reviews

The Affair; Sheryl Browne

The Affair: Sheryl Browne
Genre: Psychological suspense
Published: 2018
Pages: 318
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Hufflepuff, Slytherin

They’re a perfect, happy family that would never hurt one another. Or are they?

After tragedy strikes, Alicia is shocked to run into an old flame. Justin picks up on this, and Alicia is forced to confront the past and tell her husband what happened all those years ago. Just when it seems that things can’t get any worse, another secret is revealed causing their daughter to flee the house. Justin is not only on a mission to save his marriage, but to save his daughter from whatever threats are out there. Without Sophie, what does he have left to live for if the rest of his life was a lie? But the random run-in may not have been so random, and Justin must confront not just a threat to their marriage but to his whole family, and his life.

Normally, novels about affairs don’t thrill me. For one, I can’t stand the perpetrators; if you don’t want to hurt your family by doing so, why do it? For another: they’re boring. It seems like predictable affairs take place in every domestic drama lately. But it came as an addition to the original Browne novel I bought, and as it was two books for the price of one, I couldn’t just ignore a free book.

This book features the 3rd person perspectives of Justin, his wife Alicia, and daughter Sophie. (What is it about Sophies in the media always having their main plot be about finding their father?) Of course, you want to hate Alicia for what she’s done to the family, and at first I did. But I was also surprised at how my feelings toward these characters changed as the story went on. The character development, or the way that Browne makes you think differently about people, is pretty strong. I was always in Sophie’s corner. But I did feel some twinges of sympathy toward Alicia farther along, and I didn’t like Justin as much by the end. Maybe. There is also Jessica, Alicia’s sister, who plays a role I should have seen coming but didn’t. Who is right and wrong here? There are multiple conflicts at play between them; to Sophie running away as she doesn’t trust her family to Justin’s disbelief to Alicia’s guilt. The novel does get a little repetitive in saying that “Alicia felt guilty” over and over, and that’s what added to some of the slowness for me. What elevates this novel from the standard is Paul Radley, Alicia’s love interest. You can tell something is off about him from the get-go, though we don’t learn much about him. He seems to have a bigger plan in mind, one that involves Sophie, that escalates as the novel progresses. I wasn’t sure why he was appearing now after so many years apart, however.

Admittedly it was a slow start. It was 50-70 pages of characters mourning their own life and a tragedy that’s taken place which has little to do with the main storyline. Lots of “woe-is-me” is present. It’s a little repetitive here as well, but it does lay the groundwork, which was dull as I expected. But maybe that’s just me; I’m tired of the “affair reveal.” It picks up when Paul enters the picture, but sometimes other events are called upon to keep the story interesting. Browne lays the tragedy on pretty thick here. There’s a car wreck, a stabbing at a bar, and another death. Not all of these things had to do with the plot. I read in the author’s note that Browne herself was struggling from the loss of a child. While maybe this helped her, it really didn’t serve a purpose for the novel. Adding to my above point, it may even have added to the slowness of the first part of the book. I may have cut the tragedy that happens near the beginning for more focus on Sophie’s time at Paul’s apartment.

The ending does get a little Lifetime-movie-ish, preaching about how their family is working toward building their future together, and healing from the past. Mostly where I had mixed feelings was the “excuse” for Alicia… spoiler paragraph below…

…which was that she was actually raped. O….kay. But isn’t she still at fault for having the affair in the first place? And she frames it as an actual affair in her POV chapters, so that didn’t make sense to me either. Maybe it was meant for shock value? I can kind of see how it might work, seeing that it gave her and Justin reason to make up a little faster, but I’m not sure if it did or not. It was a bit of a cop-out.

End of spoilers

The reveals that were supposed to be shocking weren’t shocking at all, and I don’t think that most readers will find that to be so either. I don’t like to take anything as truth until the accusations are proven, so I wasn’t shocked at the reveal of Sophie’s father, either. (I’m not entirely sure I even got the ending, though I have a pretty good idea, Browne doesn’t explicitly say anything.) Either way, this wasn’t a bad ending, even if it wasn’t the shock it was trying to be, and I’m happy that hopefully my strong ending slump seems to be over for now. There are some unanswered questions, like why Paul was trying to put Sophie on a healthy diet, but they didn’t matter too much. Overall I think I enjoyed Sophie’s plot the most.

I’m still not sure whether I would have picked this up as a stand-alone novel, but The Affair brings enough new things to the table where I feel that it wasn’t a waste of time. I even found myself caring about that characters, particularly Sophie, and while it won’t be a favorite of mine it’s not a bad book.

3 stars

Book Club Questions (spoilers)

  1. Why do you think Alicia went ahead with her relationship with Paul? She herself said that she didn’t want Justin to blame her. Does he? How much of a real relationship do you think was present?
  2. Is Justin a good character in this novel? Readers will notice that he has some aggressive tendencies–is he good as a husband? What about Alicia?
  3. Sophie is so angry that her first and only thought is to run away from home. By the end of the book, she is blaming herself. Who is right and who is wrong in this novel, and how so? Do you think that Sophie is to blame for anything?
  4. Do you believe in the saying “once a cheater, always a cheater” as Justin seems to? Or are you okay with second chances? What does it take to ruin a family–the action or the lies?
  5. What happens after Justin and Alicia drop the final bombshell on Sophie at the end? Is their family going to survive this?
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?
articles

Stories of My Childhood: Just Grandma and Me

In this series, I explore books that have had a special meaning to me as a kid. It can be any book that tells a story that isn’t a board book, counting/alphabet book, and that is one I remember well. Of course, it should ideally be good too. This month’s choice is a special pick for Grandparents’ Day.

What is the book about?

This is a simple little story about Little Critter and his grandmother. Together, they have many adventures at the beach. Narrated by Little Critter, it tells all about their day from morning until he falls asleep on the bus ride home.

How did I discover it?

It was part of Grandma’s book basket–more on that below. It was a staple whenever I came for a visit, usually on my own. It did, after all, feature a grandmother and one grandchild.

What do I like about the book?

It’s a simple story about grandparent appreciation. I don’t remember most of the things that Little Critter actually does, but there are events that you’d often see at a typical beach day…but the focus is on the grandmother. It’s a different approach to family stories. I remember there being some nice illustrations, too. One particular two-page drawing featured lots of animals and little critters having fun at the beach, and I remember being intrigued by a plane carrying a “sign” behind it that said “Work for Peace.” This may have been because I was used to seeing so many “planes with signs” at the Jersey shore as a kid.

Favorite memory involving the books

Grandma used to have a book basket–pretty much an Easter basket with books inside. Titles included things like “Peanut Butter and Jelly,” “If You Give a Pig a Pancake,” “Nina Nina Star Ballerina,” “The Berenstain Bears’ Week at Grandma’s,” and the books about the Westie terrier whose name I can’t recall. But by far the most fun to read was Just Grandma and Me. Sometimes Grandma would even read it from her perspective instead of from Little Critter’s. It was especially funny at the end, where Little Critter insisted his grandmother fell asleep on the bus ride home even though it was he who did so.

Not that I don’t give the Berenstain Bears book any credit; that too was a good grandparent book. It showed Brother and Sister Bear going to their grandparents’ home for a week while their parents took a second honeymoon. I never understood why they were disappointed about it; going to Grandma and Grandpa’s was fun! But they learned to have fun too, through baking and ship building and square dancing. That was almost my choice for this month’s Childhood Stories post. Both are great.

Digging deeper into the fandom

Little Critter had “grown up” books too. In second grade, I was delighted to discover a series for young elementary school students starring him, now called LC. He and his friends had many adventures, and while I don’t remember what they were, I do know that I loved checking them out for silent reading time. They’re very hard to find now it seems. I may have outgrown Just Grandma and Me, but it was fun to continue the series later on.

My thoughts on the book now

Just Grandma and Me probably isn’t as popular as it used to be, but it does bring back memories. I’m sad I don’t remember too much about it, but it is what it is. If I can remember the happy times it brought, it must be a good story.

Happy Grandparents’ Day to all!

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

Not Her Daughter: Rea Frey

Not Her Daughter; Rea Frey
Genre: Fiction/Suspense
Published: 2018
Pages: 338
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Hufflepuff

What would you do if you saw a mother harming her child? If you’re Sarah, you’ll take her and run.

After she sees some suspicious mommy behavior on a business trip, Sarah assumes the worst and takes little Emma and runs. As they stay on the run from the incoming investigation, the two of them form a bond that is more like mother and daughter. But is Sarah a kidnapper? Did she do the right thing, even if Emma does not miss her family?

Meanwhile, Amy’s living a disappointing life. Kids didn’t help, but she didn’t really mean to hit her daughter, or lock her out of the house. And now Emma is gone, and it’s her fault. Then again, does she even want Emma back?

Not Her Daughter is a sweet yet psychological and thrilling look at what it means to be a mother. It’s one of those books that constantly makes you ask the question, “what would I do?”

It’s one of those tales told in flashbacks and present day. Sections are organized between Amy and Sarah’s point of view, though we fittingly hear from Sarah the most. Sarah’s chapters are written in first person while Amy’s are in third, an odd style choice. At first, the third person gives readers (and Frey) more room to judge instead of being able to see through her eyes, so my first thought was that the author was steering us to judge her more. I wanted to make that decision for myself, but as time passed, I found that Amy’s voice did come through. Ultimately, you’re not asked to hate or love either character. The chapters are also divided into subsections of “before,” “after,” and “during,” meaning in regards to Emma’s kidnapping. Although this wasn’t hard to keep track of, I did find that some of Sarah’s “before” chapters, covering her backstory, weren’t necessary. I didn’t find her relationship issues relevant to the book, nor did meeting her mother. Now normally I would be like “UGH SERIOUSLY MORE MISSING PARENT ISSUES???” but if there is a book for that, this is the one. The novel explores not only the impact of Sarah and Amy’s parenting, but how they came to be the parents they are because of their own parents as well. It’s some very interesting psychology, but then again, Sarah’s trip to meet her mother didn’t seem necessary either.

The characters are interesting. One is successful, the other works but is mostly a homemaker. One thinks Emma is sweet and charming, the other believes her to be a nuisance. Sometimes I wondered about Sarah, too. Although her motives start to maybe become more selfish (she starts to think about wanting a kid more than saving Emma at some point), this gives the reader a chance to see the character in shades of gray rather than just have explained to us who is the bad guy and who is good. I even wondered if Amy was right after all, at times. I did like the bond between Sarah and Emma. It was sweet and definitely added to the emotional factor. Emma seemed to go right along with everything, which was odd –I chose to chalk it up as her having an unhappy home life.

This is actually a difficult book to review because although it was definitely gripping, there were a considerable amount of things that didn’t work. Mainly, these are logic problems that disrupt the story. I didn’t feel that it needed the relationship side stories. And yes, there is an instance of “instalove.” That doesn’t really belong in a heavy adult novel about a kidnapping, and I don’t think that’s where Sarah’s concerns would lie. Frey also likes to throw in random SJWish statements, including some jabs at how white kids get more attention than missing black kids (not sure why that’s relevant to the book or if that’s true?) and stuff about the media, though I will say that the media stuff at least opens up some questions about how easy or hard it might be to get away with taking someone’s child. And the ending was not only a bit underwhelming, but also fraught with many possible legal issues. I get wanting to stir readers’ emotions, but it could have played out better. I mean, wow, after all that action, it just came to…that? In addition, it’s fragmented between character POVS so I’m not even sure how the events came about.

Okay, and bear with me: the gay side character. I present to you my mini guide.

HOW TO WRITE GAY CHARACTERS
BY FICTIONISTAS UNITE

1. Follow the exact same character-creating process you use for straight people. 
2. Make them attracted to people of the same gender.

Does this guide look familiar to my blog readers? Probably. This gay side character is the exact same gay side character I’ve seen twice this year already. This is a problem. I don’t get why cardboard stereotypes are still a thing in this day and age. Oddly, Frey does a good job with characterization in the beginning but later on he begins to sift into “sweetie” and “girl” and designer clothes territory. This is really nitpicky, no points off, but it’s still annoying and I cringe at the fact that all the gay characters I’ve seen in 2019 are the same person. Writers, do better!

Some of my problems were nitpicky. Mostly what bothered me was the explanation of why Amy is a troubled person besides that she just had kids and let herself go. That was really, really out there. I mean, that was just utterly unbelievable and I wondered if I would DNF because I was afraid I couldn’t take the book seriously after a certain point. I am usually willing to keep an open mind, especially with things like hypnotherapy, because I’ve done so before in other novels and it works. But I am a little curious why this reasoning got ok’d by publishing. It’s a bad reason, I’m sorry. Keep a wide open mind for this one.

Fortunately, the good story is most prevalent here. Despite the issues, this is undoubtedly an exciting book. I had a hard time putting this one down and following the adventures of both characters. I honestly didn’t know how well things would turn out for anyone, and despite a little disappointment at the rushed ending, it was a solid read. Whether you’re into parenting issues, psychology, or just like a suspenseful read, give it a try.

Best points: The characters, the real suspense, the emotions
Could be improved: Logic in general. The ending.

4 stars

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Stories of My Childhood: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

What is the book about?

This series of books is about Peter Hatcher (originally in fourth grade) and his little brother Fudge. The books typically consist of mini-stories, but it’s in a chapter book format with an overlying theme to tie it together.

In the original book, Fudge is a two year old known for throwing tantrums and just being an embarrassment to Peter. They have many entertaining days, including Fudge spoiling a school project, bribing Fudge with Oreos to be in a commercial, and many more. In book 2, Superfudge, the family moves from NYC to Princeton for a year. In Fudge-a-Mania (maybe my favorite), the family, plus Peter’s friend Jimmy and arch-enemy Sheila, goes to Maine for three weeks. In the final installment, Double Fudge, Fudge becomes obsessed with money. While on a trip to DC to see how money is made, they run into long-lost family members and life is turned upside down. I’m unusual in that I think that the last two books are my favorites.

How did I discover it?

My mom purchased the book for me. I was drawn in by what was a colorful cover (and the Comic Sans summary on the back!) but flipping through the text, it seemed boring and slow. I eventually got over it and very much enjoyed the book.

What do I love about the books?

They’re fun! These books are what I call “escapist books.” There’s not necessarily one plot problem to be solved except for Fudge; mainly it’s about stepping into another character’s world for a while and looking at their life. These books can be hit-or-miss for me, but the Fudge series hits a home run. The family dynamics are perfect and are a realistic as you can get. They’re also funny without being too out there. Everything in these books could happen in real life. Book 3 reminded me of my own family vacations, and I wasn’t even sure how since it took place in a different location.

Secondly, they age incredibly well. These are the best-aging books I’ve ever seen, though I think Harry Potter will have done well too. Save for the very occasional reference to a record player or a Harry Potter book on tape, these could take place in any generation. The first one was written in the 70s, but you’d never know it to read it today. Normally if the first book in a series took place in the 70s and then the final one wasn’t written until the 2000s, you’d know right away. With this series, you’d never know.

I love the characters, too, well-drawn without over-the-top effort put into them. I especially love seeing the three families get together in Fudge-A-Mania. Grandma and Buzzy Senior for life–incidentally two of my favorite characters. 

Digging deeper into the fandom

When I started doing my old college blog, I had the idea to do a post on Office Scranton vs. real life Scranton, meaning that I would note the locations used in the show and compare them. I found out so many interesting things. For example, Lake Scranton could never actually be used as a place for team building, nor would Michael be able to drive a car into it.

I did the same thing with Fudge-a-Mania. Many places mentioned are real, right down to the library (even the exterior is the same as described in the book!) to the harbor. I even spotted a couple places where their vacation house might be. Meanwhile, I also explored New York City in Google Maps to track down places mentioned in the other books. There is a scene in Double Fudge where Peter is telling Cousin Howie how to get to the vet’s office. After tracking down the family’s apartment (I actually believe that they would be very close by to the Hobbs family in Elf), I followed Peter’s directions exactly and…ended up at a vet’s office. Hey-o! Judy Blume’s sense of detail and direction is evident in her books and I think that’s awesome. Now not every place is real (I still can’t find a Tico-Taco or a Harry’s shoe store, unless they went out of business or something), but you would be amazed at how many locations you can track down. It really introduces you to the setting, and also shows dedication by the author.

I never did a post on this, but I would like to, so keep an eye out. If your current book takes place in a real location, I encourage you to get out Google Maps and see what you can discover! And while rereading it, your powers of visualization will be awesome.

Favorite memory involving the books

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing taught me the perils of looking ahead. It’s very tempting for many of us to peek ahead and see what happens. I really try not to do this.

Anyway, I did this for the first book and discovered the ultimate bad thing that Fudge does with Peter’s turtle. I was bummed, as it would be more shocking if I found it out when I was supposed to. My mom had asked me if I had finished yet, and when I said no, she said, “Wait until you see what Fudge does at the end!” I was disappointed that I already knew. After that, I never peeked ahead in a book again…that’s a lie.

I also recall times when I liked to read while I ate my lunch at home. These books were some of my favorite “lunch reads.”

How did the books inspire me?

I did try to write a few “escapist” stories starring a group of three friends, but that project has been tossed aside for now. 

My thoughts on the books now

I still love them and think of them as comfort books. I’m not ashamed to admit that when I was in college, sometime I’d use them as my bedtime reading. And maybe even still now! I enjoy being in a different world for a while and I love each character, not just Fudge. 

Did you read this series as a kid? What did you think?

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The “Missing Father” Trope: Other Ways To Handle Deadbeat Dads and Various Family Members

So if you’ve been on this blog for a while, you know that I’m really getting tired of missing fathers. I mean, really tired. Here are all the books on my current bookshelf and book blog that feature a main character dealing with their missing father, or wanting to learn more about them, or at least having some familiar conflict with them:

The Hypnotist’s Love Story
The Breakdown
The Kiss Quotient
Never Let You Go
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (mostly with mom but dad too)
Wild
My Not-So-Perfect Life (somewhat; the good father relationship was a major plus but the “regret” she feels towards their relationship was meh)
A Dog’s Journey
The Storyteller
Pupcakes (with a mom rather than a dad)
Harry Potter series
My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry
Silver Linings Playbook (strained father relations)
The Bassoon King
The Other Woman
A Simple Favor
You (only watched the series, but this is presumably in the book too and was so completely and utterly pointless that the episode probably could have been skipped altogether)
Roomies (YA)
Before She Knew Him
The Woman in the Window

UPDATES SINCE FIRST PUBLISHED:
One Perfect Lie
Best Day Ever

Keep in mind I don’t have THAT big of a bookshelf. It seems like including a missing father plot is publishing law now. I can barely recall the last time a book didn’t ever mention a father, or at least some sort of issue.

All these books were ones I read pretty recently. The missing father aspect in most of them was in no way necessary, and in some cases it distracted from the overall story. (I’m especially looking at The Hypnotist’s Love Story, which significantly lessened the quality of an otherwise great book.) In a few, it worked (Harry Potter, for example, and that was before the trope took off anyway; and The Breakdown; and Never Let You Go; and The Bassoon King was a memoir so it made sense). Other times, it just seems forced. Like my oft-complained about YA romances, missing fathers tend to distract from the plot when the author realizes that maybe we’d rather hear more about that. 

So why is this such a thing? I guess because it’s an easy way to add conflict, and it can be easy to relate to. Still, it’s getting very overdone and boring. What other angles might an author take?

The protagonist can have a good relationship with their father.

I know that family issues aren’t uncommon, but neither are good family relationships. Yet for some reason I see this pretty rarely. This was the case in My Not So-Perfect Life, but it was still mixed with some angst. I wonder why this isn’t done more often. 

Show the divorce process.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a YA character grapple with living with one or the other? It’s something new to bring to the table.

Introduce a different father figure.

This could be a teacher, an uncle, or even a friend’s father. The Book Thief did this really well with Liesl’s guardian….and they did a male friendship really well too. Both good ideas! 

Show strained relations with a different relative.

A cousin rivalry, a grumpy grandmother, or a twin would give the novel some sort of a different twist. 

Don’t mention the family.

Maybe the main character is on her own. Authors shouldn’t feel obligated to include family characters just for the sake of including them. This is when the trope becomes a problem. Writers feel the need to include family members and then have no clue what to do with them, so they resort to the easy missing father.

Make the book a comedy.

Picture this: a comedy about Lila White’s crazy grandmother. The grandmother robs banks to get money for her granddaughter, calls herself Atomic Grandma, and replies with “I’m not YOUR grandma; I’m HER grandma!” whenever anyone but Lila calls her Grandma White. So when she goes missing, Lila knows that she has to track her down before Grandma does any real damage! 

These were characters I created in my childhood. Making a story lighthearted–maybe not quite to the extent I described–would provide a different look at the “missing relative” without all the angst. 

It’s not a bad thing to have fathers in books. Let’s just show a little more variety, or maybe forego them altogether once in a while, because I am tired of hearing it.

How do you feel about fathers in books?