reviews

The Affair; Sheryl Browne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of spoilers

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

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

3 stars

Book Club Questions (spoilers)

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

The Babysitter: Sheryl Browne


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Stranger

Book Club Questions (spoilers!)

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



reviews

The Night Before: Wendy Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 stars

Book Club Questions (spoilers!)

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

With You Always; Rena Olsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Take Me to Church

Book Club Questions (spoilers obviously)

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

reviews

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

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

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

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Dirty Little Secret

1 star

reviews

I Know Who You Are; Alice Feeney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Paparazzi

reviews

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