Lethal White

Rating:
Author: Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub date: Sep. 2018 (read Oct. 2018)
Series: Cormoran Strike Book #4

Wow, I feel like I have been waiting for this book FOREVER… pretty much because I have been. I know Rowling’s busy making movies and writing plays, but I love her writing so much, I always crave more books from her (not screenplays – totally doesn’t not count in my opinion).

Okay, so I obviously loved this because I love everything Rowling writes and I’m obsessed with both Robin and Strike, but I do have one compliant about this novel. It’s nothing unexpected, but I’m kind of tired of Rowling’s style of mystery reveal. I do think she is genius at writing mystery. Harry Potter has some of the best mystery elements and I love the way Rowling can carry a story arc (and mystery plot) through several novels. Prisoner of Azkaban is the favourite book of so many Harry Potter fans and most of what it made it so beloved for me is Sirius’ storyline. Rowling does a wonderful job misleading us to his notoriety throughout the entire book, only to completely blow everyone’s minds with like 3 chapters of plots twists at the end.

I adore this structure in Prisoner of Azkaban and I liked it at the start of the Strike novels, but I find she relies heavily on this structure in all of her mysteries, with the exception maybe of Career of Evil, which I found very refreshing in that she only had 4 (I think?) suspects for the serial killer. Lethal White reminded me a little bit of The Silkworm in that I knew I was never going to guess the mystery. There’s such a large cast of characters and their relationships are so intertwined that I knew there was going to be a huge convoluted reveal at the end that I was never going to guess (same as The Silkworm). Because I knew this, I put little effort in trying to even guess at the mystery, which takes a bit of the fun out of it. I was never going to be able to guess this one and I was just a little tired of the format of the multi-chapter reveal at the end of the book. I wish Rowling would give us a little more to go on. She always indicates when Strike has a revelation, but she almost never reveals it, leaving us in suspense until the very last minute. I would rather experience the discoveries with Strike in real time. It still leaves room for last minute reveals of motivation, but I’d prefer to get bits and pieces of the puzzle throughout rather that as a huge info dump at the end of the novel. It doesn’t work that well in a 650 page novel because that’s a lot of mystery to try and keep your reader engaged in without ever throwing us a bone.

So that’s my beef with this novel and Rowling’s writing style in general, but let’s talk about what I like about this book, because there was a lot that I liked too. Disclaimer, there are minor spoilers ahead about some of the characters, but nothing about the mystery element.

First of all, I adore Robin and Strike, as individuals and as partners. In previous novels, Strike has been the one slowly falling apart, pushing himself too hard, failing to take care of himself, making desperate decisions and poor romantic choices. He still pushes himself too hard and is as emotionally unavailable as ever, but I feel like he finally got some of his shit together. He acknowledges that he’s a bit of an asshole and that he treats his body like shit – he even takes a case for monetary reasons instead of moral ones, but he ultimately is still looking for the good in people and to set things right by exposing the truth. He also acknowledges some of his repressed feelings for Robin and I liked that he really looked out for her and her best interests.

In contrast, Robin is the one falling apart in this book and it’s about damn time. I like Strike, but Robin is definitely my favourite character. I love her passion and compassion. She’s intelligent and clever and I really felt this came across in this book. Strike gives her much more challenging assignments and I liked watching her pursue her own means of investigation. The conflict with Matthew finally comes to a head and good riddance, it’s about time. I love Robin’s anger in this book. Women are always taught to be amenable and nice no matter what the circumstances, but I loved watching Robin finally say enough is enough and finally get mad. Robin and Strike’s character development is really what makes this such as a great series. In my opinion, the mystery is only half of what matters, creating complex, flawed, but likeable characters is what makes a book great.

While I do have my complaints on the mystery structure, I love the amount of thought that Rowling puts into her plotlines. There are no throwaway comments. Every detail matters and you never know what minor comment may turn out to be a plot point of huge significance. Every character has a role to play and Rowling does a great job a crafting a complex cast of characters. This was a bit on the long side for a mystery novel, but I was pretty much on the edge of my seat for the entire second half of the book. I love that there’s just as much character drama as mystery. My only regret is that I read this way too fast and who knows how long it’s going to take for Rowling to give us another book. At least no cliffhanger this time!

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Neverworld Wake

Rating: ⭐
Author: Marisha Pessl
Genres: Young Adult, Mystery, Science Fiction
Pub Date: June 2018 (read Sept. 2018 on Audible)

I finished Neverworld Wake a few days ago as an audiobook and I’ve been thinking about it over the last few days and I’ve been struggling to come to a conclusion about how I felt about it. I decided I didn’t really like it, but then when I sat down to write the review I discovered that there were elements to the story that I did really enjoy. So I think I’m landing on a borderline 3 star review.

Neverworld Wake has a great science fiction concept. It brings together a group of friends who have somewhat lost touch in the year since graduating high school at Darrow. Our main character Beatrice was once very close with her group of 6 friends in high school, but after the death of her boyfriend, Jim, at the end of senior year, she cuts herself off from the rest of her friends. Jim’s death is marked down by the police as a suicide, but Beatrice and her friends still have a lot of questions about what really happened to Jim. They reunite one night a year later and a car accident catapults them into an event known as the neverworld wake. A old man appears and informs the 6 friends that they will be forced to relive the same day over and over again until they can all agree on a decision to a specific course of action (I won’t explicitly state what decision they must make to avoid spoilers).

I’ll talk first about what I liked. Most of all I liked that the story had two key elements driving the plot. There’s the Neverworld Wake, which is a fascinating concept in itself and is what makes this a science fiction novel. The 6 friends are forced to relive the same day over and over again. They could do whatever they like, initiate any sort of consequence, but at the end of each day, time will reset for them at the start of the same day. Whatever sequence of events they set in course during the day are effectively rendered moot at the end of the day and they are forced to start over. It raises a lot of interesting questions about human behaviour and how a group of individuals will react when faced with a dire decision. In this case, it involves a lot of frustration at the beginning and then a certain amount of avoidance by each of the characters as they struggle to come to any kind of consensus.

The second element of the story is the mystery of what happened to Jim. Beatrice was torn apart by his death and is really a wreck. All of the friends seems to be harbouring secrets about what happened the night Jim went missing and when they fail to come to a consensus to escape the neverworld wake, they decide to start investigating the circumstances of Jim’s death. I thought both the mystery element and the science fiction element were great and integrating both of them together made for a much more dynamic story. Honestly, either of these elements could have been a story on it’s on.

What I didn’t like was that for what should have been a really fast paced and dynamic thriller, I was kind of bored. What can be a strength for a novel (integrating 2 different storylines) can also work as a weakness if the author fails to do justice to both storylines, which is what I think happened in Neverworld Wake. Pessl had two great concepts that I wanted to see developed, but I think she failed to develop either in sufficient detail. The concept of reliving the same day over and over again raises so many questions about group dynamics. It’s a Lord of the Flies type scenario as we watch a group of individuals try to come to terms with what’s happening to them so that they can escape, but ultimately start to fall apart and descend into anarchy. There are no consequences for these teenagers. No matter what they do, time will reset for them at the end of the day. As a result, some characters lose hope and start to fall a part, while others are incentivised to figure out how to escape.

The friends research into what happened to Jim serves a similar purpose. For some it provides much needed answers and an opportunity for closure, while for others, it exposes truths they’d rather remain hidden. Both elements are great, but for the first half of the book, I struggled to figure out how they were related and there was no real urgency driving the story. I felt like the characters desperation at being stuck in the neverworld would drive a lot of action, but it actually stalls it in the beginning with an incapacity of any of the characters to move forward. I was surprisingly bored. I thought the main point of the story was going to be to examine this Lord of the Flies type scenario, but then it ended up really being about what happened to Jim. I feel like the author had two great ideas, but didn’t really know how to execute either.

Ultimately, I wanted to like this, but at the end of the day it fell a little flat for me.

The Last Time I Lied

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Riley Sager
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub date: July 2018 (read Aug. 2018)

I didn’t read Riley Sager’s first book, Final Girls, because it sounds too disturbing for me, but The Last Time I Lied takes place at a creepy summer camp where campers start to go missing, and I love everything to do with the outdoors (even creepy mystery thrillers), so I was like, “sign me up!”

This book wasn’t as scary as I was anticipating, it has a creepy ambiance through most of the story, but I didn’t think the tension really started to build until the last 30%. But I was still totally into the mystery of the story and I was dying to know what our narrator, Emma, wasn’t telling us.

Emma was just 13 the first (and only) time she attends Camp Nightingale, a summer camp for wealthy young girls just outside of New York. Emma shows up to camp late and ends up being put in a cabin with 3 older girls – Natalie, Allison, and the enigmatic Vivian. Emma is enamoured with Vivian and quickly becomes caught up in the older girl’s drama. Vivian acts like a big sister to Emma, but as Emma discovers some of Vivian’s secrets, their friendship starts to splinter. Then, one night, Vivian, Natalie, and Allison disappear into the night, never to be seen again, forever imprinted upon Emma’s memory.

Flash forward 15 years, wealthy camp owner, Frannie, has decided to re-open the camp and invites Emma to be the camp’s art instructor. Emma decides to return to Camp Nightingale to try and find our what happened to Vivian so that she can finally move on with her life. But she quickly realizes upon arrival that everything is not as it seems at Camp Nightingale.

I was convinced I knew who had made the girls disappear, so I was thrilled when I was totally off the mark. The last 30% of this book is a wild ride and I loved the whole “person vs. nature” element on top of the character conflicts. The ending was a little too coincidental, but the last little twist Sager throws in at the very end f the novel totally blew my mind! The book also has an interesting psychological element where Emma keeps seeing things and you’re not sure what is and is not real.

Overall a solid mystery/thriller book. I’ll still probably take a pass on Final Girls, but I’m interested to see what Riley Sager writes in the future.

Ten

Rating: .5
Author: Gretchen McNeil
Genres: Young Adult, Mystery/Thriller
Pub date: Sep. 2012 (read Aug. 2018)

I picked this one up based solely on the fact that it was a YA retelling of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which I absolutely loved. Sadly this couldn’t hold a candle to the original. In my opinion, it failed as both a retelling and a YA novel.

First of all, all of the characters in this book suck. It’s not that the characters were unlikable (they were, but I don’t have a problem with unlikable characters), it’s that they were not believable. I felt like a was reading a bad tv drama about teenagers. The tropes and stereotypes in this book were just the absolute worst. These felt like caricatures of teenagers rather than actual teenagers. Real teenagers are smart – they have depth and emotion – I felt like this was written by someone who hasn’t been a teenager in a really long time and just stole from a bunch of stupid, shallow stereotypes about young people.

I know that teenagers exaggerate everything and that stupid, trivial things can seem like a way bigger a deal than they actually are, but all of these characters were unnecessarily dramatized and I had a huge issue with how the author played around with mental illness as a plot tool in this book. Minnie is supposedly bipolar and the author purposely takes her off her meds to dramatize the plot and make everyone think she’s crazy and I just had a huge problem with that. I also really didn’t like Meg’s voice in this book, she sounded like a whiny 12 year old and I found her character totally unbelievable. I’m sorry, I don’t care how into a guy you are, no one is still actively thinking about romance after 5 people have been murdered in front of you.

I don’t think this worked as a re-write either. I read And Then There Were None last year, so the source material is still pretty fresh in my memory. I didn’t successfully guess who the killer was, so that’s good, but the plot structure was really similar and relied on a lot of the same red herrings. I would have preferred to see something a little more clever, although it was interesting how the author tied all the teenagers together in the end. I hated the ending though. That was one area where I would say if you’re going to do a re-telling, at least commit to the ending.

Anyways, needless to say this book wasn’t a win for me. I know it’s just supposed to be a fun, murder mystery/thriller, but I couldn’t excuse how vapid the characters were (there was a character named TJ, like come on!). I rarely give anything less than 2 stars, but I’m honestly at 1.5 stars for this book. I get mad just thinking about it. Avoid this and stick to Agatha Christie, she’s sold more books than any other author for a reason.

The Dry

Rating: 
Author: Jane Harper
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub Date: May 2016 (read Jun. 2016)

I’ve been hearing such good things about this book and after reading Kristen Lepionka’s What You Want To See, I was in the mood for another good PI/mystery story. I had no idea “the dry” was referring to the setting (although in hindsight it’s kind of obvious looking at the cover), which is set in rural Australia during the height of a years-long drought. Everything is dry and dying and after a grizzly murder/suicide, tensions in town reach on all time high, threatening to set fire to the brush around them.

Aaron Falk is a cop in Melbourne, but returns to his childhood town when he hears the news that his childhood friend Luke has succumbed to the pressures of trying to keep a farm running at the height of a drought by murdering his wife and son before killing himself. Luke has always been a bit unpredictable and his shocking death raises questions about the death of Aaron and Luke’s friend Ellie 20 years prior. Falk had no alibi for Ellie’s death, but Luke insists the two of the them were out shooting rabbits together. Aaron is never convicted of anything, but the town was never convinced of his innocence and eventually drove him out. In light of Luke’s death, Aaron starts to wonder if maybe Luke was lying to protect Aaron, or lying to protect himself.

The setting of this book is genius. You can feel the immense strain on the town. No money from farming means no money for anything else either and everyone is starting to feel the financial strain. The heat just compounds on the town’s troubles. Even after 20 years, Aaron still isn’t welcome in town, but when the new police chief, Raco, confides that he has some suspicions about how the Haddler’s murder really plays out, Aaron decides to stick around and investigate the crime.

As Falk investigates further into Luke’s life, he raises new questions about what happened to Ellie 20 years ago. I was totally intrigued by both crimes and even though it’s a common troupe, I love stories that simultaneously examine both a past and present crime that appear to be linked. It reminded me a little of In the Woods by Tana French, but with a more satisfying ending.

I didn’t have any theories about how either crime might have been committed, but I loved the ambiguity about Falk’s role in Ellie’s death. We assume he’s innocent, but Harper never really answers that question and leaves us guessing and second guessing to the very end. I had no theories about how either crime had been committed, but I was convinced I knew who might have been involved in one of them and was a little disappointed when the plot seemed to be following that suspicion (funny how you always want to guess what happened, but are disappointed when you’re right). In this case though I was not right and that made the story all the more intriguing! Half of the red herrings in mystery novels are obvious, but I love when another red herring successfully manages to lead you astray.

Overall, I loved the traditional mystery novel aspect of this with the added person vs. nature element. I’m excited that Jane Harper already has a second book published in this series and was thrilled when I read the synopsis and discovered it would be another person vs. nature conflict! Plus it’s hikers vs. the wilderness, which I find totally intriguing as someone who loves to hike!

Can’t wait for book 2!