Book Review: Sometimes I Lie

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Ever since the popularity of Gone Girl, books like this–unreliable women narrators–have been on the scene.  I’m just surprised this book didn’t have the word girl in it. I love unreliable narrators, but don’t have your character tell me that “sometimes I lie.”  

Let me figure that out.  

Sometimes I Lie promised to deliver, and it did, right up till the end.  The writing wasn’t stellar (e.g. using that ridiculous quote about being a human being, not a human doing), but the story compensated for the most part.  

Part of the problem with many of these books is that all or most of the women are either evil or dumb.  One is an emotionally-abusive alcoholic, another is a total psycho, and yet another is a fake (but real) bitch; to be fair, the men aren’t much better.  Everyone is shitty in this.

It takes a talented author to strategically place clues in such a way that we don’t notice them until the end–when everything crystallizes.  The clue that solves the case should be like a microscopic piece of DNA that blows it all wide open, giving us that “aha” moment. However, the author having a character go by more than one name (unless both names are connected in some way) is lazy and downright misleading.  

The Wife Between Us (which I didn’t bother reviewing as it was written by two authors) did the same thing.  

This book was separated into three separate time frames:  The diary of a 10-year-old, “walking Amber,” and “comatose Amber.”  There were plenty of dream sequences (i.e. filler) that we’re led to believe are real, only to be told, “Just kidding, never mind.”  It pisses you off.  

I was also led to believe that Amber and her husband, Paul, didn’t even like each other anymore, but then all of a sudden, they’re in love again–from cold to hot in 180 seconds.  

Furthermore, Madeline’s reveal didn’t pack a punch (who cares about this lady anyway?), and the old boyfriend didn’t add anything to the story.  I found it hard to believe that the ex would stay out of Amber’s life for twenty years only to start stalking her again. Reminded me of an episode of “Law & Order:  SVU,” so it must happen, right? Jo’s origin, however, surprised me, though she wasn’t a strong enough character for it to be intriguing.

A lot of women don’t like rape as a plot device; I just don’t like graphic scenes (leave it to the imagination, please) because then they comes acoss as trying to be titillating which is reprehensible.   

I did not care for the little lists (I found them quite silly); I love nursery rhymes as much as anyone else, but just state that a character is singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”–don’t spell it out, for I just end up skipping over those stanzas.  At least put a new spin on an old rhyme or better yet, create a new one (but keep them divided into couplets–most people don’t want to read poetry in a novel; it can stagnate a story, though it was done beautifully in The Wife Between Us).

Sometimes I Lie would’ve been better had been written in the third-person; with first-person, the character has to be incredibly compelling–either relatable or interesting.  Amber is neither until the end, when she seemingly snaps out of whatever funk she’s been in for years to suddenly become this commanding presence–almost as if killing something (or someone–don’t want to spoil it) brings something inside her back to life.  

There were a few loose threads:  I never figured out why she didn’t like her mother–the woman Amber was describing as an adult did not sound at all like the woman described in the diaries.  Did Taylor really tell her to do it?  And who sent the bracelet at the end?  This is where you absolutely do not leave the rest of the reader’s imagination.  You’re the writer–wrap it up!

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32326398-sometimes-i-lie

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Book Review: The Girl Before

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This book was absolutely unputdownable.  It also had a strange effect on me:  It put me into decluttering mode, bigtime, and I’m already a minimalist (which is not about having nothing but about having just the right amount).  The Girl Before made me think of all the clutter in my life, including the clutter inside my head as well as virtual clutter.  

The questionnaire scattered throughout was a novel idea (no pun intended)–a nice change from opening a chapter with a quote that someone else said.

Here is just a glimpse of the great writing in The Girl Before (p. 170):  Sometimes I have a sense that this house–our relationship in it, with it, with each other–is like a palimpsest or a pentimento, that however much we try to overpaint Emma Matthews, she keeps tiptoeing back; a faint image, an enigmatic smile, stealing its way into the corner of the frame.

Any book that gets me to learn a new word must have something going for it.  

I found it interesting that there were no quotation marks in Emma’s story, and even more surprising that it look me halfway through the book to notice this.  Is this a UK thing? I remember reading Harlequin Presents (a long time ago, so don’t judge) when apostrophes were used instead of quotations.  I am curious what the symbolism was concerning this.

Edward Monkford (what a pretentious name) evokes an image of Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead; other goodreads reviewers have said Christian Grey (I’ve seen the movies but never read the books and don’t care to).  His crazy house rules were fascinating–like the technology that controlled the house was fascinating. The concept that a house can change the way you live–actually help you live a better life–was fascinating, but Monkford himself was not.  He was a pig–just a well-spoken, better-dressed, affluent pig. (I guess you really can put lipstick on a pig, if you got enough to smear it with.)  

The women, Emma (THEN) and Jane (NOW), are both incredibly stupid because they think with their sex and not their brains.  Emma seemed like a closet hoarder who called her paramour “Daddy” (ew) and liked angry sex (even when the anger was directed at her).  She was a freak (yet we are told that she has charm). 

Compared to her, Jane was milquetoast.

Even though the women were not portrayed positively, it’s fairly realistic as a lot of women choose to have babies with losers (because they don’t need a man and think their sons and daughters don’t need a father).  Sometimes, they even marry these losers and put them above their children. It’s incredible how many male inmates (who are in prison for murdering women) get fan letters from women–women they’ve never even met.  

I never knew whether Emma’s last story was for real but it doesn’t matter.  THEN & NOW were both enjoyable.

But, back to Monkford:  A lot of women like egotistical, controlling men because they see it as take-charge masculinity.  Monkford is one of those ruthless corporate types who is also a temperamental artist (an explosive combination) who would blow up a perfectly decent development that would provide affordable housing to families if it had his name on it, but there was something about the aesthetics (just like the idealistic, anti-hero Roark) that didn’t align with his vision.  Furthermore, Monkford uses women until he uses them up (after all, he finds them so easily). He is incapable of love, for he can’t even love his own, imperfect kin. He likes his women damaged (and in the beginning anew stage), so he can turn them into blank canvases he can manipulate. His structures may be beautiful, but I didn’t get the impression they were very green.  All that extra, empty space has to be heated and cooled.

Monkford was such a commanding presence in the book that the other male characters barely registered.

The ending was weak, but the journey was so intriguing, the destination didn’t matter (it just knocked off a star).  It had the mysterious feel of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which I appreciated, but the nightshades of Gone Girl came out of the blue, for there was a turn in one of the character’s motives that wasn’t led up to or hinted at in any way.  I understand the author doesn’t want the reader to figure out everything too soon–in case the reader loses interest, but if the writing’s good, your reader won’t; a well-written story always trumps a twist ending.  What’s more, when the true villain is revealed, it’s anticlimactic, for it seemed I found out at the same time the author did.  

Jane could’ve used a little more to wrap up her story but then we’re introduced to Astrid, and the story stops (and, I’m sure, begins again there).  I did, however, like the tie-in to the title in the last part of her story. Nicely done!  

Besides being unputdownable, The Girl Before has immense readability.  

One gripe that has nothing to do with the book:  I don’t like authors going by different names.  What is the point of this? Are they not allowed to cross genres with the same name?  There is another author who does this, and I find it irritating.  

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28016509-the-girl-before

Book Review: A Stranger in the House

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After reading Lapena’s The Couple Next Door, I was expecting the same tightly-woven and twisty plot.  

Such was not the case (no pun intended) with this one.

Lapena is not one for sympathetic characters or happy endings, which is fine if the plot is good.  Unreliable narrators are awesome plot devices but not for mysteries because part of the fun is putting the pieces together; when the pieces don’t factor in to the puzzle at all but are rather imaginary pieces, then it’s pointless–there is no need for foreshadowing because it’s going to be a total surprise with no clues leading up to it.  In other words, everything we’ve read up until such-and-such point could be a total lie.

I agree with some other goodreads reviewers that the amnesia angle (like evil twins) is overused, but nevertheless, it’s always fun.  Lapena is obviously a fan of Hitchcock with her shades of Rear Window, but Stranger was lackluster.  

I don’t mind the immediacy of the present tense, but Lapena should brush up on comma rules.   She does more telling than she should, but there are enough scenes with dialogue that it’s forgivable.

The character of Tom was quite awful.  His initial reaction to his wife not being home (when she obviously left in a hurry) wasn’t one of worry but of anger.  Maybe he has secrets of his own.  Supposedly, Karen was in love with him (we are told this, or rather, she tells us this), but I just didn’t get that vibe.  He just happened to be a handy, cheating sap.  

Brigid was the only interesting character.  I thought it was hilarious that she hated Karen for not  caring about her knitting blog. (Karen didn’t knit and yarn didn’t really seem to be her fabric–she was more the blazer type.)  I didn’t like Brigid, yet she was the only one I felt for in the end.

I’m not sure what purpose Brigid’s husband played and why it was important that he was a funeral director/undertaker except maybe it was symbolic that because he dealt with death so much, he couldn’t possibly spark a life.  Maybe he made Brigid die inside, and that’s why she had issues, though honestly, we’re only privy to him through her warped filter.

I’d swear Lapena was a cop in another life because in her books, there are basically two kinds of people:  the guilty (where no one is completely innocent) and the cops. However, the cops only seem innocent because we don’t know anything about their personal lives (like “Dragnet”; unlike “Law and Order”).

 I liked that Rasbach was back on the case–he is definitely one I’d like to know more about but not if Lapena would do his character an injustice.  He’s almost more of an entity–a representation in human form of the right side of the law–than he is a character. He did, however, have a great idea:  get a background check done on anyone you are seriously dating.  

If Lapena could just differentiate her minor characters more–the cops and the lawyer were interchangeable when it came to personalities; there is really nothing but their names to distinguish them from one another.  

I don’t recommend this book, but neither did I feel it was a waste of time.  It was…an experience.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33984056-a-stranger-in-the-house?from_search=true

Book Review: Then She Was Gone

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It isn’t often that I come across a character who is shown to have very specific thoughts about life in general rather than just thoughts that pertain to the story.  The characterization of the grieving mother was well-done, though it seemed strange that she would fixate on a man she just met after having been celibate for so long.  The status of her daughter’s disappearance had not yet been determined, so it didn’t make sense to show her moving on before that. 

I liked Laurel, even though her judgment (e.g. jumping in the sack on the second date) was questionable.

The author tells us (through another character) why Hanna was the way she was towards her mother, but we aren’t shown the interaction needed to substantiate this.  Also, the mystery of Hanna’s boyfriend wasn’t fully explored.

There needed to be more to Noelle’s story–like why she was the way she was; however, the characters of Kate and Sara-Jade Virtue were extraneous. 

Even though I always knew whose “turn” it was, I was so deeply engrossed in Laurel’s POV, I found it rather jarring when another character decided to tell their story; as it turned out, each character’s story was equally engrossing.

I’m glad that the perpetrator got their just desserts, and I felt for the strange little girl that Poppy was–wanting to drink champagne and talking (rather matter-of-factly) about how other kids thought she’s a bitch.  Her lack of emotional intelligence at such a young age made me feel sorry for her, but at least we were privy to her backstory (unlike Noelle’s). 

I’m glad that the wrap-up didn’t have the perp’s and the vic’s families keeping in touch or worse, becoming friends (I’ve always found that a little distasteful), even though the perp’s family were good people. 

The plot was intricate, though I didn’t feel that the perp’s motives with Ellie were strong enough;  then again, people have done more for less. 

What made me sad was that it seemed like Laurel was the only one who was affected by Ellie’s disappearance for Ellie’s sake, rather than just for how it affected them.  

Floyd’s swan song at the denouement brought it all together, though Ellie’s letter could’ve used a pinch more poignancy.

What sets this book apart from other mystery/suspense novels were the truths that were woven into it in the form of memorable quotes:

p. 20:  Neither of them were setting the world alight but then whose children did?  All those hopes and dreams and talk of ballerinas and pop stars, concert pianists and boundary-breaking scientists.  They all ended up in an office. All of them.

p. 131:  And then her child had died and she had found that somehow, incredibly, she could live without her, that she had woken every morning for a hundred days, a thousand days, three thousand days and she had lived without her.

p. 225:  “You won’t understand how much I love you until you’re a mother yourself.”

Then She Was Gone is primarily a thriller but with a strong focus on a mother and the daughter who was left behind, as well as the mother’s mother who is waiting for her child to be happy again (sadly, it seems this can only happen with finding romantic love).  The romance angle left me cold, especially with the way Floyd was so fixated on ten-year-old Poppy, seeing her as more his creation than his child–like a broken toy he had tinkered with for years until she was finally working properly–a toy good enough to give back to its rightful owner as atonement for someone else’s sins.

 

Book Review: The Couple Next Door

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The most amazing thing about this book was that it was a great read without a single sympathetic character (the detective doesn’t count because we never get to know him).  I loved that it was written in present tense–it was almost like an extended episode of “Dragnet”/police procedural–except told from different points-of-view (though I still think writing from different points-of-view is lazy and takes some of the mystery away).

As it so often happens, I couldn’t figure out why Marco and Anne fell in love with each other, but then, this book wasn’t about that; it didn’t make you care about them as a couple–only about what happened to their baby.  The fact that these parents would leave their baby home alone (monitor or not) while at a drinking and dinner party next door, even with them going so far as to check on her every five minutes, seemed neglectful at worst and poor judgment at best.

Though I could sympathize with Anne adjusting to her new role, and though I realize not every character is a God-fearing Christian (nor would I want them to be), but the use of of g-d always hits a sour note; it never adds anything to a story but rather, it takes something away from it.   

Detective Rasbach was basically Joe Friday–a blank canvas whose whole life is police work, whose vocation is his identity.  Strangely, he was my favorite character, and I hope Lapena uses him in all her books.

Lapena did a great job in making sure there weren’t too many characters in the book, though there could’ve been more sensory details–even a sense of place.  This story seemed like it was happening anytime, anywhere, and what man, if he’s committing adultery in the twenty-first century, has a book of matches? Isn’t that so 1950’s?  And what’s with leaving the window open while your baby is sleeping? Marco and Anne are well-to-do–they have air conditioning.

The plot was an ingenious one, and the denouement was fantastic, though I think the epilogue was anticlimactic.  The author wrote what she wanted to happen rather than what would’ve made a better story.

However, this was incredibly well-done for a debut novel–a little foreshadowing would’ve made it shine.  

I look forward to more of Ms. Lapena’s works.

Book Review: The Other Woman

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This book sucked me in–only because I wanted to see Emily finally stand up for herself.

For me, this book wasn’t just about the antagonist (Pammie) getting her comeuppance but the protagonist’s (Emily’s) transformation.  If a character doesn’t change (at least temporarily), they’re static–not necessarily the best choice for a main character.

The only character trait of Emily’s I can remember (and I finished this just last night) was that she liked a little wine or champagne to unwind.  I never figured out what she liked to do for fun, what her work life was like, her hopes, dreams, et cetera. She was like a piece of flypaper that crap stuck to; the book wasn’t about her but about the things that happened to her (or allowed to happen to her).  Whenever she did show a little moxie, she backed out at the last minute or past it. She was as dull as dishwater.

Now I like chick lit as much as anyone, but this was like the cliched formula for a chick-lit novel, with the obligatory gay male friend who was perfect in every way (and who the protagonist would marry if he wasn’t gay) and the spunky and fiercely loyal female roommate who is alluded to as being funny, yet she doesn’t say or do anything that makes us laugh.  

As for the love story, it was nonexistent.  Emily is always telling us she loves Adam, but I could never figure out why.  He was attractive (who cares?), had a professional job (whatever that was), and whatever charm (or personality) he was supposed to have was lost on me.  Anyone who would ALWAYS take their mother’s side without question is bad news. I will never understand why women want to force someone to marry them, but if you’re already living together, and it’s working, why not get married?  And if he doesn’t want to marry you when it is working, it might be a good idea to reexamine your relationship. Emily came across as desperate, holding on to Adam at all costs to her, just because his mother didn’t want her to have him.  I’m not even sure why Adam chose her except that he knew she’d put up with his crap indefinitely.

Emily continuously exhibiting extremely poor judgment, which I think stemmed from her lack of experience with men, made me not only lose patience with her but get angry with her.  Her convoluted way of thinking was to get married first and then fix all the problems (which made me think of Congress passing a bill to see what was in it).

The best part of this book–the only part that had any real depth–was when Emily was talking about weddings (p. 257-258):  “We all rush to support this outpouring of love and commitment, yet scratch the surface and you’ll find we feel more obliged than genuinely willing.  There is always something better we could be doing with ourselves on a sunny Saturday afternoon…we’ve spent money that we don’t have, on an outfit we’ll wear only once, and on the cheapest present we could find.”

(I’ve never met anyone who is excited to go to a wedding unless it’s the bride and groom and their parents.  Have you?)

The twist ending was decent, but the title could have used a little more punch as “the other woman” is a cliche.

Is all this to say that I did not enjoy the book?  Not at all. The Other Woman is one of those nail-biters where you just want to see what happens, and then once you read it, you’ll never pick it up again.  

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36212848-the-other-woman

Book Review: The Girl on the Train

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“The Girl on the Train” is told from the first-person viewpoints of Rachel, Anna, and Megan (a la Jodi Picoult)—all of whom are on different tracks in life, yet connected by a common thread.

Rachel Watson, the main protagonist, is an alcoholic who rides the train every morning and evening (whose reasons for doing so will make you wonder about her state of mind), and who, like Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Rear Window”, likes to watch the people in their backyard gardens as she rides by.  From this vantage point, Rachel watches her ex-husband and his new wife create a new life in the house she used to live in with him, and she sees in another couple (whom she has affectional named Jess and Jason) what she once thought she and Tom, her ex-husband, would be.

However, one day she sees another man with Jess (real name Megan) on the terrace; Megan ends up missing the next day.  Rachel believes she may hold the missing piece of the puzzle, and through this distraction, finds sporadic sobriety.  In an effort to find Megan, Rachel, in part, loses herself in the life Megan once lived.  She also crosses paths with a stranger on the train she believes has the answers to what happened “That Night”, but cannot remember whether he is her friend because of what he may not know, or a danger, because of what may know.

Rachel is an interesting character because she isn’t plugged into her cell phone with people she knows, but is far more interested in those she doesn’t know.  Though she is somewhat tuned out of the world around her, she tuned in to the world that lives inside her head—a world that shifts like the scenery outside her window to the world, that world being the window on the train.

As we get to know Rachel, we begin to wonder, is she or isn’t she an unreliable narrator, or is her perspective that far from reality?

Ms. Hawkins allows us to get to know the characters gradually, as one would in real life; the same goes for the mystery, which unfolds one clue at a time.  Hawkins richly layers each character with backstory that isn’t an information dump, but keeps surprising us; every tidbit gives clarity to what is going on in the present-day, such as why Megan has a hard time sleeping, or why Rachel’s ex-husband hates her so.

Megan’s story is compelling because she is seeing a therapist, to whom she reveals the source of her angst, and Anna’s, because of her near-obsession with her husband’s ex-wife.

The stories of Rachel and Anna, and then Megan’s story (which is told in “flashback”, leading up to her disappearance), happen about a year apart, but unlike “The Time Traveler’s Wife”, the timeline is easy to follow, and the story flows like the wine that Rachel consumes every day.  Rachel’s haze of consciousness lends itself to a (believable) state of amnesia, including blackouts, so the reader doesn’t know any more about whodunit than Rachel does.  Rachel and the reader will be in it together, trying to add it all up before the train goes off the tracks.

Due to Rachel’s fluctuating moods and penchant for lying, I constantly felt discombobulated, which only kept me reading till its chilling, unexpected destination.

*Review was originally published in the September 2016 issue of “The Corsair”– the Pensacola State College newspaper.  “The Corsair” online can be found at http://ecorsair.com/.