Kate’s Review: “This Is How I Lied”

52000813Book: “This Is How I Lied” by Heather Gudenkauf

Publishing Info: Park Row, May 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Everyone has a secret they’ll do anything to hide…

Twenty-five years ago, the body of sixteen-year-old Eve Knox was found in the caves near her home in small-town Grotto, Iowa—discovered by her best friend, Maggie, and her sister, Nola. There were a handful of suspects, including her boyfriend, Nick, but without sufficient evidence the case ultimately went cold.

For decades Maggie was haunted by Eve’s death and that horrible night. Now a detective in Grotto, and seven months pregnant, she is thrust back into the past when a new piece of evidence surfaces and the case is reopened. As Maggie investigates and reexamines the clues, secrets about what really happened begin to emerge. But someone in town knows more than they’re letting on, and they’ll stop at nothing to keep the truth buried deep.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Both of my parents grew up in Iowa, so I have many childhood memories of going to various parts of that state and having a lot of fun. Because of this, Iowa has a special place in my heart, even if my parents considered their move to Minnesota something of an escape. So when I saw that Heather Gudenkauf’s new book “This Is How I Lied” took place in a fictional small Iowa town, that was what pulled me in. I was immediately thinking of cornfields, Bozwellz Pub and Eaterie, and Prairie Lights Bookstore, and I will admit that nostalgia is what got me here. And nostalgia was what kept me going, mostly, because unfortunately “This Is How I Lied” didn’t connect with me.

As always, I will start with what I did like. And that can be summed up as such:

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(source)

For the most part, Grotto did feel like an Iowan small town. I liked that there is absolutely a center of commerce and businesses, but it’s just as accessible to farms, ranches, and the rural life of the community. One of our characters who gets perspective chapters is Nola, the potentially psychopathic younger sister of murder victim Eve, who has grown up to become a large animal vet. I liked the moments that we had with her doing her vet work, visiting patients on ranches and farms. I was also tickled by the idea of underground caves in this town, though I didn’t find it too unbelievable, as there are definitely interesting geological formations in this state. Fossil pits, cave systems, cliffs, I’ve been to a few and Gudenkauf really nailed the geology of the state, and how complex it can be. And as I mentioned above, nostalgia played a big factor into my enjoyment of this. I haven’t been to Iowa since my aunt died in Iowa City in 2017, and honestly, I miss it.

But the story itself and the characters within really didn’t connect with me. We had three characters whose perspectives we worked with. The first is Maggie, the pregnant cop who was the best friend of Eve the murder victim back when they were teens. The second is Nola, Eve’s disturbed younger sister who wants revenge. The third is that of Eve herself, and her last days leading up to her murder. None of them really moved past two dimensional tropes. Maggie is the haunted cop with potential secrets, Nola is the violent psychopath, and Eve was the tragic victim who was too good for the world she lived in. The closest we come to interesting is Nola, as seeing psychopathic women characters isn’t nearly as common within the genre as men. But she was too stereotypical psychopathic to make me feel like due diligence was being done to make her interesting. Did she have a dead animal fascination as a kid? Check. Violent tendencies? Check. Menacing presence and sometimes supervillain-like soliloquies? Check and mate. And on top of all that, the mystery itself was never terribly engrossing to me. I had a feeling that I knew who it was early on, and any red herring curveballs thrown to the reader were far too obvious as being red herrings because of how they were placed and where. Once it all shook out to it’s conclusion, due to lack of investment I didn’t really care one way or another. This book doesn’t push any boundaries or reinvent the wheel, and while it’s true that I am perfectly okay with that in a lot of books, that is only if I feel like the journey itself was worthwhile enough to make up for it. In this book, that simply wasn’t the case.

I was disappointed that this book didn’t connect for me. That doesn’t mean it won’t connect for you, though. Remember.

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Give it a go if you are so intrigued. Be like a stubborn Iowan that way. As someone who comes from a long line of them, I can tell you that isn’t a bad thing.

Rating 4: The description held promise but it never really took off. Flat characters, predictable plot points, just all around disappointing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Is How I Lied” is included on the Goodreads list “Psychological Suspense for 2020 (U.S. Publications Jan-July 2020)”.

Find “This Is How I Lied” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Catherine House”

51934838Book: “Catherine House” by Elisabeth Thomas

Publishing Info: Custom House, May 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: You are in the house and the house is in the woods. You are in the house and the house is in you . . .

Catherine House is a school of higher learning like no other. Hidden deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, this crucible of reformist liberal arts study with its experimental curriculum, wildly selective admissions policy, and formidable endowment, has produced some of the world’s best minds: prize-winning authors, artists, inventors, Supreme Court justices, presidents. For those lucky few selected, tuition, room, and board are free. But acceptance comes with a price. Students are required to give the House three years—summers included—completely removed from the outside world. Family, friends, television, music, even their clothing must be left behind. In return, the school promises its graduates a future of sublime power and prestige, and that they can become anything or anyone they desire.

Among this year’s incoming class is Ines, who expects to trade blurry nights of parties, pills, cruel friends, and dangerous men for rigorous intellectual discipline—only to discover an environment of sanctioned revelry. The school’s enigmatic director, Viktória, encourages the students to explore, to expand their minds, to find themselves and their place within the formidable black iron gates of Catherine.

For Ines, Catherine is the closest thing to a home she’s ever had, and her serious, timid roommate, Baby, soon becomes an unlikely friend. Yet the House’s strange protocols make this refuge, with its worn velvet and weathered leather, feel increasingly like a gilded prison. And when Baby’s obsessive desire for acceptance ends in tragedy, Ines begins to suspect that the school—in all its shabby splendor, hallowed history, advanced theories, and controlled decadence—might be hiding a dangerous agenda that is connected to a secretive, tightly knit group of students selected to study its most promising and mysterious curriculum.

Combining the haunting sophistication and dusky, atmospheric style of Sarah Waters with the unsettling isolation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Catherine House is a devious, deliciously steamy, and suspenseful page-turner with shocking twists and sharp edges that is sure to leave readers breathless.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!

If you are going to market a book as a Gothic novel, I am most likely going to be interested based on that alone. The isolated creepiness of the average Gothic novel gets me amped, and I’m glad that more and more authors, both adult and YA, are paying more attention to this genre. And when you throw in a mysterious boarding school/university setting, that’s practically catnip for me! “Catherine House” by Elisabeth Thomas, therefore, caught my eye. I downloaded it from NetGalley, eager to dive into a Gothic boarding school thriller with twists, turns, and nefarious misdeeds. Unfortunately, “Catherine House” missed the mark for me, by quite a bit.

Starting with the positive, this book has a LOT of potential. As I said, it both aspires to be a Gothic read set in a mysterious school that serves as alternative to university, and it promises to give its graduates all sorts of power and keys to mysterious opportunities. It can make powerful politicians, business people, power players of all stripes, and all you have to do is master it’s odd and super secretive curriculum and devote your entire life to Catherine House for three years, with no contact to the outside world. Ines, our protagonist, is fleeing a checkered past in hopes of starting on the right foot and with huge advantages to a new life. It’s pretty standard fare for this kind of book, and that’s not to say that that’s a bad thing. I liked seeing the odd quirks to Catherine House, the little shifts from what one might consider a ‘normal’ college experience, from food to decor to class types. There is also the fact that students at Catherine, Ines included, are involved in strange rituals involving something called plasm, and pins that you can insert into your body that can help harness the potential of this so called plasm…..

I mean, I think. Honestly, this wasn’t very clear to me. While it’s very possible I may have missed something, it seemed to me that the sticking point of the mystery of this book was at the plasm storyline and what it does, and why Catherine House wants to mess with it. So the fact that I could have missed the big conflict resolution doesn’t really imply that there was much detail or due diligence paid to said conflict. There is also the plot line where Ines’s roommate Baby has tragedy befall her all in hopes of fitting into the strict and high standard mold that Catherine House has, but I didn’t really get the sense that Ines was terribly concerned with it. Sure, I was TOLD that Ines was concerned, it’s even in the plot description. But there is very little actual time devoted to Ines feeling guilty, or suspicious, or vengeful over Baby’s fate. When that is touted as a main plot point in the description, I expect it to be more at the forefront. It just felt like more time was put into describing the quirks and strangeness of this place than there was devoted to the actual main plot. Because of this, I was mostly confused and uninvested throughout the narrative. Which is a shame, because there were so many good ideas here that had a lot of potential.

Suffice to say, I was quite disappointed with “Catherine House”. Hopefully the next time I find my literary catnip I will have a better experience.

Rating 4: While this book had a lot of promise, ultimately I didn’t feel like it committed to any of the themes it set out to explore.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Catherine House” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”, and “Black Heroines 2020”.

Find “Catherine House” at your library using WorldCat, or at your local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Shrike & the Shadows”

51012361._sx318_sy475_Book: “The Shrike & the Shadows” by Chantal Gadoury and A.M. Wright

Publishing Info: The Parliament House Press, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Men have gone missing before.

The village of Krume is plagued by a haunted wood and a hungry witch. It’s been that way for as long as Hans and Greta can remember, though they have never seen the witch themselves; no one has.

When men start to disappear once again in the cover of night – their bloody hearts turning up on doorsteps – the village falls into frenzied madness.

Hans and Greta, two outcast orphans, find themselves facing accusations of witchcraft and are met with an ultimatum: burn at the stake, or leave the village forever.

With nowhere else to go, they abandon their only home.

As they venture into the strange forest, their path is fraught with horrific creatures, wild and vivid hallucinations, and a mysterious man tied to the witch’s past.

The Shrike is watching, just beyond the deep darkness of the woods.

Review: A lot of fairytales have been retold a million different times in a million different ways. And I, being the sucker I am for fairytale retellings, am more than happy to read the millionth and one version of many of these popular tales. That said, it’s always particularly exciting when I see a new book coming out that it tackling one of the less popular story. I’m sure I’ve read a “Hansel and Gretel” story in the past, but I couldn’t think of one off the top of my head, so I immediately placed a request for this book. Unfortunately, this was not only a disappointment as far as new fairytale retellings go, but also, in my opinion, just not a very good book overall.

The village where Hans and Greta have grown up has long been haunted by an evil that claims the lives of its men, leaving their hearts on the doorsteps of the grieving families. It is under this constant threat that Greta and Hans have tried to make a life for themselves, praying each night that Hans won’t be next. But when they are driven out of the only home they’ve ever know, the two siblings find themselves alone in the very same forest in which lurks this evil force. Will they make it through this woods? And what waits on the other end?

I was really bummed to find that this book was such a miss for me. I seem to have had a recent run of either books I’ve really enjoyed or ones that have really, really not worked for me. I’m hesitant to make this comparison, but what first came to mind was that this book read like a bad fanfiction story. I say this having read and enjoyed a good amount of fanfiction, some of which with writing as good or better than many published novels I’ve read. So this is in no way a ding against fanfiction as a whole. That said, this book exemplifies several of the pitfalls that poor works of fanfiction have been known to fall into: lackluster world-building, washed out characters, and, unfortunately, over use of sex scenes and trauma, seemingly to make up for a lack of real story at its heart.

The world-building is lacking and transitions from scene to scene are awkward at best and nonexistent at worst. I’d have a hard time describing much of anything about the world in which this book takes place. In the beginning of the story we have a scene with Greta frantically searching for her brother. She runs around quite a bit, but I was completely unable to track her movements. She’s at one point in her cabin, then outside, then, I think, in a field. Shortly after that, she and Hans are in the village itself. This action takes place in the first few pages, but it is a perfect example of the lack of attention that went into setting the scenes for this story. There is no foundation upon which any of this happens, and the writing makes no effort to draw a picture in the reader’s mind.

The writing didn’t serve the story any better as far as the plot goes either. Early in the book there’s a scene depicting an attempted assault (this comes out of nowhere, by the way, and was jarring in and of itself). It’s a serious topic, but the way it is depicted is cartoonish in its villainy. The assaulter’s lines of dialogue were cringe-worthy, and the villain himself was made up of only the broadest strokes of stereotypes without any effort to delve into the seriousness of the real-life history behind the power imbalance that was being described. Again, this was only an early example, but this writing problem continued throughout.

Hans and Greta were also difficult to care about. While the writing seemed a bit better equipped to handle these two main characters, they still often felt flat at times. Hans, in particular, was very hard to sympathize with. Greta had the stronger moments of the two, but as the story was split between them, this wasn’t enough on its own to balance out Hans.

And then there’s the sex scenes. As I mentioned, there’s an attempted assault that comes out of nowhere within a few pages of the start of the book. There’s very little build up to this, and, overall, it doesn’t feel handled particularly well. I’m not in the camp that says every book that has scenes like this should have an overt trigger warning on the cover. Mostly this is because strong writing will build to an event of this nature in a way that allows readers time to decide whether to read the event or not. But with weaker writing, these scenes are a bit trickier. And from there, once our characters are in the woods, there are still numerous sex scenes. I enjoy romances here and there and am not a prude about scenes like this in my books. But the sheer volume of them was off-putting, not to mention the jarring juxtaposition of these scenes against the story’s effort to build up the horror and threat of their travels through the woods. Like I said, kind of like bad fanfiction.

I didn’t enjoy this book. I’m not familiar with either of these authors, so I’m not sure if this is indicative of either of their other works. But on its own, this wasn’t a strong story. I had a hard time connecting to the characters, and the world-building was so superficial that I couldn’t describe much of the book if you asked.

Rating 4: Very disappointing, “Hansel and Gretel” deserve better.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Shrike and the Shadows” is on this Goodreads list: “Parliament House Novels.”

 

Kate’s Review: “Pretty Dead Girls”

32972117Book: “Pretty Dead Girls” by Monica Murphy

Publishing Info: Entangled: Teen, January 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Beautiful. Perfect. Dead.

In the peaceful seaside town of Cape Bonita, wicked secrets and lies are hidden just beneath the surface. But all it takes is one tragedy for them to be exposed.

The most popular girls in school are turning up dead, and Penelope Malone is terrified she’s next. All the victims so far have been linked to Penelope—and to a boy from her physics class. The one she’s never really noticed before, with the rumored dark past and a brooding stare that cuts right through her.

There’s something he isn’t telling her. But there’s something she’s not telling him, either.

Everyone has secrets, and theirs might get them killed.

Review: I strive to go through my Kindle every once in awhile and see what books I’ve purchased that I haven’t read yet. I’ll be honest, I mostly use my Kindle for the eARCs that I receive, but every once in awhile I do get ebooks for it. As I was scrolling through my library I was reminded that about a year back I bought “Pretty Dead Girls” by Monica Murphy. It had shown up on my twitter feed, as a popular YA twitter account was singing its praises. There are so many things that should have worked in this narrative, at least for me. You have a climbing body count. You have popular mean girls who may be the top suspects. You have a local bad boy who may be misunderstood, MY KRYPTONITE! These are the ingredients for a stew that would normally set my tastes aflame. But by the time I had finished “Pretty Dead Girls”, I was left disappointed and wanting a whole lot more.

As I always try to do, I will start with what did work for me, and that is the aforementioned bad boy Cass. This is in all likelihood due to the fact that he seems to have been written to fit each and every trope that I love to see in a misunderstood outsider; there are rumors about him at school, he has a tragic back story, he dresses all in black and freaks people out, but at the end of the day he’s a genuinely good person who shows the protagonist (Penelope) what real love and loyalty is. Is it an overdone trope? For sure. My inevitable reaction to the character when he shows up?

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Never fails. (source)

But even this doesn’t quite work in the broader context of the book. Because Cass’s relationships with other characters feel at times forced, and at other times a bit problematic. While I wanted to like him and Penelope and their budding relationship, I didn’t like that his ‘bad boy’ persona/plot device pushed him into almost psychopathic territory. For example, at one point he drives like a maniac that scares the hell out of Penelope, and it’s played off as ‘sexy and daring’, as well as used as a way for Penelope to perhaps question as to whether or not he is the mysterious killer. It feels lumped in and a bit lazy, and while I know that in real life bad boys are probably not going to be good dating choices, this is fiction, dammit! And these things, in the words of the drag queen Valentina, do not make sense with my fantasy! Especially since that wasn’t the overall point that was trying to be made.

On top of that, other characters never really move outside of their tropey boxes. Penelope is likable enough, but she doesn’t experience much growth outside of realizing that her friends are jerks and that Cass isn’t what he seems. Penelope’s main nemesis Courtney is the prototypical mean queen bee who also has some private pain. The other characters are pretty much relegated to being there as potential suspects, or eventual body count padding. I was hoping that we would get more growth from every one, but they basically remained two dimensional and static.

This could have been brushed aside and/or justified by myself as a reader had the plot been able to carry the weight, but as it was I wasn’t really invested in the mystery of ‘who is the killer and who is going to be next?’. The characters who did die (with the exception of one, but I won’t spoil it here) weren’t really characters that held emotional weight when they were killed. And while the identity of the killer was played up, with first person perspectives from the mystery person to boot, by the time it was revealed whodunnit, the solution fell flat due to a lack of real motive building and characterization before they were ‘unmasked’. It just felt like a ‘gotcha!’ that wasn’t earned.

I was disappointed because I had high hopes for “Pretty Dead Girls”. But it just goes to show that sometimes the perfect ingredients aren’t going to combine to make a well done final product. While I think that it would work for other readers, it didn’t work for me.

Rating 4: While the premise had a lot of potential, I was underwhelmed by “Pretty Dead Girls”. Not even a romance between a brooding bad boy and uptight good girl could save it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Pretty Dead Girls” is included on the Goodreads lists “Teen Screams”, and “YA Suspense/Thriller/Mystery”.

Find “Pretty Dead Girls” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Grave Mercy”

9565548Book: “Grave Mercy” by Robin LaFevers

Publishing Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

Review: Our bookclub theme this go-around is books that have been on our TBR list for over two years. And there are a lot. My lists is somewhere in the mid-300s though, so cut me some slack! But while going through it, I tried to match up a few titles with ones that are currently available at the library in audiobook format and I struck across “Grave Mercy” and thought “Why not? Killer nuns sounds pretty neat.” And here we are. Sadly, killer nuns were not, in fact neat. But one could argue that the story wasn’t really about that anyways, so some other author could still cash in on what sounds like a cool idea.

Just as Ismae’s life is taking a distinct turn for the worst (an arranged marriage, said husband being an abusive jerk, etc. etc.), she’s caught up by a mysterious organization., a convent that follows an old god, one who calls upon his followers to take out evil in the world. The convents train in these deadly arts to carry out this work. With a new route before her, Ismae excels in her new life and role. But when the straight-forward plan of killing targets gets caught up in a much more murky world of courtly politics, Ismae finds herself out of her depth. Add in some romantic feelings, and she’s in a real mess.

To start with any pros, the best thing this book has going for it is the cool premise. I was excited to pick up this book, as assassins always seem like they would be good for an action-packed story full of potentially interesting moral quandaries. Unfortunately, the book itself fails to follow through on this premise, so even that is a pretty luke warm pro.

My biggest problem with this book comes down to the writing itself, both the style of sentences construction as well as the numerous plotting issues. I’m not personally a fan of first person present tense writing, and this one definitely falls prey to the weaknesses of this tense. The voice is often wooden and off-putting. Her emotions are conveyed using a handful of cliches that do nothing to really show us Ismae’s feelings, rather just informing us of them, as a matter of fact. I’m not sure I would have loved the character of Ismae had she been presented in another way, but this definitely didn’t help.

The other big problem with the writing is the way numerous writing crutches are used. The story opens with Ismae’s abusive first day of married life, quickly moves on to her being taken in by the convent and informed, succinctly, of their role in the world. Then two seconds later Ismae’s all on board and we have a time jump. Suddenly, she’s now this badass assassin out on her first mission. It all happens too fast and readers are left to just swallow it all, no questions. There is far too much telling and no showing. We never see Ismae gain any of these so-called skills, and with the introduction of a magical knife that kills with just the barest touch, we’re left wondering why any training is needed at all.

Frankly, it feels as if the author did the barest amount of work in the beginning of her story to get to the part she really wanted to write about. Which, fine. But if that’s your goal, just skip it all together and introduce these pieces of history as the current story plays out. This method would have worked much better and solved several of these problems.

I also struggled with the romance. It’s pretty much just what you would think, so I don’t really need to even bother explaining any of the details. But given Ismae’s early marriage (which, by the way, seems fairly valid and never is addressed again) and the abuse that came with it, I would have hoped for a more nuanced approach to her love story. Instead, we have generic googly eyes at the hawt guy and, again, a long list of cliched descriptions and emotions.

Assassin books are a strange thing for me, now. I feel like I really like them. But when I try to think of examples of books with this theme that I’ve enjoyed, there are really very few. And on the other hand, a rather long list of books with this plot that I’ve absolutely hated. It makes sense: how do you write about something as brutal as assassination without also taking the time to really address the moral issues at the heart of it? Far too many authors simply want the badass points of it all without the latter responsibility to the emotions and decisions behind it. So we end up with books like this, where we’re told that our main character is a badass and then proceed on to a pretty bland love story that is more focused on court politics that assassinations, anyways.

Rating 4: The weak writing really killed this one for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Grave Mercy” is on these Goodreads lists: Books With Heroes/Heroines Who Are Assassins and Young Adult Books Without Love Triangles.

Find “Grave Mercy” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Innocent Wife”

32187685Book: “The Innocent Wife” by Amy Lloyd

Publishing Info: Hanover Square Press, January 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Twenty years ago, Dennis Danson was arrested and imprisoned for the brutal murder of a young girl. Now he’s the subject of a true-crime documentary that’s whipping up a frenzy online to uncover the truth and free a man who has been wrongly convicted.

A thousand miles away in England, Samantha is obsessed with Dennis’s case. She exchanges letters with him, and is quickly won over by his apparent charm and kindness to her. Soon she has left her old life behind to marry him and campaign for his release.

When the campaign is successful and Dennis is freed, however, Sam begins to discover new details that suggest he may not be quite so innocent after all. 

But how do you confront your husband when you don’t want to know the truth?

The winner of the Daily Mail First Novel Competition, Amy Lloyd’s The Innocent Wife is gripping psychological suspense from a brilliant new voice in crime fiction.

Review: I listen to a whole lot of podcasts, mostly ones that dabble in true crime, and sometimes through those podcasts I get reading ideas. While usually these idea come in the form of non fiction books (usually thanks to Marcus Parks being a thorough researcher who likes to share his sources), occasionally a fiction title will catch my ear. So when Georgia Hardstark of “My Favorite Murder” mentioned the book “The Innocent Wife” by Amy Lloyd, I immediately threw myself on the request list. Eventually it arrived, and I was eager to open it up and dive on in. Happily, the moment I opened it it pretty much took my full attention until I was finished. Yes, it’s that readable and that addicting. But while it is absolutely readable and addicting, it also left a sour taste in my mouth when all was said and done. And to really explain why, I’m going to have to give you a big ol’ spoiler alert before I really break it down.

But, as always, I will first concentrate on the aspects of this book that I enjoyed. Lloyd has clearly done her research and has no problems showing the dark underbelly of American prison systems and how prisoners exist within them. The central question of this book is whether or not Dennis, a convicted murderer sitting on death row, is actually guilty of the crime he committed. There are similarities between this case and other cases of potentially innocent/clearly innocent people on death row, though I see many parallels to Damian Echols of The West Memphis 3. One consequence of sitting in a small confined cell for so many years is that Dennis’s eyesight has been warped so that he has to wear dark lenses on his eyes at all times. From being in a controlled and isolated environment for so long, Dennis doesn’t know how to function in the outside world, and things that we would take for granted such as newer slang or long passed world events are new and unexplained to him. There is also a focus on incompetence or corruption of law enforcement, and how sometimes law enforcement officials are far more interested in putting a collar on someone, anyone, to close a case, even if that person doesn’t necessarily fit the evidence or the realities of said case. I liked that Lloyd brought up these issues when other authors may not have, just to show that there are consequences to our systems, especially for those who shouldn’t be there in the first place.

But beyond those pertinent issues and themes “The Innocent Wife” was a quick but ultimately frustrating read for me. For one, I had a hard time with the characters. Our main character, Samantha, is completely unlikeable and unrelatable. She makes terrible decision after terrible decision, and is very self involved, getting married to a convicted murder that she barely knows (even if she’s convinced he didn’t kill the girl he supposedly killed) without thinking of potential consequences of said actions. She has temper tantrums of jealousy regarding women who visit Dennis in prison, gets petulant about how the public sees her after he’s been let out of prison, and has moments of feeling ugly because he is having problems with intimacy after he’s been INCARCERATED FOR TWO DECADES. While I don’t doubt that these are certainly realistic and believable traits, I had a really hard time stomaching them. The only character that I really liked in this book was Carrie, the filmmaker of the documentary that focuses on Dennis whose tenacity and will to expose a corrupt system was very enjoyable.

And why didn’t I like Dennis, you may ask? Well let me tell you. And here is your

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(source)

No, Dennis didn’t commit the crime for which he went to prison. But he SURE HELPED MURDER A NUMBER OF OTHER MISSING GIRLS AND WOMEN IN HIS HOMETOWN. Once that was revealed, I was pretty much miffed, and hate read the rest of the book. What frustrates me about this is that I felt like it negated all of the other legitimate injustices and concerns that were brought up within the narrative, as now the reader has his actual guilt which seems to negate the issues that were brought up earlier in the book. I felt like it knocked the legs out from under very reasonable arguments about inhumane treatment and corruption and incompetence, because now the ‘gut feeling’ the police officers had has been legitimized and the corruption of the conviction doesn’t have any weight anymore. I hated that. 

“The Innocent Wife” was a fast read, but an unsatisfying one. I won’t stop taking reading advice from podcasts, but I may be inclined to look into the titles a bit more from now on.

Rating 4: While “The Innocent Wife” did bring up interesting and grave truths about incarceration in this country, the ultimate solution was frustrating and I didn’t care for most of the characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Innocent Wife” is included on the Goodreads lists “Murderino Reading List!”, and “The Girl Who Didn’t See Her Husband’s Wife When She Disappeared Twice From The Train.”

Find “The Innocent Wife” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Caged Queen”

35843937Book: “The Caged Queen” by Kristen Ciccarelli

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, September 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Once there were two sisters born with a bond so strong that it forged them together forever. Roa and Essie called it the hum. It was a magic they cherished—until the day a terrible accident took Essie’s life and trapped her soul in this world.

Dax—the heir to Firgaard’s throne—was responsible for the accident. Roa swore to hate him forever. But eight years later he returned, begging for her help. He was determined to dethrone his cruel father, under whose oppressive reign Roa’s people had suffered.

Roa made him a deal: she’d give him the army he needed if he made her queen. Only as queen could she save her people from Firgaard’s rule.

Then a chance arises to right every wrong—an opportunity for Roa to rid herself of this enemy king and rescue her beloved sister. During the Relinquishing, when the spirits of the dead are said to return, Roa discovers she can reclaim her sister for good.

All she has to do is kill the king.

Previously Reviewed: “The Last Namsara”

Review: As promised, I decided to give the second book in this series (more of a companion novel) a go even though I struggled through the first. That one had enough cool factors with its world-building, history, and, of course, dragons to push past my ultimate dislike of its main character. I also liked the small scenes we got for Roa in that book and was curious to see how she would be handled as a main character. Alas, I’ve now come to the conclusion that while this author has some great ideas for stories and fantasy worlds, I simply can’t stand her characters, especially when they take on a POV role.

Roa is a reluctant queen, having involved herself in the political corruption and upheaval that we read through Asha’s eyes in the first book through marriage to the heir to the throne, Dax. Doing this, not only helped secure Dax the throne, but also secured an alliance that would see peace and prosperity for her own people, often at odds with the greater realm. But she has her own history with Dax, as well, and one that has not lead her to look upon him kindly. Now, caught up once again in political maneuverings, Roa is offered a way out: kill her husband, the king.

Frankly, I feel like I could almost copy and paste my review for “The Last Namsara” into this post, make a few edits for name changes, remove the dragons and that about covers it. The strengths and weaknesses were so identical between the two! Again, the world-building, magical elements, and folktales/history that are scattered throughout the story are what stand out. It’s in these elements that we see what a strong writer the author is. Again, the fables that we hear throughout the story, and that serve as a parallel to the choices presented to Roa, are told with a beautiful, simple lyrical style that I greatly enjoyed. Really, if Ciccarelli wanted to produce a small collection of short stories and fables set in this world, I’d be all over it! She clearly has a knack for story-telling itself as an art.

Also, while we sadly had many fewer dragons in this book, I liked the other fantasy elements introduced. Most notably, Roa’s connection to her deceased sister whose spirit has been trapped in this world and who has been a steady companion for Roa for the last several years. Again, this element of Roa’s story connects to the same fables that we’re given early on in the book in very clever ways. There’s some decent exploration of loss, love, and determination in the face of impossible odds that come into play through this story line.

But, again, the characters and romance are where this story falters. In the first book, Roa is introduced as a mature, serious character. One who, of all of them, is living in the real world and is willing to make hard choices to secure an outcome that is for the betterment of her people. While Dax and Asha flit around, ruled by their emotions and indecisive to the extreme, Roa seemed to be the steadying presence that held it all together. But here…what happened to that character? In the very first chapter, we find Roa literally running away from her problems. Easily anticipated struggles of a politically arranged marriage seem to have now taken her completely by surprise, and she’s full of complaints, regrets, and indecision, all expressed through what can only be described as immature whining. Her dead, bird sister even criticizes her for it! And really, of those two, who has more of a right to complain?

And these traits continue throughout the story. Gone is the competent, mature Roa we were given in the first book. Instead, we have an insecure, indecisive character who gets herself caught up in *sigh* a love triangle where all the “challenges” presented her could be solved with one simple attempt at communication. I wouldn’t enjoy this character had I come upon her completely fresh, but it was twice as frustrating to read her this way, after being given such a different, more intriguing version of the character in the first book. What’s more, many of these struggles and character flaws are identical to the problems I had with Asha, making the characters now read as very similar people. Sure, they had different struggles and histories, but swap that out and leave the voices and ways they deal with things? You wouldn’t be able to differentiate. And when that happens, I’m forced to conclude that the author simply struggles with characterization as a whole and is stuck in her own writing hole (that, or has bought into the false idea that indecisive, whiny teen girls are the only type of protagonists YA readers are into).

Ultimately, I disliked this book even more than the first one. Some of the fantasy elements (the dragons) that helped buoy that book were more absent here, and Roa wasn’t simply a let down as a character, but a complete reversal on what we had been promised. I think there’s a third book set to be released as a companion to these two, but at this point, I feel like I’ve already read it anyways, so why bother.

Rating 4: All the same problems of the first, if even more disappointing for now being repetitive problems.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Caged Queen” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “2018 – Sequels.”

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