How many times have you started a book review with the words “It had a promising set-up”? You probably already know that the next word in that sentence is “but…” Yes, I’m back to suspense novels that don’t pay off. Maybe I need to switch genres for a while.
I picked up Have You Seen Me? by Kate White because the plot summary reminded me of What Alice Forgot, by Lynne Moriarty, a book I enjoyed quite a bit. In this one the protagonist, Ally, is only missing two days (not 10 years) of her life, but I love the way the writer starts it off, with her showing up to work in the morning only to realize that she hasn’t been employed by that company for five years. She faints and is sent to the hospital, and when she wakes up she gradually recalls her current life (including the husband who temporarily slipped her mind in favor of the boyfriend who ran the company where she went that morning), but can’t piece together where she has been since Monday night (it’s now Thursday morning).
Events take a logical progression as she has a psych eval, checks in with her own therapist, searches for missing belongings, calls her brother and friends to see if she has had contact with them during her blackout, and eventually decides to hire a private detective to back-trace her movements and put it all together. But this makes it sound pretty straightforward, when in fact the book meanders repetitively through Ally’s experiences to the point of shrieking boredom: Every time she discovers a new fact, she tells her husband, her brother, her best friend, her therapist, and her private investigator, and the reader “gets” to sit through all the explanations and then hear each reaction in turn (most of them both unsatisfactory and unhelpful to Ally). The author was also unnecessarily parochial about such psychological terms as “dissociative fugue state” and “rigor mortis”—I think we have all watched enough TV that it would be a miracle if we didn’t know the definitions already!
In contrast to all this excruciating detail, there are areas that are left vague (one can only assume purposefully) that should have been the absolute first places that the investigation went: Number one, her husband is acting super weird—aloof, unsympathetic, and largely unavailable. If I were Ally, the first thing I would do is rule out Hugh by either having a frank talk with him or getting perspective from people who know and are in contact with him (work colleagues, friends, etc.). Instead, she alternately obsesses or ignores. Number two, if you turned up after two blank days with bloody tissues in your pocket and it is determined that the blood isn’t yours, wouldn’t that be your primary focus before such details as where you ate lunch or who you talked to on the phone while you were “gone”? It would be mine, but that fact is brought up briefly and then ignored for the rest of the book until the ending. Number three, the way events unfold and the reasoning behind them regarding the fate of the private investigator is just outrageously bad. Number four, her supposed best friend is constantly MIA, first because she is out of town and then because she gets the flu. When Ally catches her in a lie, this should have been the lead-in to something significant, but instead it’s dropped with a ridiculous explanation. This is the case for so many characters/red herrings, both major and minor: the intern who drops hints about the ex-boyfriend, the intern’s friend who seems to know Hugh a little too well, the ex-boyfriend who hasn’t spoken to her in five years but is suddenly calling her a couple of times a day, the unaccountable feeling of unease she gets that her therapist is purposely steering her away from certain truths, her brother’s new wife’s backstabbing…any and all of these could and should have led somewhere—anywhere! I guess I just should have said “don’t get me started” instead of writing all of this!
And let’s talk about that ending without giving it away: After all the drama, the sleuthing, the surprise details, the fractured relationships, the horrifying events past and present, you’re telling me THAT is how you end this? Sure, I guess it’s possible, but plausible? Given the exceedingly awkward treatment of that whole aspect of the book, this was perhaps the least convincing (and most disappointing) conclusion.
Do I even need to type the words? Not recommended. Despite some inexplicable five-star ratings on Goodreads. Trust me.
Finally—a suspenseful story that I actually enjoyed! Take Me With You, by Tara Altebrando, is a combination of science fiction and suspense…although the science fiction is so close to reality that you could drop that out of the description with some justification. When I say that the events of this book could be “near future,” I’m talking weeks or months,
Four teenagers who attend the same school but barely know one another—Eli, Marwan, Eden, and Ilanka—are all summoned via the school’s messaging app to report to the music teacher after school about “an important matter.” When they arrive, there’s no sign of the teacher, and after waiting for a while, they think it must have been a mistake and prepare to leave. But there is a small black cube sitting on one of the desks, and as they talk it over, its sides light up with messages:
They all agree that it’s weird, and the best thing might be to walk away, and then…
“TAKE ME WITH YOU…OR ELSE” appears on the cube, immediately followed by a fire alarm going off. As they evacuate, Eden grabs the cube and shoves it into her backpack, setting in motion a bizarre interval in all their lives as the instructions from the cube grow more arbitrary and more adamant and they all scramble to meet its demands. When one of them decides to disobey, there are scary consequences that make them all wonder how this is going to end.
The thing I think I liked the most about this book was that the characters, although invested in this mystery, were multi-dimensional (and multi-cultural, by the way) and had a lot more going on in each of their lives, so that the advent of the cube was mostly an irritant and an inconvenience (at least at first) rather than the main thing on which they were all focused. Too many YA books are mono-focused, and unless it’s very well done, it gets monotonous. But in this book, which takes on the topics of stereotyping, anxiety, grief, and racism, Eden has boy problems and family issues, Marwan and his family (and their restaurant) are experiencing xenophobia for being Egyptian, Eli is a gamer who is more comfortable in his created world than in the real one, and Ilanka is busy figuring out priorities, trying to decide whether it is more important to her to be accomplished or to be happy. So interaction with the cube either accentuates their dilemmas or brings up new ones to distract them, and becomes a part of the story rather than the whole. It also brings them together as a unit as a result of outward motivation rather than choice, which shows all of them how little they knew the people around them and how, if they paid attention, they might find previously unrecognized value in their classmates.
As for the cube itself…a fairly classic story of artificial intelligence gone wrong, but with the advantage that it’s something that could actually happen. Consider all the data collection, spying, and hacking that is already going on in the world. Then think about Alexa, already able to a degree to self-program, by learning from repeated experiences and providing what you want or need in your home or car. Now give her a little boost, so she is aware enough to become curious about human interactions and to experiment with your reality by trying out things you haven’t requested or approved, with little critical judgment about what is trivial and what is potentially catastrophic. Now you have the propelling idea.
The story, which is presented from the teens’ multiple viewpoints (mostly according to who is currently in possession of the device), is a compelling page-turner. I wanted to know what would happen to the characters, and I also wanted to know the origins and rationale behind the device and why it was presented to these four, at this time, and for what reason(s).
The whole tale definitely makes you think about the various uses of technology, and how vulnerable we are when we allow its intrusion too far into our lives. It’s time to wake up and make the hard choices about tech: whether to surrender to it, tame it and keep it on a tight leash, or banish it in the name of autonomy. This could be a great book for a group discussion in a book club. Pair this with Cory Doctorow’s For the Win to expand your ideas on this topic.
As do many, I love a good twin story. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of being a twin, probably because I’m an only child and so have never had a sibling, period. The idea of having one who looked just like me has appealed ever since childhood days with the dual incentives of the 1961 version of The Parent Trap, starring Hayley Mills, released when I was an impressionable nine-year-old and, two years later, the advent of The Patty Duke Show (in which American Patty has a British cousin, Cathy, who looks just like her, and can pass if she can manage the accent).
In the YA novel The Secrets We Keep, by Trisha Leaver, there is a lot happening on top of the two protagonists being twins. Ella and Maddy are in their senior year and, although they were inseparable and likeminded up through middle school, in high school there came a parting of the ways. Maddy somehow managed to ascend almost instantly to the heights of popularity, including being both a star athlete and the girlfriend of the prom king, while Ella, more independent and less outwardly motivated, got over her initial hurt at Maddy leaving her on the sidelines, made one close friend in Josh, and focused on scholastic achievement and art. She and Josh have plans after high school that include the Rhode Island School of Design, while Maddy seems wholly taken up with the high school experience. And although each girl has chosen the path that seems right for her, there can’t help but be some bad feelings between them as a result of those choices. Ella feels simultaneously excluded and put-upon, as Maddy avoids her most of the time but still relies on Ella to bail her out by lying to their parents and even taking an occasional Spanish test for her so Maddy doesn’t flunk out. Maddy, on the other hand, doesn’t understand why Ella won’t make an effort with her appearance and her social status, and feels like Ella is judging her when Maddy prioritizes the frivolous over the serious. Ella is tired of being “the sensible one” to their parents while Maddy gets to be carefree and irresponsible, while Maddy resents Ella’s good standing.
All of this comes to a head one rainy night when Maddy calls Ella in the wee hours to come fetch her from a party. Ella grudgingly goes, but the two get into a fight on the way home that ends in catastrophe when Ella jerks the wheel in irritation and the car hydroplanes into a tree. Ella wakes up two days later in the hospital; not only does she not remember the accident, but she also doesn’t remember who she is. There is a boy in her room, however, who seems familiar to her and keeps calling her Maddy, so she assumes that’s her name. It’s only a day later, after her parents and friends follow Maddy’s boyfriend’s lead in believing that she is Maddy that she realizes everyone has made a mistake and she is actually Ella. When she discovers Maddy is dead and that the last words they shared were hateful, Ella is overwhelmed by guilt and grief. She also sees how glad her parents are that she is alive, and jumps to the conclusion that they would prefer Maddy to Ella if they had to pick a sole survivor. In this confused and heartbroken state of mind, Ella decides that Maddy deserves to have the life she wanted and therefore, Ella will give it to her by becoming her.
This is where the whole thing began to break down for me. I could understand the mistaken identity thing and the survivor being reluctant to reveal she wasn’t who everyone thought she was, especially given that she assumes they would all have preferred her sister to herself. What I couldn’t fathom was Ella believing that it would make any difference to anyone but her whether she continued life as Maddy. She certainly can’t make anything up to Maddy; Maddy is dead. And whether or not her belief is true that everyone would have preferred that Maddy be the survivor, the idea that she can pull this off is laughable.
First of all, her sister is co-captain of the soccer team, up for a scholarship to college. Ella doesn’t play soccer. Second, she’s been with her boyfriend, Alex, for more than two years, and they have been having sex during all of that time. Ella is a virgin. Third…oh hell, there is no third. Maddy is dead! You can’t change that. You can’t be her. Get over it.
I guess it’s possible that grief could drive someone to these ridiculous lengths for a day or two, but…weeks? Weeks of pretending to be dumber than you are (Ella was in all Honors classes while Maddy is barely passing), less artistic (Maddy doesn’t draw), more fashionable (Ella hasn’t got a clue and resorts to old photos of Maddy to put outfits together), and reluctant to even exchange a kiss with your steady boyfriend of two years? Weeks of letting your parents believe this lie? Weeks of betraying your best friend by pretending not to know him? All in the goal of “giving Maddy a life”? C’mon.
Then there’s the whole sub-plot when Ella finds out that Maddy did something really bad and wants to put it right but doesn’t want to give herself away. The whole thing was so anti-climactic it might as well not have been included.
I guess I’m just on a roll for picking out suspense novels with implausible plots this week. There are a lot better books about twins out there, too, from the Bobbsey Twins to The Man in the Iron Mask! Or hey, go watch one of the two versions of The Parent Trap, 1961 or 1998: Deception is minor, hijinks ensue, true love wins, the end. Much the better choice.
I have read all of B. A. Paris’s books, most of which would be considered either suspense or thriller. Many writers (and publishers) and many readers’ advisors can’t tell you the difference between a mystery, a suspense novel, and a thriller. After reading exhaustive discussions and dissections, here are the differences at which I have arrived.
First of all, neither a suspense nor a thriller is about solving a crime, they are about stopping a killer or a crime. So they are not necessarily a whodunit as is a mystery; we may know who the villain is from page one.
In a thriller, the protagonist is in danger from the outset, and action is a required element. Pacing is the key ingredient. In suspense, danger is more important than action, and the protagonist becomes aware of danger only gradually. “Suspense is the state of waiting for something to happen,” said Alfred Hitchcock. Setting and mood are key. There must be terror, confusion, upset, and conflict.
A thriller has to start off with a bang, and have a clearly defined hero and villain, because the thriller is all about the push and pull between the two. By contrast, the only real requirement of a suspense story is that it build, and that it keep the reader on edge with a series of reveals or surprises until the final one. Suspense can be present in any genre; a suspense novel is simply one where the reader is uncertain about the outcome. It’s not so much about what is happening as what may happen. It’s about anticipation.
Given those definitions, I would term most of Paris’s books as suspense, although I have seen them referred to (and have done myself) as thrillers. She is great at building her narrative from seemingly innocuous to a crazy amount of tension. Perhaps her best example of this is Behind Closed Doors, in which you know, almost from the first page, that there is something wrong, but have no clue just how much there is to uncover until the story really begins to ramp up.
When I bought my copy of The Dilemma, therefore, it was with a great deal of anticipation that it would give me a likewise breathless interval. Unfortunately, I failed to achieve “that willing suspension of disbelief” (touted by the poet Coleridge) about some of the key facts present in this book upon which the story depends.
The basic premise is that Livia and Adam, married for 22 years, each has a secret he or she wishes to tell the other, but can’t quite bring themselves to do so because of the circumstance in which they find themselves. But it is that circumstance that sets up, for me, the biggest roadblock in this story.
Livia and Adam met when Livia was 17 and Adam was 19; Livia became pregnant, and was summarily rejected by her parents even though she and Adam married promptly, before baby Josh was born. Four years later, they added daughter Marnie to their family. The couple are happy in their marriage, pleased with the way their children have turned out, and possessors of many good friends, the most prevalent of whom are two other married couples about their age, and these people’s children.
Because of the dual facts of Livia’s pregnancy and the rejection of her by her parents, the two had a hurried civil service and were deprived of the big formal wedding about which Livia had always dreamed. This has apparently preyed upon Livia’s mind over the years to the point where she has saved up her money since she was 20 years old in anticipation of a huge and elaborate celebration for her 40th birthday. The story itself takes place during the 18 hours or so surrounding that celebration. And the birthday bash is the vehicle used to delay the confiding of devastating facts between the spouses.
This is the one big place where the story lost me. If you have that much regret about missing out on your wedding, why not stage another wedding? People renew their vows all the time and use that occasion to have things just as they would have wanted them on their big day. At one point Livia even comments that if she had waited an additional couple of years, the party could have been for hers and Adam’s 25th wedding anniversary, but no; she is determined to do it for her 40th birthday. This seemed to me to be so self-regarding as to constitute a problem; but apparently Adam is fine with it.
If a renewal of vows or a big anniversary are off the table and you’re so determined to make it all about yourself, why wait? Why not have the party at age 30? Why be so focused, for literally two decades, on one particular birthday? The story details at length how every time she went shopping and saw a fabulous dress, she mentally tried it on as a possibility for her big day. I just didn’t buy it that a person could be so self-obsessed with celebrating a particular birthday that they planned it over that extended period of life.
So, on to the secrets. Livia’s secret involves her daughter Marnie, 19, who is doing a year abroad through her college, and has been in Hong Kong for most of the past year. It turns out her finals are during the same week as Livia’s party, so she has told her mother she won’t be able to make it. Because of this big secret, which Livia has not discussed with anyone because she first wants to confront Marnie, she is somewhat guiltily relieved that her daughter won’t be coming home yet. She doesn’t want to divide her focus between the party and managing the fallout from the revelation amongst several people in their social circle. But Livia feels guilty for not having shared this information with Adam.
Meanwhile, Adam and Marnie between them have planned a surprise for Livia’s party, but events don’t go as planned and suddenly, Adam is overtaken by news that, if he shares it immediately, will ruin Livia’s big event. He is left to reason that as long as he doesn’t know the facts for sure, no one can fault him for not speaking up; but he knows that if and when Livia discovers how long he held this news back from her, she will be legitimately enraged. So Adam and Livia both spend the hours of the party keeping secrets from one another that they know will inevitably be revealed as soon as the party is over, and this dread (especially for Adam) overshadows what should have been a joyous occasion.
That’s it. That’s the story. That’s the source of suspense. And the machinations to which the author resorts in order to enable Adam and Livia to keep their secrets from one another are just ridiculous. Yes, by the definition I spelled out earlier, this does qualify as suspense for much of the story, although I couldn’t say that I remained uncertain about the outcome. But the vehicle here is a family drama that could have been adequately dealt with in a succinct and much more engaging short story, not dragged out for 342 pages of angst.
I’m not going to say, like some other reviewers on Goodreads, that I’m done with Paris and won’t read any more of her books; but if you liked the others of hers that you have read, my suggestion would be to skip this one and hope that she delivers a real page-turner next time.
The events in Washington, D.C. last week made me so beside myself with rage and impotent frustration that I had to seek solace in my reading, and I felt the need to choose something as innocuous as possible as a distraction. I purposely went looking for fiction resembling the books of Jenny Colgan, all of which I have already read, and came across the Penwith trilogy, alias [fill-in-the-blank] at the Cornish Café.
There were actually quite a few serious topics and moments in this trilogy by Phillipa Ashley. One protagonist had left home as a teenager after her mother died and her father turned to drink, and had spent quite a bit of time homeless, sleeping in shop doorways with her dog; the other protagonist had been a charity aid worker in Syria and had a traumatic experience while there that sent him home in a dark mood, suffering from PTSD as well as some lingering physical effects. But these beginnings were countered by several other parts of the story: The aid worker had inherited Kilhallon, a farmhouse attached to a derelict campground property, from his father, and planned to refurbish and revitalize it; he met up by chance with the homeless girl, and his need for cheap labor coincided with her need for a place to stay and meaningful work to do. And all of this angst was set on the sweeping cliffs and moors of Cornwall.
This beginning description makes this trilogy sound somewhat grim, but the two redeeming aspects of it were the atmosphere in which it is set, and the romance that grows between the two main characters, Cal and Demi. They are both able to subsume their troubles in the hard work necessary to restore Cal’s property to its former glory, and in the romance that grows between the two; as they renovate cottages, install yurts, and make ambitious plans to start up a café that sits close enough to the coastal hiking path of Cornwall to benefit from its proximity, they also explore the chemistry that develops into more as a result of prolonged exposure.
The café that appears in the title of all three books is reminiscent of many of the plots of Jenny Colgan; it is almost wholly Demi’s project and serves as a way for her to grow and mature as she takes on its myriad responsibilities. There is a lot of detail, as well, about the foods and drinks that she develops to serve there, with a few recipes included at the back of each book, and a surprise result directly connected to its start-up.
Part of the charm of these books is the way each character works through their individual back stories with help from the other, and also the connections they develop as they work together on their project. The curmudgeonly housekeeper, the power-mad and vengeful real estate developer, Cal’s former love who is now marrying his best friend, the mysterious writer who rents one of the cottages for several months and turns out to be more than he seemed—all of these, along with even more minor players such as the café staff and the various townspeople give the trilogy both depth and color, and serve as both the foils and the witnesses to Cal and Demi’s transformation into a couple.
The most important element of the books in my mind, however, is the setting. I have written here before about how people are drawn to particular places in their reading, and how place or setting can make or break a book for a reader; in these books, Cornwall lives as much as if it were a character, and its cold winds and storms, atmospheric skies and panoramic sunsets, tidal pools and crashing waves give such atmosphere that one can’t imagine the story without that crucial element.
In many ways, these books are pure relationship fiction, including many of the meet-cute elements and romantic clichés with which that “genre” is rife; but they are also satisfying on many levels, both serious and light-hearted. There is a definite arc to the three books and, although I would love to read more about Cal, Demi, and all their friends and foes, the ending to book #3
was satisfying in the extreme.
If you, too, are in need of a distraction from more serious subjects and would like a little romance injected into your escapist fiction, you could do a lot worse than Phillipa Ashley. She has another series set on the Scilly Isles that I plan to check out the next time I find myself in this mood.
So, on the Facebook page “What Should I Read Next?” a lot of people have been touting the book The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig, as a really good read. I took note because, as you know if you read this blog, I love books about books and reading, plus I’m a former librarian. Also, the description sounded intriguing! So the next time I had a break in my reading schedule, I remembered that there was a book about books that I wanted to read, and…I somehow ended up with The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, by Garth Nix.
It’s on my Kindle, which The Midnight Library is not; but I’m pretty sure that I have a physical copy of that book floating around my house somewhere (although I may have confused it with The Librarian of Auschwitz, which is definitely in my living room pile), so I will get to it. But in the meantime…Garth Nix!
I have several friends who are huge fans of Garth Nix, particularly of his Abhorsen series that begins with the book Sabriel, and also the series containing The Keys to the Kingdom. I have picked up the book Sabriel several times meaning to read it, and then put it down again, because the whole necromancy theme doesn’t, in general, appeal to me. But people whose reading tastes I trust have consistently raved about him, so last year I purchased his YA book Newt’s Emerald as a remainder from Book Outlet. The description roped me in because Nix said he was inspired to write this historical fiction based in Regency England by one of my absolute faves, Georgette Heyer. And he got all the details right, plus he added magical elements, but…there are some books that—no matter how much you enjoy them in the moment—are just not memorable. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the book, but the things that were right with it were not quite enough. I liked it, it was cute, it was mildly entertaining, and…that’s it. So I wasn’t sure, when I started Left-Handed Booksellers, of what my experience would be.
I can definitely say that I liked it much better than I did Newt’s Emerald. There were several things that made it instantly appealing. First, it’s a “quest” book. The protagonist, Susan, is enrolled in art school for the fall semester in London, but decides to come a few months early, for several reasons: She wants to scope out her new surroundings, having visited London before but never lived there; she wants to try to pick up some work waitressing in a café to put some extra spending money by for the school year; and, last but not least, she wants to find her father. Her mother, an exceedingly vague lady whose manner most assume is the result of an excessive intake of drugs during the 1960s, has never told her who her father is, and in fact Susan isn’t positive Jassmine even knows for sure. But Susan, with a keen desire to find out, has written down a list of men her mother has mentioned over the years, and has collected a few artifacts that might be related to him in some way, and she is fully prepared to play detective.
Unfortunately, her first research foray is not only unsuccessful, but lands her in the middle of a situation with which she is not prepared to cope. The first man on her list was a vaguely gangsterish fellow named Frank Thringley, who used to send her a birthday card every year, but before she can question him, he is turned to dust by an exceedingly handsome young man wearing a glove on his left hand like Michael Jackson. Merlin turns out to be a left-handed bookseller, and explains to Susan that along with the right-handed ones, he is part of an extended family of magical beings who police the mythic and legendary Old World when it intrudes on the modern world, in addition to running several bookshops. This is the second thing that makes the book appealing: It is full of beguiling concepts and characters that all hang together to make a plausible, if not entirely logical, alternate London, offering constant surprises as you continue to read.
Susan has drawn unwanted attention from the wrong people, both human and otherworldly, with her mere presence at the death of Thringley, and discovers that her best bet is to stick with Merlin and his sister, the right-handed Vivien, to gain some protection and some aid from the booksellers, while trying to find her father and, incidentally, helping the siblings with a quest of their own.
Although the main and two subsidiary protagonists in this tale are all around 18 years of age, I would not necessarily characterize this book as Young Adult, although I’m sure it would appeal to any teenager who likes fantasy. But I think it would equally appeal to any person who likes fantasy, regardless of age. It’s briskly paced and intelligently written, and immediately engages you in the story, which is full of fanciful descriptions of all the old-world denizens. There are lots of adventures, mysteries, and surprises contained within its pages, and it comes to a satisfying conclusion while leaving the door open for more possible stories about the booksellers of London, which I, for one, would welcome.
I don’t know how it stacks up to Sabriel, but based on my enjoyment of this book, I may decide it’s worth my while to find out someday.
After trying out the first book in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, I wanted to read more about wizard Harry Dresden; but the library’s wait-list had other ideas. So I put my name down for #2 and, turning back to my previous foray into urban fantasy, the Incryptid series by Seanan McGuire, I picked up Midnight Blue-Light Special.
The book was a reminder that McGuire’s cryptids (“any creature whose existence has not been proven by science”) are among the most creative “monsters” in the world of urban fantasy. One major example is the Aeslin mice, who have apparently been affiliated with the heroine’s family for centuries. These small rodents, who physically resemble your standard field mouse in every other way, are blessed with both the ability to speak and the tendency towards extreme religiosity. Every member of Verity Price’s family is, to the Aeslins, some form of deity or priestess, and the mice form elaborate rituals and ceremonies based on the most mundane of the Price/Healy household’s activities. I have to say that they are near about as good as Terry Pratchett’s wee free men, the Nac Mac Feagle. Verity describes them: “They’re largely regarded as a weird sort of fairy tale, Cinderella’s mice without the vegetable transport and poor footwear choices.” They talk and cheer nonstop, and the only way to get them to quit focusing on the source of their religion for five minutes is to bribe them with cheese, cake, or any other available treat, and bargain for a period of silence and benign neglect in return. They recall the scene from Men in Black, when Agent K opens locker C-18 at New York’s Grand Central Station to the tiny shouts of “All Hail K!” They’re hysterical.
Other critters of note are the therianthropes, the cuckoos, the bogeymen, the dragon girls…where does she come up with this stuff?
Okay, story in brief: There are “monsters” in the world, most of whom are just living their weird lives like any other mammal or reptile. There is an ancient organization called the Covenant of St. George, centered primarily in England, whose members are raised and trained to hate and fear these monsters, and to eliminate them on sight. And then there is the rogue branch of this hereditary group who broke off from the Covenant a few generations back when they figured out that most of the so-called monsters are either harmless or able to be managed so as not to injure humans, and have chosen to put themselves between the monsters and humans as mediators and protectors instead of slaughtering them.
Verity Price is one of the youngest members of this rogue family that disappeared into the New World to escape its roots; the rest of them live in Oregon or Ohio, shrouded in secrecy, but Verity has come to New York City, driven by her passion for competitive ballroom dancing. Her parents gave her a year to decide whether that or cryptozoology will be her career of choice, and that year is almost up.
After having solved a mystery and defeated a dangerous snake cult, Verity is ready to settle down and be seriously competitive in professional tango with her humanoid cryptid partner. But her tentative romantic relationship with a member of the Covenant of St. George gets in the way when Dominic DeLuca informs her that a team of cryptid hunters is on its way to New York City to assess his work and begin a purge of all those Verity has sworn to protect. Can she trust Dominic when he is reunited with other members of the Covenant? How can Verity single-handedly hide the thousands of cryptids on the island of Manhattan from these ruthless killers, while attempting to keep her own identity, even her existence, under the radar? Will she be able to protect her family, both human and cryptid, when one of the agents sent against her is a distant relative?
These are, of course, the questions answered by the book. McGuire doesn’t disappoint—this story definitely lives up to or even surpasses the set-up in volume one of this series, and the idiosyncrasies and quirks of both humans and cryptids as they go about their maneuvering for advantage make the action even more fun.
At the end of this book the author signals that the next couple will be centered on another Price family member, Alex, only returning to Verity’s (and Dominic’s) story in book #5. I’m sure I will enjoy them, but perhaps only as a bridge to get back to Verity, plus the promise of some more ballroom dancing!
Ruth Ware’s novel The Death of Mrs. Westaway incorporates several things I love, and I was drawn to it from the first page. The protagonist, Hal (Harriet) Westaway, is such a vibrant character and her precarious existence is so appealing that it’s hard not to buy in.
Hal has been raised by a single mother in a small but unusual and fulfilling life; her mother was a tarot card reader in a booth on the pier in Brighton Beach and, partly through instruction and partly through absorbing the daily atmosphere of her mother’s tradecraft, Hal has acquired all the skills to follow after her when she is tragically killed by a hit-and-run driver right outside their front door.
Hal stays in their small but known and comforting bed-sit after her mother is gone, and takes up the mantle of tarot card reader, although she always hearkens to her mother’s voice in her ear that tells her not to believe the patter that makes her so successful with her clients. Hal enjoys the combination of the beauty of the tarot and the skillful use of psychological clues to direct the faith of the tourists and drunken hen parties in her “fortunes”; she doesn’t care for those few fanatics who return again and again trying to come at truths that Hal knows better than to promise them.
Hal has made one foolish decision in the aftermath of her mother’s death; between the halting start-up of her takeover of the tarot booth and the slow months of winter that don’t contain the huge number of customers present during the tourist season, Harriet got behind on her bills and resorted to visiting a moneylender. She is stunned to realize how quickly and disastrously the interest on this loan has compounded, and is in imminent danger from the loan shark’s enforcers if she doesn’t come up with the money soon.
Just at the crux of this fraught situation, Hal receives a letter from a law firm, telling her that her grandmother, Hester Westaway, has died and that her presence is required at the funeral and subsequent reading of the will. She knows just enough about her mother’s family to realize that someone has made a mistake; but there are sufficient similarities in her background that cause her to grasp at the idea that she can pull off a deception and perhaps come into some funds that will help her out of her desperate straits. She scrapes together the last of her funds, buys a ticket to Porthleven, and sets out to collect “her” inheritance.
Haven’t we all imagined at some point that a long-lost legacy will arrive in the mail or via a phone call? That we will be pulled back at the last second from the brink of ruin by the generosity of a remote relative who turns out to have doted on us as a precocious three-year-old and has been generous in their bequest? I loved the entire set-up for this story, and Hal’s tentative but determined foray into a strange house filled with family that may or may not be hers.
The tale owes a lot to both Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier: First of all, it takes place in Cornwall, scene of the bulk of du Maurier’s storytelling, and the creepy housekeeper definitely gives off an obsessive Mrs. Danvers vibe. The house itself is a gothic nightmare straight out of Christie, of cold, dark, dust-filled rooms reverberating with an unhappy past, and the Westaway family, though cordial on the surface, has obviously been greatly affected (and not in a good way) by their upbringing. It’s no coincidence that Hal feels the greatest affinity for the sole in-law in the bunch!
I have to say that the strong-willed, smart, and likeable character of Hal largely carried this book for me. I loved her back story, her personality, her profession, and her daring. The rest of the characters were, by comparison, made of cardboard, and some were outright cliché. They were okay as a backdrop for Hal, but it would have been nice if the only glimpses into their story had gone farther than a few incomplete and unsatisfying diary entries. None of them is overtly friendly, no one voluntarily supplies family history, and despite being surrounded by all these people, Hal has to solve her mystery through a not always compelling combination of research and subterfuge.
The thing is, The Death of Mrs. Westaway is not exactly a mystery, although there are mysterious elements to solve; it’s not entirely suspense, although it’s suspenseful; and the resolution is a bit telegraphed and not as exciting as it could have been. At several points in the story, it seems like the book doesn’t know whether it’s trying to be gothic horror, an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit, or a psychological thriller. But if you focus on the story as being Hal’s alone, and simply let yourself enjoy the atmospheric vibes, it ends up being a satisfying read. The integration of the tarot into the story made it special for me, as I have always had a fascination with both the artwork and the infused meaning of those cards. This is the second Ruth Ware book I have read, and although the other one was better conceived and executed, I believe I prefer this one based simply on the appeal of character.
My first read of 2021 is Shed No Tears, by Caz Frear, third book in a series of police procedurals starring Detective Constable Cat Kinsella. Coincidental to my third-to-last read for 2020, Troubled Blood, it’s also a cold case previously related to a serial killer. I don’t project anything sinister here—they were released at almost the same time, so I doubt there’s any copycat behavior going on—but it’s interesting to me when people come up with virtually the same idea, especially when they are treated and resolved so differently.
The case in Shed No Tears had seemed open-and-shut: A missing woman had been seen by a witness entering the home of a man who later turned out to be the serial killer of several other women, so even though her body wasn’t recovered with the rest, the police and everyone else presumed (largely on the word of this witness) that Holly Kemp was his last—though unclaimed—victim. Christopher Masters never came out and said that he had killed Holly, but he tantalized the public and the police with that possibility for years, until his death in prison.
Six years after her disappearance, however, Holly’s body has turned up, and it’s nowhere near the location where the other bodies were found—in fact, it’s on the other side of London. It’s not buried like they were; the cause of death is different; and if it weren’t for a couple of facts—the rock-solid word of the witness and the fact that Masters had indeed spent some time in a location near the ditch in the abandoned field where Holly was found—one would almost think it was a different killer altogether.
And after exploring and exhausting everything known to them about Masters and his victims, Cat and the team begin to suspect that’s exactly what they have. But the witness still holds to her story, some of the principles in the case have since died or disappeared, and all they really have to go on are a few anomalies and some gut feelings. Since this is a police procedural, these hunches lead after much mind-numbing work to some actual facts that refuse to jibe with their initial view of the crime, and the ultimate solution is far from anyone’s assumptions.
As with previous volumes in this series, Cat is still juggling her public life as a dedicated and honorable police officer with her private life that is peripherally connected, through her father, to organized crime, and is still hiding from her boyfriend, Aiden, the connection between his family and hers that has the potential, should it become known, to utterly ruin their relationship. There’s not a big furtherance of that relationship in this book, although there is some movement in the stalemate between Cat and her dad; but there’s a big surprise at the end (besides the solution to the case) that may lead to a different direction in subsequent books.
Frear has created a great procedural team in DCI Kate Steele, DS Luigi Parnell, and all the minor characters in the “situation room” with them. Their personalities are highly developed, their interactions interesting and fresh, and their results always arrived at by a combination of teamwork and of helping one another share their most outrageous theories as they brainstorm their way to a solution. Although I don’t find it quite on a par with Cormoran Strike, I’m really enjoying this series, and greatly look forward to more.
I don’t know if anyone is dying for a reprise of my favorite books of 2020. Since I am such an eclectic reader, I don’t always read the new stuff, or the popular stuff. Sometimes I discover something popular three years after everyone else already read it, as I did The Hate U Give this past January (it was released in 2017). Sometimes I find things that no one else has read that are unbelievably good, and I feel vindicated by my weird reading patterns when I am able to share it on my blog. But mostly I just read whatever takes my fancy, whenever it comes up and from whatever source, and readers of the blog have to put up with it.
Anyway, I thought I would do a short summary here of my favorite reads for the year, and since they are somewhat evenly populated between Young Adult and Adult books, I will divvy them up
YOUNG ADULT DISCOVERIES
Fantasy dominated here, as it commonly does, both because fantasy is big in YA and because I am a big fantasy fan. I discovered a stand-alone and two duologies this year, which was a nice break from the usual trilogy and I think worked better for the authors as well (so often the middle book is weak and the last book is rushed in those cases).
The first was The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, by Melissa Albert, and although I characterized them as fantasy, they are truthfully much closer to fairy tale. I say that advisedly with the caveat that this is not the determinedly nice Disney fairy tale, but a real, slightly horrifying portal story to a place that you may not, in the end, wish to visit! Both the story and the language are fantastic, in all senses of the word.
The stand-alone was Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. The book borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any prosaic fairy godmother. It is a beautifully complex, character-driven story about agency, empathy, self-determination, and family that held my attention from beginning to end.
The second duology was The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, and these were true fantasy, with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and a protagonist from the bottom-most caste. It’s a compelling adventure featuring good against evil, hunters and hunted, choices, chance, and character. Don’t let the fact that it’s billed as YA stop you from reading it—anyone who likes a good saga should do so!
I also discovered a bunch of YA mainstream/realistic fiction written by an author I previously knew only for her fantasy. Brigid Kemmerer has published three books based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” (and they are well done), but the books of hers I fell for this year were about typical teenagers with problems that needed to be solved and love lives that needed to be resolved. My favorite of the four was Letters to the Lost, but I also greatly enjoyed More Than We Can Tell, Thicker Than Water, and Call it What You Want.
These were my five-star Young Adult books for 2020.
As YA selections were dominated by a particular genre, so were my books in Adult fiction, almost all of them falling in the mystery section. But before I give you that list, I will finish up with fairy tale by lauding an original adult story that engaged me from the first page and has stuck with me all year: Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique. It is the story of three children and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town beside the river Thames who are caught up by chance in the events that restore a child to life. But the story encompasses more than her fate: It gives extraordinary insight into the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, and what is the best way to pursue them.
Another book I encountered in 2020 that didn’t fall into the mystery genre or belong to a series was the fascinating She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This was a short, powerful book by a first-time author, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller that bowled me over with its contradictory combination of evil deeds and poignant moments.
And the last stand-alone mainstream fiction novel I enjoyed enough to bestow five stars was Just Life, by Neil Abramson. The story showcases the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and involves a deadly virus and a dog shelter in a fast-paced, gripping narrative that takes over the lives of four people. It made me cry, three times.
Most of the mysteries I enjoyed this year came from a “stable” of staple authors I have developed over the decades and upon whom I rely for at least one good read per year. The first is Louise Penny, whose offering All the Devils Are Here in the ongoing Armand Gamache series is nuanced, perplexing, and utterly enjoyable, all the more so for being extracted from the usual Three Pines venue and transported to the magical city of Paris.
Sharon J. Bolton is a reliable source of both mystery and suspense, and she didn’t disappoint with The Split, a quirky story that takes place over the course of six weeks, in stuffy Cambridge, England, and remote Antarctica. Its main character, a glaciologist (she studies glaciers, and yes, it’s a thing) is in peril, and will go to the ends of the earth to escape it…but so, too, will her stalker, it seems. The Split is a twisty thriller abounding in misdirection, and definitely lives up to Bolton’s previous offerings.
Troubled Blood, by “Robert Galbraith,” aka J. K. Rowling, is my most recent favorite read, and is #5 in that author’s series about London private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner, Robin Ellacott. It’s a police procedural with a lot of detail in service of both the mystery and the protagonists’ private lives, it’s 944 pages long, and I enjoyed every page.
Finally, this year i discovered two series that are new to me, completely different from one another but equally enjoyable.
The first is the Detective Constable Cat Kinsella series by Caz Frear, which currently encompasses three books. I read the first two earlier in the year and promptly put in a reserve at the library on the third (which had yet to be published at the time), and Shed No Tears just hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. They remind me a bit of Tana French, although not with the plethora of detail, and a bit of the abovementioned Sharon Bolton’s mystery series starring Lacey Flint. Cat is a nicely conflicted police officer who comes from a dodgy background and has to work hard to keep her personal and professional lives from impinging one upon the other, particularly when details of a case threaten to overlap the two. I anticipate continuing with this series of novels as quickly as Frear can turn them out.
The second, which is a mash-up of several genres, is Charlaine Harris’s new offering starring the body-guard/assassin Gunnie Rose. I read the first two books—An Easy Death and A Longer Fall—this year, and am eagerly anticipating #3, coming sometime in 2021 but not soon enough. The best description I can make of this series is a dystopian alternate history mystery with magic. If this leads you to want to know more, read my review, here.
These are the adult books I awarded five stars during 2020.
I hope you have enjoyed this survey of my year’s worth of best books. I am always happy to hear from any of you, and would love to know what you found most compelling this year. I think we all did a little extra reading as a result of more isolation than usual, and what better than to share our bounty with others?
Please comment, here or on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/thebookadept. Thanks for following my blog this year.