The Fourth Bear, by Jasper Fforde (10 March — 13 March)

I can’t help it. I love Jasper Fforde and his novels. And now I have to wait several months until his next book comes out! Oh no!

The Fourth Bear is the second in Fforde’s Nursery Crime series, in which nursery rhyme characters are real(-ish) and subject to actual laws. Our main participants this time are Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the Gingerbreadman, who has escaped from jail and is again on a murderous rampage. DCI Jack Spratt and his sergeant Mary Mary are not on the case, as they’ve been sidelined after letting Red Riding Hood and her grandmother get eaten by the wolf. Oops.

Instead, they’re on the hunt for the missing Goldilocks, a journalist with an eye lately for cucumber news who was last seen in a baby bear’s bed. The trail leads, well, everywhere. Giant multinational corporation (no, not Goliath), porridge smuggling, explosions, closet-heterosexual member of Parliament, Agent Danvers (Danvers!)… it’s all there, and mostly makes sense. Oh, also, Jack buys a car from Dorian Gray. That’s smart.

I liked the story, here, but it was a little back-loaded answers-wise. Things just keep spiralling out of control until all of a sudden, poof! The answer! Convenient! But the writing is fun enough that I will forgive it. A quote I put up on Twitter when I started out: “He was seven foot three, and she was six foot two. It was a match made perhaps not in heaven but certainly nearer the ceiling.” Strangely, that’s 140 characters exactly.

One other thing I didn’t like about the story is that there’s a point where everything is going wrong and it’s looking bad for Jack and then he’s like, “But wait! This is just a plot contrivance! I will convince those involved in this situation to just, ah, ignore it, and then I can go back to detecting!” I get that in this weird Fforde universe, the characters know they’re in a book. But generally, they’re meant not to let everyone else know that, so this is just lazy. Ah well.

Rating: 7/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Wales)

The Big Over Easy, by Jasper Fforde (29 January — 30 January)

Oh, Jasper Fforde, you’ve done it again! This is the first book of Fforde’s Nursery Crime series, which first shows up in The Well of Lost Plots and exists in tandem with the Thursday Next universe.

The conceit here is that nursery rhyme characters are real but don’t know they’re from nursery rhymes, and that they now get prosecuted for their crimes (they are, of course, Brothers Grimm versions).

So when Humpty Dumpty is found dead and cracked at the bottom of a wall, it’s up to Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and Detective Sergeant Mary Mary to find out whodunnit and why. Was it suicide? Was it one of Humpty’s hundreds of ex-lovers? Was it, perhaps, Solomon Grundy (born on Monday), who is poised to absorb the failing Spongg footcare dynasty into his own chiropody company, Winsum & Loosum?

Of course, the unpublished Spratt is having a hard time with his case because he’s not a Guild member. His cheating upstart former partner, Friedland Chymes, is, and he’s ready to steal this case any way he can to get a new story in Amazing Crime Stories and have even more accolades heaped upon him.

Oh yes. It is that ridiculous, and that awesome. Each chapter begins with an excerpt about other nursery crimes or the Guild of Detectives, and there are so many references to nursery rhymes that it could be a bit overwhelming, but it’s not. I also like that Fforde has trotted out all of the mystery genre traits (I did take a course on mysteries, after all!) and used them well. If you don’t mind a bit of fancy with your murder mystery, I would heartily suggest picking up this book.

Rating: 8/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge)

Out, by Natsuo Kirino (11 January — 14 January)

Out was an optional novel for the class on mystery novels I took last spring, but I read something else instead. After reading it, I can definitely see why it would be on a class syllabus, though I’m not sure it can really be called a mystery.

The book follows the stories of four women — one who kills her husband and the three who end up disposing of the body. All four of them are intent on covering up the crime, and it seems they will when another suspect turns up, one who has a murder on his record already. The mystery, as it were, is whether or not these women will get caught. It’s a distinct possibility throughout, what with detectives asking questions and certain of the women just being generally stupid. It’s more of a thriller, really, and the story really picks up steam near the end when all the carefully laid plans start falling apart.

Kirino lets you see scenes from the point of view of all of the characters, sort of rewinding the tape and starting over so you can see what’s really going on. It’s a good story-telling device, but it started getting tedious after a bit when I just wanted the story to get a move on, already.

Rating: 6/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2003, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

The Likeness, by Tana French (18 November — 21 November)

Just go read this book right now. Seriously. Well, actually, read In the Woods first, and then read this one.

The Likeness is vaguely related to its predecessor, In the Woods, in that the main character in this new one, Cassie Maddox, was a secondary character in the first one and sometimes references the events of the first book. You could definitely read them out of order, but I really think I liked this one so much because of the way it follows off the first.

Anyway, what we have here is Cassie Maddox, a recent-ish transfer from Dublin’s murder squad to its domestic violence squad, called in on a murder case because, well, the girl that got murdered looks exactly like her. Also, the girl is identified as Lexie Madison, the name that Cassie used during an undercover operation a long time ago. Cassie is naturally drawn to the weird coincidence of it all, and when her old undercover boss asks her to pretend to be a recovered Lexie for a while to find out who killed her, Cassie’s in.

It’s not easy, of course; Lexie lived with her four best friends who knew nearly everything about each other, and it could have been one of them who stabbed Lexie. As Cassie settles in to her undercover role, she also settles in to her Lexie role and loses that objectivity that is so necessary to solving the case.

This book. Was. AWESOME. Whenever I wasn’t reading it, I was wondering what was happening to Cassie and how the heck she was going to pull it off. I was very seriously anxious about getting back to read the book as soon as possible. If that’s not a good recommendation, I don’t know what is.

Rating: 10/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2008)

In the Woods, by Tana French (31 October — 1 November)

What a great book! Just go read it.

Our narrator, Rob Ryan, was found in the woods at the age of twelve with blood in his shoes and without the two friends he was meant to be with. He has no memory of what happened, and has mostly gotten along in life, until now.

Now Ryan is a detective who is put on a dead-twelve-year-old case in the same tiny Ireland neighborhood he once lived in, in the same woods he was once found in. He hopes both that the case is and isn’t related to his, but it doesn’t really matter — this murder is practically unsolveable. All leads point to nothing, there are no suspects, and Ryan is having a bit of trouble keeping himself distanced from the case.

Of course, then something clicks and the mystery unravels, and you see all the clues you should have seen before, and the solution is pretty darn cool. I’m definitely excited to read the next in the series, The Likeness.

Rating: 9/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2007)

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde (28 August − 1 September)

The premise behind this book is an alternate universe in which weird things happen regularly − time gets out of joint, extinct animals can be cloned, religious fighting is replaced by “Who was the real Shakespeare” fighting. As in this universe, the government has a lot of bureaus to control its constituents, among these SpecOps 27, the literary division.

Our protagonist, Thursday Next, is an operative in this group who gets lured into a big investigation by the fact that she’s seen the bad guy involved, Acheron Hades − few others have because he doesn’t resolve on film. He is out to make a name for himself by stealing an original manuscript to Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit as well as a machine called a Prose Portal invented by Thursday’s uncle, Mycroft. With it he can enter original manuscripts, kill a character or two, and completely change every copy of whatever story he’s gotten into.

Thursday works to rescue her uncle, restore a failed relationship, and save Jane Eyre from destruction, all while battling the forces of evil in Hades and government corruption.

I really liked this book. Fforde makes the alternate universe seem very real with little details (an ongoing Crimean War, Jehovah’s Witness-like “Baconians”) and writes entertaining characters. A couple of times, when time-travel and manuscript-revising were involved, I thought too hard about how things could actually work and lost the story a bit, but otherwise it was great. This is the first in a series of Thursday Next novels, and I will definitely be looking for the second the next time I hit the library.

Rating: 8/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2001)

The Twelfth Card, by Jeffery Deaver (11 August − 12 August)

I picked this up for a go at a mystery book discussion group, so I wasn’t really sure what I was in for. Luckily, I was not disappointed.

Here we have a quadriplegic detective, Lincoln Rhyme, who picks up a seemingly simple case to avoid a doctor’s appointment (great idea!) and gets way more than he bargained for. The case involves a clever girl called Geneva who avoids an attack in a library by putting a mannequin in her place at the microfiche. Unfortunately, the bad guy is out to kill her, so that’s not the last she’s seen of him. She can’t figure out why he’d be attacking her — is it because of what she read? Something she might have seen out the window? Something she got involved with earlier? There are a lot of possible motives, a lot of potential killers, and a whole slew of red herrings to confuse the crap out of you.

But it’s good. Every once in a while Deaver throws up a dossier of facts and clues that Rhyme has collected so that you don’t get too lost, but he also writes from nearly every character’s point of view at some point in the story so you’ve got extra clues floating around that may or may not be useful. Deaver gets a little preachy about African American Vernacular English and the plight of blacks in Harlem, but the story is engaging enough that I didn’t feel too smacked in the face by it.

Rating: 7/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2005)