I love writing book reviews. If reading a book is like going on a vacation, writing a book review is like showing the photos and souvenirs and telling my friends about the trip. Book reviews can turn the solitary pleasure of reading into something shared with a community of like-minded readers. It also helps other …
Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough
I had this book on my “to read” list forever and found a hardback at the local library. It seems like the kind of thing I’d just adore, promising twists and turns and deep schemes. I was expecting Girl on the Train, or even Gone Girl, or maybe the not-quite-as-good Girl in the Window. I got a girl, anyway. I’ve hidden anything even remotely spoiler-y behind a cut. The fact that Adele is going to turn out to be a “bad” guy I don’t count as spoilery. You can pretty much know that going in.
On the surface we have a troubled relationship between a beautiful heiress named Adele who loves a man named David, except she doesn’t love his hobby, which is “shagging other women.” David is a psychotherapist, and one night he meets Louise in a bar and they totally hit it off. Only it turns out that Louise is the person who has just been hired to be the secretary for his office. So yeah, he’s hot for the secretary. Then Louise meets Adele and the two of them become best friends. You see that light in the distance? That’s the trainwreck coming.
There’s all these hinted secrets. David has burn scars on his hands, and there’s something about a wrist watch. Adele keeps hinting at her “plan” and how Louise fits into her “plan.” How does Adele know the content of conversations between Louise and David? There’s a notebook written by a boy they used to know named Rob, and something about lucid dreaming to cure night terrors. Honestly, all the secrets and the promise of a revelation at the end was what kept me reading. The secrets are pretty much revealed, and there was a twist I hadn’t expected. But other things didn’t hold water. For example, she paints the room in shades of green, and David is furious about it, and it turns out the reason is that she did it to remind him of her family’s estate in Scotland. Um, what? That’s ridiculous.
On the surface, David is a violent, controlling, cheating, lying, alcoholic who is cruel to his wife despite the fact that she adores him. Adele is a fragile and timid creature who foolishly gave her new husband control of her fortune. Louise is an underemployed single mum who drinks too much and is too weak to say no to David when he shows up at her door wanting some action. Once the true story and the true secret is revealed, you learn that David is still a violent, controlling, cheating, lying drunk who is cruel to his wife despite the fact that she adores him. Adele has a deeper side that means she’s less of a victim than it might seem at first blush, and Louise is an even more pathetic loser of a woman who had a billion chances to make a grown up decision and throws them all out the window. Once I found out the the truth about what really happened, I was supposed to go “oh, Adele is the real villain here and David is innocent!” But he was still a loathsome turd. He says she’s a psychopath, but it sounded too much to me like “oh my ex-girlfriend was crazy! She kept having inconvenient emotions as a response to my selfish and hurtful behavior!”
Louise, by virtue of the fact that she was knowingly screwing not just her boss, but another woman’s husband, was also pretty much a loathsome turd. And she’s friends with the woman she’s cuckolding, which just makes her even more vile. The supposed secret that Adele held over David to answer the obvious “why don’t they just get divorced” didn’t hold water. (view spoiler)[David knows enough how unfairly the world is skewed in his favor when he tells Louise that if she goes to his boss about their affair, she’ll look like a tramp because the boss is a man’s man who always blames the woman. Does he really think that a man that deeply entrenched in privilege is going to go to prison on account of a wristwatch? (hide spoiler)]
Some of the writing bothered me. I got confused in more than one chapter about who was speaking because Adele and Louise had the same voice. They also name-dropped brands constantly. I’m assuming they were brands, though I hadn’t heard of any of them. The characters make a big deal about lucid dreaming being this super-secret art, but lucid dreaming is like learning to French-braid your own hair; a moderately clever 12-year-old might figure it out on her own. (view spoiler)[Astral projecting (which is what it’s called, though it doesn’t work quite like it does in the book) is either supernatural or a difficult skill one learns after years of meditation, not stage two of lucid dreaming. I think that the author thought she was making something up, but accidentally described something that (many people believe) actually exists, and because I went into this book with the expectation that this was not speculative or supernatural fiction, the result is that it feels like the author just didn’t do quite enough research. I like supernatural elements in books, but I prefer it when I’m expecting them. (hide spoiler)]
Does it have plenty of secrets and unexpected twists? Yes. Did I start to root for a different person once I find out these secrets? No. Does it have compelling and believable characters? No. The heroine, Louisa, started out sympathetic and got pathetic. I was supposed to hate Adele once I found out her secret and have tolerance and understanding for David, but I could never forget how nasty David had been in the present day to think that the events of the past exonerated him. At the end of the book, I only had sympathy for Louisa’s son, that he had the misfortune to have Louisa for a mother. End verdict: Plotting is pretty good, characters are unlikeable, prose has issues. This book is only okay.
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What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
I have really been enjoying Moriarty’s work. This is the third book of hers I’ve read/listened to (I listened to the audiobook of this one) and while it wasn’t as hard-hitting as Big Little Lies or The Husband’s Secret, I still found it enjoyable.
I think Moriarty’s strength is in the little details that make everyone so believable. Even the children have their own personalities, which is not the case with many novels that have children in them. The people aren’t just different from each other, they’re different from themselves depending on their age. Alice at 29 is a different woman from Alice at 39.
I loved exploring Alice’s world as she figures out what has happened in the previous ten years. There’s enough mystery and tragedy and events to keep revealing them one by one and make it interesting. The best thing about the book were these little reveals and the depth and nuance of the characters. I also liked the “will she or won’t she” question of whether or not she would repair her marriage with Nick.
I do get a little tired of reading about rich, snobby, competitive mothers. Do people really host social events for the other parents of Kindergartners? That just seems totally weird. She seemed to get bent out of shape about unimportant things. Alice doesn’t have real problems. Alice’s marriage doesn’t have real problems. There was no reason for them to be splitting in the first place except that they’re too wrapped up in themselves and in their own lives. I found Alice, young Alice, a more or less likeable person, if a bit of a mess. Old Alice wasn’t quite so likeable. She’s more jaded and spoiled, unkind and not terribly emotionally mature. Or maybe other people don’t sort of grow up in their thirties like I did? Maybe you don’t need to if you are of the 5-latte-a-day and expensive personal trainer class of people.
This is a sweeter book than Big Little Lies, though it still deals with hard-hitting subjects such as grief and infertility. Now that I’ve read three of them, I’m finding a sameness in the “very rich suburban mothers of young children who have their entire social circle and identity wrapped up in their motherhood and their children’s school lives” circle. It seems a rather specific sort of person, rather foreign to me but alike to one another, and I used to be a suburban mother of young children. I just didn’t get quite so into it the way these women seem to assume everyone does.
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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This is a very well done and enjoyable young adult fiction that happens to touch on some extremely timely and relevant aspects of modern American life. I honestly wish we had more books like this, especially ones that manage to touch on race relations in such a human and accessible way.
What I liked best about this novel were the relationships. Starr’s family tree is confusing, but the different connections she has to so many different people in her neighborhood gave her a deeper sense of community than most people in my social circle have. Sometimes she’s “Big Mav’s daughter who works in the store sometimes” and sometimes she’s “the only black girl in school” and after the incident she becomes “the witness.” Big Mav is not just a gangbanger who retired, he’s also a doting father who worries about his kids and loves his wife. Even Iesha, one of the least-sympathetic characters in this book, manages to become sympathetic due to a selfless act that doesn’t look like what it is at first glance.
Even while this book is about police violence, it’s also about normal teenage experiences like celebrating prom, navigating young love, and learning how to tell the difference between “friends” and friends. I recommend this book for people who are crass enough to say “blue lives matter” and don’t know why that’s tacky (because, honestly, what’s so controversial about “please stop murdering children?”), and for anyone who likes YA fiction.
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Creatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer
I really enjoyed listening to this audiobook. It was like a period romance, except with fencing, diabolists, and lesbians. How startlingly creative to combine the Victorian love of the occult with the late romanticists!
The main characters are Doreena and Yvadne (guessing on the spelling) who are two unmarried sisters who love each other and yet are so diametrically contrary in character that they grate on one another’s nerves. Doreena is passionate and sensual while Yvadne is antisocial and confrontational. Since I’m an introvert who likes martial arts, I found Yvadne a relatable character, but she doesn’t make it easy. She’s a bit of a pill. And Doreena should be more likeable, since I’m also someone passionate about the arts and new experiences, but she’s kind of a cad and doesn’t always respect others’ feelings. They’re not easy women to like, but Tanzer spends so much time with them that by the end of the book I did want them to succeed and be happy.
Yvadne is passionate about fencing, and Doreena is passionate about art and sensual experiences. Each find their own circle of acquaintances and their own sense of belonging within them. If this were a historical fiction, it might have stopped at that, because that’s really enough of a human experience that we could all get something out of it, but this is a fantasy novel, so there’s also demons.
I really loved the way that Tanzer does demons in this book. They’re nuanced. There are as many different kinds of demons as there are different kinds of people, and while some of the demons want their followers to murder people, others just want a beneficial symbiotic relationship. Whether the diabolists are pure evil or just aesthetes depended on ones viewpoint. Kind of like drug users in that way; whether they’re all worthless junkies or just people who want to experience the richness of life more fully depends on where you are on the spectrum and whom you’ve come in contact with.
What I liked best about this book is the way it really made me feel creepy and gothic and Victorian without using ghosts or vampires. It was delightfully steampunk without using a single gear or clock or mechanical anything. It was Lovecraftian without using Cthulu or madness. It made candy seem as alluring and dangerous as opium. Listening to this book put me in a world that felt simultaneously familiar and exotic.
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Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
The skilled author of the Temeraire series has turned the story of Rumpelstiltskin into an extremely satisfying fantasy novel in Spinning Silver. It takes a setting like medieval Russia, and the premise of a father caught bragging that his daughter can spin into gold, and expands it into an amazing story.
Here’s what I loved about this story: First of all, the main heroine is Miryem, who is as Jewish as she sounds. So many books set in medieval or semi-medieval locales ignore the existence of Jewish people, as if they didn’t come into existence until 1939. Miryem is very much a product of her time and place. She understands the limitations placed upon her by her birth, that even though she’s the granddaughter of a rich and respected man, all of it could be swept away in an instant. She is of the townsfolk but yet not of the townsfolk because she’s not a gentile. She’s hard when she needs to be, and while she doesn’t much like herself for it, she doesn’t apologize and she doesn’t flinch. She spins silver into gold through her understanding of lending rates and market forces, which is a pretty awesome superpower. Only, her “reward” for doing this is to become the queen of the Tsarek King, which Miryem doesn’t much want.
One of the things Miryem does is take the neighbor’s daughter, Wanda, as a bondservant when Wanda’s father can’t repay his debt. Miryem thinks she’s being cruel, but it turns out to be a huge gift to Wanda. Miryem’s parents are exceptionally kindhearted, which is both their downfall and their saving grace. The story about Wanda and her brothers, and how they come to live with Miryem’s family is heartwarming and wonderful and there’s a scene I had to listen to more than once because it made me cry (in a good way.)
Wanda and her brothers are also a product of their time. Their father is as cruel and lazy as they are hard working and kind. They look out for one another and pretty much act the way heroes and heroines in the fairy tales usually are supposed to act; by selflessly working without complaint. This alone isn’t enough to get them to a better life, but fortunately they have some magical help.
Irina is a boyar’s daughter, whose father has decided to use the magic Tsarek (Starik? Starek? No idea how that’s spelled) silver to make his daughter so alluring that she captures the heart of the Tsar. It works, but not in the way they expect. But Irina, though her beauty had never been enough for her to aspire to grandeur, is no fool. She’s cool and collected and brave and, like Miryem, is also not afraid to make hard decisions without flinching.
So it’s the story of strong and brave young women who leverage their modest resources to save their kingdom and all the people in it, defeat the bad guys, and even win for themselves handsome husbands who love them. Highly recommend.
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Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough I had this book on my “to read” list forever and found a hardback at the local library. It seems like the kind of thing I’d just adore, promising twists and turns and deep schemes. I was expecting Girl on the Train, or even Gone Girl, or maybe the …
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty I have really been enjoying Moriarty’s work. This is the third book of hers I’ve read/listened to (I listened to the audiobook of this one) and while it wasn’t as hard-hitting as Big Little Lies or The Husband’s Secret, I still found it enjoyable. I think Moriarty’s strength is …
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas This is a very well done and enjoyable young adult fiction that happens to touch on some extremely timely and relevant aspects of modern American life. I honestly wish we had more books like this, especially ones that manage to touch on race relations in such a human …
Creatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer I really enjoyed listening to this audiobook. It was like a period romance, except with fencing, diabolists, and lesbians. How startlingly creative to combine the Victorian love of the occult with the late romanticists! The main characters are Doreena and Yvadne (guessing on the spelling) who are …
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik The skilled author of the Temeraire series has turned the story of Rumpelstiltskin into an extremely satisfying fantasy novel in Spinning Silver. It takes a setting like medieval Russia, and the premise of a father caught bragging that his daughter can spin into gold, and expands it into an amazing …