A Murderous Relation

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Genres: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2020 (read Apr. 2021)

I’ve been having so much fun reading a Veronica Speedwell book each month. This was book number 5. I don’t think I liked it quite as much as book 4, but a solid follow-up for sure! Since we’re so far into the series, I’m not going to bother blurbing this one and it will contain SPOILERS, so if you’re thinking of reading this series, check out my review of the first book, A Curious Beginning, instead.
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I really liked A Dangerous Collaboration because we finally got some movement on the Veronica/Stoker front, which continues (slowly of course) into A Murderous Relation. I think it’s a wise choice on Raybourn’s behalf because romantic relationships are so much of what makes a series like this compelling and if you plan to continue on with the series for an extended period of time, you need to keep the drama! 

So I liked that there was progress in this book. As usual, Veronica and Stoker are up to some wild antics when they infiltrate a sex club to steal a diamond. Raybourn always has the most devilishly intriguing and risqué plots, but it’s part of what makes the series so fun. I liked that this book had a lot of action in it. Some of the other books are a bit slow to get started, but I didn’t find that to be the case with this one. The only thing that I didn’t like was that it was more or less a repeat of the plot of the first book. Obviously there are some changes and I really liked Eddy’s character, but overall a little disappointing not to see the author come up with something different. 

Again, I guess that’s one of the challenges with so long of a series. I did kind of feel like book 5 would actually make a good ending point for the series. We get really good closure at the end of this book and I wonder how much further Raybourn will really be able to take this series and still have it be meaningful. I really respect authors when they know the right time to walk away from a series.

So I haven’t decided if I will read the next book or not. There’s only 1 more that’s been released and since it’s only available in hardback (my collection is all paperback), I was thinking I might wait a year and read it once it’s released in paperback, if I still feel like continuing the series. Part of me definitely wants to continue because the characters are so much fun, but I also feel really satisfied with how far I’ve made it in the series, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see!

Elatsoe

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Darcie Little Badger
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Pub. Date: Aug. 2020 (read March 2021)

I’m not sure how I stumbled upon Elatsoe, it may have been on Booktube, but I was immediately intrigued by the plotline. Elatsoe is a young adult story about 17 year old, Lipan Apache member, Elatsoe. She is one of a long line of women who can raise the ghosts of dead animals and is inspired by her six-great grandmother for whom she is named.

When her cousin, Trevor passes after a car crash and his ghost visits her in a dream, warning her that he was actually murdered, Elatsoe is catapulted on a mission to bring her cousin’s murderer to justice. She travels to his hometown with her parents to comfort his widow and immediately starts searching for the truth of Trevor’s untimely passing. In the process, she encounters more ghosts and makes a worrisome journey that causes her to seek advice from her elders.

I loved this book. It is such a wholesome story – it deals with heavy themes, yet it always feels like a light and fun read. I thought it read a little more like middle grade than YA, but that is really what made this feel like such a wholesome read. Instead of the teenage angst you usually find within the pages of a YA novel, Elatsoe is an individual who is very much comfortable with who she is and maintains good relationships with her friends and family. In a way it’s a coming of age story, but one in which she is respectful of her family members and seeks guidance from them. It is mentioned in passing that she is asexual and I loved that it’s just accepted by all the characters and we move on from there. Her best friend is male, but there is no love story between them and their friendship is very much built on trust and respect. It’s refreshing to read a book with such well balanced and respectful characters.

The author, Darcie Little Badger, is also Lipan Apache and she brings a very interesting fantastical element to the story. Elatsoe lives in a similar world to us, but her world is filled with monsters both seen and unseen. Personally, I thought the monster idea could have been a bit better developed and overall could probably have done without it, but the inclusion of ghosts in the story is really what makes it shine. She integrates Lipan Apache culture into the story flawlessly and I loved how she wove the verbal storytelling of Elatsoe’s ancestors into the book. I found it very engaging and it added so much depth to the story.

This was really close to a 5 star read for me. I thought it got a little plot heavy towards the end, and while we do see character growth throughout, I would have liked to see a little more character development at the end instead of going heavy on a ghost showdown. But it’s really a minor comment and I would still absolutely recommend this book to everyone. The writing is lovely and it reads very quickly. I think it’s a story that can be enjoyed by all ages and am so happy to see more indigenous voices and indigenous stories being published. 4.5 stars!

His & Hers

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Alice Feeney
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. Date: Jul. 2020 (read Jan. 2021)

Alice Feeney’s debut, Sometimes I Lie, was a big hit with my book club when it came out. So I was excited to read His & Hers as our book club pick for February. I don’t think it’s as strong as Sometimes I Lie, but it is a quick, edge-of-your-seat thriller that I devoured in just a few hours.

I don’t want to get too much into the synopsis because it’s always better to go into these kind of books blind, but as the name suggests, the narrative bounces between two central characters, divorced couple Jack and Anna. Jack is a detective and Anna a news reporter. When a woman is murdered in the small English village of Blackdown, both Jack and Anna find themselves covering the story, but they are both also secretly connected to the victim.

Like I said, this is a quick paced thriller that takes you on a winding path. If you’re looking for a quick read that you don’t have to think about too much, this is it. The writing is good in that we really have no idea where the story is going. The author constantly toys with your train of thought, giving you some answer throughout, but always more questions. Overall it was a fun read, but there were a few things I didn’t like about it.

Before I get into the spoiler part of my review, I’ll just say that I thought the story had quite a few plotholes and while the author does always keep you guessing, I didn’t love the writing style. I found the writing a bit disjointed and confusing at times. I think that it was intentional not to give too much away, but I often felt like I just had no information. It’s hard to describe, but I felt like the fun of guessing who did it was removed from the story because the order of information was intentionally confusing I didn’t even bother.

I also found the content disturbing – I know murder mysteries are bound to be a bit disturbing, so it’s not a critique, just a note that it made me uncomfortable and that some people might like a trigger warning for rape. I also hate the use of children as a plot device in murder mysteries. Lots of mysteries center around children and trauma and that is fine, in a way this book does, but the author also leaves several children orphaned and generally I just thought it unnecessary. I felt more like they were used to make the reader feel bad rather than for any important plot reason.

Finally, this is a criticism of the title of the book more than anything. But “His & Hers” implies to me an exploration of two different sides of the same story. Yes this story had two protagonists, but to me it was really no different than any other dually narrated story. I didn’t think the book really explored his and her perspectives of an event. It really was just a simple shared narrative. A minor criticism as it doesn’t affect the enjoyment of the story, but hey, I’m a reader, I care about word choice.

Anyways, those are my critiques. Overall it was a standard 3 star mystery thriller. I liked it, but didn’t love it.

Okay now for the spoiler part of my review. I found quite a few plot holes and I want to document it while it’s still fresh in my mind because it’s bound to come up at my book club discussion!

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Plot holes:
– Why did Anna go into Zoe’s house on the day of her murder? The end confirmed she didn’t do it, so what was she doing?
– Why did the killer tip Anna off after they murdered Helen Wang? I assumed originally it was to throw suspicion on her, but wouldn’t the killer want to avoid any suspicion on Anna?
– Why was Priya always talking to Anna’s mom? The author alludes that we should be concerned about this – I figured originally it was because of her mom’s dementia and the body in the backyard. But in light of the final revelation, I’m not sure why we should be concerned about this. Do we think Priya suspects the real killer?
– Not a plot hole, but overall I just thought both Priya and Richard were weak red herrings. Catherine was the obvious suspect, so I did like the little plot twist with Cat Jones.
– Why was Jack absolved of all suspicion? They make reference to the discovery of Catherine’s diaries, but they wouldn’t have found any murder plans within them… I know Priya witnessed Cat attack Anna’s mom as well, but again, not proof she was the murderer. Her children had been kidnapped, surely hysteria would be expected, or did the police not figure this out. They would have had to know now that both the kids parents were dead.

Two Trees Make a Forest

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jessica J. Lee
Genres: Non-Fiction, Memoir, History
Pub. Date: Jul. 2020 (read Jan. 2021)

I was really intrigued by the title and synopsis of this book and picked up a copy from my local bookstore. Soon afterwards it was shortlisted for Canada Reads 2021 and I was even more excited to read it!

Two Trees Make a Forest is Canadian author Jessica J. Lee’s second book. As the name suggests, it’s about her travels in Taiwan whilst trying to learn more about her grandparents past. Her grandparents were both Chinese, but immigrated to Taiwan where they raised their daughter, before eventually all settling in Canada. Lee grew up in close proximity to her grandparents, yet in many ways felt like she didn’t really know them. They talked little about the past and though her family held a close connection to Taiwan, Lee knew very little about their life there. After the death of her grandfather, the family discovered a letter he left behind about his past, inspiring Lee to visit Taiwan and learn more about both her family history, and the unique history of the island.

This was a well written book, but it was a struggle for me to finish it. I found Lee’s stories about her grandparents and family to be really interesting, however, they are really only a small piece of this book. Revisiting the title of the book, it does tell us that this book is as much about “Taiwan’s mountains and coasts” as it is about her family, but I guess I was just expecting something a little different. This is not a story of Lee following her roots around Taiwan, but rather Lee finding herself around Taiwan, while simultaneously coming to terms with the family history that has been in many ways lost to her.

Lee is an interesting storyteller and the book focuses just as much on Taiwan’s geographical history as it does her personal history. She talks about the history of the island the geographical uniqueness of it. Her love for Taiwan certainly shines through and I did learn some interesting facts about Taiwan and it’s history, but I also learned a lot more about Taiwan’s trees and mountains than I really bargained for. On paper, as an avid hiker, you would think I’d love it, but I’m not really a big non-fiction reader, and certainly not a history reader, so it just didn’t quite deliver on something I was excited about reading.

So it’s a bit of a hard book to rate because I did think it was good, I just wasn’t invested in it. I read everything about her family history, but I ended up skim reading a lot of the geographical information. Good, just not for me.

The Midnight Library

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Matt Haig
Genres: Science fiction
Pub. Date: Sep. 2020 (read Jan. 2021)

2.5 stars.

I read The Humans with my book club a few years ago and really didn’t like, so I’m not sure why I thought this would be any different. I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the synopsis and the title, but at the end of the day this was pretty disappointing.

The concept of the book is that between life and death there is a place called the Midnight Library, which allows you to check out the lives you did not live. It centers around the idea of parallel lives and that every time we make a choice our lives diverge into the decisions we make and didn’t make. I’ve read a handful of books about parallel universes and I think it is a tough concept to get right. It’s a complex idea, so you better put a lot of thought into your execution.

I can see why this is a beloved book to a lot of people. It is about reflection and looking back on our lives, examining the decisions and mistakes we made. It’s a meaningful exercise to think about how our lives might have been different had we made different choices, but if examined too closely has the potential to ultimately lead to disappointment. Our main character Nora is granted the opportunity to look back on her life and I think a lot of readers are moved by how the experience changes and heals her.

Personally I didn’t like this book for two reasons. First, I thought the parallel universe theme was executed poorly and that the author didn’t go deep enough into the concept. And second, I thought the writing was too heavy handed. I felt like every single parallel life was an exercise in emotional manipulation. The author spells out every single lesson that Nora learns, even though they are all embarrassingly obvious. From Nora’s first attempt at settling in a parallel life, I predicted exactly how the rest of the story was going to go and at no point did the plot surprise me after that.

Let’s talk first about the execution of the concept of the Midnight Library. The concept is that you can visit any other life, with the idea being you find another one to settle in. However, the second you start to become disappointed with that life, you are instantly transported back to the library to try again. If you could actively make the decision to return to the library, I’d probably be okay with this concept, but in what universe are you going to live a life that is totally devoid of disappointments? Disappointment is a part of being human. Even if you are generally content in your life and wouldn’t trade it for the world, you will still face disappointments. So in my opinion Nora was pretty much doomed from the start. If you could make the choice to pursue a life despite disappointment, I might buy in, but inevitably something was always going to disappoint her and send her reeling back to the library.

Then there’s the fact that the more lives you live, the more likely you are to be disappointed by one life compared to another. It’s hard to be satisfied in any life when you know there are more possibilities out there. The author did address this through the inclusion of Hugo’s character, but combined these two factors just made the entire existence of the Midnight Library too flawed for me to really enjoy it. Also, the sheer exhaustion of constantly entering lives where you don’t know what’s going on is bound to continually send you running back to the library. If Nora was able to downloaded the sub-conscious of her parallel self whenever she entered a new life, it might be more believable that she might actually find happiness in one of them.

Finally, my last flaw with the concept was that in every choice Nora made, she became the most accomplished version of herself. I know the idea is that with infinite universes, every scenario is possible and that the reason Nora was so accomplished in every life was because that’s the life she desired to see when she checked the book out of the library. But I feel like it is the most basic of concepts that success doesn’t equal happiness. I didn’t like the dichotomy that with every choice you make you are giving up a life of extreme success. Success is not based solely on choice. You can make all the right choices in your life and never achieve even a moderate level of success. There are all kinds of other factors at play such as gender, privilege, race, ability, social class, economic background, etc. Which is why I felt the author didn’t commit to the plot. I think there’s a lot of room here to explore all kinds of social commentary, but the author came up with a shallow idea of parallel universes and never looked to delve any deeper.

Which leads me to my final criticism that the book is over-written. I feel like a broken record sometimes, but show don’t tell! I hate nothing more than when an author tells me how to feel. Good writing evokes sentiment and feeling. I don’t need you to spell out the disappointment of Nora’s many parallel lives, it’s extremely obvious. Like I said, from the start of the book, I could pretty much predict exactly how it was going to end. I felt like I’d stumbled upon a script of Chicken Soup for the Soul from 2000 with the intense catharsis constantly being shoved down my throat. Yet even though I knew where Nora was destined to end up, I still felt it was disingenuous to act like we’re all currently living the best version of ourselves and that all we need is a little perspective to cheer us up.

The one thing I did like about the book was Nora’s discovery that sometimes it is the mundane that is the most meaningful. After chasing after every kind of success, she finally realized that sometimes the quieter lives are the most fulfilling. Her life with Ash was the one thing I didn’t quite see coming and I was glad to see her finally find a modicum of happiness in one of her many lives. But that was really the only part of the story that I liked and mostly I just found it extremely tedious to go from one failed life to another.

The one thing I haven’t touched on is the portrayal of depression in this book. I did like that in almost every life Nora was taking medication for depression. But like I said, when someone is deeply discontented with their life, I find it hard to believe a little perspective would change their whole outlook on life. I’m not super knowledgeable about depression though, so I’ll leave that for other readers to comment on.

So in conclusion, definitely not a win for me. It was an interesting concept, but the execution was painfully tedious. Sadly I just don’t think this author is for me.