Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Mystery (page 1 of 3)

The Cry – Helen Fitzgerald

I was truly blown away by the TV series The Cry when I caught it by chance on the ABC a few years ago. I didn’t actually realise it was adapted from a book until I came across a copy! So, even though the ending is “spoiled” for me (I couldn’t forget it if I tried, it’s brilliantly plotted), I was still eager to read The Cry and see how it unfolds on the page.

The Cry - Helen Fitzgerald - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Cry here.
(And my tears will turn to smiles if you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, I’ll get a tiny cut of the cart!)

From the blurb: “When a baby goes missing on a lonely roadside in Australia, it sets off a police investigation that will become a media sensation and dinner-table talk across the world. Lies, rumours and guilt snowball, causing the parents, Joanna and Alistair, to slowly turn against each other.”

Naturally, the premise of The Cry evokes Madeline McCann, for the tender age of the child and the worldwide scrutiny of the parents in the case, but also Azaria Chamberlain for its Australian setting. It’s a modern take on the missing child, told in the style of Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn (if you’re fans of their books, you definitely want to pick this one up).

The family at the heart of the story – Joanna, Alistair, and baby boy Noah – are embarking on a long-haul flight from Glasgow to Melbourne when The Cry begins. Joanna is a first-time mother, and the former mistress of British Labour spin-doctor Alistair. The nine-week-old child cries the entire flight, so Joanna is understandably stressed (to say the least) while Alistair remains remarkably calm and actually manages to get some refreshing sleep (typical). Joanna is relieved that when they reach Melbourne, now that the ordeal of the flight is over and Noah is finally asleep.

Of course, the ordeal is only beginning. Baby Noah goes missing, taken from his car seat while Joanna and Alistair were picking up a couple of items from a grocery store.

All of this is told from a close third-person perspective in Part 1, but it shifts in Part 2 to alternating first-person perspectives (more on that in a minute). The timeline of The Cry also shifts back and forth, from events in a courtroom where a trial is taking place back to the events around The Incident, before it settles into a roughly chronological rhythm.

The blurb doesn’t exactly advertise what I’m going to say next, so I’m not sure if it constitutes a “spoiler” – so, heads-up etc. if that would bother you.

The first-person accounts are those of Joanna, and Alistair’s ex-wife, Alexandra. The Cry actually offers a lot more insight into Alexandra’s perspective than I recall being in the TV series. She’s a natural suspect in Noah’s disappearance, if only for the fact that the reason for Joanna and Alistair’s trip to Melbourne is to fight a custody battle for a child from his first marriage. In the book, we can see more about her role in what’s unfolded and her conflicted feelings.

What’s great, though, is that The Cry isn’t a “woman v. woman” thriller. Even though there’s not much love lost between Alexandra and Joanna, Fitzgerald doesn’t pit them against each other in the sympathy stakes.

Both are harangued by the press and the public in the wake of Noah’s disappearance – though Joanna, obviously, more so. It feels sadly realistic and believable, the way that Joanna is picked apart. She’s too distraught, she’s not distraught enough, she shouldn’t smile, she should cry, what’s she wearing, why did she behave this way… It’s a public stoning we’ve seen play out all too many times.

The Cry isn’t a police procedural, so you won’t find any hard-drinking detectives declaring they’re “too old for this” or they “won’t rest until they find Noah”. In fact, the police are increasingly baffled by Noah’s disappearance (and they do a piss poor job of communicating with the parents and the public, to boot).

The ending didn’t punch quite as hard in the book as it did on-screen, but I put that down to Jenna Coleman’s incredible performance as Joanna and Glendyn Ivin’s masterful direction, rather than any fault in Fitzgerald’s writing. The Cry still has a brilliant twist (or two), no matter which way you experience it.

It’s a dark, psychological thriller with a gripping moral dilemma, perfect for anyone who enjoys a story about good people doing bad things. I really want to emphasise that The Cry isn’t just for thriller readers; anyone who likes ethical grey areas and/or the complexity of modern families will rip through it. Clearly, there’s some triggering content (child/infant loss, mental illness), but if you can cope with that, it’s definitely worth a read.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Cry:

  • “This was an interesting and puzzling story. I enjoyed the writing style of the author and the basis of the plot. What I didn’t like was the character of the mother…whiny, weak, and worn. Often, I put down books written about women who are ‘man crazy’ and lose their own souls just to have a guy pay attention to them. Plus, why did this baby cry ALL THE TIME? Take it to a Dr.” – onecarolinagal
  • “If you’ve not lived with a psychopath then you might not appreciate this book.” – Lovinavidadaluz

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

Like many readers, I picked up Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, before her debut – but believe you me, I was out the door hunting down a copy of her first as soon as I turned the final page. Everything I Never Told You is Ng’s first novel, published in 2014, and while it didn’t make a splash the way that the follow-up did, it’s still an intriguing and intense read.

Everything I Never Told You - Celeste Ng - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Everything I Never Told You here.
(Everything you buy through one of these affiliate links will earn me a small commission – don’t say I never told you!)

Everything I Never Told You begins in 1977. The Lee family appears to be average in every way – working father, stay-at-home mother, three kids and a comfortable home in Ohio. Except that their middle child, Lydia, is dead… and they don’t know it, yet.

That sounds like a spoiler, but it isn’t. It’s in the blurb, it’s in the first sentence, and Lydia’s body has been found by the end of the first chapter. So, cool your jets.

Lydia’s death forces everyone in the Lee family to reevaluate their lives, and reveals some hard home truths. As an investigation plays out in the background, they realise they didn’t know Lydia – or each other – as well as they thought. Their bright, popular, bubbly girl was in fact a ball of angst with few friends and slipping grades. It turns out, James and Marilyn Lee hadn’t done as good a job concealing their own struggles from their children as they’d thought.

Race plays a major role in this family drama. A lot of the tension stems from the fact that white regional Ohio was not a comfortable place to be for Chinese Americans in the ’70s, and mixed race families faced uphill battles on every front – internal and external. These issues have new resonance with the spike in anti-Chinese sentiment in the States (and, I’m sorry to say, other parts of the world) after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in late 2019.

Everything I Never Told You is a propulsive read, but not an easy one, if that makes sense. It’s much darker than I remember Little Fires Everywhere being, with darker themes and content. Trigger warnings, naturally, for depression, suicide, infidelity, and racism.

But Ng’s writing shines, despite the darkness – she knows just how to drag a reader’s eyes down the page. In particular, I want to call out her pithy and apt descriptions (“a woman built like a sofa cushion”, and “a florid ham hock of a man”). She has said that she spent six years working on Everything I Never Told You, writing four different drafts. Her hard work definitely paid off.

For her efforts, Ng won the Amazon Book Of The Year award of 2014, beating out the popular favourites Stephen King and Hilary Mantel. She was widely praised, by readers and critics alike, for her domestic psycho-drama and her depiction of the damage that parents can inflict on their children.

Because ultimately, that’s what this book is about: the weight of parental hopes and dreams, even (especially) the unspoken ones. Once again, I find myself eagerly anticipating another Celeste Ng novel – luckily, I won’t have to wait for long!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Everything I Never Told You:

  • “These people should have gotten some REAL problems. not the summers of their discontent. Whiners all.” – bookbabe21
  • “downer” – Marjorie E. Brower
  • “Read this if you are on an antidepressant. Otherwise, beware.” – Mimi
  • “Book was a downer. All the characters were unhappy. Nothing to be gained by reading this book. I wish the author hadn’t told us.” – katbag

Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace is a 1996 historical fiction novel by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. In it, Atwood fictionalises the story of the real life and crimes of Grace Marks. She and another servant in the same household, James McDermott, were tried and convicted of the 1843 murders of the householder Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper (slash secret lover) Nancy Montgomery. McDermott was sentenced to death and hanged, while Marks’s death sentence was commuted. Was she actually guilty, or was she wrongfully imprisoned?

Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Alias Grace here.
(And, by the grace of an affiliate program, I’ll earn a small commission if you do.)

Alias Grace begins in 1851, when the narrator, Grace, is 24 years old. She has already been imprisoned for eight years (yes, she was only 16 when all of this went down). Being a rather well-behaved prisoner, her days are spent as a domestic servant in the Governor’s home. She’s returned to prison at night.

The Governor’s wife rubs shoulders with a lot of progressive types, all of whom believe firmly in Grace’s innocence and campaign frequently for her release. Grace herself claims to have no memory of the murders, and whether or not she participated in them. She wasn’t crazy enough to remain in the Asylum, where they first took her to assess her apparent amnesia, but she’s clearly got a few loose in the top paddock. So, her advocates call in Dr Simon Jordan, a psychiatrist (psychiatry being a burgeoning field at the time, often criss-crossing with other, less reputable, disciplines), to interview her and figure out – once and for all – whether she is a murderess.

Alias Grace is styled as a quilt (quilting being a frequent motif in Grace’s narrative) of epigraphs, letters, confessions, reports, and Dr Simon’s experiences, between and around Grace’s account of her own story. Some of these are drawn from real documents about the real Grace Marks and her crimes – but the Dr Simon character and a lot of what Grace accounts is fictional. Atwood does it so smoothly, though, that you’d believe it was all one or the other.

Dr Simon gets Grace to tell him her life story from the beginning – emigrating from Ireland to Canada, finding work as a servant, and so on – with the hopes that it will trigger her memories of the murders (or at least give some clues as to why they’re absent). I assumed I could see where Atwood was going with it all – it was clear early on, to me at least, that she was going to leave us in a grey area, with no confirmation as to what “really” happened – but she still managed to squeeze in a few surprises.

Oh, and it gets surprisingly horny, too. Dr Simon loves him some Grace Marks.

I don’t think it technically counts as a spoiler to tell you that Grace is pardoned in the end (because the real Grace was too, duh). She begins a new life in the United States, with a new name and a man who returns from her past and marries her (I won’t tell you who because that would be a spoiler – there are a few contenders).

Atwood wraps things up with a detailed Afterword, explaining what is fact and what is fiction (see above) through Alias Grace. I was interested to see that she originally encountered the story of the real Grace by reading Life In The Clearings Versus The Bush by Susanna Moodie. Atwood absolutely savages Moodie in the text of Alias Grace, wasting no opportunity to point out that her account of the crimes and Grace’s demeanour were absolute bullshit (ahem, gross over-exaggeration, I mean).

One of the aspects I really loved was Grace’s position, as a servant. Nearly every historical fiction novel around this period seems to focus on the lords and ladies, the wealthy and privileged – it’s one of the reasons I tend to shy away from the genre. I always find myself wondering what stories aren’t being told, the men and women who empty the chamber-pots and wash the shirts and cook the meals. Alias Grace finally gave me the insight I was looking for.

Alias Grace is a fascinating and compelling work of historical fiction, one that tells us just as much about Canadian society and gender roles and the field of psychiatry at the time as it does the crimes of Grace Marks. I also loved the sneaky Gothic elements, which felt very true to form for a story of this nature. This book both satisfied my Murderino curiosity and met high literary standards – no mean feat, as it would have been easy to make this story schlocky and scandalous. Atwood has expressed some troubling views of late, but damn if she isn’t a masterful storyteller.

Lanny – Max Porter

Did you ever pick up a book in spite of yourself? I was never really all that drawn to read Lanny – despite the endless glowing recommendations from fellow readers and Keeper Upperers – until I heard Max Porter give a reading at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The organisers called Lanny “a tapestry of fabulism and domestic drama”, and even though I was skeptical, I couldn’t stop myself from picking up a copy.

Lanny - Max Porter - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Lanny here.
(It’s an affiliate link, which means I’ll get a small commission, and you’ll get all of my gratitude!)

Lanny was first published in 2019, the follow-up to Porter’s cult success Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. As in his previous novel, myth and modern life come together through the eyes of children. The titular character, Lanny, is an every-child, with all the oddity and gnomic wisdom we expect from these miniature humans.

Lanny is a remarkably short novel, quick to power through and with lots of white space, but it seems to contain multitudes: magic, suspense, horror, joy, and wonder. Porter really pushes the boundaries between prose and poetry, but it’s hardly one of those highly-literary Experimental Novels that make you feel like you’ve just dropped far too much acid to understand. It’s compulsively readable, and even the dullest among us will be able to pick up what Porter is putting down.

The story is told in three sections. The first switches between four narrators. We’ve got Dead Papa Toothwort, a spirit of some kind who watches and listens to a small English village. Then, there’s Lanny’s dad, an office worker in London. And there’s Lanny’s mum, a crime writer with ambivalent feelings about their suburban life (there’s no ambivalence about her love for her son, though). And, finally, there’s Pete, a local eccentric who was once a famous artist; Lanny’s Mum seeks him out, and he starts giving Lanny art lessons.

Through these grown-up eyes, Lanny emerges: idiosyncratic, silly, and sometimes wise beyond his years. He builds things, talks to trees, and baffles just about every grown-up he encounters. His relationship with Pete, the artist, deepens quickly. Pete was actually my favourite narrator, and my favourite character overall.

“I can usually see a way to understand terrible things; Satanic worship, decaffeinated coffee, cosmetic surgery, but Renoir’s portrait of Madame de Bonnières? No. It cannot be understood or forgiven. And framed in gold plastic and spot-lit from above? No offence intended, Charlotte, there is not a chamber of hell hot enough for a woman of your taste.”

Pete (Page 68)

Lanny reveals in conversation with Pete that the mysterious Dead Papa Toothwort is a local myth, a man made entirely of ivy. The rhyme goes: “Say your prayers and be good too, or Dead Papa Toothwort is coming for you,”. Lanny could have been told without Dead Papa Toothwort’s perspective, but it adds a layer to our understanding of what Porter is trying to do with the story. Lanny isn’t just about one mildly interesting kid; it’s about England, and small town politics, and perspective.

Toothwort allows the reader to “ride the smells” of the town (including Jenny’s lasagne, and Derek’s hot-pot-for-one – yes, your mouth may water a little). The snatches of conversation he draws from the town are formatted differently to the rest of the narrative, curling across the pages in at-first-glance nonsensical italics. The topics are just what you’d expect from small-town conversation: dog walks, cancer scares, mini-breaks, local gossip… And Toothwort’s commentary on it all serves to remind us just how small, and simultaneously how large, our lives are.

The second section is told in snippets of internal dialogue. (Spoilers ahoy!) Lanny goes missing, and the whole town (mostly) joins in the search for him (eventually). Many of the insights come from Lanny’s distraught mother; Porter will really do a number on you, if you’re sensitive to this kind of thing, with the way he lays out her terror and guilt. Then there’s Lanny’s father, who doesn’t feel as close to the child, and the sneaky little voice in his head who wonders if they’re not all better off with the kid gone.

Dead Papa Toothwort’s perspective interjects occasionally, but he takes a back-seat to Pete, who is accused of abducting and/or assaulting the child. The village shows its true colours in the witch hunt; Pete is beaten (and my heart broke for him more than it did for Lanny, if I’m honest), but he maintains his innocence and his determination to help Lanny’s parents find the boy. He’s made a scapegoat, purely for the fact that he chose to colour outside the lines when he chose how he wanted to live his life, but he holds his head up high and fuck the lot of them (I told you he was my favourite!).

The third section gets a little a lot weird. The best way I could describe it is a series of feverish dream-like explanations of what has happened to Lanny, and what his parents and Pete make of it. I suppose, given that I’m already elbow-deep in spoilers, I’m obligated to tell you that Lanny is found safe and (relatively) well, having been fed and watered by Dead Papa Toothwort on his adventure… but beyond that, I’m really not sure how to describe the ending to you. You’ll just have to read Lanny for yourself.

Lanny is a short book, as I said, but it’s “about” so many things. There are as many interpretations as there are readers. For me, it was about an innocent man harangued and almost hanged by a small town, but maybe you’ll find in it a book about nature, a book about a child’s sense of wonder, a book about parental obligation and fear, a book about a town ghost, a morality tale, an environmental allegory, a hybrid fairytale, a freewheeling fantasy. I’m not sure I could recommend Lanny blindly, because it’s so weird, but I’d welcome the opportunity to talk to others who have read it (that’s a hint to tell me what you think in the comments, by the way!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lanny:

  • “Probably didn’t like the book” – Amazon Customer
  • “Just because you can change the orientation of your font doesn’t mean you’re doing something creative or cutting edge. Mush like A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, the author is so obsessed with how amazing and creative they are, they fail to tell a fundamentally sound story. Inside cover says $24 for a book that can’t break 20,000 words. There seems to be a trend in the vein of Pirate Utopia where an established author shovels overpriced garbage and tricks loyal readers into buying their hot trash.” – LJ
  • “Having trampled “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Mr. Porter now turns his oh-so-clever combination of full-on thesaurus assault, “whimsy,” and “never use seven words when forty-nine words would do just as well” on the Green Man legend. Yeah… no, Max. No.” – L. Chaney
  • “Very odd book. Doesn’t take long to read would be its only plus.” – Miss Sara Claire Mason

Sadie – Courtney Summers

Well, Keeper Upperers, last year I asked Santa for a big stack of books – and boy, did he deliver! Sadie by Courtney Summers came via my wonderful and dear friend Cathal, right into my hot little hands. This one has been near the top of my wishlist for ages, so I couldn’t bring myself to wait another minute before tearing in to it.

Sadie - Courtney Summers - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Sadie here.
(If you do, you’ll keep Santa’s love coming my way, in the form of a tiny commission – thank you!)

Sadie is Courtney Summer’s break-out novel. She’s written several other books prior, but this is the one that catapulted her to international attention and #bookstagram fame. What brought it to my attention was the killer premise: a modern twist on a murder mystery, partly styled as a podcast transcript.

The story begins with the discovery of a body, that of 13-year-old Mattie Southern, in a small run-down town in the middle of nowhere. She is survived by her 19-year-old sister, Sadie. Right off the bat, I liked the way that Summers was thumbing her nose at the tropes by naming her book after the living protagonist. When was the last time you read a crime novel with a titular girl who wasn’t dead?

That’s your first hint that Sadie is cleverer than it might first appear. Summers also lampoons the true-crime trend of middle-class butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-their-mouths white blonde victims. Mattie and Sadie are from the wrong side of the tracks, their fathers are long gone, and their mother decided she preferred drugs to home-cooked dinners. Sadie and Mattie have had to forge their own way, living in a trailer with only their landlady for support.

West McCray – a radio journalist – overhears the tragic news of Mattie’s death while he’s working on another story nearby. At first, he doesn’t think much of it (another dead girl? that’s sad, but it’s hardly a story). Then, he hears from their landlady: Sadie has gone missing, just months after Mattie’s death. That’s the impetus for his podcast investigation, what hooks him (and us, the readers): what happened to the girls?

So, one side of the story is told by West, as he investigates – through interviews and sticking his nose everywhere it doesn’t belong – and the other side is told by Sadie herself. It’s a really interesting way of piecing the story together: each protagonist knows things the other doesn’t, and even without the high-stakes plot, you’ll find yourself desperate to find out what happens when their stories catch up to one another and intersect.

Summers also nails the podcast transcript, I must say. It’s very clearly modelled off cultural staples like Serial and This American Life. As I read, I couldn’t help but “hear” most of it in the soothing tones of Ira Glass. It got a little trite towards the end, maybe a little “neat”, but overall it holds up. I read in another review that apparently there are actual recorded episodes out there, which I’m curious to track down.

I think it’s also really powerful that Sadie is given her own voice, the opportunity to tell the reader her own story. Had the whole lot been narrated by West and the people he interviews, a lot of the complexity and intimacy would have been lost. She reveals pretty early on where exactly she’s gone “missing” to: she’s on the hunt for the man she believes killed Mattie, and she plans to give him a taste of his own medicine. She also has a stutter, which makes her internal monologue particularly powerful; what she’s not able to physically say out loud, she can share with us.

Being a crime novel, styled as a true crime podcast, there’s obviously some pretty gruesome stuff (if you’re not a true crime junkie, it’s probably worse than you’d imagine). So, here’s a content warning for violence (duh) and child abuse. Though Courtney Summers’ books are classed as Young Adult, I really feel that Sadie could have been published and marketed as adult crime fiction without raising an eyebrow.

The ending isn’t exactly happy, though it does provide enough resolution that the story feels finished. I knocked it over in a single afternoon. I’d say it’s the perfect book for fans of Veronica Mars.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sadie:

  • “It was pretty ok!” – Lauren A Woods
  • “Wtf” – User
« Older posts