The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz (Mystery)

The second installment of Horowitz’ self-referential detective series starring himself as the semi-bumbling, self-deprecating sidekick to the enigmatic Detective Daniel Hawthorne. Horowitz writes fantastic mysteries — they are convoluted in the most delightful ways, are full of interesting characters, and progress at the perfect pace (also — I never do figure it out early!) One of the benefits of this particular series is also gaining some insight into other aspects of Horowitz’ writing life — the production issues for Foyles War, the interactions with agents and booksellers, and parts of the Writer’s Process (as experienced by Mr. Horowitz).

I don’t want to give away *anything* in the plot, but it covers a wide range of places, people, time, and professions — divorce lawyers, (very) expensive wine, literary snobs, interior decorators, spelunkers, forensic accountants, muscular dystrophy, and the NHS. Horowitz does an impressive job of applying diversity to characters with no regard to stereotypical expectations. I did find myself struggling to constantly sift out the fact from the fiction, which told me more about myself and my own neuroses than about the book — it doesn’t matter a bit! A fun read.

Great for fans of Robert Galbraith.

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 28th, 2019.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford (Age 10+)

A perfect kids book! Had it been around when I was young I would have read it a hundred times by now (like my other favorites: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Wrinkle in Time, and Charlotte’s Web). It’s an adventure story complete with rambling houses, hidden treasures, eccentric characters, ghosts, and Mystery with a capital M.

12-year old Milo Pine lives with his adoptive parents in Greenglass House — a rambling old Inn whose “regulars” are the smugglers who need a little “shore time.” Greenglass House is perched above a deep gorge — accessible only via a creaky cable car named the Whilforber Whirlwind or a 310 step stairway.

As Christmas vacation commences, and Milo prepares to snuggle in for some serious R&R in the empty Inn, the cable car bell keeps ringing and the number of guests (and emergency helpers) grow until Milo finds himself amidst a sea of eccentric characters who all seem to be on delightfully connected personal quests that center on the house itself.

Weaving together folk tales and local legend with a little paranormal thrown in, Milo uncovers the mysteries of Greenglass House and the odd set of characters who are so fixated on it. Milo — prone to anxiety and panic attacks — also develops delightfully through the twin instruments of literature and role playing games.

Good writing — the story is complex enough to engage adults and yet completely accessible to the target kid audience.

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny (Inspector Gamache series — the 14th)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Overall reading pleasure: 5/5

I’m (very, very) happy to say that this latest Inspector Gamache mystery is back to the high standards of the first 12. I thought the last book — Glass Houses — was incredibly disappointing.

This installment merges two stories: Gamache, Myrna, and a Dr. Seussian builder named Benedict are named as liquidators (think executors) of Bertha Baumgartner’s estate — a woman none of them knows. The will is odd, to say the least, and the almost immediate murder of one of the beneficiaries adds some definite tension! At the same time, a temporarily suspended Gamache is desperately trying to track down the last bit of carfentanil that he had to let slip in order to bust the drug ring in the last book. Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than Fentanyl, itself 100 times more potent than Heroin.

This is not your typical mystery series — it’s character driven but they aren’t just any characters. They are the idealized versions of the people you wish would populate your life. None of them are average or really have any annoying faults at all (though some do pretend). They are smart, capable, witty, loving, interesting, and always do and say the exact right things at the right time. In these books, kindness, friendship, love, and hope manage to take on the grit and grime of crime on a massive scale and actually win. Sure, it’s just a fairy tale … but such a nice one!

While I have a few issues with the plot, this is simply a book that is impossible to put down. The writing is succinct with great dialog and beautifully distilled principles, descriptions, and action. Character driven with lots of intriguing psychological and philosophical driving forces.

As an aside, Ruth, the longstanding and crotchety old poet, has been getting the credit for the acronym FINE (“F***ed Up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional”) — I just realized that the true credit goes to an Aerosmith song from 1989!

A few quotes I liked:
About a man with dementia: “For the last year or so of his life, he no longer recognized family and friends. He was kindly to all, but he beamed at some. They were the ones he loved. He knew them instinctively and kept them safe, not in his wounded head but in his heart”

“Things sometimes fell apart unexpectedly. It was not necessarily a reflection of how much they were valued.”

“Four statements lead to wisdom: I don’t know. I need help. I was wrong. I’m sorry.” (Gamache’s favorite — repeated in most of the books)

Poetry line: “Who hurt you once so far beyond repair / that you would greet each overture with curling lip.”

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters

Disappointing! I loved Magpie Murders  and I love Horowitz’ TV work (Midsomer Murder, Foyle’s War) so I was looking forward to this book, which I picked up in London last year and finally got around to reading. But … it did not live up to my expectations.

Horowitz likes to experiment with writing style. In this book, he includes himself as a character who has been asked by real-life detective Daniel Hawthorne to follow him around and write a book about his cases — to be the Watson to his Holmes as it were.

The Horowitz character is annoyed that Hawthorne doesn’t give him any personal background or share his ongoing thoughts or inner procedures on the case (I bet Holmes frustrated Watson in the same way).

While I don’t mind this blurring of fact and fiction, I found the Horowitz character’s issues with his agent, his wife, and trying to out-think the detective (and getting it wrong) just a distraction from the actual murder mystery (that part was well done!). Instead of objectively following a detective and watching him work, we had a whiny author complaining about getting pulled out of an important meeting with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson in order to go see the body, or complaining that the detective wouldn’t open up so he had no background to write.

I’m not sure why it didn’t work for me — it was obviously supposed to be playful and funny — but I just found it tedious!

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Characters: 5 Writing: 5 Plot: 4.5

A remarkable and entertaining book — appealing to literary fiction and mystery lovers alike. As a whodunit, it has it all — convoluted plot, simmering tensions in the community, and plenty of motive to spread amongst an array of characters. What takes it past straight mystery and into the realm of literary fiction is the top notch writing (see great lines below), truly in-depth characters, and the fact that the narrative never takes the easy way out.

This is a story of murder in the small, East Texas community of Lark (population 178). Two bodies are pulled out of the bayou behind Georgia Sweet’s Sweet shop within days of each other — a 35-year old black man and a 20-year old local white woman. Darren Matthews, one of the few black Texas Rangers (his now-deceased favorite Uncle was the first) is unofficially asked to nose around the case. Darren is the epitome of the Hero — a strong, capable, focussed man who can’t bear to injustice — especially when it has a racial component. He won’t stand by as the black community takes the heat for the white girl’s death, but neither does he give in to the temptation of assuming the Aryan Brotherhood (ensconced just down the road at the Ice House) are to blame. He must work around a local (white) Sheriff who seethes under Matthews’ technically superior rank, the threatening Brotherhood members who would love to get “credit” for bringing down a black Ranger, and even a black community that doesn’t appear to trust him.

This 2018 Edgar Award winning book goes deep into the way racial tensions can fracture a community and give rise to crimes that are far more nuanced than your typical hate crimes. I couldn’t put this book down, though I have to say the stress level (for me, as I can never seem to separate myself from a book that feels as real as this one) was quite high.

Strongly recommended!

Some of my favorite lines:

“Seemed like death had a mind to follow her around in this life time. It was a sly shadow at her back, as single-minded as a dog on a hunt, as faithful, too.”

“Criminality, once it touched black life, was a stain hard to remove.”

“…men of stature and purpose, who each believed he’d found in his respective profession a way to make the country fundamentally hospitable to black life.” (about his uncles…)

“But sometime after he hit forty, the word Mama shot out as if it were a stubborn seed lodged in his teeth all these years that had finally popped free.”

“Most black folks living in Lark came from sharecropping families, trading their physical enslavement for the crushing debt that came with tenant farming, a leap from the frying pan into the fire, from the certainty of hell to the slow, torture of hope.

“For black folks, injustice came from both sides of the law, a double-edged sword of heartache and pain.”

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

Writing: 4.5 Characters: 4.5 Plot: 4.5

Another great installment of the Cormoran Strike series. These books just fly for me — 600+ pages and I finished it in two days. The plot is just convoluted enough to require focus, but not confusing or (even worse) stupid. Rowling is the master of the archetypal character — each appeals to us in deeply rooted ways, but is fleshed out enough to feel fully human. I am drawn to Strike, and the reason is nicely summarized in this line: “…but the itch to detect, solve and reimpose order upon the moral universe could not be extinguished in him.” I like characters that are aware they dwell in a moral universe and apply themselves to keeping it that way!

In this episode, Strike and his equally well-developed sidekick Robin Ellacott, investigate the blackmailing of the distinctly unlikable Jasper Chiswell, Minister of Culture. Coincidentally, Strike is approached by a malodorous and highly agitated young man who claims to have witnessed a strangling and burial on the grounds of Chiswell’s estate when he was a small child. While he is most likely delusional, there is just enough about the interaction to turn “that niggling doubt into a significant and possibly permanent impediment to the detective’s peace of mind.”

Plenty of color is provided in the interactions between aristocrats (the Chiswell family and friends) and a group of Marxists, including the son of the old Chiswell estate caretaker. While none come off as particularly appealing, the aristocrats come off decidedly worse. While some are less unpleasant than others, they all share a disregard for the lives of those who are not in their social class. Also included, some pretty funny references to the experience of “sudden” fame for Strike, which must have come directly from Rowling’s own experience.

The writing is as great as you’d expect — my only complaint is that too much time is spent on the nature of the relationship between Strike and Robin. Does he like me? Why is she still with her twit husband? Is he falling for another woman? Blah, blah, blah. That part reads like a poorly drafted romance novel that has run out of ideas. Luckily, plenty of action and intriguing characters help distract the reader from that small irritation.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Thanks to NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on March 5, 2019.
Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters 4.5/5

A fun, fast-paced, whodunit where real life begins to resemble the sinister stories taught in Clare Cassidy’s Gothic literature course. Clare specializes in RM Holland, author of the classic: The Stranger. However, when her best friend and colleague turns up dead, with a line from the story by her body, things start to get chilling. Unsure of whom she can trust, Clare turns to her diary — only to find that someone else is writing in it as well …

The first person narrative alternates between Clare, her 15-year old daughter, Georgia, and Harbinder Kaur — the 35-year old, highly suspicious, Sikh, lesbian detective assigned to the case. Plenty of plot twists, good character development, and lots of fun literary references since much of the action takes place in the English department! Most of the action takes place in a small town on the Sussex Coast, but some beautiful scenes in Ullapool, Scotland as well.

A standalone mystery offering from Elly Griffiths, author of the Ruth Galloway series.