A dark (as the title states), depressing novel with pretty much no sympathetic characters, this is the second novel by Gone Girl author Flynn.  The main character here, Libby Day, was witness to her mother and sisters being murdered when she was a small child.  In court, she identified her brother as the killer.  Over 20 years later, Libby begins to doubt that testimony…did she really see her brother kill three members of her family or did she just believe she had seen it?  Libby begins a quest for self-discovery that will take her life into even more dark places than before.

First of all, Libby is not a nice person.  She’s a thief, she can be violent, and she only begins to question her brother’s innocence after stumbling on a group of true crime addicts who offer her money for trophies from her past.  Aside from Libby, the novel is also told from the point-of-view of the mother and the brother (both of those POVs are set before the murders).  But, like Libby, neither the mother nor the brother are characters the reader will want to relate to.  The brother, Ben, gets involved with Satanism and a VERY bad crowd of friends.  And the mother sits idly by while her family crumbles around her. 

See…it’s a VERY dark story.  But, if you can get past all of that, it is a well-written, edgy piece of fiction that really does keep you reading.  Unlike a lot of contemporary thrillers, this one has a solid foundation, as well as great character development and a pretty decent ending. 

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By far my favorite book of 2012 (even though I read it in 2013).  It is a strong, fierce thriller that combines social commentary and suspense…all in one well-written story.  It is no surprise to me that Ruth Rendell is still writing strong, highly literary pieces of fiction.  She is one of the leaders of the mystery genre, especially British mysteries.  Writing here as Barbara Vine, Rendell writes what I think is one of her best in years…lending truth to the adage that some things improves with age. 

The story here starts off in 2011 with a sister and her brother, Grace and Andrew, sharing a home in London.  They divide the living space of the house equally, a situation which works fine until the brother’s lover, James, comes to live with them.  James sets off a series of events that neither Grace nor Andrew will ever recover from.  While coping, Grace begins reading a long-lost manuscript, never published because its storyline includes unwed mothers and homosexual characters in the 1920s.  That’s when a completely different part of the story takes over.  Or at least we THINK it’s different…because it is set in the post-WWI era.  Soon, correlations between Grace’s modern-day dilemmas and the historical plot become evident. 

The historical storyline revolves around a sister, Maud, the youngest child in a very conservative Bristol family, who gets herself pregnant. After telling her family, they want to send her away.  But, her brother John has a different idea.  He is homosexual and aware that he will never be able to lead a respectable life as a gay man, so he and Maud begin living together as husband and wife…in name only…so that the child does not seem illegitimate. 

Both storylines are interesting and compelling but the historical one just captivates the reader with twists and turns that the reader never expects (or at least I didn’t).  I found both tales together a great commentary on how things regarding sexuality and homosexuality have changed…yet how some things have stayed the same through the centuries. 

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This is my second Tasha Alexander novel featuring Victorian Lady Emily Ashton and maybe because this one is set in Venice, a city I love, I enjoyed it even more than the the first one I read (A Fatal Waltz).  Alexander, like Donna Leon, another author who writes mysteries set in Venice (though featuring a male detective), does a brilliant job of breathing life into Venice.  And Lady Emily is a force to be reckoned with…a kin to Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey (set in Victorian England).  Unlike Raybourn’s heroine, who sometimes is too tough and “un-Victorian” for the times, I felt Alexander and her Lady Emily hit just the right tones of passion and passiveness.  Though the ending got a little convoluted (I began to get some of the characters confused because of their titles and their flowery names…not to mention all of the place names), I still highly recommend this series for anyone who likes historical mysteries, female-based mysteries or vivid depictions and/or senses of place.  

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A fire races though a London private school and a mother rushes to save her daughter’s life. How the fire started provides the backdrop for this suspenseful thriller with paranormal aspects and graced with lyrical writing.

This novel with its realistic portrayal of contemporary families is heartbreaking in its tragic elements but appealing in its devotion to the protective instincts that are the core of the love between mothers and children. The twists and turns in the thriller are so well done that the culprit is revealed deftly in the final pages.

Readers of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Broken Harbor by Tana French will devour Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton.

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This debut novel from Chicago Tribune journalist (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Julia Keller is gripping from page one…reeling the reader in with clear depictions of small town life, adolescence, and brutal, senseless violence.  Starting out shortly before a seemingly random shooting, the story introduces us to a mother and daughter who are both at odds with each other.  The mother, Bell, works too much, overly dedicated to her job as prosecuting attorney for a small, impoverished county in West Virginia. And her daughter Carla is knee-deep in full-blown teenage rebellion.  Actually, that rebellion sets the stage for the story…while waiting for her mother to pick her up from mandatory “anger management” class, Carla witness one of the most violent acts in Acker’s Gap, WV.  After this, Carla becomes even more of a problem…not only is she still a behavior problem but now she also has upsetting, conflicting issues with what she witnessed.  Bell, in addition to dealing with Carla and with the hunt for the murderer(s), also has other issues contending for space in her frantic world.  Keller, as in her Chicago Tribune articles, truly does have a way with words… bringing characters, places and scenarios to life with true, vivid imagery.  This was one of the best written mysteries I’ve read in ages!  Hopefully, Acker’s Gap, along with Bell, Carla and the other colorful characters of this small town, will be back soon. 

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Recently, I ventured to Scotland for “holiday” (as the Brits call their vacations), armed with my iPad, loaded with an Ian Rankin mystery.  Rankin, a Scot, is best known for his Inspector Rebus series, set in the gritty underbelly of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh. I’ve read quite a few Rankin books, both from his lengthy John Rebus series and his standalone thrillers, and have always been mystified at what drives an author to set story after story in the same town (there are 19 Rebus books in the series, which the author ended in 2007).

Once in the historic city, I began to see what inspired Rankin to write Rebus in Edinburgh for 20 years (his first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, was published in 1987).   Edinburgh, like any major city, is chaotic and cluttered and dirty and crowded and on and on.  But, UNLIKE most major cities (especially the ones on THIS side of the pond), Edinburgh is filled with a captivating and fascinating history around every corner.  And, because of its hilly, winding streets and dark gray buildings (the porous stone has absorbed years of soot and dirt), not to mention the pretty regular mist and/or fog that hangs over the atmosphere, Edinburgh lends itself perfectly to the criminal element.  This is not to say I encountered any nefarious sorts in Edinburgh (hardly! — unless you count men in kilts nefarious) but I can understand why Rankin’s Rebus feels so at home here…fighting crime in a city from another time…feeling almost like another world.  So, if you want to visit Edinburgh, you can either hop a plane at O’Hare or you can pick up a John Rebus mystery by Ian Rankin.  Both give off the same eerie effect, but one will be MUCH easier on your wallet (whether in British Pounds or dollars!).

Oh, and Rebus is also available as a TV series on DVD: the first set with John Hannah as Rebus and the three more sets with Ken Stott as the Edinburgh inspector.

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From Chicago author Libby Fischer Hellmann, here’s a top-notch mystery with a strong female main character, Georgia Davis.  She’s feisty, proud, confident and able.  She’s a good PI who isn’t a “superhero” type…meaning she get afraid and is not ashamed to show it.  In Doubleback, Davis gets involved with a kidnapping/murder/financial malfeasance plot that takes her from Chicago to the Arizona-Mexico border.  Hellmann’s writing style is good, though I think sometimes she can be a bit choppy.  But, the great character construction and well-laid-out plot make up for this. Though the plot can be a bit far-fetched (as most thrillers and mysteries can be), Davis also seems believable in her role…meaning she doesn’t just happen to “fall” into situations, rather the escapades she finds herself in are essential to the plot.   I would read more tales about Georgia Davis and her sometimes partner-in-crime Ellie Foreman (Hellmann does a series with Foreman as more of a primary character too).

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Knowing I’m always in the market for a good mystery, especially a good British one, I recently got a recommendation to read the Ruth Galloway series from Elly Griffiths.  And what I discovered is a fantastic new writer who weaves an excellent British mystery with an archaeological spin. Set in the eastern English county of Norfolk, Ruth is an archeologist who gets called in by the local authorities to check the age of a skeleton that was found. This find leads to Ruth getting emerged in a missing person’s case and a whole web of mystery and murder. I VERY MUCH liked the chemistry between Ruth and the inspector who works with her…Nelson. And a surprise at the end of the book means that their relationship is only beginning.  Nelson is the kind of “man-you-love-to-hate…” meaning he’s gruff and harsh, with a sweet side and a heart of gold.  And Ruth herself is a refreshing female mystery character, who is less amateur sleuth and more “right place, right time” gal.  She never ASKS to be involved in the police investigation…it just sort of happens.  And Ruth is full of spunk and vitality, though she’s more than her fair share of self-effacing. I will read more from Griffiths and look forward to where she leads Ruth and Nelson next!

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OK — I LOVE this series but some of the more recent ones of the series have been just so-so. As with all of them in the Lady Julia Grey series, Raybourn pairs Grey with her now-husband, private investigator Nicholas Brisbane, who is trying his best to control Julia’s wild and un-ladylike impulses. In this book, Brisbane and Julia find themselves embroiled in a murder inquiry where psychics and séances are par for the course. Naturally, their lives are in perpetual danger as they do their investigating, but that never slows them down much. Since they are now married, the sexual tension has been replaced by a type of fun, bickering tension…Brisbane is always worried about Julia…Julia is always upset he does not include her in his investigating. Yes, it sounds a little tedious, but somehow Raybourn makes it work. The first one in this series, Silent in the Grave, is still the best, but this one is a close second! I’m glad Raybourn is back in top form!

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A new London crime detective takes to the big city streets with a vengeance.  There is a little political intrigue mixed up with the murders John Carlyle is investigating…the case involves a former Cambridge University club filled with future politicos who are being killed off one by one years later. Carlyle is a believable London inspector who fights crime with a passion, though the writing could be a little better and the book does have its fair share of cliches.  Not the best British mystery (by a long shot) but far from the worst.  Definitely something for British mystery lovers to try. 

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