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.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

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.

View all my reviews

Daughter by Jane Shemilt

DaughterDaughter by Jane Shemilt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. It’s rare that I would describe a novel as gentle and brutal, delicate, and devastating, but Jane Shemilt’s debut Daughter manages to be all these things and more, making it one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Daughter is a slow burn of a tale which will appeal to fans of Broadchurch and the works of Tana French. The story is told in chapters alternating between the past (mostly set in Bristol) and the present (mostly in Dorset).
Our first person narrator is Jenny, a wife, family-practice doctor, and mother of three teenaged children. Jenny’s husband Ted is a neurosurgeon with a thriving practice in Bristol, Jenny’s daughter Naomi is a bright and lovely 15-year-old with a starring role in the school play, and Jenny’s twin sons Theo and Ed are each their own unique, apparently functional, people.
The kids are showing what Jenny assumes to be normal signs of teenage rebellion, but Jenny knows that she loves them, tries to communicate with them in the times when she is home, and more or less assumes that all is well.
However, when Naomi disappears after her performance as Maria in West Side Story, Jenny’s seemingly reasonable ideas about her family begin to fall apart.
As if she is peeling an onion, and with results which bring real tears, Jenny begins to look carefully for the first time beneath the surface of her daily life. As she searches for answers to her daughter’s disappearance, she uncovers truths about her husband, sons, daughter, and ultimately, about herself, which irrevocably change her world.
In this way, although Daughter has a catastrophic event as its starting place, Naomi’s disappearance is really just the opening that author Jane Shemilt needs to begin to deftly explore the dynamics of family, motherhood, and growing up.
Shemilt is a gifted writer. She is herself a family-practice doctor with children and a husband who is a neurosurgeon. Thus, her descriptions of balancing family and a career, as well as her insight into doctor/patient dynamics are intelligent and thought-provoking.
Shemilt also has a talent for evoking a sense of place. Both Bristol and Dorset are described with affection, familiarity, and an artist’s attention to detail.
Daughter becomes more and more powerful as it progresses, until, in the final pages, I literally could not put it down. It left me feeling emotional, amazed, sad, but also, deeply satisfied. I think that the story will continue to resonate with me for a long time. I highly recommend it.
Thank you to William Morrow/Harper Collins Publishers for the arc of Daughter, by Jane Shemilt.

View all my reviews

Humber Boy B (April 1, 2015) by Ruth Dugdall

Humber Boy BHumber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A quick preface: I loved Ruth Dugdall’s first two novels published by Legend Press: The Woman Before Me, and The Sacrificial Man.
These novels feature probation officer Cate Austin, whose perceptions of guilt, evil, and the motivations behind criminal behavior are challenged as she takes on what she expects to be routine cases. Dugdall, like her main character, worked as a probation officer for many years, and now volunteers within the prison system in Luxemburg. Dugdall’s experiences lend authenticity to these first two narratives, and her characters are complex and emotionally compelling.
That said, when I received an arc of Humber Boy B from the publisher through NetGalley (big thanks!) I had extra high hopes for this novel.
Humber Boy B started out with an interesting premise. Eight years ago, two brothers were involved in the murder of their 10-year-old friend, Noah. In the present, the younger brother, now known as Humber Boy B by the media, and as Ben by the justice officials working with him, is being released from prison.
The hook is that Ben was convicted of murder at 10 years old, branded a child killer, and labeled evil. His crime, like others which Dugdall has written about, is one which society finds difficult to comprehend.
Cate Austin is the probation officer in charge of Ben’s case as he attempts to reintegrate into society. As the story begins, Cate (and the reader) wonders, what really happened on the day that Noah fell to his death from Humber Bridge? Why did Ben do it? And what’s going to happen now that Ben has legally served his sentence? Although the justice system says he has served his time, the people directly affected by Noah’s death may not be so willing to let Ben move on.
I was intrigued by the first few chapters of Humber Boy B. However, as the story went on, it failed to develop in a satisfying way. I’ve thought a lot about why Humber Boy B didn’t work for me.
Here are some of the main reasons:
First, the grammar and sentence structure were poor to the point that they became a barrier to my engagement with the story. I read a digital copy of the novel prior to its publication date of April 1, 2015. However, there was nothing I could find on the arc that described it as an uncorrected proof. Furthermore, the writing grew noticeably poorer as the novel went on, such that I wondered if Dugdall had been extremely rushed to finish the novel, or whether there had not been time to properly edit the entire thing.
I was also, unfortunately, disappointed with the development of the characters and plot. In an afterward to the novel, Dugdall writes that like her main character Cate Austin, she has wondered about the reasons that children commit murder. Dugdall states that she has “taken inspiration from the young men I met” while working with real-life offenders.
I admire and share Dugdall’s desire to comprehend this seemingly incomprehensible crime. However, I think her comments are telling, because ultimately, the character of Ben seemed like a mishmash of multiple people. His personality and motivations were never explained in a coherent or convincing manner. Humber Boy B offered various ideas about what contributes to this kind of tragedy, but it did not succeed in creating a particular, believable character. It seemed to me that ultimately, Dugdall was unable to answer her own question, so, as a reader, I felt let down.
Perhaps because of this, I felt that there was at times a preachy tone when Dugdall (through her characters) talked about who was really to blame, or who deserved the most sympathy, in tragedies of this kind. And finally, I felt uncomfortable with the relationship that begins to develop between Cate and Olivier, a detective who joins the case from Luxemburg. Cate struggles with her strong attraction to Olivier, despite the fact that he treats her in what she perceives as a sexist manner.
So, that’s my rather long, but honest, response to Humber Boy B. This novel didn’t work for me, but I would definitely recommend The Woman Before Me to anyone interested in reading Ruth Dugdall for the first time.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

Wildalone (January 6, 2015) by Krassi Zourkova

Wildalone: A Novel

Wildalone: A Novel by Krassi Zourkova

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thank you to William Morrow for my advanced reader’s edition of Wildalone, by Krassi Zourkova.

I have so much to say about Wildalone.
I’ll begin with what got me interested in the novel in the first place – the promotions describing this debut as a “bewitching blend of Twilight, The Secret History, Jane Eyre, and A Discovery of Witches.”
This description confused the heck out of me, because I was not a fan of Twilight. On the other hand, I loved The Secret History, when I read it 10 years ago. The gothic darkness of Jane Eyre tempts me, and A Discovery of Witches was one of those books that theoretically I should have loved, but which just didn’t compel me.
To me, the novels above all seem very, very different, and like they would appeal to distinct audiences.
The second thing about Wildalone which interested me is that Krassi Zourkova is from Bulgaria, and includes the myths of her country in this novel. I love reading about cultures I am unfamiliar with, so this aspect of Wildalone intrigued me.
The first several chapters of Wildalone in fact mirror Krassi Zourkova’s own life, in that she attended Princeton, and shares the main character Thea’s interest in art history. I was fascinated by the cultural aspect of Wildalone…seeing things through the perspective of someone newly arrived in the United States, at just about the same time I was going to college.
I was also especially interested in the narrator’s insights, because I had a Bulgarian acquaintance in high school. Many of Thea’s thoughts were in alignment with those I recall hearing from my high school friend, and so for me, Wildalone had an authentic resonance.
However, I will say that this was one book in which I thought an awful lot about the author/narrator crossover…how much is this really Thea talking, and how much is actually Krassi? In a way, this made reading the story difficult for me when Thea began to behave in ways that I found frustrating, or expressed opinions which I had issues with.
If I had thought of Thea as clearly a fictional character, it would have been easier for me to place her in a literary world and not feel like her views were being shoved on me. But as it was, some of the opinions she expressed about romance, stalking, and relationship dynamics made me uncomfortable.
Now to the nitty-gritty of the plot-the good and the bad-without giving away any spoilers!
Wildalone begins with our heroine, Thea, arriving in Princeton on a music scholarship. She leaves two loving parents back in Bulgaria, and, in coming to Princeton, is following in the footsteps of another Bulgarian girl, who attended the university 15 years earlier, and was found dead on campus. I’m being specifically vague here, as a big part of the mystery revolves around this girl, and what she means to Thea.
In short order, Thea meets two men, who both fall madly, instantly, passionately in love with her.
Here’s the Twilight part of the novel; we’ve got Rhys, gorgeous, obsessive, moody, with a potential for violence, and we’ve got Jake, gorgeous, obsessive, quiet, gentle. Who will Thea choose? Also, there is Ben (who I was secretly rooting for) the balanced, steady, sweet, friend who is always there for Thea, until she runs away from him to have passionate adventures with Rhys or Jake.
Also, Thea is searching for what really happened to the Bulgarian girl who looks just like her, and who disappeared 15 years before.
Also, Thea is investigating this weird mystery involving Greek legends, Orpheus, daemons, maenads, and the Underworld. This is encouraged by her art history professor, Giles, who to my mind is inappropriate in his interest in Thea.
Also, Thea, as an uber-talented pianist, is practicing Chopin, and then Albeniz, for major recitals that she is (somewhat inexplicably) given the opportunity to perform in.
And did I mention that this whole time, Thea is going to parties with her RA and new college friends, traveling to the Hamptons with Rhys, and taking a full load of classes? She’s a very busy girl.
Ultimately, for me, Wildalone was just too much. There was beautiful description, but there was so darn much of it.
The best things about Wildalone were:

1. The interesting cultural perspective that Thea had regarding attending Princeton, as well as the insight she shared into life in Bulgaria.
2. Some of the description. There’s no doubt that Krassi Zourkova can create a sense of place. I also really enjoyed her descriptions of Chopin and Albeniz…giving new perspective to interpretations of music. Except that it kept going, and going….

What frustrated me about Wildalone:
1. The characters. This, for me, was the Twilight part… basically picture Bella, Edward, and Jake, a few years older, and with a lot more sex, and you’ve got Wildalone.
2. The attitudes towards sex, romantic relationships, true love, obsession, stalking. In brief, Thea tells us that in Bulgaria, there is not a word for stalking, and that what her concerned RA sees as worrying behavior from Rhys seems romantic to her. I tended to agree with the RA.
I would never, ever, date Rhys. I would probably never date Jake. Also, I would never, ever have dated Edward in Twilight. So I guess, depending on your preferences/viewpoints, you may either find the romance in Wildalone sexy and passionate, or it may just make you angry.
3. The too-muchness. There was everything in this novel. Music, art (painting, pottery, architecture), poetry, Greek myths, Bulgarian myths, astronomy and how it related to myths, secret codes in old texts and how it related to myths. I love each of these things, but they were all happening together, all over the place. And it was all described at length. It made everything lose impact, because it seemed like everything was gorgeous, there were no rules, anything at all could, and did happen. When everything is happening, then nothing really seems that incredible.
4. So I got tired. I got tired of the constant beauty, riches, sex, perfection.
5. And, when the book finally ended at page 374, I thought, “wait a sec!? Is this the first in a series?!!!” Because Wildalone did not end with any kind of a real resolution. There was a bit of explanation, inexplicably offered by one character at the end of the novel. But the action itself, and primarily, Thea’s love life, was not resolved. I didn’t even understand what she was doing at the end.
Wildalone left me lost. And worn out. There were a lot of things to enjoy about it, but ultimately, I was left with a feeling that nothing had really made much sense, that I really disliked several of the main characters, that I disagreed with the main character’s ideas, and that I had been shown a lot of flash, but not a lot of brilliance.

View all my reviews

Previous Older Entries

Colouring for Wellbeing

Colouring for Fun, Mental Health & Relaxation

Steve Kaye Photo

Steve Kaye inspires respect for nature by showing his photos in talks, articles, and photo classes

Shapely Prose

2007-2010

tuckertranslations.wordpress.com/

Quality Translation and Language Services

Cleopatra Loves Books

One reader's view

Austenonly

Jane Austen's life, times and works explained and discussed

Olfactoria's Travels

A journey through the world of fragrance.

Jane Austen's World

This Jane Austen blog brings Jane Austen, her novels, and the Regency Period alive through food, dress, social customs, and other 19th C. historical details related to this topic.

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

For lovers of Australian and New Zealand literary fiction; Ambassador for Australian literature

Joanne Graham

Author, Mother, Random Dreamer

book'd out

Book Reviews and News

Petrona

Mainly about reading with an accent on intelligent crime fiction from around the world.

Reading In The Evening

Book reviews from a literature fiend

Julia Crouch

Novelist: the queen of domestic noir

Qwiklit

Learn Literature Now

Scandinavian Crime Fiction in English Translation

information about authors and books

crimepieces

Sarah Ward, crime author and book reviewer