Book review: The Woman in the Woods by John Connolly (Charlie Parker #16)

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I’m afraid that this is going to a rather dull book review. There are only so many variations on “It’s a really good book” before it all becomes trite and pedantic. So, suffice it to say that John Connolly’s sixteenth Charlie Parker mystery, The Woman in the Woods, is a great read, full of his customary good writing, interesting characters and nefarious goings-on.

The Woman in the Woods sees PI and avenging angel (metaphorically if not literally, but let’s see) Charlie Parker try to solve the mystery behind the body of a woman found in the Maine woods as a favour to his lawyer. In the process of discovering her identity, Parker discovers someone else – a man named Quayle, eager to put together a map that may or may not end the world…

For the first couple of novels, Connolly’s Parker series was more or less straightforward thriller fair with some mystery elements slithering around in the woodwork. But as the novels have progressed, the mystery has become more pronounced, and nowadays Parker’s sleuthing typically uncovers things that go bump in the night. I always thought The Black Angel was the first hinge – it was a decisive step away from genre fiction playing coy, to something spookier. The Woman in the Woods (and perhaps its predecessor, A Game of Ghosts) is another such hinge, and I’m really interested to see where Connolly will take (and end) the series.

Prior to its release, Connolly released a few paragraphs of the novel in response to the growing white nationalism in the United States (a white nationalist forms part of the subplot and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of his character at some point), so the novel feels pretty contemporary. I also noticed that parts of the novel feel like Connolly apologising for his previous lackluster treatment of female characters, by way of Parker acknowledging just how shitty men can be towards women. Which is great, but I hope it will be followed up by some sort of female character who isn’t a romantic interest or a bit player.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Woman in the Woods
Author: John Connolly
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (2018)
Rating: 5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.59/5)
The best feature of the book: The main cast of characters, as usual. The Fulcis as comic relief.
The worst feature of the book: I’d like more spooky details, but that’s just me. Also, the whole “when a woman is a mother” thing. The problem with treating motherhood as such a virtue is that it easily becomes women’s only saving grace. No.
Trigger warnings: Murder, torture, belated Catholicism.
You’ll like this if… You’re a fan of mysteries, thrillers, detective novels, banter, or tall black assassins who set racists’ cars on fire.

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Douglas Adams wrote that the knack to flying is aiming for the ground and missing. The knack to finding a good book is aiming for the bad ones and missing.

The enduring mystery of secondhand bookstores

 

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Buying books is great, period. The ruffle of new pages and fresh ink. The creak of an untested spine. The velvety texture of untouched paper. The intrigue of an undiscovered world only hinted at in the blurb on the back. The hush of the store, usually an oasis of calm in a sea of shopping centre din. The weight and feel of a book about to become your own.

If buying new books is an adventure, then buying old ones is a mystery. The dusty air and narrow corridors of your typical secondhand bookshop lend itself well to an atmosphere of the unknown, the puzzling and the uncanny. Books, once new, now curl and rustle with age. Their smell sours. Their covers are tarnished with dirt, their once glossy titles pitted and scratched. Their pages are dog-eared, sometimes scribbled on, often thickened with the spill of some unidentifiable liquid. Names and dates adore title pages. The book’s spine has been cracked, once, twice; pages threaten to spill out and seek solitary solace.

The books themselves can be any and often every genre; a secondhand bookshop does not discriminate. Bestsellers share shelf space with obscure titles. Westerns and YA lit regard each other uneasily from across the room. Classics leer at Danielle Steeles. The surplus Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer novels prove that even as forgiving a market as the book market has its limits.

Yet the books themselves aren’t the end of the mystery. Their histories are an intrigue on their own. Where, one wonders of the Afrikaans poetry volume warped with green-tinted water, did you sit before you came to my shaky little bookcase? And you, William Golding volume, practically unopened and probably never read – who were you an unwanted Christmas present from?

Sometimes the books will share some of their secrets, yet these only deepen the mystery rather than resolving them. Old letters, cards, newspaper clippings, donation slips, brochures, even photographs will often tumble from an old book’s pages. Proving, perhaps, that readers are an inventive sort: anything can be used as a bookmark. Some of the secrets shared are lively. A book about prayer hinted at a woman’s early history, from her beginnings as an eager student enthusiastically involved in church activities, to her stint in the military and her marriage (dutifully reported in the local paper, the clip laminated and saved).

Other secrets are not as happy. I remember a book lovingly inscribed to a husband. It was filled with various birthday and Valentine’s Day cards and other romantic notes. In one, the wife thanks him for an exercise machine he bought her. Her handwriting is big and bubbly, with hearts dotting her i’s. Where are these spouses now, that such a large chunk of their relationship could be abandoned in the annals of a secondhand bookshop?

Not inappropriately, secondhand bookshops are filled with a thousand stories. The march of old children’s novels and academic textbooks tell their tales of growing up, the fantasies changing from knighthood and solving mysteries to more practical subjects like computer engineering and mathematics. The diet and exercise books are always either over or underused. Recipe books often come splattered with a sampling of the recipes they contain, their spines beholden to a family’s favourites. There are gardening books for all seasons; history books too historic; outdated travel guides to other places: Europe and Asia and the Cape. Foreign languages languish without someone to keep learning them. And the religious section – filled with shelves and shelves of daily devotionals, old hymnals falling apart at the seams, their songs now unsung, and small inspirational hardcovers that, if their sheer number is any indication, failed to inspire.

People may wonder how I could spend hours browsing a used bookstore. It smells funny, they may say, and they’d be right. It’s too dirty, they may point out, and I wouldn’t argue. But while my hands become sticky with the grit of books who’ve lived real lives before I met them, I’m also thinking about the person (“M de Jager”) who donated their entire Anne Rice collection to our SPCA’s charity bookshop. The novels are old, unglamorous paperbacks with yellowing pages and thick, outdated typeset almost as cheesy as their content. What, I wonder, happened between this person and Anne Rice’s vampires? Was the breakup sudden, or was it a long time coming? What replaced these books, if anything?

But as I turn Interview with the Vampire over in my hands, most of all I wonder this: where oh where will I find space for all these books in my house? It remains the deepest mystery of all.

 

Book review: How to Stop Time, Matt Haig

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I feel kind of proud of myself that I got around to reading a bestseller while it’s still a bestseller and not years after the fact. I’m not going to lie, the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch will be starring as protagonist Tom Hazard in the film adaptation prioritised this book’s position in the “to read” pile. His production company was confident enough about the novel that they bought the film rights before it was even published, so it had that to commend it.

And what do you know, it really is a good book. I was a tad ambivalent about Haig after Reasons to Stay Alive (still don’t know why, don’t @ me), but How To Stop Time was such an effortlessly good read that it’s almost criminal. For all its depth of character and theme, Haig keeps it simple, poignant and promising, and I won’t lie, there were some wet eyes near the end.

How to Stop Time follows the story of Tom Hazard, a man who suffers from a rare condition which causes him to age more slowly than other people. The love of his life has been dead for centuries, and the only thing that keeps him going is his search for his daughter Marion, who has the same condition he has. The book jumps between the present and the past, sketching in the details of his life and the historical people he’s met, and the loneliness of being lost in time.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: How to Stop Time
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Canongate Books (2017).
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.14/5)
The best feature of the book: Haig has a talent for keeping his protagonist very human despite his odd condition.
The worst feature of the book: I’m tempted to say “more historical detail” but that probably would have slowed it down.
Trigger warnings: None that I can think of.
You’ll like this if… This is a tough one. The novel has fantasy elements but it’s not fantasy. It’s thrilling but hardly a thriller. If you like “the pain and beauty of life” kinds of stories, you’ll love this.

Book review: Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig

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Mention of Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive kept flitting across my Twitter timeline, so I picked it up to read earlier this year. It’s a memoir of sorts of the author’s struggle with anxiety and depression over the years. But it’s also a letter to his younger self, to the “present tense” of his darkest mental health years (and anyone who has ever had depression and/or anxiety as their present tense). It’s a quick read, human and empathetic, and I don’t regret reading it.

I found a lot to relate to. At one point he describes depression this way:

Depression, for me, wasn’t a dulling but a sharpening, and intensifying, as though I had been living my life in a shell and now the shell wasn’t there. It was total exposure. A red-raw, naked mind. A skinned personality. A brain in a jar full of acid that is experience.

I especially like that last bit, because depression is a lot like being pickled in your own brain juice, unable to escape. Still, I wasn’t mad about the book as a whole. Perhaps it’s because my depressive episodes are generally sans anxiety. But there’s a deeper disconnect there, one that I can’t quite put my finger on. I like his writing, so it’s not that. He seems like an okay dude, so it’s not that either. I don’t know why (which is super annoying), but there’s a barrier between this book and my whole-hearted approval when by all accounts I should have loved it.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Reasons to Stay Alive
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Canongate Books (2015).
Rating: 3.5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.18/5)
The best feature of the book: It offers an honest, hopeful look at mental health issues.
The worst feature of the book: It errs on the glib, although I think maybe that’s just Haig’s writing style.
Trigger warnings: It speaks frankly about depression and anxiety.
You’ll like this if… You’re into memoirs or have ever struggled with mental health.