“Pretty Ugly Lies” by Pamela Crane

haven’t read Big Little Lies or seen the show but it’s hard not to have a general sense of what that story is and I think it’s pretty clear that Pamela Crane’s Pretty Ugly Lies is meant to read and liked by the same people who flock to that.

This is an absolutely fine thing because if you like what I understand that story is, if you like psychological thrillers based on the friendships of women, and if you don’t mind a little murder and adultery, you will absolutely want to read this book. It’s a quick read, it’s a pretty good read, and I had fun reading it.

(things after this point are details of the book so… reader beware, a spoiler might slip out)

It starts with a woman sitting next in a pool of her husband’s blood as she holds his cold, dead hand and thinks of how the blood of her children is on her hands too. And then things escalate very quickly.

It does go fast and, to be honest, I wanted it to be longer. The tagline on the cover is “Four Lives. Four Lies. One Killer Among Them.” and, I’m not going to lie, that’s a lot to pack into just over 200 pages.

June, Jo, Shayla, and Ellie are the four friends. They have four husbands – Mike, Jay, Trent, and Denny. There are… eleven kids among them, I think. But I only remembered this near the end of the book, and a lot of time early on was spent thinking “wait, who is married to Denny???” Basically, I wish I couldn’t known these women better, slower.

They all live on Oleander Way in North Carolina. June and Ellie have been friends since high school. I think Jo and Shayla are friends, or maybe just acquaintances? The four don’t all know each other more than polite neighborly interactions.

But the four all have secrets.

Hidden love for a friend, adultery, trying to poison her cheating husband with oleander, and doubts about her marriage that come back to haunt her (I mixed up the order so it does not at all match the way I listed the friends, you’re welcome).

These things make for an interesting story, one I’d have loved to read if it was twice as long – but this isn’t my usual genre so maybe these stories do keep it short. Given the brevity, it was hard to feel attached to any one woman or the other, hard to root for them to overcome their secrets and their lies.

That is not to say that things don’t reach a satisfying conclusion because they absolutely do.

(I received a copy of Pretty Ugly Lies from NetGalley & Bloodhound Books in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

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“Ten Days in a Mad-House” by Nellie Bly

I think I was in fifth grade when I first learned about Nellie Bly, thanks to an assignment to write a biography of someone from history. As I remember, I thought about Laura Ingalls Wilder but then I saw a book in the library about how Nellie Bly went around the world in 72 days, eight days less than Jules Verne thought it would take. Nellie became my hero then, and I’d already wanted to be a journalist so she was the perfect fit. I don’t know why it took me until now to read Ten Days in a Mad-House, but it did.
Ten Days in a Mad-House is Nellie Bly’s account of being asked by a New York newspaper to get herself committed to the insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island and report on the conditions there. Despite it being 1887, despite there being few female journalists, and despite the fact that she’d have to feign being insane and be committed to an asylum, Nellie said yes.

It’s a little startling how many similarities there still are between mental health treatment of 1887 and of 2018. Some things can be judged and diagnosed by science now but some things are still judged and diagnosed by opinion. It’s always important, if it’s a court case, to have a sympathetic and understanding judge and jury, if you suffer mental illness. In modern times, prison is too often used as a mental health facility and it seems in 1887 that there was little difference between asylums and prison, except that you sometimes got released from prison.

Taken at face value, Nellie Bly got committed to Blackwell’s Island to report on the conditions inside the asylum there. It’s all too obvious that she found the deeper question speaks to the actual treatment, if there was any other than simply controlling the so-called insane, of the people there. And so much of the asylum’s identity was tied to it’s being a ‘public institution’ and a place of charity, though this did work in the favor of reforms she helped bring about, that it’s easy to compare the moldy, spider-filled bread of 1887 to the bagged meals that ‘public institutions’ today serve. Food, clothing, shelter, medical treatment, and general welfare are still issues that need to be constantly revisited today.

One thing that particularly struck me was the emphasis on immigrants. She identified so many women as German, Irish, Hebrew, etc. that it makes me realize even that hasn’t changed much at all. That immigrants are still seen as outliers, as different to the point of being criminals, dangerous, or bears of illness and disease is more than a little heart-breaking.

The two final essays in the account are related to Nellie Bly’s undercover work as a servant in an upper class New York City home and as a ‘white slave girl’ making boxes in factories that offered horrible conditions. They were important in 1887, I’m sure, and are still, sadly, important things for people to thing about because slavery and terrible working conditions still exist around the world.

This book was obviously, given the changes it brought to the treatment and housing of the mentally ill in 1887 and after, important at the time. It is still important now. It is stark too, for the things that haven’t changed and the things that have only changed a little. It should still be required reading

“Baby Teeth” by Zoje Stage

Why did I finish this book?

I suppose it counts for something that I did, though the most motivation came from it being an ARC that I felt obliged to finish, but…

Baby Teeth is a novel written to be a psychological thriller with lots of shock value. That is abundantly clear as the narrative moves from Hanna being more or less normal, stubborn seven year old to being a deliberate, calculating, evil seven year old. It is not a good representation of mental illness in children, though it does try to be. In spurts. This book is one of extremes, both from Hanna and her mental illness and Suzette and her physical illness.

It’s a twisted story, that’s clear from page three if not earlier. It feels like it has all the makings of a demonic possession story, and I admit to hoping that it would not follow that route. This meant I was hoping that a severely ill seven year old be manipulated for a plot device, which is a bit disturbing to think about, but these things happen.

It is an intense story, I’ll give it that. Very hard to stop reading.

And it’s often easy to feel like Hanna’s mother, Suzette, is just as twisted as her daughter. And this is painted as somehow more… normal and acceptable because Suzette suffers from severe Crohn’s Disease and that has to have a psychological impact on a person. It shouldn’t be more normal and acceptable, because using disturbed children for shock value will never be okay with me.

Twisted psychological thrillers are fine, but Hanna’s attacks on her mother do little to advance the overall plot of the story beyond making her more twisted. This has never been my book or movie genre of choice and I doubt it ever will be. But that’s just my humble opinion.

Alex, the father-husband to Suzette-Hanna is almost unbelievably naive but then I realized that his reactions to his daughter, Suzette’s reactions to her daughter are probably both very similar to how normal, loving set of parents would react if their child started acting out so violently and viciously.

That being said, I still don’t know if that makes a good book.

I do hope you like it though!

(I received my copy of Baby Teeth through NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

 

READING PROGRESS

“The Sisters of Blue Mountain” by Karen Katchur

I expected this book to be more… intense. It kind of fizzled thanks to the bulk of the motivating factors (i.e. random dead animals) being unrelated to the actual plot of the story. The plot itself was relatable, in that I have a sister and we don’t always communicate well but we love each other more deeply than can be defined with words, but these sisters had questionable morals and ethics and a shared secret that threatens to pull them apart.

I received a copy of The Sisters of Blue Mountain through NetGalley and Thomas Dunne Books in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.

“Scandal Above Stairs” by Jennifer Ashley

36439828A little while ago, I got a message on Goodreads from a lovely person named Jessica at Berkley Publishing Group asking if I would be interested in an ARC of the second book in Jennifer Ashley’s ‘Below Stairs’ series.

Would I?

I would! I was! And it was like Christmas come again when I got the book in the mail!

And for all that I loved the first book, Death Below Stairs (it’s amazing, go read it now!), I love this second book, Scandal Above Stairs, even more! Is that possible? Yes!

Am I using too many exclamation points? Probably, but don’t hold your breath for me to stop because this book is worth every maybe annoying punctuation mark!

Back in the first book, we meet Kat Holloway, a cook in one of the fancier homes in London while Queen Victoria reigns in England. Kat is in her late twenties, early thirties, I’d say – old enough to have a ten year old daughter but young enough to be considered a young upstart by the older cooks in aristocratic London and the more experienced members of the staff at her own house. Kat is sassy and smart and steady to the core. Cooking is her job, and she takes it very seriously, but she’s as good at everything as any man.

And this is exactly what Daniel McAdam, a mysterious jack-of-all-trades tells her and anyone who will listen when he lays out all the reasons he admires and respects her.

Kat and Daniel don’t get the happily ever after I very much wanted them to have at the end of Death Below Stairs but… that’s absolutely fine with me.

Why?

Because that meant there would be a second book, of course!

It’s only been about six months since I read Death Below Stairs and getting back into Kat’s world, about six months later in the story, was like catching up with old friends. Kat, Daniel, Mr. Thanos, Lady Cynthia, Davis, James… I missed them! And I got to meet Tess in this story so that’s even better!

But anyway…

In Scandal Above Stairs, somebody is stealing all sorts of antiquities from the fancy homes of London and, as before, the gossip flows freely through the grapevine of the downstairs staffs. Kat, however, is pulled in more when Lady Cynthia specifically requests that she help figure out the mystery as one of Lady Cynthia’s dearest friends has been repeatedly victimized by the thieves.

Things take an absolutely delightful turn when Kat not so subtly plays matchmaker with the mens’ suit wearing Lady Cynthia and the fish-out-of-water Elgin Thanos. Cynthia and Elgin may be the pairing I ship hardest in this book!

Tess Parsons, the new girl in this story, is brilliant in her role as a sort of surrogate daughter, cook’s assistant to Kat and I very much love the story more for her being there.

But then… then Daniel starts opening up to Kat about his history! Tiny bits at a time but enough that it makes absolute sense when Kat stuns him with the declaration that she would adopt his son James if anything ever happened to Daniel.

The mystery gets solved of course, because Kat and Daniel think in tandem even when they aren’t in speaking range of each other. And the twist is fantastic and perfect for the history lover in me (think mummies!) but to explain more would be to spoil the book and, let’s be honest, I really want you to read the book! We’ll talk details after you do!

I will say that even though it is a mystery and has a whodunit theme, that is not the overriding theme of Jennifer Ashley’s book. I couldn’t have predicted who was behind it and all and, to be honest, I didn’t really try. I was having way too much fun just reading!

A final thing to mention about these books about Kat Holloway? They’ll make you hungry! The way Jennifer Ashley describes the food Kat cooks, the way she writes Kat talking about food… it’s heavenly. It’s a whole new reason to want to time travel back to Victorian England, only this time I want to go below stairs and sample food like Tess does throughout this story!

As far as happily ever after goes… it’s getting there. For Kat and Daniel, for Cynthia and Elgin. It’s getting there. Possibly I’m unwilling to commit because I’m daring to hope and dream that there will be more to the story of Kat Holloway. It’s not a bad thing to dream of, really. Unless it doesn’t come. Then I will be incredibly sad.

So…

Many, many thanks to the kind people at Berkley and Penguin Random House for the chance to read this incredibly lovely book.

And, to Jennifer Ashley… please, you are going to write more about Kat Holloway, aren’t you? I adore every bit of it! And thank you for writing it!

“Remind Me Again What Happened” by Joanna Luloff

Joanna Luloff’s Remind Me Again What Happened is easy to get lost in. Lost in a good way, the kind of way where you can’t put down a book and you think about it for days after you finish it. Not lost in a bad way, like the way Claire, the character on whom the story is centered, gets lost in her mind when she contracts Japanese encephalitis and loses much of her memory and ability to remember anything at all.

Claire is a woman on the go, a writer for the AP who chases stories from New England to India, when she falls ill. The medical mystery is eventually resolved when her estranged husband Charlie tells doctors that she was in India and they make a diagnosis that explains her memory loss, her seizures, and her lack of fine motor skills. It’s a predictably crushing blow for Claire, who remembers just enough to know that she does not like to stay home in rural Vermont and be looked after like a toddler.

That is her life, with Charlie being joined by their mutual graduate school friend Rachel in looking after Claire to be sure she takes her medication and doesn’t get lost or hurt by herself. Herein lies a twist I didn’t expect and one that has moments of… working just a bit too hard to be a twist in a story that may not have needed one.

Rachel dated Charlie for a year when she studied abroad in England. Rachel was still dating Charlie when she introduced him to Claire. And she was dating him the first time he kissed Claire. Meant to bring tension to the narrative, it works at the same time it doesn’t quite.

Needless to say, the three of them – really the only three characters in the novel – are each on edge for the entire span of the story. It is clear that they love each other but nobody seems to get just the right love that they need from the others.

And it’s because of the secrets they keep. The secrets Charlie thinks Claire is keeping. The secrets Rachel keeps from Charlie. The secrets Claire wishes she could keep, and the ones she wishes her mind didn’t keep from her.

It’s a toxic story, really, always on the edge of erupting in a micro-world that very much does not need eruptions.

One of the most compelling parts of Luloff’s novel are the questions that are asked and never answered. She could have answered them, made it all clear as day, but that wouldn’t have been reality with Claire’s medical condition. So we don’t know if, as Charlie suspects, Claire remembers more than she says. We don’t know if, as Claire suspects, Charlie was having an affair with someone from his work. We don’t know if, as Rachel suspects, Claire could be happy with Charlie or with her but never with the three of them in the same place. Those unknowns give the reader something to think about, a way to put themselves into the story and feel like a part of it.

There is no cut and dry happy ending for Claire, her husband, and her friend. Rachel and Charlie act on behalf of themselves, things people with full ability always do, and that’s fine. But what is so great about Remind Me Again What Happened is that Claire claims her life again, chooses the path she wants to follow, no matter how hard it is. Charlie and Rachel are left to let her do it or go away. As the reader, fourth person in the story, I am so proud of Claire!

The premise for this book seemed a little strange at first and I was a little skeptical but it absolutely works. The imperfections in the characters who previously let themselves be controlled by the one who loses all control is stark and illuminating. That, without control of even herself, she is able to choose what life to lead is a perfect poetic ending.

*****I received a copy of Remind Me Again What Happened from NetGalley and Algonquin Books in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.*****

“Southernmost” by Silas House

I received a copy of Southernmost from NetGalley and Algonquin Books in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.

I got a little nervous when the book began with a Pentecostal preacher and his uber-devout white suffering but surviving a massive flood just after gay marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court. My nerves were because I hadn’t realized the extent to which this book is based in evangelical religion. That fault is mine.

That being said, things took a turn I was not expecting when Asher, the Pentecostal preacher, stood up for something he wasn’t sure he even understood – same-sex love.

Things escalate very quickly for the first third of House’s novel. As Asher preached acceptance and tolerance but was rebuffed by his congregation, he quickly found himself on the road to divorce, tried to fight to keep his son, assaulted his mother-in-law, and kidnapped his son. I was left with the nagging question of how Asher could be a social media hero of inclusivity if he, you know, commits assault and kidnapping because someone, his wife, didn’t agree with his awakening. Hmm… I hadn’t realized the irony of that as I read the book, but I see it now as I write this review.

Things slow to a crawl in the second third of the novel. The up-side of the slow march was that it is impossible to know how the complicated tale of Asher Sharp’s voyage of self-discovery can possibly end. Whether it ends well or ends badly, there are scant few clues in the narrative. But this part of Asher’s journey takes place in Key West, a location chosen because he thinks his estranged brother might be there – it seems important to mention that he and Luke are estranged because Asher was wholly intolerant when Luke came out of the closet. With his evolving way of thinking, he wants to make amends. Things are tedious but there is the potential for a fantastic finish.

The final third of the novel begins with some promise when, for a variety of reasons, Asher opens up to Bell and Evona, the two Key West women who gave he and Justin a safe space. The promise fades a little when it’s made clear that they knew all along that he was not quite as unremarkable as he hoped to present himself. And he might not have opened up to them were it not for seeing himself and Justin on the Have You Seen Me? flyers at the post office.

It all ends a bit predictably, which is not to say badly. It ends as it should, with Asher following through on being an example of how life should be lived, and corrected.

The moral of House’s book is to not hate others because they are different than you. It is an important lesson, but it does get a little lost in frantic and then slow pacing of this book. The point is made at the expense of pacing and