The Plot is Murder – VM Burns

the plot is murder cover

“‘Victor Carlston, don’t you think it’s wicked to sit here enjoying yourself while your dearest relative lies at death’s door?'”

I like to change pace with my reading, and so after the rather dark The Chalk Man it was time for sometime a bit more fluffy – step forward first in a new cosy mystery series, set in a bookshop, of course 🙂

Samantha Washington is a young(ish) widow, and uses the insurance money plus sale of her now too-big home to fund the dream she and her beloved husband shared: opening a mystery book store. She’s giving up teaching to run the store and also pursue her own dream of writing a mystery book – the bulk of which we get to read interspersed through the ‘real’ mystery, which begins when Sam’s much-loathed realtor is found dead in her new back yard.

I guessed the ‘twist’ very early on, but this is still a charming enough read. I did like the supporting cast of octogenarians, Sam’s grandmother and her friends, who are a spritely lot largely responsible for the sleuthing that takes place. It’s nice to see older characters in general, really, although they are balanced with a few teenagers, too.

In terms of the writing style, this was very easy to read. I was a bit irritated by the running gag of the sweary-grandmother constantly having coughing fits, and also thought that the MC’s two dogs are given distracting lines of focus when totally unnecessary. Minor things overall, though.

The book-within-the-book device is a nice touch, but to be honest the writing of these parts isn’t particularly strong – probably as it’s ‘supposed’ to be, in terms of the story, but I did find the American-writing-British-toffs a little… hmm.

Overall, this served its purpose and I was genuinely looking forward to curling up with it over a few evenings. That’s a pretty good recommendation for ‘fluff’ 😉

NetGalley eARC: 256 pages / 25 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: Mystery Bookshop book 1
Read from 9th-10th January 2018

My rating: 6/10

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The Chalk Man – CJ Tudor

chalk man cover

“The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves.”

Short version: It, without the demonic clown.

Eddie Adams thinks his past is tightly locked up in his head. But as childhood friends and old memories start to come out of the woodwork, is it finally time to face up to the past? Because in 1986, five pre-teen friends have their idyllic summer holiday shattered first by a horrific accident, and then the discovery of a dead body. But the chalk stick figures – they were just a game. Who, then, has sent each of them a letter 30 years later, with just that single stick figure drawing?

There was something in the description of this that called to me, despite the fact that I rarely read dark thrillers these days. But, oh, this spoke to the teenage me who adored Stephen King books – and it really is somewhere between Stand By Me (aka The Body) and It – although as I say, without those supernatural elements. They aren’t missed: this is a gripping enough mystery without bringing in anything other worldly.

The chapters alternate between 1986 and 2016, and both strands follow Eddie as his life goes from perfect childhood to tinged with terror and darkness. It’s very well done: both plotlines are equally intriguing, adding to the other, so the flip back and forth never left me wishing for the other segment. I did prefer the earlier segments, though, as the mood that’s conjured is just brilliantly evocative of those 1980s childhood summers that some of us remember (albeit with less, y’know, dead things!), and some have grown to love from watching Stranger Things.

I did think I’d guessed the ‘whodunnit’ early on, only for the whole thing to swerve in an unexpected direction – hurrah! Still, as the mysteries start to be unravelled at the end, there were just a few bits that seemed perhaps a little too coincidental, so I’m knocking a mark of for that.

Otherwise, though, I gobbled this in just two days – it really was that gripping! Absolutely recommended.

NetGalley eARC: 342 pages
First published: January 11th 2018
Series: none
Read from 6th-7th January 2018

My rating: 9/10

The Dark is Rising – Susan Cooper

Dark is Rising cover

“‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him.”

Will Stanton is about to turn 11, and about to discover that he is one of the ‘Old Ones’: a group charged with protecting the Light throughout time. But over the darkest depths of winter, the Darkness is rising: can Will fulfil his role as Seeker of the Signs, six great parts of a symbol strong enough to overcome the Dark?

I’m a sucker for challenges, so when a Twitter announcement was made about a read-along for this book, starting as the story does on Midwinter’s Eve (aka December 20th), I couldn’t resist! And I was swept up into a winter landscape that I’m sure helped make it snow on Christmas in reality, as the struggle of good against evil raged through the centuries 🙂

This is actually the second installment in the series, but the recommendation is to read this first: the earlier book was written a fair bit before, and doesn’t have quite the same tone (I’m told). I suppose it’s a bit like the Narnia books in that respect: chronologically A Horse and His Boy goes first, but no one ever starts anywhere but The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe!

Written before I was born, The Dark is Rising hasn’t actually dated as badly as I might have expected. There is a nostalgia factor going on, I suppose, for a ‘simpler’ time: modern younger readers might find a lack of computers and mobile phones jarring. However, the mix of adventure and magic is pretty timeless, and there isn’t too much that really pins it to any one time.

This is intended for a younger audience, but it put me in mind of the aforementioned Narnia books, or The Snow Spider, or The Weirdstone of Brisingamen – books I remember very fondly from childhood, and which still have an appeal to a more mature reader.

While it’s hard to be swept up in the same way coming to this for the first time as an adult, I found it charming and easy to read. I’m looking forward to continuing the series – with a first step back to the earlier volume, Over Sea Under Stone, as per the recommendation! But oh: avoid the movie. It changes so much, it’s really not a good adaptation at all.

Kindle: 232 pages / 13 chapters
First published: 1973
Series: The Dark is Rising book 2 (but start here!) of 5
Read from 20th December 2017 – 2nd January 2018

My rating: 7/10

2017: A year in books

I might not have been too enthused about my Year in Movies, but looking back over my reading is a much more interesting picture – to me, at any rate! 😉

Metrics

According to my records, I’ve read 72 books over the year (okay, technically I finished 2 of them in the first days of 2018, but the actual reading was mostly last year so I’m counting them!), of which 3 were very short (I’ve not counted actual short stories, despite logging these on GoodReads).

What’s changed? Well, since I last did this sort of post, I’ve become quite a heavy user of NetGalley – more than half of my reads (38) were ARCs! This means that my numbers of both new-to-me authors (44) and books from the current year (36) have gone up significantly.

I find it rather encouraging, too, to see that my ratio between the genders has improved – in 2015 I logged just 29% from female authors, whereas this year it was almost 51%! I think this is at least in part down to a better/fairer marketing, particularly in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, meaning it’s easier to find recommendations across the genders.

Novelty

NetGalley has also encouraged me to try some slightly different genres. While the bulk of my reading remains fantasy (27) and sci-fi (15) (and 7 non-fiction titles), I’ve been reading a lot more mystery, including ‘discovering’ the ‘cosy mystery’ genre. Often straying a little too chick-lit for my tastes overall, there’s definitely been a place for some ‘fluffy’ reads in a tough year!

Of the authors I ‘discovered’ this year, I was most impressed with Ann Leckie, Adrian Tchaikovsky, John Scalzi, and Mark Lawrence. The latter three are all well-established FSF authors, but for some reason I’d just never tried any of their work before – I foresee a great deal more of it in 2018!

Resolution

Every year – including this one! – I resolve to lessen that TBR pile by reading more of my own books and fewer borrowed/etc ones. Urm.. okay, not so much! o_O By my reckoning, I bought 23 books in 2017, and I read 17 purchased volumes – 6 of them over 10 years ago (!), and only 3 bought and read in the same year. Ahem. As well as ARCS, I had another 4 freebies, 10 from the library, 1 borrowed from a friend, and 2 online/SerialReader.

So I re-resolve: I *will* decrease the huge Mount TBR this year! 🙂 Perhaps more, though, is my intention to stop putting series down halfway through, and actually finish things before I forget the beginning!!

Rereads

A big change to GoodReads this year was the ability to log rereads – huzzah! Still, I only had three: American Gods, ahead of watching the TV adaptation and also a first read of the slightly-updated anniversary edition; Blade Runner 2: Edge of Human as a reminder before finishing the series, and again ahead of a big-screen Blade Runner sequel; and Abhorsen also as part of a reread of the early bit of the series before going on to the newer books.

 

Lows

To be honest, the trio of BladeRunner books were probably a low – I only stuck with them through sheer bloody-mindedness! I love the movie, though, and the concept was good – just, not executed well on any front.

I was also massively disappointed with Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Mindfulness. It read as an advertisement for his stopping smoking program, which is of no interest to me, and very little of any use about actual mindfulness.

Otherwise, there was a reasonable amount of ‘meh’ that wasn’t unexpected when I was picking up books slightly randomly, for free. I was, however, quite disappointed to put a Robin Hobb book, Dragon Keeper, into this category – it was still full of wonderful writing, but the story never got going and so I’ve yet to move on to the rest of the series – see above!

Highs

There were, thankfully, also plenty of books that made me go ‘wow’! So, here are my ‘Golden Hummingbirds’ for books read in 2017:

  • Red Sister – Mark Lawrence: once you’ve read a lot of fantasy fiction it can get a bit samey, but this made me feel reinvigorated about the genre.
  • Ancillary Justice/Sword/Mercy – Ann Leckie: just, wow. Sci-fi as it should be: intriguing, thought-provoking, and just bloddy good!
  • The Rabbit Back Literature Society – Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen: this is a bit of a marmite book, but I was firmly on the side of ‘love’: the mix of mystery and fantasy, wonder and cruelty, just hit my imagination button in the right way.
  • Bryony and Roses – T Kingfisher: I could also have gone for Summer in Orcus, all of Ursula Vernon’s writing is fabulous! This retelling of Beauty and the Beast adds a wonderful wry dollop of common sense, and was this blog’s first 10/10 review 🙂
  • Greenglass House – Kate Milford: and my second 10/10 review. This is a ‘middle grade’ book, so for slightly younger readers, but like Narnia or The Neverending Story, it has magic for all ages and just swept me up into such joy for the power of stories and adventure – reminding me why I want to write.

Honourable mentions for John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire which made me laugh more than sci-fi usually manages; and Lianne Moriarty’s Big Little Lies that only lost a place on the list through being outshone by its own adaptation.

2018 is already shaping up to be a great reading year – looking forward to finding all the new ‘Golden Hummingbird’ contenders for next year’s list 🙂

The Rabbit Back Literature Society – Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Rabbit Back Literature Society cover

“The reader was at first surprised, then shocked, as the criminal Raskolnikov was abruptly slain in the middle of the street, right before her eyes.”

Rabbit Back is a small town with a large literary heritage. World-famous children’s author, Laura White, is not only from the town but once set up the tituar Literature Society: nine young children taught how to be successful authors.

Decades later, and an observant eye might notice that the nine – all successful – seem to avoid each other. It might also notice the strange behaviour of all the local dogs, running away and congregating in packs of strays. There have been strange things afoot for years in this town, but the combination of the announcement that there will finally be a tenth Society member, and the mysterious disappearance of a resident, is set to rock the whole town.

And as the new member discovers The Game, and the books with text that mutates overnight, we delve deeper into the mysteries of Rabbit Back and the Literature Society…

Views on this book seem really mixed, with no shortage of 5 or 1 star reviews. I fall firmly into the former category: I loved this book! The mix of mystery and the supernatural, the latter fully supported by twisted human psychology, was just perfect to keep me glued to the pages. I do like fantasy fiction, which perhaps helped on some of the stranger elements of the story. I’m also less than easily shocked, which definitely helped with the scenes of mild torture and/or some sexual content. I suspect the mix is enough to put different people off for differing reasons, though.

However, if you are willing to brave all those factors, I thoroughly recommend this. The mix of human and magical, past and present, mysteries completely set my imagination alight, and I was more than sorry to see this one end.

Paperback: 344 pages / 39 chapters
First published: 2006 (2013 for English translation)
Series: none
Read from 8th-13th December 2017

My rating: 9/10

Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie

Ancillary Mercy cover

“One moment asleep.”

And so we come to the closing of the wonderful Ancillary trilogy, some of the most impressively engaging sci-fi I’ve read this year. As ever, if you don’t want even a hint of what might have gone before, I’d suggest not reading a review of the third installment 😉

Book one, Ancillary Justice, introduced us to Breq, a ship’s AI mind now trapped in a single ‘ancillary’ body. The second chapter, Ancillary Sword, saw Breq more or less avoiding the galactic war raging as she (and, must mention, everyone is a ‘she’, male or female – still adds to the otherworldly feel, even as I get used to it!) takes command of a warship and goes about setting right the wrongs she perceives in the civilisation at Athoek Station.

Mercy was criticised somewhat for taking the story down very small after such a grand opening, but here we see the larger picture come crashing in to the smaller stage – and it works very well, more so for having had that time to connect on an intimate scale.

It’s a lot to ask for this book to wrap up a galactic tyrant at war with herself, a civilisation being forced to abandon old prejudices, and a handful of broken soldiers serving under the command of an even more broken AI. And yet, it delivers: I’d say with satisfying resolutions all ’round, even while giving that sense of a much, much wider story continuing on.

I’m kind of sad to say goodbye to these characters – but can’t wait to visit another part of the universe in Provenance.

Paperback: 328 pages / 19 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: Radch book 3
Read from 3rd-10th December 2017

My rating: 9/10

A Murder for the Books – Victoria Gilbert

A Murder for the Books cover

“Anyone who claims there are no stupid questions has never worked in a public library.”

Having fled an embarrassing end to a terrible romance, Amy Webber is now director of the library in the small, old town where her aunt lives. Still, it’s far too soon to deal with the flirting from a hunky new neighbour as she sets about helping him research some of the town’s past. Murder and poison and disappearances make for juicy history – but not so happy times when the past starts to seep into the present.

I requested this book from NetGalley because I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my ‘cosy mystery’ reads, set in libraries or bookshops. This one, however, was perhaps a little less cosy and actually quite dark on the murder mystery side – nothing too awful – but with a hefty dose of chick-lit romance. Throw in a shiver of the supernatural and it was all rather intriguing.

While I wasn’t exactly enthralled with the romance aspects – just not my genre – I did enjoy the descriptions of the historic town and its dark past events. There are plenty of characters to throw red herrings in the mix, before an okay-if-not-brilliant denouement of the present mystery ties in nicely with the cold case.

Overall, this was a nice enough read. I’m not entirely sure where the series could go next, but the writing style was strong enough to make me consider finding out.

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 30 chapters
First published: 12th December 2017
Series: Blue Ridge Library Mysteries book 1
Read from 4th-11th December 2017

My rating: 6/10