Review: Little Secrets

Little Secrets: A Novel by [Jennifer Hillier]
Click to buy Little Secrets on Amazon.

Happy publication day to author Jennifer Hillier and Minotaur Books for Little Secrets! In case you don’t read any further (I suggest avoiding as much as you can!), the take-away here is, GO GET THIS BOOK! This is one of those rare books that actually lives up to its Girl on the Train or Gone Girl comparisons that sellers love to tout– though such high praise is usually aspirational, if not entirely inappropriate.

For a book populated with unlikable characters, Little Secrets is surprisingly enjoyable. I read a lot of books in this genre, and am consistently disappointed, but I have to hand it to Jennifer Hillier here, because this is definitely one of the better psychological thrillers to come out over the last year.
I’d recommend going into it blindly, as I did, but if you need to know more, read on:
It’s hard to describe what makes this book stand out from an over-saturated genre, since the kidnapped child scenario is so common, as are the characters (philandering husband, distraught wife, younger, Instagram-addicted mistress). I think, actually, what makes it great is that Hillier doesn’t care about her characters’ likability. The central protagonist, Marin, who is the ‘victim’ in that she has lost her son and now her husband, is not ‘innocent’– she is rash, jealous, and even homicidal. This is one of the rare instances where an author isn’t trying to shove any characters down your throat, or throwing in gratuitous ‘save the cat’ moments (i.e. obviously-plotted scenes which are meant to endear the reader/viewer to a character, even though he/she may be difficult). Hillier operates with a confidence so rarely possessed by authors and a trust so rarely given to readers, knowing that her plot is tight enough to keep us engaged and that we’re smart enough to stick with morally complex and/or despicable characters. I call this the Hannibal Lecter approach. While it’s difficult to achieve as an author, it’s so much more rewarding as a reader when you get to read and cheer for characters you love to hate or hate to love.

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Review: You Were There Too

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Meeting the literal man of your dreams? Sign me up!

I knew I was going to like this book based solely on the premise. The question was, would the writing be brilliant enough that I’d LOVE it? Would it compare to some of my favorites, like Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Maybe In Another Life and Jill Santopolo’s The Light We Lost? You Were There Too bears enough resemblance to those two that I did stick with it, despite feeling let down in the first half.

As with its title, You Were There Too suffers from some clunky writing that, had it been elevated, could have been up there with the aforementioned comparisons. Take a second and compare “You Were There Too”, to “The Light We Lost”– both are simple strings of four words, but the latter has a certain poetry to it, which is present throughout Santopolo’s entire novel, lending it a literary quality. Dissimilarly , Oakley’s novel is just a bit coarse or unpolished. This book is high-concept, average-execution. But the main issue here is that the author wanted this to be a love triangle, where both of Mia’s love interests were equally compelling and worthy. Unfortunately, the draw of the story for me was the promise of the man of one’s dreams, which is compromised by the need to balance him with the protagonist’s husband. 

All of that being said, Oakley’s novel is worth reading. It’s a good story, and, most of all, the end is shocking and completely unexpected. First, the person she chooses is NOT who I would’ve expected, though I respect her decision immensely and think it’s a great lesson for readers. We’re often so caught up in the romance of things that we forget the practicalities. It’s so easy to vilify people in real life who take the ‘grass is always greener’ approach, abandoning their tried-and-true spouses in favor of the newer, hotter, younger thing. Yet, in fiction, we often yearn for our female protagonists to seek freedom or red, hot, lust, or the perfect man (never mind the impossibility of such). Sure, it’s just escapist entertainment, letting our imaginations run wild. But amid a vast expanse of said escapism, it’s refreshing to read something real. (Like dreaming up a man and then meeting him, right? Haha). Maybe because the plot hinges on a pseduo-supernatural occurrence, Oakley decided to take an anti-Romance (capital R, as in the genre) cliche stance. She upends all expectations, and then, throws in a final twist worthy of a great thriller or mystery. Fans of the genre be damned, Colleen Oakley is coming for you, locked and loaded, with this ending.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Buy You Were There Too on Amazon here.

Review: Sin Eater

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Did ever a more perfect cover exist? I think not. That, coupled with the fascinating synopsis, made me more excited than I’ve been in a while for a new book. What a phenomenal concept, right? Somehow, I’ve made nearly three decades without having ever heard of a ‘sin eater’. According to Wikipedia, “A sin-eater is a person who consumes a ritual meal in order to spiritually take on the sins of a deceased person.”, though it seems there actually isn’t a ton of information on the subject. Given that, I assume Campisi must have made up a lot of the practices, as well as creating from scratch the experiences a sin eater might have had. Though imagined (i.e. fantasy), the world feels vivid, almost historical, in its depiction. But it is the unique plot of this novel that really sets it apart from other novels and makes it a worthwhile read. Where it fails to forge a connection with/between characters– due to the difficulty inherent in writing a story in which the protagonist cannot converse with others– it succeeds in its originality and storyline. I think this is one of those rare instances where the movie adaptation would be better than the book, because this world is so visceral and visual.

Comparing this book to Alice in Wonderland makes absolutely no sense to me. Handmaid’s Tale, I sort of get in that it’s dystopian (though it could be described as such, rather than compared to a book to which it bears little resemblance). I would describe this as dystopian YA-meets-historical fiction, as its tone is more like historical fiction than fantasy. The dark content may make it a tough read for strictly-YA readers, so perhaps this would be best for those more advanced readers who have graduated from Hunger Games, The Selection, etc., but aren’t yet ready for (or interested in) more literary works.

Rating: 3.5/5, rounded up to 4 for Goodreads.

Pre-order Sin Eater on Amazon here.

Review: Musical Chairs

Musical Chairs

This book isn’t scheduled to be released for a while, but I’m going to do something I’ve never done before and post a pre-review, because this should definitely be on your radar. Stay tuned for my full review, which will be posted on publication day, July 20, 2020. Let me know in the comments if you’re excited to read Musical Chairs, or if you’re already a fan of Amy Poeppel!

Let’s start with: this is not my usual fare. I almost exclusively read and review books with twenty-or early-thirty-something protagonists, often set in urban landscapes, with edgy subject matters and/or a biting sense of wit. Musical Chairs has none of that. Instead, it is a tame book about family dynamics, set in rural Connecticut, with a middle-aged protagonist and zero Millennial angst.  Nevertheless, I genuinely enjoyed this book, which is a testament to Amy Poeppel’s writing. There’s not a ton going on here as far as plot, but the characters are all well-developed and the world feels immediately available for entering and viewing, as flies on the water-dampened walls of Bridget’s home. Usually, I’ve found with novels like this, the details drown out all else, but Poeppel manages the fine balance of detail, dialogue, and action. Her skills are so evident that I plan to go back and read her previous work, Small Admissions.

This will be popular among book club enthusiasts, for its quaint story that opens up larger discussions of what it is to be a middle-aged woman, raising children who are struggling to find their way, taking care of aging parents, and having a life of one’s own romantically and professionally. How does the modern woman navigate all of life’s nooks and crannies (which is what it is here, rather than the cliche ‘ups and downs’)? While this isn’t the book you’d go to for thrills, laughs, or a steamy romance, it is the perfect book with which to curl up on a rainy day.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Pre-order Musical Chairs on Amazon here.

Review: The Twin

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Revitalizing, or perhaps just revisiting, the evil twin trope, Natasha Preston’s novel The Twin is serving up plenty of drama and tension as ‘good twin’ Ivy has her life torn apart by similarly-flora-named Iris. In the blurb about the book on Goodreads, it seems Ivy may have undergone a name change between the ARC and print, so if that’s confusing, I think her name may actually be Emmy now, which feels less schlocky. As for the cover and why it’s a rose that has been decapitated rather than an Iris, I’m not sure. Although that wouldn’t make sense either, since Ivy/Emmy is the one being attacked. I did read another psychological thriller recently that featured decapitated roses being sent to a protagonist as a gift (Follow Me), but I don’t recall anything having to do with that here.

Okay, okay, let me get down off my high horse, before I get too crazy with this review. This book is meant for a young adult audience, perhaps ideally suited for those teens who will go on to be avid fans of Mary Kubica, Gillian Flynn, etc. It’s not too mature or gruesome, but it is diabolical enough to appeal to that audience, so I think it has actually achieved what it set out to do. It can’t, or shouldn’t, be compared to those great thrillers because it’s in an entirely different sub-genre. This is meant to be compared to One of Us is Lying or We Were Liars, and I think it’s of the same quality in terms of writing. Where it will struggle is that, while it has all of the same, soapy high-school dramz, it doesn’t successfully build compelling relationships that are so necessary for YA. I didn’t feel invested in Ivy’s relationships with her friends, boyfriend, or dad.

The weakest part of this book is its ending. I think it was meant to be a cliffhanger, but it came across as rushed and unfinished, or else confusing and I didn’t ‘get it’. At first, I thought that Ivy being institutionalized was leading us to discover that she had been on her own the entire time and there was no twin. But I don’t think that was actually the case. Instead, I think she’s just locked up, with Iris on the loose, and we’re supposed to want to read the sequel to find out what havoc Iris will wreak and whether Ivy is able to prove her innocence.

If you’ve read this book, would love to know what you thought of the ending in the comments!

Rating: 2.5/5

Buy The Twin on Amazon Here.

Review: The Body: A Guide for Occupants

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I’m not sure exactly how I came across this book, but I have been meaning to read it for months now, and started listening to the audiobook, which is read by Bryson himself. There’s really no one better to do the recording, as Bryson is not only a master at writing science that is easily digestible, but is also a deft storyteller, with his posh British accent and inflections ensuring engagement. And, you guys, BILL BRYSON IS THE KING OF SNARK. Part of me wishes I had read it in print, as so often, Bryson’s wording skewed towards the poetic, especially in the first half of the book. However, listening to the audio form felt like an extended TED Talk, carefully treading the lines between too much and too little information and giving a bit of a pop-science feel to it all, with its quick facts, statistics, and historical bits woven together. He’s also so devilishly clever, and I loved being able to hear his sometimes-macabre humor and sense of irony and slight sarcasm come through his voice.

My only ‘con’ about this book is that it did feel a bit long-winded. I wouldn’t say any chapters should (or could) be struck, but I think there are places where some of the more dense science bogs down the rest of the book. It took me over a month to get through it, so I could see how it might lose readers as it dives into the body at a cellular level. Nevertheless, this book should be required reading or listening. I think if science/biology were taught like this in school, far more bright, if disinterested, minds would be engrossed in the material.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Buy The Body: A Guide for Occupants on Amazon here. 

Review: Follow Me

Follow Me

As if my anxieties about social media weren’t heightened enough, here comes Kathleen Barber’s Follow Me to tug on my nerves even more! I’ll be Amazon Prime-ing myself a webcam cover now, thank you very much.

Truth be told (and I never hold back), I wasn’t expecting much of this book when I requested it for review. Social media stars and stalkers, sounds interesting but sort of played out at this point. However, this book is actually well done, with its multiple perspectives keeping you on your toes at all times. Barber is skilled at planting clues that are obvious only in hindsight. Looking back, I’m not sure how I didn’t know who “Him” was, but that’s the draw of this book. While a lot of mystery fiction tries to mislead you by portraying the person who did it as innocent, here the author populates the narrative with several viable suspects, trying to convince you that any one of them is the likely culprit. At each moment, you’re convinced ‘oh, it must be _______’, but that person keeps changing. So, in the end, you’ll likely find you’ve guessed it at some point, but you likely didn’t know for sure until it’s revealed.

The end, for me, was where this book lost me as it really goes over the top. Can I suspend my disbelief over the whole ‘neighbor breaks and enters on the regular, but the protagonist overlooks it’ plot line? That was trying, but I went along with it. But once the ‘Him’ is revealed, there’s another ‘twist’ that jumped the shark. This is all the more frustrating given that it’s unnecessary. The book was strong enough to stand without that last point, but it seems like the writer and editor(s) didn’t quite know when to quit.

Overall, Follow Me is a strong entry in a dense space, with its timely subject matter, effective but not preachy message, and great pacing.

Rating; 4/5 stars

Order Follow Me on Amazon here.

Review: Such A Fun Age

10 Books We Can't Wait To Get Our Hands On In 2020 ...

 

Oookay, so I’m a bit behind the times on this one. Just as it took me a while to finally read Queenie, which I also wound up loving, I was slow to dive into Such a Fun Age. Why? Because honestly, there’s enough divisiveness and racial tension in the world, and quite frankly, I usually look to reading as an escape. For the same reasons, I often pass up heavier literary fiction because my reading time is sort of a meditative thing I do for pleasure. However, these books that take me a bit to decide to actually commit to reading frequently become some of my favorites. See: anything by David Foster Wallace and Julian Barnes, The Secret History, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, etc.)
ANYWAY, let’s focus. Kiley Reid’s debut novel, Such a Fun Age is phenomenal. It does exactly what great contemporary fiction is supposed to do in that it feels effortless and easy to digest, but underneath it lies a cultural commentary which provokes further thought. I love when a book stays with me, and this one certainly has. The story here is simple, without much in the way of action, and focuses on domestic issues, with race, wealth inequality, and societal status all playing a role. It all feels completely believable, and Reid succeeds in creating tension among the characters without having to cram anything down your throat. There’s no ‘bad guy/gal’ here, nor is there a ‘good guy/gal’; instead, the characters are all flawed in their own ways, but we get the sense that each of them is trying to do their best to get by, which is generally the case in real life. So often, authors get trapped in their own story, letting their own emotions get the best of them so that they create one-dimensional characters in order to force their agenda.

Here, I think all of the characters are likable to an extent– maybe because I know so many people who are exactly like Alix and Kelley, as well as Emira and Zara. It was great to see some satirical moments in which Reid subtly calls out the woke folk for their hypocrisy and their use of ethnic friends as a way to gain cultural currency. I think this book really hit home for me, though, because I was raised by an African American nanny, and I have always consistently felt more comfortable around African American people, or a ethnically mixed group of people, than I do around a group of people who are my own race. Why? I have no idea. Maybe it brings back my childhood. Or maybe because I find African American people in particular to be more warm and welcoming of me (just speaking from my own experiences here, not generalizing). I don’t know. But whatever the case may be, I am aware that this is odd, and as I look back on my childhood, I can see how complicated the relationship can become when people are paid to essentially be a part of the family. There’s a commodification of love and care, but also there’s a question as to whether the relationship, forged only as a result of an exchange of money, is made false because of its very nature? Or is it possible that the relationship is real, regardless of the transactional element? I think this book does a great job exploring that, as Emira does truly grow close to Briar and vice versa.

Rating: 4.5/5, rounded up.

Buy Such A Fun Age on Amazon here.

Review: The Other Mrs.

The Other Mrs.

If you’ve read any of my other reviews either here or on Goodreads, you’ve probably noticed a common thread: I can’t help but compare every psychological thriller to Mary Kubica. And almost without fail, I find the book/author I’m holding up for scrutiny to be lacking in comparison. I have a deep love for her complex female characters and intricate plots. The Other Mrs. (Not to be confused with The Other Mrs. Miller, which is another novel in the same genre and of the same quality as this one) is Kubica’s latest effort, and it serves up all of the goodness we’ve come to expect from the author.
Female-centered psychological thriller? Check.
Unreliable narrator(s)? Check.
Twists and turns? Check.
Quick pacing? Check!
Several times, I found myself thinking ‘ugh, this is so predictable, it’s obviously the husband/the creepy son/the troubled teen girl/the jilted ex-wife’, lured into believing at various turns that I had outsmarted the author, but these are almost all red herrings. In the end, Kubica successfully pulls the rug out from under you, which is all the more shocking because she’s never deliberately hiding information as so many more amateur authors do. Instead, she trusts in her reader, knowing we’ll fill in the blanks (incorrectly), thus helping veil the truth.
All of that being said, this isn’t my favorite of her books because of the way all of the truths are veiled. There’s a mental illness plot point here that I found to be a bit of a cop out. Though it is well plotted, it ultimately left me feeling a bit jipped. It’s sort of like the cliche “it was all just a dream” ending, but with more eye rolls, because it has the added element of being a bit far-fetched, too.

In comparing this to her other novels, I’d say it’s firmly in the high-middle– below The Good Girl and Pretty Baby, but above the rest. This feels much more polished and intentional than some of her recent books, which seemed like they had been rushed.

Rating: 3.75/5 stars, rounded up to 4 for Goodreads.

Buy The Other Mrs on Amazon here.

Review: The Love Solution

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I’d give Ashley Croft’s The Love Solution a 2.5, as it really was just okay, but after having looked at the other reviews, I decided to round up to 3 stars (on Goodreads) because I don’t believe a book’s quality should be assessed based on the moral judgements of its readers. It’s one thing to say a book is poorly written, constructed, plotted, or its characters are one dimensional, etc. But to say ‘this book is not good because I disagree with the morality of the characters, choosing to use a love potion’, is silly. Not that I think the Love Bug story points add to the quality of the book as a whole; in fact, I actually think the book could’ve done without that bit entirely, and would’ve perhaps been stronger, as that whole back and forth was ultimately a bit pointless, and the characters and relationships were interesting enough on their own. Also, characters are meant to be flawed– and sure, maybe *you* are the kind of person who maintains utmost integrity, even in the face of heartbreak, and you would never succumb to your own desperate misery. But I’m not going to pretend for one single second that I couldn’t be led down a ‘dark path’, or that I’d label someone who did resort to something like a magic love pill as a ‘bad person’. Yeah, there are ethical issues with that– that’s precisely why we have Science Fiction (or, in this case, Romantic Comedies with Sci-Fi-Light elements), to extrapolate and tease out the potential pitfalls of such medical and technological advancements.

Outside of all that, The Love Solution is truly mediocre. It’s the kind of thing you pick up because you’ve exhausted everything other option, or because there’s a secondhand copy on sale for $1.99. Funny enough, after I wrote this review, I went to pull the Amazon link and it is indeed being offered for… $1.99. At least the publisher is aware what they have here, and they’re not price gouging their customers. It feels like it has been churned out, a bottom of the barrel tale that the author spruced up so she could make that next mortgage payment. It all feels very dated, in its language and domesticity, as if it was either created twenty years ago, or else is intended for an audience of senior citizens who prefer a more tame story. And, by the way, I don’t mean that as a cut down; I think it could be successful in assisted living book circles, and there’s not a ton geared towards that demographic.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Buy The Love Solution on Amazon here.