The Unquiet Dead, by Ausma Zehanat Khan

>> Tuesday, April 09, 2019

TITLE: The Unquiet Dead
AUTHOR: Ausma Zehanat Khan

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Minotaur Books

SETTING: Contemporary Canada, Bosnia during the war in the early 90s
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Rachel Getty & Esa Khattak #1

Despite their many differences, Detective Rachel Getty trusts her boss, Esa Khattak, implicitly. But she's still uneasy at Khattak's tight-lipped secrecy when he asks her to look into Christopher Drayton's death. Drayton's apparently accidental fall from a cliff doesn't seem to warrant a police investigation, particularly not from Rachel and Khattak's team, which handles minority-sensitive cases. But when she learns that Drayton may have been living under an assumed name, Rachel begins to understand why Khattak is tip-toeing around this case. It soon comes to light that Drayton may have been a war criminal with ties to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995.

If that's true, any number of people might have had reason to help Drayton to his death, and a murder investigation could have far-reaching ripples throughout the community. But as Rachel and Khattak dig deeper into the life and death of Christopher Drayton, every question seems to lead only to more questions, with no easy answers. Had the specters of Srebrenica returned to haunt Drayton at the end, or had he been keeping secrets of an entirely different nature? Or, after all, did a man just fall to his death from the Bluffs?

In her spellbinding debut, Ausma Zehanat Khan has written a complex and provocative story of loss, redemption, and the cost of justice that will linger with readers long after turning the final page.
Esa Khattak is a Canadian police detective who has been put in charge of a unit that deals with crimes that are perceived to be in some way delicate and could have an impact on community relations, particularly when it comes to race. It's seen by some as a bit of a demotion, but Esa, who is of Pakistani background, does believe in what the unit is trying to do, so there's very little angst on his part about it.

Esa's partner is Rachel Getty, a woman of a very different background. Rachel is white Canadian, and comes from a police family. She's rough and awkward, to Esa's sophistication, and she still lives at home with her alcoholic, abusive father and her enabling mother. But she and Esa get along really well. They respect each other's skills, even when their styles don't match.

In this, the first book of the series, Esa and Rachel get involved in investigating the seemingly accidental death of a man called Christopher Drayton. It's not initially thought to be suspicious, but a friend of Esa's, who's the Department of Justice's historian, wants them to take another look. It turns out that Drayton was not actually Drayton, but a war criminal, a man involved in some of the worst events to take place during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. And it quickly becomes obvious that there were quite a few people who knew about this, people who may have wanted to take revenge.

This book was so frustrating! The setup was really interesting to me, but I thought the execution was really not great, at least not in the first half, which was as far as I got. It felt to me that the investigation lacked logic, possibly because Esa was keeping his cards very close to his chest and being annoyingly cryptic and mysterious and refusing to communicate, even to Rachel. It didn't feel like good police work.

But that was something I could have continued reading through, hoping it would improve. What made me put the book down in disgust was the misogyny. In about 150 pages we're introduced to, not one, but two female characters who are ridiculously and cartoonishly horrible, and in a stereotypically "feminine" way, too. There's Drayton's fiancée Melanie, an utter and complete bimbo. Manipulative, uses her sexuality as a weapon, doesn't give a shit about her daughters and just uses them to hurt her poor, nice ex-husband, the works. And then we meet Esa's former partner Laine. Also manipulative, also uses her sexuality as a weapon. Even worse, she went after Esa and when he rejected her, she falsely accused him of sexual harassment as revenge. And not only that, she had started dating Esa's best friend, and did her best to destroy that friendship.

These days, this sort of crap "characterisation" is not something I'm prepared to put up with. It was made even worse by Rachel's attitude. She's a bit of a jock, uninterested in all stereotypically female things. Which is absolutely fine. What is not fine is the way she (and, to an extent, the narrative) puts down any woman who does like girly stuff. Laine an Melanie, of course, but also any woman who's beautiful. Fuck that noise.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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Delicious!, by Ruth Reichl

>> Sunday, March 24, 2019

TITLE: Delicious!
AUTHOR: Ruth Reichl

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 380
PUBLISHER: Random House

SETTING: Contemporary New York
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

In her bestselling memoirs Ruth Reichl has long illuminated the theme of how food defines us, and never more so than in her dazzling fiction debut about sisters, family ties, and a young woman who must finally let go of guilt and grief to embrace her own true gifts.

Billie Breslin has traveled far from her California home to take a job at Delicious, the most iconic food magazine in New York and, thus, the world. When the publication is summarily shut down, the colorful staff, who have become an extended family for Billie, must pick up their lives and move on. Not Billie, though. She is offered a new job: staying behind in the magazine's deserted downtown mansion offices to uphold the "Delicious Guarantee"-a public relations hotline for complaints and recipe inquiries-until further notice. What she doesn't know is that this boring, lonely job will be the portal to a life-changing discovery.

Delicious! carries the reader to the colorful world of downtown New York restaurateurs and artisanal purveyors, and from the lively food shop in Little Italy where Billie works on weekends to a hidden room in the magazine's library where she discovers the letters of Lulu Swan, a plucky twelve-year-old, who wrote to the legendary chef James Beard during World War II. Lulu's letters lead Billie to a deeper understanding of history (and the history of food), but most important, Lulu's courage in the face of loss inspires Billie to come to terms with her own issues-the panic attacks that occur every time she even thinks about cooking, the truth about the big sister she adored, and her ability to open her heart to love.
Ruth Reichl is a food writer and journalist, and I understand her work is very well known in the US. She's written a few memoirs (including one I have on my TBR as well, covering her time as restaurant reviewer for the New York Times), but she's also written a novel, and this is it.

Billie Breslin is a young woman trying to make it in New York City. She happens to have an incredibly sensitive palate, and that and her fascination with food land her a job in the offices of famous food magazine Delicious. It's a lowly secretarial job, but there are definitely prospects for moving into journalism there, and Billie is soon taking steps in that direction.

And then suddenly, everything is up in the air. The magazine is closed down by the money-grubbing corporate owners, and the whole staff is out of a job. Everyone but Billie, that is, because there's one bit of Delicious that must continue. See, the magazine has always offered the "Delicious Guarantee", promising that if a recipe doesn't work, the reader gets their money back. And someone needs to deal with the enquiries that still regularly come in about it.

It is while answering sporadic Guarantee-related calls in the now-empty offices that Billie discovers some fascinating letters. It turns out that James Beard (even I have heard about him!) used to work for Delicious way back when, and the archive still contains letters sent to him by a young girl during the war. The girl's story, revealed through her side of the correspondence, grips Billie completely, and finding out the rest of the story requires her to embark on a treasure hunt designed by the ghost of librarians past.

I had such mixed feelings about this one! On one hand, Billie is the ultimate Mary Sue. She's got this supernatural palate, lands this amazing job through not real effort on her part, and everyone immediately adores her. She has a Very Tragic Past that makes her sad and stops her from doing what she's meant to be doing with her life, but absolutely no flaws. Everything about her feels clichéd. We even get a make-over scene where she figuratively takes off her glasses, gets some clothes that fit, and becomes a proper knock-out. Oh, and she's not only beautiful, but an instinctive genius at putting together incredibly cool outfits. That inborn genius matches well with her food-related inborn genius. Her story is basically wish-fulfilment, and she herself was incredibly boring.

The thing is, all the food stuff is the kind of wish fulfilment that works for me, unlike other kinds of wish-fulfilment books like the ones with the Plain Jane heroine falling for the rock star. Billie's New York City really is the city of dreams, filled with eccentric deli owners whose shops are veritable wonderlands and who want nothing but to feed the enchanting heroine mouth-watering morsels. That's a dream I can get behind!

So while I kept rolling my eyes as I was reading, I did enjoy myself quite a bit. The whole story-line about the letters was pretty ho-hum for me, but spending time in foodie New York with Billie and her cool friends was super fun in spite of my cynicism.

MY GRADE: It's a B-. Flawed, but it did work for me more than maybe it should have.

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The Reluctant Detective, by Martha Ockley

>> Friday, March 08, 2019

TITLE: The Reluctant Detective
AUTHOR: Martha Ockley

COPYRIGHT: 2010
PAGES: 256
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: First in the Faith Morgan series

Faith was a cop, and a good one. She and her boss (and boyfriend) Detective Inspector Ben Shorter tackled criminals and solved crimes across south-east England. They were a good team. But Faith grew disillusioned with Britain's tough police culture.

As her disquiet grows, she starts to ask bigger questions - and ends up as a priest in the Church of England, a job from which she considers she can do more good than any police investigation. In the process she and Ben part company: he can't stand God-botherers, and she finds his convictions-at-any-cost attitude treads on too many vulnerable people.

Faith may have quit the world of crime, but crime has not let her go. Newly ordained, she arrives in the village of Little Worthy, near Winchester, to look around the parish. Within an hour of her arrival she witnesses the sudden shocking death of a fellow priest. To her distress, the DI assigned to the case is Ben.

At the Bishop's urging, Faith stays on to look after the improbably named parish of Little Worthy. As she meets her parishioners she learns some surprising details about her apparently well-loved predecessor, and starts to suspect a motive for his death.

The cop may have donned a clerical collar, but the questions keep coming. How will she reconcile her present calling with her past instincts? Is she in danger herself? What should she do about Ben?
The Reluctant Detective's blurb put me in mind of one of my favourite mystery series, Julia Spencer-Fleming's books following Rev. Clare Fergusson and Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyn. Like Clare with her years in the military, Faith Morgan started out her life in a profession quite far from priesthood. She was a police detective, right up until she decided she couldn't do it any longer and decided to become a Church of England vicar. So she left her boyfriend, fellow detective Ben, and went off to pursue her calling.

As the book starts, Faith has just been ordained. The priest in the parish of Little Worthing (pretty much exactly the sort of small village the name evokes) is about to retire, and Faith has travelled there to take a look around, see if it seems like the right place for her. But she arrives just in time for a shocking event: the outgoing priest dies under suspicious circumstances, right while he's celebrating mass.

Faith is asked by the bishop to stick around for a while to help take care of the understandably shocked parishioners. She's not trying to investigate the death, just doing her (new) job and counselling her parishioners, but somehow she keeps discovering all sorts of interesting details that her police training tells her the investigators need to know. And the leading investigator happens to be none other than Ben.

This was... well, it was ok. I didn't love it, I didn't hate it. These sorts of reviews are the hardest to do!

There were good things about it. It flowed well, and the mystery was well-constructed. I was interested in finding out what had happened, and I liked that Faith is genuinely not trying to play detective. She behaves perfectly sensibly and reacts in what I thought were believable ways. And though the book was probably in the 'inspirational' subgenre, any inspirational elements were relatively subtle and definitely non-preachy (at least, nothing that annoyed this atheist reader).

There were also some things I didn't like. My main problem was that several characters felt a bit off. Everyone seems quite... well, the word that comes to mind is 'uncool'. That was fine for some of the characters, but for others that vibe really didn't fit.

I also got a bit frustrated because we get lots of hints about what exactly it was that drove Faith away from Ben, but we never do find out what happened, at least not in this book. I'm assuming this is something that Ockley is leaving for later, to develop in a future book. So since I didn't like this enough to keep reading, I'll never find out. Mildly annoying (but not enough to make me read further!).

MY GRADE: A very middle-of-the-road C.

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Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan, by Soniah Kamal

>> Wednesday, March 06, 2019

TITLE: Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan
AUTHOR: Soniah Kamal

COPYRIGHT: 2019
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Ballantine

SETTING: Early 2000s Pakistan
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

In this one-of-a-kind retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in modern-day Pakistan, Alys Binat has sworn never to marry—until an encounter with one Mr. Darsee at a wedding makes her reconsider.

A scandal and vicious rumor concerning the Binat family have destroyed their fortune and prospects for desirable marriages, but Alys, the second and most practical of the five Binat daughters, has found happiness teaching English literature to schoolgirls. Knowing that many of her students won’t make it to graduation before dropping out to marry and have children, Alys teaches them about Jane Austen and her other literary heroes and hopes to inspire the girls to dream of more.

When an invitation arrives to the biggest wedding their small town has seen in years, Mrs. Binat, certain that their luck is about to change, excitedly sets to work preparing her daughters to fish for rich, eligible bachelors. On the first night of the festivities, Alys’s lovely older sister, Jena, catches the eye of Fahad “Bungles” Bingla, the wildly successful—and single—entrepreneur. But Bungles’s friend Valentine Darsee is clearly unimpressed by the Binat family. Alys accidentally overhears his unflattering assessment of her and quickly dismisses him and his snobbish ways. As the days of lavish wedding parties unfold, the Binats wait breathlessly to see if Jena will land a proposal—and Alys begins to realize that Darsee’s brusque manner may be hiding a very different man from the one she saw at first glance.

Told with wry wit and colorful prose, Unmarriageable is a charming update on Jane Austen’s beloved novel and an exhilarating exploration of love, marriage, class, and sisterhood.
Well, the title says it all. In Unmarriageable, Kamal has taken Pride and Prejudice and set it in early 2000s Pakistan. In this incarnation, the Bennetts have become the Binats, a formerly prosperous family living a much-diminished life in tiny Dilipabad, where eldest sisters Jena and Alys teach at the British Schools. A rich former student of the school is getting married to an even richer society guy, and the wedding is going to be huge -and the Binat's are invited! Society people from different cities are going to be there as guests. To Mrs Binat, it's the perfect opportunity for her girls to find husbands. Especially Jena and Alys, who are already (gasp!) in their 30s.

One of the guests is Fahad Bingla, nicknamed 'Bungles', there with his two sisters. They are extremely rich, and well-known in high society. And so is Bungles' friend, Valentine Darsee. Bungles is immediately infatuated with Jena, to his family and friend's disapproval. They see the Binats as vulgar and not up to their standards. Which is obvious to Alys, and makes her, in turn, dislike them intensely, particularly arrogant Darsee.

This was fun. I liked the idea, and (mostly) liked the execution.

Rather than merely being a story playing with P&P, using the basic plot, this is almost a blow-by-blow retelling. It may not sound like it so much from the description above, because some details in the setup have been changed, but the events that drive the plot forward are just as in P&P. Exactly like in it. This was very good fun in some ways. It was really interesting to see just how Kamal would take a plot point that feels particularly of its time in P&P and make it perfectly natural in almost-present-day Pakistan. And she succeeds, every single time. On the other hand, though, it did make the plot a bit predictable. Knowing exactly what was going to happen robbed the book of some narrative tension.

The characters were well drawn, even the secondary ones. Alys is a bit different from Elizabeth Bennett, in that having been educated in an international school in Jeddah (when the family was in more prosperous circumstances), she has been exposed to more modern mores. She's explicitly a feminist having to cope with all the patriarchal bullshit, and not shy about calling it out, at least when it's safe to do so. Whereas Elizabeth, while aware that some of the stuff around her is bullshit, is more a woman of her time.

The setting was vivid. I loved seeing a different Pakistan from the one that comes through in the news. All the little details that were there not to make a particular point, but because that's what would be the reality... like how for a long-distance journey the Binat girls would of course take the Daewoo bus (that's what upper-middle class people would do in Uruguay as well... not Daewoo, in particular, but the same kind of buses. I once took a 24-hour journey to Paraguay in one of those things!). Anyway, it was tiny details like that that made this for me.

There were a few of negatives, though. First of all, there is a certain lack of subtlety in Kamal's writing, where points are sometimes made a bit too explicitly. This results in characters being a too cartoonish sometimes, but it isn't just that. For instance, we're told exactly why Darsee and Alys suit so well: the fact that they grew up in the multinational environment of an international school abroad, the way that has given them a particular outlook on life, their love of books, etc. It was actually really convincing, but did we need to hear this explicitly? It was pretty obvious already. I think it may have worked better if Kamal had trusted that she'd shown this enough, rather than feel she had to state it explicitly, and more than once! It's minor, but an example of something that's sprinkled throughout the whole book.

The one thing I hated, though, was that there was a meanness in some the characters that felt frankly startling. Some of the things Mrs Binat says I felt were genuinely unforgivable. A single example: the Charlotte Lucas character, Alys's friend Sherry, is unable to have children, which is one of the reasons she felt she should settle for the horrid Reverend Collins character. It's clearly something quite difficult for her. Mrs Binat, raging against the woman who 'stole' the man she intended should marry her daughter, calls her "Useless-Uterus Sherry". No. Just no. This was probably Mrs Binat's lowest moment, but there were several others that were close. The cruelty was truly jaw-dropping, and my jaw also got quite the workout with the younger sisters. The fat-shaming in the way Lady (Lydia) treated Qitty (I don't need to do this one, do I?) was revolting. We're talking constant insults. 'Behemoth', 'Whale', 'Cow'... it went on and on.

I think with these characters Kamal really missed the mark. Their equivalents in Pride and Prejudice can behave pretty badly, but there isn't the mean-spiritedness and cruelty that was in these characters. This meant that there was a sour note at the end. I did NOT want Mrs Binat to finish the novel triumphant, with two daughters making spectacular marriages, even though I liked those two daughters and was happy for them that they seemed set on marriages that could make them happy.

MY GRADE: A strong B, very much in spite of Mrs Binat!

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The Bone Garden, by Tess Gerritsen

>> Monday, March 04, 2019

TITLE: The Bone Garden
AUTHOR: Tess Gerritsen

COPYRIGHT: 2007
PAGES: 370
PUBLISHER: Bantam

SETTING: Present-day Massachusetts and 1830s Boston
TYPE: Mystery/thriller
SERIES: None

Present day: Julia Hamill has made a horrifying discovery on the grounds of her new home in rural Massachusetts: a skull buried in the rocky soil–human, female, and, according to the trained eye of Boston medical examiner Maura Isles, scarred with the unmistakable marks of murder. But whoever this nameless woman was, and whatever befell her, is knowledge lost to another time...

Boston, 1830: In order to pay for his education, Norris Marshall, a talented but penniless student at Boston Medical College, has joined the ranks of local “resurrectionists”–those who plunder graveyards and harvest the dead for sale on the black market. Yet even this ghoulish commerce pales beside the shocking murder of a nurse found mutilated on the university hospital grounds. And when a distinguished doctor meets the same grisly fate, Norris finds that trafficking in the illicit cadaver trade has made him a prime suspect.

To prove his innocence, Norris must track down the only witness to have glimpsed the killer: Rose Connolly, a beautiful seamstress from the Boston slums who fears she may be the next victim. Joined by a sardonic, keenly intelligent young man named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Norris and Rose comb the city–from its grim cemeteries and autopsy suites to its glittering mansions and centers of Brahmin power–on the trail of a maniacal fiend who lurks where least expected... and who waits for his next lethal opportunity.
This is one of those stories which mix the present with the past. It starts as, in the present day, recently divorced Julia Hamill discovers a skeleton buried in the gardens of her new house. It's an old one, a woman who clearly died violently, and Julia is intrigued by the mystery of who she might have been. And then she's contacted by an old man who was related to the former owner of the house, and who has a tonne of papers that could help find out more. Before long, Julia and her new friend are gleefully digging through them and discovering quite the story.

The story they unearth is what we spend most time on in the book, and it relates both to a serial killer called the West End Ripper, operating in 1830s Boston, and to the early life of Oliver Wendell Holmes (whom I confess I knew nothing about).

Our main characters in the 1830 storyline are Norris Marshall, a medical student, and Rose Connolly, a recently arrived Irish seamstress. They meet and become first friends, then something more, as each witnesses one of the West End Ripper's crimes. This brings them much attention by the police and suspicion that endangers them both. Rose is a penniless seamstress who's just been turned out of her home after the death in childbirth of her sister. She's desperate to keep her niece with her and alive. As for Norris, he's a bit of an odd one out amongst his peers, as he comes from a farming family and does not have money or connections. To be able to pay for medical school, he discreetly helps out the resurrectionist who keeps the school supplied with much needed corpses.

This was very promising, but it didn't quite deliver for me. There is some good stuff, in particular, learning about medicine at the time. That was very vivid and truly fascinating, and Gerritsen clearly has done her research.

The thing is, it felt like the history of medicine really was the main point of the book, with the actual story being more of an afterthought. I didn't find the characters or the plot particularly believable, with a lot of character actions and developments seeming to take place more to take the plot into a direction that would allow the author to explain a particularly fascinating nugget than to serve a story or be part of natural character development.

The present-day story was particularly pointless, with nothing really happening there. There are definite hints at first that there is some sort of mystery to solve in this storyline as well, some tension and danger, but all we really get is two people reading letters. It was just a framing device, nothing more.

Disappointing.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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A few DNFs

>> Saturday, March 02, 2019

TITLE: Too Hot To Handle
AUTHOR: Tessa Bailey

This starts a series about 4 siblings on a road trip to fulfil their mother's last wish: a winter dive into the ocean in New York. Too Hot To Handle focuses on Rita, the older sister, who followed her mother's steps and became a chef. She's not in a good place, since she just created a mess by going after a fellow contestant in a cooking show with a knife (!) and her mum's restaurant burnt down, for which she blames herself (with good reason). On the way from California to New York, the car breaks down and the siblings are rescued by Jasper Ellis, a bad boy who doesn't want to be a bad boy any more.

I gave up on this one relatively early on because all the characters' reactions and interactions felt fake. I was constantly going "huh?" and wondering why on earth a particular character was reacting in a particular way. Just didn't click with me, I guess.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

TITLE: One Cretan Evening and Other Stories
AUTHOR: Victoria Hislop

I was in Crete, so I thought I should try to read about Crete. But I read only the remarkably pointless title story. A man arrives to a small Cretan village and enters a house abandoned since the previous occupant's death. This was a woman who'd been ostracised by the village, seemingly for no good reason. I really didn't get the significance of the man's visit, or even the point of the story. I just pressed delete before wasting more time in the other stories.

Also to note that even though the book is short, a big chunk of it is an excerpt from one of Hislop's novels. Meh.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

TITLE: The Girl from Summer Hill
AUTHOR: Jude Deveraux

This sounded like fun, and I used to really like Jude Deveraux way back when. It's a Pride and Prejudice homage, centred around a local theatre company putting on a production of it. The heroine, Casey, is a chef who's catering for the cast, while the hero, Tate, is a famous actor who helps his cousin out by playing Darcy in the production the cousin is directing. But all the amateur actresses are so star-struck, that they can't handle playing Lizzie opposite Tate! Enter Casey, who has taken an immediate dislike to him and thinks he's an arrogant arsehole, and is therefore immune to his charm. So since she's the only one behaving as a normal human, she gets the part.

The setup was ok (although there's a fair bit of people acting like impetuous idiots), but it was the writing that made me put this down sharpish. It felt very simplistic, with a lot of telling and no showing at all. It was as if Deveraux was describing the skeleton of the thing and would come back to fill it in later, only she didn’t. It also felt very old-fashioned... the sort of book where beauty means being blonde and blue-eyed and that's it. I don't think there was a woman depicted as beautiful in the whole chunk that I read who didn't fit that pattern. Not for me.

MY GRADE: Yep, a DNF.

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton

>> Thursday, February 28, 2019

TITLE: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (aka The 71/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle in the US)
AUTHOR: Stuart Turton

COPYRIGHT: 2018
PAGES: 528
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

SETTING: Alternate reality, seems like a version of England between the world wars
TYPE: Speculative fiction
SERIES: None

How do you stop a murder that’s already happened?

At a gala party thrown by her parents, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed--again. She's been murdered hundreds of times, and each day, Aiden Bishop is too late to save her. Doomed to repeat the same day over and over, Aiden's only escape is to solve Evelyn Hardcastle's murder and conquer the shadows of an enemy he struggles to even comprehend--but nothing and no one are quite what they seem.

Deeply atmospheric and ingeniously plotted, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a highly original debut that will appeal to fans of Kate Atkinson and Agatha Christie.
I heard about this book when it won the Costa book awards first novel category last year and there was an interview with the author on Front Row. It sounded intriguing: Agatha Christie + Groundhog Day? What on earth would that look like?

Well, basically, it's like this: a man comes to without any memories, while running in a forest, shouting the name "Anna!". He sees what he thinks is a woman being pursued in the distance, then hears a shot and is convinced he's witnessed a murder. Another man comes to him, places a compass in his hand, and tells him to go east. By doing so, he arrives at a country house where a party is being held, and where people recognise him as one of the guests. He is, understandably, a bit disconcerted by it all.

It turns out he's a soul that has been tasked with finding out the truth about the murder of the titular Evelyn Hardcastle and with getting justice. To do that, he will inhabit the bodies of 8 different people, and live the day during which the murder takes place again and again and again. If he fails at the end of the last day, he starts again.

It all starts out feeling like a bit of a lark, but things start getting darker as we go along. As we discover more and more secrets, we start to care more and truly understand the horror of what's going on.

I really enjoyed reading this, and it turned out to be a more affecting book that I thought it would be during the first sections. For the first half or so, I was enjoying the clever plotting and the almost video game quality of it, but without becoming emotionally involved. But then our main character starts to feel more real, like more of an actual person, and there are quite interesting questions that are explored, albeit not in a terribly explicit way. Who is he, really? He doesn't have memories from before his time in the house, and with each host, he finds the host's personality pressing harder and harder on the dividing line between them and him. So which reactions are truly his, and which are not? I found the exploration of this quite interesting, particularly the way our narrator learns to make this conflict work towards his mission. There is also what feels like real growth and change in the character, when it comes to what we find out about what's really going on and why he's there. I don't want to say much and spoil the ending, but while some aspects of it felt weird and I still don't know how I feel about it, it did all make sense...

I was also impressed by the plotting, both the complexity of it (which was the Agatha Christie element for me, in addition to the setting), and the way Turton was able to take me along as a reader, without requiring me to keep notes or refer back to earlier sections. Honestly, from the way they were talking about it in the Front Row interview I did have some doubts about whether the audiobook would be a good option, but it was absolutely fine. You need to pay attention, but not in an exaggerated way. Also, this was sort of time-travel, which is one of those things that make my head hurt if I try to think about them too hard. So I was surprised by how well it all worked for me, because I tend to avoid time-travel stories precisely because of this.

I must say, though, at the beginning, I was a bit lost, even though I knew the setup I revealed above. But that works, because I was sharing that confusion with the narrator (actually, the narrator is even more confused!). I did have a moment of doubt when I started seeing people around the narrator behaving in very weird, unnatural ways. Is this going to be one of those books were we're just supposed to accept this as the way people would act? But soon even that made sense, because it turns out our narrator gets to keep the memories from when he was in each of his hosts, only losing them if he goes back to the beginning. So his future personas are responsible for some of those 'unnatural' behaviours, and that's perfectly logical.

All this said, I was a bit taken aback by the main character's reactions when he woke up in a host that was morbidly obese. I get it that dealing with a body that just won't do the things that you're used to finding natural, and where you have to put up with your body doing things that are uncomfortable and even embarrassing, would be a bit of a shock. I get that. But some of the language used felt hateful. That element was relatively fleeting, though, so I was able to let it go a bit (and it happens early on, so it didn't leave me with a bad taste in the mouth at the end, which helped).

On the whole, I found this a fun read, and one that felt quite fresh, for all that it's marketing seems to suggest it's a homage to this and that!

MY GRADE: A B+.

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The Ones Who Got Away, by Roni Loren

>> Friday, February 22, 2019

TITLE: The Ones Who Got Away
AUTHOR: Roni Loren

COPYRIGHT: 2018
PAGES: 354
PUBLISHER: Sourcebooks

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts a series

It's been twelve years since tragedy struck the senior class of Long Acre High School. Only a few students survived that fateful night—a group the media dubbed The Ones Who Got Away.

Liv Arias thought she'd never return to Long Acre—until a documentary brings her and the other survivors back home. Suddenly her old flame, Finn Dorsey, is closer than ever, and their attraction is still white-hot. When a searing kiss reignites their passion, Liv realizes this rough-around-the-edges cop might be exactly what she needs…

Liv's words cut off as Finn got closer. The man approaching was nothing like the boy she'd known. The bulky football muscles had streamlined into a harder, leaner package and the look in his deep green eyes held no trace of boyish innocence.
Olivia Arias and Finn Dorsey are part of a small group of survivors of a school shooting. Several years later, a filmmaker is doing a documentary about the tragedy, and since any proceeds are being donated to the families of the victims, Liv and Finn both feel they should participate. And that's how they meet again after not seeing each other since the shooting. They were always super attracted to each other, and that doesn't seem to have changed.

The Ones Who Got Away popped up on quite a few 'best of 2018' lists, so it seems I'm the odd one out here. The first third or so, which was as far as I got, bored me to tears. There just didn't seem to be any tension at all in the book. Considering Finn and Liv's history, there really should have.

After all, at the time of the shooting, they were unable to keep their hands off each other, but since Liv was the weird Goth latina girl, daughter of middle-class Finn's parents' landscaper, she was his little secret. The night of the shooting, which was a party, Finn had gone with another date, someone of his social class, and when the shooting started he and Liv were angrily making out in a cupboard. Lots of potential for drama there, but in the present, it was all super tepid. I could not see this supposedly huge chemistry between them.

I was hoping things would get interesting at some point, so I kept forcing myself to pick it up. After a while, though, it didn't seem worth it.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

>> Tuesday, February 19, 2019

TITLE: Transcription
AUTHOR: Kate Atkinson

COPYRIGHT: 2018
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown and Company

SETTING: 1940s and 1950s England
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past forever.

Ten years later, now a radio producer at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat. A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence.

Transcription is a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy. It is a triumphant work of fiction from one of the best writers of our time.
It's the early days of World War II, and Juliet Armstrong, an 18-year-old just out of school, is recruited by MI5. She's soon sent to work on efforts to keep the Fifth Column contained and harmless. Instead of simply arresting these people and trying to prove their guilt (such a faff!), MI5 let them go about their business, thinking they are doing the Fuhrer's work, while in reality, that work is being neutralised pretty effectively. An MI5 agent, Godfrey Toby, has been set up as a supposed agent of the Third Reich, and it is to him that Nazi sympathisers in London bring their reports, with the intention that they be passed on to Berlin. Most of these reports are pointless, but there are always some that are not quite so harmless. They all die with Godfrey.

Juliet's role is supposed to be purely secretarial. She simply types up transcripts of the conversations that are being monitored and recorded in Godfrey's flat next door, under the supervision of her boss, Perry. But things are never quite so simple.

Interspersed with the events during the war, we also get to see Juliet 10 years later, in 1950. She's working at the BBC, but it's clear that she's never managed to shake off the spy business completely...

This was quite excellent. Atkinson's writing just clicks with me, and it seems to be particularly effective in audiobook form (and narrator Fenella Woolgar is just wonderful. She strikes just the right tones).

The voice and the tone were my favourite things about the book. Things start out in a way that seems very 'fun and games' on the surface. The fifth columnists visiting next door feel ridiculous and harmless, for all that they are people with very nasty opinions. It feels like they are playing at what they're doing, and it's not anything serious. And Juliet is just typing things up, so surely she's not in any sort of line of fire. Even when she's asked to take a more active role in certain activities, it's all initially quite genteel. But as the book progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that there is darkness just below the surface, and veeeery slowly, a sense of dread builds up. And when the nastiness breaks through, it's shocking, even though we knew it was there all along. It was perfect.

Juliet's voice works beautifully with this story arc. It's dry and full of a very British amused tone. The narration is very much from her point of view. Everything is as she sees it... or rather, as she's telling it to herself, which means that even though we're squarely in her point of view, we are clearly not necessarily seeing everything...

I did think, though, that the voice didn't seem to change all that much between the young Juliet at the start of the book, who was only 18, and the one in 1950, who had so much more experience behind her. This creates a bit of a dissonance in some small sections of the action during the war, particularly some of Juliet's interactions with Perry. She'd think things that were pretty naive, but do so in a very worldly voice, if that makes sense. Still, this was a relatively minor issue.

And speaking of the 2 distinct time settings, Atkinson does seem to like non-linear structures, but with her this has a point. The non-linearity is not there just for the sake of being experimental. Here we shift between the early days of the war and 1950, but it's pretty long sections each time, so the reader becomes fully immersed in the particular period each time. And with the events of the 1940s clearly affecting the events in 1950, the back-and-forth worked particularly well in revealing the plot gradually and moving the story forward.

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.

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To See the Sun, by Kelly Jensen

>> Sunday, February 10, 2019

TITLE: To See the Sun
AUTHOR: Kelly Jensen

COPYRIGHT: 2018
PAGES: 293
PUBLISHER: Riptide Publishing

SETTING: Planets of Zhemosen and Alkirak
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: None

Survival is hard enough in the outer colonies — what chance does love have?

Life can be harsh and lonely in the outer colonies, but miner-turned-farmer Abraham Bauer is living his dream, cultivating crops that will one day turn the unforgiving world of Alkirak into paradise. He wants more, though. A companion — someone quiet like him. Someone to share his days, his bed, and his heart.

Gael Sonnen has never seen the sky, let alone the sun. He’s spent his whole life locked in the undercity beneath Zhemosen, running from one desperate situation to another. For a chance to get out, he’ll do just about anything — even travel to the far end of the galaxy as a mail-order husband. But no plan of Gael’s has ever gone smoothly, and his new start on Alkirak is no exception. Things go wrong from the moment he steps off the shuttle.

Although Gael arrives with unexpected complications, Abraham is prepared to make their relationship work—until Gael’s past catches up with them, threatening Abraham’s livelihood, the freedom Gael gave everything for, and the love neither man ever hoped to find.
In the depths of one of the nasty undercities of the otherwise beautiful planet Zhemosen, Gael is struggling. His life has always been difficult, and now it's turned desperate. After a failed attempt to clear his debts (none of which he incurred himself, but all of which he's responsible for, according to the powers that be), he's in an even deeper hole than he started in, and ready to consider his only friend's suggestion to become a mail-order groom in a planet far, far away.

In one of those distant planets, Alkirak, farmer Bram is feeling a bit lonely. After 30 years working a challenging mining job, he's taken retirement and built his farm. It has been and still is a challenge as well, but the hardest work is done and Bram's job now is mostly about keeping things going. And now that he has some time to himself, he thinks a bit of company would be nice. His planet is still pretty sparsely populated, so his best bet is to place an ad on the galactic online matchmaking site.

Both Gael and Bram like what they're seeing in the other, and before long Gael, has entered into a contract with Bram. He'll travel to Alkirak to live with Bram, and they'll see if they suit. But when he arrives, it becomes clear he's brought some trouble with him.

This started out well. The setup was one I really liked: two people slowly getting to know each other in an isolated location, learning to rub along. It also had two elements I find really satisfying: the person who finally finds safety, a place they can relax in, after living a life of constant stress (that would be Gael), and the person who finds their loneliness alleviated (Bram).

I also really enjoyed the setting. Alkirak is a harsh planet, one where the atmosphere is still a work-in-progress and people have to live in deep crevices to stay out of the burning sun during the day. These crevices are huge (big enough for cities and farms) and traverse the whole planet, going deep into the planet (not such a great thing, as sometimes poisonous mists waft up from the depths). It was all really vivid and different, and I loved the frontier feel of it all.

So all very promising, but did the story fulfil that promise? Well, unfortunately, not really. There was something about the characters that didn't fully gel for me, and the chemistry between them was a bit anaemic (not just sexual chemistry, but the way they clicked together). And then, the last third of the book was a bit of a change of pace, with someone turning villainous in a way that didn't make much sense. I kind of stopped caring about then.

MY GRADE: This was a C+ for me. It was just ok.

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