Review: The Half Sister

The Half Sister

Having not read The Other Woman, Sandie Jones was a new author to me, and this book didn’t disappoint. I went in completely blind, only scanning the synopsis, so I was expecting your more typical over-dramatized psychological thriller. Is the half sister who she says she is? Is she out for some kind of vengeance? Though those questions do come up, this is truly a domestic thriller, by which I mean that it’s far quieter than its genre-siblings.
For me, what tipped the scales from a 4-star to a 3-star is that I often found myself lost in who is who re: Lauren and Kate. While they’re “complete opposites”, they didn’t have distinct voices, so I kept having to rely on context clues: which one has the family, which one is struggling with fertility? It would’ve worked better for me had they been differentiated by their voices.
The end of the book is also a bit cacophonous, which stands in stark contrast to everything before it. It’s so rooted in reality and then, I assume to give us some meaty plot twists, there is a whole potential fake abortion plot that comes from out of nowhere, as well as calling into question the DNA test, which makes no sense. As the author tries to fake us out, so that we don’t see the rather-obvious answer, it all gets rather convoluted.
Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a softer thriller, as it is an enjoyable read and it doesn’t have much in the way of gruesome details or violence, which is a nice break from the expected.

Review: Who Did You Tell?

Who Did You Tell? is a decent read, though it’s not breaking any ground in the already-crowded niche of female-centered psychological thrillers. Like the seaside town in which it is set, Astrid’s story is mild, with a pervasive air of domesticity. While I like the idea of a sleepy town, I’m not sure that it helped the story here because they play off one another, resulting in an overall sense of flatness. When the story finally picks up and tensions grow with the whodunnit (i.e. who is Astrid’s stalker, and what does she want?), it becomes confusing. There are too many characters related to Astrid’s late ex, that make it feel too coincidental– or, plainly, plotted.
I think this book is truly middling. It’s worth the read, if it lands in your lap, but it wouldn’t be something I’d recommend going out of your way to procure.

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: 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: 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: An Anonymous Girl

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Let us first acknowledge the elephant in the room: the only thing sillier than the cover art is the title. There. Now those issues are out of the way, we can move on to the book, which is quite a good one. If you’ve been following my reviews on Goodreads, you know I read a lot of female-focused psychological thrillers, so it’s tough to find anything unique, that I haven’t already read ten times before. Even more difficult is finding something that compares to Mary Kubica or Gillian Flynn, who I think are some of the finest authors in the genre— even though I do find quality control issues among their work, too. So often, it feels like psychological thrillers are churned out, without having been edited properly, as if publishers need to feed a voracious audience and are too lazy (or else too swamped) to give any real attention to developing these stories. As a result, much of the fare feels derivative, cliche, melodramatic— even when there’s a good idea at the root, without time and care, that little bulb is not able to blossom into its fullest potential.

Alright, end rant about the genre and focus on the newest effort by Sarah Pekkanan and Greer Hendricks. An Anonymous Girl *cringes at the name* promises exactly the kind of story I enjoy most: full-on psychological thriller, and it mostly delivers. I was immediately hooked, with the introduction of an active protagonist, who is scrappy and a bit morally agnostic. She doesn’t stumble into danger, as is the case in many of these novels; no, she sees an opportunity and takes it, despite the possible dangers, of which she is fully aware. Or, at least, she thinks she’s fully aware, until things begin going off the rails.

 I also loved that from the start, the reader is involved in the experiment and asked to question their own sense of morality. I wish that had been continued a bit more throughout, so that while Jessica is forced to confront her beliefs, her past, and how she should live in the present, so, too are we. 

An Anonymous Girl offers the best sort of cat-and-mouse game, because Jess is not an innocent who gets sucked into a plot. She is smart and savvy and is trying her damndest to out-maneuver her opponent(s), who is/are always just one step ahead. The novel is rife with twists and turns, which last until the very end. Most are successful at building suspense and skirting around expectations, though as it passes the halfway mark, it loses some of its steam. I think that’s the trouble with books that start out so strong: it’s difficult, if not next to impossible, to keep up that level of intrigue. 

Overall, I would definitely recommend checking this one out. I may even check out the authors’ previous bestseller, The Wife Between Us.

 

Rating: 3.75/5 stars (will round up on Goodreads)

Buy An Anonymous Girl on Amazon here.

Review: Watching You

I’ve been off the grid for a bit, buried in work, but still managing to fit in my daily reading, albeit at five AM. So prepare yourselves for a whole lotta Snark– whenever it is that I manage to get caught up.

All of that being said, I’m going to move the book I finished this morning to the front of the queue.  Why? Because, ladies and gentlemen, I have been genuinely surprised. It’s not often that my expectations are met– and far less that they’re exceeded. Now, it could be that my expectations have withered away over the past few months, having read so many mediocre books. But I’m going to give this one the benefit of the doubt. Of course, now that I’ve built it up, it’ll be a let down for you. Oh well.

So what’s the book?

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WATCHING YOU by Lisa Jewell. I had actually forgotten that was the title until now, and I’m realizing that’s probably why my expectations were so low. Don’t judge a book by its [terrible] title, folks. Watching You is about a small neighborhood in Bristol, England, in which everyone seems to be in everyone else’s business– as is the case in most small towns. But we’re quickly introduced to the fact that there has been a murder in this town, and the primary protagonist, Joey, is also the prime suspect. For about half of the book, it’s unclear whether she’s going to be driven to murder the object of her obsessions, or whether the story is about an innocent woman being framed/wrongly convicted. As the story unfolds, twists and turns are revealed regularly, subverting all expectations (I guess this is the theme of our post today). The way the information is revealed and the transitions are both flawlessly executed, with just enough coming out at just the right times, so that everything makes sense  without feeling contrived. There are a few moments that feel too coincidental, but I’ll give those a pass. Jewell’s writing is clear and her characters are multi-dimensional, possessing positive and negative traits that make them seem human. It’s the kind of writing that is made for movie adaptations. There’s no flowery prose in which to get lost, just a driving plot that keeps you turning pages until the very end.

I’ve never read anything by Lisa Jewell, and since I don’t research authors until after I’ve written the majority of my review so as to keep the person separate from the work, but given her long history writing in the genre, it’s making sense that this book is so solid. It definitely reads like the work of a professional– there’s nothing experimental or avant garde here, no sparks of pure brilliance, but it’s very good. The kind of book you’ll have no problems gifting to anyone and everyone.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Buy Watching You on Amazon here.

Review: Spindrift

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Hmm… Where to begin? As with many an avid reader, there’s a special kind of nostalgia I get when returning to books or authors I’ve read as a child. V.C. Andrews was one of those authors I read in that in-between space, when I had already exhausted such fare as A Wrinkle in Time, and was looking for something edgier, but wasn’t quite ready to make the leap to adult or literary fiction. Having already established my affinity for all things macabre or off-center, I was drawn to the gothic tales woven in My Sweet Audrina and Flowers in the Attic, and even more satisfying was the fact that I was the only child in 5th or 6th grade reading such disturbing material, which I happily recounted to my soft-stomached schoolmates.

Given this backstory, I was excited when given the opportunity to read an advance copy of the newest offering by Andrews, Spindrift, about a group of young women who attend an elite academy, only to have one go missing. Gothic mystery fiction, female protagonist(s), academia, and one of my favorite childhood authors– what could be better?

Turns out, A LOT.

This book is not well written. It’s messily-plotted, the characters are superficial, with little to no depth, and there’s hardly a phrase worth re-reading, so clunky and utilitarian is the language. There’s nothing of the sexy gothic mystery, that stomach-churning feeling I so vividly recall from my previous experiences reading V.C. Andrews. And don’t even get me started on the inherent (and accidental) irony of calling this series “The Burden of Brilliance”. You might expect, given that title, the book would be oh-so-clever. And you’d be sorely disappointed. I didn’t even want to bother writing a review, such was my dismay. And then I had a realization:

Hadn’t V.C. Andrews died before I was even born? How was she creating more work? 

Turns out, she wasn’t. 

This book isn’t written by V.C. Andrews at all– which is perhaps the most interesting part of the whole story here. Andrews herself died in 1986. Thirty-two years ago. So now you’re thinking “okay, that’s not weird at all. There are plenty of books posthumously published, plenty of tertiary pieces that remained hidden in a desk drawer, and perhaps this was just one of her lesser works, only recently discovered”. But no, that’s not what’s going on here.

This is a case of ghostwriting, with an emphasis on the ghost part.

Turns out, an author called Andrew Neiderman has been ghostwriting for V.C. Andrews, cashing in on her likeness for years, both on paper and on screen. Neiderman is best known for writing The Devil’s Advocate, which went on to be a widely popular film, though it’s widely regarded as being one of the few films that is better than its original material. I can’t help but feel a bit disgusted by this trickery, not only because it’s a little gross that a publisher would conspire to pass off work that is not Andrews’ herself, but because the writer they chose pales in comparison to Andrews. I have so many questions: when there are so many talented authors out there, why choose someone so subpar?

And more importantly, WHY THE EFF would you choose an older, male writer to ghostwrite for a woman who is known for writing feminine stories, from the perspective of young women, for an audience of young women? 

Gross.

Rating: 1/5

If, against my recommendation, you’d still like to purchase this book, do so at your own risk here. 

 

Review: Jane Doe

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Let’s cut straight to the chase here: this novel isn’t written with an eye towards literature. If we’re strictly focused on the writing, it’s probably a 3. Rarely do I make it through a book that I’m enjoying without stopping regularly to highlight beautiful turns of phrase and philosophical tidbits, yet my copy of Jane Doe is nearly pristine in its lack of notations.
So then how did I come to like this so much? I think maybe it’s precisely because it is so quick-paced and searing. There’s no flourish, but there’s also no fat to trim. It’s cut and dry, remorseless, just like the titular character. And there’s a certain kind of art to this ostensible artlessness. Writers often fall prey to their own pens (proverbially, given the whole digital age). How often do you find yourself reading something and thinking “what the hell is this author even saying?”, or taken out of the narrative because the wording is so pretty and attention-seeking? Writers fall in love with their words as much or more as any of their devoted readers, resulting in books that are bloated to the point that the plot is beyond recognition. Or else, on kind of the opposite side of the same spectrum, authors are trying to hit that word count— a phenomenon that is especially prevalent in this particular genre, where publishers are cranking these things out for the hungry masses.
Jane is a self-described sociopath, with a vague plan to take, or at least ruin, the life of the man responsible for emotionally terrorizing her best friend, Meg. I laughed out loud several times at Jane’s calculated, understated subversion. I loved her unapologetic behavior, her acknowledgement that she was confident even while she feigned feminine modesty and drama. This character-playing-a-character added just the right amount of depth, providing a sort of cultural commentary between the lines that never overwhelms or distracts from the story or its characters.
Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: When the Lights Go Out

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A few years ago, I went through a Mary Kubica phase, where I devoured all of her books in short order. I loved her flawed female protagonists, quick pacing, the deep-seated psychological issues, and all the twists and turns in each of her books, or at least in The Good Girl and Pretty Baby. I wasn’t as keen on Every Last Lie, which came out last year, but I’ve tried to push that one aside in my memory. Since my original Kubica binge, I’ve found myself comparing every psychological thriller to hers, and usually they come up short.

Thus, when I saw When the Lights Go Out on NetGalley, I immediately requested it. Usually, it takes me a bit to get to a book as I’ve got quite a queue, but Kubica? She skips to the front of the line, regardless of how far away the publication date is set.

Her newest effort begins much like her previous fare, with a young woman at the center of the story, struggling to make sense of the world around her. In this case, our ‘heroine’ is Jessie Sloane, who is trying to get her life back on track after taking a detour to take care of her ailing mother, Eden. The book alternates POVs, between these two women, with Jessie in the present, and Eden’s story taking place twenty years prior. Kubica does a great job building tension, though I found the pacing here to be much slower than her previous books, with a lot of redundancy. We get it, Eden desperately wants a baby and the pressure is causing her marriage to crumble, while Jessie is struggling with insomnia and can’t seem to solve the mystery of her identity. After a while, what started out as a solid premise and intriguing, mysterious characters, drifted into pleads of “MOVE THE PLOT ALONG ALREADY”.

But the slow burn pacing isn’t the worst thing about this novel. It’s not even really that big of a deal, since the author is still quite talented and engaging, even when she’s not progressing things. But that ending. If you’ve read pretty much any other review of this book, you already know the ending is atrocious. I’ve yet to see one detailed review that is favorable of the ‘twist’ at the end. To me, it’s a cheap cop-out, and I cannot believe an experienced writer like Mary Kubica would resort to it. The very first thing you learn in any writing course, whether it be in literature or screenwriting, is “come up with an ending– don’t lead us by the nose for hundreds of pages and then say “never mind, it was all a dream,”. I’m not even being hyperbolic here– having gotten my Master’s in Creative Writing, I can tell you that almost every individual class I’ve taken has addressed this specific crutch. And I always thought “NO ONE ACTUALLY DOES THAT, QUIT TEACHING IT!”, but apparently people do do that. Even good writers.

To me, it seems like one of two things happened here:

Kubica wanted to ‘break out’ of her typical fare and ‘prove’ she could write with the big boys– that she could be literary and experimental, flouting conventional wisdom and doing it so well that it doesn’t matter if she breaks the rules.

OR

Kubica’s reps wanted her to churn out a novel this year, since psychological thrillers are continuing to sell like gangbusters, so she rushed through this, and the powers-that-be approved it because they were on a publication deadline and assumed readers would gloss over it or be lenient because Kubica’s still one of the most talented in the genre.

If the former, I applaud the author for trying something new and being ambitious, but I still don’t think it worked. If the latter, I applaud the author for making her deadline, but I’d like to go on the record to state that we readers will not accept subpar writing and plotting. Hold the presses until it’s right. To let this novel, which COULD have been very good had it been edited viciously, see the light of day in this premature state is egregious. And in case you’re thinking I’m being too harsh on the lazy publishing here, look at that cover art. Could it be any more cliche and artless? It looks like a bad YA novel. Come on, guys.

Rating: 3/5 stars, and only because I’m still a Kubica fan and will continue to support her and give her the benefit of the doubt.

Buy When the Lights Go Out on Amazon.