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

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When Do Endings Ruin Books?

Endings. You love them, or sometimes, you hate them. But why does the ending often have such a big impact on what we think of a story? Sometimes it goes so far as to ruin the book! In fact, some of the books I don’t like the most are disliked because of the ending. But why? Why are endings so important? And, when done wrong, why do they ruin books?

There are heavy spoilers for Tiny Pretty Things, The Storyteller, Book Thief, My Sister’s Keeper, and Not Your Daughter.

When there is no ending, thus giving us no closure.

Have you ever heard the joke where a reader is running out of pages and worried that there is not enough time to resolve anything? Sometimes, this is actually true. I picked up a YA ballet thriller a few years ago. Tiny Pretty Things featured the stories of three ballet dancers. Pranks ensue. Horrible stuff happens to the girls. We don’t find who did them, or why. In fact, there really isn’t an ending at all. The book just stops.

When you’re reading a thrilling book or a mystery, readers want to know who did it and why. For me, there is no excuse for not explaining these things. Readers want endings, k? We read books so we can learn what happens.

When it makes previous events meaningless.

In other words, “never have your main character wake up from a dream at the end.” When the ending makes the book irrelevant, why should we care? Why did we just spend all that time reading about what was going to happen if the motivations aren’t at stake, or if nothing comes of all those pages? Here are some examples (there are spoilers, obviously):

My Sister’s Keeper: Anna dies before anything can come of the court case.
The Book Thief: A bomb kills almost everyone except the protagonist. Yep. (I will give this a slight pass because it takes place during a major war, but this shouldn’t happen anywhere else.)

You might think, well, this is like real life. Sometimes acts of God happen. Well, yes. But in books, I feel like things are a little more orchestrated than they usually are in real life. That means we should usually get an ending that is relevant.

When the plot twist exists for shock value, sacrificing sense.

I return to The Storyteller, which had one of the most bizarre plot twists I’ve ever seen. Spoiler: Our MC encounters an older man named Josef who used to be a Nazi and committed crimes against her grandmother. It turns out that the MC decides to kill him, but it was never Josef. It was his brother pretending to be Josef the whole time. What was the reason for THAT? To have readers gasp and go, “oh no, the moral character killed the wrong person?” But that wasn’t the point of the book. The point was to have a debate on justice and what is right; whether a citizen whose grandmother was tortured had the right to kill a former Nazi who asked for it. It was never a crime thriller. Not to mention that this also meant that the brother had pretended to be Josef for the whole book, an odd behavior that was never explained.

When a plot twist is there just for shock value, it’s obvious and takes away from the meaning of the book. And it’s just poor writing in my opinion. This plot twist (among other flaws) made this 5-star book into a not-quite-3 star book for me. That’s pretty bad.

When the book changes course (i.e. it starts as one book and ends as another).

YA, I’m looking at you. I haven’t read it regularly for years now, but near the end of my time with the genre, I noticed it was the same deal over and over again: character with interesting plot premise meets a love interest and the author decides to spend more time on yet another boring love triangle, feeling that readers don’t care about the interesting plot anymore. If the author suddenly decides the original plot isn’t important, I’ll probably lose interest too. Stories should stay focused. If I pick up a book marketed for it’s thrilling spy mission, the second half shouldn’t be focused mostly on a romance.

Sigh. Speaking of which…

Now I’m going to return to Storyteller yet again. This started out as a really captivating book where a real mission was going on. But when Sage, our MC, meets Leo the prosecutor right away, you know what’s going to happen. Yep. What starts out as a captivating debate on forgiveness and justice turns into a sappy love fest, and that made me angry.

When a wild journey leads to nothing.

Endings can be hard to invent, especially in the thriller genre if the author isn’t familiar with how those types of events work. Rea Frey’s Not Her Daughter is a wild booklong chase of a well-meaning woman trying to save a young girl from a life of abuse, but does so by kidnapping her. It ends when the MC calls up her real mother on the phone and asks if she can just keep her daughter. The real mother, fed up with life and Emma, merely says yes.

Not only is this a really unsatisfying way of ending the book, but there are legal issues that make the events of the epilogue not work. Emma would need paperwork to start school, wouldn’t she? A birth certificate? Will she never be able to get medical attention again if she has no paperwork? And why are they still on the run if her mother gave her up? But then again isn’t it still a kidnapping because they never formally went through with adoption? It can be obvious when an author is putting half-effort into an ending because they don’t want to deal with legal consequences.

Maybe it’s not that endings can always full-out ruin books, but that they can make us feel cheated. Readers want to be satisfied, and for me that means wrapping everything up like so.

What endings are you unsatisfied with?

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!

reviews

The Cafe By the Sea: Jenny Colgan

The Cafe by the Sea: Jenny Colgan
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Pages: 384
Published: 2016
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Hufflepuff

After the death of her mother, Flora MacKenzie left her island and intended never to return. Mure was…fine, but the memories were too much and the people too nosy. Now she’s living in London where she can enjoy her own professional life and fantasies about being with the boss that she can’t have.

Then her boss lands a client that lives on Flora’s island and she is recruited to help him win a dispute over there. Despite misgivings about coming back, she is soon reunited with her father and brothers. During her time there, she also finds herself restoring a seaside building which she turns into a cafe. And then she finds herself wondering where she truly belongs…

Despite me sometimes having some issues with the flow of the writing, I am always eager to pick up another Jenny Colgan novel, especially in the summer. This is a novel that includes all her trademark tropes: two possible love interests (which most readers might not be able to guess, a refreshing take in these kinds of books), a woman restarting her life, a woman who likes to bake, a woman who starts her own business, etc. At first, I was worried to pick up another one. The Bookshop on the Corner did very little for me and was almost an exact replica of a previous novel of hers that I read. It went nowhere and there was almost no plot. But as long as these tropes are used in new ways, I’ll almost always enjoy a Colgan novel.

This time, it’s a little different. Flora is actually very happy in her life, or so she thinks. Then when she has to go back home for business, she finds that maybe her island home isn’t so bad. Contrary to the cover, it’s really not so much a book about restoring a cafe as it is about family and finding your way back home. In fact, the cafe isn’t really touched on very much and it’s set up and running in five pages. If anything, it’s a plot device used to bring the community together.

Flora has to contend with several issues. For one, there’s her family. After the death of her mother, she is wanting to repair her relationships with her brothers and father. She left and the island was not happy. I did find that the reasoning for the island’s reason for their anger at her disappearance was superficial to the point where I was wondering if I should like these inhabitants. That’s not to say that characters aren’t well-developed or stereotypes. From loudmouthed niece Agot (I did wish that Colgan could find another way than capital letters to express loudness) to crotchety dance teacher Mrs. Kennedy to Flora’s brother Fintan, nobody is a flat caricature. In fact, there wasn’t one character I didn’t find interesting; on the other hand, nobody was over the top. Charlie’s significant other, Jan, is a charitable person but isn’t a saint; rather, she is a bully to those she doesn’t like. And I have to give Colgan more props: the gay characters were actually people. Every other gay character I read about this year has been a caricature. Not so in Cafe by the Sea. And the character that was written like a stereotype? They were straight. Seriously, kudos to the author for actually making these people people. As for the mother, her presence is felt as well. Now normally I’m sick and tired of hearing about dead parents–and am! However, in this story’s case, the mother’s death gives Flora a reason to reconnect with former acquaintances. The grief is written well, too. It doesn’t take over the book but Flora does have her moments of sadness that come just when you might think they would. Flora also inspires others. Her brother Fintan must also find his life’s purpose when he begins to realize that maybe working on the family farm for the rest of his life isn’t for him. Overall, the novel is a journey of change as characters decide what exactly their futures are.

No Colgan novel would be complete without a love story. Flora enters the novel having a crush on her boss. When he comes back to the island, she may have another shot, but there is another man in the picture as well. She is willing to chance it with both, so readers will find themselves wondering who she will pick. Unlike other novels, it may not be obvious from the start. If I had one complaint, I did find that the inciting climactic event comes out of nowhere and seemed a bit manufactured. And as for the guy she does end up with? One might wonder whether it’s a solid relationship, or if it’s just lust. (There appears to be a sequel that serves to answer this question.) There’s an ethical side plot, too. Flora’s love interest has a client that lives on the island, bringing his business with him. However, the inhabitants’ ire is felt once again as they don’t care too much for the guy and some of the plans that he has. (Characterization shines again, as this guy isn’t the evil corporate owner I see a lot of.) Ultimately, in a book that has a sea of plots, Flora must decide who to side with and what she wants for herself.

The Cafe by the Sea, though maybe not an accurate title, is another great addition to Colgan’s library. It’s a lovely tale about finding your roots and maybe while the romance didn’t seem all there, the family stuff more than made up for it. It makes a great beach read, so if you’re yet to go on vacation, pick it up.

4 stars

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

reviews

Royal Wedding; Meg Cabot

Royal Wedding: Meg Cabot
Genre: Fiction- Chick Lit
Published: 2015
Pages: 435 (large paperback version)
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Gryffindor/Hufflepuff

Previous read, not eligible for 2019 Book Awards

Princess Mia is finally getting married. Finally able to escape the craziness of New York, Michael whisked her away on a private vacation where he proposed. But with all the wedding preparations and Grandmere wanting to plan everything her way, getting a wedding together isn’t as easy as it seems. Then a royal scandal comes to light that will impact Mia’s family life forever as she knows it and could put a terrible cousin on the throne. Add in a royal stalker and you have a can’t miss royal conclusion to a timeless series.

This is the book that Princess Diaries fans had been waiting for. Only this time, Mia’s an adult living in the palace for the most part. Though in this book, she’s mostly in the States. Once again, she’s journaling accounts of her life. But instead of simply being a princess, she’s also working on a community center back home. Of course, she’s getting so much attention that she isn’t able to leave her New York apartment.

I was also surprised to see that Mia sounded exactly the same as in the regular series, though she aged pretty well. That could be because I did think she sounded older in the original series, but I was still impressed with how in character she was. She’s still obsessive about her health. She still worries about how the public sees her. Some characters, such as Lana, did not age well (really, she’s a Rockefeller now?). I honestly am not sure why these two characters are even friends now in the first place, though I still use that term pretty loosely. Otherwise, I thought it was fascinating to see where everyone was now and how people change. It was pretty accurate to real life.

What this book does struggle with is the pacing. The first 100 pages are pure fanservice, updating readers on where Mia is and where other characters are. It was fun…for a while even if the exposition wasn’t always written well–there was a particular FaceTime conversation between Mia and her friend Tina near the beginning that very expositiony–nobody talks like that. “You’d never believe that Boris is now a pop star with followers who call themselves the Borettes, would you, and how his followers drool after him everywhere? And you definitely wouldn’t believe that Tina is in med school and that Lilly is in law school and that Michael owns his dog’s ashes, right? Life is so crazy!” Etc. etc. Additionally, everything seems to be going a little too well for everyone. After Mia is trapped in the consulate for days upon days catching us up on her life, it gets pretty dull. Then it does speed up… from 10 mph to 100. That’s when Mia discovers her dad’s illegitimate child, which you’d think would be a corny plot twist. But it works very well here because the situation is actually plausible (Mia’s father having another kid after the divorce). She goes to New Jersey to meet her half-sister Olivia, whom to my surprise was really excited to be a princess. Olivia had a story of her own that I thought was worthy of further exploration–she is mistreated by family and bullied by peers to be picked up by a princess and barely even questions it–but the story doesn’t delve too far into much of that. Actually, the plot with the sister starts and resolves itself in about two or three days. Two days! If this happened in real life, this might take weeks or even months with lots of lawyers involved. So yeah, there’s definitely a modern day fairy tale fluff aspect here, especially with Olivia getting up and leaving her unloving family. Also, am I the only one who wonders how Mia can write that much at once? Especially in that two-day span?

On the other hand, royal life also feels a lot more real. Michael had to really pull some strings to get privacy for their vacation, including renting a private island, and they were still concerned about drones. As this is an adult installment, readers will realize that royal life isn’t all glamorous if they hadn’t before, though it still retains all the charm of the originals. There are events to plan, and yes, Grandmere is still a royal pain in most of them as she tries to overrule most of Mia’s decisions about the wedding. Actually, the wedding itself doesn’t take up most of the book. I would have liked to see more accounts of that…especially because the book is called Royal Wedding. The stalker plot is also interesting, though many readers will probably figure it out.

However, readers who enjoyed Mia’s journals to begin with won’t find much to complain about. They will enjoy her list making, recounts of text conversations, conversations with her terrible yet entertaining grandmother, and obsessive thinking. As a fan of the previous series, I thought this story was a real treat, like being hugged by a friend you haven’t seen in a long time. Even though parts of the book are slow and a little fluffy, the fanservice and style of her writing will make up for that as Mia tries to navigate some political problems and the prospect of a little sister. It’s all the royal drama that fans will remember.

If you were a fan of the series, I’d definitely suggest picking this one up. Actually, it feels so true to the series that teens could probably enjoy this one too. It never felt like a truly “adult” book, and it wraps up the series nicely.

Best points: Being back with the same characters–feels truly authentic. Mia’s quirky journal entries. Believeability of scenarios despite it being a “fairy tale.”
Could be improved: Pacing, exposition.

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Royals

4 stars