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review 2018-11-13 19:58
The Witch Elm / Tana French
The Witch Elm - Tana French

Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life – he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

 

This book isn’t part of French’s Dublin Murder Squad books, so don’t go into it expecting that. She is still writing in the mystery genre, but no doubt feeling the urge to diversify a bit, and not be locked into just one series.

Having said that, Toby (the main character of this book) reminded me in several ways of Rob Ryan from the first DMS book, In the Woods. They both have dodgy memories and both start out each book seeming like happy-go-lucky guys. Ms. French doesn’t let them stay too settled, however. Toby’s kinda-sorta-close family ties also reminded me of Frank Mackey in DMS #3, Faithful Place. Frank, just like Toby, had to sort through family history and old memories to come to some sort of conclusion about the present.

How accurately do we remember the past? I think the general consensus is that we’re all revisionists. (As Stephen King wrote in Joyland, “When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.”) And how much more severe is that situation going to be when Toby has been severely head-injured? Actually, I really didn’t like the Toby of the first few pages and was wondering what had happened to one of my favourite writers! I usually really enjoy even French’s most annoying characters—so I was happily surprised that head-injured Toby was more much interesting and (to me) likeable.

I had a great big soft spot for Uncle Hugo as well. Having done genealogy myself, I loved that French made him a genealogical researcher (and a good one). I’ve got some Irish ancestors, who emigrated to Canada and kept raising money to bring more relatives over. I’ve got to find the time to learn more about them!

The Witch Elm also made me think of M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains, which I absolutely adored. I thought that Toby resembled Oliver Marks from that novel, particularly when it came to the book’s ending. A lovely messy ending, with only hints at how things will actually resolve when either Oliver or Toby emerge back into the world.

So, I maybe didn’t love The Witch Elm quite as much as the Dublin Murder Squad, but I still found it to be a book well worth reading. Ms. French, I am still a devotée.

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text 2018-11-08 17:59
Reading progress update: I've read 36 out of 464 pages.
The Witch Elm - Tana French

 

Is it wrong of me to like Toby better now, now that he's had the shit kicked out of him by burglars?

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text 2018-11-01 17:48
TBR Thursday
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - C.S. Lewis,Pauline Baynes
The Reader - Traci Chee
The Witch Elm - Tana French
Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean - Morten Strøksnes
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World - Stephen Brusatte

 

How many times have The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Reader appeared on my weekly TBR post?  But now I have added incentive for TVofDT, as it is part of a completed series and therefore qualifies for my First Festive Task.  Yay!

 

And of course, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is part of the Flat Book Society, which I am finally participating in for the first time. 

 

I'm also going to have to pay attention to Tana French's The Witch Elm, as there are 147 people on the library waiting list!!! 

 

Plus, who can resist the tale of two nutty Norwegians who decide to fish for Greenland sharks from a tiny rubber dingy?  Shark Drunk should be entertaining.

 

My book club meets on Friday, when we will be discussing Grave Mercy.  I am planning to bake this evening and I'm seriously considering making Orange Gingerbread.  Photos on Monday.  I also have Mexican food on the brain because of the Festive Tasks, so that will be factored into this week's grocery list.

 

I'm meeting a group of women friends for brunch on Sunday at a little bistro within walking distance of my home.  That may be worth a photo too.

 

Have a fun & festive weekend, folks!

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review 2018-10-30 17:20
A Great Standalone From Tana French
The Witch Elm - Tana French

Self-involved, narcissistic and oblivious Toby Hennessy receives a harsh come-uppance in Tana French’s newest novel, The Witch Elm.   This first-person narrative allows the reader to witness Toby’s transformation from an entitled jokester to a man shaken by events that cause him to question his morality and potential for cruelty.  Toby works in PR at an art gallery when he is not out drinking with his friends or cuddled up with his wonderfully perfect and adoring girlfriend. After a typical night at the pub, Toby is awakened to the sound of strangers in his flat.  When he surprises the burglars, Toby gets beaten so badly that he sustains a traumatic head injury that leaves him severely impaired.  His recovery leaves him ashamed of his new limitations, and he soon sinks into a drug-hazed depression.  His cousin suggests that Toby could use his medical leave to help their uncle, who is dying of cancer.  Toby accedes to the plan when his girlfriend agrees to accompany him to his Uncle Hugh’s house, a long-time family estate and the location of many childhood memories. Toby struggles to manage his physical and mental difficulties but finds comfort in a new routine in the familiar surroundings.  Their peace doesn’t last long, however.  A skull is discovered in a tree on the grounds during a family meeting, leading to a disruptive and extensive police investigation.  The evidence points to a potential murder that must have occurred during Toby’s adolescence, and he and other family members become the main suspects.  Toby tries to do a bit of sleuthing, but his inquiries reveal some disturbing things about himself that he may have never realized or just can’t remember. Toby begins to distrust his family and his version of past events, leading him to question motives and suspect shared secrets.  Tana French has an amazing ability to construct complete characters, making them so familiar with all their flaws and foibles. It is a testament to her talent that she can portray such an unlikeable character that believably evolves through her storytelling to become sympathetic. Much more than just an imaginative and well-plotted mystery, The Witch Elm is a study in the delusions brought about by privilege and entitlement.  The author explores the theme of luck-by birth or circumstance-and whether experiences and/or nature allow certain people to avoid difficulties that would plague others. She addresses how small choices and purposeful ignorance can lead to a crisis of self.  Fans of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series will be delighted to see her talents sustained and expanded in this exceptional standalone addition to her work.

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text SPOILER ALERT! 2018-10-30 16:42
Bloodsong Trilogy by Asa Drake (aka C. Dean Andersson)

I’ve always been an avid reader; a quiet moment to me means a chance to get a chapter or two in.  Back in the 80s while I was in the Marine Corps we had lots of down time on weekends, and thankfully a lot of Marines were into AD&D, so there was that.  Heck- once we even brought our books with us on a week-long field deployment so we could finish a module featuring a vampire named Strahd von Zarovich.  Good times.

 

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I always wonder how much this one would be worth without all my notes marking it up...[/caption]

 

One slow Saturday I went to the PX to find something to read.  I’m a longtime fantasy fan (who isn’t these days, but I’m old so I can stake my claim!) who loves a good hack-n-slash featuring a female protagonist.  Back in the 80s that type of novel was in woefully short supply.  That day I came across two titles that seemed to fit the bill: The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon (also a former Marine- Semper Fi!) & Werebeasts of Hel by Asa Drake (aka C. Dean Andersson- a former Airman, but I won’t hold that against him).

 

Now, as much as I tried to like Moon’s book, I couldn’t.  The titular character was female practically in name only- she was asexual to the point of almost becoming her defining trait and the story plodded along like a broke down mule in knee deep mud.  Even back then I understood the issues with female leads in SF/F and making her a fully-fleshed person with loves, hates, needs & desires would’ve been tricky at best, but it didn’t even seem like there was an effort made there.

 

Then I read Werebeasts of Hel.  

 

Even though it was the third book of the trilogy, there was enough backstory involved so it wasn’t hard to follow.  Most importantly, I was now dying to read the first two.

Built from Norse mythology & history and billed as the “Heavy Metal of Fantasy” by Publisher’s Weekly, all three books even featured cover art by Boris Vallejo!  In the 80s that was pretty much the Seal of Approval!

 

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Starting with Warrior Witch of Hel, the story arc centers upon a woman named Freyadis whose village was raided by the evil sorcerer, King Nidhug, who served Hel, Goddess of Death.   With her husband and infant son killed & her daughter Guthrun taken captive, Freyadis was subjected to various abuses, bound to a tree and left to die, her infant son’s corpse tied to her breast.  Never passing up an opportunity, Hel offered Freyadis a chance to return as an undead Hel warrior if she would pray to her as she died. 

 

Nidhug, of course, has betrayed Hel by stealing a relic of her power called the War Skull for his own ends.  After enduring even more of Nidhug’s depravities- including in gladiatorial combat- and finding her daughter in Helheim, Freyadis- now known as Bloodsong from her arena fights- is tasked by Hel to recover the War Skull and bring Nidhug down in exchange for freedom.  Must’ve been a Tuesday.

 

Along the way Bloodsong finds allies like Huld- an elf-blooded witch in service to Freya, Jalna- a slave unfortunate enough to catch Nidhug’s attention & Tyrulf- the warrior in Nidhug’s army who’s attracted to Jalna.  Bloodsong also has a very nasty surprise waiting for her when she reaches Nidhug’s fortress.

 

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The second book, Death Riders of Hel, picks up a few years later: Guthrun is discovered to be a witch and studies with Huld while Bloodsong and her friends have forged a life in the aftermath.  A new threat arises from Thokk- a Hel-witch determined to both finish what Nidhug started and convert Guthrun to the dark side.  Thanks to her mistress, Thokk has a way of striking at Bloodsong where it’ll hurt her the most.  Bloodsong forms an alliance with a tribe of shapeshifting berserkers and is willing to pay any price to save Guthrun from becoming a Hel-witch.  But will the lure of darkness be too great for Gudrun to overcome, especially when being lured by a familiar presence?

 

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Werebeasts of Hel takes place years later, but unfolds much the same way.  Years of peace after defeating Hel, life goes on, friends & lovers… then, BOOM!  Third time’s the charm, eh?  An old adversary returns to lead Hel's armies- one who knows Bloodsong's weaknesses and she's hard pressed to stand against him alone.  This time Odin himself provides a little divine assistance and Bloodsong has to forge an alliance with an altogether new breed of creatures to help stop Hel from conquering them all.

 

The best thing about these books is they are what they are.  Nothing fancy or elaborate- it's all straightforward, fast-paced, in-your-face adventure: here's the situation, now let's do something about it!  It’s a gloriously grim & gory Nordic hack-n-slash with good doses of horror and a few splashes of romance tossed in for variety.  This is a bleak, icy world teetering on the edge of apocalypse.  Death lurks around every turn, defeat is all but certain, friends are lost, sacrifices appear pointless and at times it takes all the heroes have just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

 

It’s fucking great!!!  My copies of these are lovingly well-worn for good reason.  I’m glad I found ebook copies to help save them even more wear and tear.

 

Now I’ll admit the omnibus edition doesn’t thrill me at all.  Though the alterations fleshed a lot of things out it was also watered down and a lot of things were added that just flat out confused me.  But it’ll probably do for you if you haven’t read the originals.  If you can find the originals or individual ebooks, get ‘em!  You won’t be sorry!

 

4.5/5 stars

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