ARC Review: The Blackbird Season

ARC Review:  The Blackbird SeasonThe Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti
three-half-stars
Published by Atria Books on September 26th 2017
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Kate Moretti’s The Blackbird Season takes place in Mt. Oanoke, Pennsylvania.  Mt. Oanoke is one of those small towns where everyone knows everyone else and where pretty much nothing ever happens.  That is, until one day when a thousand dead birds plummet from the sky and land on the local high school baseball field.  Since most of the town was there to watch their baseball team and beloved teacher and coach, Nate Winters, play, the rumor mill starts running rampant right away, as everyone tries to make sense out of what has happened.  Some assume there is a logical explanation for the birds, while others see it is a bad omen, a sign of trouble to come.

Pretty soon, however, the mystery of the birds take a backseat when a news reporter prints a story alleging that Nate Winters is having an affair with one of his students, troubled teen Lucia Hamm.  Without giving him a chance to prove that the story isn’t true, everyone in the town immediately turns on Nate. He goes from being the hometown hero to the town outcast and ultimately loses his job over the alleged affair.  Lucia doesn’t help matters when she corroborates the story and tells everyone that she and Nate are in love, thus breathing even more life into this small town scandal and causing even Nate’s wife to question his innocence.

When, soon after, Lucia goes missing, all eyes turn to Nate as the most likely suspect and the reader is filled with questions:.  Is Nate actually guilty of having an affair?  If not, can he prove his innocence?  What has happened to Lucia? Did Nate have anything to do with that since she made him look so bad?  If the affair isn’t true, why would she lie about it?

 

One of my favorite parts of The Blackbird Season is the way in which the story is presented.  It’s a character driven mystery that is told from the alternating points of view of Nate, his wife Alecia, troubled student Lucia, and perhaps the only person in town who believes Nate is innocent, his friend and colleague Bridget.  I liked watching the story unfold in this way because as each piece of the puzzle is revealed, you get to see not only how Nate keeps getting himself into situations that make him look bad, but then you also get to watch those who are closest to him, his wife and his best friend, and their changing reactions when more and more details unfold about Nate and Lucia.  Then finally, you also have the perspective of Lucia and see some of her motivations behind her actions and why she keeps approaching Nate.

If you enjoy a suspenseful read, you’ll probably enjoy The Blackbird Season.  Moretti writes suspense very well and so there are lots of twists and turns along the way as we seek to unravel both the truth behind the alleged affair and the mystery of what happened to Lucia.  I liked that the story kept me guessing, so much so that I changed my mind about whether Nate was innocent or guilty every few chapters.  From that standpoint, it’s a wild ride and a solid read.

 

My biggest issue with The Blackbird Season was that this ended up being another of those books where none of the characters are very likeable or sympathetic.  Since I typically enjoy books more when I can connect with at least one character, this made reading The Blackbird Season somewhat challenging.  Nate Winters, in particular, just flat out got on my nerves.  As a teacher, he should know better than to be creeping around on the internet keeping an eye on his students.  Whether he means well or not, there’s no way that’s going to turn out well for him if other adults in the community find out.  He’s one of those characters that just constantly makes bad choices and does stupid things that make him look guilty even if he’s probably completely innocent.  If you’re being accused of sleeping with a student, for example, you don’t keep randomly meeting up with the student.  The man just had no common sense and was infuriating because of it.  I actually screamed at the book a couple of times because he was just so frustrating, lol.

I also wish the author had done a little more with the actual blackbird theme that runs through the book.  The opening scene with all of the dead birds plunging onto the baseball field was fantastic and set an ominous tone for what I thought was going to be an atmospheric and creepy read, maybe even a bit supernatural, but then it just kind of fizzled and was mentioned occasionally in passing – that scientists were investigating the bird deaths, etc.  Since more wasn’t made of it, it ended up just feeling unnecessary to the rest of the storyline and somewhat out of place, for me anyway.

 

If I hadn’t had the issue with not liking any of the characters, The Blackbird Season would have easily been a 4 star read for me.  Even with not liking any of the characters, I was still drawn in enough by the mystery of the dead birds, the small town skewering the town hero over his alleged affair with a student, and that student’s subsequent mysterious disappearance that I just had to keep reading to find out what happened.  If you enjoy a good mystery, I’d say The Blackbird Season is a good choice.  If, like me, you just really need at least one likeable character, this book may or may not be a good fit.  I hate to make the comparison since it’s so overdone, but if you enjoy books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, you’d probably like this one too.  If not, I’d probably say to pass on it.

 

Thanks to Netgalley, Kate Moretti, and Atria Books for providing me with an advanced copy of this book for review.  This in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Known for novels featuring “great pacing and true surprises” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) and “nerve-shattering suspense” (Heather Gudenkauf, New York Time bestselling author), New York Times bestselling author Kate Moretti’s latest is the story of a scandal-torn Pennsylvania town and the aftermath of a troubled girl gone missing.

“Where did they come from? Why did they fall? The question would be asked a thousand times…

Until, of course, more important question arose, at which time everyone promptly forgot that a thousand birds fell on the town of Mount Oanoke at all.”

In a quiet Pennsylvania town, a thousand dead starlings fall onto a high school baseball field, unleashing a horrifying and unexpected chain of events that will rock the close-knit community.

Beloved baseball coach and teacher Nate Winters and his wife, Alicia, are well respected throughout town. That is, until one of the many reporters investigating the bizarre bird phenomenon catches Nate embracing a wayward student, Lucia Hamm, in front of a sleazy motel. Lucia soon buoys the scandal by claiming that she and Nate are engaged in an affair, throwing the town into an uproar…and leaving Alicia to wonder if her husband has a second life.

And when Lucia suddenly disappears, the police only to have one suspect: Nate.

Nate’s coworker and sole supporter, Bridget Harris, Lucia’s creative writing teacher, is determined to prove his innocence. She has Lucia’s class journal, and while some of the entries appear particularly damning to Nate’s case, others just don’t add up. Bridget knows the key to Nate’s exoneration and the truth of Lucia’s disappearance lie within the walls of the school and in the pages of that journal.

Told from the alternating points of view of Alicia, Nate, Lucia, and Bridget, The Blackbird Season is a haunting, psychologically nuanced suspense, filled with Kate Moretti’s signature “chillingly satisfying” (Publishers Weekly) twists and turns.

three-half-stars

About Kate Moretti

Kate Moretti lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She’s worked in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years as a scientist, and has been an avid fiction reader her entire life.

She enjoys traveling and cooking, although with two kids, a day job, and writing, she doesn’t get to do those things as much as she’d like.

Her lifelong dream is to buy an old house with a secret passageway.

Book Review: A Perfect Obsession

Book Review:  A Perfect ObsessionA Perfect Obsession by Heather Graham
three-stars
Series: New York Confidential #2
Published by Mira Books on March 28th 2017
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 333
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Heather Graham’s A Perfect Obsession is the second book in her New York Confidential series.  In this book, FBI special agent Craig Frasier is investigating a case that appears to involve a serial killer.  Someone is murdering beautiful young women and leaving them carefully staged and displayed in mausoleums and underground tombs around New York City. Craig’s girlfriend, Kieran Finnegan, a forensic psychologist and also part owner of her family’s pub, is also consulting on the case to try to help them get inside the mind of the killer in hopes of narrowing their field of suspects.  Although Craig and Kieran have worked together before, this time Craig is somewhat uncomfortable having Kieran on the case.

Because the killer is targeting beautiful women, Craig fears for Kieran’s safety, especially if she puts herself out there actively trying to help find the killer.  Craig’s nerves with respect to Kieran are especially on edge because the first body that was discovered was found in a catacomb under a two-hundred-year-old church, which has been deconsecrated and renovated into a nightclub.  The former church/nightclub is located directly behind Finnegan’s Pub in lower Manhattan, thus right at Kieran’s back door.

As more bodies are found, all staged in similar ways, it becomes clear that they are, in fact, dealing with a serial killer and that they are in a race against time to stop him or her before more beautiful women are killed.

LIKES

The Mystery and Suspense.  The case itself was my favorite part of A Perfect Obsession. The killings themselves and the way the bodies were so carefully and artfully staged in the graveyards and mausoleums was just so darn creepy! It literally made my skin crawl every time they discovered a new body. In addition to the awesome creepy factor, it’s also just a great mystery story filled with plenty of twists and turns that kept me guessing about the killer’s identity and motivations until the very end. I thought I had it all figured out a few times along the way but got thrown a curve ball each time that sent me looking in another direction, so I enjoyed that it wasn’t at all predictable.

The FBI Investigation.  The story had a very CSI/Criminal Minds feel to it since there was so much emphasis on forensics and the crime scenes and also because they were clearly dealing with a twisted individual.  I’m a big crime show junkie so this aspect of the story worked very well for me.  I loved following the actual FBI investigation as they discussed suspects and possible theories, as they followed leads, and as they traveled to interview law enforcement and witnesses in other locales as more and more bodies were found.  I thought the author did a fantastic job showing every angle of the investigation as it unfolded.

The New York City Setting. Another highlight of the book for me was the historical/archaeological aspect.  New York City has always been one of my favorite cities.  I love its rich history and I especially love those old churches in Lower Manhattan, especially Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel.  I found it thrilling to be immersed in so much of New York’s history while following the FBI investigation as they search, not only for the killer’s lair, but also for potential crime scenes that could fit the killer’s apparent criteria.  It was clear the author had done her homework when it came to researching the history, especially when it came to what might be buried beneath the city.

DISLIKES/ISSUES

My biggest issue with A Perfect Obsession was that even though the story itself was entertaining, the characters themselves were not well-developed and so I had a hard time connecting with any of them.  For that reason, the story definitely reminded me of a procedural crime drama.  I don’t know if it’s a case where these characters are more fleshed out in the first book of the series, which I haven’t read, but in the second book, what I found was a riveting criminal case but unfortunately forgettable characters. (That said, even though this is the second book in a series, overall it still works well as a standalone.)

Kieran and Craig, as the main characters, stood out from the rest of the pack.  Unfortunately, the main reason they stood out for me was because I often found them annoying.  I appreciated Craig’s concern for Kieran’s safety, but after a while, his whole “Oh no, my girlfriend’s so pretty, she might become a victim of the serial killer. I must constantly tell her not go to anywhere alone” routine just got old.  And as if he wasn’t irritating enough, Kieran was so stubborn about going out alone and going to places she has no business going, that it almost seemed like she was deliberately trying to put herself out there as a possible target.  By about the halfway point of the book, I just wanted to knock both of their heads together.

Another issue I had was that there were just too many times where Kieran and her family members conveniently came across things that could help the FBI investigation.  New York is a huge city filled with millions of people. What are the odds that it would always be Kieran or one of her brothers who would come across valuable clues?

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Even with the issues I had with it, I still thought A Perfect Obsession was a solid read.  If you’re looking for memorable characters that you can connect with, this may not be your book, but if you love a good mystery and want to immerse yourself in some New York history, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book.

 

RATING:  3 STARS

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Heather Graham, and Mira Books for allowing me to preview a copy of this book. This in no way impacts my review.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Someone is murdering beautiful young women in the New York area and displaying them in mausoleums and underground tombs. The FBI is handling the case, with Special Agent Craig Frasier as lead.

Kieran Finnegan, forensic psychologist and part owner of Finnegan’s, her family’s pub, is consulting on the case. Craig and Kieran are a couple who’ve worked together on more than one occasion. On this occasion, though, Craig fears for the safety of the woman he loves. Because the killer is too close. The body of a young model is found in a catacomb under a two-hundred-year-old church, now deconsecrated and turned into a nightclub. A church directly behind Finnegan’s in lower Manhattan.

As more women are murdered, their bodies discovered in underground locations in New York, it’s clear that the police and the FBI are dealing with a serial killer. Craig and Kieran are desperate to track down the murderer, a man obsessed with female perfection. Obsessed enough to want to “preserve” that beauty by destroying the women who embody it”

three-stars

About Heather Graham

New York Times and USA Today best-selling author Heather Graham majored in theater arts at the University of South Florida. After a stint of several years in dinner theater, back-up vocals, and bartending, she stayed home after the birth of her third child and began to write, working on short horror stories and romances. After some trial and error, she sold her first book, WHEN NEXT WE LOVE, in 1982 and since then, she has written over one hundred novels and novellas including category, romantic suspense, historical romance, vampire fiction, time travel, occult, and Christmas holiday fare. She wrote the launch books for the Dell’s Ecstasy Supreme line, Silhouette’s Shadows, and for Harlequin’s mainstream fiction imprint, Mira Books.

Heather was a founding member of the Florida Romance Writers chapter of RWA and, since 1999, has hosted the Romantic Times Vampire Ball, with all revenues going directly to children’s charity. She is pleased to have been published in approximately twenty languages, and to have been honored with awards from Waldenbooks. B. Dalton, Georgia Romance Writers, Affaire de Coeur, Romantic Times, and more. She has had books selected for the Doubleday Book Club and the Literary Guild, and has been quoted, interviewed, or featured in such publications as The Nation, Redbook, People, and USA Today and appeared on many newscasts including local television and Entertainment Tonight.

Heather loves travel and anything have to do with the water, and is a certitified scuba diver. Married since high school graduation and the mother of five, her greatest love in life remains her family, but she also believes her career has been an incredible gift, and she is grateful every day to be doing something that she loves so very much for a living.

ARC Review: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

ARC Review:  Emma in the Night by Wendy WalkerEmma in the Night by Wendy Walker
four-half-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on August 8th 2017
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 320
Source: the Publisher
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Wendy Walker’s Emma in the Night is a captivating psychological thriller that centers on an unsolved missing persons case.  Three years earlier, seventeen year old Emma Tanner and her fifteen year old sister Cass, disappeared.  A thorough investigation was conducted but no trace of either sister was ever found and the case went cold.  That is, until Cass suddenly turns up at her mother’s home with a harrowing tale of how she and Emma had been abducted and held prisoner on an island and that they need to go back and save Emma.  As Cass recounts her story to law enforcement, a forensic psychiatrist on the case, Dr. Abby Winter, starts to get the feeling that Cass may not be telling them the whole story.  Driven by some disturbing parallels she sees between Cass’s mother and her own, who suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Abby decides to take a closer look at Cass, Emma, and their family.  Will Abby uncover a truth that is even more shocking than the tale Cass has come home with, or will she become so obsessed with the parallels to her own life that she can no longer work the case objectively?

LIKES

Emma in the Night is one of those books that it’s best to go into knowing as little as possible, so aside from information already mentioned in the synopsis, I’m going to keep my comments as general as I can.  That said, here are some elements of Walker’s novel that I thought made for effective storytelling.

Dual Point of View.  Emma in the Night is told in alternating chapters from the viewpoint of Cass, the sister who has returned, and from Abby, the forensic psychiatrist who has been working the case since the sisters first went missing.  I loved watching the mystery unfold this way, especially as the writing style for each point of view was so distinctive.  Cass’s point of view sometimes came across confused and a little disjointed, while at other times, it almost sounded too precise, to the point of being calculated. It became clearer with each passing chapter that she may not be a very reliable narrator.  As I became more and more suspicious of what she was saying sometimes, it was then nice to switch to a chapter from Abby’s perspective and see that she, as one who was listening to Cass tell her story, had some of the same questions and doubts I did.

Flawed Characters.  I have a thing for flawed characters.  I find characters with flaws to be so much more human and therefore interesting than characters that are too perfect.  Well, let me tell you…this book is packed with flawed characters!  We’re talking the textbook definition of a dysfunctional family right here.  Interestingly enough, none of the characters are all that likeable either, maybe with the exception of Abby and the detective she works with.  Likeable or not though, they are some of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever read.  There is an unhealthy power struggle in this family that is one of the biggest driving forces in this novel.  Who has the power? Who wants the power? Who is willing to go to the furthest extreme to grab the power?, etc. It’s a tug of war that dominates and taints every aspect of their lives.

Intricate, Suspenseful Plot.  If you like a thriller that will keep you guessing until the final pages, Emma in the Night is your book.  I kept coming up with what I thought were very plausible theories about what happened the entire time I was reading, only to have my theories immediately debunked.  I became as obsessed with the case as Abby was and devoured the entire book in less than a day because I just had to know if Cass was telling the truth or not.  I never did guess the truth about what happened and was completely shocked when it was finally revealed, so major kudos to Walker for crafting such an intricate and unpredictable storyline.

Portrayal of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  I majored in Psychology in college and remember reading many case studies on persons who suffered from this disorder.  I appreciate that Walker clearly did her research and gives the reader an accurate portrayal not only of an individual who has NPD, but also of what it’s like to live with someone who has it.

DISLIKES/ISSUES

The only real issue I had with Emma in the Night was the pacing.  At first it seemed to move a little slowly for my liking.  I came to quickly appreciate that though because it slowed me down and made me pay close attention to everything Cass was saying and especially how sometimes what she said didn’t quite mesh with what she was actually thinking.  I think I might have missed some of the subtleties if the novel had started off at a break neck pace.  Once I sensed something was off in Cass’s narrative and got caught up in trying to figure out the full story about what happened to Emma and Cass, the pacing became a non-issue.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Emma in the Night is a well-crafted and truly riveting psychological thriller.  If you’re looking for a suspenseful read that you won’t be able to put down once you start reading, I highly recommend this one.

RATING:  4.5 STARS

Thanks so much to St. Martin’s Press and Wendy Walker for allowing me to preview an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  This in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

From the bestselling author of All Is Not Forgotten comes a thriller about two missing sisters, a twisted family, and what happens when one girl comes back…

One night three years ago, the Tanner sisters disappeared: fifteen-year-old Cass and seventeen-year-old Emma. Three years later, Cass returns, without her sister Emma. Her story is one of kidnapping and betrayal, of a mysterious island where the two were held. But to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Abby Winter, something doesn’t add up. Looking deep within this dysfunctional family Dr. Winter uncovers a life where boundaries were violated and a narcissistic parent held sway. And where one sister’s return might just be the beginning of the crime.

four-half-stars

About Wendy Walker

Wendy Walker is a former family law attorney in Fairfield County, Connecticut who began writing while at home raising her three sons. She published two novels with St. Martin’s Press and edited multiple compilations for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series before writing her debut psychological thriller, All is Not Forgotten. Her second thriller, Emma In The Night, will be released August 8, 2017.

Wendy earned her J. D., magna cum laude, at the Georgetown University Law Center where she was awarded the American Jurisprudence award for her performance in Contracts and Advanced Criminal Procedure. She received her undergraduate degree, magna cum laude, from Brown University and attended The London School of Economics and Political Science as part of her undergraduate studies.

Prior to her legal career, Wendy was a financial analyst at Goldman, Sachs & Co., in the mergers and acquisitions group. She has also volunteered at the ACLU, Connecticut Legal Services and Figure Skating in Harlem where she served on the Board of Directors for over twelve years.

Wendy is currently writing her third thriller while managing a busy household.

ARC Review – Final Girls by Riley Sager

ARC Review – Final Girls by Riley SagerFinal Girls by Riley Sager
four-half-stars
Published by Dutton on July 11th 2017
Genres: Thriller, Mystery
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  Ten years ago, college student Quincy Carpenter went on vacation with five friends and came back alone, the only survivor of a horror movie–scale massacre. In an instant, she became a member of a club no one wants to belong to—a group of similar survivors known in the press as the Final Girls. Lisa, who lost nine sorority sisters to a college dropout’s knife; Sam, who went up against the Sack Man during her shift at the Nightlight Inn; and now Quincy, who ran bleeding through the woods to escape Pine Cottage and the man she refers to only as Him. The three girls are all attempting to put their nightmares behind them, and, with that, one another. Despite the media’s attempts, they never meet.

Now, Quincy is doing well—maybe even great, thanks to her Xanax prescription. She has a caring almost-fiancé, Jeff; a popular baking blog; a beautiful apartment; and a therapeutic presence in Coop, the police officer who saved her life all those years ago. Her memory won’t even allow her to recall the events of that night; the past is in the past.

That is, until Lisa, the first Final Girl, is found dead in her bathtub, wrists slit, and Sam, the second, appears on Quincy’s doorstep. Blowing through Quincy’s life like a whirlwind, Sam seems intent on making Quincy relive the past, with increasingly dire consequences, all of which makes Quincy question why Sam is really seeking her out. And when new details about Lisa’s death come to light, Quincy’s life becomes a race against time as she tries to unravel Sam’s truths from her lies, evade the police and hungry reporters, and, most crucially, remember what really happened at Pine Cottage, before what was started ten years ago is finished.

MY REVIEW

After seeing more than one comparison to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, I’ll admit I was a little hesitant about whether or not I wanted to read Final Girls.  That just seemed like hype that few books could live up to. That said, however, when I then saw that Stephen King had dubbed Final Girls “the first great thriller of 2017,” my entire perspective changed. I mean, seriously, when Stephen King says I should read a book. I’m darn well going to read the book.  And let me tell you, that man knows a great thriller when he reads one.  It took me a few pages to really get into Final Girls and connect with the main character, but once I did, I literally could NOT put this book down until I reached the end.

Final Girls is a psychological thriller that follows Quincy Carpenter, a young woman who is known as a ‘Final Girl.’  A ‘Final Girl’ is a young woman that is the sole survivor of a mass killing.  Sounds like something out of a horror movie, right? Well, it basically is.

Ten years ago, Quincy and five friends went to Pine Cottage, cabin in the woods, to celebrate her best friend, Janelle’s, birthday.  Instead of the weekend of fun they had planned, however, their time at Pine Cottage quickly turns into the stuff nightmares are made of as all of Quincy’s friends are brutally murdered.  Quincy remembers little or nothing of what happened the night of the attack; all she knows is that she was being chased through the woods, while drenched in blood, and thankfully was found by a police officer, who killed the man who was chasing her.

Although Quincy is the primary focus of this novel, she is actually one of three ‘Final Girls’ who have a presence in the story.  There’s also Lisa, who was the sole survivor of an attack on her sorority house that left nine sisters dead, and there’s Samantha, who survived a late night, massacre-style attack at the motel where she was working.  Dogged by the press and a cult-like following, as well as haunted by survivor’s guilt (Why did they survive when no one else did?), all these three women really want is to pick up the pieces of their lives and move on.

When we meet Quincy, she appears, with the help of a Xanax prescription, to have mostly moved past this traumatic incident in her life and now has a successful baking blog and a devoted live-in boyfriend named Jeff.  She has also maintained a somewhat friendly relationship with Coop, the officer who rescued her that fateful night.

Quincy’s life is turned upside down once again, however, when she learns that Lisa, one of the other two Final Girls, has apparently taken her own life.  Quincy had occasionally been in contact with Lisa because of their shared bond as survivors of such terrible attacks, and so she really can’t believe that after all she went through to survive, that Lisa would then commit suicide.  And then when the third Final Girl, Samantha, suddenly shows up on her doorstep, even though she had dropped off the grid and disappeared years ago, Quincy’s life is yet again rattled especially because Samantha seems intent on forcing Quincy to confront and relive that night at Pine Cottage.  The more Samantha pushes, the more Quincy questions what her real motives are for seeking her out after all these years. And then when new information comes to light about Lisa’s death, all bets are off.  Quincy has no idea who she can trust, who she can turn to, and especially no idea if she can handle possibly remembering the details of what really happened the night her friends were murdered.

And believe it or not, all of that barely even scratches the surface in terms of what happens on this wild ride!

LIKES

Flawed and Complicated Characters.  Just by virtue of what they have been through, both Quincy and Samantha are flawed characters.  Sager does a fantastic job of fleshing them out, adding more and more layers to each character the further we move into the story.  I was especially fascinated to watch Quincy’s seemingly together life practically crumble around her the more Samantha kept trying to push her out of her comfort zone and confront her past.  Even though Quincy seems to have her act together, it becomes clear pretty quickly that it was more of a façade than anything else and that without that healthy daily dose of Xanax, she would be a real mess.

Samantha is such an enigmatic character.  It’s impossible to tell what’s going on with her, what her motivations are for seeking out Quincy after all this time, and what her end game is. She’s also very evasive about where she has been for all these years – “here and there” and what she has been doing – “this and that.”  It becomes a little unnerving that she won’t offer up any real information about herself, especially when she’s pushing Quincy like she is.

Endless Twists and Turns.  Final Girls is one of those wonderfully well-crafted thrill rides that constantly keeps the reader guessing about where the story is going and who the bad guy really is.  Every single time I thought I had things all figured out, I ended up being dead wrong.  Sager is an incredible story teller and takes you on a journey that is full of suspense and twists and turns, and never once, even remotely predictable.

Past vs. Present.  Sager has structured the story so that most of what we see comes from Quincy’s perspective.  The chapters basically alternate between Quincy’s present day life and what happened when she and her friends went to Pine Cottage.  So while we’re following Quincy’s day-to-day life in the present – how she’s coping, especially in light of the new interest in “Final Girls” following Lisa’s death, etc., we’re also being fed bits and pieces about what happened at Pine Cottage.  It added so much suspense to have both stories, – the past and the present – unfold this way. I thought it was very effective storytelling.

The Ending.  All I’m going to say here is OMG, I never saw it coming. Wow.

DISLIKES

This is so random and nitpicky, but the constant mentioning of the grape soda drove me a little crazy as I was reading.  I have no idea why it bothered me so much, but by about the halfway point, I just kept thinking “No More Grape Soda!”  This is obviously a quirk with me and I’m sure thousands of other readers will have absolutely no issue with the soda, haha!

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a well written thriller with a unique and unpredictable storyline, this is your book.  And if you don’t believe me, you can believe Stephen King since he is the master when it comes to thrillers.

 

RATING:  4.5 STARS

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Riley Sager, and Dutton Books for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.  This in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

four-half-stars

About Riley Sager

Riley Sager is a pseudonym for an author who has been previously published under another name. A native of Pennsylvania, Riley is a writer, editor and graphic designer who now lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

In addition to writing, Riley enjoys reading, movies and baking.

Riley’s first novel, FINAL GIRLS, will be published in July in the United States, the United Kingdom and twenty other countries around the world.

Book Review: No Turning Back

Book Review:  No Turning BackNo Turning Back by Tracy Buchanan
three-half-stars
Published by Crooked Lane Books on June 13th 2017
Genres: Mystery, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  Anna Graves’s whole life has recently been turned upside down. A new mother, she’s just gone back to her job as a radio presenter and is busy navigating a new schedule of late night feeding and early morning wake ups while also dealing with her newly separated husband. Then the worst happens. While Anna is walking on the beach with her daughter, she’s attacked by a crazed teenager. Terrified, Anna reacts instinctively to protect her baby.

But her life falls apart when the schoolboy dies from his injuries. The police believe Anna’s story, until the autopsy results reveal something more sinister. A frenzied media attack sends Anna into a spiral of self-doubt. Her precarious mental state is further threatened when she receives a chilling message from someone claiming to be the “Ophelia Killer,” a serial killer who preyed on the town twenty years ago—and who abruptly stopped when Anna’s father committed suicide.

Is Anna as innocent as she claims? And is murder forgivable, if committed to save your child’s life? Internationally bestselling author Tracy Buchanan takes readers on an emotional roller coaster ride filled with heart-stopping secrets and hairpin turns in No Turning Back, her U.S. debut.

 

MY REVIEW

Tracy Buchanan’s No Turning Back is aptly named because once you get started reading this heart-pounding roller coaster ride of a novel, there’s no turning back and no putting this book down until you’ve made it through all the twists and turns that this story throws at you.  If you like a mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end, this book is for you.

Anna Graves is a popular local radio host who is just returning to work after maternity leave.  She is also going through a divorce and so has a lot on her plate living the single mom life.  As if she didn’t have enough drama in her life, one day while strolling along the beach with her infant daughter, Joni, she is accosted by a teenage boy with a knife.  With no one around to help her, Anna desperately searches for something to protect herself and her child with.  She finds a comb with a long, pointed handle and points it at the boy to fend off his attacks. He slices her face with his knife but then loses his footing and falls on the handle of the comb Anna is holding.  It punctures his neck and he ultimately dies from the wound.  Anna is of course horrified by what has happened since she was only trying to protect herself and Joni and didn’t mean to harm the boy.

At first, the police believe Anna’s story and deem the boy’s death an act of self-defense.  But when the autopsy results reveal that he was poisoned shortly before his death, questions start to arise and the police start to question whether this was a straight case of self-defense or not.  Public reaction is also mixed with some hailing Anna as a heroic mother, while others proclaim her to be a murderer.  The media doesn’t help matters either, as they try to sensationalize the story from every angle, first seeming like they are on Anna’s side but then turning on her and trying to dig up anything they can to tarnish her reputation. Then Anna starts receiving taunting email messages from someone claiming to be The Ophelia Killer, a serial killer from 20 years ago who was never caught.  The Ophelia Killer targeted teenage boys who looked like the boy Anna killed and used the same poison that was in Anna’s victim’s system. When another teenage boy goes missing, the story takes on a whole new level of creepy suspense.  Is the original killer back? Or is it a copycat? Or is it just some sicko playing mind games with Anna?

 

LIKES

Anna Graves.  I really liked Anna.  I think being a mom myself, I found it very easy to put myself in her shoes while she was standing on that beach trying to do whatever it took to protect her infant daughter.  I could also empathize with the challenges of being a new mom and trying to juggle that with a career.  In all of these ways, she was a very relatable character.  I also tend to root for the underdog in stories so when the media, the community, the police, her soon-to-be ex-husband, and even her so-called friends started turning on her and questioning her actions and her mental state, I found myself in her corner that much more.

The Suspense and the Plot Twists.  Buchanan does a phenomenal job of weaving together an intricate mystery that will keep you guessing who the real killer is all the way to the end. Lots of dirty little secrets come to light throughout the course of the story, each of which seemed to lead either directly to Anna, much to her dismay, or else toward a suspect who could plausibly be The Ophelia Killer. I lost track of how many times I was sure I knew who was behind the murders only to end up being completely wrong.

The Portrayal of the Media.  Even though I was not at all a fan of the media in this story, I thought Buchanan portrayed them in a very realistic manner, especially in terms of the power the media wields.  With one positive or negative story, they can make or break a person’s reputation.  And when tabloid style journalism gets in the mix, all bets are off as to how they’ll choose to cover a story. Any shocking headline that is guaranteed to get the public’s attention seems to be fair game.  As we were given glimpses of some of the stories that were being written about Anna, all I could think of was a certain President running around yelling “Fake news! Fake news!”

The Big Question.  What I really enjoyed about No Turning Back was that in addition to being a wildly entertaining mystery, it’s also a book that made me think.  That big question that was out there from the early moments of the book – How far would you go to keep your children safe? Could you take a life? I bet it’s a question that stays on every reader’s mind, whether they have kids or not, long after they finish reading this story.

The Jaw Dropping Ending.  I can’t say anything else about it without giving away the story, but just WOW! I didn’t see it coming at all and it blew my mind!

 

DISLIKES

Overall, I loved the novel but I did still have a couple of issues with it.  The main one was that I didn’t like how the police were portrayed.  While it made Anna’s journey that much more of a roller coaster ride to have it seem like even the police were out to get her, I just couldn’t imagine a police force conducting itself like the one in this book did.  They didn’t really seem to care much about evidence or about Anna’s safety when she was receiving threats from the dead boy’s family.  They had little to no interest in finding evidence that would exonerate Anna.  Instead, they seemed to look at everything only insofar as to see how they could use it to prove Anna was guilty.

The other aspect of the novel that bothered me was that some events just didn’t seem plausible, the biggest one being right at the beginning of the novel when the boy falls on Anna’s comb and gets fatally stabbed in the neck. What are the odds of that actually happening?  I think it would have made for an even more compelling story than it already was to have Anna make a conscious choice to stab him in self-defense rather than having it be more like a freak accident.

 

 

FINAL THOUGHTS?

If you like a good mystery that will keep you guessing up until the final pages, I’d highly recommend No Turning Back.  With all of the twists and turns this plot has to offer, there’s never a dull moment!

 

RATING:  3.5 STARS

three-half-stars

About Tracy Buchanan

Tracy Buchanan is a full-time author who lives in Buckinghamshire in the UK with her husband, their little girl and their puppy, Bronte. Tracy travelled extensively while working as a travel magazine editor, sating the wanderlust she developed while listening to her Sri Lankan grandparents’ childhood stories – the same wanderlust that now inspires her writing.

Book Review: The Weight of Lies

Book Review:  The Weight of LiesThe Weight of Lies by Emily Carpenter
Also by this author: Burying the Honeysuckle Girls
four-stars
Published by Lake Union Publishing on June 6th 2017
Genres: Mystery, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 380
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  In this gripping, atmospheric family drama, a young woman investigates the forty­-year­-old murder that inspired her mother’s bestselling novel, and uncovers devastating truths—and dangerous lies.

Reformed party girl Meg Ashley leads a life of privilege, thanks to a bestselling horror novel her mother wrote decades ago. But Meg knows that the glow of their very public life hides a darker reality of lies, manipulation, and the heartbreak of her own solitary childhood. Desperate to break free of her mother, Meg accepts a proposal to write a scandalous, tell-all memoir.

Digging into the past—and her mother’s cult classic—draws Meg to Bonny Island, Georgia, and an unusual woman said to be the inspiration for the book. At first island life seems idyllic, but as Meg starts to ask tough questions, disturbing revelations come to light…including some about her mother.

Soon Meg’s search leads her to question the facts of a decades-old murder. She’s warned to leave it alone, but as the lies pile up, Meg knows she’s getting close to finding a murderer. When her own life is threatened, Meg realizes the darkness found in her mother’s book is nothing compared to the chilling truth that lurks off the page.

MY REVIEW

I thoroughly enjoyed Emily Carpenter’s last book Burying the Honeysuckle Girls, so I was thrilled to see she had a new book, The Weight of Lies, coming out.  I couldn’t get to Netgalley fast enough to see if it was available for request.

Like Burying the Honeysuckle Girls, The Weight of Lies is classified as Southern Gothic.  And let me tell you, I think Carpenter has found her niche.  She is a master of creating these riveting, creepy psychological thrillers that keep you guessing until the very end.

The Weight of Lies focuses on socialite Meg Ashley and her troubled relationship with her mother, writer Frances Ashley.  Frances, who is just a real piece of work in every way and who was basically no mother at all to Meg, earned her celebrity status and a cult following back in the 1970’s when she wrote a best-selling horror novel.  The novel, “Kitten,” was about a young girl who exhibits increasingly disturbing behaviors and who may or may not have murdered another young girl.  Frances drew inspiration for her novel from an actual unsolved murder that took place on an isolated island in Georgia, Bonny Island, while Frances was staying there.  Inspired by Kitten, fans flocked to Bonny Island in droves.  Some wanted to meet the real life people who inspired the characters in the novels, while others sought to play amateur detective and see if they could solve the real murder.  Kitten created a cultural phenomenon, although it was little more than a burden to the people of Bonny Island, particularly Dorothy Kitchens, who most people believed to be the “Kitten” character in Frances’ book.

When Meg is approached with an offer for a book deal to write a scandalous tell-all memoir about her mother and their troubled relationship, Meg’s sense of resentment to her mother for neglecting her all her life wins out.  She knows such a book will wreck whatever remains of their relationship, but the chance to show the world what their precious Frances Ashley is really like is just too tempting to pass up.  When Meg is then told that Dorothy Kitchens would also like to have her side of the “Kitten” story told, Meg rushes off to Bonny Island to start digging up dirt on her mother and to hear what Dorothy has to say.  Once she gets there, however, and starts digging into not only her mother’s past but also into the events that took place 40 years ago on that island, Meg gets a lot more than she bargained for. Instead of finding the truth, she just keeps uncovering more and more lies about the events surrounding the murders and starts to wonder if she can trust any of the people on the island, or even her own mother since she seems to be somehow involved in things as well. What starts out as a mission of truth seeking and revenge for Meg, turns into something potentially much more dangerous as she becomes determined to find out the truth.

 

LIKES

I really loved how atmospheric this story was.  Bonny Island is basically a private island that is owned by Dorothy’s family.  When Meg heads down there, she learns she can only reach the island via ferry and that there are no businesses and limited cell phone coverage on the island.  There used to be a hotel – the one run by Dorothy’s family, where Frances stayed when she came to Bonny Island, but it has since been closed to guests.

At first, Bonny Island seems almost like a secluded little paradise, complete with free-roaming wild horses. It’s the perfect spot for Meg to do her research, interview Dorothy, and then stick around and write her book.  However, the things that first make Bonny Island seem so charming soon start to take on a more creepy and ominous feeling once Meg starts getting caught up in uncovering the truth about the murder that took place here.  The reader starts thinking about the fact that if Meg digs too deep and uncovers something that people on the island don’t want uncovered, she’s completely cut off from the rest of the world until the ferry comes again. And with that spotty cell phone coverage, there’s no guarantee she could call for help if she needs it.  All of these details were great suspense builders as Meg continues to dig for information. And the more information she finds, the more lies seem to fall in her lap. At a certain point, she is so deep in uncovered lies that she doesn’t know who she can trust anymore.

As fantastically creepy as the atmosphere was, I was equally fascinated by the book’s structure.  The story is presented to us in alternating chapters – an excerpt from “Kitten” followed by a chapter that follows Meg.  Like the setting and the events of the story, the “Kitten” excerpts seem straightforward and harmless enough, but just like Meg’s journey becomes darker and creepier as we move through the story, so do the “Kitten” excerpts.  I thought this mirroring effect was a very innovative way to present the fictionalized version of the murder (if it is, in fact, actually fiction) alongside Meg’s journey to uncover the truth about the real-life murder.

 

DISLIKES

The only real issue I had with The Weight of Lies was that I found some of the events in the story to be somewhat implausible, including the book deal itself.  It just seemed highly unlikely to me such a book deal would be offered to the child of a famous writer, and I also didn’t buy into what the book would entail.  Half tell all about being the daughter of Frances Ashley, half tell all about Frances’ time on Bonny Island and how her book impacted Dorothy and her family?  It’s probably just me, but I never could envision how that could come together as a coherent book that people would want to buy.  Thankfully Meg gets so wrapped up in investigating the murder though so the implausible book faded to the back of my mind after a while.

One other issue I had was this random leg nerve pain that is nagging Meg at the beginning of the story and that sporadically nags her throughout the story. It ends up being an important detail to the latter part of the story, but taken out of context before it’s revealed to be important, it just felt like a random distraction from the story I was really interested in, which was the truth about the murder.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Even with the couple of issues I had with those plot points, I still found The Weight of Lies to be a very entertaining read. I devoured it cover to cover in less than two days, refusing to put it down until all of the lies had been unraveled and the truth uncovered.  The family drama between Meg and Frances, coupled with the intriguing mystery that Meg is trying to solve, make The Weight of Lies a truly riveting read.

 

RATING:  4  STARS

Huge thanks to Lake Union Publishing, Netgalley and of course to Emily Carpenter for the opportunity to preview The Weight of Lies.

four-stars

About Emily Carpenter

EMILY CARPENTER, a former actor, producer, screenwriter, and behind-the-scenes soap opera assistant, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Auburn University. Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, she now lives in Georgia with her family. BURYING THE HONEYSUCKLE GIRLS is her first novel. You can visit Emily online at emilycarpenterauthor.com.

Book Review: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Book Review:  Swimming Lessons by Claire FullerSwimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
five-stars
Published by Tin House Books on February 7th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 350
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Ingrid Coleman writes letters to her husband, Gil, about the truth of their marriage, but instead of giving them to him, she hides them in the thousands of books he has collected over the years. When Ingrid has written her final letter she disappears from a Dorset beach, leaving behind her beautiful but dilapidated house by the sea, her husband, and her two daughters, Flora and Nan.

Twelve years later, Gil thinks he sees Ingrid from a bookshop window, but he’s getting older and this unlikely sighting is chalked up to senility. Flora, who has never believed her mother drowned, returns home to care for her father and to try to finally discover what happened to Ingrid. But what Flora doesn’t realize is that the answers to her questions are hidden in the books that surround her. Scandalous and whip-smart, Swimming Lessons holds the Coleman family up to the light, exposing the mysterious truths of a passionate and troubled marriage.

 

MY REVIEW

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I picked up Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons, but wow, what an incredibly beautiful and engaging read it was for me.  In fact, I think it’s my first 5 star read of 2017. What I loved about Swimming Lessons was that while it contains a great deal of suspense, it was not at all what I would classify as a typical thriller.  Instead of nonstop, heart-pounding action, this story was a quiet exploration of a troubled marriage and its impact on an entire family.

When the novel opens, Gil Coleman has suffered an accident.  When his two daughters, Flora and Nan, hear of his accident, they rush home to be by their father’s side but are distraught when they hear him say that he hurt himself while following their mother, Ingrid.  Why?  Because Ingrid Coleman was presumed dead in a drowning accident twelve years earlier. The fact that Ingrid’s body was never found has always haunted the family.  Was there any way she could have survived, but if so, why would she then have disappeared for twelve years?  Nan chooses to believe that her mother is dead so that she can move on with her life and chalks her father’s story up to the delusions of an elderly man, but Flora and of course Gil, still seem to hold on to a sliver of hope that Ingrid may be out there somewhere.  At one point, Flora even swears that she sees her mother and starts trying to follow her across town.  The discrepancy in how the family members feel regarding Ingrid’s disappearance introduces a thread that runs throughout the novel – is it better to know the truth even if it’s not the truth we wanted or is it better to keep hope alive even if it means we may spend our entire lives hoping for something that may never happen?

 

LIKES

 

One of the elements of Swimming Lessons that I really loved is that the story is revealed to us in two parts, through alternating chapters – we see the present from the viewpoint of Flora, but then we are also given a rich portrait of the past from the viewpoint of Ingrid.  How? Because unbeknownst to Flora and Nan, and perhaps even to Gil, Ingrid has written a series of letters and hidden them in books strategically around the Coleman house.  In these letters, she lays out for Gil the way she viewed their lives together – from the moment they first met when Ingrid was a student in one of Gil’s writing classes in college through all the years of their marriage leading up to the moment when Ingrid presumably drowned.  Honestly, Ingrid’s letters are the backbone of this story. They add layer upon layer of rich detail and history that, especially with regard to Gil, are often quite different from the present-day version of Gil that we see through Flora’s eyes.  What Ingrid’s letters give us is the portrait of a young woman who wants to be a writer but then gets so caught up in an affair with her charming college professor that she ends up not graduating from college, getting pregnant instead, and settling into what eventually becomes a very troubled marriage.  Gil wants her to be a baby-making machine and little more than that and she resents it.  Since he won’t listen to her, Ingrid resorts to writing these letters to him in hopes that he’ll find them someday in his precious books which fill nearly every room of their house.  What we see as we get to read the letters is that their relationship becomes so stifling to her over the years, it becomes easier and easier for the reader to wonder if perhaps there is any truth to the idea that she may still be out there somewhere.  Could she have faked her death so that she could have a fresh start somewhere else?  Or are we just getting caught up in the same line of wishful thinking that Flora and Gil are in?

Another thread that runs through Swimming Lessons that I loved was the idea that readers bring their own meaning and interpretations to a book.  One of Gil’s favorite pasttimes is to collect books and study the marginalia (i.e. what readers have written or doodled in the margins, what they’ve left behind, while they’re reading).  He believes that those little pieces of themselves that readers leave behind are what give insight into the character of the book and add meaning to the book itself.  It therefore makes it all the more meaningful that Ingrid has chosen to leave behind these little pieces of herself in so many of his books.  I loved the idea that she had left clues right under his nose for years and that if he were to find them all and follow the evidence, he might have a definitive answer as to what happened to her or at least a definitive why anyway.

I think my absolute favorite aspect of this novel was the author’s writing style.  Fuller’s writing is just so elegant and simple – the story felt very organic as it unfolded.  It wasn’t this huge melodramatic event, more just the quiet reveal of a troubled family.

 

DISLIKES

The only dislike I had in this book was Gil himself.  At first I was somewhat indifferent to him or maybe even felt a little bad for him that he was imagining seeing his dead wife. But then once I started reading Ingrid’s letter, I felt a strong dislike for pretty much everything about him.  As much as I disliked him though, I still very much appreciated the rich character portrait we were given of him so hats off to the author for doing such an incredible job portraying him, his warts and all.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS?

 

Swimming Lessons was a powerful read for me, not just because of the ‘Is she really dead or could she possibly be alive?’ mystery that runs through the novel, but also because it embraces those threads that are woven through it and leaves the reader to interpret what really happened to Ingrid.  We all bring our own meanings to the books we read, and as Gil says, no two of us read the exact same book.  Want to find out what really happened to Ingrid?  Read Swimming Lessons yourself and find your own meaning.

 

RATING:  5 STARS

 

 

five-stars

About Claire Fuller

Claire Fuller trained as a sculptor before working in marketing for many years. In 2013 she completed an MA in Creative Writing, and wrote her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. It was published in the UK by Penguin, in the US by Tin House, in Canada by House of Anansi and bought for translation in 15 other countries. Our Endless Numbered Days won the 2015 Desmond Elliott prize.

Claire’s second novel, Swimming Lessons was published in early 2017.

Book Review: The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney

Book Review:  The Girl Before by J. P. DelaneyThe Girl Before by J.P. Delaney
three-half-stars
Published by Ballantine Books on January 24th 2017
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life. The request seems odd, even intrusive—and for the two women who answer, the consequences are devastating.

Emma:  Reeling from a traumatic break-in, Emma wants a new place to live. But none of the apartments she sees are affordable or feel safe. Until One Folgate Street. The house is an architectural masterpiece: a minimalist design of pale stone, plate glass, and soaring ceilings. But there are rules. The enigmatic architect who designed the house retains full control: no books, no throw pillows, no photos or clutter or personal effects of any kind. The space is intended to transform its occupant—and it does.

Jane:  After a personal tragedy, Jane needs a fresh start. When she finds One Folgate Street she is instantly drawn to the space—and to its aloof but seductive creator. Moving in, Jane soon learns about the untimely death of the home’s previous tenant, a woman similar to Jane in age and appearance. As Jane tries to untangle truth from lies, she unwittingly follows the same patterns, makes the same choices, crosses paths with the same people, and experiences the same terror, as the girl before.

* * * * *

My Review: 

The Girl Before is the next big psychological thriller to come along that employs the same ingredients that have made other ‘Girl’ books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train so immensely popular in recent years.  Central to The Girl Before’s plot are the now familiar concepts of the potentially unreliable narrator that keeps you guessing throughout the novel, supplemented by a cast of characters who aren’t especially likable, and a storyline filled with twists and turns and red herrings as the reader is kept guessing as to whether a tragic event is truly an accident or if it is the result of something more sinister.

What I Liked:

The Dual Narrative Perspective:  Even though I have some quibbles about a few other elements of The Girl Before, I did love how the story itself was presented.  It alternates between two women, Emma and Jane, who, 3 years apart, live in the same unusual residence, One Folgate Street. The story alternates between their points of view as they live in this house.  Both Emma and Jane learn that prior to their moving in to One Folgate Place, someone else has tragically died there.  Emma and Jane, in turn, each become obsessed with trying to piece together the circumstances of the deaths because there are so many unanswered questions and so much gossip surrounding each death. In many ways, Emma and Jane’s investigations parallel each other, and I LOVED this, mainly because it just built so much suspense into the story and added so many twists and turns as they follow the various leads they have managed to uncover.  It also had me practically screaming at both women because they seemed so hell bent on putting themselves in harm’s way just to satisfy a curiosity. It was maddening and yet so entertaining to read.

The Danger of Obsession:  This is a theme that runs throughout The Girl Before and it’s a powerful one.  Both Emma and Jane become obsessed with trying to solve these mysterious deaths, in spite of the fact that they may be putting themselves in harm’s way.

You might be asking yourself by this point ‘Why are these women both so hung up on these deaths? Don’t they have anything else more pressing to worry about?’ Well, the basic answer is that during their respective stays at One Folgate House, both Emma and Jane become romantically involved with Edward Monkford.  That probably wouldn’t be an issue in and of itself; however, in both deaths, Edward’s name came up as a possible suspect so each lady wanted to know what role, if any, their lover played in the deaths and if they themselves are now in danger because of another added twist:  Jane and Emma resemble each other, and both of them bear a striking resemblance to Edward’s dead wife.  The man clearly has a type and clearly wants that type living in his perfect house.  Edward is basically the embodiment of the ‘dangers of obsession’ theme.

One Folgate Street:  One Folgate Street is basically Edward Monkford’s pet project and he is extremely selective about who he allows to live in the residence.  The application process is rigorous and asks many probing personal questions, and if an applicant makes it through the initial screening process, which apparently very few do, they then still have to submit to an interview with Monkford before there’s any chance of approval.  The house itself comes pre-furnished, although minimally so, and if approved, you are allowed to bring very few things of your own with you, and you also must adhere to the over 200 restrictive covenants that Monkford has in place to mandate and facilitate the minimalist lifestyle he expects his residents to adhere to.  Eviction will result from the breaking any of those covenants, which include no pets, no children, and no books, among others (No books?  Seriously, what kind of freak doesn’t want any books in their house?!)

I personally couldn’t imagine even wanting to go through the application process to live in this house, much less wanting to live the way this guy demands, but I did find the idea fascinating for storytelling purposes because it got me curious as to the type of person who would want to live there as well as the type of person Monkford is clearly looking for to take part in his little experiment.

The house itself is no ordinary house and in some ways it functions as a character in the story as well.  It is always referred to by its name, One Folgate Street.  It has also been programmed to employ the use of smart technology in the form of a bracelet and some other diagnostics to recognize its inhabitants and basically perform for them accordingly.  If the resident steps into the shower, the water will turn on automatically at the preferred temperature, for example, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The house often seems as though it has a mind of its own, which both Emma and Jane occasionally comment on.  Periodically throughout the residents’ stay there, the house will basically shut itself down until the resident takes an assessment test and answers more probing questions similar to those in the initial application. Once the test is completed, the resident may continue with life as usual.  Emma and Jane each at random times even mention that sometimes they feel like the house is punishing them, especially if they’ve been in a disagreement with Edward.  All of that technology in the house adds a creepy Big Brother element to the story.  Are they being watched? If so, by whom and why?

Anything I Didn’t Like?

The main thing that somewhat disappointed me about The Girl Before was that I didn’t particularly like any of the characters.  As those who follow my reviews know by this point, I really like to be able to connect with the characters I’m reading about and that just didn’t happen for me with Emma or Jane.  I just felt like I was only meant to passively observe them in this odd, minimalist habitat rather than truly connect with them in any meaningful way.  Maybe that was the author’s intent because of the nature of the story, but that aspect of it didn’t quite work for me.

Speaking of the characters, I also didn’t like the potentially unreliable narrator angle.  Not because it wasn’t well done, but just because I’ve seen it in so many books lately.  When it started making an appearance here, I actually groaned and said ‘No, not you too. You were doing so well without that.’ I think I’ve just read too many books in this genre in recent years and so what might be a fresh idea for some readers has become a stale one for me.

Who Would I Recommend This Book to?

I’d say if you’re a big fan of books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train or are completely new to the psychological thriller genre, you’ll probably love this.  I’ve heard that it’s already slated to be made into a movie with Ron Howard directing, so I’ll be curious to see how the movie compares to the book.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion.

Rating:  3.5 stars

three-half-stars

About J.P. Delaney

The Girl Before is the first psychological thriller from JP Delaney, a pseudonym for a writer who has previously written bestselling fiction under other names. It is being published in thirty-five countries. A film version is being brought to the screen by Academy Award–winning director Ron Howard.

ARC Review: Everything You Want Me To Be by Mindy Mejia

ARC Review: Everything You Want Me To Be by Mindy MejiaEverything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia
four-stars
Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on January 3rd 2017
Genres: Mystery, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:   Full of twists and turns, Everything You Want Me to Be reconstructs a year in the life of a dangerously mesmerizing young woman, during which a small town’s darkest secrets come to the forefront…and she inches closer and closer to her death.

High school senior Hattie Hoffman has spent her whole life playing many parts: the good student, the good daughter, the good citizen. When she’s found brutally stabbed to death on the opening night of her high school play, the tragedy rips through the fabric of her small town community. Local sheriff Del Goodman, a family friend of the Hoffmans, vows to find her killer, but trying to solve her murder yields more questions than answers. It seems that Hattie’s acting talents ran far beyond the stage. Told from three points of view—Del, Hattie, and the new English teacher whose marriage is crumbling—Everything You Want Me to Be weaves the story of Hattie’s last school year and the events that drew her ever closer to her death.

Evocative and razor-sharp, Everything You Want Me to Be challenges you to test the lines between innocence and culpability, identity and deception. Does love lead to self-discovery—or destruction?

My Review:

I love a good murder mystery and Everything You Want Me To Be really fits the bill.  Although it started out like a fairly straightforward CSI/Rizzoli and Isle’s style murder investigation story, it ultimately ended up being a lot more complex and fascinating than I was anticipating.  Everything You Want Me to Be is a fast-paced psychological thriller that took me on a wild and unexpected ride.  The main character is high school senior Hattie Hoffman who is found brutally murdered in the opening pages of the novel.   Hattie lives in a small, close knit town where not much of anything ever happens so her murder completely rocks the community.  The pressure is on local law enforcement to find out what happened to Hattie and to bring the murderer to justice, which is the focus of the bulk of the novel.

Highlights of Everything You Want Me to Be:

Hattie Hoffman:  Hattie is a complex and well-drawn character.  I never could decide if I actually liked her or not, but regardless, I found her to be a truly fascinating young woman.   Even though the novel begins with her death, we go back about a year before that to follow the events that lead up to her murder.  In taking that journey, the reader learns that Hattie is basically an actress in every sense of the word.  She of course acts on the stage in plays, but the more we learn about her, the more it becomes apparent that she has no real sense of who she is and sees herself as acting out various roles all her life trying to make other people happy – the good daughter, the model student, the doting girlfriend – even if it’s at the expense of her own happiness. I can’t say much more without spoiling the plot, but it is unfortunately when she finally decides it’s time to figure out who she really is that Hattie sets into motion the chain of events that lead to her death.

Plot Twists:  I love a mystery that is filled with plot twists, especially when the plot twists make sense and don’t seem contrived.  In Everything You Want Me To Be, the author has woven together so many twists and turns that I was kept guessing the entire novel as to who the murderer was and what exactly had transpired the fateful night of Hattie’s death.  I loved that I not only guessed wrong once or twice – I actually guessed wrong three times and each time was sure I had the right person.  Every time I thought I had it all figured out, a new and equally plausible suspect would turn up.

Three Narrative Points of View:  The story of Hattie’s murder unfolds from three different viewpoints through the eyes of Hattie, through the eyes of Del Goodman, the town sheriff and also a friend of Hattie’s family, and finally through the eyes of Peter Lund, Hattie’s English teacher and also one of the prime suspects in her murder. I know sometimes having so many different points of view can be confusing, but in this case, I thought seeing the story play out through these three sets of eyes really added a lot of layers to the tale.

MacBeth:

Hattie and her classmates are working on a production of William Shakespeare’s MacBeth at the time of her murder.  When she turns up dead, one of her classmates claims that her death is a result of the so-called “MacBeth Curse,” where historically, people have often met with misfortune during productions of the play.   While I didn’t believe for one moment that Hattie had lost her life because of a supposed curse, I did love the added mystique that the “MacBeth Curse” cast over the events especially once the news media got wind that the curse had been mentioned during the police investigation.

Themes:  Speaking of MacBeth, it served a dual purpose in this novel. Not only is it the play Hattie was starring in when she was killed, but more importantly, it also shares major thematic elements with Everything You Want Me To Be, particularly regarding the dangers of acting on one’s desires without regard for the potential consequences. I won’t go so far as to call this a retelling of MacBeth, but there are definite similarities in that sense. Hattie going after what she wants no matter the fallout is very reminiscent of Lady MacBeth.

Anything I Didn’t Care For:

The only real complaint I had throughout the novel was that sometimes it felt like the whole “Hattie is playing a part” angle of the story was laid on a little thick.  I guess it was because we’re reading the three different viewpoints coming to the same conclusion, but at a certain point, I just kept thinking “Okay, that’s enough. I get it.”  That’s probably just me though. I tend to prefer story threads like that to be a little more subtle so that I can connect the dots myself and so reading it several different times was a little heavy-handed for me.  That said, it didn’t remotely take away from my overall enjoyment of the story.

Who Would I Recommend This Novel To?

Everything You Want Me To Be is a well-crafted “whodunnit.”  If you like a suspenseful read that will keep you guessing from start to finish, I would definitely say to give this one a shot!  I probably would not recommend it to younger audiences since the discovery of the body and the murder itself are pretty graphic, but other than that, I think most audiences would enjoy it.

 

Rating:  4 stars

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an e-galley of this book in exchange for my honest opinion. This in no way affects my review.

four-stars

About Mindy Mejia

mindy mejia

Mindy received a BA from the University of Minnesota and an MFA from Hamline University. Apart from brief stops in Iowa City and Galway, she’s lived in the Twin Cities her entire life and held a succession of jobs from an apple orchard laborer to a global credit manager.

She’s currently working on a project set in Duluth and the Boundary Waters that may or may not be a trilogy.

Mindy is available for readings, workshops, and book group discussions. Contact her at mindy(at)mindymejia.com.

Book Review – A Time of Torment by John Connolly

Book Review – A Time of Torment by John ConnollyA Time of Torment (Charlie Parker #14) by John Connolly
four-stars
Series: Charlie Parker #14
Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on August 2nd 2016
Genres: Mystery, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 480
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Dangerous and driven private investigator Charlie Parker returns in the latest gripping thriller of internationally bestselling author John Connolly’s series, in which ungodly fears haunt a strange and isolated community.

Jerome Burnel was once a hero. He intervened to prevent multiple killings, and in doing so destroyed himself. His life was torn apart. He was imprisoned, brutalized.

But in his final days, with the hunters circling, he tells his story to private detective Charlie Parker. He speaks of the girl who was marked for death, but was saved; of the ones who tormented him, and an entity that hides in a ruined stockade.

Parker is not like other men. He died, and was reborn. He is ready to wage war.

Now he will descend upon a strange, isolated community called the Cut, and face down a force of men who rule by terror, intimidation, and murder.

All in the name of the being they serve. All in the name of the Dead King.

My Review:

I have to confess that prior to receiving a pre-approval from NetGalley inviting me to review A Time of Torment, I had never heard of John Connolly nor had I read a single book from his Charlie Parker series. I was therefore a little hesitant to accept the invitation to review since this is actually the 14th book in the series and I typically like to read a series in order. I’m still in the honeymoon phase with Netgalley where rejections are more common than approvals, however, so I figured I would go ahead and give it the old college try and at least see if this was a series that might be of interest to me.

I’m so glad I accepted the invitation too because A Time of Torment turned out to be an incredible read for me. I literally could NOT put it down! At one point, I even had my iPad propped up on the counter as I cooked and did chores so that I could keep reading as I worked. The story is just that riveting!

I don’t want to give away too many plot details since this is a detective story, so I’m just going to focus on a few elements of the story that I really enjoyed:

Charlie Parker and his sidekicks/bodyguards, Angel and Louis. Charlie’s grit and determination really impressed me, especially since he is just fighting his way back from a near-death experience. This happened in a prior novel, but we are given enough information to know that it has affected him tremendously, both personally and professionally. I also liked how devoted Angel and Louis were to him. No matter how tough the stakes got, they always had his back. The three of them made for one hell of a team, a force to be reckoned with, and so it was easy to connect with them and want them to succeed. I also liked that, even though it was overall a pretty creepy read, their interactions were still infused with enough witty banter to lighten the mood at times. I just really liked these guys and look forward to reading some of the older books to watch their relationships develop.

Charlie’s Case – The case that Charlie was hired to investigate was truly fascinating in terms of its complexity and that it all comes about because one man, Jerome Burnel, finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jerome plays the part of a hero by stopping two men from committing armed robbery, but in doing so, he ends up killing the two men while trying to protect himself and the store owners. Well, apparently, these were the wrong two guys to kill because their deaths set off a chain of revenge against Jerome that is nearly impossible to even fathom. He ends up framed for a crime he didn’t commit and spends five years in prison where he is tortured almost daily by his fellow prisoners. Jerome is convinced that this trail of horror that has dogged him since he shot those two men, and that as soon as he is released from prison, someone will end his life. When he is finally released, he immediately goes to Charlie Parker. He tells Charlie his story and about his belief that something bad is going to happen to him, and he wants to hire Charlie to investigate if something does in fact happen to him. Jerome’s prediction comes true and so Charlie Parker and his associates are on the case, which takes them down the East Coast from Maine to West Virginia, to a cult-like group called The Cut. Charlie immediately suspects that The Cut may be involved, but they are a dangerous group to deal with and the local law enforcement tends to steer clear of them as much as possible and so doesn’t take kindly to Charlie coming in to kick the hornet’s nest, so to speak. It’s fascinating to see how much power this group wields in the town and I loved the tension and suspense that Connolly creates by having Charlie just roll into town, ready to take on The Cut — and anyone else who gets in his way — to get what he needs, no matter what.

The Cut – Wow, what a deranged group of people! The things they do to outsiders who cross them, not to mention what they’re willing to do to each other, will truly have your jaw hanging open. These are vicious characters you’ll truly love to hate and will want Charlie to bring down, whether or not they even have anything to do with Jerome’s disappearance.

John Connolly’s Writing Style – I really enjoyed the way Connolly wove together this mystery. The narrator is third person omniscient so we get to follow along seeing what Charlie sees as he is investigating, but then we also get chapters that focus on other seemingly random characters – characters Charlie hasn’t encountered yet – and we get just enough information about them to wonder how they will fit into the investigation. Then we return to Charlie’s investigation and follow him until he does encounter them and their role is revealed. I thought doing it that way added a unique twist to the storytelling.

I also liked that Connolly included enough history from the prior novels so that this 14th novel is readable as a standalone novel, but not so much background that if you’ve read the 13 previous novels, you aren’t skipping entire passages because they feel like a rehash, which is a problem that I often have with long-running series.

The Supernatural/Paranormal Element – This was another fascinating and unique twist that made A Time of Torment so much more than a typical detective story for me. Again, I don’t want to give away too many details, but let me just say that Charlie’s search for the ‘Dead King’ in particular will keep you on the edge of your seats.

While the Supernatural element was a very entertaining aspect of the story for me, I definitely want to go back and read earlier novels because I felt like I was probably missing some background that would have made this element make even more sense to me, especially as it related to Charlie’s daughter, Sam. Even with my confusion though, the supernatural elements added even more suspense to a story that was already compulsively readable.

If I had it to do all over again, I’d probably start at the first book and read the entire series in order, but if you’re looking for a riveting read that you won’t be able to put down, then definitely give John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series a try. If the 14th book is still this good, I can only imagine how great the prior books must be.

Huge thanks to Mr. Connolly, Atria Books, and Netgalley for allowing me to preview this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: a strong 4 stars!

four-stars

About John Connolly

John Connolly was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1968 and has, at various points in his life, worked as a journalist, a barman, a local government official, a waiter and a dogsbody at Harrods department store in London. He studied English in Trinity College, Dublin and journalism at Dublin City University, subsequently spending five years working as a freelance journalist for The Irish Times newspaper, to which he continues to contribute.

His first novel, Every Dead Thing, was published in 1999, and introduced the character of Charlie Parker, a former policeman hunting the killer of his wife and daughter. Dark Hollow followed in 2000. The third Parker novel, The Killing Kind, was published in 2001, with The White Road following in 2002. In 2003, John published his fifth novel—and first stand-alone book—Bad Men. In 2004, Nocturnes, a collection of novellas and short stories, was added to the list, and 2005 marked the publication of the fifth Charlie Parker novel, The Black Angel. John’s seventh novel, The Book of Lost Things, a story about fairy stories and the power that books have to shape our world and our imaginations, was published in September 2006, followed by the next Parker novel, The Unquiet, in 2007, The Reapers, in 2008 The Lovers, in 2009, and The Whisperers, the ninth Charlie Parker novel, in 2010. The tenth Charlie Parker novel, The Burning Soul, was published in 2011, to be followed in 2012 by The Wrath of Angels. The Wolf in Winter, the twelfth Parker novel, was published in April 2014 in the UK and in October 2014 in the US. 2015 saw the publication of A Song of Shadows, the 13th Parker novel, and Night Music: Nocturnes Volume 2, the second collection of short stories. The 14th Parker novel, A Time of Torment, will be published in April 2016 in the UK and in July 2016 in the US.

In 2009, John published The Gates, his first novel for young adults. A sequel was published in 2011 as Hell’s Bells in the UK and The Infernals in the United States; the third in the Samuel Johnson trilogy, The Creeps, was published in 2013 in the UK and in 2014 in the US. DreamWorks Studios acquired the Samuel Johnson trilogy in 2015 for development as a possible franchise.

Books to Die For, a nonfiction anthology co-edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke, won the 2013 Agatha, Anthony and Macavity Awards for Best Critical/Biographical Book of the year.

With his partner, Jennifer Ridyard, John published Conquest, the first book in the Chronicles of the Invaders series for teenaged readers, in 2013. The second book in that series, Empire, followed in 2015, and the third, Dominion, will be out in February 2016 in the UK and in May 2016 in the US.

John Connolly is based in Dublin but divides his time between his native city and the United States, where the Charlie Parker mysteries are set.