Mini-Review Roundup

While I may be catching up on my reading during the pandemic, my reviews have been nonexistent. There’s only one solution. It’s time for a mini-review roundup!

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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

This is one of the most insane books I’ve ever read! Think Agatha Christie meets Quantum Leap meets Groundhog Day, and you have a small inkling as to the madness of this book. I loved every page!

Our narrator wakes up in the woods, shouting the name Anna. He discovers that he can’t remember anything about his past, not even his name. Soon, he is approached by a mysterious masked figure who tells him that he has eight days to solve a murder that will take place that night. Every morning, he will wake up in the body of a different person and have to relive the same day over and over. He is advised that if he fails to identify the murderer in his final host, he will start they cycle over again with his memory erased. If your head isn’t already spinning, there’s another catch: there are two others working to identify the killer as well.

Believe me when I tell you that this is one of the craziest, most mind-bending, unique novels I’ve had the pleasure to read. There is so much timey-wimey craziness going on that I had to flip back to earlier chapters constantly. As our narrator repeats the same day in a different host, he sometimes will interact with his past and future selves. I loved how he would be able to utilize each host’s unique set of skills. The consequence of this ability is that he slowly loses control of himself the longer he leaps into different hosts.

Underneath all the science fiction insanity, there is a genuine old-school mystery with plenty of twists and red herrings. I was impressed with the big reveal as well as how the author managed to answer every single question posed throughout the mystery.

I had so much fun reading this book that it’s definitely a candidate for my top read of the year!

Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

This book, the first in a series, is an origin story for everyone’s favorite boy who never grew up. I love the story of Peter Pan, and the authors did an exceptional job of telling the events that proceeded the original classic. In the beginning of the book, we meet Peter and some of his friends, who are orphans at St. Norbert’s Home for Wayward Boys.  Peter and his friends are on a ship taking them to a life of misery in a foreign country when they find themselves being pursued by pirates led by the infamous Black Stache.

There’s an interesting mystery on board the ship called the Never Land. Peter discovers a mysterious trunk as well as a young girl named Molly. Peter’s new acquaintance is attempting to keep the trunk safe from the pursing pirates, as it contains a treasure unlike any other. Molly and her father are members of the Starcatchers, a secret society dedicated to protecting magical stardust from falling into evil hands. Soon, Peter learns just how powerful this substance is as he gains new abilities such as flying as well as possibly living forever.

This is such a fun book is filled with adventure, pirates, monsters, and magic.  The writing style was similar to the early Harry Potter novels. While the beginning of a series, this book can be enjoyed as a standalone. If you’re curious about how Peter Pan went from an ordinary mortal into a magical hero, then you need to check out Peter and the Starcatchers. 

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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Death is a lonely business. This was the one painful lesson I took from Bellman & Black. I’ve waited well over a decade for a new novel by Diane Setterfield after her fantastic debut The Thirteenth Tale. So was her second novel worth the wait? Unfortunately, the answer is no. While this novel was decent, I thought The Thirteenth Tale was much better.

Bellman & Black begins with William Bellman as a young boy. One day, while out in the woods, William uses his slingshot to kill a rook. This single action would prove to have dark consequences for him as we next see him as a young man. William’s family owns a textile mill, and he quickly moves through the ranks of learning every aspect of this operation. William’s life is marred by constant tragedy as loved ones, such as his mother, wife, and children pass away. At each funeral, William sees a mysterious stranger that he refers to as “Mr. Black.” The appearance of Black along with rooks are harbingers of the death that surrounds our main character. One night, William enters into a devil’s deal with Black. Soon, his only surviving child Dora recovers from a fever, and William has an idea for a new business. “Bellman & Black” becomes a huge success, an empire in the business of death.

Throughout the book, there’s this tension that builds with each appearance of a rook. I love Gothic stories, but unfortunately, all the suspense builds to an anti-climax and a depressing one at that. I was left feeling sad. Part of that has to do with my expectations as I was thinking this was going to be a supernatural thriller. It’s not. I doubt I will read this one again.

The Little Country by Charles de Lint

I cannot say enough about Charles de Lint. He is such an underappreciated force in the fantasy genre. Even stories that are just so-so are still so deliciously enchanting. Wow, did I just say “deliciously enchanting?” Wow. The Little Country is one of his earlier works, and the best part is that it’s actually two complete novels in one! Using the classic story-within-a-story format, we are treated to a great fantasy story along with one of high intrigue. There’s a secret society searching for a book that could provide immortality! This secret text is protected by a delightful Cornish family. We have a psychopathic killer! Throw in a few alternate worlds and a love story, and you have a little bit of everything. I found the book utterly charming. Yes, I said “utterly.”

The novel begins when folk musician Janie Little finds the only copy of a novel titled The Little Country by fantasy writer William Dunthorn, an old friend of her grandfather’s. This discovery of a lone fantasy story triggers some extraordinary events. While a powerful order seeks to steal the book, we go back-and-forth into the fantasy story about a young girl who is hexed by an evil witch. De Lint weaves the simultaneous stories beautifully.  He is a master at juggling multiple story lines and characters. There is so much wonder to be found in a de Lint tale. While reading this book, I truly was able to believe that magic is real. As a folk musician, de Lint also infuses his stories with so much music. His descriptions of various places transported me there instantly.

At just over 600 pages, trust me when I say it won’t feel like that at all. For fans of later de Lint works such as his Newford tales, this one is a must read.

“Every book tells a different story to the person who reads it. How they perceive that book will depend on who they are. A good book reflects the reader, as much as it illuminates the author’s text.”-The Little Country

 

I read these books for the Beat the Backlist Challenge.

Have you read any of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

 

6. ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ by Agatha Christie

I’ve recently discovered a passion for the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie so I thought it was time to read one of her most famous works. Murder on the Orient Express has often appeared on many lists as one of the greatest detective novels ever written. Having seen the most recent theatrical adapation, this particular reading experience will be very different from the other Christies I’ve read. I worried that my overall enjoyment of the book would be affected having already known the solution. Instead, I’m pleased to report a rather unique reading experience where I was able to see the subtle clues leading to the resolution. Reading Murder on the Orient Express allowed me to further understand the process of one of the greatest mystery writers who ever lived.

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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

On the luxurious train the Orient Express, a murder has been committed. An American, M. Ratchett, lay dead in his compartment having been stabbed a dozen times. As it so happens, each passenger aboard the train has a motive for committing the crime. Fortunately, one of the passengers is the detective Hercule Poirot. With time running out and tensions mounting, Poirot is able to use his little gray cells to once again find a solution.

Murder on the Orient Express has a really intricate and interesting plot. Little of the novel actually focuses on the crime itself, but of the process Poirot uses to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The majority of the novel is actually taken up with individual interviews with each suspect. I liked this format as it allowed me to keep track of a story with so many characters. Of course, Poirot has always been a more psychological detective. While he relies on physical clues at the crime scene, most of his investigations center on his keen insight into human behavior. Once you learn the solution to the case, it makes sense given the facts. I do appreciate Christie for once again developing a twist that I thought was quite inventive.

As with last year’s Death on the Nile, I enjoyed having a British mystery that took place outside of England. Christie used her extensive travels around the world as material for her books. While most of the action take place within the train itself, I did enjoy the opening scenes as Poirot is traveling from Aleppo in Syria to Instanbul. These foreign locations just make these stories feel grander and more exotic.

While I loved the recent film version of this story, the book itself was not one of my favorites. During the investigation, the book felt more analytical than some of the other Christies I’ve read. I just didn’t develop any connections to these characters. The movie greatly improved on that aspect. If you’re reading Christie for the first time, I suggest either The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or And Then There Were None to begin your journey.

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It’s nice to check another Agatha Christie novel off my list. Murder on the Orient Express is a solid work of the classic crime genre. I recently bought a ton of her books at my local used bookstore so the journey will continue for this reader.

“The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.”

I read this book for the following challenges:

  • Beat the Backlist

  • Reading Classic Books (classic by a woman)

  • Back to the Classics (20th century classic)

  • Classics Club (16/100)

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

26. ‘Death on the Nile’ by Agatha Christie

Death on the Nile marks my fourth foray into the work of Agatha Christie and my second one starring the the brilliant Hercule Poirot. In this novel, the detective is on holiday in Egypt when he becomes involved in the affairs of a newly married couple and their stalker. Linnet Doyle, formerly Ridgeway, is a young heiress who has everything: money, beauty, and a new husband that she stole from her former best friend. The jilted fiancee, Jacqueline De Bellefort, now follows the Doyles everywhere they go in an attempt at emotional torture and is waiting for them on their honeymoon cruise down the Nile. However, Jacqueline is not Linnet’s only enemy. The other passengers on the cruise all hold a connection to the heiress in one way or another. As this is a Poirot novel, it is only a matter of time before the only destination for this cruise is murder.

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Agatha Christie never fails to impress me with her meticulous ability to craft a perfect detective story. Death on the Nile is enthralling, combining exceptional plotting with a compelling cast of characters. The tragic love triangle between Linnet, Simon, and Jacqueline serves as a perfect emotional storm as a counter-balance to the peaceful ship languidly moving downstream. Since the first murder does not occur until halfway through the novel, Christie allows plenty of breathing space to not only build tension but to flesh out all of the characters.

Although the love triangle initially drives the story, all of the passengers have something to hide. Linnet’s financial advisor Andrew Pennington happens to be in Egypt on pure coincidence. Ferguson is an anarchist and self-proclaimed believer that the world is better off without certain people. The wealthy and cruel Miss Van Schuyler runs her nurse Miss Bowers and shy companion Cornelia ragged. Tim Allerton and his mother have a very limited income, yet can afford an expensive Egyptian holiday. Trashy novelist Salome Otterbourne divides her time degrading her daughter with masking a dark secret. As if matters weren’t complicated enough, Poirot’s friend Colonel Race arrives seeking another murderer under an assumed identity. Poirot will have to use all of his little gray cells in order to unravel so many complicated plots.

“Fey…a Scotch word…It means the kind of exalted happiness that comes before disaster. You know–it’s too good to be true.”

Based on Christie’s own time in Egypt, this novel stands apart from her other works due to the exotic location. Several early scenes involve exploring the ancient Egyptian landmarks which heighten the sense of dread when combined with the careful development of her characters. Similar to her classic Murder on the Orient Express, it is such a nice change of pace to have a British mystery takes place outside of England.

The Great Temple of Abu Simbel, one of the locations from the novel

Another reason I loved this book is for the characterization of Poirot. As an expert on human psychology, the detective attempts to provide counseling to an unhappy young woman threatening to destroy her own life in a pointless quest for revenge. I loved this scene as Poirot pleads with the woman to not open her heart to evil. I took equal enjoyment in the scene where Poirot puts Linnet in her place for hurting her best friend by stealing her fiance. Although he tends to flaunt his superior intelligence, I can’t help but love the little Belgian detective. I also felt sorry for him because he can never seem to have a true vacation.

Death on the Nile is a must-read, a stunning achievement in a career that was already filled with brilliant masterpieces. The plotting is perfectly constructed with plenty of red herrings one comes to expect in an Agatha Christie mystery. The pieces to the puzzle fit together beautifully. As an added bonus, I actually figured out the identity of the murderer! However, I have no plans to quit my day job at this time.

“They conceive a certain theory, and everything has to fit into that theory. If one little fact will not fit it, they throw it aside. But it is always the facts that will not fit in that are significant.”

 

I am counting Death on the Nile as a classic set in Africa for the Back to the Classics Challenge. You can track my progress by clicking here.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

13. ‘Endless Night’ by Agatha Christie

Endless Night marks my third time reading Agatha Christie. I started with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and fell in love with Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. The following year I read And Then There Were None, a book that is often viewed as the best of the mystery genre. Although both were crime novels, I was impressed with how vastly different one was from the other. Endless Night is another standalone Christie novel, and it provided a completely new reading experience. It’s not your traditional detective story. In fact, the crime doesn’t even occur until the final third of the book. Christie spends the majority of the novel establishing her characters and creating a disturbing atmosphere worthy of the great Daphne du Maurier. Endless Night is a fantastic thriller serving as inspiration for later domestic thrillers like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

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Until the actual crime occurs, Endless Night unfolds as a rather slow-paced love story with a gothic feel. Its narrator, Michael Rogers, is a young man born on the wrong side of the tracks. Moving from one odd job to the next, our restless narrator dreams of one day having a special house with a woman who loves him. As luck would have it, Michael stumbles upon a property auction in the country where he meets Ellie, a sweet-natured American girl who happens to be a wealthy heiress. The two soon fall in love and have a house built on the property where they met. It all sounds too perfect for the happy couple. So what if the property where they built the house is cursed, or that an old gypsy woman appears to be stalking them all the while foretelling their doom. What could possibly go wrong?

I can see why Christie named this one as one of her favorites. She spends a lot of time crafting her two main characters, helping us understand what makes them tick. The road to happiness is not a smooth one, as Michael has to deal with Ellie’s family who are not too thrilled to have a poor drifter attached to her wealth. Another source of tension is Greta, Ellie’s trusted companion whose influence leads to feelings of jealousy and mistrust. Underlying all the domestic tension is this creeping uneasiness that gradually builds over time. Christie manages to establish a strong sense of atmosphere which helps move the story along. We know something bad is going to happen, and the mystery is actually what that something is actually going to be.

Once the crime actually occurs, it doesn’t take long to get to the final dark twist. However, there is plenty of misdirection on Christie’s part as she once again proves herself to be quite the magician. Although she used a similar trick with one of her other novels, I will forgive her due to the delicious atmosphere she evokes in a truly compelling story. This is one of her lesser known novels that is worth checking out.

“Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to endless night.”

Read as my sixth book for the TBR Challenge.

3. ‘The Vanishing of Katharina Linden’ by Helen Grant

As a child, I was enamored with fairy tales. When something went missing at our house or another strange event happened, my young mind would seek out a magical explanation. There was always a bogeyman around the corner, or some other fiendish creature lurking under the bed or inside the closet. Maybe I still do feel that way to some extent. My favorite tales were the ones by the Brothers Grimm. They were so dark and disturbing, so how could I not love them? Those tales from childhood always seem to linger in the back of your mind, even when you become an adult with “proper” issues. I recently picked up The Vanishing of Katharina Linden because the description felt like a nightmare straight from a Brothers Grimm story. While not what I was expecting at all, I did find this book to be quite a charming one that emphasized how stories are used to make sense of tragedies.

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The Vanishing of Katharina Linden takes place in a small town in Germany named Bad Münstereifel, where everybody knows each other’s business and gossip tends to run rampant. The story opens with one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read:

“My life might have been so different, had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded.”

From the day her grandmother accidentally set herself on fire, ten-year-old Pia Kolvenbach is shunned and ridiculed by her classmates. Her only friend is another social outcast known as StinkStefan. Pia’s home life isn’t much better, as tensions between her German father and English mother are slowly reaching a breaking point. Her only other friend is the elderly Herr Schiller who loves nothing more than to share the local folk tales, stories of witches who can turn into cats or of the knight whose son is cursed to hunt forever. Pia’s life is forever changed following a horrible tragedy. During a festival, a local girl mysteriously vanishes without a trace. The disappearance of Katharina Linden sends shock waves through the small town as parents are now afraid to let their children roam outside. As one of the last people to see Katharina before she disappears, Pia becomes obsessed with the missing girl and believes that some type of magical cause is responsible. When other children go missing, Pia’s life moves from simple fantasy tales to an adult world of real nightmares.

Helen Grant takes her story beyond the traditional thriller by incorporating fairy tale and horror elements in the tradition of the Grimm Brothers as well as local folklore. In fact, there is a real town in Germany called Bad Münstereifel where Grant and her family lived for some time. While exploring its history and legends, she was inspired to write this novel. The result is a book that works incredibly well on both levels. The atmosphere she invokes is really fantastic. Having the story told from the perspective of a ten-year-old child also works extremely well. Her descriptions of various landmarks, from the creepy mill to the forest all contain a feel of a Grimms Brothers fairy tale. I found it all quite engrossing, from the fantastic tales told to the children to the real horror that lies at the heart of this novel.

Pia is an extremely likable narrator, and it’s easy to feel empathy for her as she is constantly ridiculed by her classmates. Her obsession with learning the truth about the disappearances becomes her only focus as her family slowly begins to unravel. Grant makes it a point to emphasize the role that stories have in our lives. From the folktales retold by Herr Schiller to the town gossip, Grant demonstrates the effects of stories on others, whether it be for good or for evil.

At times, I was confused about the target audience for this book. Although it had a very young adult feel to it, there were definitely moments that seemed written for a more adult audience. There are some moments of real horror in this story, particularly near the end once events reach their climax. I can see how Pia’s unwavering belief in the fantastic helped serve as a barrier to witnessing the true terrors of adult actions.

Another aspect of this novel that was sometimes frustrating was the continued use of actual German vocabulary that appeared throughout the writing. Grant does include a glossary in the back, but I felt like going back to look up a meaning slowed the reading down for me slightly.

For a first novel, the writing was strong. There are moments that are unsettling interspersed with others that are light and humorous. The mystery itself can come across as rather weak, but remember to not read this one for the actual thriller itself. This is a story about a child and how she manages to face the harsh realities of life. We can only hope that some of that childhood innocence remains throughout her life.

“When she vanished, it almost seemed like something from a fairy tale, as though she were one of Grimms’ twelve dancing princesses, who somehow get out of a locked bedroom every night and came home in the morning with their shoes worn to flinders.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.