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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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Review: The Child

Every summer it seems that the bookish market is inundated with books that promise to thrill you. In the last few years, with the rise of the Gone Girls and The Girl on the Trains, we’re constantly promised that this next book will follow in their glorious footprints.

It becomes hard to figure out which books are the real deal, and what is just noise.

Fiona Barton’s The Child is being marketed as exactly this: the heir to Flynn and Hawkins.

child

In the wake of gentrification throughout London, a building has been razed giving up it’s decades long secret: the skeletal remains of a baby. Kate Waters, a journalist bored by the directives to write about celebrities and royals, thinks that the case of the Building Site Baby could be something interesting to really sink her teeth into. Her efforts lead her to: Emma, an editor working from home, keeping secrets from her much older husband; Angela, whose baby vanished from the hospital more than 40 years ago; and Jude, Emma’s mother, a woman who has a very complicated relationship with her daughter and the truth.

I don’t think it’s the same kind of thrill ride that fans of Gone Girl would be looking for. Even for those of you looking for a tense, psychological thrill ride, I’m not sure The Child is for you.

But I did enjoy it as something else. A kind of exploration into the relationships of women, with each other, with the men in our lives, with the truth.

I saw the ending coming a mile away – which, if you’ve been a visitor to this blog for any amount of time, you will know is RARE. And even though I knew exactly how this was all going to go, I still enjoyed the getting there. Barton has done an excellent job painting these women at various stages of their lives, as they make decisions that may or may not have ramifications in the years to come.

I read this book in two sittings, completely absorbed in it, even if it might not have been the thrill ride I assumed I was in for. Barton does an excellent job layering the story and allows it to spider out in a number of directions that ultimately, are completely connected. There was a certain amount of enjoyment in being in on the twists – never did I feel like I wanted the getting there to hurry up. It didn’t feel drawn out or unnecessarily complicated.

It’s a safe recommendation for those who like the journey and don’t demand a shocking payoff.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book.

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Into the Water

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

The Girl on the Train was a phenomenon. Paula Hawkins’ follow up novel, Into the Water, was hotly anticipated. Given the chance to get my hands on a copy, I jumped all over it.

But it’s difficult to live up to that kind of hype, for a different book to stand on its own merits when compared to the achievements of its juggernaut of an older sibling.

I could not finish with Into the Water fast enough.

Sadly, I don’t mean that as a compliment. This book fatigued me.

tom tired

Nel Abbot, single mother of a teenage daughter, has been found dead in the water at the bottom of her garden. The river that runs through the little town she lived in has claimed the lives of a number of women for years. Two months earlier, a 15 year old girl had drowned herself in the water. Nel herself had been fascinated by the water, the stories of the “troublesome” women that found their end in its depths, and had been working on a book telling their stories.

What happened is told, piece by painstaking piece by a variety of residents in the small English town including: Nel’s estranged sister, angry at her over something that happened years and years ago; Nel’s daughter, who has been keeping all kinds of secrets from everyone; the school’s headmistress, married to the police chief, who also has secrets from his past; a teacher, who has to hide how much he misses Kate, the girl who drowned herself before Nel died.

It’s a lot.

Hawkins tries to make the point that the world is cruel to women, that historically water had been used to purify those women accused of witchcraft, that perhaps this is something that is still going on. There are any number of sinister characters in the book that could be capable of sending women to watery deaths. Hawkins isn’t content to populate the book with red herrings, or subject readers to so many first person narratives, she also has to weave a mystical element to the game.

Into the Water wasn’t a difficult read, or a long one, and yet the time I spent with it felt like I was treading water fully clothed and I was losing the battle.

I so appreciate the point that Hawkins was trying to make because the world is so obviously cruel, especially to women. But this book and it’s similarity to The Girl on the Train (memory loss, men’s power over women, unlikeable narrators) without the well-paced plot and tense atmosphere just didn’t work for me.

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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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What even is this book?

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

Jason is at home, enjoying a cozy fall evening with his wife, Daniela and son, Charlie. They are making dinner together, talking about their days, Charlie working on some homework, Jason and Daniela making their way through a bottle of wine. Jason’s college friend has recently been awarded a prestigious science award and is celebrating at a bar a few blocks away. Daniela suggests that Jason go over for a drink, show his face. Jason agrees, says he’ll be back in 45 minutes.

Except on the way home, he is kidnapped and asked if he’s happy with his life. Next thing he knows, he’s waking up in a strange place without any idea how he got there.

That’s all I’m going to tell you about Dark Matter, Blake Crouch’s thriller that makes you question everything.

You all know that normally I don’t read science fiction. At least, I don’t actively search for it. But Dark Matter is more than science fiction. It has a thrill ride element to it that meant I couldn’t put it down. It’s a well paced search for answers that left me questioning everything more than once.

Let’s look at some of my reactions, shall we?

This book was something else! It’s hard to accurately describe a book when you really can’t talk about it. If I tell you too much, it will ruin the book. Just know that it’s a great thrill ride, great for summer reading and would probably make a decent movie.

Sure, you could quibble about the fact that the only women in the book are damsels in distress and the entire thing is basically a treatise on the accomplishments of men. But I’m not going to do that because as a thriller, with a dash of sci-fi, it worked for me.

I think if you’re a fan of the Bourne books/movies, The Martian (I guess anything starring Matt Damon?) or Ready Player One, you will enjoy this one.

I know I didn’t give you a lot to go on in this post so why not read the first chapter?

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If You’re Looking For a Great Thriller…

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

I didn’t know anything about Paula Daly’s work before I read The Mistake I Made. I didn’t know that her novel, Keep Your Friends Close, had been shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Fiction Novel of the Year, or that she was known to write taut, page turning psychological thrillers.

If I had known these things, I probably wouldn’t have let this book sit on my bedside table for a couple of weeks before I read it – I would have jumped all over this book because those things are my favourite.

mistake i made

Roz is a single mother at the breaking point. Her business has just gone under, she’s working as much as she can as a physiotherapist but she can still barely make ends meet. Her ex-husband took out a bunch of loans in her name, destroying her credit and putting her in the hole to the tune of 18,000£. When the bailiffs show up and take everything, she has no idea what she’s going to do.

But it’s her sister’s birthday and so for one evening, Roz and her son George, are going to celebrate and pretend like nothing is the matter. This is the night she meets the very wealthy Scott Elias, who takes a shine to her. A few days later, Scott shows up at her office with a proposition for her: spend the night with him for 4000£.

It turns out to be too good an offer to turn down – a couple of nights with Scott and she can get back on her feet, get ahead of things for a change. But the situation spirals out of control really quickly and there’s nothing Roz can do to undo her choice.

I was into the book from page one. Roz at work, talking to patients, something about it – I was hooked. Yes this is a story about a single mom, trying to get back on her feet, trying to date again. But it’s also about relationships men have with women, about the men who view women as objects, those that see paying for sex as just another ‘business transaction.’ Roz thinks that she has all the control – after all she is the one that is selling something. But the terms are Scott’s, he has the power, she needs the money and he knows it.

This is a top notch thriller. I thought Daly masterfully pulled away the layers, leading me along inch by inch until BAM! I ended up reading the rest of this at a break-neck speed, holding my breath waiting to find out just exactly what the f*ck happened.

And I’m for sure on the hunt for more of Daly’s books to devour.

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Rolling My Eyes

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

When I first saw the title of the book I’m talking about today I had a moment of maybe I won’t read that. The title, No Cure For Love, makes me laugh, which is probably not the reaction you’re looking for when you’ve written a book about a stalker with a murderous streak. Because that’s what No Cure For Love is about.

Sarah Broughton is a transplanted Brit in Hollywood. She plays a cool, efficient detective on TV and is living the Hollywood life in an oceanfront beach house. But then she starts receiving strange letters that are addressed to Sally, which happens to be her real name. At first Sarah shrugs them off but when she’s convinced that someone is watching her on the beach she calls on her friends to help. See, Sarah had a breakdown about a year earlier and these letters are threatening to undo all the hard work she’s been putting in.

This book actually came out 20 years ago – the version that I have is an anniversary edition. That means that the story happens like it would have 20 years ago: barely any cell phones, databases, security cameras or high tech anything. And I’m not going to lie, when I first started reading this I rolled my eyes a few times. Sarah is a beautiful blonde actress,  the casting director is an older, overweight guy who has all the power, the cops are no nonsense tough guys out to catch bad guys.

In other words, it starts out very formulaically. And I don’t think this would have bothered me at all if I hadn’t just read the forward that was all about how authentic this book is.

Against all odds I became completely invested in this book though. Once the cast of characters is introduced, Peter Robinson seems to take his foot off the descriptive pedal and allows the story to move forward. Quickly. One minute Sarah is being interviewed about the letters by Detective Arvo Hughes, the next she finds a body on the beach. In pieces. And from there the story moves along fast. In the end, the fast pace, the red herrings, the clever ending and the balls-to-the-wall story really redeemed it from it’s eye-rolly start.

I loved going back in time with the investigation. The police don’t have the internet, there are no Facebook or instagram accounts to  watch. They have to go out and interview people, drive out to other towns to talk to more people – there’s a lot of legwork involved.

If you’re looking to tap out of a more serious read and just enjoy something because it’s fun, this is the kind of book you’ll enjoy. If you love fast paced thrillers, I’m pretty sure that you will like this one. I really did and no one is more surprised by that than me right now.