Laura Lippman, Sunburn (2018)

A while ago Leila from Big Reading Life got me thinking about TBR and lists kept on Goodreads or elsewhere. I mentioned that I had a “on-hold” list of books that I’d started, abandoned but don’t really want to give up on – and I realized that it was a bit, well, stupid. It really felt that I’d created a “should read” category that would weigh on me and make me feel guilty. High time to revisit that list and get read of it, one way or the other. Either read it or let it go.

Sunburn was one of those books that I had on shelf. As I was going for a break I took it in my luggage and planned to not come back with it, read or unread. So which one do you think it went?

My first reading attempt was stopped before page 100. The story is set in small town Delaware where a private detective is following a young beautiful, red-head woman in hiding. No, stop, it’s not so straightforward: it’s a private detective posing as a cook, working in an old-style diner alongside a runaway woman posing as a waitress. We don’t know what she’s running from and why he’s following her. We have his inner monolog and hers, and I remember being annoyed that much of the thoughts was: I know he knows I’ve lied, but he doesn’t know that I know he knows, so… Far too convoluted if I was tired or not fully focused.

Luckily the second time around, I was more relaxed, more patient (this is indeed a slow burner), and more open to suspending my disbelief. Characters in this novel are shady and not entirely likeable, and the atmosphere it conjures is definitely a noir movie. What is unusual is that for most of the book we’re not quite clear what the crime is. There’s a thick web of secrets and I didn’t see the ending coming. Laura Lippmann is indeed a plot master!

I’m glad I persevered with this book, although as a red-head myself, I’m not a great fan of the mysterious, venenous red-head woman trope.

Jacqueline Winspear, To Die But Once (2018)

My first encounter with Maisie Dobbs was in 2018, when I plunged headlong into the saga at volume 13, just like some people jump all at once in a deep swimming pool, without putting a toe first. I knew the water wasn’t going to be cold, because the series came warmly recommended by lots of readers. Maisie Dobbs saga starts with World War 1, but volume 13 is set in 1939, and the whole arch is to follow the long term ripples of trauma on several generations. I thought it was a good idea to revisit Maisie, and so I downloaded book 14.

Four years had passed in my life (and a pandemic) and I can’t say I thought a lot about Maisie in the meantime. In fictional terms, only a few months had passed and it was 1940 and the catastrophe of Dunkirk. But I was expected to know everything about a whole cast of characters… and it was all too much.

Maisie’s world is a crowded one: Maisie’s close or distant relatives, numerous friends and their own spouses, kids and own relatives, staff of her private detective agency and associated spouses and kids, staff of the wealthy relatives and friends, neighbors (you guessed it, with spouse ans kids)… when it came to pets (luckily no spouse and kids mentioned), I was lost with all those names and story lines. All those characters have their own lives, as it should be, and their own mysteries, as the genre dictates… and by the time the novel started to come to an end, all of those story lines needed to find their own resolution.

What I enjoyed is clearly the historical setting and the fact that with such a large chorus you’ve got an almost representative slice of the British population. The book was interesting and entertaining, no mistake! But it required an effort of concentration and memory that I was not quite ready for. I would really recommend the publisher to put a character list for the exhausted readers. And for pity’s sake don’t attempt this book as a standalone.

Stephen King, Misery (1987)

What could I possibly add to the 17,840 reviews (current figure on Goodreads only) already written on this book? I don’t think anyone expects me to give a recap of the story. Writer, super-fan, writing block, isolation, creative process. Plus lots of gore, blood and drugs. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d say you’ve been living in a cave for quite a while. Of course I had to read Misery at some point, but I waited quite some years (and I absolutely didn’t want to read it in translated version… Stephen King’s French voice is all weird to me, and I somehow can’t take it seriously). As for the movie, I’ve seen pictures of it, but I’m not ready. Not yet. Or more precisely, even less ready now that I’ve read the book. Sorry Kathy Bates.

I am no fan of the horror genre, but I have come to enjoy and respect Stephen King for the great entertainer that he is. Man does the guy know how to grab your attention and not release it! I didn’t sleep much during the few days it took me to read Misery. And I’m glad it was less of a door stopper than other of King’s books, or I would have been even more tired. I knew it would work its magic (its nightmarish powers) on me, but still I was surprised, over and over: it went beyond my expectations (although I have expectations of a newbie in the genre, meaning that I have a limited imagination). Reading Misery is really about experiencing the turn of the screw, like Henry James described, but I don’t think good old Henry would have tolerated the level of horror, craziness and despair.

Also, this has been said countless times but you feel that the book is also raw and personal when it speaks about addiction and the creative process. King manages to say a few serious things he cares about, while keeping a tight lid on the pressure cooker of his plot, inserting some humor and making sure you’re properly scared!

Now there are good reasons why this is a classics, and if you’re ready for a wild ride and a few sleepless nights, then it comes highly recommended, by most of the 17,840 reviewers… and me.

Martha Grimes, Hotel Paradise (1995)

On the cover, Hotel Paradise is called “utterly engaging”: I’d say that is true and not true at the same time. The novel is definitely a slow burner, and for the first few chapters I was not engaged. In fact, I was confused. I could not understand where and when the story was set. The narrator is Emma Graham, a 12-year-old girl who lives in a faded family hotel set in a small town. Details of the villagers’ lives and past are all seen through her eyes, and it took some getting used to. Emma is both very naive and very wise, and all along the book there are some bitter truths that she will learn. The novel is categorized as a mystery, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, some people died, and Emma has decided to get to the bottom of it, but except for her, people don’t really care nor do they treat these deaths as suspicious. Nor is the ending a tidy resolution that provides all the answers.

But by page 50 I was definitely engaged. I liked the quirky perspective of Emma. I perversely enjoyed all the little details of small town villages and the gossips. But what kept me most is the language, it was witty, visual and sensitive.

Mrs Souder is a silent and unfriendly old woman, but I think she is rather proud of her ice cream artistry. She looks as if she enjoys holding the chocolate-sauce ladle high over the glass so that the sauce forms swirls and dribbles ribbons; she enjoys making those high white peaks with the whipped cream and then displacing the peak by the drop of a cherry. As she comes to the end of her maneuvers, her grumpy silence gives way to the hint of a painstaking smile, the barest raising of the corners of the mouth. In her tea-colored eyes is an expression almost of delight, quickly extinguished if she sees me watching her.

Personally, it made me quite curious about ice-cream soda and what it actually tastes like (it’s one of these cliché American things that I’ve never had). Another quote:

My mother made no bones about the beans coming out of a can, which surprised everybody for they tasted homemade. “Doctored” was what my mother came these vastly improved canned vegetables. As far as I was concerned, my mother should have run a vegetable hospital, the way she took hold of limp, pale, unhealthy-looking green beans and peas and cabbage and with her seasoning and a little wrist action had them walking through the swinging doors looking like they’d spent all their days in the sun and never even seen the inside of a can.

I’m not sure I will read the sequel soon, because you need to be in the right mood and unhurried (I read the book during winter break, that may help). I was definitely under the spell of Emma, and I enjoyed this slow travel into the depths of small town America. I’m very grateful to Danielle for making me discover this author.

Julie Garwood, The Bride (1989)

Alright, let’s agree right from the start that if you’re here to learn what the Bride is about and if the book has some literary value, you might be disappointed. But if you insist… There’s a bride, and because it’s a 1989 book, there’s a groom too. It’s Scotland and 1100 (or 1200, but as I read it I was not a stickler for historical accuracy, for reasons I’ll explain). There’s a marriage, and what romance pros call HEA. Whether it’s an open-door or a closed-door one, I’m no pro but it’s rather open and the level of spiciness being totally subjective, I would say low-to-medium. Your mileage may vary.

Now that the bare minimum is established, I’ll tell you how I got to this book. I bought this romance back in January on a whim (or more precisely, on an evening of give-me-whatever-to-escape-Omicron-pandemic-surge online shopping) and finished while my husband was in isolation in our bedroom with Covid. I wanted some romance, no, I needed some sugary sweet page turner with some spice in it.

Why this one in particular you would say? Julie Garwood is not the most recent, fashionable, and yes, the most progressive feminist romance writer. You might prepare yourself for some eye roll because gendered cliches are numerous, consent doesn’t exist as such (not that it was a thing in the Middle Ages anyway), and the idea of a spunky heroine is that she will engage in funny banter with her lover but does not preclude that she will act stupid.

You see, Julie Garwood is the author who introduced me to romances back in the 1990s as I should have been cramming for exams instead of daydreaming about barely-dressed Scottish Middle-Age lairds. The funniest is that her books were at our disposal on the shelves of the common room of a Catholic female students home! 🤣 (the nuns did not speak or read any English, obviously). The memory is fuzzy but I think I read The Prize.

In short, it’s not so much a case of Covid-made-me-do-it, rather than nostalgia-made-me-do-it. Compared to other experiences where I re-read as an adult old childhood favorites, this one didn’t disappoint, especially because it was a lot funnier than I expected. Now that I’ve satisfied my sweet tooth, do you have any other historical romance you’d recommend?

Teresa Trent, The Twist and Shout Murder (2022)

I admit that I didn’t choose this Netgalley ARC wisely: I liked the title and the cover and I was in the mood for a cozy mystery. Cozy it was indeed, in the 1960s it was also, with glaring allusions to pre-marriage sex, contraception and abortion, and working women. But I had somehow the idea that it was a British cozy mystery (swinging London, I suppose) and I was sort of shocked that it was set in a small town in Texas.

Once I reconciled to the setting, it was OK. Not exceptional but entertaining for a few hours. The characters are a bit cliché, although they duly undergo some evolution over the course of the book. Bad guys are duly bad, and rest assured that they will find their comeuppance in the end (I’m not spoiling anything!). I wasn’t really surprised when the final twist occurred, and I wasn’t totally won over by the main character Dot, who must be a distant cousin of Pollyanna.

Now, you may ask: why did you not DNF this book? Because I wanted to know the end (or at least, check if my suspicions were right) and because it was entertaining and easy. Gin Jenny from Reading The End had a fascinating post recently about 3 stars books. I understand her point completely, but this average book doesn’t fall into the out-of-my-comfort-zone books: I must confess that it was pure laziness. Had it come at a moment when I was full of energy, I would probably have DNF-ed it, or more precisely, I wouldn’t even have downloaded the ARC because I would have checked the fine print and discovered that it was indeed not set in London, and that I wasn’t probably the best audience for this book. But because life is about highs and lows, I’m not ready to break up with the 3 stars books just yet.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Stephen King, Later (2021)

Stephen King is a late discovery of mine (after I went past snobbish prejudices, I must confess) and I have no problem saying aloud that I love his writing so much… Yet there’s a catch: the size of his books. I’m always hesitant to commit to a chunkster of 500+ pages, even if I know that those pages will fly (or maybe because of it, I know that it will make me read into the night for far too long)

Later is the perfect book of the perfect size. The narrator is Jamie, a teen with a snarky voice and some unusual skills. The kind of skills that make you shiver: from his childhood on he has been able to see dead people. He sees them, is able to talk to them and hear them talk. Yes, à la Sixth Sense, but without Bruce Willis. And King is clever enough to make Jamie aware of the reference and roll his eyes. His childhood has been rather sheltered, with a single mother working as a publisher in New York city. But then as he grows up things get difficult and Jamie’s life is thrown in turmoil, even without his special skills.

I loved Jamie’s voice, and I loved that the coming-of-age story mostly takes the precedence over the supernatural. Until… I love that Jamie takes everything in stride, the cool and the sad, the mundane and the horrific. He’s a caring teenager, and I totally believed in his character, even when King takes the story into crazy, over-the-top directions (that I won’t spoil).

There are many unexplained things in the story itself, but I have one practical question: why is this book published in a collection called Hard Case Crime? The 1970s cover art is very cool, but also quite misleading. Jamie is born around 2000 I guess, as he remembers the 2008 financial crisis. The book is a mix between horror, thriller, fantasy perhaps? But a crime mystery it is definitely not.

Michael Connelly, Dark Sacred Night (2018)

In 2021 I read three books by Michael Connelly and this one was the last one, after the blunder I made about The Night Fire. I was sure I was reading this book, which is #2 in the series, while I was reading the Night Fire (#3) instead… so after that I had to retrace my steps and read Dark Sacred Night, right? Well, I normally don’t read series in order anyway, and for years I said I didn’t really care (I read from libraries and got what was available, and also international books were so much harder to procure) but I am slowly acknowledging that the experience of reading it in the correct order is, in fact, quite satisfying. Maybe the rebel in me has grown up… 😂 and I’m probably using an emoji that dates me…

Still, you came here for a review of Dark Sacred Night, and I’ll announce right away that you won’t get any plot details from me. It’s a bit fuzzy in my memory. I had fun while reading it for sure but I felt that it was not as good as The Night Fire. Not that I will quit Ballard and Bosch duo anytime soon, but since I had already seen the two of them work together in #3, I had little patience for the will-they-won’t-they of the two starting to get to know each other and learning to trust each other.

A big chunk of the book feels like a second part to Two Kinds of Truth. One of the cold cases Bosch takes here, the murder of a young girl called Daisy Clayton, is the result of a promise he made to her mother Elizabeth Clayton who had descended into drugs addiction as a result of the murder and the lack of justice. The relationship between Bosch and Clayton is ambiguous and well described.

I enjoyed the relentless pace and the renewed surprises of the plot. I absolutely didn’t see the solution coming! I do look forward to reading about this fabulous pair again and I will be careful about the right order!

Nancy Kress, Fountain of Age (2008)

Fountain of Age is a SF novella, but in France short stories is not a popular genre, so the translated novella was published separately. I chose it because I am reluctant to invest a lot of time in a large SF novel (what if I don’t like it? what if I’m out of my depth? Evidently, even as a grown-up 40-something woman, I still have my issues when it comes to SF…). I chose it because the French publisher was the same as the great novella by Ken Liu: The Man Who Ended History. The publisher is Le Bélial, and they have all sorts of SF chunksters as well as a lot of novellas. My third criteria for this selection was that I wanted a female writer, especially after having been blown away by the creativity of Folding Beijing.

The story line couldn’t be more classical: an old man, feeling death coming soon, is looking for the love of his life, whom he met – and lost – in his youth. The old man is very rich and has his own family whom he’s not particularly close to. He has become rich by dubious means, and he has had problems with the law before, but that’s not unusual. The love of his life is a woman named Daria who has married someone else and has not seen him ever again. So, nothing particularly SF really.

The business venture, now, is not what you’d expect in a standard novel: Daria has had a sort of tumor, whose cells injected in other people let them remain young forever. And so Daria herself has disappeared from public view to become a sort of ethereal life-giving entity. Her husband has turned it into a controversial but extremely profitable business. So the meeting between the old man and Daria is not an easy endeavor.

I can’t say that the story blew me away, but it kept my interest throughout. I didn’t really enter into the future world described by Kress (I didn’t get much of a sense of place), nor did the biotechnologies interest me much. But I liked the character of the nasty old man, and particularly enjoyed his friendship with the gypsies. I will probably explore more titles in this collection of novellas, as I find it a good way to try new SF authors.

The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021, Lee Child

It’s been quite a while since I listened to an audiobook, and this one came from Netgalley, whose app I was not familiar with. All this to say that it was not quite a smooth experience, and it has nothing to do with the stories itself. I had difficulties to focus, and I have wondered if short stories are more difficult to get on audio rather than a novel. I’d say that if your attention drifts away for a paragraph (or two?) of a novel, it’s often not a big problem because you can pick the plot line up again later, but in short stories, especially in mysteries, once you’ve missed a clue, that’s too late. But once again, all of this is my fault, and this collection has a lot of stories that kept my full attention.

As always, a short story collection, especially one gathering a wide range of writers and themes, is hard to review. Some stories I enjoyed, some I actively disliked, some left me a bit cold. The big names in the collection didn’t offer stories as dazzling as I’d thought. I was a bit disappointed by Sara Paretsky’s story “Love and other crimes”, which was not memorable. I was disappointed by the Sherlock Holmes story for which I had high expectations (“The Adventures of the home office Baby”). I was a bit thrown off kilter by the Stephen King’s story, “The Fifth Step”, which is masterfully written and nail-biting (as usual), but which to me doesn’t really fit into the mystery genre, it’s more into the horror genre. Same with the Joyce Caroll Oates’ story, “Parole Hearing”, which is a variation on the Charlie Manson’s horrific 1969 murders.

But a lot of other stories were just great discoveries from authors I had never heard about, and whose names I will track down! (That’s one of the great benefits of this sort of collections, in my opinion). Here are my favorites:

  • “The Gift” by Alison Gaylin; about a missing little girl whose rich and famous parents resort to a medium to help in the search.
  • “The 6th Decoy” by Paul Kemprecos; about a quirky PI on Cape Cod
  • “Requiem for a Homecoming” by David Morrell, about a 20 year old murder in a college town
  • “Heatwave”, with a PI who is given the seemingly easy case of a missing teenager
  • “Edda at the End of the World” by Joseph S. Walker, a sort of Thelma and Louise story (no spoiler)
  • “The Path I Took” by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, whose narrator reflects on his time studying in Ireland
  • “If you want something done right” by Sue Grafton, about a very, very organized wife who plans for her husband’s murder

Certainly I will get my hands on a full length mystery with Aristotle Socarides in the near future (Paul Kemprecos). For the other authors (except Sue Grafton of course), a little more research is required. Any name you’ve read?

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.