Review: “Emma in the Night” by Wendy Walker

emma-in-the-nightTitle: “Emma in the Night”
Author: Wendy Walker
Genre: Psychological thriller
Publication Date: August 8, 2017 (St. Martin’s Press)

My Rating: ★★★★★

All hail Wendy Walker! I loved her previous thriller, “All Is Not Forgotten,” and grabbed “Emma in the Night” immediately. (A second hail for my amazing library system, Arlington County Public Libraries — my hold arrived the day the book was released.)

Walker nails the true psychological thriller. In “Emma,” we meet Cassandra Tanner, who shows up on her mother’s doorstep three years after disappearing in the night — the same night her sister, Emma, also disappeared. But lest you think Cass will explain everything that happened, there are really screwed up family dynamics at play, and you *know* she’s lying. About some of it, or all of it, or somewhere in between.

The narration switches between Cass and Dr. Abigail Winter, a forensic psychologist with the F.B.I. who just happens to specialize in narcissistic personality disorder, which we soon learn that Cass and Emma’s mother likely suffers from. (How tortuous is it to live with a narcissistic mother? When Cass and Emma were kids, Cass begged for a trinket necklace with an angel that reminded her of Tinker Bell from Peter Pan. Emma scoffed at it. Judy, the mother, in turn purchased it for the favored Emma, who wore it every day as a twisted means to torment her sister.)

What I love about Wendy Walker and “Emma in the Night” is that she manages to carve out a unique, compelling storyline in this heyday of thrillers. It’s not cliche or overdone; nor the same topic that every other suspense writer is writing and then rewriting. The plot is fascinating and, clearly, well-researched — I learned a lot, particularly about narcissistic personality disorder.

Consider me sold. I’ll pick up anything and everything that Walker writes next.

Speaking of: I submitted a question to Wendy on Goodreads about what she’s working on next, and she responded (!). “I am busy at work on another novel and hoping to have it done this fall. It will be another psychological thriller focused on the interplay of personality disorders within a family setting.”

Your readers are waiting ever (im)patiently, Wendy!

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Review: “Goodbye, Vitamin” by Rachel Khong

vitaminTitle: “Goodbye, Vitamin”
Author: Rachel Khong
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publication Date: July 11, 2017 (Henry Holt)

My Rating: ★★★★★

My goodness, I adored this book. It’s a summer 2017 read and, more impressively, a new addition to my forever favorites. 10/10 would recommend and may even read again (if you know me — unheard of!).

I picked up “Goodbye, Vitamin” after a string of really dark thrillers, when I desperately needed a break from grisly unsolved murders and disappearing husbands and every other grim thing. We meet Ruth, who’s newly disengaged from her engagement to Joel, the day after Christmas — which she spent at home in LA with her parents for the first time in years. Our introduction arrives as she’s handling a phone call that her dad’s pants have been located, dangling from the holiday trees downtown like they’re ornaments. His Alzheimer’s is worsening, and Ruth’s mom asks her to stay, just for a year.

“Goodbye, Vitamin” is the story of that year, told in diary-style entries.

There are a lot of things I loved about this book: It’s beautifully written; it’s smart, witty, poignant, heartfelt. Yes, Alzheimer’s is a sad disease, but Ruth shows us the humor in it. It’s very real, and the characters we meet have flaws. While her dad’s Alzheimer’s is sympathetic, he’s also a former drunk who cheated on her mom at least once, probably twice. When Ruth and her mom argue, her mom bemoans that “this isn’t what I thought it’d be like.” “What isn’t?” Ruth asks. “Having a daughter.”

I *got* these people. They tugged at my heart-strings, not least because their struggles were familiar. I became totally immersed in and attached to their story, and Rachel Khong, a master of the word, told it in a captivating way. Do yourself a favor and pick it up today.

What’s Falling Flat This Summer

I was on a bit of a downward spiral this month (one that’s now been corrected, relief of all reliefs). Here’s what didn’t work:

“A Stranger in the House” by Shari Lapena

I read Lapena’s first book, “The Couple Next Door,” early in the year and thought it was a decent thriller. Granted, it took me two attempts to get into it because the writing was subpar, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down. I’ll pretty much always try the sophomore book, so of course I blew into the library hold line for “A Stranger in the House” the minute it became available.

I spent one night on it and managed to reach page 80 or 90 before calling  it a day. The writing is painful, and I really really value beautifully written books that make you want to savor each sentence. I’d have even accepted marginally decent here if the story line made up for it. But nearly 100 pages in, I was not invested in the characters and couldn’t take any more.

However, I did skip to the end to find out how it all shakes out. I’ll tell you this. Shari Lapena knows how to execute one heck of a mind-boggling ending that does NOT go where you think it’ll go. No wrapping things up nice and pretty here. There’s a killer final sentence that’ll make your eyes pop out — but you won’t miss much if you read the first chapter or two and then skip right to it.

“See What I Have Done” by Sarah Schmidt

Ow, the disappointment of this one. I looked forward to it for months. So eager. I’ll generally read up anything and everything and all the things about the Lizzie Borden case, so this fictionalized retelling was right up my alley.

Then, when it finally landed in my hands, I just … couldn’t … get into it. The writing was stilted and didn’t suck me in, and the author didn’t offer much to entice me to keep turning the pages. So I didn’t. I called it quits around page 77, and I almost never DNF books. I found myself wrinkling my nose and had no motivation to continue, and when you’ve got a really long TBR list that won’t read itself — life’s too short, eh?

 

Review: “Girl Last Seen” by Nina Laurin

51FpJ0YNKtLTitle: “Girl Last Seen”
Author: Nina Laurin
Genre: Psychological thriller
Publication Date: June 20, 2017 (Grand Central Publishing)

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

This one gets 3.5 stars, an extra 0.5 since it’s Laurin’s debut thriller. I blew through it in two days — though that’s likely the product of having a lot of pre-Fourth of July holiday time on my hands.

Lainey Moreno, as she’s now known, was kidnapped at age 10 and held hostage for three brutal years. Now 23 and grasping on to any semblance of a life she can manage, she’s working her grocery store job when she hangs up a missing girl poster. Olivia Shaw, age 10, is missing. Lainey has spent every year since her release waiting for the next girl, the one who would replace her in the basement where she was held captive. None were ever right — not the right age, the right look, the right circumstances. Until Olivia. Which means, whether she likes it or not — and make no mistake, she doesn’t — Lainey is involved … in a much deeper way than we initially assume.

It’s fast-paced, decently written and stirred an uncomfortable feeling in me throughout. Everything feels very real — even if the setting and circumstances are foreign to the reader, Laurin does a good job bringing them home and making them realistic and believable. That said, the plot is not without its problems, and I got confused a few times — with that “ready to be done” feeling. Still, this is a solid offering, and if you like thrillers, check it out. It won’t blow you away or become your next favorite book, but you’ll still probably want to find out what happens.

Review: “The Good Widow” by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke

51+uX63BY7L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Title: “The Good Widow”
Author: Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke
Genre: “Suspense” (so says the marketers…)
Publication Date: June 1, 2017 (Lake Union Publishing)

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

I’ve been in a book slump lately: I finished a really good one (“The Weight of Lies”) a few weeks ago, and everything since has come up short. I had a few false starts, so I was determined to see this one through — otherwise it likely would have been tossed onto the “abandon” shelf.
The premise grabbed me because, for one thing, it seemed reminiscent of “The Marriage Lie.” (Which I tore through.) Husband dies in a place (or on his way to a place) that is not the place where he’s supposed to be. Twisty ride through said husband’s secretive life ensues.

Before I knock “The Good Widow” too much, I’ll say this: A lot of people seem to love it, and I get it. It’s fun book candy, perfect for a beach day, forgettable but still entertaining. It just didn’t do it for me. The writing was meh, I spotted a number of typos and at least one timeline error that really bugged me, and the whole thing felt implausible and overdone. I can’t for the life of me figure out why Jacks and Nick (whose partners took their affair to Maui, where they were killed when they went over a cliff) decided to go to Maui to “retrace their steps.” But … but … but why?

The biggest thing, however, is that this was marketed as “suspense.” Don’t grab it if you’re looking for a true-blue thriller or something that’s actually suspenseful. Yes, there’s a twist at the end, but at least 90% of the book is basic chick-lit/fiction. And that’s great for those who are looking for that, but I wasn’t. As others have commented, it felt like a Lifetime movie, and I was glad when the final credits rolled.

What I’ve Read Lately: May/June Update

If you’re emerging from this bountiful summer reading season to land on my blog, hello, thank you and let’s make this quick so we can get back to it. (That stack of TBRs won’t read itself!) Here’s what I’ve been up to:

What I’ve Liked Lately

chevy“Never Let You Go” by Chevy Stevens

I read “Never Let You go” while traveling and in a rather distracted state. Perhaps that’s why I never felt *super super super* invested in it — too much good-looking PNW scenery to focus on while I read. While it’s not my favorite book ever, I did enjoy it and would — in fact, already have — recommend it to others. It’s well-written, I didn’t see the twisty end coming and there’s excellent character development.

This was my first Chevy Stevens novel, but I garner that she has quite a devoted following. I plan to pick up “Still Missing” and whatever she releases next.

“The Mourning Hours” by Paula Treick DeBoard

paulaAbout a year ago, I read Paula’s “The Drowning Girls” and liked it so much that I requested my library buy 2013’s “The Mourning Hours.” They did, but I didn’t get around to reading it until last month, when my library holds ran short and I needed a backlist book I could pick up that day. And gosh, I’m glad I did!

Check out Goodreads for the plot, but know this: Paula Treick DeBoard is a really underrated voice in the thriller space. She belongs at the top of the list among the most favored names — she is that good. “The Mourning Hours” — her debut! — is beautifully written; I lingered over many raw, striking lines and the sense of place she masterfully creates. And good news: She’ll be back in January 2018 with “Here We Lie.” Sounds right up my alley — can’t wait.

What I Haven’t Liked

“It’s Always the Husband” by Michele Campbell. I got to page 115, turned to another book and loved that one so much more that I decided not to return to this one. (There’s only so much reading time, so might as well spend it on what you’re going to enjoy the most.) The writing is mediocre, and while it’s a grabby enough storyline, I wouldn’t recommend it as more than a really fast, pretty meaningless beach read.

What I’m Just Starting

“This is How You Lose Her” by Pulitzer-winning Junot Díaz

“The Weight of Lies” by Emily Carpenter

…and, coming soon: what I’m most excited for in the coming weeks!

Review: “The Perfect Stranger” by Megan Miranda

31443398Title: “The Perfect Stranger”
Author: Megan Miranda
Genre: Psychological thriller
Publication Date: April 11, 2017 (Simon & Schuster)

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

Megan Miranda’s “All the Missing Girls” was a 2016 highlight for me — favorite book, bar none. I waited with greedy anticipation for “The Perfect Stranger” for months and dug in the day it was released, expectations higher than one might consider safe. When you go in like that, you’re almost inevitably going to be let down. (Is it fair to expect an author who absolutely knocks it out of the park to do so again in short order? And if I hadn’t devoured and adored “ATMG,” and went into “The Perfect Stranger” more objectively, would I have expected less and in return enjoyed it more? Maybe.)

Brief plot run-down: We meet former journalist Leah Stevens, who got too personally tangled up in a story and was forced out. After a chance encounter with a summer roommate of eight years past, who also happens to be in run mode, the two decide to relocate from Boston to Western Pennsylvania, where Leah gets a teaching job. She’s still trying to acclimate when a woman who looks just like her is attacked and left for dead by the lake. Then her roommate, Emmy, goes missing. When she reports it, of course, things get interesting/complicated because it turns out there’s no record of Emmy ever existing. Cue Leah getting, again, really tangled up in the pursuit of the truth and figuring out who Emmy is/was … and if their encounter was really so chance, then or now.

I didn’t dislike “The Perfect Stranger,” but it doesn’t live up to its predecessor in writing or story quality. It was at times clunky and felt forced and unrealistic — Leah was this distressed and that close to someone she knew for mere months? (Though she’d have a quick response: “I can only explain it this way: that I knew her deeply, if not thoroughly; that a four-month relationship can supersede all the boyfriends, all the friendships, that came after and lasted longer, that our friendship was born from the one time I’d stepped off track, done something unexpected that did not follow the predicted steps of my life. And for that reason, it shone brighter, and so did she.”)

Though I understand building suspense by slowly revealing snippets of Leah’s backstory and what led her to Pennsylvania, I felt confused more than a couple times trying to piece things together. The sub-plots are interesting but lose some of their power as they’re dropped in ever so sporadically and piece-meal. It took me more than 200 pages to actually feel invested in the characters and the outcome of the story (which landed with a bit of a dull thud after such a long buildup.)

Still, it’s entertaining enough, and worth checking out if you enjoy Miranda’s books. I adore her so much that I almost feel guilty stamping less than 5 stars on “The Perfect Stranger.” Megan, you keep your spot on my favorite authors list, and I’ll be right here waiting for the next one!