Joelle's Bibliofile

Disappointing Execution of a Good Premise

Perfectly Famous - Emily Liebert

The stories of two women are interwoven in Emily Liebert’s most recent domestic thriller Perfectly Famous. Ward DeFleur is a famous author who goes into hiding following a family tragedy, cutting off all ties to her former life. Bree Bennett is a recent divorcee looking to reboot her own writing career by finding Ward and exposing her story, hoping to eventually turn a series of articles into a book. What begins as an interesting premise for a mystery diverts into banal romance with some unrealistic dialog and awkward interaction. Both women lack clear motivations for their actions, and Bree’s irrational attraction to her literary subject is unconvincing. The most interesting parts of the book involve a subplot about Bree’s teenage daughter, Chloe, who is rebelling after her parents’ amicable split.  Unfortunately, no explanation or resolution about the mother-daughter relationship is satisfyingly explored. Liebert attempts to depict an increasing degree of danger for Bree as she chases down her story, but it comes across as artificial and fails to stimulate a genuine sense of peril. Unfortunately, the plot then goes from ploddingly predictable to jarringly irrational at its conclusion. The ending seems to be almost hijacked, tacked on as a last-ditch attempt to elicit surprise. What results is a disappointing and ultimately unrewarding experience—one that is somewhat insulting to today’s sophisticated mystery consumer.

Thanks to the author, Gallery Books and NetGalley for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Goldin Tells a Timely Tale

The Night Swim - Megan Goldin

Megan Goldin received acclaim for her last novel Escape Room (2019) and is now releasing another mystery thriller: The Night Swim this summer. This time, Goldin capitalizes on the surging popularity of true crime podcasts and our insatiable consumption of media relating to notorious unsolved cases. She also uses her book to address the woeful lack of progress in our judicial system has made in the handling and prosecution of rape cases. The Night Swim introduces main protagonist Rachel Krall, a podcaster who has developed a large following due to her personalized layman’s approach to investigative journalism. The reader meets Krall as she is embarking on the third season of her show, this time focusing on a controversial rape case coming to trial in the small coastal town of Neapolis. The accused is a wunderkind swimmer with a promising future whose Olympic hopes are shared by the town. The victim is a younger girl whose necessary anonymity means that her version of events has been occluded in order to preserve her case. Despite the immersive experience of the impending trial, Krall is distracted by another case that has piqued her interest. Upon entering the town, she receives numerous cryptic notes left in places where she would have not expected to be recognized. The elusive fan begs Rachel to delve into a 25-year-old mystery regarding her sister, whose death she believes was a murder—not a suicide as it was assumed to be and thereby dismissed by the authorities at the time. Although seemingly unrelated, the cases are revealed to be overlapping reflections of each other. Goldin does an admirable job of character development and tight plotting, and the issues she addresses are done in an entertaining but respectful way. Through Rachel, the author can demonstrate the unfortunate truth that not much has changed in the way that victims of rape are treated and highlights the unbearable costs they bear when coming forward. Despite attempts at reform, credibility and the burden of proof can be insurmountable for women seeking justice in a system that is still swayed by gender bias, wealth and privilege. Although Rachel attempts to remain objective, her position is apparent, and she is increasingly drawn into exposing the corruption she discovers in both the past and present. The Night Swim is a fast-paced, interwoven tale that will satisfy both the traditional mystery-lover and the socially conscious reader as well.


Thanks to the author, St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Ambitious Collection Falls Short

Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit and Obession - Sarah Weinman

The editor’s note for Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession (Sarah Weinman, introduction by Patrick Radden Keefe) proposes some potential causes for the recent obsession with true crime stories and the extensive articles devoted to them. The advent of streaming services and podcasts in recent years has stoked existing interest, and any tales that address order vs. chaos become relevant during times of upheaval. As our world becomes more subject to uncertainty, vicarious experiences become internalized and can cause increasing empathy or panic. This anthology is a collection of 13 articles published in the past 10 years and the editor hopes that these writings will “go a long way to make the world a more just, more empathetic place.” A highly ambitious goal for any book, and this one falls far short of its objective. The three sections of the book are meant to separate the articles into groupings that create some overall cohesive message, but the contents of each are too dissimilar and varying in tone and topic to evoke a sense of common purpose. The first section contains investigative (and in some cases sensationalistic) journalism of actual true crime cases. Here can be found descriptions of the infamous Gypsy Rose case, a lurid tale of Munchausen-by-Proxy; the UT tower shooting spree as seen from one survivor’s point of view; a contract killing arranged by a young woman as recompense for a restrictive upbringing; and the Derek Allred story of repetitive predatory relationship fraud. The second section is intended to act as a commentary on the contemporary cultural moment and the way crime stories are viewed as a result of its influence. This part has articles on topics as wide-ranging as the Slender Man case and an old 1970’s movie director whose film was influenced by true events. The final section of Weinman’s book is dedicated to writings about criminal justice and society. The articles in this portion cover the improper use of searches by immigration agents, gun violence and its physical effects, gender and race biases in policing and prosecution, and the use of questionable methods in crime scene analysis. While the partitions of the book make it easier for the reader to switch gears, the overall effect is disjointed, and the selection of the included pieces appears random. Unspeakable Acts could have been three distinct volumes, thereby providing more substance and content for its wide-ranging topics rather than trying to address them all in one. Each of the issues covered deserve more attention than they receive here, and there is certainly a plethora of talented authors continually contributing their voices to choose from.


Thanks to the authors, Ecco and Edelweiss Plus for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Psychological Thriller with Interesting Subplot

The Apartment - K.L. Slater

“If it looks too good to be true, it probably is,” or “Caveat Emptor” might be some appropriate ways to describe the main theme of The Apartment, a new suspense thriller by K.L. Slater. The author of nine previous stand-alone psychological crime novels, this latest work demonstrates how a susceptible a vulnerable person can be to predation by the unscrupulous. It explores the power of denial and how suspension of disbelief can cloud judgement during desperate times. Freya is introduced as a woman who is recovering from the recent death of her estranged husband—facing financial hardship while also attempting to maintain stability for her 5-year-old daughter, Skye. Freya is looking at ads for a new place to live when she is approached by a stranger who is seemingly extending extraordinary kindness with no discernible agenda. Freya jumps at what she thinks is a stroke of good luck and an incredible opportunity, despite her initial reservations. Dr. Marsden’s offer of an upscale apartment (at Adder House) at minimal cost and help with enrolling Skye into a prestigious school seems like a godsend at a most critical time. The fact that their “coincidental” meeting may have been orchestrated does not even occur to Freya, and the reader is left helplessly observing her ensnarement in an elaborate trap. After the move she manages to explain away increasing evidence that someone is trying to manipulate and terrorize her. When she does try to account for the strange noises, privacy intrusions and bizarre behavior of her fellow tenants, it is easily dismissed as being caused by her own reactions to stress. Most of the novel is told from Freya’s point-of-view, with other sections narrated by a stalker whose motivations and connection are initially unclear. The stalker describes historical events that appear to be tangential but are eventually revealed to be integral to the current situation at Adder House. The Apartment is a fast-paced and well-constructed thriller complete with plenty of red herrings and misdirection. The book’s subplot is an interesting addition, with a taste of moralistic speculation that adds rather than distracts from the main storyline.  Slater’s existing fans will likely be pleased with this offering, and those new to her writing might be encouraged to seek out earlier works based on its merits.


Thanks to the author, Thomas & Mercer (Amazon Publishing) and NetGalley for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Humorous Cautionary Tale

Logging Off - Nick Spalding

Nick Spalding’s wry humor sweetens a strong lesson in Logging Off, his most recent novel and thinly disguised cautionary tale. The book is the farcical account of first-person narrator, Andy, a graphic designer whose addiction to technology and social media has resulted in some serious physical and psychological side effects.  When an important client meeting becomes disastrous due disturbing symptoms, Andy decides that he will embark on a 60-day “digital detox” to reset his health.  His best friend is a reporter who composes a feature about Andy’s experiment—the publicity acting as a reinforcement to his endeavor.  Andy soon discovers how completely obsessed with online activities he has become. The removal of these sources of security illuminate the life skills that have been underdeveloped and highlight his utter dependence on instant information and entertainment. The wacky “fish-out-of-water” misadventures and slapstick episodes that follow are entertaining, if a bit far-fetched. Along the way, a romance blooms and the protagonist finds himself the unwitting object of wide-spread admiration and attention. Despite being ambivalent about pursuing his “detox,” Andy feels compelled to continue by the pressure of his new “followers” and the irrepressible current of a movement he never intended to spark. As he struggles with feelings of hypocrisy and confusion, he also recognizes the benefits that the endeavor has brought. Logging Off is a bit too long and the humor at times is contrived and lowbrow, but the book remains a fun read despite its strong moralistic stance. Spalding’s attempt to preach moderation and life-balance is perhaps obvious and over-stated, but his amusing approach makes it a lesson that is easy to swallow.


Thanks to the author, Lake Union Publishing (Amazon) and NetGalley for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Good Introduction to ACT in Action

Be Mighty: A Woman's Guide to Liberation from Anxiety, Worry, and Stress Using Mindfulness and Acceptance - Jill Stoddard,  PhD.

Be Mighty: A Woman’s Guide to Liberation from Anxiety, Worry, and Stress Using Mindfulness and Acceptance by Jill Stoddard promotes a novel therapeutic approach within contemporary context and leverages cultural references in a way that is accessible and entertaining.  Stoddard begins by explaining why there is such a prevalence of anxiety in western culture, particularly among women. She points out that inherent inequality, unrealistic expectations, shifting gender roles and competition have exacerbated a problem that is already endemic to our society.  The author lays out the ACT (Acceptance Commitment Therapy) theory by clearly explaining its concepts and terminology; and demonstrating how the theory is uniquely suited for today. ACT uses the popular ideas behind the Mindfulness movement, adding acceptance and committed action goals to propose a new way of viewing and managing anxiety. The book reinforces the concrete steps for adopting this approach with interspersed journal prompts and summarizing “Takeaways” at the conclusion of each chapter.  Personal anecdotes and case studies help to illustrate outcomes that have been experienced using ACT and underscore its easy implementation.  Potential obstacles, both internal and external, are addressed with suggested strategies for overcoming some common pitfalls. The book is concise and well-structured for the non-clinician, and Stoddard’s warm colloquial tone is inviting for the reader. Pop culture references and some humorous metaphors make for easy digestion, but occasionally miss the mark and may serve to date the book prematurely. Overall, Be Mighty is a solid introduction to ACT and a helpful tool for those seeking an alternative approach to managing the distress faced by many modern women.


Thanks to the author, New Harbinger Press and Library Thing for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Good Mystery, But May Act as Spolier

Eight Perfect Murders - Peter  Swanson

Catnip for the classic mystery fan, Peter Swanson’s sixth book Eight Perfect Murders pays homage to some treasured works from the genre by incorporating them into his tale of a copycat killer.  Swanson employs the main character Malcom Krenshaw as a guide to the original stories and as the singular point-of-view into a few mysteries of his own. As a niche bookstore owner whose intelligence and knowledge of the literature are extensive, Malcolm is approached by an FBI agent who is following a hunch about some recent murders. In one of his blogs, Malcolm had written about some famous fictional murders so cleverly crafted that they would be virtually unsolvable if they were to be committed in real life. Agent Gwen Mulvey discovered Malcolm’s list during her investigation, and she wants to verify her hypothesis that his list was used as a serial killer’s guide. She also seeks to eliminate him as a suspect or potential next target. Together they retrace the evidence to figure out who might want to send Malcolm a macabre message. Meanwhile, the reader learns that Malcolm’s past is riddled with secrets that he is concealing from Mulvey as he trails along. These are slowly revealed as he narrates his past actions and hidden connections to the serial murders.  Swanson does a good job portraying a multidimensional character who tantalizingly divulges the truth—but only on his own terms. The reader must rely on Krenshaw to relate the tale, and he is by turns charming and detestable as he admits his attempts at deception.  Eight Perfect Murders is an intriguing story on its own, and Swanson’s inclusion of the most beloved stories from the mystery/suspense canon acts as both an enrichment and a detriment to his novel. Devotees will delight to be in on all the allusions and the esoteric knowledge they share. Those who have the titular books (and other well-known works described as well) still on their TBR lists will despair at having their major plot twists spoiled before experiencing them firsthand. Swanson’s heavy reliance on the merits of the masters also invites scrutiny of his own novel.  Calling them to mind serves to demonstrate that, although it is a quite enjoyable read, Swanson’s own efforts cannot help but suffer from such a comparison.


Thanks to the author and William Morrow for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Original but a Bit Obtuse

Sin Eater - Megan Campisi

With a disturbing cover that is eerily compelling, Sin Eater by Megan Campisi cements that sense of unease with a story that is a chimera of mystery, historical fantasy, and socio-political commentary. Set in a fictional Britain that winkingly resembles that of the 16th century, the book borrows recognizable elements from that time period and uses them as a springboard for Campisi’s own imaginative interpretation.  In her opening notes, the author explains that Sin Eaters did exist, but their genesis and the myths surrounding them are mostly undocumented.  Apparently, these outcasts symbolically removed a dying person’s sins by eating bread laid out at their sickbed or funeral. This novel is Campisi’s attempt at building a deeper first-person narrative based on the meager details available. Orphaned and rejected by relatives who steal her home from under her, May is jailed for stealing bread. Sentenced to serve as an apprentice to a Sin Eater, she has no idea why her relatively small transgression warrants such extreme punishment. May receives a brand of an “S” on her tongue and a heavy yoke-like collar that will perpetually advertise her lowly station for the rest of her life. No longer allowed to speak, she is condemned to be untouchable and fated to serve “Eve” (the book’s version of Satan) after her death if she neglects any part of her duties. These responsibilities include hearing last confessions, ordering specific foods to be prepared based on the sins committed, and consuming them upon the person’s death. She thereby absolves the deceased of wrongdoing and transfers the sins onto her own soul. Every town needs a Sin Eater, one who is tolerated as an unwelcome but necessary part of every citizen’s life. May learns the rituals from the town’s existing Sin Eater, a slovenly older woman whom she dubs Ruth since they cannot speak to each other. May heartbreakingly tries to wring any possible affection from her teacher and forms an attachment despite her rough treatment. The premise of this novel is fascinating, but the storyline become a bit muddled when the two Sin Eaters are called to the Queen’s court. While performing their ritual, they are exposed to activities that some powerful people want to conceal, thereby endangering their lives. The book then morphs into a murder mystery involving court intrigue, religious intolerance and disputes about succession to the throne. The events described reference the turmoil seen during the reigns of Bloody Mary and Elizabeth I. Those who are unfamiliar with this historical period may miss many of the nuanced comparisons, and May’s use of nicknames for the characters she encounters can be difficult to decipher. The best parts of Sin Eater are outside of the central mystery—the plotlines depicting May’s discovery of kindness and kinship with fellow pariahs and her gradual realization of her own power within the social hierarchy. Ironically, the nature of her position and the fear it inspires serves as a source of freedom and provides unfettered access into all echelons of society. Original and well-written, Megan Campisi has taken a disturbing footnote from history and embellished it into a commentary on corruption and the price of freedom. Sin Eater is rewarding for those who persevere, enduring the twisting and somewhat divergent paths that the book wanders down along the way.


Thanks to the author, Atria Books and NetGalley for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Vivid and Compassionate

My Dark Vanessa - Kate Elizabeth Russell

All too often the amount of buzz about an upcoming release the greater the risk that it fails to live up to the hype surrounding it, despite a fleeting boost in sales and generated excitement.  Occasionally, a book that is widely anticipated and publicized proves to be deserving of all the acclaim it has received. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, with its skillful portrayal of an important but seldomly heard voice, is firmly in this category. Russell creates a character that is fully developed and heart-wrenchingly real, all while delivering a story that addresses the zeitgeist of the #MeToo movement from a perspective that invites a deeper contemplation of the issues. Vanessa is a young woman who is being pressured to testify about an “affair” she had with a teacher 17 years prior.  A woman is accusing the teacher of inappropriate and sexually abusive behavior and wants Vanessa to join her in providing evidence against him. Vanessa, however, believes that what she experienced was genuinely consensual and she seeks to assert her autonomy by taking some of the blame on herself. The book vacillates between past and current events, beginning with a shy and naïve Vanessa at fifteen as she enters her Sophomore year at boarding school. These flashbacks reveal a girl who at that time is mourning the loss of a close friendship and is insecure and plaintively seeking validation. The character of Stroud is wonderfully written as more than just a predatory monster who takes advantage of weak girls. He is subtle in his approach, manipulating her into thinking she is the instigator of his indomitable attraction for this “one-time” lapse on his part. Vanessa remembers how she willingly exchanged her innocence for the attention and praise Stroud lavished upon her—bolstering her self-worth and making her feel respected and loved. As the recollections move forward in time, she realizes that their relationship was predicated by a skewed power dynamic and her obsession with this older man continues to influence her current decisions and relationships. As an adult who is not living up to her potential and copes by self-destructive acts, Vanessa’s long-term damage is extensive despite her denial. Vanessa grapples with the fact that she still feels compelled to protect Stroud and grateful for his role in her life. She rejects the label of “victim” and all the powerlessness that the word implies. The novel does not shy away from graphically describing Vanessa’s thoughts as she is alternatively aroused and repelled by her abuser. It raises questions about consent—its amorphic forms and maturity requirements, especially in the current age of early onset of sexual activity. Russell does not succumb to the customary waves of anger and need for retribution but chooses to instead examine the costs to victims when they submit themselves to scrutiny even when they are unprepared to do so. This pressure to come forward reflects how much evidence is required for victims to be believed and for justice to be (rarely) served. The Stroud character is depicted as man who experiences true regret and sadness but acts in cold self-preservation when cornered. Like Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita (a book alluded to throughout the story), Strane evokes sympathy as well as contempt. The true villains of the book are the other adults: Vanessa’s parents and teachers who fail to see what is happening and then refuse to protect her when all is exposed. Also implicated are the people who are so consumed with gaining retribution that invoking punishment becomes more important than compassion.  My Dark Vanessa is timely and thought-provoking, a stand-out among the flood of books already dedicated to these issues. Vivid and unforgettable, Vanessa’s story is one that will be unfortunately too familiar to many. For them, this book may either act as a trigger to be avoided or as a solace to see it expressed so well. 


Thanks to the author and William Morrow for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Clever and Truly Surprising

The Wife Stalker - Liv Constantine

Liv Constantine’s deft facility with sleight-of-hand plotting and diversionary tactics are on full display in her latest thriller The Wife Stalker. Piper Reynard, one of two central figures in the novel, is fleeing a murky past that she seeks to leave behind on the other side of the country. She is the recent owner of a new wellness center in a wealthy CT suburb, leveraging her prior therapist training to cater to a gullible clientele. The story begins as Piper is training her laser focus on a handsome defense attorney who is representing one of her clients.  Leo Drakos is a successful but troubled family man who quickly becomes captivated by the beautiful and driven woman. There is only one thing standing in the way of the two lovers: Joanna. Joanna is almost farcically indulgent, overprotective and doting, always seeking to selflessly serve the needs of Leo and the two young children, Evie and Stelli. Despite her ceaseless devotion, Leo jumps at the opportunity to banish Joanna when her needy mother is injured, paving the way for a new life with Piper. Now that Joanna is out of the house, Piper slides into place—clumsily attempting to win over the children who miss their mother and are not as easily charmed as their father. Convinced that Piper is a dangerous black-widow predator, Joanna vows to recapture her rightful position and convince Leo that he has been dangerously duped.  Joanna starts digging into Piper’s past, hoping to discover enough disturbing evidence to justify some increasingly desperate attempts to win Leo back. Constantine alternates between the perspectives of the two main female characters, Piper’s in third person and Joanna’s in first-person narration. The two women are cleverly complements and the book’s gripping plot provides creeping revelations into the warped complexity of both. Somewhere along the way, the author also manages to lead the reader astray, and the result is a climax that is breathtakingly unexpected. The Wife Stalker will likely thrill Constantine’s many fans, earning her some well-deserved new ones.  In a genre replete with an embarrassment of riches, Liv Constantine manages to provide even the most seasoned thrill seekers an uncommon reward—a genuinely surprising ending.


Thanks to the author, Harper Collins and Edelweiss for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Fair, Unremarkable Thriller

Something She's Not Telling Us - Darcey Bell

Charlotte’s brother’s latest girlfriend Ruth is greeted with some justified suspicion in Darcey Bell’s Something She’s Not Telling Us.  His history of dating highly unstable women, occasional lapses in sobriety and a demonstrated lack of judgement cause his family to scrutinize his latest conquest.  On the other hand, Charlotte is revealed to be an overprotective, paranoid and obsessive person who has some serious problems with objectivity and a tenuous grip on reality herself. Such a character makes for an interestingly biased perspective. This type of “protagonist” is an unreliable narrator akin to those Bell has employed in the past—one that causes the reader to immediately be on guard when evaluating her version of events. Other chapters feature the point of view of Ruth, another source that is transparently skewed. Fans of A Simple Favor and the film upon which it is based may be somewhat disappointed by Bell’s latest effort, for although the novel contains some innovative twists and is well written, it suffers from an overabundance of side plots that distract and stretch credulity. The psychology of the villain is incompletely developed, and her motives are insufficiently substantial to warrant the extremity of her actions. The reader is also left guessing as to why Ruth elects to victimize Rocco’s family, and Charlotte and her family are so unlikeable that not a lot of pity is generated for them. The big revelations are a bit predictable and banal, and the ending falls short of climactic. In sum, Something She’s Not Telling Us is diverting enough as a standard suspense story, but unfortunately is not one that is particularly remarkable or memorable.


Thanks to the author, Harper Collins and NetGalley for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

New Thriller Falls Short

The Day I Died: A Novel - Lori Rader-Day

Lori Rader-Day introduces what might have been an intriguing new element for an overloaded genre in her latest novel The Day I Died.  A handwriting expert with a traumatic history who consults with law enforcement, business and the private sector, Anna Winger can glean information from provided samples in a Sherlockian style.  She is an eccentric, guarded and prickly character who over the past thirteen years been perpetually uprooting herself and her teenage son in order to escape a shadowy, menacing presence from her past. As her rebellious son struggles to adjust to their latest new town, Anna is enlisted to help a highly skeptical sheriff with the case of a missing toddler. Continually defensive about her abilities and what they can contribute to the case, Anna is begrudgingly drawn in by the community despite being distracted by her tendency to mistrust and avoid any entanglements.  She is tempted to run away again when it seems that her true identity has been discovered and her son becomes increasingly insistent about learning about his origins. Soon events force Anna to return to her childhood home, and some incredible connections crop up between her current work and her own past. Rader-Day skillfully portrays the contentious mother-son relationship, and one is left feeling truly sorry for the teen whose mother is incapable of recognizing how detrimental her decisions have been to his life. The handwriting analysis angle is provided to give the novel a twist, but seems a bit dated given the our increasingly digitized world. So many current thrillers feature a damaged female protagonist armed with a rough exterior and similar issues or backstories that whole sections of bookstores could be devoted to them. So, any differentiators from the typical formula are refreshing—if they can be well-executed and avoid being too “gimmicky” in their deployment.  Unfortunately, The Day I Died falls short in both areas.  Anna’s feats of handwriting analysis abilities are not exciting enough to overcome the slow pace of the first section of the book, and the plot only starts getting interesting in the final third of the book when Anna returns to her hometown.  The coincidences needed to combine Anna’s present and past strain plausibility, and Anna herself is such an alienating character that she is almost a caricature of unlikability. There is also a “romantic” subplot that contributes very little and becomes an add-on that appears forced and unnecessary. Ultimately, The Day I Died is relegated to a merely passable entry in a field that already provides too much rich competition for it to stand out successfully from the crowd.


Thanks to the author, Harper Collins/William Morrow and Library Thing for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Fun and Frivolous

The Roxy Letters - Mary Pauline Lowry

Readers seeking a light-hearted, farcical foray into twenty-something directionless misadventure will find much to enjoy in Mary Pauline Lowry’s epistolary novel, The Roxy Letters.  The book consists of a series of one-way notes and letters between the eponymous main character and her ex-boyfriend, Everett.  As the book opens, Roxy is reluctantly housing her ex as a temporary tenant to subsidize her meager income as a deli worker at Whole Foods.  What begins as an effort to communicate some basic house rules morphs into more of a personal diary that delineates Roxy’s various escapades. An aspiring artist stuck in her own slacker mentality, Roxy’s insecurity and lack of motivation about her identity and future shines through in her writing. When she decides to embark on a crusade to protest the gentrification of Austin (epitomized by the opening of a Lululemon store in her neighborhood), she meets an interesting new friend who inspires her to take more risks in life and love.  The Roxy Letters wants to be a more risqué and Americanized version of Bridget Jones’ Diary, and it somewhat succeeds in eliciting the same frantic, cringy tone.  The form of the novel becomes a bit cumbersome and forced as the book goes on, however, and it becomes awkward and too expositional.  The reader is expected to be tolerant of some extremely far-fetched and contrived scenarios and the repetitious discussion of sexual topics become excessive and tiresome.  Lowry does a good job poking fun of young adulthood and the entitlement of progressive liberalism in the 2010s, and The Roxy Letters is certainly a fun read.  The conclusion brings all the characters together in a chorus with a well-wrapped happy ending that is a refreshing change from the typical angst seen in some contemporary novels that take themselves too seriously.  This book would appeal to fans of romantic and slapstick comedies who don’t mind some explicit sexual content and are prepared to endure some harmlessly unbelievable plotlines.


Thanks to the author, Simon & Schuster and Edelweiss Plus for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Nice Introduction

Sudden Traveler - Sarah Hall

Sudden Traveler is a collection of seven short stories by award-winning Sarah Hall, whose short fiction has been justly described as luminous and erotic.  This small sampler demonstrates her flexibility with styles and subjects that vary from the deeply moving and accessible to the more obscure and elusive.  Interwoven in each piece is a recurrent theme of women’s experience in snapshots of important stages of life, both as it is perceived by the women themselves and by men who can only guess about them from a remove.  Some of the stories feature fantastical elements with prose that is heavily metaphoric and lyrical.  Others are more realistically grounded and are thereby starker in their depictions of violence and physical frailty.  As with all collections, some of the stories are stronger than others, and a few cross the border into pretentiousness with Hall’s sometimes excessive use of perplexing symbolism.  Still, Sarah Hall is obviously a wonderful and creative writer with a strong message and the skill with which to convey her point of view.  Sudden Traveler is a nice short introduction to her work and will encourage an open-minded reader to seek out her other offerings.


Thanks to the author, Custom House/William Morrow, and Library Thing for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Interesting and Fresh Take on a Popular Topic

Darling Rose Gold - Stephanie Wrobel

Stephanie Wrobel introduces a fresh perspective into an exhausted topic with her novel Darling Rose Gold. The past few years has seen the market glutted with depictions of the fascinating and disturbing psychological disorder Munchausen By Proxy.  In actuality an extremely rare disorder, it involves a primary caregiver who intentionally harms a child in order to gain attention and sympathy (a grossly oversimplified definition).  Most of the popular stories are sensationalized accounts with a clear female perpetrator and a victimized child, low on nuance and high in shock value.  Darling Rose Gold is both more original and interesting than the typical offerings and is well worth exploring as a result.  Providing an interior view of both the mother and the child as a grown adult, Wrobel shows how the pathology emerges and the resulting long-term damage it inflicts on both characters.  The novel begins as Patty, the mother, is being released from prison five years after her daughter Rose Gold has provided testimony against her.  Surprisingly, Rose Gold has seemingly not only forgiven her, but is also accepting her back into her home despite the abuse she suffered.  The emotional stakes are increased further by the presence of Rose Gold’s newborn-who the reader fears will fall prey to the unrepentant Patty.  The author alternates between narration from both women’s points-of-view, using flashbacks to develop some background and provide insight about the intervening years.  Wrobel thereby shows the genesis and extent of Patty’s unhinged thoughts in the context of her own childhood abuse and demonstrates Rose Gold’s stumbling entry into independent adulthood.  The novel’s best chapters are those in which Rose Gold struggles to compensate for the external and internal scars she still carries while dealing with a lingering rage that she has no idea how to healthily express.  Both women are treated cruelly by a community that cannot comprehend the monstrosity produced by this disorder and are confused by Rose Gold’s seeming naivete.  Patty defiantly tries to insert herself back into her old environment without admitting guilt, and Rose Gold desperately attempts to be accepted but is challenged by others’ alternating pity and judgement.  There are occasions in the book when the shifting perspectives and timeline jumps can be a bit confusing to the reader, but the resulting disorientation is satisfyingly resolved and helps to maintain a heightened sense of tension and suspense. Excellently plotted and climactic with some truly surprising elements, Darling Rose Gold is perceptive and empathetic in dealing with a topic that has suffered from too much attention with insufficient depth.


Thanks to the author, Berkley (Penguin) and NetGalley for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Refreshingly and Unflinchingly Honest

We Have Everything Before Us - Esther Yin-Ling Spodek

We Have Everything Before Us by Esther Yin-Ling Spodek provides an unflinching, insightful and extremely relatable account of three intersecting lives at the crossroads of middle age.  The connected stories of Eleanor, Phil and Kaye display different perspectives on this often-overlooked stage of life when the consequences of past decisions, actions (and inactions) come to fruition.  Eleanor is bored, insecure and looking for validation and excitement when she contacts Phil, an old acquaintance from her high school days. Phil is in the middle of a messy separation as a result of some disastrous infidelities, and he suffers from an acute lack of self-awareness and a stunning inability to realize the destruction he leaves in his wake.  Eleanor and Phil begin what may be the most stilted initiation to an affair imaginable, with some truly cringe-inducing interactions and scenes that Spodek skillfully portrays in all their agonizing awkwardness.  Kaye, the third major character, is Eleanor’s friend who tries to dissuade her from this experimental dalliance.  She is also struggling with her own ambivalence about leaving her family, lashing out by abusing alcohol and becoming increasingly aggressive in her expressions of discontent.  All three characters are shown at points of crisis and are uncertain about how to proceed without causing further damage to themselves and those closest to them.  Spodek captures their turmoil with inner monologues that are simultaneously lightly humorous, angrily barbed, soaked in regret, and yet still maintaining glimmers of hope.  The result is a combination that makes for difficult but rewarding reading.  The good news is that We Have Everything Before Us is more like a novella in length, each vignette is succinct, and the switching sections between characters help dissipate the tension.  The bad news is that the characters are so wonderfully realistic and refreshingly honest that it leaves the reader wanting even more.


Thanks to the author, Gibson House Press and Edelweiss for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.