Posts Tagged With: literature

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

This is going to be a little different than other Book Club Thursday posts.  This is the academic essay I wrote for my Columbia University application.  I was asked to write a response to a recent book I had read.

I believe no two people ever read the same book; we each bring our own experiences to our readings. If you’ve never lost anyone, for instance, Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home may not speak to you as loudly as it does me.

Brunt’s story handles loss beautifully. Like grief, the book starts out heavy, almost too heavy to read, and becomes lighter as it goes. The first-person narration allows the reader to traverse the grief process as the main character does, but its true brilliance is how it includes her family’s grief as well.

Finn, the man whose death starts the story, creates a painting also titled Tell the Wolves I’m Home, prompted by his AIDS diagnosis. When he asks his niece to sit for it, he simply says it’s because she and her sister are “at the right age” (pg. 106). Since it’s clear by the time it’s completed that he painted it because he was dying, it can be inferred that he has gone from denial to acceptance during its creation (pg. 1). In his final days, he asks his partner Toby to add five buttons to the portrait, sending him and his nieces on their own journey through the five stages of grief (pg. 42; 183). June, the narrator and youngest niece, begins to understand its purpose when she finds a wolf in the painting’s negative space. Her uncle, the artist, taught her to see what wasn’t there through the things that were, just like she could see her uncle’s absence in the rest of her life (pg. 114-115).

June, her sister Greta, and their mother Danni are all mourning Finn’s death, but they have lost other things they must grieve for as well. As they pass through the five stages of grief, the portrait undergoes its own changes.

When it is first brought to the girls’ home, shortly after the funeral, Danni is not ready to remove it from its black garbage bag wrapping. Thinking of Toby, she says, “Just thinking about him…You’d think things would turn out a little bit fair.” (pg. 26). As the book progresses, it becomes obvious she blames Toby for the AIDS that killed her brother and her brother’s insistence on “coming out” as gay, even banning him from the funeral. She is in denial, believing she can separate her brother from his sexuality.

Eventually the painting is put into a safety deposit box, but June and her sister Greta are given keys so they can view the painting whenever they want (pg. 104). June doubts Greta will go, so she’s surprised when she sees the painting again and realizes Greta has done something to it. She has added the outline of a skull to her hand in the portrait (pg. 130).

At this time, Greta has been offered a role on Broadway. While her parents see it as a “dream come true,” she sees it as an early end to the childhood that was already cut short by her skipping a grade (pg. 283). Only sixteen, she feels cheated. She becomes irritable, pushing away her friends, drinking too much, and ignoring the things she once loved. These symptoms and the skull she added to the painting signify her depression as she mourns her lost childhood.

In response, June paints gold strands into both girls’ hair so they look more alike. June and Greta were close until June developed a close relationship with their Uncle Finn. When Finn dies, June feels truly alone. She is mourning all the love she’s lost, both Finn’s and her sister’s. With Finn gone, she begins to go to Greta’s parties and play rehearsals, even trying to accept some of the horrible things her sister says about Toby. The whole time, she is bargaining: “If I give up my singular claim on Finn,” she’s asking, “Can I have my sister back?”

But Greta felt the loss of their relationship before June did. She has already reached anger and changes the portrait again, painting her lips red. June finds she “looked fearsome” (pg. 268). It reminds her of the day her sister destroyed all the gifts Finn and Toby gave her and inspires her to think of the words from Requiem: Dies Irae, day of wrath (pg. 269).

With the destruction done, the girls are able to work through their grief together while their mother’s simmers privately. She cannot move past it until the portrait is removed from its safety deposit box.

At first, seeing what the girls have done, she gets angry. But this explosion sets events in motion for the family to finally reach acceptance. Seeing another side of Greta and Toby, truly, for the first time, Danni realizes she has to accept it. She can’t change what the girls have done to the painting any more than she can change what their grief has done to them. Toby, the love of her brother’s life, is going to die alone if she doesn’t welcome him. And Finn is gone. When she chooses to accept these things, Danni, a great artist herself, adds her own touches to the painting: a silver necklace for June and a birthstone ring for Greta (pg. 349).

Finn was a great and famous artist, and a museum offers them a great sum to display his final work, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, but it must be professionally restored first. When complete, only Danni’s changes remain, but June swears she still sees the buttons’ shadows
(pg. 355).

Loss leaves us all changed. Though the world may only see the pretty parts, anyone who has suffered a loss like June’s – or like mine – will never forget what they endured to reach acceptance.

While June’s grief is clear in Tell the Wolves I’m Home, I believe each reader finds their own in what isn’t explicitly stated, in that negative space where June sees her wolf. I see my dad. Though he died eleven years ago, I still see the buttons too.

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The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is not for the faint of heart.

This post is going to contain spoilers, and I also feel I should warn you (in case you don’t know what the book is about) that there will be discussion of depression and suicide.  Here goes.

Growing up, I was constantly told (please don’t ask why) that the way you boil a frog is by putting it in a pot of lukewarm water and slowly turning up the heat.  By the time it realizes how much trouble it’s in, it’s too late to do anything about it.  I thought about that a lot as I finished The Bell Jar.

It starts as the kind of novel I hate: a meandering journey through somebody’s life that doesn’t seem to be going to any place in particular.  Even then, though, I couldn’t hate it because Plath’s writing was so beautifully and masterfully done.  The book is so well-written that it takes a while to realize the author has you by the throat.

There are signs, even in the book’s bright beginnings, that Esther suffers from depression.  But it doesn’t seem like a “problem” at first.  It’s just a thing about her.  By the time she (and the reader) realize how serious it is, she is already contemplating suicide and is sent to a doctor.

When I read The Virgin Suicidesits perspective was designed to give the reader some distance from the depression itself.  Plath gives us no such relief.  Her first person voice puts you directly into Esther’s head.  The imagery and descriptions give a clear picture of how her mind works and how it changes over time.  By the end, you are horrified both by how easy it seems to slip into madness and how little anyone actually understands or helps her.

Plath grabs you by the throat.  Her words wrap themselves around your head.  I can’t say I loved this book, but I am amazed by what Plath accomplished here and I know it will stay with me.  I’m still shaking over it.  That’s how good she was at her job.  Though I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, this book deserves its spot in the Literary Canon and is worth reading…if you can stomach it.

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Twenty Years Later

After my terrible experience with The Casual Vacancy, you’d think I’d stay far away from the new Rowling book.  But I have always been loyal to Harry (and besides, I’d already pre-ordered), so I read it.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was basically everything I wanted from the epilogue of the seventh book.  We see more of our Golden Trio and what they’ve become, which is to say (mostly) more mature versions of themselves.

Harry finally deals with his trauma (and confronts Dumbledore about the mistakes he made).  I honestly never shipped him with Ginny before this book, but their marriage is everything one should be.  We see the return of Book Ron: goofy, loyal, and the only one magic comes entirely naturally to.  His primary focus is his kids, which is heartwarming, and his relationship with Hermione has deepened and matured while still holding the fundamental elements that have always made them fit.  And Hermione Fucking Granger herself…she is still the literal best.  She makes my feminist heart so very happy…and wait until you hear her job title.  (I’d tell you, but it was my favorite surprise and my first gasp-out-loud moment of the book.)

The story itself can get to be cheesy at times, but this is a magical world where love and friendship are often lauded as the ultimate weapons.  What else would you expect?  The plot focuses on Albus (Potter) and Scorpius (Malfoy who, by the way, is GREAT) facing the consequences of their parents’ choices.  They all have to learn to relate to one another and communicate, where they can and can’t change things, and what to do when faced with what they can affect.  We actually get to see some of the ways the world could have turned out differently.

(And Snape shows up and is only a bit of a jerk instead of a horrible human being?  Maybe he just needed another 20 years to figure shit out?)

All in all, it’s a great story about how little things can make a huge impact.  Plus, it felt like a high school reunion with the classmates you’d ACTUALLY want to see again.  And, just like the other Harry Potter books, it kept me hooked until the end.  The story was so immersive in fact that I barely noticed the play format (which was something I was worried about).

But unlike the other books, I’m satisfied with its conclusion, because it feels like the story is complete now.  We see how everyone’s turned out, some issues that were ignored in the last book finally get satisfying resolutions (Malfoy, guys…Malfoy), and I am left with the peace that…this is what a happy ending feels like.

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A Long Trip but a Good One

I’m having a hard time collecting my thoughts about The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.  I’ve been trying to put it in context of my previous readings, but it is so unlike anything I’ve read before that I can’t truly compare.

The story starts with Rosemary Harper floating through space but, from page one, the reader is given a firm foundation.  This is a story set after humans were forced to leave Earth so long ago that there are people who doubt that’s even where they came from. They interact with other species throughout the galaxy (the umbrella term for all being “Sapients”) who have their own identities, cultures, and anatomies.  With so much going on, and all of it that far removed from the reader’s life, it would be easy to get lost.  But Chambers weaves the cultural and historical details into the story expertly.  Everything makes sense, and yet we are not overwhelmed with information.

Part of the reason it works so well is because the story is character-centric, and the cast is diverse enough to show several sides of the galaxy.  They feel like real people and their backgrounds are the building blocks to their personalities.  I usually have a hard time keeping characters straight in my head, but this was just like meeting several interesting new people at once, each distinct and fascinating.

Still, unlike many character-centric novels, I never had to wonder what the story was or what the characters were after.  The driving goal, plot-wise, is “do the job;” that is, get from one side of the galaxy to the other so they can tunnel their way back.  You know what the characters are working towards and where the finish line is, so the plot building up to it doesn’t feel aimless.  And yet, Chambers makes it clear that what they really want is to keep their crew together.  Those are our stakes, the true driving force behind everything the characters do.

With all of these factors, I could barely stop reading.  I kept wanting to see what would happen next, or wanting to spend more time with these characters because they were just fun to be with.  But despite all that, I wouldn’t call it a fluffy book either.  It took “human nature” into consideration and put issues of diversity, prejudice, and political turmoil on a larger playing field.  It makes you think about things: What constitutes being alive?  Who has that right to live?  How do we live together with such different cultures and even environmental needs?  And how do we as a society make these decisions?  Based on the characters’ differences, the reader begins to consider these things before they realize they’re doing it.

I was infatuated with this book by page 50, and in love with it not too long after.  Overall, I just felt a lot of joy in reading it, something I really needed after The Casual Vacancy.  It may have been a long way, but it was a worthwhile journey.

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Women of the Silk

Remember when I mentioned that I’d been reading about lesbians in China in the 1920s?

A week ago I discussed my various reading moods and the fluffy books I read in February.  Once I finished Midnight Pearls, I started craving something with meat again.  I picked Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama because I knew the person who gave it to me for Christmas has an excellent taste in meaty literature.  (Of course, half way through the book, I remembered that the person who gave it to me was actually not who I THOUGHT gave it to me and had in fact never read the book, but I loved this book and I’m so glad I made that mistake.)

The story starts in 1919 and shows the main character, Pei, as a child.  Within a few pages, Tsukiyama has painted the little farm she grows up on as well as its relationship to the broader society of rural China.  It immediately gives us a glimpse of what women’s lives are like, which will be very important as the story develops.

She portrays the struggles and expectations so well that the reader is hardly shocked, let alone mortified, when Pei’s father takes her to a girls’ house in the city and leaves her there without looking back.  There, Pei sets about fulfilling the words of the fortune-teller, who said she would love many but there would be “complications” so she would never marry.

(Spoiler alert: the complication is that she’s totally a lesbian.)

Pei and her sisters at the girls’ house face many challenges, including the “Japanese devils” who are beginning to invade their country, unfair working conditions in the silk factory, and just the general struggles that comes with growing up and, as she begins to notice the way people look and judge her, growing up different.  She learns to be independent from a young age and some of her sisters go through the “hair-braiding ceremony,” which is just as final as a wedding and signifies that they are going to move into the Sisters’ House and stay unmarried throughout their lives.

Through all of this, Pei’s relationship with Lin develops, touching and being touched by every aspect of their lives.  As their relationship grows, Lin takes Pei to her brother’s wedding and Pei lets Lin convince her to visit her parents one last time.

What I love most about their relationship is how naturally intimate it is.  There is one scene where a physical consummation is more implied than anything else, but from the beginning, there is no room for doubt about what they mean to one another.  When Lin’s family comes to discuss the possibility of her marriage and she decides to go through the hair-braiding ceremony instead, Pei immediately wants to do so as well.  They spend all their free time together, they discuss everything, and they encourage and reassure one another through all the changes in their lives.

The novel is filled with strong female characters, ones who make mistakes and do the best they can and always always always have their sisters’ backs.  Booklist described it as “a soft ring of feminism,” and it is definitely soothing like one.  While staying true to its historical nature, it also proves that strong women are not limited to a single time or place, and true love does not have to be declared but acted upon to exist.

I suggest you read it.  I suggest everyone read it.  The writing is beautiful, the story is moving, and the characters are vivid.  Basically, it’s going to be joining The Truth About Forever, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Things They Carried in whatever bag I pack whenever I leave my house for longer than a weekend.  It’s one of those books I hugged to my chest because I just wanted to absorb it into my heart.  It has found a place there and I will remember it for a long time to come.

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Fluff, or Easy Reading

There are a lot of ways I gauge how I’m doing emotionally, but the major one is how I feel about reading. I know it’s a bad day when nothing catches me, when I read ten pages of four different books and my brain still won’t quiet enough to listen, or else it pays so little attention that the words becoming meaningless and I reread paragraphs without understanding any better.

On the other hand, I know it’s a good day when I lust after the words. I can’t describe it any other way. I find something with meat and I get so excited that I can’t think about anything else. It doesn’t matter where I actually am because I disappear into the story, leaving my anxiety or sadness on the floor next to my shoes. It’s days like those I really understand why Scout says she doesn’t love reading, but those are also the days I love it like I love to breathe.

In the last year, it feels like there have been far more of the first kind of days than the latter, but the good news is that they aren’t all so extreme. There are days I wouldn’t start anything rich, but since I began a book the day before, I can coast on that excitement and continue to enjoy it. Then there are the times my mind refuses to settle down if I ask it to interpret symbolism or engage in something heavy, but if I am gentle with it, I can coax it into being read a simple story, like reading a child to sleep. These are the days I’m in the mood for something “light and fluffy.”

I just finished a month of being in that place, so I have several suggestions in case you (or your favorite bookworm) are ever in a similar mood.

  • Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella. I had a lot of feelings about this book. Audrey has crippling social anxiety and it has changed the lives of her entire family. But she is getting better, so when she meets Linus, her therapist encourages her to learn to socialize with someone outside her family again. This may not sound all that fluffy, but it is a YA novel, so the characters develop really quickly and easily and the romance is right from the beginning. It doesn’t sugarcoat how hard life is for her or ignore how medication is useful for mental illness, but all the good guys get a happy ending. She also highlights the difference between someone who hurts a person because they misunderstand the situation but is actually trying to help and someone who hurts a person and refuses to take responsibility for it. In the real world that can be much less cut-and-dry, but it sure feels good to read about.
  • Remembrance by Meg Cabot. I literally waited a year for this book. It’s the continuation of the Mediator series I grew up with, and it was nice to be reunited with those characters. If I had been in a different mood, I may have enjoyed it less because Emily was right: after four years, the characters SHOULD have grown up a little a more. Plus, despite the fact that Suze was working an unpaid internship, it felt like everything worked out a little too easily. But at the time, that was exactly what I needed, so I’m not going to complain now.
  • The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. This one was a little harder than the rest. There are a lot of Christian references and parallels, the language is older, AND my copy of the book was literally falling apart in my hands. But it’s a cute little story with some fun magic, plus its rules about what a prince or princess should and should not do are very sweet while still being empowering. The princess holds herself to a higher standard and the narrator applauds that as she is royalty. But when Curdie acts like a prince by refusing to rest until he has righted his wrong, the narrator credits him with that and calls him one, even though he’s a miner by trade.
  • Midnight Pearls by Debbie Viguié. This is part of the Once Upon a Time series, which I love because it gives fairy-tales a new twist. (No relation except WAY BETTER than the tv show of the same name.) This one is the story of the Little Mermaid, but focused more on friendship and family than romance.  It’s about figuring out who you are and trusting yourself, and it’s all jammed into a couple hundred magic-filled pages.  And in the end, like any good fluff book, the enemy is defeated and the heroes ride into the sunset to live happily ever after.

Classics are important for the view they give us of the time they were written in as well as the timeless message that rated it a spot in literary canon.  (Just never read On the Road.  I’m serious.)  Likewise, modern literature that forces you to ask questions and think deeply are valuable because it can change a person’s worldview and consequently their life.  But sometimes you just need something that’s going to make you happy, something soft and warm and easy.  There is no shame in reading something just for fun, and there is no harm in a feel-good piece of fluff either.

What’s your favorite book for “Easy-Reading?”

Come back Thursday to hear about a book with some meat.

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In which Kari gives up the Book Challenge, and instead reads a book she was actually excited about.

I spent the last two weeks trying to read The Receptionist.  I’ve had it for over a year and it fit into one of the categories on my list, but I could barely get through a chapter of it.  (There’s a reason the reviews on Goodreads are so bad.)  Finally, today, I decided to screw it.  I find myself feeling unhappy or stressed often enough, and I don’t need to make an activity I enjoy, like reading, feel like that.  So instead, I picked a book I had been looking forward to reading.

I picked Carmilla, which was a gift from a very good friend of mine and the basis for a webseries that is ALL OVER my Tumblr dashboard (and I get to start now, yay).  It’s one of the first vampire stories, and it was the main inspiration for Dracula.  Plus, it has short chapters, which I love because it makes something much easier to read.  All in all, it seemed like a better thing to read than The Receptionist, with it’s 50 page chapters and a writer who was trying way too hard to prove herself.

And it was!  I actually enjoyed what I was reading and it was actually relaxing and enjoyable.

The story is told by Laura, looking back on a time when she was innocent and blinded by love, and what it almost cost her.  It is clouded by a sense of confusion and loss that has stuck with her for years since the incident.  Though most of us will never know how it feels to be in love with a vampire, it does capture the familiar feeling of loving someone before finding out who they really are and that they’ve betrayed you.

The voice itself is amazingly compelling.  The story was written in the 1800s, so the language is old-fashioned, but Laura is so earnest and sweet that it still feels like someone is sitting across from you, telling you a story.  And even if you go into the book knowing who Carmilla is, her description is so compelling that you understand exactly why Laura still feels enamored of her.

My most favorite thing about this book: Laura’s voice.

My least favorite thing about this book: I did want to hear more from Carmilla herself, but I guess that wasn’t the story.

Who I would most like to recommend this book to: Anyone, really.  It’s tragic, but not tear-jerking, and romantic but not a romance.  It’s a short read and not difficult, but very satisfying as a story.

Where this book sits on my bookshelf: Before Cinderella (As If You Didn’t Know the Story) and after The Sound and the Fury.

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On the Road

You know when you’re super excited to read a book so you wait until the perfect moment, and it’s perfect and everything you had hoped and imagined?

This was not one of those times.

This really sucks, because I was expecting to love this book.  I was expecting to add it to my collection of books I would take if I leave my house for more than a week.  (The books that currently make up that list, in case you were curious, are The Truth About Forever, The Things They Carried, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.)  As a wannabe free-spirit, it’s the sort of story I usually love because it makes me feel like I could actually leave and take the great American road trip.

Unfortunately, On the Road is aimless, meandering, and grossly sexist.  The women in this book aren’t characters, they’re accessories.  Every once in a while, they’ll be used to further the plot.  But not once does a female character actually get developed.  So few of them even have names, and they get younger and younger as the book goes on, with the last ones being 15 and 16 in a Mexican brothel.

Of course, the two main characters (Sal and Dean) aren’t ‘developed” much either.  They are definitely more three- dimensional than the women, but nothing changes in them from the beginning of the book to the end.  And while Kerouac occasionally creates a memorable turn of phrase, his plot is so rambling that the core of the story — what Sal wants — is lost within it.

My most favorite thing about this book:  IF I liked anything about this book, I liked how it called back to itself.  On the millionth road trip, he remembered where he had done things from the first and so forth.

My least favorite thing about this book: Obviously all the blatant sexism.  Book was a total bust.

Who I would most like to recommend this book to: Absolutely no one, don’t waste your time.

Which item in the challenge it fulfilled: Author with my initials.  Technically his are JK and mine are KJ, but close enough, right?

Where this book sits on my bookshelf:  After 12 Ways to Trick Your Biggest Enemy and before The Secret Life of Bees.

Book Challenge

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Thursday Update

In college, I used to do this thing where I was so anxious about how little time I had to do something, so I did nothing at all.  Or I did something that had absolutely no rush on it.  I have one story I like to tell about how my roommate came home from a date one time, looked at my side of the room, and said, “Wow!  It’s really clean in here!  You have a Hebrew test tomorrow, don’t you?”

Sometimes, I power through.  Others (of course, only when my decision affects no one else), I choke.  Today was a choke.

By choke, I don’t mean I was completely useless.  I did write six pages today, and I read about a hundred pages.  Plus, I made two sauces from scratch.

But I didn’t write as much as I wanted to and I definitely didn’t finish To Kill a Mockingbird like I wanted.

Yes.  I am finally reading To Kill a Mockingbird.  My sister just finished reading it for her class, which reminded me how I never read it even though it was assigned.  At the family picnic I told you about on Tuesday, my uncle insisted I had to return my degree until the book was completed.  Plus, it’s way shorter than the other book I’m trying to get through right now.

I’m almost halfway through.  I really like Atticus’ parenting style, but I don’t know if that would actually work in reality. Partway through chapter 8, I found myself wondering, “When does something actually happen?”  I like the writing style, but in books like this where I know what the main plot is, I get impatient for it to get there.  It’s a slow build I’m noticing.  I think it’s going to be worth it in the end.

I promise I will finish it by next Thursday.  I’m hoping to finish my draft by Sunday, which will free up some of my time.  I’m going to have lots of it in June, so don’t forget to vote in the poll for my Reader-Voted Project!

Also, leave a comment.  Did you read To Kill a Mockingbird? What did you think?


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Gone Girl

I finally gave into the hype and read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  Initially I was going to use it as my “Book that was turned into a movie.”  Instead, I will use it as my Thriller, because I probably won’t read another and I have several other books that were turned into movies.  As always, spoilers ahead.

Lately, books have been taking me longer to read.  The ones I read quickly are because I force myself to finish them quickly.  But Gone Girl I read in three days simply because I couldn’t stop.  It’s not much of a mystery, especially with movie spoilers all over the place.  The reader pretty much knows who did it from the outset.  And yet…there are still questions.

The book takes a while to get a hold of.  First, the reader is subjected to Amy’s diary as her side of the story.  It leaves it pretty cut and dry that Nick is the bad guy and she’s the victim.  Especially since, even though Nick’s section is also written in first person, it continuously feels like he’s holding back information.  Amy’s diary is so convincing that, even when we see who she really is, it’s hard to shake the feeling that she’s the good guy.

But the truth is, nobody is innocent in this book.  Amy’s a psychopath, Nick’s a cheater, even Desi is emotionally manipulative and possessive.  It’s not even that they’re all human, it’s that they’re all, to some degree, bad people, which is not something that books often explore.

The ending is a new strange twist.  With what we know of Amy, it makes perfect sense, even though you’d never see it coming.  Some people I’ve discussed the book with don’t find the ending satisfying.  I, on the other hand, think everybody ended up pretty much where they could have expected.  Amy’s too smart to get caught and Nick’s too caught up in her to go anywhere.

Quick word on the movie: I didn’t like it nearly as much.  It didn’t feel like we got to see the insides of their minds as much

My most favorite thing about this book: The fact that Nick didn’t kill his wife, but he’s still shown to be a bad guy.  Not all bad guys are abusers and murderers.

My least favorite thing about this book: I really hated the scene where Amy gets her money stolen because, when I read it, I was still in “Amy as victim” mode and it makes me feel very sorry for her.  However, my absolute least favorite thing is that she accused someone of raping her and was shown to be lying in order to get revenge.  I hate when anyone in fiction claims rape and is then proved to be lying because that is such a statistical minority compared to those who were raped and aren’t believed.

Who I would most like to recommend this book to: Anyone who likes a thriller, I guess.  That isn’t usually me, but the fact that this one was written by a woman made me very happy.

Where this book sits on my bookshelf:  After Beastly by Alex Flinn and before J. Smith.

Book Challenge

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