& Review: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. Publisher: William Morrow, March 2016

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. Publisher: William Morrow, March 2016

The Book Itself: It’s a rather generic cover: thin woman, who we can assume is beautiful although we only see her in silhouette, wearing only a button down that is conveniently see-though so we can see she’s thin, leaning in a doorway. It might be trying to be sexy and mysterious, but it just looked like a cheap mystery novel on first glance. I’d read good things about The Kind Worth Killing before its release in paperback, so I knew I wanted to read it before I saw this cover. Otherwise, I don’t think this would have drawn me in.

My Review: On a flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the stunning Lily Kintner. Over martinis, the strangers play a game in which they reveal intimate details about themselves. But what begins as playful banter between Ted and Lily takes a turn when Ted claims, half-seriously, that he would like to kill his wife. Then Lily surprises him by saying that she’d like to help.

Back in Boston, Ted and Lily forge an unusual bond and talk about the ways Ted can get out of his marriage. But Lily has her own dark history she’s not sharing with Ted. As Ted begins to fall in love with Lily, he grows anxious about any holes in their scheme that could give them away. And suddenly the two are pulled into a very lethal game of cat and mouse, one in which both are not likely to survive when all is said and done.

There’s something about a crime show condensed into a book that is just pure guilty-pleasure for me.

This book is a re-telling/re-configuring of the classic Strangers on a Train situation: two people meet, both people have enemies in their lives that just happen to be their spouses, and they agree to kill each other’s spouse in order to not arouse suspicion. It’s that “perfect crime” lie that can become masterfully suspenseful and interesting to watch unravel.

This time, only our female protagonist agrees to do the killing. Ted Severson witnesses his wife cheating on him. He meets Lily, who says all the right things and sympathizes in just the right way. Then she suggests that she help Ted kill his wife.

Now…if I were pouring out my woes and a stranger I had just met immediately jumped to “let me help you kill someone,” I would maaaaybe lean towards not trusting them or spending so much time with them. But Ted…oh Ted. Ted does not do that. Ted actually falls a little bit in love with Lily. Things do not end well for Ted.

The story slowly becomes more about Lily, who we learn – surprise, surprise – has a past. Her past – surprise, surprise – includes killing someone. Perhaps more than one someone. The story bounces back and forth between present day action and Lily’s past transgressions. We get to see the monster being made. As a sociopath, the way she views things and reacts to people is different, and it makes for an interesting read. It’s also refreshing that she’s not the clichéd Woman with a Torturous Past, meaning that the author didn’t rely on tropes that I’ve seen other authors use: she was abused physically or mentally, she suffers from depression/anxiety/PTSD/schizophrenia, she was raped, etc. Other authors can write this well and make devastatingly good books, but here we have a woman who is just plain sociopathic. She acts on animal instincts alone, and her narrative voice is chilling.

There are a couple of well-timed twists in the book, but I think the best one is the book’s ending. I’m talking the very last couple of lines. As I neared the end of the book, I began to get skeptical – how were we going to get a resolution here?! Is Lily really going to be released on a technicality? Will there be one last surge of evidence, and will they discover all of the killing she’s done? Am I getting a “happy” ending, or a chilling one?

No spoilers, but the last line puts a decidedly ambiguous spin on that decision. I honestly don’t know if Lily gets caught or not. While this might be lackluster or too indecisive for some readers, when I reached the end, I got a little thrill down my spine. I could read it and picture the conclusion either way, and somehow that worked for me.

Overall, it’s a decent crime novel, great for mystery or crime junkies. Lily is a cold hearted killer and one twisted lady. But if you’re not into reading that kind of thing, this book isn’t going to change your mind.

My Grade: C

& Review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. Publisher: Simon & Schuster April 2016

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. Publisher: Simon & Schuster April 2016

The Book Itself: Powerful and dramatic. Not only is the black rose backlit by a spotlight eerie on its own, but the font that the title is in already makes the title seem tongue in cheek – it’s blocky, in-your-face. This story isn’t literally about the luckiest girl in the world. It’s much darker than that.

My Review: Ani FaNelli is the woman you love to hate. The woman who has it all. But behind the meticulously crafted façade lies the darkest and most violent of pasts…

When a documentary producer invites Ani to tell her side of the chilling and violent incident that took place when she was a teenager, she hopes it will be an opportunity to prove how far she’s come since then. She’ll even let the production company film her wedding to the wealthy Luke Harrison, the final step in her transformation.

But as the wedding and filming converge, Ani’s immaculate façade begins to crack, and she soon realises that there’s always a price to pay for perfection.

I thought this book was going to be one, or a combination of two things: another privileged, rich girl story that would make me roll my eyes a lot, AND/OR a crime drama akin to an episode of Criminal Minds/NCIS/Law and Order, etc. where you get a mystery, a crime, and a certain amount of time to figure it out before it’s revealed to you.

And yes, this is a privileged rich girl story. TifAni is one of the most vapid, judgmental, morally horrible female characters I think I have ever read. But she is so unbelievably over-the-top in her thoughts and actions, unable to let a moment slip by where she doesn’t pass judgment on something or build herself up while tearing something else down, that it read like a parody. Knoll makes her insufferable from page one. She makes you hate everything about this TifAni FaNelli, from her bizarre name to her bitchy comments to coworkers and waitresses. And then she spends the rest of the novel unpacking what makes TifAni tick, and why she is so unbelievably awful. Okay, I thought, upon being introduced to our protagonist. Something’s up with this narrator. Let’s find out what it is. And I couldn’t stop reading after that.

A lot of people seem to hate Luckiest Girl Alive’s comparison to Gone Girl. I personally hate comparisons saying “this is the next Harry Potter!” or “this year’s To Kill a Mockingbird!” because books can and do stand apart from one another. They can be LIKE or SIMILAR TO Gone Girl or share traits with a trilogy or genre, but Gone Girl and Luckiest Girl Alive are completely different books. All they really share is a female narrator with a troubled past and psyche. The plot, the methods of telling the story, and the character motivations are completely different. And both, I think, are good in their own right.

Now that I’m off my soapbox: Luckiest Girl Alive gives you the world’s worst person, and then sifts through her past to find what made her this way. You still don’t necessarily like her by novel’s end, or feel that her past justifies her present day actions, but I think it’s an interesting character study.

There are two horrific events that form the foundation of TifAni’s terrible past. I think both are written well. Both are very sudden, very shocking, and very telling of the characters involved. If you read through other reviews, you’ll spoil both events for yourself. I’ll do my best not to reveal anything. While I think either event would do serious emotional damage to any person, let alone a young man or woman growing up, going through puberty, navigating high school, BOTH are just the perfect storm to royally screw someone up.

TifAni doesn’t have an overwhelming a-ha moment. There is no moment where she comes to terms with her traumatic past and sees the error of her ways. But by the novel’s end, I don’t expect her to. The TifAni FaNelli (every time I type that name is just looks more and more absurd) we come to know would not break down and apologize for everything she has ever done. She couldn’t possibly process everything that has happened and become Mother Teresa.  I wouldn’t say that I like TifAni FaNelli by the end. But I can begin to understand her a little better.

I will say that I thought there would be another side to the story. By that I mean that I thought there might be one more shocking twist at the end, revealing that TifAni was more at fault during the traumatic events than we realized. I kind of wished she was a more unreliable narrator, that there was another facet to her (yes, terrible) personality.

But I didn’t hate the book. I wouldn’t say it’s the next Gone Girl.  But it’s a compelling story that pulled me in. Maybe, just maybe, it had me rooting for the worst girl in the world by the end.

My Grade: C+

& Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Fiction. Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Fiction. Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover.

The Book Itself: A blurred landscape and doubled letters make it seem like you’re viewing the title from a fast moving train. Simplistic and very demonstrative of the plot, but not necessarily eye-catching.

My Review: Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

A compulsively readable, emotionally immersive, Hitchcockian thriller that draws comparisons to Gone Girl, The Silent Wife, or Before I Go to Sleep, this is an electrifying debut embraced by readers across markets and categories.

This just hit the bestseller list at my store. I’ve sold about five copies a day at the register, and I’ve read the enthusiastic reviews in magazines like People and Entertainment Weekly (a sure indication that dozens of people will be clamoring for it the next week). So I took advantage of my store’s hardcover borrowing program and read it to see what the fuss was about.

In a way, I understand why it’s selling so wildly. But I think it’s due more to the reviews in entertainment magazines, rather than the writing and story itself. Unfortunately, I’ve read better mysteries, which is saying something, because I don’t read a lot in the mystery genre.

First of all: the character problem. Rachel is made to seem completely pathetic. She’s an alcoholic, a peeping tom, and an overall mess.  And she doesn’t really move past any of that. She doesn’t have a lot of agency or movement. Despite being the main character of this book, she only does a handful of things:
1.) Rides the train from her apartment to London. She sometimes stops in Whitney, where the couple she spies on lives. Also, she (COINCIDENCE) used to live there.
2.) Worries about drinking or staying sober.
3.) Worries about “Jess” and “Jason.”
4.) Worries about her ex-husband, who still lives in their old house with his mistress, now wife.

The falling action is too quick to warrant any real character growth. You still get the impression that Rachel will have a hard time finding employment and staying sober. Plus, she has a whole new set of issues to contend with after the dramatic finale (which I am of course, not going to outline for you here).

I found her to be whiny and unlikable. Which I do feel bad about, because I know there are people who are Rachel: addicts, alcoholics, lonely, broken people. So I feel bad about not liking a book narrated from that perspective. There would be no story without her: she’s nosy and notices things about “Jess” before events spiral out of control. This helps other people’s investigations later in the novel. But my final diagnosis on our Rachel here is: realistic, but unlikable.

The plot is passable. It ratchets up at the end, as the end of mysteries tend to do. I did race through the last 70 pages or so to figure out whodunnit and why. But like I said, I’m spoiled on plot because of Tana French (my review of her latest awesome mystery here). This is shelved in the fiction section (and not the mystery section) for a reason I suppose. But the mystery aspect is so central, it feels as if more time and detail should have been put into it.

It’s “mystery-lite” as it were. I think it had great commercial appeal, and articles in People and Entertainment Weekly sold most of the copies. Won’t be the best thing I’ll read all year.

My Grade: C

& Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place by Tana French. Publisher: Viking Adult

The Secret Place by Tana French.
Mystery. Publisher: Viking Adult

The Book Itself: The dust jacket is textured – every strut in the window pane is raised, as if it were really there. Cool touch, almost eerie. I’ve loved French’s simple yet skin-tingly covers ever since her first. Her books have included a dusty mirror, a white empty room, vines taking over the title letters, and the peeling boards of an old house.

My Review: I’ve got to be honest with you: I go into reading this book, and writing this review a little biased. But only in the sense that I’ve loved this author’s work consistently. Even in the lackluster additions to the series, she somehow manages to be good. I’ve written down many a quote from her books because she’s just do damn good at writing a sentence. Plus, all the characters speak in Irish slang, so that’s pretty fun.

The Secret Place does what French has done for her whole series: takes a character that had a small role in one book and makes him or her the star of a different mystery. Stephen Moran, our protagonist detective in Secret Place, played a role in the investigation in Faithful Place, the third in French’s series (more on the series installments below this review). In fact, it is Frank Mackey’s (the main detective in Faithful Place) daughter who provides a clue that reopens a case from a year ago at an all-girl’s Catholic school. A boy from the nearby boy’s school is found dead on the grounds of the girl’s school, and the murderer was never found. Moran brings the new evidence to the head detective of the case a year ago, Antoinette Conway, hoping that this will get him a foot in the door to be a part of the Murder Squad. Conway allows him to take the lead on a lot of the interviews, as he shows skill for tailoring his approach to each girl interviewed and Conway herself is, well…a bit prickly.

This book does what French’s other books haven’t done: half of the narrative is told from the girls’ perspective, the suspects and victim’s perspectives (and which count down ominously. In each flashback, Chris Harper is steadily given less time to live – three months and two weeks, then two months, then three weeks, etc.)

My issues: I think the book takes place over a single 24-hour period. Stretching 24-hours over over 400 pages is just that: a stretch. Even though the mindless string of interviews is interspersed with those glimpses into the school life and deeply personal friendships of the girls, it starts to feel tedious.

And it seems to be a rather weird theme in French’s books that a little something takes place that is never explained. I’m hesitant to tell you what that thing is in Secret Place, but let’s just say that there are ghosts and levitation involved, and I think it should have been given way more room to develop, or it should not have been included.

And the detectives! Way too much time is spent going through all eight girls involved (two groups of four friends who try to point the blame to the other), that no real attention is spent on our detectives! This probably threw me off the most, because in French’s other books, the detectives were real focal points. Their personal lives were enmeshed with the cases. They had histories. All that I know of Moran and Conway are that Moran wants in, and Conway is on thin ice because she couldn’t get a solve a year ago. And she’s a woman, so she gets a lot of crap from the male Murder detectives. For a 400+ page tome, I want to know the people who are solving the case with me, know what I mean?!

The But: BUT, French is so good at wrap-up. The conclusions of her mysteries are by far my favorite parts. The last hundred pages must be devoured in one sitting, because that’s how you figure out the big hows and whysSecret Place is no different. I get the most character out of our detectives here. Not that I get a lot of backstory out of them, but they show conflict, they show depth of emotion. Within twenty pages, there is great failure and then great breakthrough. And I was wrong about whodunit this time! I called someone early on and it was someone else.

Overall, it’s kind of a departure from her other mysteries, but French kept me reading, like always. I kind of want the stony Conway to be the focus of the next installment!

My Grade: C

Where French has been before:

inthewoods thelikeness

faithfulplace

brokenharbor

In the Woods follows Rob Ryan, our first detective on the Dublin Murder Squad. Ryan was discovered, as a child, clutching a tree trunk in the woods behind his house, with scratches all down his back and his shoes filled with blood. His playmates are never found. Unfortunately, that spine-tingly premise is not the focus of this story, which solves a murder right next to those same woods. In fact (and this is a tad spoiler-y, so read the next sentence at your own risk): you never find out what happened to Ryan in the woods as a kid. And it’s not hinted at in following books, as might be expected. It’s a pet peeve of mine, that it is never resolved. But the story is immersive and bittersweet the whole way through. French’s style hooked me into reading the rest of her series.

The Likeness is my favorite so far in the series. If you can suspend your disbelief that our main character this time – Cassie Maddox (the partner of Rob Ryan in In the Woods) looks so similar to the murder victim that she can go undercover as the victim and live among the victim’s roommates…it’s a great ride of a story. It’s probably the least eeries of the series, but it’s so, so solid.

Faithful Place follows Frank Mackey, Cassie Maddox’s undercover mentor. He returns to his hometown (and sometimes vicious family), to revisit the disappearance of the girl he was slated to run away with as a young man. Honestly, this one’s my least favorite, and I can’t tell you much more about it, 1) because that would be major spoilers and 2) I honestly don’t remember all the intricate twists and turns. I sort of remember whodunit, but I don’t remember the reasoning/the twists along the way.

Broken Harbor is my second favorite of the series. It follows Scorcher Kennedy, a colleague of Frank Mackey. And it’s the eeriest, the saddest, the one with the most atmosphere, in my opinion. A father and two children are found dead in a half-built string of estate houses. But there are video cameras pointing at holes in all the walls of the house. And Kennedy’s mother committed suicide in the same resort town many years ago. So it’s gets understandably complicated.

& Review: Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Book Title: Bellweather Rhapsody
Author: Kate Racculia
Pages: 340
Genre: Literary Fiction (with a heavy dose of Mystery, I’d say…)
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Date Published: May 13th, 2014
Date Read: June 8th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, borrowed from work
Cover Love: It’s different…the hotel, set against an ominous red background, looks like you’re attempting to look at it without your 3-D glasses. The trees and snow are very flat and 2-D, while the piano makes you believe someone is going to go out during a snowstorm to play the piano (they don’t). It’s graphic enough to be eye-catching, and the title stands out for being simply unusual.
Given Synopsis: “A high school music festival goes awry when a young prodigy disappears from a hotel room that was the site of a famous murder/suicide fifteen years earlier, in a whip-smart novel sparkling with the dark and giddy pop culture pleasures of The Shining, Agatha Christie, and Glee.

Fifteen years ago, a murder/suicide in room 712 rocked the grand old Bellweather Hotel and the young bridesmaid who witnessed it. Now hundreds of high school musicians, including quiet bassoonist Rabbit Hatmaker and his brassy diva twin, Alice, have gathered in its cavernous, crumbling halls for the annual Statewide festival; the grown-up bridesmaid has returned to face her demons; and a snowstorm is forecast that will trap everyone on the grounds. Then one of the orchestra’s stars disappears—from room 712. Is it a prank, or has murder struck the Bellweather once again?

The search for answers entwines a hilariously eccentric cast of characters—conductors and caretakers, failures and stars, teenagers on the verge and adults trapped in memories. For everyone has come to the Bellweather with a secret, and everyone is haunted.
What I’d Add: The synopsis covers most of the main characters (Rabbit and Alice, the bridesmaid all grown up), BUT there’s also the concierge, the Hatmaker’s chaperon, and the eccentric Scottish conductor (whose dialogue is only written in brogue once in the whole book, but he’s referenced as being Scottish constantly?), who all get a backstory and POV chapters along the way. That’s a lot of people to keep hear from and keep track of. And that snowstorm isn’t just forecast, it snows everyone in, adding to the suspense.
It’s Sorta Like: I’m sure they only put Agatha Christie and The Shining on there because they are mentioned rather heavily in the book (a character reads and admires Christie, someone has a formative moment during The Shining). And it’s not really like Glee…I’m sure they just put those there to grab people who like those things (although people who like The Shining and Glee equally? I don’t know if I’ve met such a person).
My Grade: B+
Review: This book is wonderfully written. But stops just short of being earth-shattering, overall. Which is unfortunate, because I loved it until the last 50 or so pages. I was prepared to give it an A, a glowing review, a standing ovation, if you will. But the conclusion of the mystery is just a little clumsy, the loose ends tied up a little unbelievably, and the mash of characters just a little unwieldy.

I have a personal connection to a few of the characters and the setting, as I was involved in performing arts in middle and high school. And I was totally nerdy about it; I went to competitions and did singing warm-ups in hallways (just to drive the point home: on the last day of classes as seniors, my friends and I belted “We Go Together” from Grease through the hallways as we left. Yeah. We did). I had friends very similar to the flashy diva, the quiet band geek (we all knew those, right?), and the burned out chaperon. I knew what it was like to have a performance deeply mean something to you, how the beauty of a well-performed song could make you want to cry, and the oft-bad combination of hormones and performance art. Racculia writes about these moments wonderfully. I reread passages again and again because they were so well done.

But I also feel that you don’t have to have been in band in high school or an aspiring soprano to appreciate the prose. Racculia knows how to draw you in and care about an annoying, needy diva child (Alice), and sympathize/root wholeheartedly for the traumatized bridesmaid returned to the core of her greatest childhood trauma. The characters each get their moment to shine. They’re all a little bit heartbreaking, and it makes for some lovely moments.

But it’s when you have to bring all the characters, their stories and their motives, their fears and insecurities and actions both in the past and in the present moment, that things get a little clumsy. In the climactic scene, it’s a little hard to keep track of five key players doing and saying things all at once. And after that scene, you’re left with a lot of questions, whose answers prove unsatisfying and thin by the novel’s close. And even after this scene, there’s a moment that tries to be even bigger, that leaves you scratching your head, going can that even happen?

The problem with this problem is that you cannot eliminate a character from this equation. Every one of the players is key. The solution to the mystery has plenty of implications for every single character. They’re all so vital, that they deserved a more vital, vibrant, perhaps more gradual end.

I did truly enjoy this book. I’d recommend it to anyone. Just pay particular attention to it’s final moments, it’s moments of chaotic action. They can be a bit hard to sort out.