Mysteries and more mysteries

Catching up with that summer reading list would be a lot easier if I didn’t keep adding as I go; I’m still wondering what happened to my one in one out rule? You know, no new books unless I finish one old one first.


Yes, pretty funny, I know and completely undoable. The first book in a series inevitably forces you to read the second one, and then there are those book groups that churn out one read a month each. The Usual Suspects is most indictable I’m afraid, because I am admittedly, confessionally speaking, a mystery addict.

Elizabeth George, whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak last year at Third Place Books (Yes, independent bookstores thrive I Seattle despite the fact that Amazon opened its one and only brick and mortar presence here), first created her long-running detective duo in 2006. Detective Inspector Lynley and his seemingly hapless but brilliant partner, Barbara Havers began their tumultuous relationship in the pages of A Great Deliverancea first novel for George that illustrates how well a tightly written mystery can deliver its punches, create memorable, empathetic protagonists, and pave the way for a financially successful writing career. Ditto for Louise Penney and her Inspector Gamache series, which debuted in 2005 with Still LifeCuriously, Penney’s second book, A Fatal Grace shares a number of elements with George’s Deliverance. It would spoil the fun if I gave too much away, but suffice it to say both stories center around an unlovely pre-teen with even more unlikeable parents.

In a few days I’ll be heading out to board the QMII enroute to Southampton. This transatlantic crossing is part of a Road Scholar program themed around the English murder mystery.  So, of course, I will be binge watching Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders as well as rereading some old favorites in preparation for seven days at sea with daily lectures on the genre and four days touring around London and Oxford.  I will keep you posted on my progress!

Five stars, or maybe 4 or . . . taking the mystery out of rating a mystery?

We all enjoy being asked for our opinion. On Facebook, for example, there are the occasional polls where you can click on a radio button to register your vote for or against some current social fad, or you can amuse yourself with one of the endless quizzes that promise to help you identify everything from your selfie style to what kind of Mexican food you are. Sometimes I even take the bait and have a good laugh at myself. But then there are the pesky, persistent, and usually annoying surveys that want you to rate—usually on a scale of 1-5—your recent dining experience, or that can of hairspray you just bought and have barely had time to put away let alone use, or whether your bank teller was nice to you when you made your last withdrawal.

Ratings, ratings, ratings! Books fare no better than hairspray or bank tellers, do they? Please tell me what it means to give your last book read 4 stars as opposed to 5 stars? I struggle to be objective and fair, but really it’s an entirely subjective system. Out of frustration I’ve decided to try my own hand at creating a way to rate the books I am reading that is more useful and relatable to someone who asks for my opinion (or in this case those who read my blog). Here is my first draft followed by a few examples. I think it’s working:

☆ I started to read this but didn’t make it through the first two chapters

☆☆ I made it through the first few chapters or so but lost interest before the halfway point.

☆☆☆ I finished it or almost finished, but the book was lacking in language, plot, character or depth.

☆☆☆☆ I finished the book; it was entertaining, even well-written, just not compelling for me.

☆☆☆☆☆ I found it a sophisticated and compelling read on multiple levels—language, plot, character, etc.

Now, using my newly created rating system, here is how the last batch of books on my summer Bucket List stack up (uh-oh, sorry about that bad pun).

  • The Last Days of Night, Graham Moore. Historical fiction. Tells the story of the late 19th century ‘current wars’ between Edison and Westinghouse for control of the “lightbulb” market. I admit this one sentence synopsis is a bit of oversimplification on my part. I like legal thrillers so though it was missing the thrills it made up for the deficit with good writing, good plotting, and larger than life characters determined to one up their opponents. If you think Edison was a nice guy from Menlo Park, think again! ☆☆☆☆
  • Still Life and A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny. Detective fiction. Penny’s first and second Inspector Gamache novels. Set in “cozy” Three Pines, Gamache and his team eat their way through two puzzling murders in this idyllic Canadian village. Five stars for making my mouth water with each meal our protagonists have at Olivier’s Bistro and for a regular cast of empathetic and charming characters. Three stars for the plot in Grace, which shares (I feel) too many elements with another mystery by Elizabeth George. Let’s average them out at  ☆☆☆☆.
  • The Translation of Love, Lynne Kutsukake. A novel. An oddly benign coming-of-age story given its setting in post-WWII occupied Japan and the “mystery” surrounding a young woman who leaves home to earn extra money by entertaining lonely GI’s in a seedy nightclub. Kutsukake’s novel could pass for young adult fiction given its superficial treatment of what were excruciatingly difficult times for many Japanese citizens after the war. The book meanders, has too many loose ends, is written at about a middle school level, and lacks depth given the subject matter available. However, Kutsukake’s intimate knowledge of her protagonists’ life situations and the fascinating snippets of Japanese language and culture she peppers her story with redeemed the novel from my 2-star rating. ☆☆☆
  • A Great Deliverance, Elizabeth George. Mystery fiction. George’s first Inspector Lynley novel. This is a compelling page-turner; tightly written and plotted, its detecting duo—a properly titled (eighth Earl of Asherton) Scotland Yard Inspector, Thomas Lynley, and an irascible Detective Sargent Barbara Havers—are engaging and relatable characters with a long series life ahead of them. This is no cozy mystery, however; the denouement will remind you what it means to loathe and abhor. Enough said. If you enjoy a well-crafted contemporary British mystery as much as I do, you will probably agree with my five-star rating. Sadly, not all of George’s later novels are as well edited or compelling. This one, however, nails it. ☆☆☆☆☆

Now it’s your turn to rate the rater. What criteria do you use to determine how many stars a book is worth in Goodreads or at your local reading group? Would mine work for you?