Review: Sweet Little Lies

One of August’s Book of the Month picks is a novel that I had the good fortune to receive an early copy of from my friends over at Harper — Sweet Little Lies by English author Caz Frear. If you’re on the fence about what to pick, take it from me: your credit won’t be wasted on this debut procedural.

Sweet Little Lies is one of those books that just vibes noir in every single way. A detective in London is part of a task force met with the grisly murder of an unidentified but seemingly upper-class woman whose body is dumped in the street — and they know that’s not where she was killed. Detective Cat Kinsella is eager to prove she has the stomach for the job after a previous case ended with mandatory time off and visits to the unit shrink. In an effort to prove herself useful, DI Kinsella is suddenly drawn into a much darker rabbit hole than anyone could have expected. Suddenly, her bleak upbringing is brought to the forefront and Cat is forced to hide some unsavory truths from members of both her work and personal lives. (Although, as far as that goes, she’s been withholding on both fronts for years.)

Although the book isn’t void of cliches — the main character becomes an investigator due to some past trauma and a need to right these wrongs from her childhood — characters are tightly drawn and the added element of family drama ups the juice-factor. Cat feels like the kind of person I’d be drawn to in real life: she’s down-to-earth, just the right blend of friendly and sarcastic, and her relationship with her boss — Parnell — is a perfect complement to Cat’s own disastrous personal relationships. She’s also the kind of character readers will empathize with — I think it must have something to do with her utterly normal vibes? — which makes the book that much more enjoyable.

Pacing is just right, motive is logical, and the twist(s): timed perfectly. Though I knew that such-and-such wasn’t likely to occur, I was definitely not expecting the outcome of Sweet Little Lies — and I wasn’t irked to find some “WTF-that-ending” surprise waiting for me from the depths of left field.

Frear manages to write a compelling novel that binds together my favorite mystery elements — dark, dark, dark! — without succumbing to trendy pressure to “blow readers away” with some ridiculous twist (or seven). A perfectly cracking debut novel, Sweet Little Lies read like the start of a lengthy and lucrative career to me.

Overall: 4 stars. Sweet Little Lies is chock full of assumptions, secrets, and childhood memories gone awry. If you’re into Law & Order: SVU and fancy yourself the next Liv Benson, give this debut a peek.

Side note: If you’re interested in reading Sweet Little Lies and want to give Book of the Month a shot, you can sign up using this link — we’ll both get a free book! And who doesn’t love that?!

Review: Perfect Little World

I had just finished reading The Giver (for the umpteenth time) with my middle school English class when Book of the Month Club revealed its February selections — which included the new release and work of utopian fiction, Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson.

I’m a major fan of dystopian fiction, primarily because the genre provides so many futuristic possibilities for the society we could crumble to in our increasingly dysfunctional world. However, I’ll also be the first to admit that the trope is becoming increasingly trite, especially within the realm of YA fiction. Utopian fiction, though? That is something rare in the world of adult novels, and such an optimistic digression from the herd. Naturally, I had to have the book.

Perfect Little World opens on a vignette of main character Isabelle (Izzy) Poole’s dramatically messy life. A recent high school graduate (like, she graduates that day), Izzy should have the world at her feet. She’s smart — valedictorian, straight-A smart — with a penchant for artwork and literature. She’s also pregnant . . . with her art teacher’s child. Without the guidance of her mother (long deceased) or her father (long drunk), Izzy grapples with her choices for the future, the picture of which grows increasingly tedious, lonely, and impossible. When Izzy is approached with an offer to participate in a scientific experiment of sorts — one that focuses on communal child-rearing and erased boundaries between families — she jumps at the opportunity to create a better life for her unborn child.

The premise appears simple, but of course, is exceptionally complex: ten couples (well, nine plus Izzy) move into a fully staffed living complex isolated from the rest of society, following the birth of their children. As a single parent, Izzy experiences some expected twangs of jealousy: in every difficult situation, she is left to deal with her emotions and doubts on her own, despite the community of parents that should theoretically serve as family members to one another, in addition to their roles as parents for each child. For ten years, the couples will live together, the first five years of which the children will be tended to in a way so as to avoid attachment to any one parent. At the five-year mark, the children will meet their biological parent(s), while hopefully retaining a communal attachment to the rest of the parents and children in the complex.

What could possibly go wrong with a plan like that?

From the beginning, Wilson draws readers in with an unconventional lead character and a problem that hits so close to home, one can’t help but root for the positive outcome of a social experiment that is so frequently difficult to reconcile with centuries of traditional family values that have been ingrained in the deepest parts of our brains.

The Good: This novel is a fast read — I devoured most of it in one afternoon, as I waited in doctors’ offices and coffee shops. However, it’s probably better consumed over the course of a week, savored bit by glorious bit. The main character — Izzy — is down-to-earth, flawed, and relatable. Her relationship with Mr. Tannehill is one element of the novel that I especially cherished, though at times it was a bit trite. The psychological aspects of the novel are intriguing, and as a parent-to-be, I found myself ruminating over the methods in which society has been taught to raise children. (That said, I have no intention of moving my family into a commune.)

The Bad: The cast in this novel is extensive, and seems more so by the lack of development in supporting characters. If you’re capable of reading through the novel without ever really being able to match a parent to child or particular personality trait, this quality of the writing can be overlooked. (I didn’t let it bother me too much, though I can see why some would complain.) The ending didn’t blow me away, but I was okay with the way the story concluded.

The Verdict: 4/5 stars. I enjoyed this novel a great deal, and would highly recommend to anyone looking for an alternative to the heaps of dystopian fiction that have crowded the market over the past few years.

Review: Behind Her Eyes

Disclaimer: There will be spoilers at the end of this post. These spoilers will be preceded by a warning — do not read past that warning if you do not wish to discover the spoilers! The bulk of this post — including the verdict/rating at the end — is safe for those who have not yet read the novel.

Well, friends — I did it. I bought another thriller, despite the fact that I’d adamantly decided against doing so in 2017. Book of the Month Club’s February selections included a mysterious-looking thriller titled Behind Her Eyes, by author Sarah Pinborough. The novel has been touted by many as the closest rival to Gone Girl, a masterful piece of domestic noir fiction, and a thriller that will keep readers guessing until the end.

Only one of those is accurate.

Behind Her Eyes opens in modern-day England with a some very cryptic quips from “then” and “later” and “now.” The novel then switches back and forth between past and present, as well as main characters Louise and Adele. Louise, a divorced mother of a young son, lives a woefully mediocre life. Though she works only a few days per week, she is still supported financially by her ex-husband. One evening, Louise meets a handsome stranger in a bar, shares a stolen kiss, and arrives at work the next morning to discover the man is her new boss, David. To make matters more awkward, David is accompanied on his tour of his new workplace by none other than his flawlessly beautiful wife, Adele.

David and Louise struggle to resist temptation as their work environment draws them closer to one another. Meanwhile, Louise has formed an extremely unlikely (and idiotic) friendship with — you guessed it — Adele. Louise becomes trapped in a double life of sorts, unable to resist the companionship both David and Adele bring to her formerly lonely existence. Although she is guilt-ridden by both relationships, Louise’s need for intimacy overrides her conscience. Her desperation for friendship, coupled with David’s unhappiness in his own marriage and Adele’s equally intense need for companionship, creates a perfect storm of events that lead to the story’s unforeseeable climax.

The GoodBehind Her Eyes certainly delivers on the promise that readers will not foresee the story’s conclusion.

The Bad: The novel’s writing felt sub-par at best, to me. I condede that Pinborough manages to establish an unpredictable plot and three extraordinarily unlikeable characters (who still manage to spark readers’ curiosity); however, the diction itself is infuriatingly simple. Often, I felt like I was reading the diary of a teenager, or a poorly educated adult. This sounds harsh — I know — but when I read adult novels, I want to be inspired by the beauty and complexity of the author’s writing. As a high school student, I adored classical literature for the depth and vibrancy of the writing; as an adult, I am still enchanted by the world J.K. Rowling creates in her Harry Potter series, because the writing is vivid, descriptive, and beautiful. Pinborough’s book brought none of that to the table (which is mostly true to contemporary thriller form), and I had a hard time getting past my annoyance with this aspect of the novel. This was compounded by the frequent use of the F-bomb, which lost its weight with excessive utterances. Other frustrations: see spoilers.

The Verdict: 2/5. Nope, nope, nope. This BOTM pick was a miss for me. I was never truly absorbed by the story — the first half was tediously slow and I struggled to become invested in the plot. When the plot finally picks up at the end, the author makes choices that seem ridiculously over-the-top and woefully forced to achieve that #WTFThatEnding reaction.

 

* * *

Caution: Spoilers ahead! Discontinue reading if you plan to read the book and don’t want the ending spoiled.

* * *

 

The supernatural elements woven into the novel were a major miss for me. Louise suffers from night terrors, and is counseled on how to take control of her dreams by Adele, who suffered from the same affliction as a young child. With practice, the two characters are able to exit their bodies during sleep, and wander the outside world. Their abilities play a dark role in the outcome of the novel — a body swap, of sorts. This thread is strikingly similar to the concepts of Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which also just didn’t do it for me.

Louise’s character was also far too pathetic for me to enjoy or relate to. I had a hard time connecting to an individual who is lonely, but unwilling to find a job that would introduce her to more friends/provide more stimulation throughout the week. Louise’s perpetual wine drinking is also eye-roll worthy. Nearly every scene that includes Louise also includes a bottle — or two — of wine. While this all contributes to the development of her unhappy and pathetic existence, I have developed a strong sense of distaste for our generation’s glorification of women who love nothing but drinking wine in excess and grumbling about how much they hate their lives. Louise falls a bit into that category and was simply far too annoying for me to connect to or even sympathize with.

And finally, as I mentioned previously, the ending of the novel just felt completely forced and ridiculous to me. Perhaps this is largely due to the fact that I wasn’t a fan of the dream-state body-switching element of the story; perhaps my annoyance is due to the fact that I found all of the characters over-dramatized and unenjoyable. Either way, while I was surprised to learn of Adele’s true nature, I wasn’t invested enough in the characters or plot to truly experience that “WTF” reaction that apparently so many of the novel’s readers so greatly relished. Guess I’m in the minority, on this one!

Review: Behold the Dreamers

Disclaimer: At the end of this post, after the rating/verdict, there are spoilers. These spoilers are made completely separate from the bulk of my review. If you do not want to read the spoilers, do not scroll past the little bit that says, “Caution! Spoilers ahead!” 🙂 

One of my goals for 2017: read one book per week this entire year. Five weeks in, I thought I was going to crash and burn. 😥 Luckily, my husband is all too happy to let me spend entire weekends reading — because that means he gets to spend his weekends in the shop, or playing PS4 with Derrick. (I love when we both crave Me Time at the same time.) Anyway . . . on with the review.

Behold the Dreamers, written by Cameroonian immigrant Imobolo Mbue, is one of the September 2016 Book of the Month Club selections and an intimate portrait of a timeless cliche: the pursuit of the American Dream. The story opens in New York City with a description of Jende Jonga, a Limbe (Cameroon) native who has lived in America for several years. Jende is passionate about and devoted to Becoming American, but there’s a problem: his visa expired years ago. After having lived in America without his wife, Neni, and their child, Liomi, for three long years, Jende is certain that he will become a legal American citizen and fulfill his lifelong dream of achieving a better life.

Jende takes a job chauffeuring Clark Edwards, a wealthy Wall Street magnate who appears to have it all — trophy wife, doting family, a seemingly-endless cash flow, an opulent home, and the respect of his peers. Mr. Edwards quickly becomes a fount of inspiration for Jende, despite the superficial nature of their relationship: Jende begins to regard Mr. Edwards as a young child might adore his father. As the story bounces between sketches of Jende’s interactions with Mr. Edwards and his family members, Neni’s life at school and home, and Neni’s interactions with Mrs. Edwards (who hires her temporarily), readers will find it impossible not to root for the couple whose unrelenting hope propels them through one trial after another.

Unfortunately, as the adage goes — all good things must come to an end, and for Jende and Neni, the threat of deportation looms heavily over their ambitions. In parallel fashion, the Jonga family’s relationship becomes increasingly strained as the Edwards family empire begins to crack under pressures long ignored. The two families frantically struggle to survive (much less, thrive) while Mbue delivers a stark juxtaposition of those who have — and those who do not.

The Good: While others have complained that the novel felt lackluster and did little to draw them in, I was enamored with Jende’s character almost immediately. Mbue’s masterful use of pidgin English makes the language (and characters) come alive. (I was strongly reminded of my collegiate running days and international teammates from Kenya and Nigeria.) The novel is also a fairly quick read: I picked it up Saturday morning, only 50 pages in, and managed to finish the whole novel before nightfall.

The Bad: See spoilers.

The Verdict: 3/5 stars. This novel isn’t a stellar debut, in my humble opinion. At times, the story felt a bit cliche; but the themes of strife and devotion make the novel a worthwhile read.

***

Caution! Spoilers ahead! Don’t read any further if you wish to remain surprised.

***

The conclusion of this novel felt rushed — and that was significantly disappointing. Here are my two biggest sources of contention with the piece:

  1. The Jonga-Edwards fallout leaves a bit to be desired. The build-up was there, of course, but the tale feels looser and less . . . intentional? . . . as the Jonga family endures its last flailing months in America and the Edwards family merely fades into the background. Part of me feels that Jende had an opportunity for a major character evolution within the walls of Mr. Edwards’ office. Additionally, Jende’s last-minute farewell to Mr. Edwards left me feeling . . . well, nothing, to tell the truth. The scene felt far too contrived and convenient — a dulled Christmas bow slapped hastily on the package that could have been a cherished gift, but fell a little short.
  2. When Jende and Neni return to Africa, they just . . . return. Of course, there’s a father-son generational bonding thing that occurs when the family arrives “home” — and Jende certainly undergoes a significant character change. Though a bit unconventional, the author’s decision for the main character to give up on his dream is, in my mind, a perfectly adequate conclusion to Jende’s years of obstinate refusal to be jilted by the Great America. That being said, Neni’s conclusion feels largely underwhelming. While I understand that the dynamic of their relationship differs from that of my “Western marriage,” I felt that Neni’s story sort of folded underneath her as the author searched for an ending (any ending will do).

I found much to enjoy in this piece of diverse fiction; but the ending fell flat for me. What was your take on this novel (and/or the bones I picked at the end)?

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

Last month, I caved to a long-standing desire to subscribe to the Book of the Month Club. I don’t recall where I’d first caught wind of the subscription service, but once I’d encountered the website, my eyes assumed a maniacal gleam and my mouth watered at the mere thought of becoming a member of a society that not only appreciated books as much as I do, but also would ship books to my house each month. A truly magnificent discovery!

Naturally, self-control was not my reality the day that I made my first BOTM selection; in addition to my subscription-included pick, I also ended up with two additional novels from previous months.

I picked up A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles as my first BOTM read, my curiosity piqued by the promising storyline of an aristocrat sentenced to “house arrest” in an upscale hotel in early 1920s Russia.

Towles introduces readers to Count Alexander Rostov, wealthy four-year resident of The Metropol, situated in downtown Moscow near the Kremlin. Rostov, we quickly discover, is two things: a gentleman, as the title hints, and an enemy of the state. Due to shifting political forces in Russia, Rostov’s wealth and upbringing make him a target for the Bolshevik uprising; and after the penning of a poem with undercurrents of political unrest, the Count is tried by the court and sent back to his hotel — for life.

The Count must quickly learn to adapt to the confines of his new life within the four walls of The Metropol. His relationships with hotel staff are transposed into something more like friendship over the course of a few years, and he even befriends a cheeky young patron of the building who teaches him a few things about adventure, the limitations of physical confines (or lack thereof), and friendship.

One drawback of the story is its verbose nature. I was a fervent reader of Dickens and Tolstoy in high school and college, but since becoming a teacher, my time for texts of that verbal complexity is severely impeded by the demands of my job. (Read: I’m basically never able to completely unplug from my career — my mind never stops spinning.) It was a challenge, initially, to learn again how to focus intently on a text and appreciate the complexity of its language. After the story’s plot picked up, though, I was drawn into the Count’s life and quickly grew familiar with Towles’ prose.

The verdict: Towles creates a remarkably endearing character for readers to come to know and love, and without leaving the walls of The Metropol for decades, manages to craft a universe of wonder. A bit verbose at times, this novel is best savored over the course of several days, rather than inhaled in one sitting. The extremely satisfying (and not altogether expected) conclusion is a cherry on top of a most decadent bookish sundae.

Rating4.5/5 stars — highly recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction and heartwarming tales of the persistence of the human spirit and dedication to a life well-lived.