Fiction

THE CUCKOO’S CALLING by Robert Galbraith

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Robin is thrilled when the temp agency assigns her to a private detective’s office. Detective work was always a secret dream of hers. But Cormoran Strike isn’t exactly the glamorous private eye she imagined. Having recently split up with his fiancee, he is living on a camp bed in his office, dining on Pot Noodle, and putting off the inevitable day when he’ll have to make a visit to the doctor to have the increasingly painful stump of his amputated leg examined. Also, he’s broke. And if he doesn’t get a case soon, he’ll face the wrath of already impatient creditors.

But Strike’s luck turns when John Bristow enters his office. Though supermodel Lula Landry’s death was thoroughly covered by the police–and the press–Bristow doesn’t believe that his adopted sister committed suicide. He peppers Strike with alternate conspiracy theories and begs him to take the case. Although Strike doubts to find anything, he doesn’t have the heart–or the money–to turn Bristow down. And as he and Robin begin to methodically reexamine the evidence, they gradually realize that not only was Lula Landry murdered, but other lives may be in danger as well.

Obviously Rowling (aka Galbraith) is a phenomenal writer, but in this novel she proves mastery not only of characters and prose but of the mystery genre. Meticulously plotted, with plenty of clues and plenty of misdirection, THE CUCKOO’S CALLING has all of the information you need to solve the mystery ahead of the big reveal, but presents that information in such a way that the resolution will very likely come as a surprise. It has a gradual start, but keep reading–it’s worth it!

This is an excellent audiobook as well.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Agatha Christie –and– MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

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The bottom line: the film is good, but the book is better.

Renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is traveling on the Orient Express when a murder occurs. He quickly determines that the victim, an American, was traveling under an assumed name and was really the infamous gangster Cassetti, responsible for the murder of an infant in America years earlier. With the train stopped due to an avalanche, Poirot has a captive group of suspects–each more suspicious than the last–and begins to interview them, methodically as is his custom, to determine which among them is the murderer.

While enjoyable, the film was not a stand-out. The cast is star-studded (and it’s convenient to have Johnny Depp in a role where you’re supposed to hate him) but ultimately, the film stepped a bit too far over the line toward melodrama. I blame Branagh. What I love from an Agatha Christie mystery is the suspense drawn out through carefully plotted revelations, perfectly dropped clues, and an overabundance of sinister characters to suspect. This was all certainly present in the film, and the acting was good. But we really didn’t need a gunfight. Just sayin’.

LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott and LITTLE WOMEN (2019)

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In 1860s Massachusetts, four sisters and the boy next door grow up from a childhood of wild imagination and adventure to an adulthood of loss, love, and hope.

So I may be the only American white girl who was not a fan of LITTLE WOMEN as a kid. I mean, I liked most of the first half (the original Book One) but I never, never, never forgave Amy for burning Jo’s book. And I got very bored by Book Two, and also annoyed that Laurie married Amy (because again, SHE BURNED JO’S BOOK) and also super-super-annoyed that Jo married some random middle-aged German guy she just met because just because she was kind of lonely….

But I think that Greta Gerwig either read my childhood mind, or was also me as a child, because her adaptation was everything I wanted it to be. Florence Pugh made me like Amy. Genuinely understand and like her. The chaos of every scene must have been a nightmare to film, but it created such a joyful sense of community and family and connection between the four girls. I was mad at Amy for burning Jo’s book, but I was also mad at Jo for not noticing how much Amy looked up to her and wanted to spend time with her. And I loved the two-pronged solution to the “random German guy” problem: first, introducing him at the beginning of the film so he doesn’t come out of nowhere, and second, crafting an ending where Jo morphs with real-life Alcott, who didn’t believe women (including her character Jo) should have to get married (as she didn’t) but was forced to marry Jo off in the end to make it palatable to contemporary readers. In the film, you can take some delight in the unbelievable, silly, head-over-heels, love-at-first-sight ending because the director has hinted that it’s a fantasy and that the real Jo that you’ve known and loved is actually off somewhere, self-confident and content, living her dreams, publishing her books, and creating this fairytale ending for us to enjoy and for her to roll her eyes at.

P.S. I should note that I actually enjoy much more of Book Two as an adult. Especially now that I have kids. Especially that scene where Meg and John are trying to get their son to go to sleep and John ends up passed out in bed with his kid and Alcott remarks that trying to get a two year old to go to sleep is more exhausting than an entire day of work. Yeah. That. I read that part out loud to my husband. It’s somehow both comforting and discouraging to know that in 200 years of parenthood, nothing has changed….

MY BEAUTIFUL ENEMY by Sherry Thomas

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Catherine (Ying-Ying) Blade didn’t think anything could unsettle her as much as meeting her daughter’s murderer on the voyage to England. She doesn’t know why the assassin was there–whether he might be after the same jade tablets her stepfather sent her to claim–but as she hurled the assassin overboard, she believed she had drowned the last remnants of her painful past with him.

She couldn’t have been more wrong.

Not only did the assassin survive, but the woman she saved from his clutches has a coincidental connection to the English spy that Ying-Ying fell in love with years ago. They never knew each others names in China, but that hadn’t stopped Ying-Ying and Leighton from betraying each other. Ying-Ying had thought her feelings would have softened over time. Truthfully, she believed she had killed Leighton, and from his pronounced limp, she infers that she came close. But seeing him now, with a fiancee on his arm, is almost more than she can bear. And bear it she must because if she has any hope of retrieving the jade tablets–or even surviving her mission–she’s going to need his help.

Set half in England, half in Thomas’ native China, MY BEAUTIFUL ENEMY is a Victorian Romance twist on the Chinese martial arts genre of wuxia. It is one of Thomas’ best, which given the strength of her canon is saying a lot! It is exciting and romantic, suspenseful with breaks of humor. The characters are strong, and the interweaving of cultures beautiful and engaging. A page-turner and a joy to read. Highly recommend to historical romance readers!

OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon

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Claire and Frank are on their honeymoon. Technically, it’s their second honeymoon, but the War came so close on the heels of their marriage, that now they are like strangers. Now that their services to England are complete, this trip to Scotland is a chance to get to know one another again, to rekindle their romance. But when Claire falls through a time portal in a henge, she winds up in the eighteenth century, swept up by a raucous clan and pursued across the moors by Frank’s sadistic ancestor, English officer Jonathan Randall. Though she initially earns her keep at Castle Leoch by sharing her skills as an army nurse, Claire must eventually marry a young Scot named Jamie in order to keep out of Randall’s clutches. And as her relationship with Jamie deepens, Claire begins to lose her resolve to find a way home.

OUTLANDER has everything I love in a novel: humor, romance, suspense, immersive world-building, and deep themes. The contrast between Claire’s “modern” 1940s background and Jamie’s life in the 1700s allows for thoughtful commentary on the shifting nature of love and war as people begin to distance themselves from one another–whether it is the polite distance of Claire and Frank’s marriage or the mechanized distance of bombers and automatic weaponry in the war. Everything in the past timeline, both good and bad, is close and visceral and as much as Claire rejects (for example) the sadism of Randall or the corporal punishment the clans inflict on women and children, the unreserved passion between herself and Jamie (and the closeness of families and clans) binds her to her new life much more fiercely than she initially anticipated.

This novel is difficult to put down, and a great book club book if all of your readers are ok with sex and violence. (As my above expostulations should suggest, it has a thematic purpose and isn’t there gratuitously.) OUTLANDER will appeal to historical romance readers as well as many historical fiction and suspense/thriller readers. The dash of sci-fi/fantasy of the time travel is negligible, so I wouldn’t necessarily plug it to SF/F readers.

GOOD OMENS: THE NICE AND ACCURATE PROPHECIES OF AGNES NUTTER, WITCH by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman –and– “GOOD OMENS” (2019)

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When the Anti-Christ arrives in the unassuming Oxfordshire village of Tadfield, and the countdown to the apocalypse begins. Although most of the Earth’s inhabitants are unaware of the Anti-Christ’s presence, the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley are more than a little unhappy that the Earth will be ending so soon. After 6,000 years or so, they’ve gotten attached to certain Earthly comforts and the humans they live with. And although they’d never admit it to their respective Head Offices, they’ve gotten more than a little attached to each other as well. So they decide to do what they can to influence the Anti-Christ’s upbringing and avert the apocalypse altogether. But due to a mix-up, partly due to chance, and partly the incompetence of certain Satanic nuns in the Chattering Order of St. Beryl, the Anti-Christ does not end up in the family of an American diplomat as Satan intended, but rather grows up in a typical English family in Tadfield. Of course all of this was predicted by Agnes Nutter, witch, centuries ago, before she exploded at the stake, and her own ancestor, Anathema Device, is searching for the Anti-Christ as well. With the end of days only days away, Aziraphale, Crowley, Anathema, and a couple of barely-competent witch-finders scramble to find the boy who may be bringing about the end of the world.

If you’re a Pratchett or Gaiman fan, you’ve probably already read this one, and you know it is a hilarious, witty, occasionally poignant work of pure genius. I am reviewing it now due to the recent Amazon mini-series adaptation. Could it possibly be as good as the book, you ask? Yes. Incredibly, yes. I did not like the adaptation of Stardust nearly as much as the book, but somehow with this quirky, insane, erratic novel, Neil Gaiman has produced an equally brilliant screen adaptation. Through use of a narrator, it mimics the style of the book beautifully. The characters are perfectly cast, the dialogue in most cases taken directly from the text to preserve each character’s personality. The somewhat scattered writing style in the book actually works perfectly for cross-cut scenes in the series.  Obviously some changes are made to bring the book into the 21st century. Added characters (such as Jon Hamm’s Gabriel) and added scenes tracking Aziraphale and Crowley through the centuries are incorporated so authentically that they merely enhance the satire of the celestial war and the characterization of Aziraphale and Crowley.

In short, the screen adaptation is as perfect as the book. Loved it!

GRACELING by Kristin Cashore

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Katsa is used to being feared. She travels all over the Middluns, killing and maiming for King Randa to frighten his subjects into submission. Her Grace for fighting makes the tasks easy physically, but not emotionally. That’s why she started the Council and began sneaking around between official assignments, using her Grace to do good. It is on a Council mission that her life gets complicated. She rescues the Lienid grandfather, like she was supposed to, but she never expected his grandson, Prince Po, to be there. She didn’t expect to be recognized. And she definitely didn’t expect the complicated feelings she would develop toward this fellow Graceling. As she gets swept into the mystery of the Lienid kidapping, Katsa also finds herself getting swept up in a complicated friendship with Po, one that will have her questioning her choices, her identity, and the very nature of her Grace.

In this character-driven fantasy, a good vs. evil plot is just along for the ride as the main characters explore their identities as individuals and as a couple. With a cast of well-developed characters, and a genuinely disturbing evil to fight, this book is engaging and thought-provoking. A great read for YA fantasy fans.

DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP by Willa Cather

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As a young man, the French priest Father Latour was assigned as a missionary to the Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Over the course of his life, he served the diverse community, learning much about the Mexicans, Indians, and Americans who lived there and striving to help the poor, spread the faith, and work for justice.

This Willa Cather classic is a work of fiction based on the life of the real French bishop of Santa Fe.  Laid out as a series of vignettes about different people and circumstances, the story provides a beautifully written, poetic glimpse into a romanticized Old West.

Written in the early 20th century, the book contains prejudicial language and ideas about the various Latino and American Indian populations, some of which are less common today.  Since Cather (and her characters) are trying to understand and respect the people and cultures she writes about, it provides an interesting historical perspective on race relations during the late 19th and early 20th century–and forces today’s white readers who believe themselves to be enlightened and tolerant to examine their own language and behavior for unwitting prejudice.

Although it is short, don’t expect this to be a quick read! The rich, dense prose deserves to be savored.  Fortunately, the vignette formate makes it easy to read in bite-sized chunks.

MAGPIE MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz

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When an editor receives the final installment in famous author Alan Conway’s Atticus Pünd mystery series, she is immediately sucked into the story.  A housekeeper has died falling down the stairs–a seeming accident.  But when the wealthy estate owner is decapitated at the foot of the same staircase days later, it must be connected.  Detective Atticus Pünd hadn’t intended to take any more cases since he learned he is dying.  But the facts of the case are too strange to pass up.  It seems everyone in the village had a motive for one or both murders, and yet none of the motives seem to explain all of the events.  As the novel draws to a close and Pünd is about to reveal the murderer, the editor realizes that there is a chapter missing.  She puts in a call to her boss, asking him to contact the author, and instead receives startling news:  the author is dead–an apparent suicide.  It turns out that he, like his character Pünd, was dying of cancer.  But something doesn’t sit right about the author’s death, and as the editor searches for the final chapter of his manuscript, she begins to suspect that he may have been murdered, as well.

This intriguing double mystery reads a bit like an Agatha Christie.  It is riddled with quirky suspects and red herrings–both in the framing story and the mystery “novel” within.  I found the Pünd plotline more engaging at first, as it took me a little while to get into the framing mystery once the Pünd story abruptly ended.  But it was a neat concept and definitely kept me reading to the end.  I recommend it to fans of classic whodunit mysteries.

THE MYSTERY OF BLACK HOLLOW LANE by Julia Nobel

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People think it must be great growing up as the daughter of a famous child-rearing expert.  But sometimes Emmy wishes she had a normal mom–or at least that her mom spent less time on her work and more time paying attention to the things Emmy is interested in.  When her mom announces that she has accepted a job on a reality TV program and that Emmy will have to go to boarding school on the other side of the ocean, it seems like proof that her mom’s work is more important than she is.  It makes her feel a little bit less guilty about the secret she’s been keeping from her mom: the mysterious note and the box of “relics” from her long-absent father.  “Keep them safe,” the note commanded.  Emmy never knew her father, has no idea what these “relics” are, and doesn’t know who wrote the note or what kind of danger the mysterious writer anticipated.  But when she arrives at her new elite English boarding school, she begins to uncover more pieces of the mystery of who her father was, and in the middle of the web of secrets is a danger much more real and terrifying than Emmy could have imagined.

This intriguing start to a mystery series is a great middle-grade page turner.  The plot draws on common enough tropes–missing father, secret society, “heroic trio uncovering secrets at a boarding school” with a pleasant Harry Potter vibe–but what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in likable characters and an engaging mystery to puzzle out.  I look forward to the sequel!