The Bad Daughter by Joy Fielding

 

With all the crap going on in the world, I have been ready for some good fun escapist entertainment. Hoping for something to take over my brain for a few hours, I began reading Joy Fielding’s The Bad Daughter (thanks to Random House-Ballantine and NetGalley who provided a copy in return for my honest review).

Right off, I loved the vulnerability of the protagonist, Robin, who at the very beginning of the story starst to have a panic attack when she picks up a voice mail message from her sister Melanie. They haven’t spoken in two years, and have been estranged ever since their father married Tara, who was Robin’s best friend growing up. Oh, and by the way, Tara was engaged at the time to the Robin and Melanie’s brother when she ran off with their Dad. Got that? In any case, Melanie calls to tell Robin that their father, Tara, and Tara’s young daughter have been brutally attacked in their home in Red Bluff, CA. The kid was shot, the wife/mom is dead, and dad is in the hospital clinging to life.

When Tara married her father, Robin left Red Bluff and went to Berkeley where she got her master’s in psychology, became a therapist, and got on with her life. She’s now living in L.A., engaged to an apparently perfect guy – or is he??—and she feels like the “…panic attacks she used to experience on an almost daily basis were part of her past. “

So Robin heads back to Red Bluff. As she looks into the situation, she begins to wonder if this might have been something more than a home invasion/botched burglary attempt. It seems that everyone—her sister Melanie, her autistic therefore less-than-communicative nephew, her absent brother, and even Tara, her father’s wife—had something to hide.

For those who don’t know, the setting is interesting: “Approximately 14,000 people lived in Red Bluff, most of them white and straining toward middle class. The town’s motto was “A Great Place to Live,” although Robin had always thought “A Great Place to Leave” would probably be a more suitable slogan.” Personally, I’ve always been a bit creeped out by Red Bluff ever since I read Perfect Victim, the book about the “girl in a box.” It’s the true story about a young woman (Colleen Stan) who was kidnapped and held by a mill worker named (I’m not kidding here) Cameron Hooker and kept in a box for SEVEN YEARS. Oh and the neighbors, who knew she was there, with Hooker AND HIS WIFE AND KIDS, never thought there was anything weird. It’s a long story, but it left a lasting impression on my view of Red Bluff. Plus, it’s hotter than hell and it seems people get weird in that kind of relentless heat…

Anyway, figuring out who exactly is The Bad Daughter totally entertained me for several hours. A tiny bit of willing suspension of disbelief required her and there, but nothing too blatant. Not great literature, but doesn’t pretend to be. For what it is, four stars.

 

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.

 

The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham

I am most familiar with Australian author Michael Robotham’s series of novels featuring protagonist Joe O’Loughlin, and I have recommended him to many people without hesitation. When I received a copy of his latest, The Secrets She Keeps, from Scribner and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review, I had no idea what the premise was, whether it was an O’Loughlin book, or something new and different. And it WAS different – for sure. This is the story of two women who are apparently pregnant at the same time. One of them, Agatha, works at a supermarket, isn’t married, and spends a lot of time and energy dreaming of the life she doesn’t have (especially the roles of wife and mother). She watches (and seriously at first her stalking really creeped me out) Meghan, a beautiful mother of two seemingly perfect children, wife to a good-looking television personality, whose pregnancy seems about as far along as Agatha’s own.

We learn that although everything LOOKS perfect. Meghan is restless in her marriage: “…sometimes I rake my memory to find moments that make me truly happy.” Told in the alternating points of view of these two women, a recurring theme of honesty and trust is voiced by Meghan early on: “Anyone who says that honesty is the best policy is living in la-la land. Either that or they have never been married or had children. Parents lie to their kids all the time—about sex, drugs, death, and a hundred other things. We lie to those we love to protect their feelings. We lie because that’s what love means, whereas unfettered honesty is cruel and the height of self-indulgence.”

Agatha is no less unsettled: “How can she ever understand my life? What it’s like to live in a cramped, claustrophobic tunnel that gets smaller and darker as each year passes.” Much of her viewpoint is revealed when she says to Meghan “I am an outlier. I am the incredible disappearing woman. I am childless. Less of a person. Not in the club. You take those things for granted.”

Agatha wants the life she thinks Meghan has. Meghan sees Agatha as a familiar face from her shopping trips and yoga class, but little does Meghan know that the ho-hum exchange she has with a store employee during her hurried afternoon shopping trip is about to change the course of her not-so-perfect life!

It’s quite the page-turner, as the characters of the women and their families are revealed in alternating chapters. I was somewhat skeptical about Mr. Robotham’s ability to write from the perspective of two different pregnant women, but he did it with his usual outstanding plot development and attention to details of the characters’ personalities. Never having been pregnant myself, lots of the feelings about pregnancy were unfamiliar – but the lines about childlessness really resonated. I take off one star just because I wasn’t wild about the ending, but I really did enjoy reading it (in pretty much one sitting – I was riveted). Four stars.

Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis

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I really liked this book, for a variety of reasons. It sounded like something that was likely to catch and hold my interest (and take my mind off the election), it had characters that sounded relatable, and I realized early on that the author has a great vocabulary (“nubilous moon”).

The basic premise is that a gruesome murder has been committed: the bodies of the wife and children of a beloved college professor, Thomas Huston, are found in their home. Huston has disappeared and is suspect #1, and Sergeant Ryan DeMarco is on the case. It turns out that DeMarco and Huston are friends, and DeMarco greatly admired the Professor. As DeMarco’s investigation begins, he is sure that Huston couldn’t have killed his wife and family, and he uses the notes for Huston’s half-finished novel to help him in his search for the truth. Along the way, he uncovers Huston’s secret life and wrestles with the difference between the man he knew and admired and the one he seems to be tracking as he works to solve the crime.

DeMarco is an interesting protagonist, with demons of his own: “He thought it remarkable all the thins he could feel when he sat motionless in the darkness without a drink in his hand…” I also liked the way his thought process worked: “…he also knew enough of human behavior to know that logic seldom applied when an ample supply of testosterone was stirred into the mix.”

Difficult to make more comments without spoiling something. Overall, this is a well-crafted, tightly plotted thriller with mounting suspense, interesting characters, and a mystery that isn’t easily solved (well, at least not by me, but then I am not the best at solving mysteries along the way, generally being surprised J). With thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark and NetGalley, I give this one 5 stars. I hadn’t previously read anything by Randall Silvis, but I definitely hope we see more of Ryan DeMarco!

 

 

Tell Me No Lies by Lisa Hall

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After the national election, I was in desperate need of some real escapist fiction. I wanted something that would drag me in to the story, keep me guessing, hold me MESMERIZED for at least a couple of days — you know the kind of book I mean! So, thanks to Carina UK and NetGalley, I had a copy of this new title from Lisa Hall (provided in exchange for my honest review).

The premise is that Stephanie and Mark have moved to a new home for  “fresh start” (at first we aren’t sure why they need one). They have an adorable little boy named Henry and Steph is pregnant with their second child. The new neighbors include Laurence, the man next door (for whom Steph feels instant attraction), and Lila, the pretty woman across the way who wants to befriend Steph (and possibly replace Tessa, Steph’s long-time BFF who has moved to New York. I was drawn into the story immediately, especially as the reader is quickly provided references to why a new start is needed, as well as what the “thing” was that happened to Steph when she was a teenager, which has left deep psychological scars. Also, what’s up with Mark being gone so much? Is it really work? And who is the mystery man seen over and over in Lila’s house? And who is leaving creepy “gifts” on Steph’s front porch?

Steph is being encouraged to keep seeing her shrink — in fact, it feels almost like Mark is bullying her. Is there some reason he is so controlling? So, there are lots of components to the “keep me guessing” part! And yes I was pretty mesmerized for a day and a half, while I kept reading (and, thank you very much, during that time I hardly thought about the election at all). But — and here is the hard part: how to say what I really think without spoiling anything for someone else. I think I just have to say it, I HATED the ending. Maybe that was the goal of this author….or maybe the idea of a sequel is so strong, it had to end as it did? Whatever the motivation, bottom line is I enjoyed the experience of reading it….and I HATED the ending. So, four stars.

 

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

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I admit, I started reading this about three times and just couldn’t get into it…the couple, Anne and Marcos, just didn’t interest me, with their perfect neighborhood and darling baby girl. And then, last week, I was in the mountains, miles from anywhere, with nothing to do but read and hike and look at/listen to the river. So, after a couple of days of hiking and listening to/looking at the river, I picked it up and started reading, and I was hooked pretty quickly.

Oh, and BTW, I am a big fan of what I guess you might call domestic psychological thrillers (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, etc.) so I was happy to receive an advance copy of this title from?? And NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The story is that Anne and Marco have been invited to a dinner party by their next-door neighbors, Cynthia and Graham Stilwell, to celebrate Graham’s birthday. Cynthia has made it clear it is to be an adults-only evening, so when the babysitter who was scheduled to sit with baby Cora cancels on Anne and Marco, they decide to leave Cora alone with a baby monitor, and agree to check on her every half hour, and off they go (you can see where this is going, right??). The residences are in a townhouse complex, they will be right on the other side of the wall – what could possibly go wrong?

Everything goes according along fine until the parents, who are by now tired and semi-drunk return home around 1:30a.m. to find the front door ajar and Baby Cora missing. Cora is only 6 months old, so obviously she didn’t leave on her own.

Anne falls apart, Marco is paralyzed, but finally Anne recovers and the police are called. Detective Rasbach then has to try to determine what actually happened: is the baby dead or alive? Is one of the supposedly distraught parents responsible? Or covering up somehow? Was there a kidnapping? Perhaps an opportunistic crime or something that was carefully planned? Most of the suspects are inconsistent as they tell their stories (that unreliable narrator again, common in this genre, and sometimes kind of clunky, but in this book, very well done, IMHO).
There are lots of twists and turns, lies, all leading up to the final twist.

Lapena’s writing is brisk, the plot moves quickly, and the character development is quite good. Overall, this was a fast, fun puzzle. I’m not usually good at figuring out mysteries, but I did figure out at least one of them fairly early on. Even so, I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy the genre, or anyone looking for entertainment and something to take your mind off the election for awhile.

Four plus stars.