Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Books Read in 2018: Four-Star Fantasy

Four-Star Time Travel

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan MastaiYou know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we'd have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren's 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks, and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed . . . because it wasn't necessary.
Except Tom just can't seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that's before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.
But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career, and—maybe, just maybe—his soul mate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents, and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future—our future—is supposed to be.

Didn't write a review - thanks a LOT, Past Allison. I just scanned a couple of negative reviews for this, and while some points are valid (the protagonist is pretty self-centered, a lot of female characters don't get the best treatment), one complaint that struck me as unfair is that the author uses time travel as a "shiny toy" instead of a proper sci-fi concept - why introduce it and then not use it, is the reviewer's question? This is ridiculous, in my opinion - I think a lot of science-fiction concepts are used to focus on and illuminate aspects of human behaviour and relationships, and this is a perfectly good and useful way to employ them. I really like stories about alternate possible timelines and worlds, and the pivotal accident here has a gravitas and residue that I found really fascinating. I also had a fair amount of sympathy for the main character trying to figure out how to fit in the world and how far to wield an incredible power to change it. 

Version Control by Dexter Palmer Rebecca Wright has reclaimed her life, finding her way out of her grief and depression following a personal tragedy years ago. She spends her days working in customer support for the internet dating site where she first met her husband. But she has a strange, persistent sense that everything around her is somewhat off-kilter: she constantly feels as if she has walked into a room and forgotten what she intended to do there; on TV, the President seems to be the wrong person in the wrong place; her dreams are full of disquiet. Meanwhile, her husband's decade-long dedication to his invention, the causality violation device (which he would greatly prefer you not call a “time machine”) has effectively stalled his career and made him a laughingstock in the physics community. But he may be closer to success than either of them knows or can possibly imagine.

Version Control is about a possible near future, but it’s also about the way we live now. It’s about smart phones and self-driving cars and what we believe about the people we meet on the Internet. It’s about a couple, Rebecca and Philip, who have experienced a tragedy, and about how they help — and fail to help — each other through it.

I'm tempted to go back and five-star this, honestly, but I guess I'll let my initial rating ride. There was just so much here - really, it was a marriage of a really great time-travel story and a really great contemporary novel, and either would have been good, but together they're great. I had a moment's qualm that it was going to be the kind of time travel book I like less, where time travel is more a Grand Idea that leads to Philosophical Musings but no concrete actions (lookin' at you, Lost Time Accidents, thbffft), but it wasn't. There's also a lot of great writing about coming of age, and relationships, and family stuff, and it's quite long and involved and takes its time, which if done badly leads to boredom and tiresomeness, but it's done really well. I stumbled across this while looking up another book and my friend Maggie (HI MAGGIE) recommended it, and I'm very glad. 

Four-Star Fantasy

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline - In a futuristic world ravaged by global warming, people have lost the ability to dream, and the dreamlessness has led to widespread madness. The only people still able to dream are North America's Indigenous people, and it is their marrow that holds the cure for the rest of the world. But getting the marrow, and dreams, means death for the unwilling donors. Driven to flight, a fifteen-year-old and his companions struggle for survival, attempt to reunite with loved ones and take refuge from the "recruiters" who seek them out to bring them to the marrow-stealing "factories.

Lovely, chilling, heartwrenching and visceral. I think it's technically YA but I would recommend it for anyone. It's a good metaphor for colonialism and a great story in its own right.

The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees BrennanSixteen-year-old Nick and his brother, Alan, are always ready to run. Their father is dead, and their mother is crazy—she screams if Nick gets near her. She’s no help in protecting any of them from the deadly magicians who use demons to work their magic. The magicians want a charm that Nick’s mother stole—and they want it badly enough to kill. Alan is Nick’s partner in demon slaying and the only person he trusts in the world. So things get very scary and very complicated when Nick begins to suspect that everything Alan has told him about their father, their mother, their past, and what they are doing is a complete lie. .

This was a comfort reread - I seem to recall that Goodreads screwed up and I didn't actually review it in the proper year's post. I adore Sarah Rees Brennan - her writing voice is utterly distinctive, beautifully snarky and wry, and yet strangely kind and warmhearted. I was completely engrossed in the story, agreeably unsure about where it was going, and the ending didn't feel forced or too neat (please to ignore the exceptionally cheesy covers). Upon my reread I discovered that I had the first and third books, so I ordered the second and am going to reread the rest of the series. Rees Brennan also has a blog that I always forget to look at because I usually don't read writer's blogs, for reasons I just realized I don't even know, I guess that's for another post.

The Necromancer's House by Christopher BuehlmanChristopher Buehlman’s new novel—one of uncommon horrors hiding behind the walls of the house next door…
“You think you got away with something, don’t you? But your time has run out. We know where you are. And we are coming.”
The man on the screen says this in Russian.
“Who are you?”
The man smiles, but it’s not a pleasant smile.
The image freezes.
The celluloid burns exactly where his mouth is, burns in the nearly flat U of his smile. His eyes burn, too.
The man fades, leaving the burning smiley face smoldering on the screen.
“Oh Christ,” Andrew says.
The television catches fire.
Andrew Ranulf Blankenship is a handsome, stylish nonconformist with wry wit, a classic Mustang, and a massive library. He is also a recovering alcoholic and a practicing warlock, able to speak with the dead through film. His house is a maze of sorcerous booby traps and escape tunnels, as yours might be if you were sitting on a treasury of Russian magic stolen from the Soviet Union thirty years ago. Andrew has long known that magic was a brutal game requiring blood sacrifice and a willingness to confront death, but his many years of peace and comfort have left him soft, more concerned with maintaining false youth than with seeing to his own defense. Now a monster straight from the pages of Russian folklore is coming for him, and frost and death are coming with her.

This was really cool - it had a contemporary dark fantasy feel with some archetypal myths woven in. There were fully fleshed characters that I really cared about, a range of vividly rendered settings and the magical system was inventive and internally consistent. I'm looking forward to reading more by this author. 

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California Bones (Daniel Blackland #1) by Greg van EekhoutWhen Daniel Blackland was six, he ingested his first bone fragment, a bit of kraken spine plucked out of the sand during a visit with his demanding, brilliant, and powerful magician father, Sebastian.
When Daniel was twelve, he watched Sebastian die at the hands of the Hierarch of Southern California, devoured for the heightened magic layered deep within his bones.
Now, years later, Daniel is a petty thief with a forged identity. Hiding amid the crowds in Los Angeles—the capital of the Kingdom of Southern California—Daniel is trying to go straight. But his crime-boss uncle has a heist he wants Daniel to perform: break into the Hierarch's storehouse of magical artifacts and retrieve Sebastian's sword, an object of untold power.
For this dangerous mission, Daniel will need a team he can rely on, so he brings in his closest friends from his years in the criminal world. There's Moth, who can take a bullet and heal in mere minutes. Jo Alverado, illusionist. The multitalented Cassandra, Daniel's ex. And, new to them all, the enigmatic, knowledgeable Emma, with her British accent and her own grudge against the powers-that-be. The stakes are high, and the stage is set for a showdown that might just break the magic that protects a long-corrupt regime.
Extravagant and yet moving, Greg van Eekhout's California Bonesis an epic adventure set in a city of canals and secrets and casual brutality--different from the world we know, yet familiar and true.

This pairs well with the previous book. I hadn't read anything about osteomancy before - this was a great first exposure. Again, solid characters, especially the protagonist. The alternate California is enchanting, the heist angle is exciting, and the corrupt regime thing adds an element of plucky-little-guy Star Wars heroism. Will continue reading the series. 

Lightspeed Magazine, February 2015 edited by John Joseph AdamsLIGHTSPEED is an online science fiction and fantasy magazine. In its pages, you will find science fiction: from near-future, sociological soft SF, to far-future, star-spanning hard SF--and fantasy: from epic fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, and contemporary urban tales, to magical realism, science-fantasy, and folktales. 
This month, we have original science fiction by Brooke Bolander ("And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead") and Caroline M. Yoachim ("Red Planet"), along with SF reprints by John Kessel ("Buffalo") and David Barr Kirtley ("Veil of Ignorance"). 
Plus, we have original fantasy by Maria Dahvana Headley ("And the Winners Will Be Swept Out to Sea") and Will Kaufman ("Things You Can Buy for a Penny"), and fantasy reprints by Mary Rickert ("The Girl Who Ate Butterflies") and Adam-Troy Castro ("Cerile and the Journeyer"). 
All that, and of course we also have our usual assortment of author and artist spotlights, a feature interview with Ann Leckie, and our review column, this month written by Sunil Patel.

I bought the Kindle version of this because I read something by Brooke Bolander (in a Year's Best Fantasy and Science Fiction anthology, I think) and wanted to read more. Her story in this was fantastic, and the ones by Maria Dahvana Headley and Will Kaufman ("Things You Can Buy For a Penny" - omg, so good) were amazing as well. I'm very rarely disappointed by Lightspeed - if I was marooned on an island and had only the entirety of Lightspeed Magazine to read, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the

Elevation by Stephen King - The latest from legendary master storyteller Stephen King, a riveting, extraordinarily eerie, and moving story about a man whose mysterious affliction brings a small town together—a timely, upbeat tale about finding common ground despite deep-rooted differences.
Although Scott Carey doesn’t look any different, he’s been steadily losing weight. There are a couple of other odd things, too. He weighs the same in his clothes and out of them, no matter how heavy they are. Scott doesn’t want to be poked and prodded. He mostly just wants someone else to know, and he trusts Doctor Bob Ellis.
In the small town of Castle Rock, the setting of many of King’s most iconic stories, Scott is engaged in a low grade—but escalating—battle with the lesbians next door whose dog regularly drops his business on Scott’s lawn. One of the women is friendly; the other, cold as ice. Both are trying to launch a new restaurant, but the people of Castle Rock want no part of a gay married couple, and the place is in trouble. When Scott finally understands the prejudices they face–including his own—he tries to help. Unlikely alliances, the annual foot race, and the mystery of Scott’s affliction bring out the best in people who have indulged the worst in themselves and others.

This is short, and definitely fantasy over horror, which was rather welcome in bleak November. This did convey to me the sense of lightness and hope that I think King was going for. The social issues aspect did veer ever so slightly into the heavy-handed and schmaltzy, which I've found before with King, but not so much that it ruined the story. All in all, a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. 

Starlings by Jo Walton - An intimate first flight of short fiction from award-winning novelist Jo Walton (Among Others, The King’s Peace).
A strange Eritrean coin travels from lovers to thieves, gathering stories before meeting its match. Google becomes sentient and proceeds toward an existential crisis. An idealistic dancer on a generation ship makes an impassioned plea for creativity and survival. Three Irish siblings embark on an unlikely quest, stealing enchanted items via bad poetry, trickery, and an assist from the Queen of Cats. 
With these captivating initial glimpses into her storytelling psyche, Jo Walton shines through subtle myths and wholly reinvented realities. Through eclectic stories, subtle vignettes, inspired poetry, and more, Walton soars with humans, machines, and magic—rising from the everyday into the universe itself.

I have gone on at rapturous length about how much I love Jo Walton's Among Others and My Real Children, and I enjoyed her writing about reading in What Makes this Book So Great as well, so I was thrilled to get a copy of her first volume of short fiction through NetGalley. She freely admits that she doesn't find short fiction easy, that there's a range in quality here and that some work is experimental. I just found that it was still suffused with her prodigious imaginative vision and beautiful writing. 

The Changeling by Victor Lavalle - One man’s thrilling journey through an enchanted world to find his wife, who has disappeared after seemingly committing an unforgiveable act of violence, from the award-winning author of the The Devil in Silver and Big Machine.
Apollo Kagwa has had strange dreams that have haunted him since childhood. An antiquarian book dealer with a business called Improbabilia, he is just beginning to settle into his new life as a committed and involved father, unlike his own father who abandoned him, when his wife Emma begins acting strange. Disconnected and uninterested in their new baby boy, Emma at first seems to be exhibiting all the signs of post-partum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go far beyond that. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. 
Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts. Apollo then begins a journey that takes him to a forgotten island in the East River of New York City, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest in Queens where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever. This dizzying tale is ultimately a story about family and the unfathomable secrets of the people we love.

This was an accomplished and engrossing update of the changeling legend. Putting fully human faces on the story really brings home the horror of the trope, and thorny family dynamics add layers to a simple folktale. Great characters and an unputdownable story. 
Here is a valuable resource if you want to check whether your child might be a changeling. 

Air Water and the Grove by Kaaron Warren - I discovered that I had never read the last story in a Kaaron Warren collection I had on my Kindle. After I saw the  movie Shaun of the Dead, the friend I saw it with said "Really liked it. Not sure who I would recommend it to". While I disagree about Shaun of the Dead (everyone, would be my answer. Recommend it to everyone because it is awesome) I sort of feel that way about Kaaron Warren. She is deadass brilliant. Her work is masterful, assured, passionate and absolutely devastating. Her story State of Oblivion was a work of desolate perfection, or maybe perfect desolation. This story was no different. I'm reminded of a review I once read of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which advised "don't go. Bring a date".

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Books Read in 2018: Four Star Children, Young Adult and Mystery

Regarding Nicole's comment - I had a weird experience reading Half-Blood Blues too! I read a bit of it and was loving it, finding it beautiful and musical and entrancing. Then for some reason I couldn't pick it up again for a few days and when I kept reading it I felt like somehow all the lustre had gone. I bought Washington Black for my mom for Christmas and will probably borrow it when she's done. I had a similar experience with Vincent Lam's Bloodletting and Miraculous cures, but then really loved his next book. *shrug*

Happily, it looks like I read at least as many four-and-five star books as three-and-two star books this year. Oh, also, I looked at page totals in my Goodreads stats thinking "hey, maybe I read fewer books but more pages this year over last year!" I, um, did not.

Four-Star Children and Young Adult

The Headless Cupid (Stanley Family #1) by Zilpha Keatley Snyder - When the four Stanley children meet Amanda, their new stepsister, they're amazed to learn she studies witchcraft. When she shares her secrets, strange things start happening in their old house. They suspect Amanda until they learn the house was long ago haunted by a ghost that cut off the head of a wooden cupid on the stairway. A Newbery Honor Book.

I think I always meant to read Zilpha Keatley Snyder  - I mean, come on, 'Zilpha' is a cool name - when I was younger and never got around to it. I picked up a couple of books second-hand a few years ago. She has quite a remarkable ability to write about troubled children acting a bit like dicks, but in a way that is kind and sympathetic as well as gently humorous. This was a really lovely story. I'm looking forward to reading more in this series.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech - "How about a story? Spin us a yarn."
Instantly, Phoebe Winterbottom came to mind. "I could tell you an extensively strange story," I warned.
"Oh, good!" Gram said. "Delicious!"
And that is how I happened to tell them about Phoebe, her disappearing mother, and the lunatic.
As Sal entertains her grandparents with Phoebe's outrageous story, her own story begins to unfold — the story of a thirteen-year-old girl whose only wish is to be reunited with her missing mother.
In her own award-winning style, Sharon Creech intricately weaves together two tales, one funny, one bittersweet, to create a heartwarming, compelling, and utterly moving story of love, loss, and the complexity of human emotion.

Okay, I read this for the Newbery blog post series and really liked it, pretty much from the beginning. It's not perfect - the Native American/Indian thing has aged rather badly, the teacher who is supposed to be a pivotal figure comes across as kind of a dick for reading embarrassing journal material out loud, and the old blind woman making up her own words is kind of hokey - but Sal's voice is strong and affecting, and the dynamic between the grandparents is really lovely. There is unsugar-coated loss, and the healing power of story, and a surprisingly open treatment of oe very grown-up circumstance. It's just a really great story. I cried at the end. It was very different from what I was expecting.

Firegirl by Tony Abbott - A middle school boy's life is changed when Jessica, a girl disfigured by burns, starts attending his Catholic school while receiving treatment at a local hospital.

This could have easily been a real hash, but it takes an everyboy character, throws in a couple of elements to complicate his coming-of-age, and does a really great job of seeing it through. Simple but profound. 

The House With a Clock In its Walls (Lewis Barnavelt #1) by John Bellairs - Orphaned Lewis Barnavelt comes to live with his Uncle Jonathan and quickly learns that both his uncle and his next-door neighbor are witches on a quest to discover the terrifying clock ticking within the walls of Jonathan's house. Can the three of them save the world from certain destruction?'

I heard the movie was coming out and realized that this was a book I had always assumed I had read and... hadn't. In the first place, I was worried that Uncle Jonathan would be mean, but he's not, so that was good. Then - big old mysterious house. Also good. Then Lewis's friend who is kind of a dick. Not so good, but kind of interesting, and doesn't follow the formula of the ne'er do well with a heart of gold, so kind of refreshing. Then the gnarly scary mystery really kicks in - splendid. 

Sounder by William H. Armstrong - Set in the Deep South, this Newbery Medal-winning novel tells the story of the great coon dog, Sounder, and the poor sharecroppers who own him.
During the difficult years of the nineteenth century South, an African-American boy and his poor family rarely have enough to eat. Each night, the boy's father takes their dog, Sounder, out to look for food and the man grows more desperate by the day.
When food suddenly appears on the table one morning, it seems like a blessing. But the sheriff and his deputies are not far behind. The ever-loyal Sounder remains determined to help the family he loves as hard times bear down on them.
This classic novel shows the courage, love, and faith that bind an African-American family together despite the racism and inhumanity they face. Readers who enjoy timeless dog stories such as Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows will find much to love in Sounder.

Oof. I'm of a few different minds about this. On the one hand, it's heart-wrenchingly, horrifyingly sad for a book aimed at middle-grade readers. On the other hand, I have tried not to shield my kids from these realities. On the one hand, it could be speculated that this was selected for the Newbery medal for having a conspicuously "worthy" subject matter. On the other hand, it pulls no punches, isn't prettied up, and I thought it was done really, really well. The hardship and injustice is shown to be entirely routine for the characters. The storytelling voice is grave and quiet and effective. I feel like this one is going to stick with me for awhile.

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park - Tree-ear, an orphan, lives under a bridge in Ch’ulp’o, a potters’ village famed for delicate celadon ware. He has become fascinated with the potter’s craft; he wants nothing more than to watch master potter Min at work, and he dreams of making a pot of his own someday. When Min takes Tree-ear on as his helper, Tree-ear is elated–until he finds obstacles in his path: the backbreaking labor of digging and hauling clay, Min’s irascible temper, and his own ignorance. But Tree-ear is determined to prove himself–even if it means taking a long, solitary journey on foot to present Min’s work in the hope of a royal commission . . . even if it means arriving at the royal court with nothing to show but a single celadon shard.

The plot is pretty formulaic and has the elements common to many Newbery Medal books - an orphan, a kindly adult mentor, the loving description of a craft, a journey - but, as the expression goes, there are only six basic plots, and the difference lies in what's done with them. This was beautiful. 

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman - Elizabeth has a new job at an unusual library - a lending library of objects, not books. In a secret room in the basement lies the Grimm Collection. That's where the librarians lock away powerful items straight out of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales; seven-league boots, a table that produces a feast at the blink of an eye, Snow White's stepmother's sinister mirror that talks in riddles.
When the magical objects start to disappear, Elizabeth embarks on a dangerous quest to catch the thief before she can be accused of the crime or captured by the thief.
Polly Shulman has created a contemporary fantasy with a fascinating setting and premise, starring an ordinary girl whose after-school job is far from ordinary and leads to a world of excitement, romance and magical intrigue.

This was great fun. The characters are well-drawn, the relationship stuff is very realistic, and the Grimm elements and mystery are gripping. 

One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus - The Breakfast Club meets Pretty Little LiarsOne of Us Is Lying is the story of what happens when five strangers walk into detention and only four walk out alive. Everyone is a suspect, and everyone has something to hide. 
Pay close attention and you might solve this.
On Monday afternoon, five students at Bayview High walk into detention.
Bronwyn, the brain, is Yale-bound and never breaks a rule.
Addy, the beauty, is the picture-perfect homecoming princess.
Nate, the criminal, is already on probation for dealing.
Cooper, the athlete, is the all-star baseball pitcher.And Simon, the outcast, is the creator of Bayview High's notorious gossip app.
Only, Simon never makes it out of that classroom. Before the end of detention, Simon's dead. And according to investigators, his death wasn't an accident. On Monday, he died. But on Tuesday, he'd planned to post juicy reveals about all four of his high-profile classmates, which makes all four of them suspects in his murder. Or are they the perfect patsies for a killer who's still on the loose?
Everyone has secrets, right? What really matters is how far you would go to protect them.

The Breakfast Club with a criminal twist. This is one of my best friend's daughter's favourite books, and she demanded that I give it a read. It was really well done - nice character evolution, great narrative energy, good writing. A good mystery that's incidentally YA, or a good YA book that happens to have a mysterious death. 

Four-Star Mystery

 I Found You by Lisa Jewell - 'How long have you been sitting out here?'
'I got here yesterday.'
'Where did you come from?'
'I have no idea.'
East Yorkshire: Single mum Alice Lake finds a man on the beach outside her house. He has no name, no jacket, no idea what he is doing there. Against her better judgement she invites him in to her home.
Surrey: Twenty-one-year-old Lily Monrose has only been married for three weeks. When her new husband fails to come home from work one night she is left stranded in a new country where she knows no one. Then the police tell her that her husband never existed.
Two women, twenty years of secrets and a man who can't remember lie at the heart of Lisa Jewell's brilliant new novel.

My review on Goodreads said "All in all, this was kind of dumb. But I really liked it anyways". This isn't quite fair, I don't think. I mean, the mystery isn't terribly mysterious, but the relationships between characters past and present held my attention on their own, and the story was good enough even without a big surprise ending. 

The Second Sister by Claire Kendal - The chilling new psychological thriller by Claire Kendal, author of the bestselling novel, THE BOOK OF YOU, which was selected for Richard and Judy in 2015. Perfect for fans of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and DISCLAIMER.
It is ten years since Ella's sister Miranda disappeared without trace, leaving her young baby behind. Chilling new evidence links Miranda to the horrifying Jason Thorne, now in prison for murdering several women. Is it possible that Miranda knew him?
At thirty, Miranda’s age when she vanished, Ella looks uncannily like the sister she idolized. What holds Ella together is her love for her sister’s child and her work as a self-defence expert helping victims.
Haunted by the possibility that Thorne took Miranda, and driven by her nephew’s longing to know about his mother, Ella will do whatever it takes to uncover the truth – no matter how dangerous.

Okay, admittedly the mystery part of this mystery probably didn't merit four stars (oh look, seems to be a theme). But as a book I liked it. The dynamics of the family and the main character's personality as someone who lost a sister so young seemed really realistic to me, and her self defense training didn't desert her at crucial moments which often seems to happen in mystery literature. I liked her interactions with her sister's voice. The love interest stuff wasn't formulaic or predictable either. Solid entry.

A Great Reckoning (Armand Gamache #12) by Louise Penny - Bestselling author Louise Penny pulls back the layers to reveal a brilliant and emotionally powerful truth in her latest spellbinding novel.
When an intricate old map is found stuffed into the walls of the bistro in Three Pines, it at first seems no more than a curiosity. But the closer the villagers look, the stranger it becomes. 
Given to Armand Gamache as a gift the first day of his new job, the map eventually leads him to shattering secrets. To an old friend and older adversary. It leads the former Chief of Homicide for the Sûreté du Québec to places even he is afraid to go. But must. 
And there he finds four young cadets in the Sûreté academy, and a dead professor. And, with the body, a copy of the old, odd map. 
Everywhere Gamache turns, he sees Amelia Choquet, one of the cadets. Tattooed and pierced. Guarded and angry. Amelia is more likely to be found on the other side of a police line-up. And yet she is in the academy. A protégée of the murdered professor.
The focus of the investigation soon turns to Gamache himself and his mysterious relationship with Amelia, and his possible involvement in the crime. The frantic search for answers takes the investigators back to Three Pines and a stained glass window with its own horrific secrets. 
For both Amelia Choquet and Armand Gamache, the time has come for a great reckoning.

A welcome return to top form for Penny. All the good stuff is here and very little of the bad. The ending is particularly poignant. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Books Reads in 2018: Three Star Mysteries

To answer Marilyn's question - yes, I would read something rated three stars by a friend if I thought it looked interesting, and a three-star rating from me does not at all mean I don't recommend it, because I don't give three stars to anything I think is poorly written, and sometimes I do think it's just timing or circumstances that make the book good, not great for me. This is especially true because I read so much, which inevitably means that some things suffer by comparison or become repetitive, when for another reader they might be entirely enjoyable because there are somewhat fewer books to compare to. I tell Angus the same thing when he wonders why he likes certain movies more than I do - he just hasn't seen as many movies, so some things still seem fresh to him that seem ever-so-slightly stale to me. And that's fine. 

Three Star Mystery

Safe House by Chris Ewan: Synopsis from Goodreads - When Rob Hale wakes up in a hospital after a motorcycle crash, his first thought is for the gorgeous blonde, Lena, who was on the back of his bike. The doctors and police, however, insist that he was alone at the scene. The shock of the accident must have made him imagine Lena, especially since his description of her resembles his late sister, Laura.
Convinced that Lena is as real as he is, Rob teams up with Rebecca Lewis, a London-based PI who has a mysterious connection to Laura—and learns that even a close-knit community like the Isle of Man can hide dangerous secrets that will not stay safe forever

Another mystery that I chose because the setting sounded interesting - everything I've heard about the Isle of Man makes it sound kind of fascinating. It was more of a thriller than a mystery - by which I mean... well, what do I mean? I think I mean that more is revealed early on than in a mystery, and then things go more to action and intrigue than seeking clues and teasing out motives. The Isle of Man TT - the annual motorcycle race around the island - does play a role, as does the coastline and the isolation. I found the main female character slightly more compelling than the main male protagonist. 

Red Ribbons (Dr. Kate Pearson #1) by Louise Phillips: Synopsis from Goodreads - A Serial Killer
When the body of a missing schoolgirl is found buried in the Dublin Mountains, her hands clasped together in prayer, two red ribbons in her hair, the hunt for her killer reaches epic proportions with the discovery of a second girl's body 24 hours later.
The Criminal Psychologist
Desperate to find the murderer, police call in criminal psychologist Kate Pearson, to get inside the mind of the serial killer before he strikes again. But the more Kate discovers about the killings, the more it all begins to feel terrifyingly familiar as her own past threatens to cloud her investigations.
An Accused Woman
Ellie Brady has been institutionalised for 15 years, for the killing of her twelve-year-old daughter, Amy. After all this time, does Ellie hold the key to finding the killer of the Dublin schoolgirls? 
What would you do if you were accused of killing your own daughter? What if those closest to you turned their back on you? And when everyone stopped listening, what next, when even you believe you're guilty? The Bad Man Is Everywhere.

This kept me reading, although it was a little unevenly written. There were passages where the writing was noticeably good - mostly dealing with Ellie's point of view - and then pages where it was workmanlike. The portrait of the villain was interesting, and the way the different storylines converged was well done. The biggest drawback was that I realized when I had finished that I didn't have a clear and deep enough picture of Kate Pearson herself or any of the other investigators. Not sure if I'll continue with the series, although if the writer improves with each entry it could become quite good.

Confessions by Kanae Minato: Synopsis from Goodreads - Her pupils killed her daughter. Now, she will have her revenge.
After an engagement that ended in tragedy, all Yuko Moriguchi had to live for was her four-year-old child, Manami. Now, after a heartbreaking accident on the grounds of the middle school where she teaches, Yuko has given up and tendered her resignation.
But first, she has one last lecture to deliver. She tells a story that will upend everything her students ever thought they knew about two of their peers, and sets in motion a maniacal plot for revenge.
Narrated in alternating voices, with twists you'll never see coming, Confessions probes the limits of punishment, despair, and tragic love, culminating in a harrowing confrontation between teacher and student that will place the occupants of an entire school in harm's way. You'll never look at a classroom the same way again.

The style here definitely affected the reading experience for me. The story was certainly interesting, but I found the style kept everything at a remove, so there was no suspense or tension, even when details were revealed that probably should have been surprising. This isn't really a criticism, just an observation. I also prefer mysteries where the bad guy/ perpetrator/ antagonist's identity isn't revealed up front - I never liked Columbo. I appreciate the artistry in telling a mystery 'backwards', as it were, but I prefer the more traditional form.

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani: Synopsis from Goodreads - She has the keys to their apartment. She knows everything. She has embedded herself so deeply in their lives that it now seems impossible to remove her.
When Myriam decides to return to work as a lawyer after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect nanny for their son and daughter. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite, devoted woman who sings to the children, cleans the family’s chic Paris apartment, stays late without complaint, and hosts enviable kiddie parties. But as the couple and the nanny become more dependent on one another, jealousy, resentment, and suspicions mount, shattering the idyllic tableau. Building tension with every page, The Perfect Nanny is a compulsive, riveting, bravely observed exploration of power, class, race, domesticity, motherhood, and madness—and the American debut of an immensely talented writer.
The #1 international bestseller and winner of France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, by the author of Adèle.

Again, more of a psychological thriller than a mystery, which is obvious from the synopsis, so I'm not complaining. I've seen it described as a "quiet, ugly little book", which seems apt. There is quiet desperation on both sides of this horrific equation, and the fraught relationship between a family and its childcare provider is ripe for psychological ugliness and horror. I didn't quite find this as wonderfully done as others, but it was worthwhile.

The Guilty Dead (Monkeewrench #9) by P.J. Tracy: Synopsis from Goodreads - Gregory Norwood, wealthy businessman and close friend of Minnesota's leading candidate for Governor, is found dead on the first anniversary of his son's drug overdose. It seems clear to Detectives Gino and Magozzi that grief drove him to suicide.
Until they find the second body.
As the seemingly open-and-shut case becomes a murder enquiry, the detectives begin to delve into the dark secrets of one of the city's most powerful families. It seems the murders are not the first in the Norwoods' tragic story - and they won't be the last.

Hits all the right notes, and nice seeing the evolution in the lives of the characters. I didn't love it quite as much as others, but that's probably just because the 'conspiracy at the highest levels of society' thing just isn't my favourite kind of mystery. If you enjoy mysteries, do check out the first three entries in this series, which are superb.

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn: Synopsis from Goodreads - Anna Fox lives alone—a recluse in her New York City home, unable to venture outside. She spends her day drinking wine (maybe too much), watching old movies, recalling happier times . . . and spying on her neighbors.
Then the Russells move into the house across the way: a father, a mother, their teenage son. The perfect family. But when Anna, gazing out her window one night, sees something she shouldn’t, her world begins to crumble—and its shocking secrets are laid bare.
What is real? What is imagined? Who is in danger? Who is in control? In this diabolically gripping thriller, no one—and nothing—is what it seems.

This was fast-paced and had some nice surprises. It's definitely one where, if I hadn't read some similar offerings first, this would have packed a very satisfying punch. Very solid for a first novel. 

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell: Synopsis from Goodreads - THEN
She was fifteen, her mother's golden girl. She had her whole life ahead of her. And then, in the blink of an eye, Ellie was gone. 
It’s been ten years since Ellie disappeared, but Laurel has never given up hope of finding her daughter.
And then one day a charming and charismatic stranger called Floyd walks into a café and sweeps Laurel off her feet. 
Before too long she’s staying the night at this house and being introduced to his nine year old daughter.
Poppy is precocious and pretty - and meeting her completely takes Laurel's breath away. 
Because Poppy is the spitting image of Ellie when she was that age. And now all those unanswered questions that have haunted Laurel come flooding back. 
What happened to Ellie? Where did she go? 
Who still has secrets to hide?

This is my second Lisa Jewell mystery, and they've both been serviceable and satisfying. They're not quite next-level in plotting or writing, and with this one especially there was one key element that I just found it really hard to believe (and I am aces at suspending my disbelief), but on the whole this was a good story and I enjoyed all the pieces falling together. The description of the relationship between the mother and her children was particularly well done. I will continue reading this author's work.

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor: Synopsis from Goodreads - In 1986, Eddie and his friends are just kids on the verge of adolescence. They spend their days biking around their sleepy English village and looking for any taste of excitement they can get. The chalk men are their secret code: little chalk stick figures they leave for one another as messages only they can understand. But then a mysterious chalk man leads them right to a dismembered body, and nothing is ever the same.
In 2016, Eddie is fully grown, and thinks he's put his past behind him. But then he gets a letter in the mail, containing a single chalk stick figure. When it turns out that his friends got the same message, they think it could be a prank . . . until one of them turns up dead.
That's when Eddie realizes that saving himself means finally figuring out what really happened all those years ago.

Three and a half stars. The mystery wasn't stellar as a mystery, but the story, the family interactions and the friendships and interactions between the children elevate this. The bond between the children particularly was evocative of Stephen King's It, the book that cemented for me how well he writes children. Nicely nostalgic and melancholy.

Let Me Lie by Clare Mackintosh: Synopsis from Goodreads - The police say it was suicide.
Anna says it was murder.
They're both wrong.
One year ago, Caroline Johnson chose to end her life brutally: a shocking suicide planned to match that of her husband just months before. Their daughter, Anna, has struggled to come to terms with their loss ever since.
Now with a young baby of her own, Anna misses her mother more than ever and starts to question her parents’ deaths. But by digging up their past, she’ll put her future in danger. Sometimes it’s safer to let things lie…
The stunning, twisty new psychological thriller from number one bestseller Clare Mackintosh, author of I Let You Go and I See You.

Honestly, this was a little meh. I respected the plotting in I Let You Go, but I didn't really feel engaged with the characters, so I probably should have known better than to expect much for this. The author's plotting is decent - obviously the plot hook sucked me in - but I feel like the writing or the characters are just lacking that little something extra. As it is, I just find myself trying to guess what the twist is, and although one here still did surprise me, that's not enough for a satisfying reading experience. I think I'm done with this author, although I would still recommend the first book to mystery lovers.

The Dead House by Billy O'Callaghan: Synopsis from Goodreads - This best-selling debut by an award-winning writer is both an eerie contemporary ghost story and a dread-inducing psychological thriller. Maggie is a successful young artist who has had bad luck with men. Her last put her in the hospital and, after she’s healed physically, left her needing to get out of London to heal mentally and find a place of quiet that will restore her creative spirit. On the rugged west coast of Ireland, perched on a wild cliff side, she spies the shell of a cottage that dates back to Great Famine and decides to buy it. When work on the house is done, she invites her dealer to come for the weekend to celebrate along with a couple of women friends, one of whom will become his wife. On the boozy last night, the other friend pulls out an Ouija board. What sinister thing they summon, once invited, will never go.
Ireland is a country haunted by its past. In Billy O'Callaghan's hands, its terrible beauty becomes a force of inescapable horror that reaches far back in time, before the Famine, before Christianity, to a pagan place where nature and superstition are bound in an endless knot.

More like two and a half stars. Pretty disappointed, actually, because I was really looking forward to this. The atmosphere is good, but the scare is all set-up and very little pay-off. It tries for a dramatic trailing off, but I wasn't really feeling it by then. I was also a little over the author's ability to write women. His first glimpse of his wife is of "a willowy, flowing woman" - huh? Every female character is slight, fragile, wispy - the first time he meets the artist, she's wearing a child's dressing gown. He can't seem to write any female character that isn't in desperate need of being rescued or in danger of being blown away by a strong wind. There's one sort of bizarre diatribe against popular music also (featuring the words 'slut' and 'prostitute') that takes up a disproportionate amount of space in the scene. This may be why the whole thing just left me sort of cold. Also I just realized this is more horror than mystery - apologies.

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough: Synopsis from Goodreads - Lisa lives for her daughter Ava, her job, and her best friend Marilyn, but when a handsome client shows an interest in her, Lisa starts daydreaming about sharing her life with him too. Maybe she’s ready now. Maybe she can trust again. Maybe it's time to let her terrifying secret past go. Then her daughter rescues a boy from drowning and their pictures are all over the news for everyone to see. Lisa's world explodes, and she finds everything she has built threatened. Not knowing whom she can trust, it's up to her to face her past to save what she holds dear.

I have a baffling and annoying habit of confusing Sarah Pinborough with another author I read who is consistently really good (it's Mo Hayder, I don't know why I was being coy). Sarah Pinborough does some interesting stuff, but you sometimes have to willingly follow her down a trail that seems predictable or a little melodramatic in order to get there. With Behind Her Eyes I felt like that paid off - here, not so much. There is some really good, affecting writing dealing with Lisa's tragic early life, and the book would probably have been better if had just relied on this rather than adding in a weak mystery with some unearned twists. What made it worse was that we were in a forty-eight hour blackout and I was trying to read the end of the book with a steadily dying flashlight, and it was not really worth the effort.

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney: Synopsis from Goodreads - My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me: 
1. I’m in a coma. 
2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore. 
3. Sometimes I lie. 
Amber wakes up in a hospital. She can’t move. She can’t speak. She can’t open her eyes. She can hear everyone around her, but they have no idea. Amber doesn’t remember what happened, but she has a suspicion her husband had something to do with it. Alternating between her paralyzed present, the week before her accident, and a series of childhood diaries from twenty years ago, this brilliant psychological thriller asks: Is something really a lie if you believe it's the truth?

I read this ebook from the library one night when I had insomnia. It was fast-paced and twisty, but the ending is a little convoluted and hard to understand (don't judge me, a bunch of people on Goodreads agree).

Insidious Intent (Tony Hill and Carol Jordan #10) by Val McDermid: Synopsis from Goodreads - In the north of England, single women are beginning to disappear from weddings. A pattern soon becomes clear: Someone is crashing the festivities and luring the women away--only to leave the victims' bodies in their own burned-out cars in remote locations. 
Psychologist Tony Hill and former police detective Carol Jordan are called upon to investigate--but this may be the toughest case they've ever had to face. Meanwhile, Detective Sergeant Paula McIntyre and her partner Elinor must deal with a cruel cyber-blackmailer targeting their teenage ward, Torin.
Impeccably plotted and intensely gripping, Insidious Intentreaffirms Val McDermid's place as Britain's reigning Queen of Crime.

I've enjoyed this series, but I think it might be getting a little tired. Tony and Carol are an interesting pair - partners but not lovers, with Tony's issues sort of removing the annoying will-they won't-they that might exist otherwise. I sometimes wish the characters would show a little more growth, but I also realize that wouldn't necessarily be realistic. I appreciate the way McDermid gives attention and character development to people who are about to be serial killed. The secondary police characters are interesting and engaging. It's just possible the series is running out of steam at this point.

The Nature of the Beast (Armand Gamache #11) by Louise Penny: Synopsis from Goodreads - Hardly a day goes by when nine-year-old Laurent Lepage doesn't cry wolf. From alien invasions, to walking trees, to winged beasts in the woods, to dinosaurs spotted in the village of Three Pines, his tales are so extraordinary no one can possibly believe him. But when the boy disappears, the villagers are faced with the possibility that one of his tall tales might have been true. And so begins a frantic search for the boy and the truth. What they uncover deep in the forest sets off a sequence of events that leads to murder, leads to an old crime, leads to an old betrayal. A monster once visited Three Pines. And put down deep roots. And now, it is back.

Friends, I apologize. I have written not a word about this book, and I can recall nothing about reading it. Since I have read eleven other books in the series, though, I can say with some certainty that this one had all the best elements - charming Three Pines setting, quirky characters, a quiet, thoughtful plot dealing with human nature and human motivations - but (since I gave it three stars, not four) also some of the less-good ones, such as an over-dependence on Gamache's personality to carry things through and a mysticism bordering on the cheesy rather than just intuition and insight.