Book Review: The Secrets She Keeps

Now that half marathon training exceeds an hour (and nears two), I’m in the market for wholly absorbing thrillers to help me pass the time while I run. After Sometimes I Lie and Something in the Water, I wasn’t sure I’d find a third book that was good as those two. 

I’m happy to tell you I DID. The Secrets She Keeps is every bit as absorbing, addictive, and mind-blowing as I hoped it would be.

Agatha is a pregnant thirty-something who works at a London grocery store. There, she watches Meg, a pregnant mommy blogger, do her shopping. Agatha is unmarried and unnoticeable. She lives in a lowly apartment and lures her ex-boyfriend, Hayden, back into the fold with news of her pregnancy.

Meg, on the other hand, is attractive, married to a handsome and famous sportscaster, and they have two healthy, happy children with an “oops” baby on the way. This is why Agatha watches her. Meg’s life looks too perfect to look away.

Their lives eventually intertwine in a terrible way. Told in Agatha’s and Meg’s alternating but distinct voices, the narrative digs into the harrowing depths of infertility, mental instability, grief, envy, and façade. Honest to goodness, The Secrets She Keeps kept me locked in from start to finish.  I listened to it at every free moment. Pitch perfect narration was a mere bonus, particularly during Agatha’s chapters. 

If you’re into thrillers, read it. 

Book Review: The Anatomy of Dreams

Well, they can’t all be perfect. I’ve been on a roll with books lately, devouring one right after the other in both print and audio format. 

I chose The Anatomy of Dreams because I loved The Immortalists, and while the writing style was just as fluid and lovely in both books, the plot in Anatomy fell short for me.

Sylvie Patterson is a student at a boarding school in Northern California when she meets the handsome, curious Gabe, a mentee of their peculiar headmaster, Dr. Adrian Keller. Eventually, Sylvie gets sucked into their experimental work in lucid dreaming – teaching patients how to become conscious in the midst of a dream. Gabe and Sylvie follow Dr. Keller for five or so years as they work with people who act out during dreaming – committing crimes, even. It’s bizarre but meaningful work in their eyes, but it all starts to boil when Sylvie and Gabe follow Dr. Keller to Madison, Wisconsin, and meet their mysterious, magnetic neighbors.   

While I’m not particularly interested in sleep therapy or lucid dreaming, I was sure I’d be drawn into the characters’ strange work and even stranger relationship with Dr. Keller. Alas, it took me weeks to finish the book because I never arrived at a place of fully caring what happened. I only finished because I was sure there’d be a twist – and there was – but by then I was ready to be done.

I admit that I’m in a phase of loving thrillers right now, and The Anatomy of Dreams is not a thriller. So, perhaps I wasn’t in the headspace for literary fiction, and in another time and place, I might have enjoyed it more.

Book Review: Something in the Water

Catherine Steadman is a British actress known for her role as Mabel Lane Fox in season 5 of Downton Abbey, though I recognized her immediately as Joan Bulmer from season 4 of The Tudors. Whatever show or movie you may recognize her from, she holds her own as a novelist.

Something in the Water begins with the narrator, Erin, digging a grave. You soon realize she’s not an experienced grave-digger because she’s had to Google the most effective way to do it in a pinch.

Chapter Two begins by taking us back to the beginning of Erin’s journey, when she and Mark decided to get married and how their lives went from swimmingly delightful to horrific when they find something in the water while scuba diving on their honeymoon in Bora Bora. From that moment, the tone shifts from tense to nail-biting.

There is plenty else going on in addition to the discovery in Bora Bora – trouble for Mark, a financier, following the economic downturn, Erin’s curious relationship with an incarcerated gangster whom she features in a documentary she’s working on, and other myriad characters whom the reader can’t discern as essential or red herrings. The pacing is slower than I prefer, but it’s steady, and the subject matter is enticing enough that you want to reach the end if only to find out what happens. (Which is the point, right?)

The audiobook is narrated by Steadman, an appropriate choice if only for the fact that she can play the part of Erin perfectly. Her voice and writing style are equally fluid, which meant all the short and long runs I went on while listening to this book were easy (a good sign). If you’re into suspense/thrillers with a strong female lead, read this one.

Book Review: The Immortalists

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side when the Gold siblings – Daniel, Varya, Klara, and Simon – sneak out of the house to visit a fortune teller. Word has it she can predict the day of your death, and for these young people, that information is too hard to resist. Off they go like a little gang to learn their fortune – or misfortune, as it turns out.

The experience is quick yet frightening, and the information each sibling receives sets a proverbial timer that flashes “THIS IS HOW MUCH TIME YOU HAVE LEFT.” What a scary thought! How many times in our own lives have we wondered – if we could know the day we were going to die, would we want to know?

Each sibling receives his and her own section of the book so readers follow exactly what goes on from their point of view. You know where this is going. You, the reader, see it clearly because you know you’re reading a book about people who will die. But what Chloe Benjamin does so well is create four distinct characters with personalities and preferences, fears and concerns. It mirrors the various ways we in general might respond to this information – to ignore it altogether and go on with life, to obsess and fret and be rash knowing time is short, to live fully and loudly until the last minute, or to spend all of one’s time trying to beat the clock.

I loved this book immensely. It is a family saga unlike any I’ve read, steady and sharp. It is sad, yes, but when I invest time in a book I want to feel something – anything! – and feel it deeply. The Immortalists is full of passion and grief, but that is to be expected with such a troubling topic.

In this current season of life, I am hyper-focused on not wasting time. I’ve written blog posts about this and spoken frankly to those I love about making the most of whatever time we have. I refuse to waste time. I won’t hear of it! How interesting it was, then, to read a story such as this, where the characters were aware of their specific quantity of life and to see how they each responded. 

If you enjoy literary fiction, read it.

Book Review: Sometimes I Lie

I resolved to write this book review before diving into other things because I simply must implore you all read it, particularly if you’re into psychological thrillers.

THE TWISTS.

But anyway.

My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me: 
1. I’m in a coma.
2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore.
3. Sometimes I lie.

The book begins with this, and then it jumps into Amber’s head because even though she’s in a coma she is FULLY AWARE of her surroundings. Inside, she is awake, but she cannot propel her body, face, or voice to function as it should. Essentially, she is imprisoned in her flesh. The entire book is a steady climb to figure out what happened to put her in this state.

A note: This is one of my worst fears – to be awake in the mind and dead in the body. That, and being near-killed in a horrific car wreck that leaves me paralyzed and a vegetable. That, and a house fire that kills my animals because we have gotten out but they haven’t.

Anyway, back to Amber. She’s in a coma and bit by bit we learn the details of what put her there.  We hear what’s said over her by physicians, nurses, her husband, her sister… Amber asks questions, but of course no one answers because they do not know she is awake.

This is now, the day after Christmas in 2016, but there are two other sections. Before, which denotes time and events before the accident that put her in a coma, days just before Christmas in 2016. There is also then, snippets from a diary in 1991 and 1992, quick looks back at girlhood and behavior and questionable things.

This jumping around is not hard to follow if you’re paying attention, therefore the book should not be read or listened do while doing other things. Fully devote your attention to Sometimes I Lie because if you miss too much you’ll be lost, and no one wants that.

Then there’s the ending.

Yes, read this book. Listen to it, if that’s your preferred way. Alice Feeney did so very well.

Book Review: A Faint Cold Fear

I am slowly making my way through a stack of borrowed Karin Slaughter books, but goodness gracious almighty, I have to take a break in between them. Her name says it all.

A Faint Cold Fear is the third in Slaughter’s early Grant County Thriller series, which set in a fictional suburb outside of Atlanta. This is a particular detail I love because there is always a reference I recognize – the aquarium in Chattanooga, the Tennessee Volunteers, Grady Hospital, etc. The series focuses on a handful of characters and the crimes they must solve together: Sara Linton, the town pediatrician and coroner, Jeffery Tolliver, the police chief and Sara’s ex-husband, Lena Adams, former police officer and general discontent, and myriad other family members and professionals in Grant County.

The plot of A Faint Cold Fear involves a series of apparent suicides and a stabbing, not to mention plenty of mutilation and other details that make me cringe. Slaughter does not write with a light hand. She just puts it all out there for readers to see and hear and think about as they try to fall asleep at night. She unveils disgusting characters with motives and behaviors from the worst headlines. Yes, these are crime thrillers, but they aren’t about gunshot wounds or hit-and-runs. These crimes are from the underbelly.

If we’re keeping a record, I’d put A Faint Cold Fear last of the four I’ve read. Pretty Girls is first and best, followed by Kisscut (which was honestly too disturbing to write about), and Blindsided.

*If you are easily effected by graphic content, Slaughter’s books aren’t for you.

Book Review: Astonish Me

I’ve had this one on my shelf for a couple of years, waiting for the pull to read it. I knew it was about ballet dancers, and since I’m not particularly into ballet, I’d glance at the title, remember it was about ballet, and decide to read something else.

But that’s silly because of course it’s not about ballet. It’s about relationships and the decisions people make or don’t make.

Joan grew up a young American ballerina in 1970s Paris. Impressionable, as most young people are, no matter their focus, she got swept up in the drama backstage, making choices that ultimately changed the trajectory of her life. She grew up, left the spotlight, and tried to lead a normal life of some sort in suburbia as a wife, mother, and studio instructor.

It is only when her young son, Harry, shows a penchant and interest in dancing that she realizes she cannot leave the spotlight altogether. Her husband indulges them, though he is that antithesis of a ballet dancer, an academic who appreciates the art but would rather spend his time doing a dozen other things. As Joan grows into her role, she is challenged by old demons, haunted by the very decisions that defined her, and now – as a mother – must decide when to step in and when to bow out.

Astonish Me  – or, Etonnez-moi – is a book that I both enjoyed and did not love. Joan is a difficult person to understand and appreciate; her persistence and passion is admirable on a professional scale, but she continued to do things that annoyed me. She is openly, obviously unhappy and unable to be made happy. It’s a subtle, growing torture.

For those who enjoy literary fiction, you will appreciate the writing style and fluidity of Maggie Shipstead’s words. You will see beyond the sadness and appreciate what’s being done here.

If you prefer light beach reads, fun thrillers, or fast-paced suspense, this isn’t for you. It’s far too sad.

Book Review: 12 Rules for Life

This book was born out of Jordan Peterson’s knack for answering questions on Quora. When asked, “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” the Canadian psychologist and professor had plenty to say. The list grew longer with time, and suddenly there was enough for a book.

With mercy in mind for the reader, the list was whittled to 12 things – rules, if you will – to help people live simpler, less chaotic lives.

Peterson can be a polarizing person depending on your politics, but he is not polarizing to me. Rather, he makes me think and consider ideas I’ve not yet considered. He is exactly the sort of person I enjoy listening to because he’s calm and rational, and I feel certain he’s not spouting ideas that aren’t readily backed up by research and deep work. Whether I end up on the same side of the political fence as Peterson is irrelevant. This book – 12 Rules for Life – is not political. It’s relational and ethical. It urges readers to look inward and see if they are manifesting the chaos or working to live fruitfully in spite of it.

Essentially the rules are about becoming a productive adult, the importance of acknowledging that you don’t know everything, why you should surround yourself with good people, how to say exactly what you mean, and why living intentionally is the only way to live.  While nothing was earth-shatteringly new, I found myself nodding frequently and realizing that I’m already endeavoring to do many of these things. It was good to have psychological and biological research, as well as anecdotes, to back up Peterson’s points.

For review purposes, here are the 12 Rules. I agree with every single one of them.

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

If you know a high school or college graduate willing to read this book, buy it for him/her right away.

Book Review: The Taming of the Queen

On the morning of the Royal Wedding, I felt a strong pull back to an early literary love of mine – The Tudor Series by Philippa Gregory. Having read almost everything Gregory has written about the Tudors and Plantagenets, and a few other royal dynasties, I recalled that I never read the book she wrote on Kateryn (Katerine/Katherine/Catherine) Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife, the one who lived.

Once Harry and Meghan were hitched, I grabbed The Taming of the Queen from my bookshelf and got down to business, finishing it in only a few days. Why I love these people so much is beyond me, but I do, I do, I do. And now I want to re-watch the entire Tudors series just to enjoy them more.

For those who aren’t up to speed on the Tudors, Henry VIII married Kateryn Parr in his final years, after executing two of his wives (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard), setting two aside (Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves), and mourning one who died not long after childbirth (Jane Seymour, his “true wife,” whom he’s buried next to in St. George’s Chapel). In this final season of his life, the ongoing struggle between Catholics and Protestants persisted, and Henry, as the self-appointed King of the church, was the primary audience for disputes.

Five of his wives had strong opinions on religious matters and Kateryn Parr was one of them. She was a writer and thinker, which wasn’t appropriate for women of her time, much less appropriate for a queen, but Henry indulged her – for the most part. The primary conflict in this story occurs when Henry’s whims shift from mostly Protestant (good for Parr) to somewhat Catholic (bad for Parr), and the flurry of men around the king attempt to sway him further.

We already know how it ends. Henry VIII dies and Kateryn lives, but there was a rush of tension in the short years they were married. If you’re interested on royal dynasties, then it’s likely you’ve already read Gregory’s books. If you want to get into the series, don’t start with The Taming of the Queen. Start with The Constant Princess, or go to her website and decide where you want to begin on the historical timeline.

Book Review: The Wife Between Us

I’ve shied away from reading books with titles that have been directly marketed. Yes, all titles are designed to spark interest, but there’s been a trend lately of having words like “girl” and “wife” and “woman” in titles – do we thank Gone Girl for this? – and I’m tired of it.

Yet this book – The Wife Between Us – kept popping up in my feed as a book I’d like. I gave it a trial run on Audible, and for the first few chapters, I thought I was listening to a reworking of The Girl on the Train.

But then it shifted and I was hooked. 

Though the point of view and timeline shifts with each chapter, Vanessa is our primary narrator and she is not happy. Freshly divorced and burning with the knowledge that Richard, her ex, is marrying again, she has become obsessed with her secret plan. Chapter by chapter, line by line, the reader isn’t entirely sure why the marriage fell apart to begin with. We don’t even know who the “bad guy” is. The Wife Between Us wants to pull you in several directions. Are you hearing the story of a bitter ex-wife? Is it a tale of sick love that keeps people coming back for more? Is it a story of revenge? Or is it something else entirely?

Again, we can thank Gone Girl for making us paranoid and unable to trust our own instincts.

This is how I know a book is good: I think of it during the day and work out possible solutions. Such was the case with The Wife Between Us. Who is the wife and who is the us? Why can’t Vanessa leave well enough alone and move on?

It was a quick listen, which tells me it would’ve been a quick read. I recommend it.

Book Review: Blindsighted

After reading Pretty Girls, I knew I wanted to explore more of Karin Slaughter’s work. Happily, one of my besties – Karin, no less – provided me with five of her paperbacks, so I started with the first one – Blindsighted.

It’s the first in the Sara Linton/Grant County Series set in a small fictional Georgia town outside of Atlanta. She’s the local pediatrician/medical examiner and the ex-wife of police chief Jeffrey Tolliver.  One unsuspecting afternoon at the corner diner, Sara finds a local professor, Sybil, in the restroom, near death from gruesome injuries. Blood everywhere, among other things. Off we go on a whodunit. 

It doesn’t stop with one body. Another girl is found splayed and near death atop Sara’s car in the hospital parking lot, followed but another woman gone missing. The sadistic serial killer is efficient and crafty, so evidence is minimal.

Of course, all it takes is a few clues and a little bit of intuition to reach a conclusion. For what it’s worth, I pegged the criminal nearly from the start, but there were plenty of twists and turns to give me pause and question my sleuthing.

Karin Slaughter does not hold back on the sort of details that make one wince. If you have any distaste for or recoil with graphic content, these books aren’t for you. There is no skipping details for allusion. She just puts it all out there.

I don’t know what it says about me, but I’m enjoying her work. I prefer Pretty Girls to Blindsighted, but I always like a good thriller. Kisscut is next in the series, which I’ll likely start this weekend. Depending on how gruesome that one is, I may need a break in exchange for something lighter.

Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

It is only May, but I could easily give you my five favorite books of 2018, Eleanor Oliphant included. I am on a roll.

To start, I listened to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine on Audible, and it was a delightful experience in account of Cathleen McCarron’s impeccable accent and narration. I went on handfuls of long runs while listening to this book without a care for the distance. The story is solid, but the narration on its own is a delight. (Take a listen to the sample preview, if you have a moment.) 

Thirty-year-old Eleanor Oliphant is an unusual, quirky person. Put plainly, she’s awkward and not consistently suited for all social interactions. She speaks bluntly and struggles to understand why certain social norms exist. We don’t know a lot about Eleanor at the start of the book, but we know she lives alone, works in the accounting department at a design firm, and is burdened by less-than-lovely conversations with her mother. She exists rather than lives.

The plot charges forward when Eleanor is thrust into a predicament. She and co-worker Raymond see an old man collapse on the street and Eleanor struggles to navigate appropriate responses. Through this unscheduled event, Eleanor and Raymond develop a friendship, or at least, a consistent interaction that Eleanor eventually perceives as a friendship. 

As the narrative unfolds, we learn that Eleanor has the sort of tragic past one reads about in the newspapers. Buried memories begin to surface and it isn’t pretty.

Though some of the subject matter, as it pertains to Eleanor’s upbringing and early 20s, isn’t funny at all, the book is a near riot. I was the goofball giggling to herself along the Greenway somewhere between seven and ten miles. Gail Honeyman nailed character development. She built a whole, believable, endearing woman with words and inference.

I highly, highly recommend this one.

Book Review: Pretty Girls

Occasionally I’m drawn to historical fiction, high brow literary works, and out-of-the-box fantasy, but my mainstay is a true crime psychological thriller. I want folks to die and I want to stay up all night and stress about who did it.

I’m a true glutton.

I’d never read a Karin Slaughter book before Pretty Girls, but now that my eyes have been opened I’m going to read everything she’s written. She belongs on the shelf next to Gillian Flynn, Mo Hayder, and Tana French.

Claire, the wife of an Atlanta millionaire, is in the emotional throes of burying her husband, Paul, who was murdered right in front of her. She’s a mess, so the last thing she needs is for old wounds to come undone. That’s what happens, of course. The vanishing of a local teenage girl brings back a flood of memories from when Claire’s sister went missing decades prior. Lydia, the third sister, resurfaces from her own pit of despair to help Claire cope when clues about Paul’s seemingly unsuspecting life unearths a slew of secrets. Like an onion, Claire and Lydia peel back the layers to reveal what was true all along.

Perfectly paced, there is not one dull page in Pretty Girls. A warning, though: this book crawls into the darkest corners of physical and psychological trauma. It is not for the faint of mind. Slaughter is a master at imagery. She writes so that you see the full scene. No details are left behind.

You’ve been warned.

Book Review: The Story of Reality

I began my Lenten reading with The Story of Reality, which was a throwback to the narrative of my early Christian walk.  Divided into five parts – God, Man, Jesus, Cross, Resurrection – it’s a book that’s meant to be read during Lent.

Koukl’s goal is similar to Josh McDowell’s in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, where suspicions are laid bare and arguments against the Bible and its contents are questioned through reason and logic. What makes The Story of Reality different is that Koukl trims the fat and cuts to the chase. It’s bite-size. (Throughout the book I was continually reminded of no-frills James, my favorite book of the Bible. He gets in, says good stuff, and gets out.)

Despite his quickness, Koukl takes appropriate time to dismiss some of the modern attitudes we see today and how they have no place in the Christian experience. One that stood out to me in particular is the growing trend of referring to “my truth,” which, in essence, has become how we describe our feelings. This blatant affront to actual truth is weakening our ability to recognize what is really true and separate it from our feelings about what’s true. (Thanks, Oprah.)

Koukl gets down to business, and quickly, which I appreciate. There’s no waxing philosophical or digging so deep in the text that one needs Matthew Henry’s Commentary laid open for reference. There is a time and place for that sort of study. For me, right now, I’m spread too thin.

The Story of Reality was an excellent first choice for Lent and starkly different from The Problem of Pain, which I am muddling through right now. (C.S. Lewis is so high brow, so extra.) I’m hanging on to this one and will likely make it required reading for my boys when they’re a little older.

Book Review: The French Girl

I listened to The French Girl on Audible since I’ve settled in to audiobooks during long runs. (It’s wonderful how quickly an hour or two will pass when I’m engrossed in a story.)

Set in present day, our narrator Kate Channing lives with a haunting. A decade prior Kate and a group of Oxford friends enjoyed a week’s vacation together at a French farmhouse. Some coupled, a few not, the group drank and goofed around as most university students would away from the pressures of academia.

Next door to the farmhouse lived Severine, a siren of a woman who intermingled with the Brits, causing heads to turn and jealousies to be born. The week ended with Severine missing.

Ten years later, her body is discovered in a well on the farmhouse property. With the French’s girl’s body, everything is unearthed. Unfortunately for Kate, the mystery of Severine’s death is made worse by the girl’s sudden, consistent presence in Kate’s everyday life. Is she hallucinating? Is Severine trying to communicate something? Or is Kate being punished on account of events she doesn’t remember?

The archetypes are strong in The French Girl. Like the cast of Friends, each character fulfills a specific role in the plot. Whether this is to the book’s benefit or detriment, I cannot decide. Right away I suspected a particular person, and though that suspicion shifted only a time or two, I settled confidently on this character based on archetype alone. My suspicions rang true.

This doesn’t distract from the mystery, though. It was still worthwhile to finish the book if only to discern how Severine died and why she, in her afterlife or in Kate’s own delusion, decided to linger and make her presence known in quiet, subtle ways. This element of suspense kept my attention, particularly since it was written so delicately.

I’m always curious about debut novels. Not the first book an author has written; rather, the first book a publishing house chooses to promote. More than reading it, I study it. What’s the equation? What’s the catch? Why this book? Lexie Elliott crafted a solid whodunit, but with flare. Archetypes + a Murder + the ghost of the dead girl? It’s a workable equation.

Which makes sense, considering Elliott is a theoretical physicist.

 

Book Review: Homegoing

(This review was originally published on The Same, an online literary journal for women, by women.)

Every once in a while I read a book so intense that I have to put it down and breathe. Or cry, or do some sort of mundane task in order to calm down. The Kite Runner is one of those books. In parts, so was The Devil of Nanking and Between Shades of Gray.

Homegoing begins in 18th Century Ghana. Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, don’t know the other exists, and thus begins a 300-year journey that follows their genealogical lines into modern time.

Effia, known for her unmatched beauty among her tribe, is married off to a wealthy and influential Englishman who oversees the British slave trade headquartered on the Gold Coast. She raises their son, Quey, in the Cape Coast Castle, a lush and expensive living Effia has never known, but beneath the floorboards lies another world. It is in the dungeons of that same castle where captives lay shackled together, knowing the Door of No Return leads to a cross-Atlantic slave ship.

Esi is the daughter of a tribal warrior, strong and proud, but when she is captured, kept in the castle dungeon, and sold into slavery, her status is erased, as if her position in the tribal region never mattered at all. Esi develops nerves of steel, a sort of resolve that grows from the gut. She enters the slave trade and gives birth to a daughter, Ness. The family line continues.  

From there, two narratives unfold – one in Africa, one in America. It is one long family story, but it is also fourteen interlaced short stories. Each chapter is told from the next family member in line, offering a unique perspective that spotlights how oral history morphs and shifts depending on the audience. For the family in Africa, there is honor, recognition, veneration, but for those plucked from their land, from their touchstone and their identity, there is bitterness and a sting that lingers as a constant undercurrent.

I want to say that author Yaa Gyasi streamlines this family’s history effortlessly, but I know better. From the level of detail, the pitch-perfect characterization, and the way in which we walk through three centuries without even thinking about what year we’re in, it’s clear that her research was extensive and exhaustive. Her writing style is beautiful. There’s no way it was effortless.

Please continue reading on The Same.

Book Review: The Trespasser

In her sixth book from the Dublin Murder Squad, Tana French hits it out of the park again. I think she’s one of the best true crime writers on the market today. French’s stories move along critically, methodically, and follow the natural course of asking whodunit.

We were introduced to Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran in The Secret Place, which gave me pause because The Secret Place is my least favorite in the series. (Note: It wasn’t because of Conway and Moran. It was because the main characters are spoiled brat teenagers and they were terrifically obnoxious. The core of the plot was still good.)  The Trespasser is free from pesky brats, so right away I was good to go.

Conway and Moran must solve the mystery of a woman found dead in her immaculate home. She’s young and beautiful, which means the beating that caused her death was likely a domestic. An angry boyfriend, perhaps. In typical French fashion, readers follow the detectives step by step, as each layer of the onion is peeled. Privy to Conway’s inner dialogue only, we consider suspects and motives as she considers them. We analyze evidence alongside her. Moran offers input, but we, like Conway, rely on our instincts.

The Trespasser, like all of French’s novels, moves along at an appropriate pace. Not too fast, not too slow. In keeping with the rest of the series, it is less about what and more about how. It’s always the how, which keeps the brain spinning for possibilities.

Also, I listened to it on audiobook, a first for me since I own the rest on paperback. Narrator Hilda Fay has the most delightful Irish accent.

So yes, I recommend The Trespasser. More so, I recommend Tana French.

A note on the Strong Female Lead Character: I recently read a thread on Twitter that had me second-guessing my frustrations with lead character Jazz in Artemis, the strong female character I did not like and who ultimately became the reason I didn’t finish the book. Was I too harsh? Am I letting male characters be messy and flawed but not extending that grace to female leads? Am I casting them as unlikable? Am I exhibiting a bias? 

After reading The Trespasser, I’ve cut myself the slack because Detective Antoinette Conway is as strong and flawed as they come. She is pushy and snarky. She’s harassed and prodded on a daily basis and always comes out swinging. She’s got a foul mouth and a quick hand. She is exactly the woman I’d never want to cross.

So what’s the difference? The difference is in the construction. Detective Conway is a well-written, fleshed out sharp but flawed character. Jazz is a simulacrum, pieced together by a male writer who thinks Jazz is what a strong female character looks and sounds like. Those two things are not the same.

Does that mean a man cannot write a strong female lead character well? Absolutely not. Ken Follett, Wally Lamb, and Khaled Hosseini all do this effectively. Perhaps, then, this issue is best handled on a case by case, or book by book, basis rather than in sweeping statements made on Twitter.

But then, isn’t everything?

Book Review: Parable of the Sower

Before The Hunger Games, the Divergent Series, and The Maze Runner, there was the Parable of the Sower. Unlike today’s dystopian novels, where there is a contest to be won or a large looming government that manipulates its people for sport, Parable of the Sower is a story of survival. Written in 1993 and set in 2024, the novel lacks the technological devices (literary and otherwise) that we see in dystopian stories today, which is a feature I appreciate and prefer. There are no gadgets to get one out of a tight spot.

Lauren Olamina is the daughter of a preacher, but what she comes to believe about God, creation, and human nature is unique to her. The world she lives in isn’t compatible with her father’s faith, a world broken down by erratic climate and global economic upheaval. The dwindling family survives by banding together with others to stay alive outside the city of Los Angeles.

When a fire ravages their compound, Lauren is forced to pack up and head north. She has a feeling about it – which is important since she is a sharer, or one who lives with hyper-empathy, and follows her gut instinct at every move. Believing she has the answer that will rebuild society, a vision for Earthseed, she and a group of travelers walk to northern California to take a chance on a new life. The journey is not without loss.

Normally I’m not interested in dystopian stories. There is enough pain and frustration in our current time. Why borrow troubles from tomorrow? 

Yet, among the noise of stories like The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner is a dystopian story that makes you pause. Even Station Eleven, which I loved, has an air of indulgence to it. It’s fiction, all the way, like the Handmaid’s Tale, which was written not long after Octavia Butler started the Earthseed series. So far-fetched it will never be.

Parable of the Sower is deeper than all of these stories. It’s raw and feels so real that I think, yes, we could do terrible things to each other in a state of panic. 

How scary.

You should read it.

Book Review: Armada

I’ve been adamant about my love for Ready Player One, not only listing it as one of my favorite books I read in 2017, but also pushing it on anyone who might like it – including Chuck.

Undoubtedly the stakes were high for Armada, Ernest Cline’s second book. Would it be as good? Would it even be close?

It was darn close. Inches away, even.

Armada takes place in present time. Zack Lightman is a high school senior living in Beaverton, Oregon, where his life is punctuated by video games, a part-time job at a used video game store, and hanging out with his friends. At home, it’s only he and his mom, because when he was barely a year old, his father, Xavier Lightman, died in an unfortunate accident at work. Zack carries around a perpetual sadness on account of that void.

Zack’s biggest flaw is that he’s a daydreamer, but when he spots a space craft – one that looks suspiciously like a ship from his favorite video game, Armada – floating above his school, he starts to wonder if he’s losing his mind.

When men in suits descend from the space craft and call his name for all of the high school to hear, he realizes he’s wide awake and completely sane. 

The story takes on speed when the truth about our national defense and space-based video games unfolds. It is fast and quick to the end.

Armada is a fun ride. Just as Ready Player One was an 80s kid’s dream, Armada has plenty of pop culture references to appease the reader. I don’t consider myself a science fiction fan when it comes to books, but I’m a Ernest Cline fan for sure. If you enjoyed Ready Player One, go for Armada. You won’t be disappointed.

Additionally, if you enjoy audiobooks, both of Cline’s novels are narrated by Wil Wheaton. Double points!

Book Review: Artemis

It’s been a long time since I didn’t finish a book, but look at me now, not finishing this book.

Heck, y’all. I tried.

Deciding to read Artemis in the first place was an easy choice. I loved The Martian, and the movie was just as exciting. Brilliant! Loved every minute! Oh, a second book by Andy Weir? Sign me up!

I started listening to it on audiobook, and Rosario Dawson does a wonderful job reading it aloud. Not as good as Wil Wheaton with Ready Player One, but entertaining nonetheless.

Artemis is the first city on the moon, a five-dome bubble with its own economy, culture, and law enforcement. The make-up and design of Artemis is every bit as interesting as the make-up and design of Mark’s temporary home on Mars in The Martian. Those elements, Andy Weir got right. The blow-your-mind Science stuff is woven into Artemis, just as you’d expect. All fascinating.

And that’s where my interest ends. Our protagonist is Jazz, a gritty, foul-mouthed young woman known for her sketchy behavior, and she’s been hired to perform a heist for some serious moon cash. She’s a low-income resident of Artemis, so her back-door dealings help fund her modest life on the moon, where she’s lived since she was six years old. Essentially, Artemis is a space caper. Plot-wise, this is fine.

The problem is this: Jazz is unlikable. She doesn’t even feel real. Jazz is a strong female character who is clearly written by a man who doesn’t know how to write strong female characters.

Granted, it’s hard to do, and I know the pendulum swings both ways. I am currently writing my third novel and two of the main characters are men. This is immensely more challenging than writing from a woman’s point of view, so I’m not trying to throw shade here.

But, dang. Jazz seems like the sort of woman men daydream about, the kind of women who do not exist. She’s gorgeous, flirty, and unbreakable. She participates in the kind of grab-assery that happens among groups of Alpha men. Her level of profanity is deafening, and it’s one of the reasons that I had to stop the audiobook (which is saying something since profanity in general doesn’t bother me).

Over and over, I kept thinking – Jazz sounds like a guy, but Andy Weir made her a girl, and I don’t like her.

Ultimately this led to me not caring whether or not she was successful in her heist. With three hours left on a nine-hour audiobook, I bailed. I moved on to Armada, Ernest Cline’s follow-up to Ready Player One, also narrated by Wil Wheaton. I’m loving every minute of it so far.

I made this post on the off-chance I revisit Artemis and give Jazz another try. For now though, Artemis is my first DNF of 2018.

Book Review: The Dinner

Every time you pick up a new book, you’re taking a tiny risk. Have you wasted your $3 at the used book store? Are you about to waste your time reading a book that you don’t enjoy? (I’ve already done that this year.)

I paused and considered these things before choosing The Dinner. I don’t want to waste time (ever), and I particularly don’t want to choose poorly and repeat my 2017 reading experience.  Goodreads reviews were good enough, so my interest was sparked. Plus, the review quote on the cover was from Gillian Flynn: “Chilling, nasty, smart, shocking, and unputdownable.”

The Dinner takes place over five courses – Apertif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, Digestif – at a swanky restaurant in Amsterdam. Two couples are meeting for dinner, though our narrator, Paul, is the only voice we hear. We are in Paul’s head throughout book, and though the setting is the dinner table, the plot unfolds as one peels an onion. Layer by layer.

Better yet, take this analogy. You know the dance scene over the pool in It’s a Wonderful Life? We see George and Mary do the Charleston while the floor is literally splitting in half. They are going to fall in the pool, we know this. They, however, are oblivious.

James Stewart Christmas Movies GIF

This image played in my mind while reading The Dinner. As the couples make their way through each course, and as Paul sifts back the layers of story through memories and recollection, we get closer to falling into that pool. We get closer to learning why the dinner needed to happen in the first place. We get close, then Paul pulls us back.

A crime has been committed by the couples’ two teenage sons. They’ve come to dinner to discuss the crime and what to do in its aftermath.

The Dinner isn’t for everyone on account of its slow build. (I think you have to already enjoy this back-and-forth method of storytelling.) I agree with Gillian Flynn that The Dinner is chilling and nasty, and the writing is certainly smart. Unputdownable? I dunno. It’s a touch putdownable, but that’s because the characters aren’t as lovely as George and Mary, and sometimes you don’t want to be the company of bad people.

It is a curious thing, though, to consider what you might do when it’s your child who’s the bad guy.