The Girl Before

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Clara Lawson is torn from her life in an instant. Without warning, her home is invaded by armed men, and she finds herself separated from her beloved husband and daughters. The last thing her husband yells to her is to say nothing.

In chapters that alternate between past and present, the novel slowly unpeels the layers of Clara’s fractured life. We see her growing up, raised with her sisters by the stern Mama and Papa G, becoming a poised and educated young woman, falling desperately in love with the forbidden son of her adoptive parents. We see her now, sequestered in an institution, questioned by men and women who call her a different name—Diana—and who accuse her husband of unspeakable crimes. As recollections of her past collide with new revelations, Clara must question everything she thought she knew, to come to terms with the truth of her history and to summon the strength to navigate her future.

The Girl Before by Rena Olsen

Publication Date: August 11, 2016 by Putnam Books

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My Thoughts:

There are aspects of this book that really affected me and were clearly done well, but there were also details that kept me from becoming fully immersed in the story, hence a middle of the road, three star rating.

Rena Olsen tackles very tough (and also very real) issues in The Girl Before and she does a phenomenal job doing just that. Knowing that she works as a social worker, I’m sure her career lent to her ability to write a book involving human trafficking and abuse (physical AND emotional) that rang very true and frighteningly believable. I admire her ability to be able to depict what it’s really like for someone to experience such horrific experiences without coming off as patronizing and without glorifying these issues either.

While it took some getting used to, the alternating chapters between “Now” and “Then” helped to build a better understanding of Clara’s past and give a clear picture as to how Clara could become so brainwashed by the age of 23. Olsen makes it clear that while Clara has committed some pretty horrible actions (both by doing and by ignoring), she is still a victim and survivor herself. As an outsider reading her narration, it’s easy to see the wrongness in everything Clara is involved in, but remembering how Clara came to be a part of the trafficking organization is important in realizing that it’s not as easy as blaming her for what has happened.

Although the formatting and the subject matter should have been enough to hook me in, I didn’t find myself becoming completely absorbed in the story. While the characters are far from being one-dimensional, and while it’s easy to see how trauma could impact Clara in a way that would keep her from having a believable 23-year old’s voice, I did find myself frustrated with her narration.

Far from victim-blaming, her feelings and thoughts about Glen made sense and her concern for her “daughters” felt real. My issue came more with how naive and somewhat willfully ignorant she turned out to be once the “Then” chapters began to paint a clearer picture of what was going on around her. And while her concern for people hating her for her role in her husband’s business seemed genuine, her ability to realize her situation and to move over to the side of understanding how wrong her whole life has been came on too quick for me for someone who felt she had been doing something “good” for years. While denial may be a powerful tool, her realizations felt slightly unrealistic to me considering how damaged her whole life has been.

Knowing this is Rena Olsen’s first novel, it’s clear she is a talented writer and I’m interested to see what she produces next. While I may have found a few faults with The Girl Before, Olsen does an amazing job of tackling some very heavy and very prevalent issues in our current society and for that, I applaud her.

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Closed for Winter

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The second William Wisting mystery to be translated into English, after the successful Dregs. Ove Bakkerud, newly separated and extremely disillusioned, is looking forward to a final quiet weekend at his summer home before closing for winter but, when the tourists leave, less welcome visitors arrive. Bakkerud’s cottage is ransacked by burglars. Next door he discovers the body of a man who has been beaten to death. Police Inspector William Wisting has witnessed grotesque murders before, but the desperation he sees in this latest murder is something new. Against his wishes his daughter Line decides to stay in one of the summer cottages at the mouth of the fjord.

Closed for Winter by Jorn Lier Horst

Publication Date: October 17, 2013 by Sandstone Press Ltd

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My Thoughts:

Horst’s novel is the ultimate definition of the police-procedural type of crime thriller. His writing is succinct and clear, and the descriptions are very methodical in nature. While not my usual cup of crime reads tea, I found Closed for Winter to be refreshing for its directness. Horst’s extensive knowledge of detective work is evident in this novel and that helped to drive the plot forward for me where in similar novels I may have begun to lost interest.

After coming down from a Tana French marathon, I think I was in a better place to enjoy Horst’s greatly different style and voice. While French’s novels are all built upon character development and the psychological aspects of the murder investigation, Horst’s writing focuses more on the actual murder investigation itself. He also does a fantastic job of adding in little bits of geographical history which I appreciated since they added more to understanding why people behave the way they do – nothing is as simple as we want to make it out to be – and that added a nice twist to an otherwise very direct, clearcut plot line.

While I tend to prefer stories that make me think a bit more deeply, Closed for Winter was a fast, fun read and I picked it up at just the right time. I’d be interested in seeing what some of his other books have to offer!

The Sun Is Also a Star

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Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.

The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Publication Date: November 1, 2016 by Delacorte Press

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My Thoughts:

I NEVER read romances – especially not of the YA variety. Maybe I’m just cynical or perhaps I’m just past the age range that can really appreciate such sappy, often trite, stories about doomed relationships. I’m happy and perhaps a little surprised to say that Nicola Yoon has taken me out of my comfort zone and did not cause extensive eye-rolling along the way.

The Sun Is Also a Star may not be unique for its take on the somewhat Romeo & Juliet like romance – boy meets girl and BAM – love at first sight. While there may not be any star-cross’d lover suicides in Yoon’s novel, I was still a bit wary about taking on an insta-love YA novel that had the potential to just make me feel nauseous.

Luckily, Nicola Yoon proved quickly that she wasn’t looking to write JUST a romance. The Sun Is Also a Star tackles issues of identity, family, and immigration in such a beautifully written way that it’s hard not to feel heartbroken not only for Tasha and Daniel, but for their families as well (particularly, Tasha’s parents). As someone whose family history is a little more removed from the immigration experience, I can’t say I could relate to Tasha or Daniel, but Yoon is a talented writer and I became so swept up in their story that I finished this entire book in one sitting.

If people who were actually born here had to prove they were worthy enough to live in America, this would be a much less populated country.

Yoon shares a story about what it means to be undocumented in this country that is probably very different than what most people would assume and I really loved that about this book. While I make a point to try and read diverse books by diverse authors, this was my first experience with reading a YA novel about immigration and it left me wondering why there aren’t more books that tackle this subject out there (or perhaps I just haven’t found them yet?). This is the type of book that belongs in every school library across the country not only because of the issues it addresses, but also because it’s a story with diverse characters and that is exactly what we need in literature more than ever.

Perhaps I started this novel a bit like Tasha – realistic (with a hint of cynicism) and quick to dismiss romance as something silly and far-fetched. And while I still don’t necessarily agree with the idea of “fate” and events and relationships that are “meant to be”, The Sun Is Also a Star is both a creative and unique novel and I’m happy to say that Yoon has written a stunningly beautiful story with a depth I wasn’t expecting. Lesson learned – there are more and more YA books out there that are absolutely worth reading and The Sun Is Also a Star is definitely one of them!

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

The Trespasser

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Being on the Murder squad is nothing like Detective Antoinette Conway dreamed it would be. Her partner, Stephen Moran, is the only person who seems glad she’s there. The rest of her working life is a stream of thankless cases, vicious pranks, and harassment. Antoinette is savagely tough, but she’s getting close to the breaking point.

Their new case looks like yet another by-the-numbers lovers’ quarrel gone bad. Aislinn Murray is blond, pretty, groomed to a shine, and dead in her catalogue-perfect living room, next to a table set for a romantic dinner. There’s nothing unusual about her—except that Antoinette’s seen her somewhere before.

And that her death won’t stay in its neat by-numbers box. Other detectives are trying to push Antoinette and Steve into arresting Aislinn’s boyfriend, fast. There’s a shadowy figure at the end of Antoinette’s road. Aislinn’s friend is hinting that she knew Aislinn was in danger. And everything they find out about Aislinn takes her further from the glossy, passive doll she seemed to be.

Antoinette knows the harassment has turned her paranoid, but she can’t tell just how far gone she is. Is this case another step in the campaign to force her off the squad, or are there darker currents flowing beneath its polished surface?

The Trespasser by Tana French

Publicaton Date: October 4, 2016 by Viking

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My Thoughts:

When I initially read In the Woods several years ago, I enjoyed the book, but for whatever reason, not enough to continue on with French’s future releases. When The Trespasser was released, it wasn’t possible to be anywhere on social media without being smacked in the face by people’s rave reviews and utter excitement for all things Tana French. Since I never do things half-assed, I chose to start from the very beginning and give all her books a second chance and I’m extremely glad I did.

While I felt slightly let down after reading The Secret Place, my absolute love for Broken Harbour didn’t allow for any hesitation before picking up The Trespasser. I’m happy to say that French’s still holding on strong and The Secret Place was just a little blip in a series of amazing crime novels.

All the details that I loved about her other books are present in her newest release. Detective Conway is such a badass female lead and her narration did not disappoint in the slightest. The chemistry that I loved so much between Ryan and Maddox in her first novel is a key point to The Trespasser with Conway and Moran and it made my reading experience that much more enjoyable.

In true Tana French fashion, The Trespasser is a dense read, but there’s nothing boring about how slowly things unfurl as the plot becomes more complex with each chapter. French also manages to create such a multilayered story that leaves the reader questioning everything happening right alongside Conway and that’s an aspect of French’s writing style that I absolutely LOVE.

While I’m sad there isn’t another French novel for me to immediately pick up upon finishing this one, her writing has given me a newfound appreciation for crime thrillers and I’m only hoping that other authors will be able to live up to my expectations until I am able to read the next Tana French book.

The Secret Place

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The photo on the card shows a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. The caption says, I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.

Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

The Secret Place by Tana French

Publication Date: January 1, 2014 by Hachette Books

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My Thoughts:

Okay, so this book has slightly disrupted my love affair with Tana French’s novels. I absolutely LOVED Faithful Place and basically finished off Broken Harbour feeling super smitten and thinking Tana French could do no wrong. That isn’t to say that I didn’t like The Secret Place, but just that there were elements of it that I didn’t enjoy and that was hard to accept after reading the prior two novels and falling absolutely in love with French’s writing.

The Secret Place is a pulse-raising, complicated murder mystery much like the previous four novels in the series. What’s different about this one is that it tackles the world of (privileged) teenage girls at the same time. The details of Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me – seeing all the nuances (both good and bad) of what it means to be a young girl – the friendships, the struggle to fit in while still finding one’s own identity, the thrill and danger of the opposite sex, etc – those elements that worked so well in Abbott’s work is also present here in The Secret Place.

‘If I’ve learned one thing today, it’s that teenage girls make Moriarty look like a babe in the woods.’

Teenage girls are pretty terrifying creatures and French plays right into that idea with characters that make me happy not to be in high school anymore. They not only pose a threat to one another, but to the adults as well and French does a fantastic job of highlighting that danger throughout the book. I felt reminded of the massive fight scene in the movie Mean Girls except in a much more indirect, frightening way.

I also really liked the relationship between Detective Conway and Detective Moran. I had liked Moran from the small glimpse I had of him from Faithful Place and was excited to see him as the narrator of this book. Despite the book being told from Moran’s point of view, Conway held her own as a character and I’m excited to continue on with The Trespasser and learn more about her.

Even though plenty of readers have shared that French’s books do not have to be read in order, I’m glad I made the choice to stick with them in that way. It was fun to have Detective Mackey made an appearance again and to see his daughter, Holly, now that several years have passed. There was something gratifying to have the story lines of prior books connect again even in such a small way with The Secret Place.

So not everything was unicorn and rainbows with this book. While all of the above details were enough to immerse me in the story, there were a few aspects that I just couldn’t enjoy. One was the somewhat supernatural element to the book. This wasn’t something that had ever been a part of French’s prior novels and it felt out of place in this one. The second issue I had was with the dialogue of the teenagers. OMG and lol like, whatever. PLEASE NEVER AGAIN. As someone who works in a high school, I had a hard time understanding why French would portray such intelligent, at times devious, young women as the same girls who talk like broken Barbie dolls. This didn’t seem realistic to me and I found myself excited to move on to the alternating chapters narrated by Detective Moran just to get a break from the brain-melting dialogue.

Despite my few gripes, overall I really enjoyed the book. While it may not have lived up to the standards that Faithful Place created, it was still a fascinating murder mystery.  I’m also by no means deterred from French’s other books and am excited to read more of Conway and Moran in The Trespasser.

Broken Harbour

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In Broken Harbour, a ghost estate outside Dublin – half-built, half-inhabited, half-abandoned – two children and their father are dead. The mother is on her way to intensive care. Scorcher Kennedy is given the case because he is the Murder Squad’s star detective. At first he and his rookie partner, Richie, think this is a simple one: Pat Spain was a casualty of the recession, so he killed his children, tried to kill his wife Jenny, and finished off with himself. But there are too many inexplicable details and the evidence is pointing in two directions at once.

Scorcher’s personal life is tugging for his attention. Seeing the case on the news has sent his sister Dina off the rails again, and she’s resurrecting something that Scorcher thought he had tightly under control: what happened to their family, one summer at Broken Harbour, back when they were children. The neat compartments of his life are breaking down, and the sudden tangle of work and family is putting both at risk . . .

Broken Harbour by Tana French

Publication Date: July 2, 2012 by Hatchette Books


My Thoughts:

I don’t think it’s quite possible to put into words how much I LOVED this book. I know all my reviews of Tana French’s novels have been positive, but now I worry how the next two books in the series will stack up compared to Broken Harbour because WOW.

Like French’s other stories, Broken Harbour is full of characters with serious depth (and serious issues) and the big pull in the plot is more about why and how the murders occurred – not as much about who committed them. What makes this book stand out from the others is its focus on mental illness and the layers upon layers in the plot that kept me second guessing my thoughts about the murder and the characters over and over again.

Broken Harbour is a place of isolation and despair. Those who chose to move there did so under a false pretense and now find themselves stuck with a house no one wants to buy, surrounded by wilderness. Not only does French create a sense of danger with the unknown – the shadows of large animals, the ominously dark water, the feeling that nature is just waiting to take over Broken Harbour once more – but she also intensifies the utter loneliness of the environment with the abandoned construction materials and lack of human society.

As usual, French does a phenomenal job with characterization and the reader is quickly absorbed in both Kelly’s personal narrative as well as the lives of all the people surrounding him in both his personal life and his current murder case. While Faithful Place also included the narrator’s family members and found a way to connect them to the plot, Broken Harbour took that one step further and created a strong parallel between the mental state of Kelly’s younger sister and the slow unravelling of the Spains family. French raises plenty of questions about how people with mental illness are treated and does a fantastic job of delving into the sense of shame and loneliness that goes along with it.

Although Broken Harbour is much more psychological than prior Dublin Murder Squad novels, French doesn’t disappoint with the murder mystery either. Whereas prior story lines took a long time to unfold, the book starts with a bang when Kelly is asked to investigate a triple murder – a slain father and young children with the mother barely hanging on in the hospital. While the nature of the crime was perhaps more brutal than prior books, it was also much more multifaceted and layered. Much of the book left me questioning what I really believed or knew about characters and I can honestly say I did not see the ending coming at all. I felt so swept up in the intensity of it all that I couldn’t put the book down until I knew the outcome and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

For those who perhaps though In the Woods was a bit drawn out and weren’t necessarily convinced enough to read more of Tana French’s work, I’d highly recommend reading Broken Harbour – I flew through these 500+ pages and felt breathless by the end. It seems that French’s writing only improves with each new novel!

Faithful Place

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Back in 1985, Frank Mackey was a nineteen-year-old kid with a dream of escaping his family’s cramped flat on Faithful Place and running away to London with his girl, Rosie Daly. But on the night they were supposed to leave, Rosie didn’t show. Frank took it for granted that she’d dumped him-probably because of his alcoholic father, nutcase mother, and generally dysfunctional family. He never went home again. Neither did Rosie. Then, twenty-two years later, Rosie’s suitcase shows up behind a fireplace in a derelict house on Faithful Place, and Frank, now a detective in the Sublin Undercover squad, is going home whether he likes it or not.

Getting sucked in is a lot easier than getting out again. Frank finds himself straight back in the dark tangle of relationships he left behind. The cops working the case want him out of the way, in case loyalty to his family and community makes him a liability. Faithful Place wants him out because he’s a detective now, and the Place has never liked cops. Frank just wants to find out what happened to Rosie Daly-and he’s willing to do whatever it takes, to himself or anyone else, to get the job done.

Faithful Place by Tana French

Publication Date: June 28, 2011 by Penguin Books

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My Thoughts:

While I certainly enjoyed In the Woods and The Likeness, Tana French’s third novel in the series, Faithful Place, is what really clicked with me. This was the first of the three books that felt most like a “classic” crime/mystery story and there was something about the narrator, Frank Mackey, that I really took to.

What I am learning I love most about French is that she is unbelievably good at writing from ANY perspective. So far, I’ve had the chance to experience both male and female narrators (with a variety of ages) who come from vastly different backgrounds and experiences and all of their voices are completely enthralling and believable. Although I clearly couldn’t have anything in common with Mackey, it was his voice that I felt the most connected to.

Whereas The Likeness was more countryside and academic with a dash of unrealistic plot, Faithful Place was all city, lower class and a more realistic murder mystery. Mackey’s family, while heartbreaking at times, consists of an array of people who are fully fleshed-out characters – I felt completely connected to all of them (even in spite of some pretty deplorable behavior). They felt real, not one person was a pawn to the plot or a caricature of what an Irish family in Dublin is supposed to be and it is French’s brilliant characterization that ultimately makes her novels so thrilling.

Although her books seem to get larger in size as the series progresses, I find myself finishing each on in turn faster than the previous one. I often find I tire of book series as they move along because the rest of the series never compare to how I felt about the first book. With Tana French, I’m finding my love of her books is only increasing as the Dublin Murder Squad moves along and I feel confident that this trend will continue with Broken Harbour.