Cheri Reviews Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

As soon as I saw that Lilac Girls was about prisoners at Ravensbrück, I requested it for review. I had previously read Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein and wanted to get another perspective on the same place.

I’m not going to include the blurb here but you can click on the book cover above and it’ll take you to the listing on Amazon if you want to read it. The book is told from three different points of view: Caroline Ferriday, a middle-aged socialite who lives off her family money and volunteers with the French Consulate in NYC; Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish Catholic teen; and Dr. Herta Oberheuser, a young Nazi doctor. I don’t want to give away anything that happens but I had some very serious problems with this book.

It’s obvious that the author did a tremendous amount of research and she goes into some of that in the afterword. Unfortunately, I thought that much of what she wanted to convey to the reader ended up taking on the form of info dumps through the characters filling in what was happening with the war or the locations. It didn’t feel like it was a natural part of the narrative.

The book also felt disjointed. For more than half of it, Caroline is solidly concerned with France and her married, would-be boyfriend, Paul, while Kasia and Herta are entrenched in the rise of Nazism and life in Ravensbrück. There was no connection at all. I couldn’t, and still don’t, understand why so much time was given to Caroline’s character. She spent most of her chapters complaining about how her rich and idle peers treated her, whining about Paul being married, and later, upset and pouting about his wife not actually being dead. I found her to be a very unlikable character. Her issues compared to the women in the other parts of the book were trivial and she made me want to stop reading before I hit the halfway mark.

Kasia’s POV was the only one that seemed to have any depth at all. If the whole book would have focused on her and her family, I think I would have enjoyed it much more. Her eagerness to do something to help the resistance, her later guilt at having put her family in danger, and finally what follows toward the end of the book could have been deepened and expanded to grab me and teach me something and make me feel connected to her and the other rabbits. But as it was, I felt like we just barely scratched the surface of her character.

The person I wanted to know so much more about was Herta. We’re allowed to share some brief experiences with her as a teen and a young woman, desperate to succeed and be recognized in her field but after her first day at Ravensbrück, we get very little else from her perspective.  She was given very little depth and it was impossible to understand how she could go from being physically ill and protesting the idea of killing a prisoner to the woman she was by the end of the book. Why give her a point of view at all if not to allow the reader to experience her thoughts and feelings and help us to understand her? And there was no resolution at all unless you listen to the afterword. I was the most disappointed in the way this character was handled. I would have rather she had not had a POV and was left as someone we learned about through Kasia instead of being teased with the possibility of gaining insight only to be left wanting.

I haven’t read any other reviews or looked at any individual ratings but I have seen that the average is pretty darn high. But this book just didn’t work for me on any level. After listening to the author talk about her journey in writing the book (I bought the audiobook after it came out and read it that way instead of the ebook I got from NetGalley), I know she wanted to tell the world about Caroline and her work with the Rabbits and her other charity work. But I think it would have been more effective as a biography. As it was, I felt Caroline was a shallow, self-interested woman who did a lot for others but was still more concerned with her appearances and position, while not learning nearly enough about the other two featured characters.

For readers who are interested in a more immersive read about characters at Ravensbrück, I highly recommend Rose Under Fire.

Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing me with the ebook ARC of Lilac Girls in exchange for an honest review.

Cheri Reviews Curious Minds by Janet Evanovich and Phoef Sutton

I’d been hearing about Janet Evanovich for a very long time before I read One for the Money. Several of my relatives and friends swore she was just the best author ever and I really needed to stop putting it off and get into her Stephanie Plum series. Of course, that only made me more resolved to avoid them at all costs. I’m hard-headed like that. Once the movie came out, I figured I’d waiting long enough and dove in. What a hoot! I loved the characters and the language and the humor. I never did get around to finishing the series but I could certainly see why so many other folks devoured her books as soon as they came out.

Flash forward a few years and I see the first book of a new series that has Evanovich writing with an author I’d never heard of before. I like mysteries and I hadn’t been even remotely disappointed with One for the Money, so I figured I had nothing to lose by requesting it from the publisher for a review. As soon as I cracked the ebook open, I was hooked.

Our heroine is Riley Moon. She’s just started working for Blane-Grunwald, one of the worlds largest banks, and her first assignment is to meet with Emerson Knight, who is rich, handsome, and eccentric. Very eccentric. He’s concerned about his gold that is supposedly held in the vaults at Blane-Grunwald and Riley has been sent to make him feel better. What happens from their first meeting on is a non-stop ride filled with murder, mayhem, alien hunters, and lots of humor. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I laughed and there were even a few surprises which made it even more fun.

Anyone who has read Evanovich before and enjoyed her work will surely have a great time reading this one. And if you haven’t read her yet, what better way to get started than with the first of a new series?

You can download a sample or purchase Curious Minds by clicking here.

I was provided with a copy of this book through NetGalley and Random House in exchange for an honest review.

Cheri Reviews The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon

I received this book quite a long time ago from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review. Unfortunately, I’m really, really far behind on all my reviews so I was pleased when I saw I could get the audio book from the library. I have much more time for ear reading and I enjoyed the narrator’s work on The Winter People so it was a win-win!

Here’s the blurb from Amazon (skip it if you want to be surprised. I won’t give anything away):

Once the thriving attraction of rural Vermont, the Tower Motel now stands in disrepair, alive only in the memories of Amy, Piper, and Piper’s kid sister, Margot. The three played there as girls until the day that their games uncovered something dark and twisted in the motel’s past, something that ruined their friendship forever.

Now adult, Piper and Margot have tried to forget what they found that fateful summer, but their lives are upended when Piper receives a panicked midnight call from Margot, with news of a horrific crime for which Amy stands accused. Suddenly, Margot and Piper are forced to relive the time that they found the suitcase that once belonged to Silvie Slater, the aunt that Amy claimed had run away to Hollywood to live out her dream of becoming Hitchcock’s next blonde bombshell leading lady. As Margot and Piper investigate, a cleverly woven plot unfolds—revealing the story of Sylvie and Rose, two other sisters who lived at the motel during its 1950s heyday. Each believed the other to be something truly monstrous, but only one carries the secret that would haunt the generations to come.

This is the first time I’ve read the blurb (the misspelling of Sylvie’s name isn’t mine but Amazon’s) and it’s pretty spot on. I’m glad I didn’t read it first because I had no idea what was going on. The story is told in three different time frames: the 1950s, the late 1980s, and 2013-2014. There are also quite a few POVs. Between the jumping times and changing points of view, I was nervous that I’d be yanked out of the story and have a hard time actually connecting with the characters. I’m happy to report that it wasn’t an issue at all. I became very quickly involved in the stories – Rose and Sylvie, teen-aged Piper, Amy, and Margot, and the grown-up versions of them all.

I don’t want to spoil anything for you if you’ve not jumped on the bandwagon and read this yet. I’ll say that I enjoyed this book more than I did The Winter People, which I did like. I felt that the story was tight and plausible – which can be tough to do when you’re talking about supernatural stuff. There were plenty of twists and I was so into the story that I didn’t want to stop and think my predictions through too much. Some stuff I had figured out but even a few of those didn’t turn out exactly like I thought. And the creepy, spooky feel of the book was fantastic. It reminded me of when I read Stephen King books in the 80s and 90s – the things that scare one the most are the things that could actually happen and this felt like that.

Besides the horror/supernatural stuff – which, by the way, is never very graphic – there’s a lot to do with family and friend dynamics. Honestly, there was a lot to like about The Night Sister.

I definitely recommend this book if you’re looking for a well-written, entertaining, and creepy story with characters who feel genuine and complex. I hope Ms. McMahon has another book in the works.

Molly Jones Reviews Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

Anything’s legal if you can get away with it…Welcome to the Atlanta Police Department.

Atlanta circa 1974 definitely wasn’t the best place for a new female cop to cut her teeth. Kate Murphy, the heroine of Karin Slaughter’s latest novel Cop Town, is dispatched straight into this maelstrom of resentment and political upheaval, fresh out of what passed for training, and wearing a uniform far too large and designed for humiliation. On her first day, the only advice from her supervisor is to strap down her breasts to avoid giving her male colleagues a heart attack. Most new recruits wash out quickly, and Kate – Jewish, attractive, raised on the good side of town, but with a husband dead in Vietnam – is adamant that she won’t be one of them. What she doesn’t know is exactly how much of herself she will have to lose in order to survive.

Regular readers of Karin Slaughter will already be familiar with the themes and era in Cop Town. Slaughter stuck a tentative toe into these waters in Criminal, splitting the action there between present day and flashbacks to 1974. With Cop Town, however, she has plunged right in, creating a brand new cast of characters but returning to Criminal’s central issue: the battle facing women trying to carve out a career in a male-dominated environment whilst working in a city crippled by poverty and besieged by violence and racial tensions.

Sticking to her usual strategy, Slaughter splits Cop Town’s narrative into three points of view, neatly contrasting Kate’s deer-in-headlights vision of the Atlanta PD with that of more seasoned cop Maggie Lawson. Thrown straight in at the deep end, Kate embarks on her chosen career the day after the so-called Atlanta Shooter executes his fifth police officer. As discrepancies about this latest murder come to light, she and Maggie leave the boys to their tub-thumping and set out to investigate the leads that everyone else is ignoring. Anyone hoping for buddy movie-type bonding is going to be disappointed though; the two women are the antithesis of each other, and a large part of the novel’s tension arises from their edgy, at times downright hostile relationship. If the male officers are belligerent, dead-set on retribution, and largely drunk, the women are almost as bad. Having run a gauntlet of roaming hands and verbal abuse to reach the locker room, Kate then faces a second, more subtle but just as brutal ordeal from her female colleagues. It’s a neat and effective scene that establishes the dichotomy at the heart of the book: to succeed, Kate must chip away at everything she is, eroding those fragile parts that her enemies can prey on and carving out a new, tougher identity. In working out what of herself to sacrifice and what values to try to preserve, Kate realises she’s capable of far more than she ever would have predicted, and that not all of these changes are changes she can be proud of.

Slaughter’s third point of view belongs to Fox, the murderer at the heart of the manhunt, and it is his voice, motivations, and methodology that are perhaps the weakest elements of the novel. Obviously enamoured of her period research and determined to make that count on the page, Slaughter seems to have forgotten that she still needs a strong storyline to carry the novel through. Instead we get Fox, a walking cliché of bitterness and prejudice, conveniently obsessed with Kate, and dead set on a nefarious path. Unusually for Slaughter, the murder plotline is linear and simplistic, with few red herrings and little in the way of shocks. While you may not guess the identity of the perp, it certainly doesn’t rock your socks when he’s finally unmasked.

Although lacking in twists and turns, Cop Town is by no means an easy read. At times, the relentless barrage of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism is a little like being smacked over the head by a blunt object, while the humour that leavens the onslaught is blacker than midnight and should come with some sort of health warning. If you found the flashbacks in Criminal too raw to stomach, you’ll probably want to steer clear of this one, but if you’re in the mood for lovingly recreated period detail, a rough ride into a troubled city, and an insight into a past many would rather forget you could do a lot worse than add Cop Town to your summer reading list.

You can download a sample or purchase Cop Town by clicking here.

Kate Reviews Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Every once in a while, you come upon a story that reminds you that we, as humans, are often connected in more ways than one would think, and we’re all on this crazy journey together. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann not only depicts this connection literally, but it also shows the human side of each of its characters, highlighting that we all have individual experiences and life events that affect who we are and where we go. The book is centered around the tightrope-walking event that took place between the Twin Towers in 1974. However, I felt the tightrope walker was used more as a metaphor to look up and look at each other instead of staying in our individually protected privacy bubbles. The tightrope walk of Phillippe Petit in 1974 was a real-life event that occurred in the morning of a seemingly normal New York day and I’ve heard the documentary Man On Wire is a fascinating look at this event and the person behind it.

The book is written in the same style as Babel and Crash which may be why I loved it so much. McCann’s style of writing feels real. It feels like you’re actually experiencing NYC in the 1970s when the Bronx was burning, the “system” was broken, Vietnam had recently ended, and yet, if you look closely, you can still find kindness and compassion. Although the setting is the 1970s, I felt you could superimpose this to today just as easily. Maybe I feel a personal connection because I spend my weekdays working with people that have often been overlooked or unfairly judged as “damaged goods” and tossed aside when, in reality, we are no better than each other and if we just stop and listen I bet we could all learn a thing or two. I’ll step off my soapbox now because this review shouldn’t be about aspects of my own moral compass.

I highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys reading fiction about the human experience and the connections we may have to one another. A unique aspect of this book may be that everyone takes something different out of it and catches things that other readers may have overlooked. Perhaps that was McCann’s point after all.

Download a sample or purchase Let the Great World Spin by clicking here.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl is Gillian Flynn’s third novel and I was damn excited when I saw it was coming out. As many of my friends know, I loved her second book, Dark Places and recommend it regularly.

Gone Girl is about the disappearance of Amy Dunne on her five year wedding anniversary to Nick Dunne. We learn very quickly on that Nick is a pretty shitty husband. And he doesn’t get any better as we find out more about him. Of course, we learn all sorts of things about Amy, too. I won’t give much away about the plot because you’ll figure out very quickly what happened to Amy. The pleasure in this book is the unraveling of who Amy really is and Nick’s journey is pretty interesting, too.

We recorded a Cocktail Hour podcast about this book and Andy, Colette Moody, and I all had differing feelings about the story and the characters. One thing we could all agree on is that there are no likable characters in this book. That’s not to say the characters weren’t well written or developed or that the author made any major missteps with the plot. They’re all mostly assholish, weak, or crazy. And I like that.

I don’t want to say much more because I don’t want to ruin anything for you. I enjoyed the book a lot. I got the audio book and, after talking with Andy and Colette, I’m happy that I did. I think the two narrators, one for Amy and one for Nick, did a fantastic job and it added to the emotional buildup and helped me to connect with the characters more. But audio books aren’t for everyone.

I also thought that the end went on much longer than needed and that took away from some of my enjoyment of the book. Flynn’s writing style is engaging and keeps the story moving along quickly and the third part of the book felt like it just took the story too far. For me, the exciting part had reached its height and what happened after that was interesting but by the time I got to the end, it felt anti-climactic. Chilling, to be sure, but I was pretty much done well before the writing was.

If you’ve read any of Flynn’s other work and enjoyed it, you’ll like this one. I still favor Dark Places over Gone Girl but I do love that she’s definitely got a sick and twisted mind.