Category: mystery

Review: ‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ by Stuart Turton

Review: ‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ by Stuart Turton

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Somebody’s going to be murdered at the ball tonight. It won’t appear to be a murder and so the murderer won’t be caught. Rectify that injustice and I’ll show you the way out.

It is meant to be a celebration, but it ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed.

But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot. 

The only way to break this cycle is to identify her killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. And someone is desperate to stop him ever escaping Blackheath…

I don’t even know where to start with talking about this book.  I don’t know how to convey just how much I *LOVED* this book without just writing “I LOVED THIS – READ IT” over and over again.  It’s strange to have read a book in February and to be absolutely certain that I’ve finished one of my favourite books of 2018.

On the face of it, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (which we’ll now call Seven Deaths) is a classic, ‘Golden Age’ style mystery with a twist. It’s been published beautifully, with a stunning art deco cover and end papers that map out Blackheath in the style of a Cluedo board.  Right from the off, it sounded good and looked even better. I know that it’s a cliché but it really is so much more than it seems.  It is the story of Aiden Bishop trying to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle but it’s also the story of a relationship between Aiden and the mysterious Anna and it’s about sacrifice and whether it’s worth treading on others to succeed.  It’s truly, truly astonishingly good.

I can sense my memories just out of reach. They have weight and shape, like shrouded furniture in a darkened room. I’ve simply misplaced the light to see them by

I am an absolute sucker for time travel stories but they can be really hit and miss.  Some authors try to dodge the complexities of characters coming across themselves in the past by having them go to any lengths to avoid their earlier selves while others clumsily smush plotlines together, requiring a fairly hefty suspension of disbelief.  Seven Deaths manages to properly take on time travel and win.  As Aiden moves between “hosts”, he encounters future hosts and past ones and the weaving together is so deftly done, I was basically in awe of Stuart Turton the whole time I was reading. There are small oddities that are later revealed to be pivotal moments, all tucked around the tangents of the central mystery that slowly but surely come together.  It’s complicated but I never found it confusing, a wonder in itself with eight versions of Aiden Bishop walking around and crossing paths with each other.

To add some slight balance, I wasn’t 100% convinced by part of the very ending.  Not so much that it in any way detracted from how much I adored this book (which is, of course, wholly and completely) but in a way that did give me a slight pause.  The main elements of the ending are perfect (obviously), there’s just a small bit that wasn’t a little less so compared to everything else. There isn’t a lot more that I can say without spoiling things for you. There were so many twists, moments that genuinely unnerved me and moments that completely blew my mind.  Pure genius.

How lost do you have to be to let the devil lead you home?

Overall:  What else can I say? The plotting is impeccable, the writing is flawless and it’s a beautiful book to own. It’s an absolute masterpiece that I can’t wait to read again one day.  It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a really long time and I can’t imagine reading anything better than it for quite some time. Apparently Turton is currently writing his second book and I will be preordering that as soon as physically possible.  If it’s even half as good as Seven Deaths, I’ll be a happy reader.

Review: ‘The Roanoke Girls’ by Amy Engel

Review: ‘The Roanoke Girls’ by Amy Engel

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Beautiful.
Rich.
Mysterious.
Everyone wants to be a Roanoke girl.

But you won’t when you know the truth.

Lane Roanoke is fifteen when she comes to live with her grandparents and fireball cousin at the Roanoke family’s rural estate following the suicide of her mother. Over one long, hot summer, Lane experiences the benefits of being one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls.


But what she doesn’t know is being a Roanoke girl carries a terrible legacy: either the girls run, or they die. For there is darkness at the heart of Roanoke, and when Lane discovers its insidious pull, she must make her choice…

I was in the mood for a thriller after pondering my way through Maus and this sounded right up my street.  I know there are a lot of them around right now but I wanted a real page-turner.  Something that might not feature the most sophisticated plot or the most elegant writing but something that would keep me gripped.  In a sense, I got what I wanted, even if what kept me turning the pages was morbid fascination and not curiosity.

The novel is set in two time periods, one where Lane is fifteen and newly arrived at the Roanoke estate and one where Lane is an adult, drawn back to Roanoke to assist with a police investigation into the disappearance of her cousin.  In doing so, she has to face down some of her own demons and brave what sent her running from her family in the first place.  Tucked in between these two narratives are snippets told from the perspective of the earlier Roanoke girls.

I enjoyed this at first.  There’s a mystique about the Roanoke family, something lurking in the family’s history of women who have either died tragically young or run away.  The writing is decent and it’s very readable.  The atmosphere is oppressive and tense and Lane’s terse exchanges with her now estranged family are such a stark contrast to the warmth in the chapters showing her teenage years that I was dying to know what had happened.  For perhaps a third, I had to keep reading.  Then I learned the secret at the heart of the Roanoke family and I wished that I hadn’t.  It is, frankly, repellent.  I have no problem with writing that pushes boundaries but, if I’m reading something challenging, I at least want to feel as though it’s handled well.  Actually, I don’t think that it was that it was handled badly, just that it wasn’t properly explored.  We’re told about why it’s believable and why nobody just did the right thing but it just doesn’t feel realistic.  It’s too extreme.  Too much. The fact that the family is rich and that they’re all beautiful and charming just makes things a bit too easy. It feels relentless and reading it was emotionally exhausting.  Harrowing.  I kept reading because I hoped that there would be balance or pay-off at the end.  There was in a way but not enough to offset the general queasiness I’d felt while reading.

It’s hard to write more about this without spoilers.  I suppose if nothing else it was powerful.  It’s a hard hitting novel that doesn’t pull its punches and it definitely had an impact on me.  The characters are varying degrees of damaged and unpleasant but the supporting characters at least are interesting to read about.  While Lane is trying to help find her cousin, she has to face up to her past and spend time with some of the people that she hurt the first time she ran away.  It fits in with her story and I quite liked the take on small town America.  If there’d perhaps been a little less emotional trauma and a little more criminal investigation, I think the net result would have stronger.  As it was, I felt like reading this was more of an ordeal than I like in my fiction!

Overall:  Grim.  If you’re actively seeking out something that will give you a pretty full on story breaking all sorts of taboos, you’ll get that with The Roanoke Girls.  If you’re not in the market for some extreme emotional manipulation and sexual abuse, this probably isn’t the book for you.  It wasn’t really the book for me, unfortunately.

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Date finished:  26 February 2017
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley – thank you, Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: Thriller; Mystery
Pictured Edition Published: on 7 March 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton

Review: ‘Dust and Shadow’ by Lyndsay Faye

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

As England’s greatest specialist in criminal detection, Sherlock Holmes is unwavering in his quest to capture the killer responsible for terrifying London’s East End. He hires an “unfortunate” known as Mary Ann Monk, the friend of a fellow streetwalker who was one of the Ripper’s earliest victims; and he relies heavily on the steadfast and devoted Dr. John H. Watson. When Holmes himself is wounded in Whitechapel during an attempt to catch the savage monster, the popular press launches an investigation of its own, questioning the great detective’s role in the very crimes he is so fervently struggling to prevent. Stripped of his credibility, Holmes is left with no choice but to break every rule in the desperate race to find the madman known as “the Knife” before it is too late.

I really loved Jane Steele when I read it over summer and I immediately hopped onto the internet after finishing it to buy something else by Lyndsay Faye.  Not wanting to leap straight into a series, I plumped for this standalone, which also happens to by Faye’s debut.  The idea also seemed right up my street – a take on Sherlock Holmes that sees the detective and Dr Watson take on the case of Jack the Ripper.  There’s something about Jack the Ripper’s crimes that I find morbidly fascinating, which is odd for someone as averse to horror as I usually am!  I don’t know if it’s because the culprit was never really found and there’s a legal conundrum feel to it or if it’s just because the crimes were so distinctly horrific.  I’m also a big Sherlock Holmes fan so, after thinking that maybe Lyndsay Faye’s writing was worth trusting, I really wanted to read this book.
One obvious potential for downfall that I had reservations about the whole way through was how the story was going to wrap up.  Given that it is in part based on historical fact and Jack the Ripper was never officially identified, I was worried that either the story wouldn’t resolve properly (and then wouldn’t fit with the picture of the Sherlock Holmes that we all know and love) or that it would resolve too well (and then wouldn’t fit with history).  If you do pick this up, worry not!  The novel blends the elements of truth seamlessly with the elements of fiction, filling in the gaps in the “story” of Jack the Ripper in a way that makes so much sense, it was tricky to work out what was real and what wasn’t!  The ending is absolutely spot on and I actually went to the trouble of explaining just why it was so perfect to my non-reader (and non-interested!) boyfriend.  I wish there was a TV/film adaptation.
There are plenty of takes on Sherlock Holmes out there and although I’m a complete sucker for them, I know that there may well be potential readers out there wondering why on earth they should bother with yet another one.  I’ve read a few authors’ takes on the classics and this is easily and definitely the best.  If you have been burnt by some less-than-faithful works in the past, please suspend your scepticism and read this one.  The tone of Dr Watson’s narrative, the dialogue and the humour, the Victorian atmosphere and the mystique of the popular detective are all much more faithfully recreated than in any of the other modern versions that I’ve read.  Maybe because the facts of the case are also accurately Victorian and have a very…well, to be honest medieval feel to them but obviously that’s inaccurate so I’ll go with “old-fashioned” or something of that ilk.
It’s bloody good is what I’m saying (pun not intended but appropriate enough that it can stay).  I don’t have any complaints but I personally don’t feel as though a book that relies so heavily on an established set of characters and established writing style can have five stars (even where the rendering of those characters is as good as this is).  If you like Sherlock Holmes, I can’t see how you could fail to like this.
Overall:  This book is a perfect autumn/winter read – it’s oppressive and full of darkness and tension (and yes, fog!).  It’s not cosy or comforting, obviously, but it is a genuinely gripping story that will help you wile away some of the gloomier evenings.  If Faye had written any more takes on Holmes, I’d read them without hesitation.  As it is, I’ll take this one shining example of historical mystery done well and count myself lucky.  Now on to her other books…
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Date finished: 30 October 2016
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: Detective/mystery
Pictured Edition Published: in April 2015 by Simon & Schuster
Buy your own copy (affiliate links):  Amazon  |  Wordery

Review: ‘Mystery in White’ by Jefferson J. Farjeon

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. Several passengers take shelter in a deserted country house, where the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea – but no one is at home.

Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers are seeking to unravel the secrets of the empty house when a murderer strikes in their midst.

Review

I bought Mystery in White in a pique of festivity last year.  I’m led to believe that I’m far from alone in helping this 1930s crime story creep back into the limelight.  It saddens me that this wonderful little book has been out of print for years but I’m so glad that it’s getting a revival.
What I love about books from the glory days of crime writing of Christie and Sayers, and what I loved about Mystery in White, is that the stories are intriguing and can keep you guessing without being so unsettling that you nearly rip your curtains off their poles trying to shut out the world and its darkness.  I’ll admit that the actual mystery part of Mystery in White is a little lacking.  And Then There Were None this is not.  It’s not that there’s no tension (because there is), it’s more that it’s a different type of tension.  It’s never quite clear whether the threat is from outside the house, inside the house or whether it’s something altogether more supernatural and there were moments where I did do a quick nervous check over my shoulder but there didn’t seem to be the sense of urgency that you might expect from a ‘trapped with a murderer prowling’ story.  Perhaps because the characters are quite a stiff upper lip bunch or because the constant drift of snow and the whitewash it leaves breeds a different type of atmosphere.  I absolutely wanted to know what the devil was going on in this mysterious house with seemingly haunted furniture but there was something less stomach-clenchingly nerve-wracking about the experience.  Like murder for the festive season, you might say!
Fear not – what Mystery in White might lack (slightly!) in the intrigue department, it more than makes up for in the charm department.  The writing has a warmth to it that just sings ‘golden age’.  It’s witty and the sense of humour is dry and I enjoyed every single minute I was reading it.  The characters are such a quintessentially British troop – old boreish chap that spent time in India and won’t stop going on about it, a swooning, ankle twisting delicate dancer and an eccentric and super-perceptive psychic investigator.  You might not get to spend too long with them but they’re a heck of a lot of fun all the same.

It’s surprisingly comforting to read a ‘trapped in by the snow’ story without first having to have characters explain away their lack of mobile phones or wireless broadband.  It’s snowing, the trains aren’t running, the main characters aren’t going anywhere and can’t communicate with the outside world so you can just settle in and enjoy.

I don’t want to say too much more.  Everything will be much better if you pick it up, ready to be wrong-footed by the shifting chronology and tangled up in a mystery or two.  When I picked it up, all I knew was what was on the blurb and this delicious quote that was printed on the back of my edition:

The horror on the train, great though it may turn out to be, will not compare with the horror that exists here, in this house” 

Just great stuff all round.

Overall:  If you’re a fan of Christie or Sayers or any other classic mystery writers and you want something festive without anybody falling in love over mince pies, this is the book for you.  At only 256 short pages, I just can’t express how perfect this would be for a snowy evening indoors. 

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Date finished: 09 December 2015
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre: Fiction; Crime Fiction
Pictured Edition Published:  in December 2014 by The British Library
If you’re looking for a bookish treat for yourself or a buddy for this Christmas, you can currently snag 3 of The British Library’s Crime Classics for the price of 2 on their website and purchases will support the British Library – WIN WIN!

Review: ‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins

Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

“To everyone else in this carriage I must look normal; I’m doing exactly what they do: commuting to work, making appointments, ticking things off lists. 

Just goes to show”

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and every evening. Every day she passes the same Victorian terraces, stops at the same signal, and sees the same couple, breakfasting on their roof terrace. Jason and Jess seem so happy together. 

Then one day Rachel sees something she shouldn’t have seen, and soon after, Jess disappears. Suddenly Rachel is chasing the truth and unable to trust anyone. Not even herself.

Review

When I first read about this book’s premise, I knew I had to read it.  Not to sound like too much of a creeper but who doesn’t love a bit of people watching?  When you catch the same train, run the same route or visit the same coffee shop every day, it’s hard not to imagine that you know the people that you see on a daily basis or to *maybe* make up your own ideas about what they’re like.  The Girl on the Train takes that idea and twists it into something sinister. 

This is one of those books that’s almost impossible to review.  There’s a lot things that makes this novel something that’s really rather good but unfortunately a lot of them are things that I really think you should find out for yourself.  They’re maybe things that you could find out from other bloggers’ reviews, sure, but I don’t want to be the one (or one of the ones) that you’re disappointed in when (like me) you read something and realise that the whole novel would have been more interesting if it had been a surprise.  Suffice to say, this is one of those thrillers where you almost never feel as though you have a handle on what’s going on.  I have a huge weakness for those thrillers.

I think that Rachel is someone you can either really feel for or someone you hate.  Personally, I couldn’t help but sympathise with her.  She’s tragic in so many ways and utterly infuriating but my heart broke for her.  I can see why she might irritate some readers and I had my moments of frustration but overall, I just felt an immeasurable amount of pity for her.  What really sold her to me, though, was how damn unreliable she was.  If there’s one thing that I love, it’s a narrator you can’t ever quite believe.  As far as mysteries and thrillers go, there is nothing that builds tension quite like reading half a story.  Rachel’s existence is shrouded in lies, black-outs and doubt.  Her confusion is believable and isn’t half as difficult to rationalise as narrators that have memory problems, for example, so Hawkins doesn’t have to rely on a loosely described brain disorder or frustrate readers with slightly inconsistent explanations about the narrator’s flaky powers of recall.  It just fits.

The other characters I was less sure about.  There were some that were compelling and some that made me want to punch something.  I loved the revelations about ‘Jason and Jess’, the couple that Rachel sees from the train, but I was much less convinced about others.  Obviously pinning your life’s happiness on strangers that you’ve never met is a questionable life choice but the process by which Rachel learns so much more about her ‘happy couple’ ideal is somehow still quite sobering.  There are a few things that make this a novel for the 21st century but I think Rachel’s need to connect at any cost is one of them.

So far so great.  I’m convinced that if The Girl on the Train had been about 100 pages shorter, I would have been throwing on my Caps Lock and hollering at you to get yourself to a bookshop as soon as possible just so that you could experience it for yourself.  As it is, though, I found that there were some chapters that were quite repetitive.  The various layers of deception were what kept me reading but there were a few occasions where I needed something new.  Nothing is ever quite right but eventually the same kind of confusion and the same frustrations become a bit wearing.

The Girl on the Train is a book made for devouring in chunks.  Not because there are gaping plot holes that should be skimmed over but because in many ways you won’t be able to help it.  I won’t pretend that it’s perfect but it’s really, really good.  I didn’t see the ending coming (although to be fair I never do).  I thought it was spot on and I don’t think there’s really much more you can say for a book in this genre. 

Overall:  The Girl on the Train is a decent thriller. It’s entertaining and it’s a good book but it’s not a game changing one.  That’s really all there is to it.

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Date finished: 21 December 2014
Format: Paperback
Source:  Received from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review – thanks, Transworld!
Genre: Thriller
Pictured Edition Published:  The Girl on the Train was released on the 15th January by Transworld

Review: ‘Midnight Crossroad’ by Charlaine Harris

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Welcome to Midnight, Texas, a town with many boarded-up windows and few full-time inhabitants, located at the crossing of Witch Light Road and Davy Road. It’s a pretty standard dried-up western town.  There’s a pawnshop (where someone lives in the basement and runs the store during the night). There’s a diner (although those folk who are just passing through tend not to linger). And there’s new resident: Manfred Bernardo, who thinks he’s found the perfect place to work in private (and who has secrets of his own).

If you stop at the one traffic light in town, then everything looks normal. But if you stay a while, you might learn the truth…



Review

Just before I started this blog back in 2010, I spent a couple of months binge reading the Southern Vampire series. I read all of the books that had been released at the time pretty much back to back and (although I actually haven’t read the last two books yet) reading new instalments was like comfort reading. So when I got offered the chance to be one of the first to read the first book in a brand new series, I just couldn’t resist. I’ve been reading pretty slowly since I’ve been busier at work but, just like the exploits of the residents of Bon Temps did a few years ago, the exploits of the residents of Midnight had me hooked.

I read Midnight Crossroad in less than a week, which, compared to my pace before that, is blistering.  I don’t know what it is about Harris’ writing but there is something about the way she tells a story that I find unbelievably easy to get tangled up in.  This series is more subtle than the Southern Vampire series and, rather than marching right up to you and grabbing for your attention with raunch and gore, sort of sneaks up and before you know it, it’s past your bedtime and you’re still turning the pages.  Or, in my case, you’re scrambling through the last pages sat in your car and desperately trying to finish it before you really do have to go to work!

I haven’t read any of Charlaine Harris’ other series (although this has reminded me that I probably should…) so a lot of the cameo appearances from characters from those series passed me by a little bit.  Much though I’m kind of sad that I didn’t get to play the character spotting game and might have spoiled a couple of other books for myself but mostly I’m pleased that I got to read about these characters in Midnight. The town has a nice, kind of warm feel to it, even while everybody is making such a big deal about keeping themselves to themselves.  They’re what keep the story going and really what made it one that I wanted to keep coming back to.  When I think about it, it was the characters that kept me reading the Southern Vampire series long after I was really interested in what was happening to them so maybe that’s where the magic happens in Harris’ series.  Go into this if you want something with a whiff of magic and paranormal, sarcastic talking animals, political gangs and fledgling witches but not so much if you want an innovative plot or mind-bending mystery.

One minor criticism that may well just be because I’m British but there was something about the names that I found a bit off-putting at first.  I don’t care how many descriptions of someone’s athletic physique, bronzed skin and pearly white smile you include, if you call a character Bobo, there is no way I am going to be able to think of him seriously as an object of desire.  It just wasn’t working for me, even among the funkier range of names in Midnight…it’s tiny now that I’ve written it out but it bugged me while I was reading it so there we are.
So I liked Midnight Crossroad well enough. It’s fun, there are plenty of secrets and a few twists but there’s still something lacking on the mystery side. I preferred the sides of the story that were about the residents and their hesitant relationships but there was something a bit lacklustre on the whodunnit side.  I say that but I didn’t see the ending coming and I really did have to know the ending by the time I got to it so maybe I should give it more credit.  Either way, the characters are pretty great and the whiff of the supernatural was a nice change from some of the more in your face series. I didn’t care about the murder and I wasn’t really bothered who’d committed it (and wasn’t really that sold on the big reveal after I knew the ‘who’ part) but the getting there was enjoyable enough.

Overall:  If you were a fan of the Southern Vampire series or any of Harris’ other series (I’m guessing there…), I probably don’t need to tell you to pick up her latest.  It was good to get to enjoy Harris’ writing again without the angst of the later outings of Sookie Stackhouse and the series is one I’d try again, mainly because I’m intrigued to see if it keeps on the mystery path or heads more in the paranormal direction.

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Date finished: 08 May 2014
Format: Paperback
Source:  Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review – thanks, Gollancz!
Genre: Mystery; Paranormal
Pictured edition published: by Gollancz London in May 2014

Midnight Crossroad was published in hardback and eBook format on May 6th!  Fancy a cheeky peek at the first four chapters?  Head HERE!

Review: ‘The Mangle Street Murders’ by M.R.C. Kasasian


Rating:  4 out of 5 stars


Gower Street, London, 1882: 

Sidney Grice, London’s most famous personal detective, is expecting a visitor. He drains his fifth pot of morning tea, and glances outside, where a young, plain woman picks her way between the piles of horse-dung towards his front door. Sidney Grice shudders. For heaven’s sake – she is wearing brown shoes.

Set between the refined buildings of Victorian Bloomsbury and the stinking streets of London’s East End, THE MANGLE STREET MURDERS is for those who like their crime original, atmospheric, and very, very funny.

Review

I’ll be honest: the reason I requested this book on NetGalley was only partially because I have a weakness for Victorian detective romps; it was also because the author originally hailed from my home county (Lancashire) and I will take any opportunity I can to bang on about how great things that come out of Lancashire are.  Particularly seeing as I now live in Yorkshire, where people enjoy telling you how rubbish the things that come out of Lancashire are.  Let’s proceed with the banging on about how great The Mangle Street Murders is.
The cantankerous male detective with the intelligent female sidekick defying convection to fight crime isn’t exactly new but it’s a formula that I will always love.  Maybe it’s the feminist in me but I just don’t ever seem to tire of women standing up to their counterparts and vying for a piece of the action but there are enough twists in this iteration that it’s worth reading even if you think you’ve had enough of Victorian crime novels.  March Middleton, our leading lady, stays on the right side of plucky.  She’s witty and gets stuck in but without being so cavalier that she jumps into ludicrous situations without thinking of the consequences.  Feisty I am fond of; disrupting investigations by requiring saving, not so much.

Sidney Grice isn’t your usual grumpy detective either in many ways.  Sure, he consistently underestimates his peers and is aloof and utterly mercenary (and is generally faintly reminiscent of many people’s favourite eccentric crime investigator).  But he’s also fallible, has a fake eye that won’t stay put, and lacks the charm or allure that I’m more used to finding in the detectives whose exploits I’m following about town.  There is little really to like about him other than the fact that his dry sense of humour was spot on…and that made me utterly adore him as a character.  I’d never want to meet the chap but I can’t wait to read more about him.   In fact, the characters are generally just great and the dialogue is sharp and doesn’t feel clumsy or as if it’s straining under the weight of trying to be funny.  Tick, tick and tick.

I seem to be saying this a lot recently (and perhaps it speaks of the optimism in me) but what surprised me, and where The Mangle Street Murders breaks away from the usual, is how dark the story is.  There are murders, of course, but it’s the way the plot plays out where things get really gloomy.  I was actually quite taken aback by some of the turns (and the ending!) – I was convinced that eventually it would turn out to be similar to other books of this genre (sub-genre?), with some red herrings, mild peril and a happy ending.  It took me nearly two thirds of the book to appreciate that I really was reading something a bit different and just surrender to the melancholy. 

My only slight criticism is that the way that March’s back story is woven in is a little stilted.  The plot is interspersed with letters/journal entries and it isn’t really clear at the outset how they fit in with everything else.  I’m not sure what else I would have preferred but I just felt that there could have been a less disjointed way of working in that character development.  Not enough to spoil an otherwise very enjoyable murder mystery but a niggle nonetheless.

Overall:  If you aren’t from the north west of England and need a little more convincing to pick up The Mangle Street Murders, let me assure you that it really is rather good.  It plays around with what is usually quite a light-hearted trope and I never really got a handle on the mystery until everything was revealed.  I will definitely be keeping an eye out for the next Sidney Grice investigation, The Curse of the House of Foskett.

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Date finished: 25 February 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley – thanks, Head of Zeus!
Genre: Historical fiction; crime
Pictured edition published: by Head of Zeus in November 2013

Review: ‘Dark Places’ by Gillian Flynn

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” As her family lay dying, little Libby fled their tiny farmhouse into the freezing January snow. She lost some fingers and toes, but she survived–and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, Ben sits in prison, and troubled Libby lives off the dregs of a trust created by well-wishers who’ve long forgotten her.

The Kill Club is a macabre secret society obsessed with notorious crimes. When they locate Libby and pump her for details–proof they hope may free Ben–Libby hatches a plan to profit off her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club… and maybe she’ll admit her testimony wasn’t so solid after all.

Review

What is it with Gillian Flynn writing books I love about people I hate?!  When I read Gone Girl earlier in the year (review here), I was taken aback by how obsessed with a book I could be when it required me to spend time amongst characters that I would want nowhere near me in real life.  Dark Places gave me exactly the same feeling; a feeling in my gut that everything was wrong but that putting the book down would be even worse.

Libby Day is the survivor of an attack that saw her mother and two sisters murdered, apparently by her brother Ben.  Rightly so, probably, Libby isn’t exactly a well-rounded and balanced lady.  Living off the tail-end of donations made by the public in the wake of the family tragedy that have meant that she’s never had to work a day in her life, Libby is self-centred, morbid, socially awkward and struggling with depression. Descriptions of characters don’t get much more accurate than Libby’s description of herself on the first page:

I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.  Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.  It’s the Day blood.  Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders…I was not a lovable child and I’d grown into a deeply unlovable adult.  Draw a picture of my soul and it would be a scribble with fangs”

The strange thing is, though, even while I was repulsed by some of her actions and found her maddening at times, it seemed to fit. I would rather spend time with a character that really does feel like the product of her circumstances than someone who is pleasant and delicate in spite of having a quite obviously traumatic past.  Libby does develop as a character but in a way that is so painfully realistic that I ached for her to find any kind of resolution.  Because this book isn’t only about who killed the Day family.  It is about that but it’s also about trauma, depression, guilt, trust and recovery.  It’s unbelievably compelling reading as a mystery but it’s also utterly devastating as a story about a family’s final few hours.

Aside from Libby, I also really liked the portrayal of Ben.  Believed by a group of crime groupies to be wrongly convicted, there’s a whiff of martyr about Ben occasionally, which I would usually find a bit irritating.  What’s clever (and kept me guessing for most of the book) though is the marked difference between the incarcerated Ben of the present day and the unruly teen of twenty-five years earlier.  I’d read all day about miscarriages of justice without batting an eye but what really kept me glued to this book was that I had no clue whether Ben was guilty or not.

Dark Places shifts perspectives for each chapter, with the narrative alternating between Libby in the present day and various members of her family twenty-five years earlier.  I’m not always sold on mixing up timelines and narrators but Flynn manages it perfectly.  The narrative set in the past moves along at just the right rate to stop the slightly dawdling narrative in the present day from getting stale or from ploughing on through too many hints at the past without delivering the goods.  Discovering the truth “as it happens” in the past also removes the need for any awkward turn around from Libby and her inclination towards repression and avoidance.

I read about two thirds of this while waiting for and travelling on various modes of transport on our way back to the UK from the US and the last third or so curled up on my sofa a little while after we’d got back.  The revelations come at just the right pace and whenever I thought I had a handle on what was happening, I was shown just how wrong I was not long after.  I don’t know what it is but there’s something about the way Flynn spins out a mystery that I just find incredibly difficult to disentangle myself from.

Overall:  If you’re one of those readers that might say anything of the “I didn’t like x because I just hated the characters” ilk, this probably isn’t a book for you – the people are vile.  If you can get past that and you’ve either heard about Gone Girl and want to try something by Gillian Flynn that isn’t labouring under months of hype or have read Gone Girl and are wondering if Flynn’s other novels will compare, Dark Places is definitely, definitely worth a few hours of feverish page turning one gloomy evening.

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Date finished:  11 October 2013
Format:  eBook
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Thriller; Mystery
Pictured Edition Published: by Phoenix in June 2010

RIP VIII Review: ‘The Never List’ by Koethi Zan

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

There were four of us down there for the first thirty-two months and eleven days of our captivity. And then, very suddenly and without warning, there were three. Even though the fourth person hadn’t made any noise at all in several months, the room got very quiet when she was gone.For a long time after that, we sat in silence, in the dark, each of us wondering what this meant for her and for us, and which of us would be the next in the box.

NEVER GET IN THE CAR…For years, best friends Sarah and Jennifer kept what they called the ‘Never List’: a list of actions to be avoided, for safety’s sake, at all costs. But one night, they failed to follow their own rules.

NEVER GO OUT ALONE AFTER DARK…Sarah has spent ten years trying to forget her ordeal. But now the FBI has news that forces her to confront her worst fears.

NEVER TAKE RISKS…If she is to uncover the truth about what really happened to Jennifer, Sarah needs to work with the other women who shared her nightmare. But they won’t be happy to hear from her. Because down there in the dark, Sarah wasn’t just a victim.

NEVER TRUST ANYONE


Review

If you’d asked me a few years ago whether I’d ever read a book about a girl that is abducted while at university and held captive with three other girls for months on end and tortured, I’d have laughed in your face.  The story of four girls who have been abducted and kept prisoner by a man that tortures them?  BLEUGH! And yet, along came RIP VIII and an opportunity to read well out of my comfort zone.  Am I glad I did?  I’m not sure, really.  But not for the reasons you might think. 

The Never List opens with Sarah, survivor of said barbaric treatment, trying to get through life in the wake of her experiences.  Isolated from the world almost entirely, she works from home, gets food delivered to her crisp, white apartment so that she doesn’t have to brave the streets and relies heavily on house visits by a psychiatrist.  Basically, she’s decided that she no longer wishes to take the risks that fully engaging with society entails and so has retreated.  Her captor is in jail but, tragically, was only convicted on lesser crimes that could be proved and probably won’t face nearly as much time behind bars as society might have hoped.  The novel starts with the agent that worked on the original investigation visiting Sarah and dropping the bombshell that her abductor is facing a parole board and may soon be released.  His intention is to ask Sarah to appear at the parole hearing and counter his Delivered Criminal performance with a Traumatised Escapee one.  Somehow, she hears that as, “Please go back out into the world and prove that he is also a murderer so that we can extend his sentence instead of just getting his parole refused”.

And that right there is my main gripe with The Never List.  I am all in favour of strong women and of triumph over adversity.  Who isn’t?  What I’m not as much of a fan of are characters who suddenly overcome very serious psychological conditions without much in the way of a realistic explanation.  When the story starts, Sarah has severe agoraphobia and is dealing with a number of other phobias, only some of which are a result of her horrendous treatment (and even though “horrendous treatment” doesn’t really seem strong enough, we’ll go with it for now). Understandably, she is terrified of leaving the familiar confines of her apartment and straying into the world in which she was abducted and held captive for years.  Faced with the potential release of her former captor, however, Sarah decides that she will no longer be agoraphobic and/or afraid of flying and such like and will play amateur detective.  There are vestiges of her phobias that are apparent in some of her actions and interactions but mostly she seems to function pretty well.

I just don’t know if I ever bought into the insta-recovery, to be honest.  I think I could have got on board with Sarah being spurred into action if she’d done it in a bit more of a realistic way.  Say, by keeping in touch with the psychiatrist that she had apparently been seeing and speaking with very regularly in the years between her escape and the novels events?  By keeping a clearly sympathetic police agent in the loop while she was following leads and breaking and entering?  She’s clearly driven by the need to honour Jennifer’s memory but I thought that there was an element of laziness in having Sarah suddenly breaking free of the shackles of her mind to chase down clues and indulge in a little late-night, leather-clad investigating at a secret BDSM club.  Really?  Flying across states, approaching a stranger for information, driving to a club in the middle of the night, dressing in leather and conversing with BDSM club members before so much as visiting the local shop for a pint of milk? Too much, too soon and something that really stopped me throwing myself into the story.

Speedy moving on aside, the novel does touch on some interesting psychological points when looking at why Sarah’s captor might have done what he did while she’s searching for answers about what really happened to Jennifer.  I actually think that there could have been a little more made of that.  It seemed a waste to have a professor who specialises in deviant behaviour and the possible causes and not to really make the most of it.  I think the novel would have been stronger with that focus and tightness.  As it is, it’s a neat tie-in and link between the secret life of Sarah’s tormentor and his public one but little more.

For all my moaning, there is pace to the story, with twists thrown in at regular intervals that were enough to keep me from acknowledging how unrealistic their revelation might have been.  If you just go with the fact that Sarah is managing to stave off imminent panic attacks long enough to conduct an unofficial investigation, the story is gripping and has very few lulls in terms of timing.  Most of the characters are pretty damaged and have secrets that are exposed in excellent moments.  The ending did surprise me and I spent a few minutes gaping at my eReader in a most undignified fashion but I’m not sure that I really bought it.  I mean, I understood it well enough, but I’m not sure that it was explained sufficiently to really make me believe in it and spend more than a few minutes gaping before I’d finished reading and moved on to thinking about something else.  

Overall:  The Never List is a reasonable enough thriller and is very dark.  There are some holes in the plot and some questions that you will almost certainly never get answers to but it should appeal to those looking for something that straddles the mystery/horror line.  A word to the wise: if you don’t want to read fairly regular allusions to torture that can be pretty grim indeed, you may want to skip this.  Seriously.

Date finished:  30 September 2013
Format:  eBook
Source:  Received from the publisher via NetGalley – thank you, Harvill Secker!
Genre:  Thriller; Mystery
Pictured Edition Published: by Harvill Secker in August 2013
This is the second of three books that I’ve read so far for RIP VIII but the one I felt most like reviewing this evening.  Couldn’t tell you exactly why but it MIGHT BE because I want to plead with anybody who’s read it to let me know because I am *dying* to talk to somebody about one particular aspect of the book but don’t want to get too spoiler-y!

Review: ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ by Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Roger Ackroyd knew too much. He knew that the woman he loved had poisoned her brutal first husband. He suspected also that someone had been blackmailing her. Now, tragically, came the news that she had taken her own life with a drug overdose.

But the evening post brought Roger one last fatal scrap of information.

Unfortunately, before he could finish the letter, he was stabbed to death…

Review

Agatha Christie’s novels are a recent-ish comfort read of choice for me and it’s led me to a nice little side obsession with adorable little series of food or book-focussed cosy mysteries. For a good third of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, though, I was disappointed and felt as though everything was a bit laboured and quite dry. I forgot that it was Agatha and that she had never let me down before. Then came the ending. But I skip ahead. Let’s go back to the beginning…
This is the second Poirot story that I’ve read and I think I’m starting to understand them a little more now. When I read The Mysterious Affair at Styles (and reviewed it here), I was annoyed because the narrator, Captain Hastings, kept belitting Poirot and being smug despite being quite the idiot. This time around, Dr Sheppard is in charge of relaying events and he was much less irritating than his predecessor. Maybe because he didn’t spend most of the book deriding a man who is quite clearly his intellectual superior. All of which means I’ve done a bit of u-turn and decided that I quite enjoy seeing the enigmatic Poirot through the eyes of different characters because it preserves the mystique shrouding the famous detective.
The fourth instalment in the Hercule Poirot set of mysteries is set in a very British, small village that is alternately brilliant and annoying. Repressed ageing villagers are nothing if not well-practised at concealing secret despairs and loves from the people that they spend their lives in close proximity to so there are plenty of misunderstandings and revelations scattered throughout the story to occasionally offer a moment of relief from the otherwise slightly twee narrative. There was something that grated on me about the nosy, prying, gossiping characters and for some reason I let that lure me into thinking that I wasn’t really enjoying reading about them.

As always, though, much of what I had been taking at face value was not as it seemed and nothing was a wasted detail. There’s a retired elephant hunter, a slightly shifty seeming butler, a swooning young woman, a formidable housekeeper and a victim that had secrets of his own. I made the mistake of thinking that it was business as usual so that you don’t have to. This is a reasonably short book but one that will pay you back in dividends.
Having read about it, it seems that the twist in this tale is not widely appreciated and was the source of much controversy at the time. I thought it was brilliant. I like Agatha Christie because I like not quite being able to trust what I’m reading. I don’t read crime fiction (cosy or otherwise) because I want to get to the end and be able to pat myself on the back for guessing a twist or picking out the murderer; I read crime fiction because I want to be kept on my toes and surprised when things are revealed to not be quite what I thought. I don’t feel “tricked” if I’ve followed the red herrings down the wrong road because it just makes the Big Reveal moment all the more fun. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd would have clocked a mediocre 2.5/3 star rating if it hadn’t had an ending that made me gawp. Gawp-inducing endings are winning endings. Fact.
Overall: I do recommend The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but only if you trust me. There may well be times when you’re reading it that you think, “This is dull – what was Charlotte thinking in recommending it?” so I only want you to read it on my recommendation if that isn’t going to be your final thought before abandoning reading it entirely. The ending makes everything worth it. Honest.

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Date finished: 01 May 2013
Format: eBook
Source: Borrowed from my library’s eBook site
Genre: Crime fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by William Morrow Paperbacks in February 2011 (Originally published: 1926)