The Blackhouse

Rating:⭐⭐.5
Author: Peter May
Genres: Mystery
Pub. date: Feb. 2011 (read Jul. 2019)

DNF @ 67%

I was going to try and stick it out, but I can’t do it. My Dad’s been trying to get me to read this series for ages and finally picked it up as an audiobook, but it’s just not working out for me.

Even though I haven’t finished it, I feel like I have experienced enough of this book to give it a bit of a review. Honestly, I would probably still give this a middle ground 3 stars, but it started dragging on and I just don’t have the motivation to finish it. It’s possible it’s the audiobook and I might have enjoyed it better as a print book.

The premise is interesting enough. It’s a classic police investigation story where the investigator is forced to return to his childhood home and confront the trauma of his past. The setting is in remote Scotland, which I actually really liked, and I did think Finn was a complex and interesting character. But only half of this book held my attention. Interestingly enough, I actually didn’t care at all about the present day mystery. Finn is forced to go back to his childhood home to investigate the grizzly murder of the town bully. At the same time, we get flashbacks to an overall mundane childhood.

But it was his childhood that intrigued me. The story is very much character driven by a number of seriously flawed individuals and I was actually quite interested in the drama and intrigue between Finn and his best friend Arthur and their mutual crush, Marshali (don’t know actual spelling as I read as audiobook). There’s a lot of interesting details about the way of life in this remote Scottish town that I found pretty interesting. So it does beg the question why I’m deciding to DNF.

Perhaps I might return to it, but I found the murder investigation pretty boring. I’d tune out for long periods of time, such that I was listening to this while running one day and suddenly realized I had no idea what had happened and had to go back more than 20 MINUTES to get to a place I recognized because I tuned out for so long. I’ve been trying to DNF books a little more when I’m not enjoying them, so even though I think I could push through this one, I think I’ll find something else more engaging.

Sorry Dad, don’t think Peter May is for me.

Searching for Sylvie Lee

Rating: ⭐
Author: Jean Kwok
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read Aug. 2019)

I really like Jean Kwok’s writing style. I read Girl in Translation last year and loved it and have been dying to read Searching for Sylvie Lee since I first read the synopsis. Both books are quite different, but left me with similar feelings. I feel like both were probably 4 star books, but something about the writing and the characters just makes me feel very strongly about them and in the end, I rated both books 5 stars. Searching for Sylvie Lee does get a little dramatic and unbelievable towards the end, but because the book was really about character development for me, I can let it slide.

Searching for Sylvie Lee is told from multiple perspectives, with the most dominant (for me anyways), being told from the point of view of Amy. Amy is younger sister to Sylvie and both are daughters of Chinese-American immigrants. Their parents moved to America and struggled to survive, deciding to send their first daughter, Sylvie, to the Netherlands to live with her grandmother until they could afford to give her a better life. She returns at the age of 9 (I think, can’t quite remember), after the birth of the second daughter, Amy. The story is narrated by Amy, Sylvie, and their mother, so we get many perspectives from this small family.

To Amy, Sylvie is the epitome of accomplishment and she greatly looks up to her, considering herself the lesser sister. To Sylvie, Amy is the image of innocence. She works very hard to be successful because she feels her parents will never love her as much as Amy since she was raised away from them for the first part of her life.

When their grandmother becomes ill, Sylvie returns to the Netherlands to say goodbye, but disappears before returning home. No one knows what happened to her and Amy’s dutch relatives don’t seem too concerned about Sylvie. But Amy knows Sylvie would never just disappear like that, so she jumps on a plane for the first time in her life and travels to the Netherlands to search for the truth.

This is the prefect family drama about all the feelings of love and resentment that exist within the family dynamic. Everyone has their own secrets and the unspoken past has had longstanding and far-reaching consequences on the entire family. Sylvie has a life in Holland that none of her family in America could really understand and the impact of growing up under the thumb of her Aunt impacted her in ways the sisters don’t understand until much later. Sylvie struggles to be the daughter she thinks she should be, while Amy is afraid to live her life the way she would like to.

Everyone has secrets and they have been tearing the family apart for decades without them even realizing it. This is very much a book about the immigrant experience, but also a book about living courageously. I thought that each character was well realized and developed. Everyone had flaws, but it only made them more relatable and served to make me empathize more with each character.

Like I said, it’s a character driven book, but it does have a strong plot to support it. We’re propelled by the mystery element of what happened to Sylvie, but discover so many secrets and deceptions along the way. That said, don’t come to this book looking for a mystery/thriller. It’s not the driving force of the story, but rather a tool to connect with the deeper pain and anguish of each of the characters. The ways they’ve been wronged, the mistakes they’ve made, and the ways in which they’ve been misunderstood.

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!

No Exit

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Taylor Adams
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. date: Jun. 2017 (read in Jul. 2019)

Oh boy… I don’t know how to rate this. It’s a fast-paced, dark psychological thriller. It definitely kept me on the edge of my seat, but it was so exhausting to read. The premise was interesting, as the name suggests, this is a closed room mystery thriller where are protagonist is trapped in a snowstorm nightmare with no way out.

Darby Thorne is on her way across the Rockies to visit her dying mother for Christmas when the snow forces her to stop at a rest stop to wait out the weather. There’s 4 other people at the rest stop and no cell service. While there, she discovers one of the others is concealing a massive crime and her attempt to right the wrong ends in a nightmare of epic proportions.

So I wasn’t sure how much of the plot to reveal in my review, but apparently I never read the synopsis before reading this book because Darby discovering a child trapped in a dog cage in the back of one of the vehicles at the rest stop was a total shocker to me, but is actually revealed right in the book synopsis. I wish I’d known this going in because it might have greatly influenced my decision to read this book. I hate stories that mess around with children and find them difficult to read, so had I realized that earlier, I might have opted out of this one. But my book club picked this as our July read, so I stuck it out.

Overall, I do think this was quite a good book and I can see why people might like it. It’s super fast-paced, the stakes are high, the setting is claustrophobic, and our protagonist is relatable. But I personally struggled with it because it includes child violence and graphic depictions of torture and other violence. I find all these things extremely disturbing and hate reading anything with torture in it, particularly if child violence is involved. I had to give up Game of Thrones after season 3 because I couldn’t deal with the torture.

Which is why I’m unsure how to rate this. I don’t think anyone is going to argue that this is outstanding literature. It’s a mindless thriller book that I think pretty much accomplishes what it sets out to. There’s very little character development and it didn’t make me think that much; there are no hidden meanings or deep themes weaved into the story. Mostly it just made me anxious for the entire week that I was reading it. I propelled through it, but mostly just because I wanted it to be over.

I do think the book was dragged down a little bit by the setting and timeline. Any book that takes place in a span of 8 hours with a setting this small will face a challenge in keeping the reader engaged and I don’t think Adams really overcame that. The story started to feel repetitive and towards the end it was really dragged out. There are several false endings and I feel like the author kept dragging it out to make a large enough page count to call this a proper book. Despite the tense nature of the story, I started to get bored towards the end as the same trauma kept repeating itself. Plus, a lot of the drama was unbelievable and I think the author relied on a lot of what I would consider lazy plot devices to carry the story (i.e., the never-ending cell battery and repeatedly using the same escape route).

Beyond that I don’t really have a whole to say about this one. The idea held a lot of promise, but I don’t think the author quite delivered. As a mystery/thriller, I’d give it 3 stars, but I’m going to give it 2 stars overall because it just wasn’t for me. It’s not a reflection on the book or the writing, just that it wasn’t to my tastes.

The Turn of the Key

Rating:
Author: Ruth Ware
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. date: Sep. 5, 2019 (read May 2019)

Let’s just start by saying: I love Ruth Ware. I’ve read everything she’s written and it’s taken me a while to figure out what it is I like so much about her. None of her books are my favourite, yet I always can’t wait to get my hands on her newest book. It took a while, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I love her books because they are just so damn readable. She has this old school Gothic mystery thing going on and her closed-door crimes are very reminiscent of Agatha Christie.

The Turn of the Key has similar elements to some of her other books, but I actually found it quite different. Ware takes a different approach to this book, telling us upfront what the central crime is, just not who is involved or how it happens. Rowan Caine is our main character and has been working as a nanny for the past few years when she takes a position in a private home in remote Scotland looking after the Elincourt family. Sandra and Bill are both wealthy architects and have converted their home from an old estate into a modern architectural marvel, integrating all kinds of fancy technology into the design to make it a “smart home”.

It’s a lucrative position for Rowan, but when Sandra and Bill take off immediately after arriving, leaving her alone in the huge house with their 4 children, she starts to wonder if there may be more secrets about this post than she was made aware. Previous nannies quit the position because of fears of the house being haunted, of which Rowan is skeptical, but as strange things start happening, she can’t help but wonder if the weird things happening are a result of the faulty smart home technology, or something more sinister.

Ware takes an interesting approach by opening the story with Rowan in prison for the death of one of her charges. We don’t know which child has died, or how, but Rowan maintains that she is innocent and recounts her story in a letter to a lawyer requesting he help her. This book is creepy. I could see how some readers might not like it as much as some of her others because it is more of a slow burn mystery, but I really liked it. Ware spends a lot of time developing the atmosphere of the story and drawing us further and further in to this creepy house in Scotland. It does take a while for the action to get going, but I loved how remote the story was and how it made me question every single interaction for potential answers. I also loved her use of smart home technology in the story. Technology has gotten so creepy and this really drew attention to the ways it has invaded our lives and in some cases made things more complicated.

One of the main complaints I’ve had with Ware’s books in the past is that I think she has really weird pacing. She tends to hit the climax at around 70% in the book, the mystery always continues, but when you hit the high point that early it’s hard to stay engaged for the last 30%. That was not the case with this book. She keeps you on edge, with the creepiness continuing to amp up until the very end.

The only thing I will say is that things finish up so quickly at the end and are so easily explained that it was a bit of a let down. I mostly correctly predicted the ending, but it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book. The atmosphere was what won this book for me and I really liked the creepiness factor. My only complaint now is that I have to wait 4 months for everyone else to read this and another year or more for her next book!

Special thanks to Simon and Schuster and Edelweiss+ for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.