Tag Archives: mysteries

Girl at the Grave by Teri Bailey Black

After her mother was hanged for murder years ago, Valentine has grown up largely an outcast in her small Connecticut town. But after she learns that there may be more to the story than she knows, she vows to uncover the truth even if it means uncovering all the secrets the townspeople have been keeping. Meanwhile, her heart is torn between the childhood friend she’s always known and the son of the man her mother killed. If only she can clear her mother’s name and get the happy ending she’s never thought she could have.

To be honest, Girl at the Grave (Tor Teen, 2018)  wasn’t my favorite. I read it because historical mysteries are often fun, and this one sounded intriguing. But I didn’t expect how much of the story would focus on which boy Valentine should choose. In and of itself, this isn’t the end of the world, but there was also a lot of the old “not like the other girls” trope. The combination of two boys mysteriously being head over heels for Valentine while she despises the more accepted and traditionally feminine girls in the town didn’t sit that well with me.

It also just dragged a lot in places, which sometimes does happen with mysteries–that point where the information is still necessary to set up the end but where there hasn’t been a big revelation yet is a real thing. But in this case, the ending just came rather abruptly and with a sudden reversal of Valentine’s point of view on one character that didn’t feel adequately explored.

Nor did the setting work that well for me–this is supposed to be Connecticut in the mid-1800s, but nothing about the descriptions truly evoked either time or place. There’s so much that could be explored in historical fiction, really painting a picture of another time. And yet there simply wasn’t much there aside from some surface level details of everyday life. It’s an oddly limited story in that sense, and I wished that the past had been engaged with more deeply.

I supposed the other major part I struggled with was just not liking Valentine that much. And I know that unlikeable female characters are fine, and yet! In this case I didn’t feel that it was an intentional thing, but simply so-so writing. The story leans heavily on Valentine being an outsider who has been ostracised by the great and good and yet multiple characters throughout the book try to protect her. Rowan, who is basically a cardboard cutout of a character, falls in love with her and is willing to give up his entire future for basically unexplained reasons.

This is pretty harsh as I’m writing it, and I did finish the book after all. There’s just enough spark in the characters and premise that I kept reading, hoping that it would surprise me after all. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite ever get there for me.

Other historical mystery books I recommend:
      The Caged Graves by Dianne Salerni
      The Agency series by Y.S. Lee
      Murder is Bad Manners by Robin Stevens

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October 2018 books

A Scholar of Magics Caroline Stevermer 10.31

Fake Blood Whitney Gardner 10.28

Border Kapka Kassapova 10.27 [review]

Exit Strategy Martha Wells 10.26

Jade City Fonda Lee 10.23 [review]

Summer Bird Blue Akemi Dawn Bowman 10.21 [review]

Capsized! Patricia Sutton 10.18 [review]

Monstrous Regiment of Women Laurie Russell King 10.17

Drum Roll Please Lisa Jenn Bigelow 10.14

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice Laurie Russell King 10.13

The Wild Dead Carrie Vaughn

Midnight Robber Nalo Hopkinson 10.12

Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea Lynn Rae Perkins 10.12

Spinning Silver Naomi Novik 10.9

She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah) Ann Hood 10.9

The Lost Scroll: The Book of Kings Sarah Prineas 10.4

 

Total books read: 16

Total rereads: 1

Favorites:

  • Spinning Silver
  • Midnight Robber
  • Drum Roll Please
  • Border
  • Exit Strategy

Weekly reading roundups:

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Chapter books about art heists and mysteries

Recently I noticed something intriguing–the number of chapter books that feature mysteries about arts. Heists, thefts, and other strange situations apparently attract kids who are the only ones who can solve them! Of course, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is perhaps the classic, but there are lots more! Here is a selection if, like me, you find this kind of storyline catnip.

The Art of the Swap by Kristine Asselin and Jen Malone
Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett
Masterpiece by Elise Broach
Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking by Erin Dionne
The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
London Art Chase by Natalie Grant
The Mystery of the Mona Lisa, France by Elizabeth Singer Hunt
Hannah West, Sleuth in Training by Linda Johns
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
The Mystery of the Martello Tower by Jennifer Lanthier
Manhunt by Kate Messner
The Mystery of the Third Lucretia by Susan Runholt
The Sweetest Heist in History by Octavia Spencer
Mystery on Museum Mile by Marcia Wells

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Recovery reading: mystery round-up

As previously mentioned, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries recently–so much so that I’m just going to go ahead and do a quick post on all the others I read or reread during January.

I started off with Agatha Christie, who I can usually count on to be engaging and whose books I have read enough times that it didn’t really matter if I was napping or loopy. Therefore, I zipped through: Death in the Clouds (not her strongest mystery in terms of characters, which she’s seldom interested in anyway), Nemesis (I love Miss Marple, but the attitudes towards sexual assault in this one are, uh, not great), The Mysterious Affair at Styles (ah, lil baby Poirot, before she had really figured out his characterization), and Towards Zero (actually one of her strongest mysteries in terms of writing–and fascinating for its depiction of gaslighting). PHEW! I pretty much just picked whatever was available on Overdrive at that moment and had mixed success but really no regrets.

Then I moved on to Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January books. I’d read the first one already and started the second (Fever Season) but set it down. I finished it and read Graveyard Dust and then decided that while they’re good, the plot was taking too long to get going for my current state, and the atmosphere was a little too bleak. I may come back to them at some point, we’ll see!

Wanting something a bit lighter, I then picked up the first in Charlene Harris’s Aurora Teagarden series–Real Murders–and really liked it. While I think the first book is by far the strongest, I did read most of the series, except for one that was checked out and another that was all about babies (A Fool and His Honey) and therefore not what I wanted to read at that moment. They’re light and competent enough, which made them perfect for zipping through. It is interesting that Harris kind of writes herself into a corner at one point and then just up and kills off a character to write herself out of it. Also, apparently there are some Hallmark adaptations?! I am curious, but uncommitted.

I also reread Murder is Bad Manners, the second in Robin Stevens’ Wells & Wong series of middle grade murder mysteries and A TRUE DELIGHT. It was the only one available on Overdrive and I only own the first book! Alas.

Then I asked for recommendations on Twitter, having run out of ideas on my own, and got some good ones. Kate suggested the Sarah Caudwell books I talked about last time, and Charlotte mentioned the Mrs. Pollifax books by Dorothy Gilman. I had read those–or at least, as many of them as I wanted to–but I hadn’t read her standalone A Nun in the Closet which I devoured late one night when I couldn’t sleep. It was extremely charming, and surprisingly thoughtful, and altogether lovely. I also tried her two books about Madame Karitska, The Clairvoyant Countess and Kaleidoscope, and liked them fine. A Nun in the Closet is definitely still my favorite. I’m kind of laughing just thinking about it.

I finished up with a reread of a couple of the Vicky Bliss books by Elizabeth Peters–Borrower of the Night and Street of Five Moons, whose cover always misleads me into thinking it takes place in Egypt instead of Italy. I like the Vicky books just fine, and I appreciate all the Lord Peter Wimsey homages, BUT I do get fairly tired of Vicky’s insistence on the trials of being tall, whereas short women are always evil and charm all the men in the story into thinking they’re so frail and helpless and feminine. Can’t we just agree that the patriarchy is terrible for everyone and leave it at that? Signed, a small woman who resents being talked down to.

All in all, the mystery reading was probably the highlight of my recovery period. It was kind of the perfect genre for being engrossed in without too much emotional complication. I’m back to work tomorrow, but I might still be on a mystery kick for a while, so if you have favorites, let me know!

________

A year ago: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Two years ago: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

Three years ago: Fifteen favorite heroines

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Recovery reading: Sarah Caudwell

I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately–for whatever reason, it’s a genre that has been exactly what I wanted while recovering from last month’s surgery. I actually asked for recommendations on Twitter and got some great suggestions. So far my favorites from that list have been the Hilary Tamar books by Sarah Caudwell, which my friend Kate suggested. They’re so delightful! I was extremely sad that there are only four of them and had to ration them out a bit so I didn’t just read all of them in two days and then regret it.

Now, I’m sure that not everyone will enjoy these books to the same degree that I did. They’re centered around the legal profession in London, with an ironic and somewhat distant narration style that reads almost like a 19th century novel. The setup is a bit predictable after the first book. The characters are mostly well-of, upper class, white Britons. I suspect that you’ll read the first page or so of Thus Was Adonis Murdered and know instantly if this is a book for you or not.

But if it is a book for you, then what joys await! Hilary’s narration is actually really funny under the dry tone, and the actual plots of the mysteries are quite engaging and twisty. The books are erudite and abstract, but they also have a keen sense of observation and understanding of people and what motivates them that keeps the story from becoming dry. Caudwell also had a deft hand with description, which makes the settings of her stories come alive. All in all, my main memory of the books is of vividness and humor, which is partly because of that same detached tone.

Also, when I looked up Caudwell Wikipedia pointed out that Hilary’s gender is never specified, which I had not previously realized. Either because Hilary tends to be a name more associated with women in the US or because I’m me, I had instinctively read them as female (Jo Walton completely disagrees). It may also be because of the sympathetic air shown towards the various difficulties Selena and Julia undergo. Regardless, I felt there was an undercurrent of feminist sensibility in the stories, which also kept the plots from falling into tired tropes.

As I said earlier, my only real complaint about these books is that there are not more of them. Sadly, Sarah Caudwell died in 2000 (and had not published a novel for 11 years before that). At least it’s possible to read & reread the existing books with (at least for me) great enjoyment.

 

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Josephine Tey reading notes: Daughter of Time

This month’s Reading Notes series is on books by Josephine Tey (the better-known pen-name of Elizabeth MacKintosh). The first post is all about The Daughter of Time which is the other one of my two favorite Tey books. There will be spoilers! (But this all about history, so it doesn’t really matter.)

daughter of timeThe Daughter of Time is a mystery book in which a detective hypothetically solves the murder of the two Princes in the Tower while laid up in the hospital. It is also a book I love very deeply. I am not kidding about either part of this. Tey always tends to be a cerebral writer, for a writer of mysteries, but The Daughter of Time is something else altogether. As I wrote in my notes, “it’s a mystery…about history!” (Sorry, not sorry.)

But it’s also a very typically Tey sort of book. She tends to insert her points into the mouths of characters who are very unlikely to think such things. She’s not very interested in continuity (witness Marta, who basically is whoever Tey needs her to be for this particular book). There’s a nostalgia for a lost Britain which never was, which also ties back to the conservatism of Latchetts in Brat Farrar. She can’t help getting derailed with complaining about the Scots.

And yet, for all this–Teyness–it’s also full of her best qualities as a writer: her vivid characters, her ability to convince you that it all makes sense for as long as the book lasts. This was the book that sent me on a long path of Emotions About Richard III, which is weird and specific but here we are. Rereading it this time, I cared the most about the part of the book that’s about history, about what is remembered and forgotten. I will probably never not cry at the end (“This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city” sob sob sob.)

I also am reading it this time in the context of multiple ongoing conversations about American  history and the way it is sanitized and wrongly taught. I’m reading it against the backdrop of people claiming that the White House wasn’t built by enslaved people, or that it’s all okay because they were treated well. (Shut up, Bill O’Reilly.) It’s impossible not to think of this. It’s likewise impossible not to notice that Tey manages to be both revisionist and essentially conservative. That is–while The Daughter of Time makes some fascinating points about the way we’re taught history and that it isn’t benign or objective, it also spends a lot of time defending the British government. This is a weird tension that Tey never really resolves. Or rather, she doesn’t think it needs resolving.

(She does make the very accurate point that “when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you.” Anyone who has tried to point out George Washington’s flaws, for instance, will be familiar with this.)

Despite this, her eye to character and her look at Richard III’s reign as a mystery remain really compelling to me. Do I think that Henry VII murdered the Princes? I don’t know. Do I think the historical evidence is as clear as she paints it? Probably not. But it doesn’t matter, in a certain sense. I’m always moved by the story she does tell, of this king who inherited abruptly and did his best to make the country he ruled more prosperous, liberal, and just. I’m moved by the desire on the part of Grant to tell the truth and give him his due. Do I trust that Tey is telling the absolute truth here? No, not really. But I believe it, for the space of 200-odd pages, nonetheless.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1951, adult mystery (about history) (please don’t be mad at me) (I can’t help it)

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The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

invisible libraryI have to admit that I tend towards books that are on the intense and emotion-heavy side, especially with speculative fiction. So it’s fun to every so often read a lighter book. The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman is a great one to turn to in those moods. It’s a light and fun fantasy, with some cool worldbuilding and interesting mystery elements. It’s also Cogman’s debut, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

The Invisible Library is narrated by Irene, an agent of the Library, which collects fictions from across different realities and worlds. I liked Irene a lot–she’s capable and has a lot of strength and knowledge. In some ways, she’s not very confident, but these mostly stem from the hierarchies and politics of the Library itself, rather than internal doubts.

I also enjoyed the central conceit of the story, and I thought Cogman did a nice job of making it internally consistent. While the Library bears basically no resemblance to the living, breathing libraries I’ve worked in, Cogman also generally avoids being precious about the sacred value of learning. (Public libraries in particular are weird and wonderful places that aren’t exactly sacred sanctums of Knowledge.)

I thought the mystery element was pretty well played out–it can be tricky to balance a mystery when there are lots of extra fantastical bits going on at the same time. There were a couple of moments that were genuinely horrifying, although they never overwhelmed the overall tone of the book. I certainly didn’t guess the ending, and I thought the book did a good job of showing Irene and Kai as competent without being superhuman.

I’ll also note that the main Inspector in the alternate world is Indian. Irene herself seems to be canonically bisexual (although that term is never used); she’s been romantically interested in women in the past, but describes her type as dark and dangerous, and seems into at least one male character. I can’t say whether those representations are done well–there was one moment I have some questions about.

Some books end with everything neatly wrapped up and resolved. Others end with things mostly resolved. And still others end with new revelations and questions. The Invisible Library is definitely in the third category, which unfortunately is my least favorite of the three. However, I do genuinely want to know how it will play out. To the extent this works for me, it’s because the set up had been becoming more complicated throughout the whole book, rather than having a Surprise!Info dump ending.

All in all, despite a few minor quibbles, this was a really enjoyable fantasy, with some cool elements and nice characters. I’ll definitely be looking forward to reading the next one.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Roc (in the US); adult fantasy

Other reviews: The Guardian; Li @ Book Daze; Supernaut; you?

Liked this post? Check out my Reading Notes review of A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

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