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 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 won’t either. 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. Still, it’s exciting. But 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

One Perfect Lie: Lisa Scottoline

One Perfect Lie
Genre: Domestic thriller
Pages: 351
Published: 2017
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Gryffindor

In a small town, there is a threat looming that nobody knows about, especially three members of the the high school baseball team in a quiet Pennsylvania suburb.

Susan loves supporting her son Raz in his role as starting pitcher, but worries about how he is coping with the loss of his father. Mindy, the wife of a surgeon, has a comfortable life but isn’t aware of the things that her husband and son Evan are keeping from her. And Heather is proud of her son Jordan but worries about his relationships with other boys on the team.

Then there’s Chris. A newcomer to town, he’s taking on the roles of history teacher and baseball coach. He looks like the perfect addition, but everything about him is a lie. He’s only here to use some of the baseball players as a pawn in a bigger plan. So what is he really trying to accomplish? And how far will he go to get what he wants?

I initially picked up this book because it looked like there were lots of interesting conflicts to pick from. It’s really hard to put THIS MUCH in a book and have it fit together and flow, but for the most part Scottoline succeeds in doing so.

You’d think this would be about baseball. It’s not a baseball book; if you’re hoping for one you may be disappointed. Readers should go in with an open mind. Instead, there are genuinely surprising twists and plot turns where you don’t expect them (very well pulled off might I add), leading to a book that changes currents. In fact, the book can arguably be split into three sections or themes. The first section focuses on school relations, the second is about parent-child relationships and secrets, and the third actually gets somewhat legal and semi-political. By an amateur writer this could become a trainwreck, but Scottoline somehow found a way to merge these ideas together cleanly. The plot itself was very intricate and well-thought out. It’s clear that she knew the material she was dealing with. And it never slowed down. Stakes are raised early on when Chris arrives at the high school to start a teaching position.

The characters were interesting and Scottoline writes them and their dialogue well. From the teachers to the students, everyone had a personality. I especially found myself emotionally invested in Chris and was disappointed that he was just involved in some sort of plot. Surprisingly, I liked him in the teaching and coaching role. As he became a beloved coach to the players and ended up actually caring about them, I found myself hoping that the situation would work out. He was by far the most interesting character. This universe also seems pretty authentic, from the roles of mothers to the high school interactions to the farming. Scottoline is extraordinarily good at creating detail to bring a place to life. Whether it’s hints of a character’s social class, a place to live, or even a scene in a classroom, she can place you right in the setting she has set up.

The one characterization I did take issue with was Abe’s. Allow me to go back to a guide I wrote for a previous book I reviewed this year:

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.

I bring this up because Abe is a complete caricature. He is flamboyant. He is outgoing. He uses terms like “chichi.” He loves fashion. He is basically the exact same gay side character I saw in the novel for which I wrote my how-to. How in this day and age are we still writing gay people as cardboard cutouts? It was so stereotypical my eyes were rolling. I liked the guy, but he’s the same gay guy we see everywhere. Come on, writers of America. I don’t take points off for this because it’s so minor in the book, but still. Can this stop?

Back to the plot. In addition to the kids’ lives, there are their parents’ stories as well. In these cases, I like to give the book a chance and see where they’re heading, especially in stories like this where you don’t know quite how everything connects right away. But I did find that by the end some of the parents’ stories really weren’t necessary and were maybe put in to throw the reader off the trail. The book does spend too much time on Heather’s personal problems, and I think Susan’s parts could have been eliminated entirely. Their stories also leave some loose ends untied. Heather seems like she is trying to hide from others but this is never explained. Neither are Susan’s sons’ troubles with stealing. Perhaps there was going to be more that just got left out of the book? So maybe there was too much packed into the novel.

Still, they don’t linger on the parents lives for quite as long. The action certainly makes up for this; looming terror is around every corner. I didn’t really know where things were going, but that wasn’t a bad thing. I was instead impressed at how things came together. It’s more than just suburban baseball; this is a story that garners national attention, so it’s pretty fast paced. And there’s always enough going on because of the various points of view of the kids and their families. Of course, dealing with missing fathers is just one of those issues which mercifully isn’t lingered on too long. But there are also things like competition, sexting scandals, and that play a role in the situation and a role in the boys’ lives.

I was mostly disappointed in how the ending was handled…not in how things ended, but how it was written. I’ve said before how I don’t like how so many authors feel the need to include people falling in love in their novels when the book doesn’t need a love story. Here, there is a considerable amount of time spent exploring the “romance” between Heather and Chris. These characters spend a grand total of maybe fifteen/twenty minutes together in the book. I understand that the book was hinting at how Chris was missing having a normal life, but the book almost forgets about the conflict at hand entirely to focus on their feelings for each other once the big plot point is settled. They just weren’t interesting enough because they’re still pretty much strangers. It didn’t warrant a lot of time, especially considering all else that was going on. SPOILER PARAGRAPH BELOW……

The characters’ behavior also struck me as weird in the last chapters. Near the end, Chris actually calls Heather to apologize for lying, and Heather is actually mad at him despite the fact that it was his job to lie…and despite the fact that these people should not be anywhere close to a point in their “relationship” where they’re talking on the phone. And then there’s her anger at his “lying.” Is Heather just that immature? It was a very chick lit-ty last chapter which I thought was disappointing. The author should have spent more time on the parents’ reactions, trial highlights, and how things turned out for the kids rather than manufactured romantic drama that felt rather forced. Speaking of which, we actually barely saw the kids’ reactions and how things affected them. I would much rather have seen an ending focused on the baseball team considering that’s who the book was trying to focus on.

***end of spoilers

This forced romance wasn’t Storyteller bad, but it wasn’t necessary all the same.

Despite some little issues with the writing that really don’t take up that much time, One Perfect Lie is a great thrill ride for readers looking for high-intensity stakes. With plotlines that are well thought out and drama that rarely stops, it’s an exciting adventure that might leave you wondering what’s really going on in those nice houses. (Especially if you’re me; I’m pretty sure the book takes place 30-ish minutes from my own house.) But it’s more than that: the characters make for an exciting tale you won’t forget. This was a fun one.

4.5 stars

reviews

You Know You Want This: Kristen Roupenian

You Know You Want This: Kristen Roupenian
Genre: Fiction (short story/chick lit/general)
Published: 2019
Pages: 225
Hogwarts House Recommendations: Gryffindor, Slytherin, perhaps a touch of Ravenclaw?



I’m going to abandon the usual format today and first just tell you about each story individually. The premise is that these twelve stories explore the power and desires between men and women, plus the effects these ideas can have on our lives.

Bad Boy: Two women (at least I took them to be women, I don’t know why I can’t remember suddenly) let their friend stay with them over a bad breakup but begin to dislike his interactions with his ex-girlfriend and punish him for it. This is a short powerful story with a shocking twist that will get you thinking about how woman can do bad things, too. A little explicit for me but an interesting dark tale. 4 stars

Look at Your Game, Girl A twelve-year-old girl bonds with an older guy over music in the park but questions his motives when he asks her to meet at midnight. Could it be the serial killer everyone is talking about? I liked this one, though the ending fell a bit flat as nothing really happens. The twelve-year-olds act eighteen most of the time as well, so that took away from the shock of the age gap somewhat. 4.5 stars

Sardines A ten-year-old wants one thing for her birthday party: to play Sardines with her friends. Then she makes a birthday wish that takes the game to more sinister levels, particularly for her mother who is dreading seeing her ex-husband’s girlfriend at the party. I wanted to like this idea; young kids can often do terrible things. Unfortunately, it got too bizarre too quickly and it made the story lose a lot of credibility. If a short story is this kind of magical realism it needs to establish that aspect just a little earlier. I was worried the ending would be predictable, but honestly, I would have preferred the one I had in mind. Finally, it seems to keep hinting at suspense that never seems to happen. Reading the last page again, I can kind of see the point, but….eh, it still doesn’t do it for me. 2 stars

The Night Runner A Peace Corps volunteer teaching at a school in Kenya struggles with a badly behaved class, but things escalate when a so-called night runner disturbs him all night and leaves fecal matter outside the doorstep. This story was…fine. Nothing great, not bad, and I thought this ending was definitely predictable. 3 stars

The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone A princess is being asked to choose a suitor to marry but can’t quite find what she’s looking for until a stranger appears in her bedchamber. But the stranger isn’t quite what they seem, and although the princess does marry a duke, will it be enough to satisfy her? This is a tale worthy of further reading and exploration, as well as a warning against vanity. One of its great strengths is the way it reads like a fairy tale, and I wonder if younger readers who don’t mind darker tones wouldn’t like this as well. You don’t see that often these days. I personally would have loved to dissect this one in my college fairy tale course. Alas, it wasn’t published yet. 5 stars

Cat Person Supposedly the story that launched Roupenian’s career, Cat Person is the story of a college girl getting with an older man. And, well, that’s pretty much it. It showcases the struggles of a young woman struggling with what she wants verses her expectations, and the guy’s thoughts take a turn as well. There’s not much to it, and it surprised me that this was the one that took off. (The book jacket suggests that content and timing played a role. Maybe a #MeToo type of thing?) It showcases the scenarios quite well, but not a standout for me personally. Maybe it needs to be read some more. 3 stars

The Good Guy If you’re confused about the “good guy” concept, this story might explain it to you. It follows a guy named Ted and shows us flashbacks of his romantic life…his pining for one girl while getting into relationship with another. To preserve his reputation, he neglects to break up with the girl he doesn’t like while yearning for the other. What follows is a string of heartbreak for everyone. This was pretty well done, and aside from some more explicit sex scenes which weren’t for me (but not altogether distasteful; at least they were important for the narrative) I recommend it. 4.5 stars

The Boy in the Pool At a young age, three girls fall in love with a young hunky movie star in a corny horror porn film (though nothing about this story is really that explicit). Years later at one of their bachelorette parties, another friend of theirs pulls out all the stops by inviting him there. Again, I liked the concept of women meeting a childhood crush, but the story falls flat in that it goes nowhere. It just ends. There is some potential in that the organizer and the bride-to-be have fallen out of touch while the third member has not, but this isn’t really explored either. This was a missed opportunity in my mind. 3 stars

Scarred One woman checks out a book of spells and conjures a man in her basement. She is hoping for her heart’s desire, and occasionally requires the man in her spell casting.This is one of the more disturbing tales, as even as she believes they will spend their lives together, she may have misunderstood what the spellbook was trying to get at. Ladies and gentlemen: beware of sketchy witchcraft. I certainly wouldn’t do it myself, but the story has a strong point that’s not to be missed. 5 stars

The Matchbox Sign David tries as best he can to support his wife Laura as she has an unexplainable itch that is taking over her life. With subtle commentary on believing women, this story has more of a message that the surface might indicate. This story doesn’t sound great, but the ending will ruin you. 4 stars

Death Wish A young man looking around on Tinder invites a new find to his hotel room, who asks him to punch her and then kick her for her fantasy. The narrator grapples what to do with it, which is an interesting thought process. Again, though, the story doesn’t really go anywhere. 3 stars

Biter Ellie fantasizes about biting her new coworker. She hasn’t bitten since preschool, but wonders if this time she can get away with it. I don’t know why I like this one, or why I think it’s funny, cute, and weird all at the same time. It also leaves open whether or not Ellie is the good person in this gender war or not, which was interesting. And a satisfying ending to boot. 5 stars

Side note: I claim to not like sexual stories, so as you can imagine I was kicking myself as soon as I started this book and wondered if I would DNF. Not that it was the book’s fault this time around; there are hints of it in the summary and reviews. It actually wasn’t as sexual as I’d imagined it to be; in fact, probably less so than the novels I read or tried to read earlier in 2019. The Good Guy definitely had most of it, and a bit in Cat Person, Death Wish, and of course in Bad Boy, but at least there was a purpose and it wasn’t always all-out, unnecessarily pornographic like in Obsession or The Kiss Quotient. I also assumed that there would be a considerable amount of feminist undertones, considering the title and nature of the stories. There are, but not to the extent I thought. Believing women and sexual assault are themes that appear briefly, though I wasn’t sure if I was imagining them at times.

Now as for the stories, there were some I loved and some, not so much. I only really was disappointed with Sardines, while others were more “meh.” The endings were super hit-or-miss, which was strange. Stories either went nowhere, took a nonsensical turn for shock value, or really hit me hard or were just plain satisfying, like the final story. And that helped some of them along. It’s really hard to rate for those reasons. I think this number makes sense, but take it with a grain of salt. You may also like some stories better than others for their meanings. Either way, I’m glad to see more short stories and would love to see more in mainstream production, either by this author or someone else. They are a great way to showcase life as it is, and as such they often do a good job.

3.5 stars

reviews

Looker; Laura Sims

Looker; Laura Sims
Genre: Suspense/noir (more on this below)
Published: 2019
Pages: 180
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Slytherin

Official Summary

In this taut and thrilling debut, an unraveling woman, unhappily childless and recently separated, becomes fixated on her neighbor-the actress. The unnamed narrator can’t help noticing with a wry irony that, though she and the actress live just a few doors apart, a chasm of professional success and personal fulfillment lies between them. The actress, a celebrity with her face on the side of every bus, shares a gleaming brownstone with her handsome husband and their three adorable children, while the narrator, working in a dead-end job, lives in a run-down, three-story walk-up with her ex-husband’s cat.


When an interaction with the actress at the annual block party takes a disastrous turn, what began as an innocent preoccupation spirals quickly, and lethally, into a frightening and irretrievable madness. Searing and darkly witty, Looker is enormously entertaining–at once a propulsive Hitchcockian thriller and a fearlessly original portrayal of the perils of envy.

My Summary

With a tough separation and the inability to carry children, an unnamed narrator finds herself alone and judged harshly by the neighbors. She does what she can to stay afloat, from beginning a flirtationship with a student where she teaches to watching a famous neighbor of hers and avoiding the judgmental ones, like Mrs. H. But as things begin to take a turn for the worst, the narrator slips deeper into despair. Fantasizing about the famous next-door neighbor probably doesn’t help, nor does sinking deeper into a new relationship.


You’ll notice I did something different and included two summaries. That’s because this little book I was promised was quite different from the book I actually got. Oddly, this is the third time this year the summaries have mislead me somewhat significantly. This was a marketing misfire in that the actress is a very minor part of the story, and it resulted in a bit of a disappointing book, unfortunately. You’ll notice my summary is pretty unfocused and lacks the actress.

Our MC, who is nameless, is supposed to be unlikable to show us how envy can ruin lives. So is the actress she envies, which was an interesting touch. She really is not. In fact, she’s almost a sympathetic character. I feel like it’s like this: Imagine you’re sitting down to watch Jim Carrey’s Grinch movie. You’re excited to see such an exciting villain come to life. To see him truly unravel. But when it comes down to it, the Grinch has really done nothing wrong. In fact, everyone around him is such a greedy, horrible—well, grinch, I guess—that you start to realize that he is almost justified in his actions. You have this poor young Grinch wanting to make friends, but everyone is so cruel and condescending and over the top that that’s clearly not happening.

It’s the same idea in this novel. And the actress plays such a minor role (no pun intended) in the story that it’s hard to ever see the narrator unravel to begin with. And wow, what a horrible judgmental community she is stuck with! Almost every woman she meets has a rude remark for her about not having children; even her husband presumably leaves her for it. It was a little unrealistic. Twenty pages in, it’s feeling more like a feminist treatise on how childless women are treated, something I really wasn’t expecting in a story that’s supposed to be about the obsession with an actress. (She also goes on anti-men rants, which really didn’t belong.) I get that something had to happen for the MC’s life to come apart, but geez. If you want to write about women’s issues, more power to you, but there was too much of a focus on them in the beginning and then they never make an appearance again. The topic is presented in such an in-your-face way that it didn’t make sense. It should have been a different book.

Then we press on and the book switches gears from feminism to the MC’s affairs. Reeling from her impending divorce, she turns to a student for comfort. Together, they enter a weird relationship with predictable consequences. I’m still not sure what that has to do with the themes of the book and her obsession of the actress. Instances of the narrator watching the actress are there, but they’re not hugely prevalent. Most of the actress’ scenes are those of the MC watching and just thinking about her. Sometimes the scenarios she devises are interesting, but when almost literally nothing happens or comes of it, it’s pointless.

So where is the obsession with the actress in all this? Finally, in the last 25%, the book mostly…mostly…focuses on the actress. Mostly in side scenes in the background. To be fair, I did enjoy some of the MC’s observations on her life and how she imagined themselves sharing life together. I just wish there was a lot more, especially in the first half. I should also mention that none of these loose ends get tied up. So….I guess the boring subplots just went nowhere.

To sum up, side plots were necessary to show the MC’s current life, but there was way too much of a focus on them. And speaking of the MC, she is…standard. We have seen her in many places before. To give you an idea: her hobby of choice is drinking wine, she spends most of her time alone, and…that’s really about it, but the problem again is that she doesn’t have much of a personality. I did like the writing style of the novel, poetic and noir-ish. Nor was she unrelatable; I can definitely feel her need to be liked and her desire to be friends with someone interesting and that was where the book hit home for me. But other characters don’t make any sense, particularly a neighbor who seems to read the MC’s thoughts (not sure how she knew that the MC was watching the actress??) and then does a 360 personality change by the end of the story.

Now for the mysterious genre category. Looker is marketed as a thriller, and that’s barely true. This was not thrilling, save for about thirty seconds at the end. There was a touch of suspense with lots of dark, psychological tones, sure. But it’s not a thriller. In fact, this was almost my 2nd DNF of the year. Why? Well, the first 75% is watching our MC miss her husband. She daydreams. She cleans the bathroom. She thinks. There is a LOT of “thinking” to be done here, which doesn’t really add up to a riveting story. And it kept going. And going. We are literally just watching her be depressed for many pages and almost nothing of note happens until near the end of the book. It was one of the dullest novels I’ve read in a while. (That “disastrous” turn at the block party between her and the actress doesn’t seem to happen.) There are ten pages of thrilling action–count em, ten. And these pages aren’t very big. There’s another freaky scene, too, but it doesn’t last long. To be honest, those pages were interesting. But was it worth reading 170 pages of humdrum tasks like cleaning the house and thinking to get to those ten pages? I’m not sure.

This novel’s problem was that it was 170 pages of filler (well, 150, I guess, because background was needed). This author just couldn’t seem to find a focus. Still, to give the book credit, the ending wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be and it was an interesting finale. There just needed to be more leading to it. However, readers who like dark undertones and a film noir aesthetic, and don’t mind a book that simply exists to set a mood might appreciate it a little more. It wasn’t for me and quite honestly, it was pretty dull. So I personally can’t recommend this.

2 stars

reviews

Zeta or Omega?; Kate Harmon

Zeta or Omega? by Kate Harmon
Genre: Young Adult/Chick Lit
Published: 2008
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Hufflepuff

Not eligible for 2019 Book Awards

It’s late summer and Florida and a new school year at Latimer University is just beginning. And three girls are about to have the time of their lives…maybe.

VERONICA: Wants to escape her snobby parents once and for all in Boston. She wants to discover who she really is without the designer labels or the fancy family name. She’s already disappointed her parents by not choosing Harvard, so what has she got to lose? Maybe a sorority will give her the family she truly needs.

LORA-LEIGH: Would much rather be beginning her fashion career at FIT, thank you very much…except for that her father is making her attend the local university first. She is dying to get out of there and is only going through sorority rush because her mom wants her to join Tri-Omega, her own sorority.

JENNA: At Latimer on a band scholarship, Jenna doesn’t really care about rushing either, but her roommate is excited about it, so she’ll join in. But even if she does get some wonderful sisters, will her diabetes get in the way? Or will everyone see her as “Sick Jenna” like they did in high school?

When the three girls meet during recruitment, they become close friends and ultimately enjoy going through the process. But what happens at the end of recruitment? Will they find themselves separated? Or will they even get into a sorority at all?

Arguably, this is not the book we’ve been waiting for. It’s been out for over ten years. So why do I ask this? Well, because other stories I’ve read about Greek life weren’t very, um, promising. One of them, The Alpha Bet, was a lot of rotten girl drama. Another, YOLO (an otherwise good book) featured hazing practices of the 70s and 80s in a modern environment and mostly trashy partying. This was a refreshing take on sorority life without the Hollywood cliches. Consider Zeta or Omega the YA version of Liane Moriarty…before Moriarty was even writing. You have the three girls whose lives intertwine with a dash of emotion and even a slight hint of suspense. It sounded fun, and when combined with that fabulous cover, I knew I had to pick it up. This was seven (!!!!!!!!!!!) years ago at my local library. Excuse me while I go consider that one for a moment….

Fair warning: this is an escapist book. If you don’t like those, this may not be for you. Translation: it’s lots of fluff. But is that a bad thing? No. In fact, it’s more accurate to the college experience that way. It shows the process of rushing a sorority and I almost wonder if this book was written purely because the author had good memories or because she wanted to show girls what it was really like.

The book itself is something totally new. It’s a YA book about college students, which we desperately need. There are no missing fathers (yahoo!), but there are some difficult parental relationships, particularly with Roni. There are no love triangles; in fact, there’s barely any serious romantic drama at all. Golfer Tiger and star football player DeShawn are the two most prominent male characters and yes, they are pretty much dream guys who are a little too perfect. (I liked how there was an interracial romance included without the author making a fuss about it. It just was.) Actually, I’m just now realizing that all 3 love interests were athletes so maybe a little more variety could have been present, but whatever.) But the main characters are not perfect. There are no chosen ones or “standard” MCs with one best friend and categorized as lower middle class. These things win points for me right away. It’s also very diverse, with the exception of the MCs. Most importantly, it doesn’t stick to movie cliches like hazing and partying. The sorority members seem to care deeply about one another and there is a sense of sisterhood simmering in the pages. I’ll admit: I got teared up at this one, especially during rituals and as everyone is accepted into their sorority of choice. I was not expecting to, thinking that the love would get a little corny. Okay, so maybe it does a little, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a feel-good feeling.

College life is also presented as an improvement. Harmon gives many examples of things like , “her friends acted like this in high school, but in college, everyone was much more accepting!” It can be a little preachy, but there’s an interesting reason for this: Zeta or Omega has a very easy reading level. Save for some inappropriate material, a fourth-grader could easy read this and the way the sentence structure is, it might have even appealed more to them. Because of that, middle schoolers will find themselves enjoying the books as well. Because of the material, though, I recommend eighth grade and up. There are the beginning of boy relationships, roommate spats and more, and all sorts of little things that will give high school readers a taste of college. It follows three girls’ lives but does it very well.

The character development is phenomenal, especially over the course of the series. (If you plan on reading Zeta or Omega be sure that you’re invested in the rest of the series and maybe even have Book 2 at the ready.) You’d never know that Roni started out somewhat reserved, or that Lora-Leigh once stayed in touch with her high school BFF if you’ve only read Book 3. It may seem like Harmon is forgetting about details that she drops throughout the novel by not coming back to them, but in reality, things change. You may not be able to find that cute guy on a college campus again right away, and you may drift away from high school friends. Side characters evolve, too. I’m thinking in particular of Jenna’s roommate. I also love the personalities of the three leading ladies. They’re not cardboard cutouts, but they’re all authentic in their own way. We watch as they break away from their parents (Roni), open their minds to new ideas (Lora-Leigh with sororities), and realize that they can trust their new friends and even some cute new boys (Jenna). I especially felt for Roni whose parents barely even seemed to love her; they were too busy showcasing her as part of their fancy family.

Now this is a fluffy novel, so is it a little predictable? Yes. You know what’s going to happen right off the bat, especially knowing there are two novels ahead. Does everything go a little too perfectly? Yes. Everyone meets and hits it off with a love interest immediately, for example. But is it an entertaining read? Very much so. It’s a nice break from the catfights and drama often found in YA. I did find that a sorority filled with rich girls was a bit of a stretch. Omega Omega Omega, Lora-Leigh’s mom’s sorority, is full of women who love money and even do credit checks on Roni’s parents. They are also said to “rule the campus.” I didn’t really feel the need for a cliched popular group of girls, especially in a college setting. Nor did I like that Roni fit the almost perfect, pretty, rich girl stereotype. But to the book’s credit, that’s pretty much the only stereotype present. Though of course, the Zeta Zeta Tau girls are all nice, unique, and different.

Finally, the ending, too, is somewhat sudden and it just stops. This book assumes that you are going to continue the series. I recommend doing so because, not only does book 2 pick off where the first one ends, but also because this first book only covers recruitment. Readers will definitely want to learn more about sorority life and will be wondering what’s next.

This should not be a five-star novel, but then again, books don’t have to be classic literature to be enjoyed. I don’t see why girly novels tend to get lower ratings just because they’re not deep; reading is supposed to be fun, right? I recommend Zeta or Omega to students who are considering rushing, or teens looking for an easy, fun, lighthearted beach read. It’s criminally underrated and if you’re looking for some fun and real characters, pick it up. Be sure to also pick up The New Sisters and The Formal. Of course, I was also the target audience…people who like deep, philosophical, non-chick lit (or who just are anti-Greek) will be better off elsewhere. But for what it is, I give Harmon a round of applause.

4 stars

RUNDOWNS OF THE FOLLOWING BOOKS

The New Sisters: Jenna, Lora-Leigh, and Roni have been accepted into ZZT and with that comes new member meetings and all of the activities. Jenna, a member of the marching band, suddenly worries that she can’t handle all the stress and activities. Lora-Leigh, on the other hand, is suddenly a big fan…but her mom is more than a little unhappy she didn’t choose Tri Omega. This book is even richer than the first. Loose plotlines from the first book are expanded upon and readers get a peek into true college life. 5/5 stars

The Formal:As the second semester gets under way, the girls are knee-deep in sorority life as regular members. Roni is put in charge of planning the formal, but not a lot seems to be going right. Meanwhile, Jenna and Lora-Leigh are experiencing relationship problems of their own as Jenna wonders whether to take the next step with Tiger and as DeShawn considers leaving Latimer. A rich, solid conclusion with one complaint…I wish the series went past freshman year. 5/5

reviews

Before She Knew Him: Peter Swanson

Before She Knew Him: Peter Swanson
Genre: Psychological thriller
Published: 2019
Pages: 309
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Slytherin

It was supposed to be an ordinary dinner party.
But on the day she meets their new neighbors, Hen discovers something she shouldn’t. The item in question is reminiscent of a murder case that Hen followed intently a while ago, and she can’t help believing that her next-door neighbor is a killer. But the last time she accused someone of being a threat just before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she really hurt someone. So would anyone think to believe her? What do you do when you live next door to a killer?

Meanwhile, Matthew is keeping a dark secret, but he knows it was for the greater good. He also knows that he saw Henrietta looking at his shelf, but that doesn’t mean anything, right? He knows that he wouldn’t want to hurt Henrietta, but there is still a threat lurking. And little do they know that Matthew might not be done killing just yet.

Before She Knew Him is an interesting and suspenseful addition to the popular thriller genre. It follows not just Hen, but many characters as they uncover revelations about who the other really is. There is Mira, Matthew’s wife, who must eventually contend with her husband’s past. There is Matthew’s brother Richard, who constantly clashes with Matthew over women. There is Lloyd, Hen’s husband who she isn’t feeling particularly passionate about lately. The suspense begins to pick up from the get-go when he watches Hen look at the objects in his office, but it isn’t an action-packed-scene-a-minute affair. However, there is that too as the suspense and drama are interspersed with intense drama.

Matthew is a character that’s drawn in shades of gray. He’s not a good guy, but sometimes I wondered if I should be rooting for him. On the other hand, I was always on Hen’s side. Hen herself (I questioned her name; I can’t really see a woman–I think she was maybe in her thirties or forties?– being called “Henrietta” or “Hen” and not having my thoughts go to a Mother Goose-like character. On the other hand, she originally struck me as an older woman. Combined with her career-illustrating children’s books and making art–this is an interesting demographic not written about very often.) is said to be bipolar, which I think is a device to make her seem unreliable. However, she has no bipolar episodes throughout the novel except for a flashback. Observations on Matthew are usually brushed off as “her thoughts seemed weird, but she knew she wasn’t manic. This was actually real.” So one might wonder why this plot device is here in the first place. In this case, we didn’t really need an unreliable narrator anyway. Matthew is conniving enough that he can make her seem unreliable on his own.

I guessed the twist very early on in the novel. It is, arguably, not an original plot and the twist has been done before in famous works–not naming names. (Full disclosure: I also saw the exact same twist in a previous book, so maybe that’s why I guessed it easily. Many Goodreads reviewers, checked after I published this review, say that they were completely surprised. This is the second time this happened for me this year.) Unfortunately for the book, the clues are there, and not only within the text. One of the reasons I write my own summaries is because I occasionally don’t love the one that comes with the book. The book’s summary makes it seem like the novel is primarily Hen’s story, and it mostly is, for the first half. In the second, there is much more of a focus on Matthew and side characters. That was fine, though I wasn’t expecting it to go in so many directions.

However, there are major characters missing from the summary and that’s another reason why readers might catch onto the twist so quickly (or not…see above). Publishers should be wary of accidentally using these things to give away important information. Characters, on the other hand, seem to make realizations by making lucky guesses. Mira, for example, figures out her husband’s past because she sits in her room thinking about it years later. It would have been more satisfying for them to come across tangible evidence.

The second half of the book is also riddled with subplots that occasionally lost structure and that focused on many characters. There is a predictable one with Henrietta and her husband having marital problems, and another with Matthew fighting with his brother Richard. These were interesting, but at the same time, I wondered, where is this all going? The first half of the novel is solid with Hen dealing with living next to a murderer. But then we enter the second half, and I’m not sure where exactly the focus lies. What, exactly, is Matthew planning, and to who, and why? There was so much going on that I couldn’t tell…Mira’s business trip, Matthew’s friendship with Michelle, etc. Hen isn’t seen as much here, but Matthew’s brother is. I was also unclear on the brother’s motives–he’s not a great guy either. Does he just like to see women suffer, which is something I’ve seen recently? Is he getting revenge for something? Is he just a product of his abusive upbringing? (This, too, is a place where readers might guess the plot twist because it’s hard to tell how otherwise these issues fit into the story cleanly.)

Despite that, though, I was entertained and looked forward to seeing how things would end for Hen. This was dulled slightly by a fairly anticlimactic confrontation, but otherwise I was rooting for Henrietta and pleased (mostly) with how things ended. There was a final twist that truly put everything together that I didn’t guess, and I was glad for that. My main problem was mostly with the cluttered subplotting in the second half, which also led to my easily guessing what was really going on because there was only one logical explanation for including a certain storyline.

Still, Before She Knew Him is a worthy addition to a popular genre. There’s nothing particularly different here, but if you like suspense, give it a try. Despite the scattered plotlines, I think that at the end of the day, people who like the genre will find something to like if you’re looking to make your skin tingle.

3.5 stars

reviews

Behind Closed Doors: B.A. Paris

Behind Closed Doors: B.A. Paris
Genre: Psychological thriller
Published: 2016
Pages (small paperback): 293
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Ravenclaw

What’s a Hogwarts House Recommendation? I’ve seen many blog entries sort books into Hogwarts Houses, meant to help people find books that are good for them based on what their House is. This is a new feature I will include in every review…not that anyone can’t pick it up! In this case, for example, I feel like Ravenclaws would truly enjoy this book the most because of the cleverness displayed by the characters, and in some cases, the cleverness required.

Jack and Grace are the perfect couple next door. He’s a talented lawyer and a wealthy one at that. She’s a beautiful woman who can cook wonderful meals, which are often display at the dinner parties they throw. The dinner parties, in fact, are almost the only instances that others get to see of Jack and Grace’s ideal life, but it seems to be enough to impress them.

But is it ideal? What really happens when the party is over? Grace barely has a social life and mostly only goes out to lunches with friends. She is never available to talk, nor does she have close friends of her own. That’s because the truth is that Grace is living a nightmare behind the closed doors. And there may not be a way out.

I had doubts about this one, sure. I picked it up because I liked her second novel, The Breakdown, pretty well. But the summary looked to me like your standard domestic abuse novel. Oh yes, and it was also said, like basically everything else, to be the next “Gone Girl.” I can’t imagine that these authors aren’t miffed that bloggers and reviewers constantly make them stand in Gone Girl’s shadow–I certainly would be. Let these books have a chance to develop their own identity.

And wow, was I wrong about everything. This is not your standard domestic abuse story. Related to Gone Girl or not: this is a compelling book.

This book grabbed me from the start–the lull of the dinner party peppered by Grace’s anxiety and carefully planned moves, but why, we don’t know. From them on, chapters alternating between the past and the present show us Grace’s current horror and what happened to lead her there. Physically trapped in a marriage and house she can’t escape, the sense of claustrophobia is overwhelming, especially if you’re me and have a fear of being trapped. You truly feel for Grace. There is simply no way out. Maybe part of the reason for its grabbing me is how it deviates from the traditional format. You already know the bad guy, but the “how,” “why,” and most importantly, the “how do I get out of this situation?” unfold as time goes on, creating a sense of utmost terror. What a refreshing tactic! Although I was able to pick up on some things, it in no way lessened my enjoyment of the story. Something could always go wrong at any second, even when Grace’s path seems clear.

The characters are great too, despite the focus on action. Yes, of course Grace’s father is out of the picture as in almost every book I’ve read in the past two years which is pretty darn bad but thank all that is holy, this trope isn’t expanded on. Millie, however, I loved. Grace’s younger sister has Down’s syndrome and Grace has agreed to care for her. She is sweet but also conniving. Able to figure out what is going on even without Grace being able to tell her, the two form a great team. And then there’s Grace herself. Although seemingly helpless, she is a good thinker and able to get out of situations with her mind and creativity. She isn’t always the smartest person in the room–I saw the red flags from a mile away–but she isn’t stupid and very resourceful, much moreso than I would have been. And she learns from her mistake of rushing into marriage. Side characters play a role, too. You want to hate party guest Esther for being judgmental at first, but she may see something that others do not.

By far the strongest point of the story is the possibility that this could actually happen if one weren’t careful. With all the messages out there about believing women these days, this book drives the point home. I’m not scared by ghosts or clowns; they can’t do anything to me. But in Behind Closed Doors, this is not the case. It would take some planning, but the events here, orchestrated by a super abusive spouse, could absolutely be a thing, and this is perhaps why it’s the scariest book I’ve ever read.

Still, like all books, it’s not perfect. If I had one complaint, it was that Jack’s motivations were incredibly weak. MINOR SPOILER ALERT: he just likes to watch women suffer.
As such, he comes across as a corny bad guy in an action movie or something. On the other hand, though, you kind of have to be one in order to pull of the kinds of things that Jack does here. So I’m not really willing to take points off for that. The point was that he was sadistic enough to create a chilling story, and Paris accomplishes that very well. My other qualm was with the ending–it was very sudden, much like the one in The Breakdown. It was also almost a cliffhanger. You can’t do that in a thriller that you’re not going to write a sequel to. I pay the author to tell me what happens. I think an epilogue would have been nice also. But maybe that’s just me. I like happy endings.

Behind Closed Doors is probably one of the the best thrillers I have ever read…if only there had been an epilogue so I could learn what happened to Millie, and if only it had been longer! It was extremely well-thought out and Paris, though Grace, manages to cover all the bases and have Grace navigate her environment in a believable way. Do not be fooled by the trite summary on the back: it’s a lasting book that will haunt you and leave you with its powerful message: not everything is what it seems.

5 stars

reviews

The Woman in the Window: A.J. Finn

The Woman in the Window: A.J. Finn
Genre: Thriller
Published: 2018
Pages: 427 (paperback)

Anna Fox is a prisoner of her own home. She can’t venture outside; she’ll have a panic attack if she does. Trapped inside, she spends her time watching classic movies and spying on their neighbors. She is especially fascinated by her new neighbors, the Russells. They are the perfect family. One night, Anna is watching them and sees something terrible. Should she get involved? With her drinking habit, how does she know that she even saw it to begin with? What is real and what isn’t? Perhaps nothing is what it seems.

A defining characteristic of this story is not just who did it or what happened, but the style in which it’s told. The last time I read a “film noir” style story, I was disappointed. The author got so lost in description that I forgot what I was reading about, the characters acted like robots, and not very much happened. So I had been dancing around picking this up over the course of several trips to the bookstore.

Fortunately, I had the opposite experience with The Woman in the Window. Finn creates a vintage, chilling atmosphere by describing in detail Anna’s house, in turns creepy and comforting. The descriptions, too, are concise and get to the point. Each detail adds and is relevant to the creepy feeling of the book, making for an enjoyable reading experience. Word choices are poetic, but never too much so. Overall, a great job there. Megan Abbott should take notes. The language was just as much fun to read as the plotline was.

I, unfortunately, was at a disadvantage when it came to plot twists. The first twist was the exact same twist that occurred in the previous book I read, which was not even a thriller. Yeah. It was literally the same twist. I unfortunately wasn’t too surprised, but this is in no way the author’s fault; the odds of reading a book, especially in two subgenres, with the exact same twist, are terrible. Objectively, I think it was a great idea. This is just a warning to readers not to read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine around the same time. And even if you do, and aren’t surprised, there are even more twists that will surprise you and reel you in. What truly defines a family? As we all know, we can never make assumptions. A spooky atmosphere isn’t much without the action, and Finn provides us with plenty of moments to pique our interest.

As for the characters, the protagonist is nobody we haven’t seen before. Anna Fox lives alone and has interests relevant to the themes in the book–in this case, thrilling classic movies. I don’t usually like when authors constantly drop references to what inspired their work and explicitly point out how they were inspired via the narrator, but in this case, I thought it was a fun quirk, alongside her chess playing. She did something bad that made me lose a lot of sympathy for her revealed in flashbacks, the bad thing being somewhat of a trope by now. She loves to drink wine. And…deep sigh…..missing fathers do play a minor role as well. I don’t understand for the life of me why we can’t ever have a character that gets along with their living dad. Fortunately, they’re barely talked about. The mentions were just enough to make me roll my eyes before getting back to reading. Despite the presence of tropes, including detectives who could be more competent, the novel surprisingly rarely descends into cliche territory. I personally never knew what was going to happen next. Even more interesting are the interactions that Anna has with others. I especially liked GrannyLizzie, a user that Anna talks to on her online agoraphobia community, and Ethan, the teenage boy next door that Anna bonds with. I also liked that Anna had a young daughter. Still, the fairly typical MC issue takes a backseat to the chilling way the story is told. And with her supposed unreliability, she was interesting all the same.

(SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!:

I did notice one gaping plothole that bothered me: How can Anna live alone and afford the house if her husband isn’t living? If this is addressed and I’ve just forgotten, please leave a comment.)

This was a thrilling, well-paced novel that any thriller fan should pick up, but be warned that it will be tough to put down. Complete with the rare satisfying climactic scenes, this is a must for your collection. If I had nitpicky complaints, it would be that I thought that one chilling scene near the end wasn’t necessary and the aforementioned plothole, but those are very minor and don’t take away from the story. The uniqueness of The Woman in the Window makes it a great addition to the genre.

5 stars



reviews

The Storyteller: Jodi Picoult

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult
Genre: Historical/Contemporary
Published: 2013
Pages (paperback): 460

Rereview of a book read in 2018

First there was Josef, a young man being groomed to be a German officer. There was also Minka, a young girl sent to the concentration camps where Josef is working. Today, there is her granddaughter Sage, a bread baker as per the tradition of Minka’s family. When Sage encounters Josef (who asks her to kill him, believing that he deserves to die after his past), she is faced with many questions. Should she kill him? Or should she forgive him? As she embarks on a mission to persecute Josef, she explores these questions and learns about her grandmother’s experiences along the way. The story is also interspersed with snippets from a story Minka wrote during her childhood, which has some parallels to the horrors she experiences.

The Storyteller starts off with promise and a really thought-provoking dilemma in true Picoult fashion which was a great idea. Unfortunately, let’s just say that this book seems to be on one of the biggest literary suicide missions I’ve seen yet. I’ve never seen a book go from good to bad so quickly, or ever. Thus, it’s hard to rate.

It starts off great and the premise is intriguing. When a former Nazi who tortured your grandmother enters your bakery and asks to die, what do you do? He seems to be a good, kindly old man, but he has done things in the past that make him deserving of death. Sage has trouble grappling with this, too, but she knows what must be done. So she goes to meet an official named Leo to serve justice.

You can probably guess how things go from there.

One of my biggest problems with many books is how the author insists on giving their main character a romantic relationship when the book doesn’t really call for one. That is because they often a) are distracting b) add nothing to the novel or c) are really inappropriate for the story being told. The Storyteller’s annoying love story accomplished all those things. I want to discuss it in detail just because I feel like it really lessened my opinion of the book.

The relationship between Sage and Leo was random and utterly, completely unnecessary. So were Leo’s chapters detailing his dating experiences; all should have been cut. Romance can be a trope I despise when forced or not done well, and the one in The Storyteller is a prime example of why I complain so much. It’s like Picoult said, “Oh look, my main character is single. Oh look, here’s a male main character! They clearly are meant to be!” The last 25% of the novel mostly focuses on their relationship, which is jarring considering readers have just finished with reading about Minka’s experiences in the camps…just another reason why their relationship is so inappropriate here. The superficial love story also lessens the seriousness of the book as a whole. Previously, they had worked well and were intense about what they wanted to get done in bringing justice to Josef. But then we get to the last 25% of the book. Minka’s funeral is filled with them sharing flirty banter (!!!). So much for this book tackling serious issues; now going after Nazis is just a fun game to them because they are MADLY AND CRAZILY IN LOVE!!!! So much for serious, thought-provoking justice. In all seriousness, the entire novel loses its impact immediately after Minka is done telling her story. It goes from ethical dilemma to chick lit in three seconds flat. You can’t really do both at once. And the biggest part: I just didn’t care. These two barely knew each other, and I just wanted what I came for: the debate on forgiveness, Minka’s story, and how Sage comes to grips with the challenge in her life. The (poorly written) romance wrecked it.

Even if the book was going to be solely about their relationship, it still wasn’t written well. Picoult is already dropping constant hints about them starting a family on the second day they meet, and the hints appear a few times. Did I mention they hardly know each other? Is this Disney? Leo’s appearance as a significant other also automatically puts Sage in good standing with her sisters, who she wasn’t getting along with. Yep, in the book all about forgiveness, that’s how she resolves her sibling relationships. She lands a boyfriend who’s cool. This type of love story all seemed really inappropriate in a book dealing with the Holocaust, especially considering their flirty banter often occurs during funerals and their mission to bring Josef to justice.

I have never had to put a book down in fury this much before. I like chick lit, but it didn’t belong here whatsoever. My only plausible thought is that Picoult or her editor was trying to make this book “women’s fiction” and to do that, she/they felt she had to include some kind of romance. That doesn’t mean they did it right. Lilac Girls pulled off the balance between the historical/woman lit/war aspects much better.

I’ll say it one time for the authors in the back: just because a character is single does not mean they need a love interest.

Rant over.

That was a shame, because otherwise I liked this book. The historical flashbacks of Minka were the book’s strength, and it was obviously well-researched. Her storytelling allows her to thrive (better than most of her acquaintances anyway) in the camps and it’s also great historical testimony/ The dialogue about the difficult concepts was really interesting also, but Picoult still allows readers to decide for themselves. Still, I’m not sure it was resolved well. The final plot twist made absolutely no sense. It was clearly there only for shock value, much like the one in My Sister’s Keeper. I’m beginning to realize that I’m not sure I like this author’s style of endings. (Yes, the My Sister’s Keeper twist was shocking, but it also made the entire book irrelevant. Twists do not always make a good book.) There really was no easy answer, though; forgiveness is a complicated concept. Picoult explores some fascinating topics again, but like my first foray into her novels, she needs to cut the stupid romances and completely random plot twists. Then we’ll talk. Definitely worth checking out for a gripping story, but don’t say I didn’t warn you about the romance.

First half: 4.5 stars
Last 25%: 2 stars
Overall: A generous 3 stars