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 Anatomist’s Wife

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Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Setting: 1830s, Scottish Highlands
Pages: 357

After reading Faulkner’s Light in August, I needed to relax with a book that was easy reading and had a lighter tone, so I picked up The Anatomist’s Wife. To what extent a murder mystery can (or should) be used to decompress is arguable, I suppose. Nevertheless, Anna Lee Huber’s first novel in her Lady Darby series did much to ease my mind, providing a very enjoyable read, and I’m excited to continue the series.

The Anatomist’s Wife is told from the POV of a female member of the Scottish nobility, Lady Kiera Darby. Lady Darby has a dark backstory, having worked as an illustrator for her deceased husband while he performed surgical autopsies (a practice still very much taboo at the time). Therefore, when a female houseguest is murdered at her sister’s estate suspicion falls on her. Lady Darby has to work cleverly and covertly alongside fellow houseguest Sebastion Gage to determine who among the remaining guests is the murderer, before the procurator fiscal arrives.

The Good: I loved the setting of a castle in the Scottish Highlands. If you are a fan of the Outlander series this might be a book for you. I also found the narrator, Lady Keira Darby, to be a compelling character. She is smart and independent and the darkness in her past makes her a sympathetic character. There were moments I was worried she would be the type of woman who was perfect in her imperfections, and all other female characters would be cast aside as deeply flawed creatures with no redeeming qualities in a move to further bolster Lady Darby’s position as heroine. This is a trap that the Outlander series falls into at times, and I was worried based off the early character portraits sketched from Lady Darby’s POV (a bit of a pun, as Lady Darby is an artist who excels in painted portraits) that this was how the story was going to play out. Luckily, this turned out not to be the case. First of all, Keira Darby seems to view the men in the story equally as disdainfully as she views women. Secondly, it becomes increasingly clear throughout the novel that her outlook is built upon the treatment she has received from upper class society following her husband’s death. Thirdly, her interactions and thought processes regarding specific female characters evolve in such a way that, at times, the novel seems to be a poignant critique of various toxic societal norms and conventions and a conscious rebuff of the manifestations of internalized misogyny.

The Bad: The plot is pretty predictable, which isn’t too much of a problem if, like me, you appreciate the effect of good storytelling. It didn’t matter to me that I correctly guessed the identity of the murderer because Huber’s writing is smooth and lovely, and I enjoy watching the unique ways authors choose to craft their stories and reach their endings. The only other complaint I have was that after interviewing each suspect, Lady Darby immediately expressed her doubt as to whether the character was capable of murder. This is the primary reason for the relatively predictable ending, considering Lady Darby does not come off as an unreliable narrator.