in a dark, dark wood by Ruth Ware

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I picked up “in a dark, dark wood” by Ruth Ware partially because – let’s be honest here – the cover is really pretty. But also because I felt like a good thriller. With the beginning of that crisp fall chill in the air, I wanted something a little creepy that would keep me turning the pages while curled up under my blanket at night. The inside jacket compared it to “Gone Girl” (which I didn’t love) but also to “The Girl on the Train” (which WAS good!) so I figured I had a 50/50 chance of enjoying it.

Nora is a writer who lives in a small flat by herself where she works, drinks coffee and generally just… exists, and pretty successfully too. One day she checks her email and discovers an invitation to a hen weekend (bachelorette weekend for us Americans) of her best friend from school, Clare, who she hasn’t seen in 10 years. Curiosity gets the better of her and Nora agrees to go as long as her current best friend, Nina, tags along.

Clare was beautiful, popular and cruel in school. She was the queen bee who manipulated and orchestrated to get what she wanted. Nora, who was more awkward and introverted back then, is hoping Clare has changed in their years apart.

The weekend of the hen party arrives and so do the guests – driving up a bumpy dirt road to a creepy glass house in the middle of the woods that has no cell service. Here we already know, someone is going to die! Woot! You know at least one person is going to be murdered in a dark grisly fashion when a book puts all the characters together in the woods with no cell service – it just wouldn’t be right otherwise.

The other attendees at the hen weekend are a small mixed group. Tom, a gay male friend in the theater business. Flo, the very intense, slightly crazy and extremely controlling current best friend of Clare. Another friend who we don’t need to name because she disappears quickly from the plot when she misses her baby too much to stay. And of course Nora, Nina and Clare herself. Overall, a typical gathering of stereotypes thrown together for this one weekend of pre-wedding intrigue and murder.

So the stage is set – the guests have arrived, the creepy house beckons and the woods are waiting. Clare rolls up last to her hen weekend and immediately informs Nora that she’s marrying Nora’s ex-boyfriend (whom Nora is still in love with) and we’re off! Love, betrayal, lies and the slow unfurling of their past.

The guests play games, drink and as they get to know each other, the menacing hints begin. Footsteps in the snow, the main phone line being cut, a door flying open in the wind while they’re all sleeping. Is someone or something in the woods with them? Is someone or something in the house with them?

“in a dark, dark wood” kept me turning the pages even when about two-thirds through, I was pretty sure I knew who killed who and why. I quite enjoyed the book despite it’s slightly predictable cast of characters, setting and plot twists. It’s definitely a fun novel for fans of light thrillers, murder mysteries and anything with a little old school love and betrayal-by-my-former-best-friend in it.

Less irritating than “Gone Girl” but not nearly as good as “Girl on the Train” – “in a dark, dark wood” will keep you happily entranced for an evening or two, but it won’t make you hide behind your couch with an ax when someone rings your doorbell.

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The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

“Perdu reflected that is was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books. They look after people.”

I admit, it sends me into a slightly irrational rage when people say they want good “summer reading” or “beach reading” because the connotations of that are that they only want light, fluffy books that won’t make them use those braincells that they’re about to fry by laying in the sun all day drinking tequila and red bull. Inevitably from June to August when I suggest a wonderfully moving or intense book I recently enjoyed, I am immediately rebuffed with exclamations of “too serious!” “too long!” “that looks heavy…” and other nonsense that makes me just wish summer was over so that ‘summer reading’ would be over too.

That said, “The Little Paris Bookshop” is probably the perfect ‘summer beach read.’ It’s sweet and straight forward, engaging without being difficult – this little adventure follows Monsieur Perdu in his floating bookstore barge on a quest to figure out what happened with the love of his life all those years ago. She disappeared from his life, leaving behind only a letter that he has never been able to make himself open.

Perdu fancies himself a literary apothecary, subscribing books for what ails people – whether its loneliness, fear or self-doubt. He finds the books that will build them up, give them hope, confidence and a lust for life again. He finds the books they need to heal, but cannot find the book that will heal himself.

One day Perdu is forced to open the letter and learns that the ending of their relationship was not what he thought. Full of fresh grief and guilt – he flees by picking up anchor and traveling on his floating bookstore for the south of France.

In his travels Perdu picks up passengers, trades books for food/assistance, makes new friends and finally begins to heal.

An adorable story about a floating bookshop, the power of the written word and how far a little bit of love can spread – “The Little Paris Bookshop” is a delightful gem of a novel from start to finish, whether it’s read on a beach or not.

One inescapable year

“And then it’s always that one word that makes you so different and puts you outside the overlap of everyone else; and that word is so fucking big and loud, it’s the only thing anyone ever hears when your name is spoken. 

And whenever that happens to us, all the other words that make us the same disappear in it’s shadow.” 

“Winger” by Andrew Smith starts with Ryan Dean West, 14, having his head shoved in a toilet. As he takes note of his current situation, we learn a little about him. West, also known as “Winger” because of his position on the rugby team, hates football players, and is top of his class as a junior, loves to draw and has a wicked sense of humor about the world around him.

He attends Pine Mountain, a boarding school he refers to as “the best school around for the rich deviants of tomorrow.” This year, West has been moved to Opportunity Hall, a dorm for troublemakers, to room with Chas, a fellow rugby player he doesn’t get along with. So the year starts off with some difficulty, in addition to the fact he is trying to overcome being a younger man in high school, where any kind of difference makes you stand out.

West believes that the main difference of each person, whether it be age, size, sexuality or gender, can be the one aspect that blinds those around us to anything else. No matter what else he does, he feels that his age is what defines him to his peers. Kids at his school may be known by identifiers such as “the gay guy” or “the nice guy,” but at only 14 years old, he is known as “the young guy.”

This makes him feel that he has to work hard to gain respect from his fellow students and the attention of his best friend, Annie (whom he is madly in love with, of course). As the year progresses, he tries to break out of his identifier and broaden his mind about others’.

West has many typical teen experiences. He sneaks out of his dorm at night, gets into fights with friends, falls head over heels in love, acts incredibly stupid and even gets bullied by other students.

West slowly realizes that his best guy friend is Joey, a young man who also happens to be gay, and his girl best friend, Annie, is someone worth fighting for. He gets to know students outside of his circle and watches his friends overcome their personal battles each day as he confronts his own. He does his best to be a good friend in the face of all the hormones, stupidity and headstrong beliefs that tend to fill teens with such surety when they are young.

“Winger” is hilarious, imaginative and heartbreaking. The comics included throughout the book and the sense of humor add a light undertone to balance the seriousness of some of West’s experiences.

I couldn’t help but be charmed by this book. It made me laugh all the way through and then completely broke my heart.

It begins with a statement that reverberates throughout the rest of the book – “Joey told me nothing ever goes back exactly the way it was, that things expand and contract – like breathing, but you could never fill your lungs up with the same air twice.”

And by the end, we learn with Ryan Dean West how one incredibly beautiful and inescapably hard year can change everything.

It’s never too late to fall in love with books

“What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.” 

In “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett, the queen of England is meandering about her grounds one day following her corgis as they bark up an awful racket. Turning the corner to see what has alarmed them, she comes upon a traveling library.

The queen, never having visited the traveling library, goes inside out of a sense of duty more than interest, but she checks out a book anyway. Through this chance encounter when she is 79 years old, a late in life love of reading is born.

The only other visitor on her forays to the traveling library is a young man named Norman, who works in the kitchens. The queen decides she likes his knowledge of books and frank manner, so she promotes him to be her amanuensis, a literary adviser and assistant.

Thereafter, he sits outside her door (often reading) in case she needs him to advise her on books or authors she may enjoy, to fetch volumes for her or return a book to its home.

The queen’s growing obsession with books begins to annoy her husband, her staff and her visitors.

She used to be a part of dedications and state affairs with a proud sense of duty and willingness but now resents the time they take from her books.

She used to wave enthusiastically from her coach to the crowds; now, she waves with one hand while reading a book (out of sight) in the other.

Her interest in literature opens up the world to her in a way she has never experienced but causes concern and strife among her attendants.

She no longer cares if a pair of shoes is worn twice a week – only that the next Plath book she wants to check out is available.

Instead of talking about traffic or the weather with visiting dignitaries, she asks about their interest in Proust or Dickinson.

The voracious reader the queen becomes creates a humorous account of how books can envelop a person and become an all-consuming passion.

This lovely novella is for anyone who has ever stayed up late in bed reading by flashlight, anyone who has curled up on a couch for the evening with a novel instead of going out on the town and anyone who has ever put off all real obligations until the next book in a series was finished.

Whether you are just discovering your love of reading or have had a lifelong affair with literature, this cheerful, feel-good novel about books is a must read for bibliophiles everywhere.