The Only Child by Andrew Pyper

Hardcover, 304 pages
Expected publication: May 23rd 2017 by Simon Schuster

The Only Child started out as improbably as to mock the tradition of true Gothic fiction. The tension and “horror” seemed contrived from the very start, placed into our minds by the forced narration of the author, not by circumstance, not by the skilled hand that every reader searches for to guide them on their path.

This novel was a dabbling adaptation of so many classic stories of the Gothic tradition—Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula…my foot. To sample their tradition is one thing, to recreate it, another, more awe-inspiring thing. Yet this, The Only Child, was neither. It sampled their names, their ideas, but never breathed any life into them. In fact, it read as a lifeless shell of them, if that even, that writhed with too much telling me and not enough showing me. I felt nothing while reading this, not even when Pyper tried to tell me what to feel, and was bored from the start of the first chapter.

In short, The Only Child turned out to be a “fast-paced” adventure story with no soul, a play on the classic horror traditions we all love for their originality, though this novel displayed little originality of its own. I recommend it to no one, least of all lovers of classic horror or the Gothic tradition. In fact, the only surprise I found in these pages, before skipping to the end and finally putting it down, was that the renowned Simon and Schuster, whose lists I tend to love, would publish this thing in the first place. 1 star *

The Trophy Child by Paula Daly

Hardcover, 386 pages
Expected publication: March 7th 2017 by Grove Press (first published January 26th 2017)

“Karen didn’t believe in keeping a lid on things, picking your battles, and all that other claptrap parents were advised to do. When did people stop being parents, exactly? Karen knew when—when they were scared to death their kids wouldn’t love them any more if they scolded them, that’s when. When they’d fallen out of love with their spouses and so the thought of conflict with their child, the thought of saying a simple ‘no’, panicked them beyond measure. For Christ’s sake, people didn’t even scold their dogs any more…”

Trophy children are quite en vogue these days, judging by the recent publications so many publishing houses have put out. I, myself, have read and reviewed a large handful of novels about this “perfect child” phenomenon, often featuring plots wrapped around the mystery of the death or fall of that child. The backstories here are often the same, stemming from parental pressures inflicted by those living vicariously through their offspring, rather than asserting those pressures upon their own lives, so it really ends up coming down to two things: intended audience and execution. Paula Daly’s latest novel, The Trophy Child, is definitely for a certain audience and the execution was fine. But that’s about all that it was: fine. If the above blurb made you think you’d encounter some spin on this “perfect child” motif, adding poignancy, startlingly well-drawn characters, or anything resembling originality, you may be disappointed by this one.

Here you will find the quintessential “thriller” for housewives. I say that more so honestly than sarcastically, but, to answer your next question, “No, this one did not work for me.” I was bored to skimming (if not tears) for the majority of the first half of this novel, and could find nothing of value or originality to take from this one. It was formulaic in most ways imaginable; the twists were enough to keep me reading, while not enough to provide any sense of shock or admiration from me. Not a single character in this novel interested me or made me yearn for more, likely because I never saw anything within any one of these characters that made me care about the outcome of the lives in the slightest. How’s that for honest?

Starting with the “Tiger Mom” herself, Karen Bloom is painted as an overly ambitious sort of mother, one who pushes herself, her children and her husband to exude perfection in all shapes and forms. We have them here in the U.S., too, of course, usually identifiable by their hectic schedules filled to the brim with carting their minivan full of children to this practice or that, passing the days away in Whole Foods in their Lululemon getups. We know these women, and whether we identify with them or not, they have become a notorious stereotype in our culture. Thus, suffice it to say, the brilliantly written blurb for this novel will be more than enough to get readers to pick this novel up, but I suspect there will be polarizing opinions on this one. Here’s why:

Paula Daly has a fan base; there are plenty of people out there who are looking for a comfy pseudo-thriller, some book that you can curl up on the couch with and take in with a cup of Earl Grey and a bit of skim milk. If you’re one of those readers, then you may absolutely love this one! Daly will have lived up to her reputation and really entertained. However, if you’re looking for any sort of depth, action, major thrill, or narrative creativity, you’ve come to the wrong place and should step no further.

The trouble with Paula Daly’s The Trophy Child is that the 350+ pages that it took to tell this tale were not particularly well used. The characterizations were in a lot of ways lackluster and uninteresting, namely because the characters failed to live up to anything more than the stereotypes they’d been written as. Karen Bloom is, seriously, just a disagreeable and annoying person, to the point that she actually contemplates fairly early on in the novel whether not she should throw a huge tantrum, because its ‘been a while since she’s thrown one.’ (Goodness, I just wanted to slap her in the face and tell her to get off the page.) Her husband is mealy mouthed and spineless and also happens to be a drinker and womanizer. Add in the pothead son, the duo of the order-barking military grandfather + the spacy wife and you’ve got yourself a rather interesting novel, right? Wrong. Just think The Nest meets cozy pseudo-thriller, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect here, because none of these stereotypes were particularly turned on their head, no new and entertaining characterization of these typecasts ever happened across the page. I quickly lost interest and had to fight the urge to skim ahead. Often, I lost this fight with myself and went ahead and did it.

I would characterize Paula Daly’s The Trophy Child as an okay read for a quick little jaunt, something to read when you’re off of work on a random Tuesday or something. A nice airport read as you suffer through a layover. But it’s unlikely that I’ll remember anything in particular about this novel by the time I finish my next on, and, for me, that warrants a ‘Meh’ and a half. That’s about it. 2.5 stars, which, on a good day, could be rounded up to 3, per my rating scale of “Average.” ***

 

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel thanks to Grove Press, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

**To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads at Navidad Thelamour!

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

     

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published August 9th 2016 by St. Martin’s Press (first published February 11th 2016)

   Behind Closed Doors turned out to be a decent debut that did its job entertaining me and building some tension, but it didn’t keep me up late at night reading or anything kin to that. B.A. Paris’ debut novel is the tale of Grace Angel (yep, quite the name, I know). She meets her McDreamy—a George Clooney look-alike—after years of potential husbands fleeing at the idea of having to care for her sister, Millie, who has Down Syndrome. Not only does Jack Angel not mind this arrangement, but he’s also a champion in the legal world for defending domestic abuse victims. So, who woulda thought he’d turn out to be a deranged domestic abuser himself, right! Grace finds her every move and conversation controlled by her husband, who portrays the very picture of perfection to outsiders—the beautiful wife who cooks five-course meals and always knows just the right thing to say. But this arrangement is for show only, and he literally keeps her held captive, locked in a thread-bare bedroom for days at a time with ever more sadistic methods of torturing her. As Grace tries to figure out how to extricate herself and her handicapped younger sister from his terrifying and oppressive grip, we learn just how deranged the human mind can be….

Okay, so we have to address the big issue that lots of reviewers are having with this one: yeah, you could drive a freight train through the plausibility of motives, honestly. But, we do live in a crazy world, and anyone who’s known someone who’s gone through domestic violence will understand the imprisonment—mentally, emotionally, physically—that Grace experiences. So, with that in mind, Closed Doors didn’t particularly strike me as “far-fetched,” BUT (no, I can’t just let this one off the hook) I found Grace’s motives to be questionable for sure.

In the first chunk of the novel, I was ready to write Behind Closed Doors off as a beach read if ever I’ve seen one, and I was ready to pinch myself for not taking advantage of the “sample” feature for e-reads (but wouldn’t that just take all the fun out it)! But the novel righted itself at some point, and the thrill finally began.

Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of my qualms with this one is that it took the easy way out by narrating all of the little intricacies that would’ve made this read more special—that would’ve earned it 5 stars. It takes real skill to thrill the begeezes out of someone with action scenes and mounting tensions, but it’s a much smaller order to just tell the reader what you want them to know and how that should make them feel. As a reader, it’s those moments of realization, those instances of ah, that’s what he meant. I get it that both delight and submerge us in the story. But, those moments take dexterity of imagination and real skillfulness with plots, with words. That you won’t necessarily find here, but if you’re looking for a quick read that’ll give you a little bit of a heart pound—you know, nothing too crazy, nothing that’ll really stretch or scar you—then look no farther.

In the end, Paris managed to craft a pretty well-executed novel, and I can see why some people were inclined to give it 5 stars. But for me, this was a 5-star idea with 3-star execution. That’s my final answer, and I’m sticking to it. 🙂 ***

Loner: A Novel by Teddy Wayne

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 224 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Simon & Schuster

Loner: A Novel turned out to be an unexpected gift, a surprise wolf wrapped in sheep’s clothing. This, of course, is always the best kind of surprise because—let’s face it—who wants to read through shocking revelations that never shock and humdrum plot lines that fail to thrill?

David Alan Federman is entering his freshman year at Harvard in much the same way that he’s lived his pre-college life: introverted, awkward enough to make a habit of spelling large words and sentences backward in his head for kicks (his college entry essay was entitled “SDRAWKCAB”) and perpetually uncomfortable in social settings of pretty much any kind. The middle child of attorney parents who remind him to take his Lactaid before going down to the freshman ice cream party, he meets—rather, instantly becomes enamored with from quite afar—a fellow freshman who’s too-cool-for-school attitude and socially elite entourage easily draw his attention. But the social caste system of high school still exists, even on the prestigious campus of Harvard, and we all know how that goes. Hence this novel takes off at a trot and never really slows, as one occurrence builds upon the tension of the next. What you end up with is a delicious university-setting tautness and social hierarchies traversed with alarming repercussions.

One of the many things that this novel had going for it was setting. No, not just the fact that everyone knows Harvard, one of America’s darling Ivys, but that everything from the physical landscape of the campus to the “baroque” vocab used by its overachieving matriculates immersed the reader in the scene from the very start, both physically and socially. Immersion is a true key to a great read, as we all know, and Loner offered that in spades in a way that was so unique that it struck me as off-putting at first, offering SAT-vocab-laden narration and interior thoughts that practically oozed with a telling social awkwardness—the kind that could only be the result of years of practiced introversion and prolonged interior conversations with oneself. While at first it struck me as a tick, I soon realized that it was, contrarily, a brilliantly executed mood of the novel that all came together delightfully or maybe disturbingly in the end.

But it is with the unique POV shift that the reader first begins to realize something’s wrong.

The blurb for this one left out one key detail that would probably grab it even more readers: that this is a psychological ride as much as anything else. It pushed the boundaries of what we’re comfortable with. Because, you’ll first notice David’s obsession with Veronica the first time the switch to 2nd person happens. You may run across a passage like, “And then I saw you walk in…” in the middle of a 1st person narration, and you’ll know. Oh, you’ll know. It succeeds in creating a hazily unsettling atmosphere, like at any minute you might find that you’ve entered the mind of a young sociopath…

That kept me on my toes.

I’ll resist stepping up to the podium to deliver a monologue on the pros and cons of 2nd person writing and how it’s increased usage in contemporary writing effects the reader—gosh, sounds like a class I wouldn’t mind taking!—and instead side-step that well-beaten path to say that I genuinely enjoyed this work far more than I would have had that literary tactic not been employed, because it created a charged atmosphere of voyeurism.

What I most applaud the author for, however—and trust me, there’s plenty to applaud here—was the author’s clear use of restraint. Restraint, restraint, RESTRAINT! It’s easy to fill a novel with superfluous passages that go nowhere and superfluous characters who do nothing but it’s a skillful author indeed who can cut away the nonsense and tell a truly streamlined tale that still manages to leave no detail unexplored, without inflating the word count with unnecessary prose. That is what Teddy Wayne did here in Loner, hence the short page count and the knock-out punch ending that landed the hardest blow, unsoftened by uncut fat. This novel was a sure ride toward the dénouement with steadily escalating subtle cues that piqued my reader Spidey senses like a dog’s ears perking in the wind. Put your ear to the ground. Can you hear that? For something wicked this way comes…

**Minor spoiler alert** Following David’s descent into obsession** was thrilling, like the downward slope of a roller coaster that you expected—you saw it as you approached the top of the summit, but your heart still dropped to your stomach on the way down. But, then again, we all know that I’m partial to character pieces that peel back the layers, and this was definitely that.
Sharp and utterly disquieting, this novel is so much more than first meets the eye. Every word and action were deliberate. I loved seeing it all come together, seeing the author’s clever hand at work and realizing that those scattered nuances were all part of a larger, oh-so-deliberate whole. I’d gladly jump in bed with the Loner again, and I recommend you do too. 4.5 stars ****

Death Unmasked by Rick Sulik

Paperback, 2nd, 264 pages
Published December 1st 2015 by Christopher Matthews Publishing

I was given this book by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Firstly, let me state that Death Unmasked has a thrilling premise: What if we really could continue on in another life, meeting and interacting with the same people but in different forms and circumstances? Fun idea, the premise of which alone could make for an exhilarating read! I didn’t mind the idea and playing out of reincarnation here at all as others may have. But it didn’t necessarily deliver on the promise thrill that it offered on the back cover, so to speak.
This novel jumped into the story right out of the gate; no piddling around here. By the end of page two or three the action had begun. This novel is broken into three sections: the first of which depicts the Holocaustal genocide where Laura and Emil perish. This section, in itself, would have been a wonderful novella if it had been filled out more. Honestly, it could have stood alone as a brilliant work in itself had it had the fleshing out that it deserved. The second section follows these characters reincarnated, Emil being a police detective, and it all culminates in section three, where the star-crossed lovers are reunited.
However, I wasn’t sure of what exactly I was reading at the start; the setting wasn’t set properly at all. Why were they running? Who were they running from? Even, what year is it and where is this set? The term “ethnic cleansing” was used to explain why the village people had been rounded up, but never elaborated on. Was this fantasy—an imaginative ethnic cleansing in a faraway world—or an apocalyptic event? I had no idea, because the feeling of setting and locale was not properly built out, unfortunately. There was the violence of rape, beatings and genocide to start this one off, which didn’t bother me at all. I felt that that aspect of the novel actually made it more real, more 3-D, and that 3-dimensionalizing made the read far more real.
However, the dialogue did Death Unmasked no favors at all. For me, it definitely felt stilted, unnatural and forced. It didn’t flow well at all from the very beginning. And the littering of italicized thoughts didn’t help either because the thoughts weren’t realistic, particularly not under the circumstances that the characters were in. One wouldn’t—I don’t believe—rail on and on about the hate in the soldiers’ hearts and the injustices around them (in short, prophesizing and intellectualizing) while there is literally mass murder, the shooting of babies and raping of innocent women going on before one’s very eyes! No, you’d be looking for an exit, ready to fight, terrified, shocked! I found myself literally pulling back from the pages and thinking, “Who talks like that?!”
Do keep in mind that this one presented poetry and did so in a lovely way. The incorporation of poetry throughout—and the theme of dark poetry itself—gave Sulik’s work another layer for the reader to appreciate and tie the story together. The poems were dark and faintly macabre in a way that offered just enough theatrics and made the novel a stronger read. But, the author’s hand definitely showed throughout this one. The oft-italicized philosophical rants definitely should’ve been either cut down or better incorporated. And while the middle section was jam-packed with good information and thorough details that only an experienced cop—an author who was obviously of that world before becoming an author—would be able to accurately offer, there was little finesse to it, and it came out like info vomit that pulled me as a reader away from the story line at hand to wade through piles of information that were often stoically presented. The ending wasn’t my cup of tea, but I could see where he was going with it. The idea of star-crossed lovers is one that’s been done to death, so I wasn’t particularly impressed with the way that this one ended (me hating bow ties and all), and I wished that it had been done in a new way. Though, I will admit, the novel itself did attempt a new mold with a fresh and exciting premise.
Reincarnation, big-city detective work, crimes of past and present and karma all played a role in this one and, believe me, the idea of all of that could make for quite the thrilling read! But it needed a more steady and experienced hand to flesh it all out—this one could have easily stood up to another 200 pages and been fine if done well, making it more of an “epic” sort of read—and a different editor, one who knew how to better play the game of Red Light, Green Light. Stop the prophesizing word vomit here; go with more setting there, ect. So, while the idea and the plot line were wonderfully realized, that can never carry a read all the way on its own. In this novel, inexperience peeped around the edges at times and was glaringly obvious and annoying at others. If this wasn’t inexperience at play but the author’s true writing style on display, it needed to be more evident; it needed the deliberateness of a sure hand backed by a read that was complete (enter setting, better characterization, ect.). I give this one two stars. **

Beautiful by Anita Waller

Kindle Edition, 316 pages
Published August 31st 2015 by Bloodhound Books

This novel was given to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

This was a novel for the gentle of spirit and of mind. Waller managed to craft a solid idea but the writing did not read as either fluid or gripping. It read in a jolty, staccato sort of manner that did not enhance the novel but irritated me with its knack for telling instead of showing and jumping from scene to scene without properly filling out for the reader what had even happened. Without spoiling it, the end was exactly this, which made for quite the anticlimactic read as a whole. To come through over 400 pages to be rushed through the end (the end scene was literally comprised of one page of text, the epilogue only a sentence or two)? I found that to be quite the annoyance.

At the start, Beautiful was neither innovatively written nor particularly insightful. I struggled with each turn of a page because there was no meat of substance. Sure, there were twists to the plot within those pages, but they were so swiftly presented with no “meat on the bone,” no climax of suspense, that it was as if I were reading the author’s outline of events, not the intended finished outcome. Amy’s mental and emotional hang-ups are completely realistic in theory, but were not eloquently portrayed so as to elicit the intended reaction out of me as a reader. In all honesty, I had difficulty even finishing this one. I was spurred on by the plot line fundamentally, not by the writing or the execution of said plot line.

In addition, a big show was made of the era in which this novel was set, with the years of the setting at the start of each chapter. Yet, there were almost no references to the era whatsoever. No mention of what these characters may’ve worn, what they would have driven; there was no setting at all really aside from a few scattered cameo mentions and television or disk that may have alerted one to what decade it was. There was no world to be immersed in.

What Beautiful did have was good intentions. I could see where the author was trying to go but never felt that I’d actually arrived. I never read the other reviews for a work before I write my own, but this one made me curious because I felt that surely I’d missed something that others must have seen. However, what I found was that for those who seemed to rate the novel highly, they all commented on how “shocking or difficult” the subject matter was, which makes me believe that this is a wonderful read for those who have never experienced hardship or malice of any sort in life themselves, hence the opening line here.

What I felt was lacking was depth of character and emotion. The presence of the subject matter alone cannot carry the story for those readers who are not easily shocked and who expect more. For those of us in this category, this one merely scratched the surface, softly. Oh, there were wonderful elements to this story that could have really soared if properly filled out, but they instead were one-note and one-dimensional. Here you can find sexual abuse and the emotional trauma that comes along with it, love, murder, sex—the makings of a thrilling work. However, the volume was turned down so low here that it was nearly mute in impact, assuming that the mere presence of the subject matter would carry the novel. For some, that may work as a great read—and it seems that it did; for others, more is needed to make such a work stand out on the shelves, to make it worthy of digging into your pocket and spending your hard-earned money. I, myself, would not have gone into my wallet for this one. Two stars for the plot of this one. 2 stars **

 

Find Her by Lisa Gardner

Find Her_Lisa Gardner

Hardcover, 402 pages
Published February 9th 2016 by Dutton

Lisa Gardner’s Find Her sits at #4 on the NYT Bestseller List as we speak. Honestly, that doesn’t always say a lot about a novel for me—how many times have we all followed the trend of hyped-up selling and packaging by big-name publishers only to be disappointed upon unwrapping? However, I feel confident in saying that that’s not the case with this one!

This work started off at a sprint. No, no feeling around for bearings on this one. Immediately, I was gripped and immersed, from page 1. The flashback effect worked here tremendously well. In fact, the flashback chapters were so wonderfully used that, in the end, they were not simply a prop for other chapters or fillers to increase word count. Those flashes back engaged the reader in an engrossing account of captivity and abduction and completely changed the dynamic of the novel. Gardner brought the feeling of terror and desperation to life in this work, no sugar coating—rather, any less coating and the Motion Picture Association would definitely have to up the rating on this one if movie rights are grabbed.

There are glimpses into the human psyche that both grip and examine how far the mind and body can go before they break and what it takes to get to that point. The voice is staccato, sharp, clear, which brings the dialogue to life. Sarcasm and stoicism are clearly separated in a way that shows her skill with crafting voices and characters. Don’t skim or you’ll miss something. The shift in tenses was done well, from first to second to third person and back again. It was transitional, never jolting, never removing me from the immersion in that world to have to figure out what was going on. Find Her is absolutely a page turner that left me nervous to go further in places. Will I read something here that will change me, that will take me further into the bounds of the human psyche than I’d anticipated? That was thrilling, those brushes against the edge, against the literary precipice.

This one is the 8th novel in the series, but a new reader wouldn’t miss a beat. The characters are wonderfully realized, and there are enough references to past D.D. exploits to fuel a new reader without making it less worthwhile to actually go back and read those past books.

*MINOR SPOILER ALERT* The ending, though, where revelations poured forth and convenient explanations were given—as frequently seen as the wrap-up method on hour-long TV—was formulaic enough to make me cringe a little, but what does one expect from chart-topping crime thrillers? If nothing else, the formula sells (to say nothing of whether it works). And there are plenty of readers out there who look for just that—that relatable blueprint —to guide them in their read or in the conclusion of it.

All in all, Gardner displayed a spell-bounding display of her craft here. Despite the formula that peeped around the edges in the end, the plotline was crafted with more twists than Twizzlers, and there were genuine moments where the heart raced, fingers poised to turn the page with urgency to get to the next curve, the next theory, the next revelation. Well done, absolutely. Do I recommend this read for crime buffs? Definitely. But if you’re like me, a reader resistant to bow-ties, you may want to take that into consideration first. 4 ½ stars ****