The Widow-Fiona Barton

widow fiona barton

Barton’s debut novel is a fast-paced, page-turning read.  It was the kind of book that made me want to stay home and read until I was finished.  Instead, I read hungrily and then stayed up late to finish it.  Jean is the kind of women we all pity and secretly despise.  She is a mouse who allows her husband to dominate her (not in a 50 Shades way, but in a basic control freak way).  When Barton lets us see that her husband, Glen, was involved in child pornography, we are not sure if we should really despise her for turning a blind eye or if we should fear that we could be her, the wife who does not know her husband is watching child porn late at night and who believes he really is the good guy he seems.

We meet Kate Waters, journalist, and DI Bob Sparkes.  The way Barton introduces them may support my theory that The Widow was written after The Child–as if we should already know them.

Barton uses the short chapters seen in The Child, but they are not quite as brief and the cycling is not quite as rapid.  She bounces between the story of Waters pursuing an interview with Jean and Sparkes and Waters trying to find baby Bella, who was taken from her front yard.  Sparkes and Waters have an interesting dynamic.  I would love to see Barton come back to Sparkes and write a more traditional mystery novel with him as central character.  That I would not only watch for–I might pre-order.

Finished 3/18


The Woman in Cabin 10–Ruth Ware


I loved In a Dark, Dark Wood, so was super excited when I saw Ruth Ware’s new novel on my book review site–and very disappointed that it was only available to reviewers in the UK.  When it was published in the US, I bought a copy, but have only just had the proper time to devote to it.  This could not be, I knew, a casual read over many days.  Ruth Ware grabs you by the throat and does not let go until the last page.

The novel begins with Lo, a travel journalist, experiencing the break-in of her apartment while locked in her bedroom.  She is violated and terrified.  She cannot sleep and in desperation goes to the home of her out-of-town boyfriend, with whom she has a “did we break up?” kind of fight before leaving on a fantastic opportunity for her career and a wonderfully posh boutique cruise with other journalists and investors.  Thanks to sleep deprivation and a generous amount of alcohol, Lo sees the ship in the first day through a distorting distancing haze.  When she finally sleeps, or passes out, she awakens to a scream followed by a large splash.  When she runs to her balcony, she sees a woman disappearing beneath the waves and blood on the glass that divides her balcony from that of the neighboring room.  She calls the staff and is told there is no one in the cabin next to her, even though she had borrowed mascara from a woman in that room the first evening.  Things begin to go downhill from there as she sticks to her conviction that she heard and saw a murder and those around her question her reliability.  As events move forward, everyone on the ship becomes a suspect, even former friends, and Lo’s paranoia climbs to new heights.

As is usually the case with novels that are so successful in building suspense, the conclusion seems destined to disappoint.  Ware does a satisfactory job with the narrative, but takes a disappointing tactic in a predictable post script that made me close the cover with a pang.

Regardless, I enjoyed this novel for its ability to scare the bejeezus out of me and pull me into Lo’s paranoia.  Ware is so adept that she brings readers into the mind-messing world of the page.  The ship, of course, was a perfect setting on which to trap her protagonist, just as the isolated house in the woods was a perfect place to trap the protagonist of her debut novel.  I am curious to see what hand Ware plays in her next novel.

A quick note on aesthetics.  The dust jacket of the hard cover edition is gorgeous.  The title is contained within a porthole streaming with rivulets of water.  The beads of water are raised and glossy, so shimmer like actual water.  My daughter marveled at the design, in fact, when it caught her eye in our kitchen.  Kudos to the designers.


Finished 12/16

Luckiest Girl Alive–Jessica Knoll

Cover Art for Luckiest Girl Alive

This is another of the “girl” thriller novels.  Indeed, on the jacket, this novel is compared to those novels, which is what led me to it.  Because I enjoyed those novels, I kept going despite a rough beginning.  Ani writes  about sex and other trivia for a prominent women’s magazine.  While others may see her as successful, she is plagued by insecurities.  Her columns are trivial.  She is still the girl who grew up in a McMansion whose mother wore clothes and drove a car a little too flashy to fit in with the truly monied whose acceptance she craved and whose acceptance led her to make sacrifices to send Ani, then TifAni, to a private school miles away from home filled with the privileged offspring of old money.  Ani, now living the dream life in New York City, is engaged to a man from old money, Lucas Harrison.  He seems dreamy until we get below the surface, where Ani reveals that he is in love with a facade she has created and worked hard to maintain, but the cracks of which are showing.

The novel moves between past and present through Ani’s perspective.  She reveals the problems in her parents’ marriage (her father was forced to marry her mother when she became pregnant with Ani and has not seemed to have a feeling for either of them since).  Mostly she reveals the ways in which she did not fit in and how deeply she felt her outsider status.  She makes friends with the popular crowd early in her days at Bradley, the private high school, but all goes downhill when she attends a party of only the boys while parents are out of town.  Enter the gang rape story of an incapacitated young woman, which is plenty sympathetic, but Knoll drags it out and many chapters in I was wondering how the novel was going to sustain the plot for many more pages.

A crucial plot device rests in a documentary being made about Bradley, for which Ani has agreed to be interviewed and about which Lucas is very unhappy.  He knows “what happened,” which readers can assume at this point was the rape, but his lack of empathy is troubling.  When the interview finally arrives, Ani reveals another “big thing” that happened at Bradley–a mass shooting/suicide in the style of Columbine and that relates in part to her rape.  This should have been compelling, but, because Knoll dragged out the rape and tried to build suspense for so long about what was the big deal with the interview, by the time the shooting story unfolded, I was annoyed.  What else, I thought, could Knoll pile into this novel?  Wait a minute, a complication with her favorite teacher, who now appeared in her life again and was also being interviewed.  But wait again, now how about reality tv?  What about the documentary crew filming the wedding of Ani and Lucas as a happy ending to the tragic shooting story?

All of these “ripped from the headlines” elements seemed piled atop one another for effect, like a bad infomercial, rather than authentic plot elements that flowed from one another.  This was not a bad story.  It was not a very good story.  Ani was not a very sympathetic (which is saying something given her gang rape and shooting victim status) main character.  Perhaps that’s because it was difficult to empathize with an upper-middle-class white girl whose parents gave her everything but the love she needed in order to elevate her and themselves into the next super-elite social stratus when there are so many stories in the news and elsewhere today of people struggling against much greater adversities.  Perhaps it’s because Knoll prioritizes Ani’s struggle with her middle-class identity over her insecurity and intimacy issues resulting from her multiple victimizations.  Either way, while this novel may have tried to be a Gone Girl or a Girl on the Train, its protagonist was nowhere near as compelling and its plot nowhere near as skillfully constructed.

Finished 9/16

Unbecoming–Rebecca Scherm


Paris.  Antiques.  Art history.  A thriller.  What is not to like?

The pace.  The heroine.  Grace’s home life is “messy, broken” according to the fly leaf.  What’s broken?  Her parents had her out of wedlock, separated for a time, married other people, then reunited, married, and had sons, who are the apples of their eyes.  Grace feels like the outsider in her family.  Of married, working, non-abusive, non-alcoholic parents.  She chooses, instead, to make herself part of her rich neighbor’s family by playing a role, the cute daughter her neighbors never had, the lovable gal pal turned girlfriend of their son.  She secretly marries their son, but her facades begin to fall away when she moves to New York for a year of college and her role of slick city girl and lovable small-town girl come into conflict.

The story is told by moving between past and present, which should build suspense, but that instead begins tiresome.  Grace is in Paris restoring antiques under an assumed name and fighting anxiety as her husband and his best friend are released from prison.  Their crime–robbing a local museum and causing the death of the caretaker–are slowly spun out at an excruciating pace.  Everything in the plot is spun out in this fashion, and that becomes a problem very quickly.  This, however, could be overcome if Grace were likeable or, barring that, intriguing.  She is, instead, just annoying.  I kept reading not because she or the plot were compelling, but because I really wanted to find a saving grace in a novel that earned the high praise it has received.  In the end, I had to admit to myself I had chosen a lemon and spent precious reading time trying to prove myself right rather than cutting my losses and moving on.  The ending, which was meant, I think, to be complicated and clever, was just the icing on the cake.

Finished 8/2016


The Life We Bury–Allen Eskens


This is a perfect summer read.  Or a winter storm by the fireplace read.  Or a snappy fall afternoon read.  This is a great read from page one to the end.  Eskens layers a murder mystery, Vietnam, family drama, autism, guilt, romance, date rape, and cancer around a highly intriguing central character, Joe Talbert.

Joe is a college student who’s transferred from the local community college and works as a bouncer at night to pay the bills.  His mother is a bipolar alcoholic who lives less than an hour away with his autistic younger brother.  He’s never met his father.  When his professor assigns a biography assignment, Joe seeks a subject at the local nursing home.  When the director suggests Carl, a terminal cancer patient who’s been paroled from prison to die, Joe is intrigued and even more so when he learns Carl’s crime–the rape, murder, and attempted burning of his teenage neighbor.

As he works through Carl’s story, and the trial records that compose his supporting documents, his original conceptions about Carl, his cute neighbor, his brother, and the direction of his life are turned upside down.  Nothing is what it seems and what everyone else can see he turns away from.

The bubble on the cover says “compulsively suspenseful.”  Rarely do those blurbs accurately describe the book, but this one does.  Often, thrillers trade suspense for character development–plot over character.  Joe Talbert, however, is a memorable character who can push drunk guys out of a bar and cry at a production of The Glass Menagerie.  

There’s an adorable note to the reader at the end that asks for reviews or to share with others if you’ve enjoyed the book–support for a debut author.  I look forward to reading his subsequent work.

Finished 7/14/16

Snowstop–Alan Sillitoe


The premise of this novel was intriguing.  A group of strangers stranded in a rural hotel in England during a terrible snowstorm.  Sillitoe introduces us to the various characters in part one as they go about their days, starting with Keith, who has killed his wife and then headed north for a camping weekend.  Aaron, the forger book dealer who lives with his sister.  Eileen, the hard-living young hitchhiker.  Sally, the slightly unsatisfied housewife on her way to surprise her husband at the airport, although he expects to be surprised.  Daniel, the school teacher who is driving a van full of explosives to Coventry.  Parsons, the union rep, traveling with his secretary, Jenny.  Alfred, taking his aging father to a nursing home that he has claimed is a resort.  Fred, the owner of the White Cavalier Hotel and Enid, his surly waitress.  All find themselves marooned at the hotel and joined by three bikers who drove the van of explosives from its place in a snowbank at a safe distance from the hotel to a parking spot right outside its doors.

Sillitoe takes us deeper into the lives and characters of each of the players, gets them drunk, pairs them up, causes some fights, and then begins to toy with our judgments when the truth about the contents of the van emerges.  First impressions, as you might

There are so many characters and so many seemingly disparate details that I struggled to keep them all straight until they were all safely ensconced in the hotel and interacting with one another.  Sillitoe’s characters were well developed and the scenario was modern and traditional.  If I could change one aspect of the novel, it would be the pacing.  Because Sillitoe was so careful about developing the characters, at times the pace moved slowly for a novel that revolved around a foiled terrorist attack.  This is not your typical thriller.  The bomb is the excuse for the building of characters rather than the characters being an excuse to move the bomb plot forward.  I was enamored with Sillitoe’s style enough to put his Moggerhanger on my Kindle.

The Good Neighbor–A.J. Banner


Amazon suggested this novel, which I understood better once I saw that it’s published by Amazon. It’s a slim volume–just 194 pages–and it moves quickly.  Sarah writes children’s books and is married to a hunky dermatologist, Johnny.  They live in a small town on a court where the houses are the same to all but those who live there.  Sarah knows her neighbors, or thinks she does, until the night her neighbors’ home burns and takes down hers, as well.  Deeply unsettled, Sarah begins to question all of her assumptions–about her neighbors, about her husband, even about her own judgment.

As Sarah questions, she invites the reader to do so, as well, and to join her paranoia.  Who can we trust?  Can we trust Sarah, the narrator?

The story moves quickly and is successful at setting a paranoid, eerie tone.  The dialogue is realistic, but there were several times that I found myself noticing odd narrative constructions.  Banner has promise as a writer of thrillers, but is not yet a master.

Finished 3/31/16