Review: Sweet Little Lies

One of August’s Book of the Month picks is a novel that I had the good fortune to receive an early copy of from my friends over at Harper — Sweet Little Lies by English author Caz Frear. If you’re on the fence about what to pick, take it from me: your credit won’t be wasted on this debut procedural.

Sweet Little Lies is one of those books that just vibes noir in every single way. A detective in London is part of a task force met with the grisly murder of an unidentified but seemingly upper-class woman whose body is dumped in the street — and they know that’s not where she was killed. Detective Cat Kinsella is eager to prove she has the stomach for the job after a previous case ended with mandatory time off and visits to the unit shrink. In an effort to prove herself useful, DI Kinsella is suddenly drawn into a much darker rabbit hole than anyone could have expected. Suddenly, her bleak upbringing is brought to the forefront and Cat is forced to hide some unsavory truths from members of both her work and personal lives. (Although, as far as that goes, she’s been withholding on both fronts for years.)

Although the book isn’t void of cliches — the main character becomes an investigator due to some past trauma and a need to right these wrongs from her childhood — characters are tightly drawn and the added element of family drama ups the juice-factor. Cat feels like the kind of person I’d be drawn to in real life: she’s down-to-earth, just the right blend of friendly and sarcastic, and her relationship with her boss — Parnell — is a perfect complement to Cat’s own disastrous personal relationships. She’s also the kind of character readers will empathize with — I think it must have something to do with her utterly normal vibes? — which makes the book that much more enjoyable.

Pacing is just right, motive is logical, and the twist(s): timed perfectly. Though I knew that such-and-such wasn’t likely to occur, I was definitely not expecting the outcome of Sweet Little Lies — and I wasn’t irked to find some “WTF-that-ending” surprise waiting for me from the depths of left field.

Frear manages to write a compelling novel that binds together my favorite mystery elements — dark, dark, dark! — without succumbing to trendy pressure to “blow readers away” with some ridiculous twist (or seven). A perfectly cracking debut novel, Sweet Little Lies read like the start of a lengthy and lucrative career to me.

Overall: 4 stars. Sweet Little Lies is chock full of assumptions, secrets, and childhood memories gone awry. If you’re into Law & Order: SVU and fancy yourself the next Liv Benson, give this debut a peek.

Side note: If you’re interested in reading Sweet Little Lies and want to give Book of the Month a shot, you can sign up using this link — we’ll both get a free book! And who doesn’t love that?!

Review: The Ruin

While I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the suspense/thriller genre as a whole, I am finding an increased appreciation for the artfully constructed detective novel. Perhaps this is a nod to earlier years in which I pored over Nancy Drew and Mandie novels, hell-bent on solving the mysteries before they could; perhaps it’s merely a fascination with the minds of those far cleverer than I. At any rate, I don’t even need a rainy day any more to excuse curling up in a poorly-lit room with a dark mystery and my trusty tobacco pipe. (I kid, I kid.)

Dervla McTiernan’s newly-released (in the US) DI novel is an ideal blend of dark, twisty, and Irish — and what more can you ask for in a work of detective fiction?

The novel opens in the past: 1993, rural Ireland, a young Cormac Reilly dispatched on one of his first cases — what he believes to be a routine domestic disturbance call. When he arrives, he discovers a house in disrepair, two young children equally neglected, and a deceased woman, whom he finds to be the mother of the children (and deceased for hours). When Cormac also finds signs of abuse mingled in with the obvious markings of neglect, he gathers the children up and takes them to the nearest hospital. Later, the case is removed from his hands and he moves on with his career.

Twenty years later, in Galway, a young man commits suicide. When his sister returns from the (presumed) dead days later, Cormac Reilly is called to the case by his superiors: it would seem he made the acquaintance of the two some decades previously, on the night their mother died. . . .

As the past and present are immersed in a tangled dance of fates, Cormac enters a dangerous game with members of the force — some who can be trusted, and others, apparently, who cannot. As the mystery unravels, McTiernan hurtles readers toward a conclusion that is both unforeseeable and nail-bitingly suspenseful. I raced through this work in a couple of sittings and, truthfully, wouldn’t have put it down if it would’ve been considered socially acceptable to let my 1-year-old fend for himself for a day or two. Sink or swim, right? 😉

The Good: See above for sung praises. I was adequately pleased by character construction, plotting, and the not-so-meandering stories-within-the-story. McTiernan has kicked off what I anticipate will be a brilliant dark series, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the second book (rumor on the street has it coming out March 2019).

The Bad: There are several timelines, stories, and characters — seemingly disjointed — being drawn together in The Ruin. At times, the various side stories can be confusing, if not a bit distracting. For the most part, the conclusion of this work cleared up ambiguities and made the short-lived confusion worthwhile.

The Verdict: 4.5 stars. If you enjoy smart, carefully constructed detective fiction à la Tana French and Robert Galbraith, give The Ruin a closer look.

3 New Releases You Won’t Want to Miss

June is upon us, and with it, a wealth of delightful new book releases. I’ve had my eye on several upcoming titles — chiefly, Us Against You by Fredrik Backman, the sequel to Beartown — but I’ve also been fortunate enough to receive advance copies of a handful of distinctly different books that I rather enjoyed and want to share with everyone!

The Ones We Choose by Julie Clark. Fiction, 368 pages. This novel was released May 8 by Gallery Books. It’s part family drama, part science lesson — and believe me when I tell you, as a very unscientific-minded individual, the science component of this book completely made the story. Paige Robson, main character and geneticist extraordinaire, is a single mother to an increasingly inquisitive 8-year-old boy named Miles. She’s always been honest with Miles: he was conceived via sperm donor. She’s also done a fantastic job of raising her son collectively with her mother and her sister’s family. However, Paige didn’t account for the boy’s desperate need to know who his biological father is — and his fury at her, for having deprived him this standard piece of the family pie. All Paige knows for certain is that her own father was a deeply disappointing figure in her own life, and she wants so much more for Miles.

When Miles makes a friend at his new school, Paige is thrilled — twofold, when she realizes his mom is fun for her to hang around, too. And while the families become closer, Paige begins to let her guard down one day at a time . . . until a few cataclysmic events coincide to turn her life upside down.

I love, love, loved the fascinating science mini-lessons sprinkled between chapters in this family drama, and that’s saying something coming from a self-proclaimed science-hater. (I hated the subject in school. It was boring. This book totally changed that outlook.) Ultimately, this is a book about relationships and how we define ourselves based on our relationships with our families — especially our parents. Overall: A solid 4/5 stars.

***

Goodbye, Sweet Girl by Kelly Sundberg. Memoir, 254 pages. This prosodic personal work was released June 5 from Harper Books. I was wowed by Sundberg’s depth of voice and her unflinching portrait of her reality: that of an abused wife who doesn’t know that she needs to (and later, how to) leave her angry, damaging husband.

I’ve never been in a physically abusive relationship (or verbally abusive, for that matter). Like most other people who’ve never been abused, I’ve often mused about how a woman (or man) can stay in an abusive relationship. How can they stay tethered to someone who hits them? Screams at them? Belittles them? How can they be with someone who doesn’t respect them?

I still don’t fully comprehend such scenarios, but Sundberg’s memoir is such an honest processing of the kind of decisions that go into such relationships, I do feel like I came to an understanding of sorts about the kind of thinking — and emotional evolving — that makes it so difficult for people to leave abusive relationships.

The chronology of this book is very disjointed; an aspect that works really well in general, but can be confusing from time to time. In some ways, it reads like a conversation; as though you’re sitting in a cafe with Kelly Sundberg and she’s recounting her life experiences, jumping from one memory to the next without any care as to which event happened first or next or last — only that they happened. Ultimately, I really, really appreciated the strength of Sundberg’s voice in this work and the absolutely unapologetic story she tells. 4/5 stars.

***

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz. Fiction – detective story, 387 pages. Released (in the US) June 5 by Harper Books. This was my first Horowitz novel, and based on the Goodreads reviews, it isn’t his best. But I can’t tell you that, remember? — because I haven’t read any of his other works. About halfway through, I realized that Horowitz was writing himself as the main character (would’ve definitely realized this earlier if I’d been paying closer attention to the fact that the MC’s name is “Anthony” and/or if I was familiar with his bio) — which made for a bit of a trippy fiction read. Allow me to explain:

The Word is Murder is a detective novel that follows a writer — Anthony — and his retired-but-still-kinda-working detective friend, Hawthorne. The relationship is supposedly evocative of Holmes & Watson, but — gulp — I’ve never read any Sherlock Holmes, sooo . . . I can’t attest to the effectiveness of this recreation. Anthony’s done some writing work with Hawthorne in the past (he consults with Hawthorne when writing scenes that involve police work), but one day Hawthorne comes to Anthony with a fresh idea: he wants Anthony to write a book about him. For half of the profits.

As the two begrudgingly work alongside one another to unravel the secrets of a recent string of murders/attempted murders, Anthony narrates events with no dearth of snark — and that’s part of what makes this read so entertaining. I can’t say I loved either Anthony or Hawthorne’s characters (they were both a bit . . . prick-ish? . . . for my taste), but I did quite enjoy the murder mystery at the heart of the work. The writing was solid, if a bit self-proud at times, and I certainly intend to pick up Horowitz’s other highly-praised novel, The Magpie Murders. Overall: 3.5-4 stars.

Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

I first read J.K. Rowling’s adult mystery novel — published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith — in 2013 when it was released. I remember enjoying the novel, despite backlash from naysayers who wanted Rowling to ride the Hogwarts Express for her lifetime. That aside, I don’t remember much else. I later acquired the other two novels in the Cormoran Strike series, but never got around to reading either. With rumors (confirmed by the Queen herself) that Strike would be making a return to the literary world in 2017, I decided it was well past time to reread the first book and finish the other two.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first in a series of detective fiction novels. While I don’t typically seek out crime fiction or detective novels, I can’t resist anything penned by Rowling . . . and I was pleasantly engrossed in this contemporary whodunit book — even the second time around.

Cormoran Strike is a down-and-out private investigator with a mound of debt up to his hairy ears and a failing love life to match. The detective, who is described in such a way as to evoke images of a great hulking brute, is hired by John Bristow, brother to the recently deceased supermodel Lula Landry. The police believe Lula has committed suicide, but Bristow thinks there’s more to her untimely death than that. While Strike juggles his new living arrangements (read: longterm camping in his cramped office), a new temp secretary (Robin, whose own blossoming relationship and new fiance are in stark contrast to Strike’s loneliness), and initial doubts about Bristow’s sanity, the case morphs from something laughable to something with far greater complexity and potential to disrupt more than a few lives.

Strike’s interviews with witnesses reveal excellent character development on the author’s part. True to Rowling form, the novel is packed with a number of key characters — none of whom escape the detective’s scrutiny. Where most novels featuring a large cast fall woefully short of development, leaving the reader confused about who’s who and why they’re important, The Cuckoo’s Calling unravels each individual bit by bit until readers are left with a host of sneaking suspicions based on a number of untrustworthy individuals and a masterfully constructed trail of breadcrumbs.

The Good: Um . . . everything? 🙃 When a novel can be enjoyed a second time around (or a third, or fourth, or fifth . . . ), especially those in the mystery genre, you know you’ve found a gem. This novel is jam-packed with details that serve a purpose. There is no character or encounter or detail that doesn’t serve some end — character development, plot progression, background establishment. As mentioned before, characters are beautifully constructed, each flawed in his or her own way — something writers often overlook or overdo. (Some take character flaws unnecessarily far, resulting in ridiculously unlikeable or relatable individuals; others create maddeningly perfect characters that flawed readers cannot truly connect with. This novel: the perfect blend.) And another merit to this work: its ability to place a lead male character (Strike) next to a young, attractive supporting female (Robin) without forcing some sort of adulterous love triangle. Rowling’s work is truly centered on the mystery surrounding Lula’s death, with no time for deviations into a romantic tryst that has no place in The Cuckoo’s Calling.

The Bad: Honestly, I’ve got no complaints. The epilogue establishes the perfect circumstances for a continuation of the series, which I look forward to reading in the coming weeks.

The Verdict: 4.5/5 stars. This work isn’t life changing, nor will it become a centuries-old classic read and beloved by the masses; but it is great contemporary detective fiction. And that, I can appreciate.