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. 


StephLove said…
A comparison to It is a good recommendation in my book.

I loved the review-by-educated-guess at the end.
Nicole said…
There are lots of books that I have read at what is probably the wrong time, which colours my feelings about them. Recently a few people were absolutely raving about Half Blood Blues. I expected to love it. But I didn't, not at all. I think it was maybe just the time, I'm sure it is a good book. But now I have another book by that author on my table and I just don't know. I'm worried to read it because I'm worried I won't like it. We'll see, I guess.
I read Then she Was Gone and I found the end so implausible that it tainted the entire book for me. I’m currently finishing up the Woman in the Window and....I’m not sold, but maybe the ending will redeem it.

Last night at my book club I was talking about our most recent selection - Where the Crawdada Sing - which I said I gave a 3.5 rounded up to a 4 and as soon as I said 3...everyone said “But I thought you liked it!?” Which I did! ...but that 3 really makes people think otherwise. Oh well, I will continue rating my books as I see fit and everyone else can take them or leave them. :)

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