

Barry Fairbrother, one of Pagford’s parish councillors, dies unexpectedly leaving a casual vacancy that various town members seek to fill for their own personal or political gain. The novel tracks how the conflict over the council seat, and the underlying issue of the area known as the Fields, affects the lives of the residents of Pagford, young and old, rich or poor, and shows how small behaviors can resonate and have big consequences.

The Good: Rowling is a fantastic writer, and while this novel is utterly different in subject matter and scope than her famous Harry Potter series, her style is easily recognized within these pages. She proves her satirical prowess with this novel, and her wit in exposing the flaws in the Pagford residents’ behaviors and thought patterns is perhaps the greatest strength of the book. Each character viewed individually seems so uniquely human. Rowling really knows how to make the reader appreciate gray characters. This book acts as a mirror that can be held up to recognize parts of our own personalities that we might rather not admit to having. I personally don’t believe that J.K. Rowling ever had anything to prove, but for those who were unsure whether or not she’d be able to pull of a more “adult-themed” novel, I imagine with this book their fears can be laid to rest.

The Bad: My main complaint with this book is that she was a little overzealous in creating dysfunctional families and relationships. I understand that it wouldn’t be very interesting to focus on healthy romantic or family relationships and that struggle and conflict are necessary to drive narrative, HOWEVER, in a book that is populated by a considerably large cast of characters, there is not one single healthy relationship between a husband and wife or (less surprisingly) between teenagers. Instances of infidelity, domestic abuse, or dissatisfaction in romantic partnerships are all real issues, but Rowling’s decision to exclude the presence of even a single happy relationship causes the novel to traverse beyond the land of realism into the slightly ridiculous.

Would recommend? Absolutely! The merits of this book far outweigh any scruples I have with it