Book Review: THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS by Lisa Jewell

In The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell, Libby Jones inherits a mansion in London’s exclusive Chelsea neighborhood when she turns twenty-five. Though the house is in disrepair, it is nevertheless worth millions of pounds. With her inheritance, Libby also learns the identity of her birth parents, owners of 16 Cheyne Walk, where, twenty-five years earlier, police arrived to find three bodies dressed in black robes, dead of an apparent cult-related suicide pact. A well-cared for baby was rescued from the scene, but four teenaged children living in the home were missing and never located.

Libby senses more to the story, and aided by her co-worker, Dido, an expert on Agatha Christie, and Miller, a journalist whose dedication to the story cost him his marriage, she attempts to find out what really happened at 16 Cheyne Walk. Libby, however, isn’t the only person who has been waiting for her twenty-fifth birthday, and as she comes closer to the truth, her safety becomes ever more perilous.

To be honest, the book started slow for me, but about eighty pages in, I was hooked at a shocking pivot point, and I ended up liking the book overall. It is told from the perspective of three different characters, and their overlapping and at times conflicting narratives kept me intrigued. Given the events at 16 Cheyne Walk, it was interesting to observe how the teenagers were affected. I do wish, however, that there had been a bit more context regarding the adults’ psychology.

Once I got into the groove of the book, I was highly invested and stayed up late finishing it! The Family Upstairs is my favorite Lisa Jewell book so far.

Book Review: LITTLE VOICES, Devon tries to exonerate her friend, accused of murder – who will get her first? Her enemies or the little voices?

Lillie, Vanessa - Little Voices (1)Little Voices
Vanessa Lillie

Three months early, in September, Devon Burges goes into labor and is rushed into an emergency C-section. As the anesthesia pulls her under, she hears a report on the radio: Belina Cabrala was found murdered at Swan Point Cemetery. Belina, her close friend as well as the nanny for Emmett, son of Alec, one of her college classmates.

In December, Devon begins venturing outside the house with her premie, Ester. Alec is one of the first people she sees, and he divulges that the police are treating him as their primary suspect in Belina’s death. He begs Devon, a lawyer, to help him prove his innocence.

Not only does Devon believe Alec, she is driven by a compulsive need to find justice for Belina. Though still physically and emotionally fragile, she begins an investigation parallel to that of the police. However, in the throes of postpartum depression, Devon begins hearing voices—cruel, hateful pronouncements that seem to be rooted in childhood trauma.

Nevertheless, Devon doggedly pursues the killer’s trail, following it through Belina’s passionate affairs and illicit business dealings. She uncovers secrets of powerful individuals, and it’s unclear whether her voices or her enemies are most dangerous—and if she or Ester will pay the price for her persistence.

Little Voices offers an interesting protagonist: a strong, intelligent, yet flawed and vulnerable woman who takes on a male-dominated environment to seek justice for her friends. Even when Devon’s internal voices were eating her away, she projects self-confidence and power. The book had a wide roster of supporting characters, including siblings Cynthia, an astute businesswoman and Philip, a reporter, and Derek, Devon’s animal-loving, addict brother. Her husband, Jack, was both a calming force and a foil, and Jack’s Uncle Cal provided access to the city’s upper echelons. I wish Derek and Jack had been more developed; Derek was one of my favorite characters.

For me, the voices sometimes were so frequent, they were distracting to the narrative. While I suppose that’s a good approximation of Devon’s experience, it doesn’t always make for pleasant reading. Additionally, I thought the pace and the delivery of crucial backstory was a little awkward.

Still, this is a promising mystery debut by Vanessa Lillie, and I’m especially excited that like me she is from Oklahoma! I look forward to her future novels.

Thanks to NetGalley and Thomas & Mercer for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: TANGERINE, two friends reunite in Tangier

Tangerine
Christine Mangan

1956, Tangier, Morocco. Alice Shipley, fragile and nearly housebound, is the opposite of her husband, John, who thrives in the spotlight but who is comfortable living off of Alice’s sizable trust fund. Lucy Mason, her college roommate, whom she hasn’t spoken with in a year is the last person she expects to see at her apartment door.

Alice and Lucy had been estranged since a tragic accident their last year of college, but Lucy wanted to put the past behind them and regain the intimacy they once shared. Although Alice is unsure of their relationship, she is so unhappy she tolerates Lucy’s insinuation into her life with John. But then, John mysteriously disappears; Alice is unsure if it is related to his secretive government job, Lucy, or something Alice herself did.

Tangerine poses questions of identity, trust, and betrayal, and while interesting, I thought the Moroccan setting was the most compelling aspect of the novel. As for the plot itself, it reminded of The Talented Mr. Ripley, and in interviews I did see the author was influenced by Patricia Highsmith, as well as other books and movies I’ve seen. It had interesting elements but was more derivative than I expected.

Book Review: THE ESCAPE ROOM, a psychological thriller set in the cutthroat world of finance

Goldin, Megan - The Escape Room 3The Escape Room
Megan Goldin

At the Wall Street firm Stanhope & Sons, employees are expected to be completely committed, working 100 hour weeks, missing family events, and forgoing any semblance of a life outside their job. Their orientation indoctrinates them into the ideology of the firm: make money. In return, they are handsomely rewarded with astronomical salaries and bonuses.

Still, the downturn has touched the firm, Vincent’s team in particular, and they’ve lost several key accounts in the past six months. He, Jules, Sam, and Sylvie fear that they may be soon terminated. So, when they receive an invitation to participate in a mandatory “escape room” activity on a Friday evening, they all arrive at the strange skyscraper that is still under construction even though none want to be there, just in case their performance might save their jobs.

Reluctantly, they filed into the elevator to rendezvous at the specified floor. Not too far into the journey, the elevator car stalled, the lights were cut, the heat blasted, and emergency services silenced.

Only Sam has ever participated in an escape room before–he and his buddies went to a warehouse for a bachelor party and after an introduction were put in a simulated Learjet with the goal to find a bomb. Although they found clues in the cabin, the “bomb” exploded, and an hour later, they were released by the staff. Right away, he realized something was different. No escape room staff had provided an introduction or given them an objective. And where in an elevator could clues be hidden?

Though the quartet had worked together for years, spending more time together than they did with their loved ones, they still harbored secrets. Yet, to escape the confines of their captivity, they needed to work together, something that the cutthroat Stanhope & Sons didn’t prepare them to do. They had all expected to emerge, perhaps with a career advantage, but as time passed, they wondered if they would leave the escape room at all as long-simmering resentments and buried secrets boiled to the surface.

The Escape Room has two points of view that alternate throughout the book: a third-person narrator relating the events in the elevator and an employee from the firm recounting the history of the team inside. While I don’t know how accurate Goldin’s depiction of a Wall Street firm’s culture is, if they are anything like Stanhope & Sons, they are even worse than I imagined: cynical, sexist, and opportunistic. How the different women handle the male-dominated working environment is an interesting aspect of the book.

While the suspense in the elevator begins immediately, the action taking place from the other point of view is a slow burn, at times too slow for my taste, and I didn’t always like moving from the psychological chess game and sometimes literal danger in the elevator to the more mundane activities represented by the employee narrator. However, at the end of the book, the activity picks ups in a surprising way, and though it strains credulity, it is also quite satisfying.

If you are looking for a psychological thriller that introduces some new tropes, The Escape Room is a fair bet. Set against the already high-stakes world of high finance and confining a group of less than moral people in a small space, the book takes a new approach. Definitely an entertaining read.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: THE RUMOR, a harmless piece of gossip turned deadly

Kara, Lesley - The Rumor (1)The Rumor
Lesley Kara

In 1969, while playing with a group of neighborhood children, ten-year-old Sally McGowen killed five-year-old Robbie Harris. She was convicted of manslaughter and when released disappeared while Harris’s family stayed in the public spotlight, the subject of scrutiny whenever a birthday or the anniversary of his death approached. His mother and sister never understood why Sally wasn’t convicted of murder and how she was able to leave prison and live a normal life.

Decades later, single mother Joanna Critchley, having relocated to the small seaside town where she grew up, struggles with finances and raising her child, Alfie, who was bullied in his previous school and who hasn’t yet made friends. Additionally, she has a complicated relationship with Alfie’s father, Matthew, an investigative journalist.

One afternoon while waiting for Alfie outside his elementary school, Joanna hears a rumor from another mother that Sally McGowen is living in their town under an assumed identity. That night at book club, she lets the rumor slip, and a few days later, another woman from book club tells her she thinks she knows who Sally McGowen is.

Determined to make friends with the other mothers, Joanna sees this information as currency, and she tells them her secret which gains her entry into the exclusive babysitting circle and access to playdates and birthday parties for Alfie. At the same time, someone has used the information to begin a campaign of terror which soon turns on Joanna and Alfie. Joanna, with help from Matthew, must find out the true identity of Sally to protect herself and her son before it’s too late.

The Rumor is a fast, engaging read with an interesting mystery that also questions if child perpetrators can be rehabilitated and how living under an assumed identity affects a person’s mental health. At times, though, I didn’t like the style. Joanna often made pronouncements, almost like she was breaking the “fourth wall” in which she would say “Oh, no” or “Oh, well.” Additionally, I felt very unmoored when it came to the setting. I could never quite figure out where the book was taking place, wondering where a small seaside town might be close enough to a large city to make sense in the context of the narrative. Ultimately, enough clues pointed to Boston as the big city. In the acknowledgements, Kara thanks someone for helping her adapt the manuscript for an American audience. I wondered if it originally was set in the UK, which might explain why the setting seemed awkward.

This is an ideal “airplane read” for mystery lovers: low commitment, entertaining, and undemanding.

Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.