Monday, June 29, 2009

What We're Reading: Tana French

Librarians read a lot of reviews. Since we order hundreds of books for the library every year, there’s no way that one person (or even eight or nine) can read every one of those books, so we look to the reviewers to help us out. As a teen librarian, though, I have discovered that I need to seek out reviews written by readers (i.e., teens) in addition to those written for library journals, because some of the novels that adult reviewers think are the perfect young adult book turn out to be ho hum in the opinion of teens. This has given me the habit of seeking out the reviews posted by the public on, as well as checking social networking sites for readers—LibraryThing or GoodReads—for picks and pans. Now I look at those for my own (non-work-related) reading as well, and sometimes they give me a laugh.

I recently picked up a book because I liked the way the cover art expressed the title. (Yes, cover art DOES matter.) The book is In the Woods, by Tana French, and on the cover blurb it is billed as a mystery/suspense novel. I enjoy most genres of fiction, and mystery is one of them; but in Tana French I discovered not just a mystery writer, but a master of detail and expression. I was delighted to discover that she had written a second novel, The Likeness, which, while not a direct sequel, revisits some of the same characters shortly after the conclusion of the first book.

Not to disparage mysteries like Robert B. Parker’s Spencer novels, for instance—they do what they are supposed to do, and very well—but after having read at least half a dozen of them, I find I know very little about the main character; he is the pivot upon which the story turns, but most of the messy details of his life are omitted. After reading French’s books, on the other hand, I would recognize her protagonists if I saw them on the street, and would immediately invite certain of them out for a coffee. It’s not just that she writes with attention to detail; I find the psychological complexities of her characters and the tension of their inner battles and their relationships with others riveting. She also has the talent to write likeable people—not in a cute or cozy way, but rather by enlisting your sympathy and admiration for their thoughts and actions, even when these may be less than commendable.

Others, however, did not share my enthusiasm for her explication of every character and setting, including wardrobe, paint color and shrubbery. A quote from Amazon reader/reviewer “I’m Not Cocteau”:

Tana French is a superb writer who never says in a paragraph what she can state in five pages. With enough plot for a short story, this acclaimed author has filled 466 pages with lengthy conversations and precise descriptions of everything under the sun, utilizing a prose that makes you beg for the comparative terseness of an Agatha Christie. Possibly if The Likeness had not been billed as a mystery, I would not have felt I had been bilked out of time I could have better spent learning Dutch, baking a pie, or cleaning under my desk.

So—I won’t give you the plot details on French’s books, but rather will recommend that you pick them up and see if you agree with me (and about 40 percent of the amateur reviewers) that the writing both enhances and transcends the story—or with the other 60 percent, who wanted a mystery that was clear, concise, and wrapped up neatly with a big red bow on the last page.

1 comment:

Teen Librarian said...

I absolutely LOVED "In the Woods" by Tana French. I read it over a year ago and it still stands out to me! It's a great book for young adults, too.