Reviews 2017

 


BackslideBackslide by Keith Thomas Walker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t like books where the “hero” is an anti-hero. Where he’s a crime boss, a murderer, or the head of a dope-dealing biker gang. Though The Godfather movies are among my favorites of all time, I was always kind of philosophical when the members of the Corleone Crime Family got theirs. I mean, hell, that’s the gig when you’re a criminal. So, I was skeptical about this book, by one of my favorite male authors, about a man who has a very dark past being cast as the romantic hero.

But I’ll be damned if Keith Thomas Walker didn’t pull this off. In ‘Backslide’, Kole comes to the rescue of Dana and her son Tariq when their lives are endangered by Tariq’s unwitting involvement in a gang-related matter. Kole and Dana have a history which makes it a no-brainer that he would step in, but to protect them, Kole must rely on some of his, er, extra-legal skills and connections. And it ain’t always pretty. But this author managed to walk the fine line between creating a believable character with a dark side, and one who is not so thoroughly reformed that it’s impossible to believe he was ever the bad guy he purports to have been. I liked that Kole was morally ambivalent at times, and when called upon, could easily access the traits that made him the man he once was.

In fact, I was kind of horrified to find Kole really, really sexy, and to wonder whether a man like that could transform me into some ‘ride-or-die’ chick (a concept I generally find ridiculously self-sacrificing, anti-female, and just kind of stupid). I give this book five stars because KTW managed to make me transplant myself into the female protagonist’s shoes, and to create a complicated, imperfect male protagonist who, though he has a despicable past, was anything but. And finally, because the writing was, as always smooth and unpretentious–neither trying too hard nor too little.

For me, this writer always delivers, so my enjoyment of the book should have been no surprise. Highly recommended for fans of AA romantic suspense, or urban lit.

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A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and BetrayalA Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal by Jen Waite

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Wow. I don’t know what I missed, but this read like the self-indulgent recounting of the end of a relationship, but definitely not something so shocking it merited a memoir. I felt like I was listening to a self-centered friend tell a story of woe as though she was the only person in the world to ever have her heart broken by an unscrupulous man. Her husband cheated, and lied while she was pregnant, and was stunningly dishonest about his affair when confronted with the evidence. At times, he was clearly conflicted about whether he even wanted to end the marriage so he gave her mixed and ambiguous signals, which was a crazy-making experience to read about, and I’m sure, much, much crazier to experience. But this, to me, does not a psychopath make.

Their problems were worsened I think because both she and her husband seemed incredibly immature, and her parents, though loving and supportive, were also a little overly-involved in the marriage of their adult daughter. They were overly indulgent when they invested tens of thousands of dollars in the start-up of a restaurant (for a couple who had no business acumen that was mentioned–the daughter is a ‘struggling actress’ and the son-in-law a bartender) which she and her husband then basically walk away from because their partners are being “weird” and “mean” to them. All in all, the couple at the center of the memoir felt like children playing at being adults, and that was only exacerbated by her parents infantilizing her every step of the way. But there’s nothing like an actual child to take care of, to make things start feeling real, and that’s when her husband, the Peter Pan of their marriage decided he would book. No surprise there, in my mind.

And finally, the idea that she would–while her daughter is still an infant–publicly brand her ex a psychopath is stunningly shortsighted and vindictive. The marriage failed. He treated her abominably. He was a terrible spouse. But by her own recounting, he has a positive relationship with his son from a previous relationship. Now, she’s certainly made it difficult at best, for one to develop with his daughter, who will grow up to face this eternal condemnation of her father. Her decision to tell this story, as though it is only HER story smacks of the same kind of blind narcissism she accuses her former spouse of. Relationships end! People do crappy, crappy, hurtful things to each other while it unravels. But this made me feel a little sorry for the kid.

This, in my opinion was the product of the Me Generation, who from the time they were in diapers were assured by their parents that nothing bad should ever, ever happen to them. And if it does, then they are owed acknowledgment of their pain by as a large a group of people as possible.

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NutshellNutshell by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love Ian McEwan, and am drawn to the darkness in his books. This one I was drawn to because of the clever plot device. The main protagonist is an unborn fetus, listening from inside his mother’s womb as she plots with her lover to kill his father. In that small world, this fetus, intuits from what he hears, what his mother is doing, what she is feeling and even at times what she is wearing. He loves and hates her, and from his safe place inside her learns about complex and dark secrets about human nature and the world– about love, lust, duplicity, and anger. An he also learns about the world he has yet to be born into, through the podcasts his mother listens to when she cannot sleep. A unique read, but at times a little too dense and wordy for me, a little self-consciously literary. At times so much so that it was almost impenetrable. There were however, many more moments of cleverness and humor than I would have expected. Not my favorite kind of read, but undoubtedly the work of an accomplished wordsmith.

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The BreakdownThe Breakdown by B.A. Paris

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I got the galley of this book in exchange for an honest review, and here it is … I struggle with writing harsh reviews; I just don’t like doing it. So I’m going to try to be as constructive, yet as honest as I can.

**MILD SPOILERS AHEAD**

I wanted to love this book. Having read ‘Behind Closed Doors’ by this author, I had high hopes. But, no kidding around, I figured out who was tormenting the main character in the very first chapter. All of the plot devices, the clues as to who might be gaslighting the hapless heroine, were so heavy-handed, I was quite amazed that I was able to keep reading. I kept telling myself that it was only because I was somewhat prepared, given that this is a mystery-suspense novel after all, for the culprit to be someone unlikely. But no. It was just that obvious.

And then there was the heroine. You have to relate to her to enjoy this book. Not completely, but on some level, there has to be a kernel of understanding about why she does what she does, or thinks what she thinks, even if you would not do or think the same. You have to be able to at least empathize with some of what she’s feeling because much of the book is her inner monologue–her fears, her loves, her likes, her doubts, her hopes.

But it was impossible for me to empathize, because she spent 95% of the book in a state of confusion, angst, self-pity or reflection on her simpering love for her long-suffering husband. She kept making the same mistakes for at least 80% of the book, never learning anything or changing in any way. “I used to be so strong,” she often lamented. But the problem was, the author gave us no reason to believe that. I simply didn’t believe it. And her lack of strength given her past, was inexplicable. She hadn’t, for much of the book, so much as an ounce of resilience.

At the news of the murder of an acquaintance, the heroine–who saw the victim on the night she died, and fears she could have saved her–then descends into an abyss of self-pity, and self-obsession that made me wonder whether she might not be better off getting a hobby rather than imagining that the murderer might be calling her, sending her letters and watching her from the street outside her home. The explanation for her paranoia, and the fear that she might be losing her mind was ‘meh’ at best. She had questions about that which could easily have been answered with a visit to a neurologist which was well within her means to do. That felt like a rookie mistake to me — building an entire plot around a misunderstanding or misconception that is easily resolved.

In the final analysis, I only read the bulk of the book (from about 25% in and on) to see when the heroine would figure out what was so obvious to the reader. I didn’t need to like her, I just needed to believe her. And I didn’t. So, for me, this sophomore effort fell flat. I will read B.A. Paris again, however, because I enjoyed ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and know that there are good stories to come from this author. Sadly, this, for me, was not one of them.

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Out of My MindOut of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My 9-year old daughter introduced me to this book, and since then, I’ve been a little obsessed with this author. I bought it in every format — paperback, e-book, and on Audible (very good performance btw). This is an AMAZING book to introduce your young ones to the concept of understanding differences. Highly recommended.

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Into the WaterInto the Water by Paula Hawkins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Enjoyed this one a lot. The author had a lot to live up to, after the hype of ‘The Girl on the Train’ (which I also enjoyed a great deal). This one was just as good in my opinion. Paula Hawkins did an excellent job managing multiple POVs and making them each distinct and independently interesting. I also enjoyed the undercurrent of messages about feminism, misogyny, and female empowerment and self-sufficiency. Paula Hawkins is clearly not just someone writing gimmicky mysteries with unreliable narrators, there is definite ambition in her writing, like someone who is stretching and reaching to do something creative with her narratives. I respect that she was able to do that, as well as tell an entertaining story. Recommended.

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The Murder GameThe Murder Game by Julie Apple

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A pleasant but overall unmemorable read for me. I will read this author again, but since it was basically Catherine MacKenzie writing as Julie Apple, a character in her book ‘Fractured’ I guess I treated this one as a gimmick more than anything else. Having said that, it was well written, and if you like the whole ‘privileged, clannish new adults with secrets who invite in the less-privileged outsider’ deal then you’ll very much enjoy this book. I will say, though, that the main character, Meredith annoyed the heck out of me for one reason: she was “desperately in love” with a Jonathan but mostly because she said so. I never saw why that was, and the author didn’t even attempt to show us why. It felt lazy to me, and made her long-suffering approach to their relationship a little exasperating. Otherwise, she could have been a pretty strong and admirable protagonist.

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Behind Her EyesBehind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Trippy, twisty, empty pleasure. I was disappointed to figure out the climactic twist about 75% in. The ending was disappointing for that reason. I wanted to be surprised and have the plot unfold in a direction where it didn’t appear to be going. There were also a few actions by main characters that were a little counter-intuitive but required to move the plot forward. Overall a fun read.

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The PlaydateThe Playdate by Louise Millar

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love books where nothing and no one is what or who they seem to be. This book delivered that in spades. First appearing to be about the uneven friendship between a well-off homemaker and a single mother down on her luck, The Playdate turned out to be a psychological thriller, where none of the narrators are quite as reliable as they first appeared to be. Enjoyed this one on Audible.

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That NightThat Night by Chevy Stevens

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oh, this book started with such promise: mean girls at a high school escalate their “bullying” to a deadly crescendo. But could they possibly have escalated to the point of committing a murder? Intriguing, and not too far-fetched a concept in today’s world. The main protagonist, Toni, has a difficult relationship with her parents, and a boyfriend who has a difficult relationship with the law. And both have the misfortune of being the last people to have been in the company of Toni’s younger sister Nicole on the night she is murdered.

Convicted of Nicole’s murder, partly on circumstantial evidence and partly on the false testimony of Toni’s high school tormentors, Toni serves fifteen years in prison, as does her boyfriend Ryan. And when she comes out, it is to parents who have all but emotionally abandoned her, a town that is suspicious of her, and parole conditions that require her to stay away from Ryan (also released on parole), who remains the love of her life. That’s a set up for a great story. And for a long, long while, the story was great–the flashbacks between Toni’s high school past, the trial and her time in prison, and the present when she has returned home were interesting and riveting. And then I looked up and realized that I was 80% into the action with no hint of an actual mystery in sight. It would have been a much better book if structured to have gradual reveals that lead to an at least marginally surprising conclusion. Instead, the author settled for the highly unlikely “let’s set a trap” scenario leading to the villains exposing themselves and then at the climax launch into a self-incriminating soliloquy about their motive. I can’t lie, that part made me sigh and roll my eyes.

But, having said that, I read well over 300 pages that went by in a flash, and then only began to see the story lose steam when the unraveling of the mystery began. The characters were also at their most engaging in the flashbacks, when Toni was going through her difficult high school years, experiencing young-and-intense love, and competing with an apparently perfect sibling for the approval and understanding of her parents. Later, there was far too much detail about the difficulties of an ex-con re-entering society, and far too little detail about the nuances of the mystery itself. But this is undoubtedly a great writer whose work I look forward to exploring. I have a feeling there’s a lot of stand-out work among her other books.

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The Tragedy PaperThe Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Great voices of teenagers, grappling with who they are, who people believe they are, and who they want to be. Included a somewhat anti-climactic climax. But an overall interesting read with good characterization.

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HausfrauHausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the kind of book that people who fancy themselves literary connoisseurs and critics like to hate on. Their reviews positively drip with envy at the author’s obvious talent, so they will exhaustively list the “rules” she broke like “telling rather than showing” and “overuse of proper names” or “excessive adjectives” “tortured descriptions.” Basically, I think all those criticisms are BS. This author is highly-skilled, there’s no getting around that. It is definitely “literary” fiction, whatever that means. Even to a fault, but that wasn’t my issue. This could have been a great read, but was for me merely a “good” one because I quite simply related to and cared about no one, and nothing that happened. I could have gotten past that, because liking characters is not a necessity for a satisfying read for me. But I also didn’t understand any of them. Despite the many pages of introspection by Anna, the main character, I did not understand her any more than she understood herself by the end of the novel. And strangely, one of the more intriguing characters was the ostensibly vapid Mary, who at times seemed to be more complicated and almost malevolent than she might appear. But even she didn’t particularly move me. So … lacking both empathy and comprehension of the characters, I had to resort to assessing the quality of the writing, which is undoubtedly, very, very good. If Essbaum set out to write an elegant, almost dispassionate portrayal of a woman who, despite her many affairs, leads a dispassionate life, then she succeeded.

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