Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Mystery (page 2 of 6)

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.

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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

The Secret History – Donna Tartt

Some authors manage to make a big impact, despite having a relatively small body of work. Harper Lee is one, Gillian Flynn is another – and, of course, Donna Tartt. Her debut novel, The Secret History, was first published back in 1992, and she’s only published two other books since then. And yet, she’s manage to define a niche genre (dark academia), top best-seller lists, win awards, and win herself a legion of fans around the world.

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The Secret History is a campus novel, set at a fictional(ish) elite liberal arts college in New England. I say “ish” because Tartt based it on Bennington College, where she was a student in the ’80s. (She even dedicates the novel to fellow student Bret Easton Ellis.) The story follows six classics students, who become increasingly isolated from the rest of the school community as they deal with the fall-out of a murder.

I suppose you could make an argument that anything else I say about The Secret History could constitute a “spoiler”… but really, I don’t care. It’s an iconic 30-year-old novel. Deal with it.

Besides, Tartt gives a lot away up front. The Prologue to The Secret History is a masterpiece – up there with the opening chapter of Lolita. In it, Tartt reveals that Bunny, one of the students, is dead, but the full circumstances of his death are only hinted at in the vaguest terms. It’s a hell of an opener, and it compels you to read on immediately.

What follows is a kind of inverted detective story, where the events around Bunny’s murder are laid out in chronological order, with tantalising clues about what’s to come sprinkled throughout the narrative. The narrator, Richard, is an outsider, with a very different background to the others (he’s working-class California to their old-money East Coast). He’s as enthralled by the classics teacher, Julian, as the rest of them, but still new enough to question some of the odd behaviours and habits that they all exhibit.

Richard notices that, as close as the classics students are, they seem to be keeping secrets – from him, and from each other. He’s baffled by, for instance, Henry’s willingness to foot the bill for Bunny’s extravagant tastes. Charles and Camilla seem too close, even for twins. Francis is clearly gay, but no one says or does anything to acknowledge it. All of them show up with strange injuries, hide things in closets, carry on private conversations in Greek. What the heck is up with that?

You can see how I found myself gripped by The Secret History. Something is going on in this story, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it! Tartt’s prose is exquisitely detailed, with startling revelations and intriguing mysteries. By about a third of the way through, I was pretty sure I could see where it was all going, but she still managed to weave in a couple of surprises. The tension was almost too much at times – I gave myself a headache from clenching my teeth, more than once. Plus, the chapters are looooooooong, which made it difficult to take a break. Even at 500+ pages, the temptation to read the whole thing in one sitting is real.

In the hands of a lesser writer, The Secret History would have been beyond the pale. But Tartt is convincing, too convincing, and you’ll find yourself drawn in unquestioningly as the story unfolds. Michiko Kakutani, the legendary New York Times book reviewer, put it perfectly: “It is a measure of Ms. Tartt’s complete assurance and skill as a writer that these shocking, melodramatic events are made to seem plausible to the reader as well. The bacchanal, the plotting of Bunny’s murder, the implication that Henry may in fact be Dionysus or the Devil himself: such seemingly preposterous notions are enfolded, through Ms. Tartt’s supple, decorous prose, into the texture of everyday student life, a familiar, recognizable life of exams, parties and classes.”

All the way through, I kept thinking back to Crime And Punishment. The Secret History is essentially the same story, but brought forward into the late 20th century, to All American academia. I loved Dostoyevsky’s psychological drama, too, so I guess I just have a thing for books about conflicted murderers.

The trigger warnings may seem obvious: violence, murder, death, and so on. But I also want to give a heads up for alcoholism, incest, epithets – and, of course, a couple of dog deaths 🙁 The first comes early and very brief (less than one paragraph), but the second is violent and cruel and made me feel sick.

In the end, The Secret History is as good as everyone says it is. Its enduring popularity is entirely deserved. I’ll be joining the ranks of Donna Tartt fans, hanging desperately onto hope that a new novel is coming from her very, very soon – she’s past due!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Secret History:

  • “If you wanna read a book that is close to 600 pages that is 99% rich whiney kids drinking heavily and complaining about their feelings, then this is the book for you.” – eric Beheler
  • “I can’t believe Jenna Bush Hager said this book was a pillar of literature. It is more like a cement block that all copies of this book should be tied to and thrown overboard. The author drones on and on about 5 college students who kill a fellow student and then 1.) drink 2.) smoke 3.) eat 4.) take baths and 5.) wear suits and ties and 6.) talk ad nauseum about what they have done. I can’t even figure out what decade it is set in.” – Bluetooth Rookie
  • “The most boring read of my life, and I’m a damn lawyer. I’ve read bankruptcy statutes with more zest.” – Jaye Lindsay
  • “I bought this book nearly 25 years ago and just got around to reading it. I wonder if it’s too late to get my money back?” – Shatterbox

11 Summer Thrillers and Mysteries

We tend to think of thrillers and mysteries as cold weather reads, but sometimes there’s nothing better than a page-turner to get your heart racing when you’re sunning yourself by the pool (or escaping the heat in the air-con). Here are eleven summer thrillers and mysteries that work for warmer seasons.

11 Summer Thrillers And Mysteries - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

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Liane Moriarty writes the perfect summer thrillers and mysteries, just what you need for the beach bag. Best of all, with Nine Perfect Strangers, you can follow it up by bingeing the TV series. The setting is a dream: a tranquil retreat, where (you guessed it) nine perfect strangers come together, hoping to meditate and massage their way to relaxation and enlightenment. Little do they realise the resort’s director is on a mission to do more than revitalise. Pick this one up when you want a big and varied cast, and reassurance that no picturesque vacation is exactly as it seems in photos.

The Mother-In-Law by Sally Hepworth

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Sally Hepworth writes scintillating and compelling domestic suspense. The Mother-In-Law is the perfect summer thriller to pick up if you’re spending the season with in-laws who are driving you crazy. Diana, Lucy’s titular mother-in-law, is a pillar of the community – or so it would seem. She dies by apparent suicide, but the autopsy reveals foul play. Plus, her will was changed at the last minute, disinheritng both of her children. Very suspicious, wouldn’t you say? Everyone in the family has something to hide, and Lucy might just find herself at the end of an accusation.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

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If you need summer thrillers and mysteries that will draw you in, and drown out the sounds of kids fighting or neighbours partying, you can’t go past The Silent Patient. Alex Michaelides combines “Hitchcockian suspense, Agatha Christie plotting, and Greek tragedy” in this deeply psychological heart-pounder. A woman, who seemed to be living her best life, shoots her husband five times in the face – and then refuses to speak a word. Theo Faber is a criminal psychologist, determined to unravel the truth; he’ll go to any lengths to find out what she’s hiding. But what’s driving him to pry open this particular case? Read my full review of The Silent Patient here.

Did You See Melody? by Sophie Hannah

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Did You See Melody? (also called Keep Her Safe, in some territories) is a dream-come-true summer mystery for fans of true crime and armchair detectives. Picture this: you walk into your hotel room and realise there’s been some kind of mistake, because it’s already occupied. It takes a minute until it clicks, the young girl you saw in your room is America’s most famous victim. Her parents are serving life sentences for her murder. Except, she’s clearly alive. She’s who you saw. Right? Or is your tired mind playing tricks on you? Did someone lead you to that room on purpose? So many threads to pull!

The Safe Place by Anna Downes

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What better setting for summer thrillers and mysteries than a working holiday? That’s what Emily Proudman thinks she might be getting in The Safe Place. She’s a down-on-her-luck actress with just a couple of bit-parts on her reel, and she desperately needs a change. The opportunity of a lifetime falls in her lap, working as a nanny for a woman and her six-year-old child on their secluded but luxurious French estate. Is it too good to be true? Of course it is! This woman is hiding something, and the child might be in danger. Read my full review of The Safe Place here.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars - E Lockhart - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Are you looking for summer thrillers and mysteries that you can read with your #BookTok-obsessed teen? Check out We Were Liars, one of best-sellers in the genre. The Sinclair family is beautiful, privileged, and they spend every summer on their private island together. This year, though, something is different. Cadence, the narrator, was in an accident last time she was on the island. She now suffers crippling migraines, and can’t remember anything about what happened. But now that she’s back, and everyone’s pretending that everything’s normal, her memories are starting to return. What happened? Everyone who could tell you is lying. Read my full review of We Were Liars here.

Mr Nobody by Catherine Steadman

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Okay, yes, I’m spoiled by Australian beaches and couldn’t imagine wanting to spend a summer on the British shore – but even I can concede the cool waters and biting winds are the perfect setting for Mr Nobody. This summer mystery revolves around a man who washes up, drifting in and out of consciousness, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. The media dubs him “Mr Nobody”, and everyone wants to know what happened – except him. Dr Emma Lewis is a psychiatrist who knows that solving the mystery about this man would be a turning point in her career. But what if something connects them, something she’s tried hard to keep buried?

Out Of Breath by Anna Snoekstra

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Have you ever dreamed of going off the grid? Escaping somewhere beautiful, with a bunch of likeminded people, and working on yourself away from the stresses and pressures of everyday life? Anna Snoekstra’s summer thriller, Out Of Breath, is about what happens when that dream turns into a nightmare. A sequestered community in Western Australia seems like the perfect place for Jo Ainsley to hide, and their free diving hobby is an incredible rush. But her new family is harbouring sinister secrets, and Jo has to choose between her first real home and uncovering the truth. Read my full review of Out Of Breath here.

Call Me Evie by J.P. Pomare

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New Zealand’s tourist trade is booming, but in Call Me Evie, Kate Bennet isn’t there to check out Hobbiton. She’s living in an isolated beachfront cabin with an older man – a captor, or a benefactor, depending which way you look. He calls her Evie, and tells her he’s hiding her there to keep her from the consequences of something terrible she did, back in Melbourne. That doesn’t jibe with Kate’s memories of home, of big houses and beautiful friends and loving boyfriends, but the man insists she’s forgetting the trauma she’s inflicted. Should Kate take his word for it and live out her life as Evie? Or will she recover the memory of whatever it is she did, and face up to the fall-out?

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

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The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone captures the essence of ’90s Australian summers like no other mystery novel has to date (and I say that as a reader who lived through a bunch of them in real life). Tikka Molloy was eleven years old the summer that the Van Apfel girls disappeared. Hannah, Ruth, and Cordelia all vanished into thin air the night of the school concert, and they’ve never been seen again. Years later, Tikka returns to her hometown, unable to shake the sense of dread that came with the disappearance of her friends and playmates. Did they run from the suffocation of their evangelical parents? Or were they taken by someone with sinister motives?

The Girls by Emma Cline

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Emma Cline uses one of the most infamous summers in American history as inspiration for The Girls. Drawn loosely from the crimes of the Manson Family, this stunning summer thriller follows a lonely teenager as she’s swept into a world she doesn’t quite understand. The older girls who captured her attention seem happy and carefree, living the kinds of lives she can only dream about. She’s captivated by them, thrilled to join them at their ranch, but she’s being drawn closer and closer to an unthinkable act of violence that will change the trajectory of her life forever. Pick this one up if you’re nostalgic for the ’60s but in the mood for something dark and twisty to counterbalance the sunshine.

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder – Holly Jackson

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder: what a sexy title! Holly Jackson nailed it with her debut, a young adult mystery novel that I’d call Veronica Mars meets Sadie.

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The story is framed as a high school project for Pippa, a budding Murderino. Five years ago, a girl in her local area was killed (presumably, because a body has never been recovered); Pippa thinks the wrong man was accused of the crime. Her teacher has tried to dissuade her from using this particularly horrific subject for a school project, but Pippa forges ahead anyway. The “production log” for her project becomes like a journal, recording the rest of her POV directly, while the narrative is otherwise third-person.

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder is set in the fictional town of Little Kilton (in the original UK edition, anyway). The victim of the crime that Pippa investigates is Andie Bell, a 17-year-old town sweetheart. Everyone believes that Andie’s boyfriend, Sal, is the one who killed her – but Andie’s not so sure.

What really happened to Andie Bell on the 20th April 2012? And – as my instincts tell me – if Salil ‘Sal’ Singh is not guilty, then who killed her?

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder (Page 20)

Jackson quickly establishes herself as queen of the mic-drop. Every single one of the early chapters ends on some kind of cliffhanger. First, it’s Andie approaching Sal’s brother and telling him she believes his brother is innocent, and she thinks she can prove it. Next, it’s a clue in the circumstances of the discovery of the crime. It’s a really effective way of hooking the reader in, and keeping the pages turning.

I really liked the banter between Pippa and her besties, Lauren and Cara. They’re the least infuriating teenage girls I’ve read about in a long time (which is no short order). Their dialogue was snappy, believable, and made me chuckle on more than one occasion.

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder starts to get a bit overcomplicated about two-thirds of the way through, though. There are a lot of players, and a lot of criss-crossing connections between them. Jackson did her best to feed exposition into the narrative, but the whole I Know What You Did Last Summer-element just muddied the waters too much.

I also want to lodge an official complaint about a devastating dog death, in the latter part of the book. It was needlessly cruel, and had me chasing my own puppy around the house demanding snuggles.

I did pick the “real” culprit(s?) fairly early on, so the “big reveal” at the end of A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder wasn’t much of a surprise. Also not a surprise: the sequels. All of the primary mysteries are resolved, but Jackson left plenty of stones unturned for future books. It’s now the first in a series of three novels and one novella (see: Good Girl, Bad Blood, As Good As Dead, and Kill Joy).

Apparently, BBC Three has picked up the rights to a television adaptation of A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder, and they’ve got a script and producers lined up and everything. So, keep your eyes peeled, because it’ll probably hit your screens soon.

All told, I didn’t love the dog death and at times it was A Bit Much, but A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder was otherwise a fun and compelling read, probably the best young adult mystery I’ve read in recent memory.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder:

  • “I literally stopped listening to this book so I could watch a British woman in booties play the glass harmonica on face book… This book was so poorly written I couldn’t go back to listening to it… So I watched the glass harmonica lady 2x and then tried to figure out how to get my audible credit back… Trying to get the credit back was the most exciting thing about this book.” – Phil & Mel
  • “If you have a moral compass, do not let your young teens read this.” – Mom

The Likeness – Tana French

You ever hear the premise of a book that’s just so outrageous, you drop everything to pick up a copy? That’s what happened for me with The Likeness, a 2008 murder mystery by the reigning queen of Irish crime, Tana French. It’s the second book in her Dublin Murder Squad series, but the first one to catch my eye.

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The Likeness begins in 2005, in Dublin, where detective Cassie Maddox is trying to find her balance after a major trauma on a previous case with the Dublin Murder Squad. (Okay, yes, maybe it would’ve been better to read the first book in the series first, because there was a lot of allusion to it in the early chapters, and again towards the end. But I still managed to enjoy The Likeness as a stand-alone, without that richer understanding of the narrator’s background, so it’s not a requirement per se.)

Cassie gets a frantic call from her detective boyfriend, begging her to come out to a crime scene. A dog walker has discovered a girl’s dead body – sadly, nothing unusual about that. What is unusual, however, is the young woman looks exactly like Cassie. Yep! Folks, we’ve got ourselves a doppelgänger.

Not only do they look eerily similar, but it turns out the dead girl was living under an alias that Cassie had used in a previous case while working undercover.

This is the main thing you need to know about Alexandra Madison: she never existed. Frank Mackey and I invented her, a long time ago.

The Likeness (page 3)

The similar looks and the shared alias prompts Cassie’s former boss to suggest a whacky idea. Cassie should go undercover, posing as the dead girl, to see if she can find any leads as to who might have killed her. Cassie will live in her house, attend her classes, drink with her friends – all the while keeping her eyes peeled for a potential murderer.

The premise is ludicrous, of course, but French makes The Likeness seem almost believable. She has serious literary talent, and manages to steer away from the schlock. I went in expecting an over-the-top high-octane thriller, but what I got was intense and intricate.

Once Cassie Maddox goes undercover, The Likeness has a much stronger dark academia flavour than I was expecting. All the key ingredients are there: Trinity College, literary studies, hyper-intellectual hobbies, a close-knit group of friends, an undercurrent of threat, a dark crime, secrets around every corner…

French also folds in a Gothic sensibility, with most of the action taking place in a run-down Edwardian mansion that Cassie-slash-Lexie shares with four fellow students. It has all kinds of symbolic significance, tied into the English oppression and persecution of the Irish (which also pops up in the narrative), as well as being creepy as heck.

As the undercover operation plays out, Cassie gets in too deep – of course. Has there ever been a story about an undercover cop who doesn’t? But rather than falling in love with a murderer or getting addicted to the drugs peddled by people she’s trying to arrest, Cassie slots herself into a found family. They’re more than just housemates – they’re connected by something much deeper, and much more permanent. Trust me when I tell you, The Likeness has a lot more going on than an attention-grabbing plot.

The twists weren’t shocking, but they weren’t completely predictable either. I made a note of who I liked as the killer in Chapter 2, and I was off base – not far off, but still couldn’t pick it. The Likeness isn’t a read-it-all-in-one-sitting grip-the-pages-til-your-knuckles-turn-white thriller. It’s one to pick up when you’re looking for a more complex story, one that weaves together police procedure and Gothic intrigue and psychological games. Even if the twists didn’t surprise me, the whole of the novel sure did.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Likeness:

  • “the whole concept of The Likeness is ludicrous, yet it’s written with enough gravitas and pathos as if it was a greek tragedy. Oh the anguish, the despair, the sighing and the worrying – all over a contrived plot any decently drawn fictional character would laugh their ass off over.” – Lush Landscapes
  • “If I had a dime for every time Cassie felt like she’d been kicked in the stomach, I could buy a latte.” – Renee Downing
  • “The story is very interesting, but I don’t like reading a bunch of sweat words. I don’t think that all cops sweat like that, maybe most do, but don’t like the Lord’s name taken in vain. Otherwise the writing was very well done.” – Darlene Webster
  • “Tana French is a talented writer, but she badly needs an editor or friend who will tell her when she’s wrong. She was wrong about the ending for “In The Woods” and she was wrong all over the place with this book.” – Melanie White
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