The Witch Elm: Review

I have a few favorite mystery writers, and Tana French is one of them. Her first book, Into the Woods, is the beginning of a series with different Dublin Murder Squad homicide detectives as the main characters. The series allows for repeat appearances of detectives as minor characters in subsequent books—a clever device for fleshing out backstories and building strong characters. After five novels in the series, French has written two stand-alone mysteries that still take place in the Dublin area, still involve homicide investigations, but don’t have the Dublin Murder Squad members as characters.

I just finished the first of these stand-alone novels, The Witch Elm, and it’s still haunting my thoughts. Recently, on a walk with my husband around a nearby lake, I recounted the whole plot so that I could “think out loud” about my reaction to the novel. I hadn’t decided whether I like the main character and narrator, Toby, which is unusual in my reading experience.    

My ambiguous reception of Toby fits well with the plan of the novel, however. Early in the book, Toby is violently attacked at home by burglars and left for dead. When he awakens in the hospital, he realizes that he’s got large gaps in his memory. He recognizes all the people in his life, but he can’t remember chunks of events. He knows his best buddies, but he can’t remember the details of his recent evening at the pub with them. He knows his parents and cousins, and he can remember many details about his relationships with them, but he can’t remember some details about past times he spent with them. These memory gaps lead him to wonder what he did and how he felt during key events in their shared past, specifically when he and his cousins were teenagers together and spent summers with their bachelor uncle Hugo at the family home.

In the same way that Toby isn’t sure whether he was supportive and kind when his cousins were facing bullying and intimidation, or whether he was a jerk and joined in on the bad behavior of some of his friends, the reader is left to wonder whether Toby is truly a good guy or only wishing that he were. His memories of their teen years, or the lack thereof, become crucial when a body is found in an ancient witch elm tree located in the family home’s large back garden.

Throughout the novel, I found myself wondering if a character was a victim or a perpetrator, whether I was considering Toby’s friends, his uncle Hugo, or his cousins, Susanna and Leon. I realized I cared about the characters but was concerned about their culpability. French weaves a story that never delivers a definitive answer about the people who populate the story, although the murder mystery itself is clearly revealed. I’m still not sure whether I like Toby’s character, but then, by the end of the book, I wasn’t sure Toby liked himself. One reason I enjoy French’s mysteries so much is the author’s ability to deal with the truth and logic of a murder investigation, following the evidence to its inevitable end, while also unpacking the complexity of Truth about human nature and the ways we see ourselves and others. These enduring questions that linger long after I’ve read the last page are what keep me eager to read any book written by Tana French.

The Vanishing Half: Book Review

The Vanishing Half, by  Brit Bennett, deserves the attention it’s received as a New York Times bestseller and a nominee for the National Book Award. The novel begins by introducing Desiree Vignes a girl who had left home with her twin sister fourteen years ago in 1954. She is now back, with her daughter in tow. They arrive in Mallard, a town where “Alphonse Decuir in 1848 . . . stood in the sugarcane fields he’d inherited from the father who’d once owned him. The father now dead, the now-freed son wished to build something on those acres of land that would last for centuries to come. A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negros. A third place.”

The story itself becomes “a third place” where characters who are outsiders to the white, straight, attractive majority around them look for acceptance. Some characters like Jude, Desiree’s dark-skinned daughter, find that acceptance, even if temporarily, through connections with others who willingly embrace them for who they are. However, other characters, such as Stella, Desiree’s twin who passes as White, are accepted only if they maintain the façade of what they want others to perceive them to be. Bennett accomplishes a difficult task by fleshing out other options about her characters’ identities and whether they will be accepted in the community.  What begins as an exploration of race,  finishes as a larger consideration of identity and what role personal choice has in the creation of who we are.

Through the narrative voices of Desiree and other characters connected to her, the novel explores the complexities of identity—How does a person “become”? Is it through our genetics that race and gender arise? If “nature” is overpowered by “nurture,” are we largely products of our environment? What role does an individual play in deciding their own identity, one that may be contrary to their upbringing? These are heady questions, yet the author controls the narrative so that it isn’t overwhelmed by the existential questions that arise.

Writing a Book Review

When you read a book, it’s really helpful for you to write a review on Amazon, and maybe even on Goodreads. That helps other readers decide whether to buy the book. If it’s a book you like, it’s especially important. When you write a review, however, there are several guidelines to keep in mind.

  1. If you know the author personally, don’t mention it.
  2. Say what the book is about.
  3. Give a few specific examples from the book itself.
  4. What did you like about it?
  5. Does the author accomplish his or her purpose?
  6. Do you recommend the book?

Here’s an example of a book review:

On Parr (2)I just finished Ken Murray’s “On Parr” about a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot. The story about Colonel Ralph Parr is fascinating, but so is Murray, the author. I found him to be part research historian, part flight instructor, and part master story-teller. The combination enables Murray’s skill as a writer to hold you in your seat, turning page after page, wanting to find out what happens next. He gives inside information about what it was like to attend an NFL game when the stadium announcer tells the crowd that Pearl Harbor was attacked. He describes in detail what it feels like to dive straight down in a fighter jet from 43,000 feet and pull up barely in time to avoid slamming into the ground, right behind eight Russian MiGs, and taking out the enemy leader. His narrative includes figures of speech, dialogue, and technical information. It’s full of sensory detail: sights, sounds, and smells. He doesn’t shy away from the emotions the characters in the stories are dealing with during hellish battle scenes of war: fear, anger, loneliness, or depression. In the process, Murray brings the reader into the action, into the context, into the time period. I discovered nuggets of wisdom, such as how to approach relationships when starting a new job, and how to balance your personal life with your career. Murray does a really good job showing the interplay between national and international politics, and how it impacts average citizens as well as military personnel. And, while shining the spotlight on Colonel Parr, Murray manages to reveal a bit of himself. For he, too, is a decorated military aviator, an accomplished writer and editor, and an outstanding example of a human being who has so much to offer. I recommend the book.

British Library Book and Chain 2