Review: ARE YOU SLEEPING by Kathleen Barber

Are You Sleeping

Since there is no novel way I can think of to explain what this book is all about, the synopsis is as follows:

Josie Buhrman has spent the last ten years trying to escape her family’s reputation and with good reason. After her father’s murder thirteen years prior, her mother ran away to join a cult and her twin sister Lanie, once Josie’s closest friend and confidant, betrayed her in an unimaginable way. Now, Josie has finally put down roots in New York, settling into domestic life with her partner Caleb, and that’s where she intends to stay. The only problem is that she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past—starting with her last name.

When investigative reporter Poppy Parnell sets off a media firestorm with a mega-hit podcast that reopens the long-closed case of Josie’s father’s murder, Josie’s world begins to unravel. Meanwhile, the unexpected death of Josie’s long-absent mother forces her to return to her Midwestern hometown where she must confront the demons from her past—and the lies on which she has staked her future.

I was faced with a dilemma when I decided to write about Kathleen Barber’s debut thriller novel, Are You Sleeping. However, I don’t know how to write about it without giving any spoilers. At times, I’m not even sure if this is an actual quandary or some sort of mistake on the part of Ms Barber. If it’s the former, the issue could have been framed in a much better way. If it’s the latter, she really needs to get a better editor.

But then, when it comes to framing plot points, this novel is an extremely subpar example. I get why Josie decided to sever ties with her family. But when she gets the call about her mother’s death from her cousin, their easy bond and love for each other belie the hostility Josie says she feels about everyone back home. If she has been so cut off from her family, why isn’t there more tension when she decides to go back home?

The idea of a podcast based on a previously solved murder is timely, given the popularity of Serial and its ilk, and the idea of a novel about a podcast based on a previously solved murder sounds like publishing gold. The usage of this format at the beginning of some chapters was helpful in contextualizing the plot from the POV of someone who wasn’t the protagonist. The character of podcast host, Poppy Parnell, was extremely under-developed, reverting to the stereotype of a pushy journalist who has no respect for privacy and just shows up at random moments shoving microphones and cameras in the Buhrman family’s faces asking them “how they feel.”

Another major plot point in the story is the relationship Josie has with her twin sister, Lanie. Again, I’m not sure what I can say about this without giving out spoilers. Their characterization, along with that of the rest of the Buhrman family, felt very one-dimensional. Everybody has “explosive” secrets from everybody else at some point, yet no groundwork is laid to justify the actions of said characters.

What the characters lack in depth the book makes up for in pace. Ms Barber cuts in and out of past and present with admirable precision. Transcribed episodes of the “Reconsidered” podcast, along with Twitter and Reddit commentary from listeners, demonstrate how easily we can all get involved with (interfere with?) the lives of others today. For example, at the funeral-home viewing for Josie’s mother, acquaintances tweet out observations about the family. No one is safe from prying eyes.

Except for someone who disappears into a cult that prohibits all contact with the outside world (one of the book’s rare funny moments happens when a Life Force Collective member named Sister Amamus agrees to meet Josie at a Dairy Queen and insists that Josie pay for her Blizzard treat before talking). But as Josie’s renewed contact with Lanie runs the gamut of emotions from quiet sweetness to deep chaos, a box arrives from the Collective containing their mother’s effects, mostly beads and clothing and a few books. It will wind up being a Pandora’s Box for sure, but how and for whom?

All will be revealed — or will it? By the time Josie understands her family’s sad and complicated story, there’s more sadness to come. The twins’ mother suffered throughout their childhood from “melancholy”, and not always able to care for them in a consistent manner. Has her unstable mental health been passed on to her daughters? Which brings me back to that dilemma. If it’s deliberate, it’s one of the most subtle sleights of hand I’ve seen in a novel of suspense and proves that there are some places inside the human mind even social media can’t reach. But if it’s not, this was just a book with some exciting and intriguing aspects, that did not make complete sense to me in the end.

I was provided with an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

Advertisements

Review: DARK IN DEATH (In Death #46) by J.D. Robb

Dark in Death

SHE’S BACK!!!

I have certain unwritten rules when it comes to my reviewing. As I have mentioned earlier, I don’t like reviewing the latest books in a series if I haven’t reviewed the earlier works too because it completely messes with what I plan on writing. However, all my rules go out the window and down the drain when it comes to the inimitable Ms Nora Roberts aka J.D. Robb. And they certainly don’t matter in the least if I love a book as much as I loved the 46th part of the In Death series, Dark In Death.

A woman gets murdered with an icepick in a movie theatre while watching the shower scene in Psycho. When Lieutenant Eve Dallas starts investigating, she is briefly stumped to find no apparent motive or suspects. When crime novelist Blaine DeLano arrives at Cop Central the next day to tell her that someone has been recreating the murder scenes from her bestselling series, Eve understands that she is up against a murderous fan. You would think knowing the profile of the next victim as well as the form taken by the perp to commit the murder should make this case a walk in the park for Lieutenant Eve Dallas and Detective Peabody. But Robb turns the plot into a thrilling chase with exciting subplots and a largely satisfying conclusion.

“A vid comes to you, even at you. It’s visual, it’s auditory, and can, of course, pull you in. Its purpose is to do just that, draw you into the world you see and hear. But a book? You go into it. There’s no visual or auditory other than what forms in your own mind. You visualize the characters, the scene, through the words. You, as reader, interpret the tone of voice, the colors, the movement as you physically turn the pages. Now you have a killer not just experiencing the story, not just replicating it, but living it. So you have to do the same, and that’s frustrating for a woman as reality-based as you. “And more,” he added, “with each killing she becomes a different character with a different motive, a different psyche.”

If it’s not glaringly obvious, I am a huge fan of the series. However, the last few books had majorly disappointed me. I felt like the plot was stuck and Ms Roberts seemed reluctant to take big risks when it came to the stakes involved in each case. I wouldn’t say that Dark In Death was a superb work of crime fiction. But it hit all the right chords with me, kept me up till 4 AM, laughing and reading as fast I could to find out who the killer was, and now writing this post, so I’m just delighted that the J.D. Robb I absolutely love is back. 😀

The plot, with its similarities to the pilot episode of Castle, had me hooked from the beginning. And the truth bombs Robb kept dropping about being a writer had me in splits and nodding my head as I recalled a post of hers I’d read recently. In it, Ms Roberts talks about writing from within a bubble, with no regard for the “chatter” she received from her readers on her work. It annoyed me initially but having made my own little forays into writing a book, I now completely get where she comes from.

She started to say she’d take coffee, then he distracted her. Just loosening his tie as he walked across the room to a fancy cabinet. Why was that sexy? she wondered. She didn’t even get why men insisted on wearing ties—and don’t get her started on Jenkinson. But the way Roarke loosened that knot, flipped open a couple buttons on the shirt? It was kick-in-the-guts sexy.

Now, what did I love the most? Eve and Roarke are ambitiously trying to have sex in every room of the house while Summerset’s on vacation. And they sit and read murder mysteries together in front of a fire in their home library! If it wasn’t for another one of those pesky rules, I would flood this post with all my highlighted quotes about their marriage and their chemistry. Roarke is a GOD among fictional men. Almost all of my favourite secondary characters make an appearance, and a new character is introduced that I hope to see a lot more of. Dark In Death was a delightful whodunit with a compelling and believable killer that made me ultra glad for having stuck with the series. As if I would have ever stopped.  😛

Lastly, I’m just gonna reiterate how effing happy I am to have fallen back in love with the In Death series. I can’t believe I have to wait until September for the next book.

Review: Come Sundown by Nora Roberts

Come Sundown

As a rule, I had decided never to review books by authors that have been lifelong favourites. This was mostly because I often found my choices not holding up under any sort of critical scrutiny, Also, I believe that overthinking why you like something a lot just takes away from the simple joy of it. I broke that rule when I reviewed a few Judith McNaught books and was pleasantly surprised by the positive response. But I still never thought of reviewing a Nora Roberts romance until last week when I picked Come Sundown as a holiday read/to celebrate 11 years of reading NR. If this post comes across as too restrained considering how I am obsessed with the woman, please know I would write a 10-star review in all caps if I wasn’t worried about losing all but two of my readers.

Come Sundown opens in 1992 with a disheartened 21-year old Alice Bodine hitchhiking her way back home after a runaway bid for independence three years ago ended in shattered dreams and disillusionment. Unsure of whether she will be welcomed back, she hitches a ride from a nice-looking middle-aged man just miles outside her family ranch, unaware of just how much this action will change her life.

The story then takes a 25-year leap and we find ourselves in present-day Montana. Bodine Longbow, the niece of the long-lost Alice, is the manager and boss of her family’s upscale resort. The latest in a long line of entrepreneurial bad-ass women who get shit done, Bodine is smart, self-reliant and loyal to her amazing and loving family. Her two brothers, her loving parents, and kickass grandma and great-grandma are all secondary characters I fell in love with instantly and was only slightly disappointed at Come Sundown not being Book 1 of a trilogy.

When Bo’s childhood crush and her brother’s best friend, Callen Skinner, comes back into town to work at the ranch after making a name for himself in Hollywood, she is surprised by the instant attraction that flares up between them. Being a consummate professional and his boss, she tries to push her feelings for Cal aside as circumstances keep forcing them together.

It’s not my fault you grew up so damn pretty. How about this: You and me make a date. First of May, that’s a good day. Spring’s come around, and you won’t be my boss anymore. I’ll take you dancing, Bodine.”

The fire crackled in the old potbelly, a reminder of heat and flame. 

“You know, Callen, if you’d given me that flirtatious look and that smooth talk when I was twelve going on thirteen, my heart would’ve just stumbled right out of my chest. I had such a crush on you.”

Now his grin didn’t flash. The smile came slow and silky. “Is that so?”

“Oh my, yes. You with your skinny build, half-wild ways, and broody eyes were the object of my desperate affection and awakening hormones for weeks. Maybe even a few months, though at the time it seemed like years.”

Callen Skinner, like almost every Nora Roberts hero,  is a walking feminist dreamboat. He left home shortly after his father gambled away his birthright and killed himself. When he returns to work the land his family once owned, he holds no resentment toward the Longbows. Growing up, he was considered an honorary son by them and they were the only family he had outside of his mother and sister. Most importantly, Cal respects Bo’s authority as his boss and doesn’t try to undermine her just to show that he is the hero in the equation. This, the way her protagonists always have relationships where they view the other as a true equal, is why I love Nora Roberts. And the fact that the banter is top-notch doesn’t hurt a bit.

“You ought to have your eyes on a woman.”

“As they keep roaming your way, are you offering, Miss Fancy?”

She let out a hoot. “It’s a damn shame you were born fifty–oh, hell, sixty years too late.”

“But I am an old soul.”

She laughed agin, patted his cheek. “I always did have that soft spot for you.”

“Miss Fancy.” He took her hand, kissed it. “I’ve been in love with you all my life.”

The women rode through, a sedate walk. Then Miss Fancy looked back, sent him a wink. And leaped into a gallop.

“That’s all right,” Cal mumbled. “I didn’t need that year of my life.”

Things take a sinister turn when two women are found dead not far from the Bodine property, and it becomes obvious that a serial killer is loose in the Montana countryside. A police deputy with a long-held grudge casts suspicion Cal’s way, but Bo and her family remain steadfastly loyal to him. I really loved the way the characters pull together here, rather than allowing mistrust to get in the way of what they know is right. And then, a link is found to Alice’s disappearance, plunging the family into a web of darkness that will threaten everything they hold dear.

Most of the story takes place in the present, but flashbacks offer some insight into Alice’s plight. Eventually, the two storylines merge, and this is where the novel really starts to shine. Come Sundown contains a darkness and intensity that isn’t present in all of Ms. Roberts’ books. She doesn’t shy away from exploring the darker side of humanity here, and, while some readers might find this off-putting, I loved it. I like my suspense on the gritty side, and Ms. Roberts definitely delivers.

Perhaps this novel’s greatest strength is its characters. Most of them, especially the grandmas, are the kind of people I’d love to hang out with in real life and the author’s depiction of family life is heart-warming and authentic. These are not the kind of people who let silly miscommunications and misunderstandings get in the way of their love for one another. They argue sometimes, as all families do, but the reader never doubts they’ll be there for one another when the going gets rough.

The writing is so lush and atmospheric, I felt like I was right there in the story. Ranches have played prominent roles in a few of Ms. Roberts’ other books, and it seems she must have quite a bit of first-hand experience with ranch life because she always brings them to life beautifully.

A word of caution, though. If you’re someone who is troubled by graphic violence, you might want to give this a pass, as a large part of the story is spent detailing the horrific abuse that Alice suffered for over 25 years.  But whether you’re already a mega fan of Nora Roberts’ writing, or someone picking up one of her books for the first time, I can’t recommend Come Sundown highly enough. The suspense is engrossing, the romance is delightful, and the characterization is superb.

 

Review: “Pillow Stalk” (Mad for Mod Mystery #1) by Diane Vallere

Pillow Stalk

47-year old interior decorator Madison Night has modeled her life after Doris Day because they share a birthdate and a passing resemblance. Having moved to Dallas after a breakup, she is rebuilding her life by running her mid-century design store, swimming every morning and petitioning the local film society to hold a Doris Day film festival. But when a woman resembling her is murdered, Madison finds herself entangled in a 20-year old murder mystery, with all fingers pointing to her new best friend as the prime suspect.

As the bodies start piling up, Madison is reluctantly paired up with the surly yet hot Lieutenant Tex Allen, who is hiding some secrets of his own. Always at odds with each other, they uncover an international conspiracy, a campaign to destroy all Doris Day movies and six minutes of film that change everything Madison thought she knew about her life.

While all of this sounds terribly dramatic and exciting, I found the story to be mostly mediocre. Having seen one Doris Day movie about ten years ago, my interest in the 1950s has been more of the Mad Men variety. Plus, I have zero interest in the life of a decorator, let alone one who has modeled herself on a seemingly goody-two-shoes actress. The “love triangle” is heavily hinted at throughout the story but amounts to nothing. While Ms. Vallere does occasionally manage to throw in some twists that surprised me, the denouement was so outlandish that it took away from whatever little I liked about the book, i.e. Madison Night’s Shih Tzu, Rocky.

Since it is the opening book in a series, I won’t judge it too harshly. Hopefully, things will pick up steam in the next couple of installments.

Review: “If We Were Villains” by M.L. Rio

If We Were Villains

If it isn’t glaringly obvious by now, I should tell you guys that I used to read a lot of books when I was a kid. It was mostly fairy tales, Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter, L.M. Montgomery and the Great Illustrated Classics series. That is until I reached the 3rd grade and was introduced to the literary genius of William Shakespeare. Over the years, as I moved from lapping up the Charles Lamb kiddie version to the unabridged works of the Bard of Avon himself, I realized why this man is considered one of the greatest ever.

If We Were Villains quote

Debut author and a self-described “word nerd”, M.L. Rio, holder of a Master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies, uses her background to write a stunning mystery revolving around a cast of self-absorbed young actors that the Bard himself would be proud of.

The book opens with the protagonist, Oliver Marks, about to be released from prison after serving ten years for murder. The man who put him there is still not convinced that he did it. Oliver agrees to tell him the truth on one condition: that there be no repercussions for the real culprit.

Cut to ten years ago, when Oliver is a theater major in his final year at the elite Dellecher Classical Conservatory. His circle consists of his fellow thespians and housemates, all so deeply entrenched in the Shakespeare-only syllabus of their school that they often have entire conversations in quotes and poetry. Over the course of their last year, as the group performs works as varied as Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet among others, we come to know their insecurities and their motivations. The story comes to a head when an unexpected death exposes the fault lines in an ostensibly tight-knit group and the line between reality and play-acting is truly blurred.

The story is told from the perspective of Oliver Marks, but we get to know his six peers very intimately. Each one is distinctive and memorable, and I honestly can’t decide who my favorite is. I really enjoyed the friendship between the students, individually and as a whole. Each relationship in this book – whether romantic or platonic – is complex and realistic and interesting.

I found the book to be exceedingly clever. Ms Rio does a tremendous job of piecing together the events of ten years ago with the reality of the present. Despite the heavy influences of Shakespeare, the book has a distinct narrative voice. Oliver, James, Wren, Filippa, Richard, Meredith, and Alexander are fully fleshed out and vivid characters, both on and offstage. These characters speak Shakespeare like a language in its own right, with double meanings layered into every sentence. 

If We Were Villains is a love letter to Shakespeare and the theater. Ms Rio’s characters often blur with the characters they play and are affected by the plots they recreate. Shakespeare isn’t just mentioned in this book a lot, his writing is almost a character in an of itself, and it is brilliant! I will say, that Ms Rio definitely has an exhaustive knowledge of Shakespeare (obviously), and someone who isn’t very familiar with his writing may not quite understand some of the subtleties of this book.

That being said, I would recommend this book to all fans of the Bard and anyone who loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

Exposed in Darkness (In Darkness #1) by Heather Sunseri

exposed-in-darkness

I am a Nora Roberts superfan. I have read and reread every one of her books and the woman redefined the genre of romance for me, whether it was between vampires and witches, or a super badass cop with a charming Irish billionaire. Right after I finished her latest, Echoes In Death,  I was left wanting more. Thankfully, I had a copy of Heather Sunseri’s foray into romantic suspense, Exposed in Darkness, and I am so happy to have found a new favourite author in the genre.

Brooke Fairfax left the FBI after the tragic death of her husband in an op that went south. Overpowered by grief and guilt, she cut off all ties with the Bureau until a message from her Confidential Human Source (CHS), Romeo, shows her the poisoning of Kentucky’s Lt. Governor. Believing the Governor, her ex-brother-in-law, to be the actual target, Brooke heads to Lexington to stop the threat.

Suspect number one: Declan O’Roark. Charming Irish billionaire with a passion for great bourbon and thoroughbreds. Despite being pursued by the feds, all Declan wants is to unravel the mystery that is Brooke and take away the pain she seems determined not to share with anyone. When a second attack results in the death of another innocent man, Declan and Brooke race to figure out who the mastermind is and how to stop him from committing an act of terrorism at the Bluegrass Derby.

At first glance, there are an awful lot of similarities between the iconic In Death series by Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb and Ms Sunseri’s new In Darkness series. But what sets this book apart is Ms Sunseri’s strong and complex sense of storytelling. Unlike Robb, Ms Sunseri gives us a peek into Declan’s mind and I loved it.  The location and history of the small Kentucky town truly make it a character of its own. The characters are motivated by a complicated web of culture, political, and socio-economic factors. In other words, Exposed in Darkness is both timely and realistic.

There is a really interesting climax scene that juxtaposes the Derby race with the final threat. While I found the big reveal to be slightly predictable, there were a lot of questions left unanswered and I, for one, am eagerly waiting for Ms Sunseri’s next book in the series. I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of the romantic suspense genre but especially to my fellow In Death superfans.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: “Something About You” (FBI/US Attorney #1) by Julie James

Something About You

How do I love this book? Let me count the ways. Contemporary romance is my favourite subgenre, though I’ve always been a bit sceptical of stories that involve an element of suspense. Which is why I am so pleased to have stumbled across Something About You, a perfect storm of awesomeness and the ideal read for when you’re super sick and in need of a distraction. Trust me. I would know.

Also, before I start talking about the story, let me just take a moment to fangirl over the cover. It’s unique, hot and eye-catching. Not to mention a very smart reference to a dress the heroine wears. Kudos to Julie James for pulling that off.

Three years ago, Assistant U.S. Attorney Cameron Lynde worked closely with FBI Special Agent Jack Pallas on an investigation that went totally FUBAR. His career was in the toilet, and he blamed her for totally screwing him over. He ended up in the remote wilds of some place that wasn’t Chicago nursing a big old grudge over how wrong things went and didn’t expect to see her again–until she overhears a murder in a hotel room next door to her own, and Pallas is assigned to the case.

From the first scenes, the dialogue is dry champagne crossed with pop rocks. (That’s a good thing.) It crackles, it’s funny, it makes you laugh, and it isn’t ever fake or cliche or completely unrealistic. These are smart, intelligent people who speak like normal humans and don’t ever mouth cliches unless they’re using one to tell the other off.

What did I love the most about this book? Let me see. A heroine who is smart, acts smart and when she’s told she needs to be under protective custody, she doesn’t fight it with the same old stupid plotting I’ve seen with this kind of novel. She doesn’t think it’s fun to escape her police escort; she agrees to have them come along for a bridal party at a nightclub and ends up telling them all about her friends and the wedding she’s going to be in. They like her, and she likes them. She’s good at her job and follows her professional principles even when she has to come to Jack’s rescue. And even after he loses control and tells the world she had her head up her ass during a previous case. Bliss.

And then there’s the hero who is portrayed as being as sinfully delicious as a double fudge chocolate cake with chocolate chips on top. And whipped cream. Jack’s initially not thrilled to have Cameron back in his life–just as she’s not too thrilled with him, but he takes her protection and her involvement in the case seriously and treats her with professionalism. He explains why she needs to be under protective custody instead of just strong arming her even though he’s willing to protect her at any cost. Bliss, bliss.

And when you add these two together you get some off the charts sizzling chemistry!  All that tension lead to some unbelievably hot steamy scenes.The dialogue is fantastic. Smart, snappy, funny yet realistic. I can’t count the number of times I laughed while reading the book.

Before he could call her bluff, Cameron grabbed her purse and headed for the door. The hell with her stuff, she’d get it later. “It was nice catching up with you, Agent Pallas. I’m glad to see those three years in Nebraska didn’t make you any less of an asshole.”

She threw open the door and nearly ran into a man standing in the doorway. He wore a well-cut gray suit and tie, appeared younger than Jack, and was African American.

He flashed Cameron a knock-out smile while precariously balancing three Starbucks cups in his hands. “Thanks for getting the door. What’d I miss?”

“I’m storming out. And I just called Agent Pallas an asshole.”

“Sounds like good times. Coffee?” He held the Starbucks out to her. “I’m Agent Wilkins.”

Part of James’ deft character building skills include the redevelopment of traditional and expected character roles. The best friends are real, and if there’s a potential for a cliche, it never goes where I expected it to go. She updates and then redeploys the expected trope, and makes each character, not just Cameron and Jack, into amazing people. There was real emotion for each and no limited role for any character. Bliss, bliss, bliss.

The plot also reveals the villain and spends some time in his head–but it doesn’t become fearsome or tiresome, or an exhaustive list of How Psychologically Fucked Up Is That Guy OMGWTFPUPPYKILLER.

My lone point of discomfort was how very, very neatly and bow-wrapped glittery perfect the ending was, with every loose end tied down and each piece of perfection lined up flawlessly. It had an overwhelming fairy tale aspect that didn’t fit with the realistic honesty of the characters and the plot.

Overall, Something About You was a fantastic read. I recommend this if you are in the mood for a good contemporary adult romance. It’s one of the best I have read!

Review: “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects

If you have read Gone Girl or even seen the movie, you know Gillian Flynn is a genius. Or maybe absolutely disturbed. Either way, the products of her mind continue to fascinate me. Gone Girl was the perfect story for those of us who are somewhat put off by the extreme sappiness that is Nicholas Sparks, yet aren’t quite ready for the horror of Stephen King. While tying in an unconventional yet sexy relationship with a shocking mystery, it went from a random grab off the shelf to a favorite book. When I picked up Sharp Objects a few years later, I knew it wouldn’t disappoint.

Camille Preaker, our sardonic anti-heroine, is a journalist for the Daily Post , the “fourth-largest in Chicago,”  a newspaper with its head barely above water, and whose editor, Frank Curry, mines the cold-case files for the next human interest tale sure to snag a Pulitzer. When the disappearance of a second girl occurs in the town of Wind Gap, Missouri, he dispatches the reluctant Camille at once to get the scoop.

There’s only one problem: Wind Gap is Camille’s hometown. Wind Gap hasn’t been good to Camille, a place she has shunned for eight years. A place she describes as “one of those crummy towns prone to misery.” She says this not from dread, but from a quietly haunting intimacy with torment. At the start of the novel, we learn that Camille’s been freshly released into the world after spending several months under psychiatric care. She’s a cutter. Her body is a monument to insecurity and anger, starting at the age of thirteen with Wicked carved into her left hip, and stopping at twenty-nine with Vanish. The only unmarred spot on her body is a circle of perfect skin the size of a fist, on the small of her back which she could never reach.

As with most self-mutilation, it’s but the physical manifestation of deeper emotional traumas, in Camille’s case prompted by the death of her younger sister, Marian, from an ambiguous illness. The tension surrounding this mysterious passing serves as a lynchpin for her strained relationship with her mother, Adora, Wind Gap’s unspoken matriarch and Amma, her sexually hyper-developed thirteen-year-old half-sister who heads a clique of equally spiteful girls, and who in many ways is her mother’s equal in cruelty and malice.

Rattling between the warring factions of her mother and sister, Camille attempts to investigate the abduction-murders in Wind Gap. When the missing girl, Ann Nash, turns up dead not long after her arrival in town—found strangled within a cleft between two buildings, her teeth yanked out (a virtual carbon-copy of the first victim, Natalie Keene)—Camille finds little help from the male authorities. Men view her as suspicious, an outsider with a dubious agenda, yet the scorn doesn’t surprise or upset Camille. She’s used to it. Other than her boss, Frank, who’s a well-meaning but scattershot father-figure, men are often portrayed as dichotomies rather than with any subtlety or depth. They’re afterthoughts, fleeting, a part of the scenery. This isn’t a detriment to the book; they are as Camille sees them based on her experiences.

It isn’t long though before Camille realizes that her best chance to secure clues or leads resides within the secretive cliques of female enmity prevalent in Wind Gap. It is a private world where women hurt each other both overtly and passively, even at funerals. Where gossip is both weapon and shield, wielded for social advancement. This antagonism lies at the core of Sharp Objects. The book is less murder mystery and more an exploration of the cruelty that women inflict upon one another, be it a friend to another friend, classmate to classmate, sister to sister, or mother to daughter—all of which play a role, often spanning multiple generations.

This book is not an easy read. The prose is well written, although not quite yet developed to Flynn’s later flawless standard, and the pace is good, but the subject matter quite simply makes you squirm. That is, however, the intention. This book was not written to be enjoyed. It is about some deeply serious psychoses and the ways in which mental illness affects not only the people who suffer from a condition but also those around them. Camille, we discover early on, is a cutter (hence the title). Yet Flynn is not simply portraying this aspect of her character as it has so often been seen in the past – an almost childish cry for attention, or a result of extreme depression – she has truly explored the root causes of Camille’s condition and fully demonstrated just how destructive it is to every aspect of her life.

The plot may not be scintillating, in places it is downright predictable, the prose might not be perfect, the characters may be inordinately unpleasant, and the topic may be brutal, but the story is brave. It is a subject that many skirt and most will balk at; Flynn, however, has explored it to its outer reaches and revealed not only the ugly truth of it but also the depths to which most people remain ignorant of that truth.

Although I would love to enthusiastically recommend this novel to every single person I meet, unfortunately, I can’t do this – for quite a few reasons. The most obvious of these reasons is there are certain people who just won’t be able to digest the kind of darkness and gore that the author adds in generous helpings to her work. Many murder mystery and thriller novels have perfectly normal, well-functioning people who are thrust into not–so–normal situations as a result of a psychopathic antagonist or a villain along those lines. Here, the protagonist herself is enough of a mess before this even messier, more frightening series of events begins to occur.

There are vivid descriptions of self-harm, substance overdose and animal abuse. Death and terror are elements of the novel discussed in a nonchalant, matter of fact tone. The relationships between people are satirical, almost as if happy, well–settled people were being made fun of. For these reasons, readers who want happy endings and a story that ends in hope and the promise of a better future for the protagonists, this isn’t one for you. However, if you do decide to take the plunge, you’re in for a journey like no other – icy, eye-opening and unforgettable.

Review: “Night Whispers” (Second Opportunities #3) by Judith McNaught

Night Whispers

After re-reading Judith McNaught’s Paradise and Perfect and enjoying them a lot more than I did as a teenager, I was very excited to read the third instalment in her Second Opportunities series. Not having read Night Whispers earlier, I ended up finishing the book in a single stretch. However, it failed to pack the punch its predecessors did.

Sloan Reynolds is an idealistic cop with a perfect life. She has a doting mother, a spunky best friend, a town full of people who either want to be her or be with her. Her peaceful existence is shattered by a phone call from her estranged father, a millionaire banker-socialite, hoping to mend fences thirty years after he had abandoned Sloan and her mother and taken Sloan’s sister with him. Sloan tells him to go to hell, but a meeting with FBI agent Paul Richardson convinces her to go to Palm Beach, with him posing as her friend, to spy on her father. However, she doesn’t know that Paul is hiding a crucial piece of the puzzle from her.

Once she’s there, Sloan has a hard time warming up to her father, her sister Paris, and her great-grandmother Edith. Constantly feeling out of her league and pretending to be someone she isn’t, she doesn’t even know how to respond to the advances of Noah Maitland, the handsome tycoon who’s also a family friend. With time, she begins to fall, not just for Noah, but also his irascible teenage sister, Courtney, and his charming father, Douglas. Sloan also forges strong bonds with Paris and Edith, but she can’t seem to shake her distrust of her father. As usual, the supporting characters have been sketched delightfully by McNaught, but Sloan’s father could have done with a lot more character development.

The rest of the novel follows the pattern McNaught has stuck to in all of her books. An intelligent, beautiful woman and a rich, handsome and arrogant man fall in love until a Big Misunderstanding tears them apart and they have to overcome their demons to find true love. Which is fine, if it wasn’t for the fact that in Night Whispers, McNaught has tried to hybridise the romance with a very trite crime/murder-mystery plot that rears its head only in the last quarter of the book. The story is shorter than usual, and McNaught has squandered those pages describing police procedure instead of fleshing out the elaborate love story she is famous for.

Night Whispers is a subpar read as compared to McNaught’s other works, be it contemporary or historical romance. The suspense is too predictable and the background is not given enough attention. The characters were the saving grace, equivalent to great actors doing a bad movie. Fans of McNaught might like this book and the links it draws to her other works. But I would not recommend this book to fans of either mysteries or romance.

Review: “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

payingguest_dfinalonline

The Paying Guests opens in 1922, in a genteel suburb of London called Champion Hill. The 26-year old Frances and her mother, Mrs Wray, have suffered grievous losses during World War I. All the men of the family are dead–two sons in battle, a feckless, irresponsible father from a stroke, leaving them in debt. The gracious Edwardian life the women had known is finished.

Frances, once a frequenter of political meetings with an interesting female lover, is now forced by circumstances to engage with tiny economies and household dirt, leaving no time for an intellectual or personal life. She resents the “dishonesty” of the house that imprisoned her–“the scuffs and tears she had patched and disguised; the gap where the long-case clock had stood…the dinner gong, bright with polish, that hadn’t been rung in years“–but nevertheless washes the hall floor with vinegar, rakes out the ashes of the stove, struggles to render breast of lamb edible, dusts the “barley twist curves of wonky table legs and the scrolls and lozenges of rough-hewn lawn chairs“–all the useless, pretentious furniture that belonged to the lost family life. Frances would happily have the damn things carted away, but her mother–an excellent study of a distressed gentlewoman–can not let go of the past.

To make ends meet, mother and daughter decide to take in lodgers or, as the contemporary euphemism has it, “paying guests“. Enter the jaunty aspirational clerk Leonard Barber and his short-skirted, lipsticked wife, Lillian, bringing bric-a-brac and gin into the upstanding Wray home. From the moment the colourful, curvaceous Lillian Barber enters the house it’s obvious which way things will go. She slips off her shoes, not wanting to mark the floor so energetically polished by Frances, and her sweet little feet in their fancy stockings leave “small damp prints on the wax“. The very next day she takes an extravagant and semi-public morning bath. Mrs Wray is scandalised by the timing and the cost, but Frances pictures “that round flesh, crimsoning in the heat“. The passionate love affair that ensues between landlady and lodger turns both lives inside out. The sex is blazingly descriptive, rarely found in literary fiction.

Set during the last years that gay marriage was illegal in Britain, The Paying Guests offers a window into a period when marriage between women seemed unthinkable to most and yet tantalisingly possible to a few: Chrissie, the girl Frances left in order to take care of her mother, now shares a flat with Stevie, a new female lover, and supports herself as a typist. Can Frances leave her mother for paid work and a shot at Chrissie and Stevie’s happiness? Can Lillian leave her husband for Francis? This question torments their affair from its first moments, when, just after they’ve made love, Lillian sets down her left hand “to steady herself against Frances’ embrace, and there was the muted tap of her wedding band, a small, chill sound in the darkness.” And it’s central to the rollercoaster plunge the book takes next when the only straight character to whom Frances and Lillian declare their love for each other dies.

Will the lovers’ dream of marriage (or its approximation) end in accusations of murder, trials and hangings? Maintaining uncertainty with a virtuosity that makes a short read of a long novel, The Paying Guests frequently references Anna Karenina, casting Frances and Lillian alternatively as Kitty and Levin, openly skating their way to domestic bliss, and as Anna and Vronsky, doomed to play out a secret passion that can end only in death.

Waters holds a doctorate in English literature, and she brings a cultural historian’s gift for research to her work. Sometimes, it’s easy to fault Waters’s scholarly background for the all-too-realistic pace of the police investigation and courtroom drama that take up the last third of the novel. But the grinding wheels of justice serve to refocus our attention onto Frances and Lillian themselves, resulting in a third act no less gripping than the first. Will the lovers, separated by Lillian’s family and subjected to the uncertainty of a long trial, crack? In The Paying Guests, Waters tilts a mirror towards the decades of gay and lesbian struggle that preceded 2014’s landmark decision to legalise same-sex marriage in England. Still, at the novel’s end, after its dramatic plot resolution, Waters allows us the faintest hope that a changing world filled with social upheaval may have a tiny corner for Frances after all.