Tag Archive | mystery

Book review: ‘Til Death Do Us Part by Amanda Quick

'Til Death Do Us Part‘Til Death Do Us Part by Amanda Quick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Every so often I indulge in a fluffy historical romance as a palate cleanser after a steady diet of more serious fiction. But I want well-written fluff, so I’m choosy about which authors to read.

I’ve long been an admirer of Amanda Quick‘s (*) work, and picked this one up, expecting another of her light-hearted Regencies. ‘Til Death Do Us Part is not a Regency, and not so light-hearted, either.

Calista (a name which I cannot encounter without thinking of Calista Flockhart of Ally McBeal fame) Langley has a stalker. She thinks this person may be someone she rejected as a client for her “introductions” agency, and engages the brother of another client to help her find out the stalker’s identity and put a stop to his sinister gifts.

Trent Hastings approached Calista at her business, thinking she was running some sort of scam on his vulnerable younger sister. Realizing she was on the up-and-up, and recognizing the danger she’s been placed in, he volunteers to use the deductive skills he’s honed as a writer of detective fiction to locate her tormentor.

Much action, danger, and Victorian-era repressed romance ensue.

It’s been…oh, several years at least since I last read an Amanda Quick novel. She doesn’t disappoint. The mystery hangs together fairly well; the final twist is indeed a surprise, although I had begun to suspect all was not as it seemed with that particular person somewhere around the second or third time the character showed up in the story. The romance between Calista and Trent is medium-warmish, but not knock-your-socks-off don’t-let-the-kiddies-read-this-book steamy. That’s either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. Personally, I don’t want an “insert Rod A into Slot B” sex scene, so I appreciated the, uh, discretion with which these episodes were approached.

Yes, it’s fluff. But it’s fluffy romantic suspense done well.

(*) AKA Jayne Ann Krentz

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R.I.P. XI Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #5)The Secret Place by Tana French

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Holly Mackey, a 16-year-old student at St. Kilda’s School in Dublin, walks into the police station early one morning and hands a PostSecret type card to Detective Stephen Moran. The card — actually, a photograph — showing a candid shot of Chris Harper, a young man who had been murdered the previous year, had been pinned to a school bulletin board with the caption “I know who killed him.”

RIP 9 Peril the Second

Detective Moran immediately takes the card to Antoinette Conway, the detective who had been in charge of the fruitless investigation into Chris Harper’s murder. Conway reluctantly decides to include Moran in her renewed investigation and together they descend upon St. Kilda’s in the hope of turning up something more concrete than a blurry photograph and an enigmatic caption.

Once at the school, Moran and Conway quickly narrow down the list of students who had opportunity to place the photograph on the bulletin board to two sets of cliques: the “mean girls”, Queen Bee Joanne and her minions; and the “weird girls”, including Holly Mackey herself. Throughout a long day and well into the evening hours, the detectives interview the girls, one at a time, digging and probing and prodding, doing their best to penetrate a shield of teenage obstinacy and purposeful misdirection.

In between the present-day interviews, the story pops back in time to detail the events leading up to Chris’s murder, with a chilling countdown to death each time the young man makes an appearance on the page.

RIP 11Who placed the card? Who killed the boy? Tana French kept me guessing right up to the last moment, and did so in a spectacularly well-written fashion. I have yet to read one of her novels and be disappointed.

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Reviewed for R.I.P. XI “Peril the Second” Challenge. Click the badge to find out more about this annual event.

R.I.P. XI Catch-up: Screen time

RIP 9 Peril on the Screen

How did I let two weeks go by without posting anything?  It’s amazing how quickly times runs past me these days.

The past couple of weeks, I’ve imbibed a few Perils On The Screen to quickly discuss.

longmireThe new season of Longmire came out on Netflix a couple of weeks ago.  This show was originally on some cable channel, got cancelled a couple of years ago, and Netflix picked it up to continue making new episodes.  It’s a contemporary Western that tells us the story of Walt Longmire, a widowed sheriff who, on top of investigating the murders that take place in his rural Wyoming county, deals with political maneuverings, shady businessmen, and tension with the neighboring Native American reservation.  Sheriff Longmire is played by Robert Taylor, an Australian actor with a pitch perfect American West accent; Katee Sackhoff plays one of his deputies; and Lou Diamond Phillips plays his best friend.  A host of other recurring characters and guest stars rotate through this well-acted series.  Highly recommended.

aftermathI watched the pilot of SyFy‘s new show, Aftermath, the other night.  Oh dear God, what a jumbled mess.  According to the show’s blurb, “When people start disappearing and disasters start to indicate the end of the world is at hand, the Copeland family – Karen, Josh, Dana, Brianna and Matt – must fight for their survival while piecing together clues on how to save what’s left of humanity.”  Mom (Karen, played by Anne Heche) is a badass ex-military pilot; Dad (Josh, played by James Tupper) is a wimpy academic; and the kids are one-dimensional.  To be generous, perhaps the idea was to plop the viewer right down in the middle of the apocalypse with the Copeland family, who themselves have little idea what’s going on, but this was done better in Cloverfield — and that movie had at least some exposition or background chatter (in the way of TV/radio snippets) that gave the viewer a vague idea of the circumstances.  I’ll give episode two a try, because it might get better.  But I don’t have much hope.

slitherLast night, spouse and I watched Slither, a worthy addition to the “Bad Movie Night” list.  It’s bad, but it’s fun bad, because it’s just so absurd AND it doesn’t take itself seriously.  A meteor crashes to Earth somewhere in North Carolina, a creepy crawly from that meteor takes over the body of a human being, and then multiplies itself in an effort to take over more humans.  Featuring Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, and Michael Rooker.  And a number of gross-out scenes, so if you’re sensitive to that, beware.  (I watched a couple of them through my fingers, but mainly turned my head and closed my eyes.)

maltese-falcomFinally, the 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon graced our flat-screen a few weeks ago.  Humphrey Bogart is at his snarling sardonic best as the world-weary private dick Sam Spade; Mary Astor is luminous and beguiling as the damsel in distress; and Peter Lorre plays as sniveling a criminal character as he can muster.  Great fun to watch, but set aside any modern feminist sensitivities when you do.

RIP 11Reviewed for R.I.P XI “Peril on the Screen” Challenge.  Click the badge to find out more about this annual event.

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Book review: A Murder In Time by Julie McElwain

A Murder in TimeA Murder in Time by Julie McElwain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kendra Donovan, FBI agent, darts into the secret staircase of an English manor house to escape an assailant. Woo, oh, I’m so dizzy and nauseated, and my god my head hurts, let me open this door, and ta da! Now she’s in the 19th Century.

I hate time travel novels that have no explanation for the time travel other than woo. It’s one of the reasons I stopped reading the Outlander series. Also, for all the smarts Ms. Donovan supposedly possesses, it takes her forever to figure out and accept that she’s no longer in the 21st century.

Those caveats aside, this is a well-written, fast-paced mystery that kept me guessing the identity of the bad guy right until the reveal. I won’t go looking for further volumes of this series as they’re published, but all in all, not a bad way to kill some commute time.

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Book review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rachel’s daily commute takes her past the neighborhood where she once lived, when she was married. The train frequently sits for several minutes at a railstop right behind the back yard of a young couple whom often Rachel spies sitting on their patio; she has built up an elaborate fantasy existence for these two, fueled by the unfulfilled wishes of her own failed marriage. One day Rachel sees the woman kissing someone other than her husband, shocking her out of her fantasy. Shortly after that, she hears that this woman has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Convinced the strange man being kissed has something to do with the disappearance, Rachel goes to the police, only to be dismissed because of her well-known drinking problem. Undeterred, Rachel continues to investigate the disappearance on her own, in the process raising the spectre of her dead marriage and the issues that led to its failure.

The story itself is well-written and, although I started to get an inkling of how things would shake out somewhere about 2/3 through the book, the final twist isn’t telegraphed and still managed to surprise me.

But none of these characters is likeable. Except one. Rachel, the ex-husband, the new wife, the husband of the missing woman, all of them were simply awful. The only person who seems to have any compassion and goodness of character is Rachel’s roommate, who is treated shabbily and still shows Rachel kindness. And while that may make these people more realistic and human, it also makes them difficult to side with: even Rachel, who is her own worst enemy and manages to sabotage herself at every turn. (Having struggled through and overcome a substance abuse problem myself, I am predisposed to empathy for her; even so, I wanted to take her by the shoulders and shout at her more than once. If nothing else, she made me realize how incredibly patient and loving my loved ones were with me when I was in the throes of addiction.)

So, to sum up, a good story, an engaging story, but one peopled by unlikeable characters being unkind to each other. Such is the drama of the London suburb.

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Book review: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary ThingsThe Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Coralie’s father runs a sideshow on Coney Island, although he prettifies it by calling his establishment a museum — the museum of the title, to be precise. And he’s groomed his daughter her whole life to become one of the exhibits in that sideshow. With Dreamland, the amusement park, undergoing expansion just a short walk away, the Professor (as he prefers to be called) is struggling to hold on to the tiny niche he’s carved out for himself. With Coralie as his living mermaid, he thinks he’s found his draw. Coralie, a dutiful daughter, does as she’s told, and doesn’t truly understand how she’s abused. This treatment is her norm, although she doesn’t like it, and she practices tiny rebellions to alleviate her miserable existence.

Eddie, an erstwhile tailor’s apprentice and bookmaker’s runner, left his father and his Jewish heritage behind with scarcely a look back, and currently makes a living as a photographer, stalking the streets of New York in search of news, and occasionally wandering into the wilds along the Hudson to shoot nature and commune with the quiet. As you may expect, eventually Coralie’s and Eddie’s worlds collide, and therein lies our story.

New York in the early 1900s makes a bustling and dramatic backdrop for our hero and heroine to play against: both the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the conflagration that destroys Dreamland figure heavily into Hoffman’s plot. And I know I’m not doing that plot justice with this synopsis. Let me just say that within the confines of this novel you’ll find people of all sorts: beautiful, disfigured, frightening, gentle, loving, manipulative, terrified, overbearing, wealthy, destitute, determined, hopeless, and most of all wonderfully human: people who are making their way the best way they can in the cold cold city.

A sweet and unsettling story.

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2015 in Review: Books

Same as last year, 2015’s goal was to finish an average of a book a week: 52 weeks, 52 books.  The Goodreads shelf for 2015 shows 69 books in total.  That would be 69 books attempted, because Goodreads only counts the total put on the shelf, not the total I actually finished reading.

Analysis of that 69-book statistic reveals 15 books were abandoned very early on or in mid-read and never finished.  Most of those abandoned books were simply gawd-awful wastes of digital data space, but a couple of them were left unfinished because I stopped caring or never acquired any sympathy for the characters within.  Of the remaining 54 books, none were re-reads.  Goal accomplished.

I managed to write reviews of maybe half of those 54 finished books, which is too bad, because several books that were real standouts don’t have written reviews.  Of the standouts (below), if I wrote a review, I linked to it; otherwise, I linked to the main book page.

The Night CircusI read a number of books about magic this year.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern tells the story of two young people caught in an on-going magical competition, fueled by the ancient rivalry of their fathers. I came away from this book wishing I could visit Le Cirque des Rêves myself, if only to see the Ice Garden and the Cloud Maze.

The MagiciansLev Grossman’s Magicians series caught my attention a few months ago.  (It also caught the attention of the SyFy Network because its series based on these books debuts January 25.)  The series had been on my radar for a while but I finally picked up the first book from the library a couple of months ago. Many readers didn’t care much for Quentin Coldwater, who is somewhat of an anti-hero, and I admit he is a little hard to take. But the story itself is a fascinating twist on the The Magician Kingidea that magic exists, some people are naturally talented at using it, and those people are recruited to attend a special school. The first book, The Magicians, was good. The second book, The Magician King, was better. I’m waiting for the third book, The Magician’s Land, to become available at the library.

In keeping with a magical theme — although “magical realism” might be a better term, if such a term can be The Miniaturistapplied to a period piece —  I thoroughly enjoyed The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Unfortunately, this was one of those books that didn’t get a review other than its 4-star rating.  From what I remember, it was beautifully written, gloomy and dark and mysterious.  I thought it was lovely.  Plus the cover art was simply stunning.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to DustAlan Bradley’s latest Flavia de Luce novel,  As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, is as delightful as all of its predecessors.  Flavia, now age 12, has been exiled (for so she sees it) from Buckshaw, her beloved if bedraggled home in rural England, to Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, an all-girls school in Toronto, Canada, where her mother had been enrolled.  Naturally, a dead body is very nearly the first thing our intrepid heroine encounters, and Flavia is back in her default sleuthing mode, albeit in unfamiliar surroundings and absent her usual sources of information.  Pure fun.

The MartianSpeaking of pure fun, The Martian, even given its serious subject matter of a lone astronaut marooned on Mars and struggling for survival, was something I read with a big grin on my face nearly the whole way through.  Andy Weir wrote a rollicking adventure yarn filled with gee-whiz moments, and created a hero who maintains a can-do attitude if only to ward off depression and despair.  I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it’s on my list.

SevenevesOn a more serious note, several of this year’s standout novels dealt with an apocalypse and its aftermath.  The masterpiece was Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, a spectacular hard SF novel that tells the story of mankind’s efforts to save itself when some mysterious force wipes out the moon.  Filled with all the math and science anyone could ever hope for, but still accessible for readers like me whose formal math and science education stopped with high school trig and freshman biology.  This novel ended in a way that leads me to believe a sequel may be forthcoming.  Nothing on the author’s website currently says any such thing, but one can hope, right?

The Water KnifeThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi addresses a different apocalypse, one fueled by climate change and inspired by the raging drought currently suffered in the western United States.  In this near future novel, cut-throat corporations feud over water rights with brutal force and no one stands in their way.  Scary as hell.

Station ElevenA more conventional end of the world sets up the events in Station Eleven, but the setting itself is unusual.  After a worldwide plague wipes out most of the population, a traveling theatre troupe roams the Great Lakes area of North America, eking out a living while practicing their art.  But then they run afoul of the leader of a religious commune, and their travels become a race for survival.  Emily St. John Mandel wrote a breathtaking piece of fiction that bounces between the events that led up to the disaster and the post-disaster consequences.  Don’t miss this one.

The Lathe of HeavenUrsula LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven can be seen as post-apocalyptic if one looks through the eyes of its main character, George Orr, who awakens in a new world every day — a world that changes based on the content of his dreams — and he’s the only person who remembers the old.   I don’t know why I haven’t read more LeGuin; this is only the second of her novels that I’ve picked up (the first was The Left Hand of Darkness, read in 2006).  I’m putting the rest of her novels on my library list right now.

Finally, there’s The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, which I reviewed in the blog entry linked in the title. While the slow-moving catastrophe taking place on Earth isn’t the focus of this novel, the background tension it creates for our chief protagonist helps drive his choices.

I read so many excellent books this year that it was difficult to choose the titles to highlight.  Books deserving “honorable mention” follow, and any of them are worth reading:  Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro; The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt; The Scar by China Miéville; Life After Life by Kate Atkinson; and How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer.

In other 2015 accomplishments, all of the year’s reading material came from the library or free from Amazon.  I didn’t make a single new book purchase this year (except for a few knitting pattern books and some nutrition books recommended by my doctor: I hereby decree that those doesn’t count).   I did buy a few used books from a used bookstore while on a day trip to an unfamiliar city.  Looking ahead, 52 finished books is once more the goal for 2016, plus I’m adding the goal of writing at least a one-paragraph review of every book I finish within a day or two of finishing and posting that review here on this blog. I’d also like to keep up the pattern of reading from material already owned or acquired from the library.  We’ll see how that goes.

Book review: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

A Sudden LightA Sudden Light by Garth Stein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Trevor Riddell is spending the summer with his father at his father’s family estate. Trevor would rather be elsewhere, but as part of a trial separation, Trevor’s father Jones insisted the boy come with him to rural Washington State rather than accompany his mother to England to be with her family. Jones’s purpose in visiting his estranged and ailing father Samuel is to get Samuel to sign over power of attorney so Jones and his sister Serena can sell off the major portion of the estate and recoup the family fortune. Samuel has good days and bad days: on his good days, he is adamantly opposed to selling off any portion of the Riddell lands; on his bad days, he is confused, insisting he hears and sees his deceased wife dancing in the ballroom, and writing cryptic messages on Post-it notes. And then Trevor begins hearing voices as well.

Part ghost story, part coming-of-age novel, part family saga, A Sudden Light is chock-full of all the gloomy gothic atmosphere one could possibly desire. And while it does get a bit draggy in the middle, it’s still a joy to read, with a dramatic denouement and a satisfying, if bittersweet, ending.

I didn’t realize this book was by the same author who wrote The Art of Racing in the Rain, which I hated, until I picked it up from the library. It’s a good thing I didn’t know that or I probably wouldn’t have read it, thus missing out on a real treat.  High fives all around. I won’t hesitate to pick up Mr. Stein’s next novel, so long as it’s not told from the point of view of an animal.

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Book review: Sometimes the Wolf by Urban Waite

Sometimes the WolfSometimes the Wolf by Urban Waite
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had put this on a list of “must reads” and requested it from the library, but to save my life, I can’t remember why. The only thing I can think of is I must have read a highly favorable blurb somewhere from some person or on some website I respect. It’s probably a good thing I don’t remember because that respect would be diminished.

“As muscular and laconic as anything by Cormac McCarthy” says the cover blurb. I’ve only read one book by McCarthy (The Road) and I did not enjoy it. This should have been my warning when I picked it up.

My quibble is not with the story.  The story’s fine: A disgraced sheriff is released from prison to the custody of his adult son, now the deputy sheriff of the same small town, but the FBI agent who investigated his previous crime still doesn’t believe justice has been served; family drama ensues.  All the twists and turns are quite well done.

My quibble is with the writing itself, most especially with the constant incomplete sentences that make up the majority of the paragraphs. At times I found myself saying, out loud, “For crying out loud, just put a verb in there, would ya?” I also rewrote sentences in my head as I read them, adding punctuation here, joining clauses and making complete sentences there, so the paragraphs weren’t so choppy and disjointed. This is not “muscular and laconic”, this is lazy writing and turn-a-blind-eye editing.

Look, I’m all for authors developing their own style, and use of the occasional subordinate clause in place of a full sentence is fine for effect — emphasis being on “occasional” — but generally speaking, the conventions of sentence and paragraph structure must still apply, or else why bother?

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Book review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Sharp ObjectsSharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although Sharp Objects is my third Gillian Flynn novel, it’s Ms. Flynn’s first, for which she won a well-deserved Edgar. It’s beautifully written, deeply disturbing, and knock-your-socks-off holy-cow-what-the-hell-just-happened good.

Camille Preaker is sent by the editor of the tiny Chicago daily where she works back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, which is little more than a wide spot in the road, to cover the story of two murdered girls and the potential story of a serial killer. Camille left Wind Gap years ago to escape her toxic family and save her own life. She’s not sure she’s managed to do either; in Chicago, while she may have been suicidal, at least she wasn’t carving words into her own skin. Still, Camille is severely damaged. When we meet her mother and stepfather, we begin to understand why.

Because her newspaper doesn’t have the budget to put her up in a motel while on assignment, Camille must stay in her family home while she is in town. Her mother Adora, with an eye to “what would the neighbors think?”, grudgingly grants Camille shelter but insists she keep “all that unpleasantness” out of her house. All that unpleasantness encompasses not only the murders of the two girls, but anything unpleasant that has ever happened, up to and including the death of Camille’s younger half-sister Marian when Camille was 13. Camille has another much younger half-sister, Amma, whom she barely knows, who at times seems just as sickly as Marian was, but at others is robust enough to excel in her “Mean Girl” “Queen Bee” role at the local middle school. Throw in Alan, Camille’s ineffective and virtually silent stepfather, and this dysfunctional family is complete.

We see all this through Camille’s eyes; we are privy to her inner dialogue with all its twists and turns and justifications and attempts to make sense of how she ended up back in the same hellhole she tried to escape. As she reacquaints herself with Wind Gap, she recalls incidents from her past associated with each place. In the park where one girl, Natalie, was last seen alive:

The dirt from the baseball field hovered a few feet above the ground. I could taste it the back of my throat like tea left brewing too long…Garrett Park was the place everyone met on weekends to drink beer or smoke pot or get jerked off three feet into the woods. It was where I was first kissed, at age thirteen, by a football player with a pack of chaw tucked down in his gums.

And getting ready for Natalie’s funeral:

My mother was wearing blue to the funeral…She also wore blue to Marian’s funeral, and so did Marian. She was astonished I didn’t remember this. I remembered Marian being buried in a pale pink dress. This was no surprise. My mother and I generally differ on all things concerning my dead sister.

Camille is more resilient than she knows, but not quite as strong as she needs to be. She drinks too much and too often. She writes the names of the murdered girls and other words on her skin, using ballpoint pen and lipstick instead of a knife. She has questionable judgment in sex partners. And investigating these murders eventually leads her deep into her own history with devastating consequences.

In Camille, Gillian Flynn has created a deeply flawed protagonist who makes bad decisions out of weakness, out of trauma, out of a desire to flee from raw emotion, and she makes us cheer for her even while we shake our heads in dismay at her poor choices. And in the end, I loved Camille and wished her the very best future she can possibly make for herself.

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