Joint Review: “Career of Evil”

25735012This week we’re bringing to you a special, all-week review series of Robert Galbraith’s (aka J.K. Rowling’s) “Cormoran Strike” books. As we both like mysteries, especially when they are combined with thriller-like components, we’ve each been avidly reading the series since the first book released in 2013. And like other fans, we’ve just been dying during the horrendous 3-year wait that has come between the last book and the most recent entry, “Lethal White,” which released this last September. So this week, Monday through Thursday will be devoted to our joint reviews of all four books now released in the series. And to round out the week, on Friday we’ll be joint reviewing the BBC series “Strike” that has covered the first three books in the series so far. Today we review “Career of Evil.”

Book: “Career of Evil” by Robert Galbraith

Publishing Info: Mulholland Books, October 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: Serena owns it, Kate got it from the library.

Book Description: When a mysterious package is delivered to Robin Ellacott, she is horrified to discover that it contains a woman’s severed leg.

Her boss, private detective Cormoran Strike, is less surprised but no less alarmed. There are four people from his past who he thinks could be responsible – and Strike knows that any one of them is capable of sustained and unspeakable brutality.

With the police focusing on the one suspect Strike is increasingly sure is not the perpetrator, he and Robin take matters into their own hands, and delve into the dark and twisted worlds of the other three men. But as more horrendous acts occur, time is running out for the two of them…

Serena’s Thoughts

After the first two books, I felt like I had a solid handle on the series and some pretty high expectations for its continuing trend of greatness. So, a perfect time for Galbraith to throw readers a curve ball! (Thank god, not on the “greatness” side of things, since I still loved this book).

Turns out that fame and success have a downside and it comes in the form of a leg, packaged and delivered to Robin at Strike’s private detective firm. And so starts their next mystery, tracking down three suspects whom Strike suspects capable of A.) holding a grudge against him and B.) having some affinity for body horror. But while they are working one side of the case, the killer is working on another and slowly circles closer to the very people searching for him.

Well, if I thought the last book was a turn for the darker, I was ill prepared for this one! I mean, a disembodied leg is delivered by mail right there in the beginning, so readers have a good clue going in that this will be a more gruesome story than the first book and likely the second as well. However, that’s just the start of it. This book delves into a truly depraved side of humanity, focusing mostly on violence against women committed by the men in their lives. These scenes are graphic, uncomfortable, and I’ll be honest, hard enough that I had to put the book down at times. However, as hard as some pieces were to read, Galbraith handles these topics with clarity and conciseness, never falling into the trap of “torture porn,” but instead highlighting the challenges of these types of domestic assaults, not only in their brutal form but in the restrictions and limitations of systems to deal with these types of crisis.

While we have heard a lot of about Strike’s background, his family life and his time in the military, this book really focuses in on Robin and reveals many new aspects of the character. Some scenes are, again, very challenging to read, but altogether, Robin’s story is one of a survivor, giving countless women a great character to serve as an inspiration for picking up one’s life from ashes and making it one’s own once again. There are a few particular lines of dialogue and reasoning that Robin lays out with regards to this type of violence that I believe will speak to many and give voice to underlying emotions that are familiar to those who have suffered similar experiences.

The story also changes its format in this book, with chapters alternating between Robin and Strike’s investigation, and the actions of the killer. What makes this all the more incredible is the deft way in which Galbraith weaves in little details for all three suspects that would still apply even having the voice of the killer in one of our ears already. It’s truly masterful.

The last note I will say on this book is HOLY COW, cliffhanger warning! Now, three years later and with “Lethal White” comfortably in-hand, this warning is much lighter. But at the time, this was a killer.

Kate’s Thoughts

You all know how much I love darkness in my fiction, so when “Career of Evil” involved not only murder, but also a severed leg in the post addressed for Robin, I was pretty damn excited. Ghoulish? Maybe. But it’s not as if Galbraith’s previous series hadn’t escalated in darkness as the story arc progressed. Besides, “Career of Evil” ups the stakes for both Robin AND Cormoran within the narrative. Not only does Robin receive a leg in the mail from a madman, but Cormoran thinks that he is the real target, and has three people in mind. One of whom is from a very personal and sad part of Strike’s past.

As Serena said above, we not only get Cormoran’s POV in this, we get the an expanded POV of Robin, AND the POV of the killer. While the format is a bit different from the previous books, Galbraith balances all of it with ease. Being able to get into the mind of the killer was especially interesting, and it gave a bit of method to the madness, depraved as it may have been. It absolutely ups the creep factor of this book, and explores a more visceral horror kind of mystery as opposed to the less graphic (by comparison in “The Silkworm”‘s case) whodunnits of the previous books. And what a grand mystery it is. Galbraith kept me going and kept me on my toes with the twists and turns. Everything is laid out meticulously and with great care, and the red herrings are effectively distracting just as the actual clues are easy to miss while being in plain sight. I was completely thrown for a loop with this one, and when the solution did eventually arrive I remember being gobsmacked in the best way possible.

And this is almost assuredly a turning point book for Robin in a few ways. We not only get some more background for her, but we also learn about some dark things in her past. And it’s quite dark indeed, so dark that I had a hard time reading it. Her experiences make some of the investigating within the case she and Strike are pursuing somewhat personal for her, which in turn leads to some strife and conflict down the line in how she approaches her investigation. But it never comes off as a character flaw or anything like that; on the contrary, Galbraith makes it very clear that Robin’s response is completely understandable, and never makes her seem foolish. I appreciated seeing Robin’s story, and other stories of victimization that so many people, specifically women, face. Like Serena said above, I appreciated how Robin’s background gave voice to these darker things, and that her story is relatable to those who are familiar with it.

I also liked some of the things that we learned about Cormoran in this book, mainly in regards to his mother and her death. Cormoran is convinced that she was murdered by a former husband of hers, and his attention in this case turns back on this man, Jeff Whittaker. I found this to be a way to show the long standing effects of domestic abuse, not just against the parent, but also against the child. Cormoran’s own experiences contrast to Robin’s, and it was fascinating seeing the two laid out next to each other.

“Career of Evil” is assuredly dark and twisted in some ways, but the characters at the heart of it really keep it from going into full on despair. And I second the despondence over the cliffhanger ending!!! Luckily for you new readers the newest book, “Lethal White”, is out now! So your wait will not be as long and agonizing as mine was.

Serena’s Rating 8: A very dark entry, but one that speaks to the challenges of sexual and domestic assault and the failures of our society to handle these crimes and support victims.

Kate’s Rating 8: While the content is darker the messages are important, and “Career of Evil” never quite falls into full on bleakness thanks to the continued interactions between Cormoran and Robin. Learning more about them makes this all the more rewarding.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Career of Evil” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Female Crime/Mystery/Thriller Writers” and “Thrilling Creepy Suspense.”

Find “Career of Evil” at your library using WorldCat!

Joint Review: “The Silkworm”

18214414This week we’re bringing to you a special, all-week review series of Robert Galbraith’s (aka J.K. Rowling’s) “Cormoran Strike” books. As we both like mysteries, especially when they are combined with thriller-like components, we’ve each been avidly reading the series since the first book released in 2013. And like other fans, we’ve just been dying during the horrendous 3-year wait that has come between the last book and the most recent entry, “Lethal White,” which released this last September. So this week, Monday through Thursday will be devoted to our joint reviews of all four books now released in the series. And to round out the week, on Friday we’ll be joint reviewing the BBC series “Strike” that has covered the first three books in the series so far. Today we move to “The Silkworm.”

Book: “The Silkworm” by Robert Galbraith

Publishing Info: Mulholland Books, June 2014

Where Did We Get This Book: Serena owns it, Kate got it from the library.

Book Description: When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days—as he has done before—and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.

But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives—meaning that there are a lot of people who might want him silenced.

When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before…

Serena’s Thoughts

At the start of this book, my hopes were on an upward trajectory. The first book had taken me completely by surprise with how much I loved it, especially my immediate attachment to both Strike and Robin. But how would these relationships progress and would the quality of the mystery be sustained? Given that I routinely reference the fact that, regardless of anything else, it is truly a heroic feat that Rowling managed to maintain the quality of her Harry Potter series amidst a world gone Potter-mad, this was probably a silly worry.

After the success of the Lula Landry case, Strike’s private investigation firm has taken a turn for the positive. It is made even better by the burgeoning abilities of his receptionist Robin who has proven herself more than capable of taking on a few of the investigative aspects of a case herself. However, neither are prepared for the strangeness of the mystery that arrives on their door: a reclusive author, a poisonous book, a ritualized killing, and a whole mess of suspects.

Like the first book did with its behind-the-scenes look into celebrity life and the fashion industry, this mystery delves into the seedy underbelly of the publishing world: its challenges, rivalries, and the various roles that so many play in the creation of a work of art. Within this world, we meet a whole slew of potential suspects, all with their own creepy little ties to the victim and his work. But unlike Lula, even our victim has his own sleazy connections. While the first book’s crime was fairly straightforward, this book delves into the truly disturbing aspects of a ritualized death and highlights the dark and uncomfortable versions of art (this time in the written word) that can be found in the world.

With this darker tone, it is a relief to still have Robin and Strike at the heart of the story. Their histories and ongoing struggles are slowly continuing to be padded out, as is their strengthening friendship. We even get a tense little meeting between Strike and Robin’s horrid fiance, Matthew.

The mystery itself was excellent (though I did have a better guess as to who the perpetrator could be), but its the strength of the characters that really continued to sell this series to me. That and the strong writing: Galbraith has a particular talent with dialogue that is best exemplified in exchanges between Robin/Strike and when Strike is testing the waters with new suspects.

Kate’s Thoughts

After I enjoyed “The Cuckoo’s Calling” so much, I knew that “The Silkworm” was going to either dash my hopes for a good series, or solidify them. So when I picked it up and started reading, I was relieved to see that not only was Galbraith still going strong, but she had even taken it a few steps further in regards to complexity and darkness.

I loved the mystery at hand even more this time around for a few reasons. The first is the nature of it. What starts as a missing person’s case (when Owen Quine’s long suffering but still loyal wife approaches Strike) turns into something far darker, involving a ritualistic murder and the darker aspects of the publishing industry. Not only did I highly enjoy the fact that Galbraith had no qualms calling out a lot of the cutthroat and abusive aspects of the industry as a whole, I liked that, given how entrenched Galbraith has been in the business for a couple decades now, it felt like this portrayal had some teeth behind it. Many of the suspects are in the industry in various capacities, are skeevy in their own rights because of how they treat others and each other. Quine himself sounded like a real prick, and I liked that, unlike Lula Landry, Strike and Robin were investigating the death of someone who didn’t deserve it, per se, but was unlikable enough that it made the suspect pool that much larger since seemingly EVERYONE had a beef with him. Because of this, I was left questioning things a bit more. Plus, the murder itself was, while disturbing, incredibly creative and memorable. But it also didn’t feel like it was purely there for shock value; it manages to tie into the story at hand, and say a bit more about how others viewed Quine and the poison pen work they attributed to him. I also feel like Galbraith felt more at ease in terms of writing a full fledged mystery in “The Silkworm”. While I of course adore “The Cuckoo’s Calling”, “The Silkworm” felt like it came together more naturally with its clues and how they fit together.

And like Serena said, at the heart of this book is the friendship and working relationship between Cormoran and Robin. I loved that Robin has been given more to do since Strike has a more comfortable and trusting rapport with her, as while the ‘his girl Friday’ trope is a fun one, she really does go above and beyond it. Her passion for the work has really allowed her to grow as a person and a character, and now that she and Strike are both friends and on a more equal footing it means that their relationship just becomes all the better and more entertaining. Of course this story isn’t without some obstacles to this friendship, namely in Matthew, Robin’s sleaze of a fiancé. Matthew never quite manages to grow as a character and remains pretty two dimensional, and while sometimes I find that frustrating it actually works in this story for a couple of reasons. The first is that his inability to grow really highlights how much Robin DOES grow, which of course leads to tension between not only them, but also between Robin and Strike (though theirs is the far more enjoyable romantic type). And the second is that it is fun to have a character to hate, at least until a point, which I’m sure Serena and I will touch upon in the later books…

Overall, “The Silkworm” proves that “The Cuckoo’s Calling” wasn’t a fluke for Galbraith, and it also made it so this series became an absolute must read for me. It shows that, like the “Harry Potter” books before it, Galbraith is comfortable to push into more complex territories as her stories go on.

Serena’s Rating 8: A strong sequel that turns its darker tone on the underbelly of the publishing world and the disturbing nature of art.

Kate’s Rating 8: With more complexity and a comfortable descent into darker thematics, “The Silkworm” serves as proof that Galbraith knows how to write a solid mystery with excellent characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Silkworm” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best London Mysteries”, and “Books with Disabled Protagonists”.

Find “The Silkworm” at your library using WorldCat!

Joint Review: “The Cuckoo’s Calling”

16160797This week we’re bringing to you a special, all-week review series of Robert Galbraith’s (aka J.K. Rowling’s) “Cormoran Strike” books. As we both like mysteries, especially when they are combined with thriller-like components, we’ve each been avidly reading the series since the first book released in 2013. And like other fans, we’ve just been dying during the horrendous 3-year wait that has come between the last book and the most recent entry, “Lethal White,” which released this last September. So this week, Monday through Thursday will be devoted to our joint reviews of all four books now released in the series. And to round out the week, on Friday we’ll be joint reviewing the BBC series “Strike” that has covered the first three books in the series so far. Today we start with the first book in the series, “The Cuckoo’s Calling.”

Book: “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith

Publishing Info: Mulholland Books / Little, Brown and Company, April 2013

Where Did We Get this Book: Serena owns it, Kate borrowed it from the library.

Book Description: After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.

Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

Serena’s Thoughts:

When I picked up this book, it was a few month’s after its release and the cat was already out of the bag about Rowling being the author behind the pen name of this new detective series. And I’ll admit, that was a factor in my picking it up originally. While I love mysteries, I typically find myself reading historical mysteries rather than contemporary detective stories. But past giving me the extra nudge to pick up this book, I can honestly say that the story and characters captured my attention immediately, in no way needing any latent HP nostalgia to keep me invested.

Though I will speak a little more to that point to say that none of us should really have been surprised to see Rowling go in this direction. There were many components that worked together to make the Harry Potter series special, but one of the ones that often gets swept aside in talks about the amazing fantasy world and the characters that captured the hearts of so many is just how clever Rowling was when stringing together detailed and complex mysteries. Not only did each book contain multitudes of false leads and little clues scattered where you wouldn’t think to look, but the series as a whole read as an even larger and more complex mystery of its own. But here in “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” free from the trappings of fantasy and YA/children’s literature (much love to ya!), we really get to see Rowling flex her muscles.

The mystery itself is so incredibly rich. Throughout the story, we explore a vast network of secrets and deceptions, wrapped in familial, professional, and personal trappings. Lula, a supermodel whose life was seemingly led in the public eye; why would she commit suicide? The other apartment renters in her buildings; were they connected and what did they see? And throughout it all, the smallest details remain important. I like to pride myself in being able to pick apart most plots and anticipate twists (most commonly in TV shows and movies, but also books) and here, every time I thought I was on to something, nope! As mystery readers, we’re trained to keep an eye for every little clue and yet somehow, things were still snuck right by me, under my nose. Like a well-trained magician, we’re all too often left watching the wrong hand during the trick itself.

So yes, the mystery was on point. But what really drew me into the series were the complicated main characters at its heart: Cormoran Strike and his temporary assistant, Robin. Re-reading this series now after following it for several books more, it really struck me the depths of character that was built into each even this early. Most importantly, we are given details that make both of these characters feel like real people, with real lives and real flaws. And yet, in this book, we’re only scratching the surface! And sue me, but I was all over the foundation for emotional drama that is laid out in this book, both with Strike’s ex and Robin’s fiance, and of course the partnership and friendship that builds between them both. Yes, my hatred of Matthew was established early, but look, giving us a guy to despise is just as key to sucking in devoted readers as giving us heroes to root for. I’m not just here to see what happens between Strike and Robin, but I want to see Matthew go down!

Kate’s Thoughts:

I missed the “Harry Potter” craze back when the books were first being published. I probably thought that I was too cool to be reading a ‘kids’ book when I was solidly in high school, and while I did eventually read the series, the anticipation of the next book coming out was never a feeling I experienced. But when it was leaked that J.K. Rowling was the actual name of Robert Galbraith, the author of a mystery series about a detective named Cormoran Strike, I decided to check it out. And now, a few years later, I’ve found myself waiting on pins and needles for the next Cormoran Strike book to come out. So good job, Rowling. You eventually got me. And it all started with “The Cuckoo’s Calling”.

The thing that I loved about this book the first time I read it was that while it was solidly dark, and absolutely a noir mystery, the main characters were so appealing and interesting that I was immediately invested in their lives even beyond the case at hand. Cormoran Strike is the first of these protagonists, a veteran turned private eye who lost his leg while deployed to Afghanistan. He’s a bit slovenly, a bit of a curmudgeon, and filled with snark and a little bit of angst. The second is Robin Ellacott, a woman who takes a temp position as Strike’s assistant, and then gets completely sucked into this job and the case of Lula Landry’s death. Robin is smart and kind, and also very much a go getter who has higher ambitions than those around her (particularly her dipshit fiancé Matthew) realize. And when you combine the two you get a nearly perfect team and perfect foils for each other. Cormoran treats Robin with the respect of an equal, while Robin brings in a fresh perspective when it comes to investigating the Lula Landry case. Their partnership and eventual friendship is charming and lovely, and I would happily just read a novel where they went on a non-crime related adventure.

The case of potentially murdered model Lula Landry is the main plot of this book, and Galbraith sets up a solid mystery with a lot of viable suspects. When I first read it I was kept guessing as to who the culprit could be, and Galbraith made it so that all of them had good motives and lots of questions in their backgrounds. But they also felt like real people as opposed to cardboard cut out distractions or red herrings. The way that Strike interacts with them, and the way that he and Robin slowly hunt for clues and piece together the mystery, was always interesting and never slogged or dragged. And I was genuinely shocked by the solution. I also thought that Galbraith did a good job of portraying the ins and outs and ups and downs of the fashion industry, and how elite, and dark, it can be. Lula was constantly objectified and molding herself into what an ad or a designer would want, and it’s only after her death that the world started to see just how being a blank canvas, in multiple ways, could be damaging.

I knew once I set down “The Cuckoo’s Calling” that this was a series that I was going to love. I was waiting on pins and needles for whatever Galbraith came up with next.

Serena’s Rating 8: An excellent start to a series! The mystery kept me guessing and my eternal love for Strike and Robin was cemented early and firmly.

Kate’s Rating 8: This is a very solid beginning to a great series! I was completely taken in by the mystery, just as I was taken in by the goodness that is Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Crime & Mystery Books” and “Mysteries For Deep Thinkers.”

Find “The Cuckoo’s Calling” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

Serena’s Review: “The Ape Who Guards the Balance”

64255Book: “The Ape Who Guards the Balance” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: William Morrow, September 1998

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: The prospects for the 1907 archaeological season in Egypt seem fairly dull to Amelia Peabody. Despite her adored husband’s brilliant reputation in his field, his dashing-yet-less-than-diplomatic behavior has Professor Radcliffe Emerson ignominiously demoted to examining only the most boring tombs in the Valley of the Kings — mere leftovers, really. All the Peabody Emersons profess stiff upper lips and intend to make the best of a bad situation, but this year the legendary land of the pharaohs will yield more than priceless artifacts for the Emerson expedition. For the desert guards even deeper mysteries that are wrapped in greed — and sealed by murder.

In a seedy section of Cairo, the youngest members of the expedition purchase a mint-condition papyrus of the famed Book of the Dead, the collection of magical spells and prayers designed to ward off the perils of the underworld and lead the deceased into everlasting life. But for as long as there have been graves, there have also been grave robbers — as well as those who believe tomb violators risk the wrath of gods like Thoth, the little baboon who protects the scales used to weigh such precious commodities as hearts and souls.

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” and “The Curse of the Pharaohs” and “The Mummy Case” and “Lion in the Valley” and “Deeds of the Disturber” and “The Last Camel Died at Noon” and “The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog.” and “The Hippopotamus Pool”

Review: It’s been a while, but we’re back with another Amelia Peabody novel. I usually turn to these when I find myself in a reading slump, but luckily I’ve had a pretty good run on books recently. But I still found myself with a hankering for my favorite female sleuth, and so here we are!

Back in Egypt, Amelia and her family find themselves looking forward to what will likely be a long, boring season. They have been “banished,” essentially, to some of the lesser tombs in the Valley and aren’t likely to make any grand discoveries. However, adventure is sure to find them, this time in the appearance of a priceless artifact that is recovered by Ramses, Nefret, and David. But following the artifact is a wake of mayhem and murder. Determined to find out who is behind these disturbances, Amelia and co. are on the case! Matters are only muddied, however, when their extended family (Walter, Evelyn, and their daughter, Lia) arrive and previously unknown attachments are revealed.

Many of the tried and true aspects of this series that I have always enjoyed are still present. While the narration is now more broken up, with the introduction of manuscripts and letters written from the perspectives of Ramses and Nefret, we still spend much of our time with our familiar and beloved Amelia. Here, however, the story really does take a new turn with regards to our heroine and her role in these stories. Up to this point, Amelia has been a solid point of reason, sound thinking, humorous commentary, and an adventurous spirit. All of these aspects of her personality remain here, however we are also exposed to a new reality: even Amelia herself has flaws and falls prey to certain prejudices that she wasn’t even aware of in herself. While it is difficult to see our reliable main character clash up against points of view that the modern reader immediately recognizes as traps of prejudices, I loved the full exploration of how this type of latent viewpoint could exist even within the most modern and intellectual beings of the time. And, be assured, even this challenge, as unexpected as it may have been for our heroine, is one that she is up to conquering!

As these books have continued, readers become more and more invested in the goings ons and thoughts/feelings of the younger group of the Emerson party. And this is probably the first book where I felt like these sections truly came into their own. Ramses continues to struggle with his repressed feelings for Nefret. Nefret, herself, continues to run into the barriers that are set against her due to her age and sex (even by members of her own family). And David struggles to find his role in a world that would often judge him first by the color of his skin, even when strong connections exist between him and those who might judge.

The mystery itself was also enjoyable. While I was able to predict certain twists and turns, the romp was still worth the ride. Many familiar faces play a role in this mystery, wandering in and out of scenes in some unexpected ways. I was particularly pleased to see the return of a certain villain who often creates many disturbances in the Emerson clan. What’s more, the stakes in this mystery are much higher than they have been in the past. While the book is still a “feel good” mystery, there was much more darkness and tragedy than I have come to expect. I never love crying over a book, but in this instance, I felt like the sadder moments were not only well-earned but a necessary send-off to certain storylines.

The archeological portions of the story were also quite compelling. We’ve gotten so used to our meticulous and studious main characters, that reading this book and its descriptions of the mishandling of a tomb found by another excavation team, I found myself almost getting as emotionally worked up as Emerson himself!

As I’ve said, many portions of this book felt familiar, but in the best way. There are significant strides made in advancing the storylines of the younger generation, which I’m sure we’ll see continue to play out in books to come. It also takes a new approach to examining Amelia’s own character, forcing her to confront some weaknesses in her own perceptions, an aspect of the story that I particularly enjoyed. As always, for fans of this series, keeping plugging along! You won’t be disappointed!

Rating 8: Continues the series’ long line of success, but adds new layers with an exploration of Amelia’s own flaws and an extra focus on the lives of Ramses, Nefret, and David.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ape Who Guards the Balance” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Archaeology Thriller Books” and “Strong Female Characters Written by Female Authors.”

Find “The Ape Who Guards the Balance” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Witch Elm”

39720991Book: “The Witch Elm” by Tana French

Publishing Info: Viking, October 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life – he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

A spellbinding standalone from one of the best suspense writers working today, The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are.

Review: Thank you so much to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I first read Tana French with her first “Dublin Murder Squad” novel “In The Woods” around the time it came out. I liked it enough, but didn’t really move on until I read “Faithful Place” a few years later. I like French’s style, and I like her characters, but the mysteries themselves never really intrigued me as much as I wanted them to. But when I read about her newest novel, “The Witch Elm”, I was immediately interested in the premise. A man returns to a childhood family home and while he’s there a skull is found in a wych elm. Given that it sounds a little like the ‘who put Bella in the wych elm?’ crime, I wanted to see what French would do with it given her prowess for eeriness and dark characterizations.

“The Witch Elm” is a mystery about how this skeleton got into this tree, as well as how our main character Toby is connected to it. But ultimately it is more a story about family, memory, and how our perceptions of reality can change. Toby is an unreliable narrator not in that he is deliberately hiding facts from the reader, but in that he has gaps in his memory because of time and because of a traumatic brain injury sustained at the start of the book. French did a very good job of integrating the burglary and attack into the plot without making it feel purely plot driven, as there was a slow build up to it and then a sustained period of immediate consequences after that lingered well before the main drive of the plot at Toby’s Uncle Hugo’s home. And since Toby is constantly questioning his own memory, and his potential culpability in regards to the body in the tree, the reader also has to wonder whether or not we are following an innocent bystander caught up in a murder, or the murderer himself. But French is also very adept at presenting other characters who could also have a hand in murder, for many realistic and believable reasons. I quite enjoyed the mystery and seeing where it was going to go next.

I also very much enjoyed the family dynamic that Toby had with those around him, from his Uncle Hugo to his cousins Susanna and Leon. While the relationship with Susanna and Leon was a bit strained, be it because of their potential to be suspects to their differing views on how they should be dealing with their uncle to baggage from the past, it felt very real for a family with various dysfunctions. And Toby’s relationship with Hugo is quite lovely, as Hugo is dying of a brain tumor and Toby, having his own medical set backs and problems with cognition, really connects with him. They all did feel like a real family with it’s ups and downs, and this aspect of the book was probably the strongest for me.

I think that the main quibbles I had were with the length of the story. It takes a little bit of time to get started, for one thing, and while I understand why it does (as mentioned above, French is careful to make the attack and break in feel like more than just a device to get Toby’s mind foggy), I felt like it dragged its feet a bit. I found myself tempted to skip ahead to the family estate, and while I didn’t do that I do think that it took just a little too long to get all of the set up into place. And then it went on a bit longer than it had to, with a tacked on moment at the end that didn’t feel lit it needed to be there. I don’t wish to spoil it so I won’t say what it is here, but a new moment of conflict with very dire consequences happens well after we’ve found out the solution to the Wych Elm mystery at hand. And I didn’t quite understand why it had to happen at all. It felt unnecessary and it didn’t add much to the plot.

But all that said, Tana French is still an author who knows how to write an atmospheric mystery with some fascinating characters. “The Witch Elm” was a fun detour from her “Dublin Murder Squad” series, and I will be very curious to see if she is going to write more stand alone novels down the line, because this one stood on it’s own two feet pretty handily.

Rating 7: While there was a compelling mystery and family story at it’s heart, “The Witch Elm” took a bit too long to get going, and lagged longer than it had to.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Witch Elm” is included on the Goodreads lists “Autumn Seasonal Reads”, and I think it would fit in on “Popular Family Secrets Books”.

Find “The Witch Elm” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Broken Things”

37859646Book: “Broken Things” by Lauren Oliver

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, October 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from Edelweiss.

Book Description: It’s been five years since Summer Marks was brutally murdered in the woods. 

Everyone thinks Mia and Brynn killed their best friend. That driven by their obsession with a novel called The Way into Lovelorn the three girls had imagined themselves into the magical world where their fantasies became twisted, even deadly.

The only thing is: they didn’t do it. 

On the anniversary of Summer’s death, a seemingly insignificant discovery resurrects the mystery and pulls Mia and Brynn back together once again. But as the lines begin to blur between past and present and fiction and reality, the girls must confront what really happened in the woods all those years ago—no matter how monstrous.

Review: I want to say thank you to Edelweiss for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Horrorpalooza has officially begun!!! As you all know, the month of October is where I try to do all horror/upsetting thriller, all the time, and kicking off with the new Lauren Oliver is a great way to begin! Lauren Oliver has written some pretty stellar YA novels in multiple genres, but I think that her mind bending thrillers are her best. I especially liked the book “Vanishing Girls”, a book about two sisters with lots of problems. So when I saw that she had a new book coming out called “Broken Things”, I was intrigued, and when the plot sounded like it was inspired by the Slender Man Stabbing I had to have it. Oliver has always done a good job of making creepy atmospheres as well as creating damaged but interesting protagonists, so I had pretty high hopes for this book. And the good news is that “Broken Things” is another strong showing from Oliver.

This story is told through two perspectives in two different timelines. The first perspective is Brynn, the sardonic sarcastic girl of the friend group. After they were never charged with Summer’s murder, she left town, and has been in a seemingly fragile mental state, hopping in and out of rehab. The other is Mia, the quieter, kinder one of the group, who never left town but had her life be torn apart by her mother’s mental illness and the rumors that always plagued her. Both girls are very different characters, but Oliver does a good job of writing both of them and making their motivations known and understood. While Brynn’s story was the one that I liked the best of the two, I felt that Mia had the most character growth, so there was something to really enjoy through both POVs. Brynn and Mia are also equally complex, as Brynn was potentially in love with Summer back when she was alive, and Mia had a crush on Summer’s then boyfriend, turned fellow suspect. Their romantic entanglements, however, are not the main focus of their storylines, as the big relationship is the one between the two of them as they learn to trust each other again. I greatly enjoyed seeing them try to bridge that gap, especially since there might have been problems even before Summer died. And through their perspectives I felt like I got a good look into what Summer was like, and that she was just as well rounded as they were in spite of the fact that she didn’t have much in terms of her own perspectives.

The timelines are in the present, and what happened leading up to Summer’s death from the time they met her until the night that she died. Both timelines and both perspectives slowly and carefully lay out all of the pieces of the puzzle, and Oliver reveals them at her own pace in their own due time. While we knew everything that was going on in these character’s minds, and the various clues that each of them had, the two timelines and two perspectives made it so that we got to watch them bring it all together. It rarely felt like it was lagging or dragging as Brynn and Mia tackle the mystery, both of Summer’s death and also what Summer was actually like outside of being painted as a symbol of purity taken before her time. While I did guess a couple of things before their reveals, overall there were plenty of gasp worthy moments that took be by surprise. The journey of getting to the solution was lots of fun, with a lot of twisted and dark moments that made for a tense and eerie atmosphere.

I also liked the glimpses we got into the fantasy world of Lovelorn. Like the Slender Man Stabbing, the girls in question had become obsessed with a fantasy world that they believed, to a point, was real. While it may have been easy to just make up a slapdash version of Slender Man for this story, Oliver made a whole new world that had some unique elements. While it wasn’t the focus, we got enough tastes of this fantasy world that I felt like I knew it almost as well as Brynn, Mia, and Summer did. If Lauren Oliver wanted to write a couple of Lovelorn books, I would probably read them, and that’s coming from me, whose tastes in fantasy are VERY particular.

“Broken Things” is another tantalizing and thrilling book by Lauren Oliver, and she continues to show that there can be some well done crossovers between age groups when it comes to thrillers. Adults and teens alike will enjoy “Broken Things”.

Rating 9: An engrossing and thrilling mystery with complex and dark characters, “Broken Things” is a triumphant return to the teen thriller genre for Lauren Oliver.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Broken Things” is included on the Goodreads lists “Buzz Books 2018 – Young Adult Fall/Winter”, and “2018 YA Mysteries”.

Find “Broken Things” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Hollow of Fear”

363423301Book: “The Hollow of Fear” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Berkley, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss

Book Description: Under the cover of “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes puts her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. Aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, Charlotte draws those in need to her and makes it her business to know what other people don’t.

Moriarty’s shadow looms large. First, Charlotte’s half brother disappears. Then, Lady Ingram, the estranged wife of Charlotte’s close friend Lord Ingram, turns up dead on his estate. And all signs point to Lord Ingram as the murderer.

With Scotland Yard closing in, Charlotte goes under disguise to seek out the truth. But uncovering the truth could mean getting too close to Lord Ingram—and a number of malevolent forces…

Previously Reviewed: “A Study in Scarlet Women” and “A Conspiracy in Belgravia”

Review: I warned you in our “Highlights” post that a review was coming quickly! Thanks to the lovely Edelweiss, I’ve had access to this title for a while but had been trying to resist reading it until closer to its publication date. Torture indeed. And at this point, after three amazing books (spoiler: I loved this one), it’s such a pleasure to find another series that I can now put full faith into the fact that I’m sure to love future titles as well. Why can’t they all just be out now though?? They should defy space and time and arrive ala Netflix binging. But enough of that, on with the review!

The fallout of the events that took place in “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” are still being felt, most largely by Lord Ingram himself whose world has crumbled after the discovery of his wife’s involvement with the criminal mastermind Moriarty. But a bad situation can always get worse and very much does with the discovery of Lady Ingram’s body on his own property. Of course, Charlotte Holmes would never watch idly as disaster befell her dear friend. But still banished from society and with a gossip-worthy connection with Lord Ingram himself, how can she involve herself in the case in a useful manner? In disguise, of course!

Oh where, oh where to start my crazed ranting! I think part of my love still comes down to the very fact that this series exists and exists as well as it does. I’ve recommended it to a few people lately, including my husband, and his and many other’s responses have often been the same. Something like “…really? but…why?” For some, this is simply because they see no reason to adapt the character once again at all and for others there is a general distrust that a series could effectively gender swap the character while also maintaining its historical setting. And really, these are both legit concerns. In the last several years, though it has been waning a bit recently, it seems the entire world was under a certain “Sherlock” fever, with a new adaptation, either written or on some screen or another, announced every other day. But to these skeptics I say a loud and resounding “nay!” There is always room for another adaptation if and when an author is truly capable of bending these classic characters into something truly new without losing the essence of said characters and stories. And that is what makes Sherry Thomas’s books so amazing.

“The Hollow of Fear” is no exception. By this point, we know that Thomas has tackled the biggest challenge: creating a new version of Sherlock that both rings true to the original but also has enough novel factors to stand alone among other adaptations. And from there, it’s just a matter of releasing said character into another plot and seeing what happens. I think what makes this story stand out in particular is the fact that it is more of a direct sequel to its predecessor than the original. The first two definitely had connected through lines, but could perhaps be read individually. Here, this story directly pulls from the events of the last and is stronger for having a more robust mystery built upon information and puzzles that have been laid down through both books now.

I also enjoyed that the story largely takes place in a small space, Lord Ingram’s estate. We jump here and there to a few places in the surrounding community, but in many ways it reads like a classic mansion mystery where a large group gathers, a murder is committed, and the culprit and method must be sought out amidst the question of how such an event could occur with so many witnesses around.

All of our favorite characters make an appearance though the amount of page time for each is switched around a bit. Here, we spend a lot more time with Charlotte’s sister, Livia and got to see her come a bit into her own, building confidence as she went. We also spend a good amount of time with Detective Treadles, and I particularly enjoyed his storyline here. In the last few books, he’s been a bit unlikable due to his feelings and prejudices about his wife, but here we see him truly have to confront these aspects of himself. In retrospect, I very much enjoy this slow transformation. I think it reads as a much more honest version of this type of change and the moments that lead him to real inner reflection in this book also ring true for what would open one’s eyes about one’s own behaviors and thoughts with regards to these types of prejudices.

Charlotte herself is of course amazing. I very much enjoyed her undercover work, and it was a fun twist to see her more fully interacting with the mystery as the story unfolded. Due to her gender and outcast status, she always had to operate a bit on the sidelines in the past books, and while that lead to some really great moments too, this was a nice change of pace from what could have become a predictable set of events.

Her relationship with Lord Ingram was also further explored, and while I still very much enjoy this building relationship, there were a few things at the end that were particular to this couple that lead me to drop my rating from a full 10. Some of the explanations for past actions I’m not sure truly made sense or were necessary in the grand scheme of things. Instead, they almost read as excuses to include certain parts of the story that were hard to work in otherwise. And then were largely reset again at the end of this book. I’m curious where things will go from here, however, as I don’t think this type of bait-and-switch will work twice, so at some point this complicated relationship is going to need to be dealt with in another way.

The mystery itself was also very good and remains one of the strongest pros of the entire series. Here there were a few moments where I thought I had guessed at crucial information and was feeling quite smug about it only to later discover that, nope, that wasn’t right at all. And while there were a few very satisfying scenes at the end where Charlotte was able to put some self-important police investigators in their place, part of that reveal also relied on one concept that felt a bit too convenient. But, again, that’s a very nit-picky criticism. Because overall, for fans of historical mysteries, this series is turning out to be a must read!

Rating 9: Sherry Thomas continues to make the difficult task of writing a new version of Sherlock Holmes seem “elementary” indeed!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hollow of Fear” is a newer title and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads list, but it is on “Historical Mystery 2018.”

Find “The Hollow of Fear” at your library using WorldCat!