Book Review: The Family Upstairs

Libby Jones is a young London woman who knows she’s adopted. She’s fine with this, though she’s always been curious about her origins and biological family. When an inheritance for a large home in Chelsea falls in her lap upon her 25th birthday, the details of her birth family begin to unfurl. She has no idea what to do with the things she learns.

The story is told from three perspectives, the first and most obvious being Libby’s. The two other voices are a homeless street performer (with her two children) who plays the fiddle for coins on the C√īte d’Azur, and a man who tells his story in the first person as if he’s writing a letter.

We knew these three people are connected, but we need to reach the length of the book to put all the pieces together.

And wow. What a story – suspense at every turn, an ever-growing list of nagging questions, and the sort of chapter endings that do not allow you to stop reading, or in my case, stop listening. I finished it in three days because I had to know who Libby really was and how this man and woman were connected to her.

The Family Upstairs is as much of a family saga as it is a mystery. There is death and intrigue, lost love and relational turmoil. The story is full of twists and turns, and even when the three main characters finally collide, there are still truths to unearth.

This was my first introduction to Lisa Jewell’s work, and I’m already into Then She Was Gone. I listened to The Family Upstairs on Audible, and I’m glad I did because I’ll surely listen to it again.

Book Review: Rebecca

Teaching English at our co-op has reignited my interest in the classics, and one glaring void on my shelf was Rebecca. The 1938 Gothic novel was written by Daphne de Maurier, and since its first publication, Rebecca has never gone out of publication.

The only thing I knew about Rebecca prior to reading it was that Rebecca is the deceased wife and the narrator is the new wife. I also knew it was set in England, but beyond that, it was a classic mystery I knew little about.

To my utter delight, the opening scenes occur in Monte Carlo, Monaco, and I had no problem visualizing it. The unnamed narrator is a lady’s helper on vacation when she meets Maxim de Winter, a recent rich widower. After only two weeks of courtship, Maxim asks the young woman to marry him, and she agrees. Readers quickly jump from the Mediterranean to Cornwall – specifically, Manderley, de Winter’s magnificent estate.

Our young bride struggles to settle into her new life as Lady of the House. She’s intimidated by Ms. Danvers, the sharp, cross housekeeper, and she’s reminded almost constantly of her husband’s previous wife, Rebecca. Her presence is still felt in the house, despite the fact that she’s been dead nearly a year. Details of Rebecca’s death are scarcely discussed.

The new Mrs. de Winter tries to make her husband happy, but after a massive failure on her part to surprise him (and guests) with her costume for a “Fancy Dress Ball” at Manderley, secrets quickly unravel and the young bride realizes that she knows very little about Maxim, and even much less about Rebecca.

When a sunken boat is discovered in the bay and subsequently raised, the new Mrs. de Winter must decide what to do about all the other surprises that come up with the boat – including a body.

I absolutely adored this novel, though I fully recognize that its magic is not just in the plot. The narrative is dreamy and romantic, utterly fluid and delightful. Manderley is its own magical character, as Daphne de Maurier draws the reader to the magnificent property and inside the looming house. (A quick Google search revealed it was based on a real estate – Menabilly.) I was tempted to not like the narrator because there were so many red flags to not marry this man, but considering the time and women’s roles in the 1930s and 40s, perhaps you can’t blame her.

The end of the book brings the story full-circle, a feature I love in a novel because it shows the writer had a plan, a clear direction. When it begins, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” you can’t possibly know how the story will end.

And then when it ends, you can’t help but smile as all the pieces fall into place.

Book review: Behind Her Eyes

I love a story with a good twist. Better yet, I love a story with several good twists. I enjoy the shock and surprise of learning I was completely wrong.

Behind Her Eyes presents two narrators – Adele, the pretty yet fragile wife of a local psychiatrist, and Louise, a single mom and the psychiatrist’s secretary. David, the psychiatrist, is the third person in the triad, but we don’t have a POV from him.

Here’s the catch – the Louise and David had a clumsy kiss in a bar prior to her starting the job, before they knew they’d be working together. So, when Louise and Adele meet and strike up a friendship, there’s already a secret in play. It’s a big mess, but that isn’t the point. There is something else going on in the story that looms larger than their little white lies.

The quick pacing kept me enthralled, particularly because more lies lead to more secrets and you know it’s all going to come to light eventually. The question is WHEN and HOW, so I kept going.

Then there’s this other plot point that starts to creep in, one that involves lucid dreaming, and I started to feel like I was reading The Anatomy of Stars, which I didn’t enjoy. Finally, in the last couple of chapters, the purpose of the lucid dreaming is revealed.

To be honest, I enjoyed this book tremendously – until its finale. I don’t want to spoil it, but the ending seemed directly lifted from a 2005 film. (Click here if you want to know what movie I’m referring to, and if you’ve seen it, you’ll be spoiled.) In fact, my brain went right there: Oh, this is exactly like that movie... So, that left me unimpressed. (Granted, if you haven’t seen the movie, it won’t matter and you’ll probably get a good kick out of the end. ūüôā )

Book review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a while, and when a BookTuber I follow selected it as the January pick for her online book club, I thought I’d read along.

Full disclosureWe Need to Talk About Kevin is disturbing, and it will not leave you with warm fuzzies of any kind.

The novel unfolds through letters from Eva to her husband, Franklin, so we approach the story entirely from her point of view. Right away I wasn’t a fan of the epistolary format, and the first 50 pages were slower than I’d prefer.

However, there is a threshold somewhere around the 50-page mark that shifts the pacing dramatically. It took me weeks to crawl there, but once I crossed over, I couldn’t put down the book and ended up finishing it in a weekend.

It isn’t a spoiler to tell you about Kevin. From the start, he is a different sort of child. He’s curt and ominous as if there was a dark streak in him from birth. That’s why, when, at 15 years old, Kevin murdered a handful of classmates, a cafeteria worker, and a teacher, and subsequently lands in jail, you aren’t surprised. You knew it was coming, and it was only a matter of knowing how you wound up there.

The letters from Eva to Franklin are heart-wrenching, particularly because Eva knew there was something off in her son. Franklin, less so. As their disenchanted lives unfold in the suburbs, Eva becomes increasingly worried about Kevin, and he is well aware of her concerns. Kevin enjoys and exploits them.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is… unnerving. It is not a beach read or a cozy mystery. It is troubling and shocking and terrifically sad. And yet, it is so well done that Lionel Shriver must have dug deep into the dark minds of young murderers in order to write one so perfectly. Winner of the Orange Prize and numerous other accolades, Shriver is an impeccable writer and storyteller.

That being said, don’t expect a happy ending.

Book review: I Found You

I’m not sure if double or triple timelines is a trend that authors are choosing independently or if literary agents and editors are pushing for it. Either way, I keep choosing these books. I don’t mind necessarily, but it’s a format that I’ll soon need a break from.

I Found You takes place primarily in a seaside town in England called Ridinghouse Bay. Cynical single mom Alice wakes up one morning to find a man sitting on the beach outside her house. She approaches him only to find out he has no idea who he is or what he’s doing on the beach. Instead of leaving him there, she welcomes him back to her house for a shower, a hot meal, and eventually, a short-term place to stay until his memory returns.

A second part of the book takes place in London and focuses on Lily, a newlywed whose husband would normally go to work and come home like clockwork. When he doesn’t come home one day and cannot be reached on his cell phone, Lily calls the police and thus begins a missing person search. Matters aren’t helped when Lily realizes she knows little to nothing about the man she met and married in a whirlwind romance.

A third narrative takes place as well, but this time it’s in the past (1993) and follows Gray and Kirsty Ross, a brother and sister on summer vacation with their parents in Ridinghouse Bay. All was well and good until a charming young man, Mark, starts paying too much attention to Kirsty, and Gray doesn’t trust a single thing the local boy says.

I Found You is a true mystery in that the first overarching question readers have is if the man on the beach is Lily’s missing husband. The second question is how Gray and Mark from 1993 fit into the future narrative. The answers come at the beginning of the third act (last third of the book), and then the question becomes, “How will this all turn out?”

I wasn’t blown away by I Found You in the way I was with Sometimes I Lie, which remains one of my favorites, but it was still a good read and one that kept my interest until the end. It reminded me of a Liane Moriarity book, so if that’s your type of fiction, give it a go.

Book review: The Last Mrs. Parrish

The quickest way to describe this book to you is to reference “Single White Female” and point to that level of crazy jealousy. That is Amber. She wants Daphne Parrish’s socialite, wealthy life so badly that she’ll go to any length necessary to have it. She’ll wiggle her way into Daphne’s good graces, charm her children, and keep her distance – albeit publicly – from her husband, Jackson. This is all part of the plan, after all. Get in, settle down, and eventually replace Daphne altogether.

That is, if everything goes according to plan. (Spoiler: Things don’t always go according to plan.)

I’ll admit that I almost didn’t read this one on account of being on Reese’s Book Club list. I’m not sure why that was a near-deterrent, but it was. Now that I’ve read it, I could’ve skipped it. Amber is a whiny character who needed a good slap every day. I cringed at every scene with her because she was that obnoxious. Even with a good twist at the end, I didn’t fully connect with the characters and felt like they could’ve been named anything and lived out their lives anywhere. So, perhaps it’s a pass for you.

Book review: The Ruin

Twenty years ago the body of Hilaria Blake was found in her home. An apparent overdose left her two children – Jack and Maude – orphaned. It was the sort of case that didn’t feel quite right, but when the most obvious conclusion is all you have, that’s what you go with. At least, that’s what Detective Cormac Reilly believed at the time.

Fast forward 20 years and Jack Blake’s body has been found in the river Corrib in Ireland. The police are quick to rule it a suicide, a truth girlfriend Aisling Conroy cannot seem to grasp. When sister Maude shows up to investigate her brother’s death on her own, the heat turns up in Galway.

Recently transferred from Dublin to Galway, Detective Reilly finds himself unearthing Hilaria Blake’s overdose case while grappling with her son’s supposed suicide. Things don’t align. Something doesn’t sit well. There is another link to the story which he resolves to uncover.

The Ruin moves at a swift pace, which I always appreciate. Sometimes I like to dwell in details, but when it comes to thrillers I want to run to the end. I want to untangle the knot as quickly as possible, as long as the author gets her words in. The Ruin impressed me because this is a debut novel. McTiernan was a lawyer in her former life and only jumped into fiction because she loved crime thrillers so much. So yeah, I enjoyed this mystery a great deal, and it was recommended to me since I’m a fan of Tana French, another Irish author.

However, I will tell you that The Ruin is a quicker and more interesting read than Witch Elm, French’s latest, which is currently sitting aside unfinished because the pacing is so darn slow.

Book review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

I’m late on this review, but it is not a reflection on its quality. I listened to it on audiobook this summer while training for a race, so I had plenty of time to dive into the details of the Golden State Killer, also known at the EAR (East Area Rapist).

If this title and author is unfamiliar to you, it’s important to know right off that Michelle McNamara passed away before she could see her book in print. She’d been following the case, and subsequently writing about it with the intention of getting her work published, when she reached an untimely death in April 2016 at age 46. It was her husband, Patton Oswalt, who worked with his wife’s research partner to see this book finished.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark chases down every lead suspected to be connected to a violent predator who committed upwards of 50 sexual assaults and at least ten murders. For a decade this person eluded detectives in Northern California, and eventually the case ran dry. The Golden State Killer has been the focus of myriad stories and articles, but no one could every piece it all together in a way that fleshed out a real person.

McNamara was hyper-focused on the case. It kept her up at night and occupied her mind at the most inopportune times, such as when she was walking the red carpet with her Hollywood husband. Essentially, she was obsessed with it, but perhaps that worked to her credit. After all, she honed in on a few details that eventually led to the arrest of a suspect.

It would be irritating to read this book without the events that unfolded in the spring of 2018. A man was arrested. More information came to light. It’s just a shame McNamara wasn’t alive to see it for herself.

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 Рa 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 P√ľnd, 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 P√ľnd 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 P√ľnd 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 fa√ßade. 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.


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.