Thereby Hangs a Tail by Spencer Quinn

Thereby Hangs a Tail (A Chet and Bernie Mystery #2)Thereby Hangs a Tail by Spencer Quinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m so glad I discovered this super-sweet and also funny series featuring PI team Chet (a dog, and our narrator) and Bernie (his human).
The Chet and Bernie mysteries remind me in some ways of Bunnicula for adults (with the caveat that I consider Bunnicula appropriate and perhaps necessary reading fare for EVERYONE, adults included!).
What primarily makes this an “adult” book is that as Chet and Bernie solve crimes, Chet is witness to events, often not fully understood, that the reader realizes have serious implications, either regarding life and death, relationships, or even contemporary environmental issues.
Although at first glance, the story seems so funny as to be almost “fluff” reading, Spencer Quinn (a pseudonym for a well-known crime writer) actually writes with the talent of capturing deep feelings and wisdom, with a few simple, carefully chosen words.
Since the story is told from a dog’s perspective, we’ve got a narrator who is totally loveable, and also totally grounded in the things that matter in life. I loved this aspect of Thereby Hangs a Tail.
Chet’s perspective, in which the concept of worrying doesn’t make sense, in which life is full of joy and wonder, and in which his human is loved totally and unconditionally, are qualities which I value, and want to remember more in my daily life.
Thereby Hangs a Tail is a fast read, with a lot of humor, a great sense of place (the American Southwest), and two characters who will leap right off the page and into your heart. A great book to brighten your day.

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The Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth

The Secrets of MidwivesThe Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really loved this book, which tells the story of three distinct women-grandmother Floss, mother Grace, and daughter Neva-who are all midwives, who all love each other deeply, and who all sometimes drive each other crazy.
What I love about it:
Author Sally Hepworth writes with respect, awe, and warmth for women who are pregnant, giving birth, and supporting other women.
Hepworth clearly has done a lot of research about the state of present-day midwifery in the United States, as well as how it has been regulated and practiced during the past 50 years.
The Secrets of Midwives goes back and forth in time between Floss beginning her practice in England in the 1950’s, and Neva and Grace practicing in Rhode Island, in the present day.
If, like me, you were fascinated by the novel Midwives by Chris Bohjalian, (and in particular, by the complex dynamics of being a midwife in a time and place in which modern western medicine often promotes hospital births as THE RIGHT way for a woman to give birth) you will also find much to chew on in Hepworth’s novel.

Neva is a midwife who works in a birthing center, where there are pediatricians and ob-gyns present, whereas her mom, Grace, a certified midwife, mostly assists in home births (unless a complicated birth necessitates hospital intervention.)
However, even if you’re not fascinated by this stuff, you’ll still find a lot to enjoy in The Secrets of Midwives.
For one thing, Hepworth writes a rollicking good tale. In Floss, Grace, and Neva, she has created three women who I cared about (though I will admit to feeling frustrated with all of them at times).
I also loved the settings…rural England, present day coastal Rhode Island…this was great summer escapism.
The Secrets of Midwives is by no means as intense or dark (for the MOST part) as Bohjalian’s Midwives. It reminded me tonally  of the novels of Kate Morton mixed with those of Julie Cohen. The Secrets of Midwives was a book I was pretty sure would end happily, even though it contained tragedy.
There were a couple of things which I didn’t love about this book. First, it was, at times, disappointingly superficial/gender oppressive. For example, the men that Neva falls for obviously have to be gorgeous, obviously, Neva is gorgeous, (in ways that are in alignment with all our cultural expectations for today!) Not a big surprise, but it would have made me happier, if this book, with so much going for it, could have challenged those norms.
I also felt bad for Floss’s lover Lil, who was long-suffering, quiet, and mostly ignored by the three main characters. It really ticked me off, to be honest, the way she was treated, and how it seemed that everyone just assumed that she had no story of her own, other than as a support to them.
That said, I ENJOYED The Secrets of Midwives. When Sally Hepworth writes another tale, I will be right there reading it.

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The Ice Twins (May 19. 2015) by S. K. Tremayne

The Ice TwinsThe Ice Twins by S.K. Tremayne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Ice Twins is an absorbing, fast-paced read which I debated between giving 4 and 5 stars. Although not a “perfect” book, it is one of the most interesting suspense novels I’ve read this year, and so, in some ways I think it merits 5 stars.
However, this review reflects my personal reactions to the book, and so I’ve rated it 4 stars. This is because, for all its strengths, I just didn’t love it as much as I felt I should. Below, I’ll try to explain what was great about The Ice Twins, and also, why it didn’t fully succeed for me.

First, a quick plot introduction:
The Ice Twins is told variously from the points of view of Sarah and Angus Moorcroft, the parents of identical, seven-year-old, twin girls. As the story begins, we find out that they are grieving over the death of Lydia, the quieter, more bookish twin. Nearly a year before, Lydia fell from a balcony while vacationing at her grandparents’ home in Devon. Sarah, Angus, and Lydia’s twin sister, Kirstie, have been unsuccessfully trying to recover from this tragedy ever since.
Finally, in an attempt to start anew, the family moves to a small tidal island off the coast of Scotland, which Angus’ family has owned for generations. However, moving to Eilean Torran (Thunder Island) proves to be anything but a good idea. What follows is part psychological thriller, part ghost story, part domestic noir, and part horror, as they (and the reader) begin to suspect that the apparent facts of Lydia’s death are not as straightforward, as they at first seem.

My thoughts:
Author S.K. Tremayne (a pen name for a published author living in Britain), has, in many ways, absolutely nailed it in the choice of Eilean Torran (a fictional name for an actual tidal island near Skye) as the setting for this tale.
The Isle of Skye is well known for its unusual quality of otherness and solitary beauty. Tremayne knows this area well, and has capitalized on this eerie atmosphere in The Ice Twins.
Now, I’m a reader who loves sense of place above pretty much all else. And I am enamored of Scotland. I honestly can’t ever recall having had the experience of reading a contemporary novel in which I felt that the atmosphere was overemphasized before. However, in The Ice Twins, Tremayne inserts descriptions of the light, sea, and sky, so frequently and indiscriminately, that I realized I was beginning to skim some sentences.
For me, it was the quality and the quantity of the description, rather than the fact of description itself, which was problematic. I think that the best authors create a sense of place with enough well chosen, and well-placed words. Description can be almost like poetry, with powerful lines that set a scene, or turn up at perfect points in a narrative, anchoring the reader in a place and time. But the best writers do this, and then entrust the reader with that sense of place, that imagination. It felt to me like Tremayne thought we would forget we were on a Scottish island unless we were constantly reminded.
One thing I did really enjoy was that Tremayne inserted photos of the sea, island, lighthouse, etc., throughout the novel. These pictures added to my immersion and pleasure in the atmosphere.
So this whole ‘sense of place’ thing has another important dimension. Tremayne speaks highly of Skye in the author introduction. As mentioned above, Skye is world-famous for being a “thin place,” a place of unparalleled but stark beauty. However, after reading The Ice Twins, I felt like Skye was a place of nightmare. The photos coupled with the descriptions of the characters and the place evoked a sense of primal fear in me such that I questioned my long-held desire to visit Skye.
I think this reaction goes hand-in-hand with another reason I didn’t love The Ice Twins, which is that it has strong elements of a horror novel.
While I love psychological thrillers and suspense, I am not, so much, a fan of horror. Obviously, the genres sometimes merge. For me, one of the tonal elements that I do not like about horror is the (sort of obvious) goal of creating a sense of “horror” in the reader. I don’t like being taken to a place of primal fear. The Ice Twins was a psychological chiller, a tale of domestic noir, a mind-trip, a novel of suspense. But ultimately, it left me with that icky feeling that all is not right with the world, that deep evil lurks beneath seemingly calm waters, and that none of us is safe.
More than anything, I think this is why I did not love the book. I’d love to hear other readers’ reactions to the novel, especially regarding the portrayal of Skye and its tidal islands.
Thank you to the publishers through NetGalley for my advanced review copy of The Ice Twins.

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You Can Trust Me (April 14, 2015) by Sophie McKenzie

You Can Trust MeYou Can Trust Me by Sophie McKenzie

First, thanks to the publisher through NetGalley for the opportunity to read You Can Trust Me by Sophie McKenzie.
I have been writing and rewriting my review of You Can Trust Me for days, struggling to both give credit to the hard work of the author, but also explain why this book was a big frustration for me.
Here’s my honest review:
You Can Trust Me is a mystery/thriller that I would rate at 2.5 stars on Goodreads if I could. Here’s why:
First, the plot is decent, convoluted, your sort of dime-a-dozen, uber-popular, twisty-turny-psych-thriller that is currently flying off the shelves. The plot is not bad; it does keep your attention and is a fast read.
On the other hand, the plot of You Can Trust Me is nothing new, special, or especially convincing. Though You Can Trust Me could easily be labeled “domestic-noir,” part of why the story didn’t work for me was that, on closer evaluation, it failed to explore the elements specific to that micro-genre.
There’s a very cool article on author Julia Crouch’s blog in which she coins and describes this term, first inspired by books like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. You can find the url to that post here: http://juliacrouch.co.uk/blog/genre-b
Obviously, the term domestic noir is fluid and ever changing. However, what I love so much about domestic-noir-psychological-thrillers over and above say, a novel I would describe as a mystery-thriller, is in large part lacking in You Can Trust Me.
You Can Trust Me has many of the surface elements that I associate with domestic noir, such as an every-woman female protagonist who investigates a crime and discovers that someone she knows is not who they seem. The story also features a classic sociopath (or should I say, someone who exhibits all the clichés that are generally associated with a sociopaths.) However. Most murders, in real life, and in mystery fiction in general, are committed by someone the victim knows. Also, mysteries, by definition, involve the uncovering of secrets.
Without giving away plot spoilers, I will say that I don’t feel that You Can Trust Me explored power dynamics or revealed a dark reality lurking beneath the ordinary in a way different from most mystery novels. Furthermore, I found the token sociopathic killer to be surprisingly lacking as far as being a psychologically interesting character.
This lack of originality unfortunately reflected a larger problem within the novel. You Can Trust Me relied heavily on clichés. An example of this is that at one point, the main character Livy makes the clearly brilliant decision to drive out to an isolated farmhouse on a lonely moor with a man she barely knows. The description here is what I can only describe as lazy, and the scene itself, set in a Deliverance-style farmhouse, increasingly jumps the shark as the action unfolds.
The story took on the quality of a “B” grade horror film, and I found myself feeling increasingly emotionally disconnected from the characters.
The worst part of all this, for me, was that this description was one of the only times in the book in which the McKenzie actually attempted to create any sense of place. You Can Trust Me is set in several locations which literally ooze atmosphere, including Bath, Dorset, and other locations in the English countryside. Yet, aside from the house of horrors mentioned above, nary a descriptive word is used. Livy in fact states that she always found growing up in Bath dull (and of course, she has every right to her own opinion), but as an anglophile and traveler who adores Bath, it made me sad that Livy was meeting people in front of cathedrals and such, and seemed completely blind to or even dismissive of the beauty around her.
However, as I’ve implied above, Livy also does a lot of driving/riding around southern England during the course of the novel. From my admittedly limited experience travelling by bus, taxi, train, and tube in that area, I found the ease (and perhaps the distance) with which Livy traipsed all over the place within the course of a day unrealistic. Livy has nary a wait for a taxi or a bus, no matter how remote her location.
And finally, I felt frustrated by the sentiments that Livy expresses at the very end of the novel. Without revealing spoilers, I’ll just say that the conclusion that Livy comes to for herself is based on one condition specific to her personal, fictional situation. However, the conclusion she makes is presented in such a way that it would be easy for a reader to extend it to similar situations in the real world (which do not have the single condition that makes Livy’s opinion a possibility). My feeling as I finished You Can Trust Me was that of being let down, and told a story with lazy writing, and hazy logic.

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Dietland (May 26, 2015)

DietlandDietland by Sarai Walker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once in a decade, a novel comes along with the potential to alter our perception of reality, to change how we see ourselves and to reveal new possibilities in how we can live lives of joy and freedom. For many readers, Sarai Walker’s debut novel Dietland may be just that.
I am someone who rates reading right up there with breathing, eating, and loving, and who begins and ends her day with a book in her hand. But for me, the experience of reading Dietland has been something altogether new and different.
Dietland begins with Alicia “Plum,” a fat woman whose life revolves around her efforts to become her true, thin ‘Alicia,’ self. Plum’s plans are abruptly derailed when a mysterious girl named Leeta writes the word “DIETLAND” on Plum’s palm.
What happens next to Plum is life changing, and nothing that she (or the reader) could expect. I read Dietland with very little knowledge of the plot other than what I’ve shared above, and I would recommend that anyone interested read it (at least at first) in that same, fresh, way.
What I will say for now is that I’ve struggled my whole life with the realization that I don’t fit, and don’t want to try to fit, in a culture which tells me to be smaller. Dietland is the first book to convincingly show me a way in which a life of freedom might be possible. I know I will read Dietland many times in the future, and hope I have the opportunity to talk about it with other readers.
Dietland is a book that is for all women, but it is also a book that is intensely personal. It is very funny, very smart, and utterly absorbing. It contains scenes of graphic violence, but left me feeling comforted and energized. Read Dietland as a love letter to all women, and to yourself.
I received an advanced review edition of Dietland from the publisher through NetGalley.

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Dark Rooms (March 3, 2015) by Lili Anolik

Dark RoomsDark Rooms by Lili Anolik

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Thank you to William Morrow for my advance reader’s edition of Dark Rooms, by Lili Anolik.
Dark Rooms has been variously promoted as a combination of Twin Peaks, Megan Abbott, and The Secret History. To me, these descriptions didn’t fit the book, and so, I felt disappointed.
There is a little of the wonderful creepy, quirky, hallucinatory quality of Twin Peaks, especially in one scene at the end of the novel, but the strangeness that made Twin Peaks so unique is
lacking in Dark Rooms.
In the same way, Dark Rooms can be compared on the surface to the subject of Megan Abbott’s novels-the social lives of teenage girls-but whereas Abbott’s writing style is visceral and impressionistic, Dark Rooms was told in a much more straight-forward writing style. Megan Abbott describes the sex, jealousy, and cruelty of adolescence in a way that is unsettling and powerful. Lili Anolik used actions, rather than hinting at the deep, shadowy, feelings behind them, to tell her story. And, as to The Secret History comparisons, all I can say is that both novels take place in schools on the East Coast of the United States, and contain characters who do “shocking” things. The gothic mystery of The Secret History is absent in Dark Rooms. In fact, if anything, I am surprised at how little the author of Dark Rooms took advantage of what could have been a gothic setting; attending a private prep school next to a graveyard has never felt so prosaic!
Ultimately, I did not connect strongly with any of the characters. I wanted to root for the narrator, Grace, as well as to Damon, her partner in trying to solve the mystery of her sister’s death.
But they both acted, (or thought) in ways that seemed slightly sociopathic- not all the time, but enough that I just couldn’t fully empathize with them.
In the end, Dark Rooms was readable. It just wasn’t any of the things I had hoped it would be, and, a few days after finishing it, I find myself forgetting it. Dark Rooms is the kind of novel I’d recommend reading on a plane or while waiting for a doctor’s appointment. It’s easy to lose yourself in, but not something you’ll miss if you get distracted.

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The Paying Guests: Spotlight on Sarah Waters

The Paying GuestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of Sarah Waters’ novels. Waters is one of those authors who I think is truly exceptional and extraordinary.
There are a lot of things about Waters’ fiction that, to my mind, make it something precious. Here, in no particular order, are what come to mind.
First, her amazing, meticulous, meaningful, attention to detail. Waters’ novels are long, and they are dense. But the thing is, when you read them slowly, and literally pay attention to the details of place, and what the characters are doing in every ordinary moment, it matters.
Whereas a lot of authors of historical fiction (or fiction in general) rely on generalities to create a sense of place…for example, throwing a few words around, say, “misty moors” or “crumbling old mansion” and expect readers to mentally fill in a generic sense of place, Waters describes her world in particular, carefully chosen detail. When Waters writes, no description of washing dishes, or cleaning the stairs, is ever just the thing itself. It is an opportunity to create the feeling of being there, with the character, in that moment in history and in their life.
Second of all, Waters is a master of creating bubbling, under the surface, menace. In The Paying Guests, especially, this darkness is so woven into the fabric of the ordinary, that it is all the more chilling.
Waters’ thrillers are powerful in that they are not melodramatic (except when she does this purposefully). The Paying Guests is always about “real” people. There are no utter villains, no monsters. The characters are all flawed and human. They show impulses to love, but they also suffer cowardice, selfishness, and fear.
One underlying theme in The Paying Guests is the exploration of grief. Waters places this novel historically after World War I, when the world, and individuals, were grieving the loss of so very much. The menace that Waters creates in The Paying Guests, the secrets, and guilt, and fear, are related to her exploration of life in London after the Great War. Waters’ characters are struggling with the loss of the geographical boundaries of the world as they knew it, as well as the loss of a way of life and a class and gender system that is falling apart. They are grieving the loss of their brothers and lovers and sons. And in The Paying Guests, the main characters of Frances and Lilian are grieving a loss of their own innocence and of their own dreams.
Which brings me to the plot of The Paying Guests, which, as with pretty much every novel I’ve read by Sarah Waters, is not what it first appears. The basic premise is that Miss Wray-Francis-and her widowed mother, have fallen on hard times after the War, and, unhappily, find it necessary to allow lodgers to live in their home, in order to make ends meet. These lodgers, whom the Wrays refer to as “paying guests,” are a young married couple named Lilian and Leonard Barber. When the Barbers enter the Wrays’ home, all their lives will change in irrevocable and unimaginable ways.
What you need to know about The Paying Guests, if you’re considering reading it, is that, on the good side, it is among the very best of Sarah Waters’ work in its creation of a powerful, intimate sense of place. After reading this novel, I’m picking up historical fiction by other authors, and finding that the characters and their world feel like shadows in comparison. This creation of a wholly absorbing, authentic, fictional reality, is one of Waters’ great talents. As I read The Paying Guests, I thought (whimsically) that her characters must really exist, in some parallel universe.
On the other hand, Waters’ world and character building takes a lot of words. It can be an exhausting pleasure to read.
Also, if you’re considering reading The Paying Guests, you should know that, having read Affinity and Fingersmith previously, I found this novel to be less “shocking twist” and more grave and thoughtful in tone. When I think of Fingersmith, I think of fun, “oh my gosh!” moments of revelation, and a (with reservations) happy, hopeful ending. When I think of Affinity, I think of wonderful eerie spookiness, but also, great emotion and loss. Both these novels contained major twists I didn’t see coming.
To my mind, The Paying Guests didn’t have that twist aspect, at least not to the same degree. The last third of the novel was almost more of a courtroom drama. And I think, some of the choices that Frances and Lilian made, and even, especially, the options they had, made me sad. In the end, The Paying Guests had a plot that resonated with the postwar setting and the themes of grief, loss, change, and living with an uncertain future. But these themes are not easy ones to confront. As such, I found myself feeling sad at the end of the novel, feeling unsettled.
The Paying Guests is extraordinary, but it is also exhausting. When you start The Paying Guests, make sure you’ve got something light and bright to read or watch after.

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