The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffith

Publication: March 2019 (US)

Format: Library hardcover

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Reason I Chose It: I love Griffith’s Ruth Galloway mystery series, and two bloggers I follow loved it (FictionFan and Cleo.)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this engaging. I finished it in two days and felt like I really wanted to write about it while it was fresh. You may have noticed that I’ve been scarce around here for a little bit. I’m trying to figure out just exactly what I want my blog to look like. I feel like I need to shake things up. I’m really burned out on writing reviews. They’re not fun for me anymore, they’re more like homework that I want to avoid. I’ve got three finished books for the Classics Club that I’m going to try and write some mini-reviews for, but other than that I think my reviews are going on the back burner.

img_4034Anyway, back to the book. It’s told from the perspectives of three characters: divorced mom and English teacher Clare Cassidy; DS Harbinder Kaur, a detective of Indian descent who still lives at home with her parents at age 35, and Clare’s teenaged daughter Georgie, who loves books and writing but hides this talent from her mother. The setting is Talgarth High, a British high school with a so-so academic reputation and a haunted past. The novel opens with a story within the story, one that Clare teaches to her students regularly, “The Stranger,” by R.M. Holland, who long ago lived in the building where Clare now teaches. It’s a ghost story, a horror story, and it elicits chills from students year after year. Clare takes a break from discussing the story with some adult creative writing students to receive some awful news: her good friend and English department colleague Ella has been murdered. There’s a chilling detail: a line from the Holland story is found on a post-it note near her body. As the police seek the killer and suspect someone connected to the school, Clare turns to writing in her diary for comfort. Only one day she sees that an unknown person has written a message to her in her diary: “Hallo Clare. You don’t know me.”

I loved the Gothic atmosphere of this contemporary standalone British mystery. The ghost story within the story is genuinely spooky, and R.M. Holland’s life story adds another creepy element (his wife is said to have committed suicide in the building and supposedly haunts it.) The three main characters are strong and fully realized, each with secrets they keep from one another. Clare and Georgie’s mother-daughter relationship is very realistic, fraught with tension but fiercely loving all the same. DS Kaur and Clare at first are very suspicious of one another but grow into a nice mutual admiration. There are red herrings everywhere, especially after another person connected to the school is murdered. I genuinely had no clue who the killer was until very late in the book. An unexpected treat was Clare and Georgie’s sweet dog, Herbert. He plays a crucial role in the story and in their family, providing companionship and protection. This is also a book for book lovers: allusions to Harry Potter, Georgette Heyer, Shakespeare, and Wilkie Collins abound.

This was a smart page-turner, keeping me riveted and guessing until the very end. Great characters, atmosphere, and mystery. I’ve only read two other 5-star books so far this year, so I’m thrilled to add one more to the list. If you’ve never read Elly Griffiths before, this would be a the perfect place to start.

 

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Reading Round-up and The CC Spin Result

Hello friends, I hope you’ve had a good week! It’s time to do a little catching up and finally tell you what my Classics Club Spin result was.

Recently Finished Reading:

Tooth and Nail by Ian Rankin.

5519730This is the third book in the Inspector Rebus series. In this one the Inspector gets called down to London (from his home base of Edinburgh) to assist on a serial killer case, chasing a suspect nicknamed “The Wolfman.” There’s a lot about the psychology of serial killers here, and I liked how open-ended the case was right until the very end. Rankin highlights the tension between the English detectives and our Scottish protagonist. He’s not exactly welcomed with open arms. There’s a subplot about Rebus’s family, his daughter and ex-wife who live in London, and how he’s not exactly been the most present father. And another cringe-worthy romantic relationship – my least favorite element of these books so far. Rebus is kind of a screw-up in that area. I am not sure that I really like John Rebus, but he’s interesting and funny and complex and I like reading *about* him. And I’m a softie for a maverick detective. I eagerly anticipate getting to read the next installment.

Currently Reading:

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-up by John Carreyrou.

37976541I’m listening to the audio book of this from my library, and it’s BANANAS. I can’t even begin to comprehend the amount of money poured into this half-assed, shady, unethical operation. The hubris, megalomania, and privilege of Theranos’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes is mind-boggling. It’s a highly entertaining and eye-opening read. I’m ignoring my usual podcasts in favor of this book. I definitely recommend it. The narrator is nothing special, but the book is just so… wow. One heck of a story here. I’m about half way through.

Karamo: My Story of Embracing Purpose, Healing, and Hope by Karamo Brown.

43253544I’m OBSESSED with Netflix’s Queer Eye and all the guys. They are just the most joyful and kind-hearted people and their show makes me happy. So of course I’m going to read any memoir that one of them writes. (And I do like to read celebrity autobiographies.) Karamo is laying it all out there. I’m halfway through this and he’s just discussed his addiction to cocaine that nearly killed him, an interesting take on colorism and gender, and his love for his church and how he won’t let anyone cherry-pick Bible verses to denigrate who he is. He comes across just as confidently as he does on the show, and I like how he is baring all of his past mistakes honestly. I recommend this if you’re a fan of the show.

CC Spin Result:

The number chosen in Monday’s spin was 19, which means I’ll be reading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. I’m really excited to finally read this and I own a copy already which is nice. Here is the Goodreads blurb:51MDxGgSUmL

The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.

Have you read this?

What have you recently finished?

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

At night, when the sky felt even bigger, he could almost imagine it was a million years ago and he was walking on the bottom of the sea. A million years ago when a million natural events still needed to occur, one after another, to form this land as it lay in front of him now. A place where rivers flooded without rain and seashells fossilized a thousand miles from water and men who left their cars found themselves walking to their deaths.

Jane Harper writes consistently thoughtful, gripping mysteries. Her third and latest book, The Lost Man, isn’t shelved in the mystery section at my library (but I think it should be.) Taking a break from her Agent Aaron Falk series, Harper keeps the setting in Australia, this time in the sweltering Christmas time Outback of Queensland. Once again, she creates a vivid portrait of an unforgiving landscape and, in this outing, a seriously dysfunctional family.51XFkVOYqOL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

The Bright family owns a lot of land, giant cattle ranches split between the three brothers, Nathan, Cameron, and Bub. Vast distances separate their homesteads – a three hour’s drive from Nathan’s to Cameron’s, which was the original family home. The land is rather bleak and Harper once again does a wonderful job of situating her story into a very atmospheric setting. The book opens with a gruesome death – middle brother and golden boy Cameron’s body is found dehydrated and heat-stricken in the meager shadow of a local landmark, the Stockman’s Grave. His car is later found fully stocked with water and supplies and in good condition but miles away from his body. No one in their right mind would walk away from safety into the extremely dangerous temperatures of the Outback. Was it suicide? What had his state of mind been lately? Little by little, eldest brother Nathan, a divorced dad and black sheep of the family, starts peeling back the layers of the mystery. In doing so he has to relive and confront some very ugly truths about his family’s past.

I read this quickly, in just a few days, and when I had to put it down I longed to pick it back up as soon as possible. I found that Harper has a wonderful way of ending a chapter with a little revelation or a question so that I felt compelled to keep reading. In spite of the relative isolation of the setting, Harper gives the reader plenty of characters who act just a little bit shady and may have the motive to commit murder. I confess I didn’t see the solution coming. While the family dynamics at play here may seem just a shade over the top, I felt the characters were credible enough for me to enjoy the story. Nathan in particular was a compelling character, trying to break free from the mistakes of his past and the walls he’d put up in the meantime. If you’ve not read Harper before this standalone would make a great place to start. (Although there is a fun little Easter egg connection to her first book, The Dry.) Just know that she’s more of a slow burn kind of author with great attention to detail rather than a breakneck pace kind of writer. I really liked this one. 4 stars.

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

I’ve been reading some good stuff lately, y’all. These books probably deserve individual posts but I’m just trying to get back into the blogging groove, so here I am with a round-up. Let’s start with the most recently finished.

36300687French Exit by Patrick deWitt. I have a weakness for books about what I call “rich people problems.” You know, where urbanites with a lot of money and family squabbles get together and hash it all out. (Think The Nest or Seating Arrangements.) So I was immediately charmed and entertained by deWitt’s novel of a fractured family, mother Frances and her thirty-something son Malcolm. (They reminded me of Lucille and Buster Bluth from Arrested Development only not as ridiculous.) They are running out of money and are forced to make a serious life change. This novel was so witty, inventive, absurd, and went in a slightly darker direction than I had anticipated. And I loved every second of it, devouring it quickly. I’ve never read deWitt before. I’ve added his The Sisters Brothers to my TBR list.

Before that I gobbled up Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, the first Detective Rebus 634407mystery. I’d been meaning to try this series for years now and I finally felt in the mood for a mystery. I have to say that Rebus is a very tortured detective, more so than I’m used to.  I’m not quite sure that I like him, but I’m willing to read another one to see if I do. In this one he has to deal with not only a brother that is doing something shady, but a deranged serial killer going after young girls in Edinburgh. His very deeply buried past experiences may hold the clue to catching the killer. This was a quick read and I’ve checked out the second one, Hide and Seek.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was another book I’d been meaning to read for a while. Rachel Joyce had made a big impact on my with last year’s The Music Shop and I’d heard good things about Harold. I really liked it, and boy did it make me cry. Keep your tissues handy for this one if you’ve 9780812993295_p0_v1_s550x406not read it. Harold gets a letter from an old co-worker, Queenie Hennessy, who’s dying. Instead of posting his response in the nearest mailbox, as he sets out to do, he ends up walking hundreds of miles to see her, convinced that if he keeps walking she will live. I enjoyed the vicarious walk through England and getting to know both Harold and his wife, Maureen. They’ve gone through some things and not dealt with them very well, and as the book goes along it was lovely to see them both break out of old, destructive habits. This is a lovely, touching read. I added Joyce’s  The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy to my TBR list.

The best read of the year so far for me has been Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.51wuQJpliWL._AC_UL320_SR206,320_ Linked short stories, all directly about Olive or mentioning her in some capacity, this was tremendously moving and just gorgeously written. I think Strout is going on my favorite writers list, especially since in the last two years I’ve adored her My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible. The woman can write! Olive is a cranky, no-nonsense, but ultimately kind and more perceptive woman than she’s given credit for. She’s no saint, and Strout doesn’t shy away from letting the reader see her fully, warts and all. This novel provides a kaleidoscopic view not only of her but of a town full of people with secrets, dreams, broken hearts, disappointments, and hopes, and I found it masterful. I can see myself reading this again.

My February pick for the #UnreadShelfProject challenge on Instagram was American Street by Ibi Zoboi. It’s a YA novel about a young Haitian woman named Fabiola who americanstreet_wblurbcomes to the US with her mother to live with her aunt and cousins in Detroit. Only, her mother gets detained indefinitely in customs and she has to travel to Detroit without her. It’s a culture-clash novel, a coming of age novel, and a meditation on race and poverty with a heavy dose of magical realism. There’s a lot going on here. But it was absorbing and gave me a better picture of Haitian culture than I had before I read it. I didn’t love it, but I always keep in mind that YA novels aren’t really written for a 40-something woman. I think that a 14 year old could really get into this and learn a lot from it. I’m glad I finally read it and now it can find a good home at my library’s book sale in the Spring. Hooray for reading my own books!

So that’s what I’ve been reading lately (aside from The Count, of course. That reminds me, I need to start reading my next 100 pages.) Have you read any of my recent picks? What have you been reading lately?

Mini-Reviews: A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths and Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve been doing some good reading lately, although so far this weekend I’ve barely cracked open a book (gasp!) I’m about halfway through Anthony Ray Hinton’s memoir The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row and it is SO GOOD, people. This man has an amazing spirit, despite being condemned to die in an utter TRAVESTY of a trial. I need to finish it quickly, because it’s a library copy and there’s still a waiting list. It was due Thursday (yikes!) But I’m NOT turning it back in until I’m finished with it, so too bad. (Confessions of a bad library assistant.) Oh well. Both of the books I’m writing about today were also library books, written by two of my favorite authors.

The fourth book in the Ruth Galloway mystery series, A Room Full of Bones, was a good,download (1) solid read and a well-crafted piece of entertainment. Elly Griffiths has thus far written a series full of multi-dimensional, interesting characters. Even the secondary characters are delightful (especially everyone’s favorite warlock/shaman/pagan Cathbad!) In this installment, forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is trying to balance motherhood and work, gently dipping her toe into the dating world again after a long absence, and getting ready for her daughter’s first birthday. She is supposed to be supervising the opening of a coffin containing the bones of a medieval bishop. But when she arrives at the museum, she finds the young curator dead on the floor. There’s another death not too long after, someone else associated with the museum, and Ruth and DCI Nelson are once again drawn into an investigation. Aboriginal bones, cultural appropriation, ancestral curses, horse racing, and snakes all play a part in this page-turning mystery. I love how Griffiths seems to find an element of the supernatural to add to her stories, making the rational Ruth and Nelson (and the reader) question the rigidity of their views. I also love the complicated nature of the relationships in the primary and secondary characters. For the first time we see Ruth and Nelson’s wife interact on a deeper, uncomfortable level and it’s compelling stuff. I continue to really enjoy this series and am quite addicted! It won’t be long before I pick up the next book. Four stars.

downloadBarbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered was a delight. She is one of my very favorite authors. I flew through this book because I simply liked spending time with the characters. That is one of Kingsolver’s greatest strengths – she knows how to create compelling, sympathetic characters. Willa Knox is the heart of this book. She’s a free-lance journalist, a wife, mother, and new grandmother who has had to uproot her life in Virginia and move to an old inherited house in New Jersey. The college where her professor husband had tenure unexpectedly closed, leaving the couple grasping for financial security. Not to mention that they have recently taken in her husband’s seriously ill father, Nick, who is a raging bigot and fan of Fox News. Her two grown children, Zeke and Tig, have come back home after trials of their own, and Zeke is now left with a baby to care for on his own after tragedy strikes. As financial troubles mount and the house starts to crumble around them, Willa must find a way to right the ship. She starts investigating the history of the house, hoping for some kind of historical grant that would at least enable restoration.

Enter the second story line, set in the same town in the 1870’s. A young science teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, lives at the same address with his young bride, her mother, and her younger sister. Thatcher is passionate about opening his pupils’ minds to the new teachings of Darwin and other like-minded scientists, but his principal forbids it. We follow Thatcher’s journey as he comes to know his next-door neighbor, the spirited and scientifically minded Mary Treat (a real-life biologist who corresponded with Darwin) and butts heads with the town’s leader.

Kingsolver alternates the two story lines, drawing parallels between them among the forces of stagnation and progress. Both main characters are caught in times of intense change, whether it be climate change and an increasingly interconnected world or a new place for humanity with the dawn of evolutionary theory and archaeological discoveries. I was more drawn to the contemporary story line because I loved Willa so much. Kingsolver always knows how to write a mother/child relationship, and some of the best stuff is the back and forth between Willa and her independent daughter, Tig. Willa is reckoning with mistakes she made as a mother and trying to see her adult children as they really are now, not as the roles she assigned to them when they were growing up. I also love that Willa and her husband have such a physical, sexual relationship – it’s nice to see older characters explore that dimension of marriage.

Some reviews have mentioned Kingsolver’s tendency towards preachiness. At this point, after having read and loved so many of her novels, I don’t even care anymore if she’s preaching to me – the story she’s created here mattered more to me than any notion that I was being taught a lesson. I feel like Willa is representative of a lot of people in the Baby Boom generation; she’s asking legitimate questions and trying to figure out how and why things have changed so much in the last 30-40 years in terms of climate, technology, economic instability. I came away from this book with a sense of hope, which is not a small consideration in 2018. I’m torn between four and five stars for this one, but I’m going with five because I feel such tenderness for Willa and her family. (And because Kingsolver writes with such heart and sincerity.)

 

Five Sentence Reviews: Three 2018 Novels

I feel like my reading mojo is returning. I’ve been on a streak of four-star reads lately.

There There by Tommy Orange. This one made me cry. I’d never read a novel told from the perspectives of urban Native Americans before (Sherman Alexie’s reservation-centric stories 36692478were my only reference.) So many characters occasionally had me reaching back to the beginning to get my bearings. And the ways in which the characters all intersected in the end felt just a wee bit too tidy. But the passion and emotion of the writing kept me invested and makes me want to read Orange’s next book. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A sample: Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they’re winning when they say, “Get over it.” This is the thing: if you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware. What fun! This classic-style mystery with Gothic flare kept me turning pages so quickly I didn’t even take notes. You’ve got a crumbling, spooky estate, an inheritance at stake, family secrets and intrigue galore.51yGj5z3JtL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ Plus, a menacing, Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper looming around every dark corner. Highly entertaining – Ruth Ware is becoming one of my go-to mystery writers.             ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A sample: Then she turned the handle of the door and pushed.

Nothing happened.

Hal felt her breath catch in her throat, and her heart seemed suddenly to be beating painfully hard.

The bolts. The bolts on the outside.

But no – it wasn’t possible. She would have heard. Surely she would have heard? And who – why?

Transcription by Kate Atkinson. One of my very favorite authors, Kate Atkinson’s last two books utterly wowed me. This novel, a story of a young, inexperienced woman named Juliet who is recruited to be a spy for MI-5 in the early days of WWII Britain, 37946414wasn’t as magnificent in scope or in emotion as those. But it was typically Atkinsonian in that it was an entertaining mix of heavy and light, serious and witty. It reminded me a lot of one of her earliest novels, Human Croquet, in tone especially. Fans of Atkinson should definitely read this. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A sample: The brooding landscape they were currently traversing, the lowering sky above their heads and the rugged terrain beneath their feet, were all conspiring to make her feel like an unfortunate Brontë sister, traipsing endlessly across the moors after unobtainable fulfillment. Perry himself was not entirely without Heathcliffian qualities – the absence of levity, the ruthless disregard for a girl’s comfort, the way he had of scrutinizing you as if you were a puzzle to be solved. Would he solve her? Perhaps she wasn’t complicated enough for him. (On the other hand, perhaps she was too complicated.)

Thoughts on any of these? What makes the difference for you between a four-star read and a five-star read?

More Five Sentence Reviews: The Radium Girls, Ongoingness, and The Janus Stone

I hope everyone is having a good week so far. It’s August! It’s hot. I just saw the new Mission Impossible movie yesterday and it’s terrific! Non-stop action. I’m currently reading books 16 and 17 from my 20 Books of Summer list, taking my time especially with George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline because it’s dark. Very good, but dark. And, in this current political hellscape,  I can only deal with so much dark at once. Plus I’m still trying to savor short story collections rather than blazing through them quickly. But I’ve got a stack of overdue reviews, so here is another batch of Five Sentence Reviews.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore. 51GLNSdDDqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Young American women considered themselves lucky to have jobs painting illuminated watch and clock dials in the 1910’s-1930’s. They licked the brushes, dipped them in radium-mixed paint, and painted, over and over again all day. When they started falling ill, the companies who employed them disavowed any responsibility. I’m so glad the stories of these brave women (who fought back against the companies despite grave illness and horrific injury) are finally being told. But important as that is, I felt like the narrative was disjointed and repetitive – and also very sad. (3 Stars.)

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso. A 95-page memoir and exploration of the keeping and letting go of a meticulous daily diary, full of meditations on identity, motherhood, the passage of 81aIlYK3KLLtime, memory. I marked many passages, especially once Manguso became pregnant and had a child. I related to so much of what she wrote. “Before I was a mother, I thought I was asking, How, then, can I survive forgetting so much? Then I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.” (3 Stars.)

The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths (Ruth Galloway mystery #2.) I barely took any notes on this one, I read it so quickly. This mystery series is the perfect mix of realistic and cozy – not too gruesome for me to handle, but not too precious or 51+aKyKRIeL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_cutesy to be believable either. In this one forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is called to investigate a child’s bones found at the demolition site of a former Catholic children’s home and, before that, a private residence. Someone is trying to frighten her off the case, of course, and she continues to work with the attractive (and married) DCI Harry Nelson. Their bond continues to be complicated, and I am really enjoying this series. (4 Stars.)

So how has your August in books been so far? Still going with 20 Books of Summer? Have you read any of these, and if so, what did you think?

(These three books are numbers 10, 11, and 12 from my 20 Books of Summer list.)