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.
That was precisely what I was wanting, a few days before Christmas, considering that my “celebration” was going to be an hour on Zoom with my family instead of an in-person exchange of gifts followed by a sumptuous meal prepared by all of us. So I sought out the latest of Jenny Colgan’s books, #4 in her Mure Island series, conveniently just published in October of this year to be served up for holiday consolation.
I did enjoy it quite a lot. It included the regular cast of characters from Mure: Flora, owner of the only bakery/café on this tiny outpost in the middle of the ocean halfway between Scotland and Norway; Fintan, her gay brother, who has recently inherited “the Rock,” now re-christened the Island Hotel, from his recently deceased husband, the millionaire businessman Colton; and my personal favorite, Flora’s small but incredibly vocal niece, Agot, who is about five years old in this one.
The central activity of this book concerns the Christmas opening of the Island Hotel, and involves all the characters in the anxiety-producing activity of finding such essentials as a world-class chef who doesn’t mind living in such a remote corner of the north. Fintan, still grieving from the loss of his first and biggest love, isn’t much use, although he does manage to find and hire a rude and irritating but highly accomplished Frenchman; Flora, supposedly on maternity leave after giving birth to hers and Joel’s son, Douglas, is finding that Joel is better at motherhood and she is better at getting the hotel up and running, so despite massive feelings of guilt, that’s what she does.
But the central actors in this volume of Mure life are a shy employee from Flora’s Seaside Kitchen, the always-blushing and mostly silent Isla; and a new face to the island, Konstantin, a rich Norwegian playboy whose wealthy royal father exiles him to Mure (Joel has a hand in this, doing a favor for a friend of a friend) to work as a “pot boy” (dishwasher) in the kitchen of the new hotel. He’s never had a job, doesn’t know how to do anything, and thinks the world owes him a living, so to be cast ashore on this tiny island with no money, no phone, and no recourse is a major shock. But gradually he learns the pleasure of knowing how to do things, and his initial bad attitude dissolves as he makes friends with Isla (while hoping for something more), garners some hard-won praise from chef Gaspard, and begins to fit in on the island.
Although clichés abound, some of which were a little cringey, I would have enjoyed this fourth book in Colgan’s series pretty unreservedly except for several inconsistencies that couldn’t help but irritate: After three books featuring minor characters Charlie and his wife, Jan, who lead Outward Bound-type holidays for needy orphan boys on the island, Jan has suddenly been rechristened Pam; when she appeared in the story she seemed familiar, but I kept straining to remember, Who is Pam again? Likewise, the island doctor, Saif Hassan, in this book has the last name Hussein; and the main character’s partner, Joel, goes from Binder to Booker. What the hell, Jenny? Do you not even remember your memorable characters’ names? and do your editors not check these things? This is incredibly sloppy.
Overlooking those details, this was a fun read and a nice extension of the series. The ending was a bit sappy, but at Christmas, needs must.
I just finished reading Troubled Blood, the new Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. (I don’t know why she ever bothered to use a pseudonym, since she outs herself right on the first book cover flap, but whatever.) I’d almost like to make that statement (I finished!) twice or three times, because at 944 pages, this was a gargantuan achievement!
At that many pages, I also expected it to be an achievement that cost me some labor, and to be saying afterwards that she needs an editor—but I’m not going to do that. I loved the entire book. I didn’t find anything extraneous I wanted to cut.
I enjoyed reading it 40 or 50 pages at a time at the breakfast table or during my middle-of-the-night intermission from sleep, wherein I wake up and need to separate myself from my dreams, get a glass of water, and redirect my mind with good fiction, and I was reluctant to finish it.
Just to deal with this up front, there is absolutely no transgender character (or scandal) here. If you have heard that, you have been misinformed. In one instance, a killer puts on a wig and trenchcoat to disguise himself. That’s it. If you want to argue about this, go somewhere else. I’m tired of all the ugliness.
This book was such a wonderful adventure or exploration of all the ways two dedicated and stubborn people solve a mystery by following every lead, reading every note, re-interviewing anyone with any potential involvement, however small, and keeping their minds open and churning up ideas and solutions. It’s the first time that Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott have tackled a cold case, let alone one more than 40 years old, but their innate curiosity leads them down the path of one of the most fascinating mysteries they have ever encountered—the disappearance of Dr. Margot Bamborough. They are simultaneously tending to three or four other clients’ cases at the same time, aided by their contract hires Barclay and Morris, and organized by new secretary Pat; and their personal lives, both apart and together, are also on display. Robin is hoping that her unexpectedly acrimonious divorce from Matthew will conclude soon, while Strike is still dealing with the fallout from his ex-girlfriend Charlotte, who married someone else and gave birth to twins but still texts him wistful (and manipulative) messages in the middle of the night. And both of them are all too conscious of some significant moments they have shared that could mean more, if either of them chooses to act.
This is the ultimate in police procedurals, without having the police involved. Because of some good contacts, some clever thinking, and some helpful people, the detectives are able to get their hands on a good part of the police record, but the complication is that the original lead detective was suffering a mental breakdown while conducting the case, while his successor was more interested in devaluing everything his predecessor had done than in actually breaking new ground. So in some ways they are looking at the case not only with fresh eyes, but with attention to details that no one previous had seen in the same light.
As usual, Rowling also provides great side characters, who give both darkness and whimsy as their contribution to the main story she is telling. Robin’s relationship with Morris and Strike’s interactions with Pat, as well as the background of Cormoran’s family problems, provided great context and cushioning for the rest.
I don’t know what it was about this book—whether it was the book itself or simply the way I approached reading it, a little at a time rather than an all-out binge-fest—but I never got impatient with any red herring or tired of their continued speculations to one another about the various aspects. Part of it, of course, is the way Rowling writes the interactions between the partners, and the excruciatingly slow build she has given their relationship through multiple volumes that keeps you reading for any hint of a shift. There are some in this book, but I’m neither giving them away nor hinting at how extensive they might be. All I will say is that I felt completely satisfied by the resolution of the case, and that I have no doubt that the next chapter in the Cormoran-and-Robin show will be interesting!