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Backlog reviews

In an effort to clear my reviewing backlog and ease my conscience, I’m going to batch up a couple of books today. There’s actually no rhyme or reason to the books that I’ve chosen to pair up – wouldn’t it be nice if I had a lovely theme today like Italy or historical fiction or books about awesome people?

Sadly the books that I’ve chosen to pair up today were ones that were just OK for me.

game of hope

First up, young adult historical fiction, a genre I had high hopes for. Sandra Gulland has written some incredible adult historical fiction set mostly in France. She is responsible for a trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte and I’ve read some great ones set at the court of the Sun King. I was excited about The Game of Hope about Napoleon’s stepdaughter, Hortense.

In The Game of Hope, Hortense is a fifteen year old girl relegated to a drafty boarding school on the outskirts of Paris. She is the victim of circumstance, dependent on her mother’s floundering relationship with her stepfather for the outcome of her own life. Desperately in love with a friend of her brother’s, she hopes she will be allowed to marry him. It is 1798 and Napoleon is trying to win power in France – over the course of the book he achieves that.

But Hortense spends the whole book, a book about her, waiting around for things to happen. She waits to be told she can marry, she waits to go home, to go back to school, for the return of her brother and the man she thinks she loves. Nothing happens to Hortense.

It’s a shame because in real life, Hortense goes on to become the Queen Consort of the Netherlands, after marrying Napoleon’s brother Louis. Instead Gulland decides to paint her as a kind of serious, ultimately uninteresting teenager waiting for life to happen to her. I wanted so much to like this, was hopeful that my eyes were about to be opened to a glorious new genre. But alas, The Game of Hope just left me wishing for a different book.

the house swap

I thought that I had some glorious baby-and-work-free days ahead of me when I started Rebecca Fleet’s The House Swap. But I ended up starting it the day before I went into labour and then it took me two weeks to finish (see: life with a newborn). How much the circumstances contributed to my feelings about this book is unknown. I do think it would have been a more enjoyable read had I been able to read it in one or two sittings.

Caroline and Francis are giving their marriage another go after some difficult years. Caroline was unfaithful and Francis had been in the middle of addiction but they are looking at their week at a house in a London suburb as a fresh start, a chance to focus on each other. While they are in this house, the home’s owner is enjoying their own time in Caroline and Francis’ home up north.

Right away, Caroline notices strange things about the home: there doesn’t seem to be any personal effects in the home and she could swear that some of the things that are there are messages to her. But that’s crazy right?

The novel is broken up into sections telling the story from present-day Caroline’s view, Caroline from two years ago and Francis-then. Slowly a full picture forms of what exactly happened two years ago.

Like I said, I think if I’d been able to sit and read this book in one shot, it would have felt different. It could have been a fun light thriller. But partly because I dragged it out and partly because the solution to the mystery was pretty obvious, The House Swap just wasn’t what I hoped it would be. It had some of the ingredients to make for a decent thrill ride – infidelity, death, sinister house, neighbour with a ‘vibe’ – but mixed altogether it was missing something crucial to make me care.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with copies of these books in exchange for honest reviews

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Not for me: A Stranger in the House

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

You’re making dinner for your husband when you get a phone call. You race out of the house and drive across town for a meeting you hoped would never happen.

After that, you don’t remember anything. Your husband is told you were in a car accident but you don’t remember anything, can’t even tell them why you were in that part of town.

So begins Shari Lapena’s A Stranger in the House.

stranger

This is another one of those books that becomes tricky to write about because if you want to read it, it’s pretty important that you don’t know too much about it. Such was the case with Lapena’s last book, The Couple Next Door.

Unfortunately, unlike The Couple Next Door, this book didn’t thrill me all the way to the end. And I promise it’s not because I was comparing it to that the whole time. There just wasn’t the pacing I need from a book like this.

I also had some issues with the characters. Secrets and lying between spouses, fine. That’s all part of the game. But for a book set in the present day there was a lot of talk about housewives. Karen, recovering from her accident, trying to figure out what happens, seems to exist for her husband Tom only to look after his needs. As she becomes more distracted (see: recovery from the accident), he begins to be annoyed that she’s not the same happy, stable wife that he’s always known. And then he starts to create other problems with another “housewife” across the street.

Listen, there is nothing wrong with a woman staying home to do whatever she wants to do. It was the way that the power dynamics played out that bothered me so much, the way that as long as everything was nice and tidy and easy, everything was fine between Karen and Tom. But as soon as life got a bit messy, accusations started flying.

Also, what 30-something is called Karen?

I’m normally completely down for this kind of mysterious thriller. Especially one that involves the dynamics between a couple who maybe haven’t been 100% completely honest with each other.

But between the lack of pacing or really any tension, the weird housewife focus and a woman my age called Karen, I just could not get on board with A Stranger in the House. 

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A thriller you’ve been waiting for

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

You all know that I am always up for crime fiction or thrillers. As the genre becomes more and more dominant, it can sometimes feel like you’re reading the same story over and over.

couple

When I first started reading The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena, I admit to feeling that way. Anne and Marco Conti are having dinner with their neighbours, Cynthia and Graham Stilwell. Anne’s been struggling with post-partum depression in the 6 months since their daughter, Cora, was born. Tonight, Cynthia, someone she used to be close friends with, is flirting shamelessly with Marco and Anne is having a hard time with it. Because their babysitter cancelled last minute, the Contis are taking turns checking on sleeping Cora every 30 minutes.

The evening ends with the discovery of a crime. This throws everyone, the Contis, Stilwells and the reader, on a thrill ride of discovery that has some pretty wicked twists and turns.

Lapena is masterful at keeping the reader guessing. There are a lot of elements to this book and there were moments reading this where I wondered how it was all going to work out. How could all these different things, these random facts actually have anything to do with what happened? Was it just littered with red herrings?

No. Lapena is just that good.

And lest you think that it’s only about plot, rest assured – it’s not. The cast of characters is so well-formed, so flawed, all of them caught up in a web of secrets that’s now threatening to ensnare them. Anne hasn’t been totally honest with Marco about things that happened in her past; Marco’s been keeping some pretty big things to himself as well. The Couple Next Door is just as much a portrait of marriage as it is a mystery.

And the ending?! I have not been so DELIGHTED with an ending in a good long while. It was exquisite.

I devoured this book. Know that if you start reading this, you’re not going to want to be torn away from it.

This is Lapena’s debut novel and if this is what she’s bringing to the table the first time out, I cannot wait to read what else she might have for us. And while I dislike the practice of comparing books to others (you know the books I’m talking about), know that this book more than holds it’s own among them.

The Couple Next Door is what you’ve been waiting for. If you like thrillers, if you enjoy a well-paced mystery that leaves you just one step behind the whole time, read this.

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Not a Manual: How To Be A Good Wife

Last week, after I posted a picture to Instagram of my book binge purchases, the first comment on the photo was that How To Be A Good Wife was chilling but good. I had no idea what I wanted to read next so I went with it and started Emma Chapman’s debut novel.

And didn’t move for five hours so that I could finish it in one sitting (few things are more satisfying than reading an entire book in one sitting).

wife

Marta Bjornstad’s husband thinks she’s just suffering from empty nest syndrome, after their only son Kylan has moved to the city to start his own life. Alone in the house all day, ensuring that she still follows the tenets of the manual her mother-in-law gave her on how to be a good wife, she decides to stop taking the pills she’s been taking for years. The last time she stopped taking them, she lost her grip on reality before her husband, Hector, took her to the doctor to take them again. This time she’s plagued by hallucinations of a young blonde woman. She sees her when she’s making dinner, taking a shower, sitting on the edge of her bed at night. She doesn’t understand what the woman wants – are they visions or are they memories?

As Marta spends more and more time thinking about the young woman and what she means, she comes to some alarming conclusions that set the rest of the novel in motion.

When I first started reading, I wasn’t sure if I liked the style. You’re in Marta’s head with her and it doesn’t all always make sense. But looking back, I realize that this is the only way that it works. The reader has to be where Marta is, you have to be confused and disoriented like her in order for the payoff to mean anything.

Chapman is skilled at creating a suspenseful atmosphere, holding back just enough to leave you completely frustrated but still totally invested. She’s created the kind of characters that you want to scream at, whether it’s because they are making poor decisions, going into dark creepy places or putting their trust in the wrong people, you want to help them course correct even though you have little more idea of where the whole thing is going.

I’m an endings reader – I like good endings and feel like a solid ending can cover up any manner of other sins. This book has a good ending. I appreciate that Chapman didn’t take the easy way out. I respect the way she played it.

If you liked Before I Go To Sleep or Elizabeth is Missing I think you will find more than enough to enjoy in How To Be A Good Wife.