Magic for Liars

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Sarah Gailey
Genres: Fantasy, Mystery
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read July 2019)

I’ve been on a fantasy hiatus for the last 6 months, so well done Sarah Gailey on writing a book that finally inspired me to break the fast! I’ve been really dis-enchanted with YA fantasy lately, but this adult fantasy finally piqued my interest!

Everything about Magic for Liars seemed interesting and unique. On the surface, it sounds like the same tired Magic School trope, but it has a lot else going for it. Yes, it is set in a magic school, but the premise of the story is about private investigator Ivy Gamble being asked to investigate a gruesome murder that took place at the magic school.

Ivy herself is not magic and lives firmly in the non-magic world. However, her twin sister, Tabitha, is magic and has been working as a teacher at the school for several years. Most non-magic folk are unaware of the existence of magic, but Ivy has been in the know since Tabitha was first invited to attend magic school and she was not. Since then, there has been a bit of resentment between the sisters and they have grown apart.

The magic system in this book was quite different than other fantasy books I read, which I really liked. People with magic are still very much ensconced in the real world, with the study of magic being very deeply ingrained in other fields, such as medicine, math, and science. Some branches of magic are little understood and the magic itself seems to be in some ways much more unstated then similar books, but in other ways much more intense.

What I liked about Magic for Liars is that Gailey takes many fantastical tropes and integrates them into their story, while at the same time, poking fun of them. The most obvious is the “chosen one” trope, but we also have the childhood misunderstanding, the competitive sisters, the psychopathic cool girls, the PI who has to solve their own childhood crime, and a misleading romance, just to name a few. I also liked the diversity that Gailey tried to include in the story. Gailey is non-binary and I thought they did a good job at including diverse relationships, without throwing them in your face.

Despite all the great things Gailey tried with this novel though, sadly I still didn’t love it. Something about the writing just didn’t flow that well and I felt pretty disconnected to the characters throughout much of the novel. I wanted to empathize with Ivy, but I did think she was unnecessarily harsh with Tabitha when they were younger and the misunderstanding between them seemed too obvious to have been the misunderstanding that it was.

So overall, this was a 3 star read for me. I definitely liked it, but I didn’t love it. I am impressed with it as a debut novel though and I’m excited to see what Gailey writes in the future!

Truly Devious

Rating: 
Author: Maureen Johnson
Genres: Mystery, Young Adult
Pub date: Jan. 2018 (read Dec. 2018)

Well this was a huge disappointment. I’ve heard pretty good things about Truly Devious on Booktube and I was really looking forward to reading it. I was expecting a bit of an Agatha Christie type mystery with the secluded setting and isolated cast of characters, but this book pretty much failed to deliver on almost every front in my opinion and was extremely disappointing.

Truly Devious is set at an elite boarding school in the mountains outside Vermont. The school was constructed and sponsored by Albert Ellingham, a wealthy businessman in the 1930’s. Students are not charged to attend the school, but they do have to go through a rigorous application process to be accepted for two years – their junior and senior years of high school. Unfortunately, the school has a bit of a dark history. Albert’s wife and daughter were kidnapped from the school in 1936 and a student was killed. While someone was prosecuted for the crime, many believe the real criminals were never caught and the crime never solved.

Stevie Bell is a crime aficionado and hopes to one day work in law enforcement. She has extensively studied the Ellingham murders and is accepted to Ellingham based on her interests. However, once there, strange events start to occur that Stevie believes may be connected to the original crime and she takes it upon herself to investigate.

My biggest problem with this book was that I thought it was very poorly plotted. It’s a book about murder, it should be engaging, but somehow the beginning is incredibly slow and it took about half the book for things to finally start to get interesting. The story is told in two timelines, jumping back and forth between 1936 and present day. The 1936 storyline is probably only about 20-30% of the book and takes you through some of the events of the original crime. Unfortunately though, I found this timeline REALLY boring. For some reason Johnson takes the whole book to reveal the extent of the original crime. I really don’t think this was effective because she forces you to read all these knit-picky accounts of what happened without really telling us what happened. I don’t care what the maid and the cook were up to because I don’t even know what really happened. Plus, in the current day story, everyone knows what happened and references it, but it’s just confusing because we don’t have all that much information about it.

Secondly, the current day plot is also really boring. The first 200 pages is pretty much just Stevie adjusting to life at Ellingham and nothing really gets going until about halfway through. We are introduced to the other characters and students at the school, but it’s really not very compelling until more mysterious stuff starts to happen. Plus, Stevie just felt really juvenille to me. I’ve been starting to think that I may finally be growing out of YA, but then a really great YA book will come along and remind me why anyone can love YA. But this reminded me a little bit of Ten by Gretchen McNeil (another YA mystery novel I read earlier this year) where I kind of just felt like I was reading about caricatures of teenagers.

Mostly I think this just wasn’t clever. I feel like Johnson tried to create a larger sweeping storyline and mystery (since this is going to be a multi-book series), but it didn’t work. The plotting just really failed for me. There’s two crimes going on simultaneously, as well as a ton of characters that act really suspiciously to make you wonder what they’re hiding. But at the end of the book, NEITHER of the crimes are solved. Look, I’m all for multi-book, ongoing plotlines, but you have to give us something in this book. There are tons of mystery series with ongoing character issues, but they at least address some of the crimes in each novel. I feel like Johnson tried to weave in some different mystery elements and things to wonder about, like Janelle’s missing pass and how there was something off about Hayes and David. But overall I thought the mystery was just lacking. There was no hook. We’re supposed to wonder about the 1930’s crime, but it really needed some kind of interesting hook to get you to care, and it didn’t have that. It really just read like a classic hostage/ransom situation and there was nothing that made me wonder how the culprit got away with it.

Likewise, Johnson came up with some small things on the modern day crime that clued Stevie in that there was something else going on and led her to an accusation, but again, I just didn’t think it was that clever and I wasn’t impressed with it. There are still just so many open-ended questions at the end of this book that I really wonder what even happened for 400 pages. The author didn’t really resolve any of the plot questions, everything was left open ended, even down to the riddle from Ellingham’s desk. It’s just very unsatisfying for a reader and makes me question why I wasted time reading 400 pages of nothing. The climax was weak and literally nothing is resolved. It felt like the book just ended when there should have been another 50 pages to clue up some plot points. I think it might come down to the fact that this is just not a strong enough mystery to suspend over multiple books. It’s not layered at all and I honestly just don’t care. Why bother? Do I want to know what happened? Yes, of course, but will I be reading a second book to find out? Not likely.

So overall I think it’s safe to say I didn’t like this one. In addition to the plot being weak, I thought the characterization was also weak. I don’t think Stevie really grew at all in this book and I didn’t really learn anything meaningful about any of the characters. David pissed me off the entire book. He was rude and I had whiplash from his constantly changing moods. Plus I thought the cliffhanger was dumb. What right does David ever have to be mad about anything Stevie has done when he’s sitting in a NEST OF LIES. Janelle and Nate were pretty much the only likeable characters.

Props to you if you liked this one, but I’ll be taking a pass on subsequent books. I’m between 1 and 2 stars with this one. I definitely didn’t like it, but I don’t like rating books 1 star unless they have some really problematic elements because hey, the author still wrote a whole book, which is a lot more than I can say.

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!

What You Want To See

Rating: 
Author: Kristen Lepionka
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub Date: May 2018 (read May 2018)

Okay, so DO NOT read the synopsis of this book! Fortunately I did not read the synopsis because I loved the first book in this series and knew I wanted to read this anyways (and because I hate having even one thing ruined by the synopsis). But I was just reading through some other reviews of this book and one mentioned that the synopsis ruins almost the entire plot of the book and when I went back and read it, I actually couldn’t believe how much the synopsis steals away from the reader! Shame on you publisher/whoever writes these things!

Anyways, Roxane Weary and Kristen Lepionka are fabulous and that’s pretty much all you need to know. Ignore the synopsis and pick up a copy of her first book The Last Place You Look, because it is great! I was not disappointed with this book either.

Roxane Weary is a bi-sexual private investigator who is struggling to move on with her life after the death of her father on the job as a police officer. She had a complicated relationship with her Dad, which later developed into a complicated relationship with her Dad’s partner and her ex-girlfriend. She mostly just tails adulterous spouses, but when her most recent tail, Marin Strasser, is shot on the street, she can’t help but get dragged into the murder investigation that just doesn’t seem right to her. Despite warnings from the police force to mind her own business, she continues her investigation into Marin Strasser and her tangled web of acquaintances.

I really liked Roxane in the first book because she was complicated without being too cliche. She is a bit of an alcoholic, but she’s not really destructive and she knows her shortcomings. I became just as invested in her personal life as I was in her cases and I really liked how Lepionka grew her relationships in this novel and the development of some of the secondary characters. I was so done with Catherine after the last book and Lepionka somehow made me kind of like her in this book? Plus I loved that she kept Shelby in this story, which I was totally not expecting, and I think really added to the development of Roxane’s character.

This book had a strong mystery element too. I did kind of see the ending coming on the last book, but this book kept me totally mystified throughout. Lepionka actually answers several questions for us early in the second half of the novel, which is surprising in a mystery novel, but she still leaves other questions unanswered to keep you intrigued while simultaneously escalating the drama in the story.

Kristen Lepionka is also fantastic at making you mad. You know the term ‘righteous anger’? That is what Lepionka is so good at making you feel. I was so enraged in the first book when the police threw Roxane in prison and basically ignored her and all her rights, and parts of this book were also rage inducing. I hate nothing more than when female characters are ignored or dismissed, and the author’s use of subtle sexism in both of her novels is so effective because it is so accurate and I can immediately relate with Roxane and her frustration because literally every woman has been ignored or dismissed or belittled at some point in her life.

To conclude, I really liked this and now I am just really sad that I will have to wait again for the next book. Book 3 already has a name on goodreads though!

The Last Place You Look

Rating: 
Author: Kristen Lepionka
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Read: July 2017

 

This was a pretty dark read, but The Last Place You Look had everything I look for in a good mystery novel. It had suspense, a compelling plot, and a great detective/PI. There were a lot of layers to this story, which kept it engaging throughout the entire novel. Once I got into it, I could not put this book down!

It’s a pretty straight forward detective novel. Private Investigator Roxane Weary is hired to look into the disappearance of teenager Sarah Cook, whose parents were murdered 15 years prior. Sarah hasn’t been seen since the night of her parents murder and her boyfriend Brad was convicted of the crimes and has been sitting on death row ever since. However, Brad’s sister is convinced of his innocence and hires Roxane when she sees a woman she believes to be Sarah Cook pumping gas at the local station. Roxane tries to track the woman down to see if there might be more to the story.

I really like a mystery where I’m just as invested in the personal life of the PI and I really liked Roxane Weary. She was facing her own struggles and made some questionable decisions, but not unbelievable ones. Roxane was smart, as was Lepionka’s writing. She did some great things with this novel and I thought it had some great social commentary on how women are ignored, belittled, and dismissed by law enforcement. The Belmont police frustrated me so much in this book and I have to give an author props when they can make me empathize with a character as much as I did with Roxane. It infuriated me the way the police kept dismissing missing women as runaways with mental health issues, although it sadly didn’t surprise me.

I’m excited to see this listed as “Roxane Weary #1”, I’d definitely be interested to continue this as a series!