Thursday, January 10, 2019

Tana French, THE WITCH ELM

I will always read anything by Tana French. The emotional tension she creates among her characters, and between the protagonist and the reader, is astonishing. I don't know anyone else who does it as well, for me. But the ending of this fell a bit flat for me--the sudden revelations by the cousins felt a bit unearned; and, frankly, the protagonists final desperate acts felt somewhat implausible. Still, a great read. But it's not going to dislodge French's FAITHFUL PLACE from my favorite top 5 mysteries ever. :)


Such a powerful book. I think the first time I read it I was 15 ... and I'm not sure I understood the nuances and layers and even the language. But this time, my heart just ached ... and that hurricane scene just kills me.


I'd give this 3.5 stars, rounding up for some really beautiful, spare language, which is Penney's strong suit. This novel feels to be an exploration of two landscapes: one geographic (of the arctic in the late 1800s) and one sexual. The arctic plot arc held my interest--partly because I know next to nothing about it. The problem with the exploration of the sexual landscape is there's only so much you can do with a narrative arc about sex. It falls flat, after a while. The tension vanishes; and having the sex scenes become more graphic just doesn't make up for it. The arctic exploration plot, though--and the conniving and competitiveness of the various explorers--was very good. I finished the book, and my heart ached at the end for Flora's loss. However I have to admit, I never quite felt I got inside her feelings, in the same way that I was inside the characters of Penney's first, THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES--which is still one of my fave novels of the past decade, and a book I recommend to anyone who loves good historical fiction.

Friday, November 9, 2018


Evocative and very well written, this novel was years in the development and writing, and it is ambitious. It holds in lovely tension the two narratives of epic world events (from Japan's invasion in 1910 through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s) and of the delicate turns of individual lives for members of a Korean family living in Japan. I was stunned by the racism; it's overt and institutionalized and pervasive. I was also compelled by her introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of her previous book, FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES; in it, she traces her many fumbles and challenges as a writer. I'm a new fan; I'm going to go hunt down FREE FOOD now.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Shannon Baker, BITTER RAIN

I'm a sucker for a sturdy, no-nonsense, deeply ethical woman P.I. figure. This one is a sheriff, with a fair amount of emotional baggage and some sketchy men for colleagues. Set on the border of Nebraska/South Dakota, adjacent to a Lakota "rez," this book tackles some of the problems faced by young Native Americans trying to figure out their place in the world. Fans of Sue Grafton's series will find Kate Fox a likable protagonist.


This is one of the more unusual, original books I've read this year: darkly comic and satiric about the fashion industry. I might not have picked it up, except that the author is one on a panel with me next week; but I'm glad I did. Quite naturally the novel draws comparisons to The Devil Wears Prada ... but it lacks the easy division between evil boss/ambitious but abused and highly likable underling. Instead we have a young woman protagonist who is desperate and driven to murder by the fashion industry and the insanely #selfie world she lives in. The novel is clever, and twisted, and yet despite the number of characters whose vocabulary is mostly "OMG" and meme-y phrases (or because of them), it shines a sharp light on the kind of ruthlessness and the alienation of language from meaning and authenticity that the social media culture endorses and creates.

Sunday, October 28, 2018


Enjoyed this delicate, assured debut novel about a Japanese man, terribly injured by the bomb dropped over Nagasaki, who seeks his grandmother in the US after decades of separation. At the heart of the book is a man who left me cold with his selfishness, and a woman who grasped the opportunities for enacting her revenge. Some beautifully wrought prose, and the central trope of the "dictionary" in which Japanese words are defined in English, illuminating certain aspects of both cultures, worked for me. Would definitely read another by this author.