The Trespasser, by Tana French

The TrespasserGuys. Guys. Guys. My love for Tana French is, I believe, well-documented on this blog, so it should come as no surprise to you that I broke down and read the book a full month before it came out because I couldn’t wait any longer. What might be more surprising, if you give any thought to my Goodreads activity at all (which, if you do, you might need a new hobby…), is that I broke my completely arbitrary rule against posting thoughts to Goodreads before posting them here to post the following spoiler-tastic review: “!!!”

How do I feel a month later? I’m definitely still at least three exclamation marks in love with this book. It is super good, guys. Super good.

In our last outing with the Dublin Murder Squad, we hung out with Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran at a posh boarding school. In this installment, we get to hang out with the both of them again (yay!) at Dublin Castle as they investigate a weird-looking murder. It’s the kind of murder that should be an open-and-shut case, but Conway and Moran have a bad feeling about both the case and their colleague’s seeming insistence on closing the case as fast as humanly possible.

Meanwhile, we spend a not-altogether-comfortable amount of time in Conway’s head, which is full of the calculus of interpersonal interaction, worries about which of her colleagues is going to be nasty to her today, and a seemingly endless bag of fuck-it-all to throw at anything that bothers her. Conway’s got one of those chess-playing minds that sees everything three or four steps ahead, although in this twisted case it’s hard to tell if she’s seeing the right three steps ahead or not.

I want so badly to talk about the ending of this book, but it’s one of those endings that, while not necessarily spoilable, is best read on its own terms, so I will zip my lips except to say that I love the way that French plays with my expectations in all (welllll, most) of her books and this one is no different.

Instead, I will talk about how much I love French’s writing and how I’ve decided that if I ever make it to Dublin my first stop is going to be Dublin Castle because I have to know if it lives up to her descriptions of it. And also how I love how tightly plotted her mysteries are without being only tightly plotted mysteries. And also how I can’t fathom how it’s possible that I simultaneously still want to know what happened to Rob Ryan, don’t care because Conway is my new favorite, and am looking forward to ditching Conway for whatever character gets top billing next.

If you’ve not gotten into this series, they’re all pretty good standalone books, though I think you should read The Secret Place before or after this one for the full Conway-Moran package. And then you should read In the Woods. And The Likeness. And Broken Harbour. And probably Faithful Place; I really ought to give it another try someday. And then you can wait impatiently with me for book number seven. [insert impatient emoji here]

Recommendation: Reeeead it!

City of Bohane, by Kevin Barry

City of BohaneFile this one under: Books I would never have gotten past page five of except that they were being read for book club.

Also file under: Books I don’t really understand why anyone would bother to read past page five of.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. It’s just that on the Style-Plot-Character triangle, I tend to be swayed toward plot and character, and this book is like 99 percent style. Check this opening paragraph:

“Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river. This is the Bohane river we’re talking about. A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin’ wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: city of Bohane.”

That’s not just some fancy opening. That’s the style of every paragraph of this book. Usually I’m reading on my lunch break and trying to figure out how to squeeze in two extra minutes to get to the end of a chapter when I’m reading, but with this one I found myself stopping early and giving my brain a rest with games on my phone. The book is flowery and dense and all about that dark, gritty atmosphere, and it just wasn’t for me.

Usually I try to lead with what the book is about, but I really just don’t know in this case. There’s this dude, like, and he’s the head of the mob equivalent (the Fancy) in Bohane, and he’s got this wife, and there’s this other dude who used to date said wife and also I guess run the town and now he’s back in town after 25 years and everyone’s freaking out? But as I said, there’s not much plot to the book and what it’s really about is getting into various characters’ heads and getting a sense of this city of Bohane and, I don’t know, stuff.

And that’s fine, as it goes. I’ve certainly read and at least appreciated books that are mostly style (see: Flavia and also Jasper Fforde’s entire oeuvre). But what was really weird about this book was that when I got to book club, there were discussion questions that put a heck of a lot more thought into the book than I did. Questions looking at motivations and reasons for settings and actions that I probably couldn’t answer even if I read the book again looking for those answers. So I don’t know what is going on here.

Barry mentions in his afterword (see that link above) that one of his influences for this novel is Cormac McCarthy, which makes a lot of sense as I literally did not get past page five of The Road even though that one was a book club book as well. But I know a lot of people who loved that book, so obviously I am the problem here and you should not discount this book just because I didn’t like it. Unless you dislike similar things. Then you should probably listen to me.

Recommendation: For people who LOVE style and grit. (Not me.)

Rating: 5/10

The Secret Place, by Tana French

The Secret PlaceI wrote a little blurb about this book for a program called LibraryReads where librarians nerd out about the best books coming out every month, and it goes a little something like this:

“French has broken my heart yet again with her fifth novel, which examines the ways in which teenagers and adults can be wily, calculating, and backstabbing, even with their friends. The tension-filled flashback narratives, relating to a murder investigation in suburban Dublin, will keep you turning pages late into the night.”

And, I mean, seriously. If you’ve read any of Tana French’s other work, you probably don’t need me to tell you to GO READ THIS RIGHT NOW WHY ARE YOU NOT READING THIS RIGHT NOW, but just in case, I will tell you that this ranks right up there with Broken Harbour and a second reading of In the Woods as one of her best. Sooooo good, guys.

The story: Holly Mackey (of the Faithful Place Mackeys) shows up at our favorite police station with a Post Secret-style card from the Secret Place at her fancy-pants boarding school where kids can post anything they want anonymously with minimal oversight from the adult types. This card says that someone at her school knows who really killed a student who was found dead on the school’s campus a year before. Stephen Moran, to whom Holly entrusts the message, is a Cold Cases cop eager to make the Murder squad, and he jumps at the opportunity to work with the currently partner-less Antoinette Conway who headed up the case in the first place.

He thinks he knows what he’s getting into, but when he gets to the school he realizes he’s forgotten how ruthless and cunning teenagers can be, especially in an isolated boarding school. He’s also conveniently forgotten that the games these kids are playing are the same ones he should be playing at work, which is why he’s stuck in Cold Cases.

Interspersed with Moran’s story is the story of Holly and her friends starting a few months before the death of Chris Harper, during which they decided to skip over the pettiness of high school and stop caring what other people think, which is a great idea but really hard to implement when you spend your entire life with the same people. French drops in hints here and there about how Holly and her friends’ actions and the actions of other students will eventually lead to Chris’s death, but as always she keeps you wondering up to the end.

Also as always, French’s writing is perfect and amazing, and her characters are all completely believable and somehow sympathetic, even the ones who are kind of terrible people. In this book she throws in a new Gothic idea, that Holly and her friends have magical powers, and although I was like, no, of course they don’t, at first, by the end of the book I was ready to believe whatever French wanted me to believe. There’s really no arguing with her.

Now I just have to wait patiently for the next novel. That’s coming out soon, right? Please?

Recommendation: For all the people, but especially those who like a little Gothic mood in their crime procedural.

Rating: 10/10

In the Woods, by Tana French

In the WoodsIf you’ve been around this blog for a while, this title might sound a little familiar. Yes, indeed, this is the third time I’ve read this book, and the second and third time I’ve inflicted it on a book club (multi-tasking!). So I’m just going to skip the plot rehashing (previous blog posts linked below) and go straight into the thinky thoughts.

It was really fascinating to read this book a third time; I almost never re-read books and this may be the only book I’ve read three times in adulthood (well, maybe The Phantom Tollbooth?). In my first reading, my big takeaway from the novel was the insane, convoluted path the case took to the absolutely frustrating ending. Throw-the-book-across-the-room frustrating. Uggggh. In the second reading, I made a point of looking for all the hints and clues French left pointing toward said ending, and oh my goodness there were so many.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this reading — what could possibly be left to interest me for 400-some pages? Lots, actually. This time around I found myself drawn to Rob Ryan’s constant refrain of “I’m a liar” and “I am not to be trusted” and noting the holes in his narrative. How did he really feel about Cassie? Why was he so set on remaining on this case? What the heck really happened in those woods all those years ago? My book-club-mates came up with some ideas for that last one that I hadn’t thought of through three entire readings, and that I would have dismissed out of hand after two of them, but now I am definitely wondering. Darn you, unreliable narrator!

The other thing I noticed more in this reading was French’s devotion to the setting. I wasn’t really versed in Gothic literature until well after reading this book the first time and maybe even after the second, so I kind of didn’t pay any attention to the fact that the Knocknaree woods are practically a character in their own right, hiding secret castles and spiriting away children and becoming an obsession for more than one otherwise-rational dude. At first, French’s attention to detail frustrated me a bit, as I was like, dude, I forgot how long this book is and book club is coming faster than I anticipated and let’s just get back to the horrifying murder, ‘kay? But then her gorgeous writing won me over and I was happy to let her words wash over me late, late into the night so that I could finish the book in time.

I warned one of my book clubs that they were all going to hate the ending, as there is absolutely no way to finish this book the first time and not want to punch one or more fictional characters right in the face, and at the meeting they were all like, you were SO right. But it’s a testament to the strength of French’s writing that half of them were excited to hear that there were more books to read and more ridiculous murders to solve (or not solve, as the case may be).

The fact that I was willing to read the book three times is also telling, although there is very little that would compel me to go for four. I actually liked this book better the second time around, when I could see all the awful coming and note how skillfully French made it impossible to see the first time, but on a third reading it became less of a fantastic story and more of a piece of literature to be broken down and analyzed and while it was a fascinating read, it just wasn’t as fun as I remembered. Luckily French continues to provide me new things to read, including this fall’s The Secret Place (which I am SO EXCITED about omg), so I can get back to having fun very soon!

Recommendation: For those who’ve bought a hard copy ready to be thrown across the room and those who love a great turn of phrase as much as a great plot twist.

Rating: 8/10 this time, but grudgingly.

Broken Harbor, by Tana French

Broken HarborTana French, you’ve ripped my heart out yet again. And I loved it.

I was nervous about this book after my previous disappointment slash failure of expectations. I figured I’d let it sit a while, do its thing, then maybe pick it up in a week or two. Instead, I got stuck in traffic on the way home from the library, read about five pages while stopped, and eagerly devoured the rest of it over the next couple of days. And then died a little bit.

Broken Harbor follows French’s tried-and-true style of a crazy-pants mystery that weighs on some slightly-less-crazy-pants detectives. In this go-round, our mystery seems to be a family murdered in their home — a father, a young son and daughter, and an only mostly dead mother who is whisked off to the hospital — but gets weird when the detectives notice a bunch of holes in the wall with video baby monitors pointed at them, and weirder still when they realize someone has been seriously and creepily spying on the dead family.

On the detective side, our narrator is Scorcher Kennedy, fresh off his own disappointment in the last book and ready to solve the heck out of this case. In addition to that baggage, he also has a dead mother who killed herself many years ago not far from the dead family’s house and a troubled sister who chooses this inopportune time to require Scorcher’s presence 24/7.

The mystery part is both fantastic and awful; there are twists and turns and subtle shifts galore and at parts I found myself wanting to skip ahead several pages to find out what was going to happen because I couldn’t stand being so anxious anymore! I held out, but barely.

And the personal part… I may not have felt a connection with Frank Mackey last time, but Scorcher, man, I liked him a lot. I wouldn’t be friends with him, largely because he wouldn’t let me, but I would definitely read another book about Scorcher (or Rob Ryan! Or Cassie! What are they doing and why won’t you tell me, Tana French???). I just continue to wonder how the Dublin police department functions with their detectives constantly getting into such weird crap.

This is one of those books I don’t want to say too much about because it’s way more fun to experience on your own, but please, go read it and then come back and let’s talk about all the things down in the comments!

Recommendation: For lovers of Tana French, insane mysteries, and awesome Irish slang.

Rating: 9/10

Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black (8 March — 9 March)

Hmm. I’m not sure what to say about this book. I picked it up because I loved Tana French’s Irish crime novels (as you well know by now!) and I was like, “Oooh. More Irish crime novels!” But they aren’t the same at all, and I’m not sure I’d even classify this book as a crime novel, since I’m not clear what crime has been committed even after reading the book (it’s possible I should know, but I don’t… please tell me what it is if you do!).

The novel follows a Mr. Quirke (no first name given), who catches his quasi-brother Mal (Quirke is adopted) messing with a file at at the hospital where the two work (that’s a crime, I suppose?). Quirke finds the name Christine Falls on the file and, wondering why Mal would need to be writing things in a dead girl’s file when Quirke is the pathologist, starts asking around about the girl and how she died. Mal tells him to back off, which of course makes Quirke even more curious about the thing. His search leads him to the woman who was taking care of Christine before her death, who is shortly murdered by some alleged robbers, and on a hunt for the baby girl Christine died giving birth to, who has recently been sort-of adopted by a family in Boston. There’s all sorts of complicated things going on.

But, like I said, I got to the end and I still had (nor have) any idea what really happened. The book is more focused on religion (it is set in 1950’s Ireland, after all) and Quirke’s weird relationships with his family than it is on the “mystery” part of the plot, all of which is interesting but which I still find lame. You may differ.

Rating: 7/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Ireland)

The Likeness, by Tana French (18 November — 21 November)

Just go read this book right now. Seriously. Well, actually, read In the Woods first, and then read this one.

The Likeness is vaguely related to its predecessor, In the Woods, in that the main character in this new one, Cassie Maddox, was a secondary character in the first one and sometimes references the events of the first book. You could definitely read them out of order, but I really think I liked this one so much because of the way it follows off the first.

Anyway, what we have here is Cassie Maddox, a recent-ish transfer from Dublin’s murder squad to its domestic violence squad, called in on a murder case because, well, the girl that got murdered looks exactly like her. Also, the girl is identified as Lexie Madison, the name that Cassie used during an undercover operation a long time ago. Cassie is naturally drawn to the weird coincidence of it all, and when her old undercover boss asks her to pretend to be a recovered Lexie for a while to find out who killed her, Cassie’s in.

It’s not easy, of course; Lexie lived with her four best friends who knew nearly everything about each other, and it could have been one of them who stabbed Lexie. As Cassie settles in to her undercover role, she also settles in to her Lexie role and loses that objectivity that is so necessary to solving the case.

This book. Was. AWESOME. Whenever I wasn’t reading it, I was wondering what was happening to Cassie and how the heck she was going to pull it off. I was very seriously anxious about getting back to read the book as soon as possible. If that’s not a good recommendation, I don’t know what is.

Rating: 10/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2008)