review · Uncategorized

On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins

I heard about Kristan Higgins from Pop Culture Happy Hour, and since reading one of her recent books I was interested in reviewing what she did next. Marketing wise, the book  seems to be part romance/ part women’s fiction, and I liked it a great deal.

The book description makes it seem like the story relies more on the concept than the characters, but Higgins excels at making her characters real, psychologically at least. On Second Thought is the story of two sisters, or actually half-sisters, one on the brink of becoming engaged and one who becomes a widow at her sister’s presumed engagement party. Kate, the older sister, hadn’t been married long, is mired in grief and conflicted because she didn’t know her husband as well as some of his friends and his family members knew him. Ainsley, the younger sister, on the other hand, is at the end of an 11 year relationship that she believed was headed to marriage, and she’s a bit adrift professionally and personally as the story begins.

This is the second Higgins book I’ve read and the second to take place on an upstate town on the Hudson, it’s also the second book to feature two sisters. It seems like a bit of an aspirational lifestyle kind of setting, but with characters with believable characters. It doesn’t feel as rushed as some books feel, especially with this dramatic a storyline. And what I loved most is that Higgins for the most part makes her characters real.

on-second-thought

On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins

Harlequin, January 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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review · U.S.

The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

river-at-nightSo I picked out this book because I’m extremely fond of a little movie called The Edge, which is a thriller-in-the-wilderness movie that seriously has a bear attack or something incredibly exciting every 8 minutes. It’s not a movie I rewatch and rewatch, but it sticks in my head as a very memorable ride, and the description of The River at Night sounded like the sort of adventure movie I loved. It’s a story about a group of four female friends in their late thirties who embark on a whitewater rafting trip in northern Maine (nice way to work on my USA Fiction challenge reading).  I immediately thought Deliverance, I immediately thought something bad happens in the wilderness (the narrator I assumed was a survivor, since she narrates the story in the past tense), and after a brief but not too brief introduction, the paddling begins.

The River at Night is a brisk little book that is definitely an adventure story that doesn’t spend forever on characterizations. The characters aren’t flat but not perfectly round either. I could have used a little more rounding of the villain, but I say that about lots of books. The writing is quite lovely despite how menacing the plot becomes. I just wish that the people living in the hinterlands weren’t so menacing minus one character.

The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

Gallery/Scout Press, January 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

review · Spain · Translated

This Too Shall Pass by Milena Busquets

thistooshallpassThis Too Shall Pass is a slim novel about a forty-something woman going through grief after her mother’s death. I picked it out because I’m always looking for new-to-me translated authors, and it sounded a little like a Ferrante novel. Unfortunately this book suffers in comparison. The main character’s meltdown isn’t nearly as harrowing as the main character’s in Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, and the easygoing style of a long trip to the beach just didn’t have the same sort of pacing and urgency as the Ferrante. I know I should judge the book on its own merits, but it seems obvious to me that the book was picked for publication to take advantage of the craze over Ferrante, so I’m going to go with it.

This Too Shall Pass by Milena Busquets, translated by Valerie Miles

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher via Blogging for Books.

Norway · review · Translated

Beyond the Truth by Anne Holt

beyond-the-truthI like to read series I’ve invested in from the start, and thankfully, this entry in the Hanne Willhelmsen series lives up to the ones I really liked in the series. It’s a story revolving around the murder of 3 members of a wealthy shipping family and a seemingly unconnected freelance writer, all around Christmas time.  I prefer the smaller plots in this book and Death of the Demon than the big political plot in The Lion’s Mouth. I also like Hanne in crisis, and the metaphor about the ragged dog at the beginning of the end being Hanne, on the brink of burnout and worse, is not heavy handed.

What else? Annemari Skar finally gets something juicy to do as the police prosecutor. The characters are actually fleshed out, something I find missing in some other books I’m reading lately. And, I almost forgot, we find out about Hanne’s family– the one she grew up in as well as her new family with her new partner Nefis. The plot isn’t as thriller-y as some of the other installments in this series and the Vik and Stubo series, but it’s a solid procedural with an interesting cast of characters. I think this book works best for readers who’ve read other books in the series, not because of plot reasons but because I’m not sure how compelling the characters are without knowing their paths over the last several books.

Beyond the Truth by Anne Holt, translated by Anne Bruce

Scribner, December 2016

Originally published as Sannheten bortenfor, 2003

Hanne Wilhelmsen book 7

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher

review · U.S.

Soulmates by Jessica Grose

soulmates-jessica-groseI was interested in this book because I spotted the word thriller in the jacket copy and I was familiar with the author’s journalism in all sorts of places. I was even more interested when I found out the story is about a young lawyer investigating her estranged husband’s death outside a new age retreat in northern New Mexico: I figured the setup was sinister despite the sort of satirical spin the book starts with (the main character finds out her husband is dead in a headline beginning “Namaslay.” Ultimately, the shift in the book at the halfway mark made it very obvious this really wasn’t the kind of investigation I was looking for, and I ultimately wound up not a fan of the book since I was expecting more of a plot-driven ride instead of a book that, all in all, feels like an expose of a utopian yoga commune.

Here is what the book does well: it captures the emotional state of a woman left by her husband as he went off to lead his spiritually actualized life under the thumb of a guru named Yoni Brooks. The psychological portrait of the woman left behind trying to make sense of her life is the most vivid part of the story. When Dana,  our main character, goes to New Mexico to retrace her husband’s last days, it’s obvious that plot is not the strong  suit of the book. Dana stumbles across her ex-husband’s self-help pamphlet that describes the demise of his marriage, and instead of the book focusing on the investigating and the hunt for answers, it feels like the information magically appears in Dana’s lap. There aren’t really many tense interviews in the book. There aren’t a lot of showdowns in the book. Instead there are people who end up unburdening themselves, and there are some things about Dana making progress in letting go of her anger, but the drive as to finding out the mystery isn’t there. It’s an unexpected shift, and the ending is a bit creepy, but ultimately I’m dissatisfied because I feel duped by the jacket copy and the opening chapter.

I’ve noticed quite a lot of skewering of new-age gurus in what I’ve been reading lately. Unlike the Margaret Millar and Emma Straub books this reminds me of, this book, in contrast, gets into the psychology of why someone would get into the group, and it’s the uncomfortable most of all.

Soulmates by Jessica Grose

HarperCollins, September 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

review

Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond

searching-john-hughesThis book didn’t live up to my expectations. I expected the search for John Hughes to be more about Hughes than about the author. I thought it would be more reportage than a memoir, and a pretty harrowing memoir at that. And ultimately I felt disappointed from this turning into a book I wasn’t expecting, and I felt a bit like a gawker at a memoir about a horrible childhood.

Look, I enjoy some meta stories or films, but writing about being stuck is difficult for me to read. Diamond spends so much time establishing why he liked Hughes movies (escapism set in the same neck of the Chicago suburbs as he lived in) and so much time being depressed and trying to write that the arc felt off. There is redemption: he gets mental health treatment, he finds love, he finishes some sort of book, but the actual resolution felt rushed. He never actually meets John Hughes, there is no actual thinkpiece about Hughes buried in this memoir. There are some false starts to a thinkpiece about John Hughes, but not much. It felt short, like the conceit was not that revelatory.

It suffered from the same problem I found in  Middlesex: Diamond, like Eugenides, skipped over the hard parts of grappling with his issues via therapy and medication. How that works, even if idealized or shortened in a novel, would be great.

Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond

William Morrow, November 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

Norway · review · Translated

No Echo by Anne Holt

No echoI was disappointed with this entry in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series. The investigation was too bogged down, and the police procedural elements were so thorough or in such long chapters as compared to the brisk short chapters in the rest of the book that the book didn’t flow for me.

No Echo deals with the murder of a celebrity chef, Brede Ziegler. He remains a cipher through much of the book (he’s the man with “no echo”), and I never felt really intrigued by him, which I was the main reason I was lukewarm about the book. This book also featured Billy T. taking the lead for Hanne Wilhelmsen, who was on leave of absence for several months as the book begins, and while I appreciate the plot point of Billy T floundering without his mentor and best friend Wilhelmsen, Holt laid it on pretty thick in this story. I don’t like being overwhelmed with the details of a police investigation when the investigation flounders for such a long time.

What else? A couple characters felt like caricatures to me, and the plot seemed to depend on clues dropped in mysteriously from above instead of being uncovered organically.  The last book was so good that any follow up would pale in comparison, but this one just didn’t do it for me.

No Echo by Anne Holt and Berit Reiss-Andersen, translated by Anne Bruce

Originally published as Uten ekko (2000)

Hanne Wilhelmsen book 6

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

review

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

couple next door picA new-to-me author’s take on domestic suspense which ultimately didn’t take off for me.

I tried this book because I’m willing to try new authors and curious about what kind of domestic suspense is being published now. Ultimately, this book didn’t take off for me because it felt like too many twists and too many secrets for these characters to be believable, but I can see why people would race through this kind of book.

The Couple Next Door has a high concept: a baby disappears during a dinner party. The child is asleep next door while the neighboring couples spend the evening together, complete with baby monitor and regular visits to check on the young child. It’s a thriller with a movie-like set-up, and from there, the plot is brisk and predictable in that it’s littered with twists. This is a downfall of the “time left” clock on my Kindle. I knew how long the twists would keep coming because I knew how much time I had left in the book.

The plot starts abruptly. I didn’t really get a feel for the characters in the beginning, and I definitely didn’t grow to understand them more as I went along. Unfortunately, they seemed more like a collection of secrets and lies than real people to me. And the other thing that bothered me about the book was that there wasn’t much left to the imagination: lots of scenarios were spun out explicitly, which takes away from the fun of some of the plot. I much preferred Sinead Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? for a smart take on a mother with a baby/ domestic suspense story. There was a greater level of dread and more realistic characters than in this one.

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

Pamela Dorman, August 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

review · U.S.

Not What I Expected: Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman

wilde lake 2My experience of reading Wilde Lake was a mixed one. I adored the first hundred pages, and I even went to so far to tell people to read it on the basis of the beginning alone. It’s so specific about growing up in a planned suburb in the 1970s that I  was fascinated. Now that I’m finished, there’s so much that bothers me about it, and it mainly has to do with the two main pleasures I look for in a crime novel: there’s some clarity about what happened, or there’s a thrilling chase or setpiece or two that keeps me interested. I think the openness of the ending, which wasn’t a total openness, to be fair, was what bothered me the most.

The Laura Lippman standalones I’ve read tend to deal with past timelines being uncovered in the present. Wilde Lake is no different: the intersecting timelines circle around Lu Brant, the first female state’s attorney in Howard County who prosecutes her first murder case as an elected official. The past storyline involves her older brother who accidentally killed someone when he was a teenager and when their father was state’s attorney. Lu is 10 years old in the bulk of the past storyline, so her memories are not reliable because of the significant passage of time.

Why I liked the beginning: the book is like an update to To Kill a Mockingbird. Lu is a tomboy, her mom is dead, her dad is a prosecutor instead of a defense attorney. She’s wily. She’s trying to figure out her dad and her much older brother. They live in Columbia MD, a suburban dream of equality and egalitarianism halfway between Baltimore and Washington DC, and the political and suburban planning theories sounded great.

But there’s not a lot of forward momentum. What I ended up feeling is that everyone was hiding sordid parts of their past, and there was no resolution for most of the characters. And it ended with Lu alone, out of a job, and a father heading towards death. I’m not sure her goal of writing down her family’s secrets for her young children would really explain her family to them. People lie, people feel guilty, and the legal system can’t expose the truth necessarily. It may be a truthful book, but it left me in an odd place. I’m not saying all crime novels need to be a bit more thriller-like or resolve more issues/ more details about a crime, but those are two things that I like in a crime novel. I’m not as up-in-arms about this ending as, say, I was bothered by In the Woods by Tana French, but I’m feeling dissatisfied.

I borrowed this book from the library.

 

review

I’m Back to Reading Dramedy

1503935248.01._SX142_SY224_SCLZZZZZZZ_I’ve been reading a lot of non-crime novels lately, and I’ve tried an awful lot of books that I like to call dramedy– the novelistic equivalent of tv shows I gravitate to like Parenthood. My favorite dramedy of the batch I’ve read this summer is In Twenty Years by Allison Winn Scotch.

It’s a book about a reunion of college friends as they approach 40, and it’s organized by their friend who died over 10 years ago. It made me weepy in spots, and I was invested very early on in these characters. There’s something about stories about groups of friends that hits me not only because of course, I had a good group of friends in college and it’s hard to maintain those friendships as you move apart and become adults. It’s also a book where everyone is having a crisis of sorts, professionally, personally, and that feels true. And to be honest, it’s nice to read about someone else’s problems instead of dwelling on my own.

But what makes this book stand out for me is that holy moly is there ever catharsis. The plot builds into absurdity, and laughing while crying was great while I read this book. I’ve read all of Allison Winn Scotch’s books, I believe, and this one feels like a big step forward.

first comes loveI also read the new Emily Giffin, First Comes Love. which was about adult sisters who are still coming to terms with their brother’s death 10 years before. It’s a very talk-y, dialogue-heavy book, and I would have appreciated a bit of a narrator more, I think. Giffin’s male characters tend to be idealized, and this book is no exception. I liked if fine, but it didn’t have the emotional heft of the Scotch book for me.

Disclosure: I received review copies from the publishers.