review: Shutter Man by Richard Montanari

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Thank you to NetGalley and Mulholland Books for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it!

Official Synopsis

Your face is a blur to him. But your body still bleeds.

The Farren family has been a plague upon Philadelphia’s most dangerous neighbourhood, the Devil’s Pocket, for generations. There, row after row of tumbledown houses hide dark secrets – none darker than Billy, the youngest Farren.

Afflicted by a syndrome that means he can’t recognise faces, Billy must use photographs to identify his family – and his victims. And when your life has bled away, he takes a final, gruesome picture for his wall.

But what is the meaning of the horrific ritual Billy enacts with every murder? And is there any connection to a childhood event Detective Kevin Byrne has buried so well it’s hidden even from his former partner Jessica Balzano?

Review
Interestingly enough, the cover review by Tess Gerritsen (“relentlessly suspenseful”) is a little misleading in terms of how I would class a mystery as “suspenseful”.

After all, we know who the killer is in Shutter Man from the get-go.

That fact doesn’t make the narrative any less compelling, however – it’s actually crucial that we, as readers, get to know the murderer – aptly named “Billy the Wolf”, for the book to come to such a satisfying conclusion. The last few chapters really pack an emotional wallop. And Gerritsen is right about one thing – the book is relentless. Montanari grabs you by the throat immediately and doesn’t let go.

In Shutter Man, Montanari travels back and forth in time, through the rough and tumble world of “The Devil’s Pocket” (a neighborhood in Philadelphia ruled by criminals) in the 1940s and 1970s, to the present day, with detectives Byrne and Balzano. Balzano has become an ADA and gets the chance to begin working on a landmark case for the city – a chance to bring the Farren family to justice.

In Philly, the Farrens are notorious. Known for enacting swift and brutal retribution to anyone who crosses them, the family have left a litter of convictions, death and anguish in their wake, and they aren’t done yet. Billy the Wolf is actually Michael Farren, and he and his cousin Sean are criss-crossing Philadelphia, killing people in a seemingly random fashion. Byrne and Balzano know better.

But why is Billy the Wolf leaving pieces of bloody linen at the crime scenes? Who is the mysterious white-haired woman who sings to the victims before they die? Why can’t Billy recognize faces? And what really happened in Byrne’s past in that summer when innocence was lost?

As Byrne and Balzano get closer to the truth of Billy’s motivations, the novel becomes unputdownable. The writing is almost poetic in places – but still readable and entertaining, as it should be in a crime novel. Eerie, satisfying and complex, this is one mystery definitely worth reading. I’m looking forward to more from Montanari – his upcoming book The Doll Maker looks especially good.

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review: No One Knows by J. T. Ellison

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Thank you to NetGalley and Gallery Books for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it, as always!

Official Synopsis:
In an obsessive mystery as thrilling as The Girl on the Train and The Husband’s Secret, New York Times bestselling author J.T. Ellison will make you question every twist in her page-turning novel—and wonder which of her vividly drawn characters you should trust.

The day Aubrey Hamilton’s husband is declared dead by the state of Tennessee should bring closure so she can move on with her life. But Aubrey doesn’t want to move on; she wants Josh back. It’s been five years since he disappeared, since their blissfully happy marriage—they were happy, weren’t they?—screeched to a halt and Aubrey became the prime suspect in his disappearance. Five years of emptiness, solitude, loneliness, questions. Why didn’t Josh show up at his friend’s bachelor party? Was he murdered? Did he run away? And now, all this time later, who is the mysterious yet strangely familiar figure suddenly haunting her new life?

In No One Knows, the New York Times bestselling coauthor of the Nicholas Drummond series expertly peels back the layers of a complex woman who is hiding dark secrets beneath her unassuming exterior. This masterful thriller for fans of Gillian Flynn, Liane Moriarty, and Paula Hawkins will pull readers into a you’ll-never-guess merry-go-round of danger and deception. Round and round and round it goes, where it stops…no one knows.

Review
Something I didn’t expect… I just felt sad when I finished this book.

It’s difficult to review, because the whole book predicates on enjoying surprises and a particular surprise, especially. I guessed the truth, but I was disappointed by it (or maybe the execution of it?), and like I said, it just depressed me. Perhaps because Ellison wrote Josh and Aubrey’s love so well? Perhaps because Chase was like a cardboard cut-out-romantic-hero?

This book is full of unreliable narrators. Trust no one. It’s the twisty story of Aubrey, a young woman dealing with the disappearance of her husband, Josh. It made me think of the famous case of George Smith IV, who vanished off a cruise ship on his honeymoon. Men don’t disappear often, and when they do, we’ll all transfixed… because let’s face it. The supposition is that men can defend themselves. So something really terrible has to have happened to them. It’s biased, but it’s THE bias, so it’s worth listening to it.

Like I said, trust no one in this book. It’s definitely unputdownable, but by the end, I couldn’t have given less of a shit about any of them, except for Winston.

Immensely readable, but not if you want to actually root for anyone. That’s obviously not important to all readers… look at Gone Girl. Literally no one in that book was likable, and yet, it sold like wildfire. And I do see why J.T. Ellison made the choices she did in the writing process. These aren’t character arcs for the faint of heart. They all have secrets. They all have their own selfish desires.

I suppose it just broke my heart a bit. I couldn’t see how one character got to the place that he or she was. I couldn’t understand – on a practical or emotional level – how the characters ended up where they did. I also didn’t understand how no one had murdered Daisy yet. (lol)

Generally speaking, like I said before, this book is unputdownable, and there’s a lot to be said for that. It’s entertaining. It’s well written. It’s mysterious. But I want to care about the characters, as I turn to the last page. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I felt betrayed.

But maybe that’s how I was supposed to feel?

Maybe, in the end, we don’t really know anyone. Maybe that’s the frightening part. Maybe.

Off to lick my wounds now.

review: The Brontë Plot by Katherine Reay

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Thank you to NetGalley and Thomas Nelson for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Much appreciated, as always!

Official Synopsis
Lucy Alling makes a living selling rare books, often taking suspicious measures to reach her goals. When her unorthodox methods are discovered, Lucy’s secret ruins her relationship with her boss and her boyfriend James—leaving Lucy in a heap of hurt, and trouble. Something has to change; she has to change.

In a sudden turn of events, James’s wealthy grandmother Helen hires Lucy as a consultant for a London literary and antiques excursion. Lucy reluctantly agrees and soon discovers Helen holds secrets of her own. In fact, Helen understands Lucy’s predicament better than anyone else.

As the two travel across England, Lucy benefits from Helen’s wisdom, as Helen confronts the ghosts of her own past. Everything comes to a head at Haworth, home of the Brontë sisters, where Lucy is reminded of the sisters’ beloved heroines, who, with tenacity and resolution, endured—even in the midst of change.

Now Lucy must go back into her past in order to move forward. And while it may hold mistakes and regrets, she will prevail—if only she can step into the life that’s been waiting for her all along.

Review
I’m an agnostic, so let’s get that out of the way. I didn’t realize this book was from a Christian publisher, but I did pick up on the hints throughout the novel – both subtle (the lack of sex, the overbearing notion of right/wrong) and not-so-subtle (referring to C.S. Lewis repeatedly, references to heaven, God, gifts from God, etc). After visiting GoodReads, my suspicious were confirmed. Not that this changes my review – the religious aspect would bore me regardless, but let’s face it, the fact that it’s ostensibly a Christian novel will either make readers roll their eyes or pick up a copy immediately. It *does* affect sales and perceptions, so it’s important to note.

With that said, this book is – generally, and with notable exceptions – delightful. I’m a huge fan of journey novels, and while I really didn’t get why Lucy was making such a huge fuss about her minor (and harmless, really) transgressions at work, I did enjoy her transition from someone who doesn’t know herself, to someone who takes charge in a brave and honest way.

Most of the characters were well sketched – Helen and Sid especially – and the romance between James and Lucy was lovely, if a bit too innocent and chaste for my tastes. I want a bit of passion with my Brontës, you feel me? But it’s all clear now why they didn’t heat up the sheets (HORRORS!!!!), even in Brontë country. Can you imagine Emily improving? The girl who wrote about Cathy and Heathcliff metaphorically banging their way around the Moors?

I can’t. Emily would be horrified at the idea of so much passion being reined in.

So that’s my exception, I suppose. The book is about Helen rediscovering the wild girl she once was, and Lucy coming to terms with her lies (again, extremely minor and hardly worth noticing) and discovering who SHE is without her stories, and it’s set in Brontëville, and all that repressed sexual tension is just boiling away, with no relief. It’s exhausting.

However, and it’s a big however, this book is… like I said, delightful. It’s an ode to literature and an ode to families and an ode to trying to get a little bit closer to your truth, whatever that might be.

Christian or not, I think we can all relate to that.

review: Breaking Hearts by MJ Summers

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Thank you to NetGalley and Indigo Group for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. It’s appreciated, as always!

Official Synopsis
Three years have passed since handsome, devil-may-care Trey Johnson betrayed his cousin, Cole, and left the family ranch in Colorado behind. Guilt-ridden, a reformed Trey has kept his nose to the grindstone and has done his best to distance himself from his reckless past. Now he’s shocked to discover that he is about to become a full-time father to his son, a child he barely knows.

Traveling to Brazil, Trey embarks on the fight of his life in order to bring his little boy home. Broke and very much alone, the last thing he expects is to find himself falling for Alessandra Santos, his son’s nanny. The sparks between them fly, but is there too much at stake?

Alessandra, obedient daughter and top law student, always does what others expect. Whether trying to meet the expectations of her hard-nosed mother or the unreasonable demands of her employer, Alessandra finds it almost impossible to reach for what she really wants. But now that Trey Johnson has sauntered into her life, she will have to find her true voice or lose him forever.

Joined by the fate of a little boy, Alessandra and Trey must decide if they can find a way to open their hearts to each other or turn away from a chance at love.

Review
This is quite a lovely book, but I’m not sure I read it at the right time. I just finished with The Widow by Fiona Barton, which may end up being one of my favourite books of the year. After that kind of high, Breaking Hearts just didn’t… click for me. But, like I said, it is a lovely story, without the typical “Billionaire meets Bella Swan girl” trope that has taken over the New Adult genre.

The tale is told from two perspectives – on one hand, there’s Trey, a hardworking young man, just finishing up his degree and hoping to begin to supporting his son Tomas, who lives in far away Brazil with his mother. On the other hand, there’s Alessandra, Trey’s son’s nanny, a law student, intelligent and warm-hearted. When Tomas’ mother dies, Trey has to step up to the plate and take responsibility. While doing so, he can’t help but notice that Alessandra is one hot little number, and as they play happy families, he begins to fall for her.

The language in this book is oddly… formal. Trey, especially, is unlike any other guy I’ve ever known. He speaks only in complete sentences, and says things like “tomcatting around” and “pretty as a peach”. It’s a tad disarming, and not really in a good way. I think it’s vital for authors to forget how they might speak, and get into the skin of their characters. Maybe this is common slang for young men from Colorado? It sounds more like something a grandmother might say, if I’m being honest. I have zero against people who speak well. But I DO have an issue with characters who sound like robots.

Alessandra is also very formal. In the beginning, that is. Once she and Trey get together, she starts acting like a bratty teenager with a chip on her shoulder the size of the Grand Canyon. It gets worse before it gets better. The conflict between them made me roll my eyes. What did you expect would happen, given how you rushed into a relationship after approximately five seconds of knowing each other? Especially in such a volatile and emotional situation? Argh, I could have told you two what would happen. Disaster.

The sex scenes also left a lot to be desired. Why is that male parts get explicitly labeled, but New Adult authors seem to prance around euphemisms for female genitalia? It’s maddening.

Regardless, the last part of the book is quite satisfying, even if the melodrama gets wrapped up too neatly for my liking. It’s a lovely romance, but could I believe it? Not as much as I would have liked. But what do I know? This book has a 4.67 rating on GoodReads.com…. apparently I’m the only one who didn’t quite ‘get’ it. Maybe I’m too cynical.

(Note: I am definitely too cynical).

review: The Widow by Fiona Barton

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Thank you to NetGalley and Berkeley Publishing Group for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Much appreciated, as always!

Official Synopsis
For fans of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, an electrifying thriller that will take you into the dark spaces that exist between a husband and a wife.

When the police started asking questions, Jean Taylor turned into a different woman. One who enabled her and her husband to carry on, when more bad things began to happen…

But that woman’s husband died last week. And Jean doesn’t have to be her anymore.

There’s a lot Jean hasn’t said over the years about the crime her husband was suspected of committing. She was too busy being the perfect wife, standing by her man while living with the accusing glares and the anonymous harassment.

Now there’s no reason to stay quiet. There are people who want to hear her story. They want to know what it was like living with that man. She can tell them that there were secrets. There always are in a marriage.

The truth—that’s all anyone wants. But the one lesson Jean has learned in the last few years is that she can make people believe anything…

Review
Oh, my.

If you looked up the definition of “unputdownable”, I feel like there would be an image of this book next to it.

It’s almost beyond belief that The Widow is Fiona Barton’s first novel. It’s so well crafted, the voices of the different characters are so distinct, and the psychological suspense is so tangible as to feel like an animal, breathing in the room. I read this in one delicious bite.

The Widow is ostensibly about Jean Taylor, a rather mousy and unattractive housewife, recovering from the sudden death of her husband, Glen, a suspected child killer. However, when you peel back the layers as a reader, this book is about so many things – Jean is its core, yes, but it’s almost about the justice system, the seedy world of underground pornography, the lengths journalists will go to, to get a story, and the indefatigable tenacity of police officers who sense blood. At the centre of the whirlwind is Jean, the woman everyone wants to speak with.

As Glen’s wife, what did she know? Did she suspect? Was he abusive? Was she complicit? Is she really the typical grieving widow? Who is Jean Taylor, really?

It’s a fascinating journey into the mind of an unreliable narrator, and Barton’s writing is assured, crisp and absolutely delectable. It’s important to note as well, that the journey in this book is the meat of it, and those expecting a “shocking” ending are going to be disappointed. Yes, there are so many secrets and hidden layers, but this book doesn’t turn on its head in the final pages. I urge you, as a reader, to forget wanting to be surprised – and also re-examine why every book has to be this way now for readers to find it entertaining. It used to be that the book was about the journey, not the destination.

What Fiona Barton has done with The Widow is to write a truly wonderful voyage into the quagmire of mental illness, the 15-minutes-of-fame afforded to victims of crime, the hungry, desperate world of journalism and the wilds of the brain… where men fear to tread. It’s stunning and beautiful and absolutely unputdownable. 100% recommended. I can’t wait to read much more from Fiona Barton.

The Widow will be released on February 16th, 2016.

review: Dead Ringer by Jessie Rosen

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Thanks to NetGalley and Full Fathom Five Digital for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. It’s appreciated, as always!

Official Synopsis
From the moment Laura Rivers steps foot into Englewood High, she notices the stares—and they aren’t the typical once-overs every pretty new girl endures. The students seem confused and…spooked. Whispers echoing through the halls confirm that something is seriously off. “That new girl looks just like her,” they say.

It turns out Laura has a doppelgänger, and it isn’t just anyone—it’s Sarah Castro-Tanner, the girl who killed herself by jumping into the Navasink River one year ago.

Laura is determined not to let the gossip ruin her chances of making a fresh start. Thanks to her charming personality and California tan, she catches the eye of Englewood’s undisputed golden boy, Charlie Sanders, and it’s only a matter of time before they make their relationship official.

But something is making Charlie and his friends paranoid—and Laura soon discovers it has to do with Sarah Castro-Tanner.

What really happened to Sarah? Why is Charlie unraveling? And how does Laura Rivers fit into it all?

After all, she’s the dead ringer for a dead girl.

Review
Well… this reminded me of “Pretty Little Liars”, which isn’t a bad thing, but I think I’ve aged out of this demographic and genre, so I may not be the best judge.

Dead Ringer IS an interesting and well-written book. Told from three different perspectives, the book is about a core group of friends, and the way their lives are rocked by the arrival of a California girl who is the spitting image of a dead girl. Laura Rivers is surprised and dismayed at the looks she gets when she begins her first day at Engelwood High – people are afraid. Of her.

Turns out, Laura resembles Sarah Castro-Tanner, a troubled and depressed girl who killed herself by jumping off a bridge, leaving behind more lies than truth. Laura begins to date the high school’s golden boy, Charlie Sanders, who although freaked out by Laura’s appearance, still cannot stay away from her.

What begins as a fairly standard YA novel, soon becomes a quagmire of he said / she said / they said / what the hell is even going on. It’s unputdownable. Mostly, I just wanted to KNOW. I will admit I guessed the outcome, but that doesn’t make it any less shocking. I often guess these kind of plot twists, mostly because I try to dream up the least likely outcomes. I give props to Jessie Rosen for one of the more effed up characters I’ve met in fiction – rivaling anything Gillian Flynn could ever put down on paper. This person is cracked out beyond belief.

A few quibbles: straight away, I got by annoyed certain things – the Sarah/Sasha name similarity, the constant repetition of “Sarah Castro-Tanner”, how the book could have used a trim (it’s way too long), the often awkward phrasing for teenagers (who says things like “As your friend, I just want to be here for you, will you let me?” as a sixteen year old? That’s a paraphrase, but it sounds like a lot of things Laura says – especially to Becca) and really, it’s all a bit unbelievable. But it IS entertaining, and that’s worth a lot.

review: The Girl With No Past by Kathryn Croft

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Thank you to NetGalley and Bookouture for providing me with an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review. As always, it’s appreciated!

Official Synopsis
A gripping psychological thriller for fans of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.

Leah Mills lives a life of a fugitive – kept on the run by one terrible day from her past. It is a lonely life, without a social life or friends until – longing for a connection – she meets Julian. For the first time she dares to believe she can live a normal life.

Then, on the fourteenth anniversary of that day, she receives a card. Someone knows the truth about what happened. Someone who won’t stop until they’ve destroyed the life Leah has created.

But is Leah all she seems? Or does she deserve everything she gets?

Everyone has secrets. But some are deadly.

Review
Once again, I will register my distaste for this prevalent trend of comparing every book EVER to “Gone Girl”. Please, publishers and blurb writers, let books stand on their two feet. This book is more than capable of being attractive to the reader without the comparisons to a book that has already had its fifteen minutes of fame. (No disrespect meant to Gillian Flynn, who I think is very talented). I do understand that there needs to be some frame of reference for readers, but can we pick a new one please?

ANYWAY. Onto the book, which I really enjoyed.

The Girl With No Past is a taut and suffocating suspense novel. The main character, Leah Mills, is steeped in subterfuge, running desperately from one terrible event in her past. She lives a solitary existence, surrounded by books (both at home and at the library where she works), talking only briefly to co-workers and members of online chat rooms. Then, she meets a man who allows her to step outside of her own mind — and that’s the beginning of the end for Leah’s carefully constructed life.

Strange things begin to happen. It’s clear that someone knows what she did. They are determined to punish her. But who is it? And what is Leah’s secret?

The journey to finding out is a little slow at the beginning, but soon, as Leah’s world begins to crumble, so does the book speed up and become much more exciting. It flicks between the past and present, showing us how Leah arrived at this place where she trusts no one and expects the worst from all of her interactions.

As for the secret – I guessed some of it almost immediately, but not the completely gross extent of it (and it is VERY horrifying and upsetting to read about). I did NOT guess the perpetrator, or the shocker of an ending. That ending. It was so beautifully perfect and exactly what I wanted. Comeuppance is sweet, my friends, and those who received it in this book deserved it more than anyone ever could.

Is the book perfect? No. Some of the phrasing is awkward, and like I mentioned above, the book is slightly flat in the beginning (I think it could use a trim-down as the meat of the story doesn’t begin for quite a while). However, these are minor quibbles – The Girl With No Past was much better than I expected, and the writing is crisp, without melodrama, and gets points for perfectly capturing how vile and self involved teenagers can be.