#Review: THE WITCH ELM, by Tana French

I am a big fan of Tana French’s books. I have everything she’s ever written, she’s shown up on my 10 Best Books list at the end of the year at least a couple of times, and for the last several titles I have been debating upgrading her to the list of authors whose books I buy in hardcover. The only thing that was preventing me from doing it was that all of her previous books have been part of a series, and I am the type of person for whom it matters that the books in the series wouldn’t match on the shelf. But then The Witch Elm came out, and it was standalone, and I finally didn’t have to wait an extra year to read a new Tana French book after it came out.

The Witch Elm, shockingly, is fucking terrible and you should not read it. It hurts me to write that, but it’s true. It’s not gonna keep me from buying her next book or anything– if you write six books that I love you get to write one that I don’t without me abandoning you– but it’s terrible, and terrible in the right way that I’m going to actually write a negative review of it, which is something I don’t do all that often.

There will be spoilers. Of everything. Be prepared for that. Have a separator line, in fact, in case you want to just take my word for it and bow out.


Actually, hell, let’s start with the promo copy on the dust jacket:

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.

Here’s Toby’s entire personality: Toby is a privileged white guy. He is a dude. Picture a dude who has never had to deal with the consequences of his actions in his entire stupid white life and you know everything you need to know about Toby, including that he is terrible. He’s not a “happy-go-lucky charmer,” he’s just a privileged white dude, and literally everything he thinks and does in the book is a direct result of his privilege and his whiteness. The Witch Elm is 509 pages long and it takes goddamn near 200 pages for Toby to get his ass beat and for that skull to get found, and he spends every second of the book feeling sorry for himself, because the entire story is told in retrospect– this is not a present-tense type of first-person novel, it’s one of those where it’s clear that the narrator is talking about things that have already happened, so Toby spends every second of the book feeling sorry for himself. He is unbearable. I don’t know that I’ve ever disliked a first-person narrator in a novel as much as I dislike Toby.

So, 200 pages for the story to start. 100 of the last 120 pages– a hundred God damn pages– are literally nothing but characters sitting in chairs explaining things to each other. The big explanation of who murdered the kid they found in the tree is eighty pages long, and then there is another 20 pages or so of a detective explaining other things to Toby, and an exciting sequence where a stray cat is successfully fed some chicken, and then Toby– spoiler alert again, I guess– Toby, who has been suffering from PTSD for the entire book and has not been taking care of himself or eating (he has literally been sitting in a disintegrating old house and going nuts for about a week when this happens) beats the (healthy, well-fed, professional police officer) detective to death, and then the last 20 pages of the book are about how Toby doesn’t go to jail for that murder but goes to a mental health facility and he’s been explaining the whole book at you from his hospital bed and he’s better now except somewhere along the line I guess he finally lost his job? So keep feeling sorry for him.

300 pages of this 509-page book contain no worthwhile story at all. This book has no right to be longer than about 320 pages or so. There is so much talking. So much.

And there’s only a mystery in the first place because Toby has amnesia from the ass-beating, because of course he does, and the way amnesia works is you don’t remember if you murdered someone ten years ago, so that the whole book can be structured around Toby figuring out that other people think he killed the guy whose skull they found in the tree, and Toby wondering if maybe he really did kill the guy whose skull they found in the tree, and then– surprise!– Toby didn’t kill the guy, but there’s a false confession thrown in there by his dying uncle, who wants to save everybody and maybe uncle Hugo saw the murder too and just never did anything about it until heroically making sure the body got found and throwing himself on the grenade before his brain cancer gets him.

The entire book could have been avoided if someone had thought to put a flat rock on top of the hole in the tree that they stuffed the body into. Or some concrete.

There are lots of “You thought this was what happened? That was a dumb thing for you to think” moments, where one character tells another character– usually Toby– that whatever theory they had about the murder is dumb. Only the reader has already thought “gee, that’s a dumb thing for you to think, Toby,” and been annoyed by it, so having the characters explain why the plot of the book is dumb– never ever write a scene where your characters are complaining about your plot being stupid– is not actually helpful or revelatory, but instead increases the reader’s dislike toward the book.

If Tana French hadn’t written this, I would have put it down before hitting the 100-page mark, and I’d never have reviewed it, because a book has to disappoint me somehow in addition to being bad for me to take the time to write a bad review. This is not the worst book I’ve read this year– that dubious honor still belongs to Robert McCannon’s Swan Song— but it is 100% the most disappointing. I still think you should read all of the Dublin Murder Squad books, because they’re awesome, but pretend she never wrote this one.

#Review: BECOMING, by Michelle Obama

Barack Obama was my president.

It’s possible that you intuitively grasp exactly what I’m talking about, but I’m going to explain anyway.  I voted for Barack Obama literally every single time he stood for public office.  I was living in Hyde Park, in an apartment across the street from the Baskin-Robbins where he and Michelle had their first kiss, when he was rising to prominence before running for the Senate.  I attended the University of Chicago, where he worked.  I have met Jeremiah Wright, who was his pastor.  He and Bill Ayers were never as close as the media liked to pretend (they served on a board or two together, and Bill had a picture of the two of them together on his refrigerator) but Bill was one of my professors at the University of Illinois.  I haven’t talked to Bill in a several years, but, well, I know there used to be a picture of him and Barack together on the fridge in his house and his number is still in my phone.  

I was telling people Barack Obama was going to be the first black president before anybody outside of Chicago knew who the hell Barack Obama was.  I can remember someone passing me on the highway and honking and waving, and waving rather confusedly back until they got ahead of me and I realized they also had an Obama for Senate bumper sticker on their car.  

Was he a perfect president?  Absolutely not.  Ask me about his education policies sometime, which were more or less continued without modification from his predecessor, and I loathed his first choice for Secretary of Education– Arne Duncan, who had been CEO of Chicago Public Schools, where I had worked.   But he was my president in a way no one ever had before and in a way that it seems highly unlikely anyone ever will be again. My attachment to this man is deep and abiding and I suspect it will not be waning anytime soon.  

And the truth is, as much as I like Barack, I like Michelle even more.  Because Michelle has everything going for her that her husband does, only she’s never disappointed me.   

I have a particular bookshelf that contains at least one book by or about every legitimately elected American president.  Hillary Clinton’s book WHAT HAPPENED is occupying the space that might belong to the Current Occupant, who forced me to institute the “legitimately elected” rule.  I’m adding BECOMING to this shelf.  Michelle makes it clear that she never intends to run for political office, and a good chunk of the book is dedicated to the various debates and conversations that she had with her husband about his own choices to run for office.  She’s never going to be president.  But I’m putting it there anyway, because it’s my house and my bookshelf and I can.  

Yeah, this is gonna be one of those book reviews where I spend 80% of the review talking about me and then the last 20% talking about the book.  But hey: my blog; y’all know how I work by now.  And here’s the thing: Michelle Robinson would still have turned out to be a fascinating human being even if she’d never become Michelle Obama.  The part of the book dedicated to her childhood and her pre-marriage-and-kids life is every bit as interesting as the stuff I actually remember, and her perspective on her husband’s fame and her own, and her charting her own path as she learns the “soft power” of the First Lady’s office, makes for a great read.  This isn’t a book about Barack Obama, even if he is (obviously) a major player for a large part of it.  But it’s absolutely a great read and it’s going to show up on my top 10 list when I write it in a couple of weeks.

Also, because I’m this guy and I can’t not mention this: this book is for some reason one of the most physically satisfying tomes I’ve ever held.  As an object it’s great; the paper is creamy and feels wonderful (they’re clearly using a higher grade of paper than most of the books I read) and the weight of the book is … well, I just said “satisfying,” and I don’t like constantly re-using words, but fuck it: the book is just tremendous to hold as you’re reading it.  I’m sure the paperback will be fine, and as an indie author I can’t come down too hard on ebooks, but still: get it in hardcover.  It’s worth it.  

#REVIEW: SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

So.

Standard disclaimer, as always.  Y’all have seen movie reviews from me before.  You know what I’m like when I like something.  And Miles Morales has, since almost immediately after he was introduced, been one of my all-time favorite comic book characters.  He’s up there with the Hulk, Iron Man, and Superman.  I have been waiting for a Miles Morales Spider-Man movie for a long time. 

(Now I’m just waiting for a movie with goddamn Ganke in it, but that’s another story.)

So you already knew I liked this movie.  There would have been a shift in the fabric of the universe if I hadn’t liked it and absolutely everyone would have noticed it.  Did you notice a shift in the fabric of the universe last night, around 10:30, as I was walking out of the theater?  No, you did not.  Of course I liked the fucking movie.  It’s Goddamned brilliant.  It’s so good it made me forgive them for what I initially thought was the kind of dodgy decision to make Miles’ movie animated instead of live-action.

(It’s not dodgy.  This movie would have been impossible as live-action.  They made a better movie by making it animated.  It needed to be animated.)

So put that all aside.  I want to talk to the two or three of you who don’t care about superheroes or superhero movies and for some reason come to this blog anyway.  

You need to see this movie because it’s one of the most amazing animated films ever made.  

You need to see it as a cultural artifact, guys, of what cutting-edge technology can do in 2018.  The movie could have been about anything and I’d be recommending it because of how absolutely incredible it looks.  I was talking to one of my oldest friends about it last night– he was lucky enough to see it last week, and told me at the time that words couldn’t do it justice.  Last night, he made the point that the movie is expectations-proof, because there’s nothing that can prepare you for what it’s actually like to see this on the big screen.

And you need to see it on the best, biggest movie screen you can reasonably get to.  This movie needs to win about four thousand awards even before we get to the part where the story is incredible too.  This movie gets Miles, y’all.  It understands this character thoroughly.  It understands Spider-Man thoroughly, in a way that most of the live-action movies maybe haven’t always.  The voice acting and the casting are outstanding.  The character design– this movie’s versions of the Kingpin, the Scorpion, the Green Goblin, and especially Dr. Octopus are fantastic.  The music is superb.  This movie succeeds on every level but one, which is that it’s gonna scare the crap out of my son so I can’t take him to see it.  

Oh, and the stinger at the end and the tribute to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, both of whom passed away this year?  

I am lucky enough to be married to a woman who is not only willing to go to this neverending series of geek movies with me, but who genuinely enjoys them.  She called Into the Spider-Verse her favorite superhero movie last night.  And this was one of those movies, I think, where she was mildly interested but might have skipped the movie were it not for me pushing to see it.  I can’t be trusted; I know that.  She can.  This one’s something really special, y’all.  And it ain’t like you’ve got anything else to do until next week when Aquaman comes out.  Go see it.  

SPIDER-MAN PS4: Final verdict

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I am, in general, very skeptical of “give it a chance, it gets good later on” types of arguments for anything I had to spend $60 to get.  For $60 you need to be fun in five minutes and you need to stay fun for however long your game ends up being, and I’d rather have a lean, entertaining 30-hour game than a 100-hour game filled with … well, filler.

I’m nonetheless very, very glad I stuck this one out– I just beat it half an hour or so ago, although I’ve left a number of the mop-up tasks for later.  I may or may not get back to them.

But: forget the game for a moment.  Spider-Man PS4 is one of the best Spider-Man stories I have ever encountered, in any medium.  Comics, movies, whatever.  And even that, as I said in the piece from earlier today, takes a good long time to get rolling.  But once it does … wow.  I was in tears during the final act.  I’m not gonna bullshit around.  I’m a grown-ass man and a video game just made me cry because the story was that good and they get this character that thoroughly.  Fucking tears.

And then, the three movie-style stingers after the credits?

*kisses fingers*

Can’t wait for the sequel.  And if they put the same people in charge of writing it, I’m not gonna have shit to say about the gameplay.   Because with a story this good, I’ll chase fucking pigeons all day if I have to.

Two quick #reviews and an update

UnknownREVIEW THE FIRST:  Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis.  This is going to be one of those reviews that is mostly complaining but then I tell you to read the book anyway, so just be prepared for that– it’s just that the weird stuff is more interesting.  Doomsday Book tells a story of a time traveler sent from 2048 to 1320.  In this future, time travel is part of how historians do their jobs, for the most part, although certain periods are considered too dangerous to send people back, and the machines they use to do the time travel are calibrated in such a way as to deny people travel if sending them back will cause paradoxes.

So Kivrin, one of the main protagonists, gets sent back to 1320, and then all sorts of shit goes wrong, including an epidemic in the “now” timeline (causing a massive quarantine) that may have been caused by sending her back.  Which is impossible, which kind of complicates things.

This book was published in 1992, but reads like it was written in the fifties or sixties, in that  other than time travel and some weirdly inconsistent advances in medicine the author appears to have anticipated exactly zero societal changes that were actually brought on by advanced technology.  Like, the internet existed in 1992, even if it was mostly AOL and local BBSes at the time, and most houses had a computer.  Willis appears to have believed that computers were a fad that were going to go away.  So her notion of future is kind of weird and charmingly retro, but her notion of past is excellent– the bits of the book set in the fourteenth century are phenomenally interesting, enough to make it much easier to ignore the weirdnesses of what is supposed to be 2048 where they seem to still be using rotary phones.  Which never work.   At times it almost seems like they’re going through operators to connect phone calls.

It’s also enormously and charmingly British, so be prepared for that.  The book won all sorts of awards, and it’s a great read, but be prepared to chuckle condescendingly at it in a couple of places.

51SX5APRP1L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The second book of John Scalzi’s Interdependency series, The Consuming Fire, is out and I finished it today.  I liked the first one a hell of a lot– no surprise, as Scalzi has been a favorite for years– but didn’t write about it here.   The Consuming Fire suffers from a slightly meandering first third and takes a bit to get its legs underneath it but once it does it’s off to the races.  I like the basic premise of this series a lot– the Interdependency is an intergalactic human civilization (no aliens in this universe) headed by an Emperox, who is both a political leader and the leader of the church, and the different smaller human societies are joined by what are called Flow streams, which (more or less) are wormholes that connect one chunk of space to another and allow a properly-equipped ship to move substantially faster than light.  This has allowed the Interdependency to exist, as many of their civilizations can’t fully provide for themselves and so trade is absolutely necessary for their society to exist.

In the first book, the Flow streams started collapsing.  This is Bad.  In this book, it becomes clear that what first started out as a couple of lone scientists screaming about the slow-moving ecological and societal catastrophe (sound familiar?) has now become a real and present danger to human civilization.  The good thing is that the Emperox is on the side of the scientists.  The bad thing is that virtually no one else is, and the political machinations going on throughout the book are complicated and (ultimately) really satisfying.  Scalzi’s humor is on point throughout, although he’s kept a trend from the first book of giving spaceships really weirdly anachronistic names– there is a ship called The Princess is in Another Castle, for example, and I feel like there was one in the first book named after a Beatles song.

Still.  S’good.  Read it.

spiderman_negativeUPDATE:  I keep almost abandoning Spider-Man PS4, to the point where I’ve declared myself done with it at least twice and I keep going back to it.  It’s one of those frustrating games that keeps having bits that are entertaining and fun as hell and then four seconds later you’re screaming at the screen because of the absolute bugfuck stupidity of whatever Goddamned dumb thing the game is insisting you do next.  The research missions, in particular, so far are damn near unforgivable– they can be ignored, but I’m bad at ignoring shit in games like this and so far each research mission has found a new and different way to be absolutely insanely annoying in some way or another.  I’ll be perfectly happy to make it through the rest of the game without another fucking car chase, too, which are never not terrible.

Also: I think I mentioned this in my previous piece about this game, but guys?  Spider-Man doesn’t kill people.  Ever.  The only character more fanatical about not killing people than Spider-Man is Batman, and even that is only true for properly understood versions of the character.

This game has a reward for knocking 100 people off of buildings.  Like, there are occasional big fights on top of skyscrapers (in itself, kinda dumb) and the easiest way to be successful is to use moves that knock the bad guys back a lot because most of the time they’ll go sailing off the edge of the building and they’re dead.

No.

I will probably end up finishing this, but much like The Witcher 3, another game that I hated initially and only completed out of spite, I’m going to hate it about half the time I’m playing it.  But Read Dead Redemption 2 comes out in a few days and I need this one done and dusted by then.  So I need to beat it this week.