The Survivors by Jane Harper

photo from amazon.com

When I was in middle school, my Florida cousin and I went to stay with our grandmother for a week. It turned out that my cousin and I both loved Christopher Pike novels (this was the 1990s) and our grandmother took us to a bookstore and treated us each to a book. 

I devoured my book in an afternoon. My cousin doled out her book in drips and drabs, making it last the entire week. I have never been able to do that. This is not to say that some (many) books don’t take me a long time to read; I loved Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, but it took me fifteen days to read. 

But some books. Some books, I just cannot put down. Even if I want to savor them, draw them out. I just can’t help gulping them down as quickly as possible.

Jane Harper’s books are like that. The Survivors is her most recent and I read it in just under two days, and that’s only because I had to do non-reading things like eat and shower and exercise and care for my offspring. 

Mini Plot Summary: Kieran and Mia take their infant daughter back to their hometown of Evelyn Bay to help Kieran’s parents pack up their home. Back home with his parents, among his old friends, Kieran can’t help but dredge up feelings about a dark tragedy from his past. Then, a body turns up on the beach – and old secrets begin to rise to the surface. 

What I Liked About this Book: As with each of Harper’s previous books, The Survivors has such a strong sense of place. The story takes place in the invented township of Evelyn Bay, on the coast of Tasmania. It is a setting as different from the bone-dry desert of The Lost Man as you can get, I think, but Harper excels at making the landscape feel like a character unto itself. The moody sky, the changeable sea, even the wind all add incredible atmosphere to this novel. 

The plot, I would say, is somewhat predictable. Which is not a criticism! I absolutely love mystery stories, and one of my great pleasures in reading them is trying to solve them as we go along. (I though all readers did this as they read, but I know people who simply let the book unfold without speculating, which honestly blows my mind.) As long as a book is well-written and the resolution feels inevitable and real, I love solving a mystery before the solution is revealed. In fact, I feel very smug indeed when the murderer turns out to be exactly who I think it is. I got to feel smug after reading The Survivors, which is very satisfying. But! Despite knowing whodunit ahead of time, there were several times when I was genuinely surprised by a plot twist in this book. I love that too! Being surprised is awesome. Plus, even though I had guessed the outcome, my heart was still pounding in trepidation at several points throughout the book. 

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: Harper drops these little breadcrumbs along the way to allow you to solve the mystery… clues, I suppose you would call them, in a mystery book. But she also drops additional clues to mislead you. I love that part of it – that you can follow this clearly-marked path of clues straight to a red herring. She’s really good at it. But… in this case, I was a little frustrated because the red herring clues seemed to be ONLY a red herring. They didn’t serve their own purpose, and we didn’t get any reasonable explanation for their insertion into the story. That was a little disappointing. 

I also felt like there were so many opportunities to flesh out more of the characters that never came to fruition. This relates, in part, to what I just said about the red herring being only a red herring and nothing real. But it also relates to other characters. For instance, if you say, a couple times in fact, that Person A has such-and-such a personality defect, then I kind of want to see that borne out. 

And, finally – I will try to say this in a non-spoiler way, but perhaps hop on down to the next paragraph if you don’t want even a PARTIAL spoiler – we never really discover what happened at the end. We are left to draw some conclusions… but… I guess I want hard evidence. And if there’s no hard evidence, I want to know where it went. 

By the way, these criticisms in no way diluted my enjoyment of the book. I gobbled it up and cannot wait to read whatever Harper writes next.

Should You Read This Book? If you are a fan of solid, atmospheric writing and good old-fashioned mysteries with a nice dollop of family drama thrown in, you will like this book. I have no doubt. 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

photo from amazon.com

Marcus, one of the characters in this sweeping work of historical fiction, is doing graduate research on the convict leasing system that his grandfather took part in after being arrested in his youth. “The deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project got,” author Yaa Gyasi writes. Marcus grows overwhelmed by everything that it means to be black in the United States, by how impossible it is to explore one aspect of the black experience without delving into another: how can you touch on the convict leasing system without talking about the Great Migration, without talking about Harlem and heroin addiction, without talking about the racial disparity in drug arrests, without talking about the cruelty of the prison system, and on and on and on. 

It’s easy to imagine, at that late point in Homegoing, that perhaps Yaa Gyasi may have encountered a similar sense of overwhelm when she began work on this novel. That telling the story of one Ghanaian descendant was impossible without telling the stories of the people who came before or after her. That there is no single black experience; there is a sprawling spectrum radiating out in all directions. Her solution – a book of individual stories of people descended from two half-sisters – results in a book that is elegant and heartbreaking, deeply specific and intensely personal, while simultaneously far-reaching and massive. Her stories are grounded in the everyday… but they also ring with the kind of universal truth of allegory or fable.  

I am not qualified to do an in-depth literary analysis of this book, and that feels like doing it a disservice. Perhaps all my superficial little what-I-liked/what-I-didn’t-like reviews do all the books I cover a disservice; after all, every book is worth really looking at, really interrogating what the author has achieved. But I feel it more acutely here, because this book has such breadth and gravity. So I trust that you will look to other experts if you are looking for a more nuanced explication of this novel. This quick video of Yaa Gyasi discussing Homegoing might be a good starting place.

Mini Plot SummaryHomegoing follows two branches of the same family tree, beginning with two half-sisters, born in Ghana to the same mother but raised under wildly different circumstances in two opposing states: the Fante Confederacy and the Asante (Ashanti) Kingdom. Effia, the Fante sister, is sold to a white man, to be his wife; he is governor of the Cape Coast Castle, which held enslaved Africans before they were shipped to the Americas. Esi, the Asante sister, is captured by the Fante during a raid on her village and sold into enslavement. Each subsequent chapter follows a descendant of these two women, tracing seven generations from the mid-1700s to modern times.  

What I Liked About this Book: There is so much to love about Gyasi’s epic novel. I was captivated by the writing style, which is somehow simultaneously plain and straightforward while also being very beautiful. Her descriptive language made the stories – and their horrors – so vivid and lush. “The lattice of her clasped fingers.” “The rope around her wrists held her palms out in supplication.” “His legs and arms rippled, so that sweat flowing down them looked like cresting wave.” “…white smoke formed little roofs above the pipe’s bowl.” “[Her] skin was no longer skin really, more like the ghost of her past made seeable, physical.” “…the metronome of fear that keeps her heart’s drumbeat moving quickly.” But the language was also simple, enabling the events unfolding around each chapter to feel very real and present.

I also loved getting a snapshot the Fante and Asante people – their customs and disputes and their roles in the slave trade. It was fascinating and layered – to show a people’s complicity in the immediate and enduring enslavement of members of their own country, and to do so in an unwavering, forthright way, with also so much love and tenderness. I found it incredibly moving. 

The structure of the novel really worked for me, too. Each chapter is told from the perspective of some new character, known to the reader only through her relationship with that character’s ancestor, who featured in a previous chapter. I loved that Gyasi used the thread of the past to tie each of the stories together. She did it so skillfully that it took me several chapters to realize that this wasn’t a traditional narrative – that the scope was much larger. But it felt more intimate because of how narrowly each chapter zoomed-in on the characters’ lives and experiences. 

The structure of the book also lent itself well to showing fragments of what it means – what it has meant – to be black in the United States. It serves as a striking reminder of the horrors so many black people have endured – and continue to endure. And because the book focuses so narrowly on specific people, the reader can never forget that this is just a slice of one person’s life, one person’s experience – and that there is a huge array of experiences that we aren’t getting to glimpse.

The book’s structure also allowed for Gyasi to play with some recurring imagery and themes. Dreams and premonitions. The color grey. Fire and water. The power of love. The ever-present danger of being abducted, displaced, enslaved, or killed. These repetitions helped reinforce the feeling that these stories weren’t as separate as they may seem – that, instead, they are all stones on the same necklace. But they also added to the fable/fairy tale nature of the story-telling, which I loved. 

Fairy-tale, fable, parable: I came away feeling as though there was some message or takeaway hiding within each chapter, each character. The lessons themselves weren’t always clear to me – and I don’t think Gyasi was necessarily trying to tie things up in neat little packages the way fables do – although it was pleasing to try to tease them out. And sometimes Gyasi would toss in statements that had the weight and gravity of morals: “He was in the business of slavery, and sacrifices had to be made.” “Even the Northern Star was a hoax.” “We are all weak most of the time.” “Tell a lie long enough and it will turn to truth.” If I try to reduce the whole novel to one lesson, it might be that love lives on. Love of country, love of self. Parental love, romantic love. Love gives strength, love breaks hearts, love keeps people alive, it injures, it brings people together and keeps them apart. Love is not infallible: it makes grave errors of judgement, it cannot overcome poverty or racism, it can’t resolve slavery or addiction, it cannot bring people back from the dead. But even so, love it magical, it can transcend oceans and walk through fire. Each story, no matter how heartbreaking, had at least one element of love woven in.

Gyasi herself, in the video I linked above, says that one thing she hopes her readers come away with is a sense that there is no single black experience. There is no faceless mass. There are real individuals who have real individual experiences. She achieved that goal for me so well. Her characters are morally complicated, just trying to make the best choices, in the moment, for themselves and their families. Their experiences feel specific and vivid and real. Now, even days after finishing the book, many of the individual characters stay with me. I anticipate thinking about this book for a long, long time.

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: Can I say that what I didn’t like was that the book ended? That seems unfair. And yet… The book’s strength of structure is also, for me, its main weakness. Each story necessarily had to end. Each story could only contain so much. And when tackling a whole history of oppression and enslavement and prejudice, and trying to touch on multiple facets of the incredibly complex and wide-ranging black experience, as Gyasi does, it is impossible to fully scrutinize each generation’s triumphs and struggles. Some characters edged closer to feeling more like symbols (or folk heroes) than fully-fleshed people – never so much that I lost the enjoyment of the book or the language, but it was still noticeable. Honestly, I don’t know how you resolve that without giving each character his or her own entire novel. 

Should You Read This Book? This book came out in 2016, it won tons of awards, and I may be the last person on the planet to finally pick it up. But if you have not yet read it, you should, you should, you should. I found it to be beautiful and illuminating and full of strong, vivid characters and infused with so much love from the writer. You will not regret picking it up. 

Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan

Let me begin by saying that I cannot stand books about people who make poor choices – especially if they then compound those choices by continuing to make poor choices. That’s the main reason that I hated The Goldfinch so much (until the end, when it totally redeemed itself and became one of my all-time favorite books, but that is a different story). I don’t know why – maybe I want my fictional characters to be better than real people? – but it is. And the characters in Friends and Strangers make poor choices by the boatload. 

And yet I couldn’t put it down. 

Mini plot summary: Former journalist and writer Elisabeth is a new mother, living in a new city. She is struggling with resentment and frustration in pretty much all of her relationships – to her husband, her in-laws, her parents, her sister, even her best friend back in New York City. Sam is a senior at an elite all-girls college, working to pay her way through school. She has recently fallen in love with an older man who lives in London. Elisabeth hires Sam to watch her baby, Gil, three days a week, while she writes her next book, and a friendship blooms between the two women. This novel explores the time period during which Sam is Gil’s babysitter.

What I enjoyed about this novel: Wow, there was a lot to enjoy here. The writing is excellent. The character study of each protagonist is wonderful – thoughtful and loving and yet unsparing of the harsh truths the characters would rather not face about themselves. It was just a really well-written, well-crafted book.

The themes woven throughout this book were so well done. Visible threads but so elegantly embroidered into the plot that, in most cases, they didn’t seem particularly preachy or moralistic. The themes that stood out to me the most were:

  • Class differences – Okay, so if any of the themes feel a little heavy-handed, it’s this one. Class – the wealthy vs. the middle class vs. the working class vs. the working poor – and privilege underlie and underscore all the relationships in this novel. The way privilege can be invisible to you, and yet offer you so much opportunity, even if you aren’t aware of it. The way a person’s class can affect the way others see and relate to her. I appreciated how well this theme tied into the story, but there were definitely times when I felt like I was being talked at, rather than being swept along by the narrative.
  • Dishonesty – The lies we tell each other, the lies we tell ourselves. The lies we tell the people close to us, the lies we tell those we don’t know as well. How truth can be painful or unknowable. How honesty and lies can affect the people in our lives, and how they see us. This was my favorite theme, and the way it plays out in and among the various relationships was so enthralling.
  • How well we know one another – This ties right into the dishonesty theme, but this book is a lot about relationships, and how well the parties of a relationship really know each other. 
  • Age/Experience – Although I didn’t feel that the author really explored this theme in as in-depth a way as she did the others, there was certainly a thread throughout the book that teased the paradox of how age and experience can play such an important part in our choices – for better and for worse – and yet, in some ways, make no difference at all.
  • Motherhood – Elisabeth is a new mother; she spends a lot of time on message boards for other mothers; she has relationships with other mothers; she struggles with her own role as a mother; she has complex feelings about her own mother and mother-in-law. Sam is, in some ways, a second mother for Gil; she finds mother figures everywhere (in Elisabeth, in President Washington, in Maria, in her own mother, in George). I like how Sullivan touches on the joy of motherhood; its mundanities; its existential meaning, both to the mother and to the person being mothered. I love how motherhood isn’t a foregone conclusion for Sullivan or her characters – it’s never easy, and yet its joys and wonders are no less awe-inducing for the mothers she describes.

There were certainly other themes – marriage, sex, commercialism/consumerism/capitalism, the changing nature of friendships. But the above are the ones that I felt were most developed and resonated most with me.

The plot was… so good. Sam and her story, I think, made up the real emotional heart of this novel… But Elisabeth’s story was… wow. Perhaps because I am closer in age and circumstances (married, one child) to Elisabeth, I felt more invested in her story. But also she just… goes through a lot. Endures a lot. Inflicts a lot. I could not stop reading to find out what would happen next. I would definitely read another novel about what happens to Elisabeth after this story ends. 

Sullivan is also really good at coming up with statements that feel like… ground-breaking truths. I don’t know how else to put it. She’ll just write something that feels so undeniable, but so earth-shattering that I have to take a minute to sit with it. That’s the kind of thing I love about really good books – they feel like they are sharing the secrets of the universe. (I’m putting one here, even though it’s unlikely to strike you the same way… especially without the context of the book to give it weight.)

What I didn’t enjoy about this novel: Some of the choices these women made were abominable. I can’t get into it without major spoilers, but sheesh. I just feel so appalled and disgusted by some of the choices here. Sure, fictional characters should be complex and layered and deeply flawed, just like real people. And none of the actions the characters took seemed out of character or unearned. Plus the fact that the characters did what they did certainly made for absolutely gripping reading. So in that way, the thing I hate the most about this book is one of its biggest strengths. But… yuck. My skin crawls. 

Relatedly, the other thing I disliked is that I feel that maybe there was no redemption for some of the worst behavior. Again, true to life. But I wanted something more, something that indicated remorse or acknowledgment of the betrayals that went on here. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that we get a glimpse of Sam’s future – and through her eyes, an even slimmer glimpse at Elisabeth’s – but I wanted MORE. I wanted to know how the truth came out… or how it chiseled a hole in the character’s psyche… or forced her to become a better person because of it. 

Should you read this book? Oh yes. It is absorbing prose with complicated characters who do some truly wild things to one another and the people they love. I bet you won’t be able to put it down. 

The Heir Affair by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

Before I read the prequel to The Heir Affair (The Royal We), I would have said very firmly and definitively that I do not read romance novels. I read about The Royal We for YEARS on Go Fug Yourself, the authors’ blog, before I finally picked it up, because I was convinced that I am Not A Romance Reader. Well. What a good reminder that it’s rarely good to write off an entire category of things based on your reaction to infrequent/one/zero exposure to that category!

In fact, I’d say that these two novels have made me curious about the romance genre in general, and have given me the courage to dabble in more romance novels, should I find one that sounds promising. 

Another brief disclaimer: I wouldn’t say I care about the royals at all. I mean, I find history of the British monarchy pretty fascinating. And obviously I watch The Crown. And sure, I’ll read an article about what pointed statements the current Queen Elizabeth is making with her choice of jewelry. Okay, okay, and yes, I will admire and pine for hair like Duchess Kate all my life. But beyond that, I don’t really follow any of the royal news or have any feelings about royalty or know many royals outside of Kate and Will and Harry and Meghan, and, of course, Queen Elizabeth herself.

And yet despite my general disinterest, I ATE THIS STUFF UP. True, The Royal We and The Heir Affair are about an invented branch of the English crown. (And I did go read about how Heather and Jessica created a fictional dynasty – logistically fascinating.) But it’s kind of fun to get a fictional peek behind the curtain of the monarchy, at what shenanigans ensue both before and behind the public eye. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t write these books off just because they center both romance and royalty. They are EXCELLENT books, period. 

Well, not much reason to keep reading beyond that statement, is there? But just in case you want more all-caps hype about this book, I’ve provided some below.

Photo of a kindle version of The Heir Affair by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

This is not a review of The Royal We, because I read it a couple of years ago. But I wholeheartedly recommend The Royal We, and you really need to read it prior to reading its follow-up. 

Hmm. I seem to have worked myself into a corner of sorts, because I want you to read the books in order so I don’t want to give any spoilers. Let’s see how I do.

Mini plot summary: [Spoiler right out of the gate] Nick and Bex are married and must navigate life as the Duke and Duchess of Clarence while also reeling from the scandal that has rocked their relationship and their reputations. In the meantime, Bex discovers a family secret that has uncanny similarities to the uncomfortable situation she and Nick and Freddie find themselves in. 

What I enjoyed about this novel: First of all, the writing in both books is excellent. If you are a regular reader of Go Fug Yourself, you must already know that Heather and Jessica are good writers. They can craft compelling prose, they are fonts of arcane and cultural knowledge, they are hilarious. I have no idea how they have mastered writing as a team, but there is no distinction between one voice and another. At least, not that I have ever been able to tell. This all translates extremely well to their books. Seriously – they are SO funny. The repartee between the characters is delightful and genuine – nothing seems forced to get the punchline. Their writing on their blog doesn’t often (although not never) explore much of an emotional, The Heir Affair has so much emotional heft. Each character feels vivid and whole, and their emotional journeys are heartfelt and real. Whenever Bex suffered an emotional gut punch, I felt it – and found myself crying for her on multiple occasions. 

The plot in this book – as with that in The Royal We – is NOT as straightforward as it may seem. While they laid the groundwork for each little twist (nothing felt unrealistic or unearned), I was definitely surprised on more than one occasion. And the storyline is so interesting and the stakes are so high, I could not put it down. I read this in two days flat and immediately wished I could back and read both books again for the first time. 

All the supporting characters I came to know and love (or hate) in The Royal We return in The Heir Affair. Gaz is a particular favorite, and he gets mixed up in a fictional version of the Great British Bake Off which I loved (in part because I adore that show as well).

What I didn’t enjoy about this book: That it didn’t go on longer? That there’s no sequel to immediately consume? Okay, here’s a real – but very tiny and petty – complaint. Sometimes Bex – who is from Iowa – would use British slang that brought me out of the book. I mean, it makes sense! She’s lived in London since college! She would of course pick up and use the local vernacular! But it still caught me off guard every time. I wish I had a specific example. It’s not just using terms like “posh” that seem more British than American. It’s more like using phrases or expressions that are uniquely British – like if she were to say, “I’m going to pop off to the loo now.” I just don’t 100% buy that a home-grown Iowan would say that, even if she had been living in London for fifty years. I could be wrong! Like I said, this is a VERY PICKY thing to point out! Because there is nothing unenjoyable about this book!

Should you read this book? Oh my goodness, YES. It is top quality, first-class fiction. Plus, it has NOTHING TO DO with what’s going on in the world today, so it offers immersive escapism at its very best. 

Find and Replace

Here’s a writing tip for you: Never change your characters’ names. Settle on them early, and lock ‘em in. 

Tweet that says "I once named a novel character Will, then changed my mind a few chapters in and tried to change it to George or some such using "Find and Replace." Picture, if you George, the results.

In an episode of The Office (“The Client”), the staff are doing a read-through of Michael Scott’s screenplay, “Threat Level Midnight,” when they discover that, due to a find-and-replace error, the incompetent sidekick was based on Dwight.

That little moment in the episode combined with the tweet above and my own experience (why do I never learn????) lead me to believe that this is an issue most writers find themselves facing at one point or another. Believe me, it’s so much easier to NEVER CHANGE YOUR CHARACTERS’ NAMES. Because, inevitably, you are going to run into a situation like Michael did, where he misspelled Dwight’s name as Dwigt, which his find-and-replace command didn’t catch… or you’re going to run into a situation like I did recently, where I wanted to change a character’s name from Ed to something else and discovered that my computer cannot differentiate between Ed the name and basic past tense. 

Photo of a laptop on a desk, books behind it, purple polka dot mug beside it, open to a document with all the instances of "ed" in the text highlighted.

I suppose, if you have fickle naming tastes, or you haven’t fully settled on what to call a particular character, you could choose instead to start out with names that are highly unusual, like EggplantVonAlphabet or something that would never otherwise show up in your work. But if you gravitate to simpler, more traditional names, LOCK ‘EM IN WHEN YOU START.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

One of my favorite things about reading a book I don’t like is trying to parse WHY I don’t like it. Especially when a book is wildly popular, especially when I was nonetheless able to finish reading it. Books I can’t finish, I don’t really devote much thought to. I figure it wasn’t a good match, or it wasn’t the right season in my life for the book to resonate. But books I read and actively dislike – those are well worth dissecting my response. I mean, if I read a book cover to cover, that is a successful book, right? It compelled me to keep going. And yet I’m guessing that an author who hears someone read her book but didn’t like it wouldn’t feel very successful. (I know I wouldn’t.) So what it is about a book that is compelling enough to keep me engaged, keep me turning the pages, keep me picking the book up after I’ve set it down… when I have strong, negative feelings about it? 

My husband started reading I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid shortly after Christmas. When I finished my first book of the year, he suggested I read it, too. I read it in maybe three days – it was very quick and the writing style was propulsive. I had to know what was going to happen. But, as I’m sure my first paragraph makes clear, I didn’t like the book. (My husband, on the other hand, gives it four out of five stars.) 

Photo of book, "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" by Iain Reid

Mini plot summary: The novel opens with a couple in a car. Narrated by Jake’s girlfriend, who goes unnamed, the story has an eerie, nightmarish quality to it, with everything feeling ominous and slightly off-kilter. The narrator explores her relationship with Jake, and her ambivalence about continuing it… despite the fact that she is on her way to meet his parents for the first time. The meeting with Jake’s parents is unsettling, but what happens after they leave is even worse. 

What I enjoyed about this novel: The author, Iain Reid, is masterful when it comes to creating suspense. For a large portion of the novel, nothing substantive happens. For instance, a big chunk of the book takes place in the car, while Jake is driving to his parents’ house. And yet the author is able to evoke such a strong sensation of foreboding that it was impossible not to find out what happened next. Similarly, Reid was adept at making small, innocuous incidents – like the ringing of a phone or a visit to a chicken coop or a Band-Aid on someone’s forehead – into something deeply disturbing. I felt off balance and uncertain and unsettled throughout the book, which is exactly how you want to feel when reading horror. 

What I didn’t enjoy about this novel: This is a difficult novel to discuss without spoilers, but I’m going to try. I did not enjoy the climax of this book, the big reveal. Even though it was earned, in some ways – i.e. Reid hinted at the outcome throughout the earlier chapters, and you can go back and read it again and see that he left breadcrumbs along the way – it still felt unbelievable to me. And, worse, it felt like an easy choice. Rather than feeling inevitable and satisfying, like this particular ending was what the story was building to the entire time, it felt flat and uninspired. In my heart of hearts, I had hoped that there was something more interesting, more terrifying, more surprising than what it turned out to be. I closed the book and felt let down and annoyed and that I’d wasted my time. 

Also in the less-enjoyable category was the writing style. There was a lot of philosophizing in the book that felt a little heavy-handed to me… but also seemed wildly at odds with the simplistic nature of the prose. I’ve seen comparisons of Reid to Saramago, which is apt: as in Blindness, the prose is spare in such a way as to limit the scope of what the reader can see (or understand), but in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the technique seemed less skillfully deployed. Perhaps I feel that way because I’m not sure what to do with some of the things Reid’s lens did focus on: the Band-Aids on the father’s forehead; The Caller; the easel in the basement; the dead sheep; the skin on the Dairy Queen clerk’s arms; the man in the background of the photograph. These were vivid and memorable because they were specific and concrete in a book that was all about casting a veil of hazy implications and impressions and philosophical questions. But, even though some of these images/events were called back in the end, I am not sure what their real purpose was (other than to create a trail of breadcrumbs to prove the premise, which is what I think they were doing, although not particularly successfully, for me), or why they were important enough to highlight, and I find that irritating as a reader. 

As someone who wants to write novels, and therefore to have people read and like her novels, it’s hard for me to dislike a book. If he’s anything like me, Reid agonized over the writing of his novel. He chose each word purposefully and put hours and days and months and years of his time and energy and hope and love into his novel. To dislike the product of someone’s dream and devotion feels heartless and cruel. And yet that’s one of the beautiful things about books, right? That you and I can read the same book and come out of it with completely different experiences and feelings. That’s a beautiful thing. It’s part of what makes life such a rich tapestry. (You see all the trouble I am going to, here, to justify my negative opinion of this book?) (And of course I know my one small opinion doesn’t matter at all to the success of Reid’s book, which is so successful that it is already being adapted for film/TV.) 

Should you read this book?: Yes, if you like suspense, you probably should. It is certainly suspenseful. And you might find that you love all the things that I found wanting. At worst, it’s a quick read with a dramatic outcome. 

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

This was the first book I read in 2021 and it was really enjoyable: a good, twisty plot. Relatable/appealing characters with a unique perspective. Solid, approachable prose. It was a good start to the year of reading.

Mini plot summary: Four residents of a luxury retirement village in the British countryside meet each week to discuss murders. And then, to their delight, real-life murder lands right at their doorstep. Together with a pair of local detectives, they take the case – but then bodies begin to pile up. 

Why I enjoyed this book: Murder mysteries/detective fiction is probably my all-time favorite genre. And the two things I love most about the genre are contradictory: 1. I love when I can figure out whodunit before the book ends but 2. I also love it when I have absolutely no idea how the mystery will resolve. In truth, I only love each of these things when they are done well. If a mystery is poorly written and obvious from the beginning, that’s not enjoyable. Nor is it enjoyable when you get an out-of-nowhere resolution that feels unearned or unbelievable. But when a mystery is well-crafted, it can be so fun to pick out the little breadcrumb clues the author dropped along the way and feel triumphant when your suspicions prove correct… just as it can be completely delightful when an author keeps you guessing.

The Thursday Murder Club falls into the latter group for me. I was surprised and delighted by the outcome of this book. But that surprise felt earned, and the resolution made complete sense. 

I also enjoyed the protagonists of this book – four retirees who are facing the fact of their own mortality (and that of their loved ones) while finding joy in one another and in untangling a mystery. The characters weren’t fully fleshed out, but they felt real enough. And, for me, Osman wrote with a tenderness for his characters that I fully absorbed. He never shied away from the fact that aging, death, and grief were constant presences in his characters’ lives. I found myself sobbing through multiple passages because he was so adept and loving in his depiction of how his characters were handling the prospect of losing their vitality or saying goodbye to the people they loved. 

The overall tone of the book was pleasing to me as well. I’d compare it to something like Christie’s Miss Marple books or the Flavia de Luce novels. Light, humorous, with a poignant edge. 

What I didn’t enjoy about this book: Suicide is a prominent theme in this book. Well, perhaps prominent isn’t the exact word for it. But it was present, in a prominent and recurring way. And, while I understand the author’s choice to use it, it felt a little… easy, in its way. Reductive, perhaps. I found myself wondering, would this really be this person’s response to their circumstances?  

I also found one of the amateur detectives to be slightly off-putting in just how much access they had to information. Yes, the author tries to address this by giving that person a mysterious backstory… and the character is certainly charming… but the way they pulled strings felt almost as unsatisfying as having a deus-ex-machina introduced into the story. 

Despite these small qualms, I found the book immensely readable, compelling, and pleasurable. Every time I had to put it down, I wanted to pick it right back up. I am looking forward to the sequel.