December into January Stories
Mysteries read closing out 2022 and beginning 2023
As January is racing by, it felt like time for our latest reading roundup.
Given that December was spent either sick in bed with Corona (first half of the month) or visiting with family (second half), I’m stunned that I read as much as I did. Part of the reason there are so many books this time around is that a whopping four are rereads, given that was as much as my corona brain could handle. Those four are a complete series, so I’ll group them as one.
Here’s the December to mid-January list:
A Study in Charlotte, The Last of August, The Case for Jamie, A Question of Holmes, Brittany Cavallaro
Counterfeit, Kirstin Chen
A Restless Truth, Freya Marske
The House in the Pines, Ana Reyes (discussed with the author on the OM podcast)
The Hunter, Jennifer Herrera (interview on the OM podcast coming soon)
Here’s what I thought and learned from each of these books:
Let’s begin with the series:
I first read Brittany Cavallaro’s series in 2019, and was surprised it had been so long when I picked up A Study in Charlotte to reread it. The story and characters had stuck with me clearly, and yet I enjoyed returning to the world.
The premise is that Sherlock Holmes and James Watson are real people rather than fictional characters and in the present-ish day, their descendents Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson end up at boarding school together.
The two display many characteristics of their relatives (Jamie wants to study creative writing; Charlotte has already consulted with Scotland yard by the time she reaches her teens) and inevitably team up when things go pear-shaped at their school.
This concept could easily become trite or tired, but it doesn’t, given that Cavallaro is a talented writer and a poet, so the language feels fresh. The mystery in each book is twisty and clever and fun to follow. There is, of course, a Moriarty element in these as well. If you’re a Holmes lover and don’t mind teen characters, albeit quite mature ones, I expect this would be as much of a treat for you as it was for me.
As with the last time around, I was sad when they were over and impressed by the author’s ability to construct a realistic ending that was a believable one given the arc of the characters.
Strictly speaking, I’d call this one a psychological thriller instead of a mystery, as there wasn’t a central case to solve, per se. However, the author’s approach to point of view and her method of telling the story could be quite effective in a mystery as well, so I include it as I found it gave me multiple ideas about POV and structure.
This book opens with the monologue of Ava, describing her meeting with her once college roommate Winnie who, according to Ava, is a criminal mastermind who tempted and then bullied her into committing theft and fraud.
This monologue is in second person, with Ava confessing to the police about how she worked for Winnie buying high-end designer handbags (the ones that cost as much as a car), copying them, returning the copy for a refund, and selling the original separately.
We spend nearly half the book with Ava, hearing how her tightly wound life unraveled once Winnie appeared. Then, in part two, we get to hear things from Winnie’s side and learn that all isn’t as it first appeared.
Whether you enjoy this book will be based on how you feel about “unlikable” characters. I struggle with this description, mostly because it’s usually applied to female characters. Female characters don't need to be honorable or particularly likeable. I bought their motivation and found both these women intriguing.
However, what disappointed me was that after Chen set up some very well-executed twisty moments, it felt like she was going for a twisty ending, which didn’t ultimately end up that way. Was I rapidly turning pages until the end? Yes. Was I a little sad I didn’t get a big twist when I got there? Also yes.
If you’ve read this one, I’d be very curious to hear your thoughts.
I adored A Marvellous Light so much that when I finished it, I simply went straight back to the beginning and read it a second time, a phenomenon that had happened only once before in my reading life.
Needless to say, this gave me high hopes for Freya Marske’s second book. It disappointed me to hear that it would not have the same main characters, but shift to one main character’s sister. However, she had me at hello when I learned it would take place on an ocean liner. I was further delighted when she threw in a murder right in chapter one.
This is, essentially, A Fatal Crossing, which I discussed last month, but with female main characters, LGBTQIA+ representation, and a world that includes magic. I found this book to be vastly more to my taste.
Magic isn’t the only reason this book succeeds in ways I felt A Fatal Crossing fell short. In A Restless Truth, Marske manages the ocean liner setting deftly, varies the interrogation scenes with skill, and squeezes far more juice out of the ship setting, whether or not magic is there (but those scenes are so delightful, I can’t imagine losing them). While I began this second installment reluctantly, I was a convert by the end, even if I wasn’t so ensnared that I immediately had to read it all over again. The countdown is now on until Marske finishes book three.
The House in the Pines is another that could comfortably sit in the thriller or the mystery sections of the bookshop. At the beginning, a woman dies on camera in a clip that goes viral online, where the main character sees events unfold. She is shaken, understandably, as her best friend died nearly the same way, sitting across from the same man, a decade before.
Maya returns to her hometown, jeopardizing her relationship and fearing for her mental health to discover what really happened.
I quite enjoy books where it’s uncertain if the death in the story is indeed murder. That the potential killer had racked up several possible victims by the time we enter the story only made it more engaging.
My discussion with the author, Ana Reyes, made the book even more interesting to me. I love it when an author’s insight into the process makes reflecting on the plot and character more satisfying, which was definitely the case here.
If you enjoy narrators you can’t completely trust and stories that don’t answer your questions too quickly, this might be a great read for you.
Finally, we have The Hunter, a police procedural…sort of. We begin this book with Leigh, who’s been suspended indefinitely from her job as a police officer. Add to this the complication that her husband also works for the police, and was the one who had to suspend her.
Reeling from these events, Leigh accepts her brother’s invitation to come home from her big city life in NYC to Ohio, where suspicious deaths are plaguing his own police department. Leigh brings her daughter, and starts peeling back the layers of the case, and her present and past.
This book will interest you if you enjoy going deeper into the psychology of both law enforcement and the unreliability of murder. We see these themes play out in Leigh’s work and her personal life. If you prefer your police procedurals to simply report the case as it unfolds, this isn’t the book for you. Herrera doesn’t shy away from the critique of law enforcement, nor the impact doing this job has on officers and the communities they enforce.
Stay tuned for an interview with Jennifer Herrera on this book on the Oh! Murder podcast coming up soon. It was delightful getting to chat books and mystery with her — I can’t wait to share this one!
Thank you so much for reading. What mysteries have you read and enjoyed lately? Please share favorites in the comments below as well as your thoughts about these books.
*image: Hanna Peterson, The Togo