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Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

Book Review: The It Girl by Ruth Ware

Image of a digital book cover. An ombre gold background with the title and book's author in bold black on top of it.

Summary:
April Clarke-Cliveden was the first person Hannah Jones met at Oxford.

Vivacious, bright, occasionally vicious, and the ultimate It girl, she quickly pulled Hannah into her dazzling orbit. Together, they developed a group of devoted and inseparable friends—Will, Hugh, Ryan, and Emily—during their first term. By the end of the second, April was dead.

Now, a decade later, Hannah and Will are expecting their first child, and the man convicted of killing April, former Oxford porter John Neville, has died in prison. Relieved to have finally put the past behind her, Hannah’s world is rocked when a young journalist comes knocking and presents new evidence that Neville may have been innocent. As Hannah reconnects with old friends and delves deeper into the mystery of April’s death, she realizes that the friends she thought she knew all have something to hide…

Review:
I’ve read about half of Ruth Ware’s books and enjoyed them all, so I was excited and surprised when the publisher approved me for a review copy of her newest book on NetGalley. Most of her other books I’ve read part of the thrill is the characters’ tie to a place – like a ski chalet or weekend hen do rental. This one, though, the thrills come from everyone’s tie to an event that happened a decade ago – the death of April Clarke-Cliveden.

To me, the most important part of a thriller is that at least one of the twists (preferably the last one) both surprises me but also strikes me as fair. In other words, that it’s not only a twist because the writer withheld something from the reader that other characters we closely follow know. The twist must also not have been immediately possible for the main character to figure out. This book definitely ticks that criterion. Although, I thought I’d guessed the twist about 18% of the way into the book, I was definitely wrong. I hadn’t guessed the twist even moments before it happened. And I didn’t feel cheated because the twist did make sense. So if a surprising twist that makes sense if what you’re after, this read is for you.

Now, I will say, I nearly wore my eyes out rolling them at the main character Hannah. She just struck me as quite emotionally/psychologically weak and easily influenced. I don’t need to love a main character to enjoy a read, though, so I wasn’t bothered. Something about Hannah that some readers may enjoy, partially because it’s unusual in a thriller, is that she’s about six months pregnant for the meat of the story. I’ve never been pregnant myself, so I can’t say how necessarily realistic the portrayal is, but it did make for some different and interesting scenes.

The only thing that does bother me, which is why this is four stars, is I just do not understand why Hannah ever considered April her “best friend” or why she’s still so enamored with her years later. From the first moment we meet her when Hannah does on move-in day at Oxford, I was like…man this girl is the WORST. Did I know people like her in college? Sure. Did I befriend them? No. Am I aware of someone who had a roommate like her? Yes. Did she befriend her? No, they just hung out in separate groups and lived their separate lives. But I will say, Hannah is characterized as weak and easily swayed, so, in a way, it makes sense she’s friends with her. But I never felt sympathy for Hannah about any of it.

Overall, this was a fun thriller. For me it took a little bit to pick up speed, but once it did, I was definitely motivated to find out the final twist.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 432 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The House Across the Lake by Riley Sager

July 5, 2022 1 comment
Image of a digital book cover. A greenish lake shows a glass house on the other side of it. It glows with light. The title is in yellow across the front.

Summary:
Casey Fletcher, a recently widowed actress trying to escape a streak of bad press, has retreated to the peace and quiet of her family’s lake house in Vermont. Armed with a pair of binoculars and several bottles of liquor, she passes the time watching Tom and Katherine Royce, the glamorous couple who live in the house across the lake. They make for good viewing—a tech innovator, Tom is rich; and a former model, Katherine is gorgeous.

One day on the lake, Casey saves Katherine from drowning, and the two strike up a budding friendship. But the more they get to know each other—and the longer Casey watches—it becomes clear that Katherine and Tom’s marriage is not as perfect and placid as it appears. When Katherine suddenly vanishes, Casey becomes consumed with finding out what happened to her. In the process, she uncovers eerie, darker truths that turn a tale of voyeurism and suspicion into a story of guilt, obsession and how looks can be very deceiving.

Review:
I have read every single Riley Sager book almost as soon as I could get my hands on them. I find them all enjoyable, although I enjoy some more than others. I particularly appreciate their twists on common horror movie tropes. So I was excited to have a new one available for my summer thriller season.

Unlike the other books, I’m not sure what horror movie trope this is playing with. (Is it playing with one at all?) Nothing stuck out to me, but it’s also not like I’ve watched every single horror movie on the planet. At the beginning of the book, that dialed down my enjoyment a bit, because in general I find Sager’s fictional commentary on these tropes to be snappy and witty. I missed it. What made up for it a bit to me was the setting at a lake in Vermont. I grew up in Vermont, and I really enjoyed the whole a bunch of too wealthy for their own good New Yorkers come to their vacation homes and cause trouble plot while the local Eli sighs heavily and tries to make sure no one drowns in the lake. Again.

That said, the beginning dragged a little bit for me. Setting up Casey’s backstory felt like it could’ve been a bit tighter, partially because it’s not the first alcoholic lonely woman main character in a thriller I’ve read, so I didn’t need it super spelled out. Maybe someone else would. I’m glad I persevered though because WOW did I not see those twists coming. That’s right. I said twists.

I found the ending satisfying. I appreciated how alcoholism was handled, although I will say, I didn’t find its handling particularly mind-blowing or moving. I’d say it was accurate but not earth-moving to me.

I would definitely recommend reading this because I found the twists unique and genuinely surprising and yet I was kicking myself for not figuring it out sooner. I feel like there were enough clues there that I could have figured it out. I just didn’t. And if you know what horror trope this is playing with, let me know in the comments!

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 368 pages – average but on the longer side 

Source: library

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Book Review: I’ll Be You by Janelle Brown

Image of a digital book cover. There is a beautiful sunset behind a desert plant.

Summary:
Two identical twin sisters and former child actors have grown apart—until one disappears, and the other is forced to confront the secrets they’ve kept from each other.

Review:
I previously read Janelle Brown’s Pretty Things and really enjoyed its delightful thriller take on Instagram influencers. I was excited to see another of her books on NetGalley and even more excited to see it using a child star identical twins plot. I smashed that request button, let me tell you, and this did not disappoint. In fact, between the two sisters, it covered two of my other favorite plots – a person with addiction in recovery and a person falling for a cult.

Imagine if the Olsen twins were identical (they’re not) and had a falling out right after they stopped acting. That’s the basic set-up of this book. Sam continues to try to act and also continues to fall into a hole of addiction. Elli pursues a regular life, going to college, setting up a florist business, and marrying. We find this all out in flashbacks, as the book starts with a bang with Sam, who we quickly find out is just past a year in recovery, getting a phone call from her parents to come help take care of her niece. Elli brought her newly adopted toddler daughter to them to go on a quick spa retreat in Ojai, but is gone longer than expected. Sam is shocked by all of this because she and Elli haven’t spoken in over a year for ominous reasons we don’t know yet.

I loved this book. I was immediately enamored with Sam. What a tough situation to get plopped in your lap just over a year into recovery. She suspects something is amiss with Ellie, but Ellie has always been the stable one and Sam the untrustworthy addict, so her parents don’t take her concerns seriously. But we, the readers, quickly see that Sam is likely right. There’s something fishy going on. Why would Ellie and her husband suddenly separate right when they adopt after years of infertility? How likely is it that a woman who struggled with infertility for years would suddenly disappear to a retreat for more than a week, barely speaking to those caring for her long hoped-for daughter? Why won’t Sam and Elli’s mom and dad admit something is off? There’s a lot of delicious suspense immediately.

Most of the beginning of the book is from Sam’s perspective, but partway through we swap to Elli’s. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this, because I was so invested in Sam, but it worked. Eventually, we swap back to Sam’s toward the end. Sam’s characterization is just so strong and relatable to me, whereas Elli’s is a more difficult character for me to relate to. But the reason it worked is Sam needs to come to understand Elli and so, getting inside Elli’s head and perspective helped me see that, so that I started to root for Sam’s attempts to rebond with Elli in a way I hadn’t before.

The only reason this is getting four stars and not five from me is because of one scene where a secondary lesbian character is biphobic. It was hurtful to me to read that scene, and I just didn’t think it was necessary to the plot of the book. I’m ok with characters being imperfect when it serves needs of character and plot development, but the exact same plot device could have worked without the biphobia. (Essentially, this character exacts revenge on her ex-wife. While the revenge is spurred on by multiple things the ex-wife did, the tipping point is that she got together with a man after the divorce, and the character is extra upset because it’s a man and she’d “hid” being bisexual from her. Ick. We could have just….had something else be the tipping point. There are plenty of options. An example of biphobia I would have been ok with seeing would have been if Sam and Elli’s big fight was about one of them being bisexual and the other not being able to handle it. That’s important character development. This wasn’t.)

Overall, this was a fun, different read with a main character I really enjoyed and a different take on some common thriller plot devices. I recommend it, and I think I myself might go back and read more of Janelle Brown’s back catalog.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 368 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth

April 12, 2022 4 comments

Summary:
Tully and Rachel Aston look upon their father’s fiancée, Heather, as nothing but an interloper. Heather is younger than both of them. Clearly, she’s after their heart surgeon father’s money. They understand why he might want to date, given that their mother is in a care home due to rapidly advancing early onset Alzheimer’s, but it feels disrespectful that he’s going to divorce her to marry another. Meanwhile, they’re each struggling with a secret. Plus, Heather has secrets of her own. Will getting to the truth unleash the most dangerous impulses in all of them?

Review:
I have a soft spot for Australian psychological thrillers. This is the fourth Sally Hepworth one I’ve read. It ranks near but not quite at the top among her works for me. (My favorite being The Mother-in-Law). It’s pretty obvious early on that Heather is not the big bad, so then the main mystery remains – who is? And of course, what is Rachel’s secret? And when will everyone find out Tully’s secret?

We find out almost immediately that Tully struggles with kleptomania and that Rachel used to date but suddenly abruptly stopped. So the main issues surrounding the two sisters is when will others find out about Tully’s uncontrollable shoplifting and what exactly made Rachel stop dating. I thought the former was handled better than the latter. Tully seeks out therapy and her problems don’t disappear overnight. Rachel meets a nice guy and with him is able to overcome her trauma. That frustrated me a bit. Especially since Rachel is set up as being so strong. One can be strong and also find help in therapy. Or even in a support group structure. It shouldn’t all be on the significant other to help someone heal. So it was a little bit hit and miss for me with the two sisters.

I thought the main mystery of what was actually going on in the weird triangle of the dad, Heather, and the mom was quite well done. I especially appreciated the handling of Alzheimer’s. I do think this book falls prey to the old idea of alcoholism – that one can only have an alcohol problem if one is at rock bottom. Beating a spouse or getting delirium tremens (the shakes) when going too long without it. There are definitely characters in this book who display problems with alcohol, but the narration brushes off the idea that they might have a problem.

The structure starts with a bang – at the wedding, someone is injured, and we don’t know who. The wedding is put on hold, the police are called. We then flash back to Heather meeting the daughters and build back up to the wedding. This is a multiple point of view book. Rachel, Tully, Heather, even the mother get a turn narrating.

This book confronts the problem looming for a lot of new contemporary fiction – do we or do we not acknowledge the pandemic? This strikes a gentle balance of what to do. The characters talk about not shaking hands anymore, one character had a big career setback due to lockdowns, and another character’s marriage is a bit impacted by the work-from-home situation. No major details are mentioned (for example, masks are never discussed, no deaths from the pandemic are mentioned). I envisioned it as happening in 2021 or early 2022. Post lockdowns but not far flung future. I thought it worked fairly well.

Overall, this was a fun read with a different enough plot to keep me engaged. It was a little bit of a mixed bag, which is what kept me from loving it. I put content warnings in for this book over on Storygraph if you’re interested in those. I did wish I’d had them myself.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 352 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Other Family by Wendy Corsi Staub

February 15, 2022 2 comments
Digital book cover that shows two brick homes side by side with a tree in the middle. Each home shows the silhouette of a person in the window.

Summary:
It’s the perfect home for the perfect family: pretty Nora Howell, her handsome husband, their two teenage daughters, and lovable dog. As California transplants making a fresh start in Brooklyn, they expected to live in a shoebox, but the brownstone has a huge kitchen, lots of light, and a backyard. The catch: its previous residents were victims of a grisly triple homicide that remains unsolved. But all that is in the past and has nothing to do with them, right? Oldest daughter Stacey doesn’t think so. She thinks she’s seen a man watching her with binoculars from a neighboring roof. But will anyone believe her when she has an obsession with true crime, and she’s overheard her mother worrying about her mental state?

Review:
This is a slow burn with most of the action happening at the end. It is told through multiple viewpoints – daughter Stacey, mom Nora, and the man watching the house Jacob. You would think this many viewpoints would remove all surprises, but it does not.

There are a few main conflicts in the book. If you like how these conflicts sound, then you will likely enjoy the read even though it’s a slower burn.

First, there’s Stacey and her mom, Nora. Nora doesn’t like Stacey’s appearance and worries about her psychological state. From Stacey’s viewpoint, she’s just a geekier girl who happens to be into true crime.

Second, there’s Nora and her husband. Their marriage was on thin ice in LA, and they’re hoping the change of scenery to NYC will help. But will it? And who is this Teddy person that Nora keeps secretly calling?

Third, there’s Stacey and her new boyfriend Lennon. He falls head over heels really quickly, but it’s unclear to Stacey if the things he asks for are loving or controlling.

Finally there’s the neighbors down the street who are also Lennon’s moms. His moms seem a bit too pushily friendly to Nora. Is it really just friendship they’re after?

For most of the book, in spite of the watcher, it really reads more like a contemporary women’s fiction. It’s not until the last 10% or so that the thrills come out. They definitely surprised me, but I would have preferred more intensity throughout the book.

If a contemporary women’s fiction covering the types of conflicts described above that ends with a thriller style ending sounds engaging to you, give this one a chance.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 384 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney

February 1, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. An aerial shot of a snowy forest with a church in the middle of it. The title is in red over the top. of this.

Summary:
Things have been wrong with Mr and Mrs Wright for a long time. When Adam and Amelia win a weekend away to Scotland, it might be just what their marriage needs. Self-confessed workaholic and screenwriter Adam Wright has lived with face blindness his whole life. He can’t recognize friends or family, or even his own wife.

Every anniversary the couple exchange traditional gifts – paper, cotton, pottery, tin – and each year Adam’s wife writes him a letter that she never lets him read. Until now. They both know this weekend will make or break their marriage, but they didn’t randomly win this trip. One of them is lying, and someone doesn’t want them to live happily ever after.

Ten years of marriage. Ten years of secrets. And an anniversary they will never forget.

Review:
I have a thing for the themes for each anniversary year of marriage. I also have a thing for thrillers about marriages. So when I saw this one incorporating both, I knew I just had to read it. I can’t be the only one this appealed to because I waited for a few months for it at the library. This was definitely a unique and fun take on the thriller about a marriage theme.

The telling alternates between the anniversary letters Mrs. Wright writes to her husband and the present day Mrs. Wright going on the trip with Mr. Wright to Scotland. They are seeing a marriage counselor who suggest a trip away, and Mrs. Wright wins a weekend trip to a converted chapel in Scotland. One of the stronger scenes in the book is the late-night arrival at this Air BNB style home. If you have ever arrived late at night at an Air BNB or other vacation rental where you have to let yourself in and hope it lives up to your expectations, this scene will really set your spine to tingling!

Much as I was enjoying the present day explorations of the spooky getaway, I also really enjoyed the anniversary letters from Mrs. Wright. They were the perfect interlude because very quickly it becomes clear she is keeping something from him. So you end up with two different mysteries. What is going on at the weekend stay? And what is Mrs. Wright keeping from Mr. Wright?

I wasn’t sure at first how I’d feel about the face blindness aspect. But it is a real condition, and I like how the perspective sometimes shifts to Mr. Wright’s. We see how he sees his wife, and how he recognizes her anyway. I also really enjoy how important the title is to the book and how often it comes into play.

Now, this is a thriller so of course there is a twist. It is a major one, and I really wasn’t seeing it coming. I was a bit miffed because it was one of those situations where the only reason I didn’t see it coming was some information was withheld from the reader. But I so enjoyed the process of getting to that point that I ultimately didn’t care.

Overall, this was a fun entry into the thriller category. It delightfully combines a marriage on the rocks with a creepy vacation rental for a new feeling plot.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 297 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Stolen Sisters by Louise Jensen

October 26, 2021 Leave a comment
A digital book cover. The cover shows a gate open into an idyllic British neighborhood. The title in yellow matches a yellow slide we can see.

Summary:
Leah’s perfect marriage isn’t what it seems but the biggest lie of all is that she’s learned to live with what happened all those years ago. Marie drinks a bit too much to help her forget. And Carly has never forgiven herself for not keeping them safe.

Twenty years ago The Sinclair Sisters were taken. But what came after their return was far worse. Can a family ever recover, especially when not everyone is telling the truth…?

Review:
I really enjoyed this twist on the abducted children thriller trope. Instead of being told linearly from the moment of abduction forward, we meet the children as adults. We know they survived, but we also see what emotional and mental health impact being abducted had on them. Chapters alternate among characters and also among timelines . We see both the past and the present, and how they converge together at the 20th anniversary of their abduction.

In a way it may seem this twist removes all suspense – we know the sisters survived the abduction and were returned. But in fact it was still quite a suspenseful read. There’s still a lot of mystery. For example, we at first don’t know who did the abduction or why. We don’t know exactly what happened to the sisters when they were abducted and why that might have led to their current behaviors. And we also don’t know if Leah especially is correct to be anxious about something nefarious happening on the 20th anniversary or if it’s her PTSD and OCD tricking her.

I like how this book goes about exploring that what makes something traumatic isn’t necessarily the exact degree of physical trauma experienced but rather each individual’s own perception of the situation. Trauma is very personal, and what traumatizes some and not others is also personal. We see this very clearly in the sisters who had varying degrees of physical harm during the abduction, and yet their long-term trauma responses differed but not in direct proportion to the traumas they experienced. This is a very trauma-informed read.

The book also explores family and sisters. What makes us call someone a sister, and what makes us call someone family? Who gets to truly be our family and who doesn’t. What impact do those relationships have on us.

In general Leah’s OCD is well represented, although her magical number is a little low at 3. I understand why Leah’s number is 3 but a higher number is more common and obviously a higher magical number is more invasive in day to day life. Leah, for example, feels a compulsion to clean the floor 3 times. Cleaning the floor 10 times for a magical number of 10 is obviously more invasive in daily life. I also personally feel that she puts too much blame on herself for her OCD, and those around her let her. I’m fine with this happening but I’d like for it to be corrected by the end of the book. Instead she continues to blame herself for causing those around her to suffer from her OCD rather than understanding it’s not her fault.

Marie’s addiction is not explored as thoroughly as I would have liked but that’s my own personal preference. What is there is well-done. Carly’s feelings as the oldest who took on a lot of responsibility even at the age of 13 I found well-done.

Overall this is a creative exploration of the abducted children thriller trope that turns it on its head, following them as adults with flashbacks to childhood that still maintains suspense throughout. Recommended to those seeking a thriller more focused on the psychological than physical risks.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 400 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

September 21, 2021 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A green overtone street with a house looming in the background with no lights in the windows. A cat's silhouette sits in a streetlight.

Summary:
At the very end of Needless Street lies a house. In this house lives Ted with his cat Olivia. They sometimes have his daughter Lauren with them. Ted’s cat Olivia believes the LORD sent her to take care of him.

This is the story of a serial killer. A stolen child. Revenge. Death. And an ordinary house at the end of an ordinary street.

All these things are true. And yet they are all lies.

Review:
Every review I saw of this book before I requested it on NetGalley promised an amazing twist that cannot be revealed or it will spoil the book. What I can say after reading this is….there’s definitely a great twist that cannot be revealed or it will spoil the book. I thought I had the twist figured out and was all ready to be disappointed at it being not that great. Turns out I had not figured it out, and it is that great.

So what can I really say in this review without spoiling things? This book is not what it at first seems to be (or even second or third) so if you feel yourself thinking you know exactly what type of book this is going to be and you think you won’t like it, keep reading, because it’s not that type of book.

Olivia the cat is by far my favorite character. A cat who believes she has a calling from the LORD to take care of her owner. Who reads the Bible by knocking it off a table sometimes and then lets those verses guide her actions. Who calls dogs brouhahas. There aren’t enough words for how much I love Olivia the cat.

This book explores trauma and survival. There are therefore some elements that may be disturbing to some readers, but there is never gratuitous violence or sexual violence. There is some cruelty to birds in the first chapter. This is not a repeated plot device of the book, and a character spends a sizable chunk of the book investigating who did such a thing.

If you are intrigued by the last house on Needless Street and its occupants, pick this one up. And keep reading even if you think you know what type of story it’s going to be telling. It will certainly surprise you.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 335 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: You’re As Good As Dead by E.A. Aymar (Series, #2)

Digital image of a book cover. A glowing green shows what appears to be a bridge. The book title and author name appear over it.

Summary:
Three years have passed since Tom Starks, a Baltimore community college professor and single father, tried to avenge his wife’s death by hiring a hit man. Tom is now hopeful that he has left the world of violence and murder behind. But he is drawn back into Baltimore’s criminal underground after he witnesses the assassination of an influential crime boss. To make matters worse, it appears the FBI has discovered Tom’s involvement, and they force him to work with them as an informer. Now Tom must navigate a deadly path between warring crime families and ruthless federal agents, even as he desperately tries to keep his involvement a secret from those closest to him. 

Review:
Tom Starks is definitely an example of what happens when you make one grave error in a moment of passion. This man just can’t seem to learn from his mistakes. The book opens with him dropping off money to the crime boss to keep quiet, and he witnesses the crime boss being taken out. The FBI then approaches him to infiltrate the battle between two different crime families. It’s help them or go to prison. Tom chooses helping of course.

The most interesting part of the story to me was when one crime family sends twin Black woman assassins to live with Tom. It’s a bit unclear even to Tom if they’re there to keep him quiet or keep him safe. I liked the characterization of the sisters. Yes, they’re involved in crime, but we find out the crime family’s boss essentially found them as teenagers and saved them from the streets. So they feel obligated to the crime family. They can be violent but also kind. I was particularly fond of how the sisters interact with the family’s pet bunny.

Tom clearly thinks of himself as the good guy but to the reader he’s really not one. He did, after all, hire a hit man. It seems easy to push his boundaries and to get him to do ever increasingly ethically wrong things. He also, in his spare time, sleeps with his dead wife’s sister – who is still married. He tries to protect his adopted daughter by pushing her away out of the house and never telling her anything about what’s really going on or doing a particularly great job of listening to her. This book is a story of a man’s continual descent.

It’s been a long time since I accepted this review copy, and I feel my reading tastes changed in the meantime. I used to be more interested in violent books than I am now. Now I need the violence to be making a statement about something, and I don’t think this one is making a statement. Plus, there is definitely a lot of violence – beatings, murders, and tortures. (No sexual assault though).

This is a book about violence and an ethically questionable man falling further and further into a descent of the loss of light. There is no hope at the end of the book. There seems to be no way out. Does this count as a cautionary tale about the ever-reaching effects of choosing retaliation over transformative justice? I think maybe. For someone like myself who already believes in choosing transformative justice over retaliation, it wasn’t illuminating, though, simply a tale with an expected sad trajectory.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 290 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Previous Book in Series:
I‘ll Sleep When You’re Dead, review

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Book Review: Safe In My Arms by Sara Shepard

Image of a digital book cover. A fence with a yellow backpack hanging on it. the title of the book is superimposed over it in a different shade of yellow.

Summary:
Three women whose children attend an elite preschool in coastal California find their lives intertwined when they all receive threatening notes in their children’s backpacks.

Review:
Sara Shepard is most famous for writing Pretty Little Liars, the series the hit tv show is based upon. In Pretty Little Liars the threat is text messages. Here it’s old school notes. Only this time, it’s the moms twisted into secrets and lies.

The three moms are at the center of the book, and I only actually liked one. Andrea is a trans woman who moved to California to be able to transition and live openly, away from her elite and judgmental family. Now, I will note I am a cis woman, and I would like to hear what a trans woman thinks of the representation, but I thought Andrea was written very well. I appreciated the realism of having to deal with some transphobia in her family but also being warmly welcomed by the other two women – both as a friend and as a woman. The author’s note at the end makes it clear she sought out a sensitivity reader for Andrea, and I could tell. If only the same efforts had been made for the other two women….

Lauren is struggling with postpartum rage (a symptom tied to postpartum depression). I just felt she was quite two-dimensional, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care about her.

Ronnie is a topless maid, formerly a stripper, who moved here from Pennsylvania with her daughter. It at first appears she did so to get away from an abusive man. I can’t talk about Ronnie without revealing a slight spoiler (it’s revealed about 1/3 of the way into the book), so be warned.

Ronnie’s “daughter” is actually her niece. Her sister was in a relationship with an abusive man and was addicted to something. It’s vaguely explained as drugs. Ronnie, after a violent fight with her sister’s significant other that ends with her discovering her sister wounded on the floor, takes the baby and runs with her. She never follows up to see if her sister is ok. No, no, she just steals her daughter, changes her daughter’s name, and decides her daughter is better off with her anyway. I just simply could not empathize with the child abductor here. Ronnie had other options to help her niece. She had never even tried anything else (beyond living with her sister to “protect” her). I’m ok with a book featuring a less than ideal character. I’m not ok with the whole tone of the book being that I should empathize with her or that what she did was a mistake.

Because that’s the thing. The book kind of wraps up with the message that all moms make mistakes and it’s ok to not be perfect. I mean, sure, within reason. But there’s it’s ok to not be perfect and then there’s you’re only in the mom club because you stole someone else’s child.

Also as someone who cares about addiction and recovery, I found the depiction of Ronnie’s sister Vanessa to be heartless. She isn’t given the same chance and possibility to recover and change and learn from her mistakes as the other mom’s. In fact, the whole “moms don’t have to be perfect” scene features the moms describing all the reasons their children make them drink alcohol. The hypocrisy of this scene sickened me.

Contemporary books are approaching the pandemic in a variety of ways. This one chose to set the story “post-pandemic.” I’m fine with that optimistic choice, and I understand why it was made. But the strange thing is it mostly seems to acknowledge the impacts of the pandemic as purely economic – there’s a lot of talk about economic challenges from when we all stayed home but almost zero mention of anything else. I think there was one mention of face masks? This is set in California. There was way more impact than just economic. It rubbed me the wrong way how it made it out to be all about economic issues, and also how things just immediately snapped back to normal. If one wants a normal contemporary book, fine, just don’t acknowledge the pandemic at all then. Include an author’s note that this is for escapism and move on. Don’t acknowledge it as an economic downturn like 2008 and nothing much else…..

Beyond this, the actual main issue going on at the school was interesting and twisty. I had my suspicions early on, but I still enjoyed the twists. What really saved the book for me, though, was Andrea. We need more positive trans rep in psychological thrillers, and Andrea was very well-done.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 304 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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