#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: Swan Song, by Robert McCammon

71ro-tXRGcLVery early on in Robert McCammon’s terrible book Swan Song the words “information computer” are used to refer to… a computer.  The phrase is used by either the President of the United States or one of his close associates, as it is used during a scene in the Situations Room, which I thought was just called the Situation Room, but maybe things were different in the 1980s.

I was initially inclined to cut him a break.  The book was written in 1987, after all, and that was a while ago. Computers weren’t in super-common usage, right, so a redundant phrase like “information computer” might have been something somebody said, I dunno.

Then somebody gets asked for their “computer number” later on, and it’s just like an ID number or something, and a third computer is described as being used to keep track of dates when people entered and exited a certain building, a task much more suited for a notebook.

I should not have cut him a break, as “computers” would only be the first item entered into a very long list of things that Robert McCammon does not really understand.  And I only made it through a bit more than 300 of this book’s nearly nine hundred and fifty pages of garbage before checking out and putting the book on a shelf, never to be touched again.

The basic premise: World War III starts in the first fifty pages or so, as the Russians and the Americans and who the hell knows who else fires all of their nukes at each other, obliterating basically everything.  The war happens because of Reasons, basically; McCammon starts in media res because what he wants is a book where everybody is dead.

The book is nine hundred and fifty fucking pages long, people, and fully half of that is dedicated to describing what people or things look like.  The rest of it is dedicated to getting basic matters of fact, logic, narrative consistency or physics wrong.  Two brief examples:

EXAMPLE PRIMUS!  The President is a character for the first little part of the book.  I thought he was actually rather interesting, as it’s clear right away that he feels (rightfully!) that he’s in way over his head and has no way how to prevent the terrible catastrophe that’s coming.  That’s neat!  Too bad that a few dozen pages later he’s killed when a flying bus destroys Air Force One, which isn’t called Air Force One even though that’s what the President’s plane has been called since the 1950s.

You may be wondering if you read the phrase “a flying bus destroys Air Force One” correctly.  Yes.  You did.  A nuclear explosion somewhere sends a bus flying so far and so high that it hits and destroys Air Force One, but without the nuclear explosion itself affecting the plane.

EXAMPLE SECUNDUS!  Several characters who survived the initial bombardment of New York City by being underground at the time are attempting to escape Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel.  Radiation, by the way, is something that McCammon will have other characters talk about incessantly but wandering around Manhattan after it has been hit by several nuclear weapons is no problem.  The Holland Tunnel is ankle-deep in water at the entrance.  The characters are able to walk through it to escape.  The water never rises above waist level.

So, two things about that:  1) the tunnel is, well, a tunnel, which goes under a river, which means that if it is ankle deep in water at the entrance the part that is actually under a river is going to be completely fucking submerged.  Also, the tunnel is completely full of burned bodies and smashed cars despite having been basically the safest place imaginable during the bombardment.  It’s clear that McCammon wants us to think the damage is caused by the bombs and not, say, panicking drivers, by the way, so he doesn’t get that out.

Ah, fuck it, let’s do an EXAMPLE TERTIUS! that will explain why I put the book down.  Two of the survivors are a kid who is plainly and obviously a psychopath and his one-handed nutjob Vietnam vet mentor, both of whom escaped from a gun nut survivalist mountain compound that was basically being used as a timeshare for other gun nuts by the Vietnam dude.  Don’t ask.  A pair of people, a man and a woman, are walking toward the Salt Lake in Utah– a useful source of perfectly drinkable and not poisonous at all water, where it is logical that many people would gather after a nuclear apocalypse.

The nutjob and the psycho kid pop out from where they have concealed themselves under dirt trapdoors like fucking human spiders and slit the man’s throat.  It is not clear how long they have been under there waiting.  Many other dirt-people also pop out of their own dirt trapdoor things and begin offering the man and the boy money for the woman.  The woman, who several weeks after a nuclear apocalypse is wearing a number of diamond and pearl necklaces, a thin T-shirt that reads “Rich Bitch,” no bra and, as it will be revealed later, no underwear either, offers herself sexually to the boy to avoid being gangraped.  This is OK because the book helpfully lets us know that the man of the pair used to help her out by being her pimp.  There are loving, detailed descriptions of her nipples.

Also, the nutjob spends a lengthy monologue ranting crazily about how the people in the cool camp nearby with supplies and such won’t let him into the camp, which is why he has to live as a dirt-person, and then transitions seamlessly into screeching about how no one can keep him from getting what he wants, as if he has not just described someone preventing him from getting him what he wants.

Nope.  Done here, thanks.  Bye, book.  I found out later, reading other bad reviews, that there is a 7-year jump later in the book, because sure, why not.  This is easily the worst book I read this year– the bits I describe are only the lowlights of the first 300 pages; there are examples at least once a chapter of something that makes no Goddamn sense at all.  Don’t read this, ever, and shun anyone who says they liked it or it was good.

Ow holy god shit ow OW in which I don’t OW go to the OW hospital OW but maybe OW I should? Ow.

Jaws_Wired_Shut.pngI swear this just happened: I was getting my son ready for bed– read him a story and all– and was sort of wrestling and tickling and playing with him and he entirely accidentally elbowed me in the jaw and I swear to God he hit it just right and dislocated the fucking thing.  And like half a second later I just reached up with my hand and somehow, like, popped it back into place?  And there was a few seconds of absolutely tremendous horrifying pain and maybe another readjustment or two and now my whole face just feels swollen and weird and okay I can talk and I just ate something and I’m not dying but my face is not supposed to feel like this.  

Is that even a possible thing?  That my kid might have knocked my jaw out of place with an elbow and that I just put it back a half-second later without knowing what I was doing or even thinking about it?  Because really ow I didn’t like that very much but I feel like maybe I fixed it?

Also: ow.

Two unrelated things

Bakery-Deli-Logo-SmallI have posted about Rise ‘n Roll Bakery before, at least once, but I can’t find it at the moment.  The “long story short” version is that they serve the greatest doughnuts in the world, or more specifically they serve the greatest doughnut holes in the world.  This is known; it’s not up for debate.  The best.  Ever.

The problem with Rise ‘n Roll is that until very recently the closest location to me was in freaking Middlebury, deep in Amish country, where people like me dare not go.  Granted, that’s mostly because we’re lazy, as I’m sure that the people in Middlebury are perfectly nice– they’re Amish, after all– and wouldn’t, like, hurt me or anything if I tried to buy their delicious doughnuts.

Note the “until recently” there.  Because just this week they opened a new location, and the new location is practically next door to my comic shop.  In other words, I’ll be driving past this place at least twice a week, basically forever.

This is going to make me very very fat.  Or at least I thought it was.  I swung by the comic shop today to drop off some promotional materials for my signing on the 9th, since I wanted them to have them before new comic book day tomorrow.  On the way back, for the first time, I pulled into Rise ‘n Roll to buy some doughnut holes.

And discovered something terrible.  Something that shouldn’t have surprised me, but did, and now I am very very sad.

Rise ‘n Roll does all their baking in the morning.

Which means that by 4:00 PM, which is about the time I’ll be driving past them, almost every time, their doughnuts, and their delicious doughnut holes, are gone.  And they’re likely to always be gone.

Which means that the new Rise ‘n Roll is even worse than I thought.  It’s not going to make me fat.  It’s just going to make me want to be fat, but it will be a terrible, no-doughnuts-for-you tease.

I may have to burn the place down.

(Sidenote: their website is risenroll.com, which I parse as “risen roll,” which brings to mind all sorts of hilariously blasphemous story ideas about resurrected Jesus pastry.  This may or may not be deliberate; I’m not sure.)

Second thing, this one shorter.  I got this in the mail yesterday:

FullSizeRenderDerek Dieter is running against a woman for City Clerk.

Can you tell?

Don’t read this if you respect me


…I fully expect this to be my most popular post of all time, by the way.

Alongside this whole “don’t yell at kids” thing I’ve been doing lately I’ve been trying in general to become a gentler person.  At some point in the last few weeks I decided (possibly at the spirited urging of some internet people) that I wasn’t going to be automatically killing spiders any longer.  Seeing a spider no longer means trying to kill a spider.  They eat other bugs.  This is good, right?  We like spiders; we should keep them around.

There’s been a spider living in my bathroom for the last week or so.  Just a little house spider type of dude, one of the almost-transparent kinds, not like the black monstrosity I killed in the tub not too long ago (and, I think, blogged about, but I’m not gonna go looking right now.)  He’s been hanging out in the upper corners of the bathroom, so even if I were inclined to kill him, he’d be hard to reach and I’d have to stand on something– no real point, right?  So for several days every time I’ve gone into the bathroom I’ve spent a few seconds looking around to see if I could spot him.  The other day– Wednesday morning, maybe?– he happened to scuttle into the laundry room before I closed the door, and I’ve not seen him in the bathroom since.  Which, weirdly, was sorta sad.  I’d started thinking of him as a bit of a pet.  For all I know, the dog ate him.

My wife went down into our (more-or-less unfinished) basement tonight to go through some stuff and called me down; it rained like hell all day today and we had some water on the floor in the utility room and, as it turned out, some more– inexplicably in the middle of the damn room– in the main area down there.  I discovered the wet area in the main room by accident– by stepping in it, wearing socks.  Which led me to take my socks off and cuff my jeans a bit, as my jeans are generally a bit too long when I’m not wearing shoes.  Several times as we were poking around looking for wet spots (shut up, you’re gross) I walked through cobwebs.  They don’t freak me out like they do some people but they’re still kinda skeevy, y’know?  Nobody likes walking through cobwebs.

Being bald and walking through cobwebs is more unpleasant than usual, by the way.  Trust me.

Anyway, I’m brushing myself off every three seconds and my feet are cold and my pants and socks are wet and WHY THE HELL DOES EVERYTHING IN THIS HOUSE LEAK ALL THE SUDDEN JESUS CHRIST and suddenly it occurs to me that I have to use the bathroom.  There is no bathroom in the basement.  And, believe me, ordinary “have to use the bathroom” types of experiences get rather radically worse quickly when you have to use the bathroom while barefoot on a cold tile floor and wet.

“Gotta go,” I told my wife, and headed upstairs.

Where I entered the bathroom and, well, went.  This was, shall we say, a multiple event, necessitating a seated position, and because I’m like that I grabbed a book on the way into the bathroom.  (There’s a post coming about John Green, by the way.)  So I’m seated and reading my book and taking care of business… and my fucking pet spider drops onto the top of my head, scuttles off, lands on the book, and then drops into my underwear.

I will allow you to imagine the sequence of events that followed, as my skill as an author cannot do justice to what actually occurred.

I kill spiders on sight again, by the way.