Scarlett Undercover, by Jennifer Latham

Scarlett UndercoverOh, man. I don’t even know what to do with this book. I wanted to like it, because the description referenced Veronica Mars and I am a fluffy fluffy Marshmallow, but of course nothing is as good as Veronica Mars (even the VM books themselves!) and also this book was just kind of a hot mess.

So, problem one was obviously the Veronica Mars reference point, because this is not really that. There’s a teen detective, sure, but she’s not a scrappy teen following in her dad’s PI footsteps with his grudging permission/acceptance. Scarlett is instead a scrappy teen who graduated early from high school and instead of going to college set up some sort of detective shop with no discernible training nor method of paying rent. Her grudging father figure is an actual detective who investigated her dad’s murder and who apparently encouraged the whole PI career thing but also thinks she shouldn’t do it? I am super unclear on how Scarlett operates.

Problem number two is my problem with so many things, but on a much grander scale. No one uses their goddamn words in this book. I kid you not, the first at least half of the book involves Scarlett asking people questions and them saying “I can’t tell you” or “I won’t tell you” or “You’re not ready to know that” or “You’re asking the wrong question,” including one scene in which Scarlett asks her bff/quasi-boyfriend why he has a tattoo that he has just revealed to her, and his answer is “The better question is where did I get it?” I have finished the book, and I can tell you that the better question is WHY DOES HE HAVE IT. This answer would have saved so much time and frustration and outright danger, so of course no one answers it.

Problem three is the story itself, which starts out with Scarlett taking the case of a nine-year-old (!) girl who wants to know why her brother is acting weird, but as you may guess from the above problems the case turns out to actually be about a huge secret that was kept from Scarlett her entire life and which led to the inordinate amounts of danger she soon finds herself in. Which, I mean, okay, I guess, but seriously, COMMUNICATION, people. Anyway, the scant clues she gets lead her all over town to all these different people who won’t tell her anything but all kind of know her or her family and are all related in the most convenient of ways and everything is super weird the whole time and I just couldn’t even.

Problem four, the fact that Scarlett is black and Muslim, should have been a slam-dunk plus of a cool diverse character, but Scarlett’s religion was played as a teachable moment instead of a character facet, which was super lame. Information about Muslim culture was shoved into the narrative like, hey, Muslims pray five times a day except not always! Some Muslims are less observant than others! Some Muslims wear a hijab! Muslims have a traditional greeting! Muslims have interesting historical tales that you might not have heard before! I know it’s a book for teens and that I can’t expect teens to be interested in looking stuff up (my goodness, do they not want to look stuff up, says my librarian brain), but I would have found the book so much more interesting if the author (editor? publicist? who knows?) didn’t insist on explaining the heck out of every interesting Muslim tidbit.

So… that’s a lot of problems, and they don’t even include the general weirdness of the writing. But strangely, for all the problems I had with the book as I was reading it, and all the problems I still have now, I still think it was worth reading and that younger teens, including probably my twelve-year-old self, would find it a heck of a lot more entertaining than I did. There’s lots of action, there’s a black Muslim protagonist, there’s a love story that involves no triangles, and there’s some neat historical and cultural information for readers to chew on. I wouldn’t read it again, but I know a few of my library teens that would!

Recommendation: For teens who like plucky teen detectives and super weird weirdness.

Rating: 5/10

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

The Dead Mountaineer's InnWhat a weird little book. I picked it up largely because of its subtitle, “One More Last Rite for the Detective Genre”, and the fact that it’s a Russian book and hey, that’s totally diverse, and because I was promised amusement by the jacket copy. I’m pretty sure I got that amusement, but this book is so confusing that who knows what I thought about it?

Okay, things I do know. The book is set somewhere cold and snowy, at the Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (yeah, I don’t know why it’s different from the title), which is named for a mountaineer who stayed at the hotel when it was called something else and, you know, died. There’s a little “museum” set up with all of “HIS” stuff, and the owner is pretty sure HE is haunting the hotel. Our protagonist, Inspector Glebsky, is on a ski vacation at the hotel along with a bunch of weird guests, including a famous-ish magician, the magician’s androgynous niece or nephew, a married couple with a strange relationship, a mountaineering physicist of some renown, a tall drink of water who’s pretty great on skis, and a frail little man who possibly has tuberculosis.

Right. So. Most of the book is about all these strange people interacting with each other and with the prank-playing “ghost”, and a surprising amount of time is spent trying to figure out whether the androgynous kid is a dude or a chick, but then eventually there is a murder and Glebsky’s on the case. There’s a dead dude in a locked room (the best kind of case!), a strange mechanical object with no apparent use, several people whose luggage is suspect, and a whole lot of conflicting stories.

And, well, it’s weird. The case does not solve itself in the manner which you might expect from that description, and although there are not-so-subtle hints dropped throughout the novel that point you in the right direction it’s still kind of like, really? And there is a really lame epilogue, but this book was written in 1970 in Russian, so I’ll just let that slide.

What is great about this book is the characters, who are all strange in their own special way and who all think everyone else is the strange one, and the writing, which is maybe a little roughly translated or maybe is meant to evoke confusion with choppy sentences and disconnected thoughts. Either way, it lends this kind of “what the heck” vibe to the whole book that helps make the “what the heck” ending seem a little more appropriate.

I am definitely intrigued by this odd little book, and I will have to check out other weird Russian books in the future. Suggestions?

Recommendation: For those who love books that don’t make a lot of sense on purpose.

Rating: 8/10

p.s. Apparently if you’re not feeling up to actually reading this book, you can play it on Steam. If you do, let me know how it goes!

The Devil’s Detective, by Simon Kurt Unsworth

The Devil's DetectiveY’all already know that I’m a sucker for detective stories with a twist (see: The Last Policeman, The Manual of Detection, etc.). So when this book, whose title is no misnomer, crossed my path, I knew I needed to read it.

But I almost didn’t. I picked up the book and started reading about angels coming down to hell to negotiate moving some of Hell’s souls up to Heaven, and I was like, hold on, this is a detective book, right? After I reassured myself that there would somehow be a murder, in Hell, I went back to reading and things got just even weirder. It turns out that the twist in this detective novel is that it’s also a horror novel, which I somehow managed not to guess from the title, and so in addition to police procedures there is also gruesome sex and violence and a lot of creep factor. Not my cup of tea, usually, but there’s enough other stuff to focus on that you can tune a lot of the gross stuff out.

Unsworth’s premise is a Hell wherein Dante-like punishment has been replaced by toil and drudgery, where human souls are fished out of a sea and formed into beings whose profession — whether prostitute or Information Man — and life in Hell is preordained. When humans die, their souls go back out into the sea for the chance of another go-around, until maybe someday they are randomly chosen to go to Heaven.

Once the murder plot came in, the book picked up quickly for me. Our hero, Thomas Fool, is an Information Man, tasked with solving crimes but usually not bothering to, unless it’s deemed really important. The crime that starts off this novel is really important — a human is dead, but not like regular dead, where his soul goes back into the sea to try again, but like super dead, where is soul is completely and totally gone. This is new in Hell, and both the humans and the demons are wary of whatever demon has managed to accomplish this feat. Fool is tasked with solving this crime above all other priorities, and he soon learns (of course) that Hell isn’t quite what it seems.

This book is fascinating mostly for its setting and world-building, laying out a Hell not terribly different from regular life and changing up the rules that we and even the angels of this world are used to. The mystery was not super difficult for me to figure out, but Fool’s troubles with it pave the way for the intriguing ending (that I believe is leading into a sequel) and allow more time to learn about this strange afterlife, so I guess I can give it a pass.

I’m glad I came into this book fairly blind, because I might not have read it otherwise and it’s actually a pretty decent book! If they publish that sequel, I will definitely check it out.

Recommendation: For fans of not-quite-detective stories and those who are not or don’t mind feeling squeamish.

Rating: 8/10

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith

The SilkwormI read the first Galbraith book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, long after it had been revealed that he was actually J.K. Rowling (writer of a kids series you may have heard of) and probably just after all the controversy had passed, which is clearly a good time to read things because I thought it was super awesome.

This second book is probably equally awesome. There are all the twists and turns and broken alibis of the first novel, as well as all the introspection and cinematic writing (which are an odd combo, to be sure) and excitement. Really, if you liked the first one, you should just go read the second. Well, unless you’re easily squicked out by gore and weird sex things, which this book has just enough of to be kind of icky.

See, our dead person this time is a fellow called Owen Quine who is a writer of books with weird sex things in them and also kind of a huge drama queen, to the point that his wife only comes to our hero, Cormoran Strike, after he’s been missing several days, and she just wants Strike to go get him back from some writers’ retreat that she’s sure he’s run off to.

But of course it’s more complicated than that, as Strike finds out that Quine went missing shortly after writing a new creepy book that is pretty blatantly about basically everyone Quine has ever known. His friends, fellow writers, mistresses, publishers… almost everyone is painted in a hugely unflattering light. The book hasn’t even been published and there are fights and lawsuits aplenty that would make any writer go into hiding for a while.

Except that when Strike finds Quine’s hiding place, Quine is there and also dead and also really gruesomely dead, tied up and covered in acid and with his guts missing, which conveniently mimics the ending of his already pretty awful novel. It seems likely that someone didn’t like what Quine had to say about them, but with so many suspects, it’s going to take a while for Strike to figure this one out — especially with the police blocking his every move in an effort to save face after that whole Lula Landry debacle.

Meanwhile there’s quite a bit about Strike’s assistant, Robin, and her fiancé issues and her Strike issues and the fact that if she would just use her freaking words her life would be a lot better. I may be projecting that last part. There is also, as you might expect, a lot of talk about the publishing industry, which makes me wonder what could have been if this book had been written after the whole Hachette vs. Amazon shenanigan began. A lost opportunity, really.

There’s nothing particularly new or noteworthy about this book compared to The Cuckoo’s Calling, but it is a solid work of mystery fiction and I am super looking forward to whatever Rowling writes for me next. As long as it comes soon!

Recommendation: For fans of non-Potter Rowling, crazy-pants mysteries, and characters saying “I have a plan” and then not telling you the plan, just doing it.

Rating: 9/10

Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes

Broken MonstersThe other day we got this huge pile of YA and children’s fantasy books in at my library, and I told my coworker that I expected her to take home at least half of them, because that kind of book is totally her thing. Then I said, hey, speaking of things that are totally your thing, I am reading this amazing book right now that you would absolutely hate! That book? Broken Monsters.

If you’ve ever read Lauren Beukes before, you will understand. She does not do cute, fun, adorable stories with magic and/or dragons; her books are far more bleak and gory and weird, and this one is no exception.

We start right off in this novel with the gory; there’s a detective and a dead body, or more accurately half of a dead human body attached to half of a dead deer body. That’s… great… so as a palate cleanser we meet another one of our protagonists, a thirty-something dude in the midst of finding himself and his muse and whatever. He is soon to become the bane of our detective’s existence when he decides to become the “journalist” who reveals everything about this dead kid case.

Then we meet a guy who’s made a career out of looting abandoned houses, of which there are many in Detroit, and after that the detective’s daughter, who gets caught up in an extremely effed-up internet “prank” that leads me to preemptively take the internet away from my hypothetical children until they’re 30. Then we finally meet the guy who turns out to be the killer, whose chapters are all supremely creepy but fascinating in their own special way.

All of the protagonists’ stories connect to each other in some way, which is my favorite thing, with people and places intersecting in foreboding ways until the end where Beukes just throws everyone into an abandoned plant and lets the batshit crazy flow, kind of literally. That’s the weird part, where this strange magical-realism conceit that’s been brewing throughout the novel becomes way less realistic and way more scary as what.

Adding to the creepy factor is the fact that the book is set in Detroit and focuses a lot on the idea of abandoned buildings and neighborhoods and the strange fascination that people have with the city and its deterioration or rebuilding, depending on the person. It’s hard to tell if Detroit is creepy on its own or if it’s creepy because people really really want it to be. I like it.

I was completely entranced by this book, alternately worried about certain characters and whether they would be okay after doing not-terribly-smart things (spoiler: not everyone is okay) and really curious to see how all of this insanity could possibly come together at the end. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the ending, which is just too weird for the tone of the rest of the book, but it was definitely exciting. I continue to fangirl for Lauren Beukes, and am glad there’s still some backlist of hers I haven’t gotten to yet so that I can go find it and devour it when I am in a mood for a book that is nothing like any other book.

Recommendation: For lovers of the strange and anyone with an affinity for Detroit.

Rating: 9/10

The Last Child, by John Hart

The Last ChildOne of the best things about being in a book club, even with the same members coming every month, is that you can never guess how everyone is going to react to a book, even yourself. One of the weirdest things is when you think a book is kind of okay and then everyone else LOVES it, and you’re like, but, seriously? Such was the case with The Last Child. I found myself in a room with ten people who loved the book and I just couldn’t figure out why.

It’s not a bad book, by any means, and it’s got a pretty decent plot going for it. The story takes place in a rural North Carolina town wherein two girls have gone missing about a year apart. One of our protagonists, Johnny, is the twin brother of the first missing girl, Alyssa, and he’s spent the last year trying to figure out what happened to Alyssa and watching his family fall apart around him — his father left, his mother turned to drink and drugs, and a horrible man stepped in to boss Johnny and his mother around. Noooooot fun. Our other main protagonist is Clyde Hunt, the detective who caught Alyssa’s case and didn’t solve it. He is now on the case of the new missing girl and is hoping, mostly for his own sake, that solving it will also bring Alyssa home.

So, interesting. And the mystery itself is pretty cool, with the appropriate twists and turns and oh-I-should-have-seen-thats. But everything else? Not so great. Hart’s characters are pulled straight from the mystery-character vault; there’s the trouble-making but mystery-solving kid, his only partially willing sidekick, the detective with a vested interest in solving a case, the same detective with feelings for a victim, and, possibly worst of all, the giant black man with the mind and temperament of a child but also mystical powers (see: The Green Mile). And the writing is tough to get through, with every sentence about twice as long as it needs to be and a whole prologue that doesn’t have anything to do with anything, really.

So, less interesting. There were lots of pieces of this book that were really fascinating, like the relationship between Hunt and Johnny and the whole discussion of rural life and politics, but the rest of the book just kind of fell down on the job for me. But there are ten other people, just in Jacksonville, even, who completely disagree with me and want to marry this book and have its babies, so clearly your mileage may vary.

Recommendation: I’d recommend a lot of books over this one, but if you like mysteries and have this one handy it’s not the worst choice you could make?

Rating: 5/10

The Secret Place, by Tana French

The Secret PlaceI wrote a little blurb about this book for a program called LibraryReads where librarians nerd out about the best books coming out every month, and it goes a little something like this:

“French has broken my heart yet again with her fifth novel, which examines the ways in which teenagers and adults can be wily, calculating, and backstabbing, even with their friends. The tension-filled flashback narratives, relating to a murder investigation in suburban Dublin, will keep you turning pages late into the night.”

And, I mean, seriously. If you’ve read any of Tana French’s other work, you probably don’t need me to tell you to GO READ THIS RIGHT NOW WHY ARE YOU NOT READING THIS RIGHT NOW, but just in case, I will tell you that this ranks right up there with Broken Harbour and a second reading of In the Woods as one of her best. Sooooo good, guys.

The story: Holly Mackey (of the Faithful Place Mackeys) shows up at our favorite police station with a Post Secret-style card from the Secret Place at her fancy-pants boarding school where kids can post anything they want anonymously with minimal oversight from the adult types. This card says that someone at her school knows who really killed a student who was found dead on the school’s campus a year before. Stephen Moran, to whom Holly entrusts the message, is a Cold Cases cop eager to make the Murder squad, and he jumps at the opportunity to work with the currently partner-less Antoinette Conway who headed up the case in the first place.

He thinks he knows what he’s getting into, but when he gets to the school he realizes he’s forgotten how ruthless and cunning teenagers can be, especially in an isolated boarding school. He’s also conveniently forgotten that the games these kids are playing are the same ones he should be playing at work, which is why he’s stuck in Cold Cases.

Interspersed with Moran’s story is the story of Holly and her friends starting a few months before the death of Chris Harper, during which they decided to skip over the pettiness of high school and stop caring what other people think, which is a great idea but really hard to implement when you spend your entire life with the same people. French drops in hints here and there about how Holly and her friends’ actions and the actions of other students will eventually lead to Chris’s death, but as always she keeps you wondering up to the end.

Also as always, French’s writing is perfect and amazing, and her characters are all completely believable and somehow sympathetic, even the ones who are kind of terrible people. In this book she throws in a new Gothic idea, that Holly and her friends have magical powers, and although I was like, no, of course they don’t, at first, by the end of the book I was ready to believe whatever French wanted me to believe. There’s really no arguing with her.

Now I just have to wait patiently for the next novel. That’s coming out soon, right? Please?

Recommendation: For all the people, but especially those who like a little Gothic mood in their crime procedural.

Rating: 10/10