Books Read in 2021: Three-Star Non-Fiction and Mystery

Three-Star Non-Fiction

Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life by Tara Henley: synopsis from Goodreads: INSTANT NATIONAL BESTSELLER

"Beautifully written, brimming with insight and reassurance--I'm so grateful for this book." -Olivia Sudjic, author of Exposure
"Provocative and convincing." -- Winnipeg Free Press
A deeply personal and informed reflection on the modern world--and why so many feel disillusioned by it.
In 2016, journalist Tara Henley was at the top of her game working in Canadian media. She had traveled the world, from Soweto to Bangkok and Borneo to Brooklyn, interviewing authors and community leaders, politicians and Hollywood celebrities. But when she started getting chest pains at her desk in the newsroom, none of that seemed to matter.
The health crisis--not cardiac, it turned out, but anxiety--forced her to step off the media treadmill and examine her life and the stressful twenty-first century world around her. Henley was not alone; North America was facing an epidemic of lifestyle-related health problems. And yet, the culture was continually celebrating the elite few who thrived in the always-on work world, those who perpetually leaned in. Henley realized that if we wanted innovative solutions to the wave of burnout and stress-related illness, it was time to talk to those who had leaned out.
Part memoir, part travelogue, and part investigation, Lean Out
 tracks Henley's journey from the heart of the connected city to the fringe communities that surround it. From early retirement enthusiasts in urban British Columbia to moneyless men in rural Ireland, Henley uncovers a parallel track in which everyday citizens are quietly dropping out of the mainstream and reclaiming their lives from overwork. Underlying these disparate movements is a rejection of consumerism, a growing appetite for social contribution, and a quest for meaningful connection in this era of extreme isolation and loneliness.

As she connects the dots between anxiety and overwork, Henley confronts the biggest issues of our time.

I certainly understand the impulse behind writing this book, but I didn't have high hopes that Henley would be able to offer any really groundbreaking solutions for me, and I was not wrong. It's not a bad book, but it's quite self-indulgent (I know, I know, writing by nature is self-indulgent, you know what I mean, right?). She details the journalism career that burned her out in quite a name-droppy self-promoting fashion - fair enough. She absolutely had some hardcore health problems - if she was American this probably would have been quite a different book, since how do you 'lean out' when you're facing crippling medical bills? She interviews a lot of people who live off the grid or out of the mainstream, and she does a lot of cooking from scratch and taking long walks, but this isn't any kind of bit paradigm shift - I found it neither "provocative" nor "convincing". I feel like I sound bitchier than I mean to - I am all for leaning out, and I'll give anyone a shot who wants to explore ways of doing it. She could have acknowledged her privilege a little more - at one point she compares herself to a black man who spent years in prison (I think wrongfully convicted, but I could be wrong) and it's pretty cringe. She might "confront the biggest issues of our time", but they are way too big for this to have made much of a dent, admirable as the effort may be.

Three-Star Short Stories

Vampires Never Get Old: Tales With Fresh Bite edited by Zoraida Cordova and Natalie C. Parker: synopsis from Goodreads: Eleven fresh vampire stories from young adult fiction’s leading voices! In this delicious new collection, you’ll find stories about lurking vampires of social media, rebellious vampires hungry for more than just blood, eager vampires coming out―and going out for their first kill―and other bold, breathtaking, dangerous, dreamy, eerie, iconic, powerful creatures of the night. Welcome to the evolution of the vampire―and a revolution on the page.

Three and a half. Two or three stories were really good. Tessa Gratton's Seven Nights for Dying offered a slightly different perspective, a nice kind of yearning melancholy about the decision whether or not to become immortal, haunting rather than just gross. Samira Ahmed's A Guidebook for the Newly Sired Desi Vampire was excellent - it's nice to have a new cultural take on vampires with some humour (vampires apps!) Rebecca Roanhorse's The Boys from Blood River has a dusty, sun-faded western kind of patina. The others were kind of pedestrian. I love Natalie C. Parker's work, but I thought that the addendums to the story along with the questions at the end were kind of cheesy.

Three Strikes by Lucy Christopher, Kat Ellis and Rhian Ivory: synopsis from Goodreads: Three Strikes is a collection of three dark novellas from three star YA authors.The Darkness - Lucy Christopher Kasha has answered the advert for The Tribe. Now she sits writing alone in the darkness of the jungle. Is she the only one left? Then she spots a red light blinking at her from the darkness. Cat’s eyes? A camera? The Twins of Blackfin - Kat Ellis Every evening Bo visits her best friend Sky’s grave. One night she hears a girl’s voice. Following it leads her to a journal and a crypt. Matchgirl - Rhian Ivory A modern YA retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. Busking, runaway Nia is mugged and left badly hurt in a tunnel. All she has is three matches, and she starts seeing pictures in the light... A story of grief, love and music.

I think I ended up reading this because I was searching for an author in the library ebooks and this came up. It was odd. Usually I don't love reading stories set in universes of books I haven't read, but in this case that was the one I really liked (The Twins of Blackfin by Kat Ellis). I love the magical realism-soaked setting of Blackfin and I'm not interested in reading the other books. The Darkness by Lucy Christopher piqued my interest, but it pretty much stayed where it started without surprise or character development. Matchgirl by Rhian Ivory is a take on - well, yeah. The setting is quaint and lovely, the description of music and friendship, and I was really into it, and then I really didn't understand what she was going for. The ending was abrupt and confusing, and the whole thing didn't really relate to the source material for me.

Three-Star Mystery

Angel Killer (Jessica Blackwood #1) by Andrew Mayne: synopsis from Goodreads: FBI agent Jessica Blackwood believes she's left her complicated life as a gifted magician behind her . . . until a killer with seemingly supernatural powers puts her talents to the ultimate test.A hacker who identifies himself only as "Warlock" brings down the FBI's website and posts a code in its place that leads to a Michigan cemetery, where a dead girl is discovered rising from the ground . . . as if she tried to crawl out of her own grave.Born into a dynasty of illusionists, Jessica Blackwood is destined to become its next star—until she turns her back on her troubled family to begin a new life in law enforcement. But FBI consultant Dr. Jeffrey Ailes's discovery of an old magic magazine will turn Jessica's world upside down. Faced with a crime that appears beyond explanation, Ailes has nothing to lose—and everything to gain—by taking a chance on an agent raised in a world devoted to achieving the seemingly impossible.The body in the cemetery is only the first in the Warlock's series of dark miracles. Thrust into the media spotlight, with time ticking away until the next crime, can Jessica confront her past to stop a depraved killer? If she can't, she may become his next victim. 

I thought this was by an author that I'd read before, but I think I was mistaken. The character's history with stage magic relating to the mystery was interesting, but the characters were flat and had no emotional depth to them at all. The ending was so abrupt that I kept flipping back and forth thinking I'd missed something.

The Wife and the Widow by Christian White: synopsis from Goodreads: Set against the backdrop of an eerie island town in the dead of winter, The Wife and The Widow is an unsettling thriller told from two perspectives: Kate, a widow whose grief is compounded by what she learns about her dead husband’s secret life; and Abby, an island local whose world is turned upside when she’s forced to confront the evidence of her husband’s guilt. But nothing on this island is quite as it seems, and only when these women come together can they discover the whole story about the men in their lives. Brilliant and beguiling, The Wife and The Widow takes you to a cliff edge and asks the question: how well do we really know the people we love?


The setting and the plotting were good here - it was just a little one-dimensional.

The Quiet Girl by S.F. Kosa: synopsis from Goodreads: Good girls keep quiet. Quiet girls won't stay silent forever.When Alex arrives in Provincetown to patch things up with his new wife, he finds an empty wine glass in the sink, her wedding ring on the desk, and a string of questions in her wake. The police believe that Alex's wife simply left, his marriage crumbling before it truly began. But what Alex finds in their empty cottage points him toward a different reality: His wife has always carried a secret. And now she's disappeared. In his hunt for the truth, Alex comes across Layla, a young woman with information to share, who may hold the key to everything his wife has kept hidden. A girl without a clear recollection of her own past. A strange, quiet girl whose memories may break them all.To find his wife, Alex must face what Layla has forgotten. And the consequences are anything but quiet.

Again, decent plotting and a fairly good twist. Characters could have used a little more depth. 

Scarred (a Henry Christie Mystery Book #28) by Nick Oldham: synopsis from Goodreads: Some wounds never heal . . .Henry Christie has never forgotten the day he was brutally assaulted as a young constable while chasing a teenage shoplifter down a Blackpool alley. Tommy Benemy went missing soon after his arrest, but although Henry promised Tommy's mother he'd keep an eye on the case, her son was never found.Now retired, Henry reluctantly agrees to join the Cold Case Unit as a civilian investigator, teaming up with the volatile DS Debbie Blackstone, who's carrying scars of her own. When an old case leads them to a serial rapist, and a gruesome scene takes Henry back to his old promise - and failure, the pair find themselves confronting their demons as they unearth a deadly criminal conspiracy spanning decades, and chilling secrets desperate individuals will go to any lengths to keep hidden.

I have a bad habit of overlooking the subtitle that tells you that a book is the first in a trilogy (why do I EVER read those before they're all out?) or part of a series. In this case I think I got an advanced reader's copy, so I might not have seen it. But it's a pretty good bet that if something is NUMBER TWENTY-EIGHT in a series that it may have lost a little of its freshness. It wasn't actual crap, but I won't be rushing to read numbers one through twenty-seven.

Survive the Night by Riley Sagar: synopsis from Goodreads: Charlie Jordan is being driven across the country by a serial killer. Maybe. Behind the wheel is Josh Baxter, a stranger Charlie met by the college ride share board, who also has a good reason for leaving university in the middle of term. On the road they share their stories, carefully avoiding the subject dominating the news - the Campus Killer, who's tied up and stabbed three students in the span of a year, has just struck again. Travelling the lengthy journey between university and their final destination, Charlie begins to notice discrepancies in Josh's story. As she begins to plan her escape from the man she is becoming certain is the killer, she starts to suspect that Josh knows exactly what she's thinking. Meaning that she could very well end up as his next victim.

This was actually pretty fun. Pretty dumb. Pretty cheesy. But fun. I find this author quite uneven in quality, but the good is good enough that I keep going back and the bad is fun to mock. This one drew the ire of several readers on Goodreads: "I am untethered and my rage knows no bounds!"; "yes, enter this bish charlie jordan. this girl literally thinks she's the main character, smh. she would literally get me killed in the first five minutes of any scary movie."; "So -- this was a shitshow full of mad people". Reading this was like watching a scary/funny B-movie with a comically melodramatic soundtrack. 

We Were Never Here by Andrea Bartz: synopsis from Goodreads: An annual backpacking trip has deadly consequences in a chilling new novel from the bestselling author of The Lost Night and The HerdEmily is having the time of her life--she's in the mountains of Chile with her best friend, Kristen, on their annual reunion trip, and the women are feeling closer than ever. But on the last night of their trip, Emily enters their hotel suite to find blood and broken glass on the floor. Kristen says the cute backpacker she'd been flirting with attacked her, and she had no choice but to kill him in self-defense. Even more shocking: The scene is horrifyingly similar to last year's trip, when another backpacker wound up dead. Emily can't believe it's happened again--can lightning really strike twice? Back home in Wisconsin, Emily struggles to bury her trauma, diving head-first into a new relationship and throwing herself into work. But when Kristen shows up for a surprise visit, Emily is forced to to confront their violent past. The more Kristen tries to keep Emily close, the more Emily questions her friend's motives. As Emily feels the walls closing in on their coverups, she must reckon with the truth about her closest friend. Can she outrun the secrets she shares with Kristen, or will they destroy her relationship, her freedom--even her life?

If I had read the synopsis a little more carefully, I probably wouldn't have read this. For what it was, it was done fairly well. It's really hard to write the "person with a traumatic secret trying to act normal but constantly bursting into tears/ dashing from the room/ freaking out in various other ways" schtick without it getting annoying. 

The Day She Died by Catriona McPherson: synopsis from Goodreads: That was the day I met Gus, the day I grew a family as if from magic beans, the day she died. That's the point, see? It was the very same day... Jessie Constable has learned the hard way to always keep herself safe. But meeting Gus King changes everything. Before she knows it, Jessie is sleeping at Gus's house, babysitting his kids, becoming a part of his family. And yet, she can't ignore the unsettling questions. Who does she keep seeing from the corner of her eye? Why are strange men threatening her? Most importantly, what really happened to Gus's wife?Creating a brilliant, foreboding mystery where nothing is as it seems, master storyteller Catriona McPherson weaves an ominous tale that will keep you guessing until the very end.

Three and a half. A little different and surprising. Kind of bonkers, but maintains its internal logic and has some really good characters. And it did, in fact, keep me guessing almost until the very end. 

The Dare by Lesley Kara: synopsis from Goodreads: She thought she had put all the questions to rest. But someone from her past wants answers. From the bestselling author of The Rumor and Who Did You Tell? comes The Dare, an electrifying novel of suspense. "I read The Dare in two big gulps--it's pacey, has great characters, and there's a flip worthy of Simone Biles."--Fiona Barton, New York Times bestselling author of The Widow At the time it was exciting. A game of dare, but one that had motive and justification. Children can be so judgmental, can't they? I can still hear her cry as she toppled forward, the dull thud of her body as it landed on the pavement.Lizzie and Alice are the best of friends, as close as can be. Until the day when they're out playing by the train tracks and a childish spat triggers Lizzie's epilepsy. When she comes to, she finds an unimaginable horror: Alice has been killed. Lizzie is devastated, and as she tries to cope with her grief, she is shocked to find herself alienated from Alice's friends and relatives, who are convinced Lizzie and "the dare" somehow had a role in her friend's death.I knew that whatever she wanted me to do, I'd do it. Like that first, dreadful dare. Years later, Lizzie has tried to move on. She's engaged to a wonderful man and is starting a new life in London. But someone from her past isn't willing to forgive and forget. And they'll do anything to pry answers from her. Even if Lizzie doesn't know them herself. 

I'm running out of ways to say "adequately plotted but sub-par writing and characterization". There was a good story in here, but it was very much "this happened then this happened then this happened, I was scared/suspicious/shocked." All of these would be good reads for anyone that hasn't read hundreds of books in the same genre. It's not them, it's me.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie: synopsis from Goodreads: First, there were ten—a curious assortment of strangers summoned as weekend guests to a little private island off the coast of Devon. Their host, an eccentric millionaire unknown to all of them, is nowhere to be found. All that the guests have in common is a wicked past they're unwilling to reveal—and a secret that will seal their fate. For each has been marked for murder. A famous nursery rhyme is framed and hung in every room of the mansion:

"Ten little boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine. Nine little boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were eight. Eight little boys traveling in Devon; One said he'd stay there then there were seven. Seven little boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in half and then there were six. Six little boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five. Five little boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were four. Four little boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were three. Three little boys walking in the zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were two. Two little boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was one. One little boy left all alone; He went out and hanged himself and then there were none."

When they realize that murders are occurring as described in the rhyme, terror mounts. One by one they fall prey. Before the weekend is out, there will be none. Who has choreographed this dastardly scheme? And who will be left to tell the tale? Only the dead are above suspicion. 

I read this to fill a book bingo square, and because of a funny thing that happened a few years ago with Eve. She came home and said she had to pick a mystery to read in English and described the book and said it was by "Agatha Someone" and then asked why I was laughing. After she read it she said the ending was pretty bleak and I said "well at least the last two characters get married". She said "what do you mean, literally everyone died?" We looked it up and it turned out that I had read the play, for which Agatha Christie changed the ending to be a little less desolate because it was being performed during World War II and things were depressing enough. 

I liked it when I first read it - the 'locked room' aspect of it appealed to me - but the writing style is a little too dated for my taste at this point for it to be a gripping read and not just an exercise in nostalgia.


You know, I have never read an Agatha Christie book in my life?

I also read Lean Out, and I think I had the same reaction.
StephLove said…
I was a big Agatha Christie fan in middle and high school and I actually taught And Then There Were None in a genre fiction class back in the day.

As for the book that's #28 in a series, Noah and I just started #3 in a series that has 41 books (Discworld). I don't see us ever finishing it, but I don't know where the point of diminishing returns will be. It was also possibly a mistake to start a book four days before he leaves to go back to school, but I am in denial...
My mom is an enormous Agatha fan and owns all of her books so I’ve read a couple. And Then There Were None was one I also had to read in high school English. I can’t remember much though I do remember that I read it under the racist title Ten Little Indians which is apparently a change from the other racist title it was originally published under. Oh Agatha, what was going on there?
Suzanne said…
I think that was my first Agatha Christie and I also wasn't wowed by it, but some of them are really fun. I especially like Mrs. Marple because she just shows up at some random point in each story and already knows everything and solves the whole thing. Plus Agatha's tongue in cheek humor and witty take on society makes me giggle.

The only other book on your list that I read was Survive the Night, which was my first (and possibly last) Riley Sager novel. I think I fall onto the exasperation end of the spectrum, but then again I read the entire thing which says something about the author's ability to keep my attention, I guess?
Ernie said…
" It's them, not me." He. Love this. I have never read an Agatha book. Curly had to read one for school- I think it was this one. She hated it. A few on here look interesting. I am really finding more and more that I prefer non-fiction. I also laughed at the #28 in the series and how it may have lost its luster.
Ernie said…
" It's them, not me." He. Love this. I have never read an Agatha book. Curly had to read one for school- I think it was this one. She hated it. A few on here look interesting. I am really finding more and more that I prefer non-fiction. I also laughed at the #28 in the series and how it may have lost its luster.
Ernie said…
So sorry. No idea why that posted twice.
Tudor said…
You're so topical! I'm wondering if you've read about the recent Tara Henley recent kerfuffle?

It's interesting that you gave her book three stars because that seems like a really good summing-up of her attempt to raise a major controversy about the CBC that didn't really-quite-so-much take off.

Also quite self-indulgent.

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