Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore – Matthew Sullivan

“Lydia heard the distant flap of paper wings as the first book fell from its shelf.”

Mystery set in a bookshop? Well, that’s me sold already! Small warning, though, that this is not a cosy mystery à la Elementary, She Read, but a fair bit darker. However, it’s firmly in the ‘mystery’ and not ‘thriller’ category, so nothing trying to make you jump – perfect!

We start off with the suicide of a regular patron – a ‘bookfrog’ (heh, it was meant to be reviewed here, wasn’t it!? 🙂 ) – of the titular bookstore. When Lydia finds the body, she also finds a 20-year-old photo of her tenth birthday party in his pocket. How? Why? And then another photo – a newspaper snap of her coming out of the bookstore alongside the stretcher – suddenly brings a rush of her long-avoided past to sweep her back up.

While most of the story follows the current interlacing mysteries, we get plenty of flashback chapters, taking us back to a time just after that first photo was taken, when Lydia lives through a huge trauma – no spoilers! – that is still impacting on her life today. Old friends, estranged parents – it seems like everyone is coming out of the woodwork, and Lydia will no longer be able to put her past behind her.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, including the slightly darker tone. Lydia is a very well-written character, with just the right amount of fear and courage, and believable responses to things that (have) happen(ed). The other characters are kept more secondary, but not 2-dimensional, keeping the focus on the plot’s twists and turns. Okay, so the final denouement perhaps relies on a few too many coincidences, but for the main they are woven very organically into the story and kept me guessing the whole way.

I think, with this book, I’ve come to realise that I really like the mystery genre. I’ve dabbled in the past with more ‘thrillers’, but am rarely in the mood for that kind of ‘Danger! Danger!’ approach. MatBIB kept me mentally intrigued, without having to reach into the disturbing territory. More like this, please!

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 27 chapters plus epilogue
First published: August 2017
Series: none
Read from 5th-9th July 2017

My rating: 8/10

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death – James Runcie

“Canon Sidney Chambers had never intended to become a detective.”

An unconventional young vicar finds a bit of excitement in an otherwise quiet life by investigating crimes with his police detective best mate. His dog collar gives him a great way to poke about where the police might not be welcome, and generally gets people to open up to him. Set in 1950s Cambridgeshire (Grantchester is an actual village not far from the university city), the prospect of a cosy (urm, I was a bit wrong!) period mystery and if I’m honest a dishy leading man somehow got me watching the TV adaptation rather compulsively. When I ran out of episodes, I turned to the original books.

The first story, The Shadow of Death, is familiar as the opening episode of the TV adaptation – very familiar, in fact, as a pretty straight transfer. The next three are also familiar, but have been given far more drama for the screen, and so can feel a little odd reading them after viewing. And of the last two, I wasn’t entirely surprised the scriptwriters decided to skip them, not least because of the odd tone of the sexualised kidnapping, quite out of place with the rest of this book.

If I’m being even more honest, without the eye-candy of both leading actors and rather lovely period setting (yes, I’d love to cycle down empty country roads with a pet labrador!), the books aren’t quite so appealing. This book is definitely more on the cosy side (apart from a few moments, as above), but also lacks some degree of the drama. The romantic story is also completely changed, and without that there does feel to be something a bit flatter in the writing – Sidney-in-text is so much less driven, more realistic, and a tad less interesting.

I also found the writing style, particularly the dialogue, to be a bit stilted. Perhaps it’s a ‘period’ thing, but the lack of contractions (so, all “I am” not “I’m”, “I do not”, etc etc) feels quite stiff. The extra time spent in a vicar’s head is also less than fascinating, tbh!

I’m not sure if I’ll pick up the second volume – this wasn’t bad at all, but as I say, it turns out the character’s biggest appeal is probably the amount of time he spends (on screen) taking his shirt off 😉

Kindle: 400 pages / 6 stories
First published: 2012
Series: Grantchester Mysteries book 1 of 6
Read from 30th April – 21st June 2017

My rating: 6/10

One of Us is Lying – Karen M McManus

“A sex tape. A pregnancy scare. Two cheating scandals. And that’s just this week’s update.”

Imagine if The Breakfast Club didn’t get the chance to spend detention coming to deep and meaningful revelations about themselves, because one of them dropped dead. The brain, the jock, the princess, the criminal – all four of them were about to have some shocking secret revealed by the dead boy, Simon, the outcast and creator of a nasty little gossip app. Which means all four had really good motives for murder…

The book is told from all four points of view, with the switch between characters clearly marked with the name and a timestamp. So, as we see inside all four heads, it means one of the narrators must be lying, as they relate the events after Simon’s death, including the police interviews, sensationalist journalists hounding them, and deepening relationships as the four become the ‘murder club’, shunned by classmates who can’t believe any of them are innocent.

I really liked the idea of this story, but felt that the different voices could have been a little more disparate, and the stories told with a little more tension. There’s something just a little too cosy about the tellings of watching movies and getting haircuts, in the midst of all the drama – yes, it’s normal life going on despite everything, but it did lessen some of the potential impact for me.

The mystery unfolds well enough, but the real ‘message’ of the story is more about the secrets and lies, and the impact these have on all five lives, not to mention those around them. Go in knowing that and not just looking for a straight murder mystery, and there’s a lot to enjoy in this book.

NetGalley eARC: 358 pages / 30 subdivided chapters plus epilogue
First published: June 2017
Series: none
Read from 29th May – 4th June 2017

My rating: 7/10

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

“‘That doesn’t sound like a school trivia night,’ said Mrs Patty Ponder to Marie Antoinette. ‘That sounds like a riot’.”

Big Little Lies centres around three women in the Australian town of Pirriwee, each with a child starting kindergarten, each with their own troubles to contend with. Madeline has to come to terms with her ex husband moving back into the area to be in their teenage daughter’s life, while his new daughter is starting the same class as Madeline’s youngest. Celeste is half of the most glamorous couple in town, but she seems to struggle with her rambunctious twin boys despite a seemingly perfect, charmed life. And newcomer Jane is a single mother also hiding dark secrets, facing a new struggle when her son is accused of bullying on day one.

Interspersed throughout the book are interview snippets, comments from fellow parents as the town is caught up in a murder investigation, while the bulk of the book takes us back six months and explores the build up to that fateful night. So never mind who did it – we’re left on the edge of our seats wondering who died, and why.

Unusually for me, I actually ended up watching the truly excellent TV adaptation first, picking the book up a few episodes in. That probably worked in the book’s disadvantage, to be honest, as while I really enjoyed it, I could also see all the places where the adaptation took the tension and racked it up several notches. The character of Maddy, for instance, is given a much meatier storyline in the TV show, whereas in the book she’s not quite hitting the same drama levels as her two co-leads, Celeste and Jane. Would I have noticed if I’d read the book first? Hmm.

That said, I’d still fully recommend the viewing AND the read – in either order! There is a longer ‘epilogue’ in the book, which explores the motivations for the murder in a little more depth and feels a bit more satisfying. The TV show is a bit darker, too, which may or may not suit some people.

Definitely going to look out some more of Liane Moriarty’s work now!

NetGalley eARC: 465 pages / 84 chapters
First published: 2014
Series: none
Read from 17th-27th May 2017

My rating: 8/10

Big Little Lies (series 1)

“A perfect life is a perfect lie.”

Life in Monterey is pretty perfect. Great schools, great beach, gorgeous weather, gorgeous people. How irksome that Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) has to deal with her ex and his new partner, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), having a daughter in the same class as her youngest. Her best friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman) – gorgeous, filthy rich, and sickeningly still in love with her twins’ father (Alexander Skarsgard) – joins her in befriending newcomer and single mom, Jane (Shailene Woodley), especially after mutual ‘frenemy’, Renata (Laura Dern), starts a feud on day one of school.

So far, so mundane, right? Except, all of the above – and the bulk of the series – is actually told in flashback. In the ‘now’, we get snippets of police interviews, the other residents of Monterey sharing all the dirty gossip, all the little lies that led up to a shocking murder…

Ooh – can we say tension?! I freaking loved this TV show, not least because of the way the story is told, keeping you guessing right til the end the who, the how, and the why.

The initial draw had been that cast, and they are awesome. I’ve since heard interviews and the fact that these are ‘older’ (!) actresses getting super-meaty roles should not go unnoticed. Mostly I’m a plot person, and the edge-of-the-seat, need-to-know is still what impressed me most, but quite frankly those pitch-perfect performances, each with their own dark issues and web of lies surrounding them, would see me happily watch it all again even now I know the answers!

Now, usually I will choose to read the book before watching an adaptation, but for one reason or another I started the TV series first – but picked up the book a few episodes in. I’ll review the book shortly, but I have to say I love the way the story is subtly altered to ramp up the tensions even more.

It’s not exactly an easy, cheery, watch – this is one very dark show about all the secrets of marriages and relationships – but absolutely worth the time. And read the book, too – the alterations are a masterclass in storytelling, just as an added bonus!

First broadcast: March 2017 (UK)
Series: 1 so far, talks about a second series reported
Episodes: 7 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 9/10

The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief – Lisa Tuttle

“I admit I did not plan my escape very well, but the fact is that I had not planned it at all.”

There is something enduringly appealing about the Victorian mystery, which is probably what caught my eye on this one – along with the title I’ve been misspelling all over the place! 😉 Think Sherlock Holmes – mentioned in-novel as a fiction, with Arthur Conan Doyle a contemporary figure – but with a female Watson narrating. Indeed, Miss Lane (she does have a first name, but the reveal is one of the mysteries of the book 😉 ) has an excellent detective mind in her own right, but she’s a little more down to earth than her ‘Sherlock’, Jasper Jesperson.

The case(s) told here are strongly linked to Miss Lane’s past as a debunker of psychic frauds. When faced with what could well be the ‘real thing’, the crime solving duo must also deduce any links to the disappearing mediums in the city, while trying to set up their new partnership with more mundane cases, like the mysterious sleepwalking of their landlord’s brother in law. And there’s still the shadow of Miss Lane’s previous partner to be dealt with…

I did enjoy this book, but there were a few things that irritated me a little. Firstly, the first person narrative is just a little too… well, full of moans about emotions and doubts and feelings. I don’t want to say it’s ‘girly’, but I’m struggling to find another phrase. There is something just ‘meh’ about a lead character voicing their doubts and fears every few paragraphs.

The other main character, Jesperson, is the opposite: head first into everything with an enormous sense of adventure – which, alas, ends up coming across as childish, not least because he still lives with his mother (the Mrs Hudson of the piece) and acts out like a spoiled brat once or twice. Oh, and of course he’s a martial arts expert, master hypnotist, and not quite as differentiated from the ‘Great Detective’ as I imagine he was supposed to be. Hmm.

Overall, though, the story was intriguing and fun and the period mood remained appealing, so it’s rather a shame I didn’t get on too well with the characterisation. That said, this looks like it might be the first in a series, and I’d quite like to see where it all goes next.

NetGalley eARC: 416 pages / 32 chapters
First published: May 2017
Series: The Curious Affair Of book 1
Read from 7th-14th May 2017

My rating: 6.5/10

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith

“Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill.”

This is one of those books that I sort of meant to read somewhere along the way, and never quite got around to – huge thanks to NetGalley, therefore, for the eARC and chance to rectify that!

My awareness of this series actually comes from the TV adaptation done back in 2009 (who let that be so long ago?! o_O) which I enjoyed: it was ‘nice’ and sweet and a lovely glimpse of a culture vastly different to my own.

The source book isn’t so very different, and a vague remembering of the plot lines only added to the sense of coziness. There is something lovely about snuggling under the duvet on a cold Scottish evening (and, of course, the author is based locally, but has lived in Botswana) reading about the vastness of the Kalahari.

I’m wary of the idea of taking this as too true to life – I’m sure the realities are a little less sugar-coated, despite the mentions of scorpions, snakes, and witch doctors. But, in a world such as the one we find ourselves in right now, I’ll take cosy and comforting – especially one that lets me ‘travel’ as far as this.

Looking forward to picking up the sequels – and there are many! – with far less delay!

NetGalley eARC: ~235 pages / 22 chapters
First published: 1998
Series: No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book 1 (of 17, currently)
Read from 2nd-8th March 2017

My rating: 7/10