Finlay Donovan is Killing It

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Elle Cosimano
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. Date: Feb. 2021 (read Apr. 2021 on Audible)

I listened to this entire audiobook during one rainy weekend while doing jigsaw puzzles and LOVED it! GabbyReads recommended it on her booktube channel and said it was a good audiobook, so I downloaded it on Audible and was immediately pulled into the story. The whole plot is an absolute nightmare train-wreck, but in the most unputdownable way!

Finlay Donovan has recently divorced her husband after he started shacking up with their realtor and she’s struggling to manage her two kids while simultaneously trying to deliver on a book deal for which she has huge writer’s block. She’s spent the advance on her book and the bills are piling up – if she doesn’t submit the rest of her book soon, she might be asked to return the advance.

She meets her agent in a shop to discuss the outline of her murder mystery and an eavesdropper misinterprets their conversation, thinking that Finlay is actually a hired killer. Finlay receives an anonymous note with a huge sum of money to dispose of the woman’s husband. The whole thing is a huge misunderstanding and Finlay tries to tell the woman she’s not a killer, but after doing some research on the husband and reflecting on the huge sum of money, is it possible she could be?

It sounds like an intense book, but the writing is so light and the author packs a ton of comic relief into the narrative that made it such a fun read. It reminded me a little of How to Get Away With Murder because of the run-away storyline. Finlay is a mess and she always seems to be a step behind everything that’s happening around her, which would make for a very stressful reading experience if not for Finlay and Vero’s comedy. 

I don’t want to give anything away about the story because you should definitely experience it for yourself – I’ll just say that Finlay and her sidekick, Vero, make for some truly excellent heroines. I don’t normally give 5 stars to mystery novels and this is by no means quality literary writing, but it was just so much fun to read and when I reflected on it, there was really nothing I would change about it, so 5 stars it is! Recommend if you’re looking to get out of a book slump!

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!

One by One

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ruth Ware
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. Date: Sep. 2020 (read Sep. 2020 on Audible)

If you know me at all, you know I’m a huge Ruth Ware fan. The best phrase I can think of to describe her books, and I say it all the time, is ‘compulsively readable’. It seems like this book has just been getting mediocre reviews, but for the most part, I actually really liked it. 

I think one of the reasons I really liked this was setting. One by One is set on a french ski resort up in the alps. There’s a number of chalets located at the top of one of the gondolas and on this particular week, the chalet has been rented out by the employees of the company Snoop. Snoop is a popular social media app that can be used to listen to music and snoop on what other people, from friends to celebrities, are listening to at the same time. However, like any tech start-up company, there’s a lot of drama going on behind the scenes. 

The chalet is full of the Snoop staff and two employees when an avalanche hits, snowing them in and cutting everyone off from escape. Tensions mount and when several people start to show up dead, the whole chalet descends into chaos. Who can you trust when you’re snowed in with a killer?
The narration alternates back at forth between two of the individuals snowed in at the chalet and it has the old school closed door mystery vibe. Something about being snowed in and knowing the killer is among you is just enthralling. Plus I did get into all of the Snoop company politics and drama and I thought it added to the story. 

I flew through the book in just 2 days, but I have the same criticism I have with most of Ware’s book – the book climax is just too early. For some reason she always reveals the killer at like the 75% mark of the book and devotes the last part of the book to the “thrill” I suppose. But it never really works for me. Of course you need some kind of thrill to accompany your big reveal, but Ware always drags it on too long. Plus I was a little bit disappointed with who the killer turned out to be, but I didn’t guess it until close to the end, so I guess I can’t complain too much.

Overall I still really enjoyed this book. I’d give the setting an A. It’s not my favourite Ruth Ware (I think that may be Turn of the Key), but I definitely enjoyed the reading experience.

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.