The Doll’s House

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Author: Louise Phillips (published 2013)

Cover of The Doll's House by Louise Phillips

Cover of The Doll’s House by Louise Phillips

Normally I don’t read too many murder-mystery type novels. Typically, if I read any sort of crime-solving story, it involves a feisty PI butting heads with a stubborn detective trying to solve the same crime. They bicker and spar, but we all know that as soon as the crime is solved, they’ll fall in love. The Doll’s House is a darker novel altogether. But, I think the hint of some creepy doll house factoring into the storyline is what initially drew me in.

This story is set in Dublin and ultimately revolves around the murder of a well-known media personality who is found stabbed and drowned in a canal. Detective Inspector O’Connor calls in a criminal psychologist, Dr. Kate Pearson to help him solve the case. O’Connor and Kate have worked together previously, and that eliminates the getting-to-know-you back and forth that might otherwise bog down the plotline.

While Kate and O’Connor try to unwind the potential motive behind the killing, a tandem storyline is taking place. Clodagh McCay, a recovering alcoholic, is visiting a hypnotherapist in an attempt to uncover some unsettling memories from her past. As the therapist takes her into deep hypnosis, she relives scenes from her past in the form of dolls from her childhood dollhouse come to life. It becomes clear that a major event took place during this time in Clodagh’s childhood that changed her life and the lives of those around her. These events tie into the death of the man in the canal, and a killer intent on seeking revenge.

While reading this, I felt like the plot threw in enough twists and turns to keep me guessing, but not so many as to get confusing. I swung back and forth between who I believed to be the killer. But, the story isn’t only about figuring out who the killer is, it’s also about why he or she is motivated to kill. That’s where the criminal psychology and even Clodagh’s hypnotherapist sessions come into play. And, that’s what I enjoyed most about this novel. It wasn’t just a whodunit, it was equally about the why.

There were, however, two parts of the novel that I was confused about being included. In the very beginning, Kate is looking at crime-scene photos of a rape. She is working on a profile of the attacker, who they believe to be a serial rapist. As she’s sifting through the photos, she sets them aside to go to a meeting with a young girl named Imogen who she’s been working with for months. Imogen has large gaps in her memory that Kate is convinced are a result of an earlier trauma. It’s even sort of suggested that Imogen’s family may not be telling her the whole truth about something. Both of these mini-plots are revisited a couple of times throughout the novel, but never really go anywhere. I don’t know if they will eventually tie into another novel by Phillips or not, but I felt we were left hanging a bit. Especially with the Imogen story. I’ve checked out her website, but I didn’t see any synopsis that looked like this particular storyline.

Overall, though, this was a page-turner for me. I liked that the suspense relied more on the psychology of the killer rather than overtly gruesome details. That’s just something I personally enjoy more. I will definitely be checking out another one of Phillip’s novels. It looks like the “next” novel is Red Ribbons – also featuring Kate Pearson. In fact, it looks like Kate is a feature in all her books. They probably don’t need to be read in a certain order, but it might be interesting to see the character growth. Plus, it looks like we get to find out a little more about Kate’s own troubled past.

The Big Fix

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Author: Linda Grimes (published 2015)

Cover of The Big Fix by Linda Grimes

Cover of The Big Fix by Linda Grimes

Before I even go into detail about this book, let me say that this is one of those perfect books for reading poolside, beachside or on a long airplane ride. It’s just one of those fun books that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Big Fix isn’t the first book, apparently, with these characters. In fact, I’ll probably go back and check out at least one of the other books in the series because I did like the characters. I can say that you don’t have to read the other ones first. This story stood on its own, although it did recall a few minor details from other books. (I can’t stop writing the word “book” here. Ok, I think I’m done.)

The main character, Ciel Halligan, comes from a family of adaptors. Due to a genetic quirk, adaptors are able to take on the aura of other people. They look exactly like the other person but don’t actually become the other person. Basically, if they know the person’s mannerisms well enough, they can stand in for that person without anyone else realizing. That’s exactly what Ciel is doing on her current assignment at the start of the book. She’s standing in for superstar Jackson Gunn on his movie set, shooting a scene with snakes. Jackson has hired her because he’s terrified of snakes and doesn’t want to risk his macho image. However, after a day of shooting, Ciel, disguised as Jack, is informed that Jack’s wife is dead. She dreads having to tell her client but quickly learns that her client has been missing all day, rather than stowed away at her secret hideaway ranch. Pretty soon Ciel starts to question whether Jack played a role in his wife’s death or is truly a grieving widower.

With the help of her adaptor family members and friends who include secret agents, Ciel tries to unravel clues that will lead to the real killer. I don’t normally go for mysteries or murder mysteries, but this one was just fun. I was able to read this book in just a couple days. Not only was Ciel trying to find the killer, she was trying to balance her feelings between her current boyfriend Billy and her brother’s friend Mark who she’s had a major crush on for years. In fact, their adaptor abilities led to a mixup that caused some big problems for her relationship that I think in “real life” would be hard to get past. But, if you’re going to go with a story like this, you just have to go with it. If you can’t embrace the idea that these people are adaptors, you probably won’t like the story.

The wrap up at the end isn’t entirely a surprise, but it was fun getting there. If you’re on the lookout for a book that you can pick up in your free time to help you zone out and immerse yourself in a sometimes unbelievable, sometimes silly story, then The Big Fix is a good choice. I’ll be checking out some of the other “Fix” stories featuring Ciel and her family.

Ensnared

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Author: A.G. Howard (published 2015)

Cover of Ensnared by A.G .Howard

Cover of Ensnared by A.G .Howard

Well, here it is. The third and final installment of the Splintered series. I read these books pretty close to back-to-back. Say what you will, but to me that’s the best way to tackle a series. I’m a sucker for any series, and if you can throw in an element of the supernatural, then all the better. The nice part about reading books like these one right after the other is that you don’t lose the plot anywhere. You remember the characters, which is especially important for this series that explores the weird and wild in Howard’s version of Wonderland.

At the end of Unhinged, Alyssa basically kidnaps her father so that he can help her save Jeb, Morpheus, and her mother. At the beginning of Ensnared, Alyssa and her father are aboard the memory train that will reunite him with all his missing memories. That is, Thomas will finally learn where he comes from and why he was able to wander into Wonderland from the world of AnyElsewhere. He discovers that he comes from England and his family has, for generations, protected the portals that connect AnyElsewhere to the human realm. With the help of his family, Alyssa and her dad venture to AnyElsewhere in search of Morpheus and Jeb.

Much of the novel is spent in AnyElsewhere. Jeb has become a completely different person during his time there. I’m going to be honest. I liked him even less in this novel. He’s just so “melancholy artist” all the time. Only now he’s “magical melancholy artist.” In fact, when he was sucked into AnyElsewhere, he somehow took on netherling qualities. So, through his artwork he’s been able to design landscapes and objects that have helped keep him and Morpheus safe. AnyElsewhere is a sort of parallel universe to Wonderland where prisoners and outcasts from Wonderland reside. It’s more violent and the rules make even less sense than they do in Wonderland. It’s ruled by the Queen of Hearts who is currently being inhabitated by the soul of Queen Red. Alyssa knows that in order to get to Wonderland and put it to rights, she will have to do battle with the Red Queen. But first, she has to convince Jeb to trust her again and leave AnyElsewhere. He’s harboring a lot of anger that he’s working out through his art. Alyssa feels that much of it is directed at her, but it ultimately goes back to his troubled childhood at the hands of his abusive father.

Once again we have the Morpheus, Jeb and Alyssa triangle that keeps hearts a-fluttering. I can’t help it, but I’m always rooting just a little bit harder for Morpheus. I don’t know, he’s more interesting to me. Without giving anything away, the three of them do battle in AnyElsewhere before they make it through to Wonderland. Wounded, Alyssa has to make some choices about Wonderland and her future with both Morpheus and Jeb. Ultimately I think the story resolves itself well though it was a bit predictable. I’ll be honest. I liked the resolution here – it was satisfying. We didn’t really get much more about her mother’s story, but I can understand Howard’s reasoning. If she had tried to tell Alison’s parallel journey in Wonderland while Alyssa tackled AnyElsewhere it would have gotten too long and confusing. In fact, even though I loved the series, I think it was wise to end it in three books. Nothing worse than dragging something good out for far too long. I’m not sure what her plan is next, but fingers crossed we get another twisted tale from Howard on it’s way soon.

A Second Bite at the Apple

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Author: Dana Bate (published 2014)

Cover of A Second Bite at the Apple by Dana Bate

Cover of A Second Bite at the Apple by Dana Bate

I picked up A Second Bite at the Apple because I had read one of Dana Bate’s previous novels, The Girls’ Guide to Love and Supper Clubs. I really enjoyed that book. I found the main character likable and relatable, and it introduced me to the concept of “underground” supper clubs. Who knew? So, I figured I’d give this one a try as well. It seems that Bate always writes with a food theme in her books, and this one was no different. The setting is the Washington D.C. farmer’s market scene with lots of yummy descriptions of bread and baked goods. In fact, if you’re trying to go off carbs for any reason, maybe give this a pass or you’ll drive yourself mad.

This story revolves around Sydney Strauss who has always dreamed of becoming a food journalist. But, like many people trying to make a living, her career took a bit of a left turn and she finds herself several years out of college still working in a production position for a morning TV show. It’s not her dream position, but it is paying her bills until the network institutes internal changes that eliminate Sydney’s job. Suddenly without options, Sydney calls her best friend Heidi who insists they meet at a bar and drown her sorrows until she can figure out what to do about her life, and more importantly, money. Before Sydney arrives at the bar, she’s already a couple drinks in, so it doesn’t take her too long to get to a point where she’s had one too many. Having overheard Sydney’s and Heidi’s conversation, a man sitting at the bar offers to buy them a drink on his tab. Sydney does not react well to his offer and basically instigates a fight with him until Heidi decides to drag her out of the bar in search of food.

The next morning, Heidi is sick with food poisoning and asks Sydney to take her place working at a local farmer’s market. While she’s working, the guy from the night before happens by her stall. Once again, she’s not very nice to him. No, scratch that – she’s outright rude. This was my issue with Sydney throughout the entire novel. She comes across as rude and judgmental even when people are trying to be nice. Sure, I understand that she’s out of a job and worried about money. Stress can certainly cause a person to be less than cheerful. However, even when she’s offered the opportunity to write for the farmer’s market newsletter, she isn’t all that grateful. She’s irritated at her sister who is getting married, still relentlessly pining for her boyfriend who dumped her five years earlier, and acts openly hostile toward Jeremy (the guy from the bar) who nevertheless pursues her until she agrees to see him. Throughout the book, I really wanted either her sister Libby or her friend Heidi to dish out a little tough love. Life ain’t easy toots, no reason to treat other people badly.

The crux of the story plays out with Sydney working at the farmer’s market while pursuing a story that may end up getting her a job at the Washington Chronicle as a food writer. The only problem is that she completely betrays Jeremy in order to get the story. In fact, I’m fairly certain she even legally crossed a line between “investigative journalism” and “stealing.” Not only that, but she continues to judge him for something he did in his past. Frankly, I felt what she did was worse than his indiscretion, and I got the impression she felt she held the moral high ground. Ultimately her story hurts not only Jeremy but also the community at the farmer’s market – the very people who gave her a job when she needed it most.

But despite the fact I didn’t really care for Sydney, I still ended up liking the book. I have to be honest, I’m sure I would have liked it a lot more if I could have related to Sydney’s motivation. I’ve actually been in her same position before and I still wouldn’t have done what she did to land a job. Ultimately, I would recommend first picking up The Girls’ Guide to Love and Supper Clubs, by Dana Bate. She writes a good story, and ultimately, that’s what it comes down to for me. And I will definitely check out other books by Bate. I don’t think it’s always necessary to like the all the main characters. In fact, I’m not even sure if we were supposed to be sympathetic to Sydney. I’m guessing, like most real people you meet, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Unhinged

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Author: A.G. Howard (published 2014)

Cover of Unhinged by A.G. Howard

Cover of Unhinged by A.G. Howard

This is the second novel in the Splintered series, which reimagines the story and origins of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The main character, Alyssa, has been living in the real world for the past year, finishing up her senior year of high school. At the end of Splintered, Alyssa was crowned the new Red Queen and left her castle protected in proxy by Queen Grenadine. But recently, her art has been sending her messages that something is off in Wonderland. Her mosaics foretell a war in Wonderland; one that apparently is bound to include her.

In Howard’s second novel of this series, most of the action takes place in the human realm. In fact, we have many Wonderland characters, including Morpheus, who come through the looking glass to help Alyssa in her world. I actually missed the Wonderland scenes in this novel. The only times we really “see” Wonderland this time is through flashbacks. I’m sensing that when writing this one, there was already a plan in place for a third book (at least), so I understand from a big-picture perspective why we spent much of the time in the human world. This battle sets us up for more storytelling.

The plot revolved around Alyssa trying to prevent Red from infiltrating her world in an attempt to regain control of Wonderland. Red basically wants to inhabit Alyssa so that she can become queen again. She’s a spirit looking for a body. We also have Morpheus in the human realm, which provides that love triangle tension between him, Jeb and Alyssa. That’s where the young adult / teen theme really plays out. I’m trying to think if I’ve read any Young Adult fiction in recent years that doesn’t include a love triangle. Hey, if it ain’t broke…. I get it.

One of my favorite characters continues to be Morpheus. He’s a great balance to both Alyssa and Jeb. It’s good to have a character that can add an element of snark. And he has a streak of selfishness that is a nice contrast to Jeb’s altruism – especially when it comes to Alyssa. We also learn a little more about Alyssa’s mother in this novel. She’s not necessarily what Alyssa believed her to be. I really think this story is a good set up for the third novel. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the book was the ending. I did have a little trouble throughout trying to keep track of everyone’s agenda this time around. In Splintered, the quest that Alyssa is on is a little more straightforward. Really, the one with the biggest agenda was Morpheus. In this book, there are more players who either want something or owe someone a favor. Further, Alyssa’s mother plays a role in this novel that adds to that. I just kept forgetting who owed whom what and why. Maybe my brain is too far into summer mode to keep track.

I will be reading the next book, Ensnared. I just took a quick peek online and it seems to rate just as well as the others from reader reviews. I have high hopes because I liked the set up in this book and I have a feeling we are going to be seeing an even more twisted side to Wonderland in the next novel.

 

Searching for Grace Kelly

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Author: Michael Callahan (published 2015)

Cover of Searching for Grace Kelly by Michael Callahan

Cover of Searching for Grace Kelly by Michael Callahan

I’m one of those people who really likes to check out the Acknowledgements section of the books I read. It may not seem interesting to most, but it often gives me insight into the inspiration behind the novel. With Searching for Grace Kelly, I found that this novel was born from a story that Michael Callahan wrote for Vanity Fair about the Barbizon Hotel in New York. During the time in which this story is based, the Barbizon was a residential hotel strictly for women. And there were some rules that the women living there were expected to abide by. There is, apparently, a number of famous women who lived there when they moved to New York and Callahan was able to interview many of them for his article. I think it’s obvious throughout the story that his research paid off to create the scene as the backdrop of this story.

This particular novel is set in 1955 and centers around three young women, all looking to get their start in New York. The central character is Laura, a junior from Smith college on her summer break in New York working as an intern for Mademoiselle. She dreams of becoming a writer and is looking to get out from under the thumb of her mother as well as the expectations she feels as a young woman of her particular station. In other words, her mother primarily expects her to marry well and start her life as a wife and mother in the suburbs. Her roommate, Dolly, comes from what was considered a more “working class” family, and is staying at the Barbizon while she attends secretarial school. She is also dreaming of a life outside the one that waits at home for her. And finally, Vivian, a British girl with loads of sex appeal and a general disdain for following expected rules.

The story is told through the three women’s perspective and, to be honest, sometimes I lost track of whose story line I was reading. I felt that one of the strong aspects of the novel was the relative simplicity of the story line. It was, at it’s core, a story about three young women making their way in a city that can be hard to navigate. The Barbizon Hotel and the 1950’s style gave it some splash, but it didn’t rely too heavily on unbelievable scenarios. Of course, it’s fiction, so there was the added drama, but the women’s story lines actually were quite plausible. I enjoyed this about the book because I think that’s really hard to do – to draw you in without creating crazy schemes or plot lines.

However, when the story is simple, it can also be a little bit more obvious when a character acts out of character. I found this most frustrating with Laura. She wants to be a writer, but she almost looks upon her opportunities at Mademoiselle as a waste of time. She was working with women who had broken through professional barriers in the 1950’s. It would have been wise for an aspiring writer to take note, and she repeatedly did not. At one point, she’s told that if she wants to be a writer she should be keeping a journal. Then, we get one out-of-place journal entry where she admits she hasn’t been very good at keeping a journal. Finally, she often laments of the life her family allegedly demands she live but seems all too ready to embrace a similar offer when it comes. I felt she was the most difficult to pin down as believable while both Dolly and Vivian behaved more or less in character throughout the story.

I also felt that the ending rang true.  I don’t want to get into too much detail for fear of giving anything away, but I really believe the ending followed through on what I had come to know about the individual characters. So, if you love the 1950’s era, particularly attached to the New York scene, you may want to check this one out. I would say this is a good summer beach or pool read, but only if you manage to keep it out of the water. Which I did not. So, read it near water at your own risk.

 

Splintered

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Author: A.G. Howard (published 2013)
Cover of Splintered by A.G. Howard

Cover of Splintered by A.G. Howard

Every once and awhile I pop over to the Young Adult Fiction section of my local library to see what’s new. I’m really blown away by the quality of storytelling in the Youth Fiction genre in the past several years – perhaps even decades. I don’t remember having so many options when I was younger. I recently picked up the book Splintered by A.G. Howard. Right away, I knew it was everything I loved in a novel. It’s a sort of twisted retelling of the Alice in Wonderland story, with Alice’s great-great-granddaughter as the heroine. (I may have missed a “great” there.) Since I had read the book Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin** last fall, I was already in Wonderland mode.

This book reminded me of the Lunar Chronicles series, which I’m in the middle of reading right now. I say in the middle because there is another book (the last, I believe) to be published this fall and I’m waiting for that to review the series at once. However, I love this idea of turning a fairy tale on its head and exposing its dark side. Most fairy tales are quite dark to begin with. Over time, however, it seems many have been turned into something almost exclusively made for children. Part of what I loved about Splintered is Howard’s telling of the dark side of Alice’s Wonderland without crossing the lines of violence or sex. This is definitely a book that understands age-appropriateness, but also speaks to a larger audience. For me, it was just fun.

If you’re familiar with Tim Burton’s rendition of Alice in his movie (Alice in Wonderland, 2010), then much of the imagery will feel familiar. I happen to be someone who really enjoyed that version, so I was able to dive right into this story and embrace those characters. In Splintered, however, it’s not a grown Alice that goes down the rabbit hole, it’s Alyssa, a teenage granddaughter in the Liddell family tree who is trying to break a curse on her family. With her own mother locked away in an asylum and a growing fear that the madness that runs in her family will befall her, she travels to Wonderland to undo the past mistakes of Alice Liddell.

Truthfully, if you aren’t into this type of fantasy novel, then you won’t like this book. It’s one of those times where you must suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the story. Also, remember when you pick this one up that it is in the Youth Fiction genre. The relationships are meant to be between young people, so the characters interact accordingly. But, I find that refreshing. Young love and all that.

I’m going to be reading the next book in the series soon. I love a good series! It’s called Unhinged and I have it at the top of my pile. So, you’ll be hearing more about Alyssa and Wonderland soon.

** I read this book after reading The Aviator’s Wife. I liked Melanie Benjamin’s writing and I knew that Alice I Have Been had been a well-received novel for her. It was an historical fiction account of the real Alice, Alice Liddell, and how she inspired Lewis Carroll’s famous story. I will admit that I have never read the real Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Maybe I should get on that.