BOOK REVIEWS

A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion

“That summer when I so desperately tried to reel us all in, I didn’t understand the forces spinning us apart.”

The opening of A Crooked Tree is certainly chilling. Libby, our fifteen-year old narrator, is in the car with her siblings. When their squabbling gets too much their mother dumps twelve-year old Ellen on the side of the road. Hours pass, and to Libby’s increasing concern Ellen has yet to arrive. When Ellen finally makes an appearance, something has clearly happened to her.

Sadly, the suspenseful atmosphere that is so palpable at the start of this novel gives way to a slightly more predictable coming-of-age. The premise made me think that A Crooked Tree would be something in the realms of Winter’s Bone (we have the rural setting, the dysfunctional family, the bond between the siblings). But A Crooked Tree tells a far more conventional story: a summer of revelations (from the realisations that the adults around you have their own secrets to the having to say goodbye to the innocence of childhood). While what happened to Ellen certainly has an impact on the storyline, A Crooked Tree is not a mystery or thriller. We follow Libby as she fights and makes peace with her best friend and siblings, we learn of her less than stellar home-life, and, most of all, of her dislike of the neighbourhood’s bad boy (this last tread was pretty annoying). I did appreciate how vivid the setting was, from the references to 80s culture to Libby’s environment (she is particularly attuned to nature). I also really enjoyed the family dynamics and the unease that permeated many of the scenes. The author succeeds particularly in capturing that period of transition, from childhood to adolescence, without being sentimental.

What ultimately did not work for me was Libby herself. She’s hella bland. Love for trees aside there was little to her character. While her siblings, bff, and adults around her were fully fleshed out, Libby’s personality remains largely unexplored. Her obsession with the ‘bad boy’ was also really grating and her refusal to see him as anything but bad news didn’t ring entirely true. A lot of the observations she makes about the people around her seemed to originate from someone far more mature and insightful that she was (as in, they did not really seem to stem from the mind of a particularly naive 15-year old girl). Elle, although younger, would have made for a more convincing and interesting narrator. Libby…is painfully vanilla.

Still, Libby aside, I did find this novel to be engaging, occasionally unsettling, and exceedingly nostalgic.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★ ¼

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The Devotion of Suspect X (Detective Galileo #1) by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect X is an unusual detective novel. By the end of the first chapter readers witness the murder that is at the centre of this novel. We know the identity and motivations of the perpetrator. What follows is a compulsive game of cat-and-mouse between ‘detective Galileo’ and Suspect X. At times this felt like a chess game, in which two highly intelligent individuals try to outmanoeuvre each other.
The final chapters of this novel took me by surprise and answered some of my niggling questions regarding the actions of a certain character. Still, [SPOILERS] I’m not quite certain why he just didn’t leave the ex-husband in the river or whatever it was…why let the police find a body in the first place? The ex-wife would have been questioned but if they had no proof of the guy being dead, surely they would have soon moved to more urgent cases…especially considering that this guy wasn’t exactly a model citizen and his disappearance could have been chalked up to loansharks or something…but then we wouldn’t have a novel so…[END SPOILERS].
I think this is a novel that to best appreciated this novel one should know very little about its plot and characters before picking it up. If you like tales of suspense, police procedural, and clever mysteries, you should definitely give The Devotion of Suspect X.
The only thing that kept me from giving this book a higher rating were the characters themselves. I found some of them to be a bit wooden, and I also wasn’t particularly keen on that ending.

My rating: 3 ¼ 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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The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht — book review

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“He was alone and hungry, and that hunger, coupled with the thunderous noise of bombardment, had burned in him a kind of awareness of his own death, an imminent and innate knowledge he could neither dismiss nor succumb to.”

To begin with I was intrigued by Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Obreht’s writing is both intelligent and beautifully oblique. Her descriptions of the moral and physical landscape of the Balkans are evocatively rendered. Although Obreht avoids naming countries, alluding merely to ‘my side’ and ‘their side’, she does give her readers a strong impression of the communities she writes of. Whether she is describing them before or after this ‘unnamed’ war, her prose is piercing. She easily disentangles the feelings that different generations have during a war.

Populated with folkloric characters and examining themes such as cultural memory and death, I was prepared to be mesmerised by The Tiger’s Wife. The tale within tale structure of her novel brought to mind some personal favourites (such as books by Elif Shafak and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land) but I soon found myself wanting the narrative to focus and develop our protagonist more. Natalia Stefanovi’s personality remains off-stage, and she often seemed to function as a mere mouthpiece for her grandfather. The few scenes which gave us an impression of their relationship were far more poignant than those countless ones focusing on Galina’s residents. Ultimately Natalia’s narrative feels meaningless. She doesn’t embark on a quest nor does she come to re-asses her grandfather or his stories, she seems merely to be reiterating these tales, and she offers few personal insights.
The tiger, Gavran Gailé (the deathless man who Natalia’s grandfather encountered years before), and the deaf-mute woman know as the tiger’s wife were the figures to which the various tales stories returning to. While the tiger was painted in a fascinating and mythical light, the tiger’s wife struck me as a passive and one-dimensional character.
While Obreht’s depictions of death, illness, and war are haunting, and her story does reveal the desperation and exhaustion experienced by those in war-torn countries, I did find her story to be ultimately inconclusive. If Natalia had played a more active role in the novel I would probably enjoyed this novel more.
Still, Obreht’s prose does merit attention, and I will certainly be reading her next novels.

“It was another thing they never talked about, a fact I knew somehow without knowing how I’d ever heard about it, something buried so long ago, in such absolute silence, that I could go for years without remembering it. When I did, I was always stunned by the fact that they had survived it, this thing that sat between them, barricaded from everyone else, despite which they had been able to cling together, and raise my mother, and take trips, and laugh, and raise me.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune — book review

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“He was here to observe and nothing more. He couldn’t influence the orphanage. It wouldn’t be proper. The RULES AND REGULATIONS were specific about such matters.”

The House in the Cerulean Sea tells an equal parts heartwarming and silly tale. The world in this novel is fairly reminiscent of our own one however its pages are full of magical people and creatures. The government closely monitors those who are deemed not human and they are raised in government sanctioned orphanages.
As a case worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth (often abbreviated to DICOMY) Linus Baker, a solitary forty year old, oversees and inspects these orphanages. His job consists in ensuring the children’s wellbeing and that the people who are running these orphanages are following DICOMY guidelines. Linus himself abides by DICOMY’s strict rules and regulations.
His routine is brusquely interrupted when he is summoned by DICOMY’s Extremely Upper Management, only to be unexpectedly tasked with an unusual and highly sensitive assignment: he has to leave the city and travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage. The orphanage is run by the rather mysterious and eccentric Arthur Parnassus. It is up to Linus to determine whether the six children who reside there (a female gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist) should be taken away from the Island.
As the story progresses Linus begins to question DICOMY and its methods. Once he is able to move past what his case files tell him about these children, he begins to see them in their own right.

In the novel magical powers/appearances is a metaphor for being different. They are isolated from ‘ordinary’ humans, raised in controlled environments, treated with mistrust and or outright hatred. Linus finds himself challenging his own assumptions and preconceptions about these children.
Ultimately this is a story about the family that you choose: Linus himself has always felt like he doesn’t quite belong. On the Island, alongside the children and Arthur, he starts to feel more at ease with who he is as well as the type of person he wants to be.
The novel is filled with quirky humour and charming dialogues. There were quite a few elements that struck me as being a bit too silly for my taste, so that occasionally the story verged on being ridiculous (such as all of those ‘Oh My’ that Linus utters) but for the most part I liked this novel, it even made me smile here and there.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach — book review

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“A year or so after my mother died, I received an unexpected inheritance.”

In Confession with Blue Horses Sophie Hardach captures the fraught atmosphere between East and West Germany.

When Ella, a rather aimless thirty-something year old, comes across some of her mother’s diaries, she’s drawn back to her birth city, Berlin, where, assisted by an intern archivist, she will try to uncover who betrayed her parents all those years ago and the fate of her younger brother, Heiko.
Moving between past and contemporary Berlin, Hardach’s contrasts the stifling climate, as well as fear and suspicion, that pervaded the lives of GDR citizens to the bohemian and artistic Berlin of the 2010s. Yet, as Ella discovers on her trip, few people have forgotten the past.

While the ‘daughter finds papers/diaries from a female relative and decides to uncover secrets from the past’ is a rather tired premise, Hardach focuses on a time that has not received enormous attention in fiction (these type of dual narratives usually take place between now and WWII). Hardach excels in depicting Berlin and its different people, showing us that families, like Ella’s, can have divided allegiances. Rather than completely demonising those who worked for or respected the GDR, she gives these characters a chance to express themselves and their views. Her narrative navigates themes such as guilt and culpability with poignancy.
Given the nature of this story’s subject Hardach touches upon some frankly horrific topics, but she does so with an unsentimental approach.

What perhaps kept me from being fully immersed in this novel was the characterisation of certain characters. While those who have only small appearances struck me as believable, Ella and her family lacked…personality. Her parents and Toby in particular seemed somewhat unfinished portraits. While I understood that someone with PTSD could be a difficult character to render, someone like Toby should have had a lot more development. Ella too was very much reduced to her quest to find the truth about her parents failed escape attempt and of what happened to her little brother. Supposedly she is an artist but she never seems to think of her art or artistic process.

Not only does the storyline switch between Ella’s childhood to her present but there are a few chapters from the third perspective that focus on Aaron. These chapters felt somewhat out of place. Aaron remained a bit of a non-entity, whose only purpose is to assist Ella in her quest.

While I really appreciated the way Hardach’s handles difficult subjects matters, the wit and sorrow of her prose, and the mentions of Christa Wolf, part of me was left wanting more. The storyline treads a familiar and fairly predictable path.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Dragon Keeper: A novel by Mindy Mejia — book review

The Dragon Keeper tells a very specific type of story. This the third novel I’ve read by Mindy Mejia and it certainly has a unique premise. Mejia’s books differ in style and subject-manner, yet genre distinctions aside, each one of her story is underlined by a tense atmosphere. Most of The Dragon Keeper takes place in the zoo where Meg Yancy works. Meg is the keeper of her zoo’s Komodo dragon, Jata. Having never been close to her parents or her phlegmatic sort-of-boyfriend, Meg finds fulfilment in looking after Jata.51IxZjmAE2L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg
When the zoo discovers that has produced viable eggs, without mating, Jata begins to receive attention from the media and the scientific world. It becomes clear that Meg, who is closed-off and often abrasive, isn’t versed in zoo politics. While Meg may be Jata’s keeper, she has little control over the Komodo dragon’s future.
Moving from the time before and after the hatching of Jata’s eggs, The Dragon Keeper depicts Meg’s relationship to Jata. Meg wants the best for Jata yet she finds herself bending rules and ignoring signs that point to Jata’s predatory nature. Meg’s entanglement with a veterinary, who also happens to been her sworn enemy, further clouds her judgment.
There are a lot of interesting discussions in this narrative: on parthenogenesis, on Komodo dragons, on animals who are raised in zoos, on the advantages and disadvantages of zoos, on the way media manipulates facts, on parenting and on abortion.
There is also a sense of unease pervading the story. Meg makes quite a few hasty or questionable decisions and readers are given the impression that her behaviour will get her in trouble.
While I do wish that some of the characters had been more fully fleshed out, I was pleasantly surprised by the way in which certain minor characters were portrayed.
Given the narrow scope of this story, I don’t think that it will appeal to a lot of readers. Still, it is an interesting examination of a woman whose loneliness is assuaged by an animal who is often regarded as a threat. Mejia succeeds in making us care for Jata, without romanticising her or ascribing unrealistic attributes to her.
Poignant moments aside, The Dragon Keeper left me wanting more.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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A Castle in the Clouds by Kerstin Gier — book review

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“One thing was for sure: This Christmas was going to be anything but boring.”

A Castle in the Clouds is the book equivalent of cotton candy. Fluffy, sickly sweet, and somewhat insubstantial. Nevertheless, with its Clue meets Scooby Doo story this latest novel by Kerstin Gier makes for an entertaining, if silly, read.

A Castle in the Clouds follows the misadventures of Sophie Spark, a high-school drop out who is working as an intern at a grand hotel in the Swiss mountains. The hotel is no longer considered the luxury location it used to be. Many finds its traditional decor to be outdated and the general lack of modernity to be a nuisance. Sophie however enjoys the atmosphere of the place and it is only when she is assigned the role of babysitter that she begins to feel discontented. In preparation of the Christmas holidays the owners have also hired a lot of additional staff which includes three girls who enjoy bullying and belittling Sophie. It is the arrival of two handsome boys (one of which happens to be son of one of the owner’s) and some possibly mysterious guests that enliven Sophie’s life.
We have oligarchs, missing diamonds, possible kidnappers, some possible spies, a best-selling author, a bodyguard, and a lot of secrets.
Sophie embarks on a Nancy Drew type of investigation which sees her spying on staff, guests, and trying her best to prevent any shenanigans from ruining the hotel’s reputation and/or possibly risking both her job and life.

There was a fun mix of characters. Perhaps some of them should have been introduced at different times rather than bombarding with a lost list of names with no clear indication on who’s-who. While some of them were definitely cartoonish, it was interesting to see that there were quite a few who were not quite what they seemed.
Sophie perhaps encountered a few too many mishaps in her ‘investigation’. She was ‘act first, think later’ type of narrator. I appreciated the fact that she was a high-school drop out (in that so often YA books are all about the importance of high school and college) and that she was unsure on what exactly she wants to do in the future. She was naive, a bit clumsy, and fairly amusing.
The other teenage girls were….to be honest, I am a bit tired of this type of girl-on-girl hate. Only the quiet introverted teenage guest is nice to Sophie. Her new colleagues and the other rich American girls are awful. They are catty, coquettish, cruel, and vapid (really?!). There could have been a bit more variety in their personality and in their behaviour towards Sophie.
The two love interests were…okay. They were the least interesting characters in the story. They were good-looking and sort of nice to Sophie. To be honest, the romance felt very insta-lovey and this whole love triangle was unnecessary.
I also could have done without the creepy child with psychopathic tendencies (I forgot his name, but if you’ve read this you know who I mean). He was annoying and unrealistic.

The setting was the most interesting aspect of this book. Hotels have this ‘holiday/unreal’ quality that makes them the ideal locations of mysteries and romances. I liked reading about the staff and their routines. That this story takes place in the winter holidays adds a certain atmosphere to whole narrative.
The tone of this book was a bit weird in that it constantly switches from being rather juvenile to a more YA type of story. Still, for the most part I did enjoy the novel’s humour and surprising self-awareness (there were even some metafictional moments).
All in all, in spite of its flaws A Castle in the Clouds makes for a cozy winter read.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

2505972493_e0150cbe1c_b.jpgInvitation to the Waltz is a short novel which was first published in 1932 and written by Rosamond Lehmann, an overlooked yet clearly talented author. The narrative takes place over the course of two days: the day of Olivia Curtis’ seventeenth birthday and the day in which, together with her older sister Kate and a dullish male chaperone, she goes to her first dance.

“And they waltzed together to the music made for joy. She danced with him in love and sorrow. He held her close to him, and he was far away from her, far from the music, buried and indifferent. She danced with his youth and his death.”

This is not the type of novel that has a clear storyline or plot. Lehmann spends a large portion of her narrative conveying Olivia’s various states of mind and detailing the frivolous chit-chat between the people around her on these two separate days (from her family members to her neighbours).
From the start readers will be aware of Olivia’s self-awareness over her own shyness and inexperience. Feeling inferior to the more mature and beautiful Kate, Olivia is desperately looking forward to her first dance as she hopes that something will happen there, even if she does not know exactly what that something should or will be. Lehmann skilfully renders Olivia’s innermost thoughts, emphasising the elusive shape of her desires. Olivia’s character brought to mind the nameless narrator of Rebecca as they are both almost painfully aware of being seen as young and green by the people around them. Olivia comes to mythologize the dance, regarding this event as something more than a rite of passage.

Lehmann’s style possesses an unflagging rhythm that effectively propels readers along. Between Olivia’s inner monologue and the constant—and often empty—chatter between the various characters Lehmann’s narrative almost becomes too much. The way in which she moves from conversation to conversation or from thought to thought gave her style a syncopated energy that was too nervy for my liking (it brought to mind the writing of Muriel Spark and Dorothy Baker).
I can definitely see why many readers compare Lehmann to Virginia Woolf. At the best of times I will find stream of consciousness to be too florid for my taste…so I was slightly put off by Lehmann’s use of this technique.

The long-awaited dance did not strike me as particularly memorable as lot of potentially significant scenes or conversations are absorbed into the noisy and forgettable chatter and general hubbub of the party.

On the one hand, I appreciated how upbeat this novel is and the way Lehmann captured that awkward transition between girlhood and adulthood…on the other, I can’t say that I was particularly engaged by her narrative or her characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Long Bright River by Liz Moore — book review

Untitled drawing (4).jpgSet against the opioid crisis in Philadelphia Liz Moore’s thought-provoking novel portrays the long-lasting and devastating effects that addiction have on an individual, on a family, and on an entire neighbourhood.

“These girls, he says. He looks at me and puts one finger to his right temple, taps it twice. Stupid, is what he means. No sense.”

In Long Bright River Moore focuses her narrative on the fraught relationship between two sisters, showing the circumstances that can lead to or result in addiction, parental negligence, and crime. Sadly, what had the potential of being a captivating tale is somewhat let down by an uneven structure and an undeveloped murder storyline.

The Good
The setting of this novel is strikingly rendered. Moore has done an amazing job in depicting both Philadelphia. The neighbourhood of Kensington, the area in which much of the story’s action takes place, comes alive on Moore’s pages. Kensington is reputed has having the highest rates of heroin use in the United States. On its streets there is crime, addiction, and prostitution. While Moore does capture its desperation, she also introduces us to some of its compassionate inhabitants. Readers get a nuanced yet unflinching look at this neighbourhood. There are entire families that fall into drugs. One’s parents, one’s uncles and aunts, and one’s cousin. We understand how difficult it is to break this cycle. Nature and nurture are both to blame for the way in which many children follow the same pattern as their parents and lead a life of crime and addiction. Rather than just presenting us with a Hollywood version of an addict or a prostitute, Moore digs deeper. The people who Mickey encounters on her patrol come across as real people. So much so that readers are bound to feel a mixture of heartbreak and horror over them. Unsurprisingly Dennis Lehane has praised this novel. In many ways Moore’s strong sense of place reminded me of his novels.
Another refreshing thing about Long Bright River is that it subverts the ‘good sister/bad sister0 trope that has been oh-so-popular in recent years. The dynamic between Mickey and Kacey was complex and painfully believable. I certainly felt invested in their relationship and its outcome. The choices they make aren’t always easy to understand but we are fully aware of the circumstances that have shaped them in such a way. Through flashbacks we see the way in which they slowly yet irrevocably drift apart and their past closeness becomes a thing of the past. Yet, in spite of their painful history, the two are bound to each other.
Having a family in Long Bright River is not an easy thing. Mickey’s career path in the police department has made her into a persona non grata to most of her blood relatives. But, as readers soon will realise, this familial uneasiness runs both ways. Connections can be formed with unexpected people, such as Mickey does with her elderly neighbour (who was perhaps my favourite character in the entire novel).
I liked the ambivalence of Moore’s story. There are no easy answers or solutions. People capable of violence or malice can also be capable of kindness.

The Could-Have-Been-Better Things
Mickey’s staccato narration takes some getting used to. While I do understand that if her internal monologue or descriptions occasionally sounded robotic it was because she is a somewhat aloof and logical individual, I wish her narrative hadn’t been so wooden. The ‘then’ sections—aka the flashbacks—would have had a much more emotional impact if they’d been narrated by Kacey. Mickey’s perspective has its limitation. The story would benefitted from having her as the narrator as it would have allowed a more balanced portrayal of their relationship. Kacey was a much more interesting and compelling character, and I do think that having her as a narrator would have made me care more for her.
The pacing isn’t great. There are many instances in which the plot loose itself and doesn’t really advance Mickey’s investigation. Mickey herself makes a lot of dumb decisions, and some of them do seem a bit outlandish. For me, the murder investigation was the novel’s weakest point. While it does show the way in which vulnerable people are used or disregarded by the system that is supposed to help them, it also resorts to cheap, and occasionally predictable, ‘twists’. At times this murder-storyline seems forgotten, only to be later picked up at a too convenient moment.

Overall thoughts
Long Bright River is a mournful novel as Mickey’s search for her sister is not an easy one. The story shows the in interplay between addiction, poverty, and crime in a stark manner without resorting to pulpy stereotypes. It presents with the devastating reality of the opioid crisis, the way in which can destroy entire families and neighbourhoods, by focusing on the individual rather than the statistics.
Although it has its flaws (the pacing, structure, and protagonist had their weaknesses) I would still recommend it as I could see how much work Moore has put into it.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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