The Woman in Cabin 10 – Ruth Ware

★★★☆☆

I hadn’t heard great things about this novel, but when I picked it up in the used bookstore, the first page or two read well. Lo (Laura) wakes up to a burglar in her house, and she fights him off (basically) and she goes to the police. The police say that statistically, most burglars will break into your place more than once.

Okay!

So I’m on my toes waiting for this bad guy to come back, but Lo goes on a work cruise and the bad guy isn’t waiting for her there, ready to tie the story together, so I’m already wondering where this story is going.

But she does sort of witness a murder on the cruise, and because she’s still freaked out by the burglary, nobody believes her. That’s all the burglary was there for: credibility reduction.

What I did like about this book was the author’s use of description: the way she described the burglar at the beginning by saying (paraphrased) “that’s how I described him to the police” (which let us know not only what she saw, but provided foreshadowing). And when she got to the cruise and they’re assigning her to her cabin — you think, “she’ll be in cabin 10, surely” but no, she’s not. And you look at the book title at the top of the page, and it makes you a little nervous. Like … who’s in cabin 10 and what’s her deal?

I also liked the author’s placement of emails — but it would have been more effective if she’d labeled the chapters with the date, because I didn’t realize at first that the emails were from a few days in the future.

What I didn’t like started pretty soon after Lo wakes up hearing a murder going on. I mean, of course that’s what she’s hearing. I didn’t like Lo. She’s mean to just about everyone (including her boyfriend, who she leaves on very uncertain terms, but claims to love). Maybe she doesn’t have the built-in niceties I’ve noticed in almost everyone I encounter — you know, that voice inside that reminds you you’re in polite company and to maybe temper your response before you spit it at someone. If I’d been on the cruise with her and she behaved the way she did, I wouldn’t have believed her either and I would have avoided her. I wished I could, but because it was a book, I was tethered to this woman to the bitter end. (That’s not a spoiler, I mean the end of the book.)

As a person who’s dealt with anxiety and some PTSD, I know it can make you a little tweaked sometimes, so I tried to be patient with her. She’s just flying off the handle because she’s been hurt in the past and this is how she deals. Fine. But the plot just drags for a little while. Nobody believes her for about a fourth of the book, and that’s really all that happens. She doesn’t do cruise activities or work stuff (even though she’s there for work), and the other characters are basically cardboard cutouts. And then! It looks like the climax starts about a third from the end, and I’m fanning the remaining pages thinking what could possibly take so long?

But it did take so long. It wasn’t nail-biting, I stopped caring what was going to happen. For me, this book was good enough to finish, but it’ll go back to the used bookstore.


Dark Museum is now available on Amazon

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More than This – Patrick Ness

★★★☆☆

Seth drowns and wakes up alone in an abandoned city, or the weirdest afterlife I’ve ever imagined.

Coming from a religious background myself, the idea of an afterlife is a) ever-present and b) a total mystery (and well-worth imagining). While it seems like Seth might be in Hell, it’s not explicit. For the first 40% of the book, he’s alone (except for the occasional animal, which may or may not be in his imagination), and I’ve never been so engrossed in a book in recent memory. 

The idea of exploring an abandoned city, totally alone, is something I think about all the time. Sometimes when I’m out and the city is crowded, I imagine what I might do if everyone disappeared. Where would I go in my own peaceful time? Would I take things from the stores (because no one’s coming back, it wouldn’t be stealing), or go into the employees only section of a museum and have a private look around, or just lie in the grass and listen to the birds? It’s a lovely dream.

This book took that idea and let me luxuriate in someone else’s imagination. Yeah, I mean, if everyone disappeared, eventually all the food would rot, and the electricity place would stop working, so it was nice to have someone else take the reins. But just like a peaceful moment alone, all that was ruined when other people showed up.

It’s hard to talk about what happens next that won’t ruin the rest of the book, should you choose to read it, but I will say it reminded me too much of The Matrix, and that’s basically all I could think about until the last word. It was fine. The added characters were stereotypical and annoying, and really, I preferred to be alone.

5 stars for the first half of the book, 2 stars for the last half.

Flash Forward Podcast

★★★☆☆

Flash Forward takes an idea we have for the future (food pills, a world without bees, California becoming its own country, etc) and explores the plausibility of it. I love the idea of imagining futuristic scenarios (who doesn’t want an animal translator?), but some of the episode topics aren’t my cup of tea (a super computer that creates the ultimate religion).

Most of the episodes are great “info-tainment”, and it gives me good memories of the bleak, but wonderful year of 2016 when I started listening to the show and used it as a way to calm down. I’d just moved to a new country (Scotland! It’s so nice!), but my husband hadn’t joined me yet, and my own baby oven said, “since you’re not growing something in here, I will,” and it was tumors. This podcast, among others, gave me something to focus on and look forward to when I didn’t want to be in my own body anymore. 

Because of its speculative and science-y nature, I would compare Flash Forward to Science VS (which explores how scientifically accurate a certain idea is – like if essential oils really do what they claim) or Imaginary Worlds (which takes sci-fi/fantasy ideas in fiction and analyses why our brains accept something that’s clearly not true).

Overall, I like this podcast and I recommend it.

You can listen to Flash Forward on their website, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts.

Cecile and Marie Grace by Denise Lewis Patrick and Sarah Masters Buckley

★★★☆☆

Cecile and Marie-Grace are ten year old girls in New Orleans, 1853 — the year of the big yellow fever outbreak. The girls pull together to help where they can and build a friendship at the same time.

The story itself is fine. I don’t have any beef with the characters (except that they’re almost never together). Switching their perspectives from book to book shows the reader what life was like for a white girl and a free person of color. I didn’t honestly see much of a difference, except for some pretty hard segregation. I’m sure there was more to it than that, and it would have been interesting to learn about. It was interesting to see how primitive their knowledge of medicine and disease were in 1853. If this were just a book for middle-grade kids to read to make history fun, I’d move on and probably never thing about this series again.

But it’s by American Girl.

The characters are supposed to be so vibrant and beautiful, I’m gonna want to want to part with all my money to buy their entire collection in 1/3 scale.

Trust me, I do want to buy their collections. I’ve already got Cecile under my Christmas tree.

I didn’t feel it from the books. Not only did I not feel compelled to buy the whole collection, the descriptions in the book barely made me want to look at it. Don’t get me wrong, the dolls and accessories they released alongside the book series was gorgeous, and I always wondered why it sold so poorly they pulled the characters in only three years.

A few theories:

  1. The illustrations.
    My god. It’s the first thing you see when you pick up the book, and they’re not only supposed to get you hyped about buying THAT DRESS, but also
    to pull you into the world of the story. The illustrations are what made me love Pleasant Company/American Girl in the first place. Come on, Felicity sitting on the rooftop eating an apple? Molly getting sprayed with the hose in her hula costume? Kirsten and Singing Bird? They were charming and magical and captured me.
    But with Cecile and Marie-Grace, the illustrations showed poor connection from character to character (often with no one really making eye contact), in scenes so vague I can’t recall what was going on in any of them.

    Since the stories overlap with the two girls switching POV, there are duplicate illustrations too.
    This is especially upsetting because I looked up the artist, Christine Kornacki, and her work is gorgeous. She really does seem like a shoe-in for American Girl illustrations but … what happened? And you’re gonna see the vignette of that bird like five times.
  2. The descriptions.
    Remember, these books are supposed to sell toys — much like Saturday morning cartoons. Even as an adult who apparently has more important things to do than add to a doll collection, when I read Kit’s series earlier this year (largely unfamiliar with her collection), the author described not only what the character was wearing, but how she felt about it. How she felt about how her room was decorated. The descriptions plus the lovely illustrations made me dive into the back catalogue where I was thrilled to see things I recognized from the books.
    With Cecile and Marie-Grace, it wasn’t like that. Ok, Cecile has a desk where she wrote letters to her brother while he was still in Paris — the desk is gorgeous (I bought it), but it wasn’t in the books anywhere (or maybe a cursory “Cecile sat at her desk”). They have a plate of beignets, beds with mosquito netting, a banquet table, and a table and chairs for the courtyard. I mean, it’s all gorgeous, but it’s not in the book. And I understand that the dolls’ run was cut short, but some of the dresses in the (few) illustrations weren’t even manufactured.

Don’t get me wrong: nostalgia plays a huge part in the enjoyment of these books. I love re-reading about Felicity, Molly, and Kirsten the most because I devoured them when I was a kid. But as an adult when I read about Kaya and Kit and Josefina and Julie, they all felt like I’d always known those characters and those stories even though it was my first read through. That’s so special.

But in saying that, Cecile and Marie-Grace’s series would have fared much better as a continuous novel instead of six books. Dividing it up gives the reader hope that the next book will be different, but they act like episodes in a show — and it got monotonous. In previous series, each book focused on one aspect of the character’s life (school, holidays, summer vacation, etc). If the company had released the characters when they did the Beforever rebrand (where the 6 book series is mushed into two books, and the story reads like one big novel), without the illustrations, the collection might have done better. They went out on a limb to try something different (they’ve never paired two girls before — always focused on one), and it didn’t work.

If you have a middle-grade kid who wants to learn a little about the olden days and yellow fever, and meet some decent characters, this would be a good series for them. For the adult collector who misses Pleasant Company, you could probably skip it.

Lightness by Catherine Meurisse

★★★☆☆

Lightness follows one of the survivors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and how she learns to see beauty again.

I had to read this book in small doses because of the subject matte’s gravity. While the “plot” of the book can be summed up tidily, the author pulls us into her head by showing how faulty her memory had become after the attack and by tying her past to her present. She sees the attack everywhere she goes, from the police escort that follows her in Paris, to the statues in Rome, to paintings in the Louvre. She sees her dead colleagues when she experiences things they would have enjoyed.

When the attack happened, I was working at a French salon in New York. Everyone was glued to their phones in horror as the news came through (and then again at the end of the year when the Bataclan was attacked). For me as an author, I thought about what it meant that a group of cartoonists were murdered — sure, I didn’t write the same kinds of things they did, but surely I was objectionable to someone. And even if what is written really is offensive (my boss at the salon bought the first issue Charlie Hebdo released after the attack, and when he showed it to his clients, there were a few cartoons he refused to translate because “that one’s really bad”), do they deserve to die for it? And I have to admit, I was swept up in the “Je Sui Charlie” hashtag along with my writing community, because of course, that answer is NO.

The style of this book reminded me of Guy Delisle’s travel graphic novels. Story-wise, there’s not much to them, but through the eyes of the narrator, you see a place you might never go yourself — and in the case of Lightness, feel something you (hopefully) will never feel.