Review of Too Close to Breathe

My second Irish read this month is Too Close to Breathe, a debut novel by Olivia Kiernan. If you read my last review (The Darkling Bride), you’ll realize how this novel is quite the opposite style: it’s gritty, dark, and a little disturbing. And I found myself counting down the minutes till I could get back to the story when I should have been working or studying. In other words, this is a fast-paced, intriguing, suspenseful crime novel, and I couldn’t stand to put it down.

Book cover for Too Close to Breathe

Book cover for Too Close to Breathe

Now, I’m not often a reader of crime fiction, and this book was a little outside my normal sphere of reading. But what got me interested about this one was the mystery of it all. I kept turning page after page, wanting to know what happened next.

Our protagonist is crime detective Frankie Sheehan. She’s persistent, quick-witted, and sometimes she goes a little rogue. But coming into the beginning of this story, she’s also recovering from a traumatic incident of being nearly murdered at the scene of a previous investigation. To be a detective, to work on the horrific murder cases that come through her department, Frankie has to be hardened, distanced from her work. But her near-death experience has made her work a little too personal for her taste. She has trouble stepping away from the trauma, having flashbacks in the middle of her work. I think having both sides to her character revealed–the emotional and the rational–shows Frankie as a complicated character, struggling with internal conflict at the same time as trying to catch a killer.

As it turns out, Frankie’s traumatic experience might have more to do with her current case than she realizes . . . But I’ll leave that for you to find out.

The plot of this crime novel includes a string of murders, secret BDSM forums on the Dark Web, and mysterious phone calls to Frankie’s cell. The deeper Frankie gets into the investigation, the closer she gets to the killer, and that might just be a little too close for comfort.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in mysteries or true crime, and I’ll admit there’s a few parts that are a little hard to read if violence makes your stomach turn. Yet there’s something about this book that feels so realistically dark. Except, unlike the inconclusiveness I sometimes feel after watching true crime television shows, Too Close to Breathe has a solid, satisfying ending that makes the twists and turns of the investigation worth it.

Thank you to Penguin Random House for providing a copy of this novel for review.

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Review of The Darkling Bride

Lately, I’ve been thinking I should change the title of this blog to “In Love with the British Isles.” I do love England (isn’t it obvious?), of course, but I love so much more! In the past, I’ve tried to narrow down my topics to England, but I’ve decided to turn to Ireland a bit more recently, as a couple of delightful Irish books have come my way for review.

I just finished The Darkling Bride by Laura Andersen. My life (like yours, I’m sure) has been busy and complicated, and finding time to read outside of my studies has been challenging. But I’m so glad I’ve had The Darkling Bride to turn to in my spare moments the past couple weeks, needing an escape from the neverending winter of Michigan.

book cover for The Darkling Bride

The Darkling Bride by Laura Andersen

First, let me ask, do you like myths, murder mysteries, family secrets, historical fiction, libraries, ghosts, and Irish castles with a side of romance? This fast-paced novel has all of that. With its multiple perspectives and multiple timeframes, you never feel stuck in this book; you’re just excited to read what happens next.

There’s quite a few interesting characters in the book: Carragh Ryan, the archivist from Boston; Aidan Gallagher, the conflicted heir to the Deeprath Castle and estate; Sibéal McKenna, the police detective trying to prove herself in a new department. And these are just the characters in the current timeframe. We also get to time travel back to the 1800s to learn the stories of Jenny Gallagher, whose secrets and tragic end still haunt the castle battlements, and of Aidan’s own parents, who were mysteriously killed when he was just a child.

And of course, we can’t forget the castle itself. This structure comes alive in the novel, with its many additions and renovations from across the centuries; it feels like another character, acting its own will on the people living within the stone walls. I especially loved reading about the library which was built into an ancient chapel. I imagined shelves upon shelves of dusty tomes lining the stained-glass bay windows, containing a millenium of stories—and secrets, as it turns out.

I also appreciated the theme of identity in the novel. Carragh, an Asian-American, was adopted into an Irish-American family living in Boston; she inherits her grandmother’s home in Ireland and is the only one in her family who really wants to hold onto this piece of history. Aidan, on the other hand, struggles to accept his family inheritance, wanting to escape his family identity. It makes for an interesting contrast in the book, providing additional tension to the already tense unfolding of the family mystery.

I would consider this a fun, need-to-escape-int0-a-story-without-having-to-think-too-hard kind of mystery book. I would definitely recommend it if you need a mental escape to an Irish castle with a badass library.  

Thanks to Ballantine and Random House for providing a copy of The Darkling Bride for review.

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Review of Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

“The paradox is this: I have to assume, for the sake of my sanity, that I am going mad. Because what’s the alternative? The alternative is to believe that the thing I saw the other night was real. And if I allowed myself to believe that, surely the horror of it would also make me lose my mind. In other words, I’m trapped. Trapped between two choices, two paths, both of which lead to insanity.”

How to describe the weird delight that is Number 11, Jonathan Coe’s latest novel? It’s funny, tragic, satirical, political, hauntingly real, human. I’ve never read a novel quite like this, and the closest comparison I can come up with is the television series Black Mirror. But Number 11 has the angling look at contemporary culture and politics without some of the more disturbing aspects of that show.

This is my first Jonathan Coe read, and I must say really enjoyed it, speeding through the pages on airplanes and in airports and at midnight with a flashlight under the covers. It was entertaining without being flippant, true to life without being too heavy to handle.

The book begins when Rachel and Alison are children, friends at the beginning of this century. On holiday from school, they quickly learn the world is not as friendly as they might hope. With a politician’s death publicized on the news and a strange woman down the street known as the Mad Bird Woman, the two girls are curious about odd happenings in the woods. What they imagine is a case of murderous insanity is really something worse, something they hardly understand yet: the struggling condition of immigrants in the UK.

This sets the tone for the rest of the book. Things aren’t what they seem: they’re worse. From my perspective, it was interesting to see the British side of political events that occurred when I was Rachel and Alison’s age. From the Iraq War to reality television to internet trolls to the extravagance of the wealthy to the “monetization of wonder,” reality is checked against many mirrors, and it comes up short. What stands out in comparison is Rachel and Alison’s friendship as they help, lose, and find one another again. Maybe with all the terrifying whirlwind of the age of technology and reality television, friendship can override tragedy, but still, it feels a bit optimistic in the world Coe portrays.

The number eleven refers to many things throughout the novel: the street number of the Mad Bird Woman, a circular bus route that provides refuge for Alison’s mother, a table at a banquet where an attempted murder occurs, and for 11 Downing Street (home of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, next door to the Prime Minister). It’s a way to tie all the storylines together, and gives it a sense of conspiracy. I’m not a wide reader of satire, so perhaps am not the best judge, but this format worked for me, making me curious about the shadows in the corners of the book.

And what are these shadows? I mustn’t spoil them for you, but will only say they live underground and might just haunt your nightmares.

Some of the plot is implausible, yes, and even verges on magical realism, but if you take it in stride, you’ll find it an enjoyable, thought-provoking journey. If nothing else, it is an interesting look at contemporary British culture, and if you are an American like me, you will find it hauntingly similar to our own.

Thanks to Vintage Books and Penguin Random House for providing a copy of Number 11 for review.

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Review of The Wood for The Trees

“After a working life spent in a great museum, the time had come for me to escape into the open air. I spent years handling fossils of extinct animals; now, the inner naturalist needed to touch living animals and plants.”

~ from The Wood for the Trees: One Man’s Long View of Nature by Richard Fortey, November 2017

(love the design of this book!)

Richard Fortey has spent his life working with the bones and imprints of long-dead animals and plants. When he finally retires to the countryside, he finds his inner naturalist and starts exploring the woods around his new home. This book is the result of that exploration.

Each chapter follows one month of the year and works as a compilation of his observations. It’s like a year in the life of trees (and everything else that lives under the trees). I love the format of this book, how it follows the changes in Fortey’s home in the woods, how he pays attention to the tiny details of nature. There’s also lots of black-and-white images to back up his descriptions, making this feel like a scrapbook of sorts, documenting this corner of the world in both text and pictures.

 

The Woods

In England, in Oxfordshire, in the Chiltern Hills, in Lambridge Wood, is the little part of forest called Grim’s Dyke Wood. Think Walden, only British. Fortey talks about the trees almost as if they are people:

“Some trees stand close together, like a pair of friends huddling in mutual support. Others are almost solitary, rearing away from their fellows in the midst of a clearing” (7).

It is descriptions like this that make The Wood for the Trees a cozy read, the kind of book you take with you on an early autumn day to the riverside (perhaps the Thames?) with a blanket and a carafe of hot cider.

My favorite part is the description of the “sea of bluebells. The whole forest floor beyond is coloured by thousands upon thousands of flowers . . . like the yachted water in a Dufy painting” (8).

Fortey lives in the woods which has now been divided among different people; they call themselves the woodies, people who care for the woods. And this is what I find most interesting in Fortey’s project: understandingthe intersection of people and nature in this particular plot of land. Most of the time he stands in the background observing the plants and animals he notices, but interspersed are his observations of people, especially how they have changed the local environment over the years.

In a way, this book is a kind of chronicle of people changing the woods, or perhaps in Forety’s case, being changed by the woods. This takes the book from being a simple nature journal to a big picture exploration of the environment and how people influence the world they live in.

Ultimately though, this is an upbeat read if you enjoy imagining the flora and fauna of the British countryside, if like me, you’re sitting under a gloomy Midwestern sky at the beginning of winter. Perhaps not necessarily a speedy book, but if you like to take it slow and meditate on the simple things, this might be the book for you.

Thank you to Vintage Books for providing a copy of The Wood for the Trees for review. If you would like to purchase a copy, visit Penguin Random House. 

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Book Review of Queens of the Conquest

Queens of the Conquest

Medieval times–we might think of the “Dark Ages,” primitive torture devices, a lack of medicine, a time of legends. The more I read and learn about this time period, the more amazed I am at the complexity of people’s lives, the drama and tragedy that wove together to become a colorful tapestry of a history that I never learned much about in school. In Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens, published in September, Alison Weir looks deeply into these times, bringing the lives of these English queens to light: Matilda of Flanders, Matilda of Scotland, Adeliza of Louvain, Matilda of Boulogne, and Empress Maud.

As an avid reader, I love delving in a satisfying classic novel or historical fiction. When I was a child, I had books upon books about Queen Elizabeth I, finding some kind of affinity with this woman who reigned over four centuries ago. Now that I’m older, I find it hard to find time to get non-academic reading done, and when I do, I tend to turn to a good novel (usually under 300 pages). So a bulky 500-page history book is not my go-to read.

But when I picked up Queens of the Conquest, I was surprised how un-stuffy a read it is. I ended up loving the narrative voice, as it gives enough context and characterization to provide readers with an idea of the historical significance and a picture of the specific events. Besides using narrative and characterization, Weir takes a step back to provide a bigger picture:

“Queens were the gentler face of monarchy, exercising a civilizing influence on their husbands,

Matilda of Flanders

protecting their joint interests, taking compassion on the poor, the sick, widows, orphans, and those in prison. They were applauded when they used their feminine instincts to intercede with the King in favor of those facing a harsh fate, thus enabling him to rescind a decision without losing face. Many instances of queens using their influence probably went largely unrecorded . . . If she interceded with her husband it was usually in private . . . The medieval ideal of queenship constrained her to a role that was essentially decorous, symbolic and dynastic. She was to be beautiful–officially, even if not in actuality–devout, fertile and kind: the traditional good queen.” (76-77).

These women did not outwardly take a central role in the happenings of political life, and yet they were at the center of the action. It is fascinating to read about who they were and about their influence on historical events.

Queens of the Conquest is the first book in a new series by Alison Weir about the Middle Ages. There are to be three more books in this series, all presenting the history of Medieval British queens. As you might know, I’m a fan of literature that brings back the stories of women whom history has all but forgotten. So it’s very exciting that this series will be calling attention to women we might not know much about, even though their male counterparts are quite famous in the annals of history (think William the Conqueror).

Adeliza of Louvain

If you enjoy reading historical fiction about past royalty with all its drama and intrigue, then reading this non-fiction history is sure to bring you even closer to the truth of how dramatic and complex the lives of these women were. Think arranged marriages, wars, and rivalries. Everything one needs for a good story, right?

While this book can be termed “popular history” in that it present true events with narrative and storytelling, it maintains a historical credibility throughout with extensive appendix notes, maps, genealogy charts, and a glossary of British terms. I have not had the chance to read this all the way through (due to my heavy class load), but I do like having this on my shelf to reference and dig into when I get the chance.  

You can purchase Queens of the Conquest here.

Check out Alison Weir’s website here for news and updates.

Thank you to Ballantine Books for providing this book for review!

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Dark Angel Review

If you think PBS Masterpiece is just about duchesses and romance and afternoon tea, then think again. Dark Angel is their newest release, starring Joanne Froggatt (our favorite ladies’ maid Anna from Downton Abbey) who plays a completely different character in this short two-episode piece. Directed by Brian Percival (known for his work on Downton Abbey and for directing North & South), Dark Angel introduces us to Mary Ann, a woman from County Durham in the north of England. At first, the story seems to be one of a struggling family, trying to make ends meet with too many children to feed, and though Mary Ann and her husband have seen hard times, they seem like they can make it work. But sooner than one would expect, the story spirals into darkness as Mary Ann strives (in a very unconventional way) against her dismal lot in life. If you didn’t know already, Mary Ann is the infamous Mary Ann Cotton, a true-story serial killer known for poisoning her (multiple) husbands and children with arsenic.

I told you it wasn’t Downton Abbey.

Mary Ann Cotton – Image in Public Domain

Dark Angel tries to get a personal angle on Mary Ann. What motivated her? Why would she kill so many of her family? The obvious answer would be money: Mary Ann received the life insurance money from each of her dead husbands. But was that her only motivation? In Dark Angel, we see a woman who has little choice in her life and for her body. She does not seem to want children, yet she is always pregnant. Because of this, she is tied down at home and unable to break out from poverty. As her mother tells her, “it’s just how life is for women.” She’s lonely, overworked, and has no control over her own life. Unfortunately, instead of making things work and finding other ways to vent, she tries to escape by getting rid of the people she thinks are in her way. Even when we feel connected to her as a character (or maybe, because of this), it is still shocking to watch her get the arsenic out of the cabinet and spoon it into her victim’s tea like a bit of sugar. 

Because it is only a two-episode mini series, the events of Mary Ann’s life are very compacted into the limited time of Dark Angel. I felt a little rushed watching it, and I couldn’t process one event in time before something else happened on screen. It felt like the narrative time passed too quickly, and Mary Ann’s many children were born and died (from sickness? or poison?) too fast. I would have liked to see more of Mary Ann’s husbands and children, but perhaps the filmmakers were trying to keep the focus on this woman who quickly unraveled into a murderer.

That said, Dark Angel is an interesting look into Mary Ann Cotton’s life, how she might have felt and what she was looking for. As the PBS press release worded so well: “Female serial killers are so rare that criminologists continue to debate what makes them tick. Is it a thirst for power, a desire for material gain, or a sadistic delight in undermining gender stereotypes when they ask, ‘Why don’t I make you a nice cup of tea?’”

Dark Angel is available now on DVD from PBS!

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#BronteGiveaway Winner

Congratulations, Daniel M! You are the winner of the DVD To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters! Look out for a message in your inbox. We hope you enjoy!

Thank you to everyone for participating in the giveaway! It’s been a lot of fun :) If you didn’t win this time, you can still watch the film by shopping at PBS.

And look out for another giveaway coming your way soon. More on that later!

Cheers!

 

 

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