Friday, September 27, 2019

Short Fiction Friday: The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

I should start a series of lost reviews. Books I read in the final months of pregnancy and the first months of new parenthood that I never got around to writing up because my brain was too much mush!

Ira Levin's classic sci fi tale falls into that category. In fact, probably one of the only reasons I got through the whole book was because it's actually a novella! A peek at my books read from the early months of 2019 reveals a penchant for graphic novels and easily digestible reads. If you go further back, you'll see that between Halloween and the end of last year, I only managed to finish seven books. Understandable, I think :)

But I also didn't review any of those books. I am endeavoring to do so now.

I'm not sure I need to write my usual synopsis for this one. It seems like one so many people are familiar with already. But maybe that's not true. Maybe there's a whole slew of readers who aren't familiar with Levin. I personally hadn't read him until this one, though I have been quite familiar with his work for some time. I fear we're coming to a time when younger generations won't even know what a Stepford Wife is!

Here's the gist: Joanna and her husband are the newest neighbors in the charming and close-knit Stepford community. But the longer they live there, the more the neighborhood rubs Joanna the wrong way. What was once idyllic is now insular. And what was once welcoming, to the point of being obnoxious, is now off-putting. But Joanna is only just beginning to realize the truth about her new home...

I choose to believe my delay in coming to Levin's work, particularly The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby (which admittedly I've only watched the adaptation of and haven't yet read), is timely. I watched Rosemary's Baby for the first time while I was pregnant. I'll read it as a mother. And I read The Stepford Wives before my son was two months old. Like I said, timely.

Of course the book is a statement on a lot of things, most particularly the drive to stay young and appealing. For me, at least for much of this first year of motherhood, I haven't really cared! But the people in this book would be aghast at the thought! If I lived in Stepford, well...let's just say the expectation if I'd just moved there would be that I'd be working to get back into shape. That I'd have supper on the table every night for my hardworking husband. That my house certainly wouldn't be the mess it's been for over a year now. And I'd do all of this with a smile on my fresh and rested face while parenting our son with nary a complaint or thought about myself!

And while most women would rally behind me in my messy house and sweatpants glory, the women in Levin's story would not.

I loved The Stepford Wives. Nothing it reveals about the world is new (and it wasn't when it was released in the 70s) but that's not the point. Throwing the ridiculousness of society's, and even men's, expectations in your face is what it's about. And it's fun. What's more, though the book is almost fifty years old now, it's aged magnificently well!

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill

The Turner family is a bit...strange. Noah Turner's father died of cancer. But before he passed, he became obsessed with building a Halloween haunted house that would thrill and delighte people from miles around. After he died, Noah's mother hid all of his papers away, much to the ire of her eldest daughter, Sydney.

Then, when Noah is just 6, Sydney goes missing. And Noah makes a peculiar friend.

A Cosmology of Monsters is an odd and fabulous read! It's literary horror (leaning a bit more literary than horror in my opinion, but perfect for fans of both genres) that examines family relationships, mental health, and so much more!

The story doesn't begin with Noah—well, it does, because he is our narrator, but then he backtracks to tell of his family's origins. How his mother and father met. And I immediately felt a kinship with both Noah's mother and father! His father, perusing books he hasn't paid for and his mother, the irritated bookseller who takes her frustrations in life out on this poor soul!

Soon they are married and have two children, Sydney and Eunice. And things are good for a while. And then they aren't.

In the meantime, Noah's father begins obsessing over building a haunted house. Pieces and parts begin to take over their house and their yard. Every minute is devoted to planning and building the thing and soon the whole family is involved. It should have been a fun affair except that it becomes and all consuming obsession, one Noah's mother isn't on board for especially when she finds out she's pregnant with a third child.

Jumping forward six years, Noah is a child who never knew his father but lives in his shadow. His loss affected the family greatly. His oldest sister clashes with their mother regularly. But the rift in their relationship goes deeper than simply butting heads. Sydney won't let go of her conviction (one she's had since she was a small child) that her mother didn't truly support her father. And Eunice, who'd always stepped up as Noah's best friend, has begun to drift away. Leaving Noah vulnerable and in need of a friend.

And this is when the book gets weird! But in such a good way!

I was intrigued by this book from the start. The cover and the description caught my attention and it was immediately added to my reading plans. But other readers got to it first—and were raving about it! And I mean RAVING! Which could have set me up for disaster, all things considered.

Fortunately it lived up to the hype.

It wasn't exactly what I expected. As I mentioned above, it's literary horror with the bones of a classic horror story wrapped up in a more literary package. Readers who dive more deeply into narratives will find a lot to analyze in this one in terms of family. I would have liked a bit more of the city, but enjoyed what little there was. And I loved the cosmic horror undertones!

A Cosmology of Monsters is an accomplished debut, one that will appeal to readers who like bizarre books that sit between genres. Everyone who reads it is in for an absolute treat!

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Stranger Inside by Lisa Unger

Rain Winter has put her career as a producer on hold to be a full time mom. She and her husband agreed. But the tug of the newsroom becomes too much to bear when Steve Markham is murdered. 

Markham had been acquitted in the case of his wife's murder a year earlier. And Rain had been there to cover it. To say she'd been disappointed when the man was let go is an understatement. And Rain clearly wasn't the only one. 

Rain's sources hint that officials believe the case is connected to at least one, if not two others. Two other cases where killers who didn't pay for their crimes were killed after the fact. One of them the man who changed Rain's life forever. 

Rain was only twelve when she narrowly avoided being kidnapped. Her two best friends weren't so lucky. One of them escaped, the other was killed. Rain knows she's never fully healed from the trauma and believes diving back into work—diving into Markham's murder—could finally offer her some peace. But balancing motherhood and career isn't the only challenge she'll face. 

Lisa Unger's latest is a deep dive into childhood trauma, motherhood, and the current true crime obsession. And it's a dark dive indeed!

Rain and her husband have agreed that one of them should be home with their new baby. So Rain puts her career aside to do just that. But as pretty much any new mom who's had a career can attest, setting aside one chunk of yourself to devote yourself to being mom is hard! And the Markham case is unfinished business.

But she can't quite return to the newsroom. So she toys with the idea of a podcast, something that gets enthusiastic support from her old colleagues.

There's just one problem: she isn't sure how to broach the subject with her husband. She is sure, though,—convinced, in fact—that seeing the case to its conclusion and analyzing her own past will be cathartic. Will offer some release of the pain and guilt she's felt at avoiding her own abductor's hands. He was, after all, targeting her when he took her friends instead. And she's never been able to forget.

There is another POV featured in the book: Hank, the other survivor. Hank, who was once Rain's friend, is now a psychologist working with patients who've experienced trauma. Hank is helping people like himself heal and move on. Except we learn pretty quickly that Hank didn't heal and definitely hasn't moved on! So while some of Rain's biggest questions in any story—who, what, where, when, why, and how—may be known to the reader (and, at least in some small part, Rain), there are still a lot of questions that drive The Stranger Inside.

Different things strike different chords for every reader and for me, the strongest chord this one hit was motherhood. The guilt that goes with wanting to be an individual beyond "mom," the terror at trying to protect your child and keep them safe from the outside world, the uncertainty and fear that every step you take is the wrong one. Unger perfectly illustrates these feelings and more in Rain.

As I mentioned, this is a dark one. If cozies are your bag, The Stranger Inside is probably not at the top of your TBR. But if you're a fan of Mindhunter and true crime podcasts, Unger's latest should absolutely be on your radar!

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

Happy Thursday, readers! Today I'm a stop on the TLC blog tour for Valerie Valdes's debut, Chilling Effect.

Eva Innocente walks the straight and narrow these days; no illegal jobs for her or her crew. Unfortunately there's no money in the straight and narrow. Which becomes a major problem when her sister, Mari, is snatched by the criminal organization known as The Fridge. In order to free Mari, Eva will have to break her own vow to stay on the legal side of things and earn enough money doing The Fridge's bidding to satisfy the debt. Do the jobs, Mari gets out. Should be easy. Or not...

Valerie Valdes's debut is one of a kind! A Cuban captain with attitude, psychic cats, and a whole slew of alien beings beyond most of our imaginings are just a few of the things readers encounter in the pages of Chilling Effect.

Eva, as we soon learn, has a dark past. It's one she's tried very hard to overcome, so much so that she won't even work with her own father (who admittedly toes the legal line!). But in spite of all of her efforts, she's dragged into this mess with The Fridge. In part because her dad doesn't have enough funds to make The Fridge happy and neither does anyone else in the family.

Not that Eva has the money either. Instead, she has the means and the potential (i.e. the ship and the crew). But before she can even get started with a job that seems simple enough, Eva gets and entire station on her tail!

Oh yeah, and can I mention again the psychic cats?! Twenty of them, all making trouble from the literal start of the book.

Chilling Effect is every ounce of fun you can imagine and more! If you're a fan of Becky Chambers or any other quirky sci-fi, you have to read this one! If you don't, the psychic cats will come and get you :)

To see more stops on the tour be sure to check out the official TLC tour page here.

For more on Valerie Valdes and her work you can visit her blog here. You can also like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Purchase Links: HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

A Girl Named Anna by Lizzy Barber

Anna doesn't question her mother. She doesn't break the rules. But now Anna is eighteen and her boyfriend has a trip to the popular Astroland theme park planned for her birthday. And for the first time, Anna is purposely going against her mother's rules. 

Oddly enough, Anna feels a sense of familiarity when they arrive at Astroland. But that doesn't make any sense—she's never been to the park. What's more, in this weird deja vu, Anna isn't Anna. She's Emily. 

Meanwhile, over in the UK, Rosie is facing the fifteenth anniversary of her older sister's disappearance. She's lived in the shadow of this incident her entire life and the case has never been resolved. Now, so many years on, it appears the family is running out of resources and may have to finally admit defeat. But Rosie wants to give it one more shot on her own. One more attempt to find out what happened to her sister all those years ago. 

A Girl Named Anna (aka My Name is Anna overseas) is a really excellently paced and plotted thriller.

From the start, the reader suspects Anna's and Rosie's stories are connected. So the mystery isn't necessarily who is Anna but what happened to her.

It's also a story about family and, in particular, sisters. Rosie is affected by her sister's disappearance every day. The media, the attention, the curious strangers, it never goes away. And yet, rather than become bitter and angry, she becomes more determined than ever to find out the truth.

This book was an emotional read. Much more so than I expected out of a thriller! I hesitate to say more because I don't want to ruin it for anyone, but I will say that I found this to a truly immersive book that sucked me in from the very start!

A Girl Named Anna is Barber's debut and winner of the Daily Mail First Novel Competition. A worthy winner for sure and one that makes Barber a must read for me moving forward.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus

It doesn’t bode well for Ellery and her brother when they stumble upon a body their very first night in Echo Ridge! 

The twins have been sent to live with a grandmother they barely know while their mom goes through rehab. And it’s their first time in Echo Ridge, since their mother never had any problem sharing exactly how much distaste she had for her hometown. But Ellery can understand. Her own aunt went missing during high school and while her mom never talks about it, Ellery knows it weighs heavy on her. 

Ellery, a true crime nut, is determined to learn more about her aunt’s disappearance now that she has the chance. But she’s barely able to scrape the surface of that mystery when Echo Ridge is targeted by a twisted psychopath. Someone is threatening the homecoming court. And it’s not the first time!

McManus's latest, which came out in January, pits a teenage detective and her friends against a serial killer with a seeming history of targeting homecoming queens.

Ellery is really biding her time in Echo Ridge, waiting to return to California as soon as possible. But her interest in true crime means the tiny town has at least one things going for it—the unsolved case of her aunt's disappearance. Plus, there's the fact that someone killed the homecoming queen just a few years ago too.

But, as mentioned, Ellery doesn't really gain much headway in her investigation before threats against this year's court begin to appear throughout town.

It doesn't help that Ellery herself was nominated for homecoming queen! And that the prime possible suspect is the same man who was accused of murder just a few years ago. Or his brother, who Ellery has very mixed feelings for. Or a local cop on the case... Echo Ridge is packed with suspects and it's an armchair detective's dream come true, as long as it doesn't mean becoming a victim first!

Two Can Keep a Secret is a quick read with a likable heroine and an intriguing mystery. I did think some of the plot points could have been tied up a little more satisfactorily, but overall this was an enjoyable dark thriller perfectly fitting for any suspense fan, teen or adult!

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Last Widow by Karin Slaughter

Good morning, readers! Today I'm a stop on the TLC blog tour for Karin Slaughter's latest, The Last Widow.

Will Trent and Sara Linton are spending a pretty average weekend together when their literal world is shaken. An explosion at the nearby college sends the two heading straight into the path of danger. But before they can get to the scene to help, they're sidelined by a car accident. The passengers in the three vehicles aren't in great shape. In fact, it doesn't take long to figure out that one has died already. But this is no average accident. In fact, the "victims" aren't victims at all. They're the bombers fleeing the site. 

Sara is kidnapped and Will is left injured on the sidelines with the knowledge that every minute that passes could mean Sara's very life. But as Will and his colleagues investigate, the plot in this particular crime becomes more convoluted and no one is sure exactly what the ultimate goal is for these criminals. 

To call The Last Widow propulsive would be a massive understatement. The plot is devastatingly fast, the kind of book that keeps you up at night (an undeniable fact, considering I was reading at 2am!).

There was one small hiccup with the pacing for me, however. For this installment in the series, Slaughter gives readers the chance to see multiple characters' perspectives of the same scenes. Which means a bit of backtracking and overlapping in the story. The effect was one I experience most with fantasy novels, waiting to get back to a particular storyline or character because I'm dying to know what's going to happen!

That said, this books still manages to move at a lightning pace! I loved that I really couldn't guess where the story was going next.

Will and Sara are a bit new to me. My introduction to them was actually the previous book in the series, The Kept Woman. Prior to that, my experience with Slaughter was pretty limited to her stand alones. As I mentioned in that review, however, the book worked really well as a stand alone and gave me the opportunity to get to know both Will and Sara so that I was really stoked to get back to them with The Last Widow. And Slaughter did not disappoint in that regard either. The emotional impact of this story is all the more heavy thanks to the character building. Not only am I invested in their careers but also in their relationship, all of which are obviously strained here.

And as each character, Will, Sara, and others, are pushed to their limits, the book becomes even more intense!

Apologies for the massive amounts of exclamation points in this review. Slaughter's books are massively exciting reads for me. Her plots are always so tightly planned and executed that even the most unbelievable points become spectacularly real in her deft hands.

Note: This is the ninth book in the Will Trent series and does contain some spoilers for book 8. I was fine beginning with 8 but if you'd like to start from the very beginning, the series order is:

The Kept Woman
The Last Widow

To see more stops on the tour be sure to check out the official TLC tour page here.

For more on Karin Slaughter and her work you can visit her website here. You can also like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Purchase Links: HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble