Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

Like many Anglophiles, I tend to enjoy stories about the British elite, especially if there is a mystery or (even better) a juicy scandal involved. So I was happy to receive a copy of Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan (thanks to Atria/Emily Bester Books and NetGalley) in return for my honest review.

We first meet Kate, a criminal barrister who has just lost a case. She is eager to get back to winning, and is assigned the prosecution of a sexual crime – her specialty. The accused is an important public figure: a Junior Minister in the House of Commons named James.

We then meet Sophie, whose husband James (aha!) seems to be perfect: he is handsome, a loving father, and a successful public figure with am important government position – but he has been accused of. a terrible crime (one that sort of cries out “ripped from the headlines”). Sophie is convinced he is innocent and she is desperate to protect her family from what she is sure must be lies that are threatening to destroy her carefully constructed existence. She and James are members of the upper class, and in “…their set, where success is understood as inevitable but naked ambition considered vulgar…” they are extremely aware of their position and public image.

Kate is the consummate professional, fully aware of appearances: “Chatting with fellow counsel, or clients, with ushers, with police, we all look down from time to time, so as not to appear confrontational.” She is a single woman in her early 40s with a keen insight into the ways her position and career have impacted her as an individual and women in general. “But the truth is, women are often scared of antagonizing their assailants or they feel conflicted; not so very long ago they may have been charmed by them. And we women aim to please. It is hardwired into us that we should placate and mollify—bend our will to that of men. Oh, some of us have fought against that, and we’re seen as hard-nosed, difficult, assertive, shrewish. We pay the penalty. Why don’t I have a proper, live-in partner? It’s not just because I’m unsure if I can trust anyone sufficiently. It’s because I refuse to compromise. I refuse to woman up, you might say.” Kate ALWAYS wants the truth, and she is certain James is guilty and that she will be the one to be sure he pays for his crimes.

In flashback, we also meet Holly, an extremely bright student at in the early 1990s, who is even as a teenager is revealed to be an extremely bright woman who sees the struggles ahead for her: “If there was a crime worse than being bright, it was failing to disguise the fact under layers of sarcasm and thick mascara.” She goes to Oxford, and then…

Who is right about James, Kate or Sophie? Sophie has led a privileged life, yet she is well aware that her carefully managed life can be in danger. She has experienced this kind of risk, back in the days when she and James were at Oxford and she saw firsthand how easily a “prefect” existence could turn into tragedy.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s well written, and despite the slightly soap opera-ish tone, it touches on important issues, especially in the time of political scandal and #MeToo. Highly recommended. Five stars.

 

The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian

I’ve been a fan of Chris Bohjalian for many years…I think possibly Midwives was the first one of his that I read. Anyway, he has written a ton of good books, many of which had unique characters, settings, or situations. In addition to Midwives, I especially liked The Sandcastle Girls because I learned so much about the Armenian genocide while reading an entertaining story…and The Guest Room was another fave, for its tension and suspense while dealing with a social issue (human trafficking).

Thanks to Doubleday Books and NetGalley, I received a copy of The Flight Attendant in exchange for my honest review – and it was great fun to read despite the ick factor that is the first thing the reader encounters.

Cassandra Bowden, aka Cassie, wakes up one morning in a hotel room in Dubai, painfully hung over, in bed with a man she just met the night before. Neither of these is rare for Cassie, whose life as an international flight attendant consists of episodes of one-night stands and binge drinking between flights. The difference this time is that the man is dead, brutally murdered, and the bed and Cassie are covered in blood. ICK!!! Not only does Cassie not know all the circumstances of how she ended up there, she isn’t quite sure whether she was the one who killed Alex Sokolov. She remembers meeting him on the flight, flirting with him, then agreeing to go out on the town in Dubai…but she has a(nother) blackout episode (a recurring event for her) and kind of freaks out. So she does what she often does: she lies. To her crewmates, to the FBI, to pretty much everyone. As the plot unspools, there are many questions about both people (was he a spy? Is this related to Cassies’s brother-in-law whose high-level security clearance has something to do with weapons of mass destruction? Who was the other woman in the hotel room?) and events (who killed him? Can Cassie trust her fellow flight attendants?)

The book is told with the alternating points of view of Cassie and that mysterious other woman, interspersed with interview reports as Cassie and others are interviewed by the authorities. The building of suspense is terrific, and I really couldn’t go to sleep til I had finished it. As usual for me, I didn’t guess the ending in advance (although I did have concerns and suspicions early on as I learned Cassie was not only a liar but a thief, getting gifts for family from hotels around the world). I really liked it, even though I went into it with my usual bias toward Mr. Bohjalian, expecting to love it. It didn’t disappoint – five stars.

The New Neighbors by Simon Lelic

I’d never heard of Simon Lelic before I got this book, but because his latest book The New Neighbors got a positive blurb on the cover from Tana French, I figured if it’s good enough for Tana, it’s good enough for me!

The story revolves around a young couple named Jack and Syd who have recently been able to (at long last) buy a house in London. It came with all furnishings, including some weird stuff, but they felt terribly lucky to have been picked by the seller to be the buyers of his house, especially as they didn’t have enough money to afford such a big place.

Before long, they start to clear out some of the detritus left by the former owner, when Jack makes an unsettling discovery in the attic. Around the same time, Syd befriends a young girl from the neighborhood – a girl who is apparently being abused by her father – a fact that hits very close to home for Syd. Neither Jack nor Syd shares either of these factoids (the attic find and the abuse) with the other.

The story is told in alternating points of view, as Jack and Syd each write about what happened. There are twists and turns, and suspense as the book moves toward the big reveal – which I (as usual) did not see coming. This has “MOVIE” written all over it – not necessarily a bad thing. For fans of Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, or The Couple Next Door. Escapist entertainment. Well done, and even though  I doubt I will remember it in another month,  four stars (and thanks to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for this honest review). I will probably pick up one or more of Mr. Lelic’s earlier books – pure entertainment!

The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti

The opening of The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti creeped me out, as it was designed to do: “The day the birds fell, I dealt the tower card.” Based on the title, you might infer the birds mentioned were blackbirds, yes? But no, we learn at the start of chapter 2 that “A month before Nate was fired, nearly a thousand starlings fell from the sky. Not fluttering to the earth like snowflakes, but plummeting, like quarter-pound raindrops.”

So I was already thinking maybe I was just not reading carefully enough (happens more with each passing year, but I went back to resolve my ornithological confusion). TBH at the end of this excellently written and paced mystery/thriller, I was still not clear on the whole bird thing. But a fun read!

Here is the basic premise: there is a small town in the east where the high school has a beloved high school teacher, who is also the baseball coach in a town where baseball means WAY more than either football or basketball. We are led to wonder about his possible involvement with the disappearance of a female student as we learn that Nate, the teacher/coach, “…always had a soft spot for her and those like her: the damaged, pretty girls.” When the police become involved, Nate is less than fully honest about his involvement with Lucia, the missing student. While being questioned, he “…had no way of knowing that this moment would become the linchpin, the moment that all the moments after would hinge upon. The papers would call him a murderer; …ex-friends, his gym buddies…would say, Nate was the last one to see her alive, right?”

Really nice way she reveals information about the four main characters who tell the story in alternating points of view: Nate, his wife Alecia (who is a frazzled stay-at-home mom to their autistic son and maybe is inclined to suspect Nate’s involvement; Lucia, the missing student: and Bridget, a co-worker and buddy of Ned who was part of the two-couple friendship with Nate and Alecia before her husband dies (and was the only character I REALLY liked). Not everyone in the story is likable or smart. In fact, Nate seems like quite a dolt and Alecia sure was quick to suspect her husband of possibly killing a student with whom she is sure he was having an “inappropriate relationship” and she was awfully bitchy to Bridget. I wanted to like her, but found her annoying as her frustration with Nate, their child, and the marriage in general kept moving her actions along.

Again, some great writing, as in this passage where we learn a great deal about both Lucia and Bridget: “Lucia tackled pain and death clinically, a biology lab discussion. As if Bridget’s hurt could be pulled apart like little frog’s legs, pinned back to the wax, sliced clean down the middle and simply exorcised.”
Okay, there are lots of clichés here, in the small town, star athletes, rocky marriage, beloved teacher, etc. But Kate Moretti is a GOOD writer and my only thought was some editing of the narrative about the woods/mill etc. might have helped. Overall, it’s a fairly quick read, and quite well written. I’ll definitely check out Kate Moretti’s other work, and I appreciate Atria Books and NetGalley for providing a copy in exchange for my honest review. Four stars.

 

I Found You by Lisa Jewell

COVER Jewell I found you

It’s been awhile since I read a book that I COULD NOT PUT DOWN.  Well, thanks to Lisa Jewell (and to Atria Books and NetGalley, for providing a copy of I Found You in exchange for my honest review), I had that lovely experience during the past 24 hours.

The weird thing is, I had read the blurb on this one and kind of set it aside for awhile, thinking it was just another woman-in-danger-England-Gone Girl-wannabe, and I have read quite enough of those in the past 6 months to last me awhile.

But once I dove in, I was hooked — and FAST. There are three things going on in this book: 20+ years ago, in a resort town on the coast, three teenagers had a vacation encounter. Back to today, we learn that the newlywed husband of a young woman named Lily (recently arrived from Ukraine) doesn’t come home one night – and seems to have disappeared. And then, the police tell Lily that her husband never existed. At the same time, in a small town, a single woman named Alice encounters a man on the beach who seems to have amnesia. Of course, the first guess is he must be Lily’s missing husband, right? Nope.

The story is told in alternating chapters, with twists and turns as the three stories veer toward and away from each other, leading up to a great conclusion.

Jewell does a great job keeping the reader guessing (or at least she kept ME guessing) until very near the end. Well-developed characters, a nifty plotline and good suspense. Five stars just because I had such a good time reading it!

 

 

The Party by Robyn Harding

COVER Harding The Party

Hannah Sanders is turning sixteen. She’s a good student, she gets good grades and has nice friends, and so her parents trust her. Rather than a big flashy party, they decide to have a sweet sixteen party at their multimillion-dollar home in a wealthy Bay Area suburb (I’m picturing Lafayette or Orinda). She invites four girlfriends over for a slumber party with pizza, cake, and movies. What could possibly go wrong?

Hannah’s parents, Jeff and Kim, have a tension-filled marriage, revealed by Kim’s regular use of Ambien to get to sleep: “…there was far too much tension in her marriage to handle without a good night’s sleep.” Jeff seems to wonder how their marriage got to where it is: “Once, they’d gone to Mexico and Kim had downed tequila shots and danced on the bar in her bra. And then Kim became a mother and it was like flicking a switch. Overnight, Kim became responsible, earnest, doting…boring.”

Kim sets the ground rules for the night, giving a little speech that clearly spells them out: no boys, no booze, and no drugs. Then they pretty much leave the girls to have fun in the rec room. But Jeff wants to be the “cool Dad” so he picks up a bottle of champagne and sneaks it to them, figuring one bottle will give each girl a small glass – again, what could possibly go wrong?

Of course, things DO go wrong, with a tragic accident in the middle of the night that starts the unraveling of the façade of their picture-perfect life. Much like Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, my guess is that for many readers there is a bit of schadenfreude as they watch things fall apart. Life in the perfect suburbs – it really can’t be THAT perfect, can it? Doesn’t this family have some of the same issues, flaws and problems as the rest of us? As things spiral downward in the story, we learn of the deception, lies, and betrayal that lie under that façade, for the girls as well as the adults. When the victim’s mother reminds her “You’re the victim here,” her daughter asks her “Don’t you remember high school at all?…No one likes a fucking victim!”

After the party, “Hannah had experienced a perspective shift. Despite the values her mother had tried to instill in her, getting straight A’s wasn’t actually the most important thing in the world. Survival, that’s what mattered. Getting through the gauntlet of tenth grade with your self-esteem intact was what counted.” When she is encouraged by her counselor to do the right thing socially following the party, she’s torn: “Hannah didn’t want to be the girl with strength of character. She wanted to be the cool girl, the popular girl, the girl with the hot boyfriend.” At the same time, Kim (Hannah’s mom) finds her self dealing with both the teenagers and the adults and realizes “There is only one thing as mean as teenagers: soccer moms.”

Told from the alternating perspectives of Hannah, each of her parents, and the victim’s mother, the pacing of the story is just right. We lean of the horrific accident early on, and we know exactly what caused it. And details about both current and past behaviors of individual adults are revealed subtly, and only later do we learn how these will impact the unfolding drama.

I was in the mood for some escapist fiction, something that was not overly challenging but was completely entertaining. This fit the bill on all counts, and I appreciate having an opportunity to read an advance copy of The Party, thanks to Gallery/Scout Press and NetGalley. Five stars for the combination of domestic suburban drama, moral dilemma, suburban skewering, and all-around good story.

Almost Missed You by Jessica Strawser

cover-strawser-almost-missed-you

This sounded like just the thing for an escape from reality: a story about a couple who “met cute,” got married and had a child, went on their first vacation as a family, and then…the husband and pre-school-age boy disappear completely! I  thought it had “beach read” written all over it – not a bad thing! Also, the fact that Lisa Scottoline and Chris Bohjalian (a couple of authors I enjoy) had glowing things to say about it increased my interest, so I was pleased to receive an advance copy of Almost Missed You from St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

We first encounter Violet and Finn, the married couple who are referred to by their friends as “meant to be,” meeting on a beach in the Carolinas. Although they had an instant connection, they didn’t actually meet F2F for some time. In the interim, Finn had a fiancée and Violet was restlessly single. Finn apparently still thinks about Violet and their brief encounter, and of course they end up together. Violet is happy as can be when they head out on their first vacation as a family…and then she finds herself in her worst nightmare. (The revelation of Violet’s dawning realization of the disappearance of her husband and child is particularly well done).

Other characters impact the story, particularly Caitlin, who has been friends with Finn forever, and who comes to be Violet’s BFF. She plays a critical role in the events that happen both before and after Finn and Violet get together.

The full story is told through alternating viewpoints of Finn, Violet and Caitlin, and has strong themes of marital betrayal, the role of fate in a relationship, secrets (both those kept and those revealed), and the relationship between a mother and her child.

Given that Ms. Strawser’s day job is Editorial Director of Writer’s Digest magazine, expectations are high for this, her first novel. For a beach read, it’s a five star (not literary fiction, but extremely entertaining, and well written).