#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.

On being dumb and confused, in that order

IMG_7041Take a look at that there can of Mountain Dew.  Just take a second and look at it.

Oh, wait, I’m sorry, I meant “Mtn Dew,” since the company decided that a weird abbreviation instead of a perfectly normal word was how they wanted to be known from now on.  I assume trademarks are involved somehow and either way I think it’s stupid.

If you follow me on Twitter or on Instagram (and if you don’t, why not, dammit?) you may already be aware that I discovered a truly epic splat of bird shit on the door of my car when I left for work this morning– fully four or five inches wide, big enough that I have to assume it came from the bald eagle that’s been spotted around here recently, because normal birds don’t shit this big.  I mean, hell, it was a big enough splat of bird shit that I took a picture of it and put that picture on the Internet, and I don’t feel bad about it, because you would have done the exact same damn thing.

But anyway.  That huge splat of bird shit meant that I needed to hit a gas station on the way home to clean it off.  Also for gas.  And also, as it turned out, for caffeine, since as soon as I got to the gas station I realized I needed Mountain Dew.

And then I saw that can, and I saw the flavor– for Christ’s sake, crafted green apple kiwi, which is absolutely guaranteed to not be anything I want to drink, and with a word in the name that does not belong there at all to boot– and, for no clear reason, I bought the can, because the can looked so good, and despite knowing that it wasn’t going to taste very good I spent money on it anyway.

This is a gatdamb miracle of marketing over my own good common sense, and I knew it at the time and did it anyway.  And then discovered that the beverage itself was a poisonous-looking green in color, not far off from the pull tab at the top, and the color that we used to use for things like antifreezes to signal that they shouldn’t be consumed, and of course it tasted like ass.  But Mtn Dew has my money, for something I didn’t want and knew beforehand I wouldn’t like, because yay cool can!

Sigh.


Just over a year ago I wrote this post about a shitty, shitty house full of shitty, shitty people near me that I noticed had been foreclosed on by the bank and sold at auction.  The house was purchased and torn down nearly instantly, and is currently open green space.  What I left out, because it wasn’t relevant, was that there was a second shitty house not far down the road from the first shitty house.  These folks didn’t raise my ire because of the lack of white supremacist symbols on the house, and in fact it appeared to be abandoned anyway– but it must have been a terrible place to live in, because each and every time it rained, no matter how small of a rain, the entire front yard would flood.  Heavy rain could leave puddles in the yard for weeks.  I can only imagine the mold that must have been inside that house.

I drove past it Saturday night on the way home and the whole house was gone, leaving behind evidence of what sure as hell looked like an explosion.  Today, with better light, I stopped and took a couple of pictures.  Does this look like the results of a deliberate demolition to anyone?

IMG_7038

This would have been where the house was and, I think, a bit of the back yard.  You can see what looks like a piece of siding in the middle of this picture, but I promise there used to be a whole ass house there.  The picture is taken from a distance because the place is surrounded by a fence.  In particular, look at that tree on the right, and look at how it looks like the big branch bisecting that tree seems to have split the entire thing in half.  What the shit happened here?

The house behind it, by the way, appears to be fine, and there’s no visible damage to any of the trees or the grass or anything on their lot.

IMG_7039

This is a view of what would have been their front yard.  None of that looks like construction or demolition debris to me– it all looks like exploded tree.  I don’t even see anything that looks like a foundation anywhere– the house doesn’t have a footprint any longer at all.

I can’t find any news articles or any references to anything having happened there recently.  I feel like if there had been a big fire or something there would have been an article about it– but nothing looks burned.  Anybody have any theories?


I was, by the by, unable to fully clean off the birdshit.  It’s gonna take a rainstorm.

On movies I want: I saw THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE

24f6204e7a529a196605512d65a151e9.jpgLast night I reviewed a movie that I consider sort of unreviewable because the act of discussing it will make it impossible to properly enjoy it.  Tonight my wife and son and I went to a movie that doesn’t need a review: the Lego Batman movie.  You already know what you’ll think of the Lego Batman movie.  You already know whether you’re going to see it.  Chances are you know what thought of the Lego Batman movie, and could write this review for me.  And chances are you’re right about all those things.

After leaving the movie, I was thinking about what I’m always thinking about when I leave a Batman movie, which is that I will never get the Batman movie that I want.  Batman has been the star of a comic book called Detective Comics since nineteen thirty goddamn nine.  That was a really long time ago.  There have been approximately three hundred Hollywood films with the word “Batman” or some variant thereof in the title since then, and some of them actually had Batman in them.

Can we get a damn mystery Batman movie, please?  One where he has to actually solve a crime and act like a detective?  I mean, hell, they’re basically making one of these things every two or three years and seem likely to be planning to continue that until I die.  Can I get one of those to be a detective movie?  Bonus points (this will never ever happen) if it’s a noirish piece and actually set in the 1930s or 1940s.  You can still end the movie with a slam-bang action sequence, just make all the stuff before that be quieter and give me a Batman who uses his brains and not his gadgets and ninja skills.  Yes, Batman Begins, the movie about black-wearing-ninja-sword-fighting-not-Batman-angry-guy, I’m looking at you.

Don’t take this as a criticism of Lego Batman, by the way.  There’s nothing wrong with it; as I said, it’s exactly the movie I thought it would be (perhaps a bit more clever) and is probably exactly the movie you think it’ll be.  But gimme just one dark, shadowy, film-noir Batman crime movie where he has to slink around and detect some shit and doesn’t do a lot of punching.  I promise it’ll still make money.  Please?

TERRIBLE DECISIONS: mystery WTF addendum!

That’s hardwood.  From the BEDROOM.  And it is a good 1/8″ higher than the subfloor around it, which is gonna play hell with leveling this mess.

Those of you with a carpentry/contracting background are welcome to speculate as to just why the hell the bedroom’s flooring extends an inch and a half into the bathroom.  I’m hornswoggled.