Thanks to the publishers, Crime Wave, for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
This novel is a thriller that takes place within the domestic sphere and one of its unique features is that it is set (mostly) in Vietnam. The main character is a paediatric surgeon, Lily, whose family escaped to the United States when she was a child, and after studying Medicine decided to go back and work there. Although she is a successful professional, her personal life is not a happy one. Her husband, another doctor from a similar background to hers, has left her, and her youngest child, a little girl, suffers from a rare genetic condition, and she does not know how well she will develop. Tragedy strikes; the character seems unable to react rationally due to the pain and makes one disastrous decision after another. We all know that secrets have a way of coming back and biting us, and although Lily is quite lucky, not even she can escape the consequences of her actions, or can she? (I am trying not to reveal any spoilers).
The novel is told, in the first-person, from the point of view of Lily, and as was the case with a recent novel in the same/similar genre I read and reviewed, that might be a problem for some of the readers. It is impossible not to empathise with Lily, and although some of her reactions are bizarre, the author is very good at getting us inside her head and making us understand her disturbed mental state. Perhaps we think we would never do something like that, but we can understand why she does. Personally, I did not sympathise with her (or even like her very much) and at times felt very frustrated with her. I had to agree when one of the other characters told her that she was selfish, blind to other’s needs, and she never thought of anybody else. This is all the more evident considering her privileged existence in contrast to that of the general population, and how much of what happens is a direct result of her actions and her decisions, whilst others are victims of the circumstances with no options to escape. She seems to realise this towards the end, when even her son is more together than her, but all that notwithstanding, the action of the novel is gripping, and it is impossible not to feel curious about what will happen next and wonder if fate and karma will finally catch up with her.
The novel moves at a reasonable pace, at times we seems to be reading a standard domestic drama (about child-rearing and the relationship with her new husband), whilst at others it is an almost pure thriller, and we have blackmailers, red herrings, betrayals, and plenty of suspects. I think those two elements are well-combined and are likely to appeal to fans of both genres, although those who love hard thrillers might take issue with the amount of suspension of disbelief required to accept some of the events in the novel.
The ending is fairly open. Some questions (perhaps the main one) are resolved, but some others are not, and this might be frustrating for readers who prefer everything to be tied up in the end. There is a hint of some insight and growth in the character, but perhaps not enough considering the hard lessons she’s gone through.
There is some violence (although not extreme), serious issues are hinted at (domestic violence, poverty, bullying), and I particularly liked the realistic setting, and the way it depicts Vietnam, Hanoi and Saigon, the big social differences, and the expat scene.
In sum, a blend of psychological (noir) thriller with domestic drama, intriguing and heart-breaking at times, which takes place in an unusual and fascinating setting, recommended to those who don’t mind first-person narration and slightly open endings and who prefer their thrillers with more drama and less emphasis on procedural accuracy.
I gobbled up The Figure in the Shadows in one sitting. This could lead you to believe that I thoroughly enjoyed it but really it was super short coming in at 160 pages with quite a few of Mercer Mayer's illustrations sprinkled throughout adding to that number. The plot of this installment revolves around an amulet which Lewis acquires and which seems to hold a 'spirit' of some kind which he has awakened and which turns out to be rather malevolent. (If you think this sounds similar to the first book you're not alone.) Once again, he keeps this a secret from his uncle and the witchy neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman, next door. Instead he shares his discovery with his new friend, Rose Rita, who is virtually Lewis's opposite in every conceivable way. I will say that Lewis is a unique character in that he's not brave, overly intelligent (although a voracious reader), good looking, talented (described as quite fat), or particularly good-natured (in fact he's rather whiny and prone to childish fits of anger). He doesn't fit the prescribed parameters of a typical protagonist. He's bullied and anxious about the possibility of even being bullied or 'bawled out' by adults. (I was nervous about the latter through my adolescence as well so in that regard I can relate.) Magic + mystery + misadventure = the plot 5/10
|Mercer Mayer's work (Edited as original post credited Edward Gorey.) [Source: Pinterest]|
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The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs is the first in a series which (mainly) revolve around a boy named Lewis Barnavelt and his adventures living with his uncle who is a magician. I originally searched this book out because I saw the trailer for the upcoming film and got that familiar itch of "I must go to there". Then I found out that Edward Gorey was the illustrator and that clinched the deal. Bellairs blends mystery and magic to tell the story of a lonely little boy who is suddenly orphaned and thrust into the custody of a man he has never met before. Uncle Jonathan is unlike any person that Lewis has ever known and that's not only because he's a magician. Uncle Jonathan's house (a character in its own right) contains a mystery that all starts with the man who originally owned the property and who was himself a magician...a dark wizard in fact. With the combined forces of Uncle Jonathan and their neighbor (and witchy friend) Mrs. Zimmerman they begin a desperate search for the source of a mysterious ticking inside the walls of their house because they are certain it was magicked their by the original owner who no doubt created it with nefarious intentions. Our main character, Lewis, is at the same time struggling to fit in at his new school and while trying to impress his new friend he finds himself going against his uncle's wishes and trying a little magic of his own. Surely nothing could go wrong... This was a strong start to a series which began in 1973 and ran until 2008. [A/N: Books 4-6 were written after the death of John Bellairs from outlines and notes he left behind. The remainder were written entirely by Brad Strickland.] This book was a solid 8/10 but (as a heads up) I'll be reviewing 2 & 3 in the not too distant future and they didn't quite live up to this first book.
Check out the trailer which initially piqued my interest: The House with a Clock in its Walls.
|One of the Edward Gorey illustrations from inside the book. [Source: Pinterest]|
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