Category Archives: Women’s fiction

Review: The Younger Wife (Sally Hepworth)

What happens when you dream up some characters, give them what seem to be perfect lives, and then throw them all in a bag called dysfunction? Toss in ambiguous POV storytelling and an ambiguous ending, and you get The Younger Wife.

The books opens with an unnamed POV crashing the wedding of established, respected – revered, even -Dr Stephen Ashford to his much younger second wife. After the vows, there’s a thunk and a scream, and suddenly we are moving back in time to What Happened Before.

Heather, the younger wife of the tile is about the age of Stephen’s grown daughters. Stephen’s wife Pam suffers from dementia and is in a nursing home where she can be tended.

Rachel, the older of the Ashford sisters, is a baker, and hasn’t dated anyone since she was 16. We’re not told why until late in the book (and the end of that intentional dry spell turns out to be Mr Perfect: handsome, witty, understanding. Of course he does.)

Tully, the younger sister, is an obsessive kleptomaniac who engages her compulsion when she is stressed, and she tries to hide the things she takes from her husband by dumping them into charity boxes. Her husband, for his part, has made a disastrous investment and lost a couple of million dollars, so they’ll have to sell their house, sell a bunch of their stuff, and downsize.

Heather grew up in poverty, eventually breaking out of that and eventually becomes a well-regarded an expensive interior designer, which is how she met Stephen.

Stephen and Heather (well, primarily Stephen) spring the wedding news on Rachel and Tully at lunch one day. Not a nice thing to do, and of course they are shocked. The remainder of the book is told from POVs that cycle through the female characters. Secrets and backgrounds are slowly exposed, until we get to the heart of the matter: is Stephen a domestic abuser? The girls seem to think so, sifting through memories, looking at injuries their mother sustained, Heather being involved in a couple of falls, an so on.

Or, is it all in their heads? Are their memories being tainted by their conclusion that he is? This is where the ambiguity comes in.

It’s not possible for the reader to accurately make that determination. The girls do – of course, as otherwise, there would be no ending or explanation as to what happened at the beginning – but for the reader, it’s akin to the Choose Your Own Adventure books: do you take the dirt path and change being eaten by a bear? Or do you take the path through the woods, chancing death by tiger?

What you cannot do, in life or in this book, is not choose.

If you’re a reader who likes a definitive ending, this is not the book for you.

The only thing I noted was a little sag in the middle, and Mr Perfect showing up in Rachel’s life.

Four out of five stars.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Perfect Neighborhood (Liz Alterman)

Allison Langley ditches her husband and their supposed perfect life in their perfect house in Oak Hills in the middle of the night. In suburbia, everyone thinks they know your business, so the the tongues start flapping with gossip, true or not.

But then five year old Billy Barnes goes missing while walking home alone one day. Suddenly, everyone is a detective, or a pretender that their own lives are perfect while dumping on Billy’s mom Rachel, whose marriage is rocky and who has a stepson who is as much a jackass as his father Ted, Rachel’s husband, although for different reasons. They also lay blame on 18 year old Cassidy, the babysitter, who was late getting to the house. It’s hard to say if Billy went missing as he was walking home, or if he made it home, and was taken from there. The police can’t find anything, and when they drag the pond, it turns into a neighborhood event, with everyone watching.

Another child goes missing – also under Cassidy’s care, and you can imagine how well that goes over with the neighborhood, which had started to feel sorry for her.

The story is told from various members of the neighborhood, but only the women. That includes Rachel, who is absolutely torn up about her missing boy, Cassidy, who can’t bring herself to tell the truth about why she was late, and Allison, who has escaped the neighborhood for reasons she details in her pieces of the narrative, and who is obsessed by Billy’s disappearance.

The story is interesting – what white bread shark’s nest suburbia isn’t, when they’re ready to chop one another into pieces? – but there was at least one POV chapter I’d have stricken as not adding much to things other than trying to be Cassidy’s conscience. The villain is not entirely out of the blue, and the ending hints at a possible not-sequel-but-next-book sort of thing.

The writing itself is fine, and while there are a couple of draggy bits here and there, I chalk that up to typical going about life things: most peoples’ lives are boring and routine, and sometimes the narrative has to show that.

Three and half out of five stars, rounded up to four, because the book works.

Thanks to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Your Life for Mine (Karen Clarke)

Your Life for Mine opens well: a text to a woman, on her birthday, saying this was the last birthday she would ever be alive to celebrate.

Alas, the rest of the book does not quite live up to the promise of this opening. There are likely spoilers galore here.

Beth, the birthday girl and recipient of the message, is a walking ball of anxiety. Her boyfriend therapist is annoying when she relays the message to him. She wonders if this has anything to do with “what happened to her” when she was a child – and that “something” isn’t laid out until we’re a third of the way into the book.

I found this book VERY annoying, mainly because of Beth, who seemed to need intensive therapy, and because the author holds back the good details until halfway through the book and then in the last 20-ish pages. No one acts like a real person would act, and the impetus behind the would-be murder is not credible at all. Nor is the end, for the would-be murderer.

Didn’t like it, wouldn’t recommend it unless you had nothing else at all to read. The only good thing about this book is that it is a fast, fast read: 80 minutes for me, even without skipping Beth spiraling into yet another meltdown about something like a spoiled child.

Two out of five stars: one for writing and another for there at least being some cohesiveness in the story, despite the ridiculous motives.

Thanks to HQ Digital and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Good Sister (Sally Hepworth)

The Good Sister starts off slowly – to be perfectly honest, it starts out slowly for the first third of the book. However, if you hang on, the rest of the book will definitely be worth your attention.

Rose and Fern, fraternal twins, grew up with a sociopathic abuser of a mother. Fern, who clearly is autistic (most likely Aspberger’s) is protected both in her youth and in her adulthood, by Rose. Fern of course lives a fairly regimented life until she finds out that Rose cannot get pregnant. Fern decides she’ll show her love for her sister by having a baby for her. The narrative is provided from the point of view of Rose, via her journal, and Fern, via her simply living her life.

That’s the basic storyline, and it doesn’t really take off until Fern has to start varying her routine, given that her routine has not thus far allowed her to do things like go and dates and such. We also find out that Rose is not quite the doting and caring sister we think her to be based on the opening of the book.

There’s a lot to like in this: it’s a psychological thriller, without a doubt, has some good twists, and has one of the main characters afflicted with a condition without taking that character into some weird place, which happens all too often. The writing is good, and there are no major plot holes. If the front end was a tad speedier, I’d give it five stars, but it still is a solid four star read.

Thanks to St, Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Little Bandaged Days (Kyra Wilder)

Little Bandaged Days follows Erika, mother of two, moving to Geneva, Switzerland with her husband.

The books takes a rather strange construct, with Erika identifying and interacting with other people by using their initials – including her children. I suppose this is some kind of experiment about Erika pushing people away, but it got fairly annoying the deeper into the book I made it. These sorts of literary experiments can be done well and give a good payoff at the end, but this book fell short for me.

Erika doesn’t know the language, and makes no effort at all to learn it. She allows herself to become more and more isolated from the world in which she finds herself, and while I get it’s supposed to be about a woman slowly losing her grasp on her own mental health, I just can’t feel terribly sorry for anyone who knows they need to change x in their lives in order to have a better life, but makes zero effort to change anything at all to get to that betterment, or at least make progress on it.

This popped up for me in the mystery/thriller category, but it’s clearly a general/women’s fiction novel. It reads as if someone stepped up for a dare of writing about a woman spiraling into mental illness with the extra challenge of not naming names.

I did not like the ending, which I will not spoil, and this really sums up my review of this book: didn’t like it. Clearly, it was not for me. Sorry.

Two stars out of five.

Thanks to Abrams and NetGalley for the review copy.

Little Disasters – Sarah Vaughan – review

Note before starting: when I first saw this, it was being billed as a psychological thriller. It doesn’t fall into that category at all. This is more of a non-genre drama with a hint of mystery thrown in.

Liz is a pediatrician working in the ED (that’s the ER, for US readers) when her friend Jess arrives with her 10-month old, who she says has been vomiting. After tests are run, it’s clear the child has a skull injury. Liz has some reservations about the story Jess is telling, and Jess is acting suspiciously. Something doesn’t add up, but Liz rightfully recuses herself from further examination and treatment.

What follows is a story told both in the present and the past, revolving around four women who took a childbirth class at the same time. Liz and Jess are the primary focus, and what we mostly see are glimpses into the lives of the career working woman Liz, and the stay at home, but clearly suffering from postpartum depression, Jess.

As the story winds on, and the authorities and Liz try to puzzle out what really happened, and whether Jess (or Ed, her husband) beat the child or whether it could be just a serious accident, Liz maintains Jess would never hurt her child, but others are not quite so sure.

The ending is one I found completely unexpected but also completely unrealistic, and quite frankly, I felt cheated by it. I’m just not a fan of a bad guy who shows up completely out of nowhere, either because they’ve not been introduced or because they have been introduced, but their actions in the narrative never hint at their actions in the end.

More forgiving readers than I will not mind this. As for me, it takes my rating to 2.5 stars, rounded down to 2.

Thanks to NetGalley and Atria for the reading copy.