Into the Water – By Paula Hawkins

Into the WaterRating:

Synopsis2 A single mother turns up dead at the bottom of the river that runs through town. Earlier in the summer, a vulnerable teenage girl met the same fate. They are not the first women lost to these dark waters, but their deaths disturb the river and its history, dredging up secrets long submerged.

Left behind is a lonely fifteen-year-old girl. Parentless and friendless, she now finds herself in the care of her mother’s sister, a fearful stranger who has been dragged back to the place she deliberately ran from—a place to which she vowed she’d never return.

With the same propulsive writing and acute understanding of human instincts that captivated millions of readers around the world in her explosive debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins delivers an urgent, twisting, deeply satisfying read that hinges on the deceptiveness of emotion and memory, as well as the devastating ways that the past can reach a long arm into the present.

Beware a calm surface—you never know what lies beneath.

My reviewPaula Hawkins’ second book, relies a lot on the history of the small town forming the story’s setting for the haunting feeling that permeates throughout the book. This, along with almost a dozen narrators, is what provides the book with much of the smokescreen for what ultimately is a fairly simplistic resolution to the murder mystery.

Getting into the story does take some time, especially with so many narrators. It did throw me off a bit because I am not used to reading multi-PoVs that are more than 3 or 4. But with each narrator came a small but significant chunk of jigsaw pieces to the main puzzle at the heart of the plot and I am just glad that I actually caught onto and remembered all the minute details. Into the Water had what, in my opinion, makes the best kind of whodunits – where you guess the answers to some of the “smaller” questions based on what the author feeds you but are still stumped by the final revelation.

I loved the The Girl on the Train and I guess it is natural to have high expectations from the authors’ second books after their fab debuts. Into the Water is no TGotT – I felt the latter was definitely more character-driven with an alcoholic as the primary unreliable narrator. However, with Into the Water, I just felt that the large number of narrators somehow ended up inhibiting the author from actually devoting time to SHOWING how the people in the community felt about or got along with each other before and after the two successive deaths in their town. One of the main characters, Jules, who is actually the first narrator and who being one of the dead women’s sister, is at the heart of plot, didn’t make any impression on me at all. This was despite all the flashbacks we get about Jules and her sister in their teens. I actually found the backstory through the flashbacks more powerful and somehow connected with the younger Jules more than the present-day one – despite her transformation from someone who was ambivalent about her sister’s story or her niece’s emotional well-being to someone who finally starts making an effort. I connected more with her niece Lena’s frustration at her aunt and everyone around her who were trying to “meddle” into her mom’s and best friend’s deaths instead of believing her convictions that they were suicides.

The book has a dark, unhappy cloud shrouding it the whole time, but you don’t have any time to dwell on any particular mood because of all the frequent narrator changes. Though that is a good thing in terms of keeping the pace of the novel from dropping, the flipside of it was that some of the emotional moments didn’t make much of an impact on me. There were deaths, families grieving, a funeral, estranged families and a doomed love story but none of them moved me all that much. However, if you loved Hawkins’ writing in her first book, and if you are up for a good murder mystery; I wouldn’t hesitate recommending this. If I have to compare between the two, this one was definitely cleverer.

 

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Phantom Limbs – By Paula Garner

  Rating:

Note: I won an ARC of this book via giveaway hosted by Amy@novelgossip

Buy links:

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Synopsis2

How do you move on from an irreplaceable loss? In a poignant debut, a sixteen-year-old boy must learn to swim against an undercurrent of grief—or be swept away by it.

Otis and Meg were inseparable until her family abruptly moved away after the terrible accident that left Otis’s little brother dead and both of their families changed forever. Since then, it’s been three years of radio silence, during which time Otis has become the unlikely protégé of eighteen-year-old Dara—part drill sergeant, part friend—who’s hell-bent on transforming Otis into the Olympic swimmer she can no longer be. But when Otis learns that Meg is coming back to town, he must face some difficult truths about the girl he’s never forgotten and the brother he’s never stopped grieving. As it becomes achingly clear that he and Meg are not the same people they were, Otis must decide what to hold on to and what to leave behind. Quietly affecting, this compulsively readable debut novel captures all the confusion, heartbreak, and fragile hope of three teens struggling to accept profound absences in their lives.

My review (contains mild spoilers)

This was a wonderfully nuanced novel in its exploration of so many powerful themes through its characters. I thought it would be easier for me to talk about each of them taking turns for the three main characters:

otis I loved how Garner made sure he didn’t turn out to be a sad Mary-Sue version. I mean, he is described as someone with an athletic body, good with kids, and a loyal friend and totally disinterested with the fact that all these attributes would easily get him a date. Sounds typical and unreal, right? But, Garner does make him believable. There is a history, reason, and background to the way he is.

Themes explored:

Sexuality: Sure, he is still pining for Meg, but you also see glimpses of how he is (or might have been) a regular teen when he does notice that someone is good-looking or mentally compares someone with Meg. The closest female relationship he has had since Meg left him is his friend-slash-coach Dara. There is a moment in the book where he does compare Meg to Dara and how he finds the former more physically and sexually attractive. I just found it interesting that the only person he immediately sought to compare with is the probably the only female friend he has. So, while Meg and he have a lot of shared emotional baggage and history which binds Otis to her, I wonder whether he and Dara could have ever been more than just friends.

Friendship – Oh, they were more than just friends all right!! I mean, not lovers but definitely not your regular buddies either. It was an intense friendship because at its root, it was borne out of a need to numb the past wounds. It definitely started out at a need-based relationship – Otis needed a routine something that would force him out of the grieving stupor over his brother’s death. Dara needed another goal to replace her own scuttled Olympics dream. So Otis welcomes Dara’s vigorous swimming training and humors her Olympics ambition for him. Dara was just content in living vicariously through him. But finally the carefully constructed and fragile schedule starts coming apart when Otis realizes that time is running out for him to confront Dara with the fact that he isn’t really chuffed about training for the Olympic trials. The mail from Meg and later, her reappearance further distracts him.

I absolutely loved his equation with Dara. Sure, at times their friendship felt symbiotic but there was something so pure and honest about it. I loved how Otis recognized and acknowledged that Dara was crucial for him to get through the months after his brother’s death.

Loss – Otis has grieved for the last three years, not just over the loss of his brother but also Meg – who leaves him without any explanation. His brother, Mason’s death is like a scab that he can’t scratch at, it is always there. He wants to preserve Mason’s memories forever, but each good memory is followed and clouded by the fact that they can’t be relived in the present day.

And Meg? Her disappearance hurt him, but her reappearance confuses him further. He sees that she has changed and realizes he isn’t the same either. He compares his pain to that of a phantom limb – of something that exists in nothingness and he doesn’t know how to deal with it.

dara  Definitely one of my favorite characters this year!! She is described as someone who is gritty, hates sympathy coming her way due to half her left arm missing, and has always had a bit of a reckless streak in her.

Themes explored:

Sexuality – This book and Dara will definitely be on my LGBT recs list this year! I loved how Garner wrote her as she was trying to let her defenses down and accept that there is nothing wrong to be a little “vulnerable” in love. It was a huge step for Dara to let someone that close to her life – her inner thoughts and insecurities. It was also difficult for Dara because she knew it is something her father wouldn’t approve.

Parental Abandonment – Her father emotionally abandons her after her accident because he had set his sights on her winning the Olympics. She craves for that love and acceptance from him again and this is one of the reasons she is hesitant to reveal to everyone that she might be a lesbian. Because, she worries it might be the last straw for her father.

It isn’t just her father who has abandons her. Her mother does too… but to say anything else will be a huge spoiler.

Loss – She has suffered from many losses – of her parents, dreams, and a degree of independence with the loss of her limb. She insists on driving a car with a clutch and manual gear system (though she can afford a better car) because I guess, somewhere she likes being challenged every day? I wasn’t really sure why.

The hardest loss for her is definitely her limb because it isn’t just that – She doesn’t have half her left arm and what that leaves her with is the occasional phantom pain that she can overcome only by either the mirror box or Otis rubbing his hands in front of her (thereby creating a virtual reality). The pain is hard on her psyche especially when it shoots up during her swim sessions. After all the efforts to wave off sympathy, her body doesn’t support her  when she most needs it and she feels embarrassed when her teammates watch her writhing. Moreover, it feels like a cruel taunt aimed at her whenever she is trying her best to continue doing what she loves – swimming.

Friendship – Otis is her protégé slash closest friend. He is the first one who is privy to her past and the first person in whom Dara has confided so much. I loved how Dara changed through the book, from someone who wanted to hold onto Otis for the lost dream he represented to someone who was willing to let him go for his sake. Some of the revelations in the end totally surprised me. Throughout the book, we mostly see how Otis is more perceptive towards her and understands her but we never really get a sense of it being reciprocated. But, in the end, we see that she understands him and has listened to him all these years.

meg  Since the story is from Otis’ POV, we are as clueless about her as he is. I mean, a large part of the story’s “mystery” is centered on her. Why did she leave? Why did she come back? What happened in her life the past three years? These are the questions Otis desperately wants to know, and yet he is scared to ask because it is also related to Mason’s death. He has tried to stay aloof from the exact details so far because he is scared to know any further. This was probably the only part of the book that I felt a bit lacking – the whole routine where Meg wants to tell him but he doesn’t want to listen and when he does want to know, Meg doesn’t open up. It was built like a big mystery plot but the revelation isn’t that surprising.

Themes explored:

Well, since Meg is a bit of an enigma and revealing anything more about her would be a major spoiler, I am just talking about a couple of themes (and skipping others):

Guilt – This was probably the reason for all that changed in her after Mason’s death. As the years pass, the burden becomes easier in some ways, but harder in many other ways. This intense feeling of guilt is also shared by Otis’ mom. One of my favorite Meg scenes is between the two, because it provided some sort of closure to a painful chapter in her life.

Loss – Otis was her best friend and first love ; so leaving him when she had just entered her teens was hard. In addition, she also has to deal with the loss of the family structure that she has always known – due to her parents separating.

Overall impressions – This was definitely my favorite book released this year. The ending was deeply satisfying and I was so happy that no character was shortchanged or treated shabbily by the other.

 

A Monster Calls – By Patrick Ness, Jim Kay (Illustrator), Siobhan Dowd(Conception)

Rating:

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Synopsis:

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

My Review:

This will probably be more of a gush-fest than a coherent review, because I think I would never be able to justifiably express just how wonderful this book is.  I went into this book with a vague idea of the cover synopsis, and gosh, I didn’t expect a less-than-200-pages book to pack in so much, and to feel so COMPLETE and fulfilling by the time I flip the last page. Patrick Ness is a fabbbb writer, with a gift to elevate a simple story with terrific storytelling and to convey deceptively plain truths in a way that just creeps upon you while reading and before you know it, it is in your face, and you feel like it is something you have always known but didn’t want to see.

In today’s times when there is a lot of forced effort to use the tried-and-tested plot devices and narrative styles for the nth time just to make the writing look “smart” (series of letters, diary entries and “To-do-list”  in YA fiction, past/present alternating chapters in psych thrillers…) – even when it is not really needed or doesn’t add anything – Ness uses metaphors through tales, monsters of the mind and illustrations to build a novel that shows you just how difficult and complicated the process of dealing with grief can be. And he does it in a way that never feels manipulative or dishonest.

In the past year or so, Conor has had to grow up and wizen up beyond his thirteen years of age. Or at least he tries to, so that he can ease some of his mom’s burden at home. As it is just the two of them and his mom has been physically weakened due to the long and exhausting cancer treatments. At school he is fed up with everyone seeing him as the kid-with-the-cancer-mom – his classmates keeping a distance from him and the teachers tip-toeing around him and treating him with kid gloves. The only people who want to talk to him? – His ex-best friend Lily, but he is giving her the silent treatment because he blames her for his situation at school. And oh, there is the school bully Harry, who is only interesting in punching Conor, tripping him over and hurting him. Strangely though, Conor never backs down or defend him. He, in fact, welcomes it – being pummeled. But why? Just what is it that he blames himself for? Is it related to the nightmare that has plagued him every night for the past year? What is the horrifying truth that he doesn’t want to confront or talk about to anyone?

Well, one day that nightmare is succeeded by a new one, one with a tree-monster (a yew tree to be more specific and the monster that the book derives its title from).  With him, he brings the promise of narrating three stories and after that; it would be Conor’s turn to narrate a fourth one – His story. The truth … about the nightmare.

Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?” 

There were so many great moments in this book and what made them stand out is that you don’t really expect it to turn out the way it does. Conor has never liked his grandma and I guess one of the reasons he dislikes her even further after every visit, is because she is a ominous reminder that his mom is getting weaker, and no matter how bravely he tries to go about his everyday life, he is a kid and after a point he can’t really take care of the household, himself and his mom on his own. So Conor hates it when his grandma visits them and tries to have THE TALK with him about his future. There is a point in the story where Conor does something destructive (in more ways than literal) and just when you think and anticipate that his grandma has had enough, she reacts in a way that leaves a lump in your throat.

Then there is Conor’s time spent in school – he hates being “not seen” by his classmates, he hates the “special privileges” being given to him by his teachers.  Lily is the only one who among his friends who tries to reach out to him and not take his spurning to heart. Because as her mom says, they need to make “allowances” because of what he is going through.  I loved Lily, for being decent and wise and…. just when I was thinking “Oh no, she has given up on him..” , she surprised me again ❤ ❤ ❤

Ness doesn’t approach anything in a typical way that we are used to seeing. Heck, even Harry, the bully, proves to be more than a usual schoolyard, “all-brawn” idiot, when he figures out how to hit Conor in a way that affects him the hardest. The most refreshing thing about Ness’s approach is that he knows when to leave or cut short dramatic scenes instead of milking it. The impact it leaves on you lingers on long after you have read that page or chapter. And oh, how do I even begin gushing about how awesome the illustrations are? And each of the monster’s stories? Each of them is brilliant and ends with Conor fuming over the moral ambiguities of their conclusions. It plays into and complements Conor’s dilemma and confusions so well – over his nightmare when he is asleep and the nightmare of his mom’s deteriorating health when he is awake.

So is this book a fairytale? Psychological drama? Horror? Middle-grade fiction? I don’t know and it doesn’t matter.  It covers themes everyone can relate to; themes that are heavy but handled with a lot of compassion by a brilliant author.  GO.READ.IT

Summit Lake – By Charlie Donlea

9781942111061Rating:

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Becca Eckersley is young, beautiful twenty-something law student. With good grades in school and a father who is an accomplished attorney with glitzy social connections, she looked all set for a great life and career ahead. Until she is found murdered in her family vacation home at Summit Lake. Who killed her? What was the motive to kill someone who seemed to have a regular, mundane college life? Kelsey, an investigative crime reporter is sent to find out. As she digs deeper, the search for truth turns out to be more than just another job assignment..

I was pretty excited to win this book in the giveaway. Both the cover and the synopsis caught my attention. It has all the basic elements which I have almost come to regard as my comfort food in murder mysteries (especially in the past couple of years) : Narrative – alternating between past (Becca) and present (Kelsey) timelines. A murder of a young woman in a quaint picturesque small town being investigated by an out-of-towner young woman who is a crime reporter with her own past demons to deal with. So when I said “more than just another job assignment”, I meant, it ends up being an almost cathartic experience for her. Kelsey is sent by her boss to Summit Lake so that she can get away for a while and stop reliving a traumatic experience that occurs a few weeks ago. Initially, she thinks the assignment is just a “fluff piece” meant to provide distraction for a few days, but she is soon invested in the case, both emotionally and out of curiosity.

I felt the whole investigative proceedings were too simplistic and easy. I mean, Kelsey hardly broke into a sweat. Everyone was eager to go out of their way to provide her information and risk getting into trouble. She easily befriends a coffeehouse owner and a doctor who always seemed to know someone who knew something which could help her. I wondered why couldn’t the police solve and close the entire case earlier because it seemed that easy. I also didn’t connect much to the characters and their interactions. Usually, the past narrative featuring the victims helps us understand them better, but I didn’t feel that I knew or understood Becca any better. We are told she has a tendency to unknowingly send guys the wrong signals about her feelings but that’s the problem. We are told everything instead of .. well..just dwelling on or getting a chance to delve more into the person’s mind. More pages on Becca, her thoughts, either in the form of monologues or “diary entries” (or any other narrative device) would have helped. The book works fine as a murder mystery but lacks heft as a psychological thriller. So moving to the stronger aspects, the story moves at a brisk pace and never meanders into unnecessary subplots.  I finished it within three days and was quite taken aback by the big revelation (never saw it coming!). I wonder whether my familiarity with this kind of setting and genre was the reason I had some other expectations, and maybe that’s why I was a bit underwhelmed with some parts of the book. But overall, it is a pretty good whodunit, and I would definitely recommend it if you haven’t read many in this genre. I think you will enjoy it a lot more than I did!

*Note: I received this book from the publisher via the Goodreads giveaway programme. Thank you Kensington Publishing!*

 

 

Hesitation Wounds – By Amy Koppelman

Rating:

How does it feel to be constantly burdened with grief, loss and guilt? When familial ties are not unfettered by your choice but all the “what ifs” are always going to haunt you?

In Hesitation Wounds, Amy Koppelman provides a searing glimpse into just what it is to live with clinical depression. To finally give up on life because of the inability to feel happiness. And what about the people who they leave behind, left to wonder whether they did all that they could to help? Whether they could have done more? Why didn’t they notice the signs that something just wasn’t right?  Ask Dr. Susanna Seliger, who has grappled with these questions for nearly thirty years. Her profession, as a psychiatrist specializing in treatment resistant depression is both her penance and salvation. Her encounter and conversations with Jim, her patient, forces her to face what has been the albatross in the cesspool of her life, and has practically repelled anything that could have constituted a semblance of normalcy and fulfillment.

The book’s 180- page length is pretty misleading. Literally every paragraph is so beautifully constructed that it forces you to pause, re-read and think. It is a second person narrative by Susanna, each thought screaming out as a silent lament and a melancholic plea. To understand and be understood in return. To forgive and be forgiven.  There is something so unflinching and no-holds-barred in the way Koppelman has shown us how it feels to go through so many emotions where you mind and heart is always a gooey mess because of the baggage of all the past that you cannot shed, and that in turn keeps nipping away at your present thus preventing you from creating and experiencing any new, happy memories worth recollecting in the future. So it is a disturbing, vicious cycle. And to be honest, around 50 pages into the book, I wondered whether it is going to be worth it sticking with Susanna till the last page. Because I have had reading experiences in the past where I felt short-changed in the end because the protagonists showed no growth or initiative to effect change.

Thankfully, Hesitation Wounds is worth it. The arc of the whole emotional narrative comes together in the final pages. And I love seeing things come to a full circle! (Without revealing much, I will just say that the book sort of starts and ends with Susanna in the airport).  As the reels from Susanna’s past memories roll towards the final images, she lets it go. But will the happiness she finds make up for the three lost decades? Well, when I took leave of her in the last page, she seemed atleast in my opinion, the happiest version of herself after a very long time. So, maybe there is hope.

If there is one thing I felt could have been better, it is the clarity in the timelines. Susanna’s reminiscences keep going back and forth in a way that felt too jerky and vague. I am guessing it was deliberate to an extent, to probably show how recollections can be jumpy, colored and all over the place, but it just got a bit frustrating to keep track of it sometimes. And while I loved all the metaphors, symbolism and “quotable quotes”, it felt a bit excessive making the book a laborious read at times.

Now, this is perhaps one of my favorite quotes, which I have Tumblr’ed and tweeted, but imagine reading pages and pages of this:

HWquote

(Speaking of quotes, check out some of my favorite ones here.)

Keeping these quibbles aside, I would definitely recommend the book for a stark insight into what clinical depression is all about. It is a monumental labor of love by Amy Koppelman, a tribute to a cause she feels so strongly about.

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