Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Show me trouble I'll take him down: THE BANKER'S WIFE.

The Banker's WifeThe Banker's Wife by Cristina Alger

My rating: 4+ of 5 stars

Annabel Lerner feels isolated in Geneva: she's not like the other bankers' wives, and she rarely sees her husband Matthew anymore. They moved to Geneva for a fresh start--and yes, to take advantage of the salary Matthew's private banking job at Swiss United offered. But Annabel never realized how stressed Matthew would be or how often he'd travel. And then, suddenly, he's gone: his private plane simply falling off the radar over the French Alps. Before she can even understand what's happening, Annabel is left to deal with the aftermath, including a trail of secrets and the powerful men at Swiss United who don't want them exposed. Meanwhile, Marina Tourneau is a reporter for The Press. Her mentor, Duncan Carr, has been chasing a story involving Morty Reiss, whose hedge fund was one of the largest Ponzi scams of all time. Supposedly, before he could get caught, Morty committed suicide. But Duncan and Marina believe Marty faked his death and Duncan has become obsessed with proving it--to the detriment of his health, his reputation, and his career. But Marina is also engaged to Grant Ellis, whose wealthy father, James, is about to run for President. The plan is for Marina to stop writing and stand by her man. But when she suddenly realizes she's on the trail of the story of her career, what will she do?

Well, this turned out to be a gem of a novel. When I first started reading it, I was a little worried that I wouldn't see what the fuss was all about, but things quickly picked up, and I was hooked. One of the best things about this novel is that it's an old-style thriller--it reminded me of old-school Grisham or Stieg Larsson. It even throws shade at the glutton of Girl books and their (annoying) unreliable narrators, which I love. This is a mystery for folks who love real stories without any fuss or distraction and with strong characters--all of which combine to leave you befuddled and anxious as everything slowly unfurls.

Alger takes us into the complicated and dark world of Swiss banking, where we are introduced to a lot of real bad guys who have no morals. You can't trust them, you know they are bad, and you know your heroes and heroines are in true danger. Rarely do I think this while reading a book (because, face it, the book is always better), but I really think this book would *actually* make a great movie. It's exciting and tense, and the way things are slowly revealed would make for a very effective film.

But, anyway, it's a wonderful novel. You quickly get sucked into Annabel and Marina's worlds--the majority of the story is told from their points of view. There's a decent amount of ancillary characters to keep track of, but it's certainly manageable. The best is not knowing who to trust, what to believe, or how things went down. There's that Girl with a Dragon Tattoo-reporting vibe that I love: the pleasure of solving a case. The story is set in 2015 but is completely timely, yet utterly timeless in its essence of greed, money, and fear--and what people do in the name of all three. I just loved the old-fashioned thrill of it, the long list of suspects, the excitement of trying to work out who did what.

Overall, this is just a great novel. The plot is excellent--tense, exciting, and expertly woven together. The characters are strong, but it's really the story that's the standout here. It truly reminds you of mysteries and thrillers of old (I sound ancient here, but whatever). Don't let the banking theme scare you off: this is a fabulous read, and if you're a mystery or thriller fan, I think you'll really enjoy this one. 4+ stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!).

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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Lift the darkness, light a fire: GIVE ME YOUR HAND.

Give Me Your HandGive Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kit Owens is surviving high school but not living up to her true potential when Diane Fleming arrives at her school. Diane awakens a fire in Kit and the two form an unlikely friendship that propels Kit to academic success in her senior year. She and Diane study together and push each other to reach to be the best. Kit can't help but feel bad for her friend, who lives with her grandfather after the death of her dad. But all that changes when Diane shares an explosive secret with Kit, one that changes the way she views Diane and basically ends their friendship. Ten years later, Kit has tried to put Diane (and her secret) behind her. She's working in the lab of a female scientist, Dr. Severin, whom she's idolized for years--a woman Diane first helped introduce her to. But when Dr. Severin earns a prestigious grant and Kit learns that Diane is suddenly in the running for one of the coveted spots to work with the Doctor on the research, the past comes rushing back. Soon Diane and Kit find themselves over their head, with secrets and horror lurking around every corner.

So, I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy this one as I started it, but it grew on me. It's not really a pleasant read, at all, and none of the characters are ones you'll really love, but it's very compelling and there's a slow, foreboding creepiness that keeps you reading. I read this one quickly, as it's dark, twisty, and intense and very easy-to-read (as in, a page-turner, not the subject matter).

"My mom always says, you don't have a self until you have a secret." ~Diane

The novel flips between the "then" and "now" format, with Kit narrating to us. It's a female-centered book, and it easily depicts women's uphill battle in the workplace. It also shows the complicated feelings of our female characters: Kit has a lot of thoughts. Her struggle from a poor high school student to doctor is a fascinating one, even if I found her hard to empathize with. You won't necessarily agree with a lot of these characters' (sometimes outlandish) choices, but you'll find them oddly fascinating. I enjoyed how the novel delved into the darkness of friendship--and some of the competition that can come with it. Diane and Kit's relationship is dark and intense, as is the entire novel, really. The secrets that layer this book unravel slowly and eerily, and it really does keep you reading.

I especially thought this one was redeemed or bolstered by its ending; often a thriller is so good and then deflates at the end, but I actually thought this one got a little better at the end. The ending is really well-done, and I didn't feel let down whatsoever.

Overall, this is a dark, intense, and compelling psychological thriller. It's not exactly packed with loveable characters, but they are flawed, interesting, and--at times--quite creepy. You'll be drawn in by its twisty plot and complicated portrayal of friendship and secrets. 4 stars.

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Friday, July 20, 2018

The jagged bits and pieces of who you used to be: SNAP.

SnapSnap by Belinda Bauer

My rating: 4+ of 5 stars

Jack is eleven when his pregnant mother goes for help after their car breaks down by the side of the road. She leaves him in charge of his two younger sisters. But she's gone too long and Jack and his siblings eventually go in search of her. But they do not find her: just a broken pay phone. Jack never sees his mother again, and it's eventually revealed she's been murdered. Three years later, Jack is doing the best to support his sisters, especially since his dad went out for milk and never came back. Meanwhile, another pregnant woman named Catherine While is startled when her house is broken into--while she's home--and the intruder leaves her a disturbing note. A strange set of occurrences leaves Catherine feeling unsettled and watched. And Jack is starting to wonder if he's getting closer to finding out who killed his mother.

This was a really bizarre book in many ways, but I totally enjoyed it. It's mainly told from the point of view of Jack, Catherine, and two policemen: Reynolds, a fastidious Detective Sergeant and Marvel, a disgruntled DCI. It often quickly changes viewpoints between these characters, but somehow, it all works. In fact, while the novel is compulsively readable in terms of finding out what happened to Jack's mother, it's also oddly funny at times: there's a dry wit running underneath the story.

Even more, the characters are really enjoyable. Catherine, eh, she wasn't my favorite (her decision-making leaves a lot to be desired), but Jack was great: I was rooting for him the entire time, even in cases where I probably shouldn't have been, based on some of his behavior. The poor kid has a lot to deal with, trying to care for his kid sisters. And Marvel and Reynolds: they can be annoying and even spiteful in their actions at times, but they are really fun to read about. The whole combination of this group somehow works, and it kept me flipping the pages, wondering what on earth had transpired and how, when, and why. The novel is creepy at times, funny at times, and sad and heartbreaking at times: impressive.

There are definitely a lot of characters in this book, and sometimes keeping track of them all was a bit of a challenge, but I was impressed at how Bauer connected them all eventually. And, seriously, you get attached to them, or annoyed with them as if they are real people--which I find doesn't always happen to me with a thriller. Some of what the police do seems a little much--part of why I say the book seems a little bizarre, as does some of the plot, but I found myself enjoying the book so much that none of it mattered. Bauer lets us put the pieces together simultaneously as her characters do, and the story in this one was just compelling, fun, and different.

Overall, this was a fun, intriguing novel that keeps you guessing until the end. The characters are interesting and draw you in immediately. There's humor and heartbreak, but also a great puzzle to solve as well. 4 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!).

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

And bring back the sun: PLAYING WITH MATCHES.

Playing with MatchesPlaying with Matches by Hannah Orenstein

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Sasha Goldberg's plans as a writer are quickly derailed when her boss tells her he doesn't have the funds to hire her on after her graduation. She's stuck--in New York City--without a Plan B. When she sees a job listing for a matchmaker, she's intrigued. Sasha's secret is that her parents met through a kind of matchmaker: her father chose her mom through a catalog and paid for her to come to the United States from Russia. Of course, it didn't exactly work out (they're divorced), but Sasha uses the story to get hired on at Bliss, an exclusive NYC matchmaking service. She's hopeful the job will tide her over while she waits for a writing gig. And, she thinks, she has to know something about love, since she's successfully with her boyfriend, Jonathan, who works around-the-clock in his Wall Street gig. But matchmaking isn't as easy as it looks--it's a lot of stressful Tinder swiping and tracking down potential mates in random ways--and it becomes even more complicated when Sasha develops a crush on one of her client's matches. One of the firm's rules is that matches are off-limits. Sasha's struggling: can she keep it all together?

This is one of those books where I find myself going into it warily, because you just know things are going to come crashing down, and you (me) are not 100% sure you want to be there for all of it. It's not a secret (it's in the book description) that Sasha and Jonathan break up and that she gets into a relationship with Adam, one of her client's matches. For some reason, I often have an issue with these sorts of books where the character just makes bad choices: Sasha makes no attempt to avoid what will be an inevitable downfall with Adam, so I found myself cringing as she made a string of poor decisions.

That's not to say Sasha isn't an engaging character. This book is very readable, and I certainly liked Sasha and reading about her life. However, I can't lie:I probably am a little older than the target audience for this novel. It offers a fun and engaging look at the dating scene in New York, but there wasn't a lot I could relate to. I felt protective of Sasha, not empathetic to her, if that makes any sense. Honestly, the book just made me feel relieved I no longer have to date or deal with basically anything Sasha had to endure during the course of this novel.

Still, Orenstein does a good job at capturing Sasha's voice and what it's like to be a young twenty-something trying to survive in the city. Sasha's relationship with her best friend Caroline and her mom are well-done. I didn't think there was as much overall about matchmaking as a job as I'd hoped--it seemed to be a lot of Tinder swiping and chatting--so that was a little bit of a bummer, but there was enough to know it's a job I'd never want!

Overall, if you're young and still dating, you'll probably really enjoy this book--especially if you live in a city. If not, some of its essence may be a bit lost of you, but you'll still like Orenstein's witty writing and the arc of Sasha's struggles. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!).

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

And I've been kicked by the wind: THE LAST TIME I LIED.

The Last Time I LiedThe Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fifteen years ago at Camp Nightingale, three of Emma's fellow campers disappeared, never to be found again. Ever since then, Emma has felt guilt about the incident and her actions that night. She idolized the three girls, especially beautiful Vivian, the leader of the pack, who bossed around Emma and the other two campers, Allison and Natalie. Since then, Emma--now a painter--has been painting huge canvases of landscapes, where she (secretly) paints the girls within each scene. She holds a successful show of her works, but now she's stuck, unable to paint anything else but "the girls," as she calls them. So when the owner of Camp Nightingale, Francesca Harris-White, turns up at Emma's show and tells her she's reopening the camp and she wants Emma to come back as an painting instructor, Emma agrees. Perhaps this will give her the closure she has always lacked and a chance to move on, to begin painting something else. But once back at the Camp--in the same cabin where her friends disappeared-Emma feels watched. Strange things begin happening and Emma starts to wonder more and more about what really happened fifteen years ago.

Well, this was just a fun thriller and a completely engaging read. I'm so glad I gave it a chance, as--unlike most of the reading population, I actually wasn't a huge fan of Sager's FINAL GIRLS and I wasn't entirely sure I was going to read this one. But it was definitely worth the read! This is a quick read and really enjoyable.

Sager populates the novel with a bunch of mysterious pieces that begin to add up across the story--clues, if you will--but you are left constantly wondering as you read. I personally was guessing up until the end, which I really liked. I am always a fan of a thriller that isn't utterly predictable. The novel is told from Emma's perspective, but flips between the present and the past (fifteen years ago, when the three girls went missing initially). This turns out to be an amazingly effective and compelling storytelling format: I read the entire book in about 24 hours and the first half in one setting. You can't quite pinpoint what draws you in, but you find yourself compulsively turning the pages.

Emma is a wonderful unreliable narrator. I enjoyed that she wasn't the requisite annoying unreliable narrator that we seem to see so often: she's tough, engaging, and just happens to be fairly untrustworthy at times to boot. Just when you start to get a bit frustrated and ready to truly know what Emma lied about, Sager spills the beans and the saga continues, with more crazy reveals.

The scene setting in this one is great; while I've never actually been to camp, Sager sets the stage so perfectly: you can just picture everything. The entire novel has this wonderful layer of creepy and mysterious on top of it all. So much of it seems foreboding, which adds to the suspense. And, as many have mentioned, there is a great twist to the ending, which I personally liked.

Overall, I really enjoyed this thriller. It's foreboding, quite readable, and features a main character who draws you in. Between not enjoying FINAL GIRLS and then seeing so much hype for this one, I was ready to be disappointed, but THE LAST TIME I LIED proved me wrong: it was a really engaging and suspenseful read. 4+ stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!).

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Monday, July 09, 2018

With your quiet voice and impeccable style: HER PRETTY FACE.

Her Pretty FaceHer Pretty Face by Robyn Harding

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frances is struggling. She feels overweight and socially inept, struggling to keep up with the beautiful, wealthy mothers at the fancy private school, Forrester Academy, that her son Marcus attends. That struggle is made even harder by an incident with Marcus and a classmate, Abbey Dumas, that sets the other moms against her. Even worse, no one knows about a horrible event in Frances' past that haunts her: not even her husband, Jason, and Marcus. But she feels rescued when she forges a friendship with a beautiful mother, Kate Randolph. She's funny, irreverent, and almost seems to recognize a kind of darkness in Frances. Suddenly, life at Forrester--and life in general--seems bearable. Meanwhile Kate's teenage daughter Daisy feels as if her mother has stopped loving her. Every few years her parents uproot her and younger brother to move yet again. What is the purpose of trying at school--in life--she wonders? Then a startling discovery comes to light, changing everything for Frances, Kate, and Daisy.

The format of this novel makes it an incredibly quick read: we get present-day events told by Frances and Daisy, interspersed with snippets told by a young boy named DJ, whose older sister, Courtney was murdered by a man named Shane Nelson in the 1990s. I found this to be a fascinating thriller: it keeps you wondering the entire time, with some very interesting and unexpected turns. I always appreciate a novel with some twists that I'm not expecting. I especially enjoyed how Daisy grew on me--her character was really well-done and while, at first, she seemed out of place in the story, by the end, she was my favorite, and I couldn't imagine the book without her.

In many ways this is a more character-driven book than a straight-up mystery. While, as mentioned, there's definitely some unexpected moments, there was no explosive ending, which I thought might happen for a while. In the end, though, I think that was appropriate--you become somewhat attached to these characters and Harding does a good job of bringing you into their (often twisted) worlds.

Overall, I enjoyed this one. It was compulsively readable, with some great twists and turns and interesting characters. I've had THE PARTY on my Kindle for a while--this has definitely motivated me to push it up higher in my TBR pile. 4 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 07/10/2018.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2018

A sweet whisper from the shadows: BEFORE AND AGAIN.

Before and AgainBefore and Again by Barbara Delinsky

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Driving her five-year-old daughter to a playdate, Mackenzie Cooper's life changes in a moment when she takes her eyes off the road to check her phone's GPS. In that second, she runs a stop sign, and as a result, the other driver and Lily are dead. In the aftermath, Mackenzie finds herself divorced, estranged from her mother and brother, on probation, and moving away from her friends and former life. She reinvents herself in the town of Devon, Vermont, now known as Maggie Reid. There, she does makeup for clients at the Devon Inn and Spa, while living alone in a remote cabin with her pets. Maggie has managed to build a new life for herself in Devon, where no one knows about her life as Mackenzie--plus, she likes her job and she has friends. So when one of them, Grace, finds herself in trouble: her fifteen-year-old son, Chris, is accused of hacking some powerful journalists, Maggie stands by her. It doesn't matter if this could affect her probation or her future. And that's not even the end of the trouble: some surprises from Maggie's past are coming back to her haunt her and threaten the private, quiet life she's worked so hard to create.

So, this was a tough one. Parts of this are a heartbreaking, emotional tale. Other parts I found to be far-fetched and so incredibly slow. The novel almost has two storylines, between Maggie's attempts to find some sort of peace in Devon and then the Grace and Chris tale. For me, it was tough connecting the two, despite the fact that both Grace and Maggie were being forced to confront their pasts and the sensationalism of the media. For most of the book, the two stories run parallel without really connecting, and I found it really hard to care or empathize with Grace at all. Her entire plot is a bit over-the-top. Both she and Maggie were difficult characters--prickly, with their protective shells up.

Of course, the book is also achingly hard to read at points, as Maggie's still reeling from the loss of her daughter. As a parent, I found those parts so difficult to read. But, there was so much talking and introspection from Maggie that it felt like the novel dragged on at points. With Maggie's constant reflection and rehashing, I sometimes just wanted to shake her or move things along. (Also, the endless descriptions of how makeup application worked were far too much for me.)

Still, there were definitely moments where the plot was compelling and moved along, especially near the end. I felt for Maggie, for sure, and enjoyed pieces of this novel. But overall, I found this one slow, disjointed, and hard to get into. Oh and for some reason, being someone even mildly into football, it bothered me that Maggie's probation officer was named Michael Shanahan (a former Redskins coach, among others). When things like that start bothering you, you realize it's probably not the book for you! However, this book is pretty much well-loved by most, so please realize it may have just not been a fit for me. 2.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!).

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Monday, July 02, 2018

And you might have to crawl even after you walk: ALL WE EVER WANTED.

All We Ever WantedAll We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Nina and Kirk Browning and their teenage son, Finch, live a good life, especially since Kirk sold his company and the family has experienced a great deal of wealth. Nina and Kirk are attending a fundraiser when they hear whispering that Finch has been involved in an incident with another student at his school, Windsor Academy. It soon comes out that Finch has taken an inappropriate sexy picture of Lyla at a party and sent it to friends, accompanied by a racist comment. The photo spreads around the community quickly, causing both the kids and parents to take sides. Lyla's father, Tom, who has been raising Lyla since she was small, is appalled--he cannot believe his daughter is involved in such a mess, and he wants justice for her. Lyla's at Windsor on a scholarship, and she just wants to fit in. Now, Nina, Finch, Lyla, and Tom must grapple with the aftermath of the photo and what exactly happened the night of the party.

This is a timely novel that certainly has a place in the #MeToo moment. It's a topic being covered more and more lately, and the idea of teens and sexting is just as horrifying as always. It draws you in from the beginning, and I found it to be a very fascinating read that kept my interest throughout. By alternating the point of view between Nina, Tom, and Lyla, we get to the story told from a range of characters, including the victim herself.

The biggest issue I had with this one--and even Lyla herself admits it--is that the characters sometimes come across as cliche: the spoiled rich boy hurts the poor, intelligent girl on scholarship. The only light of resistance is Nina, our wealthy wife with the obnoxious, rich husband. Even Nina's friends appear to be clueless (or worse) jerks brainwashed by their picture perfect Nashville lives. Still, Lyla is a great kid and reading her sections is lovely. Her father is a flawed individual, but you can't help but empathize with him as well. Nina is more complicated, and I would have liked to see her take on a little more responsibility for her son and the events that unfold around her. Yes, Nina had a conscience, but she didn't seem to do a lot with it, if that makes any sense, besides apologize.

In the end, I enjoyed this one because it wasn't totally predictable and because I really liked the characters of Lyla and Tom. I found it to be an easy and quick read. Still, it seemed like something was missing as I read, whether it was because some of the book felt like it was populated by stock characters or what, I don't know. While it's not exactly the same story, I would recommend the amazing Girl Made of Stars from Ashley Herring Blake if you're looking for a timely book on this topic. That powerful book blows this one out of the water, and maybe it's that power and emotion that I felt was lacking here. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!).

You can read my review of Giffin's FIRST COMES LOVE here.

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