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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Review – Sadie, by Courtney Summers


Sadie
by Coutney Summers

Genre: Young Adult, Mystery

Length: 311 Pages

Release date: September 4, 2018

Synopsis: 

Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meagre clues to find him.

When West McCray—a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America—overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

rating

five

“It was a terrible thing, sure, but we live in a world that has no shortage of terrible things. You can’t stop for all of them.” 

Let me start by saying that I listened to this as an audiobook, and the story is so well suited to that format. Sadie’s first person point of view chapters are broken up with excerpts from West McCray’s podcast on the subject of her disappearance. This was recorded with a full cast, so you’re treated to the varying voices of all the people interviewed by McCray and it really lends a sense of realism to the narrative.

GoodReads users have labeled this as “young adult,” but I’d personally place it more in the “new adult” category due to the maturity of some of the themes. Sadie is a fast-paced mystery that almost borders on horror at times, as it explores the depths of human depravity and selfishness.

Mattie once asked me… she’d just come home flush from a crush on Jonah Sweeten and asked me how you know when you like someone, and if I liked any boys like she did, and I didn’t know what tot tell her. That I tried not to think about that kind of stuff, because it was painful, because I thought I could ever have it, but when I did end up liking someone, it always made me ache right down to my core. I realized pretty early on that the who didn’t really matter so much. That anybody who listens to me, I end up loving them just a little.

As fun as the “podcast” chapters were, I often spent them looking forward to hearing from Sadie again. This was partly because we get to untangle the mystery through her perspective, but mainly because I found her to be a really interesting and sympathetic protagonist who fails to fall into the pitfalls and cliches common in YA novels. Sadie’s story does not hinge on finding love with a boy or on finding a sense of identity as she ventures into adulthood.

Sadie’s story is a single-minded hunt for revenge against the person who took her sister’s life. This is complicated by her young age, her gender, and a stubborn stutter which causes people to underestimate her at every turn. Essentially, this unassuming girl has been given a storyline you’d expect in a male superhero origin story. But she has a car and a knife and she’s pretty sure she can handle it. Besides, she spent most of her childhood learning how to be stronger than the world had any right to expect of her, mainly in service of keeping her little sister safe; now that Mattie, the center of her world, has been taken from her, the only thing she has left is the hope for justice.

Part of what I love about Sadie is that she’s so angry in a way we don’t often get to see in young female heroines. While there’s a plethora of teenage angst when it comes to characters in her age group, this is different. This is a deep, simmering rage at a sense of powerlessness and injustice on the most personal scale, and it’s heavily gendered. This is resentment at being underestimated, absolute fury over having devoted her life to one thing only to be sabotaged by a predator.

Sadie expertly handles harsh realities such as sexual abuse, addiction, and poverty. This novel gives us a protagonist who, despite the fact that circumstances have made her a victim, has such fierceness and agency, such determination to be in control of her own story.

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Review, Lies by T.M. Logan


Lies
by T.M. Logan

Genre: Psychological Thriller

Length: 418 Pages

Release date: September 11, 2018

Synopsis: 

WHAT IF YOUR WHOLE LIFE WAS BASED ON LIES?
When Joe Lynch stumbles across his wife driving into a hotel car park while she’s supposed to be at work, he’s intrigued enough to follow her in.

And when he witnesses her in an angry altercation with family friend Ben, he knows he ought to intervene.

But just as the confrontation between the two men turns violent, and Ben is knocked unconscious, Joe’s young son has an asthma attack – and Joe must flee in order to help him.

When he returns, desperate to make sure Ben is OK, Joe is horrified to find that Ben has disappeared.

And that’s when Joe receives the first message . . .

rating

four

“Cats don’t need anyone, they can do fine on their own. They live in the moment and trust their eyes and ears, what they can see in front of them – I think we can all learn something from that.” 

I’ve read a few seriously lackluster psychological thrillers lately that had me wondering if many this genre as a whole was just no longer doing it for me. Lies was a pleasant surprise that reinvigorated my affection for these kinds of books. Lies is fast-paced and filled with tension from start to finish, with twists and turns to keep you turning the pages.

The main drawback for this novel is that it is sometimes repetitive in that condescending way that seems to imply the author doesn’t feel the reader is capable of keeping up. For example, at one point, the protagonist listens to a voicemail from someone, and then recaps for the reader who that person is and how he first made contact with them. All of this had already been included in the narrative, and not terribly far back.

These sections, however, are brief and few and far between. For the majority of the novel, it doesn’t feel like Logan has given the readers too much or too little information. The author leaves just enough breadcrumbs for the mystery to be a fun puzzle. Combined with the fast pace and the high stakes for the protagonist, it’s immensely easy to get emotionally invested in the story.

Joe Lynch is in serious danger of going down for a murder he did not commit, a murder he’s not convinced has even happened at all. As the evidence piles up against him and seemingly everything that can go wrong does go wrong, he comes to the soul-sucking realization that he cannot trust anyone. If anyone is going to clear his own name, it’s him. This is a high-tension Gone Girl scenario, except the reader doesn’t have the benefit of knowing the fate of the missing person; we are kept in the dark with the protagonist.

Technology was heavily involved in the plot of Lies in a way that felt very natural and fun. From spyware on cell phones to forensic analysis of Facebook posts, the novel feels very modern. I’ve found that a lot of books either ignore ubiquitous technology such as social media, or force it in awkwardly. Joe uses Google like it’s his job and Facebook stalks people for clues.

Twisty and dark, this is a perfect October read to get you into the Halloween spirit. One you get into it, you won’t be able to put it down.

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Also by T.M. Logan…

29 Seconds 

Give me one name. One person. And I will make them disappear . . . 

When Sarah rescues a young girl in trouble, she expects nothing in return. But her act of bravery puts a powerful and dangerous man in her debt. He lives by his own brutal code, and all debts must be repaid – in the only way he knows how.

He offers Sarah a way to solve a desperate situation with her intolerable boss. A once-in-a-lifetime deal that will make all her problems disappear.

No consequences. No comeback. No chance of being found out.

All it takes is a 29 second phone call.

Because everyone has a name to give. Don’t they?

Thank you for reading! What’s the best psychological thriller you’ve read lately? Have you read Lies? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Review – Dead Ringer, by Kate Kessler

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Dead Ringer
by Kate Kessler

Genre: Mystery, Thriller

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: October 23, 2018

Publisher: Redhook

Synopsis: 

A gripping thriller by Kate Kessler (author of the Audrey Harte novels), in which an FBI agent becomes entwined in a missing persons case that directly connects to a horrific event from her past.

Eighteen years ago, FBI Agent Rachel Ward’s mirror twin, Hannah, was taken by the Gemini killer, a serial killer who delights in sending photos of his victims to their twins. Rachel assumes her sister has been dead for years, but she’s never stopped hunting the monster who took her. Now, another twin has been taken, and when the case reopens, Rachel is assigned as an agent. But her relentless hunt for the killer may drive her to her breaking point.

rating

two

Disclaimer: I won a free ARC of Dead Ringer in a GoodReads Giveaway. All opinions are my own. 

I truly hate being the first person to voice a negative opinion about a book, and other reviewers on GoodReads seemed to love this one, but this was definitely a dud for me. Dead Ringer was filled with twists and turns, but you’ll see every last one of them coming a mile away.

When I read mystery/thrillers I don’t put a lot of thought into them as I’m reading, intentionally so. I treat these books like candy, and I’d much rather be surprised than be able to pat myself on the back for guessing correctly. So if I’m seeing every plot point coming in a book like this, there’s a problem. I’m sure a lot of the foreshadowing was intended to build a sense of foreboding, but I also didn’t find it remotely frightening, so all it did was suck any mystery out of it.

There was also the issue of what felt like lazy writing. Instead of showing us how the protagonist, Rachel, is feeling, the author routinely has Rachel’s boyfriend, Trick, ask her how she’s feeling about specific events, so that Rachel can simply monologue about it to the reader. Rachel’s thoughts and feelings could have been much more seamlessly woven into the story, especially considering she’s the POV character. This method was clunky and felt like the author didn’t know how else to tell us what Rachel was thinking.

In case Rachel’s ordeal fails to get your heart racing, the author has a backup plan, which is switching to graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse suffered by the kidnapped twin, Hannah. So, that’s… fun? (Is this considered a spoiler? I mean, we’ve got a serial killer kidnapping teenage girls, so it’s pretty much the obvious.) Basically, graphic sexual abuse and occasional violence were used in place of actually suspenseful plotting. It reminded me a bit of The Butterfly Garden, by Dot Hutchison, except The Butterfly Garden actually managed to be spine-tingling. In short, this was not my cup of tea.

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Review – Fellside, by M.R. Carey

40792017
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.

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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 – Ghosted, by Rosie Walsh

ghosted.jpg
Ghosted
by Rosie Walsh

Genre: Fiction

Length: 337 Pages

Release date: July 24, 2018

Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books

Synopsis: 

Seven perfect days. Then he disappeared. A love story with a secret at its heart.

When Sarah meets Eddie, they connect instantly and fall in love. To Sarah, it seems as though her life has finally begun. And it’s mutual: It’s as though Eddie has been waiting for her, too. Sarah has never been so certain of anything. So when Eddie leaves for a long-booked vacation and promises to call from the airport, she has no cause to doubt him. But he doesn’t call.

Sarah’s friends tell her to forget about him, but she can’t. She knows something’s happened–there must be an explanation.

Minutes, days, weeks go by as Sarah becomes increasingly worried. But then she discovers she’s right. There is a reason for Eddie’s disappearance, and it’s the one thing they didn’t share with each other: the truth.

rating

three

I wondered how it was that you could spend weeks, months—years, even—just chugging on, nothing really changing, and then, in the space of a few hours, the script of your life could be completely rewritten.

Ghosted is essentially part mystery, part romance. The story alternates between scenes from the week Sarah and Eddie met and scenes after she has been… well… ghosted. The latter takes up a much smaller portion of the book than the former, so we spend more time wondering why Eddie has dropped off the map than we do figuring out why Sarah cares so much. As I prefer mystery to romance, this shouldn’t have been an issue for me, but the lack of development of the romance makes it difficult to care about the mystery. The reader isn’t really given a compelling reason to root for Eddie and Sarah to be together.

The intense insta-love aspect of this novel felt better suited to a YA novel with a protagonist in high school. When you’re young and inexperienced, that burst of infatuation can feel like the be-all end-all. Sarah is written to be around forty years old, but she doesn’t feel like it. I found her tunnel vision obsession with a man she barely knows to be a bit alienating, personally.

However, despite my issues with Sarah and the under-developed romance, there was something rather compulsively readable about Ghosted. The pace feels lightning fast, and there was more to the mystery than just a spurned lover. At the risk of getting into spoilers, I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that the later revelations make for the best bits of character development in the story. For a good chunk of the early section of the novel, it felt like there wasn’t much more to Sarah than pining after a man; thankfully, later sections rectify that.

Nobody warns you that life continues to be complicated after you’ve Done the Right Thing. That there is no reward, beyond some intangible sense of moral fortitude.

Overall, this was a fun book with a lot of potential, but it definitely felt like it was lacking something. This appears to be Walsh’s debut novel, so I’ll be interested to see how she grows as a writer from here.

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Thanks for reading! How do you feel about romance in fiction? Do you prefer it to be the focus of the story or more like a side plot? Discuss in the comments!

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Review – Force of Nature, by Jane Harper


Force of Nature 
by Jane Harper

Genre: Mystery

Length: 326 Pages

Release date: February 6, 2018

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Synopsis: 

Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along a muddy track.
Only four come out on the other side.
The hike through the rugged Giralang Ranges is meant to take the office colleagues out of their air-conditioned comfort zone and encourage teamwork and resilience. At least, that’s what the corporate retreat website advertises.
Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing hiker, Alice Russell. Because Alice knew secrets, about the company she worked for and the people she worked with.
The four returning women tell Falk a tale of fear, violence and fractured trust during their days in the remote Australian bushland. And as Falk delves into the disappearance of Alice, he begins to suspect some dangers ran far deeper than anyone knew.

rating

four

“It’s the panic that gets you. Makes it hard to trust what you’re seeing.” 

Force of Nature is a continuation of The Dry, but don’t worry if you haven’t read it (although I definitely recommend giving it a shot.) Detective Aaron Falk is the central character for both books, and while Force of Nature makes a few passing references to the events of The Dry, Falk is working to solve a new mystery in this second installment, and it could easily be read as a standalone book. (But really, why would you skip The Dry?)

In The Dry, the mystery was incredibly personal for Falk; the man accused of killing his own family was Falk’s closest childhood friend, Luke, and solving the mystery would either clear Luke’s name or reveal how little he ever really knew him. The stakes are slightly less personal in Force of Nature, but still quite high-pressure. The missing woman, Alice, was meant to turn over documents that Falk urgently needs for  an ongoing investigation. The result is a gripping, desperate pursuit that makes for an engaging read.

The novel can basically be divided into two parts, which alternate throughout the story: Aaron Falk’s perspective, starting after Alice has gone missing, and flashback scenes to the retreat where the disappearance took place. The latter varies in perspective, and we get to know each of the women who were lost in the bushland with Alice. The tension is high from start to finish, from Falk’s work pressures to the hysteria-inducing panic of being lost in the Australian wilderness. Both of Harper’s novels have been highly atmospheric; the Australian landscape can begin to feel like a character on its own, raising the stakes and pushing the characters to act.

With plenty of red herrings and twists galore, Harper manages to pull off a shocker of a conclusion which will keep the reader guessing until the end.

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