Review | The Party House, by Lin Anderson

PartyHouseCoverThe Party House is a small town thriller set shortly after the unnamed-but-clearly-COVID pandemic. A few years ago, some rich folks broke quarantine and threw a big party at an estate in the fictional remote village of Blackrig in the Scottish Highlands. A new strain of the virus infected the local population shortly after that party and resulted in a number of deaths. In the present-day, the pandemic is no longer a problem, but Blackrig residents are still leery when the same party organizers return to party again at the same estate. Some locals decide to deface the property in protest, only to find the body of a young woman who’d disappeared around the same time as the first party.

The novel follows two main characters: the estate gameskeeper Greg, who was present at the first party and knew the victim more intimately than he’d ever admitted to the cops, and his current girlfriend Joanne, who, unbeknownst to Greg, accepts his invitation to Blackrig only because she wants to write about the village on her blog and escape her violent and abusive ex.

The Party House wasn’t bad. The setting was wonderfully depicted; I got a strong sense of the tight-knit village community and the atmosphere of the remote Scottish highlights. The mystery behind Ailsa’s murder was also set up well, with relevant clues doled out over the course of the novel. But the thriller itself just wasn’t very thrilling. The myriad of secrets Greg and Joanne kept from each other, which shaped a lot of the tension throughout the novel, just got annoying after a while, particularly on Joanne’s end. I can understand why Greg may want to keep his past with Ailsa a secret, especially from a new girlfriend, but Joanne writing about Blackrig seemed like such an innocuous tidbit, I don’t get why it took so long for her to reveal it. I can also kinda understand why she may not want to talk about her ex with her current boyfriend, but that secrecy just created so much tension that again, the secrecy felt unnecessary. There was one big secret she kept from Greg that I did understand, but the circumstances behind that reveal came so quickly that it barely seemed worth the build-up.

A key element of the story is the depth of Greg and Joanne’s feelings for each other. It’s what drives them to finally open up; it’s what drives another character to do something that set off the entire climax and denouement of the story; and most of all, it’s why the stakes around their secrets are so high in the first place. But while the author takes pains to show us how much the characters love having sex with each other, the emotional arc of their relationship didn’t really have enough of a build-up for me to buy into their connection. I feel like I knew they were growing to love each other only because they said so in their narration or to other characters, but the spark itself fell pretty flat on the page.

The author has penned a bestselling crime series starring forensic scientist Dr Rhona MacLeod. The writing in The Party House is strong enough and the village personalities compelling enough that I may give one of her series mysteries a try. But overall, this book fell flat for me.

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Thank you to Publishers Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Better the Blood, by Michael Bennett

BetterTheBloodBetter the Blood is a thoughtful and thought-provoking crime novel that delves into the injustices of colonization and the deep-seated and driving need for reparations. A series of seemingly unrelated murders in Auckland, New Zealand turn out to be the work of a Māori person seeking utu for the killing of a Māori Chief by British soldiers eight generations ago. The concept of utu takes this beyond a simple revenge story: the term refers to reciprocity and balance, and while the killings are undeniably wrong, the killer’s motives are complex and multi-faceted.

The themes are explored with even greater depth and nuance through the main character, Detective Senior Sergeant Hana Westerman, who is Māori. A talented detective, the tension between her Māori roots and her chosen profession was made stark eighteen years ago when, as a junior cop, she was part of a police team sent to end by force a peaceful land rights occupation protest by Māori peoples trying to reclaim their land. In the present day, Hana is raising a biracial teenage daughter who can’t understand how her mother can be part of an institution like the police that continues to perpetuate injustices against indigenous peoples.

As a thriller, Better the Blood is slow-moving, and its pace more deliberate and contemplative than page-turning. While the killer remains definitively the antagonist rather than an anti-hero, the character is shown to take no delight in their actions. Rather, they seem weighed down by the murders themselves, and when we learn a bit more about their personal history before they began to kill, you can almost feel the weight of hundreds of years of injustices weighing them down.

Likewise, the climax of the story begins with violence, but finishes with a call to heal. A character says, ‘The people rose up….for peace, for love, the things that are much bigger than anger, stronger than violence.’ (page 336) That character then makes a choice that sends a powerful statement about what courage can be, and what a path to balance can look like. It’s a beautiful moment that ends the novel on an uplifting note while never letting us forget all we’ve learned and reflected on throughout the story.

Better the Blood is not meant to be a comfortable read, but it is a hopeful one. The mystery at its core doesn’t quite feel like the point; rather, the novel feels more like an invitation to read up on the realities of how colonization impacted indigenous peoples in New Zealand, and how those impacts continue to manifest in imbalances in the present-day.

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Thank you to Publishers Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Last Invitation, by Darcy Kane

TheLastInvitationCoverImagine a group of high-powered vigilante women, who go beyond the bounds of the law to exact justice on men who do bad things and elude punishment within the system. In The Last Invitation, frenemies Gabby Fielding and Jessa Hall both get mixed up with this group when Gabby’s ex-husband dies from an apparent suicide and Jessa gets invited to join.

The Last Invitation is a fun, twisty thriller. The impetus behind the group’s formation is unfortunately understandable; the legal system has its limits and for bad men with resources, there are many ways for them to escape justice. I also like how the book delves into the moral complexity of the group’s ethos: the legal system is in place for good reasons; what right do people really have to skirt its boundaries?

In this novel, the moral question becomes somewhat more black-and-white, at least for me, when it’s revealed just how far the group goes to protect its interests. Their selection process for potential new members is pure hazing, possibly even blackmail. They mess with the potential member’s life and basically drive them into dire desperation before offering membership in the group — with all the vigilante activities required — as a means to make all their problems go away. It’s hinted that potential members who turn them down then become liabilities who must be dealt with, and that level of ruthlessness is chilling for a group the book presumably wants us to sympathize with. It’s also hinted that some of the more problematic acts by the group were a result of a member going rogue, but the group itself doesn’t seem too fussed about this behaviour.

And I think that’s why I ended up not enjoying this book as much as I thought I would. Part of me wanted a full-on fun revenge plot that just becomes complicated by particular circumstances, but I found the group a menacing force from the start. The group felt like a one-dimensional villain, which I didn’t expect when I started this book, and I wish there’d been more nuance to the work they did. Or even some time spent on making us want to cheer for some of their work, so that the reveal of their ruthlessness has more of an impact.

Perhaps that’s part of the thrills, where I was meant to root for Jessa and Gabby to win and for the group to fail, right from the beginning, but Jessa and Gabby’s storylines felt a bit too disjointed to really suck me into their story as a whole.

Gabby started out as a compelling character, but her big and supposedly scandalous secrets were a letdown. I didn’t really understand why the group had such a strong hold over her, nor, on the flip side, even why she cared so much about the truth behind her husband’s death. The whole drama with her family was a major factor for her decisions, but that plot didn’t really go anywhere, and eventually just seemed to fizzle out.

Jessa’s narrative arc was a bit more compelling, but I was frustrated by how much of her actions felt like they were forced upon her. For example, because the group goes so far in testing their potential future members, Jessa’s decision to join the group didn’t feel driven so much by her interest in their mission as by her desire to stop her life from going so far down the toilet. Conversely, her desire to break away from the group is interesting because we know the risks she would have to take, but again her agency is somewhat limited because for so much of the story, it’s mostly just Gabby trying to get her to leave.

The Last Invitation is a solid thriller, with interesting twists and a good pace to keep the pages turning. The characters just fell short for me, and while the concept of a vigilante group of high-powered women is compelling, the execution felt a bit flat.

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Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.