The Witch Elm by Tana French

I have always wanted to read a book by Tana French. For ten years, French exclusively wrote the Dublin Murder Squad series. I don’t like reading series out of order, so I filed French down to the bottom of my to-read list until I could find all the books in the series. When I realized that her newest book was a stand-alone, I was excited! I could finally fulfill my desire to read Tana French. (And yes, I know I could have found her series and read them, but it’s much easier to find (and read) a standalone.)

The Witch Elm by Tana French is her latest novel released in the beginning of October 2018. This standalone mystery is separate from French’s Dublin Murder Squad series(I can’t stress that enough!). Based on the reviews that I read, The Witch Elm is a prime example of why you should check out what a book is actually about about before you pick it up. Most reviewers were excited that Tana French had put out a new book and decided to immediately read it. As I progressed through different reviews and websites, I saw that most had assumed this was a continuation of her Dublin Murder Squad series or had assumed that her newest would be a detective-centric story. It’s not! Having not read her others, I’m not sure how this one stacked up to her previous works, but I enjoyed the twists and turns of this novel a great deal.

In The Witch Elm , readers are introduced to happy-go-lucky Toby. Everything always seems to work out for Toby.  From his job to his girlfriend and his apartment, Toby seems to have it all. At the very beginning, Toby steps outside of the storyline of the book to inform readers that things have taken a turn for him. Through this novel, Toby says he will lay out the ways that his life has taken a turn. One night Toby is out having drinks with his friends, telling the story of how he has managed to come out of a touchy work situation in a positive manner. Hoping things will turn around, Toby drunkenly heads back to his apartment where he is surprised in the middle of the night by two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Not able to recover or live on his own, Toby finds himself living back at the Ivy House, his family’s ancestral home, taking care of his sick uncle.

Left damaged and traumatized after his attack, Toby struggles to take care of himself and his sick Uncle Hugo. Luckily for both men, Toby’s girlfriend moves into Ivy House to help care for them. This brutal attack has forever altered Toby and he isn’t sure how to adjust to his new normal. Uncle Hugo’s illness has left the family in doubt as to what will happen to Ivy House after he dies, which may happen sooner than they all think. All together for lunch one day, Hugo begins to broach this topic. Before they get very far, a scream is heard from the garden. The children have found a skull, tucked into the old witch elm at the foot of the garden.

With this discovery, Toby’s life will spiral even more out of control. Detectives, crime scene investigators, and the media descend in droves on Ivy House. Everyone in the family is on edge with Toby confused in the center. The aftereffects of Toby’s attack has addled his brain, making it hard for him to keep events straight. Constantly confusing the past and present and forgetting what is false and true rocket Toby to the top of the detectives’ suspect list. Through the course of their investigation, Toby is forced to look back on the idyllic childhood he lived and his perfect recent past. What he believed to be the truth may not actually be what happened. This novel takes a deep look at how what we believe to be true may not actually be how others remember what happened. While I enjoyed the suspenseful storytelling weaved throughout this novel, Toby was a character I had to work to love. Tana French crafted Toby’s character this way in order to force readers to really look at what we would do when forced to change ourselves into someone new. I encourage you to read this book and let me know what you thought in the comments below!


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Ink In Water: An Illustrated Memoir (Or, How I Kicked Anorexia’s Ass and Embraced Body Positivity)

Anyone who has struggled with addiction or compulsion will likely  appreciate Ink In Water and find it inspiring. Davis, described as a “young punk artist” by Library Journal, tells an autobiographical story about incredibly painful life experiences revolving around disordered eating, recovery, loss, and finally–helping others overcome similar disorders. Now a personal trainer, coach, author, and “body image advocate”, Davis’s memoir reveals how she first developed an eating disorder and got ensnared in the negative feedback loop that accompanies the psychology of self-harm.

The illustrations depicting Davis at the height (or really, rock-bottom) of her disorder show an emaciated, isolated individual who was starving herself to death. But by the end of the memoir, illustrations show a woman who has learned to cut herself some slack. In contrast, the woman in the final pages of the memoir is strong, determined, and no longer fears taking up space. To the contrary, Davis is interested in building herself up, through the practice of weight-lifting and strength training. Rather than shrinking and trying to make herself smaller, she embarks on a lifelong journey of recovery by focusing her mental and physical energy on becoming stronger.

While this graphic novel is largely about learning to love yourself, it also did a wonderful job of showing what a loving, supportive relationship can look like. I got a little teary when reading about how Davis’s partner essentially doubled-down on being loving and supportive through the hard times (rather than turning away from her when she was at her worst). When Davis experiences a particularly devastating loss of one of her best friends, mentors, and sponsors, her partner plans a trip to New York City to help her get out of her head.  Their relationship beautifully demonstrates how loving partnerships allow for being openly vulnerable and loved and supported in spite of individual faults or shortcomings.

Check it out. I didn’t really even start regularly reading graphic novels until I picked up a work of graphic medicine. As someone who genuinely enjoys non-fiction (I know — crazy!), graphic memoirs have been a really nice change of pace. This book reminds me of how resilient we are, and that we can get better and come back even stronger after being in the grips of something that threatens to destroy us.

The Child by Fiona Barton

In The Child by Fiona Barton, Barton weaves a twisting tale of psychological suspense that will rip through your senses as you try to figure out what is happening. Have you ever wondered what happens when old houses are demolished? What if they discover something hidden in the ground? Hidden in the walls? What of the secrets that are uncovered?

The Child begins with the discovery of a tiny skeleton during the demolition of an old house in London. Journalist Kate Waters stumbles upon this story and decides to dig deeper into what happened to the child. Piecing together what information she can gather, Waters is continuously left with more and more questions with the chief one being: who is the building site baby? Forced to work with a young male intern, Kate is able to convince her boss, Terry, that she needs to investigate.

Angela is a grieving mother who is struggling to comes to terms with a devastating event that tore her family apart almost forty years ago. Her family is trying to help Angela move on with her life, but they are just as torn up as she is.

Emma is a young wife who is going through some major anxiety. She is having trouble just living her life, much to the chagrin of her husband who is trying to help her however he can. Emma’s issues seem to stem from her past. She was raised by her single mother, Jude. The two have a strained relationship that will leave readers wondering what exactly happened between the two to cause such dislike.

Angela, Emma, and Jude all have some interest in the building site baby. Kate’s investigation into what happened to the baby elicits a different reaction from each woman. Kate finds herself going back to the building site and visiting each house to try to track down someone who knows something about the baby. The more she investigates, the more secrets and connections Kate digs up. Kate finds herself becoming a keeper of Angela, Emma, and Jude’s secrets. Her journey to find out what happened to the building site baby evolves into a much larger conspiracy that consumes Kate’s life, but leaves her hesitant about what she can and cannot disclose to the authorities.


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See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

“Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.”

That eerie rhyme is something most kids learn in middle school when they first hear about Lizzie Borden. I picked it up on the playground as part of a jump-rope rhyme and the murderous story of Lizzie Borden has stuck with me ever since. I find myself reading and watching anything to do with Lizzie Borden in an effort to learn more about what happened the fateful day of August 4, 1892 when Andrew and Abby Borden were both axe-murdered in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Who did it? No one will ever know, but everyone has their theories.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt is the most recent telling that I found. It was so engaging that I finished this book over a long weekend, something that I haven’t done in a couple years. This novel was surprisingly close to the truth with the author taking a few creative licenses. Schmidt takes the infamous true story of Lizzie Borden and adds some fictional material that fills in holes in Lizzie’s story as well as some fictional background information that is missing in the historical overview. All in all, Schmidt creates a remarkably believable account of what happened that steamy August morning when Andrew and Abby were murdered.

This novel shifts between four main characters’ points of view: Lizzie, her sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and a stranger named Benjamin. Seeing each characters’ viewpoint of events leading up to the murders, the day of the murders, and after the murders allows readers to gain a multi-layered view of what really happened. The morning of August 4, 1892 began like any other morning in the Borden household: Mr. Borden, aka Andrew, went off to work, while Lizzie, Mrs. Abby Borden, and Bridget worked on tasks around the house. There had been a sickness around the house the last few days which led Abby to believe that she and the others were being poisoned. Lizzie was fine however. Emma, Lizzie’s sister, was out of town visiting a friend. Both sisters were unmarried and lived with their father and step-mother despite their parents’ repeated attempts to marry them off.

The brutal axe-murder of both Andrew and Abby left the community wondering why anyone would want to murder such well-respected members of Fall River. Life inside the Borden household was not a pleasant experience though. Both Lizzie and Emma struggled to break free of their father and gain independence, but found that they were bound together in the most intimate of ways. Emma, Lizzie, Bridget, and the mysterious Benjamin all add overlapping perspectives to the moments leading up to the discovery of the bodies, perspectives that will jar readers and have them wondering what ghosts each person has living in their pasts and how those ghosts influence their current actions.

What I liked about this book is readers can really see Lizzie progress to become the person that she was when her father and step-mother died. The true motive for why she started disliking her step-mother after loving her for so many years will never be known and Schmidt leaves that gap for the reader to try to solve. Something clearly happened to Lizzie that caused that great shift in temperament and demeanor. It was puzzling. I also enjoyed the multiple points of view present in this book because it allowed me to see the multiple layers that go into making a person and how one’s actions can mean different things to different people.

I really enjoyed this book and think that it made a positive addition to the many Lizzie Borden books that I have already read. If you don’t know the true story of Lizzie Borden and her family, I encourage you to look it up in order to learn everything that is known about the family and how Schmidt’s reimagining lines up with the facts. She is fairly accurate and presents plausible explanations for both the holes in Lizzie’s story and the empty background information in most historic accounts.


This book is also available in large print.

Invisible by James Patterson

 

James Patterson has slowly wormed his way in as one of my favorite authors. Every time I pick up one of his books, I know I’m going to enjoy it. If he’s not writing a book by himself, Patterson teams up with other writers, thus making his books change slightly from person to person. I have yet to find one that hasn’t piqued my interest and as such I plan to keep reading books by James Patterson until I grow tired of him.

Invisible by James Patterson and David Ellis was my latest listen. I had listened to another Patterson/Ellis book previously, so I pretty much knew I was going to enjoy it. Bonus part: the male narrator of this book(there are multiple narrators) is someone that has narrated other books that I have really enjoyed. His delivery really captures each character’s personality.

In Invisible, Emmy Dockery is on leave from the FBI. After her sister’s grisly death, Emmy finds that she can’t do her job as a research analyst for the FBI as effectively as she used to. On leave, her sister’s death consumes her. Emmy is obsessed with finding a link between hundreds of unsolved cases that she believes are connected. Having set up Google alerts for crimes similar to how her sister died, Emmy is inundated with newspaper clippings of events that all seem to be related. Waking up gasping in the middle of the night, Emmy’s recurring nightmares mimic how her sister died and leave her even more desirous to connect these unsolved cases. Calling in a favor from her ex-boyfriend, field agent Harrison “Books” Bookman, Emmy hopes that he will be able to help her finding the missing piece in this string of brutal kidnappings, rapes, and murders that all have a fire element. No one believes her that these unsolved cases could be connected, even when she lines up all the facts that she has gathered. It isn’t until Emmy finds a certain piece of evidence that Books perks up and begins to believe that what she is saying could possible be true. This story alternated between Emmy’s story and a mystery man’s story. Reading those alternate chapters back to back really ups the creepy, thrilling, suspenseful nature of this book.


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The Litigators by John Grisham

The Litigators by John Grisham is a legal thriller that revolves around lawyers, litigation, and what it takes to be the best. David Zinc is an associate at a Chicago firm that has paid him an immense sum over the last five years. He’s on the fast-track, along with thousands of other lawyers in this high-rise firm, to becoming a big name lawyer. Or at least that’s what they’re telling him. Going into work one day, David has a panic attack and dives back into the elevator to escape. Stumbling into a bar, David gets completely drunk and ends up at the law offices of Finley & Figg.

Oscar Finley and Wally Figg are law firm partners in a boutique legal firm who don’t particularly like each other. They bicker in the office over anything and everything, from advertising methods to who they take on as clients to when they come in to work. Add in some shady legal dealings and Finley & Figg find themselves in hot water over some of their cases quite frequently. Just barely making even financial wise, but not nearly making enough to be comfortable, the senior partner Oscar works to bring in some money while managing junior partner Wally comes up with crazy marketing schemes to bring in any and all clients. Neither lawyer is without fault and with the addition of a cantankerous secretary, who is actually a former client, it’s a minor miracle that the building is still standing, they’re still making some money, and no one has quit.

Wally’s latest scheme revolves around product liability and class action lawsuits dealing with medications. Wally sees dollar signs and a huge payday when he learns of a major pending class action lawsuit against the company that manufactures Krayoxx, a cholesterol-reducing drug that is suspected of causing heart attacks, death, and weakening of the heart. Oscar, and now David, are less than thrilled about this lawsuit, but once Wally gets an idea in his head, he’s going to see it through, no matter the consequences or what others think. A massive medical lawsuit ensues against the pharmaceutical company that owns the drug, Varrick Labs, with Oscar, Wally, and David quickly finding themselves in over their heads. The three join the class action and believe they are on their way to fame and fortune without ever having to set foot in a courtroom. Most of these class actions end up being settled anyway. This book is a suspenseful, entertaining read filled with courtroom drama and theatrics both inside and outside the legal system.


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Escape by Barbara Delinsky

What would you do if one day you woke up and realized that the life you were living was not the life that you wanted for yourself? Walking into work and having that one bad day, that one interaction, that pushes you over the edge? How would you handle it? Would you try to work through it? Talk to your significant other? Would you take a much needed vacation? Quit your job? Start all over in another city with another job and another family? All of these are questions that Barbara Delinsky tackles in her novel, Escape.

Escape tells the story of Manhattan lawyer Emily Aulenbach. She is 32 years old and has been married to another lawyer, James, for the last seven years. Emily has become increasingly frustrated with her life, both professionally and personally. In law school, she dreamed of representing victims of corporate abuse and campaigning for the little guy. Always the idealist, she hoped to brighten the world. Now she sits in a cubicle alongside hundreds of other lawyers in their tiny cubicles, a headset plastered to her ear, talking to victims of tainted bottled water. You’d think that this would partly be Emily’s dream, except for the major fact that she is on the bottler’s side, NOT the victims.

After a particularly devastating interaction with a victim, Emily has had enough. She packs up, leaves town, and just drives. Looking for a purpose in her life and an escape, she meanders aimlessly and eventually ends up in the place that gave her great joy ten years ago. This small New Hampshire town is rife with good and bad memories. Emily has to find a way to deal with both, interact with the people from her past, and convince her husband and family that she’s okay and not crazy. By putting her happiness first, Emily’s selfishness reverberates throughout all the lives of the people that she knows. She must work to find her center and to decide what she actually wants. Add in an animal refuge, a former lover, and someone in desperate need of legal advice and Emily’s escape brings up some dilemmas that she cannot run away from.

This book did not go the direction that I thought that it would, for which I am very grateful. I have read too many novels where the main character decides that she needs a complete do-over and throws her entire life into shambles trying to find herself. Delinsky goes another route of self-discovery that still hits all of the necessary emotional highs and lows, but thankfully misses all of the predictable actions. This was my first Delinsky read and I am quite ready to pick up another! There was nothing that didn’t delight me within this novel.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Playing Dead: A Journey through the World of Death Fraud

Finding herself in a standard thirtysomething situation, our intrepid author ponders the likelihood of faking her own death to escape student loan debt. And thus, was born the premise of Playing Dead: A Journey through the World of Death Fraud.

What an uplifting audiobook.

So, what is the best way? Awash at sea? Nope. Unless you’ve wronged the mob, people don’t sleep with the fishes as much as wash ashore.
Hiking is better. Those bears are ravenous.

How about staying gone? Olivia Newton John’s “drowned” boyfriend Patrick McDermott made it a decade before a website tracking his location saw repeated hits from his new home in Mexico.  Oops.

In 2017, the ability to vanish successfully with longevity is unlikely. To commit insurance fraud and get away with it? Nearly impossible. Enter the cloak and dagger world of the skiptracer. If you’ve used a ballpoint pen or a keyboard since 1988, you’re not exactly D.B. Cooper.

Do you already have an existing electronic footprint? How do you plan to pay for things until your last day?  What circuitous message bouncing technique will you employ to communicate with others in an untraceable manner?

How long before vanishing did you beef up that hefty life insurance policy?    Red flag.

This book skewed away from the grim and grisly to focus on the fascinating. Did you know there is a thriving marketplace in the Phillipines for unclaimed bodies? Private air conditioned storage facilities are happy to part with them to “next of kin” for a modest fee, providing of course you are, ya know, bereaved and such.  You wouldn’t believe it, but the purchasers always want them cremated.

African safari adventures offer a variety of packages a la Apple Vacations, complete with grainy VHS video recordings of third-tier thespian funeral mourners. Who knew I was such an avid naturalist and so popular on the savannas of Tanzania?  Yes, yes, I was, and the Masai were so sad to hear what happened with the warthog, Mr. Insurance Agent.

In the end, insurance companies have big pockets, they hire Liam Neeson Taken-types who’ve done this dance many times. These guys never fail, and they’re willing to hump it to a mountain in Kazakhstan with a spade to make sure your skeleton is there, not that of an unlucky goat.

Back to playing the lottery.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

 The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is a massive undertaking of a book. (The audiobook was over 30 hours long!) Despite its length, this book is masterfully crafted and deals with a wide variety of topics from drug use to terrorism to museums to alcoholism to loss to survival. So many different themes that some reviewers have called this book an odyssey. I would have to agree with them. I definitely felt like I was being given the complete tour of the main character’s life, as well as everyone that he came in contact with.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt tells the story of the life of Theodore Decker. This book follows Theo’s life starting as a young boy in New York City to his current situation as a man in his twenties who has wound up back in New York. As a young boy, Theo lives with his mother after his father abandoned them. Out one day with his mother, Theo miraculously survives a horrendous attack that kills his mother and many other people. Traumatized, alone, and unsure of his future, Theo finds himself ensconced in the home of a wealthy friend. When his father unexpectedly pops back into his life, Theo finds himself ripped from his only place of security into a whirlwind of confusion. He bounces around the country meeting new people, but is always drawn back to New York, the girl he met the day of the attack, and the artifact he found. This artifact, a painting, leads Theo down an unexpected road into the art underworld. Theo’s life journey, accompanied by this small, mysterious painting, is perilous: full of loss, mania, fixations, power struggles, new identities, and the looming, heady sensation of anguish and grief.

This book is such a rich expanse of wonder that, once you are finished, you will be left gaping at everything that the author was able to pack in. It’s not shocking that this book won the Pulitzer Prize. Tartt has created a masterwork that takes readers through present-day America as Theo struggles to find himself amidst unbelievable loss and tragedy. Tartt pays such close attention to Theo’s feelings that readers are acutely aware of everything that is happening around him and how the tragedy he has suffered has deeply changed him. This is a story of massive loss and overwhelming survival, of obsession and the need to become a new person. Highly recommended.


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The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty is a diving read into the secrets that we all have within ourselves and between our families and friends. Cecelia Fitzpatrick stumbles upon a letter written by her husband that is only to be opened after his death. Concerned about what the letter is about, Cecelia wrestles with whether to open it or not, coming to the decision that her husband, whom she has been married to for 15 years and has three daughters with, must have just forgotten to give it to her. His reaction to her admittance that she found the letter makes Cecelia doubt her decision and causes a great chasm to open up between her and her husband, as well as between her and the people she comes into contact with on a daily basis.

Tess O’Leary lives with her husband and young son. Tess started a business out of her home with her husband and her best friend as her business partners. Everything is going along perfectly until her husband and her best friend sit her down to tell her they’ve fallen in love. Shattered, Tess packs up her son and heads to her childhood home, which just so happens to be the same town that Cecelia lives in. Tess must deal with her feelings towards her husband and best friend, her entertaining relationship with her mother, her son’s confusion, and her lingering feelings about returning to her childhood home and the people she grew up with.

Rachel Crowley works at the local school as a secretary. She comes into contact with the parents, children, and teachers on a daily basis, something that drives her crazy because she believes that one of the teachers at the school killed her daughter twenty years ago. With her daughter and now her husband dead, Rachel looks forwards to the days that her toddler grandson comes over to visit. That joy is soon snatched from her when her son and his wife announce that they are moving to New York. Her grandson will be gone too. Rachel doesn’t know what to do.

The letter that Cecelia finds has the power to destroy so many lives, but also the ability to answer so many questions. Secrets run amok in this book and the characters involved struggle with their inner demons on a daily basis. Seeing the interplay between people and how each secret connected really hooked me into the book and had me wanting more.

I have listened to and read almost all of Liane Moriarty’s books, leaving me with a little disappointed that I don’t have very many left! She is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. This is due to the fact that her stories are so relatable. The narrator(I’ve listened to all of her books through OverDrive) has a fantastic accent and has a really animated delivery as well. This book is wonderfully crafted and I greatly enjoyed it.


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