Behind Every Lie, by Christina McDonald (Review)

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Behind Every Lie
by Christina McDonald

Genre: Thriller

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: February 4, 2020

Publisher: Gallery Books

Synopsis: 

If you can’t remember it, how do you prove you didn’t do it?

Eva Hansen wakes in the hospital after being struck by lightning and discovers her mother, Kat, has been murdered. Eva was found unconscious down the street. She can’t remember what happened but the police are highly suspicious of her.

Determined to clear her name, Eva heads from Seattle to London—Kat’s former home—for answers. But as she unravels her mother’s carefully held secrets, Eva soon realizes that someone doesn’t want her to know the truth. And with violent memories beginning to emerge, Eva doesn’t know who to trust. Least of all herself.

Told in alternating perspectives from Eva’s search for answers and Kat’s mysterious past, Christina McDonald has crafted another “complex, emotionally intense” (Publishers Weekly) domestic thriller. Behind Every Lie explores the complicated nature of mother-daughter relationships, family trauma, and the danger behind long-held secrets.

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My thanks to Gallery Books and NetGalley for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

This is yet another review that I must preface by saying I’m in the minority opinion when it comes to this book. At the time of this writing, it has a perfectly respectable 4.16 average on Goodreads, so maybe I was just the wrong reader for this book. I read McDonald’s last novel, The Night Olivia Fell, and had a pretty mediocre experience with that book. I thought I’d give her writing a second chance, because a big part of my problem with The Night Olivia Fell was that it bore a pretty stunning similarity to another book I’d already read, leaving the whole book feeling like watching a rerun of a crime drama. After reading Behind Every Lie, however, I think it’s clear that this author’s work just isn’t for me. Soooo, take this review with a grain of salt, I guess.

For starters, the novel felt like a bit of a jumble of over-used tropes. I’ll omit discussing some of them here to avoid getting into spoiler territory, but I can talk freely about the amnesia as that’s discussed in the synopsis. We have a protagonist in a thriller suspected of murder who can’t defend herself because she has no memory of the night in question. Familiar tropes like this can be fun and offer a great way to subvert the reader’s expectations by doing something new and fresh with it. McDonald really didn’t do that (unless you count the novelty of amnesia brought on by a lightning strike, I guess. Bonus points for that?)

This is also yet another thriller with a middle class, white, female protagonist whose boyfriend/husband is clearly terrible, hyper-controlling, and suspect from the very beginning of the story. Whether the significant other is actually guilty of anything (and in 90% of these thrillers, he is) this dynamic has just gotten terribly boring. I feel like I’ve read about the same couple over and over and over, existing in slightly diverging parallel universes.

Finally, there is a sub-plot which emerges in the flashback scenes (told from her mother’s point of view) which is too predictable to every hold any tension. I really wanted to like this book. If you’ve read this author’s other work and enjoyed it, don’t let me dissuade you, but I think it’s safe to say this will be my last Christina McDonald novel. buy

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Do you have any tropes specific to mystery/thriller books that are major pet peeves for you? Tell me about them in the comments!

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Followers, by Megan Angelo (Review)

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Followers
by Megan Angelo

Genre: Science Fiction

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: January 14, 2020

Publisher: Graydon House

Synopsis: 

An electrifying story of two ambitious friends, the dark choices they make and the profound moment that changes the meaning of privacy forever.

Orla Cadden dreams of literary success, but she’s stuck writing about movie-star hookups and influencer yoga moves. Orla has no idea how to change her life until her new roommate, Floss―a striving, wannabe A-lister―comes up with a plan for launching them both into the high-profile lives they so desperately crave. But it’s only when Orla and Floss abandon all pretense of ethics that social media responds with the most terrifying feedback of all: overwhelming success.

Thirty-five years later, in a closed California village where government-appointed celebrities live every moment of the day on camera, a woman named Marlow discovers a shattering secret about her past. Despite her massive popularity―twelve million loyal followers―Marlow dreams of fleeing the corporate sponsors who would do anything, even horrible things, to keep her on-screen. When she learns that her whole family history is a lie, Marlow finally summons the courage to run in search of the truth, no matter the risks.

Followers traces the paths of Orla, Floss and Marlow as they wind through time toward each other, and toward a cataclysmic event that sends America into lasting upheaval. At turns wry and tender, bleak and hopeful, this darkly funny story reminds us that even if we obsess over famous people we’ll never meet, what we really crave is genuine human connection.

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My thanks to Graydon House and NetGalley for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Actual rating: 3.5 stars, rounding up to 4 here.

I was super skeptical going into this book; I sincerely dislike art that never seems to have any thing more substantive to say than “social media bad,” and the blurb was giving off some of those vibes. However, Followers proved to be a seriously addictive read, and while social media plays a huge role in the plot, at its heart the novel is about how relationships can be poisoned by a thirst for money and power.

The story revolves around dual timelines: in 2015, Floss and Orla are attempting to manipulate Orla’s connections to artificially lift up Floss as an “influencer.” The dynamic between these two characters was probably the most interesting part of the book for me; Floss is self-absorbed and vapid and Orla pretends to be above it all, but the two have an uncomfortable friendship forged by mutual necessity.

35 years later, the book follows Marlow, who lives in a town under constant surveillance, (almost) every moment of her life live streamed to her obsessed followers, à la The Truman Show. Marlow lives in relative wealth and comfort, but her life is controlled to a horrifying degree by corporate sponsorships. She is told when and who to marry, what to eat and wear, and even if/when she will have a baby.  She is kept from bristling under the excessive control by means of medication. This part of the plot is a bit over the top and difficult to swallow, but I’m not in this for the realism, I’m in it for the fun thought experiment. Marlow has grown up under these circumstances, and while I don’t entirely buy into the way the novel justified how we got to this point, I do buy into Marlow’s behavior as a character who has never known anything else.

Both timelines of the novel are eventually tied together in a relatively satisfying way, but I do think things went downhill from there, as the ending of the novel was its main weakness for me. I’d like to keep the review spoiler-free, so I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that the interactions between the major characters which happen late in the book didn’t ring true for me.

This is Megan Angelo’s debut novel, but per her bio on GoodReads, she has previously written for The New York Times and Glamour. Followers was well paced and full of interesting character dynamics; this was definitely solid for a debut novel, and I’ll be interested to see what she writes next. buy

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I Will Make You Pay – by Teresa Driscoll (Review)

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I Will Make You Pay
by Teresa Driscoll

Genre: Thriller / Mystery

Length: 317 Pages

Release date: October 10, 2019

Publisher: Thomas & Mercer

Synopsis: 

Every Wednesday, like clockwork, the terror returns.

It seems like an ordinary Wednesday, until the phone rings. A mysterious caller with a chilling threat. Journalist Alice Henderson hangs up, ready to dismiss it as a hoax against the newspaper. But the next Wednesday, the stalker makes another move—and it becomes clear that this is all about Alice.

Someone wants her to suffer, but for what? Her articles have made her a popular local champion—could it be her past rather than her work that’s put her life in danger? Alice is determined not to give in to fear, but with the police investigation at a dead end, her boyfriend insists on hiring private investigator Matthew Hill.

With every passing Wednesday the warnings escalate, until it’s not only Alice but also her family in the stalker’s sights. As her tormentor closes in, can Alice uncover what she’s being punished for before the terrifying threats become an unthinkable reality?

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My thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

This story alternates between three separate POV characters: Alice, the main focal point of the story and victim of stalking, PI Matthew Hill (who readers may recognize from Driscoll’s past work) who is hired to look into Alice’s case, and an unnamed third person, a disturbed man with a traumatic past. (CW for child molestation in this character’s chapters; this is very directly implied but there are no graphic descriptions of what happens.) The alternating points of view were one of the novels’ main strengths; they helped with pacing and the voices were distinct enough to keep things feeling fresh the whole way through.

One of my major issues with this novel is that the major red herring is far too obviously a red herring; the author points relentlessly at one particular suspect with zero subtlety, and unless this is your first mystery novel, it will become immediately apparent that you need to look elsewhere. This wouldn’t be such a problem were it not for the fact that this character takes up a lot of real estate in this novel. The pages devoted to this suspect feel like a waste of time well before the mystery is solved because they’re obviously going nowhere. While these passages delve into Alice’s back story and so do at times serve a purpose, they take up far more focus than feels justified.

Driscoll does a good job when it comes to maintaining tension. The stalker only targets Alice on Wednesday of each week, but the tension is always there because Alice is always dreading whatever comes next. This book kept me turning the pages. Ultimately, the ending fizzled out for me, and my overall experience with this book was just lukewarm.

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Mental Illness as Plot Twist – Ethics in Fiction

Y’all… I have a love-hate relationship with the thriller genre. Soooo many of these books seem to fall under the cookie cutter “white woman with a dark past, a drinking problem, and a terrible husband who turns out not to be what he seems” plot without much new to offer. But once in a blue moon, I’ll find a book like The Silent Patient that kind of blows me away and keeps me coming back to the genre. (This is only marginally related to the topic at hand, but if you haven’t read The Silent Patient, please do. It has a major character in a mental hospital and managed to do so without feeling exploitative towards those with mental illness.)

This post was prompted by a thriller I recently read which will remain unnamed, because it’s impossible to discuss the issue at hand without delving into huge spoiler territory. The book was an advance reader copy, and I’d hate to throw the whole plot out into the world before the book is even released, but if the subject matter is something you know you want to avoid, I’ll happily email you the title. (Send me a message at JennaBookish@gmail.com.)

But really, I could be talking about any number of books or movies and the point would remain the same; writers seem to really love using dissociative identity disorder for cheap thrills.

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Definition via https://www.psychiatry.org/

MV5BZTJiNGM2NjItNDRiYy00ZjY0LTgwNTItZDBmZGRlODQ4YThkL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjY5ODI4NDk@._V1_.jpgThe trope of the evil alter-ego in someone with DID is heavily used in horror/thrillers, seemingly without any regard for the fact that real people suffer from these disorders and the associations formed through fiction carry through to the public’s view of them in real life. We see this trope popping up in movies like Split, Psycho, and in countless books, like Before She Knew Him (Peter Swanson) and (albeit with a sci-fi twist) The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s easy to see where the trope comes from; there is an intrinsic horror in the thought of large gaps in memory where we aren’t fully in control of our own actions. But fiction delving into DID routinely focuses on the prospect of harm to others as opposed to the ways the person with the disorder suffers. This, despite the fact that the evidence shows that people with DID are no more likely than the general population to be violent. In fact, those who suffer from mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the general population.

The book that prompted this post made an effort to turn this trope on its head. The main character suffers from DID and is unaware of it. Her husband has been manipulating her for his own purposes, using one of her alters to get rid of inconvenient mistresses. While he is portrayed as the true villain and puppet-master, the book still hinges on the assumption that DID is linked to a proclivity for violence. The first murder was not committed at the husband’s request, and this was what made him realize he could use her disorder to his own advantage. The book ends with an afterward about mental health awareness and a desire for writers to do better by those who suffer from things like DID. It’s a nice sentiment, but it seems the author herself missed the mark in this case.

Thanks for reading, friends! Please feel free to share your thoughts on this topic in the comments, or tell me about one trope you want to see die in 2020!

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The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan (Review)

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The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness
by Susannah Cahalan

Genre: Nonfiction, Psychology

Length: 400 Pages

Release date: November 5, 2019

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Synopsis: 

From “one of America’s most courageous young journalists” (NPR) comes a propulsive narrative history investigating the 50-year-old mystery behind a dramatic experiment that changed the course of modern medicine.

For centuries, doctors have struggled to define mental illness-how do you diagnose it, how do you treat it, how do you even know what it is? In search of an answer, in the 1970s a Stanford psychologist named David Rosenhan and seven other people — sane, normal, well-adjusted members of society — went undercover into asylums around America to test the legitimacy of psychiatry’s labels. Forced to remain inside until they’d “proven” themselves sane, all eight emerged with alarming diagnoses and even more troubling stories of their treatment. Rosenhan’s watershed study broke open the field of psychiatry, closing down institutions and changing mental health diagnosis forever.

But, as Cahalan’s explosive new research shows, very little in this saga is exactly as it seems. What really happened behind those closed asylum doors, and what does it mean for our understanding of mental illness today?

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If you’re going into this book expecting an in-depth rehashing of that experiment and its conclusions, you may be disappointed. I hold a BA in psychology, so I was already somewhat familiar with this study going into the book. While I did get some new information from The Great Pretender, it was not nearly as much as I’d hoped. Part of the reason for this is that the focus of the book is not super specific. The synopsis from the publisher gave me an impression of a very different book than I read.

Another reviewer (who enjoyed the book a lot less than I did) made the comment that it felt like Cahalan did a lot of research on peripheral topics for this book and didn’t want it to go to waste. Consequently, it all gets included. While I get where this person is coming from, I disagree. A lot of the history of psychology included in this leads directly into David Rosenhan’s reasoning for conducting his famous experiment. He sent healthy “pseudo-patients” into mental hospitals for two major reasons: to expose the hazy nature of psychological diagnostic criteria as they existed at the time, and to provide witnesses who would be palatable to the general public who could relay the treatment the mentally ill were receiving in these institutions. The historical backdrop did not feel superfluous.

Cahalan also delves into several other famous experiments, again in more detail than I would have expected given the blurb’s focus on Rosenahn. These major experiments are also relevant, albeit in a tangential way, because of the controversy surrounding them. The Stanford Prison Experiment (Philip Zimbardo) and Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority. These experiments also share some thematic similarities with Rosenhan’s work; all of them explore the darker side of human nature  in varying respects. Zimbardo purported to show that the overwhelming majority of people are capable of horrifically abusive behaviors towards another person in dehumanizing, institutional settings like prisons. Milgram’s experiment had an authority figure in a lab coat asking participants to administer electric shocks to people as part of an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning. The “teaching experiment” was actually a smokescreen, and the true purpose was to see how many people would agree to shock someone who was in pain, and to what degree.

All three of these experiments (Rosenhan’s, Zimbardo’s, and Milgram’s) have faced sharp criticism of their methodology, with Zimbardo facing probably the most scrutiny. Issues vary from the potentially inappropriate level of manipulation on the participants from the researcher to outright deceit.

Cahalan’s book explores a variety of issues surrounding psychiatry in a good amount of detail, some only tangentially related to the experiment referenced in the title. If your interest in this book is primarily out of a desire to understand Rosenhan’s research, you may end up feeling like you are wading through a lot of unneeded information in order to get it. However, if you have a more general interest in psychology and psychiatry, this may be an excellent book for you.

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Thank you for reading! What was the last book you read that subverted your expectations in the a big way? How did it impact your reading experience?

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Know My Name, by Chanel Miller – Review

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Know My Name
by Chanel Miller

Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: September 24, 2019

Publisher: Viking

Synopsis: 

The riveting, powerful memoir of the woman whose statement to Brock Turner gave voice to millions of survivors

She was known to the world as Emily Doe when she stunned millions with a letter. Brock Turner had been sentenced to just six months in county jail after he was found sexually assaulting her on Stanford’s campus. Her victim impact statement was posted on BuzzFeed, where it instantly went viral–viewed by eleven million people within four days, it was translated globally and read on the floor of Congress; it inspired changes in California law and the recall of the judge in the case. Thousands wrote to say that she had given them the courage to share their own experiences of assault for the first time.

Now she reclaims her identity to tell her story of trauma, transcendence, and the power of words. It was the perfect case, in many ways–there were eyewitnesses, Turner ran away, physical evidence was immediately secured. But her struggles with isolation and shame during the aftermath and the trial reveal the oppression victims face in even the best-case scenarios. Her story illuminates a culture biased to protect perpetrators, indicts a criminal justice system designed to fail the most vulnerable, and, ultimately, shines with the courage required to move through suffering and live a full and beautiful life.

Know My Name will forever transform the way we think about sexual assault, challenging our beliefs about what is acceptable and speaking truth to the tumultuous reality of healing. It also introduces readers to an extraordinary writer, one whose words have already changed our world. Entwining pain, resilience, and humor, this memoir will stand as a modern classic.

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“I survived because I remained soft, because I listened, because I wrote. Because I huddled close to my truth, protected it like a tiny flame in a terrible storm. Hold up your head when the tears come, when you are mocked, insulted, questioned, threatened, when they tell you you are nothing, when your body is reduced to openings. The journey will be longer than you imagined, trauma will find you again and again. Do not become the ones who hurt you. Stay tender with your power. Never fight to injure, fight to uplift. Fight because you know that in this life, you deserve safety, joy, and freedom. Fight because it is your life. Not anyone else’s. I did it, I am here. Looking back, all the ones who doubted or hurt or nearly conquered me faded away, and I am the only one standing. So now, the time has come. I dust myself off, and go on.”

Let me start this review with a big fat (relatively obvious) trigger warning for sexual assault. Miller is not able to remember the assault itself, so you will not find graphic descriptions of it in this book, but the discussion of the aftermath when she awoke in the hospital can be disturbing. There is also a good deal of discussion of victim blaming, including quoted examples. So while I do absolutely recommend this book, it comes with the disclaimer that it will try your emotional fortitude.

Miller’s writing is eloquent and emotionally evocative. She remained anonymous for the duration of Brock Turner’s trial, and while this was for her protection, it had the effect of dehumanizing her to a certain portion of the public, from garden variety misogynists to women who felt the need to emotionally distance themselves from Miller in order to feel safe. (I.e., “If it happened to her, there must be something wrong with her. That would never happen to me.”) Miller’s victim impact statement (previously published anonymously online and included in full at the end of Know My Name) and this book have the effect of returning her voice and agency to her in a way that’s really powerful.

While the sexual assault and trail which resulted from it are the focus of this book, it also touches on current events and how Miller’s experience effected her perception. From the infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” Trump tape to the #metoo movement, to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about Brett Kavanaugh, Miller’s experience as a sexual assault victim could turn the nightly news into a huge psychological trigger. These ventures from the personal into the political never felt forced; they were in impactful part of her experience and the often blasé public reaction to sexual assault allegations is something that bears thinking about until things change. What do we tell victims when “grab ’em by the pussy” is dismissed as “locker room talk?” What do we tell young girls?

“Cosby, 60. Weinstein, 87. Nassar, 169. The news used phrases like avalanche of accusations, tsunami of stories, sea change. The metaphors were correct in that they were catastrophic, devastating. But it was wrong to compare them to natural disasters, for they were not natural at all, solely man-made. Call it a tsunami, but do not lose sight of the fact that each life is a single drop, how many drops it took to make a single wave. The loss is incomprehensible, staggering, maddening—we should have caught it when it was no more than a drip. Instead society is flooded with survivors coming forward, dozens for every man, just so that one day, in his old age, he might feel a taste of what it was like for them all along.”

This book moved me to tears multiple times. Miller does the narration for the audio book, and if you listen to audio books at all, I highly recommend opting for that format for this title.

For anyone who may need it, here is a list of resources for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors.

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