Picnic at Hanging Rock

By Joan Lindsay

Picnic_at_Hanging_RockI took a rather winding road to get this book: Nicole Cliffe, who’s newsletter I’ve recommended before, linked to a 2018 list of the 100 most influential horror movie scenes. For the longest time, I thought I didn’t like horror, since I don’t particularly like the slasher movies that were the fad when I was a teen. However, I love both old-school Hitchcock suspense and our current heyday of psychological horror, and I found the evolution of the horror genre in the article fascinating.

Anyway, the description for the film version of Picnic at Hanging Rock made me laugh: “notable for the absence of violence or even a conventionally advancing narrative.” As my friends and family can attest, I have seen (and imposed on other people) my fair share of movies lacking “conventionally advancing narrative.” I don’t have as much patience for them as I used to, so wasn’t super interested in seeing this movie, but when Bookbub recommended the novel to me the next day, it felt like fate.

And I absolutely loved it! Four schoolgirls wander off from a picnic party to get a closer look at the titular Hanging Rock, and only one returns, hysterical and incommunicative. The impressive thing is that we, the reader, are with them the whole time, too (or at least with the returning fourth girl). We ‘see’ the three girls walk deeper into the rock of their own volition, while the fourth seems to just freak herself out and run away from them. She can’t describe what happened because nothing did happen, and that’s what’s so unnerving!

There is no act of violence or even maliciousness. For a novel about the disappearance of schoolgirls, it is almost unbelievably serene. After the build up to the disappearance and then the subsequent panic of the search, the novel deals almost entirely with the ripple effects, both good and bad, this one event has on the details of daily life for the surrounding characters. It reminded me quite a bit of On The Beach, another Australian novel I loved and that focuses entirely on mundane details during a cataclysmic event.

The Hanover Square Affair

By Ashley Gardner

Hanover_Square_AffaireAnother good British mystery for free on Kindle (courtesy of BookBub, of course), though not set in Brighton this time. Captain Gabriel Lacey has returned to London from fighting in the Napoleonic wars, with military honors but very little else. At loose ends, he runs across a tragedy and alleged murder, and through a strong sense of honor and nothing much else to do, he throws himself into investigating and trying to right wrongs. (As a quick aside, I often don’t even see the covers on my kindle, so I saw it for the first time when pulling the photo for this review, and I don’t recognize a connection to any of the characters, plot, or mood, so truly do not base this book on the cover.)

The mystery is very well plotted, with complex twists and turns, and the mood is nice and noire, with a cynical protagonist battling against an uncaring world. It is that protagonist that really makes the book, though. Captain Lacey is a complex character; from a poor but genteel family, he found patronage in the army that allowed him to rise in ranks. At the time of this first novel, though, he has been injured and discharged, severed from his patron, and has no money and no real way of making it.

The mixture of circumstances has given him access to a wide cross-section of society. He rents a room in a dilapidated boarding house surrounded by prostitutes and thieves, but receives invites to society events feting any returning war heroes of note that the hostesses can get their hands on.

Additionally, he describes himself as suffering from ‘melancholia,’ and it is fascinating, though somewhat agonizing, seeing the Victorian perspective on depression. Lacey is generally thoughtful and considerate of others, until he suddenly isn’t, and is either washed away in mindless rage, or completely debilitated, pushing all friends away from him.

The thing is, I tend to avoid books that give any more than a cursory description of depression. As someone with mild depression myself, reading about other people’s struggles can bring my own to the forefront. To some degree, it sucks because I miss out on finding familiarity and understanding, but it just isn’t worth it to me.*

All of this to say I probably won’t continue with this series, though I do still highly recommend it.

*As a solid GenX-er, I’m not always as open to the new concepts coming from the millennial generation as I’d like to be. It’s also clear that I’m not alone in struggling with the concept of “triggering.” Conservative pundits love to drag out being triggered as synonymous with being offended or insulted. I myself had thought of it in terms of veterans with PTSD panicking at fireworks, and that using the term in lesser circumstances was a bit overblown. However, the truth is that I don’t like to read about depression because of the likelihood that it will trigger my depression. It isn’t catastrophic if it does happen, but it makes my life a little harder, so I avoid it, and I have greater understanding now of others trying to do the same.

Choose Your Parents Wisely

By Tom Trott

Choose_Your_Parents_WiselyOf course, the title caught my eye. It sounded cheesy as hell, but it is actually one of the most competent modern-era noir mysteries I’ve read in a very long time. Our protagonist, Joe Grabarz (the juvenile pun of his name is the weakest part of the book for me) is, naturally, a down-and-out private detective in Brighton.

My favorite thing about it, though, is that Joe is possibly the crankiest (anti)hero I’ve ever read. He has a very vague moral compass, but goes on random internal rants about everything, ranging from understandable (tourists) to completely out of left field (rice).

The story also does a very interesting plot devise, where we follow two cases in parallel. In present day, Joe investigates the disappearance of young daughter of an upper-middle-class family. This case contrasts with the disappearance of another girl from a poor immigrant family, his very first investigation years ago. The chapters jump between the two cases with very little warning, and it keeps you on your toes as a reader as the two plots weave together.

Choose Your Parents Wisely is actually the second book in what I hope will be a lengthy series, but it was a BookBub special, so I jumped on it. I enjoyed it so much, though, that after finishing it, I immediately bought the first book, You Can’t Make Old Friends. Since the second book covers two different periods in the detective’s career, this first book actually takes place between the two periods, so both chronologically after and before the sequel.

The first book even alludes to events in the second book that I think would seem confusing and out-of-place if I hadn’t read it already. The second book also refers back to events in book one, but obliquely enough that I didn’t find it distracting. The circular plotting of each book, and both books together, just make for a really unique read.

Bullet Rain

By Robert Swartwood

Bullet_RainI don’t know what inspired me to get Bullet Rain from the BookBub deal – I even had to pay a dollar for it! It is the sort of tough-guy genre that I generally don’t like: ex-military (usually sniper) loner gets coincidentally caught up in a bad situation and kicks all kinds of ass. I mean, I like a badass loner as much as the next reader, but these books invariably also have the sassy but naïve (read: dumb) young woman to be rescued by our loner, and she always gets on my nerves.

Bullet Rain checks off all of these points, and yet I still got a kick out of it, and I can’t explain it at all. I think it might have been the very first chapter, which opens with a sniper enjoying an audiobook while waiting for his target, and spends more time describing the audiobook than the gun. I figured this was probably a novel that had priorities more in line with mine than usual.

Main protagonist Nova is a recently retired black-ops assassin who is sort of aimlessly traveling across the US when his car breaks down in very rural Nevada. One of the first things we find out about Nova (in this book*) is that he is a fan of Guns ‘N Roses, and is a little embarrassed by that fact. When his car gets two flat tires, he is as annoyed as the rest of us would be to find that his cell phone has no service — and he doesn’t have any special military equipment or McGyver-esque tricks to fix this. So, as someone who both likes Guns N’ Roses, and has gotten more than her fair share of inconvenient flat tires, he was pretty immediately in my favor.

Of course, he soon meets attractive young Jessica, who of course needs his rescue, though she is then obnoxiously ungrateful for it, which I suspect was supposed to be “feminism.” She is clearly out of place in the small, rural town, and has her own hidden agenda. Jessica is ridiculously out of her depth, and I would consider her incredibly stupid if she wasn’t quite so young, and if she didn’t have a pretty solid motivation. It helped, too, that Nova himself seemed to view her similarly.

There is little romance, and while there is a lot of violence, it is not bogged down with gruesome details, so Bullet Rain is a very serviceable book that does its genre better than most.

*Bullet Rain is apparently a one-off novel about a side character from another series from the author, but I didn’t feel that I lacked any information. I don’t think it is the type of series that sets up complicated plot arcs over multiple books.

Nora & Kettle

By Lauren Nicolle Taylor

Nora_and_KettleThis is another BookBub offer, so available for free on kindle, but it is quite a bit different from the light entertainment I’ve gotten before. Amazon describes it as a reimagining of Peter Pan (Kettle = Pan), but I wouldn’t have gotten that on my own. There is no light-hearted whimsy, and the children live in anything but a dreamland. Set just after World War II, Kettle is a Japanese-American teenager trying to make do on the streets after having been separated from any family he had in the internment camps. Nora is the daughter of a wealthy but violently abusive councilman. The author includes a trigger warning at the beginning of the book for graphic depictions of domestic abuse, and she isn’t kidding around.

A minor spoiler, and additional trigger warning: a kitten is introduced briefly, bringing a spark of joy to the life of one of the peripheral characters – one of the Lost Boys, a gang of Japanese-American orphans hiding out in the subway tunnels. As soon as the kitten is introduced, I feared for its safety, and sure enough, it is killed in its next scene. That’s the kind of book this is.

The writing is very good, and I was so invested in the characters and storyline that I couldn’t put it down, but the book sort of dragged me down the whole time. As good as it is, this was not a welcome addition to a year that is already sucking ass.

More Disappointments from BookBub

Fear the Drowning Deep

By Sarah Glenn Marsh

Fear_the_Drowning_DeepThe most difficult books to review are those that aren’t really good or really bad – just all those mediocre books.

It seemed so promising! Set on the Isle of Man at the very beginning of the 20th century, it could have explored a fairly unique place and time for YA novels. Unfortunately, Fear the Drowning Deep is just really silly.

Sixteen-year-old Bridey spends the entire book careening between crises, making very little distinction between being teased by her sisters, forced to get a job by her parents, and witnessing the disappearances of various friends and neighbors. Her most consistent character trait is that she hates and fears the ocean, which is more than a little inconvenient on a small island where fishing is the main economy.* Of course everything comes back to that, and she must face her fears to save the day.

It became such a hodgepodge of fantasy elements and mundane details that I couldn’t get a good sense of whether the fantasy was rooted in actual myths from the time and place, and the book did not inspire me to do any additional research. Adding to the disconnect was the mundane details were often given far more drama than the fantastical—a sea serpent must just be dealt with, , but a nosy and judgmental neighbor can warp your entire life, apparently.

*This lead to an extra level of unbelievability for me, which was not the author’s fault. I just love the ocean so much that I can’t even conceive anyone feeling otherwise. If I could live where I could see and smell the ocean all the time, I would be in heaven!

Twisted: The Girl Who Uncovered Rumpelstiltskin’s Name

By Bonnie M Hennessy

TwistedTwisted, on the other hand, is not silly or mediocre — it is confusingly both very good and very bad, so I was never sure if I was enjoying it or not (up until the big climax, when I was most certainly not). It is a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story, which is a big part of the problem, since that story is awful. The central woman in the original story has almost no personal agency, and is tossed from man to man: her father to the king, to Rumpelstiltskin, and then back to the king, who becomes her husband.

By trying to flesh out the story and give more depth to each character, the author took on a really challenging task, but unfortunately it just highlights how awful all of the men are and how terribly they treat the heroine. Early on I told Rebecca that I couldn’t tell whether the book was chauvinist or misandrist, which is a very odd spot to be in. Set sort of indeterminately in an England-type place in an 18th-19th century-type time, the king is now a duke in this version, with neighboring lands to heroine Aiofe’s previously wealthy but now struggling family. Mild spoiler: early on in their relationship, he clumsily tries to engage with her, crowding her space and touching her without permission (very bad! men are the worst!), at which point Aiofe panics and prepares to attack with an ax she has on hand (oh…uh…I’m not sure that was a capital offense, actually).

The entire book continues this way in a very unsettling manner. Is Aiofe a competent woman who faces potential threats squarely, or an unbalanced child who brings trouble onto herself with her assumptions and over-reactions?  Is the Duke an entitled nobleman trying to break from his upbringing in order to make honest human connections, or is he a sociopath who values other people only in how they can serve him? Is Rumpelstiltskin a damaged spirit looking for acceptance and understanding, or a sulky godling who demands complete devotion? These would all seem to be pretty stark opposites and yet they somehow seemed to exist simultaneously, which made for a very unsettling read, and not in a good way.

Honestly, I felt like this book was somehow gaslighting me, which fits in with the characters pretty well, actually. By the end, the extreme amount of emotional labor that the various female characters all had to do for the various male characters really soured me on the whole thing.

Even More from BookBub

Murder at Merisham Lodge

By Celina Grace

Merisham_LodgeFinally back to actual good-quality books from Bookbub! I tried to claim that perhaps my special discrimination for these free books only worked on mysteries, but Rebecca isn’t buying it. Anyway, this is another historical mystery, set in 1930, but what really makes it stand out is that the detective duo is a couple of maids at the titular Merisham Lodge. When the lady of the house dies in mysterious circumstances, they find that their very invisibility to the ‘upstairs’ members of the household make them ideal investigators. They work with a charming and patient investigator with a refreshing lack of romance. In addition to an intriguing plot that I couldn’t guess at all, the details of the below-stairs work and lives is fascinating.

Death at the Manor

By Celina Grace

Death_at_the_ManorWhile Murder at Merisham Lodge is considered Book 1 of the series, there is a previous novella, alluded to but not spoiled in the novel, in which the two maids come across their very first suspicious death. I immediately paid a whopping $0.99 for Death at the Manor, which was quite short and not as well fleshed out as the novel, but still very entertaining and well worth a dollar.

Hushabye

By Celina Grace

HushabyeThe novella then included an excerpt for Hushabye, the first in a series of modern-day murder mysteries by Grace, featuring newly transferred Detective Sergeant Kate Redman, who must familiarize herself with her new team while investigating the kidnapping of an infant and murder of a nanny. I discovered that it was free for Kindle, as well, so I downloaded it in full and read it in about a day. The novel lacks some of the originality of the historical series, but is still very, very good, also with a plot that kept me guessing and a wide variety of interesting characters.

No Game for a Dame

By M. Ruth Myers

No_Game_for_a_DameOn the other hand, this looked really promising – a female hard-boiled detective in the 40s – but fell real short of my expectations. The 1940s setting just felt like a gimmick, with obvious and clunky references to period-appropriate elements. Also, for some extremely peculiar reason the author also kept the ugly racial terms, which I don’t like in books actually written in the 40s and which I’m not going to tolerate in books written more recently. Less problematic, but still a peeve of mine, is when so-called tough ladies are written in ways where they just come across as bitchy. True tough ladies – and I’ve known a lot – are straight talkers that don’t take bullshit, but they are not needlessly rude or aggressive, and it is a lazy cop-out to write them that way.