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: All Is Not Forgotten, Wendy Walker (2016)

Wednesday, July 20th, 2016

Mesmerizing — and also a little maddening!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC though NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including rape.)

I was a child with a box of matches.

It seems so easy, doesn’t it? To just erase the past. But now you know better.

Jilted by some jerk named Doug, fifteen-year-old Jenny Kramer flees from the party he’d invited her to – only to cross paths with a predator. Jenny is assaulted and raped in the woods surrounding her classmate’s house. A few of her fellow party-goers hear Jenny’s cries and rush to her aid, but not until the hour-long attack has ended, and the perpetrator escaped.

Upon her arrival at the hospital, the doctors immediately administer a sedative so that they can perform an exam and then surgery. With her parents’ consent, they also subject Jenny to a controversial treatment to erase her memories of the trauma. A combination of morphine and Benzatral, the treatment is meant to induce limited anterograde amnesia in patients: preventing short-term memories from being filed away in long-term storage. (While this does feel a little science fiction-y, according to the author’s note, the premise is based on emerging research, most notably on veterans suffering from PTSD.)

While the treatment initially appears successful – inasmuch as Jenny has no memories of the rape – Jenny’s mental state slowly begins to unravel. She suffers from anxiety and insomnia; she begins to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs; and, eight months later, she attempts suicide.

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Book Review: Listen to Me, Hannah Pittard (2016)

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

Nope, no thanks, not for me.

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

Mark and Maggie’s annual drive east to visit family has gotten off to a rocky start. By the time they’re on the road, it’s late, a storm is brewing, and they are no longer speaking to one another. Adding to the stress, Maggie — recently mugged at gunpoint — is lately not herself, and Mark is at a loss about what to make of the stranger he calls his wife. Forced to stop for the night at a remote inn, completely without power, Maggie’s paranoia reaches an all-time and terrifying high. But when Mark finds himself threatened in a dark parking lot, it’s Maggie who takes control.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

Surely I can’t be the only one envisioning a Roaring Rampage of Revenge after reading this description? Picture it: months after being mugged at gunpoint and knocked unconscious in an alley, Maggie once again finds herself in a perilous position. Only this time’s she’s ready. Prepared. Expecting it, even, thanks to the PTSD and anxiety and depression. And she fights back. Kicks some serious ass. Maybe comes to her husband Mark’s rescue. Mark, the same guy who’s spent the better part of a year tiptoeing around her, walking on eggshells, maybe even scoffed at her paranoia, once or twice, when he thought she wasn’t looking. Bonus points if he’s entertained fantasies about how he would have protected HIS WOMAN, if only he had been there when it happened. But now that he is, he’s paralyzed with fear, unable to protect himself, let alone his wife. Yeah. That’s what I’d expected, going into Listen to Me.

As it turns out, this is the most misleading yet still dead accurate book description I’ve seen in a while. Maybe ever. Certainly in recent memory.

Here are three reasons why I disliked Listen to Me, from least to most spoilery:

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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: The 100 Year Miracle: A Novel, Ashley Ream (2016)

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you…

four out of five stars

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

It did things to people, this miracle. Strange and not wholly wonderful things.

“Do you know what it’s like to be terrified of a shower?” Harry asked. Rachel did know. Unfamiliar showers sometimes had abrupt changes in temperature, which hurt her back terribly, but she did not say this to Harry, who had continued talking without her. […]

Most people, Rachel knew, didn’t want you to talk about your pain, not unless it was temporary like a twisted ankle or hitting your thumb with a hammer. If you did not hold up your end of the bargain and get better, things fell apart quickly. People would avoid you. It was easier to keep hidden, and she felt sorry for Harry because he could not hide.

Every hundred years, the Artemia lucis – tiny, eight millimeter long arthropods – come alive. They hatch from ancient eggs and spend the next six days mating, or trying to, before laying the next generation of eggs and dying. During the nighttime, they emit a neon green glow, turning the whole of Olloo’et Bay – their only known habitat – into a wondrous light show. The phenomenon is known as The 100 Year Miracle.

Yet, despite the colloquialism, few people are aware of the insects’ more miraculous properties. The (fictional) Olloo’et – southern Northwest Coast peoples who resided on (the fictional) Olloo’et Island until they were forcibly relocated in the 1920s – believed the (fictional) Artemia lucis sacred. During their infrequent periods of activity, the Olloo’et men partook in a ceremony: accompanied by a shaman and tribal leader, the men spent six days and nights drinking the bay’s water (complete with insects), which had hallucinogenic effects. The men reported having visions, slipped into trances, experienced great physical pleasure – and even claimed that the bugs cured their physical illnesses. Occasionally someone died; “usually by walking out into the water and never coming back.”

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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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Coming Soon: Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin (Excerpt)

Monday, August 3rd, 2015


 

For fans of Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn comes an electrifying novel of stunning psychological suspense.

I am the star of screaming headlines and campfire ghost stories.
I am one of the four Black-Eyed Susans.
The lucky one.

As a sixteen-year-old, Tessa Cartwright was found in a Texas field, barely alive amid a scattering of bones, with only fragments of memory as to how she got there. Ever since, the press has pursued her as the lone surviving “Black-Eyed Susan,” the nickname given to the murder victims because of the yellow carpet of wildflowers that flourished above their shared grave. Tessa’s testimony about those tragic hours put a man on death row.

Now, almost two decades later, Tessa is an artist and single mother. In the desolate cold of February, she is shocked to discover a freshly planted patch of black-eyed susans—a summertime bloom—just outside her bedroom window. Terrified at the implications—that she sent the wrong man to prison and the real killer remains at large—Tessa turns to the lawyers working to exonerate the man awaiting execution. But the flowers alone are not proof enough, and the forensic investigation of the still-unidentified bones is progressing too slowly. An innocent life hangs in the balance. The legal team appeals to Tessa to undergo hypnosis to retrieve lost memories—and to share the drawings she produced as part of an experimental therapy shortly after her rescue.

What they don’t know is that Tessa and the scared, fragile girl she was have built a fortress of secrets. As the clock ticks toward the execution, Tessa fears for her sanity, but even more for the safety of her teenaged daughter. Is a serial killer still roaming free, taunting Tessa with a trail of clues? She has no choice but to confront old ghosts and lingering nightmares to finally discover what really happened that night.

Shocking, intense, and utterly original, Black-Eyed Susans is a dazzling psychological thriller, seamlessly weaving past and present in a searing tale of a young woman whose harrowing memories remain in a field of flowers—as a killer makes a chilling return to his garden.

I was lucky enough to review an early copy of Julia Heaberlin’s upcoming title, Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense through NetGalley. My review isn’t set to be published until next week, but spoiler alert!: The title doe not lie. This is one twisty turny thriller, populated by memorable characters and with a mystery that’ll keep you guessing until the very end. I had trouble tearing myself away.

Black-Eyed Susans comes out on August 11th, but I have excerpt to share, courtesy of Penguin Random House. I was hooked from page one, and I hope you will be too!

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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: The Shining Girls: A Novel, Lauren Beukes (2014)

Monday, October 13th, 2014

Deserves every bit of the buzz – and then some!

five out of five stars

My introduction to Lauren Beukes came in the form of Broken Monsters, an ARC of which I had the pleasure of reviewing last month. Though I fell in love with Beukes’ writing style – the playful use of pop culture references, the skillful interweaving of multiple narratives and POVs, the casual interrogation of racism and sexism – the particular blend of fantasy/SF and crime fiction found in Broken Monsters didn’t quite do it for me. Thinking that it might work better in The Shining Girls, I bumped it up to the top of my TBR pile. I know it’s a little tired to say that this book shines, but. Yeah, it kind of does.

Harper is a psychopath living in a Chicago Hooverville circa 1931 when he robs a blind woman of her coat – in the pocket of which he finds a key, which leads him to the House. His House. By all appearances a dilapidated shack, once Harper steps through the front door, it magically transforms itself a mansion – shiny, new, and opulent – just for him. And when he passes through the front door again, he can step out onto any time he can imagine…just so long as the day falls somewhere between 1931 and 1993.

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Book Review: The Half Life of Molly Pierce, Katrina Leno (2014)

Monday, October 6th, 2014

An Unexpectedly Heartfelt Look at Mental Illness

five out of five stars

(Trigger warning for depression and suicide. Also, this review is of an ARC. Any mistakes are mine and not the author’s or publisher’s.)

Seventeen-year-old Molly Pierce is blacking out. Losing time. Sometimes it’s just a few minutes; other times, hours or even most of a day passes before she comes to. One afternoon, the Massachusetts native was halfway to New York before she woke up behind the wheel of her car.

Though this has been going on for a year, Molly can’t tell anyone: Not her parents, who already walk on eggshells around her as it is; not her sister Hazel or brother Clancy; not her best friends Erie and Luka; not even her psychiatrist Alex. She’s too afraid of what might happen. She’ll be labeled “crazy,” shipped off to a “loony bin,” perhaps. Plus, talking about it? Giving voice to her problems? Makes them real. If she can just pretend to be normal, maybe she will be. Eventually.

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Book Review: Broken Monsters, Lauren Beukes (2014)

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

The Shining Girls just got bumped to the top of my TBR pile!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program. Also, trigger warning for sexual assault.)

There’s a monster loose in Detroit. A whole lot of them, actually.

First and foremost is the so-called “Detroit Monster,” whose story forms the backbone of Broken Monsters: The sick you-know-what leaving a trail of dead bodies disguised as art installations across the city, starting with an eleven-year-old boy named Daveyton Lafonte. From the navel up, the killer fused his mutilated body onto the lower portion of a deer’s using meat glue. (Google it.)

But there’s also Philip Low, the middle-aged electrical engineer with the undeservedly kind face, who trolls the ‘net for young girls using the pseudonym “VelvetBoy”; Jonno, a “citizen journalist” from New York City, who exploits tragedy for page hits under the guise of journalistic integrity; and the adolescent boys of Hines High School, who think nothing of sharing a video of their classmate’s sexual assault – and then re-enacting the trauma for laughs.

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