Books Read in 2019: Four-Star Mystery

It's really interesting seeing everyone's perspective on the five-star rating, which I think we can all agree is arbitrary and imperfect. I would say I don't give one-star ratings lightly, but I do sometimes give them petulantly so I guess that's not really true - sometimes I'm reading something and I feel like it's objectively lazy and terrible and I'm enraged that it got published. I guess I could be a bigger person and just not rate it, but I haven't been so far, not in every case.

And good lord, don't feel embarrassed or illiterate if you haven't read a lot. I read a weird amount, for a variety of reasons - I was a neurotic insecure child and it was a security blanket, I did a degree that was basically in reading (and blathering about it, which I enjoyed less), and I don't cross-stitch or play sports or exercise enough. I read plenty of books that are fully as escapist as reality tv or whatever other people do to relax. I understand fully how hard it is to make time for reading as a mother who works (other mothers who work more, I mean), and the only reason I manage it is because it's a habit that I've never been able to give up. I often feel guilty for reading when I should be doing other stuff, so why would you feel guilty about doing the other stuff instead of reading?

I don't read as much mystery as I used to, although it's still my go-to when I want something more relaxing. I'm quite a bit more discriminating in what I want in a good mystery read, and it can be hard to tell what you're getting if it's not a familiar author. The best mysteries are just really good books that happen to have a murder or a loss in the mix. When you've read a fuckton of books, it can sometimes seem like everything is old or unfresh or derivative - the tortured detective, the dysfunctional family, the dead person with secrets. Then you realize that there is almost nothing that's entirely new, and you're just looking for something done well, even if it's familiar. 

YA Mystery

This is Our Story by Ashley Elston. Synopsis from Goodreads: Five went in. Four came out.
No one knows what happened that morning at River Point. Five boys went hunting. Four came back. The boys won’t say who fired the shot that killed their friend; the evidence shows it could have been any one of them.
Kate Marino’s senior year internship at the district attorney’s office isn’t exactly glamorous—more like an excuse to leave school early that looks good on college applications. Then the DA hands her boss, Mr. Stone, the biggest case her small town of Belle Terre has ever seen. The River Point Boys are all anyone can talk about. Despite their damning toxicology reports the morning of the accident, the DA wants the boys’ case swept under the rug. He owes his political office to their powerful families.
Kate won’t let that happen. Digging up secrets without revealing her own is a dangerous line to walk; Kate has her own reasons for seeking justice for Grant. As she investigates with Stone, the aging prosecutor relying on Kate to see and hear what he cannot, she realizes that nothing about the case—or the boys—is what it seems. Grant wasn’t who she thought he was, and neither is Stone’s prime suspect. As Kate gets dangerously close to the truth, it becomes clear that the early morning accident might not have been an accident at all—and if Kate doesn’t uncover the true killer, more than one life could be on the line…including her own.

If I try, I have the sense that I could find all kinds of holes to poke in this. But I don't feel like it. It had fantastic narrative energy, I couldn't wait to pick it up again, and it just felt like great story-telling. The texts preceding the chapters were a nice way to see the developing relationship. There definitely could have been more work done on characterization, although that would have made it harder to keep the guilty party hidden so well. Whatever. It was a fun, fast read that felt a little different.

Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus. Synopsis from Goodreads: 
Echo Ridge is small-town America. Ellery's never been there, but she's heard all about it. Her aunt went missing there at age seventeen. And only five years ago, a homecoming queen put the town on the map when she was killed. Now Ellery has to move there to live with a grandmother she barely knows.
The town is picture-perfect, but it's hiding secrets. And before school even begins for Ellery, someone's declared open season on homecoming, promising to make it as dangerous as it was five years ago. Then, almost as if to prove it, another girl goes missing.
Ellery knows all about secrets. Her mother has them; her grandmother does too. And the longer she's in Echo Ridge, the clearer it becomes that everyone there is hiding something. The thing is, secrets are dangerous--and most people aren't good at keeping them. Which is why in Echo Ridge, it's safest to keep your secrets to yourself.

This was great fun - I think I liked it even more than her first book, which I very much enjoyed. I had just read a review criticizing books where teenagers are able to solve mysteries when the police can't. Aside from certain fairly specific circumstances, it's fair to be skeptical about this. That may have been why I really enjoyed the fact that, in many ways, the teenagers in this book sucked pretty hard at solving the mystery. They were spirited and enthusiastic, but almost entirely misguided. At one point the cop actually asks Ellery "You really didn't think we would have checked that?" and it's hilarious. Most of all, I just really enjoyed the world-making. The twins' relationship with their mostly-unknown grandmother, and their changing relationship with their mother were both done really well. I looked forward to picking the book up again not just because I was engaged in the mystery, but because I enjoyed hanging out with the characters.


Zero Sum Game (Russell's Attic #1) by S.L. Huang. Synopsis from Goodreads: Cas Russell is the geek's Jack Reacher... ZERO SUM GAME is a smart, accessible sf thriller with blockbuster appeal.
Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good. The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight, and she'll take any job for the right price.
As far as Cas knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower...until she discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master.
Cas should run, like she usually does, but for once she's involved. There’s only one problem...
She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.

Netgalley is a site where publishers can grant access for bloggers and reviewers to access digital copies of books. When I first discovered this site I went insane requesting books and ended up with way too many, and a lot were not, shall we say, of the highest quality. I've since become much more circumspect, and this was a rare occasion where I request a book by an author I didn't already know. It worked out swimmingly - this was crazy cool. The descriptions of using math and physics for purposes of violence and mayhem (and self-defense) are both accessible and fascinating. Cas is an extremely engaging character, flawed and difficult and tough. There's action, high-concept scary sci-fi stuff, nuanced and terrifying villains, and hard-boiled banter. I will absolutely look out for the next book in the series. (I just reread the synopsis and saw "smart, accessible sf thriller" and though oh yeah, it's not totally reality-based, but whatever, I'm leaving it here).

If She Wakes by Michael Koryta. Synopsis from Goodreads: 
Tara Beckley is a senior at idyllic Hammel College in Maine. As she drives to deliver a visiting professor to a conference, a horrific car accident kills the professor and leaves Tara in a vegetative state. At least, so her doctors think. In fact, she's a prisoner of locked-in syndrome: fully alert but unable to move a muscle. Trapped in her body, she learns that someone powerful wants her dead--but why? And what can she do, lying in a hospital bed, to stop them?
Abby Kaplan, an insurance investigator, is hired by the college to look in to Tara's case. A former stunt driver, Abby returned home after a disaster in Hollywood left an actor dead and her own reputation--and nerves--shattered. Despite the fog of trauma, she can tell that Tara's car crash was no accident. When she starts asking questions, things quickly spin out of control, leaving Abby on the run and a mysterious young hit man named Dax Blackwell hard on her heels.
Full of pulse-pounding tension, If She Wakes is a searing, breakneck thriller from the genre's "best of the best" (Michael Connelly).

I've read this author before and enjoyed his writing style and characterization - he could very well have fleshed out Abby here and left other people as mere outlines, but Abby and Tara and Dax Blackwell are all fully realized and engaging. Every stage of the book is well-plotted, with good narrative tension and surprise. I don't usually think this about books, but this would make a great movie - I could see many of the scenes very visually. 

He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly. Synopsis from Goodreads: 
In the summer of 1999, Kit and Laura travel to a festival in Cornwall to see a total eclipse of the sun. Kit is an eclipse chaser; Laura has never seen one before. Young and in love, they are certain this will be the first of many they’ll share.
But in the hushed moments after the shadow passes, Laura interrupts a man and a woman. She knows that she saw something terrible. The man denies it. It is her word against his.
The victim seems grateful. Months later, she turns up on their doorstep like a lonely stray. But as her gratitude takes a twisted turn, Laura begins to wonder—did she trust the wrong person?
15 years later, Kit and Laura are living under assumed names and completely off the digital grid: no Facebook, only rudimentary cell phones, not in any directories. But as the truth catches up to them, they realize they can no longer keep the past in the past.

In the end, probably more like three and a half stars. The mystery fell apart slightly near the end, but the build and tension was really well done, and as an autopsy of a young relationship and a character study of people deciding how much they can compromise their values and live with the consequences it is fairly masterful.

A Time to Scatter Stones (Matt Scudder #17.5) by Lawrence Block. Synopsis from Goodreads: 
MATT SCUDDER RETURNS. More than 40 years after his debut and nearly a decade since his last appearance, one of the most renowned characters in all of crime fiction is back on the case in this major new novella by Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Lawrence Block. Well past retirement age and feeling his years—but still staying sober one day at a time—Matthew Scudder learns that alcoholics aren't the only ones who count the days since their last slip. Matt's longtime partner, Elaine, tells him of a group of former sex workers who do something similar, helping each other stay out of the life. But when one young woman describes an abusive client who's refusing to let her quit, Elaine encourages her to get help of a different sort. The sort only Scudder can deliver. A Time to Scatter Stones offers not just a gripping crime story but also a richly drawn portrait of Block's most famous character as he grapples with his own mortality while proving to the younger generation that he's still got what it takes. For Scudder's millions of fans around the world (including the many who met the character through Liam Neeson's portrayal in the film version of A Walk Among the Tombstones), A Time to Scatter Stones is an unexpected gift—a valedictory appearance that will remind readers why Scudder is simply the best there is.

I was so happy to see this because I loved this series SO much and was so sad when it ended - one of my all-time favourite detectives; he's got some baggage but he basically gets his shit together throughout the series, which is really nice to see. I didn't realize it was a novella, which was a tiny bit disappointing. I also would have loved a denser, twistier mystery. Other than that, I was just happy for a peek at the later lives of Matt and Elaine. I liked the meditative spinning out of their conversations and daily routines. It was sort of melancholy and elegaic, and I really enjoyed it. It made me want to read the whole series again (highly recommended), and look for a few short stories that I think I've missed.

The Trespasser (Dublin Murder Squad #6) by Tana French. Synopsis from Goodreads: Being on the Murder Squad is nothing like Detective Antoinette Conway dreamed it would be. Her partner, Stephen Moran, is the only person who seems glad she’s there. The rest of her working life is a stream of thankless cases, vicious pranks, and harassment. Antoinette is savagely tough, but she’s getting close to the breaking point.
Their new case looks like yet another by-the-numbers lovers’ quarrel gone bad. Aislinn Murray is blond, pretty, groomed-to-a-shine, and dead in her catalog-perfect living room, next to a table set for a romantic dinner. There’s nothing unusual about her—except that Antoinette’s seen her somewhere before.
And that her death won’t stay in its neat by-numbers box. Other detectives are trying to push Antoinette and Steve into arresting Aislinn’s boyfriend, fast. There’s a shadowy figure at the end of Antoinette╩╝s road. Aislinn╩╝s friend is hinting that she knew Aislinn was in danger. And everything they find out about Aislinn takes her further from the glossy, passive doll she seemed to be.
Antoinette knows the harassment has turned her paranoid, but she can’t tell just how far gone she is. Is this case another step in the campaign to force her off the squad, or are there darker currents flowing beneath its polished surface? 

Tana French writes the most amazing mysteries - sprawling character studies and illustrations of family dynamics or other relationships, class issues, a vivid sense of place sometimes a hint of the supernatural, sometimes not. Characters who are often their own worst enemies, for good or less good reasons. They are often unbearably sad, and sometimes leave seemingly main characters behind ruthlessly. I sometimes think I can't possibly read another one, and then I always do. 

Big Sky (Jackson Brodie #5) by Kate Atkinson. Synopsis from Goodreads: Jackson Brodie, ex-military police, ex-Cambridge Constabulary, currently working as a private investigator, makes a highly anticipated return, nine years after the last Brodie, Started Early, Took My Dog.
Jackson Brodie has relocated to a quiet seaside village, in the occasional company of his recalcitrant teenage son and an aging Labrador, both at the discretion of his ex-partner Julia. It’s picturesque, but there’s something darker lurking behind the scenes.
Jackson’s current job, gathering proof of an unfaithful husband for his suspicious wife, is fairly standard-issue, but a chance encounter with a desperate man on a crumbling cliff leads him into a sinister network—and back across the path of his old friend Reggie. Old secrets and new lies intersect in this breathtaking novel by one of the most dazzling and surprising writers at work today.

I had just been talking with friends about how much I loved the first Jackson Brodie mystery (and all the others) and, like magic, this appeared. I was going to say it was sort of melancholy and bittersweet visiting Brodie as an older man, but the truth is the series was always sort of melancholy and bittersweet. Some of the themes here are both difficult and not my favourite mystery tropes, but I enjoyed the customary plethora of viewpoints, along with Brodie's inner monologue, interrupted frequently by Julia's imagined rejoinders. His relationship with his son is letter-perfect as well, and the appearance of a character from an earlier book is freaking fantastic. Entirely satisfying.

The Next to Die (Spilling CID #10) by Sophie Hannah. Synopsis from Goodreads: The New York Times bestselling author of The Monogram Murders and Woman with a Secret returns with a disturbing tale of psychological suspense and obsession that hits at the heart of some of our most precious relationships.
What if having a best friend could put you in the crosshairs of a killer?
A psychopath the police have dubbed “Billy Dead Mates” is targeting pairs of best friends, and killing them one by one. Before they die, each victim is given a small white book.
For months, detectives have failed to catch Billy, or figure out what the white books symbolize and why the killer leaves them behind. The police are on edge; the public in a panic. Then a woman, scared by what she’s seen on the news, comes forward. What she reveals shocks the investigators and adds another troubling layer to an already complex case.
Stand-up comedian Kim Tribbeck has one of Billy’s peculiar little books. A stranger gave it to her at a gig she did last year. Was the stranger Billy, and is he targeting her—or is it something more nefarious? Kim has no friends and trusts no one, so how—and why—could Billy Dead Mates want to target her? If it’s not her, then who will be the next to die?
Sophie Hannah raises the stakes with each successive page in this haunting and twisting thriller that reaffirms her place as one of today’s most talented suspense writers.

This was a stupid, ridiculous book that I nevertheless hugely enjoyed. Clearly Sophie Hannah has done very well for herself with the schtick - a mystery that is not only impossible to solve but seems impossible all the way around that is then unraveled by a genius police detective. A couple of them were pleasurable mind-benders, a couple of them devolved into impenetrable messes, and then there's this. It's all laid out clearly in the end, and I'll remember who did it when I think of this book, but I will also think once again, "oh, come the fuck ON". There's an 'enormous coincidence' that just... isn't. Simon Waterhouse's maddening quirks are downright assholish in this book, and it's impossible that he wasn't either fired or divorced for his behaviour. I actually like that the cops have less of a role in this book than in other police procedurals, because I find a lot of them either deeply unlikable or eminently forgettable. I loved Kim, I could have stayed with her voice forever, and she made this book for me. I will probably keep reading Sophie Hannah because I am a sucker for punishment, or something.

The Craftsman (The Craftsman #1) by Sharon Bolton. Synopsis from Goodreads: Catching him will make her career - and change her forever.
August, 1999
On the hottest day of the year, Assistant Commissioner Florence Lovelady attends the funeral of Larry Glassbrook, the convicted murderer she arrested thirty years earlier. A master carpenter and funeral director, Larry imprisoned his victims, alive, in the caskets he made himself. Clay effigies found entombed with their bodies suggested a motive beyond the worst human depravity.
June, 1969
13-year- old Patsy Wood has been missing for two days, the third teenager to disappear in as many months. New to the Lancashire police force and struggling to fit in, WPC Lovelady is sent to investigate an unlikely report from school children claiming to have heard a voice calling for help. A voice from deep within a recent grave.
August, 1999
As she tries to lay her ghosts to rest, Florence is drawn back to the Glassbrooks' old house, in the shadow of Pendle Hill, where she once lodged with the family. She is chilled by the discovery of another effigy - one bearing a remarkable resemblance to herself. Is the killer still at large? Is Florence once again in terrible d
anger? Or, this time, could the fate in store be worse than even her darkest imaginings?

I love Sharon Bolton. I started reading her when she was S.J. Bolton, because sometimes publishers make female authors use their initials because male thriller writers sell more books. I'm so happy that she gets to use her first name now - I like to imagine her saying fuck you to her publishers when she sold enough books to gain that right, based on nothing but a total fed-upness with systemic misogyny. She's written standalones and the Lacey Flint series - I preferred the standalones, which is kind of unusual for me. This is another one with a very evocatively rendered setting and again a hint of the supernatural, so again I maybe shouldn't have classified this as a straight mystery and again I'm not changing it, sorry. This is atmospheric and I enjoyed the contrast between young Florence finding her footing as a young police officer (systemic misogyny, hello again) and the older, assured version. She writes dark and this is a disturbing read.


StephLove said…
I haven't read a mystery in a while. The last one I picked up I found in a Little Free Library (do you have those in Canada?) and I got home, looked up some reviews, and took it straight back. Turns out it was a "Christian" mystery. I almost read it out of curiosity but life's too short for that.
Steph - I don't read many mysteries either. I usually enjoy them when I do but they are never my default. We have LFLs here, but I'm wondering what a Christian mystery actually IS.
Bibliomama said…
I've read one at least - it's a mystery novel but the people involved are Christian and there is generally some kind of proselytizing. It's very much not my thing, unless maybe the mystery was otherwise fantastic, but this one was not.
Bibliomama said…
Oh, and yes, we do. There are none really close to me, but I took Eve and her friend on a hunt for some last summer and we left some stuff and took some stuff (I got a copy of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, which I needed for book club).
Ernie said…
I have 5 more of your book reviews here to read, but want to comment now. Great stuff and I am excited to look into a few for my teenagers too. I am not that into mysteries, or so I thought - some of these sound really great. Historical fiction if my favorite genre. I wonder if the librarians at our library will be relieved that when I FINALLY think there is time for me to read, I do not have to hunt them down and explain what I like and ask them to help me find a good book. I know, I know, there is Goodreads for that. I am really pathetic.

Looking forward to reading up on the rest of your 4 stars and the next post as well. Let's just say my kids have played in a ton of b-ball games lately - Mini is seeing playing time on both varsity and sophomore team, so less blog-reading time for me (which is typically what i do when I camp out in the gym for hours on end. She was rarely getting in varsity, but injuries and attitudes have changed the lineup PLUS last night my phone was almost dead) finding my way home minus GPS was a blast.

Seriously so happy to have discovered your blog! Wish you lived down the street!
Busy Bee Suz said…
I find it wonderful that you read a fuckton of books! I believe it's a better hobby than reality TV. (guilty!)
I really do wish I read more; it's hard for me to sit still sometimes, so even when I sit down to watch mindless T.V, I'm folding clothes or cleaning something. (that's my neurosis!) The husband and I have been listening to a memoir. (almost typed ON tape-is it 1995?)
Anyhoo, it's a memoir from Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers; yeah, please don't judge me for my recent literary choices. But, he has lived a very interesting life, and that I do enjoy hearing about.

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