The Red Palace by June Hur

“I wanted to love and be loved. I wanted to be known. I wanted to be understood and accepted.”

The Red Palace makes for a fairly suspenseful read, one that will definitely appeal to fans of YA mysteries where the lead girl goes all Nancy Drew trying to figure out who the culprit is. And of course, given the setting, Korea in 1758, The Red Palace will likely appeal to fans of historical K-dramas. Personally, I think The Red Palace is the kind of book I would have loved 10 years or so ago. Now, I am a bit more nitpicky and there are a few things that prevented me from being fully immersed in Hyeon’s story.

“We are women,” she continued, “and nothing short of death stops us from doing precisely what we wish to do. That is what the laws and restrictions binding our lives breed: determination and cunning. The likes of you will not obey me. You will tell me that you intend to be as still as a rock, and yet I know you will dart from shadow to shadow like a fish.”

Hyeon is the illegitimate daughter of Lord Shin, who refuses to acknowledge her as his daughter. In their kingdom, Hyeon is seen as ‘belonging’ only to her mother, one of Lord Shin’s concubines, and therefore belongs to the ‘cheonmin class’ which she describes as ‘the lowest of the low’. Hyeon refuses to grow up into her mother however and dedicates herself to the study of medicine, eventually earning the coveted position of palace nurse. Hyeon hopes that her hard-work and ambition will result in her father’s approval but he continues to largely ignore her existence.
Hyeon’s life is upended when four women are murdered at the palace, most of whom were nurses like her. After her beloved mentor is accused and arrested for these murders Hyeon is determined to clear her name. Concerning rumours around the city claim that the Crown Prince is the killer, and Hyeon has no choice but to pursue this lead, even if doing so could potentially result in her ruin. Thankfully, Hyeon doesn’t have to navigate this world of dangerous court intrigues alone as she is aided by Eojin, an actual police officer. Eojin has some personal reasons for wanting to find the real killer so the two decide to combine their efforts. As they confront various people of interest they slowly begin to untangle the truth…of course, not everyone is happy with that and Hyeon risks losing what she’s worked so hard for.

The stakes were certainly high in this novel so I found myself reading this in quite a short amount of time, wanting to find out how our leads would manage to bring the real killer to justice.
The historical setting is the most well-developed aspect of the narrative. While there were some interactions that had slightly ‘modern’ dynamics (especially between the two leads), overall I liked the amount of detail that went into the setting. The author does use Hyeon as an ‘intermediary’ to the Joseon period (she sometimes forget certain key factors of her society, and asks someone to fill her in, other times she explains about Confucianism or other things that she would not really need to ‘explain’ to herself) but it kind of works as Hyeon does function as an extension of the reader. Her Daddy Issues™ and her role as a nurse are her main defining characteristic, which didn’t make for a truly fleshed out and fully dimensional character. All of the characters, in general, were fairly one-note, even Eojin. The story was more interested in establishing and exploring the setting and the mystery than in developing its characters. I am the type of reader who prefers character-driven stories (rather than plot-driven) so I wasn’t quite able to love this as much as I hoped I would. The mystery itself was a bit predictable, but that’s probably because I have read a ton of thrillers and whodunnits…(and watched one too many scooby-doo episodes/movies). Still, even if the storyline was vaguely formulaic I liked learning more about the Joseon era and I appreciated that the story isn’t romance heavy. Hyeong struggle for self-worth and self-actualization in a society that sees her as ‘less than’ was compelling, and the author also does a good job in regards to her conflicted feelings towards her father (wanting his love and respect while at the same time resenting what he stands for and the way he has treated her and his mother). The writing was at times a bit too dramatic and cheesy for my tastes (“silence fell, as chilling as the shadows enveloping us”, “a thought lurked in the far shadows of my mind”, “we seemed to have, in that moment, merged into one mind with one purpose: find the killer, find the truth”, “revenge begets revenge […] we become the monsters we are trying to punish”, “[her] mouth parted as though in a silent scream”). Still, I recognize that this type of style may very well work for other readers.
The romance was surprisingly cute. In fact, the ‘partnership’ between our leads was one of the most enjoyable things about the story. During their shared scenes Hyeon character became a bit more rounded and interesting.

All in all, I liked The Red Palace well enough! I would definitely recommend you check this one out for yourself and make up your own mind about it.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Cheesy, boring, poorly executed. While there is indeed a murder and the identity behind the culprit is, supposedly, a ‘mystery’, The Widows of Malabar Hill struck me as something in the realms of a third-rate period drama. The first part of the novel introduces us to Perveen Mistry, our protagonist, and works to establish the setting, which is 1920s Bombay. While the author succeeds in depicting the realities of colonialism, of being female in India at this time in history, and in providing her readers with some degree of insight into Zoroastrian and Muslim traditions, the setting wasn’t particularly vivid. There are some info-dumpings now and again which read like something straight out of a textbook (aimed at younger audiences due to the dumbing down of certain facts). Anyway, Perveen’s family is Zoroastrian and has begun working at her father’s law firm. Being the only, or one of the first, female lawyers in India comes with many challenges but thanks to her father’s endless belief in her capabilities and her law degree from Oxford Perveen feels ready for what’s in store. She becomes involved with the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a well-off Muslim man who had three wives. As these recently widowed women reside in a purdah, a secluded and strictly, children aside, strictly female space, Perveen is the ideal go-between. Perveen is worried that they are being taken advantage of as they seemed to have signed over their inheritance. We also read of Perveen’s British friend Alice who has returned to India after spending time abroad.
The flat if occasionally ridiculous writing (at one point Perveen is telling someone not to touch her briefcase and instead of having her ‘shout’, to indicate her panic, this happens: “It’s mine!” she bleated. what is she? a goat?!) was bearable but the slow-moving plot was a chore to get through. When the murder finally happens we get a flashback related to Perveen’s past lasting 50+ pages or so that bares little revelance to what had so far happened. The author paints a sloppy picture of an abusive marriage which seemed very much soap opera material. The abusive husband is one of the most one-dimensional characters that I’ve come across in a while, and that’s saying something.

Perveen is portrayed as Not Like Other Girls because she’s smart and interested in the law. The murder mystery is a mere blip in this melodrama-driven narrative. We don’t even get to spend that much time with the widows and their characters suffer because of it. The last scene was pure cheese (“To the power of women!” Alice toasted. “To the power of women” Perveen answered as their glasses clinked.).
I was hoping that this would be something in the realms of Agatha Christie or Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries but this book was anything but. It was more focused on Perveen’s married life and it wasted a lot of page-time in rehashing how it started and how it ended. As I found the author’s general delivery to be dry I had a hard time caring about anything that was happening or that was being recounted. Perveen grated on my nerves as she acted without thinking and did not strike me as particularly clever or caring. Alice’s personality was being English and gay. Perveen’s mother plays barely a role in the story, her father is largely overlooked, and her uni friends we briefly meet in that first flashback, well, they were mere background figures.
If you are interested in reading this I recommend you check out more positive reviews. I, for one, will be giving its sequels a large berth.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

Crime And Punishment: A Novel in Six Parts with Epilogue by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is a favourite of mine so I was expecting Crime And Punishment be right up my street…aaaaand I hated it.

Many consider Crime And Punishment to be one of the most influential books of all time…and I have to wonder…how? The Idiot, although certainly flawed, tells a far more cohesive and compelling narrative. The central figure of Crime And Punishment is an angsty and hypocritical wanker. I do not have to like a character to ‘root’ for them but Dostoyevsky, man, you gotta give me something…anything! Instead we have this appealing main character who for reasons unknown to me manages to captivate everybody’s attention.

Crime And Punishment is divided in six parts. In the first one—which I actually kind of liked—we are introduced to Rodion Raskolnikov an impoverished young man who dropped out of university and is now forced to go to a pawnbroker for funds. He believes that his financial circumstances are the only thing standing in the way of a ‘good’ life so he decides to kill the pawnbroker, telling himself that she is a callous old woman who sort of deserves to meet a violent end. In this first part Raskolnikov has various monologues, in which he argues with himself. A letter from his mother, informing him that his sister is engaged to an older man of affluence, he kind of looses it. He also meets another ‘tormented’ soul, Marmeladov, an alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who basically tells Raskolnikov his life story (his incoherent ramblings go on for pages and pages and pages).
Raskolnikov uses an axe to kill the pawnbroker but things, predictably, don’t go quite as he had planned.

The follow five parts haven’t all that much to do with this murder or with the detective who is pursuing Raskolnikov. After committing this crime Raskolnikov falls ill, he faints more often than Harry Potter and Frodo combined. Lots of people try to help him but he remains an asshole. Razumíkhin, who was also forced to drop out of university due to his finances, is utterly loyal to him. And…why? Even prior his ‘madness’ it seems that Raskolnikov was a noxious mix of moody and unpleasant. Then these two are joined by Raskolnikov’s sister and mother, and by the two ‘bad’ men who are interested in his sister. And of course, we also get some more of Marmeladov and his family, in particular his daughter, a beautiful prostitute whose childlike appearance (insert puking sounds here) and inherent purity make Raskolnikov besotted with her.

Everyone goes on a tirade, no one makes any bloody sense. Ramblings here, ramblings there, ramblings every fucking where. The dialogues are repetitive, the plot makes no sense (convenient coincidences aside it seems odd that Raskolnikov would not think back to his article on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ criminals just once in part one or two given what he wanted to and what he ended up doing), and I have 0 tolerance for grown ass men finding women attractive because they have ‘childlike’ physiques, temperaments, or features. And of course, here we have women who tremble like leaves.

There were so many over the top moments and whereas I found this fantastical realism amusing in The Idiot here they just annoyed me. Raskolnikov is dumb, he isn’t a brilliant criminal, or a genius, or master manipulator, or even charming…he just is. He makes so many avoidable mistakes, which made me wonder why it took the detective so long to finally confront him. Speaking of the deceive, his scenes with Raskolnikov had this very ‘anime’ feel to them (which works in parodies such as Love is War) and I could not for the life of me take them seriously.

What kind of point was this book trying to make? I have no clue. I did not enjoy the discussions on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ men, which seem to suggest that the reason why the detective is so in awe of Raskolnikov is that he considers him to be an ‘extraordinary’ individual, one who should not be punished as hard as ‘ordinary’ individual should. Yikes.

To quote Nabokov: Dostoyevsky’s “sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment—by this reader anyway”.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie — book review

Death on the Nile is one of Agatha Christie’s most ingenious mysteries. While Christie has definitely penned more ‘twisty’ whoddunits, the shifting dynamics between the book’s various players make for a suspenseful story.
With the exception of our wonderfully punctilious Poirot, Death on the Nile is almost entirely populated by unlikable characters (who are either blatantly racist or express misogynistic and classist sentiments). While Christie’s characters are in essence stereotypes—the self-centred socialites, the oppressive mothers, the vociferous communist, the self-effacing plain-Jane, the vengeful scorned woman—to dismiss them as ‘shallow’ or ‘caricatures’ is rather unjustified. Through her sharp-wit, Christie observes how duplicitous her characters are, regardless of their class and gender. The murder victim is initially presented as heroine of sorts: admired for her beauty, wealth, and altruism. But, here and there, we see glimpses of her flippant and selfish nature.
Throughout the course of the novel, Poirot, as per usual, demonstrates the power of his little grey cells. His denouement, however, wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed how enraged the suspects became once Poirot confronts them about their lies (I mean, they had it coming).

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Adventures of Isabel: An Epitome Apartments Mystery by Candas Jane Dorsey — book review

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“I spend my days staring at the wall and fantasising about disembowelling my cat as an offering to whatever bitch goddess has been organising my life lately. I am so depressed that if I could motivate myself to it I’d commit suicide, but it’s too proactive for me.”

The subtitle of this novel is quite apt: ‘A Postmodern Mystery’. The Adventures of Isabel is to detective/mystery fiction what Picasso is to Turner. Candas Jane Dorsey has written an absorbing and extremely metafictional (the narrator frequently ‘breaks’ the fourth wall) mystery that feels very much of ‘the now’. The novel’s unmanned narrator, single, ambisexual, in her late thirties, a downsized social worker, is down on her luck. Her life takes an interesting turn when Maddy, the granddaughter of one her closest friends, is found murdered. Because of Maddy’s line of work, Hep (aka her grandmother) believes that the police won’t be solve her case.

“Hep then named an hourly rate which made even my overinflated self-indulgent subconscious blink, and between the emotional blackmail of being reminded how much I owed Denis, the memory of my empty cupboard, evocations of the pitiful dead kid, and greed, I was persuaded—provisionally, with confirmation to be given once I sobered up—to give up my career as a call girl and become a detective.”

Our protagonist begrudgingly takes on the role of ‘detective’, using her knowledge of the city’s underbelly she uses a police connection and her extensive social network to solve Maddy’s murderer. Her investigation is anything but straightforward, and often falls into the absurd a la Alice in Wonderland. The novel is less interested in the plot than it is with ‘style’. The spotlight remains on the protagonist’s meta narration. Dorsey’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a ‘contemporary’ society is delightfully humorous.
The cast of characters are as entertaining as our narrator, and often their conversations spiral into the nonsensical. I particularly liked the narrator’s relationship with her religious cousin and Jian (who is beyond cool). There are some running gags (Bunnywit’s ‘original’ name, the fish sticks) that make the narrator’s reality feel familiar.
As much as I loved the narrator’s metafictional asides, or her ramblings on other characters’ word-choices, it did seem that the ‘murder story’ was lost in all this postmodern cacophony. Amidst the characters’ digressing discussions and our mc’s various monologues, I often lost sight of the actual investigation. Still, I liked Dorsey’s original approach to this genre, and I really ‘clicked’ with her protagonist. Without loosing the lighthearted tone of her narrative, Dorsey manages to directly address issues such as gender, sexuality, and race.
The novel’s strength is in its energetic narrative and in the protagonist’s dark humour. I will quite happily read another novel about this main character as I would like to learn more of her backstory.

My rating: 3.25 of 5 stars

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Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie — book review

51wWO72YhvL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis was a light and entertaining read perfect for a warm summer day.
Christie must have had fun writing the character of Mrs Boynton, an oppressive and tyrannical matriarch who wouldn’t be out of place in a story by Shirley Jackson. The hatred that Mrs Boynton’s children nurture for their mother seems understandable…and I doubt that any reader will find themselves saddened by her death. Poirot, as per usual, happens to be in the vicinity and, unlike the readers, is unwilling to let the murderer go…
Christie’s portrays Mrs Boynton in a vivid and dramatic way, and it often in the scenes in which she is spoken of, where she does not feature directly, that we see how terrifying a person she is. Her children, although they fear and resent her, are mere puppets in her hands.
However, even if I enjoyed reading this novel, this is one of the few cases were I preferred ITV’s adaptation…perhaps because they change the identity and motive of the murderer, which in the novel feel somewhat unsatisfying

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars stars

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Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz — book review

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I like to think of myself as a “serious” Agatha Christie fan. With the exception of one or two books—aberrations of some sort—I have always enjoyed reading Christie. I also happen to be a huge fan of the Poirot ITV series (starring the impeccable David Suchet) on which Horowitz has worked on. As Horowitz demonstrates in Magpie Murders, he knows a lot about whodunnits, particularly those that are considered to belong to the ‘golden age’ of detective fiction.

Magpie Murders is both a homage and satire of the detective genre. In a similar vein to The Silkworm, this novel focuses on a writer, Alan Conway, whose latest—and last—manuscript brings about some drama. In Conway Horowitz presents readers with the epitome of the self-important and unpleasant writer, and it’s easy to see why his editor—and one of the narrators—Susan Ryeland wants little do with him. Yet, asshe informs us in the very first pages of this novel, Conway’s last manuscript will change her life.
Knowing this, we then read the manuscript alongside her, and Horowitz utilises the device of the story-within-a-story perfectly, giving each narrative more or less the same length. Conway’s novel is full of easter eggs, many of which Susan decodes later on, and I had a lot of fun reading this quintessentially British whodunnit. The narrative, for Conway’s novel and Susan’s story, shows a self-awareness in its use of certain tropes and devices.
This was a fun read that kept me entertained from its opening page to its final one.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz — book review

The Word Is Murder offers readers a mixture of old and new.
The prose and murder-mystery are heavily reminiscent of Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey, whom are often referred as the most prominent golden age detective fiction writers. What is innovative about The Word Is Murder is that it blurs the line 9780062676788_custom-7786acbfe35f1fe03f3898d44d248ca8035f2f4b-s400-c85.jpgbetween fiction and non-fiction as the protagonist and narrator of the novel is Anthony Horowitz himself. While Daniel Hawthorne, the murder victim, and the ‘suspects’ are fictive characters, there are quite a lot of real people in the story.

Another thing that made this ‘whodunnit’ interesting is that Hawthorne, a former police detective, is not a nice person. Holmes and Poirot, in spite of their peculiarities, are likeable characters. Hawthorne, as Horowitz often points out, is a rather rude man, and readers too will find the detective’s closed-off manner and barely concealed homophobia hard to digest. Yet, even if we do not like him, it would be foolish to deny his great detective skills (he is incredibly observant) and in the end, although irked by many of his qualities and opinions, I found myself rooting for him.
Not only does Horowitz find himself ‘assisting’ a man he dislikes in what could or could not be a murder investigation but he also has to write about it so he often reminiscence about his writing and creating process. In doing so, Horowitz also paints an amusing picture of the publishing and literary world.

This novel combines two of my favourite things: a whodunnit nestled in a book about books. An amusing investigation that isn’t as predictable as readers are initially led to believe.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4 because the audiobook edition is superbly narrated)

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The Divinities: A Crane and Drake Novel by Parker Bilal — book review

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The Divinities: A Crane and Drake Novel is the promising start to the ‘Crane ad Drake’ series. This events recounted by the narrative take place over the course of a few days which adds a sense of urgency and suspense to the storyline.
We follow two somewhat disgraced figures, the recently demoted Detective Sergeant Calil Drake and forensic psychologist Dr Rayhana Crane. Both have involved with ‘scandals’ of sorts which made them all the more keen to prove themselves (although they might claim otherwise…). Most of the action takes place in a hectic London which thanks to Bilal’s writing buzzes with a barely contained chaotic energy. Be it day or night, we see many of London’s faces…
Against this urban and shifting backdrop Drake—and later on Crane—attempt, in a fight against time, to catch the person responsible for a brutal murder. Drake possesses many of the qualities of the usual noir protagonist: poor lifestyle, works too much, drinks too much, not very social. He reminded me a bit of Strike from The Cuckoo’s Calling. He is the type who does things his own way regardless of what his superiors or the public might think. I was soon fond of him as we see many of the reasons and causes that have lead him to become the person he is now, navigating a city and a country which keeps reminding him that he will never quite belong. Many of the people he encounters in his investigations will tell him to ‘switch’ sides, or downright accuse him as a traitor (since for a period of time he was a devoted Muslim). Crane too has acquired a status of outsider given that within her profession she is considered a ‘rarity’ (as she is a) a woman 2) born in Tehran). So it isn’t surprising that the two become allies of sorts..
It was interesting to see differentiating perspective on the same topics, in a way that never demonises or condemns those who hold that view. There were discussion on terrorism, xenophobia, gentrification, class divide, war, PTSD…in many ways this novel taps into many topical issues but it does so in a realistic and matter-of-fact way.
The storyline closely follows Drake’s investigation, and we follow each step of the operation. Milo and Kelly provided some welcome diversion and gave Drake the opportunity to showcase some ‘warmer’ emotions. The investigations sees Drake and his ‘team’ following different leads, hunches, and testimonies…The ending act was a tad overdone (view spoiler).
Still, I was hooked by the very first page where we are introduced to Drake…who is taking a piss after a drink too many. If you like noir, or gritty crime novels, The Divinities might be the right read for you.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

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