Happy Halloween! In honor of the spooky season, here are three haunting books I’ve read recently. (Figuratively haunting; none of the plots are truly paranormal.)
The Witch Elm (UK title: The Wych Elm) by Tana French
You knew this book was going to head the list, didn’t you? I’ve been jabbering on to anyone who will listen about French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels (including at last weekend’s Halloween party, where someone confessed he wasn’t on board, WHAT? It’s OK, we can still be friends…).
The Witch Elm is her first standalone novel, and when I started it, I’ll admit to being worried. In the first half, it seemed like it stepped out of the crime genre a bit too far for my expectations. But soon, the plot got going and the immersion in the main character’s psyche hooked me.
The book centers on the question of what it means to be “lucky.” And what happens when you aren’t lucky (we could also put here, “privileged”) any longer. I don’t want to spoil anything (I’d say you shouldn’t even read the Goodreads interview with the author) so I’ll leave this really vague. Just go read the book.
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
Hawkins wrote the blockbuster novel The Girl on the Train, later made into a movie with Emily Blunt. That book was a domestic suspense novel with an unreliable, alcoholic narrator. When Into the Water came out, I read a bunch of lukewarm-to-bad reviews that said it didn’t measure up to to the first, so I didn’t buy the book right away.
But, as usual, I shouldn’t rely on reviews other than for content expectations. I really liked it!
Into the Water goes deep into local myth about a pool in the UK where, historically, women were once tried by drowning—if she floats, she’s not a witch—and where, more recently, local suicides have drowned themselves. A woman who had once lived in the nearby village has to come back to take guardianship of her niece after her long-estranged sister dies in the pool. It has a past-present narrative that I loved, with lots of different point of view chapters from minor characters, and, while I guessed the ending a bit earlier than I usually like, it was still worth the read all the way through.
The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager
And since I just said I don’t think that reviews have that much to do with whether I’ll like a book or not, here’s a book I didn’t love but you might! Goodreads has given it 4 stars, with a lot of the reviews stating that they preferred it to Sager’s first book, and I heard it’s been picked up for a TV series.
In my Goodreads Challenge blog post earlier this year, I wrote about The Final Girls, Sager’s first novel, which I gobbled up in a day or so. I liked that one so much I spent a whole Audible credit on the new book when it came out. Well, maybe I should have read it on my Kindle instead. Maybe it was the audiobook format that didn’t work for me. It had all the usual things I generally like—a creepy situation (teenage girls go missing from summer camp), another past-present narrative, a seemingly unreliable narrator—but somehow I was just finishing it because, goddamnit, I only get one “free” Audible credit a month (yes, I realize I actually pay for those credits). I’d say, give this one a try if you’re in the mood for something creepy. But go get French’s and Hawkins’ books first.
What have you been reading? Anything deliciously creepy?
This past week, my friend Jasmine Silvera released the second book in her Grace Bloods series, Dancer’s Flame. I've known Jasmine since she was in Prague writing her first book (and, um, actually I’m officially the first book’s godmother and so kind of invested in this…) and I'm thrilled to see her universe, set in a dystopian future Prague, come to life in a second volume. The story centers on Isela Vogel, a dancer who can call on gods through the power of dance and her relationship with the city’s most powerful necromancer, Azrael.
Jasmine did a great job showcasing the city, but often when I pick up a book about a place I know well, I worry if my own experiences are going to take away from my enjoyment of the setting. For example, my own familiarity with Prague makes me hypervigilant to the details, but it’s really not fair to expect an author to always put every cobblestone in the right place. For most books, it's more about catching the spirit of a location and emphasizing only the details that evoke the sensation of being there.