Book review: The Lady in the Tower

One of my favorite historians is Alison Weir. Not only is she thorough and detailed, but she writes in a way that feels like you’re reading fiction. She’s an effective storyteller, and it just so happens that the story she’s telling is true.

My interest in Anne Boleyn is not new, but it was made stronger after visiting Hever Castle in October. I wanted to dive into her family’s history even more after that visit, to read new (to me) details about Anne’s final days and flesh out her life as much as possible.

The Lady in the Tower did that, and more. I knew Thomas Cromwell was already at the core of her downfall, but I did not realize the degree to which he attacked her from all angles. What a wretch he was! I also did not realize that much of our recorded history from that time is credited to letters written by Eustace Chapuys, Roman Ambassador to England under Charles V. He was a meticulous writer, and much about Anne’s Tudor experience is known because of him.

I don’t expect anyone to pick up this book on my recommendation unless there’s already an interest in the British monarchy, specifically the Tudor period. However, if that’s your jam, you’d do well to read anything by Alison Weir, including The Lady in the Tower.

Book review: Burntown

Burntown has been on my TBR (To Be Read) list since I heard about it. Already a big fan of The Winter People and The Night Sister, I knew Burntown would be worth the wait. I wasn’t wrong.

There is something that happens in a Jennifer McMahon book that I’ve yet to see replicated as well in others. She manages to marry mystery/thriller with the slightest paranormal in a way that seems totally natural. I’m not a fan of paranormal as a genre, but when it comes to McMahon, I’m all in.

Burntown begins with a scene from the past – a young boy watches while his mother is murdered. 

Then we jump forward. All grown up, Miles Sandeski has a family of his own. He makes things, builds things with his hands, including a machine based on Edison’s design to reach beyond the veil between life and death. Somehow, the machine works and he can hear his mother’s voice, which tells him her murderer – a man named Snake Eyes – is not gone. In fact, he’s watching Miles, waiting for another opportunity. The family is not safe, and then a flood sweeps in, washing away the Sandeski’s home. Miles and son Errol are gone. Miles’s wife survives for a short time, but then, it’s only their daughter, Eva. 

In an attempt to live some version of a cursed life in Burntown, the underbelly of Ashford, Vermont, Eva changes her name to Necco and lives in a car with her boyfriend. The murderer is now after her. The cycle continues. 

Though the main character is Necco, we also hear from two other women – Theo and Pru, who each have their own journey that intertwines with Necco’s. When these three finally team up, the pacing of the story quickens towards a resolution.

The Winter People continues to be my favorite of McMahon’s so far, but Burntown is special in a way that leaves me – if I’m being honest – a little jealous. McMahon is darn good. She knows how to craft a creepy story that’s totally bizarre and equally believable. Once the ball was rolling, I was locked in. We knew Snake Eyes was going to resurface. We knew the Edison machine was going to be important. We knew that Necco was going to succeed. BUT HOW? How does it all come together? 

You have to read Burntown to find out. 

Book review: Frankenstein

One of the perks of developing my own English class for our co-op is selecting works I love and think are important for young people to read. Out of 15 students, more than half dreaded reading Frankenstein. A few were neutral, which left a few who were actually eager to dive in and see what this novel was all about. I’m happy to report that I welcomed a group of converts into the Pro-Frankenstein Club. (Not everyone loved it, but many did!)

For the sole purpose of encouraging non-students to read Frankenstein, I decided to offer a short book review here. 

Often labeled the first work of Science Fiction, Frankenstein is a frame story that begins with letters from a ship captain, Robert Walton, to his sister, Margaret. Walton is terrifically lonely on his expedition to the Arctic and has no one (his equal) to share in the adventure. Just when he thinks he’ll be alone forever, a downtrodden man near death is found floating on an iceberg. Pulled aboard, Walton learns the man’s name: Victor Frankenstein. Once he’s strong enough, Victor tells Walton his tale.

Enter Frame Story Level I: Victor grew up in a perfect family, loving and generous. He had an interest in science, and though it wasn’t necessarily shepherded well by his parents, it wasn’t squashed either. During his teen years, he explored different areas of science, incorporated philosophy, and began to question what he may be capable of. One night, when he was 15 years old, he watched a storm brewing and saw lightning strike a tree and enflame it. This gave him a curious idea involving electricity.

Years later, his curious idea morphed into the desire to create a new species. Thus became the monster, but upon seeing what he’d created, Victor abandoned the creature and ran away in fear. Chaos ensues.

It’s important to know that readers experience a few more layers of storytelling, hearing more than just Victor’s side. Though the language isn’t modern, and it can be exhaustive at times, the themes and ideas explored in Frankenstein are well-worth the wrestling. Whether or not Mary Shelley knew of her own genius, I’m not sure, but she presents several important questions to readers that still apply today:
1) When does life begin?
2) What is our responsibility toward life?
3) What are the dangers of blind ambition?
4) How far should we go scientifically when lives are at stake?

If reading Frankenstein is too daunting, I highly encourage you to listen to Audible’s version narrated by Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey, the Beast from Beauty and Beast). You will not be disappointed. 

Book review: Magpie Murders

My experience with The Word is Murder was so delightful that I immediately investigated other Anthony Horowitz novels and selected a New York Times bestseller, Magpie Murders, to read next. As I hoped, it too was outstanding and I may have a new favorite author.

Magpie Murders is a double puzzle set up like a frame story (a story within a story). In the beginning, we hear from Susan Ryeland, a book editor who’s just been given novelist Alan Conway’s latest thriller. She has been editing Conway’s books for years, and though she doesn’t care for him much as a person, she enjoys editing his work because he is the best whodunit mystery writer of the time. He has mastered the cozy murder mystery in small English villages, an equation that people continue to love (myself included). His fictional detective, Atticus Pünd, is beloved by readers everywhere. So, Susan introduces readers to Conway’s latest novel with a slight warning, and we dive into Conway’s work. In other words, we step into the frame story. 

There’s been a double murder at Pye Hall – first the housekeeper, then the master of the house. Atticus Pünd must untie all the strings to determine who is guilty. Conway’s novel follows a classic Agatha Christie model – a collection of interconnected characters, each with a sliver of a motive. The entire first half of the book is Conway’s novel.

However, just as Pünd has solved the mystery, the book ends unfinished. The last chapter is missing, and that’s when we snap back to Susan, the editor, who’s just been told that Alan Conway, the writer, is dead.

Thus begins the second murder to solve. Not only is Susan frazzled by not knowing who killed the fictional housekeeper and master of the house at Pye Hall, now she has to figure out what to do regarding her client’s untimely death. Susan uses what she’s learned from a career of editing murder mysteries to solve the crime of who killed Alan Conway and figure out what happened to his last chapter.

To be honest, Magpie Murders was a slow start, but that’s only because I didn’t fully appreciate what was going on. From the book summaries I’d read, I didn’t grasp the frame story aspect, so when we skip from Susan’s point of view to the various characters in Conway’s novel, I had to work a little harder to stay focused.

However, once the mystery was fully underway, I was hooked. It was brilliant, and once again Anthony Horowitz wowed me. 

If you are a fan of British mysteries, Agatha Christie, and the classic whodunit, you’ll love Magpie Murders

Book review: The Word is Murder

If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes, whether the original Doyle stories or the Benedict Cumberbatch show, then The Word is Murder is for you. 

Reading a brief summary doesn’t do the story justice, particularly when you have to start with the fact that Anthony Horowitz, the author, is also the narrator and main character. Horowitz is already an establish crime thriller novelist in real life, but with this book, he writes himself into the story as a proverbial Watson when a fictional Sherlock-type comes knocking at his door. 

One morning, Diana Cowper, mother to a famous British actor, walks into a funeral parlor and prepays for her own service. That afternoon, she’s found dead in her home from an apparent murder.

To crack the case, ex-detective Daniel Hawthorne (the obsessive, crazy-smart Sherlock type) enlists the help of Anthony to document the investigation for the sole purpose of writing a book about it. After a series of “thanks, but no thanks,” Anthony eventually bends to the will of the persistent detective and the pair goes off to figure out who murdered Diana. 

Not only is the plot clever and classically Sherlock, but it also has the sort of twists and turns that make for a good crime thriller. I listened to it in a matter of days because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to Diana. Also, I so enjoyed the banter between Hawthorne and Horowitz, as it is pitch-perfect to Holmes and Watson. 

Now I need to go back and read the rest of Horowitz’s work since I learned that he was commissioned by the Conan Doyle Estate to write two Sherlock Holmes novels – The House of Silk, which was mentioned in The Word is Murder, and Moriarty. He was also commissioned by the Ian Flemming folks to write a James Bond novel. All of the personal references in The Word is Murder are true – his achievements with Foyle’s War and the Alex Rider series, as well as his contributions to TV and film.

What’s fictional, however, is the murder of Diana and Daniel Hawthorne as the investigator. But from the way it’s written, you surely wouldn’t know it.  

Book Review: Lying in Wait

Since I have another half marathon coming up – in a few days, no less – I’ve kept on with audiobooks. Music does not do for me what a good book will, and that is to keep me moving forward, no matter how fast or how slow.

I selected Lying in Wait because Audible recommended it to me based on previous books I enjoyed. Clearly, I have a pattern. 

Lying in Wait, set in 1980s Dublin, begins with an abrupt, impassioned murder and subsequent burial in haste. That someone has been murdered is not in question. Rather, what led to the murder and what happens after the fact is the real story.

The narrative unfolds from three perspectives:
Lydia Fitzsimons, the reclusive woman who administers the final blow to Annie Doyle, the poor girl who died. Lydia’s husband, Andrew, tried to kill her, but he was unsuccessful. (He was successful in burying her though.)
Laurence Fitzsimons, Lydia and Andrew’s son, a spoiled, obese and bullied young man whose troubles started at birth
Karen Doyle, Annie’s sister, an unsuspecting beauty who refuses to let go of the mystery behind her sister’s disappearance

The perfect marriage of these three points of view kept my attention 100 percent of the time. The dramatic pauses, the woven storylines, the absurdity of Lydia’s psychosis – it was captivating! This isn’t a story of whodunit. We, the reader, already know this. What we learn is WHY it happened and WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT. 

Lying in Wait is a rich psychological thriller that kept my attention until the last word. 

And even then, I was stunned. Super well done.  

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.