A Place of Hiding by Elizabeth George

From the back cover:
A shocking murder calls forensic scientist Simon St. James and his wife, Deborah, to an isolated island in the English Channel. An old friend of Deborah’s, China River, stands accused of killing the island’s wealthiest benefactor, Guy Brouard. There is little evidence pointing to China—and Deborah and Simon are certain that their friend didn’t murder the inveterate womanizer. But if China didn’t kill Brouard, who did?

As family and friends gather for the reading of the will, Deborah and Simon find that seemingly everyone on the history-haunted island has something to hide. And behind all the lies and alibis, a killer is lurking.

Review:
Every once in a while, a strange thing happens to me: I get an incredibly strong craving to read a mystery by Elizabeth George. This isn’t a bad thing, but I’ve only got five left now ’til I’m current, and I wonder what’ll happen then. Anyway, in the case of A Place of Hiding this craving was strong enough to trump the off-putting fact that this novel prominently features Deborah St. James, a character whom I dislike most intensely.

Before I get into the ways in which Deborah caused me to contemplate violence upon her fictional person, I should probably talk about the actual mystery, such as it is. Guy Brouard, wealthy war orphan and inveterate womanizer, has been killed on the island of Guernsey the morning following a party announcing his plans for a war museum. Among the attendees was China River, an American and old friend of Deborah’s, who has now been arrested for the crime. China’s brother, Cherokee, comes to London to enlist the aid of Deborah and her forensic scientist husband, Simon, in proving his sister’s innocence.

Simon’s credentials convince the local force to allow him to poke around, and he, as one might assume, soon discovers additional suspects with various motives. He also entrusts Deborah with an important piece of evidence, and when she fails to do with it what he requested, he gets chewed out about it by the local DCI, which obviously leaves him feeling rightfully irritated with her. Deborah fails to see how this is her fault, and indulges in repeated hissy fits about how Simon views his rational approach to the investigation (and life in general) as superior to her own “passionate, unpredictable” one.

This eventually culminates in Deborah idiotically interrupting a stakeout and, once again, making Simon look unprofessional in front of the local police. Elizabeth George tries so hard to make us sympathize with Deborah that she introduces characteristics in Simon that I had never before noticed, like a patronizing form of sexism. So now, not only do I hate Deborah, she’s making me start to dislike Simon, too! Great.

Some of the secondary characters are fairly odious, too, but honestly I am ready to put them (and this book) behind me. I will say, however, that this is the first Elizabeth George novel to ever make me cry happy tears (the last scene involving Paul Fielder), so it’s obviously not all bad.

Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden

Book description:
When Ellie and her friends go camping, they have no idea they’re leaving their old lives behind forever. Despite a less-than-tragic food shortage and a secret crush or two, everything goes as planned. But a week later, they return home to find their houses empty and their pets starving. Something has gone wrong—horribly wrong. Before long, they realize the country has been invaded, and the entire town has been captured—including their families and all their friends.

Ellie and the other survivors face an impossible decision: they can flee for the mountains or surrender. Or they can fight.

Review:
It’s been several weeks now since I finished Tomorrow, When the War Began. Normally, I write a book’s review as soon as I finish reading it, but I feel like I’m still processing this one to some extent, trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it.

This is due in part to the fact that I have greatly enjoyed the other books by John Marsden that I have read, and so built this series up in my mind as something that was going to be jaw-droppingly amazing. And when it turned out not to be so, even though it’s still quite good in general and genuinely riveting in parts, I was kind of disappointed.

This is the story of seven Australian teenagers (later eight) living in the rural town of Wirrawee who go camping while their parents and most of the people in town are attending a fair. The kids return to find that a mysterious military force has invaded Australia and has imprisoned most of the townspeople at the fairgrounds, including their families. They must decide what, if anything, they’re going to do to help. Ellie Linton has been tasked with chronicling their story.

Large portions of the tale are pretty fascinating. The teens are resourceful and rise to the occasion, especially Ellie’s clown/daredevil childhood friend, Homer, who emerges as the group’s leader, and Fiona, a ladylike rich girl who proves to have unexpected reserves of courage. While Homer is the tactician of the group, Ellie seems to find herself trusted with the most dangerous missions, which require some quick, inventive thinking on her part in difficult situations involving things like exploding lawn mowers, demolition derby bulldozers, and exploding gas tankers.

I even liked the parts of the story where the characters talk about what they’re going to do—are we going to hide out here in our camping spot, or are we going to try to engage the enemy somehow?—and the various supplies they’re going to need from town, whether to keep chickens, etc. Where the story really bogs down, however, is with the introduction of romance.

Ellie has never considered Homer in a romantic way before, but begins to see him in a new light given his metamorphosis. Meanwhile, she’s also intrigued by Lee, the inscrutable Asian musician, and Homer has fallen for Fiona. Ellie dwells a lot on her confusion before ultimately deciding upon Lee, and then telling readers about all the making out they’re doing and how she has learned the things that make him groan, etc. I kept thinking how embarrassing all of this will be for Lee whenever he/anyone reads this official chronicle!

Anyway, it’s not that I am anti-romance or anything, but it’s just that these scenes really slow down the pace of the story. And maybe that is the point. Even if something as dramatic as an invasion has occurred, there will still be a lot of downtime if you’re hiding out in the woods, and a lot of time for more mundane things to be going on.

I guess what it boils down to is that my perception of the book has been hampered by my expectations. I am certainly going to read the rest of the series, and hopefully I will like it better now that I’ve reconciled myself to what it actually is rather than what I thought it was.

Additional reviews of Tomorrow, When the War Began can be found at Triple Take.

Pretty Little Secrets by Sara Shepard

From the back cover:
Rewind to junior year in Rosewood, Pennsylvania, to a winter break no one has ever heard about.

Fat snowflakes fall onto manicured lawns, quilted stockings hang over marble fireplaces, and everyone is at peace, especially Hanna, Emily, Aria, and Spencer. Now that Alison’s murderer is in jail and A is dead, they can finally relax. Little do they know there’s a new A in town…

What happens on holiday break stays on holiday break—right? But guess what. I saw. And now I’m telling.

-A

Review:
This will probably be the last full-length review I write of a Pretty Little Liars novel. Mostly that’s because I’ve run out of ways to say “it isn’t very good, but I still enjoy it,” but also… egads, this one was pretty bad.

Although published earlier this year, Pretty Little Secrets is actually set between books four and five of the series, so I opted to go ahead and read it now. The premise is that this is the winter break between those books and the new A in town is observing the four girls before beginning to seriously harass them. It feels a lot like a media tie-in novel, to be honest, shoehorned in between more pivotal events with decidedly lame plots that are designed not to contradict anything that comes afterwards. (Although, I’ve actually heard there are some discrepancies.)

In “Hanna’s Little Secret,” Hanna is despondent when her boyfriend, Lucas, goes on vacation with a hot chick, so she binge eats a while, then joins a fitness boot camp, where she competes with another girl to win the affections of their instructor. In “Emily’s Little Secret,” Mrs. Fields is upset over the theft of her precious ceramic baby Jesus (yes, really) from a church nativity scene, and enlists Emily to infiltrate the clique of girls presumed to be responsible. In “Aria’s Little Secret,” Aria’s old Icelandic flame shows up randomly and they decide to get married (yes, really). And in “Spencer’s Little Secret,” Spencer and her sister compete for the affections of a tennis player while their parents are having some angst related to the DiLaurentis family. There are small things connecting the stories, mainly the references to a vile-tasting vitamin water called AminoSpa.

I thought the Hanna and Spencer stories were structurally pretty similar, as both involved bitchy sisters/step-sisters as well as the protagonist getting duped by another girl who was actually after the same guy who turned out to be a player who used the same lines on them both. Though it’s really just as dumb as the others, the Emily story is probably the best because it contains a few snickerworthy lines.

All in all, please feel free to skip this collection. You’re not missing much of anything.

The Lying Game, Books 2-3 by Sara Shepard

In which I catch up on The Lying Game and circumvent the fact that I don’t have much to say about these frothy books by offering two short reviews in one post.

Never Have I Ever
Former foster child Emma Paxton has assumed the life of her privileged (and murdered) twin sister, Sutton Mercer. The only person who knows her true identity is hunky loner, Ethan Landry.

In this, the second book of the series, Emma fairly promptly crosses her sister’s friends off the suspect list (after being convinced of their guilt in the first book) and sets her suspicions upon the so-called Twitter Twins, two girls who want retribution for a particularly cruel prank Sutton played on them. While Emma sleuths and gets into peril, Sutton’s ghost hangs around and occasionally informs the reader about the small flashes of memory she conveniently experiences.

It’s hard to know what to say about a book like this. It’s teen suspense by the author of Pretty Little Liars, which means that there will be a fair amount of bad decision-making and ridiculous drama that somehow ends up being addictive anyway. I mean, it’s inconceivable that the twins are really Sutton’s killers—this is book two out of four, after all—and none of these girls is particularly likeable, but have I acquired the third book from Audible* and loaded it onto my .mp3 player with the intention of starting it as soon as I finish this review? You bet I have!

* Dear audiobook narrator,
Please learn to pronounce the letter T. Shirts don’t have buh-ins, windows don’t have cur-ins, and Facebook posts aren’t wrih-in.

Two Truths and a Lie
Usually, these books are pretty fun to read, even if they are silly, but Two Truths and a Lie sucked the enjoyment out of the experience by relying on one of my most disliked YA plots: there is angst, and the heroine could do something simple and obvious to fix it, but she is convinced for some inexplicable reason that she cannot do this thing to fix it, so things just get worse and worse until she finally does the simple and obvious thing, at which point the angst is dispelled.

In this particular instance, Sutton’s sister Laurel has discovered that Emma (in the guise of Sutton) has a secret relationship with Ethan. So, Laurel proposes that Sutton’s friends play a nasty prank on him, ‘cos that is apparently what they do. It takes Emma ages to realize that she could easily a) warn Ethan or b) tell her friends that she likes him. I also get the feeling Sara Shepard was under some Meg Cabot-like time constraint with regards to getting this book ready for publication, so she resorted to Meg Cabot-like tactics for fleshing out one’s word count, like reiterating obvious things like, “Wait, so he was at the hospital the night Sutton died? Then he couldn’t have killed her!” Uh, yes, I got that.

Like the other books in the series, this one focuses on one main suspect for Sutton’s murder who is ultimately cleared in the end. Again, there was no chance of the killer being identified before the series conclusion, and therefore no real suspense. I also do not believe that the suspect suggested at the very end of the book will wind up to be the actual perpetrator, ‘cos that leaves no room for surprise twists.

I gripe, and yet I am first in the library queue for Hide and Seek, the fourth and ostensibly final volume, which is due in July.

Conspiracy 365: January – March by Gabrielle Lord

For 2012, the three of us at Triple Take have decided to focus on YA fiction from Australia and New Zealand. First up is the first volume (January) of Gabrielle Lord’s Conspiracy 365 series, in which a teenage boy named Cal must survive attacks on his life for the next 365 days whilst investigating his father’s mysterious death. The publishing schedule was pretty nifty for this series, with the first twelve books (named after the months of the year) coming out throughout 2010 during the month reflected in their title. The thirteenth book in the series, Revenge, was published in Australia in October 2011, but hasn’t made it to the US yet.

Because I couldn’t read just one, please enjoy the first three books in the series, with more to follow!

Conspiracy 365: January
Fifteen-year-old Callum Ormond thought his father’s death six months ago was due to illness, but when a crazy-seeming figure (in requisite billowing black cloak) accosts him on New Year’s Eve and tells him his father was killed over something called “the Ormond Singularity,” he begins to wonder. Initially downplaying the warning that he himself should hide out for the next year, he is soon plagued by perils including: nearly drowning in a storm at sea, sharks, a sneaky uncle, foreclosure, fire bombs, kidnappers, criminals, and life as a fugitive. Aided by his friend Boges (no clue how to pronounce that), he tracks down some drawings his father made in his final days (which are reproduced in the book) and attempts to decipher their meaning, all while hiding out from the bad guys, the authorities, and his family.

It’s hard to really know what to say about January, since it’s almost entirely action. “Fast-paced but really kind of… empty” is a phrase from my notes that seems to sum it up best. That’s not to say I disliked it, because it was pretty entertaining. Okay, yes, already the repeated kidnappings are wearing thin, but it really does feel a bit like a 24 for teens, with Boges filling the role of Chloe to Cal’s Jack Bauer. This is aided by the way the story is written, noting the date and time for each first-person entry (though sometimes these occur during moments when one generally wouldn’t pause to describe what’s happening, like when trapped in the trunk of a car) and counting down the days until safety. The pages are numbered backwards, as well, which is a neat touch.

In addition, Cal seems like a pretty good kid. (You know you’re old when, instead of being fully swept away by the adventure, you’re thinking, “Aw, he’s thinking about how worried his mom must be. What a nice boy.”) I genuinely have no idea how he’s going to get out of the situation he finds himself in at the conclusion of this installment, but that’s okay because I have February right here!

Conspiracy 365: February
The basic plot of the February installment of Conspiracy 365 can be summed up as: Cal hides a lot, and also runs a lot. Perils faced by the teen fugitive include nearly drowning in a storm drain, nefarious people circulating recent pictures of him, and a freakin’ lion, which I thought was going to be the most eyeroll-inducing part of the book until the final pages saw him trapped on the tracks while the driver of an oncoming subway train frantically applies the brakes.

A teensy bit of progress is made toward solving the Ormond Riddle, as it appears that one of the drawings Cal’s dad made references the statue of an ancestor who died in the first World War. But that’s it. There’s no real change in Cal’s situation or his goals, unless you count the introduction of Winter Frey, ward of one of the guys out to get Cal. She proves useful, but may not be trustworthy.

Like January, this is a fast-paced and decently enjoyable read, eyerolling aside, but it’s difficult to find much of anything to say about it beyond that. I predict this will be the case for the next handful of volumes until some answers are actually forthcoming. I further predict that the answers will be rather lame, but I still intend to persevere.

Conspiracy 365: March
At first, I thought I was going to need the next batch of three installments immediately after finishing these, but now I’m ready for a break. It’s not that this series is bad, because it isn’t. But it is very repetitive, and the format enforces some implausible behavior on to the characters.

In support of the “repetitive” claim:
• In volume one, Callum has a wildlife encounter with a shark. He ends the volume in mortal peril.

• In volume two, Callum is rescued by a stranger, who becomes somewhat of an ally. Callum has a wildlife encounter with a lion. He ends the volume in mortal peril.

• In volume three, Callum is rescued by a stranger, who becomes somewhat of an ally. Callum has a wildlife encounter with a venomous snake. He ends the volume in mortal peril.

It’s probably not a good thing when your readers burst out laughing when the protagonist is bitten by a death adder! This makes me wonder what creatures will appear in later volumes. I am thinking there will be a bear. Are there bears in Australia? And there’s gotta be a dingo!

Regarding the implausible behavior… back in volume one, Callum discovered a slip of paper with two words on it, possibly the names of places in Ireland, where his dad discovered the details of this big family secret. Since that time, he’s been in internet cafés a number of times but only now, two months later, does it occur to him that he ought to look them up online. He also tries a couple of times to contact a former coworker of his father’s by calling the office, only to find the guy is out on sick leave. Why doesn’t he, say, find a phone book and try looking up the guy’s home number? Maybe we’ll have to wait until May for him to think of that.

More reviews of this series will follow eventually. In the meantime, feel free to make predictions for future wildlife encounters in the comments.

Additional reviews of Conspiracy 365: January can be found at Triple Take.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

From the back cover:
P. D. James draws the characters of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice into a tale of murder and emotional mayhem.

It is 1803, six years since Elizabeth and Darcy embarked on their life together at Pemberley, Darcy’s magnificent estate. Elizabeth has found her footing as the chatelaine of the great house. Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live nearby; her father visits often; there is optimistic talk about the prospects of marriage for Darcy’s sister Georgiana. And preparations are under way for their much-anticipated annual autumn ball.

Then, on the eve of the ball, the patrician idyll is shattered. A coach careens up to the drive carrying Lydia, Elizabeth’s disgraced sister, who with her husband, the very dubious Wickham, has been banned from Pemberley. She stumbles out of the carriage, hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered. With shocking suddenness, Pemberley is plunged into a frightening mystery.

Review:
When I learned about this book on NPR, I was torn between trepidation and mad curiosity. The latter, as you can see, won out, mostly because I am a huge fan of P. D. James and if figured that if anyone could treat Austen’s material with respect, she could. And, indeed, her treatment of these beloved characters did not give any offense, but neither did it give anything near the delight inspired by Austen’s original work.

First, a brief summary of the plot. It is Autumn 1803. Elizabeth and Darcy have been happily married for six years and have two sons. On the eve of the annual ball at Pemberley, Elizabeth’s willful sister Lydia shows up unannounced (and uninvited), freaking out because she and the coachman heard gunshots soon after her no-good husband Wickham went into the woods after his friend, Captain Denny. A search party finds a drunken Wickham with Denny’s body, at which point he utters words to the effect of, “It’s my fault. He was my only friend, and I have killed him.” The local magistrate conducts his inquiries, there is a formal inquest, there is a trial, and then the full story is revealed.

As a Pride and Prejudice continuation, the book is not odious. It is, however, lacking any of Austen’s sparkle. Events leave Elizabeth and Darcy little time to be alone together, except at the very end, where James tacks on an epilogue in which Darcy, after six years, suddenly apologizes for some of his conduct in the original novel. It makes me wonder whether James believes readers could not surmise that Darcy would feel regret over his more snooty actions without spelling it out. Gone too are Austen’s sly and thoughtful observations upon society, except for one brief instance wherein chronic invalids are suddenly recovered sufficiently to attend church in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the Pemberley residents.

The result, therefore, is a book that is dreadfully dull. I was relieved to see that Elizabeth and Darcy do not suddenly become sleuths, but found the revelation of what really happened in the woodland to be rather vague and unsatisfying. While I cannot condemn the book for any particular sin, about the only praise I can muster is that James does provide some interesting fates for various characters and proposes an intriguing complication regarding Wickham’s attempted elopement with Georgiana Darcy.

Is it worth reading? No, not really. But I doubt anyone will feel the urge to hurl the book across the room in disgust, either.

Hallowed Murder by Ellen Hart

From the back cover:
The police call Allison’s drowning a suicide, but her housemates at her University of Minnesota sorority insist it was murder. That’s when alumnae advisor Jane Lawless steps in to find out the truth.

Abetted by her irrepressible sidekick Cordelia, Jane searches for clues, and what she finds is as chilling as the Minnesota winter—for in those icy drifts, at a lonely vacation house, she risks everything to ensnare a cunning killer…

Review:
Minneapolis restaurateur Jane Lawless has volunteered to serve as an alumnae advisor for her former sorrority, Kappa Alpha Sigma. One morning, while out exercising with her reluctant friend, Cordelia Thorn, Jane discovers the body of one of the girls, Allison Lord. When the local police are quick to dismiss Allison’s death as suicide (which they attribute to confusion over her sexuality), Jane decides to do a little investigating of her own, eventually concluding that she’ll need to set herself up as bait to catch the killer.

I didn’t outright dislike Hallowed Murder, but it does have some major problems. Most significant is the fact that the culprit is not a surprise, thanks to a brief opening chapter that reveals their motive. Other aspects of the mystery are less transparent, though, and Hart at least managed to make me briefly suspect other characters. And speaking of the characters…. Jane is okay, and I like the aura of sadness that clings to her after the death of her long-time partner, Christine, but her friend Cordelia seems to have just one mode—obnoxious. Jane’s brother makes a couple brief appearances, but he is utterly insubstantial. Then there are the victim’s three closest friends, one of whom we scarcely meet before she apparently drops out of the sorority off-camera. Again, it’s not exactly bad, but it’s all quite superficial.

The same can be said of Hart’s writing style. As I look now at the quotes I jotted down, they don’t look so objectionable, but while I was reading they were jarringly simplistic. Too much tell, not enough show. Here are a couple of examples:

The early morning mist had settled around the base of the old bridge, making it appear to float above the water. It looked like a stage set. A perfect setting for a murder. Cordelia shuddered at her own morbidity.

Jane looked around at the young man taking notes. She had never been interrogated by the police before and did not like her words being cast in stone on some stenographer’s pad.

That second one could’ve been “Jane looked uneasily at the young man taking notes,” and it would’ve communicated all of that without seeming so… prim. This was a common problem, with dialogue and character thoughts frequently coming across as stiff and unnatural. Characters were also exceedingly forthcoming with their prejudices. Now, true, this was published in 1989, so perhaps open homophobia was more common, but characters with these opinions don’t even try to disguise them, and generally have no other positive attributes that would make them more three-dimensional—they’re just being used as ignorant mouthpieces. Here’s a quote from Susan Julian, another sorority advisor, after she learns about Allison’s sexual preference:

Having allowed a—I even hate to say the word—lesbian in our midst would destroy our reputation. We can only hope it doesn’t make the papers. I mean, no one would feel safe joining.

I haven’t yet decided whether to read Vital Lies, the second Jane Lawless mystery. The excerpt included in the back of my paperback was not very promising, but some mystery writers do improve over time. And, of course, Hart earns bonus points for managing to mention both Richard III and Doctor Who.

Additional reviews of Hallowed Murder can be found at Triple Take.

You Can Draw in 30 Days by Mark Kistler

From the back cover:
Drawing is an acquired skill, not a talent—anyone can learn to draw! All you need is a pencil, a piece of paper, and the willingness to tap into your hidden artistic abilities. You Can Draw in 30 Days will teach you the rest. With Emmy award-winning, longtime public television host Mark Kistler as your guide, you’ll learn the secrets of sophisticated three-dimensional renderings, and have fun along the way.

In just 20 minutes a day for a month, you can learn to draw anything, whether from the world around you or from your own imagination. It’s time to embark on your creative journey. Pick up your pencil and begin today!

Review:
I was somewhat dubious when I set out to complete Mark Kistler’s instructional book, You Can Draw in 30 Days. Despite his claim that drawing is a skill and not a talent, and that anyone can learn to do it, I had no expectation that I would emerge from the experience with the ability to create vividly realistic drawings. And, indeed, that did not happen. I did, however, learn some interesting and useful techniques, and if the goal has been merely to gain confidence and a grasp of some basic fundamentals, then I’d say it’s been achieved.

First, Kistler has students complete a pretest in which they draw a house, an airplane, and a bagel. Here’s mine. Please do not laugh at that pathetic airplane too much.

From there, students progress through a series of lessons designed to introduce and elaborate on nine “foundation elements,” which include concepts like overlapping, shading, and contour lines. These ideas are reiterated frequently throughout the book, and I enjoyed some more than others. For example, I got a little tired of drawing shadows all over everything, but the way that contour lines—here exemplified via figures Kistler has dubbed “contour kids”—can make objects appear to be in motion is extremely cool.

The first seven lessons focus on basic shapes—spheres, cubes, towers—but then Kistler begins tossing in some rather odd things like koalas, roses, scrolls, and rippling flags. Each lesson is still imparting some essential useful idea, but they do reveal that Kistler’s style is essentially cartoony. Here’s my koala, from lesson eight. The bonus challenge for that chapter was to draw some real-world koalas, and while my efforts look better to me now than they did originally, the fact remains that I did not (and still do not) feel well-equipped to actually faithfully reproduce a realistic-looking koala.

Beginning with lesson 22, Kistler focuses on drawing in one- or two-point perspective. I enjoyed these exercises a lot—possibly because I got to draw with a ruler, which made everything nice and crisp. Here’s my tower in two-point perspective, which looks pretty good despite a couple of minor flaws.

The final three chapters introduce drawing anatomy, and Kistler drops the ball here a bit. Instead of really trying to teach someone how to draw a face, he instructs students to trace an example, provides a few basic pointers, and then directs them to other books for more information. (Perhaps that’s why the included illustration of a student’s attempt is far less accomplished than other examples throughout the book.) Lessons on the eye and hand were better, though, and I’m rather proud of my results for the 30th and final lesson, “Your Hand of Creativity.”

On the whole, the progression of the lessons makes sense and I have few complaints. However, I must voice my objection to Kistler’s attempts to foment enthusiasm by asking lame questions throughout the book. “Are you inspired?” “Are you excited?” “Don’t you feel like a collegiate fine arts student?” This invites readers to say, “Um, no?” I get what he’s trying to do, but jeez. Enough is enough.

Ultimately, a better title for this book would have been You Can Draw Certain Things in 30 Days. I still don’t feel like I can draw well in general, but I think I’m a bit better than before. Certainly, I could apply these lessons to drawing everyday objects that fit the shapes covered in the book. So, if you ever need a picture of your loved one, don’t call me, but if it’s an open cardboard box you want, I’m your gal.

Additional reviews of You Can Draw in 30 Days can be found at Triple Take.

I, Richard by Elizabeth George

Book description:
Hailed by The New York Times as “a master of the British mystery,” award-winning author Elizabeth George is one of our most distinguished writers, cherished by readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Her first collection of short stories is an extraordinary offering that deftly explores the dark side of everyday people—and the lengths to which they will go to get what they want most…

In these five tantalizing and original tales, George plumbs the depths of human nature—and human weakness—as only she can. From the chilling tale of a marriage built on an appalling set of lies that only death can reveal, to the final, title story about a penniless schoolteacher whose ambition turns murderous, I, Richard is filled with page-turning drama, danger, and unmatched suspense.

Whether the setting is urban or suburban, affluent or middle class, no one is safe from menace. Thanks to Inspector Thomas Lynley, a squabbling group of Anglophiles discovers a killer in its midst. But little help is on hand when a picture-perfect town is shattered by an eccentric new resident’s horrifying pet project. And when a wealthy husband is haunted by suspicions about his much-younger wife, it becomes clear that a man’s imagination can be his own worst enemy…

Review:
Well. That was different! And not, I’m afraid, in a terribly good way. I’ve furnished ample avidence of my admiration for George’s mystery novels in the past (and intend to read more of them in future), but I wasn’t too enamored of these short stories, primarily because most are variations on the theme of “things go wrong for the unsympathetic protagonist.” And that is not my favorite theme upon which to dwell. But let us forge onward into specifics!

“Exposure” is a rewrite of an earlier story, “The Evidence Exposed.” It concerns a group of Americans taking a summer course in The History of British Architecture who have come to Abinger Manor, residence of Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley’s aunt, for a tour. The characters are the highlight of this one, and though the crime is rather silly and the culprit’s motive murky, I still rather liked some of the quick portraits painted of those enrolled in the class. Lynley doesn’t get much to do, though, and poor Helen is relegated to being charming without actually, if I recall rightly, having a line of dialogue.

“The Surprise of His Life” is, ironically, possessed of an utterly predictable conclusion. After a lengthy introduction, in which George reveals drawing inspiration from the alleged crimes of O. J. Simpson, we meet a wealthy businessman who has begun seeing a psychic. She warns him to expect an external shock, so he goes off into all these flights of fancy about his wife having an affair and hires a private investigator who takes pictures of her with another man and… it’s just so obvious what’s going to happen that waiting for it to actually occur is maddening.

“Good Fences Aren’t Always Enough” is a weird little tale about the residents of Napier Lane, who are striving to be designated as one of their town’s Perfect Places to Live, and the small, grey, Russian immigrant whose overgrown, rat-infested yard stands in their way. Willow McKenna, a former foster child now obsessed with the idea of a big family and cozy community, is a fairly likeable lead and this, at least, didn’t end like I thought it was going to. It was a lot more… ordinary, in the end.

“Remember I’ll Always Love You” is the second story to feature a couple’s life ruined by extreme suspicion. Charlie Lawton’s husband, Eric, has just died at the age of 42. As she seeks out his parents, Charlie begins to realize that Eric was keeping a lot of things from her. A lot of really, really major things that are so out-of-left-field that she’s left reeling. This story is sort of admirably constructed in terms of what you think you know that it turns out you didn’t really know, but it feels flat somehow.

Lastly we have the title story, “I, Richard,” which contained both the high points and low points of the collection for me. I intensely disliked Malcolm Cousins, the ambitious would-be historian who has been engaged in an affair with the wife of a friend with the express purpose of coming into possession of a prized artifact when that friend should finally succumb to a weak heart. Malcolm is a sleazy git who gets what he deserves, but George uses him as a mouthpiece for some exonerating theories in support of Richard III, and that part I liked. The challenge is, of course, writing a modern-day story concerned with Richard III and not having it be too much like Josephine Tey’s marvelous The Daughter of Time, and George succeeds in that regard, I suppose.

Ultimately, this isn’t essential reading for fans of the Lynley/Havers mystery series. Lynley appears briefly in a story, but does very little, and there’s absolutely no bearing on anything that happens in other books. I’m not sure if I’m glad I read it or not, but I know for sure that I’ll not be doing so again.

Unbelievable by Sara Shepard

From the front flap:
Behind Rosewood’s grand façades, where the air smells like apples and Chanel No. 5 and infinity pools sparkle in landscaped backyards, nothing is as it seems. It was here, back in seventh grade, that five best friends shared everything—Seven jeans, MAC makeup, and their deepest, darkest secrets.

Now someone named A has turned their charmed lives into a living nightmare. Emily has been shipped off to her hyper-conservative cousins in Iowa. Aria is stuck living with her dad and his home-wrecker girlfriend. And Spencer fears she had something to do with Alison’s murder. But Hanna’s fate is worse than all of that—she’s clinging to life in the hospital because she knew too much.

With A’s threats turning dangerous and Ali’s killer still on the loose, the girls must uncover the truth—about A, about Ali, and about what happened to Hanna—before they become A’s next victims. But as they unravel Rosewood’s mysteries and secrets, will it bring an end to the horror… or is this just the beginning?

Review:
I find it hard to know where to start in reviewing Unbelievable without it becoming simply a reiteration of all the plot craziness that ensues. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum, at least.

We begin with all four girls in unfamiliar environments. Emily has been shipped off to Iowa to live with uber-strict relatives on account of continued gayness, Aria is living with her father and his girlfriend after having exhausted all other options, Spencer has been been whisked off to New Jersey by her parents in an attempt to repair her relationship with her sister, and Hanna is in a coma in the hospital, after being hit by a car. Plus, “A” is still sending them creepy messages and Ali’s killer remains on the loose.

I believe this was originally planned as the end of the series, but I’m not sure, since the last few pages suggest that a new “A” will come to town and there were also some unresolved hints about weird issues in Ali’s home life. Anyway, we do conclusively learn who A is (sadly, I had spoiled myself on this point) and are lead to believe that we learn who killed Ali, though that is not nearly as certain. Various repressed memories return in dramatic fashion. In addition, issues plaguing the various girls in their home lives get resolved—and I do appreciate how much of their drama this time is familial rather than romantic—and they sometimes even do reasonable things! (Though mostly they continue to do stupid things.)

I can’t really in good conscience recommend this series to others, but I will say that I have fun with it. This time, I checked out the unabridged audio edition narrated by Cassandra Morris. My first reaction was “This narrator sounds about nine!” but I did eventually get used to the pitch of her voice. What I never could accustom myself to, however, was her inability to pronounce the letter “t” when it appears in the middle of a word. Windows are hung with “cur-ans,” characters are suddenly “fry-end”… It’s very annoying!

In any case, I am totally going to keep reading. The fifth book in the series is called Wicked—and I have just boggled at its blurb, which mentions Emily having a boyfriend—but I am first going to read the newly released Pretty Little Secrets, which is set in the winter break between books four and five. I hope it’s not as insubstantial as the interstitial Princess Diaries books proved to be, but we shall see!