Category Archives: Mysteries & Thrillers

Bag of Bones by Stephen King

1998. Scribner. Hardcover. 529 pages.

From: public library

Recommended by: Samantha of Booked on a Feeling

Review:

Bag of Bones is about a widowed author who retreats to his lakeside cabin only to find that the cabin is inhabited by at least one ghost. He also meets and falls for a young widowed mother and her daughter, who are threatened by the child’s wealthy paternal grandfather, who is seeking custody.

This is the second novel I’ve read by Stephen King. I read this horror novel in October, with the RIP (Readers in Peril) Challenge in mind, though I never officially signed up for it.

I have a soft spot for stories about men who become surrogate father figures, and so I loved that the relationship Mike Noonan and three-year-old Kyra Devore was at the forefront of the story.

I was not a fan of the disturbing graphic scenes, including one that is a weird sexual dream sequence and another that is a stomach-turning act of violence from the past that started a chain reaction of supernatural malevolence.

Stephen King’s writing is what I might call overstuffed. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Basically, his writing is a stew that he throws lots of ingredients into and some bites of it are better than others. There are observations about everyday life, about Maine, about writing, about spousal relationships. There are recurring references to other stories, from the first line of de Maurier’s Rebecca to a Ray Bradbury story about aliens. Some of the comparison, tangents, and whatnot work for me and others don’t, and it seems that might vary from reader to reader.

Excerpts from other book reviews:

Betsy’s Blog II – “The reader is drawn deep into the world of the characters while at the same time being swept along by the story – reading a Stephen King novel is something like stepping into a river and getting stuck in the current.”

The Lone Writer – “As a whole, King’s penchant for detail does serve a purpose but the monotony of it really slows the story down.”

Lovely Little Shelf – “overall I think that this is one of Stephen King’s stronger books even though it’s usually overlooked.”

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Baltimore Blues by Laura Lippman

1997. Avon Books. Paperback. 290 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation found at: Beth Fish Reads

In a nutshell:

This is the first novel in Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series. Tess Monaghan used to be a reporter, before the Baltimore paper she worked for went under. Unemployed, she works part-time at her aunt’s bookstore and keeps up a rowing routine in the morning. When a rowing buddy offers to pay her to follow his fiancee, who has been acting weird, Tess accepts. But when the fiancee’s boss, a lawyer with the reputation of defending the worst criminals, turns up dead, Tess finds herself out of her depth.

Review:

I’ve had Laura Lippman’s Baltimore-set mysteries on my radar for some time, but knowing she would be at the National Book Festival, I pushed the first book of her Tess Monaghan series to the top of my reading list.

Although Baltimore is not far away from me, I have not visited it often, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Lippman’s depiction. But the setting is a huge part of this mystery, and I do have a penchant for mysteries that thoroughly burrow into their surroundings.

When I first started reading the book, I was wary of some of the details included. For instance, I didn’t like that Tess’ aunt had a quirky bookstore, because I doubted its ability to stay solvent, and also why can’t characters and their relatives have more run-of-the-mill establishments? Why must they always be quirky and successful? I digress.

I also didn’t like that the rowing buddy’s fiancee was a flawlessly beautiful, put-together bitchy woman in a high-status job, a character made even more stereotyped by being contrasted with our more grubby, down-on-her-luck protagonist.

But the book did start winning me over with the story nonetheless. Lippman definitely was good with misdirections and red herrings, and mysteries that may be linked to other mysteries.

I also liked that Tess showed how new she was to the game of investigating. She makes messes, says the wrong things, gets chastised by others for the previous. She has to try and figure out the right thing to do in gray situations.

There have been a number of mystery/thriller series that I have started but never proceeded further. I think that I will be more active in seeking out the second of this series, because – based partly on Lippman’s talk at the Book Festival – I think Tess will continue to evolve as an interesting character, and I think Lippman will serve up some nice, twisty mysteries for Tess to investigate.

Excerpts from other reviews:

Beth Fish Reads – “In the end, the pieces combine to build a logical solution; Lippman did not have to rely on magic tricks to tie up the crime.”

RhapsodyinBooks – “Tess herself is a little too much of a naïve risk-taker, and suffers from low self-esteem, but the first quality seems to be a sine qua non for female detectives, and the second humanizes Tess and draws us to her side.”

S. Krishna’s Books – “I loved the process of self-discovery in this novel as well as how Tess comes to terms with her life and the person she wants to be.”

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The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

1920. Berkley Books. Paperback.198 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell: This is the first book in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot detective mystery series.  The book is narrated by a Mr. Hastings, sent home from the Front on sick leave.  Hastings is invited by an old friend, John Cavendish, to finish his leave at his family estate.  The estate actually is owned by Cavendish’s recently remarried stepmother, Mrs. Inglethorp.  It is she who is the murder victim in the mystery, with any number of suspects, as everyone seems to have at least one secret.

Review:

This is the first Agatha Christie novel I have ever read, and I must thank my cousin Phil for getting me to read it.  Phil has started a Book Group on Facebook, and every couple of months he and I, and assorted other relatives all read the same book.

As far as mysteries are concerned, in recent years I’ve been most drawn to the police procedural type thriller, as opposed to old-fashioned detective mysteries.  I don’t read a lot of mysteries on the whole though.  I had never really had a desire to read Agatha Christie, under the (mistaken) assumption that I have been spoiled by her legacy.  That is, I expected that more recent mysteries in print, film and TV, have employed every trick that Christie was using fresh in her own time.  And so I suspected her mysteries would not seem fresh to me, because I would have seen it all before in derivative form.

Well, I’m pleased to say I was wrong.  Christie makes sure to make almost every character in the book look a little suspicious.  I was pretty sure that this book was not the one where Christie made the narrator the murderer (I think that one is a standalone and I’m glad I don’t remember its title.)  As my suspicions roved around the cast of characters, I was on the right path at one point.  But then, even a broken clock is right two times in a day.

I liked that the everyman Hastings was the narrator.  He is blind to his own faults as most people are, which makes it kind of funny to observe his easily hurt pride and blunders.  But he’s overall a likable chap.  And he is a great perspective from which to watch Poirot work.  Brilliant detectives can be fun to read about, but I think it would be hard to make them good first-person narrators.  I like having a little distance in the perspective.

I think I’ll probably read more Christie mysteries in the future.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles was a quick, pleasant read, good for interspersing among longer, heavier books.

And with that, I’ll leave with a funny statement of one of the characters:

Poor Emily was never murdered until he came along.

Other reviews:

BooksPlease – “I do enjoy those detective stories where you’re given the clues that have been dropped into the narrative throughout the book in a seemingly haphazard way and then are reorganised  at the end as Poirot does in this one to explain how and why the murder was committed.”

FleurFisher – “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” has flaws. Arthur Hastings is too much like John Watson – something that will be corrected in later books – and there are afew two many points that Poirot correctly deduces from no real evidence . . . But there is much more to love.”

Letters from a Hill Farm – “Not only is The Mysterious Affair at Styles the first Hercule Poirot story, but it is her first published novel, period. What a way to start. The talent is right there just bursting at the seams to come out again and again and again throughout her long and prolific writing life.”

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The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

1999. Scribner. Hardcover. 224 pages.

From: the public library

Recommended by: Teresa and Jenny of Shelf Love

In a nutshell:

Nine-year-old Trisha McFarland is out hiking with her older brother and her mother, when she steps off the trail to pee and subsequently gets very lost.  With piecemeal survival knowledge, she tries to find her way to civilization.  She is buoyed by the baseball games she can hear on her Walkman radio but also frightened by signs that she is being stalked by something nonhuman.

Review:

This is the very first book I have read by Stephen King.  I was feeling that I should give him a try since he hails from Maine, my original home state.  When Jenny and Teresa of Shelf Love wrote a post with recommendations for Stephen King newbies, I took up one of their suggestions, this survival tale called The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.

At first, I thought the voice of Trisha McFarland felt forced (the book is written mostly in third-person limited, with some omniscient narrator interjections).  Writing from a young child’s perspective can be tricky, and Trisha’s inner monologues were a bit annoying at the start.  As the business of survival settled in, however, Trisha seemed to crystallize and become sharper as a character.

I think I saw some reviews that said this book was light on scares, but I thought it was satisfyingly creepy and was rapidly flipping the pages to the end.  Getting lost in the woods and feeling ‘watched’ by something malevolent touches on some primal fears.  I thought the slight paranormal element of the narrative was effective in part due to its restraint.

Tom Gordon is a baseball pitcher idolized by Trisha, and thoughts of her hero help steady her as her ordeal drags on.  As her mental and emotional state deteriorates, she even imagines that she sees him walking beside her at times.  In this, the book reminded me strongly of Geraldine McCaughrean’s book The White Darkness which I read last year.  In The White Darkness, the teenage protagonist idolized the doomed explorer Titus Oates, and ‘conversed’ with him as she fought for survival in Antarctica.

I thought the climactic encounter of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon was contrived and a bit underwhelming, but I liked how Trisha’s story ended overall.  Also, Stephen King did a great job of describing the Maine / New Hampshire woods.  Having grown up there, I could definitely visualize the terrain he described.

Other reviews:

A Life in Books – “There are some truly scary moments in this novel, including a feverish dream involving robed priest-like figures, and I think if I had been reading this book in front of a fire in a cabin in the woods, rather than on the deck of a beach house at sunset as the ocean breeze wafted over me, I would have been really frightened, and probably would have had nightmares myself.”

Caribousmom – “[King] keeps it interesting from beginning to end with palm sweating descriptions and suspense.”

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The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

2006. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover. 299 pages.

For the challenge: Thriller & Suspense Reading Challenge

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Yashim is a eunuch entrusted by the Sultan to investigate into a couple of cases: the surfacing of soldiers’ mutilated dead bodies around Istanbul and the murder of one of the harem girls.  Yashim’s investigation raises up the specter of the supposedly obliterated Janissaries.  The Janissaries used to be the great protecting force of the Ottoman Empire before their corruption and rebellion were violently suppressed by the Sultan’s new military guard.

Review:

I am intrigued by mysteries and thrillers that have unusual settings – having a protagonist that isn’t white, for example or set in a offbeat location like Minneapolis, or – as in the case here – set outside the U.S. in a historical period I know only a little about.

I’d read Peter Mansfield’s A History of the Middle East last year, which was useful, if a little dry.  As its coverage was so broad, Mansfield’s book left me wanting to read more focused accounts of the period of history that were mentioned, fiction or non-fiction.  That is how The Janissary Tree came to my attention.

Certainly The Janissary Tree contains some interesting nuggets about Istanbul in 1836.  However, while the historical research bits are not what travel writer Sara Wheeler called in her first book “undigested slabs”, they are not completely integrated with the rest of the story either.

I would describe the book’s primary point-of-view as third-person narrative, mostly from Yashim’s perspective but from others as well.  When historical notes were added into the narrative, it was sometimes hard to tell if this was knowledge that Yashim (or the other person) possessed, or if it was just an omniscient point-of-view popping in for a spell.  I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, so I’m not sure how common this is, but it lent an uneven air to the storytelling.

I was overall disappointed in the book.  The mystery was convoluted and lacking in adequate tension for my tastes.  Yashim was interesting as a type of person (not a lot of eunuch protagonists out there!) but past that, I fear he is not of enough interest for me to want to continue with the series.

That said, I noticed that Jason Goodwin has written some travel memoirs, such as On Foot to the Golden Horn: A Walk to Istanbul and those might be more to my taste.

Other Reviews:

Between the Covers – “The Istanbul of 1836 lives and breathes – and rattles and reeks – on the page.”

Blogging for a Good Book – “As in today’s Middle East, issues of modernization versus tradition, the importance of religious observance, and the rise of fundamentalism are a source of conflict in these tales, and that conflict affects all levels of society.”

Curious Book Fans – “I must conclude that I found Yashim very interesting but the author failed to develop the character and he seemed anchorless within the story whereas more minor characters seemed quite grounded.”

Grumpy Old Bookman – “. . . However, the author is inexperienced in the field of fiction, and it shows. And in my view the ending is too subtle for its own good.”

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A Dark Dividing by Sarah Rayne

2004. Mass Market Paperback.

Simon & Schuster. 535 pages (not counting excerpt of another book by author)

Recommended by: Eva of A Striped Armchair

From: the public library (ILL)

For the challenge: RIP V Challenge

Synopsis & Review:

Journalist Harry Fitzglen has been assigned a story that is, on the surface, a review of a new art gallery.  However, his real purpose is to find out more about the featured photographer artist, Simone Anderson.  When Simone was born as one half of a conjoined twin, there was a lot of media fuss stirred up on account of the twins’ politician father.  But as Harry’s editor notes, the story gets a bit murky from there – a few too many people dead or disappeared.

A series of diary entries by a woman named Charlotte Quinton run alongside this story.  Charlotte gave birth to conjoined twins in the early years of the 20th century.  What at first seems just a slight connection to Simone’s story becomes even more complex further in the book.

A Dark Dividing is told in multiple voices from different eras: Charlotte; Simone’s mother, Mel, at the time of the twins’ infancy; Simone herself as a child and as an adult; and Harry, the outsider, flexing his research skills and digging deeper.  Also, a nurse named Roz has some sections of narrative.

Sarah Rayne handles these multiple narratives by frequently using a phrase from the end of one narrative and placing it into the beginning of the next narrative.  It’s a transparent segue device but it works here, because the story is all about parallels and connections.

At the center of the multiple narratives is the chilling Mortmain House, a forbidding ruin that used to function in Victorian times as a work house and also as a place for abandoned and orphaned children.

The book definitely had lots of atmosphere, especially as the Mortmain House was concerned.  One of the creepiest moments was when the child Simone enters the decrepit Mortmain house and the flash of her camera reveals that she is not alone.

Simone was definitely my favorite character, but I was invested in all the stories and characters, even minor ones like Mel’s steadfast friend, Isabel.

What with this book and also Little Face, British thrillers seem to be winning out with me lately.  Sarah Rayne is now another author I will have to seek out again.

Other Reviews:

A Striped Armchair – “… the characters all felt so real, and the plots were quite fun (the twists were pretty transparent, but I don’t think that was the point, you know?), and the writing was marvelous.”

Litter Critter – “… the writing is refreshing in its honesty and the hints of humour throughout only bring more poignancy to an already fantastic read.”

Servant of the Secret Fire – “In this elegant and atmospheric thriller, Sarah Rayne shifts effortlessly among multiple viewpoints . . . without ever losing the thread of her complicated story, and keeps the reader turning the pages until the satisfying ending, which is the most difficult trick of all, since I find that books that start out with promising premises such as this one often fall flat at the end.”

 

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Little Face by Sophie Hannah

2006. Soho Press. Hardcover. 310 pages.

From: the public library

For the challenge: RIP V Challenge, Peril the Second, Thriller & Suspense Reading Challenge

Recommendation from: Loved the author’s interview with Savidge Reads

In a nutshell:

When Alice Fancourt returns from her first outing away from her infant daughter, she insists that the baby in the crib is not her daughter Florence.  Her husband does not agree with her and the police do not find enough evidence to justify pursuing an investigation of kidnapping.  Detective Constable Simon Waterhouse continues to be bothered by the case, however, and when Alice and the baby disappear a week later, he starts digging into past events.

Review:

Little Face is told in alternating viewpoints: Alice’s first-person narrative starting from that fateful outing and Simon’s third-person viewpoint starting a week later, after Alice has vanished.  Neither are completely reliable narrators, and it is not a spoiler to say so, as the reader notices right off a certain vagueness and scattered small omissions.  I knew that I was not being given full access to information that the characters knew, but I wasn’t sure what that meant.  I was definitely rooting for Simon and especially Alice, as both of them were made solitary from others by their respective convictions about the truth of the situation.

Alice’s husband and mother-in-law were clearly manipulative people, but again, until the final revelations, I wasn’t sure what bad acts they were responsible for, exactly.  All I knew for certain is that they each were seeking to control Alice.  Her husband, David, was particularly disturbing in his growing animosity toward Alice.

The novel plays around with society’s perceptions of female hysteria, especially as it relates to new mothers.  A number of characters are eager to slap on the labels of post-partum depression, etc. onto Alice and be done with her claims.  I loved when Alice responded to her husband at one point: “Just because I’m upset doesn’t mean I’m not being rational.”

This is definitely an engrossing thriller – I ended up staying up way too late on a work night to finish it.  I will be checking out more works by Sophie Hannah in the future!

Other reviews:

Farm Lane Books – “Unlike much of the crime fiction I have read recently this contained no unlikely coincidences. The plot was as realistic as it is possible to get, while retaining many clever twists.”

Reading Matters – “The story is one of those rip-roaring woman-in-peril narratives that starts out at a ferocious pace but eventually loses steam and ends up making the reader want to throw the book across the room out of disappointment and frustration.”

Scribbles – “Sophie Hannah has created brilliant characters in this book, she presents all of their flaws, making them particularly believable.”

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