The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides | Book Review

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Rating: ★★

The Silent Patient

This book just goes to show that you should always trust your instincts!

When I first read the synopsis, I was unimpressed. But then I saw the praise: Blake Crouch and Douglas Preston had very, very good things to say about The Silent Patient. So I decided to give it a try. Never again.

Goodreads Synopsis:

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….

Everything about this book is mediocre. Flat. The writing, the plot, the characters. I’m honestly flabbergasted at the sheer number of 5-star reviews praising this book for its “twist” and for being “unputdownable.” I was bored with this book from the beginning, and I ultimately had to force myself to finish it. The plot is nothing new – we have a psychologist and his patient, a now notorious artist who has spent the last six years locked up in a mental institution after killing her husband. Insanity defense, of course. Even though the psychologist has just started working there he is instantly able to get on her case, and spends all his time obsessing over her and tracking down people she knew before she was locked up (which would never happen – this violates so many ethical rules).

Much of the book takes place in the mental hospital, but it was like Michaelides was writing from what he had seen in movies, and not from research about how a mental hospital actually operates. One of the reasons I disliked the book so much was how unrealistic the hospital was – all of the staff act incredibly unethically (and I mean Ethical Rules unethically, not morally unethically), the psychologist basically takes over the place on the first day – even dictating how the actual medical doctors should treat patients, and the patients have waaaaay too much freedom.

I can’t even remember the psychologist’s name. There was absolutely nothing interesting about him as a character. Much of the plot focuses around two of his relationships – with his patient Alicia, and with his wife. There was just no substance to either of these relationships. In one passage he’ll be talking about how passionate he is about his wife, and describing all these intense feelings he has, but that text is juxtaposed to him not doing anything to show us how he feels. The strong emotional language next to physical inaction is very awkward to read. It doesn’t match up. He’s also supposedly a brilliant psychologist – he does, after all, somehow get a patient who has been practically catatonic for six years to respond to his fantastic therapy – but at the same time, he’s baffled by his interactions with people outside the hospital, and doesn’t seem to understand basic human emotions. All of this really stuck out to me as I was reading. I do believe that this could be fixed; hopefully Michaelides’ writing improves as he continues to write.

Alicia, the Silent Patient herself, was also uninteresting. She was supposedly a celebrated artist before she was committed, but her paintings sound so boring. A picture of her husband as Jesus on the cross? Yawn. The plot is driven by the psychologist investigating the mystery behind what happened on the day Alicia killed her husband, but I just didn’t care. It’s difficult to make a reader care about a character who doesn’t talk or have any internal dialogue. Michaelides tries to overcome this by giving Alicia a voice in some diary entries, but it didn’t work for me because there weren’t enough diary entries to flesh out her character. They also conveniently provided insight into whatever the psychologist was investigating at the time, so they functioned more to flesh out his story rather than to give Alicia a story. But I guess this book is about the psychologist, not about Alicia. Which is a shame, because I might have liked it more if we got to know her better.

Obviously, I am very much in the minority here. Maybe I just love to hate on popular books. If you like thrillers, you might very well like this one. But everything about this book fell flat for me, and I’m very disappointed in that “twist” ending. I definitely will listen to my gut reaction about books in the future!

 

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Broken Things by Lauren Oliver | Book Review

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Broken Things

Rating: ★★★

Meh. Underwhelming.

I read Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall about ten years ago (yeah I’m old af) and I remember liking it (even though I gave it three stars on Goodreads apparently??) so when I saw the gorgeous cover of Broken Things I was like, okay. It’s time to read some more Lauren Oliver.

[Summer] became our everything, our tornado. We were caught up in her force. She turned us around. She made the world spin faster. She blotted out all the other light.

We couldn’t escape.

And maybe it’s the old influence, the winds still embedded inside, but now I’m the one who wants to destroy. I want to break the old connections. I want to flatten her back into the grave.

I want her to let us go.

Summer, Brynn, and Mia were best friends who were all obsessed with the same book, The Way Into Lovelorn and spent a lot of time writing fanfiction together. That is, until Summer was brutally murdered when the girls were thirteen. Summer’s murder was suspiciously similar to a series of events the girls had written about in their fanfic. Brynn and Mia were suspected of murdering their friend, but there wasn’t enough evidence to convict them. And they really didn’t do it. Now, Mia is homeschooled and Brynn pretends to be an addict so she can stay in rehab centers. They haven’t seen each other since Summer died, but in the wake of the five-year anniversary of Summer’s death, Brynn and Mia reunite and begin asking questions. Who really killed Summer?

For the rest of the book, Brynn, Mia, and a few of their friends investigate what really happened to Summer. But this isn’t a thriller. Not at alllll. In fact, it’s a bit boring. There is no urgency or suspense to the investigation. This isn’t the kind of murder mystery that the reader is able to solve – Lauren Oliver doesn’t drop any hints for you to mull over (or if she did, I didn’t catch them). I’ll confess that I didn’t guess correctly who the murderer was, but I was actually disappointed in how the mystery wrapped up, even though I’m sure Oliver wanted to shock us. The story just doesn’t make a lot of sense; the conclusion felt like Oliver just picked a random character and decided to make them the murderer, without any build up. Completely underwhelming. And then Oliver cuts from the conclusion, the scene where the girls confront the murderer and finally learn the truth, to the epilogue, where the girls are happy and well-adjusted… wait, what? Why are none of the loose ends being wrapped up?

I really liked the book-within-a-book aspect of Broken Things. Stories are so important and so powerful, and they can offer a chance for readers to escape. All of the girls in this book had something they needed to escape from, and they found that escape when they read Lovelorn and daydreamed about the fantasy world. Adding to that world for themselves by writing fanfiction helped them cope with how much it can suck to be a thirteen-year-old-girl. I remember finding refuge in books when I about that age. I still do. The best part of reading Broken Things was being reminded of how I used to lose myself in books when I was in middle and high school. I never wrote fanfiction, but I really enjoyed that element of the story. The fanfic was mostly Summer’s project, and it really touched me that she was able to escape from reality – the foster homes, the dyslexia – by writing herself in to her favorite story.

The story is told in alternating chapters narrated by Brynn and Mia, but their voices were so similar that I kept getting them mixed up (thank god that the chapters were labeled with the narrator’s name – otherwise I never would have known). Frankly, Brynn and Mia were boring, and so was Summer. I get that Brynn and Mia would be completely traumatized by their best friend’s murder, not to mention being accused of said murder, but I didn’t get why Brynn and Mia were still so obsessed with Summer. Oliver tells us that thirteen-year-old Summer was exciting and interesting, but I just didn’t see it.

I did like the queer rep (Brynn is gay) but I also felt like Oliver threw that little tidbit in there just to have a gay character. Or maybe I’m just saying that because I didn’t like Brynn. Who knows.

This book would have been so much better if the murder mystery plot was designed better, and if the characters had a bit more to them. Still, I didn’t hate this book, which is why I’m giving it three instead of two stars. It was fun to read, and reminded me of Pretty Little Liars. I am disappointed that the writing was so blah, especially considering the number of books Oliver has written. I’m not impressed, and I won’t be reading any more of her books.

Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand | Book Review

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Sawkill Girls

Rating: ★★★★

Girl power, a horrifying monster, cute f/f romance, a secret society, X-Men-like powers… wait, what kind of horror perfection is this?!

Remember that show Hemlock Grove? Well, it was a Netflix show that took place in a small town in Pennsylvania, where the sky was always gray and cloudy, and the huge, centuries-old trees blocked out what little sunlight there was. There was this rich creepy family that lived in a huge mansion, removed from the town, and there was SOMETHING that lurked in the thick woods, something that was killing and ripping apart girls.

This book reminded me a lot of Hemlock Grove. But way better.

Sawkill Island is the horror setting from your nightmares. The small island town is surrounded by a thick forest and populated by horses. I love horror, and this book certainly delivers on that side, but I think the best part of Sawkill Girls is the characters:

Marion: new girl in town, has a beautiful older sister and a mother who’s mentally ill (at least I thought so), white, a bit plump, still recovering from the sudden death of her dad.

Zoe: MY FAVORITE CHARACTER, total badass who likes the Alien movies, dad’s a cop, petite, black, natural hair with orange streaks, still recovering from the sudden disappearance of her best friend.

Val: queen bee, only daughter of a single mom, from the richest family in town, white, blond, a lot of her friends seem to mysteriously disappear.

These three girls, residents of Sawkill Island, become caught up in the mystery of the island. For hundreds of years, girls have periodically disappeared without a trace. Zoe’s best friend was the latest victim, or at least she was, until Marion’s sister vanishes one night. Zoe is convinced that Val’s family is somehow involved, but Marion is drawn to Val for other reasons.

This is a horror novel, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that a monster is somehow involved. When we finally got to see the monster, undisguised, I was so horrified that I almost shit my pants, and I’ll definitely be having nightmares for weeks. Holy moly, Claire Legrand, how did you come up with the idea for that thing?! I really want to describe it to you, but part of the horror is the shock of seeing it finally unveiled and advancing toward the girls. ENJOY.

Sawkill Girls is the sapphic horror novel you need in your life. It’s DARK, it’s CREEPY, and it’s all about girl power and overcoming the patriarchy. I love that Legrand’s heroines recognize their own powers and abilities as removed from the men in their lives, and I also love that Legrand acknowledges the unique problems women face when pitted against men: we don’t only have to overcome the misogyny, but also the tendency of society to pit girls against each other and encourage competitiveness between girls, when we really should be working together to kick ass.

I love the adorable f/f romance and the steamy love scene, and I also love Legrand’s treatment of asexuality. It’s subtle, but I appreciate Legrand’s affirmations that two girls can “sleep together” and “have sex” even though there’s no penis involved (thankfully). The attitude that it isn’t sex otherwise is prevalent and it’s great to see f/f sexual activity normalized in a YA novel. One of the characters is asexual, and Legrand shows us her struggles and insecurities without stigmatizing her or undermining her sexuality. That attitude is rare (although not as hard to come by as it used to be), and asexuality can be difficult to capture on page, but Legrand did it right.

I’ve never read anything by Claire Legrand before, but I’ll definitely keep an eye out for her next books, and I’ll check out her other work in the meantime.

Read this book. Trust me. Go get it. Nownownow.

The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams | Book Review

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The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After

Rating: ★★★★★

In the vein of Until I Say Good-Bye, When Breath Becomes Air, and The Bright Hour, The Unwinding of the Miracle is a memoir about death and dying but that is ultimately, triumphantly, about life and living.

This isn’t one of those books targeted at cancer patients, cancer survivors, and their families. This is a book with a powerful message for everyone: life can be terribly unfair sometimes, and it’s devastating. You’re allowed to mourn. You’re allowed to feel sorry for yourself. But don’t let it take over your life: life is for living, and there is so much living left to do.

I have lived even as I am dying, and therein lies a certain beauty and wonder. As it turned out, I have spent these years unwinding the miracle that has been my life, but on my terms.

Julie Yip-Williams was in her mid thirties when she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The diagnosis came out of nowhere: Julie was healthy and in the best shape of her life. What started out as a stomach ache or bout with flu abruptly resulted in a life-changing declaration: you have cancer. Julie is devastated, not only that she might die at a tragically young age, but at the thought that she might leave her two young daughters to grow into womanhood without a mother and leave her husband without a wife and partner.

But Julie is resilient: remembering her earliest years, she muses that she should never have survived childhood. Born with cataracts in Communist Vietnam, Julie’s grandmother urged Julie’s parents to take baby Julie to a herbalist to obtain something to make the baby go to sleep and never wake up. It was better to be dead than to live with blindness. Grandmother feared that should Julie live, she would become a shameful burden to her family. Miraculously, Julie lived, and not long thereafter immigrated to American with her family, where she eventually received medical attention, but far too late, and as a result is legally blind.

Julie’s life story is incredible. If nothing else, this book is worth reading just for her autobiography! Being born with blindness of course caused Julie to feel anger at times, but she ultimately prevailed. The rage at the unfairness of it all drove Julie toward success: she traveled the world, graduated from Harvard Law School, practiced law at a firm in New York City, married the love of her life, and raised two beautiful daughters.

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The cancer diagnosis changed everything for Julie. She asks her readers how it is possible to survive almost being killed by her family as a baby, only to be diagnosed with cancer thirty years later? She confronts her anger and depression and is able to embrace a positive attitude, but remains skeptical of “hope,” and the crushing sadness never truly leaves. This book is raw and personal; it is literally Julie’s diary entries and blog posts. As a writer, she is absolutely honest – not overly cheery or optimistic, Julie has a positive outlook some days, but is overwhelmed by depression on other days. She takes us to the doctor, to chemo, and to her daughters’ school events. It’s jarring to read the sections recounting her medical experience with the passages chronicling the mundane details of daily life. The juxtaposition of these passages is shocking.

I’ve read quite a few books about being diagnosed with and living with cancer, but The Unwinding of the Miracle is undoubtedly one of the best I have read (if you enjoy this book, I recommend reading Memoir of a Debulked Woman next). Julie’s honestly is heartbreaking. It undid me: at times her writing is so raw and personal that it felt like an invasion of privacy to read. She captures the wide range of sometimes contradictory emotions that accompany a cancer diagnosis, and the challenges of retaining an identity as a mother and wife after receiving the new identity of a cancer patient. I tore through this book in only a few sittings, and by the end I was sobbing. This is the kind of book that can change your life. I really mean that. This is so much more than a book about cancer. It’s a book about love, family, motherhood, hope, and living with joy.

And for any who might be reading this: I am grateful to have had you here, on this journey. I would presume to encourage you to to relish your time, to not be disabled by trials or numbed by routine, to say yes as much as you can, and to mock the probabilities. Luxuriate in your sons and daughters, husbands and wives. And live, friends. Just live. Travel. Get some stamps in those passports.

My only criticism (and I’m not even deducting a star; this book is THAT good) is that a little more editing is needed. Some of Julie’s stories were told over and over again (especially the stories from her early childhood), and the book could do without all that repetition. There was also an entire chapter about Roger Federer that seemed completely out of place and should probably be taken out of the book entirely. These problems are completely fixable, and I hope the manuscript is edited down a bit before being published later this year. After all, I did only read a review copy. I realize that this book is the product of Julie’s diary entries, which are intensely personal. Julie was writing for herself, and I can imagine the comfort she would feel writing about her childhood, her parents, and her daughters. These passages are invaluable, but they can weigh the reader down.

Julie died in April 2018, about a year before the book will be published. She was 42. Obviously, I never met Julie, but her words have touched me and brought me great comfort, and I wish I could tell her husband and her daughters how much her words meant to me.

Julie’s husband says it best in the Epilogue:

But that – cancer kills – is hardly a revelation. The revelation would come in how Julie responded to her fate. For the little girl born blind, she saw  more clearly than any of us. In facing the hard truth of her inevitability, and never averting her gaze or seeking refuge in fantasy, she turned her life into a lesson for us all in how to live fully, vividly, honestly.

In our life together I learned so many lessons from her, but none more so than this: it is in the acceptance of truth that real wisdom and peace come. It is in the acceptance of truth that real living begins. Conversely, avoidance of truth is the denial of life.

Photo Credit: The New York Times

The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw **Book Review**

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Rating: ★★★

If it’s dark and rainy, go make yourself a cup of tea and curl up in an old blanket with The Wicked Deep. Sure, this book isn’t perfect, but the reading experience is perfect for a cold and lonely night.

The Wicked Deep takes place in the creepy coastal town of Sparrow, Oregon: a West Coast Salem. The town is famous for its history: three young women, the Swan sisters, were drowned by the townsfolk after being accused of witchcraft. Each summer, tourists flock to Sparrow, where they hope to witness the town’s dreadful curse: the drowned Swan sisters rise from the dead to seek revenge by possessing three unsuspecting Sparrow girls, each of whom will kill a young man before the summer’s end.

Sixteen-year-old Penny Talbot lives off the coast of Sparrow on an island, where she and her mother take care of the lighthouse and grounds. After the school term ends, Penny attends the annual party the teenagers of Sparrow throw to celebrate the start of tourist season, where she meets Bo, a handsome drifter. Despite only just meeting this stranger, Penny offers Bo a job working on the island, and invites him to come stay with her and her mother. Weird and dangerous behavior, but okay. The Wicked Deep is about the rest of that summer, as Penny gets drawn deeper into the legend of the Swan sisters and fights to save Bo from being their next victim.

If you like the genre of spooky atmospheric books, you’re going to love this one. The writing is true to the genre, reminiscent of a fairy tale, and the small town of Sparrow is creepy and claustrophobic. I loved the undertones of magic, such as Penny’s best friend’s mother’s cake shop, which sells cakes that can cure any ailment, such as a broken heart.

I was torn between giving this book four stars (which is my default rating for a book I liked) or three stars. I ultimately rounded down, and here’s why: there was a lot about the book that was just off, and I can’t get over it.

First of all, like I mentioned above, Penny and her mother live all alone on an island, but in one of the first chapters, she ends up inviting a drifter to come live with her. Penny doesn’t really question whether this is a wise decision, but just gets in her boat and rows back home with a complete stranger. It really made me uncomfortable that the main character engaged in such dangerous behavior and the author didn’t even take a moment to let her (young!) readers know that this might not be a good idea. Second, Penny’s mom seems mentally ill. She’s been unable to function since Penny’s dad died a few years ago and is unable to even cook for Penny most of the time. Penny is pretty much on her own, but again, the author glossed over that a teenager was living all alone on an island without a stable adult to take care of her. Penny is sixteen and it felt weird to me that the author didn’t address her situation.

I also didn’t really love the characters. Penny is very bland (which escalates to a whole new level of twit-dom by the end of the book) and Bo is hardly a dashing hero (what exactly does that guy have going for him?).

Going in to this book, I was under the impression that it was a book about witchcraft (see: West Coast Salem) but there really isn’t any witchcraft in the book. The Swan sisters weren’t witches, but were more like revenge-fueled ghosts. I was disappointed that this didn’t end up being a book about witches, but that’s probably my own fault for not reading more reviews.

Still, overall, I did enjoy this book. It’s a quick read. The story is rather predictable, but the experience of reading this book was just perfect for a dark and stormy night.

Glow : Book I, Potency by Aubrey Hadley **ARC Review**

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Glow : Book I, Potency

Rating: ★★

Oh boy. I don’t even know where to start with this one. How could a book about aliens and alien-human hybrids be so boring?

Seventeen-year-old Harper is pretty much an average teen living in Reno, Nevada with her mom, older brother, and younger sister. Harper is homeschooled, and her mom is really strict, so Harper doesn’t have much freedom, which is why she sneaks out to play soccer with her friends. It’s summer vacation, but life isn’t entirely carefree – a deadly virus has wiped out huge populations in Kenya and New York. The Maasai Mara Sleeping Syndrome is as mysterious as it is lethal – no one knows what it is, how it spreads, or how to treat it. Harper’s life changes forever when the Sleeping Syndrome hits Reno. The CDC has Harper’s neighborhood on lockdown, and Harper is alone in her house. Her mother and siblings were outside the area when the CDC shut the area down, so Harper is trapped, by herself, in her house.

At this point in the story, I was LOVING this book. It was like a YA version of Contagion. I love reading about diseases and was absolutely riveted by the story. Especially with the sci-fi twist:

Harper decides to make a run for it. Her neighbors are dying all around her, and she’s terrified. But her escape plan goes wrong, and she ends up in the clutches of the ALIENS who are responsible for the Sleeping Syndrome. Not only was abducted by aliens, but it turns out that Harper is actually an alien-human hybrid. The aliens are collecting the hybrids as the other humans die from the disease, because the hybrids are immune due to their alien blood. The plan, of course, is to exterminate mankind. The rest of the book follows Harper as she learns about the aliens and their civilization, and as she ultimately fights to save humanity.

Like I said, I loved this book at first, but that changed right after Harper was picked up by the aliens. After that, I was bored to tears. Hadley has some great ideas for a sci-fi novel, but it’s like she missed that day of school when you learn that writers should SHOW instead of TELL. This book is a whole bunch of telling, and it’s exhausting. The alien world is never actually showed to us, but revealed in conversations. All the the dialogue about the great alien race, their civilization, and their plans is almost unreadable. I don’t want to read dry passages about the aliens, I want to see their world and be shown what exactly is going on. Instead, the reader is forced to process pages and pages of Harper being told all about the aliens. The plot gets lost, and I found myself skimming a lot of the middle section of the book.

Harper herself turns out to be an extremely flat character. I mean, the girl was ABDUCTED BY ALIENS and sure, she’s a little startled, but she got used to the situation pretty fast. All of the hybrids she’s with are slowly losing their human memories, but Harper’s attitude is more than just a result of the memory loss. She’s so accepting of her fate and new identity – almost passive. Her fight to save humanity could have been so much better – there is a lot of scheming and plotting – but Harper’s boring personality makes everything fall flat. And it’s not just Harper’s personality, but the plot itself – there is no suspense, no urgency. It’s like Hadley is so focused on her worldbuilding that she neglected everything else. The characters are all completely forgettable and the plot was just underwhelming.

I really had to force myself to finish this book, but I’m giving it two stars instead of one because I did really enjoy the first hundred pages or so. It looks like Glow is going to have at least one sequel, but I won’t be reading it. Even so, I really hope Hadley dedicates more time to her characters and the story itself in her subsequent books. She does seem to have some great ideas for a sci-fi novel, but she hasn’t quite mastered how worldbuilding works yet. This book is 600 pages, and most of that was telling. I would like to see her actually stick her characters in that alien world and let her show it to us from their eyes. Glow didn’t need to be 600 pages, but I think it ended up being that long because all of the action takes place in Nevada and in the spaceship (or whatever the Base of Ki was), and we never actually got to the alien world, so Hadley had to painstakingly describe it.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I would recommend this book to anyone. There are so many other good YA sci-fi books out there. But all of the problems I had with the book are 100% fixable, and I sincerely wish Hadley the best of luck with the rest of this series!

ARC provided by Ruby & Topaz Publishing in exchange for an honest review.