Kate’s Review: “Before She Knew Him”

40390756Book: “Before She Knew Him” by Peter Swanson

Publishing Info: William Morrow, March 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Catching a killer is dangerous—especially if he lives next door

Hen and her husband Lloyd have settled into a quiet life in a new house outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Hen (short for Henrietta) is an illustrator and works out of a studio nearby, and has found the right meds to control her bipolar disorder. Finally, she’s found some stability and peace.

But when they meet the neighbors next door, that calm begins to erode as she spots a familiar object displayed on the husband’s office shelf. The sports trophy looks exactly like one that went missing from the home of a young man who was killed two years ago. Hen knows because she’s long had a fascination with this unsolved murder—an obsession she doesn’t talk about anymore, but can’t fully shake either.

Could her neighbor, Matthew, be a killer? Or is this the beginning of another psychotic episode like the one she suffered back in college, when she became so consumed with proving a fellow student guilty that she ended up hurting a classmate?

The more Hen observes Matthew, the more she suspects he’s planning something truly terrifying. Yet no one will believe her. Then one night, when she comes face to face with Matthew in a dark parking lot, she realizes that he knows she’s been watching him, that she’s really on to him. And that this is the beginning of a horrifying nightmare she may not live to escape. . .

Review: GodDAMN do I look forward to any and every Peter Swanson book. Unfortunately, I missed the library hold boat on this one, as by the time I realized it was happening both systems I use had long hold lists on them. So what’s a girl to do but go and buy it. I’m usually loathe to buy books given that I work at a library and use its services exhaustively, but with authors I love I’m willing to make exceptions, and so I went out and purchased “Before She Knew Him”.

Also, this review is going to have some spoilers in it, as I feel like it’s the only way that I can truly discuss what I liked about it. SO, that means

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If you want to read this book completely ignorant, stop here. (source)

Like other good Peter Swanson books, “Before She Knew Him” sucked me in with it’s fascinating characters, and legitimately surprising twists and turns. Our main two perspectives are that of Hen, an artist who has struggled with bipolar disorder in the past, and Matthew, Hen’s neighbor whom she is convinced is a murderer. And guess what: he totally is. This is made quite clear very early on. Hen’s suspicions are right, and therefore we aren’t going to see the tired ‘is she right or is she just having an episode’ trope that feels so common in stories like this. Matthew is indeed a killer, but he is incredibly compelling in his motivations. He targets men that he sees as predatory, his ethos being that if they hurt women, be it through mental abuse, cheating, sexual assault, what have you, they don’t deserve to live. It stems back to childhood trauma, which still haunts him due to his brother Richard, who seems to be escalating in his own violent tendencies, which disturbs Matthew because he doesn’t want to face his brother. In the same vein, Matthew isn’t exactly a Madonna/Whore savior complex killer either. I don’t even really know how to describe him, and his complex nature is one of the things I greatly liked about this book. Swanson doesn’t make him totally evil, but he certainly isn’t totally good either. Swanson also does a great job with Hen and her characterization. I’m always a little afraid of how thriller writers address mental illness, as more of then than I’d like it’s used as a way to make a character seem unreliable or unstable in a stigmatizing kind of way. With Hen I felt like while her struggles with mental illness do play a large role in the story, she never seemed to be stigmatized by them in the reader’s eyes. If anything when people would throw them back at her, particularly her husband Lloyd, you didn’t question her, you sympathized with her. Perhaps this had to do with the fact that we KNEW Matthew was a killer almost from the jump, but even so I thought it was a welcome change from books where she might have been portrayed as ‘crazy’ to keep the ‘is he or isn’t he?’ going. And when these two are on page together, it’s incredibly satisfying, if only because it’s less cat and mouse and more two people on equal footing trying to figure the other one out.

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And yes, I’m back on my bullshit of shipping couples that probably shouldn’t be shipped. Because man, even though it was (rightfully) never really addressed as a possibility, I SHIP IT. (source)

The plot, too was incredibly satisfying, with other mysteries sprinkled in along the way. These I won’t address, because that would be a true crime to spoil things. All that being said, I kind of guessed one of the reveals a bit early on. But I say kind of because it was a fleeting thought I had that soon flitted away, and by the time that reveal happened I was legitimately caught by surprise, even though I HAD thought of it. Swanson slowly lays out the various clues as to what things are going to happen, but you keep reading not necessarily because you want to know about these things, but because you want to know just what is going to happen to both Hen AND Matthew, especially since Hen knows the truth about him. It was a real journey finding out how things all shook out, and I greatly enjoying accompanying these two on said journey.

“Before She Knew Him” was a fun and satisfying read. If you haven’t gotten on the Peter Swanson train yet, do yourself a favor and check him out. This would be a good place to start.

Rating 8: With intriguing characters and some pretty well laid out surprises, “Before She Knew Him” is another fun and twisty thriller from Peter Swanson.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Before She Knew Him” is included on the Goodreads lists “The Girl Who Didn’t See Her Husband’s Wife When She Disappeared Twice from the Train”, and “Mystery and Thriller 2019”.

Find “Before She Knew Him” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Daughters of the Lake”

38927017Book: “Daughters of the Lake” by Wendy Webb

Publishing Info: Lake Union Publishing, November 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The ghosts of the past come calling in a spellbinding heart-stopper from the “Queen of the Northern Gothic.”

After the end of her marriage, Kate Granger has retreated to her parents’ home on Lake Superior to pull herself together—only to discover the body of a murdered woman washed into the shallows. Tucked in the folds of the woman’s curiously vintage gown is an infant, as cold and at peace as its mother. No one can identify the woman. Except for Kate. She’s seen her before. In her dreams…

One hundred years ago, a love story ended in tragedy, its mysteries left unsolved. It’s time for the lake to give up its secrets. As each mystery unravels, it pulls Kate deeper into the eddy of a haunting folktale that has been handed down in whispers over generations. Now, it’s Kate’s turn to listen.

As the drowned woman reaches out from the grave, Kate reaches back. They must come together, if only in dreams, to right the sinister wrongs of the past.

Review: As someone who grew up in Minnesota, I have fond childhood memories of spending summer trips by Lake Superior. Even in my adult life I try to get up to Duluth and the north shore at least once a year, as the beauty of the lake shore and the north woods is hard to resist. Because of my affection for this part of the state, I am almost always going to give Wendy Webb a shot when it comes to her books. And given that she’s a local author, the wait list at the library is usually pretty long, so unless you’re on top of the publication dates it may be a wait. When “Daughters of the Lake” came out I wasn’t on top of it, but after a few months wait it came in for me, and I was eager to start it.

Webb’s books have always managed to capture the feel and essence of Lake Superior towns and what it’s like to live there. She describes the lake itself just how it is in real life, with the beauty, power, and danger that comes with it. Her descriptions of the lake shore and the towns on it really transported me to a part of this state that I love, and that alone made it so that I was going to finish this book no matter what. The characters were plenty likable as well. Kate, our main character, is a relatable protagonist, and you believe her pain as a woman whose marriage has fallen apart due to her husband’s infidelity and lies, and her need to have a change of scenery. More interesting, still, was her cousin Simon, a sympathetic and supportive bed and breakfast owner who has turned the family estate into a cozy resort. I liked their relationship, though sometimes Simon treaded little close to the ‘supportive gay bestie’ trope, especially since it seemed his sole purpose was to play as her sidekick. I was definitely invested in both of them, though, and the mystery at hand. I also liked the moments in the past, told both through Kate’s strange psychic visions and also perspective chapters. In those sections the focus on on Addy, a young woman whose birth culminated with her literally floating on the waters of the Lake with no harm done. The supernatural aspect of her story is slowly peeled away, and I enjoyed seeing those layers peeled back.

But unfortunately, a promising plot with fairly solid characters gets muddled in the last half of the book. The first issue I had I can’t really go into much detail about, as I don’t want to spoil anything. But some of the supernatural aspects of this book seemed to work without a magical system that was sorely needed to make believable. By the time the book had wrapped up I still wasn’t totally sure that there had been a full explanation of how this twist of fate worked. Secondly, there were small hints of other ghostly elements in this book that implied they were building up to something big, but by the time it was revisited it was rushed and crammed in near the last minute. There were also a number of plot twists that were either a little too obvious, or out of left field without any sort of build up. And one of these twists was the kind that I absolutely cannot abide: the plot twist that happens in the last few pages, which completely changes the outcome of the entire story.

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(source)

I’m occasionally willing to give this kind of thing a pass, mostly if it’s inconsequential in it’s outcome, or if it’s SO well done and so well placed that it takes my breath away. But in this case it just felt like a cheap last moment ‘gotcha’, and I rolled my eyes as it unfolded because it felt totally unnecessary. My fear about this kind of turn of events in thrillers is that authors will start to think that a well plotted story is all about the twists, and will therefore try to add twists for the sake of twists. I don’t recall Webb doing this in her past works (well, not in ALL of them anyway), so I don’t think I need to worry about her future books. But it always makes me wary.

Ultimately, while I liked the setting and the building blocks of the plot and characters to “Daughters of the Lake”, there were a few too many stumbles for me to be able to give it a really high rating. It’s an eerie gothic read to be sure, but I had wanted more from it.

Rating 6: While the plot was fun and the setting kept me interested, “Daughters of the Lake” had a few too many hokey twists and felt disjointed in the story telling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Daughters of the Lake” isn’t featured on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Lake Superior Mysteries”.

Find “Daughters of the Lake” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “She Was The Quiet One”

36476218Book: “She Was The Quiet One” by Michele Campbell

Publishing Info: St Martin’s Press, July 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: An eAudiobook from the library!

Book Description: From the author of It’s Always the Husband comes a riveting new suspense audiobook about privilege, power, and what happens when we let ambition take control. 

For Rose Enright, enrolling in a prestigious New England boarding school is the opportunity of a lifetime. But for Rose’s vulnerable twin sister Bel, Odell Academy is a place of temptation and danger. When Bel falls in with a crowd of wild rich kids who pressure her into hazing Rose, the sisters’ relationship is shattered. Rose turns to her dorm mother, Sarah Donovan, for advice. But Bel turns to Sarah’s husband Heath, a charismatic and ambitious teacher. Is Heath trying to help Bel or take advantage of her? In a world of privilege, seduction, and manipulation, only one sister will live to tell the truth.

In an audiobook full of twists, turns, and dark secrets, Michele Campbell once again proves her skill at crafting intricately spun and completely compelling plots.

Review: Michele Campbell was an author who came out of nowhere for me. I saw the book title “It’s Always the Husband” on my twitter feed, and such a bold statement (that, sadly, feels all to true sometimes) as a book title absolutely caught my eye. I requested it on audiobook, and when I was finished with it I was, for the most part, happy with it, and therefore chomping at the bit for whatever story Campbell would come out with next. So when I saw “She Was The Quiet One” pop up on my Goodreads feed, I had to request the audiobook post haste! Not only was it a new book by a promising thriller author, it also took place at a BOARDING SCHOOL! A BOARDING SCHOOL FILLED WITH SCANDAL AND AWFUL PEOPLE!

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Love those rotten rich high school kids! (source)

I had to wait since I opted for an eAudiobook, but when “She Was The Quiet One” finally came in, I started it, expecting to have the same interest as I did to the previous novel. That is, a nice listen while driving from Point A to Point B, or while at the gym. What I didn’t anticipate was not turning my phone off when I was done with those fleeting moments, and continuing to listen while in the walls of my home. That kind of devotion is usually reserved for podcasts, but the likes of “My Favorite Murder” and “Last Podcast on the Left” took backseat to an audiobook. Yes, “She Was The Quiet One” was that addictive.

The structure of this novel is told from a few different perspectives. The first two are of Rose and Bel Enright, the twin sisters whose mother’s death has sent them to live with an estranged grandmother, and then be shipped off to an elite boarding school. These fraternal twins are not only different in appearance, but also personality, as Rose is driven and ambitious and Bel is sullen and rebellious. We know from the jump that one of them is dead, and it’s through their flashbacks that we start to get the story of what happened. The next perspective is that of Sarah, a math teacher at the exclusive boarding school Odell Academy, and the wife of Heath, an English teacher there. They are also the heads of the Moreland dorm, the building where Rose and Bel are housed, and the ‘problem’ dorm because of the most spoiled students living there. The final perspective is that of police interviews in the wake of the death of one of the twins. As these four perspectives come through the pieces of the expansive mystery fall into place at a compelling pace, and they each revealed themselves precisely when needed. More often than not I can see various twists and turns coming from a mile away, but in “She Was The Quiet One” I felt as though I was kept guessing, for the most part. Sure, here or there I was able to guess, but not to the point where I was bored. On the contrary, even if I did guess right I loved the journey of getting to the solution so I didn’t feel short changed.

All of the perspective characters had their distinct voices and personalities, and while none of the perspective characters were ‘likable’ per se, I did find all of them to be realistic, and had empathy for all of them and was invested in their various outcomes. And Campbell did a good job of capturing the various hardships that both Rose and Bel faced, and while they were on completely different ends of the conflict at hand, I understood both of their perspectives and sympathized for both of them. Even when I wanted to shake them. Sarah, too, was a character that I had complete sympathy for, even when she sometimes drove me mad with her decisions and her inability to see stark truths in front of her face. While the twins had a more compelling story, hers was also an important one to the ultimate narrative. The supporting characters felt more two dimensional to me. From the wretched popular girls Bel was hanging out with to the ambiguous (for awhile) Heath, none of them showed much depth beyond the plot points that they needed to fill. What Heath had going for him was that we got to see multiple perceptions of him depending on who the perspective was from, but in the end he has a very specific characterization that falls into familiar tropes of the thriller genre of this ilk.

January LaVoy was the audiobook narrator for “She Was The Quiet One”, and I thought that she did a superb job with the cast of characters and the tone. She had very distinct voices for each person, and her emotions really came through during the highest moments of tension.

And I also need to mention a content warning: there is a scene in this book that depicts a rape. It isn’t very long and it isn’t terribly graphic, but it was uncomfortable and hard to listen to.

“She Was The Quiet One” is another addictive and compelling thriller mystery from an author that thriller fans really ought to be familiar with. If you haven’t picked up Michele Campbell yet, this is the book to read.

Rating 8: An addictive and immersive thriller that hit all of my reading guilty pleasures, “She Was The Quiet One” was a book that I almost couldn’t put down.

Reader’s Advisory:

“She Was The Quiet One” is included on the Goodreads lists “Twin Thrillers”, and “The Best of Prep”.

Find “She Was The Quiet One” 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!

Kate’s Review: “Cross Her Heart”

37486235Book: “Cross Her Heart” by Sarah Pinborough

Publishing Info: William Morrow, September 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Lisa lives for her daughter Ava, her job, and her best friend Marilyn, but when a handsome client shows an interest in her, Lisa starts daydreaming about sharing her life with him too. Maybe she’s ready now. Maybe she can trust again. Maybe it’s time to let her terrifying secret past go. Then her daughter rescues a boy from drowning and their pictures are all over the news for everyone to see. Lisa’s world explodes, and she finds everything she has built threatened. Not knowing whom she can trust, it’s up to her to face her past to save what she holds dear.

Review: After being burned so badly by “Behind Her Eyes”, I will admit that I was shocked to find myself picking up the newest Sarah Pinborough novel “Cross Her Heart”. But I so enjoyed “13 Minutes” I wanted to give her books another chance, in case “Behind Her Eyes” was a fluke. So it’s good news, bad news time. The bad news is that “Cross Her Heart” didn’t live up to “13 Minutes”. But the good news is that it blew “Behind Her Eyes” out of the freaking water!

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I knew my instincts about Pinborough were right! (source)

The story is laid out in a couple of different view points over a couple of different time frames. Pinborough keeps the ultimate plot pretty close to the vest until we get about half way through, and since that’s part of the mystery I’m going to do my very best to review without giving anything away. If I DO have to give a spoiler, though, I will make it very clear. Our main perspectives are Lisa, a nervous single mother who does her best to blend in as she hides from a traumatic past; Ava, Lisa’s teenage daughter who is corresponding with a mysterious older man online; and Marilyn, Lisa’s colleague and close friend who has some secrets of her own. While Ava and Marilyn’s issues are pretty clear cut from the get go, it’s Lisa’s who brings in the most intrigue. Pinborough slowly lays out the pieces of a mystery with a very well constructed conclusion, and she did it in such a way that she kept this reader guessing up until the first big reveal. Going back and looking at the set up confirmed that Pinborough knows how to set up a magic trick of a reveal, with deceptions and distractions. I was pretty well invested in how it all turned out by the time we got to that moment, wanting to see what was going to happen next. The characters themselves are pretty standard fare for this kind of book, and the story itself doesn’t really reinvent any wheels or break any either. It was just a fun and solid mystery overall that kept me guessing.

All that said, it did find itself close to derailing a couple of times. While the initial twist and some of the curve balls that come after felt pretty well executed, there were some things within the narrative henceforth that I didn’t quite buy. So here is where a big ol SPOILER alert is going to come in, even if I keep it vague. There is a moment where a character is revealed to have been masquerading as two different people, who are two very different ages. While I normally am willing to suspend my disbelief about these kinds of things, I do find it kind of laughable that we are to believe that a person could simultaneously be middle aged, and yet pass for someone who is a teenager, especially if they are interacting on more than a superficial basis with their peers. It was a moment where Pinborough didn’t quite convince me, and because of that i was taken out of the story and just snorted out a ‘yeah SURE’ before going on. Plus, there was one final twist that I saw coming about ten miles away. I am not certain if it was meant to be a big surprise once our characters are made privy to it, or if we were supposed to have figured it out before they did, but with the emphasis on the shocked reactions I’m thinking it’s the former. And it just wasn’t that surprising.

But when comparing it to “Behind Her Eyes”, I enjoyed “Cross Her Heart” far, far more. I don’t know if it’s merely by comparison, but even if it is, it was an altogether enjoyable read. If you were disappointed with Pinborough’s last runaway hit, don’t necessarily pass “Cross Her Heart” by! You may be surprised!

Rating 7: A quick and fast paced read that was quite the improvement over her previous work, “Cross Her Heart” is a standard mystery without too many surprises (and one ridiculous twist). Nonetheless, it’s enjoyable.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cross Her Heart” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2018”.

Find “Cross Her Heart” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “#FashionVictim”

39049255Book: “#FashionVictim” by Amina Akhtar

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, September 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Fashion editor Anya St. Clair is on the verge of greatness. Her wardrobe is to die for. Her social media is killer. And her career path is littered with the bodies of anyone who got in her way. She’s worked hard to get where she is, but she doesn’t have everything.

Not like Sarah Taft. Anya’s obsession sits one desk away. Beautiful, stylish, and rich, she was born to be a fashion world icon. From her beach-wave blonde hair to her on-trend nail art, she’s a walking editorial spread. And Anya wants to be her friend. Her best friend. Her only friend.

But when Sarah becomes her top competition for a promotion, Anya’s plan to win her friendship goes into overdrive. In order to beat Sarah…she’ll have to become her. Friendly competition may turn fatal, but as they say in fashion: One day you’re in, and the next day you’re dead.

ReviewEven though on any given day you will probably find me lounging around my house in leggings and an oversized Sex Pistols tee shirt, I do have a certain pleasure for various aspects of the fashion industry. I used to watch “Project Runway” fairly religiously, loved the fashion shoots on old school “America’s Next Top Model”, and still enjoy seeing whatever nutty campaigns the likes of Gucci, Chanel, and Versace have going on at any given time. But it’s really an acknowledged fact that the fashion industry as a whole can be incredibly toxic and dehumanizing, so my enjoyment is probably fairly problematic. But toxic and dehumanizing means that it is ripe for the picking when it comes to satire, and that is where Amina Akhtar comes in. Akhtar used to be a fashion writer and editor, having been on the staff of such powerhouses and Vogue and Elle, but has now settled into the life of a novel writer. Her experiences I’m sure inspired her to write the deliciously named “#FashionVictim”. Just hearing about this book made me giggle with pleasure. Fashionistas resorting to murder to get ahead? I can’t get on board fast enough.

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File footage of me as I read the description of this novel. (source)

Our main character is Anya St. Clair, a fashion writer and associate editor who is at a prestigious fashion magazine called La Vie, who starts a killing spree in hopes of making it to the top. She’s obsessive and deranged, and her object of obsession is her colleague Sarah, the entirely unlikable poster child of the privileged fashion darling. Anya isn’t likable by any stretch of the imagination, but then, no one in this book is. After all, if you’re going to do a satire of the fashion industry, everyone needs to live up to the highest of stereotypes, so screeching and vapid bitches, both of the female and male persuasion, is the way to go. Anya is outwardly a perfect fit for this world, but in her mind lies a true maniac who idolizes Sarah yet despises her for the praise and accolades she has heaped upon her. Her inner monologue is frenzied and at times very funny, with delusions and intrusive thoughts intermingling with “Law and Order: SVU” trivia. Her drawn out massacre of those around her and those who get between her and what she wants (be it a promotion or the coveted BFF friendship with Sarah) is violent and jarring, but also has moments of gallows humor that you can’t help but laugh at, even if it feels kind of wrong to do so. “#FashionVictim” achieves the satirical levels that I’ve seen other books attempt, yet falter on. It digs its heels into the mess and violence, but at always feels like a nudge and a wink to the reader because the characters are such caricatures. And really, isn’t the fashion industry itself brutal and unforgiving in its own ways, pitting women against other women to do incredibly destructive things? Perhaps not murder. But destructive nonetheless.

But I think that as much as this is satire and a fun read, it doesn’t quite have the teeth that it could have had to really drive the point home. I think that because “#FashionVictim” is so over the top, you can say ‘oh, this is just a book, this could never happen in real life’. And while though the reader is in on the joke, I think that it could have been FAR more effective had it gone for a little bit of realism to go along with the satire. By being so out there and laughably ridiculous, it made it so that by the end I was less unsettled, and more ‘ha, what a romp’. That’s not a bad thing by any means, but it did make to so that it never quite made it to ‘great’ satire levels, and I think that it really could have gotten there had it not limited itself in such a way. I know that you’re all probably sick of my constant comparisons to “You”, but I think that kind of satire is stupendous BECAUSE you can see it happening in real life. While I don’t always need my satire to be based in realism, I do think that “#FashionVictim” could have had that extra oomph if it had stepped back just a little bit.

“#FashionVictim” was definitely a fun read, and I absolutely want to see what Amina Akhtar comes out with next. Go in expecting some bloody satire, but don’t expect to walk away totally creeped out.

Rating 6: Fun and dripping with satire, “#FashionVictim” was a breezy read, though I wish it had a little more creepy bite.

Reader’s Advisory:

“#FashionVictim” isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but it is included on “2018 Books by Authors of Color/Native Authors”, and I think that if you want “The Devil Wears Prada” with a little more teeth it would be for you.

Find “#FashionVictim” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Deceivers”

39863259Book: “The Deceivers” by Kristen Simmons

Publishing info: Tor Teen, February 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The publisher sent me an ARC.

Book Description:Pretty Little Liars meets Ocean’s 11 in this intrigue-filled contemporary drama from acclaimed author Kristen Simmons.

Welcome to Vale Hall, the school for aspiring con artists.

When Brynn Hilder is recruited to Vale, it seems like the elite academy is her chance to start over, away from her mom’s loser boyfriend and her rundown neighborhood. But she soon learns that Vale chooses students not so much for their scholastic talent as for their extracurricular activities, such as her time spent conning rich North Shore kids out of their extravagant allowances.

At first, Brynn jumps at the chance to help the school in its mission to rid the city of corrupt officials–because what could be better than giving entitled jerks what they deserve? But that’s before she meets her mark–a senator’s son–and before she discovers the school’s headmaster has secrets he’ll stop at nothing to protect. As the lines between right and wrong blur, Brynn begins to realize she’s in way over head.

Review: Thank you to Tor Books for sending me an ARC of this novel!

One of my husband’s favorite movies is “The Sting”, the classic grifter feature in which Robert Redford and Paul Newman run an elaborate con job on Robert Shaw. While I am more than happy to indulge the guy on watching an old favorite every once in awhile (lord knows he has to sit through “Purple Rain” every so often), the ‘con artist’ trope isn’t one of my favorites. So when I got an ARC of “The Deceivers” by Kristen Simmons I was a little bit hesitant. But when I saw that it takes place at an ELITE BOARDING SCHOOL for special kids (aka budding con artists), my interest had officially been piqued. Bring on the sudsy drama of boarding school brats compounded with the promise of back stabbing. That’s all in the game when it comes to con artists, right? So while “The Deceivers” was out of my wheelhouse, I was more willing to give it a go.

The first thing that struck a chord with me in this book was our protagonist, Brynn. Brynn is cut from a similar cloth to a number of YA heroines; she’s snarky, she’s scrappy, and she comes from a troubled background that has solidly placed a chip on her shoulder. Her father was murdered while working at his convenience store job, and Brynn’s mother has bounced from lout to lout ever since, leaving Brynn in a precarious, and sometimes outright dangerous, position. But through it all Brynn maintains her composure and never treads into overused plot points of devices. I like that she feels like a realistic teenage girl in a world that isn’t exactly smacking with realism, and her need to escape from this life strikes the right chords. Her motivations are clear, and while she is something of a fish out of water at Vale Academy (aka the boarding school for budding con artists, more on that whole thing in a bit), her character growth is believable and interesting.

And while the plot is based in a theme that isn’t usually my cup of tea, I did find the meat of the plot and the cogs within pretty entertaining. While Vale Academy itself feels little under cooked as of now, this is a series and there is a lot of room to grow and to bring the school history to a closer focus. There were also a good deal of plot twists that did take me by surprise, and I felt like the most important ones worked very well, especially when they changed the game and turned Brynn’s perceptions (as well as the reader’s) on their heads.

But that said, there were a number of moments and devices that didn’t quite come to fruition in satisfactory ways. Brynn went from potentially stumbling into a new educational setting with no guarantee of admission, to having the deal in the bag already without much reasoning beyond ‘because she needs to be here for the story to work’. There were moments and characters who felt like they could have had more focus on them, or at least more exploration and elaboration. On top of that, this book was nearly four hundred pages long, which felt a bit too long for the story in itself. There were repetitive aspects to the plot, mostly regarding whether or not Brynn could trust any given person at any given time, and the ultimate backstabbing that would come of that. I felt like had this been parsed down a bit more and tightened up, the plot wouldn’t have seemed to drag on as much as it did. And as I mentioned above, Vale Academy itself is still a very vague idea by the end of this book. In other books with magical and/or questionable boarding schools that I have enjoyed I’ve gotten a good feel for what the school as an institution stands for, and what the stakes are in regards to that school. But here, Vale Academy feels less like an actual place, but more of an excuse for these teenagers to be trying to trick, con, and manipulate people. Whether or not this will expand in later books, I can’t be sure, but I think that it will have to if it wants to stand out.

Overall, “The Deceivers” had a fun main character and some good twists and turns, but it dragged on a little longer than it could have. People who do like con artist stories may be more receptive to the premise than I was.

Rating 6: With a strong protagonist, “The Deceivers” has a lot of potential, but felt a bit scattered and unfocused, and a little too long.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Deceivers” is new and isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Popular Caper Heist Books”.

Find “The Deceivers” at your library using WorldCat!