Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Mystery (page 1 of 6)

The Woman In The Library – Sulari Gentill

I missed The Woman In The Library when it first came out in 2022, but I was thrilled to be invited to join the Ultimo Press readalong in the lead-up to the release of Sulari Gentill’s next novel (The Mystery Writer, out next month!).

I don’t want to overstate things, but I think The Woman In The Library is going to be one of the best books I read this year. It’s a meta-fictional mystery, a book-within-a-book, with two puzzles playing out on the page. This twisty and mischievous novel was a true delight to read.

Hannah Tigone is a crime writer, working on a novel that begins in the Boston Library. Four strangers get to talking after a woman’s scream in the next room breaks the silence. Later, they discover that the woman who screamed was murdered – could one of them be the killer?

Chapter by chapter, Hannah forwards her work-in-progress to her writer friend Leo, who is struggling to sell his own manuscript and hopes that providing feedback will stimulate his creative juices. As the story plays out, you’ll realise that Leo might not be exactly what he seems…

The Woman In The Library has whiffs of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Nothing Man, but with an alchemy that seems entirely Gentill’s own. The big clang comes on page 132, and from there it’s a thrilling ride all the way to the finish. I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough – and my breath could not be more bated for The Mystery Writer!

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Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

Reservoir 13 begins like any dime-a-dozen missing-girl mystery novel. A teenage girl on holiday with her family in England goes missing. The whole town turns out to look for her, and the news dominates the headlines… for a while. No trace of her is ever found. Do you think you know what happens next?

Reservoir 13 - Jon McGregor - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Does a hard-boiled heavy-drinking detective take it on as one last case? Does a plucky local teen become obsessed with the story and start a podcast? Does a family member or friend take justice into their own hands and set out on a vigilante mission? Nope! McGregor is up to his old tricks in Reservoir 13, turning your expectations on their heads.

You’ll learn next to nothing about the missing 13-year-old, or her family, or the detectives investigating her case. They all remain unnamed peripheral figures, going about their business in the background of the plot. Instead, this is the story of the town, a community disturbed by a tragedy in its midst but carrying on in its wake.

The narrative perspective is very removed. You experience Reservoir 13 as the town, rather than as any specific character within it. The story moves quickly, too – six months passes in the first twenty pages, a year in each chapter. It stretches out thirteen years, a neat little allusion to the age of the missing girl that sparks it all. People move to town, people move away, people get married and die, kids are born, businesses open and close – it’s all captured in McGregor’s tale.

McGregor’s writing style is a bit unusual, and quite ambitious (you can tell because he never uses punctuation marks for dialogue, ugh), but it still reads smoothly. I had to double back once or twice, to keep pace with the changes in direction and focus, but it’s surprisingly well done on the whole.

The tone and vibe of Reservoir 13 land somewhere between Max Porter and Evie Wyld. There are strong echoes of traditional pastoral novels, with lots of descriptions of local flora and fauna, the changing of the seasons and the impact of the weather. It’s quiet and intimate, but there’s a lot of water running deep in this still river.

In case I haven’t made it clear, I’ll state it plainly for the record: there are infuriatingly few clues about the girl’s fate, all the way to the end of Reservoir 13. Spoiler warning, or whatever, but I don’t think it’s a shock to say that he gives us no answers, not a one. The father is arrested for arson about a decade after his daughter’s disappearance, and the school caretaker is prosecuted for possession of child pornography in an apparently unrelated case, but there is no firm resolution for what’s ostensibly the central mystery of the book. Of course, that’s the Point(TM), but it’s still annoying if you’re a completionist type who hates ambiguity.

All told, Reservoir 13 is a quiet, creeping bummer of a book. It’s a well written one, masterful in fact, but a quiet, creeping bummer nonetheless. Another reviewer called it ” a chilling meditation on time, and loss through change”, if that gives you a better idea of what you’re in for, but either way your heart probably won’t be warmed by this one. We all die alone, or we disappear without anyone ever figuring out why, and you should probably have a bottle of wine ready for when McGregor finishes explaining those depressing truths to you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Reservoir 13:

  • “Joyce pranked us all with Ulysses and now McGregor is playing the same game, banking on the critics’ gullibility. Frankly there are better ways to pass your time…” – Thomas M. Elder
  • “This may be the most boring book in the universe. I stuck it out until the end and it wasn’t worth it. “Lyrical,” no it’s slow and overly liberal with descriptions of the environment. I disliked this book so much i was motivated to write negative reviews on multiple websites.” – Jeff
  • “More characters than the bible – less interesting than Countryfile – who on Earth wants to read that “it looked like rain”, “John raised his hat to Jane” and “a Blackbird rooted about in the leaves under a hedge”?” – Sony Victim
  • “Words fail me… as they so obviously did in the writing of this awful novel.” – Jeff

The Silent Patient – Alex Michaelides

If you’re not intrigued by The Silent Patient, I don’t know how to help you. You’re certainly the exception rather than the rule. It debuted in 2019 at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List, and went on to win the Goodreads Choice Award (Mystery & Thriller). Even now, years later, it remains a #BookTok darling and I still see it all over #Bookstagram. So, naturally, my curiosity was piqued.

The Silent Patient - Alex Michaelides - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Michaelides has said he rewrote the draft of The Silent Patient about fifty times before locking it in. I suppose he was trying to mix the strange bedfellows of his influences in just the right measure. He drew from the Athenian tragedy Alecstis for the plot, and Agatha Christie novels for its structure and tone. That should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect.

The story begins with a forensic psychotherapist, Theo, drawn to the case of a woman at a psychiatric facility called The Grove. She has not spoken in over six years. Theo finagles his way into a job there, convinced that he’s the only one who can reach her and find the real reason for her protracted silence.

The crime? Well, it’s a doozy. One day, Alicia shot her husband Gabriel repeatedly in the face, and then cut her own wrists. There was no financial motive for the crime, and no apparent conflict in the marriage. She hasn’t said a word to anyone in the years since, not even in her own defense. The judge sent her to the asylum instead of jail, on the grounds of diminished capacity (that’s “insanity”, to our Law & Order watchers), but her elective silence has endured even the staff’s best efforts and powerful psychotropic medications.

So, you’re curious, right? I sure am! I dove headfirst into The Silent Patient, desperate to find out why Alicia wouldn’t speak. It’s easy and interesting reading, and reminds me very much of Don’t Say A Word (one of the few psychological thriller films I’ve seen more than once). I think Michaelides’s background as a screenwriter shines through; he knows just how to set up a story to hook the audience, and pace it out to keep them there. It turns out he also spent a bit of time working at a secure psychiatric facility for teenagers when he was a student, which gives the setting a ring of authenticity.

As The Silent Patient progresses, you realise that both Theo and Alicia have been victimised by a nameless, faceless man in their lives. For Alicia, it was her stalker. For Theo, it was his wife’s lover. As the man gets closer to each of them (which feels like it’s happening in real time, with extracts from Alicia’s diary punctuating Theo’s timeline), the tension rises to almost unbearable heights. Is it just therapeutic countertransference between Alicia and Theo? Or are they actually connected?

If you plan on reading The Silent Patient for yourself, this is where you’re going to want to stop. If you’re just here to get some answers or you don’t give a shit about spoilers, work away.

Alicia finally does speak, around page 270 (in my edition). The Big Shock Twist(TM) comes about 30 pages after that. It turns out, Theo hasn’t been completely clear with the reader about the timeline of events. He’s led us to believe that his wife’s affair has been concurrent with his treatment of Alicia, but actually it happened six years prior – yep, in the lead-up to Alicia murdering her husband. Alicia’s husband was the one sticking it to Theo’s wife, and Theo was the one “stalking” her, figuring out how to insert himself into her life and reveal to her the truth of her husband’s infidelity. He basically goaded her into murdering her husband, and then tries to kill her once she starts speaking again so she can’t dob him in. He gets his just desserts, though, because Alicia magically manages to scribble out one last diary entry pointing to him as her killer.

Looking over that paragraph, it all sounds a lot more complicated than it felt as I was reading The Silent Patient. I suppose the frequent allusions to Greek mythology and the clues that Michaelides peppered throughout the novel made it all feel quite natural and inevitable as it played out. So, this might be one you just have to read for yourself to form a complete picture. I’m not sure it *quite* lives up to the unbelievable hype, but it’s definitely a decent, pacy read for the next time you want some twists and turns in your literary life.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Silent Patient:

  • “The author did as much as he could to wreck the plot, and he succeeded.” – Donna
  • “Yet another “bestseller” glamorizing a psychopathic man-baby who deals with infidelity by torturing and killing innocent women.” – Dave
  • “OOOOh, how mysterious! Why is the patient silent? She likely didn’t want to be included in this boring novel. But she had no control, poor thing.” – frances henry

I Saw A Man – Owen Sheers

I’ve been curious about I Saw A Man ever since I heard Annabel Crabb rave about it on the Chat 10 Looks 3 podcast ages ago. It took me a couple of years to come across a copy, then a few more to finally get around to reading it – but I’m so glad I persisted.

I Saw A Man - Owen Sheers - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I Saw A Man starts out as a love story between Michael and Caroline, two adventurous journalists who have reached the point where they start to think about “settling down”. They are tragically torn apart when Caroline is killed in a drone strike while filming a documentary in Pakistan. Michael, bereft, moves to a small London apartment to try and re-start his life. Not ready to fully face the world, he finds himself growing close to his neighbours, the Nelsons: Josh, Samantha, and their two young daughters.

The Nelsons appear to have a perfect marriage, but Michael grows close enough to them to see the cracks. Josh is a work-hard-play-hard banker at Lehmann Brothers (bear in mind, this story is set in 2008), and Samantha is stifled and resentful of her domestic servitude. Both love their daughters deeply, and appreciate Michael as a buffer in their strained relationship.

Then, the unthinkable occurs, and everything changes.

Normally, I’m happy to blow past any concerns about spoilers to tell you the full story – but the twist in I Saw A Man is so powerful, so brutal, and so laboriously built up, that I’ve decided to hold back this time. Unfortunately (or fortunately, maybe, if you’re hate-reading this) it makes this review a short one, as there’s not a lot more I can say without revealing too much.

Sheers is prone to extended detours in his telling of this story, with accompanying shifts in timeline and geography. I Saw A Man stretches over years and continents, expanding and contracting until the nature of the catastrophic event is revealed about half-way through. The remainder is a bit more straightforward, running parallel to the fall-out and pursuit of redemption.

I Saw A Man isn’t a thriller, but it’s every bit as tense and gripping. It penetrates far more deeply than your standard paint-by-numbers airport novel, though. Sheers interrogates the psychology of trauma, the capriciousness of chance, the weight of grief, and the morality of complicit silence. Plus, it there’s a clever turn towards the meta at the end. If you’re looking for a pacy whodunnit to read on the beach, this ain’t it.

I think I Saw A Man would be a good pick for fans of Ian McEwan’s Atonement era, but I must say I enjoyed it much, much more than anything of his that I’ve read so far. Sheers takes McEwan’s preoccupation with moral dilemmas and shaves off all the flowery language, leaving us with a far more frank and brutal narrative. Of course, that’s not for everyone, but it certainly is for me.

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Saw A Man:

  • “This book is a long succession of uninteresting events that happen to extremely uninteresting characters narrated in painstaking detail.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Turgid tosh.The rave reviews are exceptionally misleading.” – john anthony
  • “the prose is great. Pass the Prozac.” – Rick Mitchell

The Dry – Jane Harper

I was feeling increasingly ridiculous being an Australian reader who had not read a single Jane Harper novel. She’s one of our biggest authorial exports of recent years, up there with Liane Moriarty. Her novels are crime thrillers set in regional areas – real “small town with a dark secret” stuff – and they’ve won more awards than you can poke a stick at. I decided to start with The Dry, her debut novel first published back in 2016, which went on to sell over a million copies.

The Dry - Jane Harper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a fictional town five hours’ drive from Melbourne. It’s an El Niño summer (like the one we’re predicted to have later this year), and severe drought has hit the town hard. A farmer, Luke Hadler, shot his wife and son in cold blood, before turning the gun on himself – or so it seems. Most of the townspeople are happy to assume that it was the last desperate act of a depressed man driven to the brink, but Luke’s parents think something more sinister might be afoot. After all, why would Luke leave his 13-month-old daughter unscathed?

They call in Aaron Falk, Luke’s childhood friend, who now works as a financial crimes cop in the big smoke. Falk’s not overjoyed to be returning to his hometown, after he left amid scandal as a teenager. He thinks he’s just going to attend the Hadler family funeral, shake a few hands, and be on his way. Of course, they reel him back in, and he finds himself working with the local cop to find out the truth of the Hadler deaths.

All of this suggests that The Dry is a quintessentially Australian story. There have, after all, been several tragic murder-suicides along these lines in regional communities over recent years, and anyone who’s spent more than a minute in a drought-affected area can tell you that it’s thoroughly believable.

You can understand, then, why I was a bit put off by Harper referring to a Hill’s hoist as a “rotary line” in the Prologue. I have never, in my whole life, heard an Australian call it anything other than a Hill’s hoist. What the fuck is she playing at? There were also flies eating the freshly-shot corpses of the Hadley family, but honestly I found that less disturbing than the patois fail.

Aside from a few qualms like that one, The Dry is remarkably well written. The prose is taut and evocative, a step above Liane Moriarty in my view (though it would certainly appeal to readers who like her books). Take, for instance, the way that Falk is lured back to Kiewarra – he receives a note from Luke’s father that reads “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.” In context, it struck just the right ominous note, compelling you to read on without over-egging the pudding (as first-time thriller writers are wont to do).

I will concede, though, that most of the plot twists were very predictable. At one point, I literally shook my copy of The Dry and said – out loud – “ISN’T IT OBVIOUS?! HE’S GAY!” as the obtuse characters stumbled around, stymied by their own terrible gaydar. Given that Harper has nailed the “voice” for her thrillers, I’d imagine she’ll come around to better plotting with time.

(Because this is My Thing now, I will give a trigger warning for a dog death: it’s just a mention, a sad one, but very brief and the dog doesn’t actually feature as a character.)

I can totally see why they cast Eric Bana as the lead in the film adaptation of The Dry. He’s the perfect Aaron Falk, exactly as you’d picture him. I’ll definitely be watching it, as soon as I get a chance, now that I’ve read the book. When it was finally released (after COVID-19 delays) in 2021, it broke box office records, becoming one of the highest-grossing Australian film opening weekends ever. If I’m honest, I’m more excited for movie night than I am seeking out any more of Harper’s books. The Dry was good, mostly, but not so good that I simply must read more.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Dry:

  • “I do not like to read about the shooting of rabbits and all kinds of cruelty to other animals. I know the people in the town it takes place in do it to survive and feed their families but I still don’t want to read about it. The villain was no surprise either. I guessed it was him by about the second time his character was introduced. No, I am not that smart. It was just obvious.” – Sabrina
  • “Found this dry all around. Main character dry. Supporting characters dry. The weather was dry…but I only felt it when it was directly mentioned.” – thom coco edwards
  • “It was a laborious read and I forced myself to get to the end. The mist “gratifying” part of the book was deleting it from my kindle.” – An Avid Reader
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