How often do you give a book a 5-star rating? What makes it a strong enough story to get five stars? If you follow me on Goodreads, you see I do it often, and I think it is due to two reasons. The first is that if a person has finished a book and had it published, that's an immediate 3-star from me. Bravo. The second reason is that I can find something to like in most books I read. I'm not there to be a critic but to immerse myself in an imaginary world. If a sentence isn't written how I would like it, too bad. It's the way the author expresses things, so I'm not about to go ballistic over that. I don't see the need to be critical for the sake of being critical.
I do make a decision to DNF a book (and that's the subject of another post soon), but mostly I pick books that seem to be great reads. I go to the local library and browse back cover blurbs, or I snoop around Book Depository and see what books I might like, or I might be tempted by a TikTok recommendation. So I know pretty much if the book will be for me or not before I open it.
I thought I'd tell you about three 5-star books I've read lately.
Death in Her Hands by Ottesa Moshfegh. Here is a gifted writer. I've seen people carry on in reviews about the ending (an animal is hurt) or that the book didn't go anywhere and there was too much going on 'inside the head' of the main character. These reviewers miss the point. We have an unreliable 72-year-old narrator, Vesta Gul, who finds a note in the woods near her isolated cabin in Maine. She lives alone with her dog, Charlie. The note suggests that someone has killed a girl called Magda. There are no clues, no body. So, Vesta sets off on what initially seems to be an amateur investigation that includes searching Ask Jeeves (since Ask Jeeves was around until 2005, this was the only indication of time setting I found in the novel). The reader starts to wonder whodunnit, but it's not that kind of book. Death in Her Hands is about many things, and the immediate feeling is it's about loneliness. Vesta imagines all sorts of things, from someone lurking in the woods to a young boy she meets (Blake), who she imagines raped and killed Magda.
But the overarching theme for me was about giving a voice to the voiceless. Vesta moved to Maine after her domineering husband, Walter, died. She was never her own person under Walter's thumb, but when she moves to Maine with Charlie, she can become who she wishes to be. Magda also has no voice, so Vesta constructs an identity for her, tries to find out what happened to her. Walter was an epistemologist, and this is what Vesta becomes, too - she tries to find out what it is we can know about Magda and herself.
Towards the end of the novel, we start to wonder if there ever was a note in the woods and whether Charlie even exists. Moshfegh does an outstanding job placing the reader inside Vesta's troubled, often paranoid, thoughts. I loved every minute of this novel.
Why Did You Lie? by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. I was introduced to this wonderful Icelandic writer by a friend who has a YouTube channel where she reviews four books set in a specific city. Go show her some love.
I read a lot of Nordic (or Scandinavian) Noir (Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson being a favourite), but I have to say, I've stumbled on the queen of the genre.
This book oozed dark atmosphere. We start off with four people being dropped off on Thridrangar Stacks (Google it. Remote, creepy, claustrophobic). They end up being stranded there. Meanwhile, Noi and Vala, and their son, Tumi, return from their holiday in America. They house-swapped with an American couple, and Noi is convinced something sinister has happened to the Americans because some of their belongings were left behind. The third story is about Nina, a police officer whose journalist husband tried to kill himself. Everything centres around a cold case that happened 25 years ago.
Sigurðardóttir weaves these three tales together with precision and an astounding ability to maintain suspense and give the reader a bone-chilling sense of dread. Couldn't put it down.
Suspect by Robert Crais. I was about a third of the way through this appealing book about an LAPD police officer, Scott James, and his K9 unit dog, Maggie, when I wondered if Crais is a scriptwriter (yes, he was - he wrote scripts for classic TV shows such as Cagney & Lacey, Quincy, and Miami Vice). I've always thought scriptwriters make great novelists because they understand what it is that makes a story strong, they don't go off on tangents or get lost in backstory, they only describe the things we need to see or hear, emphasis is on action and the story is revealed through dialogue.
I digress! What I liked about this book was that Maggie (a black and tan German Shepherd) was a character (just like I have canine characters in my two novels), and both Maggie and Scott James were damaged, yet they had to learn to trust each other. Maggie did three tours of duty in Afghanistan with the US Marines as a sniffer dog for explosives and survived a blast, while Scott James lost his partner in a night-time heist on a Los Angeles street. Both are badly injured, physically and mentally. Scott is unfit for patrol duty and reluctantly joins the K9 unit.
Scott and Maggie team up to solve a murder and along the way learn about each other and how to live with PTSD. The chapters seeing the world through Maggie's eyes were the gem of the book. The pacing was faultless, and you could tell you were in the hands of a master storyteller.
Didn't want this book to end, but Maggie and Scott are brought back in another book (The Promise). If you love fast-paced police thrillers with a K9 sidekick, Suspect is for you.