Before I Go To Sleep, S.J. Watson
Originally reviewed 19th January 2012
I picked this up somewhat on a whim. A couple of people had been talking about it, and I saw it in the Kindle store, and I just thought… fine, okay. I’ll go for it. I read it in about four chunks. It’s pretty riveting, actually. The unreliable narrator is reasonably well handled and as long as you’re prepared to go along for the ride, it works reasonably well. I guessed the big twist fairly swiftly, then thought I’d got it wrong, and then it turned out my first guess was right. That was pretty fun, I suppose: the guessing game.
One thing that annoyed me was a fairly big thing, though. The antagonist is a total cliché. The minute he starts talking about her being in a coffee shop, and how he scrutinised what she was eating and tried to figure out the “rules”, the ending was obvious. It’s every media stereotype. And seriously, I promise you. If you went out today, you passed a mentally ill person. Driving past you, walking along the pavement behind you, in front of you… And you were in no danger. They don’t care about whether you eat your snack before or after 2pm. They’re not going to rape you and try to kill you, then steal you from your care home and lie to you. They’re just going to buy some bread and milk, maybe some things for dinner. They’ve got a meeting later. Whatever. Most mentally ill people are perfectly normal people. And even the ones that you don’t understand, the ones that try to figure out weird “rules”, they’re probably harmless too. It’s not that there aren’t people who are dangerous and mentally ill, but mentally ill people are not automatically dangerous. In fact, mentally ill people are at a higher risk of being victims of violence, not perpetrators.
Still, clichés aside, if you’re interested in a mystery/thriller type thing that’s basically a sinister 50 First Dates (I can’t believe I’m admitting to ever having seen that), this might be up your street.
Murder in the Dark, Kerry Greenwood
Wait, what? The thing that really threw me with this book is that this is Phryne’s first Christmas in Australia?! This is the sixteenth book or so, and eventful as Phryne’s life is, it seems a little bizarre that everything that’s happened so far has taken less than twelve months. Especially given the time passing during Lin Chung’s trips and such in Death Before Wicket. And this would mean Dot’s courtship with Hugh Collins isn’t that long after all — which seems odd, having got the feeling they were going at a glacial pace!
Still. This was pretty fun, although the setting was bizarre. Not because it was Christmas-in-July-weather, though that is a weird thought, but the whole house party and the sex parties and the general sea of implied queerness; at times, I wondered if it was just going to degenerate into a story all about sex, though it never quite went there. (No more than the other books, anyway.) This time, Phryne has to deal with a serial killer, but weirdly that didn’t change the tone much.
Overall, I’d have to say I found this instalment a little uneven — it’s fun to read, but I know some of the other books are better.
Death By Water, Kerry Greenwood
Ah, Death By Water is a satisfying one, for me. For all that I love the extended family that Phryne has made, it’s also interesting to go off and meet other characters, and visit some other environs. Death By Water takes us on a cruise and has a glimpse into Maori culture, and though I’m no expert, it seems respectful and interesting. Given the setting, the Maori village and so on is a bit like sightseeing, and the non-Maori white professor who has been practically adopted by the Maoris seems like wish fulfillment, but never mind, for the most part it works.
The cast of this one is both charming and dastardly, in the right amounts, and I enjoyed watching Phryne playing each person off against the others and working out the mystery. It’s made that bit less predictable by the fact that there are new characters — we know how Jack Robinson will react to Phryne’s interference, but another detective might raise an eyebrow (and does). We know Bert and Cec are to be relied upon, but what about on a cruise ship where Phryne can’t rely on them for muscle? Etc.
It also helps that the book takes her away from Lin Chung, and though he’s referenced once or twice, he isn’t her sole interest. And the word “concubine” doesn’t occur once, also a relief (to me, anyway).
I can’t put my finger exactly on what makes this so much better than, say, Death Before Wicket, but it had the right feel somehow. And it did give me a chuckle by referencing the Attenbury Emeralds! If only the Honorable Miss Fisher would one day run into one Lord Peter… Maybe they even knew each other as kids, who can say?
(Well, I know it mentions Sayers and Wimsey as fiction in one of the books, but hush. Hush.)
Rose Cottage, Mary Stewart
Rose Cottage is a quiet mystery/romance, not too heavy on either, with no dramatics of the sort you find in The Gabriel Hounds or Touch Not the Cat. It’s all fairly quiet and peaceful; a restful sort of book, with only brief moments of unease, no madly evil people (though one at least who is very flawed), no great tragedy, and an ending that brings everyone neatly together in a perfect reunion.
Given that I’d definitely choose the word “gentle” to describe it, and the romance is just barely there in the last half, this isn’t the most pacey, exciting story. It’s a cosy one, of homecoming and heart-healing and family, needing and wanting no heroics. It’s a post-war story, but the war is just a shadow in the background; it’s a family mystery, but the important thing is not so much the mystery, the not-knowing, but almost the end of the story, when people come together.
This all might sound like faint praise, and it’s true that Rose Cottage isn’t one of my favourite of Stewart’s books. But it’s enjoyable, and especially good if you don’t want high drama, just some village life and a happy ending.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey, Peter Jones as Bunter, and Gabriel Woolf as Inspector Parker
This has never been my favourite of the books, though it does touch on some of the horrors of war (in the figure of George Fentiman) and there are some interesting moral issues — particularly because this is one of those books in which Peter chooses to offer someone a “gentlemanly way out”. On the one hand, it bothers me because the guy is basically painted into a corner: his guilt has been figured out, and now here comes Lord Peter to make him write a full confession and then gently hint that he should shoot himself, rather than face due process and be condemned by a jury. Of course, the death penalty is probably his ultimate destination, and yet… who is Lord Peter to decide? To offer a way round the law?
It’s one of those stories in which Peter is asked whether he’s a detective or a gentleman, and he pretty much dodges the issue.
The radioplay is a fun enough adaptation, though the pacing is bizarre. Just as you think it must be approaching the denouement, it turns out that no, there’s still half the story to go. It feels very odd, even when you know it’s coming.
As usual, the voice acting is pretty excellent, and there was no desperate overacting by extras in this one, either. Hurrah.
Queen of the Flowers, Kerry Greenwood
Queen of the Flowers is one of the better Phryne books, to my mind. It features pretty much all of the main cast, albeit some of them briefly: Dot, the girls, Jack, Hugh, Lin Chung and his wife, Bert, Cec, the Butlers… There are some new characters, but there’s a very personal element to this book. It explores Ruth and Jane a little more — mostly Ruth — and shows us Ruth’s roots, finally following up on her love of romances to put her in one of her own — the long lost child finding her father. Maybe.
The other plot, with the flower girls and the pageant, etc, is fairly typical and more or less unremarkable, and there are some odd moments here; for example, when Ruth is missing, presumed kidnapped, life goes on in a rather casual way. Which is rather surprising when you consider Phryne’s protectiveness of those she considers her own. It makes some sense in context (e.g. Phryne figures out that Ruth is embarrassed and staying away of her own accord after being a bit of an idiot), but it still feels wrong — especially when Phryne knows her adopted daughters have been targeted to get to her in the past, and are undoubtedly vulnerable.
And I must admit to a longing for Phryne to go after someone other than Lin Chung for once. It’s been books and books since she was with someone else — Death Before Wicket, I think? — and it feels odd. I know she loves Lin Chung, but after everything she’s said about not settling down… she seems remarkably settled. It doesn’t feel quite right, and it’s a shame whenever Phryne or another character calls her(self) a concubine. I do love the old Phryne too, much as I like Lin Chung…
The Castlemaine Murders, Kerry Greenwood
The Castlemaine Murders is a fairly typical outing for Phryne, featuring her usual liberal attitudes to sisters, queer people, Chinese people, marriage and danger. At various points, it felt like Lin Chung was more the protagonist than Phryne was — which wasn’t bad, as such, because I do like the character and his relationship with Phryne… but on the other hand, he is definitely not what I’ve read thirteen books and counting for. Watching him come into himself and act with responsibility is kind of cool, all the same, because we’ve seen him go from obeying everything the head of the family said to being the head of the family.
The rest of the mystery, Phryne’s half, is rather secondary. In a bit of convenience, the two mysteries end up tied together — which was far too much of a coincidence for my liking, considering the age of the crimes, the distance, the amount of chance involved…
Still. I’m only critical because of the books have been more than this, at times. It’s still fun, and especially for the way all the characters are developing, growing up, becoming more and more of a family.
But hey, no Bert and Cec?
Murder in Montparnasse, Kerry Greenwood
I might need to take a break from Phryne for a while — just to make sure I don’t run out of her brilliance too soon, of course. Murder in Montparnasse shows us a younger Phryne, as well as the capable detective we’re used to: a Phryne who hasn’t yet learned to read men and situations and take care of herself. It is good to see her unsure of herself, and it’s also good to follow along with the mature Phryne as she negotiates Lin getting married, and becomes friends with his wife-to-be.
It’s also nice to get both Bert and Cec and Phryne’s adopted daughters playing a part in the mystery. Pretty much the whole team is involved here, including Hugh Collins, which is fun.
I think the only drawback is that maybe I’ve been eating up these books too fast, and they’re losing some of their freshness. I think if I spaced them out more, it’d be okay; as it is, I found it a little too routine. Which isn’t bad, since this is the twelfth book and I’ve read all the eleven previous ones in quite a hurry.
In case it bothered anyone else, spoiler: the Butlers don’t leave in the end. I was very worried they wouldn’t and that the lovely found-family feel was going to be lost a little — but nope, Mrs Butler sorted things out.
Death Before Wicket, Kerry Greenwood
I’m not sure why I didn’t review Death Before Wicket when I read it, in the correct order, before Away With the Fairies. Not that it really requires solid anchoring in the continuity: most of the usual characters are missing from this book, and Phryne is totally out of her usual context. It’s, not coincidentally, not the most engaging of the books.
The worst thing, for me, is that there’s this whole magic and mysticism plot where Phryne pretends to be Isis and breaks a magical/hypnotic hold on a certain young man, and then there’s loads of sex stuff, and cricket. And weird totems and sex magic. That’s really mostly what this left as an impression on me — that and knowing that the cricket was like Murder Must Advertise, and the collegiate setting was Gaudy Night. I don’t recall it stealing any lines from Sayers as Raisins and Almonds did, which is a relief.
I would be worried about the series slumping with this one, if I hadn’t already read ahead by the time I’m writing this. It was definitely the slowest of the series so far, to my mind. I might even, possibly, suggest skipping it…
Shadow Memories, Nicholas Erik
Received to review via Netgalley
Shadow Memories isn’t a chore to read, because it has very short chapters and constant action. Unfortunately, it has very short chapters and constant action… so it’s hard to connect to the characters, and the plot comes across as very confused. Some major stuff is just skimmed right past, while an undue amount of time is spent on a guy who thinks his wife is cheating on him.
It takes too long to get to the conspiracy/alien stuff — at least in any detail — and the main POV character is just infuriating in his complaints about sleeping on the couch like his partner owes him sex just because he exists and hasn’t actively done anything annoying that day.
So, not for me. It’s pacey enough though. Some people might enjoy it.