Book Review (ARC): Layover by David Bell

I am honestly shocked that this was described as a high concept thrillerin the blurb. It’s not even close to high concept. It’s not even thrilling, for that matter. 

Perhaps I’m smoking something different than the rest, but I found this book to be amateurish and annoying.

The hero – for one – is a complete dumb bunny. He has absolutely no drive or ambition, just takes handouts from his father and whines about having to work in commercial real estate development (he’s so deep – he needs a job with meaning). At a time when most people his age are struggling to find work, the guy is rolling in cash and living in the beautiful city of Chicago, with a perfectly nice girlfriend and a supportive Dad. I mean, c’mon guy, you’re SET FOR LIFE. I understand wanting to find some sort of value in what you do, but perhaps count your blessings and look for that value outside of work? Volunteer? Read a book? Learn to bake? Take a fucking walk? Anything.

So he’s on one of his boring work trips, forced to fly across country to make yet another million, when he meets a “mysterious” woman named Morgan in an airport bar. I put mysterious in quotation marks because she’s wearing sunglasses indoors, so this dumb shit thinks that means she’s an International spy or something. They have multiple drinks (it’s like 9am at this point) and they get into some faux-deep philosophy about their lives and choices. Morgan has absolutely nothing of interest to say, but she’s thin and pretty and seems frightened, which produces a boner in him that just won’t quit. Seriously, the thing is made of titanium. Because when she tells him she never wants to see him again and gets on a plane, what does he do?

HE FOLLOWS HER.

When she tells him she never wants to see him again, AGAIN, what does he do?

HE CONTINUES TO FOLLOW HER.

When she leaves him high and dry in a hotel room, what does he do?

I’ll give you a guess but do you even need one?

All this is wrapped around a “mystery” that is so exhaustively boring it defies description. Clearly Ms. Indoor Sunglasses is on the run from something, but it never materializes into anything shocking or creepy. There’s also a female cop, who provides a modicum of relief from Joshua’s reeking sense of male entitlement but she’s also one-note and concerned either with her upcoming promotion or the lack of time she spends with her teenage daughter. Nice!

I don’t even remember the ending and I read it like 2 days ago. So. That’s about it? 

Oh wait, one last note to Joshua. When a woman tells you “no”, believe her. Do not follow her onto a plane and then act put-out when she’s not thrilled to see your unwelcome ass. You’re not a nice guy, you’re gross, and it’s time you knew it. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. As you can tell, I took that literally and will continue to do so! It’s always nice to have the the chance to read books, even if they don’t turn out to be ones I enjoy. Long live authors!

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Book Review (ARC): Rewind by Catherine Ryan Howard

Damn.

This was an addictive and thrilling read from Catherine Ryan Howard. I’m turning into such a huge fan of hers. The Liar’s Girl was really lovely, and Distress Signals hooked me in with the cruise ship premise (anything on a boat, people!) but this book. Wow. I stayed up till after midnight to finish (could not put it down, and I mean that sincerely – it was so difficult to lift my eyes from my Kindle – the pacing was perfect).

Tense, elegantly written and superbly plotted, Rewind takes place in the Instagram-era, when everything we do is curated on screen, for audiences large and small. The novel is told from varying points of view, and shifts both perspective and time in a way that would have been dizzying in the hands of a less accomplished author.

In one part of the tale, a woman is murdered on camera, and the owner of a series of holiday homes watches from the secrecy of his living room, unable to help, horrified when the killer then smashes the lens. How did he know the camera was there?

Natalie O’Connor, Instagram influencer, visits the holiday homes, intent on discovering the key to a mystery she’s trying to solve in her own life – and she disappears.

Desperate to escape the drudgery of click-bait reporting, an Irish journalist traces Natalie’s footsteps into the dark.

In a run-down guest house in Dublin, a woman plots to be with the man she loves – whatever the cost.

Play. Rewind. Fast Forward. Pause. The book swings back and forth, giving small windows into the picture, letting colours bleed through, frames splice together, static recede, until it’s all there, on the big screen, like a crescendo of sound and light – the final, horrifying truth. What it all meant. What it was all for.

Simply ingenious plotting, with a startling twist at the end, and characters I truly empathized with – like I said before, damn. This is a masterful thriller.

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

Book Review (ARC): Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Admittedly, it’s difficult for me to write an unbiased review of a Kate Atkinson novel. When I received this book from NetGalley, I immediately tweeted “she is our greatest living author, don’t @ me”, which – I actually wish someone would “@” me, because I’m more than happy to explain all the ways Atkinson is brilliant (almost terrifying so).

My favourite books of Atkinson’s are Life After Life and A God in Ruins (the latter absolutely shattered me – I think I cried enough to fill oceans), but I do so love her Jackson Brodie series for its sly wit and the river of devastation running beneath its surfaces. Big Sky is a worthy entry into the Brodie lexicon, and her best since Case Histories.

A mystery at its core, with thousands of tiny threads that come together to form a very messy, very real tapestry of human misery and joy and rotten, ruined hopes, Big Sky is about the sex trade, about families and the way they disappoint us, about exploitation and greed, and how where men fall, women rise up.

Brodie is hiding out on the coast, working as a private investigator. It’s the usual stuff – cheating husbands, cheating wives, icky individuals on the Internet, and perhaps a stolen item or two or three. He’s clearly bored, but he’s also clearly enjoying the chance to spend more time with his son Nathan – a miserable, stroppy, absolutely delightful teenager – their interactions are such comic gold that I laughed out loud numerous times. Big Sky is inarguably hilarious, in that perfectly dry British way –

She was a self-described Christian, born-again or something like that (once was enough, surely?)

That’s the thing about Kate Atkinson – one minute you’re flinching, the next you’re audibly snorting. It’s a roller coaster.

In true Brodie fashion, our erstwhile detective stumbles upon a human trafficking ring in the sleepy little coastal town, and the tension ratchets up and up, until it seems everything will explode, sending bombs across the sea. What’s singularly arresting about the central mystery is that the crimes go back decades and have such miserable arrows running from their centres – you can only imagine how much pain and suffering has been spread. Some bits made my stomach hurt (“the passion wagon”, “parties”, “the two sisters”, “the disappeared, gone where no flashlights could illuminate”), and it’s a testament to Atkinson’s power that the novel isn’t merely depressing – rather, I put it down with a sense of wounds bandaged by glorious retribution.

Don’t mistake me – the subject matter is raw and the kind of subtle that makes you wish for a novelist with less grace (sometimes, the less graphic things are, the more the imagination fills in the horrifying blanks). But still, it’s there – subterranean but mighty – like a sword or axe or queen – the female. The strength. The eyes meeting. Warrior to warrior. Survivor to survivor.

Where men fall, women rise.

With as much power, as much grit, as the big blue sky.

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

Book Review (ARC): Stone Mothers by Erin Kelly


The Victorians used to call their mental hospitals stone mothers. They thought the design of the building could literally nurse the sick back to health.’

Erin Kelly is an elegant writer. Her prose is undeniably British, with that lack of melodrama that I enjoy. While I think He Said/She Said was stronger, Stone Mothers is very good. It doesn’t have the narrative hook that HS/SS had, with the alternating stories and unreliable narrators (really, that novel is so unique that there isn’t really a comparison to be made, beyond the author being the same).

What Stone Mothers does have is a dark current running underneath, like a subterranean river about to offer something rotten from its depths.

Told in three parts, Stone Mothers is, at its core, about a decaying town, fighting for its own survival after the gutting of its central hospital. Nusstead reminds me of the Welsh mining communities after Margaret Thatcher destroyed the profession and closed the mines. Utter desolation and desperation. Fractured families. Men left to drink and despair. Women attempting to pick up the pieces. Children running wild, or worse, trying to raise their smaller siblings while their parents dissolve. It’s stark, and realistic, and Nusstead is very much a character in the novel, much like the old asylum, the ‘stone mother’ of titular fame.

It begins when Marianne’s husband buys her a flat. Drawn back to her hometown after her mother develops dementia, Marianne is nonetheless shocked and very much appalled by her husband’s gift. The flat has been converted from the ruins of the old mental hospital in the town, and the dark walls hold memories that Marianne would very much like to forget. When her ex-boyfriend Jesse – emboldened and triggered by her arrival back into his life – threatens to upend the secrets they’ve kept for so long, Marianne feels driven to protect the fragility of her family.

She approaches an old enemy, Helen Greenlaw, she who closed the hospital and sent Nusstead into the realm of miserable towns without a purpose, without a core. Now a peer in the House of Lords, Helen wields more power than ever – except when it comes to what Marianne and Jesse know. Cold and unfeeling, Helen appears ready to do anything to protect her own secrets, perhaps – even kill.

While the action is slow to unfold, the noose that seems to tighten around Marianne is unflinching, and I felt my own throat closing from the tightness of the writing. By the time we hear from Helen and take a dark walk through her past, I was absolutely riveted. There are characters I thought I’d like but ended up loathing, and one particular character that just reached in and wouldn’t let go. Her quintessential Britishness, that stiff upper lip, that survival spirit, the get-up-and-go. The utter tsunami of emotion disguised as cruelty or ennui. God. It tore at my heart.

In the end, Stone Mothers examines the true cost of the choices we make. Even when they seem right, or just, or like they heal an old wrong, there are still consequences, rippling out from that underground river, waiting to be borne into the light.

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

Book Review (ARC): The Two Lila Bennetts by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke

Reality is a sliding door…

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sliding Doors is easily one of the most underrated movies of all time. Gwyneth Paltrow made the film during her long and excruciating breakup from Brad Pitt (cue teenagers like, “they dated??”) and it shows in every glimmer of tears in her eyes, every set of her chin, every time hope alights on her face. It’s a movie about breakups and makeups, about the choices we make, about how doors take us in different directions, about the two roads diverging in the wood.

It never, ever fails to make me cry at the end.

Suffice to say, I loved the idea of a psychological thriller along the same lines as the movie. Unlike Gwyneth Paltrow’s picture-perfect Helen, Lila Bennett is a complicated soul. A criminal defense attorney, Lila lives for the chase, the hunt, the win. It’s ceased to matter to her whether or not her clients are guilty or innocent – it only matters that she secures her victory, so she can move on to the next. She’s married, but she’s cheating. She’s betraying almost everyone close to her, and she may have just helped a vicious killer escape prosecution.

Is Lila the devil incarnate? I would argue no. Although a lot of her decisions paint her out to be a stereotypical ‘bad person’, in reality I think that Lila is at the mercy of the undertow of her life. Driven to succeed, she’s swept along by what people expect from her. After all, who would prop up her depressed husband if she crumbled? Who would support her mother if she left her job?

One evening, Lila makes a crucial choice (that seems quite small in the moment), and her life splits in two. One in which she’s “free”, still struggling to navigate the complex legal system and atone for past wrongs, and one in which she’s “captured”, kept in a cement-lined cell with a viciously cold man who seems to want revenge, at any cost.

Immensely readable and compelling, this book also has a very good twist when it comes to “whodunit”. I guessed, because I make it my business to guess, but it wasn’t obvious, and I commend the authors – super hard these days to make that a surprise.

One caveat: there’s a fair amount of slut-shaming that goes on in this book, which made me cringe. Lila frequently thinks “I deserve this”, as she’s being mentally and physically tortured in her cell. Worse, I didn’t get the feeling that at any point, that self-loathing changes into an attitude of “no one deserves this”, which I would have seen as welcome character growth.

Because certainly, I don’t believe even the most cold-hearted reader would think Lila “deserves” to be locked up, slashed and starved, because she had an extra-marital affair and made some questionable choices at work? Surely not? SOMEONE PLEASE. Because, ugh. It’s 2019 and we don’t ascribe to the notion that women need to be “punished” for their transgressions, right? Right.

Mental gymnastics aside, I really enjoyed this. It’s the perfect summer beach read, and will have you madly flipping pages (or pressing next on your Kindle) until you get to the whirlwind of an ending.