Tag Archives: Mystery

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

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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Force of Nature

This book was part of either a Christmas present or birthday present (I can’t quite remember) that I finally got around to reading. I hadn’t heard a lot about this particular story, but the author’s previous novel “The Dry” received a lot of acclaim so I was keen to see what all the fuss was about.

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“Force of Nature” by Jane Harper is a crime thriller about a corporate bonding activity gone wrong. Five women the same company go on a weekend hike together in a fictional Australian mountain range.  Chairwoman Jill, senior staff Alice and Lauren, Bree and her twin sister Bethany. However, when only four return at the end of the weekend, a full-scale search is launched with police, emergency services and volunteers to find missing Alice. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk arrives at the ranges to assist with the search, but he has a particular interest in Alice’s welfare. She’s a key informant in an investigation he’s conducting, and the story that she was separated from the others suddenly isn’t sounding so convincing.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is actually kind of a sequel to “The Dry” (which I didn’t realise) and although I think it is OK as a standalone novel, there are some character-building aspects to Aaron that I felt like I missed out on a bit started from this book. Nevertheless, Harper does an admirable job of immersing the reader in the wilderness, and I particularly enjoyed how she used torrential rain to set the mood throughout the book. I also liked how she connected the events in the present with Aaron’s past.

However, I found the premise of this book so unbelievable that I simply couldn’t settle into it the entire way through. First of all, no corporate team-building company would ever leave five inexperienced hikers in the wilderness without a radio or a satellite phone for a weekend. It was just completely unrealistic that any company would be insured for that kind of activity without an emergency plan. If someone fell and broke their neck, there was absolutely no mechanism for them to call for help. Basically they had to get from point A to point B, and if they didn’t after 3 days, then the company would come looking for them. The man who runs the Executive Adventures program, Ian Chase, just seems so bumbling and incompetent compared to the incredibly organised and safety-focused people I have met who run programs like Outward Bound in real life. The fact that there was simply no contingency plan really made the premise difficult for me to accept, and unfortunately this ended up tainting the rest of the story.

I can see what Harper was trying to do in exploring the intricacies of female work, family and friend relationships by putting five women in a high-stress situation. This book definitely passes the Beshdel Test. I particularly liked Alice’s backstory and discovering more about what was going on in her personal life. However, Lauren’s and the twins’ stories felt a bit more clunky, and Jill just didn’t really get a fair shake of the stick. Ultimately I was much less interested in the catty, shallow behaviour of the women and far more interested in Aaron’s story, which (not having read the preceding book) was possibly the point.

Ultimately, this book didn’t grip me in the way one wants to be gripped by a thriller. A title like “Force of Nature” is a big one to live up to, and at the end of the day, I would have liked something a bit more hard-hitting, gritty and deep. I did like Aaron quite a lot though, and I am tempted to go and give “The Dry” a crack.

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Murder in the Mail: A Bloody Birthday

I received an early review copy of “Murder in the Mail” courtesy of the curator Felicity Banks, and you can hear her talk about this project in detail and interactive fiction generally on the latest episode of my podcast Lost the Plot. You can also sign up to “Murder in the Mail” yourself by checking out the Kickstarter campaign, which closes on 14 April 2018.

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“Murder in the Mail: A Bloody Birthday” by Felicity Banks is an interactive fiction series of letters, postcards, artwork, photographs and objects that are posted to you over the course of 8 weeks. You are Hachi, a university student whose cousin Naomi was murdered at her own birthday party. There were six people aside from Naomi who attended the party: you, Naomi’s mother and four art student friends from university. They all agree to send you letters and their artworks about what happened that night, and it’s up to you to interpret the clues and figure out who is the murderer.

This is a really fun, engaging way to experience a murder mystery. As a reviewer, I received nearly all the parcels in one hit and I was racing through them to find out more information and read more clues. However, I think stretching them out over 8 weeks would be even better way to experience the anticipation and intrigue of what is coming next. The other benefit to stretching it out is the opportunity to discuss your theories on the messageboard with other readers between installments.

The story itself was really enjoyable. I love a puzzle, and I really liked the twists and turns and how each character’s motives and idiosyncrasies emerged over time. There are plenty of red herrings and plenty of interesting social issues jammed into this story, and it’s quite incredible how invested I became in the characters over each installment of the story. The artworks are a great touch to bring life to the story and to give the characters and extra dimension of reality. This is a great example of how a number of authors and artists can collaborate together to make something really interesting.

As I mentioned above, it’s currently only available via Kickstarter but it is an all-or-nothing project, so if it doesn’t its funding goal, you won’t get an opportunity to experience it. If you love murder mysteries and want to support local Canberra authors and artists, I really encourage you to check it out and find out what happened to Naomi.

 

 

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A Perfect Alibi

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, Leaf by Leaf Press, which is a cooperative of writers from the UK in an area called the West Midlands where I lived for 6 months as an 18 year old. I was pretty excited to read this one and retrace some familiar places.

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“A Perfect Alibi” by R. J. Turner is a mystery/thriller novel that starts out in a cemetery. A young woman called Jane returns to her hometown for her estranged father’s funeral. When the time comes to lower his coffin into the ground, a naked woman’s body is discovered in the grave. Detective Inspector Dundee and Detective Sergeant Eccles are assigned the case, and while they are investigating Jane discovers that her father had been hiding even more from her than just his feelings. However, he had the perfect alibi, right? He was already dead.

This is a modern take on the mystery/thriller genre. I really enjoyed the diverse range of characters, including the lesbian police officer, people whose linguistic background is critical to the plot and the characters in wheelchairs who contributed significantly to solving the crime. Turner did an excellent job as well depicting the difficulty balancing work with family and casts Dundee’s moral weaknesses in stark relief against the better judgment of his female colleagues. He also manages to do with while maintaining the likability and relatability of Dundee which was an impressive feat.

Without giving too much away, I think the part about this story that I struggled with the most was Pete’s. While I enjoyed Jane, Dundee, Eccles, Agnieska and most of the other characters, I found Pete a bit difficult to relate to and his arc a bit hard to engage with. I see how his story was necessary to move along the entire plot, but I enjoyed the parts with Jane, Dundee, Eccles and Agnieska far more.

This was a fast-paced read with a surprising amount of depth, especially regarding the characters. I would be interested to see if Dundee gets up to more shenanigans in future books.

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Soft on the Devil

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

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“Soft on the Devil” by Robert Lampros is a Christian mystery story about a young man called Ian. Ian lives a simple life – he lives by himself in an apartment, he works in a local cafe and he goes to church regularly. However, Ian’s life is turned upside down when his neighbour Cindy goes missing and turns up at his door a week later asking for help. When her body is found the next night, Ian decides to do his own investigating which ultimately brings him face to face with demons past and present.

I was a little uncertain about reviewing this book, but I thought I’d try to have an open mind and give it a go. Lampros is a confident writer who creates a likeable everyman character in Ian. As the story progresses, you learn more about Ian’s difficult past and celebrate with him as he achieves small wins in his work and budding relationship.

This is a quick and easy read. I think I only had two issues with the story. First, despite being a crime novel, it was left largely unresolved at the end. Secondly, despite the Christian themes and the otherwise matter-of-fact tone of the book, ghosts and visions were used a couple of times as plot devices.

All in all, a surprisingly enjoyable and insightful story in a genre I wouldn’t ordinarily read.

 

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