Wednesday, October 18, 2017

It's four in the morning and you're all alone: WHAT SHE KNEW.

What She KnewWhat She Knew by Gilly Macmillan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Rachel Jenner and her son Ben are enjoying a frequent tradition: spending time in the park with their dog, Skittle, when things take a turn. Ben asks to run ahead to the rope swing, and Rachel agrees. That's the last she sees of her son. It's as if Ben has vanished into thin air, and Rachel feels her world cleave into two. The police are called, and the investigation is handed over to DCI James Clemo. This is Jim's first major investigation as lead, and he's determined to do it right. Meanwhile Rachel is reeling from her decision to allow Ben to run ahead--one that's quickly questioned by her ex-husband and soon, the media. As days pass by without a break in the case, the media quickly turns its harsh glare directly onto Rachel. Rachel, meanwhile, starts questioning herself--and those around her.

I absolutely adored Gilly Macmillan's mystery The Perfect Girl, so when I saw she had a new book coming out, I knew I had to read it. I didn't realize it was part of a series (apparently featuring Jim Clemo), so I decided to read this one first. It's Macmillan's first book, but, of course, you can barely tell, because she's an amazing writer. She's going to be one of my favorite mystery writers going forward.

The format of the novel is unique -- we get Jim and Rachel's point of view, broken down by Day 1, 2, 3, etc. of Ben's disappearance. But we also get transcript pieces of Clemo's meetings with a psychologist, whom he is meeting with a good year after Ben's disappearance. The gist is that Ben's case has so clearly affected Clemo and his job performance that meeting with this woman--in hopes of getting a good report--is the only way he may be able to remain on the job.

It's an effective format and certainly ratchets up the suspense and tension as we wonder exactly what happened to Ben: who took him? Will he return home safely to his mother and father? Is anyone in this novel telling the truth? It's a slow-burning book, with no major sudden twists and turns, but deftly written, with each character superbly fleshed out. Our cast is small, but well-done: Ben's mother and father, his teachers and schoolmates, his troubled aunt, and those investigating his case.

The standouts, of course, though are Rachel and Jim--our storytellers. Rachel is reeling from her divorce, telling us her story directly, and delving into her own flaws. It allows Macmillan to illustrate the power (not always positive) of modern day society's relentless media focus and what those anonymous people in social forums can do to real, actual people. Rachel isn't always a sympathetic character, though my heart often went out to her, but she's real--a flawed, authentic mother.

And, speaking of flaws, Jim is a fascinating character. We get bits and pieces of how he's formed by his past. He's not a one-dimensional, stereotypical policeman, but a very intricate character. He's driven, but honestly, he's really quite a mess. As a result, he's intriguing but also frustrating in many ways. I'll be quite interested to see where he is in Macmillan's second novel in the series.

So, while this novel is filled with complicated characters, it is also a mystery at its core. Our intricate cast slows things down a bit, but luckily the plot keeps you guessing and wanting to turn the pages. I had various suspicions, throughout, but the ending completely surprised me (something that's hard to do). The novel takes a lot of unexpected turns. At the halfway point, I was completely befuddled, but invested.

Overall, this one is pretty captivating. I actually found myself keeping my daughters closer to me while reading and feeling nervous when they ran off. The night after I finished it, I had creepy dreams about a child being kidnapped--I rarely, if ever, dream about the books I'm reading! Sweet Ben really touched me and, as I mentioned, while I didn't always like Rachel, I very much empathized with her. Macmillan is a wonderful writer, and I'm very excited to be starting ODD CHILD OUT in the next couple of days.

You can read my review of Macmillan's THE PERFECT GIRL here.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

We all could use a little mercy now: 13 MINUTES.

13 Minutes13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


When they pull Natasha out of the river, she's been dead for thirteen minutes. Thirteen dark, cold minutes. It's amazing the teenager even lives; in fact, it's just pure luck that a man and his dog stumble upon her and pull her from the river's icy clutches. Tasha, as she's known, has no memory of how she wound up in the river, but she knows it wasn't intentional on her part. In fact, she's pretty sure two of her closest friends, Hayley and Jenny, had something to do with it. The two seemed weird in the days leading up to the incident. The trio of beautiful, popular girls--known as "the Barbies" at school--were supposedly the best of friends. But after the accident, Tasha feels drawn to her former friend, Becca, whom she dropped in middle school. Becca isn't sure why Tasha is suddenly being so nice to her. Tasha isn't sure either. And no one is exactly sure how or why Tasha ended up in that river.

I've never read a novel by Sarah Pinborough before, and I was pretty impressed. She's a great writer, and she certainly knows how to capture the voice of the teenagers within the pages of her novel. I don't think I realized this book would be quite so YA, if that makes any sense. I kept waiting for there to be a bit more to the story than teenage politics, but it's truly sort of a Pretty Little Liars-type tale. That's not to say it's not well-done. It may have just been a tad bit young for me; still, it's an excellent novel and would be a truly wonderful read for most teens, too.

Part of the novel's brilliance comes in its format. It's told from the point of view of Becca and Tasha, but we also get excerpts from Tasha's diary; case files from the Inspector on Tasha's case; notes from Tasha's psychologist; texts between the teens; and more. I enjoyed the format, and it was quite effective at building suspense and tension.

Because, wow, yes, the book is certainly tense and compelling. You're constantly wondering how reliable our teenage narrators are and questioning everything that happens. Now, as mentioned, there's a lot of teenage drama. A LOT. These teens are truly a little scary, and this was yet another book that makes me a tiny bit frightened for my five-year-old daughters to grow up. My goodness. At times, I got a bit bogged down in all the teen antics, but it was still quite interesting.

Becca was definitely a bit of a kid, but I still liked her (for the most part). She was well-written, just a little young for me. Pinborough is truly amazing at getting in the head of these teenagers--capturing the pettiness, meanness, and honestly, sometimes the dumbness, of their mindset. But she also caught the brutal neediness behind some of their actions: that raw need of kids that age to fit in with their peers.

I had a decent idea how this one was going to play out pretty early on, but that didn't stop me from reading (as mentioned, I tore through this in about 24 hours). There's something oddly compelling about this book and its characters. Pinborough weaves in The Crucible as a backdrop--it's the school play--which is a really clever move, as there are a lot of parallels between said drama and the melodrama unfolding among Tasha, Hayley, and Jenny.

Overall, this novel really just hinges on the duality of the hatefulness and vulnerability of teenagers. It may come across as a little too YA and predictable for some adults, but I can't deny that it's well-written and crisp. It's hard to like some of the characters, but I think it would make a great book for teens (albeit it's rather freaking scary). I was leaning toward 3.5 stars before writing this review, but I think I'll do 3.75 and bump up to 4 stars here on Goodreads and the blog (that's not complicated at all, right? Perhaps fitting for this complicated and twisty novel).

I received a copy of this novel from Netgalley and the publisher (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review; it is available everywhere as of 10/03/2017.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

So many questions inside my head: LIE TO ME

Lie to MeLie to Me by J.T. Ellison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Sutton and Ethan Montclair had the ideal life--a beautiful marriage, a gorgeous house, successful writing careers, and a beautiful baby son. But with the death of their baby, Dashiell, things started to crumble. Peering into the cracks, it was clear that Ethan's career isn't going well and Sutton was depressed and broken after Dashiell's death. So when Ethan wakes up and finds a note from Sutton telling him that she's left and not to look for her, he doesn't know what to think. Did she really run off, leaving her phone, laptop, credit cards, and ID behind? Or did something more sinister happen? As for Ethan and Sutton's friends--and the police--they quickly start to wonder if the something sinister is Ethan.

So in the years since Gone Girl has come out, I've seen so many books compared to that juggernaut and felt that so little truly were similar (and keep in mind that I wasn't one of those that *adored* the novel). However, reading LIE TO ME, I felt like this book really deserved the plot comparison to GONE GIRL -- wife missing, volatile marriage, husband under suspicion, unreliable narrators, etc. For a while, I was curious how J.T. Ellison would differentiate her novel from GONE GIRL, but she pulled it off (more on that later).

This novel was compulsively readable; I read it basically in two sittings. I stayed up until midnight to finish it, which is no small feat considering my small children don't care how late I stay up! It slowly builds suspense with the unknown, dropping little hints as to bits and pieces of the story. We start with Ethan's piece of the story, eventually switch to Sutton, and then finish with both of them. Interspersed are various portions where an unknown "narrator" speaks directly to us, the reader, as well as the police. All of this creates suspicion and tension and lets us know that we certainly have unreliable narrators in both Ethan and Sutton. Who do we believe? Even the police--called in to investigate Sutton's disappearance--are confused. I was completely hooked and, honestly, madly flipping the pages.

The Sutton portion slowed things down slightly, but things rapidly picked back up. I won't lie (ha), I worked out some of the plot, but it certainly didn't diminish my enjoyment of the novel, and I definitely didn't figure out everything. The book's a little crazy, with a slightly wild plot, but it's a fun and thrilling read. The supporting cast is interesting--especially a policewoman itching to become a detective, and some of Sutton and Ethan's friends. As I mentioned, the plot is a little insane, but fun crazy, and Ellison weaves together all the pieces quite effectively.

This is my second novel by Ellison and I'm finding that I just enjoy the suspense and escapism of her novels. (You can read my review of her novel, NO ONE KNOWS, here). The book isn't always perfect, but it's a really enjoyable thriller, hence the 4-star rating--which makes it higher than GONE GIRL for me. Sacrilege for some, but I just enjoyed this one more.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 09/05/2017.

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Monday, October 09, 2017

I was walking with a ghost: THE GIRL WHO TAKES AN EYE FOR AN EYE.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (Millennium, #5)The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye by David Lagercrantz

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars


The latest in the Millennium series picks up not long after book #4 ends, with Salander in a women's prison after the incident with Frans Balder and his son, August. Salander being Salander, prison doesn't bother her too much (she has her beloved mathematical equations after all), but she is irate over the treatment of another prisoner, Faria. Faria--and soon Salander--are under threat of the prison's most evil prisoner, Benito, and her feared knife, the Keris. Meanwhile, a visit from Holger Palmgren, Salander's former guardian, has Salander looking back on her childhood, wondering exactly what happened. Soon Mikael Blomkvist is involved as well.

This was a tough one. I was impressed with Lagercrantz's last take on the Millennium series and how well he picked it up, but this one felt a little off. Lisbeth is still Lisbeth for the most part, though it almost feels as if something is missing, at least until the end. And not to give too much away, but I missed her interactions with Blomkvist. I miss the novels where they were more tightly involved and entwined. Salander spends most of her time in prison and then on the run, while Blomkvist is investigating on her behalf.

The investigation is intriguing, but more straightforward than I was expecting. It involves Salander's childhood and an investigation into a society that studied twins, genetics, and more. There are certainly striking parallels to today's society, with its focus on racism and pure society. (It's a little scary, honestly.) There's also pieces that cover finances, the stock market, and more. It's all timely and exciting, but, as I said, more predictable than typical in this series.

Overall, I found the storyline interesting and dynamic. I always enjoy when Mikael gets focused on a story. I will love Salander forever, but I missed seeing her in her total glory. The book picks up at the end, the last fourth or so, and felt like a true Blomkvist/Salander tale. There's a moment that involves Salander's Hacker gang that gave me a few chills. Still, though, this just didn't live up to the other Millennium books, even Lagercrantz's previous try. I enjoyed it, but felt a little let down at the end. I'll be curious to see what the next attempt is like. 3.5 stars.

You can read my review of book #4, THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB, here.

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Friday, October 06, 2017

And it's a hard ride when you feel your heart tied down: THE BLACKBIRD SEASON.

The Blackbird SeasonThe Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti

My rating: 4+ of 5 stars


It's just another day in Mount Oanoke, Pennsylvania when the birds start to fall. Hundreds of dead starlings, dropping from the sky during a baseball game. It seems like the birds started it all, but really the secrets and lies began much earlier. Nate Winters, high school teacher and baseball coach, is beloved in the town. That is, until a reporter, in town to cover the birds, catches Nate hugging a student at a local motel. Suddenly, the birds are forgotten, and the story becomes much juicier: Nate; his student, Lucia; and their supposed affair. Lucia fuels the fire by affirming the affair and suddenly Nate and his wife, Alecia, are swept up in the story. The only who believes in Nate's innocence, even a sliver, is his friend and co-worker, Bridget. As Lucia's creative writing teacher, she has unique insight into the girl's mind. But when Lucia suddenly goes missing--with Nate as the prime suspect in her disappearance--not even Bridget may be able to save Nate. But is there more to Lucia's disappearance than an affair with her teacher?

Wow, I was really impressed by this novel. It's a complicated novel that is just as much a character-driven study as it is a mystery. It's incredibly well-written, and Moretti expertly embodies the voice of each of her characters, from beleaguered Alecia, who is worn down from mothering her autistic son, Gabe; to the cast of teenager characters; to Bridget, who lost her husband to cancer a year ago. It's so well-done that often with each chapter (which skip from various points of view -- Bridget, Kate, Lucia, Nate, etc.), I found my myself veering between whom I preferred or believed, constantly second-guessing my allegiances or what happened. This is very rare for me: typically I find my "person" in a novel and stick with them, no matter what.

But here, I was confused, wondering. Was Nate really a cad, who cheated on his wife every second he got, or was he the sweet, affable teacher and baseball coach that the whole town admired and adored? And Alecia--was she more than just a weary mom, broken down by years of staying at home with her autistic son, Gabe, unable to give to anyone beyond him? Did she push Nate away, into the arms of others? Or was the truth more complicated that all of this? I have to hand it to Moretti--she was excellent at creating confusion and doubt. In addition to different perspectives, the novel shifts in time (before the birds fell, after the birds fell, before Lucia disappeared, etc.). It's a little tough to keep track of, but it also keeps you on your toes and always wondering, as you piece various parts of the puzzle together.

For me--even more than the mystery of what exactly happened with Lucia--the strength of this novel was the writing and the characters. I felt for them, even when I was frustrated with them. Moretti captures the angst and meanness of high school extremely well, portraying the cliques of a small town quite superbly. (I was reminded of WHEN WE WERE WORTHY, which I just finished.) I loved the juxtaposition of this being a small town, so the idea is that everyone knows everyone and everything, and yet there are so many secrets, so much unknown. Being a witness to Alecia and Nate's marriage is amazing-- you see firsthand how the events affect them and how they've reached this point. It's an incredibly realistic portrayal of marriage and of motherhood.

As you probably tell, I just really liked this novel. It's very well-written, with quite compelling characters. I worked out some of the plot, but it didn't stop me from reading at all. I think some of the emphasis on character development slows the story at places, but not in any detrimental way. This one will make you think, as well as intrigue you with what happened to Lucia. Quite worth the read. 4+ stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review; it is available everywhere as of 09/26/2017.

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Thursday, October 05, 2017

Or the moment of truth in your lies: GENUINE FRAUD.

Genuine FraudGenuine Fraud by E. Lockhart

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Imogen is a wealthy, spoiled heiress escaping life on Martha's Vineyard. Jule is a scrappy individual looking out for only herself. When their paths intersect on the Vineyard, they form an interesting sort of friendship. Jule admires Imogen's wealth and inscrutability. Imogen takes Jule under her wing, lending her clothes and giving her a place to stay. Jule quickly finds herself caught up in Imogen's life, meeting her friends and boyfriend. But is anything as it seems?

This is one of those where I don't want to say too much as to ruin the plot, although honestly, you'll figure out the entire thing within the first few chapters, so I wouldn't be doing you much of a disservice. I had high hopes for this one, having read some great reviews, but this novel wasn't for me. The shtick here is that the story unfurls backward, with the chapters counting down, but there's no great twist or surprise, and I was left completely disappointed, as things just... fizzle out at the end. There's supposedly a little surprise at the end, but it can't save this predictable novel.

For me, this was violent and full of inevitable plot points that you'll see coming from a mile away. Neither Jule nor Imogen are sympathetic in any way--I couldn't find any reason to root for or engage with them in any fashion. The backward chapters didn't add any real excitement to the tale, at all. I read this one at the same time as my wife--she was listening to the audiobook version--and we were both waiting for some exciting twist or turn--but it never came. I had high hopes, but alas, GENUINE FRAUD didn't deliver on them.

You can read my review of Lockhart's WHEN WE WERE LIARS here.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2017

I cried five rivers on the way here: KEEP HER SAFE.

Keep Her SafeKeep Her Safe by Sophie Hannah

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars


Cara Burrows runs away from her family--who live in England no less--to an Arizona spa. She leaves her phone with the rental car company and, exhausted by her travels, checks into her room, only to find it occupied by a man and a teenage girl. It's obviously a mistake by the front desk, but after hearing another guest's ramblings, Cara starts to wonder if the girl she saw is murder victim Melody Chapa. Melody Chapa is incredibly famous in the U.S.--her trial garnered intense attention--and her parents are serving life sentences for her murder. Suddenly, Cara finds herself caught up in a whirlwind series of events, unsure of whom to trust. Did she really see Melody? And if so, what is going on at this spa?

The plot of this novel is pretty preposterous, so be prepared to suspend a bit of disbelief. Once you do that, it's really quite enjoyable and a total whirlwind ride, as you cling to Cara and try to figure things out with her. You first have to get past the fact that the woman has decided to come all the way to Arizona from the UK for her spa trip, spending, she claims, one third of her family's savings to do so. And, you'll learn, all over a insane misunderstanding/lack of communication with her family that will make you want to shake the entire clan. Good grief! However, I digress. Because, really, their lack of communication certainly works in our favor, because this book may be crazy, but it's fun crazy and a wonderful sort of escape.

I found this to be a fascinating type of thriller. I flew through the pages, constantly wondering how all the various pieces fit together. Hannah kept the entire thing going, unfurling great little twists and turns every so often to keep you hooked. It's intricately plotted and really quite well-done, even if it's all a little insane. I suspected a couple of portions, but was still really impressed at how everything went together. Cara is an interesting character--she's just bumbling and sympathetic enough that you can somehow believe that she'd stumble into a major murder mystery while on a spa holiday. Her supporting cast of characters is wide and varied: spa guests; various detectives and the FBI; those involved with Melody's case; and even a crime TV show host with a flair for the dramatic. Somehow Hannah weaves them all together successfully, for which you have to give her bonus points.

All in all, this was a slightly unbelievable novel, but compulsively readable with a thrilling mystery plot that completely hooks you. The characters all work together somehow and the novel is just a fun escape. Throw in a creepy ending that leaves you going "What?!" and this is definitely worth a read. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss (thank you!) in return for unbiased review; it is available in the U.S. everywhere as of 09/19/2017.

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