Review: BELIEVE ME by J.P. Delaney

Review:  BELIEVE ME by J.P. DelaneyBelieve Me by J.P. Delaney, Tony Strong
Also by this author: The Girl Before
three-half-stars
Published by Ballantine Books on July 24, 2018
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:

J.P. Delaney is back with another riveting psychological thriller that is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat.  Believe Me follows Claire Wright, a young British woman living in America who aspires to be an actor.  When we meet Claire, she is struggling financially.  She doesn’t have a green card which makes it difficult to find legitimate employment.  She ends up working on the sly for a team of divorce lawyers, where she uses her acting talents to entrap cheating husbands and obtain video evidence for their wives.

Everything changes in Claire’s life, however, when one of the wives she is trying to obtain evidence of cheating for turns up dead.  Believing that the woman’s husband is the murderer and that his wife might not be his only target, law enforcement officers approach Claire about using her talents to try to lure the husband into a confession.  With the promise of a green card and a lot of cash dangled in front of her, Claire agrees.

Claire is a brilliant actor, but will she be able to help law enforcement catch the killer or will she end up in over her head?  All I can say is buckle up and prepare for a wild ride!

Believe Me is one of those novels that I feel like I can’t say much about because I don’t want to give anything away, so I’m just going to mention a couple of quick highlights that I really enjoyed.

It probably seems weird to start off talking about the structure of a novel, but I have to admit this was my favorite part about Believe Me.  The main character Claire, who as I’ve mentioned is an aspiring actor, often goes through life imaging incidents in her life as if they are scenes from a script.  Since we are watching the events of the story unfold from Claire’s perspective, Delaney actually weaves together a tale that is mostly straight narrative, but which occasionally has little bits of script incorporated in as well to mimic how Claire imagines certain scenes playing out, complete with stage directions and dialogue she has scripted out in her head.  At first, I worried that the script bits might seem a little gimmicky, but in the end, they really worked well for me.

Aside from the unique structure, I also enjoyed that the plot was filled with suspenseful twists and turns that kept me guessing from start to finish.  The twists were such that it oftentimes made it hard to distinguish between what was real and what was fake in terms of Claire’s role in the murder investigation as well as what exactly was going on with the husband.  I tried to predict what direction the story was taking a few times along the way but was so wrong each time that I finally decided to just settle in and enjoy the wild ride Delaney was taking me on.  The fact that his writing flows so smoothly makes it easy to do that and just trust that the ride is going to be worth it in the end.

The main issue I had with Believe Me was that I just never really felt a connection to Claire.  Because she played so many different roles throughout the course of the novel, I never felt like I knew who the real Claire was.  Whenever she said something about herself, I took it with a grain of salt because I was never convinced she was being honest.  While that kind of personality was helpful in terms of maintaining the novel’s premise of not knowing what was real and what was fake, it left me feeling very detached from Claire.  Even when she was potentially in danger, I found that I didn’t really care.  I wanted to know what was going to happen, of course, but it wasn’t a case where I was worried for her well being at all.  If I had been able to better connect with Claire, this would have easily been a 4 star read for me.

There’s so much more I would love to say about Believe Me, but because I don’t want to spoil the mystery, I’m just going to say that I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys riveting psychological thrillers and to fans of Delaney’s last book, The Girl Before.  If you enjoyed that one, I think you would also enjoy Believe Me.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

In this twisty psychological thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Before, an actress plays both sides of a murder investigation.

A struggling actor, a Brit in America without a green card, Claire needs work and money to survive. Then she gets both. But nothing like she expected.

Claire agrees to become a decoy for a firm of divorce lawyers. Hired to entrap straying husbands, she must catch them on tape with their seductive propositions. The rules? Never hit on the mark directly. Make it clear you’re available, but he has to proposition you, not the other way around. The firm is after evidence, not coercion. The innocent have nothing to hide.

Then the game changes.

When the wife of one of Claire’s targets is violently murdered, the cops are sure the husband is to blame. Desperate to catch him before he kills again, they enlist Claire to lure him into a confession.

Claire can do this. She’s brilliant at assuming a voice and an identity. For a woman who’s mastered the art of manipulation, how difficult could it be to tempt a killer into a trap? But who is the decoy…and who is the prey?

 

three-half-stars

About J.P. Delaney

J. P. Delaney is the pseudonym of a writer who has previously published best-selling fiction under another name. .

Review: ALL WE EVER WANTED by Emily Giffin

Review:  ALL WE EVER WANTED by Emily GiffinAll We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin
four-stars
Published by Ballantine Books on June 26, 2018
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 400
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:

Emily Giffin’s new novel All We Ever Wanted is an emotionally charged drama that deals with the wide ranging fallout from a party gone wrong.  The story follows Lyla Volpe, a young woman, who through hard work and good grades, has earned herself a spot at the prestigious Windsor Academy.  Because her family is not wealthy like most of the other families who have kids there, Lyla often feels she doesn’t quite fit in  Overall, she’s happy but does wish that she fit in better socially with her classmates. When the opportunity to attend a big party where the boy she has a crush on is sure to be, Lyla is immediately on board.  Things go south at the party though, when after having too much to drink, Lyla passes out on someone’s bed and a sexually explicit photo is taken of her, and along with a completely racist caption, is passed around on social media.

Finch Browning, who is actually the boy Lyla had a crush on, is the one who is accused of taking the photo, putting the racist caption on it, and sharing it with his friends.  When Finch’s parents find out, they are understandably upset, although for very different reasons.  Finch’s dad is worried that Finch’s acceptance to Princeton will be revoked if this incident goes on his school record, while Finch’s mother is appalled because what does it say about her as a parent if Finch really did do this and has so little respect for women.  Add Lyla’s father, Tom, into the mix, who would probably really just like to murder Finch for messing with his little girl, or at minimum, get him kicked out of school, and you have a recipe for contentious encounters and a highly emotional and dramatic read.

What I enjoyed most about All We Ever Wanted is how realistic and relatable the overall plot of the story is.  In this day and age of social media obsession, what happens to Lyla is pretty much every parent’s nightmare, whether you’re the parent of the girl in the photo or the parent of the boy who is accused of taking the photo and sharing it with all of his buddies.  I could easily see what happened with these students happening at pretty much any party in any community.

Not only was the situation itself realistically portrayed and relatable, but the characters were drawn equally realistically as well, especially Tom and Nina.  As a parent myself, I thought that every parent involved reacted as I expected they would.  Lyla’s father wants to protect his daughter at all costs and make those responsible for humiliating her pay, while Finch’s mother, although she of course loves her son and wants to protect him, knows that he also needs to face the consequences for his actions.  The reactions were dramatic and often messy, but they manage to be that way without falling into the melodramatic, soap opera category, mainly because it was just so easy to understand where each of them were coming from with their reactions. I felt the same about Lyla, who is torn between wanting to make someone pay and wanting to just forget that it even happened and move on with her life.

I also found All We Ever Wanted to be a powerful read in the sense that in addition to exploring all of the fallout from the actual incident at the party, it also exposes and explores a lot of other important and sometimes ugly issues: racism and prejudice, slut shaming and victim blaming, white privilege, and elitism. It even exposes those ugly people that we all know who thrive on other people’s problems because those problems make for good gossip.

Although I think the story would have been engaging no matter how it was presented to the reader, I really liked that Giffin has the story unfold from the perspective of three narrators: Lyla; her father, Tom; and Finch’s mom, Nina.  I felt like this approach added so many layers to the story that we might otherwise not have gotten if the story had come from – say, Finch—instead.  This way, we don’t hear from Finch so whether or not he actually did take the photo remains a mystery for much of the book. Instead, however, we are presented with some backstory of each of the other main characters, which further fleshes out their motivations for why they act the way they do upon learning about the photo incident.  The incident dredges up a lot of painful experiences from the past and causes both Nina and Tom to really start to question themselves, past choices they’ve made, and whether the lives they are currently living are even what they want anymore.  So, in this sense, the story is so much more than just the incident at the party and whether or not someone is going to be punished for it.

My only dislike, and I’m pretty sure we’re meant to dislike him, is Finch’s father.  He was arrogant, obnoxious, and although I did appreciate that he didn’t want to see his son’s future destroyed by a single lapse in judgment, I still found it appalling that he thought he could just throw money at a problem and make it go away.  He had no interest whatsoever in imposing any kind of real punishment on his son to teach him a lesson and he had equally no concern for Lyla who was the real victim in the whole incident.  He was just a horrible person and I felt my blood pressure rise every time he appeared in the book.

This was my first time reading one of Emily Giffin’s novels and I have to say it was just overall a very enjoyable read.  Giffin’s effortless writing style, along with such relatable characters and scenarios, made me breeze right through the story eager to find out how all of the characters would fare in the end.  I look forward to going back and trying some of Giffin’s earlier novels now that I’ve gotten my first taste of them.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

In the riveting new novel from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of First Comes Love and Something Borrowed, three very different people must choose between their family and their values.

Nina Browning is living the good life after marrying into Nashville’s elite. More recently, her husband made a fortune selling his tech business, and their adored son has been accepted to Princeton. Yet sometimes the middle-class small-town girl in Nina wonders if she’s strayed from the person she once was.

Tom Volpe is a single dad working multiple jobs while struggling to raise his headstrong daughter, Lyla. His road has been lonely, long, and hard, but he finally starts to relax after Lyla earns a scholarship to Windsor Academy, Nashville’s most prestigious private school.

Amid so much wealth and privilege, Lyla doesn’t always fit in—and her overprotective father doesn’t help—but in most ways, she’s a typical teenage girl, happy and thriving.

Then, one photograph, snapped in a drunken moment at a party, changes everything. As the image spreads like wildfire, the Windsor community is instantly polarized, buzzing with controversy and assigning blame.

At the heart of the lies and scandal, Tom, Nina, and Lyla are forced together—all questioning their closest relationships, asking themselves who they really are, and searching for the courage to live a life of true meaning.

four-stars

About Emily Giffin

Emily Giffin, a Chicago native, graduated summa cum laude from Wake Forest University and the University of Virginia School of Law. After law school, she moved to Manhattan and practiced litigation at a large firm for several years while she paid back her school loans, wrote a novel in her very limited spare time, and dreamed of becoming a writer.

Despite the rejection of her first manuscript, Giffin persisted, retiring from the legal profession and moving to London to pursue her dreams full time. It was there that she began writing Something Borrowed (2004), a story of a young woman who, upon turning thirty, finally learned to take a risk and follow her heart. One year later, Giffin’s own gamble paid off, as she completed her manuscript, landed an agent and signed a two-book deal on both sides of the Atlantic. The following summer, Something Borrowed, hailed as a “heartbreakingly honest debut” with “dead-on dialogue, real-life complexity and genuine warmth,” became a surprise sensation, and Giffin vowed never to practice law again.

Dubbed a “modern day Jane Austen” (Vanity Fair) and a “dependably down-to-earth storyteller” (New York Times), Giffin has since penned six more New York Times bestsellers, Something Blue (2005), Baby Proof (2006), Love the One You’re With (2008), Heart of the Matter (2010), Where We Belong (2012), The One & Only (2014) and First Comes Love (2016). Her eight novels, all filled with endearingly flawed characters and emotional complexity, have resonated deeply with both critics and readers around the world, achieving bestseller status in a number of countries, including the United States (#1), Canada (#1), United Kingdom, France, Brazil and Poland (#1). The books have been translated into thirty-one languages, with over eleven million copies sold worldwide. In addition, five of her novels have been optioned for the big screen and are in various stages of development. The first, Something Borrowed, hit theaters in May 2011, starring Kate Hudson, Ginnifer Goodwin and John Krasinski.

Giffin now resides with her husband and three young children in Atlanta. Her ninth novel, All We Ever Wanted, will be released on June 26, 2018.

Review: TWENTY-ONE DAYS by Anne Perry (A Daniel Pitt Novel)

Review:  TWENTY-ONE DAYS by Anne Perry (A Daniel Pitt Novel)Twenty-One Days (Daniel Pitt, #1) by Anne Perry
four-stars
Series: Daniel Pitt #1
Published by Ballantine Books on April 10, 2018
Genres: Fiction, 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.

MY REVIEW:

Anne Perry’s Twenty-One Days is the first book in a new series that follows Daniel Pitt, junior barrister and son of Detective Thomas Pitt (from Perry’s popular Thomas Pitt series).  When the novel opens, Daniel has minimal experience in the courtroom and yet somehow finds himself assigned to defend a famous client, biographer Russell Graves, who is charged with having murdered his wife.  When the trial doesn’t go well and Graves ends up sentenced to death even though he insists that he is innocent, Daniel is given twenty-one days to find out what really happened and file an appeal.  If he can’t find something in those twenty-one days, Graves will be executed.

It’s a race against the clock that takes Daniel in a direction he never expected to go in, one that could ruin the reputation of London’s Special Police Branch, where Daniel’s beloved father works as a detective.

Will Daniel find the truth?  Will the truth free or condemn his client?  How does the Special Police Branch fit into the picture?

 

First, let me start by saying that even though the Daniel Pitt series is a spin-off series from Anne Perry’s popular Thomas Pitt series (Daniel is Thomas’ son and is still a child in the earlier series), it can still easily be enjoyed as a standalone.  I didn’t feel like I was missing anything relevant by not having read the earlier series. That said, however, I enjoyed this book so much and was intrigued enough by every mention of Thomas Pitt that, at some point, I may go back and read the Thomas Pitt series.

Daniel Pitt was absolutely my favorite part of Twenty-One Days.  I found him to be witty and charming, which made him a fun character to follow, but at the same time, I also loved how naïve and unsure of himself he could be at times because he’s brand new to his chosen profession and has been thrown into this huge case by chance.  I’m always a sucker for a likeable underdog and that description fits Daniel to a T.  Daniel had many qualities that I found endearing, such as his fierce loyalty to his father.  But even as devoted as he is to his father, Daniel is still determined to find out the truth to see if it could help his client, even if the truth could possibly turn out to be something Daniel ultimately doesn’t want to hear because it could negative impact the Special Police Branch and by extension, his father.  I really admired that he was willing to make such tough choices.

In addition to Daniel, I also really liked the secondary characters, so much so that I hope they will all continue to play active roles in future books.  There’s Kitteridge, the senior barrister that Daniel gets partnered with on his big case.  At first these two are like oil and water because Kitteridge feels put out that he has to work alongside this newbie on such a major case, but they eventually come together as a pretty dynamic duo when it comes to working all aspects of the case in and out of the courtroom.

Then there’s Miriam, who adds a touch of Feminism to the story.  She has gone to medical school and studied to become what we would probably now consider to be a Medical Examiner, but because she’s a woman, she was never awarded an actual degree.  She’s clearly a little bitter about this but is excited when she is called upon to help Daniel with his case.  Miriam is smart, tough, funny, and I think she and Daniel may have a bit of a mutual attraction going on.  It’s subtle but adorable, and I would totally ship it if they do in fact become a couple.

In addition to this fun cast of characters, the setting of Twenty-One Days also very much appealed to me.  It’s set in London in the 1910’s, and the author does a wonderful job of capturing the time period and the location.  Although this book is set a bit later than Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, I still got a bit of Sherlock Holmes vibe as I was reading it.  I love the Sherlock Holmes series, so this was definitely a plus for me.

I’m kind of a CSI junkie so one of my favorite elements of this book was the forensic science that comes into play.  With the story being set in the 1910’s, we’re still in the very early days of fingerprints, etc. so sometimes it could be risky to try to introduce a science that was still so little understood.  I loved the tension that the use of forensics actually added to the story because Daniel and his scientist friend Miriam have to find just the right balance – they need to explain how fingerprints work in such a way that there is no misunderstanding how the science works but without coming across as condescending to the jury.  The last thing Daniel needs to do is alienate the group of people who hold his client’s fate in their hands.

And speaking of Daniel’s client and his case, the mystery in this first book was really solid too.  It had lots of twists and turns that I didn’t see coming and kept me on the edge of my seat for much of the book.

 

The only real issue I had was that occasionally, especially in the early pages, the pacing was a little slow.  I’m chalking it up to all of the setting the stage that is in involved in starting a new series and introducing all of the major characters, etc.  Once I settled into the story though, it moved along at a nice, steady pace.

 

Twenty-One Days is a solid first book in Perry’s new series.  I think fans of the earlier Thomas Pitt series will enjoy seeing young Daniel all grown up, but I also think that those who have never read about the Pitt family before will enjoy this new series just as well.  The characters are well drawn and it’s a lot of fun watching them come together as a team.  I look forward to continuing the series and watching them work their way through more twists and turns to uncover the truth on future cases.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

In this first book in a new series, Thomas Pitt’s son Daniel races to save his client from execution, setting him against London’s Special Police Branch.

It’s 1910, and Daniel Pitt is a reluctant lawyer who would prefer to follow in the footsteps of his detective father. When the biographer Russell Graves, who Daniel is helping defend, is sentenced to execution for the murder of his wife, Daniel’s Pitt-family investigative instincts kick in, and he sets out to find the real killer. With only twenty-one days before Graves is to be executed, Daniel learns that Graves is writing a biography of Victor Narraway, the former head of Special Branch and a close friend of the Pitts. And the stories don’t shed a positive light. Is it possible someone is framing Graves to keep him from writing the biography–maybe even someone Daniel knows in Special Branch?

The only answer, it seems, lies in the dead woman’s corpse. And so, with the help of some eccentric new acquaintances who don’t mind bending the rules, Daniel delves into an underground world of dead bodies and double lives, unearthing scores of lies and conspiracies. As he struggles to balance his duty to the law with his duty to his family, the equal forces of justice and loyalty pull this lawyer-turned-detective in more directions than he imagined possible. And amidst it all, his client’s twenty-one days are ticking away.

four-stars

About Anne Perry

Anne Perry (born Juliet Hulme) is a British historical novelist.

Juliet took the name “Anne Perry,” the latter being her stepfather’s surname. Her first novel, The Cater Street Hangman, was published under this name in 1979. Her works generally fall into one of several categories of genre fiction, including historical murder mysteries and detective fiction. Many of them feature a number of recurring characters, most importantly Thomas Pitt, who appeared in her first novel, and amnesiac private investigator William Monk, who first appeared in her 1990 novel The Face of a Stranger. As of 2003 she had published 47 novels, and several collections of short stories. Her story “Heroes,” which first appeared the 1999 anthology Murder and Obsession, edited by Otto Penzler, won the 2001 Edgar Award for Best Short Story.

Recently she was included as an entry in Ben Peek’s Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, a novel exploring the nature of truth in literature.

Series contributed to:
. Crime Through Time
. Perfectly Criminal
. Malice Domestic
. The World’s Finest Mystery and Crime Stories
. Transgressions
. The Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories

Book Review: NEED TO KNOW by Karen Cleveland

Book Review:  NEED TO KNOW by Karen ClevelandNeed to Know by Karen Cleveland
four-half-stars
Published by Ballantine Books on January 23rd 2018
Genres: Thriller
Pages: 304
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:

If you’re looking for a gripping thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat, look no further than Karen Cleveland’s debut novel Need to Know.  Not only it is an incredibly timely story with its focus on Russian operatives and sleeper cells in the U.S., but it’s also a well crafted one that takes us through one mother’s journey to see how far she will go to protect her family when she feels they are being threatened.  And as if that isn’t enticing enough, I’ve read that Need to Know is also being made into a movie with Charlize Theron in the starring role so there’s that as well!

Need to Know follows the journey of Vivian Miller, a counter-intelligence analyst at the CIA. Incredibly skilled at what she does, Vivian has risen through the ranks and has landed a coveted job in the department that investigates all things Russia.  When the novel opens, Vivian and her department have been looking for Russian sleeper cells in the U.S. and Vivian has developed an algorithm that can identify Russian operatives who handle the sleeper cells.

One morning, while remote accessing the computer of a suspected operative, Vivian locates a secret dossier containing information about deep-cover Russian agents who are currently living in the United States.  What she finds makes her realize that, if true, most of her life has been a lie, and it threatens not only her job but also her husband and even her children.  Vivian has taken a vow to defend the U.S. against all enemies, whether foreign or domestic, but now she finds herself in an impossible situation, one that could get her imprisoned and even charged with treason!

What will Vivian do? How far is she willing to go to protect her family? Is there anyone she can trust to help her or is she on her own?

 

This is another one of those stories where I feel like I’m going to be vague in what I say so as not to give away any spoilers.  Because giving away any spoilers at all would ruin it, please bear with the vagueness.

In a book like this, I need a likeable main character that I can relate to and I liked Vivian right away.  She’s smart, savvy, good at what she does, and she’s a great wife and a devoted mother to her four children as well.  I found her job at the CIA fascinating and so I enjoyed following her as she accessed the operative’s computer and sifted through his files looking for useful information.  That said, I think where I found her the most relatable was her reaction once she uncovers this threatening information and realizes her family could be in danger.  As a mom, I completely related to her need to do whatever it took to make sure her children were safe.  Even though I didn’t necessarily agree with what she did every step of the way, I understood that the information she found put her in a no-win situation. She was damned if she did, damned if she didn’t so the only course of action that made sense was to at least protect her children at all costs.

Need to Know is presented to the reader from Vivian’s point of view, which was probably my favorite part about the novel.  Seeing the story unfold through her eyes and having a bird’s eye view of what’s going on in her head as each new detail unfolded and the threat to her family grew just made the story all the more engaging for me.  Her thoughts and fears and her frantically trying to find a way to make everything in her life okay again are what really kept me turning the pages. Her desperation is palpable as is her growing paranoia as she doesn’t know who, if anyone in her life, she can trust.  I found myself right there alongside her, questioning everything and everyone and wondering if she would ever be able to find a way out of the mess she was in.

I also think having the story told from Vivian’s point of view added to the suspense and the tension in the novel.  As I mentioned, that’s what kept me turning the pages and unable to put the book down once I got started.  The suspense builds throughout and keeps the pacing of the story quick.  I was easily able to read the book in less than two days and even found myself getting ready for work with my Kindle on the bathroom counter trying to squeeze in a few more pages whenever I could.  That’s impressive for any book in my opinion but is truly impressive for an author’s debut novel, which this is.

A final area that really impressed me with Need to Know was how well researched the CIA portion of the novel seemed to be.  It felt like I really was watching the inner operations of a counter-intelligence department, and I realized that I basically was once I checked out the author’s bio and learned that she herself had actually worked as a CIA analyst for 8 years, 6 of that specifically in counterterrorism.  Karen Cleveland is definitely writing from experience here and I appreciated the authenticity it brought to the story.

I don’t want to say much about this, but if you’re a fan of “Long Cons,” you’ll love this story.  It takes the long con to a whole new level!

 

I did have one issue with the story and that was that I thought there was a little too much focus on the day-to-day family activities in Vivian’s life. I loved that she was a fierce mom who would do anything to keep her children safe, but I felt like I got a little bogged down a few times along the way while I was reading.  I’m dying to know what’s going to happen next on the Russia front, but instead I’m sidetracked reading about one of the kids running a fever and needing to be picked up from daycare.  As a parent I recognize that those kinds of things are part of life, but as a reader, I was just sitting there like “Hurry up and get back to the juicy stuff!”

 

Even if you don’t typically enjoy spy thrillers, I’d still highly recommend Need to Know.  Even though there is a heavy spy thriller element with the focus on the CIA and the sleeper cells, the story is still basically a story about how far a woman will go to protect her family.  That added layer is what really made this a phenomenal read for me, and as much as I enjoyed Need to Know, I look forward to reading more from Karen Cleveland. I’m hopeful that the way the novel ends has left the door open for a sequel because I would love to read more about Vivian.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

In pursuit of a Russian sleeper cell on American soil, a CIA analyst uncovers a dangerous secret that will test her loyalty to the agency—and to her family.

What do you do when everything you trust might be a lie?

Vivian Miller is a dedicated CIA counterintelligence analyst assigned to uncover the leaders of Russian sleeper cells in the United States. On track for a much-needed promotion, she’s developed a system for identifying Russian agents, seemingly normal people living in plain sight.

After accessing the computer of a potential Russian operative, Vivian stumbles on a secret dossier of deep-cover agents within America’s borders. A few clicks later, everything that matters to her—her job, her husband, even her four children—are threatened.

Vivian has vowed to defend her country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But now she’s facing impossible choices. Torn between loyalty and betrayal, allegiance and treason, love and suspicion, who can she trust?

 

 

four-half-stars

About Karen Cleveland

Karen Cleveland spent eight years as a CIA analyst, the last six in counterterrorism. She has master’s degrees from Trinity College Dublin, where she studied as a Fulbright Scholar, and from Harvard University. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two young kids.

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

Book Review:  The Girl Before by J. P. DelaneyThe Girl Before by J.P. Delaney
Also by this author: Believe Me
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

J. P. Delaney is the pseudonym of a writer who has previously published best-selling fiction under another name. .

Book Review: Lilac Girls

Book Review:  Lilac GirlsLilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
five-stars
Published by Ballantine Books on April 5th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 496
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

 

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Inspired by the life of a real World War II heroine, this debut novel reveals a story of love, redemption, and secrets that were hidden for decades.

New York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon. But Caroline’s world is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.

An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she is drawn deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspecting neighbors, one false move can have dire consequences.

For the ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. Once hired, though, she finds herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.

The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories cross continents—from New York to Paris, Germany, and Poland—as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.



My review:

Let me just start off by simply stating wow, what an incredibly moving read! I honestly don’t think a book has ever made me shed so many tears! If Lilac Girls doesn’t end up on all of the ‘Best of 2016’ book lists, there is just something wrong with this world.

Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel Lilac Girls is a powerful and beautifully written exploration of how women in particular were impacted by the atrocities committed by the Nazis during WWII. The primary setting of the novel is the Nazi concentration camp Ravensbruck and its primary focus, the women — primarily Polish political prisoners — who were detained there, with special attention paid to those known as the “Ravensbruck Rabbits”, a group of prisoners who were experimented on against their will by Nazi doctors.

One of the most compelling qualities of Lilac Girls is its brilliant portrayal of the strength and courage of the Ravensbruck prisoners. Up against inhumane treatment and almost certain death, they demonstrated such resilience, determination, and even at times, defiance, that it just blew me away. I found the sisterhood they created for themselves within the camp very moving as well – the way they worked so hard to keep hope alive, no matter how hard the Nazis tried to dehumanize them and strip that hope away.

The strength that the women imprisoned at Ravensbruck displayed, especially considering what they were up against, just blew me away, as did Caroline Ferriday’s efforts to fight for those who had been forgotten once the war was over. Caroline, who had already devoted much of her time to fighting for French children who had been orphaned by the war, made it her mission to get the “Ravensbruck Rabbits” both the medical attention that they desperately needed after being experimented on by the Nazis, as well as the justice they deserved. As many tears of sadness and outrage as I cried watching those women suffer at the hands of the Nazis, I have to say I shed an equal number of tears of joy at what Caroline is able to make happen for them. Her determination to make sure they aren’t forgotten was so inspirational.

I also very much liked the three-pronged narrative approach. I thought it really added a lot of emotional depth to experience WWII firsthand from these three very different points of view: 1) Kasia, a Polish woman who is actually imprisoned and experimented on at Ravensbruck, 2) Herta, a female German doctor who actually performed experiments at the camp, and 3) Caroline, a non-European who is watching from afar but who has a personal stake in the war not just because of the orphans she is trying to take care of, but also because the man she loves, a French actor, was rounded up and imprisoned in a camp when the Nazis invaded France.

The perspective that was most troubling for me to read, yet added a lot to the story, was Herta’s. What we see through her eyes is that even though she is a German, as a woman, she is still deemed as inferior to the men, as someone who should just have babies to help with the “purification” of their race. Although she is training to be a doctor, the Nazis frown upon women being doctors and so the only job she can find is the one she ends up with at Ravensbruck. What she does to the “Ravensbruck Rabbits” is clearly unconscionable and unforgivable, but it was interesting to see how she ended up where she did and what her motivations were. I thought it humanized her a bit. Her actions and her own prejudices toward anyone who wasn’t German ultimately kept me from feeling any sympathy toward her, especially her belief that she was helping her people by experimenting on the “Rabbits”, but her point of view is unique in that it’s one we don’t often see in WWII stories – that of the perpetrators of the atrocities.

Not only is this a very compelling story, but for me anyway, Lilac Girls is very educational. I was not at all well educated about the Iron Curtain and what happened to Poland after WWII ended and I also had no idea who Caroline Ferriday was, so I was grateful to Martha Hall Kelly for her extensive research in planning this novel. I would also recommend to anyone who reads Lilac Girls to also read her notes at the end as well – they add a lot to the story itself and elaborate on what was fact versus what was fiction. That said, she did a marvelous job blending the factual with the fiction to create one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

So, who would I recommend Lilac Girls to? Because of the way it shines a light on the way Poland and the “Ravensbruck Rabbits” were all but forgotten after the war ended, this is one of those important books that I would recommend to anyone and everyone. I would also highly recommend it as a must-read for anyone who loved Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale or Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. If you were moved by those stories, this one will not disappoint.

five-stars

About Martha Hall Kelly

Martha is a native New Englander but has become nomadic, splitting her time between New York City, Martha’s Vineyard and Atlanta, Georgia. She worked as an advertising copywriter for many years, raised three wonderful children who are now mostly out of the nest and this is her first novel. When she is not pressuring her husband Michael to break down and agree to buy a puppy, she is hard at work on the prequel to Lilac Girls. You’ll find more info about the true story behind Lilac Girls at her website: marthahallkelly.com and on the Pinterest account she is madly in love with.