Tag Archives: mystery

Spotlight on: Mystery

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Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what Mystery means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!


What is Mystery?

The mystery genre is full of books in which a question is presented at the beginning of the story that will be answered by the end, usually with clues (and red herrings) strewn along the way that allow the reader to guess at the answer. One “type” that appears often is the murder mystery. These often follow a detective (official or not) looking into a suspicious death. But murder is not a requirement of the genre; detectives can investigate any question to which an answer is initially unknown. Another “type” is the closed room mystery, in which a crime or other grievance has been committed in an enclosed space that defies entrance or exit- the culprit is stuck inside, hiding among innocents, and everyone is suspect.

Mystery has plenty of crossover with thriller genre- I’ll be focusing on that one more next month, but I want to draw a distinction in the meantime. Though a book can be both mystery and thriller, I also think a line can be drawn between the two genres, and that comes down to a difference in tone and level of suspense. A subjective matter, to be sure. For me the difference is usually determined by the degree of danger which the detective faces- if their life isn’t directly on the line, or is only in danger only because they happen to be present in a sticky situation, those are often mysteries. If the stakes are reasonably low and/or or distanced from the protagonist(s), that’s a mystery. If it’s a puzzle without edge-of-your-seat life-or-death-urgency, that’s a mystery to me.

Mystery can overlap with pretty much any genre, and it will mean a difference only in the setting or the way that the puzzle is being presented, though no other genre *requires* a puzzle the way Mystery does. Other frequent crossovers include gothic and horror stories.


My History with Mystery

I was one of many US children introduced to Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children mysteries during early forays into “chapter books.” The Boxcar Children (The Boxcar Children, #1)I don’t own very many but I did read every volume available at both my school and public libraries, some more than once, throughout elementary school. I am also far from unique in moving on from those to Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew series. Mystery is a great genre for young readers generally, because it provides a hook to keep kids engaged from start to finish, can teach a moral, and uses simple tropes that can be repeated and recognized over and over in endless slightly altered configurations. Quite a lot of stories for young readers are mysteries. I read a lot of them and I remember few.

After binging on mysteries in my young reading years, I took a bit of a break from the genre. I became interested in more varied and wild stories, especially fantasy and the supernatural. Because mystery can fit into any genre, I did encounter it again in the process of seeking more fantastical reading; In my tweens / early teens I briefly loved Elizabeth Chandler’s Dark Secrets series and Meg Cabot’s 1-800-Where-R-You series. The Face on the Milk Carton (Janie Johnson, #1)I also remember reading Caroline B. Cooney’s The Face on the Milk Carton around this time (though faces had never appeared on any of my milk cartons and I remember being young enough that I had to ask someone what that was all about).

In high school I fell into a murder mystery phase, and also a cringey reading-whoever-took-up-the-most-shelf-space-at-the-library phase, which meant (among others) Joanne Fluke, Janet Evanovich (I read a Stephanie Plum per day for a little while there, firmly team Ranger), and James Patterson. By college I was better at finding standalones to fit my taste and preferred a real challenge in guessing the whodunnits, and more suspense.


Mystery Classics and Staples

And Then There Were NoneDoes more need to be said than the name Agatha Christie? She’s dubbed “the queen of mystery” for a reason! I’ve actually only read a handful of her books so far, but one doesn’t need to read many to see her skill with the genre. My favorites to date have been (to no one’s surprise) And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express. The former is a closed room mystery which takes place on an island, where ten people are gathered and die one by one while they wait to leave and try desperately to determine which among them is the killer. The latter, another closed room mystery, takes place on a train, where one passenger winds up dead and the evidence seems contradictory.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a gothic mystery classic in which a young wife feels judged against her husband’s former (now dead) wife, though no one will tell her what happend to the last Mrs. de Winter.

The Good Daughter (Good Daughter, #1)For more modern representation, Karin Slaughter is not to be overlooked. I started with The Good Daughter, in which a woman who survived a terrible attack as a child is later privy to the aftermath of another horrible crime, one that demands she take another look at the past tragedy that changed her family irrevocably. This title in itself isn’t necessarily the staple, but Karin Slaughter is enough of a mystery icon that all of her titles are on the map.

I must also mention Liane Moriarty, whose popular mystery Big Little Lies is a big little adaptation these days; this one follows a group of women whose children attend an Australian school where the parent drama turns deadly.

Robert Galbraith is another big name in mystery, probably due to the fact that J. K. Rowling hides behind the name, but for whichever reason, you’ll probably hear about the Cormoran Strike series if you’re digging into this genre! These are UK-based puzzles led by a one-legged private investigator and his intrepid secretary/partner.

The Silence of the LambsThere’s also Thomas Harris’s infamous Hannibal Lecter series for the horror fans- these are a bit grislier, but if you’re not interested in the whole series skip straight to The Silence of the Lambsit can be read on its own, and is not to be missed! In this story, the FBI’s new behavioral science unit is hunting an evasive serial killer- with the help of an eclectic madman they’ve already caught.

And of course mystery is a popular genre outside of the English language as well. I’ve not yet read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland), a major contender, but I have enjoyed Sarah Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls (translated from the Danish by Signe Rød Golly), Katrine Engberg’s The Tenant (translated from the Danish by Tara Chace) and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), a recent nominee for several literary prizes. It’s good fun to see how mysteries are done in other countries, I highly recommend looking around the world for additional titles!


Further Mystery Recommendations

If you’re new to the genre and not sure where to start, let me offer a few suggestions based on other categories you may already be interested in. These recommendations are based off of my own reading, rather than an exhaustive list of everything that’s out there; if anyone has further suggestions please drop them in the comments below!

The OutsiderIf you like YA: Courtney Summers’s Sadie, Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet

If you like magical or supernatural elements: Stephen King’s The Outsider, Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger, Caroline Kepnes’s Providence

If you like history: Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, Tina May Hall’s The Snow Collectors, Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars, Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44

If you like social issues: Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek

If you like lit fic: Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth, Maria Hummel’s Still Lives

If you like thrillers: Hanna Jameson’s The Last, Riley Sager’s The Last Time I Lied, Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key

If you like police procedurals: Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed, Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds (to be clear, the sheriff of The Blinds is a fellow inmate in an experimental town full of criminals so this is a police procedural with a twist)Behind Her Eyes

Special shoutout to my favorite mystery twist to date, found in Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes, which I can’t talk about without giving it away. This one’s polarizing but… I loved it! If anyone is looking for a wild card recommendation, this is it.


Mysteries on my TBR:

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Complete Sherlock Holmes is a mystery must that I’ve been sleeping on for far too long! I’m embarrassed not to have read any of these stories yet. I also have Anthony Horowitz high on my mystery to-read list, starting with The Word is Murder. Stuart Turton’s The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is waiting patiently on my shelf, along with Jo Baker’s The Body Lies, and Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is on its way to my mailbox. (I’m hazy on whether this is actually a mystery or just gothic, so please excuse me if I’m wrong but I’m getting mystery vibes.) I’ve also got Kate Weinberg’s The Truants on my list, as well as Danielle Trussoni’s The Ancestor, and Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange, for a few examples. Bitter OrangeAnd I want to do a deep dive into Agatha Christie’s work at some point! Which mysteries are on your TBR?


Why Read Mystery?

To exercise your brain! To brush with the morbid and macabre! To learn about real problems with crime from around the world! Mystery can also help readers build a sense of empathy and understand motivations because they often focus closely on character. These are perfect books to escape into, and you can choose to work on the puzzle for yourself while reading or simply follow along as the characters figure things out. Either way, it’s a great blend of fun format with thoughtful (and often very serious) content.


Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for mystery books, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂


The Literary Elephant

Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

The Women’s Prize shortlist announcement is now only two weeks away! I’ve read *almost* 11 of the 16 longlisted books so far and am on track to finish everything but Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light on time. I’ll keep trying, but it would take a miracle for me to finish 7 books (plus the last few pages of my current read) in fourteen days, especially given the size of the Mantel trilogy. But I digress- all this was to say that as I near the end, I have a surprisingly clear idea of which books I would be happy to see on the upcoming shortlist. The most recent read addition to this list is Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.

djinnpatrolonthepurplelineIn the novel, 9 year-old Jai and two of his friends are disturbed by the news that one of their classmates has vanished. Jai is fascinated with an investigation show called Police Patrol and is eager to soothe his parents’ worries (thus freeing himself from the strict rules they’re laying down)- and so the three children set out to discover what has happened to the missing boy, in hopes of setting their community (an Indian slum) back to rights. As they struggle to find the pieces of the puzzle and fit them together in a realistic way, more children disappear and life in the basti becomes increasingly fraught.

“The headmaster won’t open the main gate fully because he thinks strangers will run into the school along with us. He likes to tell us that 180 children go missing across India every single day. He says Stranger is Danger, which is a line he has stolen from a Hindi film song. But if he were really worried about strangers, he wouldn’t keep sending the watchman away.”

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is a mystery of sorts- the question of what has happened to these children keeps the novel moving, though this isn’t a book to pick up for its whodunnit clues and plot twists. (This is reinforced by the fact that Jai’s favorite theory is that evil djinns have spirited the children away, rather than a human criminal.) Instead, at the heart of the novel is the revelation of a greater metropolitan problem- missing children who go unfound and even unlooked for, mainly because of their poverty. Through a series of child narrators- primarily Jai, interspersed with brief chapters about each of the missing children- the reader is given an interesting blend of the worries and delights of youth, who notice the adults’ fears but can’t quite understand them.

“The good and bad thing about living in a basti is that news flies into your ears whether you want it to or not.”

The choice of utilizing a nine year-old as the story’s main narrator is both clever and somewhat frustrating- Jai’s investigations accomplish very little, and among his group of friends he seems to contribute the least to solving the case of their missing classmate; I wouldn’t rate him highly as a sleuth, and his scant role in the unraveling mystery is my greatest criticism of this book. On the other hand, he does have a particular vivacity that’s compelling amidst the book’s grim subject matter. He befriends a stray dog, compares himself to detectives he likes on TV, and makes an adventure of it when his detecting takes him to new places. His innocence buoys the novel’s pace and makes this a surprisingly addictive read despite the dark commentary packed between the lines.

Speaking of commentary, this seems to be Djinn Patrol‘s main focus- the narration digs into many challenges that city children can face in India: the need to care for themselves and sometimes even younger children, the difficulty of getting a quality education, the prospect of working (perhaps even multiple jobs at a time) before the legal employment age. Jai and his friends are often hungry, their families living together in one room, their few belongings used over and over until they are worn beyond repair. The book conveys the difference in expectations and opportunities for Indian boys and girls beginning even before their teen years, the tension of opposing religions leading to bullying and even violence that doesn’t exclude children, and the thick smog that cannot be escaped even when it is cause for canceling school. All this before the novel even touches on the things that can happen to snatched children.

The writing itself is solid, if simplistic- it’s elegance lies in things implied but not said, rather than poignant prose. This worked well for me because it fit the young narrator in a way a more ornate style wouldn’t have. There’s also a good mix of cultural vocab mixed into the story (there is a helpful glossary at the end of the book, though I didn’t realize it and managed to glean almost everything from context, always a plus). The sentences are quick and straightforward, the tone generally light, and the chapters flow easily from one to the next- a bingeable read. But don’t be mistaken- it’s sad as well. This is not a book that ties up neatly with happy endings for everyone involved, which is exactly how it makes such a powerful statement about the ongoing problem of missing children cases in India. There’s certainly a depth of tragedy here, which is essentially why Jai’s perspective works so well. Anappara mentions in her afterword speaking with real Indian children and wanting to capture their “resilience, cheerfulness, and swagger,” and “their determination to survive in a society that often willfully neglected them.” In this reader’s opinion, she delivers with aplomb.

“What is a whole life? If you die when you’re still a child, is your life whole or half or zero?”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This one wasn’t quite as strong for me as a couple of other commentary novels disguised as mysteries that I’ve read this year, like Long Bright River or Disappearing Earth, but after a string of mediocre Women’s Prize reads I really did have a lot of fun reading this one and it stands out as one of the stronger longlisted titles I’ve read thus far. I feel like I’ve learned a bit about India, and I was entertained at the same time. I’m still working on a ranked list and my shortlist predictions, but you shouldn’t be surprised to see this one feature. 🙂


The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Disappearing Earth and The Snow Collectors

Two recent reads!

I don’t tend to pick up books just because they’re pretty, but a beautiful cover definitely draws me in to looking at the synopsis more closely. Such was the case with Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth; add on the National Book Award shortlisting and some  great reviews, and I was sold. I only wish I’d picked this one up sooner!

disappearingearthIn the novel, two young girls disappear from a Russian city on the Kamchatka peninsula. Opinions are divided on what has happened to them- one woman reports seeing a man with the two girls at their last known location, but when she can’t provide the police with any further details even they doubt her claim. In a series of chapters each following a different woman in a different month of the year following the girls’ disappearance, a web of connected story lines from all over the peninsula slowly come together to resolve the mystery of the missing children.

“It hurts too much to break your own heart out of stupidity, to leave a door unlocked or a child untended and return to discover that whatever you value most has disappeared. No. You want to be intentional about the destruction. Be a witness. You want to watch how your life will shatter.”

Disappearing Earth is a beautiful, brilliant book. The chapters read somewhat like individual short stories, though this is rather a novel of connected pieces. The frequent shifts of perspective may be jarring or disappointing for readers who prefer to follow a smaller cast more closely- though Phillips refers back to many previously mentioned characters, we don’t see much of them beyond the ends of their respective chapters. Fortunately, I found every new perspective as interesting as the last, and I thought that the emotion each chapter ended on segued nicely into the start of the next, a sense of quiet tension building steadily throughout the book across this set of self-contained arcs.

Though this is indeed a sort of mystery, it’s a slow-paced journey whose purpose is not the quick entertainment of a typical mystery/thriller (there’s no way of guessing the whodunnit before it is revealed, the criminal’s motives and actions go unexplored, and none of the characters other than the two missing girls seem to be in imminent danger) but instead a methodical unveiling of a culture- the challenges faced by the people living in this part of the world. Through these characters we see strong local prejudices, honored traditions that feel like trappings,  critiques of insufficient police response to crime, and more. There’s so much sadness and frustration in this book, but Phillips paints this place with a respectful hand, one that sees room for change and hope for its future.

This is sure to be a divisive book, in that the mystery at its core makes it impossible to describe the novel without attracting a crowd looking for something flashier while Disappearing Earth is in fact very subtle. Readers drawn in by the missing girls of the premise may not find what they are looking for here, whereas others (like me) will delight in the small moments where the chapters intersect and the larger picture of a community at odds with itself shines through.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This has been one of my favorite reading experiences of the year so far. I read it as slowly as I could in order to savor it, while also finding myself virtually unable to set the book down.


The Snow Collectors, by Tina May Hall, was a February release that caught my eye last month. I grabbed a copy as soon as I added the title to my TBR because I knew otherwise I’d be waiting until next winter. Ironically, for the first time that I can really remember, we’re having an unusually early spring where I live so I actually missed out on reading it surrounded by snow anyway! Perhaps I would have liked it more in that weather.

thesnowcollectorsIn the novel, Henna has recently moved to an unnamed town on the US east coast, where a brutal winter is in full swing. Her family is long missing, presumed dead, and Henna has left all of her attachments behind to start fresh in a new place. Unfortunately, this place might not be any better than the last- she discovers a dead woman in the woods behind her house, and thus begins her hunt to solve two mysteries: that of the woman’s death, and that of the scrap of paper clutched in her hand, pertaining to an Arctic expedition from the 1850’s.

“No one knew if we would get another winter. Minute by minute, the world we rode was transformed, bone to coral, feather to web, ice to stone, and back again.”

This story is a very interesting collection of elements- an atmospheric Eastern winter, in a future not too far off (references to the extinction of bees and deserts where the Midwest had been presenting as some of the only clues that the setting isn’t present day), with a strong focus on a specific historical moment- the missing Franklin expedition, part of the search for a northwest passage. Henna thinks of herself as a sort of gothic heroine in this mystery, at times following and at others defying tropes of that genre. There’s also a bit of a magical/sci-fi element, in that Henna is skilled at dowsing water (and perhaps ancient clues) using only her body as a tool. She spends her days writing encyclopedia entries about water, her neighbor/best friend is mute, the police chief is mysterious but also a flirt, the other newcomer to town is the owner of an extinction show, and her sister’s unlikely hero of a dog, Rembrandt, is never far from the action. Oh, and at the heart of the Franklin expedition’s disappearance is the question of whether or not cannibalism has occurred, which lends the novel a macabre air.

“I rested my head on my hand, flipping through the notes, trying to estimate how many days of hunger it took to break a person, trying to imagine the dead men, lying huddled on the ice where they had fallen, their living compatriots too weak to bury them, the temptation of so much wasted meat.”

This read was a mix of extreme ups and downs for me. On the one had, I adored the writing, found so many of the individual elements fascinating, and was constantly curious about what these bizarre characters would do next. On the other, I thought the culprit was obvious from the beginning, did not understand why Franklin’s family would’ve cared so much about the possible cannibalism long after people had forgotten that they were even connected to Franklin, and found the resolution entirely anticlimactic and unsatisfactory. Unfortunately I was also reading this book on the days surrounding the Women’s Prize longlist announcement, and my desire to be reading those books was so great at the time that anything else I was reading was bound to suffer for the fact that my interest was simply elsewhere. Ultimately, while I enjoyed a lot of The Snow Collector‘s pieces, it didn’t quite manage to hold my attention as a narrative, though I can’t blame that entirely on this book.

Even though this one didn’t quite live up to expectations for me, I still found it a very interesting read, and recommend it to those who like unusual, somewhat dark books.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. To be honest, I wavered between 3 and 4 here because this is a wonderful, weird little book with plenty of merit, though I didn’t end up enjoying it quite as much as I’d hoped to. I am glad I picked it up and am sure to remember it for a long time because I’ve read nothing else like it. I’d certainly like to try more of the author’s work.

Have you read or are you interested in either of these books?

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: The Tenant and Recipe for a Perfect Wife

I thought I was being selective with my monthly anticipated releases lists but apparently I will have to be even more selective about which of those books I try to read immediately. I’ve been focusing on the choices available at my library, but am realizing that my time would be better spent focusing on the titles I’m most excited for, even if that means passing up easily available books and spending a bit more money. Because unfortunately, not all releases live up to expectations. Today I’m talking about two perfectly adequate January releases I’ve read recently that just didn’t quite win me over.


I picked up The Tenant by Katrine Engberg (translated by Tara Chace) partially because I haven’t read a mystery/thriller in a while, and partially because I wanted to read more translations this year- this one’s from Denmark.

thetenantIn the novel, a police detective who’s recently gone through a divorce is given the lead role in a new case, even though everyone knows he’s been off his game since his wife left him. The case is a grisly one, in which a young woman is found murdered and mutilated in her own apartment. Though there’s no clear motive, there are a daunting number of connections to relatives, friends, past acquaintances, and everyone else living in the building- including the owner, who is working on a manuscript for a murder mystery, featuring the very woman who’s just turned up dead.

What drew me to this particular mystery was that meta writing element, which I did end up enjoying even though it turned out to be only one facet of a larger story. The whole plot came together quite nicely for me, with a decent pace, a good variety of clues all pointing in different directions, and enough action scenes to break up the theorizing. I was able to guess some of the twists though not all, and the characters continued to surprise me even after I thought I had them pegged. I would’ve liked a bit more of a social connection for a lasting impact ( admittedly there is a bit of commentary on orphanages, mentioned rather than explored), but the way that the mystery spins out and winds back together is very well done and I would certainly recommend this book as a smart whodunnit.

” ‘Esther made the story up in two rounds: first the part about the young woman who moves to the capital and meets a man… And three weeks later the description of the murder itself? […] The killer could certainly have inspired Esther, through Julie, to write the first part and then found his own inspiration to commit the murder from the second part. Reality, book- book, reality.’ Jeppe sighed. ‘It’s starting to get quite convoluted, this is.’ “

So what didn’t work? Mainly, the characters. I remained emotionally detached from them throughout the book, which detracted from any tension the plot might have held. Jeppe’s divorce, affair, and back pain weren’t enough to make me care whether he solved this case or not, and his little feuds with Annette didn’t convince me to invest in their friendship/rivalry. There’s very little departmental drama during the investigation and none of the characterization outside of the case developments actually seemed relevant. The suspects felt like pawns being moved around a chessboard. I just wasn’t hooked.

Additionally, the translation seemed a bit unbalanced in places. Some details that probably wouldn’t have needed an explanation in the Danish version are explained in text for the English reader (like gaekkebrev, a form of paper cutting), but the wonderful sense of setting I’d seen so much praise for on the cover turned out to feature mainly street names and landmarks I wasn’t familiar with, rather than anything visual or cultural for an outsider to grasp. This isn’t a criticism of Engberg’s or Chace’s writing; I can understand this being a popular mystery in Denmark, and even in English it’s not the author or translator’s job to educate the reader. But these aspects did affect my experience with the book.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad I read this. I found it readable and fun and didn’t hate anything about it. It just didn’t stand apart from other mystery/thrillers I’ve read.


Shifting gears entirely, I also finished Karma Brown’s Recipe for a Perfect Wife just yesterday. This one’s contemporary fiction with a historical element and strong feminist themes. Also a mixed bag for me.

recipeforaperfectwifeIn the novel, the narration alternates between the lives of two women: one a 50’s housewife, the other freshly married in 2018, leaving a busy and mostly fulfilling Manhattan life for a work-from-home job in the suburbs while her husband commutes. The modern woman, Alice, finds a box of the previous owner’s belongings in her house’s the basement, including a stack of women’s magazines from the 1950s and a well-used cookbook. Alice feels a sense of kinship with her predecessor and begins researching the older (now deceased) woman’s life.

It’s my own fault I expected this to be something it wasn’t, and thus liked it less than expected. I thought there were going to be obvious similarities between the two women’s lives, perhaps in a “these are the ways the patriarchy is still holding women back” vein. Instead, it seems to be aimed at readers who don’t already know how misogynistic 50s marriages could be, as it seems this fictional modern woman did not. The two timelines are barely related, except for the fact that the present-day woman is immersing herself in 50s housewife culture as research for her novel.

Despite being a very quick and easy read, this book didn’t push any boundaries for me, and I disliked a lot of the plot. I saw the big reveals of the 50s storyline coming a mile away and found that entire narrative arc very predictable. The modern plot is less straightforward, but only because the present-day wife acts erratically for no apparent reason. She’s lying to her husband, who seems receptive and caring enough, unlike the 50s husband. She insists on having a sort of 50s housewife experience, but then is angry that she’s expected to cook and clean and bear children and defer to her husband even though… she’s the only one placing those expectations on herself? (I know there’s an argument to be made for internalized gender stereotypes here but I really don’t think that’s what Brown is going for.) I firmly believe that an honest conversation or two would’ve completely resolved Alice’s plot before it began, a pet peeve of mine. There’s a lot of potential here for commentary on marriage and feminism, both historically and in the present. Instead, the messages are fairly blatant and what you see is what you get.

But even so I did appreciate the themes, as well as the expository nature of the historical chapters. I couldn’t have cared less about the recipes, but that’s down to my lack of interest in cooking. However, the chapters that don’t include a recipe feature quotes from various publications that real wives and husbands might have had access to in this time period, all highlighting some piece of awful, misogynistic advice. Here are a few infuriating little gems:

“Don’t mope and cry because you are ill, and don’t get any fun; the man goes out to get all the fun, and your laugh comes in when he gets home again and tells you about it- some of it. As for being ill, women should never be ill.” -Advice to Wives, The Isle of Man Times (1895)

“Don’t expect your husband to make you happy while you are simply a passive agent. Do your best to make him happy and you will find happiness yourself.” -Blanche Ebbutt, Don’ts for Wives (1913)

“Be a good listener. Let him tell you his troubles; yours will seem trivial in comparison.” -Edward Podolsky, Sex Today in Wedded Life (1947)

“Just as the vampire sucks the blood of its victims in their sleep while they are alive, so does the woman vampire suck the life and exhaust the vitality of her male partner- or victim.” -William J. Robinson, Married Life and Happiness (1922)

I hope the source of Robinson’s bitterness was a wife that refused to be “put in her place.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. In the end, this book didn’t do what I wanted it to, and I didn’t particularly enjoy the story it did have to tell. But it’s heart was in the right place and it did make me righteously angry about the way women have been treated by society, which I think was ultimately the point.


Because these reviews have been littered with minor complaints, I’d just like to reiterate that my reviews are a reflection of my personal experiences and not an attempt to steer anyone away from certain books. Though neither of these quite impressed me, both are sure to work better for other readers; if you’re interested at all I would definitely recommend checking them out!


The Literary Elephant



Review: Long Bright River

I grabbed Liz Moore’s new mystery novel Long Bright River from BOTM and managed to pick it up in January, right around the time it was released. I had such a good time reading this book (which should make it a good place to start catching up with reviews)!

longbrightriverIn the novel, Mickey is a Philadelphia policewoman, patrolling a neighborhood where opioid addictions and deaths are tragically commonplace. She cares about the people there, building a rapport with those who live and work in the area rather than training up to become a detective. Complicating matters, Mickey’s own family has brushed close to the opioid epidemic; her sister still uses and abuses in Mickey’s district. Their relationship is rocky, but Mickey can’t help panicking when Kacey goes missing. It doesn’t help that someone seems to be murdering women on the street at the same time- so Mickey decides to do a little of her own investigating.

Don’t do anything stupid, Truman said to me yesterday. But it isn’t stupid, I believe, to follow through on leads. In fact, it only seems reasonable.”

For a book nearly 500 pages long, Long Bright River is a surprisingly quick read (and I’m not a fast reader, so you can trust me on that). The entire story is told in Mickey’s first person perspective, dancing between her familial history and the present, in which she patrols, takes care of her son, and investigates her sister’s disappearance, with the recent murder spree often on her mind if not an actual facet of her daily job. I wasn’t stunned by the prose- I marked very few passages while reading, and most of them I saved for content rather than beauty. Even so, once I started I had a hard time putting the book down. Mickey is a flawed character and not someone I particularly related to, and yet I found her narrative so easy to settle into and follow wherever it would go.

I’ll be honest: the mystery elements (where is Kacey, and who is killing women like her?) are not this book’s strong suit. The plot is slow paced, Mickey makes obvious mistakes, and some of the red herrings are obvious. Enough is going on in Mickey’s life that the book dips in and out of various lines of inquiry and concerns, which can disrupt the tension. Furthermore, Mickey is worried about her missing sister, but as more of her past is revealed it becomes increasingly clear that even finding her will not ensure her safety; this murder spree is one danger among many in the difficult life of an addict, and Mickey knows that when/if she finds Kacey it won’t necessarily be a joyous reunion and a happy ending in rehab, which means Kacey’s uncertain status is not the vehicle propelling the reader through the story. If you’re looking for a thriller, you won’t find it here.

Instead, what drives the narrative is the commentary on addiction and the opioid epidemic. Mickey is not an addict, but through her we see what it is like to live with an addict, what it is like to love someone who refuses to be helped, who may try to get clean but repeatedly falls back into bad habits. We see how addiction broke their family apart, how it drives their choices as children, as adults. We see how addiction can land a person on the streets, how it can entrap a person in bad relationships, etc. Moore does an excellent job of depicting how very much of addiction is outside of anyone’s control.

I also loved the complicated character dynamics at the heart of this story. Mickey may be an outsider in that she cannot tell the reader personally what addiction is like, but she is very close to the epidemic and can share a lot of firsthand experience nonetheless. She has taken care of her sister when possible. She remembers her mother, before the overdose that killed her. She remembers her father leaving. She remembers (and still interacts with) the grandmother who raised Mickey and her sister, the ways she attempted to pick up the pieces and the rules she wouldn’t bend on after seeing her own daughter ruined by drugs. Through other perspectives, we might still have gotten a decent plot and plenty of insight into widespread opioid use, but Mickey adds an extra layer to the dialogue, the layer of a non-user who still can’t escape the web of this epidemic. Opioid addiction is a problem that affects not only those who use the drugs, but all those who are in their lives, by choice or blood or circumstance. It affects whole communities, and Mickey is the right narrator to convey that.

“When it is necessary to do so, I gently place handcuffs on the wrists of my sister, and I tell her the particular offense for which she is being arrested (usually, solicitation and possession of narcotics, one time with intent to sell), and then I narrate her rights to her, then I place a gentle hand on the crown of her head to ensure that she doesn’t obtain an injury as she enters the backseat of our vehicle, and then I quietly close the door, and then I drive her to the station, and then I book her, and then the two of us sit silently across from one another in the holding cell, not speaking, not even looking at each other.”

The details that affected me most are spoilers, so I’ll say only that there’s even more commentary and emotion here than is apparent on the surface. For me, that was enough to make up for the lack of a twisty plot, though for others it might not be; ultimately, while coming to this story with the wrong expectations could ruin this experience for some, I do think it is an excellent book for what it does accomplish, and I hope it’ll see plenty of attention this year. If you’re on the fence, let me reassure you: this one’s worth the read.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I suspect I’ll end up bumping this down to 4 in time due to the weak mystery element, but for now my rating reflects how readable and engrossing I found the book, and how valuable its commentary seemed. Honestly if all mysteries had as much to say about difficult topics in the real world, I’d be reading a lot more of them. I like a good plot as much as the next person, but gaining a new perspective on opioid addiction will stay with me longer. I would definitely read more from this author.

Have you read this one, or are you planning to pick it up? Let me know what you think!


The Literary Elephant

Review: My Cousin Rachel

It’s been almost TWO YEARS since I read and loved Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a book that left me suspecting I’d found a new (to me) favorite author, so it was beyond time to try another of her books and seal the deal. This month, I picked up my second-ever du Maurier novel, My Cousin Rachel, in a lovely buddy read with Melanie (@ Grab the Lapels). Fortunately, we both loved it! I’ve linked to her review.

mycousinrachelIn the novel, Philip resides on his uncle’s estate, of which he is the sole heir. When he was orphaned as a baby, this uncle took him in; they are each other’s closest family, and remarkably similar in appearance, opinion, and habit. For his health, the uncle has recently begun wintering away from the property at Cornwall, where much to his surprise Philip one day receives a letter stating that his uncle has married their cousin Rachel and will not be returning home as early as planned. Before long more letters start to arrive- mysterious, accusatory letters, begging Philip to come quickly- which he does, but not before his uncle is pronounced dead. Angry and disbelieving of the supposed cause of death, Philip invites Rachel to stay with him in Cornwall, intending to punish her for whatever role she may have played in his uncle’s demise. But when she arrives, nothing goes quite the way he thought it would.

My Cousin Rachel is a gothic novel with an air of mystery, though ultimately it’s du Maurier’s insightful characterization and atmosphere that drive the reader onward. The ever-present question of whether Rachel had anything to do with her husband’s sudden death is never far from the reader’s mind, though so much else is happening in the foreground that it’s impossible to call this novel anything other than a masterful, layered work.

The entire novel is narrated from Philip’s perspective, which I found immensely interesting as there’s also quite a bit of commentary on- or at least implication surrounding-  the unfairness of traditional gender roles and stereotypes. It seems to have been written with a female audience in mind, as the criticisms lie mainly in understood but unspoken motivations and undercurrents in dialogue, rather than bold statements. Nevertheless, the hint of feminism is no less exciting for its subtlety. Perhaps moreso for the fact that it is apparent through the lens of a self-entitled young man.

” ‘Louise isn’t a woman,’ I said, ‘she’s younger than myself, and I have known her since she ran around in petticoats.’ “

Of course, Philip isn’t the only interesting character; the framing of the novel around his perspective is apparent even in the title, but he is not the titular character. Rachel herself is vibrant and enigmatic; she’s polite, ladylike, and impeccably behaved on the surface, but it’s clear from the start that she’s intelligent and secretive, and won’t take anyone else’s word for who she should be and what she should do. She is entirely worthy of the mystery revolving around her. Additionally, the handful of secondary characters each have their own unique angle into the story, each a necessary cog that keeps the central wheel spinning.

As for the mystery, it plays out perfectly. A slow setup of the situation in the opening chapters allows readers a chance to meet all of the key players and acquaint themselves with the central conflict- the debate over whether or not Rachel is guilty of murder- which begins to wind ever tighter as soon as Rachel arrives on the page. From there, the tension and pacing gradually increase as these disparate personalities bounce off of one another in lieu of much real plot; relationships become increasingly nuanced and disaster looms. The final clues aren’t distributed until the very end of the novel, keeping the reader hooked and questing for answers up to the very last page- and beyond. This is a book that stays with the reader, that keeps asking questions after the cover is closed, and that promises a rich reread as well.

But, despite everything that I loved about this reading experience, there were a couple of elements to it that didn’t quite win me over. (I believe they worked better for Melanie, so be sure to check out her review for another opinion!)

The first is Philip. I’ve already mentioned being impressed with some of what was accomplished with his characterization, so clearly he was a double-edged sword for me. He’s an engaging and readable narrator, and the perfect perspective from which to view this series of tragedies as a mystery, but he’s also not the most likeable character; in itself, that wouldn’t bother me as long as his characterization serves a narrative purpose, but I’m not convinced Philip’s mildly selfish, spoiled personality ever does. It’s not strong enough for me to hate him, nor for me to pity him. He’s single and childless, and his uncle is already dead, so the reader must care about Philip for his own sake, which I never quite did. I found the matter of Rachel’s potential crimes against his family an intellectual curiosity at most, and unfortunately was never emotionally invested in Philip’s fate.

” ‘You have grown up ignorant of women, and if you ever marry it will be hard on your wife. I was saying so to Louise at breakfast.’ / He broke off then, looking – if my godfather could look such a thing – a little uncomfortable, as if he said more than he meant. / ‘That’s all right,’ I said, ‘my wife can take care of all the difficulties when the time comes.’ “

I also found myself frustrated over the murkiness of a few of the characters’ loyalties, especially those of Rachel’s friend/lawyer, and those of Philip’s godfather. I was never quite clear on whether their actions stemmed from genuine feelings, or whether they were merely following the letter of the law and came across as a bit suspicious only because it fed into the pull of the main mystery. I don’t think a bit more clarity on their motives would have hurt the story at all, and so I was disappointed not to have it.

And last but not least, though I did find plenty of surprises in the plot, I also found some aspects very predictable, which is not necessarily a fault of the book but probably inevitable 70 years after a mystery publication with the level of popularity du Maurier’s work has always seen. Though I enjoyed all of it, I saw through some of it, which made me impatient at points. Not a big deal at all, and I can’t be more specific without spoiling things, but I wanted to mention a bit of potential predictability for mystery fans.

” ‘Sometimes,’ she said slowly, ‘you are so like him that I become afraid. I see your eyes, with that same expression, turned upon me; and it is as though, after all, he had not died, and everything that was endured must be endured once more.’ “

Ultimately, My Cousin Rachel lacked for me that sense of everything falling perfectly into place (such as I found in Rebecca), though I did appreciate most of the lingering ambiguity. At the end of the story, there’s still a major choice of belief left up to the reader, narrowed down to a simple yes or no question that even a strong opinion one way or the other will not banish uncertainty from. It’s cleverly crafted and fun from start to finish, entirely worth the read.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was really close to a 5 star rating, and even though it didn’t quite make it for me, the experience has cemented du Maurier as one of my favorite authors, and leaves me determined to read the rest of her work. Next up for me (though I’m not sure when I’ll get to it) will probably be The House on the Strand. I’ll also be watching the film adaptation for My Cousin Rachel as soon as possible.

Have you read or seen this one?


The Literary Elephant



The Literary Elephant



Review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) caught my attention the first time I saw it’s title. Nominated for both the Man Booker International prize and the National Book Award prize for translated fiction earlier this year, it’s certainly been getting some buzz. In addition, Tokarczuk was just announced the 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. If those accolades aren’t enough, let me tell you a bit about this incredible book.

driveyourplowoverthebonesofthedeadIn the novel, an old woman living in a secluded Polish village looks after the houses of the folk who spend their winters elsewhere. She’s one of three who remain in the cold months- until one day, one of her neighbors comes knocking with a request for her to help him deal with the third man, who’s dead. She has occasion to do a bit of snooping in his house at that time, and will later tell anyone who’ll listen (and some who won’t) that animals have killed him in revenge (he was a known poacher). Most call her crazy and move on, but when more of the villagers turn up dead as the year wears on, it becomes obvious that something suspicious is going on. In the midst of this unresolved murder spree, Mrs. Duszejko continues to complain loudly about local treatment of animals, fighting against even legal hunting practices.

“Sorrow, I felt great sorrow, an endless sense of mourning for every dead Animal. One period of grief is followed by another, so I am in constant mourning.”

Though this book opens with a striking chapter that depicts neighbors dealing with their own dead in a desolate winter world, what first captured my attention about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was not the action but rather the singular voice of the story’s narrator. I don’t often enjoy books about animals, or books that ask readers to pity animals; I have enough natural empathy for living creatures, and don’t feel that my caring more about them will make any difference in the world, so I tend to find them repetitive, needlessly sad, and ultimately ineffective (for me personally- I respect that they are more successful with other readers). But Mrs. Duszejko gave me a human connection to this story that managed to keep me invested even though I didn’t always agree with her or feel interested in her arguments. Her perspective makes perfect sense for her character, though there are occasional moments when even the reader must question her sanity (just another brilliant move by Tokarczuk). Her viewpoint may seem a bit extreme, but there is something suspicious going on, and the way that her neighbors react to her claims can be as telling as the rumors floating through the village.

“Try to keep your theory to yourself. It’s highly improbable and it could do you harm.”

“Don’t get so upset about things. Don’t take the whole world on your shoulders. It’ll all be fine.”

Plot-wise, this book falls into the mystery genre, though it’s not really about the strange deaths of the local men- at least, not for Mrs. Duszejko. For her, the main contention of the book is whether or not anything will be done about the crimes against animals that she’s been diligently reporting. For that reason, it might be more appropriate to call this novel a character study. And that, for me, was the main flaw of the book- it’s structured as a puzzle in which our main character seems to have little interest throughout most of the novel. Of course the pieces come together for her (and everyone else) in the end, but my only real complaint here was that I didn’t feel like there was any driving force to propel me through the book. Convincing humanity to stop hunting/eating/taking advantage of animals seems like an obvious lost cause from the start, and that is the conflict Mrs. Duszejko is concerned with. Even though I enjoyed her odd life and opinions, I would put this book down at the end of the day, and feel no urge to pick it up again the next. It took me twice as long to read as it should have (judging by page count), even though I liked reading it. And I think at the end of the day, that comes down to a disconnect with the mystery element.

Otherwise, my only issue was that toward the end of the story the “villain” has to monologue an explanation of how they’ve gotten away with the crimes to that point. Most of the clues are scattered beautifully throughout the book so that they aren’t immediately obvious but easy to recall when they become important later. A few hints would have sufficed for the reader to piece the mystery together without being told quite so blatantly, but the solution is clever.

Also clever: seemingly random capitalization. I have a theory about this: Mrs. Duszejko capitalizes the things (in her first-person narration) that she has great respect for- things that play a powerful role in the way she lives her life. This list includes mainly naturally-occurring things, like Murk, Night, Animals… It also includes proper names of people and places, but enough common nouns are affected to lend the story a whimsical feel, though its topics are anything but.

” ‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘Its attitude toward Animals. If people behave brutally toward Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’ “

It’s hard to say much more without giving the best parts away, so I’ll say only that it’s a weird, wonderful little book sure to challenge the way readers think about the intricate bond between humanity and the natural environment. Mystery aside, it’s a powerful and timely look at the way we are using and abusing the earth we live on. Despite the narrator’s firm opinion on the modern treatment of animals, the book does not force the reader to take Mrs. Duszejko’s side, and leaves plenty of room for discourse. It’s a book that’s sure to stay with me in the same way that The Overstory now comes to mind every time I look at a tree. Tokarczuk brings Poland to vibrant life with this atmospheric little village, and her characterization of Mrs. Duszejko (and her potential madness) is worth reading even if, like me, you’re not initially sold on the animal rights themes. Even though the mystery was the weakest part of the story for me, there’s plenty of surprise in store for the reader, and plenty of commentary to love. Highly recommend.

“You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meaning for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I thought this was such an accomplished novel, and I’m very much looking forward to checking out Tokarczuk’s Man Booker International winning novel from 2018, titled Flights. She’s clearly a skilled writer. I’m so disappointed Drive Your Plow didn’t make the shortlist for the National Book Award last week, and now very curious about the titles that surpassed it there. Clearly I need more translations in my reading life!


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Turn of the Key

I’ve always had such fun with Ruth Ware’s thrillers (I think I’ve read all of them!) so of course I picked up her 2019 release, The Turn of the Key. I really liked this one, though I think I’m becoming a bit too familiar with Ware’s style… I saw through some of the mystery, though I still found it an engaging read!

theturnofthekeyIn the novel, Rowan answers a nannying ad that sounds like a perfect fit for her; in addition to great pay, she’d have a room in a private home in exchange for looking after 3 or 4 children (the eldest being away at school for part of the story) in a remote Scottish smart house while the parents are away for work. The catch is that between leaving her old job and moving from London for the new one, she has no time to familiarize herself with the house or the children before her new job begins. The smart system that runs the house seems to be acting up, and the children are fighting the presence of yet another new nanny- apparently the last few have been scared away by the house’s tragic history. Can Rowan brazen it out and find her footing in what could be a dream job, or will the house and the girls get the best of her?

“Maddie’s expression was very different, harder to read, but I thought I could tell what it was. Triumph. She had wanted me to get into trouble, and I had.”

In case you haven’t picked up on it by now, let me mention again that I love classic retellings. Ware’s The Turn of the Key is a loose retelling of Henry James’s eerie The Turn of the Screw, which I read and appreciated for its atmosphere and strangeness earlier this summer. The reader does not need to know anything at all about James’s original story to enjoy this thriller, which is more similar in setup than in plot, but I found the small connections quite amusing.

The Turn of the Key is formatted as a series of letters to a lawyer that the incarcerated nanny hopes will help her case; as the story opens, she has already been arrested for the death of one of the children. This structure, which assumes the lawyer already knows the basic facts of the sensationalized case (such as the nanny’s ulterior motive for applying to this particular job, and the identity of the dead child) allow our narrator to hint at but largely withhold key details from the reader and thus frame her tale as a mystery. Some of the nanny’s direct pleas to the lawyer and guesses at his reactions to the most controversial moments of her narrative felt overdone and pulled me out of the main story, but overall I found it an effective framing technique. There is some extra significance given to these letters at the end of the book that lends purpose to the structure. Once it gets going, the mystery flows well and it’s easy to retreat into Rowan’s experience with the children and the house until the letters become more essential to the story.

“It sounded… well… as if there was someone pacing in the room above my head. But that made no sense either. Because there was no room up there. There was not so much as a loft hatch.”

For readers new to Ware’s work, I think The Turn of the Key would be an excellent place to start. As usual, she gives us a remote location, a house that feels almost like a character in itself, a handful of side characters that are difficult to decide whether to trust, and a narrator with a secret up her sleeve. Intriguing  questions are introduced immediately. Some things seem “off” pretty early on- Rowan is a qualified nanny who does seem to care about children, but we know right away that she had another reason to apply for this particular job, and little details in the story she gives her new employers don’t quite add up. Then there’s the malfunctioning smart system in the house, which seems in perfect working order except that it seems to be following orders no one in the house is authorized to access in the control menu. But though some aspects may be a bit transparent, Ware still manages to hold the reader’s attention and offers a movingly human solution to the mystery of the unpredictable smart house. I was thrilled to discover this isn’t just another reiteration of technology going rouge with the belief that it knows better than the humans.

Though I did think the source of the novel’s suspense and ultimate solution seemed unique enough, this isn’t a ground-breaking thriller. I haven’t read any of the other titles from the recent nanny-thriller trend, but still found notable similarities to other recent thrillers I’ve read- the strain from lack of sleep, the too-good-to-be-true ad, the certainty that the culprit must be inside (or very near) the house, etc. It’s a fairly standard representative of its genre, though undeniably solid for its lack of flare.

My only real hold-up here is that I think I’m becoming too familiar with Ware’s style. I’ve read all five of her books now, with a bit less enthusiasm for each volume, though I think that trend comes down to my knowing Ware’s style well enough by now that she can’t quite shock me anymore, rather than a decline in Ware’s capability as a writer. I believe that if I had read her books in any other order, I would feel the same after finishing them as I do now- that the mysteries are becoming a bit too transparent to truly surprise me. And yet, even so, I always enjoy the creepy atmosphere Ware provides, the realistically flawed protagonists, the uneasiness over knowing that every strange occurrence is not a supernatural terror but the work of a malicious (or at least misguided) human hand. Though I saw through some of Ware’s slight-of-hand tactics here straightaway, I was nonetheless drawn in by the creepy noises and touchy technology, the difficult children, the dynamic between Rowan and the family/staff at Heatherbrae. I found this a quick, easy, and mostly satisfying read, despite its failure to stand out from the thriller crowd, and I would highly recommend it to the right reader.

“I did hate them- in that moment. But I saw myself, too. A prickly little girl, full of emotions too big for her small frame, emotions she could not understand or contain.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. There’s just something about Ware’s writing that keeps me coming back, and I did have a good time with this one just as all the others. I’ll probably pick up her next book, as well. But I’m also content to put the thriller genre aside for a little while- at least until I need something spooky to pick up in October.

What’s your favorite Ruth Ware novel?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Miracle Creek

I have been moving away from mystery/thrillers over the last year or so because I haven’t been able to find books in those genres that manage to surprise and thrill me. But I saw Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek as a BOTM selection for April and thought a courtroom drama with current social commentary looked too good to pass up, even if it did have a mystery element. So I took a chance and read it this month.

miracle creekIn the novel, the Yoo family attends a trial in which one of their clients stands accused of starting a fire that destroyed the Yoos’ Miracle Submarine (a submarine-like enclosure that allows patients to receive controversial pure-oxygen treatments) and resulted in the loss of two lives as well as additional injuries. The woman arrested for this crime is the mother of a young boy who died in the fire, a boy who had been diagnosed with autism. The day of the explosion was the first and only day Elizabeth sat out during the treatment, after making sure her son’s oxygen helmet was hooked to the tank that was soon to be targeted by the arsonist. But as guilty as she looks, Elizabeth may not have been the only person on the premises with the opportunity and motive to start a fire; and if the jury leans in that direction… who committed the crime?

“The first time she hurt her son on purpose was six years ago, when Henry was three.”

There’s a lot to like about this book. The Yoos are an immigrant family from Korea who have been in the US for only a few years and have much insight to offer about that experience. Furthermore, most of their patients are special needs kids; as the narrative shifts through POVs, the reader is offered commentary on autism and cerebral palsy, as well as some of the struggle that comes with parenting children with these diagnoses. And for additional intrigue, the book also showcases the shortcomings of the US legal system as the attorneys become progressively more interested in winning the case without any regard for surfacing truths about what might actually have happened. Each of these aspects is delivered impeccably well and makes the book feel relevant and important rather than presenting as 300 pages of simple whodunnit entertainment.

“It scared Matt a little, how these lawyers could take a given set of facts and spin them in opposite directions… Matt got the feeling that Abe cared about the truth only insofar as it was consistent with his theory of the case; otherwise, not so much. Any new evidence that didn’t fit was not cause to reconsider his position, but something to explain away.”

Unfortunately, it was the mystery structure that threatened to ruin the story for me. Miracle Creek contains both of my mystery novel pet peeves, a combination that doesn’t happen often. The only sort of mystery I consider a success is one that hints at its solution throughout the story and still manages to surprise the reader when all is revealed. A solution that is possible to guess, but that I do not guess correctly. With Miracle Creek I correctly pegged the criminal immediately, and yet the narration makes guessing motive impossible until the author spells it out.

The first issue is specific to my reading experience, and perhaps not a fault of the book: I was able to guess the true culprit of the Miracle Submarine arson within the first twenty pages or so, which made the book’s attempts to confuse and shock me seem like transparent parlor tricks instead, once I knew who to watch for. This likely won’t be a problem for every reader, especially for those fairly new to the genre or those who can resist the urge to make a prediction.

But the second issue is something that I do consider a flaw in the book, though admittedly this criticism may also stem from my personal reading taste: the narration intentionally misleads the reader with numerous red herrings, promoting wrong assumptions, and even withholding key information while providing perspective chapters from the dishonest characters. On top of the added difficulty of investing in characters that are clearly hiding things from the reader, this tactic means that character motives and crime details are impossible to decipher throughout the book. There is no way to engage with the mystery (the “why” and “how” of it, at least. You can imagine how uncommon it is to be able to guess the ultimate solution and yet be entirely incapable of figuring out why that person committed the crime); Miracle Creek insists on using every slight reveal as a twist to further characterization, instead of allowing the reader a true glimpse of the characters before the facts are out in the open. This was the most frustrating facet of the book for me, and left me feeling like the plot was dragging me through the novel and that very little of the information precluding the climax is actually crucial to the mystery.

“That was the thing about lying: you had to throw in occasional kernels of shameful truths to serve as decoys for the things you really needed to hide. How easy it was, to anchor his lies with these fragments of vulnerable honesty, then twist the details to build a believable story.”

This quote is a nice reflection of Kim’s tactic in laying out the Miracle Creek mystery. Though the characters do not outright lie to the reader (to each other, yes), the narration is formatted with the intent of misdirecting the reader from the truth. This happens so often that the reader knows when the characters are making incorrect assumptions, at which point their waffling on about them becomes, frankly, a bit annoying. The red herrings are lightly camouflaged with juicy snippets of shameful truths that slowly reveal each of the characters for who they truly are.

Mystery aside, I did enjoy my time with these characters. I learned early on that first impressions are never accurate portrayals, and liked to see Kim mine each one for hidden depths that made each of them unique and interesting. They’re multi-faceted and compellingly flawed, with a nice mix of relatable traits and specific experiences to share. The medical aspects also seem well-researched and informative. In the end I appreciated everything about this book except for its attempt at mysteriousness. I wonder whether I might have liked Miracle Creek more if Kim had been upfront about the cause of the fire in the beginning, and simply followed these characters through the decisions they make during the trial without trying to shock her readers at every turn. I think that story might have made more of an impact for me.

But I would still highly recommend this book if the premise intrigues you, because I think my reaction has been a bit of an anomaly and I don’t see any reason why this book would be a disappointment to anyone who has a better time with the mystery than I did.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to love this book. When I read the first chapter about the night of the fire, I thought I really would love this book. Sadly, my struggle with mysteries and thrillers continues, instead. But I’m not sad I picked this one up. I would read more from Angie Kim in the future, and I’m still optimistic about my other unread 2019 BOTM selections, which I’m still hoping to catch up on soon!

Have you read this book? What did you think?


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Last Time I Lied

Last July I read one of my all-time favorite thrillers, Riley Sager’s Final Girls. When I realized he had another thriller coming out this July, I was immediately on board. The fact that it takes place at a summer camp made me a little wary (I felt like I had heard that story before), but I still couldn’t pass it up. I’m glad I didn’t.

thelasttimeiliedAbout the book: Fifteen years ago, Emma’s summer camp experience came to a crashing halt when the other three girls from her cabin vanished without a trace. She struggles to cope with the loss of her new friends, and is stunned when over a decade later, though no bodies have ever been found, the camp is reopening– and Emma is invited back. Franny, the owner of Camp Nightingale, almost begs Emma to come back to the first session of the reawakened camp, this time as an instructor. Despite several valid concerns, she agrees, hoping for a chance to unearth some missed clue and finally find closure. But from the moment she arrives back at camp, things begin to go wrong. Someone is watching Emma. Someone who knows she lied about what happened fifteen years ago.

“Everything is a game, Em. Whether you know it or not. Which means that sometimes a lie is more than just a lie. Sometimes it’s the only way to win.”

The Last Time I Lied is told in alternating chapters of the present timeline, and Emma’s first stay at the camp. In some ways this works well: there are eerie parallels between the summers despite the time jump and age differences. In other ways, this style of narration seems like a hindrance. The best thrillers, in my opinion, are the mysteries that the reader is unable to solve until the final moments, at the same time as the reader realizes the clues have been right there all along, cleverly hidden. The back-and-forth of the two camp stories in this novel, however, left me constantly feeling that there was more information I needed from the past to understand what was happening in the present, and the author was doling it out excruciatingly slowly rather than giving the reader a proper chance to guess.

Most of the chapters end on little cliffhangers, hints of treachery under the surface. Usually I like this technique, but it’s a little stilted here. A character will tell Emma a story, and Emma goes about her business, and two pages later thinks, “Oh, that might have been a threat.” Or she finds crows in her cabin, sees the window is closed, and takes two more pages to admit, “Well, maybe someone put them in here on purpose.” The pacing might have been better if Sager had let these revelations occur more naturally rather than trying to end every chapter with a bang.

Omnes vulnerate; ultima necat… All hours wound; the last one kills.”

Another pro/con: characterization. Sager is a master of motive, filling his stories with just the right balance of long-cons and impulse actions. Some characters have been holding grudges for years– others have been fine just fine until something small makes them snap. So rarely do thriller events seem to have any plausibility, but there’s just the right balance of intent and accident in The Last Time I Lied to keep the details from becoming too far-fetched.

The flip side of that coin is that I had a hard time sympathizing with any of these characters. I just didn’t find myself emotionally invested– they all felt a bit constructed, even if expertly so. Then there’s the lying game that Emma plays both times she’s at camp; the lies make it as hard to trust Emma as anyone else.

Then there are the plot holes. I won’t give anything away, but I will say there’s a legend about Lake Midnight that seems logistically unbelievable to me, as well as a sort-of romance that feels unlikely and unnecessary, and certain details of the terrain at Camp Nightingale that it seems odd more characters aren’t aware of. Some things just didn’t add up as flawlessly as I would have expected for a thriller/mystery plot web.

But it’s not all bad. The best element is the atmosphere. Sager uses the forced closeness of a group of virtual strangers to create strife, and compounds it with the natural dangers and mysteries of a landscape removed from civilization. With the night noises and weird shadows and the marks left on the land by people long gone, Camp Nightingale feels like a real enough place. 

Despite my myriad small complaints, I did appreciate the way everything came together in the end. There were a few big twists I wasn’t expecting, and the answers to the mysteries satisfied me completely. It ends not quite on a cliff-hanger, but with an exciting loose end. Ultimately, I think the ideas at the core of this book are solid– the execution seemed a little rushed, perhaps, not quite as put-together as Final Girls, though I did enjoy the underlying story just as much.

“What none of them understand is that the point of the game isn’t to fool others with a lie. The goal is to trick them by telling the truth.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. It’s possible I was a little extra critical of this book because I loved Sager’s Final Girls so much last year. The difference is that Final Girls is a slasher thriller; I went in expecting not to take it too seriously, to laugh a bit like I do when watching the old Scream movies. After loving Final Girls more than expected, and not expecting to laugh at this one, I’m not sure The Last Time I Lied had any chance of living up to my expectations. It was a decent read, though, and I’m eagerly awaiting another Sager thriller– hopefully next summer?

Further recommendations:

  • Similar to the summer camp environment is the boarding school environment: it features the same sort of quick and unexpected friendships, a temporary home-away-from-home, and a general air of teenage rebellion. If you liked The Last Time I Lied, you should also pick up Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game, which stars another set of four girls, a missing body, a lying game, and a past/present narrative.
  • And of course, if you’re looking for a good whodunnit thriller, don’t miss Final Girls. Riley Sager’s debut is fun and spine-tingling at the same time, and sure to surprise even the most careful reader. It’s a play on those old scary movies that we laugh at now for being so unrealistic, both embracing and overturning the tropes of that genre.

I’m on a rare  suspense novel binge this month. Next up: Belinda Bauer’s (Man Booker longlisted) Snap, and David Joy’s (August Book of the Month selection) The Line That Held Us. Have you read any great thrillers lately?


The Literary Elephant