Literacy 2023: Book 7: Moriarty

Anthony Horowitz’s mystery adventure set immediately after Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis fell to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

A Pinkerton detective arrives in Europe shortly after the climax of the story “The Final Problem,” in which Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty had fallen to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls. There, he meets a Detective Inspector from Scotland Yard who appears to be as brilliant a detective as Holmes himself. The two return to England to track down the mysterious American who’d replaced Moriarty as the mastermind of all crime in London.

Every bit as engaging readable as everything else I’ve read from Horowitz. Much like his entries in the new James Bond series, you get the sense that Horowitz either loves these classic characters and the worlds of their adventures, or else he’s astonishingly good at faking it. He doesn’t try to ape Arthur Conan Doyle’s style (at least for long), but instead captures the tone and mood of the original stories while giving them a more modern and action-oriented plot.

Difficult to say anything about it without spoiling one aspect of it or another. The famous moments of deduction here don’t land as well as they did in the original stories. The central mystery — or at least, what I’m assuming is the central mystery — isn’t particularly satisfying, since there aren’t enough suspects to make it that interesting.

Anthony Horowitz continues to be one of the most dependable authors of interesting and engaging logic puzzle mysteries, frequently with some meta-aspect that makes them especially fascinating. Moriarty was a fun read, but I have to admit that it might be the least satisfying mystery novel that I’ve read by Horowitz. But then, I’ve never been that much of a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, either.

Literacy 2023: Book 6: Hallowe’en Party

A Hercule Poirot mystery from 1969 that will form the basis of the next movie, inexplicably

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

When a teenage girl is murdered at a Hallowe’en Party, one of the guests calls on her old friend Hercule Poirot to help solve the case. Finding the killer will require Poirot to interview everyone in the small town even tangentially related to the party, as well as looking into several unsolved murders in the town’s history.


  • Has the confidence of the books written after Christie had proven herself and met with great success, where she was free to be a little experimental with style and pacing instead of purely focused on plot
  • Character-driven, with a little less emphasis placed on Poirot and his eccentricities, in favor of letting the other characters assert their personalities
  • Written in 1969, so parts of it feel jarringly contemporary. It’s fascinating to read an Agatha Christie novel expecting England in the 30s or 40s, and instead see characters complaining about how computers are ruining everything


  • Felt oddly like Christie’s heart wasn’t in the murder mystery; it feels as if she were really wanting to write a novel about these characters and their relationships, but was obligated to have a mystery running through it
  • The clues do eventually all come together, although it’s not in a particularly satisfying way. The feeling is less “a-HA!” and more “Okay, sure, I guess.”
  • Everybody is surprisingly cruel about the murder victim and nonchalant about the killings
  • More an observation than a “con,” but it was weird to see characters in an Agatha Christie openly talking about the possibility that it was a sex crime, or that the murder involved pedophilia and sexual assault. It’s unfair and condescending to Christie, but I always think of her work as being strictly G-rated-but-with-murders

Not one of Agatha Christie’s best, but I thought it was an interesting reminder that she was still cranking out these mysteries in my lifetime. The fact that turns out to be the central hook is compelling, even if the book itself is more pleasant than interesting — that makes it easier to see why it was the basis for a loose adaptation in the upcoming movie.1Although I admit I don’t understand why there’s going to be a third Kenneth Brannagh Poirot movie at all, since I thought the last two weren’t successful?

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    Although I admit I don’t understand why there’s going to be a third Kenneth Brannagh Poirot movie at all, since I thought the last two weren’t successful?

Literacy 2023: Book 5: The Twist of a Knife

Getting accused of murder is one of the best things to happen to Anthony Horowitz’s writing!

The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz

Book 4 in the Hawthorne and Horowitz Investigate series

After the events of A Line to Kill, Anthony Horowitz’s reluctant partnership with irascible detective Daniel Hawthorne is complete, and Horowitz is free to pursue a lifelong dream: having one of his plays produced in London’s West End. But when someone is violently murdered after the play’s opening night, Horowitz is the prime suspect. His only hope is that Hawthorne can find the true killer and clear his name within 48 hours.


  • Completely engaging, even among Horowitz’s consistently entertaining and readable mystery novels
  • The revelation that I consider to be “the twist” — the real reason someone framed Horowitz for murder — was really cleverly done. I never guessed the truth at all, but the clues were all there for the observant reader.
  • Does a great job of juggling lots of sub-plots and individual character intrigue, which serve as kind of a “consolation prize” for piecing together the minor stories, even if you don’t figure out the central mystery.
  • Great balance between good, old-fashioned murder mystery and the meta-gimmick that serves as the premise of the entire series. There’s just enough of the real world to remind the reader that this is ostensibly non-fiction, but not so much that it overwhelms or distracts from the rest of the mystery.
  • Feels like Horowitz has perfectly hit his stride with this series. There are very few of the weird shifts in tone that were in the other books — descriptions of a violent crime scene, a character’s unexpected homophobia, which were presumably included to make the novel read more like true crime.


  • The case against Horowitz isn’t at all convincing, and I had a hard time believing any prosecutor would ever be willing to take it to court. This undercut the tension and honestly made the book feel slightly juvenile.
  • Horowitz has settled on the characterization of himself in this book as being famous and successful enough to be frequently recognized but never respected. I should be used to it by now, but it still comes across as more artificial and a bit annoying instead of self-effacing and charming. (On the other hand, if he’d just gone with “best-selling author with long-running book and TV series” would probably be insufferable).
  • Hawthorne is a little less unlikeable in this one, but I still find the character too irritating to be at all interesting.

The most consistently entertaining and engaging book of the series so far. It doesn’t have the weird novelty of the first book, but it also doesn’t have the strange shifts in tone. I’m clearly hooked on this series, even if I only like or care about one of the main characters.

Literacy 2023: Book 4: Bonk

Mary Roach applies her wry takes on uncomfortable topics to the subject of human sexuality and sex research, and the results are hilarious

Bonk: the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

Roach takes an at-times-uncomfortably close look at the various ways that scientists have tried to understand and improve the sex lives of humans.


  • Roach’s comedic timing is at its absolute height here. Overly dry (no pun intended) or uncomfortable passages (ibid) are split up perfectly with an odd or humorous digression, or a well-placed footnote.
  • Full-to-bursting (so to speak) with clever double entendres, and even a lament that some terms have no good synonyms or room for double entendres.
  • Goes even further than other books to advance the studies she writes about, as she and her husband volunteer for a sex study.
  • Mature, modern, and open in a way that I never see, finding the humor and fun in the subject of sex without becoming vulgar or resorting to snickering and lazy gags.
  • Matter-of-factly acknowledges differences in orientation and behavior without even a hint of prudishness.


  • Contains a detailed description of penis surgery. I cannot overstate how stressful this is. (Roach acknowledges this in a footnote, expressing sympathy for biologically male readers and commenting that she noticed her husband had to read some chapters with his legs crossed).
  • Often had me reflexively putting a hand down to protect my business while I was reading.
  • Not really a con, but it spends significantly more time on female sexuality than male (at least partly because female sexuality is more complex at both the physical and psychological levels, and because it’s historically been repressed and misunderstood).

My favorite of Mary Roach’s books that I’ve read so far, interesting and exhaustively (literally) researched while also being laugh-out-loud funny.

Literacy 2023: Book 3: Stiff

A six-feet-deep dive into all the various things that can happen to a dead body

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Roach examines the various ways that human cadavers are used, abused, and disposed of, with topics including organ donation, forensics, crash impact testing, medical studies, cannibalism, decomposition, plus the advantages and disadvantages of having your body composted instead of cremated.


  • Roach has a masterful sense of comedic timing, knowing exactly when to be funny without coming across as flippant, and personal without making herself the focus of the story.
  • Extensively researched, with Roach insisting on going to the source whenever possible, seeing all the gruesome details in person.
  • Stays positive throughout, stressing the importance of organ donation and ecological responsibility, and also allowing people dignity and respect.
  • Full of information I not only never knew, but never even thought about.
  • Frequently made me laugh out loud.


  • Absolutely not for the squeamish. Roach tries to lighten the mood when she senses it’s getting too dark or too grisly, but she also doesn’t flinch at all while describing cadavers being opened up, ripped apart, drained, or allowed to rot.
  • Uses Mehmet Oz as an expert on the topic of organ transplants, presumably long before most people realized just how much of a shameless prick he is.
  • In addition to the gory or grisly descriptions, there are a lot of descriptions of torture, murder, or cannibalism that can upset sensitive readers like myself.

Probably the book that made Roach’s reputation as one of the funniest science writers, and the reputation is well-deserved. I think I would’ve been way too sensitive or squeamish for this material if it hadn’t been for Roach’s confidently funny and often compassionate approach to the subject.

Literacy 2023: Book 2: Garth Marenghi’s TerrorTome

The latest compendium of darkest imaginings from Author, Dreamweaver, Visionary, Plus Actor Garth Marenghi

Garth Marenghi’s TerrorTome by Garth Marenghi (Matthew Holness)

Prolific horror author Nick Steen finds himself compelled to purchase a mysterious, ancient typewriter from a strange antique shop, unwittingly setting off a series of terrifying events which threaten to destroy the entirety of Stalkford.


  • In case anyone still believed that Marenghi was only capable of creating characters that were thinly-veiled wish-fulfillment stand-ins for himself, TerrorTome‘s Nick Steen is every bit as original, unique, and vividly-realized a character as Darkplace‘s Rick Dagless.
  • Practically three novels in one
  • Includes multiple Fright Breaks and a Horrotica section
  • Contains Bruford, one of Marenghi’s best side-kicks since Dr. Lucien Sanchez
  • Encompasses a multitude of literary styles, with Clive Barker and Stephen King-style horror interpreted in Marenghi’s unique voice


  • Readers unfamiliar with Marenghi’s style might be frustrated at the amount of repetition throughout — iterating over and over on the same gag, or repeating the same plot structure (which is lampshaded near the end of the story).

I would’ve been content if TerrorTome had just been Darkplace: The Novel, so I was pleasantly surprised to see the book changing up its structure and opening up into new ideas. Holness impressively commits completely to Garth Marenghi’s voice, making sure that he’s an ever-present character throughout. What impressed me the most was that this feels very much in line with Darkplace, not just as a simple adaptation, but taking the same concept and applying it to literary horror instead of 1990s episodic television.

Literacy 2023: Book 1: Ghost Story

Peter Straub’s great big take on a Salem’s Lot-style small-town novel works best when it’s sticking to the stuff promised by its title

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Four elderly men, long-time friends from a small town in New York, have a tradition of meeting regularly to tell ghost stories. After the death of one of their club’s founding members, they begin to have shared nightmares, foreshadowing the arrival of an evil entity that wants to destroy the entire town.


  • Much of the book is masterfully written, with scenes that, like the best ghost stories, are filled with inescapable dread from just a sighting or a fleeting thought.
  • Adept at changing tone and voice as the story is told from the perspective of different characters and an omniscient narrator. The effect is subtle, but you can absolutely sense the different characterizations coming through.
  • Stella Hawthorne is a charming and interesting character.
  • Comes to a satisfying conclusion that’s far less bleak than you’d expect from the dismal prologue.
  • Particularly good at foreshadowing: the narration will matter-of-factly tell you about something tragic that will happen soon, letting the idea hang in your mind until you read how it actually happens.


  • Overlong. While individual passages are well-written, the book as a whole has too many of them. I respect the desire to have a story that impacts an entire town of characters, but Ghost Story stays on the surface of all of its side characters, never giving enough detail to make their appearances feel like more than wasting pages.
  • There’s a feeling of repetition as we hear what is essentially the same story happen to different characters. It’s especially frustrating because the characters seem oblivious to clues which have been mentioned over and over again.
  • The supernatural aspects of the story are either insufficiently described, or inconsistent; the villains have powers that would seem to make them omnipotent, but much like Roger Rabbit, can only do it when it would be spooky.
  • Dated. The book feels very much of the late 1970s, not just in the technology but in the attitudes. There’s a seeming fascination with adultery, and a tinge of causal misogyny that seems to linger behind everything. It’s difficult to just say “it’s a product of its times” because so much of the book seems to need to feel contemporary, contrasting the modern world with that of the old men in the Chowder Society.

I’ve wanted to read Ghost Story since I was in high school, and I’m glad I finally finished it. It made for some excellently creepy reading at bedtime, and it made for some late-night marathon reading sessions where I wanted to find out what happened next. But ultimately, it felt like it was lacking something at its core, the core thematic idea and statement-of-purpose that was present in most of Stephen King’s novels around the same time. Ghost Story was strongest when it stayed true to its title, but ended up a bit of a disappointment for me when it turned into something else.