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Book Review 50: The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

26 Dec

I loved this book. Obviously. I read similar mystery-driven coming-of-age stories all the time and I love them all. I can’t decide if I only read the best ones (The Secret History, Calamity Physics ) or if it’s because I’m pre-disposed to liking them. I certainly can’t relate – I had the most generic public high school experience of all time.

Iris DuPont is anything but generic. She transfers to a new school, reeling from the death of her best friend and  conjuring the ghost or specter from famous journalist Edward R. Murrow. She is unwilling to simply assimilate, the way most students do. She manages to latch on to the private school’s mysterious secret society and  tries to infiltrate it, to solve a series of unresolved mysteries at the school.

Aside from being beautifully written, it captures a lot of the intensity of being young. Her overly attached, but not quite inappropriate relationship with her favorite teacher. Pretending to fit in so she can achieve her end goal. She throws herself into the mystery of the albino girl who once lived in her house and dropped of the radar; focusing on untangling the web of connections between the girl who lived in her home, the secret society, and her favorite teacher. But it’s not enough to to fix her grief. Continue reading

Book Review 49: The Expats by Chris Pavone

26 Dec

I bought this at the airport and was pleasantly surprised. The book was a top seller in Europe for months, and I grabbed the English language translation. I can’t really explain why I enjoyed it so much. It skews a little closer to the psychological thrillers I tend to favor, because it’s ultimately about a husband and wife who don’t know if they can trust each other.  You could anticipate when the plot twists were coming, but the expected twist usually veered off into an unexpected direction.

The basic plot summary is that Kate and her husband spontaneously move to Luxemburg, ostensibly for her husband’s boring tech job at a bank. Once they get there, you slowly start to unravel secrets about Kate, her husband, and their new couple friends. It’s a fun read, partially because you’re never sure if the next plot twist will be personal (a surprise infedility perhaps?) or more professional (a set up of her husband? a government conspiracy?).

Highly recommended for airplane or beach reading!

Book Review 40: The Reckoning by Jane Casey

22 Oct
*I received this book for free as part of a Goodreads giveaway*
I’ve been sitting on this book for over a year. I received it in May 2012 and didn’t get around to reading it until July 2013. The premise is interesting. There’s a serial killer operating in an Irish town, but he’s only killing pedophiles and suspected pedophiles.  Maeve is the detective assigned to the case and she has a fierce sense of justice.
The book is kind of asking the question that Dexter asks.  If a serial killer is killing victims who society abhors, do we care? Is it still a crime? Maeve thinks it is, but her colleagues disagree. I’m in the Maeve camp. Just because someone is targeting “undesirable” victims, doesn’t make it less of a crime.
There are sufficient twists and turns, including a mafia connection. It was mildly entertaining, but there was a distracting plot about Maeve’s personal life that was simply not compelling.  Continue reading

Book Review 29: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

6 May

I’m on a roll with reading fantastic novels after a brief detour into nonfiction and a brief detour into some really boring books. Life After Life has a fascinating premise.  This is the story of Ursula Todd’s life, or, more accurately, her many lives.  Each time Ursula dies, she is reincarnated back into her own body, and generally lives a bit longer each time.  Her powerful sense of de ja vu helps her slowly re-correct the course of her life until she finally completes the act she was destined to do.

What’s intrigued me most about the novel was figuring out which life was best for Ursula.  In some of her lives, the tragedies that befall her or the way she dies is so painful, and she seems so unfulfilled, that you’re anxiously turning the pages until she dies, hoping for some relief from the life that has unfolded.  In some lives, her relationships with her family suffer until she’s barely connected to them. In some, her friendships suffer. In some, she finds love, and romance, while in others she ends up alone.

Whichever life you choose depends on what your values are, I suppose. But in the end – you have to wonder the best life was the one in which she fulfills her destiny, or if she was happier when she was fulfilled in other ways. And most importantly, all of her lives feel real – she makes the choices available to a young woman living through WWI and WWI.

My only caveat? Continue reading

Book Review 27: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

3 May

I read this book after seeing pyrajane’s review which described this book as a book about books for people who love books. And that’s exactly what this book was, and it was delightful.

Mr. Penumbra runs a mysterious bookshelf, and our protagonist Clay takes a job working the night shift at the store.  Mr. Penumbra’s requests seem a little unusual, and Clay starts to pay careful attention to the books in the store, the customers who borrow them without paying, and the peculiar tasks he’s required to do.

Ultimately, this is a mystery. It’s a worldwide network of people racing to crack a code, and to do it under their terms. You feel the tension between the old school and new school attitudes towards technology as the characters race to the finish. And Clay reminded me a tiny bit of Harry Potter. Continue reading

Book Review 19: Let the Right One In by John Lindqvist

7 Mar

This book is dark. I haven’t seen either of the movies, but the central character at this book is a vampire, and the story spirals out to encompass those whose lives the vampire touches. Eli’s…companion, for lack of a better word, who secures food for Eli when Eli cannot. Eli’s lonely, bullied neighbor who is desperate for a connection, for a friend, and latched on to Eli. The friends of Eli’s dead victim. The friends of one of Eli’s victims who survives, transforming into a vampire herself.

What made this book special is that despite the vampires, the mystery at the core, and the violence, it tackled surprisingly human themes. The young, lonely bullied boy. The ramifications of divorce. Young love. The acceptance (or lack thereof) of homosexuals. The dangers of pedophilia.

I don’t have that much to say about the book. It was suspenseful, tense, keeping me on the edge of my seat. It ultimately left me feeling sad, for almost all of the characters in the story. It was a much more interesting take on the vampire genre that I normally read, and as such, it was refreshing.

Book Review 11: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

13 Feb

I finished The Secret History in 24 hours, which happened to be the same 24 hours in which Donna Tartt announced she’ll be releasing a third novel in the upcoming future. The Secret History tells the story of 6 prep school kids studying the classics under an eccentric professor at a small liberal arts school in Vermont, and the secrets, conspiracies and fall out from one fateful night in the woods.

This book is part psychological thriller, part straight suspense novel, and part psychoanalysis of the main characters.  Honestly, I would compare it to Gone Girl in terms of the depth of character analysis, suspense and tone. It’s like a much more literary Gone Girl. I honestly don’t recall ever reading a book in the suspense or thriller genre where I found the prose to be beautiful or worthwhile in it’s own right, but here it was.

The characters in this book are offbeat, but not in an overly quirky, annoying way. There are the too-close twins dressed all at white who overcome their creepy first appearances to make everyone feel warm and welcoming. There’s the reckless Bunny, too smart for his own good and too incapable of reading social situations to save himself. There’s the charismatic, homosexual red head Francis who seems to draw men to him like a magnet.

And then there’s the narrator, Richard, who for me was the most untrustworthy character in the whole lot. Tartt created a weird phenomenon, where at first I identified with Richard, and his longing to belong to someone or something and his desperate fear of missing out. But as the novel progressed, I trusted Richard less and less. I started to feel as if he was hiding something from me, the reader, or that he wasn’t as socially intuitive enough to satisfy me. Continue reading

Book Review 9: Watchmen by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons

8 Feb

This is my first ever graphic novel! It seemed like a fun, interesting way to branch out from my usual selection of mysteries and airport quality chick lit. On reading a graphic novel, it was extremely challenging for all the reasons I thought it would be. I struggled with reading the words, and looking at the images. Watchmen is dense, you have the read the words to really follow the story, and it took me like 75 pages to get the hang of the reading and looking and feeling the flow of the story. At first I would read, look at the pictures, read, look at the pictures, but it interrupted the flow and I felt like I wasn’t fully appreciating the fantastic imagery.

I selected Watchmen by Googling “graphic novels for beginners” and this was the right choice for me. It was a world of super (nonsuper?) heroes I knew nothing about, so I could build my expectations and the world from the ground up. The story has some of the black and white appeal of a classic good v. evil comic book story, but it’s dark. The characters are far more morally gray. You’re rooting for the vigilantes, the men and women who took up masks to fight crime on their own when the government wasn’t doing enough, who were eventually replaced by actual superheroes. You don’t really fully believe they’re heroes, because their imperfections are out on the line more so than any other heroes I’ve been exposed to. Continue reading

Book Review 7: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

5 Feb
The cover of the 1994 novel

The cover of the 1994 novel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perusing CannonballRead while in a book rut, I saw faintingviolet’s review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and couldn’t believe I’d never read it. It’s right up my alley – salacious gossip, Southern setting, murder mystery, small town style drama unfolding in the middle of an almost unbelievable set of trials.

Part I of the novel introduces the reader to the city of Savannah. Savannah is a character of its own in the book, and the city surpasses the sum of its very quirky inhabitants. You meet Joe Odom, a broke ex-lawyer running some kind of trashy piano bar salon where ever he’s currently squatting. And Lady Chablis, the gorgeous transvestite who tricks the author into being her chauffeur  And of course Jim Williams, he of the antiques and fabulous, prestigious part fame.

Part II is what happens after the murder. The most fun part of this book is that it’s not a whodunit, it’s a whydunit. We know Jim Williams pulled the trigger.  Self defense or cold blooded murder? This is not the typical crime novel trope with the angelic, innocent victim who was clearly wronged.  This is real life; murder is messy; Williams’s victim Hansford was a male hustler with a violent temper. It depends on what evidence you believe. It depends on who you’re friends with in the town. It depends on who you like the best. Continue reading

Book Review 6: Homicide: A Year of Killing on the Streets by David Simon

5 Feb

Before David Simon was writing and producing the Wire, the show frequently described as the great American novel of television, he was writing Edgar Award winning actual novels like Homicide.  In 1987, Simon  took a leave of absence from the Baltimore Sun to shadow and write about the Baltimore Police Department’s homicide division during 1988.  For reference, in 2011, the homicide rate came in at 196, the first time in three decades Baltimore’s homicide rate came in at under 200.

1988 was relatively early in the rise of Baltimore’s homicide rate.  And Simon, without even being aware of it, shows you how the BPD began to sag under the growing weight of the number of murders and how the detectives grew cynical. Because these  increasing murders were basically unsolvable, occurring in neighborhoods with no witnesses at all, where were citizens rightfully skeptical of the police, where no evidence was left.  The detectives solve just enough murders that they still incredibly hold on to a handful of hope, but the

There is not neat wrap up of the outstanding plot lines at the end of Homicide. The most politically intriguing murder and the most gruesome, devastating murder remain unsolved. And you feel the pain of the detectives at the fact those murders are still on the board, waiting. You feel the remorse seeping from the pages, you think back on the mistakes that were made by detectives, lab techs, filing clerks, and so forth, and you know that crime will probably be left unsolved. You feel the  adrenaline when an anonymous tip comes in months after the crime or a new piece of evidence seems certain to lead to a suspect. It doesn’t. The detectives catch just enough breaks to hold on hope. But they also watch the cases that they eat, sleep and breathe go unsolved enough that hope seems…imaginary.

Aside from how engrossed I was, this novel had two of the best passages on crime I’ve ever read and if I ever in my post-law school career teach a class on criminal law (unlikely) they will be included.  The first passage contrasts the legal provisions giving police officer’s discretion to shoot and kill a suspect they believe will cause them harm, with the shockingly (to me) minimal gun training police officers received at the time.  The second is ten pages of straight dialogue between hypothetical detectives and hypothetical suspects that show just how meaningful the supposed legal victory of the Miranda rights really was in the 1980s (and probably today).  A third passage on the autopsy process, and how the detective and medical examiner work together, was also particularly fascinating.

If you like the Wire, if you like mysteries, if you like thrillers, if you like true crime novels or if you have ever watched an episode of CSI or Law and Order and mildly enjoyed it – you will enjoy this book.

*Homicide  spawned the similarly named groundbreaking television show.  Simons joined the Homicide writing staff for four seasons. Ultimately, Simons partnered with former BPD detective Ed Burns to write another true crime novel The Corner, which HBO turned into a miniseries.

And then HBO gave them the chance to create The Wire, and the rest was history.

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