BOOK REVIEWS

The Searcher by Tana French

“He doesn’t like the feeling, or the fact that he recognises it and understands it perfectly; it’s as familiar to him as hunger or thirst. Cal never could stand to leave a case unresolved.”

If I’d read The Searcher without knowing the author’s identity, I’d never have guessed that it was a novel by Tana French.
Because the narrative in The Searcher is told in the third-person, it felt far less intimate and intricate than the Dublin Murder Squad series (which, with the exception of The Secret Place, have a first-person pov) so it took me awhile to warm up to French’s prose. While I understand that ‘sticking’ to the same writing style book after book must get tiring, I can’t say that I particularly liked French’s ‘new’ style (in fact, while reading I found myself longing for her ‘usual’ prose). And even if The Searcher was by no means incompetently written, the language French uses wasn’t quite as literary or complex as the one in her previous novels.

Onto the actual story: after becoming increasingly disillusioned with the police force Cal, our main character, retires from Chicago’s police force and decides to re-locate to the fictional Ardnakelty, a remote small village in the West of Ireland. Here he spends his time fixing up his decrepit new house and bantering with his neighbour.
The narrative moves at an incredibly slow pace…which would have been fine by me if pace had been sacrificed in favour of characterisation. But Cal isn’t an incredibly compelling or complex protagonist. What we get instead are long and detailed descriptions about Cal painting his desk or doing up something in his new house. While he goes on about his day he starts to feel as if someone is watching him.
After some more time passes he meets Trey, a kid from a poor and disreputable family. Trey’s brother is missing so he enlists Cal to find out what happened to him. Cal, who wants to keep his head down, is initially reluctant to get involved, however, as he spends more time with Cal (fixing up his furniture, hunting) he decides to help Trey.

French brings to life the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere of a small village. In a community where everyone seems to know everybody’s business, Cal quickly realises how difficult it is to escape the shadow of your family. Although Trey is only thirteen, Ardnakelty residents believe that because he comes from a ‘rotten’ family he’s bad egg.
Cal makes slow progress in his ‘investigation’. He has little authority in the village, so he has to play up his ‘Yankee’ persona in order to get some answers. Still, the people he questions are reticent to talk and soon enough Cal realises that he has ruffled some of the locals feathers.
French vividly renders Cal’s environment, on the very first page we get this stunning description:
“The sky, dappled in subtle gradations of grey, goes on forever; so do the fields, coded in shades of green by their different uses, divided up by sprawling hedges, dry stone walls and the odd narrow back road.”
The Irish countryside is by turns idyllic and menacing, just as the people who inhabit the land. Much of the banter Cal has with his neighbour or with other men at the local pub carries a not-so-friendly edge. Seemingly harmless exchanges carry the possibility of danger. Yet, even if Cal is aware of this, and of the possibility of upsetting or antagonising the entire village, he’s unwilling to give up his search.

The mystery often took the backseat in favour of scenes detailing Cal’s daily routing (fixing up the house, fishing, going to the local store, phoning his daughter). There were also quite a lot of conversations about topics I didn’t particularly care for (look, I like dogs as much as the next person but my mind will start going blank if I have to read a few pages describing ‘pups’).
The dynamic between Cal and Trey was the most compelling aspect of this book. I did wish that some scenes of Trey interacting with his family could have been included as they would have given a fuller picture of his life.
Even if I wasn’t as interested in Mart or Lena, their words always rang true and they could provide some amusing moments. Cal, on the other hand, sometimes said things that didn’t entirely convince me. While he did question himself and his own behaviour, and I did appreciate that he struggled with the meaning of ‘doing the right thing’, his character was a bit of a blank at times. Although we are given his view on his job, on his feelings about police brutality, racial profiling, and corruption, as well as an impression of the kind of relationship that he has with his daughter and ex-wife, Cal’s main characteristic is that he is ‘American’. And sometimes what he said sounded a bit too American, even in those instances when he wasn’t playing up this role. His motivations for picking Ireland as his new home were also left unexplored. And what did his daughter think of this relocation? We simply know that she’s busy working but we don’t learn of her reaction upon discovering that her father had chooses to retire and move across the ocean.
The mystery storyline takes a rather predictable direction and I never felt any real sense of suspense. There were quite a few scenes that were just boring and added little to the overall story.
At the end of the day, The Searcher doesn’t offer a new spin on the Town with a Dark Secret™. The more I think about it the less I like this novel. It has a kind of Hot Fuzz sort of story (minus the laughs): we have a protagonist who ‘can’t switch off’ who goes to a small village and learns the meaning of friendship and finds out that there is a reason why locals don’t want him to investigate certain things.
An okay read but nothing like French’s usual.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of stars

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The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

“We all lived in an unwalled city, that was it. I saw lines scored across the map of Ireland; carved all over the globe. Train tracks, roads, shipping channels, a web of human traffic that connected all all nations into one great suffer body.”


This is the third novel I’ve read by Emma Donoghue and I’m afraid to say that it just didn’t quite work for me. Maybe I shouldn’t have approached The Pull of the Stars with such high expectations. Or maybe these kind of historical novels are just not my ‘thing’ (I was similarly underwhelmed by
A Long Petal of the Sea and The Night Watchman).
Given the current pandemic The Pull of the Stars, set in a maternity ward in Dublin during the 1918 influenza and the close of WWI, makes for an eerily pertinent read. This is a meticulously researched novel, from the blow by blow descriptions of medical procedures to the grimly evocative depiction of the environment in which our narrator, a nurse, works. Although the novel is set over the course of three days, Donoghue renders all too vividly the stark circumstances of the various women under Julia’s care. We witness the physical and emotional toll that result from too many pregnancies, the stigma attached to unmarried mothers and the mistreatment of their children, and the extreme abuse that ‘fallen women’ experienced in the Magdalene laundries. The lives of these women and children are shaped by injustices—such as sexual/physical abuse, poverty, illness, being forced into labour, being separated from your child—and Donoghue is unflinching in revealing just how horrific their realities are.
In spite of this, I just couldn’t help but to find the bluntness of her prose to be detrimental to my reading experience. While her unvarnished style does suit both the setting and the subject matter, it also distanced me, especially from Julia. She felt like a barely delineated character, often seeming to exist in order to explain things or provide ‘modern’ readers with context (especially one of her later discussions about the ‘homes’ and Magdalene laundries with Birdie). She was a very undefined character, a generic take on a good ‘nurse’. Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a far more interesting figure, sadly plays only a minor role in the story. Birdie was okay, although at times I had a hard time believing in her. The romance sprung from nowhere and didn’t really convince me either (and this is coming from someone who sees everything through sapphic-tinted glasses). If anything the ‘love’ story seemed to exist only to add an unnecessary layer of drama, unnecessary especially considering that the novel was quite tragic without it. The ending, more suited to a historical melodrama, was painfully clichéd.
The thin plot too did little to engage me. Although the lives and stories of the women in the ward were both compelling and distressing, I just didn’t particularly care for Julia’s narrative. Perhaps if this had been a work of nonfiction, I would have appreciated it more.
I don’t consider myself squeamish but The Pull of the Stars was almost relentless in the way it detailed EVERYTHING. Maybe readers who watch One Born Every Minute will be able to cope with it but I just could have done without it.
Another thing I could have done without is the lack of quotations mark. When will this trend stop?

Although The Pull of the Stars wasn’t my cup of tea, I’m sure that plenty of other readers will find this more riveting than I did.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Normal People by Sally Rooney

Review of Normal People by Sally Rooney

★★✰✰✰  2 of 5 stars

If you believe that characters who dislike themselves, shrug a lot and say “I don’t know” a lot, are very deep and realistic, well this is the perfect read for you.

salluIf you are thinking about reading this novel, I suggest you listen to the following song instead, since it will take you less time and you will get the same story:

Song for a Guilty Sadist by Crywank

While I enjoyed Rooney’s style, that is her interweaving of ordinary moments with emotionally charged ones and the uncertainty that pervades her story, I was also annoyed by how artificial her novel is. I had the impression that Rooney was trying to conjure a certain millennial “vibe” through her characters and their experiences. Connell and Marianne lacked depth and, as stupid as it might sound, character. Their looks were emphasized in a way that made them “different from others”. They are skinny and beautiful, they smoke, they make languid movements, they are smart, they are unlike their peers and they actually care about world politics, basically they are really DIFFERENT and SPECIAL.
Marianne comes from a wealthy and abusive family, Connell was raised by his mother and suffers from bouts of anxiety and depression. That they have issues that they can’t cope with is realistic, but what I didn’t like was the romanticizing of their difficulties. What I didn’t like is that being “alienated” is “cool” and that seeking sadomasochistic relationships is understandable if you come from an abusive family. Marianne and Connell aren’t terrible people but god, they are so self-involved. Their relationship is made to appear fraught but I didn’t always understand why. Drama for the sake of drama? They enter forgettable relationships with other forgettable people but they are fixated on each other. Why? Who knows…
normalSecondary characters and family members are barely sketched out, they have little to no purpose other than creating more “drama” for the main characters. Marianne’s family was so badly written that I had difficulties taking them seriously. Friends from college serve very little purpose, other than making the main characters seem “different” and “real” (special snowflake alert).
What I disliked the most is that by the end neither Marianne or Connell show any sort of character growth.

The reason why I finished this novel is that I listened to the audiobook and the narrator managed to make this otherwise unappetizing storyline sort of okay.

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Making It Up As I Go Along by Marian Keyes

In this collection of articles and diary entries, Marian Keyes provides readers with plenty of fun. She writes in a way that is always genuinely relatable; her observations, accounts, ramblings, are witty and heartfelt. It isn’t easy to be consistently funny, but I found myself always smiling, giggling and laughing out loud, while reading Making It Up As I Go Along. Her voice is so vivid that by the end I was talking about what happens to her as if I personally knew her.
Keyes talks about the little every day things as well as her travels and experiences. We become her confidants, eager to listen to her funny and charming stories.

My rating: 3 stars

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Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

I won’t deny that –initially– there is an underlying tension that renders some portions of the story to be gripping. The first opening lines propel us into what promises – and fails – to be an intriguing mystery.
My main reservation about this novel is that it switches tones too often: there is an unbalanced – if not jarring – disparity between the seemingly ‘dark’ components and the unbelievably ridiculous moments.
I initially thought the narration and story reminded me of Joanne Harris’ Gentlemen and Players but it never really holds onto its strengths. That book perfectly balances humor and drama. Lying in Wait does not. The narrator who is almost gleefully telling us about their ‘bad’ intentions loses all its appeal. There are scenes and monologues that are just oddly grotesque: they do serve the purpose of unsettling the reader but they lose their desired effect by repulsing us and by making us question the believability of their situation/words. What should be funny is so ridiculously lampooned that it just becomes irksome.
The satirization of ‘class’ is completely overdone. Comments about ‘oh dear, the unemployed’ or ‘we do not mix with them dear’ were more annoying than witty.
The appealing premise leads to a ludicrous series of events which on the whole lead to a pointless finale. Then again, the story serves no real purpose and delivers no real message. The characters are all inept and their naivety is just downright irritating. I know that the story is set in the 80s, but I refuse to believe that people were so gormless.
What could have been a compelling mystery filled with dark humor ends being an exaggerated parody of the genre.

My rating: 1 star

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

This was quite an epic. This novel follows Cyril Avery and depicts the hardships and misadventures he experiences throughout his life. Adopted by two rather distant parents his views on love and family are, from the very start, somewhat unusual. He falls in love with his best friend Julian, a person whom he admires far too much, and spends the following years lying about who he truly is.
I found this novel to be both funny and heartbreaking. There are many hilarious conversations that carry a subtle sort of humor to them, and Cyril himself can be quite satirical.
The novel gives us snapshots of Cyril’s life; it jumps through time and fills us with we have ‘missed’ as the story progresses. Cyril’s experiences can be painful to read, and I was not happy after one particular tragic scene towards the end…after that…well I simply found that the flow of the story lost a bit of its momentum. It wasn’t quite as engaging as the rest, and it felt a bit repetitive. Nevertheless, The Heart’s Invisible Furies is an absorbing read.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Likeness by Tana French

A brilliantly executed novel that depicts the complex and passionate relationship between a close group of friends. In many ways, it reminded me of The Secret History.
Gripping and full of suspense, The Likeness is so much more than your usual crime novel. French pays incredible attention when portraying her characters and their relationships with one another.
The growing tension between this tight group of friends is rendered in a vividly convincing manner.
Cassie herself is a complicated person. She narrates things in a way that makes us – the readers – her confidants. This technique made all the more relatable. The mistakes she makes along the way carry a sense of inevitability that often made me excuse her behaviour. I understood her for her longings and doubts, and I loved her for her determination.
The focus on this group of friends showcases an array of different emotions, with a certain emphasis on love and hatred. Idyllic and tranquil moments give way to scenes dominated by a mounting sense of unrest. Like Cassie, we never have a clear-cut view on the group’s dynamics.
I too, alongside Cassie, was drawn to Lexie’s friends.
I believe that one of the book’s main themes is that of ‘belonging’. Cassie is somewhat adrift after the events of In the Woods, and perhaps it is what makes her feel connected to Lexie’s friends.
With a growing sense of foreboding, I was in equal parts eager and worried throughout my reading of this book.
French’s writing is enveloping. Her descriptions were a pleasure to read, both vivid and accurate.
Atmospheric and unsettling, I was completely absorbed by The Likeness.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Stolen Child by Lisa Carey

For the most part, I really loved reading The Stolen Child. Carey’s writing is a real treat to read, and I was intrigued by the story from the very beginning. However, as much as I enjoyed it, I was equally very irritated by certain parts of it. No matter my reaction, negative or not, I did feel passionate about this book, so for that reason alone, I would recommend it.

The Stolen Child is set in a remote fictional island, just off the Irish coast, during the late 1950s. Drawing on Irish folklore and mythology, the author deftly places a narrative of magical realism against a domestic backdrop. Carey has crafted an eerie tale in which the setting and supernatural elements allow her to explore the extremity of human behaviour away from the ‘modern’ and ‘civilized’ world. The book delves into the dangers and powers of superstition while also addressing themes such as motherhood, friendship and rivalry. Carey easily shifts between domestic mundanity and a more magical reality while also depicting the ambiguity of a community torn between two worlds.

Like their island, the residents of St. Brigid, a saint that is both pagan and christian, have clashing beliefs: they believe both in the existence of fairies and a christian God. They are a traditional people who do not mind being cut-off from the rest of civilization. However, when storms and accidents the populations dwindles. So much so that the last few inhabitants of St. Brigid have been promised new council houses on the mainland. Not all are eager to leave the island behind. Twins Emer and Rose – married to two brothers – have opposing views. Emer, feared by others for the strange gift she possesses, desperately wants to leave because she fears that her young son, Niall, will be taken by the faeries. Rose, on the other hand, would happily raise her children on the island. Tensions arise further with the arrival of an American, a woman named Brigid, who has inherited a house on St. Brigid, and is seeking a well rumored to cure any illness. The islanders, who are a secluded people, do not welcome her foreign ways. That is with the exception of Emer. Emer, an outcast herself, is intrigued by Brigid, especially since she suspects that the newcomer may possess powers of her own.

The Stolen Child is an emotionally torrid book in which lies a seam of violence which was often unnecessary. In fact, one couldn’t help but to feel a sense of foreboding while reading this novel. There is a constant sense of dread that is emphasized by the unease between the two protagonist. Carey centers her story centres on two equally unlikable characters and putting Emer’s gratuitous cruelty against Brigid’s conceitedness. Much of the story revolves around the relationship between these two women. While they both possess ties to the faery people of St. Brigid, they do not share the same ideals, and that is what makes their relationship so tense. This may could deter some readers, given that many will undoubtedly find Brigid to be cruel and vainglorious despite the author’s attempt to make her seem like a kind of ideal feminist ‘hero’.

Carey plays around with different concepts by linking fairies and magic with lust, rape, pleasure and power. The author’s lyrical style matches the story’s atmospheric setting and alluring storyline. Using a poetical and sensual voice Carey has created a tale imbued with myths and old lore. The constant sense of anguish however detracts from the overall enjoyment of the novel. Also, it was impossible to gloss over the fact that all of the characters, especially Brigid and Emer, are –for the most part– incredibly infuriating. The Stolen Child uses a melodic prose to tell an enticing mystery that explores the nature of fear, love and authority but also suffers from a story populated by unsavoury characters. Towards the end, the plot loses its initial spark, and by then I had grown tired of the two detestable main characters, so, despite loving Carey’s writing, I think that The Stolen Child would have benefited from a more conclusive plot. Last but not least, I didn’t always like the way in which the author handled certain things; that is to say that I couldn’t tell wherever she actually approved of how some of her characters behaved or not.
Anyway, I’m looking forward to read Carey again.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Broken Harbor by Tana French

Broken Harbour is a gripping novel that portrays – with much intensity – complex relationships between friends, partners and family members. French, as per usual, pays close attention to the human psychology rather than focusing solely on the ‘crime’ itself.

Tense and frayed relationships aside, the story is one peppered with doubt: throughout the investigation, we can never be quite sure of what has happened to the Spain family.
French deftly renders feelings of animosity and of a growing sense of unease: there is a constant sense that the truth behind the Spain case is an unpleasant one, and thanks to some foreshadowing, one that will cost Scorcher dearly.
Scorcher is a complex narrator whose method prior the case was ‘by the book. The Spain case however forces him to behave unexpectedly. His own connection to Broken Harbour inevitably turns the case into a personal matter. Alongside for the ‘ride’ is Richie, his rookie partner. Their interactions make us see, in my opinion, Scorcher at his best. Scorcher is a fully rounded character and his investigation makes the story come off the page.
French has also a knack for depicting different types of people. All of her characters offer realistic incongruities and much depth. Both the people involved in the Spain case and Scorcher’s own family make an impact on the storyline.

French’s eye for the smallest details serve to add further layers to the novel as a whole. We reassess the same characters and situations again and again, never quite sure of certain character’s motivations.

Nothing is as it seems, and it is only through Scorcher’s investigation that the truth slowly begins to unravel. Brimming with suspense and filled by all too believable characters, Broken Harbour is an engaging and powerful book, one that makes the reader question their own ideals and perception of right and wrong.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In the Woods by Tana French

What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this – two things: I crave the truth. And I lie.

An incredibly intense and absorbing read. In the Woods is so much more than a ‘crime’ novel. French creates incredibly vivid characters. She also has a knack for dialogue: that is to say that the conversations, arguments and discussions had by her characters felt incredibly real to me. The way in which she narrates this mystery is completely encompassing. I eagerly read chapter after chapter, my head filled by the main character’s meanderings: despite acting like a right ol’ dick, I still loved being in Rob’s head. He was so…believable. His fear, uncertainties and desires. All of it. I was taken in by his story, unable – and not wanting – to leave.
In short, I was really taken by In the Woods.
I don’t think I can do this novel justice… just go and see for yourself.
A few quotes:

I am not good at noticing when I’m happy, except in retrospect. My gift, or fatal flaw, is for nostalgia. I have sometimes been accused of demanding perfection, of rejecting heart’s desires as soon as I get close enough that the mysterious impressionistic gloss disperses into plain solid dots, but the truth is less simplistic than that. I know very well that perfection is made up of frayed, off-struck mundanities. I suppose you could say my real weakness is a kind of longsightedness: usually it is only at a distance, and much too late, that I can see the pattern.

In all my career I had never felt the presence of evil as I felt it then: strong and rancid-sweet in the air, curling invisible tendrils up table-legs, nosing with obscene delicacy at sleeves and throats.

Human beings, as I know better than most, can get used to anything. Over time, even the unthinkable gradually wears a little niche for itself in your mind and becomes just something that happened.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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