Book Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager (2017)

Monday, July 10th, 2017

Enjoy with a slice of red velvet cake.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and suicide.)

While there were other multiple homicides during those years, none quite got the nation’s attention like ours. We were, for whatever reason, the lucky ones who survived when no one else had. Pretty girls covered in blood. As such, we were each in turn treated like something rare and exotic. A beautiful bird that spreads its bright wings only once a decade. Or that flower that stinks like rotting meat whenever it decides to bloom.

I understand that urge for more information, that longing for details. But in this case, I’m fine without them. I know what happened at Pine Cottage. I don’t need to remember exactly how it happened.

Quincy Carpenter: marketing grunt, food blog maven, massacre survivor.

Quincy was just a sophomore in college when it happened. She and her five best friends – boyfriend Craig, BFF Janelle, and friends Betz, Amy, and Rodney; collectively known as the East Hall Crew – were renting a cabin in the Poconos, celebrating Janelle’s birthday, when Joe Hannen stumbled into their lives. Janelle, being the wild and carefree member of the group, invited him to stay for dinner. Since she was the birthday girl, she got to call the shots.

You kind of wonder whether things would have went down differently had they known that Joe wasn’t a stranded motorist, but rather a recent escapee from the nearby Blackthorn Psychiatric asylum. (This sounds hella ableist, and there’s certainly that potential; but the many plot twists don’t necessarily play into the stereotype that mentally ill people are inherently violent, and vice versa.)

By the end of the night, everyone would be dead, save for Quincy. Almost before the blood could dry, the media nicknamed Quincy the Final Girl – one of three, at least in recent memory. Though Quincy had no desire to be defined by tragedy, she would forever be lumped in with fellow survivors: the reclusive Samantha Boyd (Nightlight Inn), and do-gooder Lisa Milner before her (a sorority house in Indiana).

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Book Review: The Fall of Lisa Bellow, Susan Perabo (2017)

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

An insightful and sometimes uncanny story about relationships, trauma, and the darkest corners of our secret selves.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)

There were still little green ribbons covering Lisa’s locker, but every morning some would have fallen down overnight, scattered like tiny leaves, and she would pick them up and toss them into the bottom of her own locker. How long would they let that locker, 64C, sit there, unused? How long did missing-person ribbons stay up? Was there an expiration date, some point where they officially became irrelevant, a day when the fall of Lisa Bellow became the winter of someone else, as Evan had predicted from the start?

“You’re popular,” Jules said. “I can’t believe it. Of all of us, I didn’t think it would be you first.”

Maybe they were all bitches, Claire thought. Maybe that was all there was to be in eighth grade. Maybe you didn’t have any choice. Maybe your only choice was figuring out what kind of bitch you wanted to be.

One crisp October afternoon, thirteen-year-old Meredith Oliver stops by the Deli Barn on the way home from school, to treat herself to a root beer soda for a job well done on her algebra test. Ahead of her in line stands her arch nemesis, Parkway North Middle School’s resident Mean Girl, Lisa Bellow. Her presence so unnerves Meredith that she almost turned tail and ran – that is, until Lisa caught her eye through the door. She couldn’t show Lisa any weakness, not with so much at stake.

As the sandwich farmer* is taking Lisa’s order (overly complicated, natch), a masked man strides in and robs the cashier at gunpoint. He forces Meredith and Lisa to lay down on the sticky floor of the restaurant while he walks the cashier to the back of the store, in search of a safe that doesn’t exist. When he comes back – alone – he forces Lisa to her feet and leaves with her. Traumatized, Meredith stays on the floor for another eleven minutes (“eleven glorious minutes”), until another customer walks in and find her. Even then, it takes a group of paramedics and “a needle full of Thorazine to peel her from her cherished spot.”

The Fall of Lisa Bellow is a strange and wonderful book. It’s about how Meredith copes with the trauma of the robbery and kidnapping, yes; but hers is not the only trauma we bear witness to. Meredith’s mother, Claire; her seventeen-year-old brother Ethan; Lisa’s mother Colleen; and Lisa’s friends Becca, Abby, and Amanda – all of them are working through their own “stuff,” not all of it related to Lisa’s disappearance. Yet the ripples of her kidnapping and likely murder reverberate through all their lives.

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Book Review: The Roanoke Girls, Amy Engel (2017)

Monday, March 6th, 2017

Not for the faint of heart.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for child abuse and violence against women, including rape, as well as suicide. This review contains clearly marked spoilers, but I tried to keep it as vague as possible.)

“Roanoke girls never last long around here.” She skipped along the hall, her voice growing fainter as she moved, like we were standing at opposite ends of a tunnel. “In the end, we either run or we die.”

My feelings for Allegra were never complicated. It didn’t matter if she acted crazy or made me angry or smothered me with devotion. In my whole life, she was the only person I simply loved. And I left her anyway.

THEN

Camilla Roanoke’s suicide doesn’t come as a surprise to her fifteen-year-old daughter Lane. For as long as she can remember, her mother has struggled with depression – not to mention alcoholism, mood swings, and blinding bouts of rage. Some days the tears come so fast and thick that they threaten to drown them both. So when she’s found dead in their NYC bathroom, bathrobe belt wrapped around her neck, Lane is more or less numb. Yet the cryptic note Camilla left behind – I tried to wait. I’m sorry. – puzzles Lane. The news that she has family – her mother’s parents, Yates and Lillian Roanoke – who aren’t merely willing to take Lane, but actually want her? Well, that’s the biggest shock of all.

Camilla rarely spoke of her life on the family estate, Roanoke, situated among the prairies and wheat fields of Osage Flats, Kansas. And there’s a damn good reason for it – one that Lane will discover during summer she turns sixteen. One hundred days of being a “Roanoke Girl” was all she could take before she fled Kansas – hopefully for good.

NOW

Eleven years later, a late-night phone call from her grandfather summons Lane back to Roanoke. Back home. Her cousin Allegra is missing, and Lane is determined to find out what happened. It’s the least she can do, for leaving Allegra behind all those years ago.

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Mini-Review: The Killer in Me, Margot Harrison (2016)

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

Meh.

three out of five stars

Seventeen-year-old Nina Barrows knows all about the Thief. She’s intimately familiar with his hunting methods: how he stalks and kills at random, how he disposes of his victims’ bodies in an abandoned mine in the deepest, most desolate part of a desert.

Now, for the first time, Nina has the chance to do something about the serial killer that no one else knows exists. With the help of her former best friend, Warren, she tracks the Thief two thousand miles, to his home turf—the deserts of New Mexico.

But the man she meets there seems nothing like the brutal sociopath with whom she’s had a disturbing connection her whole life. To anyone else, Dylan Shadwell is exactly what he appears to be: a young veteran committed to his girlfriend and her young daughter. As Nina spends more time with him, she begins to doubt the truth she once held as certain: Dylan Shadwell is the Thief. She even starts to wonder . . . what if there is no Thief?

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

DNF at 64%.

Honestly, I just found this book underwhelming. Perhaps my boredom was mainly due to the curse of misplaced expectations: I pictured an antihero in the vein of Alex Craft, but what we get is an indecisive, somewhat timid, and blandly average teenage girl. You know, except for the serial killer whose mind she shares when dreaming.

Making matters worse is the introduction of Nina’s childhood friend/teenage drug dealer, Warren. The story is told from their alternating perspectives, even though Warren really doesn’t add much to the narrative. He has even less of a personality than Nina, and there’s absolutely zero chemistry between the two (though I assume they hook up by the end of the book).

He’s also the one who tries to rationalize Nina’s visions, leading to scene after tedious scene of self-doubt. This also gives rise to some weird plot stuff; for example, even though there’s never been any question in Nina’s mind that her connection to Dylan only goes one way, she sets up a series of tests to see if she can trick him into acknowledging her existence. Like, why though? They…don’t prove anything?

Anyway, the book isn’t terrible; I just couldn’t bring myself to care enough about anyone to finish it. I think if you shaved 100 pages off you’d have a much more tense and compelling psychological thriller.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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DNF Review: Kill the Next One, Frederico Axat (2016)

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Not for me.

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Obvious trigger warning for suicide and other forms of violence, including animal abuse.)

Ted McKay was about to put a bullet through his brain when the doorbell rang. Insistently. He paused. He couldn’t press the trigger when he had someone waiting at the front door.

DNF at 58%.

Recently diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, thirty-seven-year-old Ted McKay has decided to end things on his own terms. He plans his suicide meticulously: he draws up a will, settles his affairs, and sends his wife Holly to her parents’ home in Florida for the week, begging out at the last minute “for work.” He locks his office door and leaves a note on the outside, so that his daughters Cindy and Nadine won’t accidentally barge in and be the ones to discover his corpse.

He’s poised to pull the trigger when an insistent knocking upends his resolve. It’s a smarmy-looking lawyer named Justin Lynch who – somehow, improbably – knows what Ted’s about to do. He doesn’t aim to talk Ted out if it, but rather has a better way. And so Ted’s recruited into a sort of suicide daisy chain. The price of admission? Assassinate one Edward Blaine, a well-known d-bag who murdered his girlfriend, but got off “on a technicality.” (Really the forensic team bungled the job, but you say tomato….) Then Ted just has to kill a fellow suicidal member, and it’s his turn. With his death disguised as a hit or perhaps a robbery gone wrong, Holly and the girls are spared the pain of knowing that Ted chose to kill himself. It’s a win-win!

Only not so much, since things aren’t exactly what they seem.

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Book Review: Last Seen Leaving, Caleb Roehrig (2016)

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

What happened to January Beth McConville?

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual harassment and rape. This review contains a spoiler in the form of Flynn’s secret – but it’s revealed so early on that it’s not much of a spoiler, imho.)

“I won’t be your safeguard or your excuse or your problem anymore,” she spat suddenly, venomously. “Either admit the truth, or find a new place to hide, because I’m done!”

Her feet pounded across the shadowy hayloft, then descended the ladder, and then crossed the barn underneath me. I heard the door creak open, and caught a glimpse of her glowing blond hair as she jogged from the barn back into the trees, heading toward the meadow.

It was the last time I saw her. Those were the last words she spoke to me.

One crisp October afternoon, fifteen-year-old Flynn Doherty returns home after school, only to find a cop car parked conspicuously outside. Flynn’s girlfriend January McConville has been missing for nearly a week, and Flynn may have been the last person to see her. As if that fact isn’t damning enough, Flynn claims not to have known about January’s disappearance: since her mother and stepfather forcibly transferred her to Dumas, a private school for rich kids located on the other side of town, they’d been growing apart. In fact, January broke up with him right before she vanished. (Strike three!)

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Book Review: The Lost and the Found, Cat Clark (2016)

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

On Children Lost and Found – and Overlooked and Forgotten

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)

Chances are, you have seen her. The photo of blond-haired, gap-toothed, polka-dot-dressed, teddy bear–cradling Laurel Logan has surely been printed in almost every newspaper in the world (probably even the Uzbekistan Times, now that I think about it). […]

I was also in the original photo: four years old, cute in the way that all four-year-olds are, but nothing special. Not like her. Frizzy brown hair, beady little eyes, hand-me-down clothes. I was playing in a sandbox in the background, slightly out of focus. That’s how it’s been my whole life: in the background, slightly out of focus. You hardly ever see that version of the photo—the one where I haven’t been cropped out.

I try to put myself in her shoes. Coming back to your family after all that time. You’d want things to be the same as when you left, wouldn’t you? But a lot can change in thirteen years. Your mother can wither away to nothingness, and your dad can get together with a lovely Frenchman, and your little sister can stop building sand castles and start building a wall around herself instead.

For as long as she can remember, seventeen-year-old Faith Logan has lived in her older sister’s shadow. When they were younger, Laurel was everything Faith was not: friendly, outgoing, and beautiful. Whereas Faith inherited their parents’ plain Jane, mousey looks – complete with frizzy brown hair and beady eyes – the adopted Laurel practically shined with her golden blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Laurel was the leader and Faith, her mostly-content follower. That is, until the day that Laurel was kidnapped from their front yard, lured away by a stranger promising ice cream cones.

In the intervening thirteen years, Laurel has overshadowed Faith in a much more tragic and morbid way. Their mother Olivia suffers from chronic depression, a melancholy broken only by the single-minded determination to find her missing daughter. Father John is more or less absent from his remaining daughter’s life; his new boyfriend Michel seems to do a better job of parenting Faith than the two combined. Unwilling to be perpetually cast as “Little Laurel Logan’s” sad and less interesting younger sister, Faith avoids publicity as assiduously as Olivia courts it: both to fund the never ending search for Laurel, and to keep her case alive in the public’s mind. Faith can count her friends on one hand, as too many of her peers seem to want to get close to her so they can be nearer tragedy. Rubberneckers and paparazzi vultures: these are the creatures she’s built up armor against.

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Book Review: The Conjoined, Jen Sookfong Lee (2016)

Friday, September 16th, 2016

“I come from a family of psychopaths.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including rape and child abuse. This review contains clearly marked spoilers, but I tried to be as vague as possible.)

She was on the verge of losing her girls, not to a bearded, smelly man in a rusty pick-up truck, but to a phalanx of people who would look at her and see her mistakes, the gaps of time that she had left her daughters alone, the frank conversations she might have started with them but didn’t. She had worried over the wrong threats. […]

Ginny picked up the receiver. She might as well call. Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that someone would understand.

It was easy to say My childhood was normal. It was the sort of thing people say when they want to deflect attention, or when it was the most polite way to explain that you grew up with privilege, that your past wasn’t dotted with evictions and coupons and beatings from a father who could never keep a job. It was what Jessica always said, even though she knew this statement couldn’t possibly be true for anyone.

Here are three things you should know about The Conjoined:

1. The book’s Little Red Riding Hood /The Handmaid’s Tale– inspired cover bears little relation to the story.

2. There are no conjoined twins in this book.

3. It’s still a pretty good read anyway, unsatisfying ending excluded.

About a month after losing her mother Donna to cancer, twenty-eight-year-old Jessica Campbell is helping her father Gerry sort through the detritus of their decades-long marriage when they make a truly horrifying discovery. Amid Ziplock bags stuffed with frostbitten bison meat, Gerry finds the bodies of two (very human) girls stashed in his wife’s basement freezers. (I own two chest freezers, and the roomier models are most definitely large enough to accommodate the body of a teenage girl. Don’t worry; you’ll only find homegrown apples and cases of Daiya cheese in my freezers.) The police are summoned straightaway, reopening an investigation into an eighteen-year-old mystery: whatever happened to Jamie and Casey Cheng?

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Book Review: With Malice, Eileen Cook (2016)

Friday, June 10th, 2016

With Malice will keep you guessing – even after the end!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

“Right now your brain knows there is missing information, and it’s desperately trying to fill in those blanks.” She opened a desk drawer and fished out a paper. “Ever see something like this?”

I looked down. At first the words looked like gibberish, and then they clicked into place.

I cnduo’t bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm.

I passed the sheet back to her. “I’ve seen something like it online.”

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Dr. Weeks knocked on top of the model of the brain she kept on her credenza. “The darn things still fascinate me as much as they did when I started in this field. How they can fill in what’s missing — find patterns and create meaning where there was nothing. One of the most primal survival instincts the brain has is finding pattern and assigning meaning. When there is a breakdown, it will scramble to find those patterns again as quickly as possible.”

“I didn’t do this,” I said.

“Of course you didn’t,” Mom said. She patted my hand. “The police aren’t going to be able to prove a thing.”

That’s when I knew beyond any doubt she believed I’d done it.

Eighteen-year-old Jill Charron wakes up in a hospital bed with a broken leg, several broken ribs, an assortment of cuts and bruises – and no idea how she got there. Through bits and pieces – angry blog posts and reluctant drips of info from the ‘rents – she comes to learn that she was on a class trip to Italy when the car she was driving barreled through a stone wall and off a cliff. Jill survived, but the passenger – her best friend of eight years, Simone McIvory – did not.

After the was-it-or-wasn’t-it-an-accident, Jill’s hoighty-toighty father whisked her out of the country on a private flight, ostensibly so she could receive top-notch medical care in the states. Then he hired her a lawyer and (wait for it!) a PR team. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to suspect that Keith used his wealth to shield his daughter – and, by extension, his family – from the fallout of an investigation and possible murder charge.

While Jill is convinced that there’s no way she’d ever murder Simone, she has no memory of the event – or even the six or so weeks leading up to it. And her brain isn’t exactly cooperating; in addition to retrograde amnesia, Jill’s also dealing with aphasia, which makes it all the more difficult to defend herself. Yet as new facts and evidence come to light – in the form of police interviews, witness statements, cell phone videos, news articles, and Facebook and blog posts – Jill begins to doubt herself: what really happened that fateful day in Montepulciano?

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Book Review: Wink Poppy Midnight, April Genevieve Tucholke (2016)

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

A Different Kind of Fairy Tale

five out of five stars

There was an evil in me too, a cruel streak. I don’t know where it came from and I didn’t really want it, no more than I’d want big feet or mousy brown hair or a piggish nose. But fuck it. If I’d been born with a piggish nose, then I would own it, like I own the cruel and the mean.

THE FIRST TIME I slept with Poppy, I cried. We were both sixteen, and I’d been in love with her since I was a kid, since I was still reading monster comics and spending too much time practicing sleight-of-hand tricks because I wanted to be a magician. People say you can’t feel real love that young, but I did. For Poppy.

I’d put out a trap in the woods.
I’d caught a wolf.
And now it was screaming.
If Poppy was the Wolf, and Midnight was the Hero . . .
Then who was I?

null

Poppy Harvey is as beautiful as she is cruel. You could call her a bully or a mean girl – or even THE Mean Girl – but neither does Poppy justice: she’s more like a cross between Regina George and Dexter Morgan, with the snotty, rich girl attitude of the former and the sociopathic tendencies of the latter. She once chopped off Holly Trueblood’s white-blonde hair at the skull – “all because someone said that Holly’s hair was prettier than her own.” Poppy’s the kind of girl who could grind your face in the dirt and then charge you for the privilege of spending time with her. She is the Queen and the Temptress and the Wolf, all rolled into one.

With silky, golden blonde hair, milky white skin, and a knack for social manipulation, Poppy is loved/adored/worshiped by adults and teenagers alike. All but one: Leaf Bell, the oldest and fiercest of the Orphans. Leaf sees beyond Poppy’s surface beauty, all the way down into the ugly, black rottenness of her heart – and he despises her for it. Naturally, Poppy is hopelessly in love with him.

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Book Review: Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense, Julia Heaberlin (2015)

Monday, August 10th, 2015

He Hunts Me, He Hunts Me Not

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and other forms of violence.)

The abandoned field on the Jenkins property was licked to death by fire about two years before the Black-Eyed Susans were dumped there. A reckless match tossed by a lost car on a lonely dirt road cost a destitute old farmer his entire wheat crop and set the stage for the thousands and thousands of yellow flowers that covered the field like a giant, rumpled quilt.

The fire also carved out our grave, an uneven, loping ditch. Black-eyed Susans sprung up and decorated it brazenly long before we arrived. The Susans are a greedy plant, often the first to thrive in scorched, devastated earth. Pretty, but competitive, like cheerleaders. They like to crowd out the others.

One lit match, one careless toss, and our nicknames were embedded in serial killer lore forever.

Sixteen-year-old Tessie Cartwright went out for a run one night and woke up in a grave. One minute, she was at Walgreens, buying a box of tampons and a Snickers bar for Roosevelt, the homeless man she passes every Wednesday on her running route; the next, she was barely clinging to life at the bottom of a ditch in a field of Black-eyed Susans. From the moment she was discovered, Tessie and the three bodies lying next to her – two skeletons and a fresh corpse – would forever be known as the Susans. Strangers in life, but sisters in death.

Though Tessie has no recollection of the assault – indeed, cannot even hope to identify her attacker, having lost her sight (“hysterical blindness”) after waking in the hospital bed, only to see a get well card sent by the killer (maybe) – District Attorney Al Vega still calls her to testify. It’s her testimony, along with junk science and a racist justice system (a contradiction in terms), that lands Terrell Darcy Goodwin on Death Row.

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Book Review: The Well, Catherine Chanter (2015)

Monday, May 25th, 2015

One person’s paradise is another person’s perdition.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape, pedophilia, and domestic violence.)

There is one last emotion, though, which I have not anticipated. I am feeling smug. There, you thought you were just guarding a middle-aged crank who had delusions of grandeur, but now you’ll have to think twice, smart-arse.

Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day. I dance like a witch doctor around the sitting room.

Determined to salvage her marriage – not to mention what’s left of her husband’s sanity – Ruth Ardingly agrees to trade in her London home for a small farm in the country. Hailing from a long line of farmers, it was always Mark’s dream to work the land, reveling in nature and solitude and self-sufficiency. Yet he forfeited these plans when, as a college student, he met and fell in love with Ruth – already pregnant from a one-night stand. Instead, he pursued a law degree, committed himself to Ruth and their daughter Angie, and settled for an ordinary, middle-class existence.

And then came the child pornography, discovered on his work laptop. Though Mark was investigated and eventually exonerated, that didn’t stop the harassment and social ostracization. So Ruth acquiesced, hoping that the change of scenery and fresh air would do them both a world of good. Perhaps it might have, had the move not come smack dab in the middle of a drought – a drought to which their new, thirty-acre paradise seems immune.

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Book Review: The Ice Twins: A Novel, S.K. Tremayne (2015)

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

This Book is Bonkers

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and violence, including rough sex.)

“Mummy, why do you keep calling me Kirstie?”

I say nothing. The silence is ringing. I speak:

“Sorry, sweetheart. What?”

“Why do you keep calling me Kirstie, Mummy? Kirstie is dead. It was Kirstie that died. I’m Lydia.”

It’s been thirteen months since Sarah’s six-year-old daughter Lydia – one half of the “Ice Twins” – died in a tragic fall from her parents’ first-floor balcony in Devon. In the wake of the accident, the family all but fell apart: Sarah spiraled into a morass of grief and guilt – for it was she who was supposed to be watching the girls that fateful night – while her husband Angus found solace in the bottom of a whiskey bottle. An angry, sometimes-violent drunk like his father, Angus eventually was fired from his architecture job after assaulting his boss in an alcohol-fueled rage.

And the remaining daughter Kirstie? Well, she’s adrift without her other half. Best friends and then some, Kirstie and Lydia lived in their own little world. They had their own secret language and elaborate in-jokes, and in the months leading up to the accident, their identities had become so intertwined that they often dressed alike, swapped personas, and referred to themselves as a single entity, e.g., “Mummy, come and sit between me so you can read to us.” Now that Lydia’s gone, Kirstie is an island: alone, apart, desolate.

So what could be better than relocating Kirstie to an actual island? (Yes, that was sarcasm. Sarah and Angus are the worst.)

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Book Review: Church of Marvels: A Novel, Leslie Parry (2015)

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

“I have witnessed the sublime in the mundane…”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review from the publisher.)

But this story, in truth, is not about me. I am only a small part of it. I could try to forget it, perhaps. I could try to put it behind me. But sometimes I dream that I’ll still return to the pageantry of the sideshow, hide myself beneath costumes and powder and paint, grow willingly deaf among the opiating roar of the audience and the bellow of the old brass band. It will be like the old days – when Mother was ferocious and alive, before the Church of Marvels burned to the sand. But how can I return now, having seen what I have seen? For I’ve found that here in this city, the lights burn ever brighter, but they cast the darkest shadows I know.

Why, he wondered, did he have to peddle his difference for their amusement, and yet at the same time temper it, suppress it, make it suitably benign?

How would it feel to know there were people who’d chosen to live as they felt, not as they appeared, and never looked back? Could she bear their happiness, as shunned as they were? Was she brave enough?

She had seen it done. Wherever they glittered in the afterlife – flying among the high rafters of heaven, swimming with her mother in an undersea cave – she hoped the tigers had known it, and roared.

For the first time in her seventeen years, Odile Church is alone. Her mother’s sideshow carnival, the Church of Marvels, burned to ash in the spring, the casualty of a freak fire. With it went her mother, many of her friends, and the only life she knew. Her twin sister, Isabelle Church, was spared – only to run off to Manhattan not long after. That was three months ago; three months without a word.

And then Odile receives a cryptic, ominous letter from Belle: “If for some reason this is the last letter I should write to you, please know that I love you.” Armed with little more than an old map of her mother’s and Belle’s letter, Odile hops the next ferry to Manhattan in search of her sister.

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Book Review: The Walls Around Us, Nova Ren Suma (2015)

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Dark, Haunting, Beautiful – One of My Favorites of 2015

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an ARC for review from book blogger Miss Print. Also, trigger warning for sexual harassment and allusions to rape.)

Home is where the heart is, and where the hell is, and where the hate is, and where the hopelessness is. Which made Aurora Hills pretty much like home.

Amber Smith is a little more than three years into four-year sentence at Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center for manslaughter. After she ages out, she’ll be transferred to an adult prison for killing her abusive stepfather, a crime she may or may not have committed at the tender age of thirteen.

Then one hot, humid August night, the cell doors come open – and for a few glorious hours (no one quite knows how long the power was out and the COs caught unawares; it’s as though time has stopped, or lost all meaning), the forty-one girls housed at Aurora Hills get a taste of the freedom long denied them. Some, like Amber’s cellmate D’amour, make a run for it – only to be carved open by the barbed wire atop the first fence, and then burned to a crisp by the middle, electrified fence. Others overtake the various wings – A, B, C, even D, which houses the suicides – ransacking the canteen and causing general mayhem.

But Amber? Despite her protestations that none of them are special (“…the exact opposite of special. We were bad. Broken. It was up to the state to rehabilitate us into something worthy, if it even could.”), that night Amber is afforded something very special indeed: a glimpse of their future.

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Book Review: The Girl on the Train: A Novel, Paula Hawkins (2015)

Friday, January 16th, 2015

Losing Control – and Finding it Again

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

Rachel Watson’s life is in shambles. After she was unable to conceive a child with her then-husband, Tom, Rachel’s social drinking quickly spiraled out of control. Eventually, her struggle with alcoholism cost Rachel everything: her marriage, her friends, her home, her job, her dignity – even her memories and sense of self. Rachel doesn’t just get drunk, she gets flat-out wasted, with frequent blackouts and periods of lost time. Forced to move in with an old college acquaintance, taking the 8:04 train from Ashbury to Euston every weekend so that her landlady Cathy won’t know that she was fired from her job, Rachel thinks she’s hit rock bottom, or just about. And then she sees something on her morning commute that she shouldn’t, thrusting her into a whole new realm of awful.

The train to London conveniently carries Rachel past her old house, which Tom now shares with his new wife, Anna, and their baby daughter, Evie. Needless to say, this does little to help Rachel get over the hurt and trauma and move on with her life; in fact, she frequently stalks and harasses “the other woman” (though rarely without the boost of some “liquid courage”). Four doors down lives an attractive and (seemingly) adoring young couple. Nicknamed “Jason and Jess” by Rachel, the two serve as a blank slate onto which she projects all the hopes and dreams she once had for herself and Tom. Her emotional investment in their relationship is such that, when Rachel spots Jess kissing a man who most definitely is not Jason, Rachel feels personally betrayed.

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Mini-Review: Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn (2012)

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Couldn’t put it down!

five out of five stars

(Caution: minor spoilers in the second paragraph.)

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

This is a story about two shitty people, trapped in a shitty marriage, and their mostly shitty parents and occasionally shitty friends. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the dearth of likable characters and the absence of a clear hero to root for, Gone Girl is a remarkably enjoyable read: witty, darkly humorous, wickedly fun. Even though I knew that there would be a major plot twist – and had a good guess as to its nature – Flynn still managed to surprise me, with multiple smaller twists beyond the first biggie. The overall structure of the book (Boy Loses Girl; Boy Meets Girl; Boy Gets Girl Back) serves the story well, and Flynn’s writing style is both entertaining and trenchant, and keeps the plot moving forward at a steady pace. GONE GIRL is a longish novel that feels lengthy – but in the best way possible. There’s so much action and observation crammed into these 400+ pages that I never got bored with it.

Gone Girl is ripe for deeper analysis: of the dynamics of interpersonal violence; rape culture; media sensationalism; the recession and erosion of the American middle class; sexism and misogyny; and gender roles and shifting expectations (Amy’s infamous “Cool Girl” rant comes to mind). For example, Amy’s false rape accusations are deeply troubling and play into rape apologist talking points (women lie about rape for their own benefit). Then again, she’s a sociopath! She hides jars of her own vomit inside frozen Brussels sprouts bags, and steals her pregnant neighbor’s urine. None of her actions really translate to an IRL setting. Which is why I (mostly) powered my thinking cap down for this one, and enjoyed it for what it was: crazy, crazy fun.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Not much. Betsy Bolt – defense attorney Tanner Bolt’s wife – is a 6′ tall, stunningly beautiful (and highly intelligent) black woman, which catches Nick off guard – he expected a WASP like her husband.

 

Book Review: She Is Not Invisible, Marcus Sedgwick (2014)

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

“Coincidences mean you’re on the right path.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program.)

She Is Not Invisible is not at all what I was expecting.

“Laureth Peak’s father has taught her to look for recurring events, patterns, and numbers–a skill at which she’s remarkably talented. Her secret: She is blind. But when her father goes missing, Laureth and her 7-year-old brother Benjamin are thrust into a mystery that takes them to New York City where surviving will take all her skill at spotting the amazing, shocking, and sometimes dangerous connections in a world full of darkness. She Is Not Invisible is an intricate puzzle of a novel that sheds a light on the delicate ties that bind people to each other.”

Somehow from this blurb, I came away with the idea that She Is Not Invisible is set in Las Vegas. With supernatural/scifi elements, possibly involving a blind teenage protagonist endowed with special powers; cue images of Laureth cleaning up at the poker table while fleeing from the law/loan sharks/the mafia/some other Big Bad with her kidnapped younger brother in tow. Needless to say, this only resembles the actual plot in the slightest.

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Book Review: Elizabeth Is Missing, Emma Healey (2014)

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

A Murder Mystery for the Ages

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an ARC for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program.)

Elizabeth is missing.

Caught in the grip of dementia, Maud Horsham has trouble remembering even the simplest of things: When she last ate. Why there’s an annoying white mitten covering one hand. How she came to be in a certain room, and what for. The name of this strange, freckled blond woman standing next to her. Who she is, or used to be.

Yet one thought continues to gnaw at her, to taunt Maud from the scraps of paper stuffed into her purse, filling her pockets, and wedged between her couch cushions: her best friend Elizabeth is missing. Elizabeth is in danger. She must find Elizabeth.

But no one will listen to a dotty old lady. (Maud’s words, not mine.) Not her daughter Helen, or her granddaughter Katy (though Katy is much kinder in her humoring of Maud than Helen). Not her carer Carla, who is nonetheless quick to scare Maud with tales of the victimized elderly. Not the police she visits frequently at the station, nor Elizabeth’s son Peter – who is most likely the one behind her disappearance, the miserly boy.

In Maud’s eighty-odd years, Elizabeth isn’t the first loved one to vanish with hardly a trace. When she was just fifteen, her older sister Susan – Sukey to her friends – went missing. The year was 1946, and the police chalked her disappearance up to a “hasty war marriage” – marriages committed to in the heat of the moment supposedly led to droves of missing persons reports as women fled husbands, newly returned from WWII, they found they hardly knew. (“WOMEN: CONTACT YOUR HUSBANDS” screamed one newspaper headline.) Husband Frank, who was already under investigation for coupon fraud, became the Palmers’ primary suspect; secretly Maud also wondered whether their lodger Douglas was to blame. Maud’s mother died not knowing what became of her daughter.

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Book Review: The Shadow Year, Hannah Richell (2014)

Friday, June 6th, 2014

A Tense Psychological Drama

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program. Trigger warning for rape and violence. The second half of the review contains spoilers, which are clearly marked as such.)

The Peak District cottage couldn’t have dropped into Lila’s lap at a better time. Still mourning the death of her five-day-old infant Milly – and haunted by the accident that sent Lila into labor two months prematurely, the details of which still elude her – Lila needs a change of a scenery, a project to keep her busy, and (perhaps most of all) some time away from her husband Tom. Long since abandoned and falling steadily into disrepair, the remote, diamond-in-the-rough cabin certainly fits the bill.

Adding to the cottage’s air of mystery is its unknown origins: this was an anonymous gift. Lila’s father, recently struck down by a heart attack, is the most likely benefactor; but the lawyers are holding fast to their client’s wishes, leaving Lila to speculate about the cabin’s original owner and his intentions in gifting this beautiful and seemingly untouched piece of land to her.

This is in July. For the next twelve months – “The Shadow Year” – Lila’s story alternates, month-by-month, with the events that transpired in the cabin in the summer of 1980 through 1981. The beginning of the flashback story sees five college friends – Kat, Carla, Ben, Mac, and Simon – visit the lake one lazy summer afternoon. Newly graduated and facing the daunting prospect of finding employment in the face of a recession, the friends decide to claim the seemingly abandoned cottage as their own. Instead of jumping on the treadmill to adulthood, they embark upon a one-year project to see if they can rough it on their own.

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