The House on Vesper Sands
This was my first 5 star book of 2021 and I can’t believe how little hype it’s getting! I haven’t seen it on bookstagram at all and the only way I knew about it was from two of my trusted podcast sources – All the Books and Novel Pairings. There were so many things that I loved about it, not the least of which was how caught off guard I was by how enjoyable it was – I’d heard so little about it that I just didn’t have any expectations, good or bad. So anyway – it’s a Victorian mystery that takes place in 19th century London, opening with a shocking death and a rash of missing girls. We meet our investigator, Inspector Cutter, who is just the BEST character because he’s like this lovable curmudgeon type and he’s so funny and biting and sarcastic. He inadvertently joins forces with Gideon Bliss, a young Cambridge dropout who comes to London to visit his uncle. The interactions between naïve, earnest, innocent Gideon and rough-around-the-edges Cutter were just perfection. We also follow intrepid reporter Octavia Butler, who is investigating the missing girls as well. Overall it’s just a great mystery, with a wonderful sense of place and such entertaining and ultimately poignant relationships that develop between these characters. It was fun and funny and enveloping and so fantastically written. It’s really different from anything I’ve read before and I just can’t recommend it enough.
I hate to say it because when I posted this on Instagram people DM’d me RAVING about it…but I didn’t really like this! Ahhh, revoke my reading card! I’m sorry! It just wasn’t for me. This is about a group of foreign dignitaries, business people, etc. who are at a party in an unnamed South American country when they’re taken hostage by a group of terrorists. But – it is not a thriller by any means. It’s an exploration of the people there and the way things unfold as they’re all kind of stuck there together for months. It’s character driven for sure…meaning very. Very. Slow. And despite that seemingly eventful premise…nothing really happens. And that’s not a criticism – I loved Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House and nothing happened in that either. For some reason this one just didn’t click for me and I found myself looking forward to being done with it. Obviously I am very much in the minority here so don’t even listen to me!
The Echo Wife
Eep. This one was another miss for me. I loved the idea of this one – a domestic thriller, but with clones! Basically this woman is a scientist in the field of cloning and she finds out her husband has left her – for her clone. Great idea but the execution was lacking, in my opinion. I feel bad saying that and I hope the author never sees this review but I just want to be honest. SO. MUCH. of this book, was just the inner monologue of the main character…and it wasn’t interesting. There was a lot of her thinking “well I could say that, or I could say this, or I could feel this way, but I feel this way instead” (literally), and it was so boring. The biggest disappointment though was the way the clone stuff wasn’t deeply or fully explored. The thing that makes the idea of human clones interesting (to me) is the moral and ethical ambiguity – are they people or are they “specimens” (as she referred to them)…do they have rights? If you have a clone – is it you, or a separate entity from you? I mean, I’m not a writer, so I can’t even begin to delve into the possibilities, but they’re endless and deep and rich with opportunity- none of which was plumbed here. The clone character was just like…another character. It almost didn’t seem like she was a clone of the main character, but just another character doing regular character things. So that whole huge aspect of exploring what it would be like to be hanging out with your clone – it wasn’t there. So to me it just read like a basic not that great domestic thriller. Again I am sorry and I hope this isn’t mean, but that’s my honest opinion!
Another miss – yikes. There were a few this month! This was a HUGE disappointment to me because my expectations were sky-high, after seeing this likened to a mix of Big Little Lies meets Shirley Jackson meets Little Fires Everywhere. I mean, hello! How good does that sound? This wasn’t it. I actually kind of disliked this book and I only forced myself to finish because my expectations had been so high – which is not a good reason to finish something! It’s about a suburban town where a sinkhole opens up and how tensions start to mount between the families. I guess the biggest thing that left me cold was that there was not one likable character in this book – and I have to caveat that by saying, likable characters are NOT a prerequisite for me to like a book, and unlikable characters are not a deal breaker. I love many books that feature awful, horribly unlikable characters (Ladder to the Sky comes to mind). It’s just that these characters weren’t only unlikable, but uninteresting. I couldn’t really parse their motivations or find any connection to them – they didn’t ring true to me. There was something so hollow to all of them. I don’t know, I just kind of viscerally disliked this. The best thing about it was the amazing cover art, so props to the artist!
The Other Black Girl
I was SO excited to get a galley of The Other Black Girl, and it did not disappoint! I loved this one and could NOT put it down. The premise is so good – it’s about a young Black girl named Nella who is increasingly frustrated to be the only Black employee at the publishing house where she works. She’s thrilled when another Black girl, Hazel is hired – but then a note shows up on Nella’s desk that says “LEAVE WAGNER NOW”…and things get increasingly weird. This was kind of a mix of Devil Wears Prada, Get Out, and maybe a dash of Stepford Wives thrown in. I was completely riveted by the inner workings of the publishing house (something I’ve been very interested in as of late!), and the author herself came from Knopf so it was really fun to hear about it from someone who’s been there. It deeply explored the lack of diversity within the publishing industry and what it felt like for Nella to be the only Black person in her department, but it was all couched within this mystery that keeps you turning the pages. It’s really well-written and I loved the main character and the deeper issues the book explored. I did have a few minor quibbles, mainly that I was left with some lingering questions at the end, and also was much more interested in the main story than the kind of side, flashback plotlines that were included as well (this seems to be a theme with me because I had two books last month with the same thing, and I didn’t like that with those either). But none of that impacted my enjoyment of the book. I really liked it and highly recommend!
A Court of Thorns and Roses (audio on Libro.fm)
Ooh this was so fun! I’ve seen this around bookstagram SO much and was finally compelled to give it a try, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a fantasy series and I guess the first one is loosely based on Beauty and the Beast – a girl named Feyra kills a wolf who turns out to be rather important and as punishment is taken to live at the Spring Court in the land of Prythian, where high lords and faeries live and all sorts of fantastical creatures live and roam. The world-building is so well-done – you’re just immediately sucked in and invested in these characters – there’s the dreamy but cursed prince Tamlin, his right hand man, the snarky but sweet Lucien, the bad boy Rhysand, the evil Amarantha…it’s so fun. I haven’t read a ton of fantasy before, aside from the first GoT and all the Harry Potters, and I’m really enjoying getting into an epic fantasy series! It’s full of adventure and romance, it’s well-written, and ultimately just totally addictive.
The Sanatorium (Kindle)
Another miss this month. This one started out good – the locked room trope is my favorite and this takes place in a creepy hotel in the Swiss Alps – it’s snowy, everyone’s stuck there, and the building has a creepy history (which you can surmise from the title)…and then people start turning up dead. My issue with this book was the main character, Elin, who is supposedly a detective. She just didn’t ring true to me as a detective/investigator at ALL and so much time was spent discussing her fragile state of mind – especially in the beginning it felt like pages and pages of her feeling dizzy or her vision blurring or her breath coming fast and every time she looked around the lighting was oppressive or the walls were closing in etc etc and on and on. It got really tedious and just made her seem like a weak, unstable character. And I am NOT saying that PTSD makes a person weak or even that it makes a book character uninteresting. There are tons of detective novels featuring detectives with PTSD and/or troubled or tortured pasts (Rob Ryan from In the Woods, Strike from the Cormoran Strike series, Harry Hole from The Snowman) – and I love those characters. They’re layered and compelling (and yes I just noticed they’re all men…ok maybe I should think about this a little deeper). But anyway, I think it’s an oft-used device for a reason. It gives a character layers and flaws and something to overcome and all of that. But this just wasn’t it. Apart from that, Elin was just kind of incompetent as an investigator and overall I couldn’t get into her character. Then the mystery and the murders…the reveal was a big info dump and it was so convoluted, it just didn’t feel satisfying to me. I think there are way better locked room mysteries out there and if you want a snowy mystery I’d actually suggest The Snowman (it’s a lot more dark and gory but it’s really good!).
Girls Like Us (Kindle)
This is a mystery/thriller about a series of murders on Long Island. While investigating, FBI agent Nell Flynn starts to suspect that her recently-deceased Dad, a Suffolk County police officer, may have been involved. Now here again is a detective with PTSD and she wasn’t incompetent at all! I liked the main character actually. I liked the whole book fine, but at the end I just kind of lost interest. I’m not sure why…I felt like it started out with a bang and then kind of petered out. It was interesting to me for the fact that it took place in Suffolk County, pretty much just a few miles from where I grew up!
Sorrow and Bliss
This book was amazing. I just loved it so much. It’s about a woman named Martha who has an unidentified mental illness, and the ways that it affects her life and the people around her. That description sounds so boring (it’s hard to write summaries, lol) but this was anything but. It was just such a compelling portrait of mental illness and felt very true. It showed someone who’s functioning most of the time, but then also acting so destructively and kind of just unable to stop herself or understand why she is this way. It was a novel full of warmth and poignancy, but also dark humor and surprising laugh out loud moments that kept it from ever feeling cloying…there was lot of pain, but a lot of hope and love too. This has been compared to Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and Normal People and I definitely think it would appeal to fans of both.
Sorry you didn’t like Bel Canto, but that’s why there are so many books out there..to satisfy all of our tastes. I absolutely hate thrillers and you love them. I’ve added The House on Vespers Sands and Sorrow and Bliss to my book list. Thanks for sharing.
Totally agree! That’s what makes reading and talking about books so fun – everyone’s different tastes and opinions. I hope you enjoy those two!
I totally agree about Bel Canto. I read it many years ago and was so bored. It made me reluctant to read The Dutch House, which when I finally did, I enjoyed very much. About to crack open Sorrow and Bliss but now I’ll have to add the Vesper Sands book to the list! I enjoy your honest reviews.
Yeah I wonder what it was about The Dutch House that made it more compelling than Bel Canto (for us, anyway!). Either way, Ann Patchett is clearly an amazing writer. Thanks for your comment and I hope you enjoy Sorrow and Bliss!
So it turns out that you’re as good at book reviews as you are at everything else! Is there anything you can’t do?
Your reviews are informal but informative, and really fun to read!
You’re the sweetest, thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed the reviews 🙂
Much appreciate of your nice blog Sarah. Keep up the good work!