Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathyrn J. Prince

I came across Death in the Baltic while browsing at a local used bookstore. The Wilhelm Gustloff was a German passenger ship torpedoed by a Russian submarine on January 30, 1945. I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff and was shocked to read on the back cover that over 9,000 civilians died in its sinking, 5,000 of which were children.

Until finding this book, I thought the sinking of the Titanic or the Lusitania were the worst maritime disasters. 1,500 people died in the sinking of the Titanic. The sinking of the Lusitania claimed 1,195 lives. All horrific, but why isn't the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff common knowledge?
From the publisher: The worst maritime disaster ever occurred during World War II, when more than 9,000 German civilians drowned. It went unreported.

January 1945: The outcome of World War II has been determined. The Third Reich is in free fall as the Russians close in from the east. Berlin plans an eleventh-hour exodus for the German civilians trapped in the Red Army’s way. More than 10,000 women, children, sick, and elderly pack aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a former cruise ship. Soon after the ship leaves port and the passengers sigh in relief, three Soviet torpedoes strike it, inflicting catastrophic damage and throwing passengers into the frozen waters of the Baltic.

More than 9,400 perished in the night—six times the number lost on the Titanic. Yet as the Cold War started no one wanted to acknowledge the sinking. Drawing on interviews with survivors, as well as the letters and diaries of those who perished, award-wining author Cathryn Prince reconstructs this forgotten moment in history. She weaves these personal narratives into a broader story, finally giving this WWII tragedy its rightful remembrance.
Prince explores the reasons why the sinking of this ship is largely forgotten. It was an act of war during the world's largest war, for starters. And among other issues was the absolute chaos at the end of the war, the focus needed on settling the terms of peace, and the quick transition into the Cold War.

This book gripped me. Prince's storytelling isn't as polished as popular history writers like Erik Larson or Nathaniel Philbrick, but it is a solid story and one that deserves a wider audience for what it shows about the cost of war. Prince covers the history of the ship, the desperation of German citizens to get away from the advancing Red Army, the efforts of the Nazi government to evacuate its citizens, and the focus of a Russian submarine captain doing his job. Prince interviews survivors of the sinking and weaves their personal stories into the larger history.

Readers interested in WWII, naval warfare, maritime history, German or Soviet history will want to check out this book. It won the 2013 Military Writers Society of America Founders Award.

Title: Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff
Author: Cathryn J. Prince
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013
Source: Bought it

Additional resources: the Wikipedia page on the Wilhelm Gustloff lists books and documentaries.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Library Stop: Bethlehem Public Library, CT

Bethlehem Public Library
32 Main Street South
Bethlehem, CT 06751

Last week a coworker told me about Bethlehem, Connecticut and how people drive from all over to mail their Christmas cards from the town's Post Office so their cards have a Bethlehem postmark.

Who could resist a little road trip to check out a town called Bethlehem at this time of the year?

We took a drive last Sunday and it was lovely. Bethlehem is in the north west part of the state. Population 3,422.

Laura didn't know where we were going and when we got there I surprised her by pulling out some holiday and Christmas cards for us to write out and mail from the town post office. It hasn't been a very festive holiday season for us due to an illness in the family, so writing out some cards in Bethlehem added a bit of cheer to the experience.

Being Sunday, the library was closed, but I took a picture of it to share with you all today.

The library in Bethlehem started in 1857 as a fee for membership book collection. The public library was established in 1900 and the current library building was dedicated in June 1969. The library won the Connecticut Association of Library Boards Award of Excellence for Small Libraries in 2002. That's impressive considering their collection wasn't fully computerized until 2012.

You can read about Bethlehem's Christmas card tradition here.

Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2 Favorite 2014 Mysteries

I've been looking over my books read in 2014 list and realized I never blogged about two of my favorite mysteries released this year, so here are two micro reviews.

The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood 
(Trade paper. Released October 28, 2014 by Penguin Books)

I enjoyed the characters and the plot. Yes, there is a mystery (or mysteries), but it's the characters that carry this story. They're all down on their luck, struggling with the consequences of past choices or shitty childhoods, but they ring true and intrigue.

Marwood's writing style has an ease to it that made me forget I was reading at times. If you can stand some gore and smelly stuff, I highly recommend this one.

Stephen King's blurbs continue to puzzle me. He calls this book "Scary as hell." Not sure what he means by that. It's scary that your neighbor could be a murder, but this isn't scary as in, "I need to turn on all the lights and lock my windows & doors" or pull out the garlic and crucifix.
From the publisher: Everyone who lives at 23 Beulah Grove has a secret. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be renting rooms in a dodgy old building for cash—no credit check, no lease. It’s the kind of place you end up when you you’ve run out of other options. The six residents mostly keep to themselves, but one unbearably hot summer night, a terrible accident pushes them into an uneasy alliance. What they don’t know is that one of them is a killer. He’s already chosen his next victim, and he’ll do anything to protect his secret.

Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little
(Hardcover. Released July 31, 2014 by Viking)

This is not a book I'd have normally picked up for myself--I could care less about a celebrity that's released from prison on a technicality after 10 years for the murder of her mother--but I took a chance on a review copy and am glad I did.

Janie Jenkins is an unlikeable, sarcastic bitch, but I found myself turning the pages to find out what happens next as Janie leaves California under the cover of disguise to search for the truth of her mother's murder back where the family's story begins, in South Dakota. I don't mean to sound dismissive when I say this is a light read because it is entertaining even if the climax is a bit much. The voice is original, as is the plot.
From the publisher: Ten years ago, in a trial that transfixed America, Janie was convicted of murdering her mother. Now she's been released on a technicality she's determined to unravel the mystery of her mother's last words, words that send her to a tiny town in the very back of beyond. But with the whole of America's media on her tail, convinced she's literally got away with murder, she has to do everything she can to throw her pursuers off the scent.

FTC disclaimer: Both books were review copies received from the publishers for an honest review.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Library Visit: Jaffrey Public Library, New Hampshire

Jaffrey Public Library
38 Main Street
Jaffrey, New Hampshire 03452
Facebook page

Dedicated: July 4, 1896
Memorial library bequeathed by Susan Bethia Clay
Architect: H.M. Frances of Fitchburg
Builder: J.D. Littlehale of Fitchburg

Date visited: 3/11/14

I didn't take any interior pictures of this beautiful library. We were on our way to pay homage to Willa Cather who is buried in Jaffrey, but couldn't drive passed this beautiful library without a quick peek inside. It was also a busy weekday morning with patrons buzzing about and a meeting going on in one of the front rooms. I didn't want to be intrusive with picture taking.

If you're a library geek you'll want to check out this free ebook: Dedication of the Clay Library Building. It's a commemorative book (1896) about the creation of the library, past library activity in Jaffrey, and a fantastic historical record of the importance of libraries in the late 19th century (as well as contemporary attitudes and politics). You can download it from the link above as a PDF or EPUB.

View from the sidewalk.
A closer shot.
Exquisite architectural details--arches, columns, and scroll work.
A most impressive entry arch.
Corner carving. It's a floral design, but doesn't it look like a dragon from this angle?
The wise owl.
Plaque in the front entry.
Susan B. Clay
Lovely natural light.
Window detail.
Fireplace in memory of Lawrence H and Josephine B. Wetherell
Cather on the shelf.

I plan on making another pilgrimage to Cather's grave, perhaps in the spring, and will definitely make time to visit this library again.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Flesh and Blood by Patricia Cornwell

"Her anguish and terror came from where no one should have to go, a wrenching hopeless place. It's not true that we are never given more than we can bear. Only it isn't given. It simply happens." 

Another visit with Scarpetta and her gang has come and gone. Like real life visitors, at least enjoyable ones, you wait and wait for the day of their arrival and then, before you know it, they've been and gone.

What happened during this visit? Well, as usual, someone is after Scarpetta. Do they want to fuck up her career? Hurt those close to her? Kill them? Kill her? It's looking like 'yes' to all of the above.

From the publisher: #1 New York Times bestselling author Patricia Cornwell delivers the next enthralling thriller in her high-stakes series starring Kay Scarpetta—a complex tale involving a serial sniper who strikes chillingly close to the forensic sleuth herself.

It’s Dr. Kay Scarpetta’s birthday and she’s about to head to Miami for a vacation with her FBI profiler husband Benton Wesley when she notices seven pennies on a wall behind their Cambridge house. Is this a kids’ game? If so, why are all of the coins dated 1981 and so shiny it’s as if they’re newly minted? Then her cellphone rings, and Detective Pete Marino tells her there’s been a homicide five minutes away. A high school music teacher has been shot with shocking precision as he unloaded groceries from his car. No one heard or saw a thing. It’s as if God did it.

In this 22nd Scarpetta novel, the master forensic sleuth finds herself in the middle of a nightmarish pursuit of a serial sniper who seems to leave no evidence except fragments of copper. The shots are so perfect, they cause instant death and seem impossible, and the death scenes aren’t crime scenes because the killer was never within hundreds of yards of the victims. The victims seem to have nothing in common, and there is no pattern that might indicate where the Copperhead will strike next. First New Jersey, then Massachusetts, and then into the murky depths off the coast of South Florida, where Scarpetta dives a shipwreck, looking for answers that only she can discover and analyze. There she must face an unthinkable truth that points in the direction of her techno genius niece, Lucy, Scarpetta’s own flesh and blood.
Scarpetta is worried about her niece Lucy, who appears to be having relationship troubles again in between flying around in her helicopter, driving an uber expensive sport car, and being a computer genius whose gruff, non-communicative demeanor turns on both women and men; husband Benton is intimate and sexy for a few minutes and then off FBI-ing and unreachable until he pops up again; the newish thing is that Marino's loud mouth and temper tantrums don't seem to bother Scarpetta as much as they used to.

Fascinating weapons forensics carry this story. Sniper stuff. Bullet trajectories. Ballistic fingerprints. Have you heard that they're looking for a way to add a unique "stamp" to the firing mechanisms of small arms weapons that will allow investigators to match a spent casing with the weapon that fired it?  "A microstamp is etched on the firing pin or some other component of a gun so it will be transferred to a cartridge case. The point is to have a microscopic code that links a spent case with the gun's serial number." Apparently this is a controversial concept and only being done in California at this time. I'd like to know why this is controversial. Does if effect accuracy? Rub the NRA the wrong way?

On the emotional side of things, Scarpetta digs into herself on a deeper level:
I should get in touch with my fear so I'm not angry
I'm got to find out this is all my fault.
Not it isn't, dammit, and when I peel back anger I find more if it. Under more of it is rage. Beneath rage is a black pit I've never climbed inside. It's the hole in my soul that would take me to the place where I might do something I shouldn't.
I'm hoping her mental health will be explored further in future books, especially that black pit which might lead to some interesting character development.

My only complaint about Scarpetta novels is that these books are over too fast. There's a brief moment of happiness before the paranoia creeps in, a crime scene is investigated, paranoia increases, some factual discoveries are made, theories are bantered about, more clues are found, the theory thickens, Scarpetta can't get a hold of key people, relationships become strained, and then WHAM! the book is over and the pack is frolicking together and/or eating Italian food. This one includes the happy pack ending, but then there's a cliff hanger.

Oh well, at least for me Benjamin Franklin's adage that visitors, like fish, smell after three days doesn't apply to this book.

Hope to see you again next year, Kay Scarpetta.

Goodreads link: Flesh and Blood
Author website: Patrica Cornwell
Publisher: William Morrow, November 11, 2014
Source: bought it on my Kobo
Recommended to: established readers of the Kay Scarpetta series. Readers who have never read Cornwell are better off starting at the beginning of the series.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

It wasn't planned, but 2014 has turned out to be the year of Wilkie Collins for me. He's the only writer that I read multiple works by this year.

At the beginning of the year I read The Woman in White and his short story "The Frozen Deep" for the Wilkie In Winter read-along hosted by The Estella Society. Last month The Moonstone was the November selection for the new mystery book group I'm in. We wanted to go back to the beginning of the mystery genre and The Moonstone is considered by most to be the first mystery novel written in English.

A huge diamond called the Moonstone is stolen from a Hindu temple during a battle in India. The English solider who thieved the stone murders to get it. Three Hindu Brahmans are charged with getting the sacred stone back. The English "gentleman" returns to England and is shunned by his society. The stone is cursed. He wills the stone to his niece, to be given to her when she turns 18. On the night of her birthday party the stone goes missing. Three Indian men were recently in the vicinity...did they steal it back? The story is told through multiple perspectives in the form of letters various characters write, upon request, to tell what they know about the diamond and who did what when before, during, and/or after the birthday party. As the story is pieced together characters weave in and out of one another's reports.

A Side Note on the Importance of Heat when Conducting a Used Book Sniff Test:
I went to a few library sales hoping to find a copy of The Moonstone, but didn't have any luck. A fellow mystery group member beat me to a copy at one of the sales. I eventually found a nice 1948 hardcover edition by Doubleday & Company at the Book Barn. The book was in their unheated literature building (only the main building has heat, which makes for quick browsing of some genres in colder weather). I did a standard sniff test on the book and it passed. No stinky rotting glue or former chain smoker smells. In retrospect, it turns out that heat is a significant factor to be taken into consideration when performing a thorough sniff test.

Stinky book
When I got the book home I spent some some time looking through the illustrations by William Sharp and then the book went on my TBR pile. It would be a couple weeks before I picked up the book to read it. In that time, the book was sufficiently warmed. When I started reading it, everything was fine for the first dozen pages or so. After that I occasionally noticed a bit of a musty smell when I turned a page. I was enjoying Gabriel Betteredge's story and kept on reading.
By page 25 or so I started developing itchy eyes and the musty smell morphed into a stink. Unlike Betteredge who enjoyed his dirty and dogeared copy of Robinson Crusoe that "exhaled a strong odour of stale tobacco as he turned over the leaves," the stench of my book was nasty. I couldn't go on reading this book. Over the next few days I picked it up a several times and read for a few minutes here and there, but with the book group meeting looming around the corner I knew I'd never finish the book in time under these conditions
Just when I was going to throw in the towel and go buy a brand new edition of the novel, I  remembered I'd downloaded the book from Project Gutenberg back when I read "The Frozen Deep." So I dug out my trusty old Kobo and charged it overnight. The next morning I started flying through the story.
Lesson learned: sniff tests are best conducted when the book under consideration has reached and maintains a temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

Does this diamond make my waist look smaller?

I thoroughly enjoyed The Moonstone and the mystery book group had a great time talking about it as well. It's one of those books that may seem long at first but then gets better as you read on and is over before you know it. I loved the multiple points of view and some of the characters are a hoot! Yes, its a little challenging to get into if you're not used to reading 19th century writing and some may get a bit impatient with the verbiage, but the plot and the delightful characters are so worth any effort it may take. I'd even go so far as to recommend this novel over The Woman in White if a reader had to pick only one Wilkie Collins to read (but ultimately you must read both!).

Hello, Sailor!
The Moonstone contains many elements of the mystery novel that makes it a joyful frolic to read. And read it with the understanding that most of these elements were not yet cliched back when Collins wrote it, although some were used in adventure tales or gothic novels. There's a curse, murder, theft, drugs, addiction, disease, disguises, trap doors, wills, inheritance, stake outs, and red herrings. The suspicion of foreigners as well as racial, gender, and class stereotypes are used and upended. There's a celebrated detective with an incongruous hobby, bumbling local police, religious zealots, posers, a work-a-holic lawyer, and willful women. Its very much a locked room mystery, an English country house robbery that also includes some city scenes. The book has everything, including a crime scene reconstruction and banter about the subjective/objective. There's even quicksand!

In his preface Collins wrote that he wanted to trace the influence of character on circumstances, which I tried to keep in mind while reading. There are some unbelievable aspects of the novel that wouldn't fly by today's standards, but nothing that ruins the reading experience.

There is much in this book that is relevant today. One surprising scene involved memory loss. Dementia and diseases like Alzheimer's are in the news today like they're a new thing. I was touched by a scene where a character who is struggling with memory loss is interviewed. The way Collins portrays this character, with such compassion and understanding, resonated with several of us in the book group who've had loved ones with similar challenges.

Overall, The Moonstone is a great book. There's a reason its a classic. Go read it!

Wilkie Collins
The Moonstone
First published 1868

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What's been going on? Guest posts, for one.

Greetings! How have you been? Wonderful, I hope!

Like you, I've been busy with work and family life. I also took a mystery/thriller writing workshop this fall at the Westport Writers' Workshop that just wrapped up last night. I've also been preoccupied with work projects and whatnot.

I feel like I've neglected my blog a bit, which I believe is a common lament among bloggers if they're not obsessing about their blog. I did, however, write two guest posts for Book Blogger International this month that I hope you'll check out:
  1. The first was about Jazzing Up Your Mystery/Thriller Reading. Here's the link. 
  2. The second was for their Diversity in Books series. I wrote about bridging the military-civilian divide through reading. Here's the link to this post. 
I'd love to hear your thoughts on either or both of these posts, in the comments section here or, preferably, on the Book Bloggers International site. You can also email me if you'd prefer to have a private conversation (chris.wolak at yahoo dot com).
Thanks as always for stopping by. For those of you in the U.S. I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Library stop: North Woodstock Public Library, CT

North Woodstock Library
223 N. Woodstock Rd.
Route 169, just north of Route 197
Woodstock, Connecticut 06281

Woodstock is in the north-east corner of Connecticut, near the Massachusetts border. We took a drive there last month because we used to go to Woodstock, IL to buy our pumpkins when we lived in Chicagoland and thought it would be fun to checkout a town with the same name. 

The library was closed when we happened to be driving around the area, but of course we had to stop to peak in the windows and take some pictures!

According to Library Technology Guides this library has 9,626 volumes, circulates
9,719 items per year, and serves a population of 7,854 residents. There are two more public libraries in Woodstock.

The view from the road.
The building was originally a school.
Built in 1843. The building became a library in 1950, but the North Woodstock Library Association was formed in 1854.
A peek through the front door.
A peek through a side window.
The back of the library.
Love this big field stone stoop.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Monday, November 10, 2014

Happy 239th Birthday, United States Marine Corps!

Me in 1984
November 10th is the Marine Corps Birthday, the biggest day of celebration in the Marines.
I served in the 1980s and since then have been an on-again/off-again reader of Marine Corps history and lives. I'm currently in an on-again phase.

So on Saturday I took a drive to The Book Barn in Niantic, CT to browse their military section, which is rather sizable and well organized. I wanted to discover a few "new" books about or by Marines.

I came home with three:

Like every new recruit, I learned about Smedley Butler (1881-1940) in boot camp. Butler is one of the most decorated Marines in history. What I didn't learn in boot camp is that after Butler retired from the Marines he became an outspoken opponent of war and railed against the extreme wealth war created for a few Americans at the expense of many. In the post WWI years he gave speeches against war profiteering which he turned into a book called War is a Racket.

Paul Harper grew up in Evanston, IL, attended Yale, and served in Marines as an officer during WWII. I look forward to reading his self-published memoir. I Googled Mr. Harper and found his obituary. He passed just last December at the age of 92. RIP and Semper Fi, Sir.

I owned a copy of Fix Bayonets! by John W. Thomason (1893-1944) back when I was active duty and think I read it, but I'm not sure. I remember teasing my grandmother when she couldn't remember if she'd read a particular book or not and now here I am with one foot in the same boat. When you're a teenager you don't realize that, if you're lucky, there are decades and decades of books yet to come in your reading life. Anyway, this edition includes illustrations by Thomason who published over 60 short stories, articles, and several books (see his Wikipedia page).
I also purchased Emma by Jane Austen. A local book group is discussing Emma later this month and if I can squeeze in some extra reading time I'd like to join them.
Well, now, didn't this post take a Sesame Street-like turn into One of These Things is Not Like the Others?

Do you have a favorite military related book you'd like to recommend? Please leave it in the comments below!

And an early Happy Veterans Day to those of you who have served!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Wait For Signs by Craig Johnson

I've never read anything by Craig Johnson, nor have I watched the A&E Longmire series, but I was aware of the series from browsing in bookstores and reading magazines like Mystery Scene. I recently saw that Johnson will be the guest of honor at the New England Crime Bake this year so when a review copy was offered I said sure. It was time for me to check out this best selling writer.
From the publisher:
Ten years ago, Craig Johnson wrote his first short story, the Hillerman Award–winning “Old Indian Trick.” This was one of the earliest appearances of the sheriff who would go on to star in Johnson’s bestselling, award-winning novels and the A&E hit series Longmire. Each Christmas Eve thereafter, fans rejoiced when Johnson sent out a new short story featuring an episode in Walt’s life that doesn’t appear in the novels; over the years, many have asked why they can’t buy the stories in book form.

Wait for Signs collects those beloved stories—and one entirely new story, “Petunia, Bandit Queen of the Bighorns”—for the very first time in a single volume, regular trade hardcover. With glimpses of Walt’s past from the incident in “Ministerial Aide,” when the sheriff is mistaken for a deity, to the hilarious “Messenger,” where the majority of the action takes place in a Port-A-Potty, Wait for Signs is a necessary addition to any Longmire fan’s shelf and a wonderful way to introduce new readers to the fictional world of Absaroka County, Wyoming.

I agree with the publisher's blurb that these stories are a wonderful introduction to the world Johnson has created. His characters are the kind of people I want to spend more time with and get to know better. The stories are full of humor and humanity. They were written for Christmas, after all, so they're feel-good stories, which will also make this book an easy holiday gift choice. It's smaller size also lends itself to gift giving (5.3 x 7.3)

Johnson is a master at dialog and I found myself chuckling out loud a time or two, which is a rarity for me when reading. I usually feel "set up" to laugh in fiction, but Johnson's fiction flows naturally and unpretentiously. His descriptions are tight and a single sentence speak volumes. Here's one of my favorites: "It was a modest home on the outskirts of town, a single-level ranch, the kind that can contain a lot of rage."

There are 11 novels so far in the Longmire series and I'm definitely going to add the first one to my reading list.

Here is the Longmire series in chronological order:
  1. The Cold Dish 2004
  2. Death Without Company 2006
  3. Kindness Goes Unpunished 2007
  4. Another Man's Moccasins 2008
  5. The Dark Horse 2009
  6. Junkyard Dogs 2010
  7. Hell Is Empty 2011
  8. As the Crow Flies 2012
  9. A Serpent's Tooth 2013
  10. Spirit of Steamboat 2013
  11. Any Other Name 2014
Wait For Signs (goodreads)
Craig Johnson (author website)
Viking, October 12, 2014
Currently #14 on the NYT hardcover fiction best sellers list
Source: review copy
FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for a fair and honest review. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer and the thoughts expressed above are my own.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Secret Place by Tana French

I was working in a bookstore when Tana French's first novel, In The Woods, came out and made a huge splash. It won the 2007 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. It's hard to believe that was almost 10 years ago and she's now published her fifth novel. I've been meaning to read her, so when the publicist asked if I'd be interested in a review copy I gladly said yes. And then the mystery book group I'm in chose it as our October read which made me even more excited to finally dip into the world of the Dublin Murder Squad.
From the publisher:

Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

The Secret Place is a powerful, haunting exploration of friendship and loyalty, and a gripping addition to the Dublin Murder Squad series.
I had a hard time getting into this novel and almost gave up around page 160. What kept me going was not bailing on my peers in book group, so I gave myself an extra push and keep reading.

It did pick up a bit shortly after the 160 page mark. I wish I could say it became a thrilling read, but the truth is I'm rather lukewarm about my first Tana French novel. Most of the members of the book club felt the same. Some said it was long and repetitious. The harshest comment was that its tedious. We did, however, have a good conversation about the book and I think we all came to appreciate it a bit more due to our shared insights and questions.

Why couldn't I get into it? For one, I just didn't care that about the characters. Good or bad, nothing pulled me in about them. The relationship between Detective Stephen Moran and Detective Antoinette Conway grew on me and this is one of the reasons the book eventually picked up a bit for  me. I can easily see them partnering in a future book to solve another crime. The setting, a private school for girls in Dublin, could've had much more ambiance. Then there are a few scenes where the main group of girls seem to have supernatural powers, but they are not really incorporated into the overall story other than their rival group of girls calling them witches, but there was really no basis for the name calling other than teenage bitchiness. The supernatural elements left us scratching our heads. I wondered if it was a nod to Stephen King's Carrie.

One thing that I think French does very well is to show how the teens in this novel are beginning to experience and negotiate the entrenched ideals of sexism and inequality now that some of them are becoming sexually active. These patterns are reflected in the adult world of the novel and you see exactly where the teens get their ideas of how men and women "should" treat each other, particularly in the philosophy of Detective Frank Mackey who thinks people should keep their mouths shut and go along with the way things are to fit in. According to him, Detective Conway should let male detectives slap her ass and play it cool rather than threatening to break the guy's finger. It's a slap-ass world, in Mackey's book. Conway thinks otherwise and is no doubt a role model for at least one of the girls.

I also enjoyed French's writing. She has some wonderful sentences and descriptions that I read twice for the sheer pleasure. Here's an example, a description of Chris, one of the students from the boys school next door:
"The moonlight changes him. Daytime, he's just another Colm's rugger-bugger, cute if you have cheap chain-restaurant tastes, charming if you like knowing every conversation before it begins. Here he's something more. He is beautiful the way something that lasts forever is beautiful" (348).
Two members of the book group have read all but one of French's earlier books and said that The Secret Place wouldn't be the book they recommend people start with if they want to read French, although they're sure established French fans would enjoy the novel.

In The Woods, they said, is where people should start reading French. My Twitter friend Jennifer Messner (@occassionallyzen) echoed their recommendation, and so I've added In the Woods to my library sale hunting and gathering list.

Something to consider: One book group member said she also listened to the audio version, which is a treat for American listeners due to the Irish accents.

The Secret Place: Dublin Murder Squad #5
Tana French
Viking, September 2014
Source: review copy

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for a fair and honest review. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer and the thoughts expressed above are my own.
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