Category Archives: Mystery/Thriller

A Master of Djinn

Queer steampunk fantasy mystery set in early 1900s Egypt

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of a digital book cover of “A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark. The cover is of a silhouetted figure climbing ascending a staircase in an ornate building with blue and gold designs and cogs and gears hanging from the glass ceiling.

“A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark is a fantasy mystery novel with steampunk elements set in an alternate Cairo, Egypt in 1912. After the barrier between our world and the magical world was removed half a century earlier, countries have been trying to manage the influx of magical beings. In Egypt, where Djinn now live amongst people, Fatima is the youngest woman who works at the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Fuelled by confidence and a snappy style of dress, a new mystery soon has Fatma stumped. After members of a secret British society are murdered by someone claiming to be the very man they worship, Fatima must solve the crime before the tension in the city boils over and and all is lost. Meanwhile, she has an unwanted new partner at work and her hot and cold girlfriend is more than who she seems.

This is a fun novel that reimagines Cairo at the turn of the century in a new light. The introduction of magic and Djinn in the world shifts the international power dynamic and in Clark’s Egypt, the British have withdrawn early and colonialism is becoming a distant memory. Djinn and the mysterious Angels bring with them new technologies, which Clark shows off to great effect during some of the action scenes. Fatma is a great, imperfect character whose brilliance is tempered by her vanity and her stubbornness. I really enjoyed Fatma’s new partner Hadia, and their interactions were a really good comment on how scarcity of opportunity for women (or people who belong to any marginalised group) can force unfair competition, but also how valuable mentorship and camaraderie can be. I also really liked the romance. Clark explores what it means to come from more than one background, and how critical trust and safety is in a relationship. The Djinns as well were really well done and I thought Clark brought a lot of complexity and humanity to these new citizens of Cairo.

I think something to keep in mind is that the characters refer to events earlier one quite often, and I though perhaps he was setting the story up for a prequel. It turns out, he has actually written a short story set in the same world. While I don’t think you need to have read it to enjoy this story, given how often it is referred to it might help. Although set in a steampunk fantasy world, this is at heart a mystery and I probably would have liked it to be a little, well, mysterious. Clark introduces several red herrings and plenty of action, but ultimately I guessed the twist early.

A fast-paced and enjoyable novel with a lot of interesting social commentary if not a particularly surprising ending.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Mystery/Thriller

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Gothic novel about two sisters in a mysterious manor

I needed a new audiobook to listen to when I was doing training for my hike in Tasmania, and I had made a shortlist of books that were around 5 hours long which seems to be the sweet spot for my attention span. I had heard of this one before but had no idea what it was about. It looked a bit spooky and I was keen to try something a bit different.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson. The cover is a black and white artwork of two blonde girls and a black cat with townspeople behind them in a style that looks similar to linocut printing

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson and narrated by Bernadette Dunne is a gothic novel about an 18 year old girl known as Merricat who lives in the Blackwood family manor with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Constance never leaves the house and its grounds and Uncle Julian is a wheelchair user, so it is up to Merricat to walk into town each week to shop for groceries. Although the people in the village serve her and let her take library books home without ever expecting her to return them, they are also openly hostile towards her. Nevertheless, Thefamily shares a quiet life with Merricat playing with her cat Jonas, Constance working in her garden and Uncle Julian working on his book about the family’s recent history. However, when their cousin Charles turns up the manor, their peaceful existence is thrown into disarray.

This is a delightfully unsettling book that keeps you guessing the whole time. Merricat is a captivating narrator who is utterly unreliable and who appears both younger and older than her actual age. I really enjoyed the way Jackson maintains the sense of uncertainty throughout the book with characters saying contradicting things about what happened to the Blackwood family that are never truly resolved. Merricat’s use of magic and superstition contributes to the mysterious atmosphere and undermine’s the reader’s understanding of what is real and what is not. Dunne was an excellent narrator who captures Merricat’s apparent innocence perfectly.

A fascinating book that kept me thinking and wondering long after it had finished, and a really good option if you’re in the mood for something eerie.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Horror, Mystery/Thriller

Welcome to Night Vale

Novel set in fictional podcast’s paranormal town

A particular genre of podcast that I enjoy is fictional podcasts, and one of the very first fictional podcasts I started listening to was “Welcome to Night Vale“. If you’ve never listened, the podcast is in the format of a show on a community radio station run by the mysterious and charismatic Cecil. Each episode includes updates about the town’s unusual happenings and immerses the listener deeper and deeper into the unusual and ominous culture of Night Vale as well as regular segments known as Weather and Traffic. Some years ago, the creators of the podcast released a novel set in the town and I jumped out and bought a copy. Although my partner read it at the time, it has waited on my bookshelf, watching me judgmentally with its crescent moon eye symbol. Finally, I relented.

Image is of “Welcome to Night Vale” by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor. The purple book is on a table in front of baskets of fake fruit and a plastic flamingo. It appears to be nighttime in the background.

“Welcome to Night Vale” by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor is a novel set in the eponymous town where all manner of strange, paranormal things happen. The story is about two women: Jackie, who runs a pawn shop and has been 19 years old for more years than she can remember, and Diane, a single mother struggling to raise her teenage son who is going through puberty and who also changes shape constantly. When even more strange things than usual begin happening in Night Vale, unlikely pair Jackie and Diane must work together to solve the mystery of the man nobody seems to remember and find their way to King City.

This is a contemplative book with a mildly threatening aura that takes the reader on a journey through lesser known parts of Night Vale. In addition to some of our favourite characters from the podcast such as Cecil and his boyfriend Carlos, we meet new characters and explore some new and particularly dangerous areas of the town such as the Library. The book weaves together several threads and themes to explore broader issues of identity, family, adolescence and parenthood. Although a difficult character in some ways, Diane’s challenges in relating to her son as he grows up were both relatable and poignant. I enjoyed the transcripts of radio show episodes as interludes, with Cecil reporting with alarming accuracy on Jackie and Diane’s activities and whereabouts. The scenes with Jackie’s mother were particularly unsettling and really set the menacing and absurdist tone we have come to know and love from the podcast.

While there were a lot of aspects of this book that were well done, I did find it a little slow to get started. The characters spend a considerable time musing on their own circumstances, and it is some time before the action kicks off. I think that perhaps now wasn’t the best time for me to read this book. We are currently living through a time of significant uncertainty, with things like borders opening and closing and changes in rules about where, how and with whom we associate happening suddenly and without much warning. This is a book that really leans into the unexpected and decisions made by authorities (known and unknown) are often arbitrary and inexplicable, and reading this book made me realise that I do have a bit of fatigue around these things and probably impacted how much I enjoyed it.

Nevertheless, a valuable contribution to the Night Vale universe in a complementary format to the podcast, definitely a book for fans.

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Red Dirt Talking

Mystery novel about field research in an Aboriginal community

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Red Dirt Talking” by Jacqueline Wright is a novel about Annie, a recent anthropology graduate who receives a grant and ethical permission to research massacres for her master’s thesis in a remote Western Australian Aboriginal community called Yindi. In her late 30s with plenty of personal issues left behind in Perth, Annie is eager to get started with her research and ignores Mick, the community project officer, when he advises her to take things slowly. When the connections she starts to build in Yindi take her research in a different direction, she finds herself in the middle of a child’s disappearance.

This is a very rich, considered novel that unflinchingly explores the hubris of academia and the disconnect between urban and remote Australia. It is hardly surprising that it was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2013.  Annie is a fascinating, idealistic character who, despite the dysfunction in her own personal life, is convinced that interviewing Aboriginal people is going to solve all their problems. Wright does an excellent job of lancing Annie’s presumptions about both the magnitude and the nature of her own importance. I also think that academic failure and practical difficulties following research plans that are scrupulously checked by supervisors and approved by ethical committees is a really interesting concept to unpack. Quite a few years ago, I conducted field research in Indonesia for my own master’s thesis and the cringe-worthy mistakes I made and dead ends I hit helped me really empathise with parts of Annie’s story.

I also felt that Wright did a really good job critiquing Annie’s white saviour complex. The extent to which white authors should be writing about the stories of people of colour is something which is being debated hotly, most recently through discussion of the novel “American Dirt” and the #OwnVoices movement. However, I think that Wright struck a good balance with this book because of her obvious research, lived experience and, most importantly, consultation with Aboriginal elders and authors. Wright effectively used the perspectives of lots of different types of characters to explore white attitudes to Aboriginal people and the lingering impacts of massacres, deaths in custody and the Stolen Generations on Aboriginal people. Maggot in particular was an interesting character who, as the garbage collector, collects snippets of gossip as he drives around Ransom, the town closest to Yindi. Through Maggot’s eyes, we get to see the people that Annie has met through a different, sometimes more sinister light. Wright is a very flexible writer who convincingly captures the essence of the many characters.

This is a good book, but it is not always an easy read. Wright packs in a lot of information in a relatively short novel, and there is a broad cast of characters, some with more than one name, that can take some time to get your head around. I also felt that all the threads that had been so carefully laid down by Wright did get a little tangled right at the very end.

An enjoyable, engaging novel that explores different points of view, tackles important issues and is worth the work.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Cedar Valley

Small town mystery set in 1990s Australia

Quite a few years ago now, I received an Advance Reading Copy of a book by a debut novelist, and absolutely loved it. I was very excited to go along to see the author talk about her second book about 18 months ago and get myself a signed copy. However, like several books, this one has sat on my shelf patiently waiting its turn until now.

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“Cedar Valley” by Holly Throsby is a small town mystery set in a fictional town of the same name. On the day that Benny Miller, a 21 year old university graduate, arrives in Cedar Valley trying to connect with her recently deceased mother, a man is found dead out the front of a shop on the main street after sitting there alone for hours. While the town tries to make sense of what happened, Benny begins to learn more about the people who live there, especially her mother’s best friend Odette, and more about the mysterious life of her own mother.

Throsby is a thoughtful author who gently explores a number of issues peripheral to the main mystery at the heart of the novel. There are three main point of view characters including Cora, the owner of the curios shop outside which the man was found dead, Tony, the police officer investigating the case, and Benny. Cora and Tony both have a fair bit on their plate, including coping with the sudden decline of Tony’s mother who is also Cora’s best friend. I really enjoyed how Throsby subtly but critically portrayed Tony’s home life, and how he was both unlikeable yet relatable. I also really liked Odette and her warmth towards Benny, despite them never having met before. It soon becomes clear that the book is less about the mystery of the man, which the characters soon realise is very similar to the Tamam Shud case, and more about Benny coming to terms all the questions she has about the truth of her mother’s life.

I’m just going to pause the review there, and mention an incredible coincidence that happened while I was reading this book. Throsby is very upfront about the influence of the Tamam Shud case on her book, and late one night while reading the book, I started reading up a bit about the case. I was familiar with it, but I couldn’t remember a lot of the details. One of the first things that comes up when you start researching the case is the origin of the phrase tamam shud. It is the last line in a book called “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám”. Now, this book sounded extra familiar to me because just that weekend, I had ordered a care package curated by Beyond Q Books, which completely coincidentally included a copy of “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám”.

There is a lot of speculation, but some people believe that the particular edition of the book the line tamam shud was torn from may hold the answer to a mysterious code that was found inscribed in the back of the same book, which has since been lost. One of the most well-known researchers of the case advised that he had been searching for a FitzGerald edition of the book with no success. My heart was pounding now, and I jumped out of bed to check inside the title page of my book. “Rendered into English Verse by Edward FitzGerald”. No. Way. I flipped to the last page and quickly googled a photograph of the original torn out phrase: not a match. It was a different font. Feeling both disappointed and relieved, I was finally able to go to sleep.

Anyway, back to the book. I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed Throsby’s first novel. In “Goodwood”, I was very invested in Jean as a main character and despite all the leads and speculation throughout the novel, the ending was incredibly satisfying. In this book however, it was the peripheral characters I was more interested in. Benny felt like more of a lens than a leading character, and I didn’t really feel particularly invested in her. I found myself wanting to know much more about Odette, and how her own interesting life had unfolded. I think I was also hoping that with no resolution about the Tamam Shud case, that Throsby would allow the reader a bit of closure in this book, but alas it was not to be.

A meditative novel that carefully examines the relationships that form between residents of small towns, and leaves you perhaps with more questions than answers.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller, Signed Books

Griffin & Sabine

Interactive graphic novel about love and letters

I picked this book up goodness only knows how long ago from the Lifeline Book Fair. It was clearly a graphic novel, but it has an enigmatic front cover. I actually assumed that it was about a bird called Griffin (it is not). Given how dire things were getting for my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge, I decided that this book had sat on my shelf long enough.

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“Griffin & Sabine” by Nick Bantock is a graphic epistolary novel about an artist called Griffin who begins receiving mysterious postcards from a tropical island far away, written by someone called Sabine. From the outset, Sabine appears to have intimate knowledge about Griffin and his artwork, and as their correspondence becomes more and more involved, Griffin begins to wonder who she really is.

This is a stunning piece of fiction, expertly executed with illustrations, writing and even fold-out letters. Bantock is clearly a creative genius who is able to manifest two distinct voices and bring them to life with striking and original designs. Looking at the cover of this book, I had absolutely no idea what I was in for and I enjoyed every second. I was also thrilled that even though I bought it secondhand, all of the pieces were still intact and I was able to enjoy the tactile experience of lifting the longer letters out of their envelopes.

A shining example of the graphic novel genre, and a story that left me equal parts delighted and disturbed.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, Graphic Novels, Mystery/Thriller

The Ice Princess

Scandi noir novel set on wintry coastal Sweden

Content warning: crime, abuse, social issues

Knowing that I was shortly going to be visiting some Scandinavian countries, I knew I needed to stock up on appropriate reading material. What better to start with than some Nordic noir? Luckily for me, the Lifeline Book Fair was on recently, and I managed to score a copy of a book by a very well-known Swedish author. We were staying on a very cool hostel on an actual ship, it was freezing cold, and on one afternoon it started hailing. The atmosphere couldn’t have been better.

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I actually forgot to take a photo while actually in Sweden, but I managed to take this one just after we took off so I’m saying that it’s in the air space, and it counts. 

“The Ice Princess” by Camilla Läckberg and translated by Steven T. Murray is a Swedish crime fiction novel about writer Erica who returns to her quiet coastal hometown to sort through her parents’ house after their funeral. However, overshadowing her loss is the mysterious death of her estranged childhood friend Alex. Found frozen in her bathtub after an apparent suicide, things don’t add up and police start looking for suspects. Feeling that their friendship ended unresolved, Erica’s writing is rekindled by a new project: a biography about Alex. Her own investigations lead her to team up with police officer and schoolmate Patrik, and together they begin to unpack the dark truth.

This is a classic example of readable crime fiction with all the elements: grisly murder, awkward but lovable woman protagonist, small community drama and terrible family secrets. Läckberg is a clear, no-nonsense writer who focuses on place and character rather than the forensic minutiae of other writers in the genre. The book is in some ways a little more of a cozy mystery rather than a thriller, though it is not without its grit. Läckberg addresses issues of alcoholism, poverty, homelessness, class, domestic violence and child sexual abuse. Murray’s translation feels very faithful, and he manages to capture elements of Swedish culture while maintaining the universality of the characters.

I think one downside to reading crime fiction that was written some time ago (this was originally published in 2003) is that what was clearly relatively groundbreaking back then feels extremely familiar today. Crime fiction is incredibly popular, and Läckberg’s style is obviously of some influence to more recent authors. Some of the twists I guessed, some I didn’t, but I think probably what frustrated me the most was how one-dimensional some of the characters were. There is quite a bit of Bridget Jones in Erica who is loves to shop and worries about her weight, though it is tempered by her warmth and care for her sister. All the men seem to be into sports. Läckberg uses a technique where she switches perspectives between her characters and contrasts their self-perception against the observations of others. While this brings some nuance to the book, it does bog it down a little.

An easy read that while simple in some ways is complex in others. An impressive debut, and I would be interested to see how her style grows in her later novels.

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Bluethroat Morning

Mystery novel about a troubled author

Content warning: suicide

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

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“Bluethroat Morning” by Jacqui Lofthouse is a mystery novel about a retiring schoolteacher called Harry Bliss who, six years on, is still mourning the death of his wife Alison. Haunted by her lingering fame as a model, as well as her suicide in a small Norfolk village while working on her new book, Harry is unable to face learning what happened to his wife. When he meets Helen, he is encouraged to visit the village and retrace Alison’s steps to try to understand her, and ultimately himself.

This is a quietly compelling book that explores a multitude of issues ranging from grief, fame, success, marriage, family, depression and what it means to be a woman. Lofthouse has a classic, almost gothic style of writing and juxtaposes the warmth of beauty and life against the cold, bleak backdrop of the Norfolk coastal village. I thought that the first half of the book was particularly strong, and I particularly enjoyed Lofthouse’s exploration of ethical boundaries and forbidden love. I also liked how Alison was portrayed as both otherworldly and human. I also liked that Harry’s indifference was examined as both a strength in his relationship with Alison as well as a weakness. By the end of the book, there was still an intriguing air of mystery around Alison, her life and her motives.

While I understand that the structure of the novel is sort of a quintessential tragedy, the action falling from the climax to the dénouement, I did find the second half of the book to be a little less gripping that the first half. While I understand that there is never a satisfactory resolution when someone has taken their own life, I did feel that some of the elements of the plot were at times a little difficult to connect with. I thought Harry was an interesting choice for a point of view character, and I think I would have liked to have seen a little more of some other perspectives.

A thoughtful and timeless book that explores familiar themes in a fresh way.

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Relative Fortunes

New York flapper suffragette murder mystery

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist.

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“Relative Fortunes” by Marlowe Benn is a murder mystery novel set in 1920s New York. The book follows Julia Kidd, a young woman in her mid-20s who has arrived in the city to sort out her father’s will and pursue her dreams of being a boutique publisher. In between dealing with her maddening half-brother, she spends her time socialising with her friend Glennis. However, when Glennis’ suffragette sister is found dead, Julia finds herself in the middle of a life-changing wager: prove Naomi’s death was a murder, or forfeit her inheritance.

There were a lot of things I enjoyed about this book. I really liked Benn’s research into some of the things an unmarried woman in her mid-20s would get up to in the Roaring Twenties and some of the barriers she would encounter. I felt that the tension between Julia and her brother Philip was very well done, and the repartee between them was particularly scintillating. I also liked how Julia’s own attitude to the suffragette movement changed throughout the course of the book as she found that her own independence was not something that could be taken for granted.

I think that probably the part about this book I enjoyed the least was the murder mystery. No spoilers of course, but I felt like some of the twists in the story, while exploring some real life issues, felt a little melodramatic. I wasn’t quite sure that the motive fitted the act.

Nevertheless, I understand that this is to be the first of a series, and I would be interested in reading another Julia Kidd novel – if only to find out what happens next.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Broken Humanity

French crime thriller about three linked people

Content warning: child abuse, trafficking

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Broken Humanity” by Karine Vivier and translated by Kirsty Olivant is a crime thriller about three people who are linked by the disappearance of a little girl. Alice is a young girl whose life changed forever when her mother brought home a new partner. Now, instead of going to school, she must help her stepdad by befriending children and bringing them to his van, or else languish in a locked cellar. Judith had just planned on leaving her daughter in the car for five minutes while she went into the shop, and when she comes out after getting stuck at the checkout to find her daughter gone, she can’t stop blaming herself. Denis Papin has been released from prison and is trying to start a new, understated life despite being convicted of a terrible crime. However, when a little girl goes missing, he is suddenly a prime suspect.

This is a well-written, well-translated book that speeds along at a cracking pace. I often get asked to review crime thrillers and I blanch when they are 400 or 500 pages long because I know they are not going to be a quick read. This is a very quick read, and I am so, so appreciative of that. Even though it is a short, snappy book, Vivier covers a lot of different themes. I think that the most interesting of these is the theme of blame, and how we blame ourselves as well as others. Blame is something that permeates the stories of each of the main characters.

The critical thing for a good thriller is making sure that plot is watertight. I think that Vivier has all the elements there, and the story starts off strong, but I think that some of the later chapters lose the threads a little and miss some opportunities for that incredible dramatic thriller ending that readers hang out for.

A very easy read that touches on some difficult and interesting themes.

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