reviews

The Babysitter: Sheryl Browne


This is a repost from 2 hours ago due to wordpress cutting words from the last post.

The Babysitter: Sheryl Browne
Genre: Domestic suspense
Published: 2018
Pages: 352
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Slytherin

Mark and Melissa are happily married. But when they stumble across Jade, they know that they’ve found the perfect person to help out with their children. Since Jade’s house just burned to the ground, they can’t help but think that it is perfect timing.
Maybe it is too perfect. As Mark spends long days tackling a missing child case at work and Melissa struggles from depression, their marriage is put to the test. As a result, Jade spends lots of time looking after the kids. But something more sinister might be going on. Is it possible that Mark and Jade used to know each other? What does she want, and what is she going to do to the family to get it?

The Babysitter is my first foray into this genre in which someone has easy access to the house but isn’t the person that they seem. I loved the premise, but wasn’t expecting much from a big, thick book that advertised “Great Price!” on the front and also advertised a “bonus novel inside.” Clearly, I shouldn’t have been put off.

For starters, the book is well written. Browne’s writing style flows and paints a vivid portrait of this family’s world while also getting into the heads of her characters so we see their thoughts firsthand. Mark has to balance being a police officer with taking care of his kids. Melissa stays at home working on her pottery business, keeping afloat after they lost a child years ago. Then Jade arrives at the perfect time to help them out. Loving how Jade behaves with the kids, Melissa forgoes the background check, one example of how a single decision will change the course of the book. In addition, there is drama at the police station where Mark works. There is levelheaded Lisa, scumbag Cummings who Mark is hoping will get his just desserts as he tries to catch him in the act of being a sexual predator, and Edwards, the boss of the operation. Although they all play important parts in this book, and Jade figures out ways to use them in her plot, I also think they were some of the most underrated characters in the novel. I loved watching the dynamics between them. Melissa and Lisa were supposedly friends until Jade got in the way. I would have liked to see more of that (this isn’t a criticism, just a suggestion). I think Browne may have a possible series on her hands with these characters. I also took a particular liking to Poppy, their Peppa-Pig loving, daddy’s-girl daughter. Browne can write kids very well. She was a little beacon of light in an otherwise dark tale.

As for Jade, I hated her. As I wrote in my Instagram, I had Professor Umbridge-levels of dislike for this character. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps it was because she was beautiful and got her way. Perhaps it was because she seemed to get away with everything–I thought she had ultimate motives for their baby, which never quite came to fruition. Or maybe because the family didn’t seem to think anything was happening. Personally there would have been a few times where I’d think to check things out, like look at what exactly was going into Melissa’s drinks that someone else was giving her. (Seriously, a cup spills with powdery substances in it and nobody thinks to check this out?) In short, I was frustrated! The book is filled with little mysteries like these–Jade may have a plan, but ends up changing it later on. And she’s obviously telling Poppy some things but we never figure out what they are. Readers will be kept on their toes, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing; maybe some of these questions could have been fleshed out. Overall, it was hard not to just skim the pages to find out what had happened to this family. It is a strength of Browne’s writing that she is able to create a villain so especially dastardly, even though I’ve seen many characters like her before. Her actions truly kept me turning pages. Jade does have an ultimate goal, but most of the enjoyment comes from seeing her little actions play out, rather than seeing if she accomplishes what she is setting out to do.

As for the end, I can’t really complain minus a bit of rushing. I wasn’t quite sure on a few details of the climactic action, like locations. Otherwise, there’s closure, but there’s also a hint of uncertainty, as in how the family will keep going. Could it be that I’m pulling out of my strong ending slump? I hope so. Sure, Mark does seem to put things together very quickly while not even at home, but at least they finally got to that point!

If you’re looking for a well-written novel with characters that will keep you worried for them, The Babysitter might be a good one for you. It’s filled with all the things I love in domestic suspense with an antagonist I won’t soon forget.

4 stars

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Stranger

Book Club Questions (spoilers!)

  1. How sympathetic was Jade as a villain? Was Mark in the wrong at all, or was it entirely Jade’s fault? Did Jade have a right to be upset? Do you think that her house burned down by mistake? How long had she been plotting everything?
  2. There is a brief mention of Dylan’s past in the book by the police office–so brief you might miss it. Do you think Jade’s Dylan is the same Dylan? Think about his backstory and how he got to where he is today. Where does life end up taking him?
  3. There are several little mysteries sprinkled throughout–what Jade was telling Poppy about her father being annoyed with her, how her grandmother died, what Jade was originally going to do with Cummings. Pick one of these questions and answer it.
  4. How are these characters’ futures determined by their pasts? Not just for Jade, but for other characters as well. How will Evie and Poppy turn out having gone through this?
  5. Describe a time in your life when someone you knew and trusted ended up not being the person they seemed to be. Maybe it wasn’t as extreme as Jade’s case, but maybe there was a betrayal, or maybe they ended up being different for the better. How did this impact the relationship?



reviews

The Night Before: Wendy Walker

The Night Before: Wendy Walker
Genre: Psychological suspense
Published: 2019
Pages: 310
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Ravenclaw

Laura has never found “the one.” She must be content with watching her sister Rosie be happily married, unable to truly bond with any man after an incident in her youth. After she leaves her job and runs off to Rosie’s home in Connecticut, she decides to give things one more try. She signs up for online dating and decides to meet up with a man named Jonathan Fields.

While Laura goes on her date, Rosie sits at home and worries. She knows that Laura has had a troubled past, and when Laura doesn’t return home, she embarks on a search mission. Is Laura’s date who he says he is? Or has Laura done something terrible to him?

The Night Before is a domestic suspense novel that takes an interesting turn. Instead of a romantic affair, the tale is about two sisters, one who is flighty and troubled and the other who is more levelheaded. So what drew me to it? I liked the possibility of the protagonist being the bad guy. I also enjoyed the idea of sisters. In the end, it’s a challenging book to review. Is it about what happened to Laura? Is it about what Laura did or didn’t do years ago? Is it about family secrets that the book becomes muddled with? It doesn’t seem to want to decide.

Much of the book takes place within a 24-hour time frame, as Laura goes on her date and then doesn’t return. She’s still haunted by a tragedy from her high school past involving a guy that she sort of liked, and doesn’t fully trust herself. . Rosie can’t help but worry, so she enlists her husband and their childhood friend to help. As they do, more things begin to unravel. Ultimately, it becomes a tale of many secrets; this isn’t just Laura’s story. That’s where things get maybe a little too complicated.

The biggest problem is that it suffers from purple-ish prose. It’s hard to explain in the context of a review, but the text itself was essentially just…hard to follow. Laura’s chapters are narrated by her, and it’s clear that she’s a messy person. On pg. 72, on her date with Jon, Laura is talking about Rosie’s family and says, “I know my nephew. I do.” Now out of nowhere she’s wondering about if her nephew is who he says he is? Her two year old nephew who doesn’t really have anything to do with this novel? What was the point of those lines? The thoughts overall are just scattered; that’s just one example. Characters just start talking about something else. They use weird phrases–someone uses the word “whale” as a verb at some point. There are way too many incomplete sentences for my liking. Characters even sound the same–religious or not, I wasn’t impressed with the constant use of “Jesus Christ” as an interjection. Overall, Laura’s story felt more like a choppy first draft. Walker obviously had material to work with here, but it’s pretty much that. It’s not organized especially well. I think she made things too complicated with the addition of some irrelevant twists and turns involving a family secret and Jon’s identity. And then there’s the fact that most of what happens in the story really isn’t relevant to Laura’s issue, not to give too much away. Too much time is ultimately spent on red herrings and side characters that contribute nothing, like Laura’s roommate. There is another potential twist that doesn’t go anywhere about a family affair, and another about someone who Laura used to date, and probably more that I’m not thinking of. It’s disjointed, and that’s where it missed the mark for me. There are too many possible suspects and plots thrown in and many aren’t relevant, and at a certain point I wondered whose story I was reading.

The characters are…okay. Nor great, even. Laura drove me up the wall with her constant “woe-is-me” and “I’m sooo messed up and broken” attitude. She seemed to refuse any sort of change. Her date, Jon, isn’t especially interesting either. In fact, this date night, the plotline the story is supposed to be based upon, ends up primarily being a vehicle for the backstory to expose itself, and they don’t actually do a lot of dating activities. Rather, she just opens up to him about “that night,” or when she was accused of doing something terrible. Would you open up to a guy you literally just met by spilling every last detail on a personal tragedy that happened years ago? These two could have had an interesting night, but it just wasn’t, and I found myself tempted to skim these chapters. It read more like a therapy session.

The family dynamics should have been more interesting also. I like the idea of two sisters together. Of course, Laura chalks up all her issues to her missing father who ran out on them years ago. This is getting highly unoriginal. Not that we’re even sure that he is to blame. He’s just kind of a scapegoat in a larger picture. I would have liked to see Rosie and Laura’s relationship explored more, though, as it seemed more relevant here.

As for the ending, it’s more solid than ones I’ve read recently. The prose finally tightens up to focus on a singular issue: where Laura is. Now readers of this blog will know that I like an epilogue, just so I can learn how life continues on. This ending walks the line between knowing and fearing the future and does it pretty well. There are explanations given (though I would have liked a more definite answer to some questions), and Laura finds an answer to what she must do next, regardless if her life becomes happy or not. So, points for that.

I’m not sure if The Night Before works. I think it’s a collection of ideas that needs to be refined and expanded upon. I think there was opportunity for expansion on the sisters’ lives and it focused too much on the past. I think the writing style made it suffer more than it needed to as well. Organizationally, it tries to take on multiple plots which distract from the main purpose of finding Laura, or wondering whether she was the bad guy–and I don’t think many readers will peg her as the culprit there, so it’s wasted time. This is hit-or-miss really, and if you’re interested I certainly wouldn’t say you shouldn’t pick it up, but it wasn’t a highly memorable novel either.

2.5 stars

Book Club Questions (spoilers!)

  1. Laura looks to her sister Rosie to find her ideal of marital bliss. Is all that it seems, or is the grass always greener on the other side of the fence? Will Laura need a guy to complete her?
  2. How does parental involvement play a role in shaping the children of this book? Discuss the impact of parenting on Laura, Rosie, Gabe, and even Mason. Does it have any impact on how they turn out, do you think?
  3. What are the perils of online dating? Have you ever tried to create a profile? If so, how did it go? Did you choose to hide anything about yourself? Why might Jonathan want to hide his identity? To what extent does he show his true self?
  4. Why does Laura choose to act the way that she does? Is it because of her upbringing, or something else? Is she incapable of loving herself or does she choose not to?
  5. There are multiple cases of mistaken identity, or of a character not truly knowing someone they think they know. Consider Joe and Rosie, or Rosie and Laura, Laura and Mitch, or Laura and Gabe. How do you go a good portion of your life without knowing someone? How well can you truly know anyone?
reviews

With You Always; Rena Olsen

With You Always; Rena Olsen
Genre: Christian suspense
Published: 2018
Pages: 339
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Gryffindor, Slytherin

When Julia meets Bryce, she is smitten. He is the perfect guy–charming, sweet, and handsome. Together they begin their life’s journey and become members of the church that Bryce and his family belong to. Soon his family is having a huge say in their marriage, from the details of the wedding planning to how Julia should behave as a wife. But are they overstepping their boundaries? As Bryce starts to reveal his true nature, step by step, Julia finds herself becoming isolated from everything she loves about her life, from her job to her nephews and parents, giving Bryce and the curch her only attention. Eventually, there is no way out as her dream come true becomes a nightmare. Is living with Bryce the fairy tale she thought it would be? Or is it a trap?

I have to admit: With You Always is one of the most unique psychological suspense novels I’ve picked up recently. As a Christian myself, I wasn’t expecting the church to be such a prominent aspect of the book (probably because it seemed to be omitted entirely from the description…looking at you, BookBub). I was expecting something about a Christian cult, and that’s kind of what I got. But it’s also a unique Christian suspense novel, a subgenre I had no idea existed.

Now, the first 1/3 of the book was pretty slow. Bryce is so charming and perfect that the chapters that we do see of them dating are pretty bland. It takes a while to go through them and Olsen herself summarizes at points. And they decide to tie the knot so quickly that I have a hard time getting invested at the beginning. On the other hand, I see why readers would want a solid foundation. However it does pick up. Even though it’s not an action packed journey, it crackles with underlying suspense that builds up as readers move along.

Bryce attends the Church of the Life, a massive institution that includes a church, a school, a cafe, many Bible study groups, and a mysterious “Gathering” which is by invitation only. It’s run by the Reverend and his wife, Nancy, whom Bryce considers his parents. Julia, of course, starts joining him at church because it’s a strong part of his life and begins to delve deeper into the faith herself. Then her marriage begins to take a turn. Olsen studied psychology and that knowledge is evident throughout. She goes into great detail of how Julia is duped into believing that everything she does is her fault through Bryce and his family. Eventually she doesn’t even need Bryce to tell her that she’s wrong about some things; she just believes it internally. There were several times where she could make a clean cut getaway and I wanted to scream at her a bit, but I can also understand why she didn’t, because by then she truly believed she’d be doing wrong. Her thought processes are well thought out. These same processes are depicted in watching her isolate herself from her job, her friends and her family. You want to be frustrated with her for making these choices, but at the same time, you can’t be.

Christianity is an important part of the novel–not something you usually see in suspense. Olsen acknowledges that bad churches do exist, but there is still plenty of good. For example, Julia likes her Bible study with Jenny until Bryce makes her stop going. She continues to do Bible studies when her marriage reaches its lowest point. While there are sinister things going on, there are positives too. Julia does not even give up on her faith at the end of the novel. I liked that Olsen didn’t depict faith as a bad thing, and instead, something that could be manipulated by people who aren’t good.

This novel unfortunately doesn’t do much to end my “strong ending” slump. It leaves a lot to be desired, and like many suspense novels, pretty much ends at the point of no return. This leaves considerable unanswered questions about Bryce’s motivation and why his behavior changed, his family, what kind of things the church was really up to, why the Reverend did what he did during the Gathering, and how things end for Julia and her family. I personally am a big fan of the “where are they now” epilogue, so maybe part of it is just me, but I’d like things to be wrapped up a bit more. (Edit: After I published this post, I saw that Goodreads reviewers are saying the same thing, not just about this novel but for others I’ve read this year. It’s clear to me by this point that readers want questions answered if they invest their time in a story, so hopefully this ending slump will end soon!)

With You Always stands out among recent suspense novels for the subject matter. I had a hard time putting it down, but I would really, really love to see more endings that tied things together. I’m tired of having to decide outcomes for myself, and I do ultimately buy books so the author can tell me the story. Still, it was a unique spin on an abusive relationship tale with well-written psychological tension that will keep readers turning pages, knowing that the slow beginning will be worth it. It’s not an action-packed thriller, but it’s suspenseful all the same.

4 stars

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Take Me to Church

Book Club Questions (spoilers obviously)

  1. Kate was seeing red flags in Julia and Bryce’s relationship from the beginning. What were some of them, do you think? Would you rush into a marriage if the guy seemed perfect?
  2. Many victims of abuse get the same question: “Why don’t you just leave?” Why couldn’t Julia feel as if she could just leave, despite opportunities? What do you think you would have done?
  3. Events such as the Gathering are seen as good by those who attend–but it is not a Godly experience. Christians: have you ever felt a true connection to God in your life? How can you tell if it’s God speaking or if it’s someone else?
  4. Think about backstories for the Reverend and Nancy. What in their life led them to this point? Why did the Reverend decide to just take in Bryce off the street without regard to his parents? Do you think either of them knew God? Why did they choose to take advantage of so many people rather than to truly lead them to Christ? Are his motivations good, at all?
  5. Have you ever been duped by someone of faith? How did it change your belief system?
  6. Is Bryce a good character who had just been brainwashed into the Reverend’s plans and beliefs? Or was he a victim of his past, or something else?
  7. The events after the end are largely left to interpretation. Where do you see Julia’s life going from here? Do you think her family will take her in so she can start over, or does she have a long battle ahead with the legal system and prison time? Do you think the Reverend and Nancy will try and make her pay or frame her for murder?

reviews

Watching You; Lisa Jewell

Watching You: Lisa Jewell
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2018
Pages: 324
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Slytherin

Tom Fitzwilliam has enjoyed a successful career as a schoolmaster, being placed into struggling schools across the country and fixing them up again. And the women are taking notice even today. New neighbor Joey isn’t sure about her marriage, but Tom sparks something inside her that she hasn’t recognized in her own marriage. Teenage Jenna helps deal with the reality of her paranoid mother by hanging out with her friend Bess–who also seems to harbor an interest in their teacher. And then there’s Tom’s son Freddie, who watches everyone and everything play out within his neighborhood…including a seemingly fraught relationship between his mother and father.

It isn’t long before someone’s obsession reaches a breaking point when someone is killed in the Fitzwilliam house. Soon neighbors and friends find themselves questioning each other and wondering how far is too far.

Watching You is an interesting twist on the mystery thriller that brings several different stories together and turns them into one. Many people have roles (albeit sometimes small) in this neighborhood of colorful homes. The title manifests itself in different ways; watching a love interest, watching your neighbors, and even keeping an eye on your family and friends.

The novel reads like a thriller or character study rather than a mystery. It focuses more on the events themselves then it does with the police procedural, though chapters are interspersed with interview snippets. Readers don’t even know who was killed. I had the “who” and the “why” about midway through, but Jewell includes other twists and last-minute thoughts that will shock even the best detectives.

And because they don’t know who for most of the book, it presents itself as more of a character study. This isn’t a bad thing here, though, because I found most of them to be interesting and not caricatures. I liked that Tom wasn’t the perfect definition of handsome as you might expect. I liked getting a glimpse into the life of semi-popular-but-not-entitled Jenna. Overall, Jewell does a great job writing characters as unique people. The character who fell a bit short for me was Joey and sometimes I found myself being bummed out when the chapter changed to to her arc again. I initially thought it would mostly be her story since we spend a lot of time in her perspective in the beginning, but it isn’t. There is nothing new about her affairs and watching her miss her dead mother (yet another “missing parent” subplot I thought was unnecessary).

Yes, there are certainly a lot of stories here! One might even wonder if there are too much. By the end of the book it was pretty clear to me that a lot of the chapters were filler meant to serve as red herrings, which I guess is a good thing if you like to challenge yourself to solve the plot before the pages end. However, again, the characters were for the most part interesting and I didn’t mind. On the other hand, some of these subplots stray considerably from the main storyline. Freddie, Tom’s son, is an awkward teenager who struggles with the fact that he may have Asperger’s. He also struggles with dating, and while they do give some interesting insight, they add nothing to the overarching story. Entire chapters are devoted to his dating life and probably weren’t needed. It’s some nice representation, but it should have been tied into the novel. I was also questioning why he suddenly started acting according to his new label after he realized he had the disorder. Overall, everyone has a part to play even though I felt at times like Jewell went out of her way to include stories for the sake of throwing us off. Of course, then the book would be a lot smaller, so I guess it kind of works.

As for guessing? This could either be an easy or challenging book to solve, depending on your experience with the genre. I read one sentence or two that blew the thing open for me, but then again I could just be speaking for myself. One aspect of there being several characters to hear from is that everyone has a reason for having a motive, from Jenna’s paranoid mother to Joey herself, and that adds an extra challenge as well as a new level of interest.

Watching You is a somewhat slow burn, but it does begin to get interesting in the second half. which I liked better. I don’t have a lot more to say about it than that other than it’s an interesting look at obsession with interesting characters, and if that’s your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

3 stars

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Every Breath You Take

Book Club Questions (spoilers obviously)

  1. There is a lot of “watching” to be done in this book. Who watches who? When is it harmful and when it is okay? Does social media make it more acceptable for us to spy on people?
    1a. Did you ever learn something about someone else that you weren’t supposed to by watching them? What was it? How did things play out from there?
  2. Who did you first guess to be the murderer? Who did you think was murdered?
  3. Think back to a time in school when there was a big scandal. What happened and what came of it, if anything?
  4. Rebecca has a clear-cut motive for what she did. Do you think that she is a good or bad person? What would have been a better way to go about it? What would you have done?
  5. How much was Tom to blame in any event described in the novel? Do you think he was involved in Viva’s death, directly or indirectly? Was he an intentional womanizer or just a victim of his circumstances?

reviews

Someone We Know: Shari Lapena

Someone We Know: Shari Lapena
Genre: Mystery/suspense
Published: 2019
Pages: 292
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Ravenclaw

In the dark of evening, a teenage boy sneaks into his neighbor’s house and hacks into their computers. Just for fun.

Right after that, a body of someone in the same neighborhood is discovered. Amanda was pretty and flirtatious, and the women hated her. She flirted with everyone’s husbands, and now she has been murdered.

So the question is, who did it? Who is keeping secrets? It turns out that pretty much everyone has something to hide, from Amanda’s ex-husband to the boy’s mom to the new woman across the street. And what did the teenage boy discover that could help or hinder the investigation?

Murder mysteries never really appealed to me. I thought, what kind of entertainment was it to see people getting killed and to figure out who did it? Isn’t that making light of something serious? But this isn’t what Someone We Know tries to accomplish. Instead of glamorizing murder, it struck me as a cautionary tale about lying and keeping even the smallest secrets from family and neighbors.

We’ve seen most of this before. There’s a suburban vibe to things, a neighborhood where nothing rarely ever happens. But…*gasp!…people are hiding secrets. Most of what drives the actions is based on an affair, too, something we’ve seen plenty of times before. As a result, the first half of the book was pretty bland. Readers are introduced to the families on the block, though we don’t know a lot about the families other than that they’re suburban neighbors. Then we have the two detectives who question everyone; readers see the first questioning and then the detectives talk about it amongst themselves. Then this process is repeated with more families. So it gets kind of repetitive in that way, but beginner readers might like the chance to have the information repeated and discussed.

As for the characters themselves, while not interesting, I did find myself caring about what would happen to them. Olivia struck me as a moderate Republican with a baby-boomer the-world-today-sucks attitude and I didn’t like her, originally (not necessarily because of party). Carmine was new to the neighborhood, so you wanted to root for her, but she was such a busybody. One detective, too, seemed to play the obligatory role of the guy who just seems to be there to taunt people and get them in trouble. Actually, there aren’t too many characters here that I really liked. On the other hand, I didn’t despise reading about them either, like there was just enough to be interesting. I was especially interested in Raleigh, the teen hacker who sneaks into people’s houses. At first I didn’t understand how the two stories interacted, but I apprenticed it more when he started playing a role in the mystery. I was disappointed that most scenes involving him were left as cliffhangers, particularly one where readers actually see him break into a house. I would have liked more tie-ins to his storyline. Still, I found myself becoming very drawn to these characters and as a result, got more and more into the book as it went on.

The first half was very generic, but when things pick up, it’s harder to put down. Lapena is good at utilizing twists that make you go back and forth; it’s no longer a straightforward book. Just when you think you know who did it–bam, another piece of evidence comes up. I did figure it out well before the book ended, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing with mysteries. Part of the fun is trying to get ahead of everyone else. Of course, I don’t know whether I first pieced it together because of the clues, or rather, because of the writing and the way that Lapena drops in seemingly useless details. But then you get to the end only to have another whammy revealed, leaving readers with a chill. THIS is the way to end a thriller. You give the characters their ending, and there is closure, but there is still a sense of something wrong that’s a little different. Many authors lately have failed to achieve this balance, and it’s led to hasty endings. Will there be a sequel?

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I wasn’t expecting much, but as things started to come together, it improved and I enjoyed trying to guess who was behind Amanda’s murder.

4 stars (upgraded from 3.5)

SONG OF THE NOVEL- Somebody That I Used to Know

Book Club Questions (spoilers!)

  1. The novel deals with keeping secrets and telling lies. Describe a time you told a lie or kept a secret that had more serious consequences than you expected. Is it ever okay to lie?
  2. Which characters, if any, did you relate to? Which did you dislike? Do you think that their pasts might have shaped the way that they acted?
  3. Who did you originally guess to be the murderer? Why?
  4. If you discovered tomorrow that your best friend committed a heinous crime, could you still be friends? Why or why not? What if it was your significant other, or a family member?
  5. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises in the novel is that characters’ judgments aren’t wrong about Richard Pierce, as seen in the epilogue. Where do you see things going next? For other characters?
reviews

Luckiest Girl Alive: Jessica Knoll

Luckiest Girl Alive: Jessica Knoll
Genre: Fiction
Published: 2015
Pages: 338
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Slytherin

Meet Ani FaNelli: successful magazine editor, wife to a financial tycoon, New York resident with a nice place. She’s worked so hard to truly make it in life, and now that’s she’s about to get married, life couldn’t be any better.

Or could it?

Ani has something buried in her past that has driven her to this point in life. As a teenager at her fancy private school, she was humiliated by her peers and did something that she can’t forgive herself for. When she is asked to take part in a documentary regarding her past, Ani must decide whether to stay quiet or speak up. Can she truly find happiness with her new life?

Luckiest Girl Alive seems to be a story about a successful woman who is hiding a secret, but there is actually much more to it. It’s not the thriller I thought it would be–not that there aren’t thrilling moments–but at it’s core it’s a tale of survival and how our past can shape our futures.

When we meet Ani, she’s living in New York City. She reminds me of a spoiled Instagram influencer/model/party girl, like a lot of the other characters in here. This isn’t a bad thing; she has a unique voice that rings true throughout most of the book which we don’t always get in thrilling novels of this type. From the school the to magazine, most of the female characters seem to be snobby, gossipy, and obsessed with their weight, including Ani’s friends who I didn’t warm to very much. Ani too appears to be materialistic, but not everything is as it appears to be. Her husband is also pretty bland, but this actually plays a part in her story. The relationship that interested me the most was actually the one between her and her English teacher that spans years. Sure, we see a lot of the private school cliches as well, but I also appreciated how Ani was able to make friends and didn’t just try to fit in with a “clique” because that was the only option available. To me, a former private school student, it never really worked that way.

This book may start off reminding readers of Mean Girls (she spends some time with who she believes to be the queen bees), and it stays that way for a while. Without giving anything away, there are no shortage of heavier issues to touch on here, in particular, rape culture as Ani finds her place in the social scene. Then we have events that completely turn the tables and really shift the book’s focus to the past, especially as we watch Ani film the documentary in the present. Here I probably would have liked to see how it all tied to her future a bit more. I did find the police procedurals to be pretty slow as well, especially considering how some of the following chapters were mostly just summaries of what they found to be true. I was especially disappointed that I had to rely on summary chapters to tell me exactly what Ani thought she did that made everyone dislike her, which I had a tough time figuring out at first. It struck me that she might not be disliked for the reason she thought she was, but I could be wrong. Eventually this does all tie together into the present day and we realize why Ani has done what she’s done.

But not all of the mystery surrounds the big incident in the past. Rather, it surrounds Ani herself. She is a puzzle. Are we rooting for her? She seems pretty superficial. If I were the intern who she met with, I’d definitely be intimidated! But then again there’s the way she cares about Loretta, the woman running the corner stand. On the other hand, I found myself not always liking her mother, who she probably gets these materialistic tendencies from. So is there redemption? Ultimately, this is good character development, not that Ani is above a little sabotage herself. I’ve complained about slowness and “character studies” in the past this year, but this book does them right. Mostly. I probably could have done without a couple of scenes with Ani and her new family that didn’t lead anywhere.

Suspense fans will find something to like, too. Maybe especially because this book was a little slower, I was also pleasantly surprised with the ending. Just as I thought there were going to be few twists and turns like I was told, the novel’s path shifts into reverse. I was able to put together some clues and theories before it happened, and it kept me turning pages. It’s pretty clever, though I did wonder about her husband’s side of the story and his reaction.

There is a lot to Luckiest Girl Alive that makes it a unique take on a character hiding something from the past. It’s a character study and drama with a dash of #MeToo and even a sprinkle of crime thriller. If you can make it past some slow parts, it’s definitely worth picking up. Also I have to give a pat on the back to the author for writing this story–an incident in the book is partially based on her life, and she goes into this at the end of the book. It’s eye-opening to know that these things can happen in private schools a mere 45 minutes from home, too.

3.5 stars

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Secret

reviews

The House Swap: Rebecca Fleet (DNF)

The House Swap: Rebecca Fleet
Genre: Suspense Fiction
Published: 2018
Pages: 294
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Hufflepuff

When Caroline gets the opportunity to swap houses with someone in the suburbs, she jumps at the chance. This will be a perfect opportunity to repair her relationship with Frances, her husband.
But then little clues start to appear that only mean things to Caroline and the relationship she kept hidden while her own was falling apart. And what’s happening with the overly nosy neighbor that seems to harbor too much interest in Caroline? Maybe the things she wants to leave behind aren’t as far away as she thinks. Because it almost seems like the house is watching them.

I was expecting to like The House Swap a lot more than I did. It had plenty of signs that this would be a good suspenseful book . Sadly, the novel fails to be engaging in any way and I just couldn’t get through it. It’s a bad sign when it takes an hour to read twenty pages; when I keep drifting to Instagram; anything to give my brain a break from the boredom. It’s also a bad sign when I’m already on my third DNF of the year, which is something I rarely do at all.

This seems to be Fleet’s first effort, and it seems pretty clear that it is. The premise is pretty bare-bones; a woman had an affair that comes back to haunt her. The problem here is that absolutely nothing new is brought to the table. I’m literally watching two bland characters as they deal with an affair, and too much time is spent on flashbacks of said affair, which is just watching two people make out pretty much. Yay, more sex scenes that lead nowhere! What was the point for including these specific scenes? Were we supposed to enjoy her cheating/ And chapters in the present pretty much follow the same formula: They decide to try a bonding outing. It’s going well. Caroline has a breakdown. There are awkward conversations. It gets awkward and Francis storms out. Awkward evening. They try again tomorrow. It’s super repetitive, and nothing particularly exciting happens in any of them. Maybe it’s a character study? But I’m struggling to call it that, too, because we don’t get to know very much about these people. And you still need to have something happen somewhere. This book is 95% watching people verbally “work out issues.”

Now let’s talk about the twists. They are not twists. They are very easy to guess. Maybe if they weren’t supposed to be twists, I could have written it off. Now sometimes it’s fun to guess the twist. But in this case, it’s not satisfying at all because I find that most readers will predict everything immediately. On the other hand, the twist that I couldn’t predict (I did skim the other pages) comes so far out of left field that it’s hard to be believed. Perhaps Fleet realized her book was supposed to be exciting and decided to throw something scary in there. It didn’t work for me. It was too random. It doesn’t help that the few characters that there are don’t leave a lot of room for any real surprise. And really, characters tried too hard to keep secrets. Why couldn’t Caroline have just told her husband about the things appearing in the house? I mean, even if they don’t “mean” anything, it’s still an intruder, right?

What I did like was the addition of Amber, a socially awkward character who shows too much interest in Caroline. Again, though, her story arc is super predictable, all but laid out in front of us. I could tell where it was going as soon as she arrived. Another interesting aspect of the novel is that it tries to address topics like broken marriage and drug addiction , but this doesn’t entirely work either. It’s very, very preachy in what it’s trying to talk about in the serious moments. There’s a scene between Amber and Caroline that reads just like a therapy session, dialogue and all, where Fleet is hitting us over the head with a hammer on how marriage can be hard work. And that’s not the only scene. Sometimes it was more like reading a pamphlet than a fiction novel; I was reminded of the time when I rented a Christmas movie only to be tricked into watching a 90-minute commercial for St. Jude’s. Only instead of cancer care, this book serves as an advocate to people who are dealing with addiction, with deep thoughts and ideas of how to best deal with it. It’s an interesting topic when done right, but this book merely beats me over the head with perky morals like “Drugs are bad!” and “Marriage is something you have to work at!” I’m not married nor know an addict, so these parts just didn’t click for me at all.

Is it possible that some people could get things from this novel? Possibly. If you are struggling with addiction in your marriage, parts of The House Swap could ring true for you. If you’re just starting to dip your toes into the genre, this could work as well. And you’ll still have to prepared for long stretches where nothing happens, a very predictable plot, and nothing else that’s truly interesting or more than a fix-our-marriage story. People who are experienced with the genre will be bored with this one quickly.

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Dirty Little Secret

1 star

reviews

I Know Who You Are; Alice Feeney

I Know Who You Are: Alice Feeney
Genre: Psychological thriller
Published: 2019
Pages: 288
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Ravenclaw

Aimee likes acting because it gives her a break from being herself. The problem is, who is she?

Somebody knows. They know who Aimee is and what her secret is.

When her husband disappears, Aimee wonders if she’s going nuts or if someone is out to get her. When hints of her troubled childhood start to reappear, she knows it’s time to find out who else has something to hide, even if it’s herself.

I Know Who You Are is a traditional thriller that alternates between the past and the present, as many do. There are incompetent (and sometimes cruel) cops, an unreliable narrator, and flashbacks. In this case the chapters alternate between Aimee’s current life as an actress and her childhood when terrible things happened. Still, I was having trouble deciding whether or not I wanted to root for this character. I felt sorry for her in childhood, and then of course when everything was going wrong for her in the present, but then again she wasn’t acting innocent. She wouldn’t cooperate with the police and kept a lot of secrets. At times. I just wanted to scream at her. Yes, she technically did do something bad in the past, which we try to figure out as the book goes along, but it wasn’t really her fault either…so why not cooperate?

Actually, though, I found myself drawn more to the story of Aimee’s childhood. The present day story is fine, but it can be slow (and oddly gets even slower closer to the end with considerable filler romantic scenes). Feeney does a good job of writing through a child’s eyes. It wasn’t a traditional kidnapping scenario, but rather, a replacement for another. Aimee’s parents often claimed to love her and there were some happy moments as well as disturbing ones. She was taught not to trust the police, which may explain her behavior in the present. As she navigates adulthood, these experiences will come back to influence her thoughts and actions. It’s a good psychological look at how childhood experiences shape us later.

In the present, while Aimee tries to figure out who is setting her up, Feeney gives us plenty of suspects to choose from. There is her co-star Jack and rival Alicia and a storyline between them as they try to cope with jealousy against one other. Yes, Jack is indeed is the fourth character I’ve read this year who speaks random French. This is a quirk that I would like to see disappear and be replaced with actual character traits. There is also her husband who seems to have turned on her. I also admired the use of transitions in between chapters; how a reference to one thing leads to a scene in the next chapter. They give the novel a cinematic feel, like you’re watching things play out. I didn’t feel like the book needed the unreliable narrator trope, though. Aimee drinks and some believe that she has a type of amnesia, which isn’t really touched on and seems to be included because it’s trendy. Otherwise, the Hitchcockian feel turns this novel of tropes into something a little more interesting.

Where this novel suffers throughout is the use of purple-y prose and semi-philosophical statements on human nature, especially secret keeping. Aimee uses a lot of “we all” statements to the point of being repetitive. In chapters that are in third-person (read: not by Aimee), Feeney continues using these statements making me wonder why all the characters are thinking this way. And who’s the “we?” Is she speaking about people in general? Because I’m not sure that “we all” behave in the sense that she says we all do. She also makes a lot of allusions to acting like someone else that get a little repetitive. Sometimes it’s interesting when authors drop deep statements, but the ones Aimee brings about real life acting vs. acting on the stage are a bit predictable.

And then there’s the ending. Endings tend to be the hardest part to get right in these thrillers these days. This novel did have a unique twist that is tricky to guess that I’m not even sure I got until after I finished. And the more I think of it, the more unique and interesting of a twist I think it is…except the character really doesn’t have any motivation to do that stuff, which is where it was weak for me. But I was left with several other questions that made no sense to me (spoilers in below paragraph):

First off, why in the world would her brother be mad enough to pull off what he does over a very little something that happened years ago? Where was Maggie in all this? How well did the two actually know each other? Speaking of Maggie, why exactly did she dispose of her daughter? For that matter, how–or when– on earth would she have placed a tracking app on Aimee’s phone? Who were the people that were after that family always robbing them? I would have liked to know more about this background stuff because this part of the story stood out to me the most. SPOILER END

It gets worse. We get an epilogue–which I normally love so we can see how everything has ended up. But a part of this epilogue leaves a very bad, very offensive taste in my mouth. Not on the part of the character (okay, maybe) but on the part of the author. Here’s the deal (another spoiler below):

Aimee is having a child that is presumed to be her brother’s, and she’s absolutely delighted over it. Not only is this terrible to begin with, but considering the terror she just went through, it’s extra nonsensical. Someone tell Feeney that having a baby doesn’t automatically mean happily ever after especially given these circumstances! I would hate to see her thoughts on babies conceived through rape from a stranger if this is her attitude toward incest. SPOILER END

In general I was okay with it, but those parts alone made the whole thing pretty disturbing.

I feel like although the premise is good, I Know Who You Are does try a little too hard in parts. The characters’ behavior can be extreme and some plot points needed to be thought through a bit more. I also question Feeney’s morals when it comes to the ending, and I’ll probably have to read it a second time because either I missed things or there were plot holes; I’m not sure which. However, the good stuff was good and it was hard to put down at its most exciting.

3 stars

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Paparazzi

reviews

The Perfect Girlfriend: Karen Hamilton

The Perfect Girlfriend: Karen Hamilton
Genre: Psychological thriller
Published: 2018
Pages: 332
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Slytherin

Nate and Juliette are meant to be. Just ask Juliette: it was fate that brought them together years ago.
But now Nate has broken up with her. Juliette isn’t worried though: fate is clearly on their side. And she’d do anything to get them back together again, even if that means getting a new job and flying around the world so she can keep an eye on–and manipulate– his activities.
Juliette isn’t worried. Because she has a plan to get him back for good, whether he likes it or not.

The Perfect Girlfriend is a combination of things I most enjoy in a psychological thriller: an unstable main character (NOT necessarily unreliable), a romance gone wrong, and a woman doing sneaky things to accomplish her goal that we may or may not see coming. Although it’s maybe a done concept by now, when it’s done right, it never fails to satisfy me, and I’d say that Hamilton has done just that.

It’s a slow burn, but the devil is in the details. During the first half, I actually found myself most interested in the details of the career of Juliette/Elizabeth, our main character who is also a flight attendant. It’s not a world I know very much about and few readers probably will. An airplane is a great place for drama to happen, given that it’s so far from ground and claustrophobic. While the book does take a while to get going, I was entertained by her life story and still kept on the edge of my seat to see exactly what this plan would be. Casual bits are dropped to the reader over time, and there are some details which I simply figured out on my own. This is a unique way of writing plot twists–by not ending chapters on big reveals or making a big fuss, but instead by casually revealing things in a way that makes sense.

Adding to the suspense and making up for semi-slowness is Juliette’s cold and calculating voice. She is a good planner, but she is also delusional especially in regards to others’ thinking and her voice captures that very well. My only issue with that is that Hamilton sometimes seems to assume that Nate is thinking the same way, even though Juliette is supposed to be quite the sociopathic thinker and thus typically inaccurate. (Near the end, you’ll see what I mean–it seems unlikely things would just end that way.) She is also sympathetic in that I know what it feels like to have those types of feelings for someone you want to be with when you’re lonely; Hamilton accurately captures those flashes of rage and jealousy. Her backstory adds to the suspenseful tone as well–yes, there is a dead mother scene and yes, it probably could have been left out–but there is also a childhood trauma that plays a part in making Juliette the person she is. You never stop getting the feeling that things are coming, and come they do, particularly as the novel progresses.

Mid-book, the plot jumps from 25 mph to 100. This is when the plans really begin to pick up, but there are other forces from the past too: Bella, Juliette’s tormentor from boarding school, is tied into everything as well. So as she tracks down Nate, there are other parts devoted to her getting revenge. At times, I felt sympathetic to the point where halfway through the book I wondered: is Juliette the good guy here? At first it seems like there are just many subplots, but readers will find that they tie together in the end. As for the action itself? Sometimes I did have to suspend disbelief, for example during a scene where she is tricking Nate into taking a bigger step by using drugs and the later evidence shows that he is happy about taking that step. It seemed to me that it would be pretty difficult to get someone to go through with those kinds of things whilst on drugs and to look happy about them even more. No doubt that Juliette gets lucky sometimes. SBut I would also love to see a thriller where everything goes wrong for the person in question.

I won’t spoil the ending here, but it’s a little different than what you might expect. It wasn’t entirely my cup of tea, but it was fine, and I also thought that again it was unlikely that the characters were accepting their fates at that point in time when there were still things that could be done. Or maybe it was just me overthinking things. Otherwise, I can’t think of many things that bothered me in this novel. This was a hard one to put down. If you like thrillers about romance gone wrong, you’ll enjoy The Perfect Girlfriend.

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Look What You Made Me Do; Taylor Swift

4.5 stars

reviews

The Endless Beach; Jenny Colgan (DNF)

The Endless Beach: Jenny Colgan
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Published: 2018
Pages: 384

Months after returning to Mure, Flora MacKenzie is taking the first steps into her romance with Joel. Despite some promising passion earlier on, some sometimes wonders if she’s going to get anywhere at all. More difficult still is keeping the seaside cafe alive and being asked to cater to Charlie’s wedding. Can she handle the demands of her own love life and others’ as well?

Out of all the books I never finished, The Endless Beach has to be one of the strangest.

For me, there were a few issues that kept me from following through. Something interesting to note: There is a forward that says readers need not be familiar with The Cafe by the Sea to read this, but I feel like it would be hugely beneficial, or even necessary. The book jumps right in, not allowing new readers a lot of time to get familiar with these characters.

The biggest issue, though, was that Colgan evidently wrote a sort of in-between book between Cafe by the Sea and this one. I believe it was some kind of short story. Anyway, there is a character that readers get to know in that short story called Saif. Saif is a refugee waiting to hear news of his family back home. But he’s barely in Cafe by the Sea. So when the book is marketed to give the impression that this is mostly Flora’s story, it’s really off-putting when half the book is focused on a new character that we never got to know in Cafe by the Sea. This is more of a challenge considering that not many people would have read the in-between novel, as it looks like it was some kind of short story for a special publication. At this point, I’m glad I read the foreword, because otherwise I’d be really confused. And that’s not all.

There’s also the issue of the social worker working with Saif’s case. Apparently some readers complained that this character in the short story was too harsh and was an insult to the profession. However, these people should keep in mind that one bad social worker character doesn’t represent the entire group–though readers should of course think the same. So Colgan went back and rewrote the character to make these naysayers happy. As a result of reading this particular piece of information, it’s kind of obvious that said character is written to please people.

This can probably be attributed to marketing–for some reason, the American marketing team really likes to change Colgan’s books to make them seem like a different story than you’re getting. I am not the only one who doesn’t like this, far from it actually, and don’t understand why they can’t remain the same. It doesn’t mention Saif at all. Where the issue lies is that Saif’s story takes a lot of time from Flora’s. Colgan would do better to publish the short story and have it sold more widely, or perhaps merge the two stories so readers aren’t met with surprise.

Besides that, the whole thing lacked direction. There were thirty plots in the first 60 pages. Was the story about Flora finding more romance with Joel–an interesting continuation, since I didn’t feel like their romance was 100% authentic in the first? Was it about Saif finding his family? How are they and Flora connected then? Or maybe it was Lorna’s story, but I didn’t know where that was going either.

So for now, I’m putting this book down. It’s not necessarily terrible, but I had a tough time getting into it. I may have to go back and read the in-between story first. But please, publishers: work harder to accurately tell me about the story!