The Unquiet Dead, by Ausma Zehanat Khan

The Unquiet DeadI’d been hearing this book kicked around Book Riot for a while, including when the author guested on my favorite book-listing podcast, Get Booked, so this ended up in my giant pile of potential RIP reads when that came around back in September. I didn’t end up reading it for the event, but I was happy it was around when I found myself flailing for a new book to read in November.

When I first started the book, I was confused — the story makes lots of references to things that have happened previously in the way that you would in a second or third or fourth book, but after a couple of double-checks I was reassured that yes, this is indeed the first book in a series. We’re just picking up the characters in the middle of their stories, which is pretty cool.

Our protagonists are Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, two Canadian police officers assigned to a sort of special task force called CPS that deals with the Muslim community in the wake of a very bad (and very real) police bungling of a terrorism case. They pick up a weird case — a man fallen to his death off a neighborhood cliff — that doesn’t seem like a CPS case on the outside, but Khattak knows more than he’s telling even his partner. Over the course of the novel the tie to CPS becomes rather more clear, but our officers are still left to figure out if this death was an accident, a suicide, or a murder.

I didn’t like this book maybe as much as I hoped I would, largely because the “who killed this dude” plotline takes a backseat to lots of other bits of the story. Khattak is trying to reconcile with a friend, Getty is dealing with crazy family issues, and, spoiler, the CPS connection has to do with the Bosnian War and we get lots of side bits from the point of view of people trying to escape with their lives.

The mystery does come to a satisfying conclusion, if an easy and obvious one, and even some of the side plot comes together in the end. I liked that I could sort of see how certain things were going to go, but others were completely opaque to me until the author said, hey, here you go, here’s some resolution on that thing. But I really only finished the book to find out who killed that dude, and had to power through a lot of the rest of the story.

I think that these characters could do some interesting things, so I might give them another chance, but they’re not at the top of my list right now. If you’ve read more and they get any better, let me know!

Recommendation: For readers looking for diverse mystery stories that focus less on the mystery and more on the people.

The Trespasser, by Tana French

The TrespasserGuys. Guys. Guys. My love for Tana French is, I believe, well-documented on this blog, so it should come as no surprise to you that I broke down and read the book a full month before it came out because I couldn’t wait any longer. What might be more surprising, if you give any thought to my Goodreads activity at all (which, if you do, you might need a new hobby…), is that I broke my completely arbitrary rule against posting thoughts to Goodreads before posting them here to post the following spoiler-tastic review: “!!!”

How do I feel a month later? I’m definitely still at least three exclamation marks in love with this book. It is super good, guys. Super good.

In our last outing with the Dublin Murder Squad, we hung out with Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran at a posh boarding school. In this installment, we get to hang out with the both of them again (yay!) at Dublin Castle as they investigate a weird-looking murder. It’s the kind of murder that should be an open-and-shut case, but Conway and Moran have a bad feeling about both the case and their colleague’s seeming insistence on closing the case as fast as humanly possible.

Meanwhile, we spend a not-altogether-comfortable amount of time in Conway’s head, which is full of the calculus of interpersonal interaction, worries about which of her colleagues is going to be nasty to her today, and a seemingly endless bag of fuck-it-all to throw at anything that bothers her. Conway’s got one of those chess-playing minds that sees everything three or four steps ahead, although in this twisted case it’s hard to tell if she’s seeing the right three steps ahead or not.

I want so badly to talk about the ending of this book, but it’s one of those endings that, while not necessarily spoilable, is best read on its own terms, so I will zip my lips except to say that I love the way that French plays with my expectations in all (welllll, most) of her books and this one is no different.

Instead, I will talk about how much I love French’s writing and how I’ve decided that if I ever make it to Dublin my first stop is going to be Dublin Castle because I have to know if it lives up to her descriptions of it. And also how I love how tightly plotted her mysteries are without being only tightly plotted mysteries. And also how I can’t fathom how it’s possible that I simultaneously still want to know what happened to Rob Ryan, don’t care because Conway is my new favorite, and am looking forward to ditching Conway for whatever character gets top billing next.

If you’ve not gotten into this series, they’re all pretty good standalone books, though I think you should read The Secret Place before or after this one for the full Conway-Moran package. And then you should read In the Woods. And The Likeness. And Broken Harbour. And probably Faithful Place; I really ought to give it another try someday. And then you can wait impatiently with me for book number seven. [insert impatient emoji here]

Recommendation: Reeeead it!

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, by Alan Bradley

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'dIf you’ve been around the blog a while, you’ll know already that I have a love/hate, love to hate, hate to love relationship with Flavia de Luce, which is weird ’cause she’s twelve and also fictional, but what are you gonna do. It’s been an uneven series from the start, and the seventh book was really really terrible, but still as soon as I saw this eighth book up for grabs I was like, well, okay, I’ll read that.

Things that I love about Flavia and her books:
1) Flavia. She’s precocious and a know-it-all and I might possibly have some experience with that and I like to imagine that my younger self could have gotten up to some serious Adventures if only, well, many things.
2) Bishop’s Lacey. I love this little town and all the people that Flavia bothers on the regular and I like that the characters change along with Flavia’s perceptions of them and become far more interesting as the series goes on.
3) The page count. These books are very short, 300 undersized pages or so, and they read fast, so you can get your fill of murder mystery and then move on with your life.

Things that I hate about Flavia and her books:
1) Flavia. She’s often incredibly wrong and insufferable about it, and also she has aged only a year during these eight books when it reads like she’s aged about five.
2) Buckshaw. I like Flavia’s sisters all right, but they’ve been sort of cast off from the stories of late, and I used to like Flavia’s dad until he got weird, but really the awful person here is Flavia’s mother — who leaves an estate to an actual child and thinks that things will still be all right at home?
3) The body count. Did I mention that there have been more than eight murders in this town (and Canada, I guess) in LESS THAN A YEAR? And no one seems to bat an eye? Is this how Jessica Fletcher got her start?

This book really takes the cake on the murder thing, too, with a dead body that reminded me of the one in The Silkworm, all hung upside down and awful looking. Flavia, of course, finds this body and starts investigating and gets in all sorts of trouble for what, in the end, turns out to be a very strange and anticlimactic solution.

It also wins for the most dysfunctional home life storyline, as Flavia returns home from Canada to find out that her father is sick in hospital and unable to receive visitors, and somehow in the four seconds that she was in Canada her sister has become unengaged and both of her sisters can’t even work up the ability to properly hate her and so of course it’s no wonder she becomes obsessed with a murder case, I guess, but also, seriously, I have no idea how Mrs. Mullet and Dogger have been left in charge of this mess without Child Services stepping in.

The Canada shenanigans, surprisingly, make for the most interesting part of this book when Flavia calls upon Miss Bannerman to help with her murder investigations in London. Very little of the top-secret-hush-hush-whatever stuff is involved, just two chemists hanging out solving a mystery, which is much of what I initially enjoyed about the series.

I kind of wish this book had been more terrible, so that I could give up Flavia for good, but instead it was just about fairly decent and I’m going to have to wait for Bradley to end this series before I can stop reading it. At least they’re very short books.

Recommendation: Oh god don’t even start this series it is a roller coaster of emotions. But if you’re caught up in the series, you’re probably going to read this one no matter what, so go ahead.

Weekend Shorts: Locke & Sandman

Last week I talked about bingeing on single issues on hoopla, but this week I’m going to talk about a couple of trades that I read and loved and probably the only thing stopping me from binge-reading the rest of the already completed series is that I wanted to come tell you all about them first. Darn you, internet persons!

Sandman, Vol. 1: “Preludes and Nocturnes”, by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III
Sandman, Vol. 1Sandman has been on my list of comics to read for a very long time, even before I considered myself a “comics person”. And since the whole series is on hoopla, that’s totally going to happen. Eventually.

This first volume is interesting. It’s essentially the story of Dream, who is accidentally summoned instead of his sister, Death, by some less-than-great summoners. The first issue covers the bad things that happen when you trap the god of dreams in the mortal world — people who sleep forever, people who can no longer sleep — and what happens when that god gets out — revenge in the form of eternal waking. Remind me not to piss off a dream god, is what I’m saying.

The rest of the volume follows Dream as he recovers from his imprisonment and hunts down his stolen tools. This part is a little weirder, as Dream meets not only Cain and Abel but also John Constantine and weird demons and some Justice League people I don’t know and a weird crazy villain guy… There’s a lot going on.

I think my favorites of the issues are the first one, which sets everything up, and the sixth one, which pits a bunch of people against each other as their minds are controlled and which is quite well done in terms of story and art.

I wasn’t as super sold on this series as I’d hoped I’d be, but I recall from my initial interest in the series that the first volume isn’t necessarily the place to start so I’m pretty sure it’ll get better. I just need to find time to read nine more volumes!

Locke & Key, Vol. 1: “Welcome to Lovecraft”, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Locke & Key, Vol. 1This volume, on the other hand, was awesome sauce from beginning to end. I’m a sucker for a creepy murder story and also for a creepy supernatural story, and this is both!

The book starts off with the horrible murder of a high school guidance counselor by a bright but very troubled student, flashing back and forth between the murder and the aftermath. The counselor’s family makes it out alive, but they decide to pack up all their stuff and move into the counselor’s childhood home, called Keyhouse, with his brother. As these things go, though, Keyhouse is not necessarily a safer place for the family — the house is full of secret places and mysterious keys and an apparition who seems to be running the whole show from the bottom of a well.

I love the way this book plays with its creepy elements, interspersing them perfectly with the mundane to make everything seem almost normal. I also love the characters; Hill does a great job of showing their love for each other even while they’re still a bickering family. And that chick in the well, well (HA), she’s veeery intriguing and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty

The Husband's SecretI chose this book for my most recent in-person book club meeting, on the strength of a recommendation from one of my regulars that went something like this: “ERMERGERD THE HUSBAND’S SECRET CAN WE READ IT CAN WE READ IT CAN WE READ IT IT IS SOOOOOOOOOOO GOOD.”

I was like, I seem to recall that other people have liked this book as well, so, sure, why not.

And, well, it was pretty darn amazeballs.

I am a sucker for many things in books, and this combines some of the best: multiple narrators whose stories intertwine, an Important Thing that is nothing but hints for a long time and then pays off big, and the country of Australia.

The Important Thing in this book is a letter. A woman called Cecilia finds this letter tucked away in her attic, with a note that it should be opened only after the death of her husband. Cecilia’s husband is still alive, and she’s not much for rule-breaking, but she is SO CURIOUS about what the letter could possibly be and spends many of her chapters obsessing over it. Eventually the letter is opened, and the result is pretty much the worst thing ever, and the rest of Cecilia’s chapters are pretty much disaster control.

Meanwhile, a woman called Tess finds out that her husband and her cousin/bff/practically-twin-sister are totes in love, which is not good for many reasons including that they all run a business together. Tess just cannot even and packs up her stuff and her kid and runs off to her mother’s house to figure out what the heck Step Two is. But then a hottie from her past shows up, and maybe there’s a Step One Point Five to be dealt with first?

Also meanwhile, a woman called Rachel finds out that her only child is running off to America with his wife and kid, leaving her all alone with nothing to distract her from memories of another child she once had, who was murdered as a teenager. In the midst of distracting herself from that terrible news, she finds a tape that she thinks may finally put away her daughter’s murderer, who Rachel believes is a certain person I previously described as a hottie.

DUN DUN DUN.

So, yeah. It’s awesome. I love the way Moriarty writes — she’s great at little details like using what’s on TV to mark certain scenes as happening at the same time as others and at the big details like managing to tie this whole story together with the Berlin Wall. Her dialogue is also great, with all of the characters having their own distinct voices, which is surprisingly hard to do. The psychological aspects are fascinating, the little mini love story is weirdly cute, and when I picked up the book to double-check how to spell Cecilia I started reading it over again from the beginning. But then I stopped, because my TBR pile is no joke.

The only things I didn’t absolutely love were the climax of the plot, which I found rather too on the nose, and the epilogue, which ties together all the loose ends and explains from the outside how certain storylines play out. With a book like this I was expecting far more ambiguity, but actually I think that the clear ending works for the overarching themes of the book.

I will definitely be reading more books from Liane Moriarty in the future, and so should you!

Recommendation: For fans of Jodi Picoult, tugged heartstrings, and lines like, “‘He was thirty,’ said Esther. “So I guess he’d lived a pretty good life already.'”

Weekend Shorts: Book Club Re-Reads

I don’t re-read books terribly often, but when I do, it’s for book club. This year is probably going to be seeing more than its fair share of re-reads as I’ve been tasked with putting the book list together for my in-person book club, which means several very popular or much-requested books but also some books I know we can talk a lot about — the re-reads!

Of course, re-reading a book doesn’t always turn out the way you think it will…

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
Code Name VerityOh, man. I picked this book for my book club for several reasons, including that it’s short-ish and we were short on time, I remember loving the heck out of it, and it had been a while since we read a WWII book. It seemed like a winner.

What I didn’t remember from my first reading is the fact that the first half is slow as molasses in winter. It’s slow, it’s kinda boring, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for what’s happening, the narrator’s kinda weird… it’s bad. About half of the people who showed up for book club hadn’t made it past this part, and they were like, we are here to determine what you were smoking when you chose this book. The other half had finished it, with the redirect and the new narrator and the Actual Plot, and while they didn’t all love it they at least understood what I was going for!

True story, even I only just finished the first half before going to book club, so it was kind of hard to convince everyone else they should finish. But finish I did, and yes, again, the second half was much better, though I didn’t find myself shedding a single tear at the end of it where a few years ago I was ugly crying in public. I’m not sure if this is a function of reading it soooooo slowwwwly this time, or the conversation with people who didn’t like it right in the middle of my re-read, or just the fact that I knew what terrible things were going to happen. But it was just… an ending.

Recommendation: Absolutely yes you should read this. Maybe don’t read it twice.

Lock In, by John Scalzi
Lock InLet’s be honest, and TOTALLY SPOILERIFFIC IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK. I mostly wanted my book club to read this to see how many of them thought Chris Shane was a lady. I had Shane in my head as, like, robot first, dude second; my husband totally thought she was a badass chick. There weren’t a lot of book clubbers at this meeting because apparently sci-fi-based procedural crime stories are not my club’s jam, but of the handful who were there it was a mostly dude-Chris consensus, and in fact a sizable white-Chris minority who had missed the “angry black guy with a shotgun” line about Chris’s father.

I had actually tried very hard to get myself into chick-Chris mode, going so far as to use my free Audible trial to obtain the audio version of this book narrated by Amber Benson (you can also get one narrated by Wil Wheaton). It was a very weird experience. Sometimes my initial read of the book, and Benson’s not-super-feminine voice, kept me thinking Shane was a dude. After a while at each listen, I could get into chick mode, but only if I imagined that Amber Benson was Eliza Dushku instead. I would totally watch this movie with Dushku (or her voice, whatever) as the lead, by the way. And with Joss Whedon somewhere at the helm. Hollywood, make this happen!

Outside of all that, though, the book was just as weird and twisty as it was the first time, enough that I couldn’t exactly remember what was going to happen and all the big reveals were still pretty much intact. My book club was not a big fan of all the intrigue and subterfuge, which of course I loved, but they all agreed it was at least interesting.

Recommendation: Totally pick up the audio book in whichever narrator you didn’t expect the first time. It’s weird and fun.

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!