Thursday, January 02, 2020

Review: The Turn of the Key

The Turn of the Key The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The short version: Loved it

The slight longer version: A young woman gets a dream nanny job. The pay check is unbelievable. Well, yes, the family has gone through several nannies in the past years, but Rowan is sure it's not because of ghosts but because of the remote location: in the middle of the Scottish Highlands. But once she gets there, she begins to believe something odd is going on . . . .

And the reader knows that something terrible happened. Because Rowan is in jail, desperately writing to a lawyer, hoping to clear her name, insistent that she did not kill that child.

OH SO GOOD.

So Rowan is telling the story, and you know she isn't the most reliable narrator, and there are hints and clues that she's not been entirely honest or straightforward. For example, she was desperate for the job and so instead of being herself, became who she thought the family wanted to hire, so no messy hair and jeans, but, rather, nice hair and smart clothes.

And you also know the family and the house has something odd going on. Rowan only meets the wife when she interviews, and some of the daughters; the husband is away on business. This one interview gets her hired -- she never even meets the father! And then, when she starts, both parents have to go away on business so almost from day one, she is alone with these small children who she has barely met.

What parent does that, leaves their children with an almost stranger?

And the house: the house is amazing and wonderful and scary. The parents are architects and the house is old manor in the front, modern glass in the back, and all of it is "smart technology". So smart that it's next to impossible to figure out how any of it works.

There is also a poison garden.

So: which child died? Who killed them? Was it Rowan? What are Rowan's secrets? What are the secrets of the house?

So so good. But the ending.... I'm still not sure what I think. And it comes down a bit to "glass half full" in terms of what one believes happens next.





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Monday, December 30, 2019

Review: The Moving Finger

The Moving Finger The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

1945, so just a few years after the previous book.

What I liked about The Moving Finger: it's set in a different town, so that already, Christie is recognizing that having a bunch of murders in Miss Marple's village is ridiculous, so go other places.

What's also great: Miss Marple herself doesn't show up until the end. These books are not about Miss Marple, rather, about Miss Marple solving crimes.

So the start: a brother and sister are renting a home in a small village. He was in a plane crash, and they are now in this village while he recuperates. So they are the outsiders, observers. And one thing they are observing: anonymous poison pen letters being sent to random people. And the deaths: people driven to suicide? Or something more?

I loved how literally anyone could have been the writer and the murderer.

Things I did not love and why I wouldn't recommend this for folks looking for a mystery. One of the folks in the area is clearly a gay man, and the one he is talked about isn't great.

One thing I did like: there is a young woman who today would be said to be on the autism spectrum. Instead, she's portrayed as odd and different and not a typical girl. But, and this is important, the main character likes her and respects her for being who she is and doesn't want to change her. (OK, there is a shopping trip for better clothes, but that is more about her parents being so-so than the man trying to change her.)






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Thursday, December 26, 2019

Review: The Body in the Library

The Body in the Library The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My reading of Miss Marple continues!

Miss Marple, little old lady, whose observations of those around her, and memory of all the local gossip, and ability to apply what happens in one situation to other situations, makes her the perfect mystery solver.

Here the mystery: a body is found in the library of a house and no one recognizes the dead woman! Who is she, why is she there, and who killed her?

This one takes place in Miss Marple's home town. One thing I found interesting with this series is the publication dates: such huge gaps! I want to reread Christie's biography, to get a better grasp of why there is such a time difference. That said, this is set in 1942, and yet Miss Marple is basically "the same age," but I guess old is old. What does change is the world around her, what is shown, what is thought.

The belief system of the people in the Marple books are unchanged: the characters' belief in class and the class system is so clear. As the books go further into the twentieth century, there is a sense of how the good old days where better because folks knew and appreciated their place in society.

Anyway! Here!

There is a reference to a main couple from the first book; very slight, and it's clear that in the Marple world this book isn't ten years but only two or so years after the first, because the baby announced in that book is now at the crawling stage.







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Monday, December 23, 2019

Review: The Cottages on Silver Beach

The Cottages on Silver Beach The Cottages on Silver Beach by RaeAnne Thayne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The stories surrounding Haven Point continues; the hero her, Elliot, is the older brother of characters who have starred elsewhere.

Some interesting backstory here: the heroine, Megan, was seeing Elliot's younger brother Wyatt, who was killed years ago. Megan always saw Elliot as a bit standoffish, not recognizing the reasons behind that. Plus, if that wasn't enough, Megan has a bit of a convoluted family background (abusive stepfather, missing sister in law, family property she's in charge of but not in love with, sacrificed dreams for family.) I found Megan's backstory a bit tricky, actually, in that I always have a bit of hard time with the combo of "wonderful grandmother" and "but nothing was done about the godawful stepfather." Thayne sold it.

Now, the missing sister in law: Elliot is both in the FBI and the author of true crime books. Everyone thinks that the wife is dead and Megan's brother got away with murder. But is she?

(OK, one quibble, in the way that the missing woman's postpartum depression was talked about by other characters, as if some people wouldn't experience it because of their personality? It was a bit WTF to me how it was talked about, especially when it was light of how they remembered a person was in their teens.)





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Thursday, December 19, 2019

Review: The House at Riverton

The House at Riverton The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love Kate Morton books! But, given the way they unfold -- over time, skipping back and forth, with secrets -- there's no way I could read one right after the other.

So! This was described as perfect for fans of Downton Abbey, and that is so true.

Then: a grand house, and a dramatic suicide during a house party.

Now: an old woman who was a maid then, contacted by people making a film about the tragedy and the family.

I LOVED this, the dual stories of the dying grand family while a young girl rises up.

I don't want to get to much into Grace's story, the teenage daughter of a single mother sent to the grand house to be a maid, a good position at the turn of the last century. How her life changes, how she views herself changes, how her loves change, how her opportunities change as time goes by, is, well, wonderful. With a touch of fear, because one cannot help but wonder about her involvement in that long ago murder.

Meanwhile the story of the grand family is told primarily in the 1920s and earlier, and in many ways its about how those families and that lifestyle is dying, changing, being left behind.

And also a happy ending! No, really, the surprises here are happy ones that left me, well, so content and satisfied.






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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Review: Pieces of Her

Pieces of Her Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sadly a DNF.

I liked the idea of it: a young woman finds out about her mother's past! And clearly based on cases like Kathleen Soliah / Sarah Jane Olson, with a timeline shift for the revolutionary acts occurring in the 1980s.

And it's really great at first: the twenty-something daughter finding out her normal mother has secrets, discovering them in drastic and nerve wracking ways.

But: but when it flashes back to the 1980s a character comes in, who is supposed to be charismatic and a leader and loved and from the start I just found him creepy and disturbing and so it made me think that those who followed him and believed in him were, well, stupid. Perhaps if he had been introduced in a different way -- but the way he was just made me go "ick."

That said, I was invested enough to skip to the end, read the last few chapters, and loved how those last chapters played out.




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Thursday, December 12, 2019

Review: A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President

A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President by Jeffrey Toobin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this for two reasons: first, because of the planned season for American Crime Story based in part on this book. Second, having been alive during this time period, I was interested in how it was written.

This is about the Clinton impeachment. And as I read, I remember how it unfolded in the media; I remembered what I thought at the time. I learned things I didn't know, had a better grasp of what was and was not going on.

I'd read that Monica Lewinsky is a producer for the planned season, and I'll say this: this book is not always kind to her. So that she is involved in this makes me respect her all the more: and I do respect the hell out of her, for what she's gone through, and what she's done since.

Back to the book: I'm impressed with how much research was done, and how many people the author talked to, to get so much information, and then to put it together in a narrative that makes sense. If, like me, you're old enough to remember this, it's worth the read to discover what you didn't know. Or, also, to see if as time has passed, any of your judgments have changed.

And if this is "history" to you, it's worth it to read, because what happened then didn't end then. It's helped shape today's political landscape.









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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Review: The Thirteen Problems

The Thirteen Problems The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My commitment to reading Miss Marple in order continues!

Except I read not this version, but the ones in the book of the complete Miss Marple stories.

I like the short stories very much, and I especially liked how these stories were told. A bunch of folks sitting around sharing mysteries they've encountered; Miss Marple manages to figure out each one. And she figures out each story from what is in the story itself; I was reminded of Encyclopedia Brown, actually. Now, some things a modern reader or non British reader may not get; but it was still all there, in the text, to figure out on one's own.

So far, the worst I'm seeing in the books is strong classism -- people knowing their place, as it were, and liking it that way. And of course the British looking down at everyone who isn't them, usually presented in how they view "foreigners."

This is the book I read; and for reasons I'll go into later, I think a Miss Marple read is best for adult and only for those interested in how Christie crafts stories.


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Thursday, December 05, 2019

Review: The Murder at the Vicarage

The Murder at the Vicarage The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As promised, I've begun my read of the Miss Marple mysteries. I almost wrote "reread" but I honestly am not sure which ones I've read and not read.

So: this was written in 1930 and is set in a small English village and I do wonder if that English country life depicted was true then or not.

What I found interesting:

Miss Marple is not the main character, or the person telling the story. The narrator is the vicar, and it's at the vicarage where the dead body is found. Miss Marple is one of the old ladies of the village, and she pops in and out of the narrative. Ultimately, she does solve the mystery, largely because she knows human nature, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And her knowledge comes from a life lived in a small village, and how living in that small area, living in place where you truly know your neighbors -- you learn that people are capable of terrible things. She's not naive.

I also found it interesting that, based on the publication date, Miss Marple mustn't have been intended as someone who anchors a long series because it was published in 1930. And as you'll soon see, the next Miss Marple novel was written in the 1940s.







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Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Review: Truly Devious

Truly Devious Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a perfect mystery!

The setting: a remote boarding school for smart and unique teens. Stevie Bell is there for her first year and is a bit intimidated by her classmates. She's just an average kid from an average background; the specialty that got in her into the school?

Her expertise: true crime. Ellingham Academy is the site of an infamous case: back when the school was founded, almost 100 years ago, the school's rich founder lived at the school (or rather, the school was on his estate.) His wife and daughter were kidnapped; ransom was paid, but they were not returned. No one ever figured out who did it, with one of the only clues a note signed "Truly Devious."

Stevie is determined to solve the decades old crime. But in the meanwhile, there is school and classmates, adjustments, parties.

And then: someone is found dead. And Stevie has a real life mystery to solve.

Stevie finds out that death in person is a lot different than death in books, on TV, in podcasts.

OK, I am trying to avoid any spoiler of "who dies" and "who disappears" and what happened. Let me say: I loved this book. I adored the remote setting, very country house mystery in the set up. I loved how the old crime and its aftermath was discussed and portrayed: if you've read up on old crimes such as the Lindbergh kidnapping, you'll nod your head in recognition, in a good way.

I loved the mix of teens -- the school is just for juniors and seniors, and each is unique, and some are endearing and some are annoying. Just like any teen. I loved Stevie trying to figure out her surroundings. I also loved that Stevie has anxiety, and it's part of who she is, but it's not the point of the story.

This is the first in a trilogy. The death that takes place in the book is solved; but the Truly Devious mystery, that's part of the trilogy.

Any last words? I want to visit Ellingham Academy. Just without kidnappings and murders.






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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Review: After the Fire

After the Fire After the Fire by Will Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Moonbeam is 17 and her story is told in “before” and “after.” After: injured, in a hospital, locked in, and so many people with questions about what happened.

Before: her life with Father John, where outside was forbidden, and people knew their places. Hers: the life of a promised bride, one day to be one of wives of Father John.

And the Fire: and the guns and explosions and now Moonbeam is in the hospital and so many of her Brothers and Sisters, so many of the people she grew up with, are dead.

Before: jumps back and forth a bit in time to try to explain the before. To explain why her parents brought their baby and themselves to a world with so many rules and so many restrictions. To explain why she stayed, why her mother stayed, when things changed and others left.
And also: to explain her secret, what she doesn’t want others finding out.

I liked how even thought this life was all Moonbeam knew, these people were all she knew, something inside her led to her realize what was wrong with her life “before” and how she could make different choices now.

I liked how we saw, as Moonbeam saw, things that were positive and wonderful about her childhood…. But that we also realized, sometimes before Moonbeam did, that there were things wrong with how she was living, and things wrong with the people she loved.

As a grown up, I’m not entirely convinced by her parents’ actions, but I found myself with sympathy towards her mother, and forgiveness, and I hope that means Moonbeam finds that, also.
And I loved how understanding and sympathetic the hospital staff and doctors and even the police were.

And if its not clear from the above, this is a child raised in an isolated cult, and then there is a siege similar to what happened in Waco, and Moonbeam is the voice of one of the teens who made it out alive.




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Thursday, November 21, 2019

Review: City of Ghosts

City of Ghosts City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finally one for your younger readers!

Cass is twelve, but I’ll admit I at first thought she was a couple of years older so I think this can be enjoyed by your younger teens because it’s not “young.”

A year ago, when she was eleven, she drowned. She survived, but ever since, she can see ghosts – including her new best friend, the ghost who saved her from drowning.

And here’s a twist: her parents are the best selling authors of a popular series about ghosts. Her dad is the logical one with the science and history, her mother is the fanciful one with myths and legends. Neither know about her new found ability to see ghosts; neither see ghosts themselves.
And then: her parents start hosting a reality TV show. About ghosts.

And their first stop to investigate? Edinburgh, Scotland, homes of hundreds of ghosts: dead from plague, dead from execution, dead from cold, dead from illness.

Cass discovers there is more to her talent of seeing ghosts; and that ghosts can be dangerous. Very dangerous.

I really enjoyed Cass and her personality; and the adventures are just the right level of scary and dangerous.





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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review: The Widow

The Widow The Widow by Fiona Barton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As you may recall, I read the second Kate Waters book a few months back, and then went back to read the first. It's not necessary to read in order; but had I done so, I would have recognized some of the author's storytelling techniques.

So, the "series" is anchored by Kate Waters, reporter. And reader, I like her. I like her because she's older (her sons are teens) and she and her life are messy and real. She is a good reporter, but she's not super brilliant. She's just... normal. Typical.

In this book, a man has died and the press swarm around his widow. Because a few years back, he was accused of kidnapping a small child. And while not convicted for the crime, everyone "knows" he's guilty. So the press want an interview, the one that will tell them for sure what he did.

This is told by Jean, the widow; and Kate, the reporter. And what I liked here is that I kept on going back and forth, as more details were shared, about whether or not Jean's husband was guilty or not. And if he was, how much Jean knew.

I'm eager to read the third!





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Thursday, November 14, 2019

Review: A Skinful of Shadows

A Skinful of Shadows A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I do enjoy a Frances Hardinge book! Always different and fresh; but also always with so much depth and complication.

1640s. England. Makepeace, twelve, lives with her mother and her aunt's family in Poplar, a village outside of London. OK, first of all: Poplar! This is the Poplar that becomes the Poplar of Call the Midwife. Every time I heard it I smiled. I'm not sure if that was on purpose or not but I loved it.

Makepeace was born out of wedlock; her mother lives in compliance with rules and morals and beliefs of their Puritan community. It's not so much that her mother believes it: but it's where they live, the times they live. Where they hide -- from their past. From where her mother, unwed, pregnant, fled.

Makepeace has nightmares: ghosts attack her, at night. Her mother offers no sympathy: she wants her daughter to toughen up.

Then the unthinkable happens: Makepeace and her mother are caught up in a riot against King Charles in London, and her other dies. Before, one word is whispered about where her mother had come from, and Makepeace, full of grief, is sent to her father's home. A great home, a great family, and Makepeace is one of the illegitimate children given a home. A home as long as she works, of course.

It is here she learns the family gift: they can absorb ghosts. The ghosts become part of them. Only some in the family have this talent, and that - not compassion, not love - is why homes are offered to children like Makepeace.

And that's just the beginning! What does it mean to have a ghost within you? What does it do to the host and to the ghost?

Meanwhile all this is playing out against the battles between Parliament and King, between the different forms of religion practiced.

Makepeace: what can I say. She is determined and loyal and smart. And her adventures!

And, of course, now I want to know more about the English Civil War. As an American reader, I know the generalities, and I felt it was enough to understand the story and what was going on. That said, I imagine someone with a greater knowledge of that time period would get more out of it, have a deeper appreciation of the politics Makepeace observed.





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