In a Dark, Dark Wood

in-a-dark-dark-wood-3

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 House of the Dead

Vasily_Perov_-_Портрет_Ф.М.Достоевского_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Genre: Realism, Semi-Autobiographical Fiction, Classic Literature
Setting: Siberia, Russian Federation, 1850s
Pages: 368

The House of the Dead or Notes from the House of the Dead is a semi-autobigraphical work by Fyodor Dostoyevsky about life in prison in Siberian Russia. Dostoyevsky tells his story through the eyes of the convict Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, a Russian nobleman who is sentenced to penal labor in Siberia for murdering his wife. The author’s trademarks of deep philosophical musings and his speculations on the psychology of human beings are deeply rooted in this novel and lay the groundwork for future authors, philosophers, and psychologists (the formal study of this last discipline only developed some 20 years after this novel was published!)

The Good: Dostoyevsky was in a situation nearly identical to his narrator’s: a nobleman serving a sentence of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp. However, our narrator Aleksandr Petrovich was sentenced for murdering his wife, while Dostoyevsky was imprisoned for political crimes. The authenticity of the novel is its greatest asset as it makes all the different stories and accounts within the narrative all the more gripping. I find Dostoyevsky second to none when it comes to inserting meaningful psychological and philosophical musings within a fictional framework (keeping in mind, of course, that this particular story is very much nonfiction). There is something refreshing and quite rare about an author speaking their own truth in a way that bares their soul. While The House of the Dead isn’t as polished as his later works, it is easy to see how he became an inspiration to so many future authors and philosophers.

One glistening gem in this novel that I found very endearing, was the chapter describing the convicts’ theatrical production during the holidays. I’ve always been a fan of theatre and I have a great affinity for Russian theatre and ballet in particular. Dostoyevsky describes the amateur production in extensive detail, and I admit I was thrilled. In those moments of performance and spectating, the prisoners’ joy was my own.

The Bad: As I mentioned before, the novel is a bit unpolished. The House of the Dead was originally pieced together from a series of different notes and letters Dostoyevsky had wrote about his time in prison, and as such theme drives the narrative rather than a specific storyline. There are an exceeding number of repetitious moments or thoughts. The narrator also offers a few contradictory points of view on certain subjects, but this I attribute to the emotional nature of documenting such an experience, and the varying states of mind the author must have inhabited as he wrote the novel.

*A Special Note on the Text*: This story was written quite a long time ago. Knowledge on various topics has evolved since then, including our attitudes and opinions on these topics. It is important not to reject the worth of an entire novel over a few problematic elements. In order to understand this novel, the reader most endeavor to understand the time and place it was written and strive to their fullest extent to place themselves in the position of the narrator. Most obvious and frequent among the outdated ideas is Dostoyevsky’s apparent subscription to Physiognomy. Although it is never named or explicitly described in the novel, it is obvious that he judges people’s characters largely and immediately based on their physical appearance. Approach this novel with empathy and patience and you will not be disappointed.

The Casual Vacancy

casual-vacancy

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

The Anatomist’s Wife

the_anatomists_wife_cover_1000h

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.