My Haunted Library

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Review: The Lying Game

The Lying Game—Ruth Ware, 2017.  3.5/5

The lies four friends told seventeen years ago return to haunt them when a set of skeletal remains turns up on the beach.

“I need you.” Kate’s terse text sends her three best friends in the world hurrying to her side. Kate, Isa, Thea, and Fatima have been besties since they spent a year together in boarding school. There at Salten House, they play the “lying game” on their credulous classmates, earning points by telling shocking lies. Their game and cliquish attitude isolate them from the rest of the school but solidifies their friendship. Most weekends they spend at Kate’s dilapidated house on the coast, drinking, smoking, hanging with her handsome French “stepbrother,” Luc, and swimming in the waters of the Reach. Kate’s permissive, artist father, Ambrose, draws them incessantly, clothed and dishabille. One day, Ambrose turns up dead: Suicide. Maybe. The girls secretly bury Ambrose on the beach. Now grown, the women live with the guilt of hiding the body and the lies they told over a decade ago. But someone (or someones) knows their secret and the truth could ruin their lives.

The Lying Game is a page-turner that ticks all the boxes on the psychological thriller checklist. We have a completely unreliable first-person narrator with a fragile emotional state. An ominous, gothic setting: The decrepit old Tide Mill that is Kate’s home, and to an extent, her prison, is literally being washed away. Natural elements like water and light and wind take on threatening qualities. The flashbacks to the fifteen-year old girls’ life in boarding school are among the best parts of the book, and significantly add to the novel’s tense, slow burn. There are red herrings. Secrets. Blackmail. A remote, creepy village literally (and symbolically) covered in nets. A gaunt, hostile postmistress with a grudge. The list goes on. These elements shine.

The novel stumbles, for me, in two places. First, the narrator, Isa. Her borderline over-obsession with her tiresome (mostly screaming) six-month infant, and her willingness to lie to (and forsake in a heartbeat) her significant other are off-putting. I didn’t like her. Consequently, I was not rooting for her, and did not care if her lies were exposed. Unfortunately, Ware spends most of the time crafting Isa’s character, and so Fatima and Thea read a little flat. Second, the women’s big secret, the one that has driven them to extreme coping mechanisms, haunted them for seventeen years, riddled them with guilt, etc…wasn’t really that big a secret. Lois Duncan’s excellent YA book, I Know What You Did Last Summer—which The Lying Game pays homage toharbors a more serious secret.

That said, I flew through The Lying Game. Ware is undisputedly skilled at building tension and keeping interest. I do, however, recommend The Death of Mrs. Westaway and In a Dark, Dark Wood over The Lying Game.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway

The Death of Mrs. Westaway—Ruth Ware, 2018. 4.5

Superstitions and secrets make for a tense read in this deeply satisfying mystery.

At just twenty-one, Hal is saddled with all the responsibilities—and fears—of adulthood. Working as a tarot reader after the death of her mother, Hal is drowning in bills, soon to be homeless, and threatened by an unsavory lender. She is desperate.

Then she receives a letter that could change her life, naming her as a beneficiary in her grandmother’s will: impossible, since her grandparents died a decade ago. With no other options, Hal decides to scam her way into some inheritance money. This sounds simple in the abstract, but when she is warmly accepted by the family members, Hal is torn. As Hal works herself deeper into an ethical dilemma, she uncovers a passel of ominous family secrets and puts herself in mortal danger.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway is a modern take on a classic country house mystery. A closed circle of suspects, an isolated location, an old mystery slowly exposed through tantalizing diary entries from the past, all combined with a scrappy heroine who has no one to trust (who no one should trust), are well calculated to make us mystery lovers shiver in delight.

Ware’s careful plotting and lightning pacing work to maximize suspense, making you perfectly o.k. with the fact that very little action takes place until a final, movie-worthy dramatic climax. Ware does a few—good!—things differently with The Death of Mrs. Westaway that make for a surprising and welcome contrast to the feel of her other books. Here, she adds a tantalizing touch of the almost-supernatural: enticing us with the exotically arcane details and symbolism of Hal’s tarot cards and adding a rich layer to the narrative.

There is also a pleasantly unexpected warmth to the characters of this tale. We like Hal, with her helpless façade hiding her inner strength. We root for her as she simultaneously struggles with her deception yet is at the mercy of other deceptions swirling around her.

While the mystery itself is not especially tangled, Ware’s humanizing use of deeper themes make us reflect on both the nature of family and the creation of identity, all the while we’re eagerly flying through the pages to discover who done it. And just what it was. The Death of Mrs. Westaway is my favorite of Ware’s works so far.

rating system four and a half crows