book review: Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

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LOCK EVERY DOOR by Riley Sager
★★★★☆
Dutton, July 2019

 

I can’t think of another contemporary thriller writer that does the page-turner as well as Riley Sager, and here he’s come up with yet another brilliant premise: a young woman answers an ad to be an apartment sitter in a swanky building in the Upper West Side – and she’s being paid $12,000 to do it, so what’s the catch? (I think the less you know going into this book the better, so I’ll just leave it there.) I imagine that Lock Every Door‘s pace will be the main drawback for some – our protagonist Jules does play amateur detective to no avail for about half the book – but with the way Sager writes, she probably could have been playing a game of chess and I’d have been equally as thrilled.

And no spoilers, but I loved that ending. I imagine it’s also going to divide opinions, as it’s not the most… conventional thriller resolution, but I thought it hit that perfect sweet spot of ‘I really should have thought of that, but I never would have thought of that.’ In my opinion this isn’t as strong as Sager’s debut Final Girls (which is pretty hard to beat), but I liked it a lot better than his follow-up effort The Last Time I Lied. I found Lock Every Door to be creepier and more original, and its protagonist more convincing. I do think Final Girls and The Last Time I Lied are more traditional crowd-pleasers, so maybe stick to one of those for an introduction to Sager, but I loved this; this is the most fun I’ve had with a thriller in ages.


You can pick up a copy of Lock Every Door here on Book Depository.

Book of the Month TBR

I’ve been subscribed to Book of the Month since… the end of 2016, I think? and I’ve been slowly breaking up with them for the past year or so.  Even though I skip most months I have yet to pull the trigger and cancel my subscription, but I think it’s going to happen very soon.  I’ve become increasingly frustrated with them over the years: their selection is appealing to me less and less (I feel like there was a lot more literary fiction when I joined than there is now), subscription price has gone up, the physical quality of their books has gone down, and they now charge you for the month if you forget to click ‘skip’ which is frankly ridiculous and a really insidious way to hold subscribers hostage for longer than they’re interested.

But I do still have a fondness for BOTM; it’s the only book subscription service I’ve ever used, and I enjoy the simplicity of it (I like watching unboxings but all the swag in OwlCrate and whatnot stresses me out; if I could have a subscription that did literary fiction and tea, maybe with the occasional mug, I would be very happy).  And waking up on the first of every month and looking at the selection will never not give me a thrill (except now they announce it randomly like two and a half days beforehand so there’s always a bit of a panic when I realize the list has been up for a few days and I’ve been wasting time by not selecting anything, but I digress).

I realize that most posts that specifically talk about a service tend to be more positive than this, so I realize this hasn’t been the best opening for BOTM-enthusiasts, but I just wanted to be honest about my experiences, which have ultimately been mixed over the years.  I’d love to hear from you if you also subscribe to BOTM, whether you have the same frustrations that I do or whether you’re still happy with what they provide.

I’ve purchased 28 books through Book of the Month over the years, and of those, I’ve read 19.  That leaves 9 that are still on my TBR.  I wanted to take a look at those now to hopefully inspire myself to pick these up sooner rather than later.

Going chronologically from publication date, with summaries from Goodreads in italics and my own thoughts below:

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Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Jason Dessen is walking home through the chilly Chicago streets one night, looking forward to a quiet evening in front of the fireplace with his wife, Daniela, and their son, Charlie—when his reality shatters.

It starts with a man in a mask kidnapping him at gunpoint, for reasons Jason can’t begin to fathom—what would anyone want with an ordinary physics professor?—and grows even more terrifying from there, as Jason’s abductor injects him with some unknown drug and watches while he loses consciousness.

When Jason awakes, he’s in a lab, strapped to a gurney—and a man he’s never seen before is cheerily telling him “welcome back!”

Jason soon learns that in this world he’s woken up to, his house is not his house. His wife is not his wife. His son was never born.

And someone is hunting him.

This is a textbook case of ‘the hype made me do it’.  Science fiction really isn’t my thing, but I feel like I’ve heard nothing but good things about this book, enough that I ended up adding this as an extra to one of my boxes a while back.  I still haven’t gotten around to picking it up (obviously), but I do still have FOMO about this one and want to pick it up before the end of the year.

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As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner

In 1918, Philadelphia was a city teeming with promise. Even as its young men went off to fight in the Great War, there were opportunities for a fresh start on its cobblestone streets. Into this bustling town, came Pauline Bright and her husband, filled with hope that they could now give their three daughters–Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa–a chance at a better life.

But just months after they arrive, the Spanish Flu reaches the shores of America. As the pandemic claims more than twelve thousand victims in their adopted city, they find their lives left with a world that looks nothing like the one they knew. But even as they lose loved ones, they take in a baby orphaned by the disease who becomes their single source of hope. Amidst the tragedy and challenges, they learn what they cannot live without–and what they are willing to do about it.

I actually remember vividly that none of the selections appealed to me the month I chose this, but I had just been in the mood to buy a book.  So, here we are.  Of this entire list, this is the one that I’m most likely to unhaul without reading it, but the completionist in me shudders at the thought.  We’ll see.  If you loved this, convince me to read it!

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Still Lives by Maria Hummel

Kim Lord is an avant-garde figure, feminist icon, and agent provocateur in the L.A. art scene. Her groundbreaking new exhibition Still Lives is comprised of self-portraits depicting herself as famous, murdered women—the Black Dahlia, Chandra Levy, Nicole Brown Simpson, among many others—and the works are as compelling as they are disturbing, implicating a culture that is too accustomed to violence against women.

As the city’s richest art patrons pour into the Rocque Museum’s opening night, all the staff, including editor Maggie Richter, hope the event will be enough to save the historic institution’s flailing finances. Except Kim Lord never shows up to her own gala. Fear mounts as the hours and days drag on and Lord remains missing. Suspicion falls on the up-and-coming gallerist Greg Shaw Ferguson, who happens to be Maggie’s ex. A rogue’s gallery of eccentric art world figures could also have motive for the act, and as Maggie gets drawn into her own investigation of Lord’s disappearance, she’ll come to suspect all of those closest to her.

I have heard… almost nothing positive about this book, but the combination of feminism and art history in its blurb convinced me that it was something I was going to love.  I don’t remain quite as convinced at this point, but I do want to read this as Hummel is a local (Vermont) author.

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Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Willa Knox has always prided herself on being the embodiment of responsibility for her family. Which is why it’s so unnerving that she’s arrived at middle age with nothing to show for her hard work and dedication but a stack of unpaid bills and an inherited brick home in Vineland, New Jersey, that is literally falling apart. The magazine where she worked has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has closed. The dilapidated house is also home to her ailing and cantankerous Greek father-in-law and her two grown children: her stubborn, free-spirited daughter, Tig, and her dutiful debt-ridden, ivy educated son, Zeke, who has arrived with his unplanned baby in the wake of a life-shattering development.

In an act of desperation, Willa begins to investigate the history of her home, hoping that the local historical preservation society might take an interest and provide funding for its direly needed repairs. Through her research into Vineland’s past and its creation as a Utopian community, she discovers a kindred spirit from the 1880s, Thatcher Greenwood.

A science teacher with a lifelong passion for honest investigation, Thatcher finds himself under siege in his community for telling the truth: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting new theory recently published by Charles Darwin. Thatcher’s friendships with a brilliant woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor draw him into a vendetta with the town’s most powerful men. At home, his new wife and status-conscious mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his financial worries and the news that their elegant house is structurally unsound.

It would be a stretch to say that I’m a massive Kingsolver fan since I’ve only ever read The Poisonwood Bible, but I did really love that.  I actually only picked this up because I was convinced that it was going to be a strong contender for the Women’s Prize longlist: obviously that did not happen.  Unsheltered has been polarizing, but I remain curious about it.

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The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.

Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London.

Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him….

I have a rule that I don’t read thrillers written by men (I find that poorly written female protagonists and using sexual assault as a plot point both occur much less frequently in female-authored thrillers; yes, I’m aware this is a generalization, sue me), but I’m breaking that rule twice in this list.  Further down it’s a favorite author who I discovered before I implemented my female-author-only thriller rule, and here’s in because this book sounds absolutely marvelous.  It’s a loose retelling of Euripides’ Alcestis, a play and a story that I adore, so I am very curious to see how Michaelides has interpreted it here.

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The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

When 11-year-old Ren’s master dies, he makes one last request of his Chinese houseboy: that Ren find his severed finger, lost years ago in an accident, and reunite it with his body. Ren has 49 days, or else his master’s soul will roam the earth, unable to rest in peace.

Ji Lin always wanted to be a doctor, but as a girl in 1930s Malaysia, apprentice dressmaker is a more suitable occupation. Secretly, though, Ji Lin also moonlights as a dancehall girl to help pay off her beloved mother’s Mahjong debts. One night, Ji Lin’s dance partner leaves her with a gruesome souvenir: a severed finger. Convinced the finger is bad luck, Ji Lin enlists the help of her erstwhile stepbrother to return it to its rightful owner.

As the 49 days tick down, and a prowling tiger wreaks havoc on the town, Ji Lin and Ren’s lives intertwine in ways they could never have imagined. Propulsive and lushly written, The Night Tiger explores colonialism and independence, ancient superstition and modern ambition, sibling rivalry and first love. Braided through with Chinese folklore and a tantalizing mystery, this novel is a page-turner of the highest order.

Historical fiction set in East Asia is one of my favorite things to read, and I don’t think I’ve read anything set in Malaysia before.  The magical realism element… makes me a bit nervous, but I ultimately decided to bite the bullet and give this one a try, since I just find the premise so intriguing.

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The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer

In 1940, Varian Fry—a Harvard-educated American journalist—traveled to Marseille carrying three thousand dollars and a list of imperiled artists and writers he hoped to rescue within a few weeks. Instead, he ended up staying in France for thirteen months, working under the veil of a legitimate relief organization to procure false documents, amass emergency funds, and set up an underground railroad that led over the Pyrenees, into Spain, and finally to Lisbon, where the refugees embarked for safer ports. Among his many clients were Hannah Arendt, Franz Werfel, André Breton, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall.

My biggest interest outside of the bookish world is art history, so I was never going to be able to resist this premise.  World War II fatigue aside, I think this sounds incredible, and I’ve heard some really amazing things about it.  I’m a bit intimidated by the length, but I shouldn’t be!

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Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Based on years of immersive reporting, and told with astonishing frankness and immediacy, Three Women is a groundbreaking portrait of erotic longing in today’s America, exposing the fragility, complexity, and inequality of female desire with unprecedented depth and emotional power. It is both a feat of journalism and a triumph of storytelling, brimming with nuance and empathy, that introduces us to three unforgettable women—and one remarkable writer—whose experiences remind us that we are not alone.

I barely know what this is about but I think I’ve been told to read it four times this week alone.  Alright, I give in!

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Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

No visitors. No nights spent away from the apartment. No disturbing the other residents, all of whom are rich or famous or both. These are the only rules for Jules Larsen’s new job as an apartment sitter at the Bartholomew, one of Manhattan’s most high-profile and mysterious buildings. Recently heartbroken and just plain broke, Jules is taken in by the splendor of her surroundings and accepts the terms, ready to leave her past life behind.

As she gets to know the residents and staff of the Bartholomew, Jules finds herself drawn to fellow apartment sitter Ingrid, who comfortingly, disturbingly reminds her of the sister she lost eight years ago. When Ingrid confides that the Bartholomew is not what it seems and the dark history hidden beneath its gleaming facade is starting to frighten her, Jules brushes it off as a harmless ghost story . . . until the next day, when Ingrid disappears.

Searching for the truth about Ingrid’s disappearance, Jules digs deeper into the Bartholomew’s dark past and into the secrets kept within its walls. Her discovery that Ingrid is not the first apartment sitter to go missing at the Bartholomew pits Jules against the clock as she races to unmask a killer, expose the building’s hidden past, and escape the Bartholomew before her temporary status becomes permanent.

I haven’t even read the summary that I just copied and pasted here but in my opinion Riley Sager is one of the best thriller writers working today.  Final Girls is arguably my favorite-ever thriller, and though I wasn’t quite as enamored with The Last Time I Lied overall, I couldn’t put it down and I thought the final twist was all kinds of brilliant.  So regardless of what this newest offering is actually about, I cannot wait to dive into it.


So, that’s that!  Have you read any of these books, and if so, which would you recommend that I pick up straight away?  If you haven’t, are you interested in any?  And have you ever subscribed to Book of the Month, and what are your thoughts on their subscription service?  Do you have other [adult lit] book subscription services you’d recommend?  Let me know all your thoughts!

book review: Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

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HOMESICK FOR ANOTHER WORLD by Ottessa Moshfegh
★★☆☆☆
Penguin Books, 2017

 

Ottessa Moshfegh has to be one of my favorite writers that I discovered in 2018; My Year of Rest and Relaxation both thrilled and unsettled me, and after I finished that I proceeded to devour her debut novel Eileen. So it was with optimism that I approached her short story collection Homesick for Another World – I was looking forward to more delightfully awful antiheroines and sardonic humor and a heightened awareness of the mundane. Be careful what you wish for, I guess?

What made Eileen‘s titular protagonist and My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘s unnamed narrator so fascinating wasn’t just the fact that they weren’t particularly likable people; their thorny exteriors were a result of two distinct tragic backstories, whose ramifications Moshfegh deftly explored throughout the course of each novel. It turns out that bite-sized stories about awful characters doing awful things and thinking awful thoughts are so much less interesting when their behavior isn’t rationalized or contextualized in that same way. Reading story after story about humanity’s capacity for cruelty starts to feel like a shtick after a while, like a party trick that’s worn out its welcome. It’s easy to become desensitized when you feel like the author’s main objective is to shock you.

Two stories stood out to me: The Beach Boy follows an older married couple returning from an island vacation, only for the wife to die unexpectedly as soon as they arrive home. Unpalatable as this couple may be, like all of Moshfegh’s protagonists, we actually are able to get invested in them before the story takes a turn for the macabre. And A Better Place ends the collection on a positively eerie note, telling the story of two young twins who are convinced that they weren’t born on earth, and to get back to that other place, they need to either die or kill someone. I think it speaks volumes that the best story in the collection is the one that’s least like the others; A Better Place is wildly inventive and not quite as grounded in gritty realism as the others, but still dark and twisted and more haunting than the rest of the stories combined.

That’s two out of fourteen that made an impression on me. The rest honestly just blend together. Moshfegh has such a unique voice as a writer that shines through all of the stories in this collection, but rather than bringing me the same kind of offbeat joy as her two novels, this collection just started to make me miserable after a while. Apparently my average rating for all these stories was 2.7 stars, but I’m rounding down due to the dread I felt about picking this back up when I wasn’t reading it. I’m still going to read everything Moshfegh writes… I’m just hoping for more novels from now on.

book review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO by Taylor Jenkins Reid
★★★★★
Atria Books, 2017

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is the most wonderfully immersive book I could have chosen to read over a weekend when I desperately needed an escape from reality. I hadn’t really heard much about the plot of this book going into it, and honestly, that’s how I’d recommend approaching it if at all possible, because it just sweeps you up into such a compelling and unexpected tale from the very first page.

The characters in this book are all brilliant and well-crafted, none more so than Evelyn, our ruthless and at times unlikable protagonist. If you’re familiar with my tastes, you’ll know that I absolutely adore antiheroines when well written, and Evelyn is so vibrant and multifaceted she practically jumps off the page. Though it’s only been a few days since I’ve finished this, I can already tell that Evelyn is going to be utterly unforgettable. But Evelyn didn’t entirely steal the show away from this book’s host of intriguing supporting characters – each one of them was so three-dimensional it was easy to forget this story is entirely fictional.

There were several elements that ended up being hugely pleasant surprises – the inclusion of several LGBT+ characters being the main one (I won’t say too much more here so I don’t spoil anything, but, suffice to say this book is not half as heterosexual as its title would imply). What also surprised me was how invested I became in this story. I flew through this 400-page long book in only 2 days – I couldn’t put it down and I was rewarded with a conclusion so beautiful and bittersweet it brought me to tears.

Everyone should read this book. I realize I’ve said absolutely nothing about the actual plot here, but this is a ‘take my word for it’ type situation if I ever saw one.

book review: Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

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RAINBIRDS by Clarissa Goenawan
★★☆☆☆
Soho Press, March 6, 2018

Rainbirds by Haruki Murakami – sorry, Clarissa Goenawan – is about a man who attempts to investigate the murder of his sister by traveling to her home in Akakawa. It’s also the most derivative book I’ve ever read.

Look, I don’t usually mind when the influence of another author is clearly present in a novel. Writers are influenced by other writers, this is how art has always been created. If We Were Villains is like The Secret HistoryThe Book Collector is like Rebecca. It happens. But where the novels I just cited each have their own voice, their own distinctive characters, their own intriguing stories to tell, Rainbirds just… doesn’t. My main problem with this book is that I’ve read it before, but it was called The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle then.

I do like Murakami, but I have to admit there’s a certain formula to his novels. Clarissa Goenawan follows that formula to a T. There’s the apathetic, attractive-yet-disinterested protagonist, Ren (Toru Okada, Toru Watanabe), the fiesty young loner girl who captures his interest, Seven Stars (May Kasahara, Midori…), and several alluring women who wallpaper the background of the novel, all of whom confide inexplicably in the protagonist and share their life stories with him. The Apathetic Everyman protagonist is searching for something, but he isn’t quite sure what, and he needs to be drawn into the lives of these random strangers in order to achieve clarity, in some roundabout way. And there’s also a sort of magical realism influence where the atmosphere is just a bit odd and we have to listen to characters relay their dreams in exhausting detail.

I mean, even the chapter headings are like this:

The
Bubblegum
World and the
Woman with a Mole
on the Back of
Her Neck
 

This isn’t a ‘fans of Murakami will love this novel’ situation, it’s just… why don’t you just read Murakami instead?

Anyway, even the tone of the novel is trying very hard for the elegant simplicity that Jay Rubin achieves in his English language translations of Murakami, but here it comes off as sophomoric rather than intentionally artful. Sentences like “The day my sister died, a part of me died, too” and “I was shocked to find her in my class. Was it fate?” and “As I was flipping through one of the books, a piece of paper fell out. Something told me it might be important” caused more than a few eye-rolls.

As for the story itself, there is nothing original or noteworthy here. It’s not really a mystery, or a thriller, or an introspective character study (that would be a stretch, since Ren has literally no personality), or the exploration of small-town Japanese culture that it claims to be. It’s just a collection of quirky characters telling Ren their stories while he sleeps with a bunch of different women (even though he has a girlfriend the entire time) who are inexplicably drawn to him, even though he has all the charisma of soggy cardboard. Here’s where Murakami’s influence really began to annoy me – I feel like there’s an undeniably masculine thread to all of his novels that Clarissa Goenawan was in a perfect position to subvert, as a female writer, but instead she gives us a thoroughly uninteresting male protagonist and tells us to root for him without giving us much reason to.

The atmosphere was nice and it held my attention the entire time, and I certainly didn’t hate this passionately enough to warrant a 1-star rating, but I’m just… not sure what I was supposed to take away from this book aside from the knowledge that Clarissa Goenawan is a massive Murakami fan.

book review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

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THE BROKEN GIRLS by Simone St. James
★★★★☆
Berkley, March 20, 2018

 

The Broken Girls is a delightfully chilling mystery-meets-ghost-story, set in Vermont (my homeland!) in two parallel timelines – one in 1950, and one in 2014. The past timeline tells the story of four girls who are roommates at a desolate boarding school called Idlewild, where unwanted and illegitimate girls are sent by their families and then neglected. There are also rumors of a ghost called Mary Hand who haunts the school grounds, and one day, one of the four friends vanishes. In the present, journalist Fiona Sheridan attempts to come to terms with her sister’s murder, which occurred 20 years ago near the ruins of Idlewild.

Interestingly, there aren’t a whole lost of twists and turns in this book. In lieu of shock and awe, Simone St. James lends her efforts to weaving together several seemingly unrelated plot threads, and she does so expertly. This is a book for readers who like satisfying conclusions and neat resolutions – I didn’t have a big ‘wow’ moment, which I tend to enjoy while reading this genre, but the storytelling was superb, and I had fun reading this book from start to finish.

Naturally I love when books are set in Vermont, and St. James delivered with the atmosphere. Though the town of Barrons and Idlewild Hall may be fictional, the dark, bleak tone of a rural Vermont winter was captured perfectly. It’s the ideal setting for a ghost story in many ways, and St. James took advantage of that to create a ghost who’s as intriguing as she is haunting. The research St. James put into this novel is also admirable, particularly regarding the Ravensbrück concentration camp, a chilling piece of history which features into one character’s backstory.

The characters themselves are very well developed, though my main complaint about this book was the heavy focus on Fiona’s relationship with her police officer boyfriend, which lent itself to a somewhat cliched ‘his parents disapprove because cops and journalists can’t mingle’ sort of narrative. But the girls in the 1950 timeline though were vivid and compelling enough to make up for this for me, and I didn’t mind Fiona herself.

Anyway, since I started this on Saturday morning and finished it on Sunday afternoon, The Broken Girls is the perfect book to get lost in for a weekend if you’re looking for something quick, eerie, and compelling.

I chose this book as my February Book of the Month selection.  If you’re interested in checking out this great subscription service, feel free to use my referral link!  The Broken Girls will be published on March 20, 2018.

book review: The English Wife by Lauren Willig

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THE ENGLISH WIFE by Lauren Willig
★★★★☆
St. Martins’ Press, January 9, 2018

If I were prone to feeling guilt over enjoying the things I enjoy, I would classify this as a guilty pleasure book. This is more a nineteenth century soap opera of a novel than a literary gothic mystery, so you’ll do well to check those expectations of a second coming of Rebecca at the door before starting The English Wife. But I have no reservations at all saying that I loved this.

Sure, the writing is occasionally sophomoric; characters let out breaths they didn’t realize they’d been holding; the word ‘belied’ is used approximately eight thousand times; the dialogue is often trite and heavy-handed, but for whatever reason, I found myself not caring. I was swept away by this incredibly well-crafted mystery that blends suspense and romance with the vibrant atmospheres of Victorian England and Gilded Age New York.

The novel begins at a ball in upstate New York in 1899, when wealthy socialite Bayard van Duyvil is found with a knife in his chest, and his wife, Annabelle, has vanished, presumed dead. There are two point of views in this book – that of Bay’s wife, in flashbacks, and his sister, Janie, in the present. Both were compelling heroines who I found myself rooting for wholeheartedly. This is the kind of book where every character has secrets, and uncovering them all is a highly entertaining process. Some of the twists are excellent, others are rather predictable, but it’s an undeniably twisty ride from start to finish. And getting to the bottom of the identity of the novel’s central character, Annabelle, was the most compelling element for me.

Bottom line: this book was fun and enthralling enough to compensate for its many flaws. Highly recommended for anyone looking for somewhat mindless Victorian escapism.

I chose this book as my December Book of the Month selection.  If you’re interested in checking out this great subscription service, feel free to use my referral linkThe English Wife will be published on January 9, 2018.