Posts

Early Review: YOU OWE ME A MURDER by Eileen Cook

Early Review:  YOU OWE ME A MURDER by Eileen CookYou Owe Me a Murder by Eileen Cook
four-stars
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers on March 5, 2019
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 368
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.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

YOU OWE ME A MURDER Review

Eileen Cook’s latest novel You Owe Me a Murder follows 17-year-old Kim, who is traveling to London for a class trip.  Kim initially agrees to go on this trip because her then-boyfriend had signed up to go as well. However, when he later dumps Kim, the trip is suddenly much less appealing to her, especially when she finds out his new girlfriend will also be going on the trip.  Unable to get out of it, Kim tries to make the best of a bad situation and when she strikes up a conversation with Nicki, a young woman from London who will be on their flight too, things suddenly start to look up for her.  Nicki listens sympathetically to Kim’s rants about her ex, and Kim reciprocates as Nicki rants about her mother.  Reminiscent of the book and film Strangers on a Train, Nicki then starts joking around about how they should swap murders, and because it’s keeping her entertained on their long flight, Kim plays along.

When the unexpected happens soon after they arrive in London, and Kim’s ex mysteriously dies, Kim realizes she may have bitten off more than she can handle, especially when she starts getting threatening messages from Nicki, reminding her that she’d better hold up her end of the deal.

Kim is such a great character.  She’s an interesting blend of resourcefulness and vulnerability, and I liked her right away.  Can you imagine anything more awkward than being a teenager stuck on a school trip with your ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend?  It was impossible not to feel sympathetic towards her and hope that she could figure out a way to have a good time in spite of her ex.  It was also easy to see how Kim got in way over her head with Nicki.  Nicki played it off like she’s this cool chick who gets where Kim is coming from, but she’s really a predator who preys on Kim’s obvious misery and naivety and gets her to vent about what a jerk her ex is and how her life would be so much better if he wasn’t around.  When Kim gets off that plane, she feels so much better about her trip, thanks to Nicki, but is completely oblivious as to what she has unintentionally set into motion.

One of my favorite things about You Owe Me a Murder is how it’s presented from Kim’s perspective.  We get her raw emotions as she witnesses her ex-boyfriend dying unexpectedly, followed by the sudden realization as to who is responsible and what it means for her.  Then we get that firsthand look at just how far Nicki has gotten into Kim’s head as she runs through all her options trying to come up with a way out of her predicament.  Her fears are palpable, as is her growing concern that her only way out may actually be to commit a murder.  Kim’s mind racing like this had me racing through the pages and I don’t think the story would have been nearly as effective if it had come to us from any other point of view.

The pacing of You Owe Me a Murder was fantastic as well.  I read it in one day and every time I sat the book down, I couldn’t get back to it fast enough.  Cook does an incredible job of building up the suspense as Kim waits for Nicki’s next move and tries to figure out how to outsmart her.  There was plot twist after plot twist, none of them predictable, and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see who would come out on top.

Finally, I also liked that the book left me with so much to think about.  It’s so easy to see how someone could be too trusting and end up being taken advantage of and manipulated like Kim was.  It’s an uneasy thought but one that really resonated with me.

The only issue I had was that I would have liked a little more development of the secondary characters.  Most of them fell flat in comparison to Kim and Nicki.

Eileen Cook’s You Owe Me a Murder is a riveting thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat.  I’d highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good thriller, but especially to anyone who is a fan of either Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train or the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Seventeen-year-old Kim gets more than she bargained for when she is set up for murder. Perfect for fans of One of Us is Lying, E. Lockhart, and Gillian Flynn.

17-year-old Kim never expected to plot a murder. But that was before her boyfriend dumped her for another girl. Now, Kim’s stuck on a class trip to London with him and his new soulmate and she can’t help wishing he was a little bit dead, even if she’d never really do that.

But when Kim meets Nicki, a stranger on the plane who’s more than willing to listen to Kim’s woes, things start to look up. Nicki’s got a great sense of humor, and when she jokes about swapping murders, Kim plays along—that is, until Kim’s ex-boyfriend mysteriously dies.

Blackmailed by Nicki to fulfill her end of the deal, Kim will have to commit a murder or take the fall for one.

four-stars

About Eileen Cook

Eileen Cook is a multi-published author with her novels appearing in eight languages. Her books have been optioned for film and TV. She spent most of her teen years wishing she were someone else or somewhere else, which is great training for a writer. She’s an instructor/mentor with The Creative Academy and Simon Fraser University Writer’s Studio Program where she loves helping other writers find their unique story to tell.

Eileen lives in Vancouver with two very naughty dogs.

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: THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY

Review:  THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAYThe Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware
four-half-stars
Published by Gallery/Scout Press on May 29, 2018
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 384
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:

Even though I’m typically a huge fan of suspenseful thrillers, for some reason I had not gotten around to trying one of Ruth Ware’s popular novels yet. I don’t really have any real excuse other than I sometimes tend to shy away from hyped books and this was one of those cases, especially since I’ve seen Ware referred to as the Agatha Christie of our time and that seems like a pretty tall order for any author to try to live up to.  The synopsis of The Death of Mrs. Westaway captivated me, however, and I decided it was past time for me to try my first Ruth Ware novel.  How did it work out?  I’d say the fact that I’ve ordered copies of all of Ware’s novels since finishing this one is a pretty good indicator of how it went.  While I might not go so far as to call her the Agatha Christie of our day, Ruth Ware is a superb mystery author in her own right.

 

Sympathetic Protagonist:  Harriet Westaway (or Hal as she is more often referred to) is a character that tugged on my heartstrings from the first pages of the novel.  She is a 21-year-old tarot card reader who works on a pier in Brighton, England.  Hal fell into this line of work a few years earlier when her mother, also a tarot card reader, was struck and killed in a hit-and-run accident.  The driver was never caught and so Hal was forced to drop out of school and take up her mother’s work in order to keep a roof over her head and food on the table.  There’s no father and no other family in the picture so Hal is all alone in the world and is struggling to make ends meet.  When we meet Hal, she is up to her neck in trouble, having borrowed some money from a sleazy loan shark who keeps changing the terms of her repayment and has sent his goons to deliver a message to her, that message being threat of bodily harm or even worse if she doesn’t cough up 3,000 pounds, which she clearly doesn’t have.

Although Hal is a sympathetic character, she’s still pretty savvy and street smart, which is another thing I liked about her, as well as the fact that she also has a bit of a morally gray element that adds even more interesting layers to her personality.  When a letter from an attorney’s office arrives in the mail telling Hal she has been named as a beneficiary in the will of a Mrs. Westaway who has just passed away, Hal knows it can’t possibly be her, as she has no family.  That said, however, she can’t help but wonder if her ability to read people – so finely honed by years of reading tarot cards and telling fortunes – is sharp enough for her to fool people so that she really can claim the aforementioned inheritance.  Yes, there’s a risk she could go to jail for fraud, but if she can pull it off, it’s the answer to all of her prayers.  That in itself makes it a risk worth taking.  It’s so wrong of course, but I just couldn’t help but admire her guts and determination.

Atmospheric Quality: In addition to the wonderfully well-rounded character that is Hal, my other favorite part of the book is the atmosphere that Ware has created. Everything about the atmosphere has an air of suspense to it but it takes a turn for the creepy and Gothic once Hal arrives at the residence of the late Mrs. Westaway.  The house itself is dusty and ill-maintained, some of the windows are barred, It’s filled with endless dark corridors and stairways, and to top it off, there’s a mean old housekeeper, Mrs. Warren, that Hal seems to find lurking around every corner.  Everything about the house just had this ominous feel to it and had me wanting to yell at Hal to get out while she could.

Family Secrets – Web of Lies:  If you’re into books that focus on messy families and their dirty little secrets, The Death of Mrs. Westaway is the book for you! As soon as Hal arrives and hears the will reading, she can tell that something is amiss with the Westaway family and that she has landed herself right in the middle of a hornet’s nest.  Nothing is as it seems and although she knows she should just cut and run before she ends up in potentially deeper trouble than she already is, she feels compelled to find out the truth about the family and whatever it is they appear to be hiding.  Ware does a marvelous job with the pacing of the novel and I remained enthralled as I waited for each strand of the web of lies to unravel.

 

I don’t really have anything at all here. It was a phenomenal read that I couldn’t put down once I started reading.

 

While this was my first time reading Ruth Ware, it will definitely not be my last.  I’d recommend The Death of Mrs. Westaway to anyone who is a fan of mysteries and thrillers as well as to anyone who enjoys a good domestic drama.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, and The Lying Game comes Ruth Ware’s highly anticipated fourth novel.

On a day that begins like any other, Hal receives a mysterious letter bequeathing her a substantial inheritance. She realizes very quickly that the letter was sent to the wrong person—but also that the cold-reading skills she’s honed as a tarot card reader might help her claim the money.

Soon, Hal finds herself at the funeral of the deceased…where it dawns on her that there is something very, very wrong about this strange situation and the inheritance at the center of it.

Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, this is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

four-half-stars

Review: THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR by Sally Hepworth

Review:  THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR by Sally HepworthThe Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth
four-half-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on March 6th 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, 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.

MY REVIEW:

“Do you ever really know your neighbors?”  This tagline from the cover of Sally Hepworth’s The Family Next Door is what initially drew me to this book and I think it very accurately sums up the overall premise of the story.  No matter how long you’ve lived next door to someone, how well do you really know them?  The Family Next Door’s answer to that question is quite simply:  “Not nearly as much as you think you know.”

At its core, The Family Next Door is a book about secrets.  Some secrets are, of course, more scandalous than others, but really – is there anyone out there who truly shares everything about themselves with everyone they meet?  I know I sure don’t.  And, let me tell you, any secrets I may be keeping to myself pale in comparison to those the ladies of Pleasant Court are each trying to keep under wraps.  Boy, do these ladies have some dirty laundry!

First of all, especially after reading that tagline, I had to chuckle as soon as I saw that their neighborhood is called Pleasant Court.  On the surface it sounds lovely, but it immediately made me think of Desperate Housewives and Wisteria Lane, which also sounded lovely and was a huge hotbed for secrets and scandals.  Pleasant Court is a very family-oriented community.  Most of the residents have been in Pleasant Court for years and are all raising young families.  Main characters Essie, Fran, and Ange all fall into this category.  Essie’s mother, Barbara, also lives there and she helps Essie out by babysitting her grandkids.  The only character who doesn’t fit the typical mold of a Pleasant Court resident is the mysterious Isabelle, who is new to town, and who is also unmarried and has no children.  It was almost comical to watch the “radars” of the Pleasant Court women perk up as soon as Isabelle moved in:  Why would she move here? She doesn’t even have a family, etc.  These ladies become thoroughly engrossed in trying to figure out the scoop on Isabelle.  It was especially funny to me once I realized these ladies were the last people who should be casting stones and making judgements about someone they don’t even know.

That all sounds pretty vague, right? Well, since this is a book about secrets, there’s not much I can say about the plot without spoiling it.  I think it makes for the best reading experience to go into The Family Next Door knowing as little as possible and letting the secrets these characters are hiding unfold naturally.  Bottom line though:  No one in Pleasant Court is as innocent as they would have you believe.  Everyone, even Grandma Barbara, is lugging around a dirty secret or two!

 

Domestic dramas like The Family Next Door seem to be emerging as the latest trend in fiction and I have to say I enjoy these so much more than I enjoyed the unreliable/unlikeable narrator trend that books like Gone Girl started a few years ago.  Even though I enjoy them, I have had one consistent complaint with so many of the recent domestic dramas I’ve read and that’s that even though the actual drama in the story is deliciously scandalous and makes for a great page turner, I usually don’t feel very invested in any of the characters.  What made The Family Next Door head and shoulders over those books for me is that Hepworth actually made me care about the families in Pleasant Court.

She presents the story from the perspective of five very complicated female characters, but she fully fleshes out each character and infuses them with so much heart that even though each of them is clearly flawed, I still liked them and wanted them to be able to get past the deep, dark secrets that threatened to bury them.  When each of the secrets were revealed, instead of just sitting there waiting to see whether or not the secrets destroyed lives, I was sitting there like “OMG!  Damn girl, you need to fix this before it rips your family apart!”

In addition to giving me characters that I felt fully invested in, Hepworth also gave me everything else I love in a good domestic drama.  The secrets were scandalous and juicy, the pacing was quick and even – no lulls at all, and Hepworth wove enough twists and turns in the storylines of each of these characters that I stayed equally interested in all five accounts all the way through the book.  Even with so many characters to keep track of, there was no point along the way where I felt bored or distracted.  I really wanted to know everything about all five of these characters and their secrets, and that need to know really kept me turning the pages.  There were many characters and secrets to juggle, but Hepworth juggled them perfectly and crafted them into an incredibly well written and satisfying read.  I easily breezed through the book in less than two days.

 

None at all!

 

If you’re into stories that have a Desperate Housewives, Big Little Lies kind of vibe, I think this book would be a good fit for you.  This was my first time reading a novel by Sally Hepworth but it definitely will not be my last!

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

A gripping domestic page-turner full of shocking reveals, perfect for fans of Liane Moriarty, Amanda Prowse and Kerry Fisher.

The small suburb of Pleasant Court lives up to its name. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows their neighbors, and children play in the street.

Isabelle Heatherington doesn’t fit into this picture of family paradise. Husbandless and childless, she soon catches the attention of three Pleasant Court mothers.

But Ange, Fran and Essie have their own secrets to hide. Like the reason behind Ange’s compulsion to control every aspect of her life. Or why Fran won’t let her sweet, gentle husband near her new baby. Or why, three years ago, Essie took her daughter to the park – and returned home without her.

As their obsession with their new neighbor grows, the secrets of these three women begin to spread – and they’ll soon find out that when you look at something too closely, you see things you never wanted to see.

four-half-stars

About Sally Hepworth

Sally Hepworth is the bestselling author of The Secrets of Midwives (2015), The Things We Keep (2016) and The Mother’s Promise (2017), and The Family Next Door (Feb 2018). Sally’s books have been labelled “enchanting” by The Herald Sun, “smart and engaging” by Publisher’s Weekly, and New York Times bestselling authors Liane Moriarty and Emily Giffin have praised Sally’s novels as “women’s fiction at its finest” and “totally absorbing”.

Sally’s novels are available worldwide in English and have been translated into 15 languages.

Sally lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children.

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.

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
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. .