Review – Her Pretty Face, by Robyn Harding


Her Pretty Face
by Robyn Harding

Genre: Thriller, Mystery

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: July 10, 2018

Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press

Synopsis: 

The author of the bestselling novel The Party—lauded as “tense and riveting” by New York Times bestselling author Megan Mirandareturns with a chilling new domestic drama about two women whose deep friendship is threatened by dark, long-buried secrets.

Frances Metcalfe is struggling to stay afloat.

A stay-at-home mom whose troubled son is her full-time job, she thought that the day he got accepted into the elite Forrester Academy would be the day she started living her life. Overweight, insecure, and lonely, she is desperate to fit into Forrester’s world. But after a disturbing incident at the school leads the other children and their families to ostracize the Metcalfes, she feels more alone than ever before.

Until she meets Kate Randolph.

Kate is everything Frances is not: beautiful, wealthy, powerful, and confident. And for some reason, she’s not interested in being friends with any of the other Forrester moms—only Frances. As the two bond over their disdain of the Forrester snobs and the fierce love they have for their sons, a startling secret threatens to tear them apart…because one of these women is not who she seems. Her real name is Amber Kunick. And she’s a murderer.

In her masterful follow-up to The Party, Robyn Harding spins a web of lies, deceit, and betrayal, asking the question: Can people ever change? And even if they can, is it possible to forgive the past?

rating

three

I received a free copy of this book through a GoodReads giveaway. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

**As you may know, I try to keep my reviews spoiler-free unless indicated otherwise. As a necessity of discussing certain aspects of the plot which impacted my enjoyment of the book, this review will contain more plot information than I generally like to include. No end-game plot twists will be revealed, but other minor spoilers do come into play here.**

Her Pretty Face is loosely based on events surrounding real-life serial killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Amber Kunik (the character loosely based on Karla) pushes the blame for her role in a murder solely onto her boyfriend and partner in crime, Shane Nelson. After she obtains a plea deal based on her testimony, video evidence later shows her to be a much more willing participant in the torture and slaughter than she had claimed. Amber walks free after an unjustifiably short prison sentence.

The major part of the novel takes place years later, and Amber has taken on a new identity and gone into hiding. While it is obvious from the importance placed on the Amber Kunik case within the narrative that we will see Amber again, we are not told anything about her new identity.

The biggest strength in this novel lies in its characters. The central POV character is Frances, somewhat of a misfit mom and painfully insecure around the other mothers at her son’s school. Her son has emotional issues and has been ostracized by the other children as a result of his acting out. Frances, in turn, has been ostracized by the other moms. When Kate comes to her defense in front of the other moms, Frances latches onto her in a borderline unhealthy friendship. Frances is lonely and guilt-riddled by events in her past; while her constant insecurity was occasionally grating, I truly felt for Frances and she made for a good protagonist.

We also get to peek into the mind of Daisy, Kate’s teenage daughter. I understand why these chapters were included, as they relayed information crucial to the plot and foreshadowed upcoming twists. That being said, Daisy’s chapters were sometimes difficult for me to stomach. Daisy is bullied quite relentlessly by some of the other students, but can’t be bothered to defend herself because she’s to above it all. Daisy is too cool for their petty, childish high school drama, because Daisy is very Mature for Her Age and Not Like Other Girls. I do think she improves as a character later in the book, but good lord did I have some eye-rolling moment with Daisy.

Finally, there’s DJ, the younger brother of Amber Kunik’s murder victim, Courtney. DJ’s chapters are told in flashbacks to the 1990’s, when Courtney first went missing and the subsequent murder trials for Amber and Shane. DJ is around ten years old when his life is thrown into disarray by the death of his sister. He develops and obsession with Amber Kunik due to her lack of remorse and ability to fool everyone around her into viewing her as a victim.

The problem with this novel comes with the plot twists. There are two instances where Harding’s attempts at misdirection are really poorly executed. You can’t spend several chapters hinting relentlessly at something without the average mystery reader picking up on the fact that they need to look elsewhere. Harding’s giant neon arrows pointing at red herrings only had the effect of eliminating them as actual suspects. Had the clues pointing at these people been a bit more subtle, I’d have actually been more inclined to be misled.

Her Pretty Face is a novel you can absolutely enjoy if you’re not going into it hoping to be surprised. If solving the mystery before it’s actually revealed kills a book for you, this is probably not the right book for you.

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Thank you for reading! If you’ve read Her Pretty Face, please share your thoughts in the comments!
Have you read any other novels based on real-life crimes?

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Fiction Pet Peeves

Hello, friends! I’m in a grumpy Monday kind of mood, so today I’m going to talk about some of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to fiction. Let me know some of yours in the comments. What little things immediately pull you out of a scene and make you cringe? In no particular order, here are some of mine…

Over-use of Slang to Establish Setting or Mood

A prime example of this for me is Libba Bray’s Diviners series. This series seems to be super beloved in the book blogging community, and I’m not trying to trash it as a whole. I enjoyed the story itself well enough, but it got to the point where it sometimes felt like every other word was “fella” or “doll.” With a lot of authors, slang is so overused that it makes their characters feel like caricatures. Pepper in just a little bit of it and call it a day; otherwise it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Insta-love

Love at first sight can be cute and done well, it’s just that it usually… isn’t. Just because the characters fall in love quickly doesn’t mean the audience doesn’t need to see the reasons they love each other. Even worse, however, is when characters who hate one another seemingly flip overnight because searing hated seems to be confused with sexual tension. Relationships between characters take as much development as the characters themselves; there are no shortcuts with this. This seems particularly prominent in YA, but I think it bothers me less in that context because I think a lot of teens are constantly “falling in love” at the drop of a hat. (I’m not judging; I was totally guilty of this.)

Gorgeous Female Characters made “Relatable” by Making Them Clumsy

Why is this such a trope? Authors write a gorgeous female protagonist (bonus points if she’s somehow blissfully unaware that she’s even remotely acceptable looking) who seems to be desired by all the male characters in sight. Then faced with the question of how to make this character feel more flawed and relatable, nine times out of ten, they just make her physically and/or socially awkward. Female characters can be flawed in just as many ways as male characters. It’s time to branch out a bit.

Male Authors with No Idea How to Write a Human Woman

We’ve all read books with female characters that would never have been written by a woman. The most recent book that had this effect on me was Artemis, by Andy Weir. I was in love with The Martian so I bought Artemis when it came out without even reading the blurb first. Then I started reading, and the female protagonist was… Mark Watney 2.0. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Mark Watney, but if I want to read about him, I can just read The Martian again. In Artemis, 99% of his personality was just imposed onto Jazz, and I couldn’t stop hearing Mark Watney’s voice through the whole book. It definitely pulled me out of the novel and diminished my ability to enjoy what was actually a pretty fun heist story.

Protagonists Internally Monologuing about Their Appearance

This is just lazy writing. We’ve all read scenes where the protagonist wakes up in the morning and goes to the bathroom mirror to begin getting ready for their day. They then take this opportunity to list all of their features for the reader’s benefit. (Bonus points if this is combined with the previous bullet point, where a male author can’t write women, and the protagonist proceeds to describe herself in an awkwardly sexual tone. No. Just no.)

A lot of the time, this awkward method of relaying information isn’t even giving us information that we need. A story doesn’t often require the reader to have an in-depth understanding of each character’s appearance. Things that impact how the character interacts with the world in a meaningful way should, of course, be prioritized. Is the character living in a society that’s racist towards their particular demographic? Are they ridiculously attractive or unattractive? Average and forgettable? Super short? This is information we probably need. What we don’t need is a female protagonist admiring the curve of her own hip as she stands in front of a full-length mirror in a nightgown. (Seriously, why do men write these kinds of scenes?)

Toxic, Creepy Relationships in YA

It’s 2018 and I’m still mad about Twilight, you guys. But honestly, petition for a genre marketed to young girls to stop romanticizing stalking, controlling behavior, men with anger issues, ridiculous power imbalances, etc. Give teenage girls healthy relationships as examples. Give teenage girls examples of female characters running the other way when they see these giant red flags waving all over the place.

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This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these were some things that were on my mind today. Let’s discuss in the comments! What are some of your biggest pet peeves? Do you feel differently about any of the things I’ve listed here?

Thanks for reading!

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Review – Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrik Backman


Britt-Marie Was Here
by Fredrik Backman

Genre: Fiction, Contemporary

Length: 324 Pages

Release date: May 3, 2016

Synopsis: 

Britt-Marie can’t stand mess. A disorganized cutlery drawer ranks high on her list of unforgivable sins. She is not one to judge others—no matter how ill-mannered, unkempt, or morally suspect they might be. It’s just that sometimes people interpret her helpful suggestions as criticisms, which is certainly not her intention. But hidden inside the socially awkward, fussy busybody is a woman who has more imagination, bigger dreams, and a warmer heart that anyone around her realizes.

When Britt-Marie walks out on her cheating husband and has to fend for herself in the miserable backwater town of Borg—of which the kindest thing one can say is that it has a road going through it—she finds work as the caretaker of a soon-to-be demolished recreation center. The fastidious Britt-Marie soon finds herself being drawn into the daily doings of her fellow citizens, an odd assortment of miscreants, drunkards, layabouts. Most alarming of all, she’s given the impossible task of leading the supremely untalented children’s soccer team to victory. In this small town of misfits, can Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs?

rating

four

“One morning you wake up with more life behind you than in front of you, not being able to understand how it’s happened.”

Britt-Marie Was Here was my second book my Fredrik Backman, the first being the wildly successful A Man Called Ove. I was a bit surprised by the striking similarities in themes between the two books, even considering that they both come from the same author. Ove and Britt-Marie are both older protagonists struggling to cope with a fundamental sense of loneliness for the first time in their adult lives. They are both uptight curmudgeons who find love and meaning in places they didn’t expect, finding themselves fundamentally changed in the process.

That being said, Britt-Marie Was Here is very much its own story. Britt-Marie is not dealing with the death of a spouse, but with the dawning realization that she is not being treated the way she deserves. After years of marriage, after devoting the bulk of one’s adult life to a partner, what a terrifying prospect: it’s all been all wrong. Fundamentally, irreparably, wrong. Britt-Marie packs a suitcase, leaves the home she’s shared with her husband, and sets out to find a job after spending her life as a homemaker. This brings her to Borg.

Britt-Marie obtains a position as a caretaker of the rec center, where she meets a colorful cast of characters who have more to teach her than she could possibly guess. The most important lesson she must learn is this: it is never too late. It’s never too late to turn around a football match, to make new friends, to visit the city you’ve always wanted to see… to stand up for yourself and realize that a spouse who doesn’t value you doesn’t deserve you. Britt-Marie’s story is told with the charming blend of humor and poignancy which made Backman’s A Man Called Ove such a success.

Britt-Marie Was Here is perfect for fans of…

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A human being, any human being at all, has so perishingly few chances to stay right there, to let go of time and fall into the moment. And to love someone without measure, explode with passion… A few times when we are children, maybe, for those of us who are allowed to be… But after that? How many breaths are we allowed to take beyond the confines of ourselves? How many pure emotions make us cheer out loud without a sense of shame? How many chances do we get to be blessed by amnesia? All passion is childish, it’s banal and naive, it’s nothing we learn, it’s instinctive, and so it overwhelms us… Overturns us… It bears us away in a flood… All other emotions belong to the earth, but passion inhabits the universe. That is the reason why passion is worth something. Not for what it gives us, but for what it demands that we risk – our dignity, the puzzlement of others in their condescending shaking heads…

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Review – Fellside, by M.R. Carey

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Fellside
by M.R. Carey

Genre: Horror

Length: 486 Pages

Release date: April 4, 2016

Publisher: Orbit

Synopsis: 

Fellside is a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to end up. But it’s where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life.

It’s a place where even the walls whisper.

And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess.

Will she listen?

rating

four

(3.5 stars, rounded up to 4)

“It’s a strange thing to wake up not knowing who you are.”

Jess Moulsen, our protagonist, wakes up in the hospital unable to remember what has landed her there. A niggling sense of dread turns to terror when she’s told she’s done something awful: in a drugged haze, she started a fire in her apartment complex which ended up killing someone. As soon as she’s recovered enough from her injuries, she will need to stand trial for murder. Fellside is imbued with tension from page one.

While Jess is the clear focus throughout Fellside, she is not the only point-of-view character. Fellside occasionally shifts to the thoughts of various workers in the prison from which the novel takes its name. I’ve heard a lot of people state they don’t like multiple POV stories in general; I am not one of those people. Exploring different perspectives tends to be one of my favorite parts of a novel. That said, I didn’t find the other perspectives in this novel nearly as compelling as Jess. In the long run, these shifts proved to be necessary the show the full scope of the story which Carey wanted to tell, but I found myself suffering through them.

GoodReads users have largely categorized this book as horror, but the label doesn’t feel like a particularly good fit. There are supernatural elements to the story, in the form of a ghost who visits Jess, and there are spooky moments, but the overall atmosphere doesn’t scream “horror” to me. Fellside is somewhat of a mystery and a story about moral redemption; Jess feels a huge sense of moral culpability for an act which she cannot remember. How does one atone for a misdeed which exists as a blank spot in their memory? The appearance of the ghost allows Jess to attempt to work through this question as she questions the truth of everything she’s been told by the authorities.

There was a lot that I loved about this novel, but it felt hampered by uninteresting side plots and poor pacing at times. All in all, I felt this was worth reading, but I was a bit frustrated by how close this came to being great instead of just good.

Purchase links

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Thank you for reading! Have you read Fellside? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
What’s a book that you’ve enjoyed which has supernatural elements set in the real world?

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Review – The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

40792017
The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern

Genre: Fantasy, Romance

Length: 512 Pages

Release date: July 3, 2012

Publisher: Anchor

Synopsis: 

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway – a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love – a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart.

rating

four

Secrets have power. And that power diminishes when they are shared, so they are best kept and kept well. Sharing secrets, real secrets, important ones, with even one other person, will change them. Writing them down is worse, because who can tell how many eyes might see them inscribed on paper, no matter how careful you might be with it. So it’s really best to keep your secrets when you have them, for their own good, as well as yours.

I’d rate The Night Circus 3.5 stars, which I’ve rounded up to four here. The reviews on GoodReads seem to be very divided, and while I enjoyed it, I can see why. The plot was a tad bit thin. The romance wasn’t terribly developed; it was a case of insta-love which was semi-acknowledged, while being hand-waved away within the narrative. Well, of course they fell in love, they’ve had this magical bond their whole lives even though they barely know one another. Just go with it, reader! It’s true love! 

Despite the flaws, however, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Morgenstern’s writing is absolutely gorgeous and remarkably atmospheric, pulling the reader in to the magical and musical world of the circus. The actual story breaks periodically, with passages told in second person point of view, always a risky move in a novel. Morgenstern places the readers into the circus and talks us through our exploration of various attractions. As the main characters are all intricately involved in the workings of the circus, I thought these passages worked really well to make the reader almost as emotionally invested in the fate of the circus as the characters would be.

There is a huge cast of characters in this novel, to the point where it can be almost disorientating at times. (For a point of reference, I generally read several novels at a time, so I’m quite used to holding a large cast of characters in my mind without any problems. I found myself occasionally having moments of “Wait, who was that guy again?” throughout The Night Circus.) That being said, many of these characters were incredibly well developed and emotionally engaging. Celia in particular was a very sympathetic and interesting character, with a somewhat tragic childhood and an enduring strength of character.

The Night Circus is part fantasy, part love story. More than anything, it’s an intensely atmospheric adventure for the reader, with the whimsical circus becoming a character in its own right.

Purchase links

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Thank you for reading! Have you read The Night Circus? What were your thoughts? What’s your favorite atmospheric novel? Discuss in the comments!

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Review – Where the Line Bleeds, by Jesmyn Ward

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Where the Line Bleeds 
by Jesmyn Ward

Genre: Literary Fiction

Length: 256 Pages

Publication date: January 16, 2018 (Originally released in 2008)

Publisher: Scribner

Synopsis: 

Set in a rural town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Where the Line Bleeds tells the story of fraternal twins Joshua and Christophe, who are graduating high school as the novel begins. The two boys both anticipate and dread their lives as adults. Joshua finds a job working as a dock laborer on the Gulf of Mexico, but Christophe has less luck: Unable to find a job, and desperate to alleviate his family’s poverty, he starts to sell drugs. Joshua does not approve, but his clumsy concern fractures the twins’ relationship. When their long-missing addict father reappears, he provokes a shocking confrontation between himself and the brothers—one that will ultimately damn or save them.

Where the Line Bleeds is unforgettable for the intense clarity of how the main relationships are rendered: the love but growing tension between the twins; their devotion to the slowly failing grandmother to raised them, and the sense of obligation they feel toward her; and most of all, the alternating pain, bewilderment, anger, and yearning they feel for the parents who abandoned them—their mother for a new life in the big city of Atlanta, and their father for drugs, prison, and even harsher debasements.

Jesmyn Ward herself grew up in a small Mississippi town near New Orleans, and this book makes palpable her deep knowledge and love of this world: black, Creole, poor, drug-riddled, yet shored by strong family ties and a sense of community that balances hope and fatalism, grief and triumph. Hers is an important new voice in American fiction, distinguished by its simple, patient, and utterly focused attentiveness to the physical details of her characters and their lives.

rating

three

This was my second book by Jesmyn Ward. I picked it up after really enjoying Sing, Unburied, Sing when I read it with my book club. I had fallen in love with Ward’s style when I read that book. Where the Line Bleeds fell a little bit flat in comparison.

Set in the rural south, Where the Line Bleeds has a similar feel to Sing, Unburied, Sing. The story follows twin brothers living in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Christophe and Joshua are struggling to find their footing after high school graduation. While Joshua finds work relatively quickly, Christophe does not, and starts selling drugs to bring in money for the family.

While I found Sing, Unburied, Sing to be quite lyrical and beautiful, Where the Line Bleeds often just felt excessively descriptive. There are lots of long, drawn-out descriptions of actions that could have been much more succinct, and the level of detail included does nothing significant for the story. I think Ward was struggling to develop the evocative, poetic language that comes in her later novel. The end result here is that the pace feels overly slow.

The strength in this novel is in its exploration of familial relationships. The boys, like most twins, have been extremely close to one another for their entire lives. This makes the conflict brought on by Christophe’s decision to sell drugs all the more painful for both of them. As the boys start to pull away from each other, they are each experiencing a sense of isolation unlike anything they’ve encountered before. The boys were raised by their grandmother; they have had a strained relationship with their mother and no relationship to speak of with their father. These varying parental relationships all come into play throughout Where the Line Bleeds. 

The plot, unfortunately, feels rather thin. I spent a good deal of the book waiting for something climactic to happen, and while there is a definite climax, it feels like there is disproportionate buildup before we get to it. This is primarily a story about relationships and coming of age; there are no twists and turns to keep you hooked into the story.

Where the Line Bleeds isn’t a bad book. There was plenty to like about it despite the slow pace. Overall, however, it really called to attention just how far Ward has come as an author between this book and Sing, Unburied, Sing. If you haven’t read any of Ward’s work, I wouldn’t start here.

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Review – Evidence of the Affair, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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Evidence of the Affair
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre: Short Story, Epistolary

Release date: September 20, 2018

Publisher: Amazon Original Stories

Synopsis: 

The repercussions of an illicit affair unfold in this short story by bestselling author Taylor Jenkins Reid.

Dear stranger…

A desperate young woman in Southern California sits down to write a letter to a man she’s never met—a choice that will forever change both their lives.

My heart goes out to you, David. Even though I do not know you…

The correspondence between Carrie Allsop and David Mayer reveals, piece by piece, the painful details of a devastating affair between their spouses. With each commiserating scratch of the pen, they confess their fears and bare their souls. They share the bewilderment over how things went so wrong and come to wonder where to go from here.

Told entirely through the letters of two comforting strangers and those of two illicit lovers, Evidence of the Affair explores the complex nature of the heart. And ultimately, for one woman, how liberating it can be when it’s broken.

rating

four

This will be a short review for a short story. My love for Taylor Jenkins Reid has been no secret on this blog. I think I mention The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo every chance I get. So Evidence of the Affair was a lovey surprise today when it popped up on my news feed.

This story is told in the form of a series of letters. Two strangers, Carrie and David, begin writing to one another when Carrie discovers that their respective spouses have been having an affair. Carrie discovers the affair when she finds (you guessed it) a stack of love letters from another woman, stashed away in her husband’s briefcase.

Neither Carrie nor David are immediately ready to call it quits on their marriages. Unsure of how they plan to handle things, they don’t feel comfortable discussing things with anyone but each other. The result is that the two slowly begin to form an unlikely bond, as they feel like kindred spirits in their heartache.

My mother has always told me that I have more opportunities, as a woman of my generation, than she ever had. She made it seem like I had an obligation to use them how she would have.

The character development with Carrie was flawless and she was definitely my favorite part of this story. She married young and hasn’t had a career during her marriage, and we watch her struggle to find faith in her own ability to be independent. I was rooting for her to find strength and a sense of self worth from start to finish.

Maybe I’m not equipped for short stories, because this definitely left me wanting more at the end. Can we get a sequel? Also, there was a Daisy Jones reference because Taylor Jenkins Reid feels like tormenting me by casually mentioning her book that isn’t coming out until March. Thanks, Taylor.

Purchase Evidence of the Affair for Kindle here.

Thank you for reading? Have you read any of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s work? Discuss your favorite in the comments!

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