The Woman in Cabin 10 definitely intrigued me, but at the same time pushed me away—I was not into Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. I expect so much more from my books than what those offered. The characters were flat and I figured out the plots easily. I thought there would be more of a twist, or an extra twist, but no, there wasn’t. I want to be challenged when I read a book!
I know I’m in the minority with my dislike of these bestsellers and honestly it’s great that those books sold so well—so many people reading! So much money being pumped into great imprints like Riverhead, who was able to springboard new ideas and new innovations, probably due a lot to the wild success of Hawkins’ book. I love that.
But what to do? Do I continue to read these types of books that don’t really get me excited about the depth and potential of crime fiction, or do I become ignorant of what the masses of pop culture are reading? A bit of both I suppose. (You won’t catch me with a copy of 50 Shades if you catch my drift…)
So after reading all the rave reviews for In a Dark, Dark Wood but being a bit hesitant to read it, I finally came around, bought both Ware’s books and plunged in. I decided to start with Cabin 10, though I generally read books in chronological order when it comes to situations like this (it took me so long to get to The Goldfinch because I decided I HAD to find hardcover copies of her other two books and read those first), for some reason, Cabin 10 spoke to me. And with books, you gotta go with your gut.
Here’s the brief synopses:
The Woman in Cabin 10: Lo, a journalist, is invited on a new private cruise ship to bring some media attention to the boat. She has been mostly ignored at her job, so this could be her big break. On her first night there, she borrows mascara from a woman in the cabin next to her, cabin 10.
Later that night after dinner and plenty of drinks, she returns to her room and hears something—or someone—being thrown over the side from cabin 10. She alerts security, who goes over to search the room with her, but it is spotless. No one was even registered to that room, but she knows she saw the woman there earlier.
Lo thinks the woman has been killed and of course no one believes her story. She’s trapped on a boat with a murderer—it could be any one of the guests or crew.
In a Dark, Dark Wood: Nora hasn’t heard from her college friend Clare in years but from out of the blue she gets invited to Clare’s hen-do (British for bachelorette party) at a cabin in the woods. Despite her misgivings, she decides to go.
But there are secrets and old feelings that come up and the weekend getaway is going to take a dark turn, one that lands Nora in the hospital not remembering what happened. Can she put the pieces back together and figure out what went wrong?
After having read both, I definitely enjoyed Cabin 10 more than the debut novel, but I can see what the appeal of Dark Wood was when it came out. These are more experiential and reactionary than intellectual, which is great. It is good to have a mix of what you read.
They are fun, easy reads, perfect for beaches, weekend trips, casual readers, and anyone who is into light reading with a touch of scary intrigue. They were basically one-sitting books for me—I honestly raced through them, because I wanted to find out if all my theories were right!
Ware is great at evoking a tone and creating a leading character that is relatable, fallible, and human. Both books focus on a central female lead who is thrust from a position of relative security into an unknown situation that rapidly deteriorates around her. She is a bit of a loner, a quiet writer type, someone who is very introspective and not much given to action.
The main, glaringly obvious fault for me was that Lo and Nora were the same person. The way they spoke, acted, thought, even the very specific way they took their coffee all made me think they were so obviously created by the same person, who was writing a bit of herself into her protagonists.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with drawing from life to write characters, but it shows a weakness to me that these characters are so similar. It makes me wonder if Ware is capable of creating a different type of heroine, of writing a different sort of narrative.
Which brings me to the format. Both of these narratives are basically locked-room mysteries. The characters are all stuck together in one space and can’t or don’t leave until something happens to release them.
At the cabin, Nora and her only ally Nina keep each other there—it’s just a weekend, we just have to make it through the weekend, they say. On the cruise ship, Lo is physically trapped. She can’t leave because they are stranded in the middle of the ocean where no one can hear them scream.
Both books also employ flash-forwards in the narrative to mix up the reader and elevate tension. I think this technique was handled more deftly in Cabin 10, which uses press-like clippings at the end of each chapter that disorient the reader and cause dread; based on the content of the clippings we don’t know if Lo will survive the book or not.
There are lots of little details placed all throughout the text that are there if you want to unravel the mystery. Especially in Dark Wood, I thought they were obvious as road signs—every detail in that book is there for a reason. Seriously. Talk about a Chekov’s gun. Sheesh.
And all that talk about her past and seemingly throwaway dialogue bits that get boring when Tom is just talking about himself contains important pieces to the mystery of whodunit. You can figure it out! Because nothing action-y or scary really happens for so much of the book, it’s easy to get complacent. But all those hints are there.
In Cabin 10, it is much of the same, but I think the details are hidden better among the larger cast of characters. Everyone is suspicious. Lo has to investigate on her own. With the crime happening up front, there is more room to play with the rest of the plot. And, Ware leaves a few things for the reader to either find or not find—which I truly admire. Spelling out everything like at the end of a Scooby-Doo episode is not an ideal way to end your book.
I don’t dismiss a book as bad just because I figured out the twist or the secret. That is what makes these types of mystery/thrillers fun; I want to be able to figure out what happened before the characters get to the finish.
It is even better when there are pieces I didn’t figure out, little surprises still left that I missed. There should be enough clues left in the text—smartly—that I could figure it out if I was really looking. That type of interactive reading is so much fun. But I don’t think it should be easy. I don’t like to feel like an idiot as a reader, like an author thought that I wouldn’t get it.
I felt like a savvy Sherlock Holmes when I discovered I’d been right about the plots of these two books—such a good feeling! You don’t get that from reading any other type of book. It’s so fun to solve a mystery like that and I guess that’s why I keep coming back for more thrillers like these.
Overall, these books are definitely a lot of fun and I recommend the second one. If you are looking for something that isn’t especially taxing intellectually, but that you can really sink your teeth into, either of these will do the trick.
Get your copy of The Woman in Cabin 10
Get your copy of In a Dark, Dark Wood
Find out more about the author, Ruth Ware
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Find out more about the publisher, Scout Press (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster)
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It’s October and you’re looking to snuggle down with a good read. I can help with that! If you’re looking for something to really get into, a book with a lot of interesting moving parts, I suggest Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch.
This is the third novel by Koch translated into English and all three have sold well. After reading this, I promptly went and borrowed the first two, The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool, from my mom, who avidly read them as they came out. (Moms are always right, aren’t they? I should’ve listened to her!)
Dear Mr. M begins as voyeuristic letters written to a well-known author in Norway. The stalker-like letters, which are almost more like diary entries, detail moments in the author’s life and even his wife and child’s movements throughout their day. Creepy, no?
But there is something else, details from a shared past that keep popping up. It seems that this shadowy figure behind the letters is harboring some pent-up feelings about one of Mr. M’s books, a book that although fiction, is based on true events.
These true events are ones that the letter writer was involved in, where a teacher who had an illicit affair with one of his high school students goes missing after last being seen by the student and her new boyfriend. They, of course, are suspected.
Then, there is an abrupt narrative switch and all of a sudden we are back in time, a fly on the wall learning about the true events that led up to Laura’s relationship with her teacher, Mr. Landzaat, and how she falls for her new (age-appropriate) boyfriend Herman and the ultimate disappearance of the teacher. It is almost shocking how the narrative voice switches.
There is yet another switch to the author Mr. M’s perspective and we watch as he handles his decline into authorial obscurity, overshadowed by younger, better writers, and haunted by the fact that he probably reached his pinnacle long ago and most people no longer bother to buy his books or even know who he is. Isn’t this what authors everywhere fear? Gaining fame from one book and then never being able to equal it?
Where the book really picks up is in its intersecting narratives. Past and present, fact and fiction, truth and lies. It contains a sort of meta-narrative, thinking about books that use real events but distort them.
Sometimes the narrator, the letter writer (I won’t give away his identity as identity goes far in this book), goes outside of the book to think about the structure of it, discussing how he is telling three different stories and how the reader might receive them.
The way Koch handles these seemingly disparate sections is truly unique. The book almost feels like three novellas that happen to tangentially intersect and then meld completely into one by the end.
The mystery that I suppose you could say is central to the book, what happened to Mr. Landzaat, is not nearly as important as how it is told. And this is so timely for us as a culture right now!
With shows like Making a Murderer literally making up the public’s mind for them without telling the full story, it is easy to see how information can be manipulated to tell one story over another. If you’ve seen this show and by the end were completely convinced of Stephen Avery’s innocence, think again—everything is not as that documentary presented it. And do some research! Don’t just believe everything you see!
If you are interested in true crime, I also recommend the new Amanda Knox documentary on Netflix. She is the American student who was studying abroad in Italy and along with her Italian boyfriend, was convicted of brutally murdering her English roommate. They were both acquitted and are now free. It’s an amazing look at how a version of a narrative gets way out of hand and how police prejudice (not to mention shoddy police work) and media vilification can create a verdict.
In the book, you might be wondering why there is so much focus on things that are only tangentially related to that main mystery—isn’t that what the book is about, after all? Don’t you just want to know what happened all those years ago!?
I would argue that while the plot centers around that mystery, the book itself is more about the metafictional aspect of building a story. About the manipulation of words and how people use them to tell truths or lies and how that may change over time.
Mr. M used the intriguing tale of two students who may or may not have offed their teacher to write a novel that tells a tale of its own. But is that how it happened? Not according to the letter writing stalker. Whose truth is the real truth? What story can we really believe?
The complexity of the plot, intricacy of the characters, and tone that this book created reminded me a lot of The Secret History by Donna Tartt, a truly magnificent novel that similarly contains a mystery that isn’t as important as the story and the characters that are built up throughout the book.
There is this magical quality about them that serves as a building warning throughout; the reader knows something is off, something bad is going to happen or has already happened, but it has yet to be revealed. That tension is everything.
Though there are three stories contained in this book, there are really four if you count the book itself, which contains all of them, as its own sort of truth and record. In the end, that book brings the narrative back to the fictional landscape that the whole story really lies on. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that while reading.
But that’s the final layer: the reader. Without someone opening the book and deciding to read it, none of the stories can take place and interact, because the real work of the story happens in your mind. The real unfolding is an active process that can only take place once the physical book is here, with you, in the room. Then you too become part of the story, yet another layer, yet another part of the story.
So take it. And begin.
Get your copy of Dear Mr. M
Find out more about the publisher, Hogarth (Penguin Random House)
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.