Book Review: Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughn


Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughn

James Whitehouse is a successful politician and close friends with the Prime Minister. Sophie is his faithful wife. Then a scandal breaks, James is accused first of having an affair with a member of his staff, then of rape. Sophie desperately needs to believe in her husband’s innocence. Kate Woodcroft, the prosecuting attorney, sincerely believes in his guilt. As the case moves on, secrets from the past threaten to come to light.

This is a slow-building thriller that explores the nature of love and truth, privilege and power. Vaughn does a splendid job of alternating between the past and present, and between husband, wife, and prosecutor. We explore each person’s life, and see what a fragile thing truth really is.

The book builds slowly, which can be frustrating for those who want the plot to go-go-go. And any one experiencing psychological thriller fatigue (like me), can find the slower pace a bit trying. But in all, Vaughn’s exploration of how privilege impacts truth is a vital and important topic in this day and age. I would recommend you give it a go.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: Law and Vengeance by Mike Papantonio

Law and vengeance

Law and Vengeance by Mike Panantonio

An explosive case against a weapons manufacturer sets the law firm of Bergman & Deketomis, and young lawyer Gina Romano, in the sights of some truly awful people. Gina’s mentor and friend, Angus Moore, is killed under suspicious circumstances while investigating a whistle-blower’s claims that weapons manufacturer Arbalest’s holographic gun sight, the “Sight-Clops,” is responsible for a number of preventable deaths. Gina vows vengeance for her murdered friend, and finds herself facing down ruthless businessmen, crooked cops, assassins, and gun lobbyists.

I decided the plot of the book sounded interesting, and certainly seemed relevant in these times. I also looked forward to a legal thriller whose political views seemed more in line with my own (no Ring of Fire– or Target Omega-style dick waving here). But I just  . . . couldn’t get into it. I don’t know, I’ve enjoyed legal thrillers in the past, but this one just wasn’t for me. The pace of the book is quick, and I always love having a woman as the protagonist, but the dialogue seemed a bit stilted and unnatural. The character interactions didn’t flow like conversations, but instead each line bounced off the others with little subtext and a lot of exposition. After a while, the choppy flow of the dialogue started to interfere with my reading of the interesting story, and I simply had to stop.

Still, fans of legal thrillers may want to give this one a try, as I’m always willing to admit when something just wasn’t for me, but may well appeal to someone else.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for a honest review.

Book Review: White Bodies by Jane Robins

White Bodies by Jane Robins

Callie and Tilda are twins, though they couldn’t be more different. Tilda is beautiful, outgoing, and a successful actress. Callie is quiet and introverted, and worships the ground her sister walks on. When Tilda becomes involved with successful stockbroker Felix, Callie is at first happy that her sister has found someone so perfect. But after Tilda starts behaving oddly, and displaying mysterious bruises, Callie begins to worry that Felix is dangerous. Getting drawn into an internet site for abused women, Callie becomes more and more obsessed with revealing the truth about Felix. But as the foundations of Callie’s concern begin to shift and crumble, can her perceptions be trusted?

I am now in full-fledged psychological thriller burnout. I have to admit that I feel a bit more justified in my feelings on the subject after reading Emily Martin’s article on Bookriot entitled “Why We Should Stop Searching for the Next Gone Girl” (warning: spoilers for Gone Girls, The Couple Next Door, and The Girl on the Train). Martin makes the point that in the rush to achieve to runaway success Gillian Flynn did with Gone Girl, folks have been cranking out similar stories, each trying on their own brand of mental illness to up the suspense. However, as much as Amy Dunne was a psychopathic bitch, her flaws and intelligence made her a complex and compelling (if horrible) character. As Emily Martin points out in her article, Flynn was able to give us a leading female character who was pretty much unlikeable in every way.

The inevitable consequence of Flynn’s success, according to Martin

. . . is a new and equally problematic female character archetype – the unwieldy off-the-rails woman. This woman is not any more complicated than the “strong female character.” Her craziness is not a personality, and her bouts of insanity that not even she can control allow for absolutely any twist possible that the writer wants to imagine.

And with this, I can finally put my finger on what has been bugging me about this genre recently. None of the recent protagonists of these books have been more complex than their mental illness. And while our current protagonist, Callie, is probably the weirdest I’ve seen yet, simply being crazy does not a compelling character make.

The books also by necessity rely heavily on inevitable plot twist(s), and this one is no exception. The problem is, that while reading these books (much like watching an M. Night Shyamalan movie) we are looking into every crevice and casually uttered word for said twist. With that amount of scrutiny, any surprises the plot might hold are going to be guessed long before the climax; if not from the evidence at hand, then simply by trying to think of ways to make the ending more shocking.

I apologize that this review is less about White Bodies specifically and more about the genre as a whole, but the field is crowded at the moment, and it takes a truly remarkable talent to separate oneself from the pack. White Bodies, unfortunately, does not do this. Callie is simply one more protagonist who’s mental illness is used to facilitate contortions of the plot.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: That Last Weekend by Laura DiSilverio

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That Last Weekend: A Novel of Suspense by Laura DiSilverio

Five college friends stayed at the same castle-like bed and breakfast every year, until tragedy struck. Pushed away by suspicion and fear, and drifting further apart due to distance and time, they now barely speak to one another. Until, ten years after that fateful night, each receives an invitation to return to the Chateau du Cygne Noir for one last weekend. The demons of the past and the present join forces, and death stalks the chateau. The five friends must confront their past and rip open old wounds to finally uncover the truth.

If all this sounds like a Christopher Pike novel to you, you are not far off (old person question: do people still read Christopher Pike books? Or are you looking up his Wikipedia page right now?). I’m not sure if I’m just burned out on the psychological thriller genre, but I just couldn’t get into this book. I tried, but ultimately, I couldn’t get behind any of the main characters, and reading the book felt a bit like my middle school reads attempted an Agatha Christie radio drama.

But, maybe I’m being overly harsh. I’ve certainly been hitting the psychological thrillers harder than the whiskey recently, and I have to say, they’ve all started to look alike to me. I think too many plot twists may have turned my head. If you’re generally a fan of the genre, or you’re old enough to look back at The Midnight Club with something like nostalgia, then give this book a whirl. I’d like to know if quiet, self-conscious, jogging female protagonists have turned me into a bitter old hag.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

 Three years ago, sisters Emma and Cass disappeared. Now Cass has returned, but what happened to Emma? As Cass begins telling her family and the FBI about what happened to her and her sister, it becomes clear that there are many hidden depths to Cass’s story, and that multiple people are playing for their own ends. The more Cass reveals, the more questions arise. And it is impossible to tell who, if anyone, can be trusted to tell the truth about Emma.

God, I have read a lot of psychological thrillers in this vein recently. With the success of titles like The Girl on the Train and In a Dark, Dark Wood, these types of books are definitely in vogue. And I do generally enjoy this genre; but even I’m starting to feel worn down by plot twist after plot twist. I’m going to try very hard not to make Emma in the Night suffer for my over-saturation.

This book is a fine example of the genre. Walker keeps us guessing for most of the book about who can be trusted and who cannot. The character of Cass is definitely front and center, and those surrounding her, especially her mother, sister, and the FBI psychologist interviewing her are left a bit flat by comparison. I did enjoy the slow pulling back the layers of the months and years preceding Cass and Emma’s disappearance. Walker’s portrayal of the facade of a typical upper-middle-class home hiding dark secrets was well done.

So if you (unlike me) are not burned out on a genre turned into the literary equivalent of an IPA, this book has a lot to offer. Fans of Paula Hawkins and Ruth Ware will like this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

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Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

It’s been a year since Sybilla “Billie” Flanagan disappeared while on a solo hiking trip. Missing and presumed dead, her grieving husband and teenage daughter have been left to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. Then one day at school, Billie’s daughter has a vision: her mother is alive, somewhere out there, and needs Olive to come find her. Jonathan, Billie’s husband, initially dismisses the idea that Billie is still alive. After all, he has just recently been able to accept the fact of her death. But then a chance encounter with one of Billie’s friends reveals that his wife has been keeping secrets from him for years. The deeper he digs into his wife’s mysterious past, the more uncertain he becomes about the woman he married, and whether she did actually perish a year ago.

This is a tight, subtle thriller. We know Billie, former wild child turned Berkeley super mom by the holes she left in the lives of those around her. While Olive and Jonathan work in their own ways to find out what happened to Billie, we see her surface persona slowly scraped away, and something different and darker start to show through underneath. Every revelation about who Billie was adds more mystery, rather than less, to her ultimate fate. Through the course of the book, you find yourself very smugly sure that so-and-so knows what happened to Billie, only to have that assumption ripped away a few chapters later, and your focus moved on to a new suspect.

Fans of mysteries and thrillers will probably enjoy this book. The story has several elements in common with Gone Girl. If you’ve enjoyed books in that vein, this is a good pick for you.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Virgin of the Wind Rose by Glen Craney

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The Virgin of the Wind Rose: A Christopher Columbus Mystery-Thriller by Glen Craney

While investigating the death of her fiance in Ethiopia, State Department newbie Jacqueline “Jac” Quartermane stumbles upon a mysterious word puzzle in an underground church in Lalibela, Ethiopia. Determined to solve the puzzle, she finds herself thrown into an ancient Christian mystery. Her investigations spark a wide ranging race to resurrect the Temple of Solomon. Running parallel to this, we travel back to 1452, where a Portuguese secret society seeks to avert the Spanish crown’s designs to bring about judgement day.

If you’re thinking that this sounds very like The Da Vinci Code, you’re not alone. The promise of an interesting mystery tied to a historical thriller sounded like a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the main character, Jacqueline Quartermane, is a literalist, born-again Christian. Her mentor is a megachurch pastor with most of the GOP in his pocket. Forgive me for saying this, but I find the idea of cheering for someone like Jac to be repellent. The historical portions of the plot were interesting, although the time jumps did get confusing at times. It was the modern-day portions, with Jac at the helm, that ultimately turned me off this book. Perhaps I’m letting my personal feelings have too much sway, but especially in this day and age I find I have no patience for the religious set. If this book had been more secular, like The Da Vinci Code, it would have been much more palatable for me.

So, this book was entirely not to my tastes. For those who don’t mind the overly-religious bits, you may still enjoy it. One person’s tastes are not the be-all and end-all (which is the whole point of this blog). But for myself, I had to say no.

A copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

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The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Helena grew up in an isolated cabin deep in the marshes of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she understood the horrible truth of her unconventional childhood: her father was a kidnapper and rapist, and her mother his victim and prisoner. Now an adult, Helena has two young children of her own, and her father, known as The Marsh King, has been in prison for over a decade. Then one day, state troopers show up at her door; her father has escaped from prison. Helena knows that he will be coming for her, but her father is a consummate woodsman, able to disappear into the wilderness at will. Helena will have to use every bit of information he taught her in order to track him down and keep her family safe.

This nail-biting thriller contains shades of Room by Emma Donoghue and Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller. The story weaves between the present day, where Helena is living a more or less normal life in rural Michigan (though she still struggles with the intricacies of society), and her childhood living on the land in the isolated cabin on the marsh. We can acutely feel the subtle damage done to Helena by her father, yet she was raised to more or less worship him. Her father is a rapist, a kidnapper, and a sadist, but he was also the man who raised her, and what little girl doesn’t want the approval of her father? This dissonance between the facts and the feelings of her childhood present Helena with a horrible and complex dilemma. She knows her father is an evil man, and that he means to hurt her and her family, but how do you truly stop being daddy’s little girl?

I really liked this book. Dionne has taken a theme that occupies both newspaper headlines and our nightmares and made it into a terrifyingly realistic, gripping story. The weaving of past and present events is done well, revealing in increments the full story of Helena’s childhood. If you’ve been looking for a fast-paced, stay-up-until-one-in-the-morning read, this is the perfect book for you.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Blackout by Marc Elsberg

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Blackout by Marc Elsberg

 

The entire European electric grid has gone dark. From Britain to the Czech Republic, millions are without power. As the blackout continues, international authorities are unable to find the cause of the disaster, or who might be responsible. Chaos and unrest continue to build as people are left without food, heat, water, or medical care. Hacker Piero Manzano believes he may have discovered the cause of the blackout, but he quickly finds himself Europol’s number one suspect. Manzano must continue his investigation on the run, and with the help of an American journalist, he sets out to find those responsible. But time is not on his side, without backup power, nuclear power plants across the continent are beginning to go critical.

This is a scary book. Elsberg has thoroughly researched and crafted this book to hew as closely as possible to reality. His knowledge of electric grids, cyber security, and international policing and politics is comprehensive and used to best effect. In Blackout, we find a very real look at what a major terror attack against our power supply might look like.

My major problem with the book it that it lacks heart. The book reads more like an overview of events rather than a novel with characters we are supposed to care about. However, this may not be Elsberg’s fault. Blackout was originally published in German in 2012, the version I read (to be published in June of 2017) was translated into English. Translation of literature is a complex and fraught artform. Without careful attention to form and intent, the heart and soul of the book (or poem, etc.) in question can be lost. I am wondering if that is what happened here. As I do not speak German, that will have to remain merely a hypothesis until some kindly German-speaking person reads the book in its original form and lets me know if they found the same problem.

Still, this is a vivid and haunting picture of events which I could potentially see in my lifetime. The realism of the book is haunting, and will stick with you even after you’ve finished reading. If you’re looking for a disaster story, this one takes the cake.

 

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Target Omega by Peter Kirsanow

Target Omega

Target Omega by Peter Kirsanow

Michael Garin is the best of the best, a US special forces soldier so good at his job, and so mom and apple pie, that he would give Captain America an inferiority complex. Garin’s anti-WMD strike force is deployed in a successful mission to prevent a terrorist cell from acquiring a nuclear device. Within 48 hours of their return stateside, all but Garin have been killed by a deadly foreign operative. Finding himself the prime suspect in the deaths of his teammates, Garin goes rogue to uncover the motive behind their deaths and to stop a devastating attack against the United States.

Okay, first off: this book is fun. This is the literary version of The White House has Fallen, Broken Arrow, Rambo, or anything starring John Cena. There are explosions, car chases, shoot ’em ups, and thoroughly implausible hand-to-hand vs. gun fights. The main characters are pretty one-sided and fulfill their genre-defined role, but with this type of story they don’t need to be anything more. This is a popcorn-grade summer action flick bound into paper format, and I enjoyed reading this book.

On the other hand, as is common with this particular genre, there was a lot of ‘Murica flavored chest thumping, and red white and blue dick waving. highly enjoyable action scenes are interspersed with eye-roll worthy proclamations about what it means to be an American (guns, church, and apple pie), and the nature of the true enemy (pansy-ass liberals, duh). As I myself thoroughly own the title of bleeding heart liberal out to destroy all that makes America great, these darling little snippets did take away a bit from my enjoyment of the book (yes, I know, “cry me a river, snowflake”blah blah blah).

So, in sum, I do recommend this book to those who love military-oriented action thrillers, or for anyone wanting an entertaining beach read this summer. It was a genuinely good book, after all. But if you’re the type to take red state MAGA asides with more than just an eye roll (and in the current political climate, I heartily sympathize), this may not be the book for you, at least not right now (maybe 2018? Hopefully?). So read the book, it’s fun, but with just enough family-member-you-avoid-talking-to-at-get-togethers to keep me from being able to whole-heartedly recommend it.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.