Tag Archives: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Series Obsession: Elly Griffiths

1st February 2012

I pride myself on having a fairly eclectic array of book reviews on this site, but puh-lease. You guys know how much I love mysteries, and when I read a fantastic review of Elly Griffiths’ latest book at Kittling: Books, I knew this was a series I would likely love. I may love most mysteries, but I have preferences. I’d like a strong female lead, or I’d at least like there to be a female on the team or as a partner. I prefer mysteries set in the UK, and I love it when there are a couple of cases that intertwine. Peter Robinson and Ian Rankin are great at all of these things. I’ve just added Elly Griffiths to those ranks. I checked out the first book in her Ruth Galloway series at the library a few weeks ago then immediately bought the next two books for my Nook. The first one was that good.

Instead of stringing you along, I decided to review each book in the series at once. This is one series that I’d recommend reading in order, and you can click the covers of the books to buy a copy. Enjoy.

In The Crossing Places, Dr. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist, teaching at North Norfolk University and then coming home to her house on the saltmarshes, a desolate area in Norfolk where the earth meets the sky. Her life is routine, full of her cat and good Ian Rankin novels, and she’s content with it until DCI Harry Nelson requests her assistance. Lucy Downey disappeared a decade ago, but Nelson has continually received odd letters with archaeological, biblical, and mythological references, taunting him about Lucy. When he finds some bones, he calls Ruth in to identify whether the bones are animal or human, whether or not they are recent or ancient, and whether or not they are from a child.

The bones, though, are from another time, thousands of years ago, and while the discovery is significant, Ruth finds it difficult to go back to her life, analyzing bones and giving lectures. Instead, when another young girl goes missing, Ruth is more deeply invested in the case than she realizes, and she and Nelson must forge an alliance to help one another and find out what secrets the saltmarsh holds.

Though I enjoyed the mystery in The Crossing Places, a mystery for me has to be about more than who is dead/missing/assaulted, and Elly Griffiths has created an odd but entirely endearing cast of characters. Ruth is eccentric and intelligent, overweight but tired of wearing all black. Harry is married to a beautiful woman and isn’t that fond of the barren landscape to which he has moved. Then there’s Cathbad, a Druid interested in preserving the land and generally making people uncomfortable with his outlandish wardrobe. Each plays a significant role in this book, and these people, more than anything, were what drew me into this place of myth and science, history and storytelling.

In a land so ancient, Norfolk is a gem for archaeologists and a headache for contractors. When a building in the midst of being razed for a new apartment complex is discovered to be on top of an old Roman site, construction stops and digging begins. But the archaeological team finds something it didn’t expect – the bones of what look like a child beneath the door frame. DCI Harry Nelson immediately calls Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist, to determine whether these bones are from beyond recent memory or if there could possibly be a crime worth investigating.

At the same time, further research shows the site was once a Catholic children’s home, and after Nelson tracks down the priest and former head of the house, he discovers that two children went missing from the home 40 years ago. Inconsistencies and long-forgotten details muddy the case, but someone is worried. Ruth is left sinister gifts on her doorstep, much like a cat bringing prey to its master, and it doesn’t take long for the threats to intensify as Ruth and Harry dig much deeper than anyone intended.

Unlike some mysteries where the relationships remain stagnant because there is no character arc, Ruth and Harry are both changing. Their connection is inexplicable to each, but they are drawn to one another and have a quiet affection for each other. Though Harry is married and the two seem to be better friends than anything, I loved the deference, respect, and confidence Harry and Ruth show. Plus, several characters from The Crossing Places return and take greater part in the novel than in the first.

The first novel in the series certainly incorporates local mythology and history, but The Janus Stone is distinctly more focused on Roman mythology because of the discovery. The unnamed killer appears in the text between every couple of chapters, preparing sacrifices and detailing Roman rituals. The effect was beyond eerie and set up the action quite well, reinforcing the need to find out the identity of the killer, as he or she seems to be readying for a final act.

The sea holds secrets, but it also uncovers them. An archaeological team studying and mapping the erosion of the Norfolk coast makes a ghastly discovery: at least two skeletons are evident in a portion of the cliff face. Dr. Ruth Galloway is once again called away from her work to assist the police. After her work in Serbia, helping to identify bodies in mass graves, Ruth knows a thing or two about piecing together skeletons, even six of them. Ruth’s testing reveals the men were from Germany and were killed during World War II. But how did they end up here? Who killed them? DCI Nelson contacts the old Home Guard, but when two elderly men, formerly of the Guard, end up dead, Harry understands that someone is keen to make sure the truth never sees the light of day.

The House at Sea’s End is a departure from the first two novels in that there is no mythology here, only history – WWII history and Ruth’s own. Though I thought it was a bit artless, Griffith fleshes out Ruth’s experiences in Serbia by having one of Ruth’s friends Tatjana, whom she met in Serbia, stay as a house guest. Tatjana only serves to elicit Ruth’s memories, and I wish this had been done a bit differently. However, there is a lot to tackle in this novel: Ruth is no longer alone. A single, 40-year-old, working mother of a newborn doesn’t exactly have the time and freedom to traipse across the cliff and work for hours on end as she used to. But Ruth loves her work, and part of her life as a new mother is realizing and setting new boundaries for herself.

Once again, though, the strength of this novel is its characters. Though I didn’t love the plot in this one, I enjoyed seeing Ruth adapt to motherhood. All too often, I think authors have a difficult time reconciling a strong female character with her motherhood, but Griffiths doesn’t baby the reader. Ruth has her baby because she’s pregnant and knows it’s now or never. She is not naturally very maternal, but she wants to be good – both at her job and at being a mom. Watching Harry Nelson and Ruth’s friends adjust to seeing Ruth in a different light was also quite fun.

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I would deem this series, overall, as incredibly addictive and readable. If you’re at all like me and want your crime with a side of fantastic character development, I think this would be a winner for you. In fact, if you’re interested and have a Nook, let me know. I’ll use the LendMe option and shoot it your way. (Just keep in mind I don’t have the first one).

What’s the latest series that made you go a little crazy? Or are series just not for you?

The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Potzsch

9th June 2011

*I got this book at BEA from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. You can order it from Indiebound here.

In 17th-century Bavaria, the hangman’s trade is one that leaves him an outsider – reviled by those who pass him but awe-inspiring to the community because of his power, the man whose hands mete out torture and execution is not one with whom anyone associates. But Jakob Kruisl comes from a long line of hangmen and after helping with an execution when he’s young, he’s not quite sure he wants that inheritance.

After a stint in the war, though, Jakob realizes he can kill indiscriminately or kill those the court has deemed guilty. He chooses the latter. However, when a young boy is killed brutally and is found with the witch’s sign on his back, midwife Frau Stechlin, who delivered Jakob’s children, is accused of witchcraft and murder. Knowing the woman is not a witch but a healer (always a dangerous calling) and tortured by his task to cause her pain and execute her, Jakob, his daughter Magdalena, and Simon – a local doctor interested in Jakob’s progressive medical knowledge – endeavor to find who is behind the killing. As more and more orphan children are killed, townspeople report sightings of the devil, a man with a scarred face and a left hand made of white bone. Jakob must fight superstition and outsmart the town council and “the devil” to save the midwife, the other orphan children, and his family.

What I liked: Everything. This book was engrossing. I started it Monday night and stayed up entirely too late devouring it. The book was translated by Lee Chadeayne, and there were moments when I felt it was a bit simplistic, but eh – still loved it. The setting, both place and time period, were well done, and the witchcraft story was incredibly tense: I’m talking sweaty palms. However, The Hangman’s Daughter is an odd title because, though Magdalena is in the story, the book was much more about Jakob, the compassionate, progressive, ethical hangman.

Book Club Questions: Do stories of witch hunts fascinate you? The paranoia and fear petrify me. What other books featuring witch hunts have you read? Also, the book has great discussion of midwives and healers and the scrutiny they faced. Why do you think this was/is?

jenn aka the picky girl

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

7th June 2011

*You can preorder this book from Indiebound. Pub date is 07/19/11.

Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English is about Harry Opoku, an 11-year-old boy living on a housing estate in London. Harri, his mother, and sister, have emigrated from Ghana, leaving behind his father, baby sister Agnes, and grandmother. Harri misses them and befriends an itinerant pigeon, talking to him as he might write in a journal.

Harri has more than a typical 11-year-old’s problems to write or talk about: an older boy is murdered near Harri’s house, and he caught a glimpse of the hooded murderer. Narrating his own story with “It felt crazy” or “It was hutious” and “It’s brutal,” Harri, in one breath, talks about the murder outside Chicken Joe’s and then moves on to describing where he lives, Poppy – the girl he likes, how fast his tennis shoes make him run, then flitting back to the murder. He and his best friend Dean start hunting for the killer, using sellotape to get fingerprints and digging in the mud near the river for the murder weapon. Dean tells Harri he saw how to investigate crime on Law & Order.

These boys, though, aren’t playing ‘cops and robbers’. The estate is full of questionable characters – Terry Takeaway, the alcoholic vagrant walking his pit bull Asbo, and X-Fire and Killa, both gang members. Gang activity is common and is a very real threat to any young man on the estate, and these criminals are hell bent on staying out of jail. Harri, in his innocence, crosses them too many times.

What I didn’t love: and what I thought was a really odd choice in terms of the writing, were the moments when the pigeon had a paragraph at the beginning of the chapter, talking back to Harri. It brought the action of the novel to a halt and imposed an unnatural, and to me, unnecessary, voice to the book. In fact, it felt (similarly to Little Bee) preachy. And I don’t like that.

What I loved: Harri enchanted me – 100%. I loved his voice. I loved his innocence and his gritty depiction of his reality, and how he didn’t always understand how the two collided.

In fact, I’d say Spelman has done an excellent job of writing in an 11-year-old, disadvantaged boy’s voice without making a sentimental novel. Harri’s observations were often hilarious – he likes to “see the chief” after his mom cleans the toilet with Bleach, so he can “piss on a cloud.” Isn’t that so 11-year-old boy-ish? Yes, there is harshness and death and fear in this story, but it never overwhelmed the truth and fun in Harri’s telling.

Has anyone heard of or read this book? I’d love your thoughts on it.

jenn aka the picky girl

* I read this ebook courtesy of the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley.

** I didn’t find any blog reviews of this book. If you’ve reviewed it, let me know, and I’ll add your link.