Kate’s Review: “Everything You Want Me To Be”

29276588Book: “Everything You Want Me To Be” by Mindy Mejia

Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler Books, January 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Full of twists and turns, Everything You Want Me to Be reconstructs a year in the life of a dangerously mesmerizing young woman, during which a small town’s darkest secrets come to the forefront…and she inches closer and closer to her death.

High school senior Hattie Hoffman has spent her whole life playing many parts: the good student, the good daughter, the good citizen. When she’s found brutally stabbed to death on the opening night of her high school play, the tragedy rips through the fabric of her small town community. Local sheriff Del Goodman, a family friend of the Hoffmans, vows to find her killer, but trying to solve her murder yields more questions than answers. It seems that Hattie’s acting talents ran far beyond the stage. Told from three points of view—Del, Hattie, and the new English teacher whose marriage is crumbling—Everything You Want Me to Be weaves the story of Hattie’s last school year and the events that drew her ever closer to her death.

Evocative and razor-sharp, Everything You Want Me to Be challenges you to test the lines between innocence and culpability, identity and deception. Does love lead to self-discovery—or destruction?

Review: Small towns and their secrets. It’s a plot device that I am a huge sucker for. I don’t know if it’s because both my parents grew up in small towns and have many stories to tell and spill the tea on, but it has always been the kind of story that I can get behind. From “Twin Peaks” to “Peyton Place”, the Small Town Secrets trope can be incredibly tantalizing. The description of “Everything You Want Me To Be” makes it pretty clear from the get go that this is the kind of book that you’re going to be reading, and I can’t tell ya  enough how happy that makes me. Sudsy, dark, seedy, scandalous books are sometimes just what the doctor ordered, and it was a page turner that I greatly enjoyed.

Okay, so yes, perhaps part of that enjoyment is taken from the fact that this book takes place in small town Minnesota. Any book or film or show that takes place in my home state is going to get an advantage from me, just because you don’t see it all that often. And Mejia being from here definitely gave it that feel of authenticity, as you can tell that she knows the culture and knows some of the nuances of the people and towns that are outside of the larger cities. As I read this book I couldn’t help but think about the Jacob Wetterling Case a little bit, a kidnapping that happened in central Minnesota that went unsolved for 27 years (go HERE for a very well done podcast about the crime, the investigation, and the aftermath). There were many people who thought that it could just never happen there, and whenever something along those lines was said about Pine Valley, my stomach clenched up. Mejia captured the naïveté of a ‘simpler’ life and society very well.

I also thought that all of the perspective characters in this book were written very well. None of them were simple caricatures, when they very easily could have been. The first perspective is from Del Goodman, the sheriff of the county who is in charge of investigating the murder of Hattie Hoffman. He’s a friend of her family and has always known her as a sweet, intelligent girl who had big dreams and a big heart. That is really how most of the town knows her, and Del is determined to bring her killer to justice. He could very, VERY easily fall into the trope of craggy and stubborn sheriff who has seen a lot but never can accept that it ‘could happen here’. But instead he’s pretty level headed and is there to piece together the clues that we get as he finds them. But along with him we get two more perspectives. The first is if Peter, the new English teacher at the school who moved to small town Minnesota with his wife Mary to help his ailing mother in law. He’s a fish out of water from Minneapolis, and Mary has made it clear that she doesn’t see him as robust and ‘manly’ now that he’s on the farm. So when he starts up an online relationship with the mysterious “HollyG”, he finds validation and solace he feels he’s lost at home. Of course, as one could guess, HollyG is Hattie. Peter could VERY easily be portrayed as a predatory and insecure asshole who is merely trying to manipulate and recapture his youth/stroke his ego. But Mejia definitely makes him far more complex than that. He radiates ennui and frustration, and desperation, and while she never lets him off the hook, you can understand how he got on the hook in the first place. And then there’s Hattie. Hattie could either be portrayed as a small town girl with big dreams who gets caught up in her own hopes and wishes…. Or of a man-eater whose ambitions lead to manipulation and abject cruelty all in the name of getting what she wants. However, she really treads the line between both, and instead you get a girl who feels trapped inside a place that is far too small for her, and is desperate to escape by any means necessary. I was expecting to end up hating her, be it because she was too pure or because she was a complete psycho. But she never went that far. And I ended up pleased with that.

Mejia brings these three narratives together to tell a very strong mystery about what happened to Hattie. And I will say, I was definitely taken for quite the ride. There were hints and clues that were dropped that I thought were far too obvious, only for them to be completely different from what I thought. Then there were things that I thought had to be red herrings, that actually ended up being completely legitimate, but framed in such a way that you HAD to think they were misleading! It was a real trip. All of this bundled together to make it so I didn’t know who did it, I wasn’t certain of the motive, and everything I knew was wrong. True, there were a couple of revelations and resolutions that left me feeling a little ‘oh, is that all?’ because of so many well done twists and turns, but ultimately I really enjoyed the path that we had to take to get to the solution to the crime. And boy was it hard for me to put this book down until I had that solution. For the first time in a long while I was at work wishing that the day could just be over already specifically because I wanted to go home and finish this book.

“Everything You Want Me To Be” is the best thriller of the year so far, and it’s going to have to have some pretty stiff competition thrown it’s way to have it overthrown. Definitely, DEFINITELY check this one out if you like thrillers. You will not be disappointed.

Rating 9: A provocative and addictive book that kept me guessing the whole time. Though I feel there was a slight anticlimax, I was still very drawn in and entertained. Definitely one to check out if you want a fun and worthwhile thriller.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Everything You Want Me To Be” can be found on the following Goodreads lists: “Gripping Stand Alone Page Turners”, and “January 2017 Buzz Books”.

Find “Everything You Want Me To Be” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate”

29244734Book: “The X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate” by Jonathan Maberry

Publishing Info: Imprint, January 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: How did Fox Mulder become a believer? How did Dana Scully become a skeptic? The X-Files Origins has the answers in this young adult origin story.

The X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate will explore the teen years of Dana Scully, the beloved character depicted in the cult-favorite TV show The X-Files. Her story is set in the spring of 1979, when serial murder, the occult, and government conspiracy were highlighted in the news.

The book will follow Scully as she experiences life-changing events that set her on the path to becoming an FBI agent.

Review: Who is one of my very favorite TV queens? Who is one of the TV characters that I love for her inspirational strength, her smarts, her snark, and her perseverance? Who is up there in my personal hall of fame of badass ladies on the small screen?

Dana. Freakin’. Scully.

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You rang, fives? (source)

So the very moment that I discovered that both Mulder and Scully of “The X-Files” fame got their own origin stories, I knew that I’d save Scully for second. I wanted to savor her. I wanted to bask in her story and her background. Jonathan Maberry had a huge character to take on, and I really wanted him to do her justice. And it took me a little while, but eventually I decided that Maberry did.

This story, since again we don’t get much background in the description, finds Dana as a fifteen year old adjusting to a new life in Maryland. She’s close with her sister Melissa, and trying to fit in in school, even though she knows she’s more introverted and reserved than her sister and her peers. And she’s also been having dreams, visions of violence and carnage. She’s seeing an ‘angel’ in her dreams, an angel who is killing. As teenagers in the area keep dying in accidents, Scully can’t shake the feeling that they are connected to the dreams that she doesn’t understand. What she doesn’t know is that she may be in a more dangerous situation than she realizes.

So this book takes the “Scully is a psychic’ theory and totally runs with it. There have been hints at her intuitive abilities throughout the series (in “Beyond the Sea” she sees a vision of her father right before his death; “Irresistible” finds Scully kidnapped, and she sees her kidnapper’s face shifting into different iterations of evil), but it was never truly confirmed. But I liked that Maberry decided to take this theory and give it a lot of life in her background. I was kind of wondering how he would make it believable that she could have psychic visions in her youth, and then have such a skeptical foundation in the series when it starts. Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that he pulls it off, and that I really liked how he did it. And seeing Dana react and manage these very scary visions was fascinating to watch. I think that she is still very much within her character, even as a fifteen year old. She feels younger and perhaps less secure in herself, but still feels like Dana Scully, even when in a situation that is so not something you’d think she’d be in. I sort of liked the mystery that she had to solve, because it’s foundation was a good harkening to her faith, her abilities, and her ultimate road to skepticism. I had a feeling I knew what was going on from the get go, so it wasn’t terribly surprising in it’s completion. But it wasn’t about the mystery itself for me. It was about how Dana was going to solve it with her strengths and wits.

I really enjoyed seeing the Scully family as well. In the series you get to know a few of her family members, specifically her sister Melissa and her mother Margaret, though you also get some solid and touching insight into Dana’s relationship with her Dad. You know that she was close to him in a lot of ways, from her reaction to his death in Season 1, to their nicknames for each other (Ahab and Starbuck!), to her seeing him in other visions as the series went on. In “Devil’s Advocate” we see how that close relationship is also a bit strained, and that Captain Scully was a bit more closed off from his family than maybe we realized. There were many moments between Dana and Captain Scully that made me misty eyed, as well as a wonderful scene with them reading from their favorite book “Moby Dick”. Whenever he called her Starbuck, I practically began to cry. I also loved seeing Dana and Melissa close and partners in crime, because their relationship on the show, while loving, was a bit contentious because they were so different. Having Melissa and Dana go to a New Age coffee shop and store for yoga and advice from local New Age practitioners just tickled me completely. Maberry also made an interesting choice of taking one of the Men in Black from the original series (the Red Haired Man), and gave him a role in a side plot. This was kind of a weaker part of this book for me, just because it took away from the main plot. In the Mulder book the surveillance parts involving X and Cigarette Smoking Man felt like a foregone conclusion; Mulder’s life had been intertwined with Cigarette Smoking Man since the beginning. Scully having this surveillance stuff in her life just felt… odd. Yes, later in life that aspect was there. I just had a harder time swallowing it in her youth.

I generally liked the new characters that Maberry created to interact with Scully, be it Corinda the New Age guru (her shop also makes an appearance in the Mulder book “Agent of Chaos”), or Scully’s love interest Ethan. Like in “Agent of Chaos” I was skeptical that a love interest had to happen in this book, since we know that he’s not going to be around ultimately, but Ethan was an okay addition. He was really there to give Scully some support from someone who was more like her, which I appreciated. Her relationship with him was also a good platform to show some of the casual sexism that Dana, as a fifteen year old girl in the late 1970s, could run into, even from someone who really does care about her. Seeing her push back against that was very gratifying, and seeing Ethan try to learn from it was refreshing and a good message to modern teens who may read this. While Ethan wasn’t as strong of an original character as Phoebe was in “Agent of Chaos”, I liked having him there for Dana to bounce more down to Earth ideas off of and help her find her voice. I liked that their partnership was it’s own thing, not just a predecessor to her eventual partnership with Mulder.

“The X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate”, showcased my girl Scully. I know that we probably won’t get anymore teen books about Scully and Mulder, just because it would feel a bit absurd to take it too far with their backgrounds, but I really enjoyed how Scully was showcased in this one. It did a good job of speculating how she became the person she was when “The X-Files” started.

Rating 8: While the mystery itself wasn’t as entertaining as it could have been, the character study of Dana Scully as a questioning teenager was incredibly effective, and very well done.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate” is fairly new and not on any Goodreads lists yet. But I think it would fit in on “X-Files Related Books”, and “YA Novels about Psychic Abilities”.

Find “The X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The X-Files Origins: Agent of Chaos”

29244700Book: “The X-Files Origins: Agent of Chaos” by Kami Garcia

Publishing Info: Imprint, January 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: How did Fox Mulder become a believer? How did Dana Scully become a skeptic? The X-Files Origins has the answers.

The X-Files Origins: Agent of Chaos explores the teen years of Fox Mulder, the beloved character depicted in the cult-favorite TV show The X-Files. His story is set in the spring of 1979, when serial murder, the occult, and government conspiracy were highlighted in the news.

The book will follow Mulder as he experiences life-changing events that set him on the path to becoming an FBI agent.

Review: When I was growing up, my family had three different Family TV nights as time went on. The first one was “Lois and Clark”. The last one, up until the end of high school, was “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. And the middle one, the one that I have the fondest memories of, was “The X-Files”. I started watching “The X-Files” with my Dad when I was in fifth grade. I was both terrified and enthralled by it, and I loved both Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as they investigated the weird and unexplained happenings of potential supernatural malarky and/or government conspiracies with aliens. The revival last year was enough to keep me sated for a bit, though I was definitely left wanting more. And since it looked to be awhile before we were going to get more, imagine my delight when I found out that two books about teenaged Mulder and Scully were coming out. I started with the one about Mulder, “Agent of Chaos”, which was written by YA heavyweight Kami Garcia. I started with this one because while I’m probably more like Mulder, I have a deep, deep love for Scully, and want to savor her and save her for last. So off we go into teenage Mulder in 1979. It’s like “That 70s Show”, but far more insidious.

To give a bit more description than the one above: Fox Mulder, a seventeen year old living in Washington D.C., is still feeling the pain of his sister Samantha’s abduction from a few years prior. His family has been shattered, and he is trying to adjust to his new life with his Dad, as his Mom is still back on Martha’s Vineyard. His best friend Phoebe is back on the island, but he’s made a new friend in Gimble, the nerdy son of an unbalanced former Air Force Major. When children in the area start disappearing, Mulder is reminded of Samantha’s abduction, and decides that he and his friends need to try and solve this case. This was so wonderfully Mulder, convinced so deeply of something and so entrenched in his belief of it, that he would throw everything he has into trying to figure it out. I also appreciated that this harkened back to the greatest tragedy of Mulder’s life, the disappearance of his younger sister. Though we all know now what did end up happening to her (and while this truth is touched upon in this book ever so briefly), the sadness and pain revived right away, and quite effectively (side note: anyone who thinks that “Closure” is a sappy episode of “The X-Files” can seriously bite me). It was a pretty obvious idea to make Mulder’s story about Samantha at it’s heart, but at the same time Garcia did it in such a delicate way that it was masterful and touching.

We got to see some old favorites in this tale otuside of Mulder. While I kind of had a feeling that The Cigarette Smoking Man was going to make an appearance, because how could he not, I was very pleasantly surprised to see X, a ‘man in black’ and FBI operative from the series, play a fairly large role in this story as well. But along with these old characters, Garcia created some very fun new characters to act as foils for Mulder. The first is Gimble, Mulder’s best friend in D.C. who is a D & D playing Trekkie. Gimble served us some very appreciated, if not sometimes awkward, comic relief. But even he has a bit more tragedy to him, as his father is a mentally unbalanced man who believes in all kinds of conspiracy theories due to his former involvement with the Government. The Major, as he calls himself, was the weakest part for me in this book, as it seemed a bit too on the nose to have Mulder bond with a man who is both brilliant, and yet bogged down by lunacy and paranoia. Plus, it was just hard to watch The Major interact with Gimble, because MAN that has to be a hard way to grow up. Granted, the government conspiracy stuff was always my least favorite part about the show, so to have it kind of leak in here, while totally understandable, wasn’t really for me. But by far my favorite new character was Phoebe, Mulder’s best friend and sort of love interest. So sure, it’s clear that Mulder and Phoebe are not at all end game, given that his real true love is Scully. But I liked that Garcia took a risk and put a capable, smart, supportive yet no nonsense girl into this for Mulder to have as a foil. Because why couldn’t Mulder have two great loves of his life? Phoebe is the anchor that Mulder has always needed in his life, serving the Scully role and keeping him in check. Plus, her love of all things geek made her very relatable, and kind of refreshing. The girl’s first appearance has her hair done up in Princess Leia buns for God’s sake!

Overall this was a fun origin story that I think did justice to Fox Mulder. I can’t say if hardcore “X-Files” fans will like it, but this pretty big fan quite enjoyed the journey it took me on. I really can’t wait to read the one about teenage Dana Scully now.

Rating 8: A fun little origin story to give one of my favorite TV characters. Though I sometimes felt that parts of it were a bit too over the top, seeing Mulder, X, and The Cigarette Smoking Man doing things again was a delight, and reliving the sadness of Samantha Mulder was tragically beautiful.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The X-Files Origins: Agent of Chaos” is pretty new and not on any Goodreads lists. But I think it would fit in at “X-Files Related Books”, and “Government Agencies Dealing with Paranormal”.

Find “The X-Files Origins: Agent of Chaos” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “When We Go Missing”

33382556Book: “When We Go Missing” by Kristen Twardowski

Publishing Info: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, December 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: An ARC was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Book Description: Once, Alex Gardinier was a successful physical therapist and a happy wife. Now she is trapped in a crumbling hospital room. Seven years ago Alex’s ex-husband, Nathan, was convicted of murdering five girls, and he has been rotting in prison ever since. Except the doctors say that Nathan isn’t in prison. In fact, they don’t believe that he is a criminal at all. According to them, Nathan is a devoted husband who visits her every week. But Alex can’t recall ever seeing him at the hospital, and the last time they met he was holding her hostage on a boat.

Maybe the doctors are right – maybe these memories of his crimes are her own personal delusions – but if they are wrong, then Nathan somehow escaped from prison. If they are wrong, he has trapped Alex in a psychiatric ward.

If they are wrong, he is hunting her sister.

Review: During my time studying psychology in my high school and college careers, there were a number of case studies that freaked me out. Be it because of ethical problems (The Milgram Experiment), animal cruelty (Harlow Monkey Experiment), or just flat out human terribleness (The Stanford Prison Experiment), many studies have told us a lot, but have ridiculous messed up connotations. But one that seems perfect for a horror story is the Rosenhan Experiment, where non-mentally ill people faked symptoms to get inside mental institutions… and then found it pretty near impossible to get out, even when they stopped reporting symptoms. So when “When We Go Missing” ended up in the blog email box, and seemed to touch on exactly that, I thought “Oh yes. This could work.” And on top of that, it was written by fellow book and literature blogger Kristen Twardowski! So of course I gotta give a shout out of solidarity to her!

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(source)

And there may be mild spoilers here, but I promise that I won’t give too much away, nor will I give away anything that I don’t think isn’t established pretty early on, and therefore fair game.

Though the description makes it sound like it’s going to be mostly from Alex’s point of view, “When We Go Missing” actually follows the experiences and points of view of a number of women, all of whom are connected to Alex in one way or another. All of them have their own unique perspectives and experiences, and I appreciated the pieces of the larger, overarching puzzle that they provided. I do think that the description may be a little misleading in some ways, as I feel that through these multiple perspectives we find out quite early that Alex is not necessarily crazy, and that Nathan has somehow gotten away with sticking her into a Portuguese mental institution after he escaped from prison. But this still works, because now the mystery is how did he do this, how is Alex going to escape when she has been diagnosed as insane, and is Nathan going to get away with it. I am far more interested in figuring this out as opposed to ‘is Alex an unreliable narrator?’, a trope that I am pretty much well and over at this point.

Besides Alex’s story, be it before her time in the asylum or during it, we get the stories of Carolyn, Sandra, and Lucia. Carolyn is Alex’s sister, a woman who has never felt comfortable or trusting around Nathan, but doesn’t know how to say so. I really appreciated how her character progressed, and I totally believed her choices when it came to her sister and her sister’s marriage. While some may wonder how Carolyn couldn’t tell Alex her reservations, I found it to be pretty realistic that she may not feel it her place, or that she doesn’t have a leg to stand on. I’m someone who isn’t terribly close to her sister, and while the girl has a great head on her shoulders and has yet to make a terrible decision in regards to her personal life, I wonder if I’d have the courage to say if she had. So that resonated with me. Another character, Sandra, is actually the character I was most intrigued by, and found to be the most tragic. Sandra’s daughter disappeared, and she is trying to make sense of what happened to her. This journey takes her to the realization that a lot of women, many whom society may not miss, have gone missing, and that they may be connected. Her story was the one that I most looked forward to in terms of plotting, as it was definitely the saddest and the one that made me feel the most of all of the threads. And finally there was Lucia, a nurse at the asylum that Alex was being held in. She was another very interesting device for the story, acting as detective for the reader as we followed the hospital storyline through her eyes as well as Alex’s. I liked seeing Lucia try to figure out if the woman being detained in room 203 is insane, or if there is a larger conspiracy going on around her, and just how high up it goes. Because really, while the Rosenhan Experiment was upsetting in how it exposed the ineptitude of psychiatric hospitals diagnostic practices, wouldn’t it have been so much worse if it had all been one big conspiracy to keep the ‘patients’ in? And THAT is the thing about this book that freaked me out the most.

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No drinking fountains in sight to throw through a window either. (source)

There was a fair amount of jumping around in this book, timeline wise, which was a little confusing at first. Once I got the hang out it, however, it went a lot smoother, and I didn’t feel as lost as when I started. I think that it’s just a matter of getting used to the pacing and the jumping, which took a little bit of patience from me, a girl with ADD and a need for instant gratification.

“When We Go Missing” was an entertaining read that kept me guessing in a number of ways up through the last pages. It definitely hits a number of original themes and plot points, and I think that it would appeal to those of us who want something fresh from our psychological thrillers.

And be sure to come back here on Monday, January 23rd! Because the author of this book, Kristen Twardowski, is publishing a guest post here about writing, inspiration, and the creative process!

Rating 8: An entertaining and suspenseful book with a lot of well fleshed out characters, “When We Go Missing” was a very unsettling and tense novel with twist, turns, and a solid mystery!

Reader’s Advisory:

“When We Go Missing” can be found on the following Goodreads lists: “Fancy a Debut Psychological Thriller Author?”, and “Female Psychological Thrillers/Suspense”.

“When We Go Missing” is not available on WorldCat yet, but it can be found in paperback and ebook form at amazon.com.

Kate’s Review: “The Trap”

32813330Book: “The Trap” by Melanie Raabe (Imogen Taylor Translation)

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, 2016 (Translation)

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The renowned author Linda Conrads is famous for more than just her bestselling novels. For over eleven years, she has mystified fans by never setting foot outside her home. Far-fetched, sometimes sinister rumors surround the shut-in writer, but they pale in comparison to the chilling truth: Linda is haunted by the unsolved murder of her younger sister, whom she discovered in a pool of blood twelve years ago, and by the face of the man she saw fleeing the scene.

Now plagued by panic attacks, Linda copes with debilitating anxiety by secluding herself in her house, her last safe haven. But the sanctity of this refuge is shattered when her sister’s murderer appears again–this time on her television screen. Empowered with sudden knowledge but hobbled by years of isolation, Linda resolves to use her only means of communication with the outside world–the plot of her next novel–to lay an irresistible trap for the man.

But as the plan is set in motion and the past comes rushing back, Linda’s memories of that traumatic night–and her very sanity–are called into question. Is this man really a heartless killer or merely a helpless victim?

Review: At work one night my friend Paul (and fellow librarian) was subbing with me at the desk. He told me about a book he’d read, and that he thought that I should give it a whirl. It was a German book, recently translated into English, called “The Trap”. I requested it pretty much immediately, because Paul knows my reading tastes pretty well (and movie tastes; we proceeded to have a long conversation about “The Conjuring 2”). I think that I was expecting more horror by his description, and instead found myself with another Messed Up Lady Narrator book. But hey, I was okay with it, because I had yet to read a German Messed Up Lady Narrator book!

Side note: I’VE BEEN MISUSING THE PHRASE GRIT LIT THIS ENTIRE TIME!!! I could have sworn that Grit Lit was the phrase for these female psychological thrillers, but I guess it’s more the hip new slang for Southern Gothic. Huh.

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So ignore that from before. (source)

I have some good news right off the bat. This was a Messed Up Lady Narrator Book (I need to find a good snappy phrase for this genre) that I mostly, basically, enjoyed. While it perhaps doesn’t reach the high highs of “In A Dark, Dark Wood”, it was a gripping read with a tense plot. I did get a little nervous as the book progressed, because you all know how frustrated I get with psychological thriller heroines and their issues. Linda isn’t really any exception, as she is suffering from agoraphobia and PTSD after walking in on her sister Anna’s murder scene. While the trope of ‘damaged heroine’ is firmly in place with Linda, while it is realistically and necessarily dramatic, it never really feels overdramatic. Linda is very up front with her problems, she recognizes that she is, indeed, very messed up, and she isn’t the usual absolute WORST to everyone that you sometimes see in these books. Plus, I feel like she has actually earned her messed up personality, while sometimes the trope can feel forced and cliche. I mean, a mentally ill character usually means that there are going to be moments of ‘is all of this actually happening the way I think it is?’, especially in a book like this. It happened in “The Girl on the Train”, it happened in “The Couple Next Door”, and it definitely happened in this. I don’t want to spoil anything here, because I do think that this is a good read and definitely worth your time, but I think that it would have worked better and been a bit more revelatory if Linda wasn’t so sure about everything from the get go, if maybe we hadn’t jumped in with her mid-revenge plot. Surprises ended up not being too surprising, and while I was ultimately okay with it, the stakes never felt terribly, terribly high, and I didn’t feel like I was really solving anything along with her. I like taking the journey of detection and gumshoe-ing. This book didn’t really have that element to it, or at least not enough for me.

Linda’s relationships were also something that I want to address. I had a problem with a kind of out of nowhere forced romance sub plot that arrived a bit too late for my liking. There were hints about Linda’s simmering relationship with Julian, the detective of her sister’s case, but he didn’t really show up until the last third of the book. And I think that if I was really going to buy it, I needed him to really show up and make an impression well before that, not just as an analog character in the book that she has written (yes, we do get to see excerpts from the book. They were fine. They didn’t really add or detract). But I still liked Linda’s relationship with him as a whole, just as I liked her relationships with those around her, be it her assistant or her publisher. As I said, I think that there is a stereotype in pop culture and literature that people who are mentally ill are going to be completely difficult to deal with at all times and that they are going to put people off because of it. What I liked about Linda is that she has her problems, she has this uphill battle that she is fighting, but she still has relationships and isn’t portrayed as toxic or a pariah. She has friends and people who care about her. That meant a lot to me.

And then there’s the villain character, or whom Linda is convinced is a villain, Lenzen. Linda thinks that Lenzen, an established and well respected journalist, is the man who killed her sister a decade earlier. And since we, of course, know that there is going to be some doubt about him based on the plot description alone, I was very curious as to how Raabe was going to approach him. I liked that she did do a pretty good job of making it hard to tell what his deal was. Many of the things he did in the interactions he had with Linda could be chalked up to calculated sociopathy… Or they could have just as easily been something a regular, innocent man would do. Tricky. Very tricky. I liked that I was constantly questioning him, which shows to me that Raabe made effective use of the device that she set up. And believe me, sometimes a writer can make a real mess of it.

So while it ultimately did end up feeling suspenseful throughout the book, I wasn’t really surprised by much of anything that happened. True, I had my questioning moments, but I never had a “WOW!” moment. But honestly, I prefer a well written if simple plot to one that just has twist after twist after twist. “The Trap” was a fast paced and enjoyable read, and I hope that it takes off here in the U.S. as much as it did in Germany.

Rating 7: While it didn’t necessarily enthrall me and stagger me, “The Trap” was a fun and tense read that I found entertaining and not as overwrought as other books in the genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Trap” is new and isn’t on any Goodreads lists. But it would be at home on “Female Psychological Thrillers/Suspense”, and “Psychological Chillers by Women Authors”.

Find “The Trap” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Conversion”

18667792Book: “Conversion” by Katherine Howe

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, July 2014

Where Did I Get This Book: Audiobook from the library!

Book Description: It’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy, and school is a pressure cooker. College applications, the battle for valedictorian, deciphering boys’ texts: Through it all, Colleen Rowley and her friends are expected to keep it together. Until they can’t.
 
First it’s the school’s queen bee, Clara Rutherford, who suddenly falls into uncontrollable tics in the middle of class. Her mystery illness quickly spreads to her closest clique of friends, then more students and symptoms follow: seizures, hair loss, violent coughing fits. St. Joan’s buzzes with rumor; rumor blossoms into full-blown panic.
 
Soon the media descends on Danvers, Massachusetts, as everyone scrambles to find something, or someone, to blame. Pollution? Stress? Or are the girls faking? Only Colleen—who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit—comes to realize what nobody else has: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic three centuries ago . . .
 
Inspired by true events—from seventeenth-century colonial life to the halls of a modern-day high school—Conversion casts a spell. With her signature wit and passion, New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe delivers an exciting and suspenseful novel, a chilling mystery that raises the question, what’s really happening to the girls at St. Joan’s?

Review: So I was one of those kids who went to a private prep school in St. Paul from Kindergarten up through Senior Year. Gotta say, while it definitely more than adequately prepared me for college and graduate school, at the time I was under immense, immense pressure. So when I started listening to “Conversion” by Katherine Howe, there were a lot of things that were familiar to me. An ‘Upper School’ building for upper classmen. Homeroom being called ‘advisory’. A Dean of Students. I will say, however, that while I was under stress, I wasn’t going to school in a town that had a notorious history of people being falsely accused of witchcraft and then hanged. So yeah, I couldn’t say that I could totally relate to the tale that was told. In fact, I would say that beyond having the occasional moment of ‘ha, we had that too’, I didn’t really relate to the characters in “Conversion”, even if I was probably supposed to to a certain degree. While Howe definitely put in a good effort at writing teenage girls, a lot of the time it fell pretty darn flat.

I think that the first problem was Colleen herself. While I understand where Howe was trying to go with her, I found her to be incredibly naive and dense, far more dense that someone who is supposedly a legitimate contender for Harvard and neck in neck for Valedictorian at this prestigious prep school. I don’t really want to go into any spoilers here, but there are a few plot points that I feel would have been pretty damn obvious for a number of people who would have been in the situation and experiencing it first hand. I understand that to draw out suspense and story line she would have to be, but it felt like her intelligence was in conflict with the plot. And while I didn’t have as many problems with Colleen’s personality as others have, I didn’t find her to be terribly compelling as a narrator. Neither are her friends. Usually I can find a side character that keeps me going even if the protagonist isn’t too interesting, but in this one we didn’t even really get that. They are all pretty privileged girls whose problems, while mostly relatable given my high school experience, just didn’t connect to me.

Our other narrator is Anne Putnam, one of the girls in Salem Village who accused her neighbors of bewitching her. Far less sympathetic than Colleen (someone who isn’t really all that sympathetic to begin with), Anne tells her story from two perspectives: the time she was accusing people, and the time where she is gearing up to confess her sins to the rest of the town, long after the trials have finished and the fallout has left a mark. While I liked the fact that Howe clearly did a lot of research into the trials and the people involved, making them as realistic and historically accurate as possible. Sure, she took license with motivation, as we don’t know why these girls accused all of these innocent people of crimes that sealed their deaths, but I think that her theories in this story make sense. They definitely have more weight behind them than Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, though in his defense that wasn’t really about Salem. We all know that. Howe really committed to telling an accurate story. The problem is, while it is meant to serve as a juxtaposition to what is going on in Danvers in 2012, it doesn’t quite work.

And let me tell you why it doesn’t work. Howe has two stories that have similar themes (mass ‘hysteria’), but they ultimately don’t line up. Outside of being two groups of teen girls in the same geographical region, Howe throws in a couple of twists that ultimately undermine the juxtaposition that she put out there in the first place (side note: one of the solutions IS up to interpretation, I will give you that, but boy is it laid on pretty, and supernaturally, thick). I suppose that one could argue that one other connection may be a feeling of powerlessness for adolescent girls, which manifests in puritan times to the modern age, but again…. It’s undermined. I won’t say how, but it is, and that irritated me to no end.

Something that does work, though, is the modern analogs for the Witch Trials, in the form of a trial by media as opposed to a puritanical court room. The press is, of course, whipped into a frenzy about this ‘mysterious illness’ that has fallen upon these girls, and their attention on the school and the students just feeds into it and makes things much, much worse. Adding into that is the factor of rich, entitled, nasty parents who are rightfully afraid for their children, but then lash out when answers aren’t readily apparent. And then, of course, love the media attention, both for awareness an for their own egos. A few people definitely end up on the other end of their fury, and on the other end of the fallout of the mysterious illness. This was both the most interesting, and angering, plot point. Howe wrote this SO well, she has her fingers on the pulse of the nastiest parts of human nature, both in the modern time line and the past time line. These parts made me the angriest, and hey, that was a serious emotional reaction that she no doubt wanted. So she did her job. I did find myself frustrated that sometimes I think she wanted me to feel sympathy for the girls in Salem, as a being a Puritan was very hard, and being a female Puritan was even harder. The lack of power and the lack of agency was apparent. But nope. These girls condemned a number of innocent people to their deaths. I have no sympathy for that.

Finally, this was an audiobook, and the narrator was pretty good! I thought that she did a good job of making her voice sound like a teenage girl when she needed to, but also an adult when the character called for it. Her accents seemed pretty good to me, though I admittedly don’t know much about the linguistics of the Puritan era in America. Overall, I think it was more her that kept me going. Had I been reading this in print form I may have struggled.

So “Conversion” has its moments, but I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. Though now I’m definitely interested to learn more about the actual people of Salem beyond what was told to me in “The Crucible”.

Rating 6: Though the historical accuracy and research was spot on, “Conversion” had too few interesting characters and too many missed opportunities.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Conversion” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Prep School Mysteries”, and “Salem”.

Find “Conversion” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Dear Amy”

26244587Book: “Dear Amy” by Helen Callaghan

Publishing Info: Harper Paperbacks, October 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: As a thirty-something Classics and English literature teacher, working at a school in Cambridge, Margot Lewis leads a quiet life. In her spare time, she writes an advice column for the local newspaper. But she can’t help feeling that she’s the last person who should be doling out advice, because her marriage has failed.

When one of Margot’s students, fifteen-year-old Katie Browne, disappears, the police immediately suspect she’s been kidnapped. Then, not long after Katie goes missing, Margot receives a disturbing letter at the newspaper offices. The letter is supposedly from Bethan Avery, a fifteen-year-old girl who was abducted from the local area twenty years ago…and never found. In the letter, Bethan states that she is being held captive and is in terrible danger. The letter ends with a desperate plea for her rescue.

The police analyze the letter and find it matches a sample of Bethan’s handwriting which they’ve kept on file since her disappearance. This shocking development in an infamous cold case catches the attention of Martin Forrester, a criminologist who has been researching Bethan Avery’s puzzling disappearance all those years ago. Spurred on by her concern for both Katie and the mysterious Bethan, Margot sets out—with Martin’s help—to discover if the two cases are connected. But then Margot herself becomes a target…will she be next?

Riveting to the final page, this is a masterful, sophisticated, and electrifying debut.

Review: Oh Grit Lit, I wish I could quit you. Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh. When it’s good, it’s really quite entertaining, a genre that keeps me interested and on my toes. When it’s bad, well……

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(source)

Given the pendulous possible outcomes, I definitely go in treading lightly, and try to keep my expectations low enough that I’m not terribly disappointed, but high enough that I don’t just give up on it. Sometimes this works. Other times it kind of just a was from the get go and I can see it from a mile away. And this is what happened with “Dear Amy” by Helen Callaghan. I found myself charging through it not so much because I wanted to know what was going to happen, but because I just wanted to get it over with. Which is never really a resounding cheer for a book. Now it wasn’t “Gone Girl” levels of hot boiling rage on my part, but I did have just a few too many qualms with it as a whole that left me less than enthused about it. So let’s just kind of unpack it, shall we? I think there are going to be spoilers here, guys. I need to talk about them to really show you why I’m irritated.

So first of all, Margot just punches every single Bingo square for stereotypical Grit Lit Heroine. She has been betrayed by her rat bastard husband (Eddy left her for another woman). She is outwardly pretty together as a teacher and advice columnist, but is afraid that if her dark past were to come out (heroin addiction being the worst part of it in her mind) everything would be ruined. And she is, of course, mentally unstable, with moments of questioning her sanity and the things that she is seeing in front of her. Old hat stuff, to be sure. But that’s not all. Oh no. Because in trope-y fashion, there of course has to be a huge twist, and this one was a doozy. Okay, here come the spoilers, folks. Get ready. Skip ahead if you really don’t want to be spoiled.

Margot is Bethan. Bethan is Margot. Margot has been in a dissociative fugue state all this time in regards to her trauma, and has been writing the letters to herself, as the Katie kidnapping set her off.

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Of course she is. (source)

Okay, look, I like a good twist as much as the next person, but this one was a bit too ludicrous for me to swallow. I’m all for unreliable narrators, but when you have to work really hard to make them unreliable, going to ludicrous lengths to do it, that’s when I start to have a hard time with it. I think I actually said ‘what?’ when it was revealed, and then it felt like just a way to say ‘what is real and what is a lie?!’. Come off it. And given that this is the second thriller novel I’ve read in the past couple of months that has ‘dissociative fugue!’ as one of the ‘what a twist’ moments, it’s already starting to feel played out as well as totally random and unnecessary. That said, there is one more twist that I did like, involving Margot and a friend of hers named Angelique from when she was in a halfway house as a teenager. This was a plot point that I did enjoy, and while I saw it coming as well, it was still more believable than the huge Bethan Avery twist. Hell, had this twist I did like been the only curveball, I probably would have liked it more.

Overall I was more interested in the Katie parts of the book, but even they felt a bit out of place because while Margot’s were in the first person, we’d jump to Katie’s chapters in the third person just so we could see what was going on with her. I think that it may have worked better if she had been in the first person as well, just because the way that it jumped into a different perspective made it feel almost like a cheat instead of a literary device to tell both stories in a consistent and interesting way. If this book had been from Katie’s POV I probably would have liked it more, even if it would have had the potential to get a BIT exploitative.

So while I liked parts of this book, “Dear Amy” ultimately didn’t really do much for me. I think that Helen Callaghan definitely has writing skills, and I think that I could see myself giving her another shot, this one was a little too far on the Billy Eichner side of the pendulum.

Rating 5: “Dear Amy” had promise but then it fell into far too many familiar traps of the Grit Lit genre. Some parts were interesting, but overall it wasn’t my thing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dear Amy” is not on any Goodreads lists yet. But it will fit in on “Female Psychological Thrillers/Suspense”, and “If You Enjoyed “Gone Girl” You Might Also Like…”.

Find “Dear Amy” at your library using WorldCat!