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Review: Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating

Occasionally (admittedly very rarely) I’m in the mood for a romance novel. The last time the mood struck was June, so I suppose I was due for a relapse. I’m not entirely sure why I keep trying with romance novels because they’re never exactly what I want them to be in the way that other novels can be exactly what I’m looking for even before I know what I’m looking for. But there’s something very freeing about picking up a book I have absolutely no expectations for, so I keep coming back. This time, I tried my first ever Christina Lauren (an author duo) novel, an adult romance that was published in September: Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating.

joshandhazel'sguidetonotdatingAbout the book: Josh is in a relationship with a woman who makes no effort to be a part of his life, a woman his family and friends dislike; the relationship has no future, as Josh is discovering. Hazel is a lively elementary school teacher who tries with men, but mostly sees herself as undateable because she can’t stay with anyone who is embarrassed by her, but she can’t change her personality, either. Even Josh, who she met in college, laughs at the idea of a serious relationship with Hazel. But now that Hazel is working with Josh’s sister, a new bond is formed; Josh and Hazel try to help each other out by setting up blind double dates, but the more time they spend together the more they realize that their assumptions about each other may have been wrong, and that their burgeoning friendship matters more than either ever expected it would.

Unfortunately, Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating was the least impressive contemporary romance I’ve read all year. Granted, I’ve only read three. But before I get into the complaints…

This book does have several good points. It is considerate and inclusive of minorities, the central romance is healthy and non-problematic, and the characters stay true to themselves. Ideally, these are components for a perfect romance, right?

“A tiny voice reminds me that Josh didn’t bother to blow smoke up my butt and tell me what a lovely place I had. He never lies, or fakes enthusiasm. He just accepts me.”

But the plot is predictable (as often happens with romance novels), and worse, it’s rather uninteresting. The entire premise of the blind double-dates made me cringe– I missed that part of the synopsis and might not have picked this book up if I had caught it– and it only gets worse as every single contender turns out to be more awful than the last. I don’t have much faith in blind dating to begin with and have not bothered with it in real life, but are people really so horrible? Do real people behave this badly over a single meal with a stranger? There is no angst or spark in Josh and Hazel’s growing connection because there are literally no other people in their lives to stand in their way. Between their uncaring exes and their new rude acquaintances, Josh and Hazel are all but forced together. There is no resistance.

Let’s take a closer look at Hazel. It’s admirable of Christina Lauren to include a female character that is so entirely confident and herself that she would rather keep trying over and over and end up alone after every failure than consider changing who she is. But she feels more like a type than a character– Hazel is the epitome of the “quirky girl,” although most of her wildness comes out in the stories from her college days rather than her present behavior. Every time she takes a drink, she makes a show of telling someone they need to basically staple her shirt to her body so that she can’t drunkenly take it off, but nowhere in the book does she actually have to be stopped from undressing in public.  Hazel is boisterous and unapologetic, but there’s a disconnect between how “crazy” everyone seems to think she is and the way she is actually presented in this novel.

“I’m Crazy Hazie and he’s Awesome Josh (hangover prevents me from finding something that rhymes with Josh) and nothing– I mean nothing— scares me more than the idea of us dating and him deciding that I’m too wild, too weird, too chaotic. Too much.”

And yet, in all of the time that they’re spending together, they’re dating each other in all but name and she has no reason to think that he could be scared away. This is just one example of how nonexistent the obstacles are between Josh and Hazel. Every now and then they think they have a reason to hold back, but the reader knows it’s bogus and not going to last. And that gets in the way of emotional investment in these characters.

Fortunately, the books speeds up toward the end as the drama passes from dating games to more serious life challenges, and it does end with a lot of positive commentary about kindness and acceptance in a variety of relationships– romantic, familial, and friendly.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. There’s nothing actually wrong with this book, it’s just… boring? Usually even if I don’t have a lasting appreciation for romance novels they do at least offer some instant amusement, but I was losing the will to finish this story as I read. There was nothing in the writing or plot to inspire actual hate for this book, it just seemed lackluster. I might try one more romance before the mood dies, but I’m feeling less interested after this one. I might even try one more Christina Lauren novel, as there was potential in the intent, even though this book didn’t impress me in the end.

Further recommendations:

  • For a more engaging “dating” game, try Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game, an adult romance about competitive co-workers who love to hate each other.
  • For diverse romance, try Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient, an adult gender-bent Pretty Woman romance between a mixed-race man and an autistic woman. This book is a Goodreads Choice Awards winner!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: A Ladder to the Sky

I’ve seen John Boyne’s name on book covers for years, but it wasn’t until so many readers adored The Heart’s Invisible Furies that I felt like I was really missing out by not having picked up any of his titles. Admittedly, I still haven’t gotten around to The Heart’s Invisible Furies, though I do have a copy at the ready. But when his 2018 release, A Ladder to the Sky came out, and when BOTM made it available as a November selection, I could not put off reading some of Boyne’s work any longer. So I read A Ladder to the Sky at the end of November… and I kind of wish I hadn’t.

aladdertotheskyAbout the book: Maurice Swift started his adult life as a waiter in a hotel restaurant, where he had the good fortune of waiting on a prestigious author who graciously (if somewhat selfishly) took Maurice under his literary wing. Maurice has aspirations of his own literary fame, but isn’t having much luck with writing- his style is competent, but he cannot think up any original plots. Thanks to his new mentor, he is able to pick up a trick or two from inside the publishing industry… and he finds his first great plot while mixing with great writers. The problem is that the idea didn’t originate in his own brain, and so his dubious career as an author is built on stolen plots that he passes them off as his own.

“This is what a writer does. Uses his or her imagination. Tries to understand how it feels to be alive in a moment that never existed with a person who never lived, saying words that were never spoken aloud.”

Unfortunately, I think this was a bad case of right-author-wrong-book. Though Boyne’s skill at shaping and narrating a difficult story shone through clearly, A Ladder to the Sky was not a particularly enjoyable reading experience for me. You know those characters people talk about loving to hate? Apparently I just hate them. Maurice is so awful, selfish, and manipulative that instead of appreciating his terribleness I found myself so often uncomfortable with his actions to an extent that I had to put the book down and was reluctant to pick it up again.

One thing that helped me make it through is that this book is divided into three main segments, and between those segments are shorter “interludes.” I liked the interludes better than any of the larger sections- the first one is told from a perspective far enough away from Maurice’s poison that I could observe him more objectively. The second interlude does show Maurice’s perspective, but as a largely powerless child; I did enjoy seeing him discovering his own personality and finding his limits (or lack thereof) at that stage of his life. But the three main sections built up horror after horror.

“I’d only been at their table a few minutes but had already managed to insult them both and make them each feel like shit, so I was beginning to feel that my work there was done.”

Part of my problem with the larger narrative sections is that they’re a bit predictable. All I knew going into this book is that Maurice is an ambitious writer who steals plots. This is not a spoiler; I don’t know why anyone would pick up this book without knowing that part of the premise and feeling intrigued about it (excepting the readers who pick it up because it has Boyne’s name on the cover; perhaps if I was a fan of his previous works I would have had a different reaction to this one, hence regretting picking this one as my first Boyne novel). But by knowing that Maurice is a plot stealer, I spent the entire first section seeing right through his flimsy ruse and spotted the soon-to-be-stolen plot immediately. Then I spent the entire second section knowing he was about to do it again, and seeing exactly where the new plot was coming from. By the time I got to the third section, there was absolutely no mystery in seeing Maurice falling into the trap of a new version of his own game.

The dramatic irony keeps the narration interesting even when the plot seems obvious, though. Maurice is constantly telling hypocritical lies and disturbing half-truths to characters who either don’t understand or can’t do anything to stop him. Maurice’s fate in the final section is so rewarding that I couldn’t look away despite its transparency. This is a book to read for the character study rather than surprise– I just didn’t want to study the character of Maurice.

” ‘You’ve let me down, Maurice, you really have.’ ‘Well, I wouldn’t take it personally,’ he replied. ‘I’ve done that to quite a few people over the years.’ “

But another saving grace was the interesting insight into the publishing industry. Of course this is a work of fiction, but it’s so amusing to see how even fictional writers and editors and publishers pursue their professions and interact with each other inside the small sphere of that world. Anyone interested in writing is probably going to appreciate the literary references. Even if the publishing industry on display here is biased and corrupt.

“The irony was that, in 1939, I had seen something beautiful and told its creator that it was a travesty. And now, almost fifty years later, I had read something terrible and, when asked, would surely praise it. Really, it was unconscionable behavior.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I experienced some extreme ups and downs with this book, but I am absolutely looking forward to picking up another John Boyne novel. I’ve got The Heart’s Invisible Furies on my shelf and it’s calling my name. I think any Boyne book that doesn’t include Maurice Swift is going to be a hit for me and I can’t wait to test that theory.

What’s a book you’ve read that you didn’t like but made you think you’d like the author anyway?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Elevation

Stephen King had a brand new book published at the end of October, and as a long-time fan of his writing I had to pick it up. I got around to it about halfway through November. It was a one-sitting book, less than 150 pages, which made it impossible to pass up. King’s books usually run so long that a novel of this size from him is a true curiosity.

elevationAbout the book: Scott pays a visit to his old doctor– retired, but still a favorite for medical advice– when he notices a strange trend: though he doesn’t look any different, he’s steadily losing weight. His eating habits haven’t changed; if anything, he’s eating more than he used to, but the numbers on the scale keep going down. More alarmingly, they don’t go up when he steps on the scale with a pocketful of quarters or heavy dumbbells in his hands. As Scott continues to feel lighter and healthier, he’s also trying to befriend the lesbian couple next door that he’s accidentally gotten into a neighborly feud with. There’s no telling what will happen to Scott when the scale hits zero, so his time to make amends for a bad first impression is running out.

“This isn’t just outside my experience, I’d say it’s outside human experience. Hell, I want to say it’s impossible.”

Right away I noticed that Elevation felt a bit gimmicky. Like Stephen King enjoying his fame, publishing because he can, because anything he turns out is going to be a hit even if it’s not a hit. There’s not a lot of meat to this story, but more unusually, there’s not much of the excellent character portrayal and development that Stephen King is known for.

One particular problem I had with Elevation is best explained in conjunction with previous experience; I read Stephen King and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties earlier this year and noticed that the social commentary was a lot more pointed than I was used to in King’s older novels. As the book was co-written and I had no experience with Owen King’s work, I thought maybe that wasn’t Stephen King’s doing, or at least not entirely. But I had the same issue with Elevation: the social and political commentary is so very on-the-nose. Essentially, the lesbian couple living next to Scott is facing prejudice from the entire town that is strong enough to potentially ruin their business within the year; as Scott tries to befriend them he sees the error of his earlier assumptions and encourages the other townspeople to accept them as well. The moralistic plot is predictable and obvious, Scott’s personal dilemma providing him with an excuse to see the situation from a new and comparable light:

“Why feel bad about what you couldn’t change? Why not embrace it?”

Furthermore, I’m not sure why this book is labeled as horror at all- the weight-loss concept is a bit weird and disturbing, but it’s not presented in a horrifying way. Scott seems to completely accept what is happening to him, and it fades into the background of the story as the situation with the neighbors takes precedence.

With the illustrations at the start of every chapter and the small size of the physical book (in addition to the abovementioned lack of subtlety and horror), Elevation seemed a bit like it wanted to be a children’s book. The entire story seemed a bit confused about its intended direction. If not for King’s name on the cover, I doubt this book would’ve seen much success.

And yet, it wasn’t a bad read either. Despite the fact that I kept expecting more from it, the story held my attention from cover to cover, surprising me in a few places and amusing me in others. It had so much potential for disaster, but as always, Stephen King pulls everything together in a uniquely interesting way.

Bonus points for the Pennywise reference.

“Not a wind, not even a high, exactly, but an elevation. A sense that you had gone beyond yourself and could go further still.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was an easy and acceptable read, though not particularly impressive. It helped me out of the reading slump that I’d been in for half the month (which, ironically, stemmed from my dislike for another novel in The Bachman Books, also written by Stephen King).

Further recommendations:

  • If you enjoyed (or look forward to enjoying) Elevation‘s short simplicity and wacky premise, you’ll probably also like King’s short co-written novel, Gwendy’s Button BoxGwendy’s takes place in the same town as Elevation (and gets an obscure mention in Elevation as well, if you’re interested in reading chronologically and want to pick up Gwendy’s first, though it’s not at all necessary to  read in that order to understand these stories) and is also a book that looks at morality and interpersonal relationships with a bizarre supernatural premise running in the background: a box of buttons that give its holder immense power over the entire world.

Is there an author whose books you pick up immediately upon publication, no matter what they’re about? Does that ever backfire for you?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Mr. Mercedes

I fell so far behind on book reviews since the beginning of October… I’ve been keeping notes so that I can try reviewing with my usual thoroughness, but it has been a hot minute since I read many of the books that I’ll be reviewing this month, so I might keep catch-up reviews a little briefer and stick to what I remember most strongly.

To start, I read Mr. Mercedes in early October with a buddy– we both wanted to get into this series (the Bill Hodges series, which is a sort of prequel to King’s 2018 release, The Outsider) and now we’re hooked. I’ve been too busy to continue the series immediately, but I have ordered the next book and am looking forward to it! My buddy reader is in the third book now and still loving the series, so I have high hopes.

mr.mercedesAbout the book: Detective Bill Hodges is retired, but a few unsolved cases continue to nag at him even though he’s not supposed to work on them any longer and has lost his access to police resources. When he receives a letter from Mr. Mercedes, the unknown culprit of a terrible hit-and-run case that left eight dead and another four wounded, he knows he should turn it in as evidence, but can’t shake the feeling that starting a private dialogue with the killer will provide more leads. Meanwhile, Mr. Mercedes continues to watch Hodges’ house, hoping that his gloating, accusatory letter will be just the thing to convince Hodges to commit suicide– adding another tally to Mr. Mercedes’s body count and eliminating the detective who lead investigations into his biggest crime. But if Hodges’s death doesn’t pan out, Mr. Mercedes has some other deadly ideas, and his recent conversation with Hodges might hold the only clues to stopping his plans.

“The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.”

I’ve seen Mr. Mercedes classified as mystery, thriller, and yes, horror, but I would say it’s a pretty straightforward crime novel. King always excels at characterization, and above all else, this book is an examination of character– of a heartless killer and of the bizarre cast of accomplices trying to thwart him. Often mystery novels that feature a whimsical band of misfits chasing a notorious criminal seem overly fabricated to me– the fact that these unique mystery solvers came together in the first place feels so constructed and unlikely (see Night Film). But Hodges’s friends are another story. Jerome is Hodges’s neighbor and already a friend before Mr. Mercedes comes along. Janey and Holly’s interest in the case makes perfect sense as they are relatives of one of Mr. Mercedes’s victims. Even the people Hodges interviews for clues act like real people, rather than the overly chatty sources of necessary info-dumping that mysteries often rely on. Each character and their motives are clear and distinct– including the killer’s.

That’s right, one of the highlights of Mr. Mercedes is that King provides plenty of perspective chapters direct from inside the mind of the killer. This is why I hesitate to call this novel a mystery or thriller; seeing this man’s side of the story takes out a high percentage of the guesswork and fright for the reader. We know where he is and what he’s doing. But I thought Mr. Mercedes’s sections of the book were highly engaging and indeed the most interesting parts of the book, so I didn’t mind learning early the identity of the killer. In my opinion, King does an excellent job of balancing the how’s and why’s, which lets him get away with offering the who’s and what’s at the front and center.

The only flaw for me was the increasing thinness of Hodges’ excuses for refusing to involve the police. What seemed a bad but understandable decision in the beginning eventually turns toward the unreasonable. When things really start going bad, he keeps going basically on momentum alone, and even though all the signs point to needing professional help and reinforcements, Hodges keeps refusing to do that. With more lives at stake, his excuses make less sense, and believability definitely takes a hit when his “assistants” start spouting their own flimsy excuses:

“Speaking carefully, enunciating each word as if to make up for what has probably been a lifetime of mumbling, Holly says, ‘No one can catch him but you.’ “

But those excuses come late in the game, and by that point I was almost too invested in the story to care why the “heroes” close themselves off so entirely. Perhaps with a little more attention to this question, King would’ve been able to provide a more satisfactory answer– the problem seemed more like an oversight than the product of poor planning or writing. Overall, this book was a fun time with a fascinating(ly dark) plot unlike anything I’ve encountered before, even in previous King novels.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This one isn’t going to be joining my all-time favorites list, but it is on my list of favorite King novels. It was a fast, interesting read that held my attention 100% from start to finish. I’ll definitely be reading on, though it might take me a couple of months to get around to it. October was a great time of year to start this series though, and I’m glad I finally picked it up. This one’s been sitting on my shelf since… probably 2013, so I’m glad I finally picked it up.

Further recommendations:

  • Robert Galbraith’s Career of Evil is actually the third book in what is currently a 4-book series by J. K. Rowling (Galbraith is a pen name). Unless you’re really into the will-they-won’t-they dynamic between the detective and his assistant, there’s really no reason to read the first two before this one, which was by far the strongest of the three that I’ve read so far. It also features interesting chapters from the killer’s perspective.
  • Caroline Kepnes’ YouAgain, if you like getting Mr. Mercedes’s whacked perspective, this is another fascinating story from the eyes of the deranged.

What’s your favorite Stephen King novel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Emigrants

I probably won’t be able to generate much interest in this book, but I’m going to talk about it anyway.

My grandma, whose family is originally from Sweden, lent me this 4-book series, Vilhelm Moberg’s Emigrant Novels, about a family emigrating from Sweden to America in the mid-1800’s. The series is a fictional account written by a Swedish author in the 1900s after a fourth of Sweden had emigrated. I’m going to be reading the entire series, but this will be my only full review, featuring book one: The Emigrants; the rest will be mentioned only in my wrap-ups.

theemigrantnovelsAbout the book: The Nilsson family has lives on a small farm in Sweden. Karl Oskar’s father wore out his health clearing stones from the land over many years in the hopes that his sons would inherit better land than he had, and Karl Oskar begins his adult life as a farmer. He and his wife and their young children put every effort into the farm, but they have several bad years that it seems they’ll never be able to return from. Meanwhile, Karl Oskar’s brother, Robert, is employed as a farmhand elsewhere because Karl Oskar’s land cannot be further divided. But his employer is cruel and Robert ends up on the run. Both brothers dream of starting over in America, but they have little reliable information about the New World, and the dangerous sea voyage can take several months, if the ship manages to arrive. Everyone but the two brothers is against the move– but the Nilsson brothers are determined.

“His emigration was taken as a reproach, an insult even, to the parish as a whole and to each individual: the community and the people here were not good enough for him.”

This first volume is not a complete story in itself. It covers life in Sweden for the Nilssons, their decision to emigrate, and their sea voyage. The end of the book is just the end of a chapter (though an important chapter), and it’s necessary to read the entire series to take in this story. I know that’s a big commitment for someone without personal history involved. The writing is a bit dry in places, as it covers a lot of information rather than a lot of action (though there is plot), and it can be long-winded and repetitive. This is writing meant to evoke a time and place, so some interest in that setting is required for enjoyment.

“And he wondered if it were worthwhile to live, if he must remain a farmhand.”

So what’s to love? Well, American history. Swedish history. There are the major events of national history taught in schools, and then there’s one’s personal history. The Emigrants is full of characters that feel like my family.

And this is why I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be convincing many new readers to pick this up. It’s the familiarity that pulls me through, and I know that’s specific to me and to my family’s history. (Also other families in my area, I live in a Swedish/Norwegian area.) The names are familiar to me, the way they farm is familiar to me, their big noses and personalities and values are familiar to me. I know their religion. Even the climate seems very similar. My great-grandparents and their parents lived through journeys like the one described here. I’ve never had a reading experience like this before, and it’s been incredible.

“Here ships have sailed for thousands of years, but on this path wanderers leave no footprints.”

I often find that books about farming are boring. I don’t know why, because farming itself doesn’t leave one with enough time to be bored. There’s just something about manual labor and leaving one’s fortune to the whims of the weather that just doesn’t seem to translate well into literature. But Moberg brings these characters to life in a way that propels the narrative through layers of description. Each character has his/her own distinct relationship to farming and opinion of emigrating. They bear the emotional struggles of losing a child due to poverty occasioned by drought, and of losing to fire the entire season’s harvested grain, and taking responsibility for the lives of one’s family in the decision to risk the months at sea. Some characters are considered insane for trying to break with their community church to follow their own beliefs. One farmhand is ridiculed by his employer, another is injured. Everyone must leave something behind. Despite the heavy detailing of day-to-day life on the farm and on the ship, Moberg also infuses this novel with emotion and psychology, humanity that the reader can relate to even without personal experience with Swedish farms and sailing. It’s a beautiful documentation.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though I’m loving the personal connection I feel with this story, the writing is not the most stimulating. There are some very engrossing life-or-death moments, but otherwise this was a slow read for me. I’m determined to read the series, but it still seems a bit daunting. I think I’ll have a greater appreciation for the storyline as a whole once I’ve read the entire set.

Further recommendations:

  • A Man Called Ove is a great novel set in Sweden, by Swedish author Fredrik Backman. This one’s a more modern tale, and more humorous, but also captures a piece of Swedish life. Specifically, this novel follows a man who’s wife has died and whose decision to follow her to the afterlife is interrupted and derailed.

Which books do you enjoy because you feel a personal connection to the story?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Cross Her Heart

I read and loved Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes last year, and was excited to see her newest release, Cross Her Heart, available through Book of the Month Club for September. I knew going in that this new thriller lacked the sort of genre-bending twist that sold me on Behind Her Eyes, but even with that expectation I was disappointed by this run-of-the-mill thriller.

crossherheartAbout the book: Lisa has a good job, a daughter she’s proud of, a great friend… and nightmares about her dark past. No matter how much better she’s doing and how well-hidden she is, Lisa cannot escape what happened years ago. When signs from an old “friend” begin turning up in the present, Lisa doesn’t know how to cope. Ava doesn’t know how to deal with her mother’s newfound paranoia, and no one knows what to do when Lisa’s cover is blown and she’s spirited away to a safehouse– too late to save herself and Ava from the schemes of someone desperate for revenge.

“Life Is a series of deals, that’s what I’ve learned. Most get broken.”

I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what went wrong here for me– I think it was just a bit of everything. I will mention a few specific complaints, but I want to lead by mentioning that I’ve read quite a few thrillers now and my main problem lately seems to be that they’ve gotten predictable now that I know what to expect. This bothers me because I think thrillers, as much as any other genre, should hold up even (especially) if the reader is well-versed in the genre. But Cross Her Heart bored me within the first 10 pages, and never really improved.

One of the first issues I had with this book was characterization. I absolutely loved Marilynn’s character, but she is not the main focus (a tragedy) and the characters that do receive more attention are far more clichéd and unexciting. Ava is a selfish, naïve teenager whose mistakes are obvious from the start, and Lisa is the irksome mother who says her child matters more than anything, and yet she has no idea what’s going on in Ava’s life and makes no effort to keep her safe when scary things start happening around their home. And then there’s Simon, the sort-of love interest who really has no place in the story beyond giving depth to Lisa’s (and Marilynn’s) work life, which again, is not the main focus here. Other coworkers are clearly only present to add possibilities to the list of potential threats, and the people from Lisa’s past are flat and stereotypical, full of evil that lacks an underlying motive.

“I know that rage can lead to terrible things. Can leave someone with regrets like tombstones that have to be carried through life, backbreakingly heavy and deserved.”

Furthermore, the stakes are low. Lisa, the main target, states plainly and repeatedly that she’s willing to die for her daughter. If Lisa doesn’t mind dying, why should the reader mind for her? And with Lisa standing as this person’s sole target, why should I worry about anyone else? I couldn’t even bring myself to care about Ava potentially being stuck in the crossfire– she runs open-armed into the danger, and isn’t a very sympathetic character.

This cast is presented through a range of first, second, and third person perspectives. The sections are labeled by name and (predictable and tired) time stamps: Before, After, Now. The reason this format ultimately failed for me is that it allows for a repetitive duality to the reveals. Every plot twist is shown through at least two characters’ perspectives, hinted at in a sort of bland and overt way by one party and then expanded on by the next. This method muffles a lot of the novel’s shock and suspense.

The biggest obstacle though, is that this is not a mystery one could plausibly solve before the detectives. Pinborough withholds her clues. From the first chapter, it’s clear that the author (and many of the characters) know more than they’ll share; the mystery is a mystery only to the reader. When the author has to play her cards so close, you know the answer’s just too simple.

“Someone can do a terrible, unforgivable thing, and yet you forgive them if you love them. The heart is such a strange thing.”

And that ending– it’s just a little too neat. There are hardly any witnesses to the final act, the witnesses’ credibility should be questionable to the police, and even if the police have no trouble seeing the light there isn’t much to witness. Unless the culprit has made a full confession off-page, I just don’t buy how quickly things turn happy after the big showdown. In my experience, what is true matters a lot less than what people believe to be true, and there are a lot of beliefs that require overturning for this ending to work.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There was absolutely nothing gripping about this story for me. I wasn’t surprised, I only cared about one lesser character, and the writing style didn’t impress me. I think plenty of readers will be satisfied with the content of this novel, but I was hoping to be wowed. Sadly, Cross Her Heart was enough of a disappointment that I think I’ll be crossing Sarah Pinborough off my list of future interests; I think Behind Her Eyes was a one-off for me with this author.

Further recommendations:

  • Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger is a twistier case that mixes past accusations with present-day drama. The main character of this story must also confront signs of danger in and around her own home and decide whether her friend is the person she claims to be.
  • Another big hit in the thriller world this year with a few thematic similarities (past crimes forced back to the present, teenagers gone missing, false accusations, etc.) is Riley Sager’s The Last Time I LiedThis one’s about a woman who goes back to summer camp where her friends went missing years ago, and new disaster strikes. Though if you’re really looking for a great thriller (and something more different), I can’t recommend Sager’s previous novel, Final Girls, highly enough. This one’s a slasher thriller about a woman who avoided a violent killer once– only to be targeted again.

Do you have a go-to mystery/thriller writer who always comes through? Or have you been disappointed by a thriller author you’ve loved in the past?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Novel Progress 9.18

It’s been two months since my last writing update, instead of one. I could make excuses, but the truth is that when I went on vacation, I came back to three weeks of procrastination in which I made very little progress on the book I’m trying to write. I felt guilty about that for a while, but now that all systems are a go again, I think that time off was helpful. I came back to my project with fresh perspective, and for a couple of weeks now I’ve been sitting down with the novel in front of me every day again, getting a little farther.

So this is where I’m at: I’m mostly finished with chapter 7 (of 9); I’m doing a final read-through just to make small edits and double check details, but the content’s all there and the word count won’t change by much. I’m 500 words short of my chapter goal of 10k, but I’m okay with that because I’m still around 73k toward my total project goal (90k), with two 10k chapters left to finish. Today should be my last day in chapter 7, except for my final read-through of the whole project.

And speaking of the whole project, I have a reader who’s going to go through and check for plot holes and typos, and since my three weeks of procrastination put me behind schedule, I had to pause work on chapter 7 to make another pass through chapter 1 before I passed that off. I really wanted to get through the entire draft before I went back to the beginning again because I get sucked into making small edits and then I get derailed, but I love chapter 1 and it’s in great shape and going through that was exciting and encouraging and helpful. Also, it didn’t take long, so I’m hoping that when I do my final read-through of the project that the rest of the chapters will go as quickly and easily into the final draft stage. It’s still a bit weird that my first complete draft will be more or less my final, but that’s what I get for working out of order and editing as I go– very little obvious progress, and then everything all at once.

Everything all at once: after I close out of chapter 7, I will have only two chapters left. 8 is already half-written, and 9 is not started, but both chapters are fully outlined. I’m usually not an outliner, but I have so many perspectives and plot arcs coming together here at the end of the book that every time I wrote about a character I made a note about where their next section should take them, and at this point there just aren’t many sections left so they’re all accounted for now. I just have to go back through and write out the content that I have planned. And I’m going to be swamped with work in about 3 weeks, so I’m probably going to push ahead and make a lot of progress now through the end of September. The same surge happened at this time last year with great success, so I’m feeling hopeful. I don’t know if I’ll quite make it through the end of chapter 9 in three weeks, but I’m going to work hard and see what happens.

As I am getting closer to the end, part of the problem with procrastinating is that I’m having wild swings of confidence/lack-of-confidence about this project. With the end in sight, I’m thinking more about what comes next. For so much of this project I’ve been putting off thoughts of publication because I couldn’t publish something that I hadn’t even written yet anyway. But now that I’m looking ahead to being done soon, I’m worrying a lot about what comes next. I need this book to be published. But I know there’s no guarantee. So I go back and forth between being so excited because I think the book is turning out great and everything in my life has led me here blah blah how can it not get published? And then the next day I’ll remember that so many writers never get published, I have no connections in the publishing world and I have terrible luck and who would ever publish my work? So for about a month now I’ve been going through some pretty intense euphoria and depression and it’s getting in the way of my writing. By this point, I’m just so emotionally exhausted that I need it to be done and out of my hands, one way or the other.

Another issue I had with chapter 7 that made it drag was that even though I had most of the chapter written before this round through it, I had to rewrite a lot of that content. Working out of order landed me with an almost-complete chapter that had all the wrong details; I’d tried to write this first part of the concluding sequence before I knew all of the characters and understood how the setting would develop and wasn’t aware yet of what the emotional atmosphere would be at this point in the novel. So while I sill wanted to use the same basic storyline, I had to go back to old chapters to match up setting details and character names/descriptions, and fix discrepancies in dialogue and actions. I’m afraid there’s going to be a bit of this going forward with chapter 8 as well, in the half-chapter that I wrote probably a year ago. Hopefully now that I’ve had some practice with this process it’ll go faster.

I’ve always written that way, back and forth and out of order. I write whichever part is strongest in my mind so that I don’t lose the words, and then I come back and fix it later. I know the urge to edit as you go is a struggle lots of writers have to deal with, and I think I’ll always be that way, but I’ve learned a lot from the writing and reading I’ve been doing in the last two years and few months while this project has been ongoing, and I think when I finish this one and start my second book, I’ll be ready to try a new approach. I definitely don’t think every book that I write will take me two and a half years, but I had to start somewhere and I’m glad I took the time to make this one as good as (I think, at least) it’s turning out to be. And now I know more for next time. And there will be a next time– whether I’m ever published or not, I don’t see how there could ever be a time when I’m alive and not writing. Which is why I’m really hoping for some luck  in my literary agent search, because I’d much rather make writing a career than a time-consuming hobby. All the words I’ve read that other people have written have shape my life, and I want to share the love by adding to the conversation; hopefully my words will reach the people that need to hear them the way other writers’ words have found me.

How’s your writing project going? Have you had any particular struggles or successes lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant