Into the Woods with Ruth Ware

As a crime fiction reviewer, I’ve often had to say, “Sorry, I haven’t read it” when people ask me about a new book.  The reasons can vary.  I might be swamped with review copies.  I might not have been in the mood for that particular book after sampling it.  Or I might be wary of the publicity blitz around the book since I’ve seen so many crime novels over-hyped by publishers and been disappointed when they turn out clichéd or badly written.

But then it’s a wonderful surprise to pick up a book with thousands of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and discover that it truly lives up to the promotional material.  This past week I finally caught up with Ruth Ware’s gripping debut In a Dark, Dark Wood.

After an enigmatic brief prologue, the book opens in a hospital with Leonora, a heroine who can’t remember how she got there but has hands sticky with blood.  Something horrible has clearly happened.  Is she a murderer?  She’s desperate to regain her memory and for much of the book that struggle is a dark, dark thread.

How did she end up in the hospital?  Well, because she should have said no to a bizarre invitation.  Leonora, a crime writer herself, has led a solitary life for a decade after university for undisclosed reasons but readers know they’ll find out and will surely hope there’s high drama involved.  The invitation breaks into her solitude: it’s for what the English call “a hen party” and Americans call a bachelorette party.  Weirdly, she hasn’t been invited to the wedding itself and it takes some coaxing from a friend of hers and the bride’s to say “yes.”

The party is hours from London, very remote, in a big, isolated, ugly ultra-modern house.  Though it’s not haunted, it has far too many large, un-curtained windows and is surrounded by bleak forest.  Everything about it is oppressive, creepy, and exposed.  Tensions soon rise among the motley group of partiers and what seems at first to be an Agatha Christie homage turns violent and bloody.

In the second half of the novel we learn what drove her and her bride-to-be friend apart and while some of the revelations aren’t as surprising as you might wish, they fall into place with a satisfying way.  Ware is deft at building tension, evocatively describing people and places, and the book is explosive in many ways.  It’s also intriguing to read about a crime novelist caught up in a series of mysteries, a woman who might be a murderer herself.  And a woman who by all rights should have been far more wary and suspicious from the start.  When you read a Christie novel, a great deal is revealed in dialogue and readers of this novel should pay close attention to what characters say if they want to figure out what’s really going on in this taut, enticing novel.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and other newspapers and public radio stations.  He’s the author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries.

“Stillhouse Lake” is a Perfect Thriller




I’ve been reviewing mysteries and thrillers since the 90s and it’s been a very long time since I got goosebumps reading a crime novel. And even longer since I felt torn between rushing ahead to find out what was going to happen next and slowing down to savor and marvel at what an amazing book I was reading.

Rachel Caine’s Stillhouse Lake is that book. It’s beautifully crafted, scary and terrific in every single way: plot, characterization, style, and pacing. Hell, even the cover is creepily perfect.

Caine’s hypnotic narrator is Gwen Proctor, a woman on the run ever since her husband’s horrific secret life was exposed and led him to prison. She’s trying to protect herself and her kids from the sociopaths on the Internet who blame her for her husband’s crimes and make obscene, horrific threats. As happens way too often now, hatred’s gone viral and she’s the target of a vicious, disgusting cyber mob.

Despite the despair she sometimes feels, she’s strong, resourceful, and a very good shot. She’s turned herself into a fierce and indefatigable woman who might remind you of Sarah Connor in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Gwen needs to be quick-thinking and strong because she’s pursued by psycho cyber terrorists. She and her kids keep having to abandon one town after another, one identity after another, until perhaps, just perhaps they’ve found a new home with people they can trust and maybe even admire.

Well, you know how long that’s going to last….

Caine avoids a trap many thriller writers fall into: her action scenes are as clear as possible without an excess word, and you always know exactly what’s happening. Equally important, she’s also a deft psychologist, capturing every single nuance of Gwen’s struggle in lean, evocative prose. Gwen’s love for her children is so intense the book practically blazes with that love. Her torment is just as intense. How could she have been so naive as to marry a man who was a heinous criminal–and not figured him out? The shame, the guilt, it’s all there, dramatized and heightened as one great plot twist follows another.

I actually read the prologue and first chapter twice because I was so blown away by the power and intensity of what Caine was doing, and by the plight of a deeply sympathetic narrator whose life may never be restored to any semblance of normality.

I’ll say it again: this is a perfect thriller. So prepare for plenty of OMG moments, and for losing lots of sleep.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries and seventeen other books in many genres.  His work has appeared in fifteen languages.

 

Colm Tóibín’s “The Magician” is Anything but Magical

 

As a reviewer for many years in print, on-air, and online, I’ve gotten used to books being hyped to help the author gain a foothold in a crowded market.  But the fulsome book jacket copy for Colm Tóibín The Magician, a novel about German author Thomas Mann, is the kind of effusive panegyric that can often make me decide to skip a book because it’s just so over-the-top.

Jacket copy for The Magician raves that “Reading him is among the deepest pleasures our literature can offer.” That’s the kind of hyperbole Tóibín’s work has received from critics in the past, and it’s always turned me off.

But I did my best trying to read this novel because a good friend wanted to share it with me and compare notes.

It wasn’t really a difficult decision for me to make, even though I’m not a fan of the author’s previous work.  Thomas Mann, however, is an author I’ve enjoyed in the past.  I’ve read some of his fiction, a biography as well as a biography of two of his children in which he understandably looms large.  Mann was also a favorite author of my late mother, who read him in German, so I have a kind of sentimental connection to him too. 

Mann was a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and is probably best known for his novella Death in Venice (made into a stunning film by Luchino Visconti) and his sprawling novel The Magic Mountain.

The Magician does have have some good period detail of northern Germany in the late 1800s, but I found it very uneven and at times flat and listless. Several things stood out for me as problems an editor should have helped the author fix: Mann writes stories and has them published but we don’t always know what they’re about–why not? This is a book about a writer, yet it doesn’t tell us enough about his writing.

Then Mann writes the novel that made him celebrated, Buddenbrooks, but how long does that take? We don’t know. Again, why not? It almost feels as if the author is doing a Best Hits of Thomas Mann, name checking them as the story drags on and on. And why are some characters described in detail but many others aren’t, even important ones?

Perhaps in choosing Mann, the author was trying to recreate his success writing about Henry James in The Master.   If so, it was a misguided attempt because the book never quite takes wing and is anything but masterful.  Picking up the book wasn’t difficult for me, as I noted above, and neither was putting it down.  Maybe he’d have better luck with a lesser writer like Edgar Bulwer-Lytton who in his day outsold Dickens but is almost unreadable now.  Reading about a faded idol like that might be engaging in ways this book is not.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery and has taught creative writing at Michigan State University.  He’s done 100s of talks and readings about his work in 9 different countries.

“On Royalty” in England and Beyond

Fans of The Crown or anyone who watched Queen Elizabeth’s recent funeral will love On Royalty, an exploration of the very strange institution of monarchy across Europe.  The focus by English journalist Jeremy Paxman is mainly on the world’s most prestigious and most talked about throne, the English one, but the author also explores monarchies across the continent and through the centuries.

The book is amusing, thoughtful, wide-ranging. A case in point: his account of  Albania and its kings.  There were advertisements in 1913 in British newspapers for a country gentlemen to become the Albanian king after various princelings in Europe were offered the position.  They decline ruling the wild, mountainous little land where clans engaged in ancient vendetta. A local chieftain ended up as King Zog but abandoned the throne after a year, and a highlight of the book is the author’s interview with the current pretender to the thrown, his son King Leka, who seems utterly clueless and delusional.

What does it take to be a king or queen? Birth is the prime requisite but after that, expectations are low: being able to decently deliver a speech that’s been written for you is high on the list. Royalty across Europe seems rarely to have been particularly well-educated, with past multilingual exceptions like Queen Elizabeth I and the more recent Queen Margarethe of Denmark.

The right religion counts too, not just in terms of whom you marry.  There’s a good deal of fascinating detail about Queen Elizabeth’s deep religious feeling, some of which came across deftly in The Crown.

The author has a gift for well-crafted, dramatic anecdotes; his storytelling never lags and he always offers insight and entertainment. Paxman’s analysis helps explain both the global fascination with royalty and how monarchy survives today “not by any will of its own, but by the collective delirium of its citizens.” 

As Paxman says early in the book, many kinds of monarchs are accepted: “good or bad, saintly, lecherous, wise, stupid, athletic or indolent.  All will be tolerated because those who believe in the hereditary principles necessarily accept that their heard of state will not be there by election, talent, or ambition.  No other area of human activity is so easily reduced to three essential transactions of birth, marriage and death.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery and has seen his work studied in university classrooms, written about by academics, discussed at academic conferences, and translated into 15 languages. 

My First Love Was a Library

I fell in love in second grade visiting our local library. On 145th Street in Manhattan, it was a gorgeous, imposing Gilded Age building by McKim, Mead and White, but I didn’t know its history until recently.

What I did know was that I felt excited, privileged and awed every time I passed through its portals, and believe me, it did not have doors, it had portals. The library was designed to look like an Italian palazzo. Nobody told me that, but I felt as far away as Venice every time I wandered along its endless shelves as the light streamed in through massive windows. I felt a similar sense of awe seeing Venice itself for the first time, decades later.

The library was a place of peace and complete freedom. No librarian ever told me a book was too adult for me, and neither did my parents. Which meant I could browse the shelves with no restrictions.

Each week I brought home a small pile of books I subsequently devoured, and I was especially fond of biographies and history, two genres that fascinate me even more now that I’m middle aged and have my own biography and see myself in history.

All those books nourished and inspired me. I wanted to write, too, and I wanted to have a book on those shelves some day. Here again, I was very lucky. Starting in grade school, my teachers and my parents encouraged my writing.

Yet with all that reading of library books, I still watched plenty of television. It was actually reading that interfered with my school work, not TV. Whatever I brought back from that amazing library was almost always more interesting than what we were reading in school, where I was often bored and too talkative. Nowadays, of course, they would probably give me Ritalin.

I got another gift from that library: being read to at story hour. It was the pleasures I derived from that and from having my mother read to me at home that partly fuel my own joy when I do a reading today, one of the best parts of being an author on the road.

Samuel Johnson wrote that “No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a public library.” I can’t agree, at least on a day when I’m feeling good about my career, because my own public library filled me with hope, knowledge, and dreams.

Lev Raphael is the author twenty-seven books and has spoken about his work in nine different countries at universities, libraries, churches and synagogues, and museums.  He’s published 100’s of essays, stories, book reviews and blogs, and the Michigan State University Library collects his literary papers for its Special Archives.

(this blog first appeared on The Huffington Post)

The Marvelous Miss Marple

 

I discovered Agatha Christie in junior high school at my local library and was usually more interested in reading about Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple than anything my English teachers assigned me for homework. Christie’s characters were unfailingly intrepid as detectives and their cases deliciously mysterious. While I could never remotely match their sleuthing skills, I didn’t mind because the journey was enjoyable and the solutions so satisfying.

Given that Poirot was Belgian and my parents had lived in Belgium, it was Miss Marple who actually seemed more exotic, living in an alien-to-me world of gossipy small towns, vicars, cottages, servants, gardens, servants, endless cups of tea and glasses of sherry.  And she was such a delightfully unlikely  amateur sleuth, given her age and retired life, yet as keen-eyed and sharp-witted as Sherlock Holmes, though far less arrogant. 

I especially loved it when she discoursed on the nature of the human heart and evil in the drawing room, and I relished the way people underestimated her ability to pierce what might seem like an impenetrable fog around a murder.  My students at Michigan State University enjoyed her too when I taught The Murder at the Vicarage, Christie’s first Miss Marple mystery.

Val McDermid pays homage to that fiendishly clever novel with her standout story in Marple, a book that collects twelve new Miss Marple stories by an international array of bestselling women crime writers like Kate Mosse and Ruth Ware.  McDermid’s story, wittily titled “The Second Murder at the Vicarage,” is filled with dry dialogue and lovely clues.  And its vicar isn’t remotely as stupid and unbelievable as the one played by David Tennant in Netflix’s appalling new series Inside Man.

The Marple anthology isn’t rooted in England, but also takes Miss Marple abroad to New York, Cape Cod, Hong Kong and Italy.  That last locale is the setting for Elly Griffith’s luscious “Murder at the Villa Rosa” which opens with the elegant, mouthwatering line “It’s not necessary to travel to a beautiful place to commit murder, but sometimes it does help.”  The gorgeously written story about a crime writer haunted by success is a pleasant surprise.  Though Miss Marple’s role is a minor one, something she says proves to be pivotal.  Of course.  Perhaps most surprising in this glittering volume is Miss Marple’s response after she unmasks a murderer in Leigh Bardugo’s complex “The Disappearance.”

Throughout the volume, Jane Marple twinkles, knits, drinks tea, calmly spies on neighbors, assures her friends that murder is much more ubiquitous than they imagine, softly jokes about mystery novels vs. real life, and glows with quiet fire.  One character in Ruth Ware’s “Miss Marple’s Christmas” amusingly praises her ability to solve crimes by saying she has a mind “like a bacon slicer.”  Ware’s plot turns in part on a story by another mystery legend, Dorothy L. Sayers–what a treat for fans of both authors.

These highly entertaining stories make for a wonderful vacation and are a fine tribute to the genius of Agatha Christie.  All the authors deftly play with the sharp contrast between Miss Marple’s appearance and her dark knowledge, as expressed in “The Murdering Sort” by Karen McManus where Miss Marple notes that “no one is ever the murdering sort until they are.  The least likely people can shock you.  Young mothers, elderly clergy, esteemed businessmen. You can’t rule out anyone, I’m afraid.”

Lev Raphael was a long-time crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and is the author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries which have been praised by reviewers across the U.S.

 

“The Favor” Needed More Suspense

The husband and wife team who write as Nicci French are acclaimed as “masters of psychological suspense” and their latest, The Favor, has the short chapters we expect from suspense novels.  But “masters”?  A major secret is pretty obvious from the prologue onward, and that drains a lot of energy from the over-long, over-crowded story.

Jude is a London doctor whose ex-boyfriend Liam re-enters her life after eleven years and asks for a favor he won’t explain.  Liam wants her to take his car and drive to a rural cottage, use his credit card en route and not her own, then meet him when he arrives later by train.  The favor has to be kept absolutely secret, and  Liam will only tell her what’s going on when he gets there.

She says yes.  And why?  Because after the two of them survived a car accident as teenagers, his life turned out badly while hers was a relative success, so she feels guilty.  That’s supposedly it.  But it doesn’t quite add up, and if you read the prologue carefully, you’ll guess what her real reason is, something the authors reveal about two hundred pages into the book.

Liam is murdered and having said “yes” to his request gets Jude involved in a police investigation where she’s a prime suspect and the detective sounds more like a therapist than an investigator.  When it’s exposed, Jude also has to explain her bizarre behavior to her fiancé, her parents, Liam’s parents, Liam’s unsavory friends and Liam’s lover in a round of cringe-worthy encounters.  

She plunges more deeply into the mystery of what Liam was up to when she discovers he’s made her one of the executors of his will and she agrees because “for whatever bizarre reason, he had chosen her for this task.”  Well, that’s just half the story: she has a profound reason to agree, something that would make almost anyone feel indebted and we can guess way too early.

Liam’s financial affairs were a total mess and people keep telling her to back off, but she doesn’t.  She feels so helpless and trapped, though, that it’s hard to believe she could help anyone as a doctor. Jude is the kind of heroine who viewers would yell at when she’s on a TV or movie screen: “Don’t do it!”  Though she’s supposed to be a competent doctor, she seems clueless and lacks agency, and the authors at times seem to be indulging in what crime fiction fans call “femjep.”

Jude lets herself be repeatedly insulted and these interactions are annoying–more seriously, she doesn’t seem much interested in who might have killed Liam until after p. 300.

Despite its flaws and extraneous detail, the book has some good lines in it.  Like this one when she heads home after a long shift at her hospital and feels a migraine coming on: “Jude held her migraine at bay all the way home, pushing her bike for the last mile as if a moment of clumsiness might tip the pain over like a scalding liquid.”

Migraine sufferers might of course wonder why she chose to ride her bike instead of taking an Uber….

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and has also reviewed for The Washington Post and a handful of public radio stations.  He’s the author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries.

 

 

Joan Didion’s 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘠𝘦𝘢𝘳 𝘰𝘧 𝘔𝘢𝘨𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭 𝘛𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨

Though I deeply admired Joan Didion’s essays and fiction and had read Play it as it Lays many times, I avoided her acclaimed memoir when it came out in 2005. The book dealt with the death of her husband of forty years and because I was still reeling from the death of my mother, I didn’t feel I was ready.  Even a National Book Award didn’t change my mind.

Perversely, perhaps, I’m ready now when my 102-year-old father is in a slow decline and his hospice nurse is very pessimistic about his chances for pulling out of it.  He’s like an abandoned ship without crew or captain, barely recognizable as the man he used to be even into his 90’s. 

Seeking catharsis or comfort or something in between, I picked up Didion’s memoir last weekend.  It’s a stunning, visceral travelogue into a world anyone of us can enter at a moment: the land of illness, the land of sudden death.

Didion’s novelist husband John Gregory Dunne died after a massive heart attack at dinner one night in New York, at home, and this was soon after they had been visiting their deathly ill daughter at the hospital.  She was in an induced coma and there was every possibility she could die.

Years earlier, Didion had written about this terrible kind of unexpected disaster in Play it as it Lays: “In the whole world, there was not as much sedation as there was instantaneous peril.”

The book is a meticulous mapping of what happened before and after her husband’s death and her daughter’s hospitalizations as Didion examines the events from various standpoints.  Her encounters with medical personal are sometimes discouraging, sometimes bizarre, and when it comes to her daughter’s repeated hospital stays, she had to learn how to ask questions without seeming like a nag or a smart ass.  Those times force her to learn about procedures and medications as if she were taking a crash course in a foreign language.

Didion and her husband were deeply connected to each other through their work, never rivals, always collaborators. Their privileged life of writing screenplays in Hawaii, trips abroad, publicity tours, mingling with other celebrities, and eating at famous restaurants was no protection from cataclysmic change.   Et in Arcadia ego is ascribed to Virgil: Death is in Arcadia too.

Didion seeks answers or solace or stability through reading sublime poetry and matter-of-fact depictions of illness and death like Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die.  And she explores all the ways in which friends tried to help her and assuage her grief.  Most mesmerizing is the clear-eyed recounting of how she could not cope with her husband’s death and even denied that it had happened.  This kind of trauma is approached as a medical/psychological issue and as a sort of mystery: What was she thinking?  How was she thinking–and why?

Didion is like someone who’s just barely survived an earthquake that destroyed her home and is picking through the rubble to see what might not have been lost. The book is harrowing, beautifully written and observed, an unforgettable exploration of grief and loss.

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir My Germany and twenty-six other books in many genres.  His work has been translated into fifteen languages and he currently mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com.

Book Tour Sanity

I’ve toured extensively in the US, Canada, and Europe over the years for many of my books, sometimes doing two or even three events on the same day.

I’m an extrovert and also did some acting in college, so I find the performance side of being an author exciting. Ditto meeting new people and hearing their stories, finding out about their loves, their dreams, their obsessions, hearing their jokes, sharing favorite foods—all of it.

But no matter how short and how successful it is, a book tour can be exhausting. You’re always on the move or onstage, never rooted anywhere for long, always processing what went right and what went wrong, and living a double life. You’re constantly aware of yourself as an author, as someone touring, as someone doing a reading, answering questions, talking about your work. That double consciousness is hard to turn off. So how to unwind?

When I tour, I almost always rely on a book that takes me back to the feelings I had in Far Rockaway one summer, when I was thirteen, sitting on a porch bench surrounded by honeysuckle, reading The Guns of August, thrilled, transfixed, oblivious. That’s what I want on tour: complete immersion and escape.

I’ve tried lots of novels, but my favorite is Robert Harris’s The Ghost (later re-titled The Ghost Writer). I’ve read it many times because it never bores me. The story involves a talented ghost writer who ends up working on a politician’s memoir and gets involved in the man’s life in dangerous ways. It’s a beautifully written, whip-smart thriller, a brilliant satire of publishing, and I’ll always associate it with a tour in Germany where I read part of the book while staying in a 5-star Berlin hotel that was featured in one of the Jason Bourne movies.

You’d think I’d want to get away from anything related to publishing while on tour, but the book is so well crafted, so inspiring, I feel transported. It feeds me, energizes me, and ultimately unwinds me as much as a good meal and half a bottle of wine.

I’ve enjoyed other books of Harris’s like Fatherland, but this one’s become a kind of talisman for me—a kind of armor, too. Touring can be a hassle. Things can go wrong, you can miss planes, an event can be badly advertised, you can get sick after days on and off planes and breathing hotel air, but there’s nothing more reliable than that favorite book.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery, including Writer’s Block is BunkHe has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and other publications as well as several public radio stations.

Twitter Image by NikolayF.com from Pixabay

Oscar Wilde Would Have Loved TikTok

I fell in love with Oscar Wilde’s plays and short stories in college and felt inspired as a young writer by his wit and keen sense of paradox.  I’ve seen performances and films of his plays many times and had the good fortune to attend a Wilde Festival at Stratford, Ontario where the original 4-act version of his dazzling The Importance of Being Earnest was performed.  I even met his grandson, which seemed like a something out of a movie.

But it wasn’t until reading Nicholas’s fascinating The Invention of Oscar Wilder, that I came to see the famous playwright as a precursor of today’s Influencers and other social media stars.

Wilde lived very large.  As the author elegantly puts it, “His whole life was a provocation.  And in his personal appearance, behavior, and wit, he turned himself into a mythic figure in his own lifetime while obliging his fellow Victorians to rethink the things they held dearest.”

With care and precision, Kupar explains how Wilde cultivated his aesthetic image by unconventional clothing, witty conversation, and making connections. He was a first-class scholar at Oxford and a first-class networker once he moved to London.  He reached out to famous actors like Sarah Bernhardt and writers by publishing sonnets in their honor–and they befriended him. He assiduously made the rounds of London salons hosted by celebrities and aristocrats, impressing almost everyone by his charm and bon mots, intriguing them by his unconventional masculinity.  Wilde also cut a swathe through Parisian salons too–though some writers found his take on being a man unsettling.

He became friends with John Singer Sargent and James McNeil Whistler, with whom he eventually fell out–a soured relationship that yielded great copy.

Inside of a few years, and before his run of hit plays, Wilde lectured many dozens of times in the U.S. and Great Britain, sometimes twice a day.  But Wilde was often more interesting for his presence than in what he had to say about art or “the house beautiful” or anything else.  He was an immediate target for satirists in print and on the stage via Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, which he instinctively knew was a sign of his notoriety.

Wilde gave as much attention to his hair and clothes as any Real Housewife and in effect made himself a work of art.  So it’s fascinating to follow his career as poet, lecturer, art critic, editor, short story writer, then playwright–and finally a pariah for “gross indecency” with other men and a cruel prison sentence.

Likewise, exploring his long fascination with living and writing about a double life in coded ways is deeply enjoyable with Kupar as your guide. This book is a fine introduction to Wilde’s life, his work and his ground-breaking queer persona if you aren’t acquainted with them–and a pleasurable deep dive if you are.

And by the way–Oscar Wilde is one of the most widely misquoted authors on the Internet, with observations of all kinds attributed to him that he never wrote or said.  But he did say “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery as well as hundreds of stories, essays, book reviews and blogs.  He taught creative writing at Michigan State University and currently mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com.