book review

Book Review: A Merciful Death, by Kendra Elliot

merciful death book review

Another day, another book review. This one is much better than the last one (Camino Beach is honestly my worst read of 2017 so far).

The book this time is A Merciful Death by Kendra Elliot. It's available via Kindle Unlimited if you want to read it on a budget! 

Here's the blurb: 

FBI special agent Mercy Kilpatrick has been waiting her whole life for disaster to strike. A prepper since childhood, Mercy grew up living off the land—and off the grid—in rural Eagle’s Nest, Oregon. Until a shocking tragedy tore her family apart and forced her to leave home. Now a predator known as the cave man is targeting the survivalists in her hometown, murdering them in their homes, stealing huge numbers of weapons, and creating federal suspicion of a possible domestic terrorism event. But the crime scene details are eerily familiar to an unsolved mystery from Mercy’s past.

Sent by the FBI to assist local law enforcement, Mercy returns to Eagle’s Nest to face the family who shunned her while maintaining the facade of a law-abiding citizen. There, she meets police chief Truman Daly, whose uncle was the cave man’s latest victim. He sees the survivalist side of her that she desperately tries to hide, but if she lets him get close enough to learn her secret, she might not survive the fallout…

This book easily falls into the category of being one of the better FBI/procedural books I've read. Often times, you have to suspend disbelief at every step (especially when FBI agents end up solving their own cases or things like that) and, again, FBI agents would never be assigned to a case related to their own family. 

A lot of the reason I enjoyed this book is because it's set just outside Bend, Oregon. Hey, hello, I'm an Oregonian. I live in a small town not unlike Eagle's Nest. I know tons of people like those described in the book. 

Preppers. 

I know a TON of preppers and people who describe themselves as freemen. So on that level, I was really into this book. It does a good job of walking the line between calling preppers crazy (they're not, they just have super specific beliefs and ways of living) and being realistic in terms of what prepping is really about (dedicating your life to something hazy that may never happen). 

I really liked Mercy as a character. Although, there were a few odd moments in regards to food that I'm not 100% sure about. In restaurants, Mercy only orders salads. With no cheese. Is she a vegan? Preppers (and Mercy, spoiler alert, is a secret prepper still) definitely don't fall into the category of vegan, that's for sure; it's not sustainable lifestyle energy wise in the prepping community. She doesn't get dinner the first night in the hotel and instead eats celery, almond butter, and jerky out of a backpack. Is... Mercy ok? Does she have an eating disorder? Or is this an attempt, by the author, to suggest that Mercy is a delicate little lady flower who could not POSSIBLY eat a big, manly burger? Gasp! What would the menfolks think if an FBI agent ate PROTEIN? I started to get a little annoyed by it, because the lines were so stark: Mercy gets salads and apples and celery; the men get burgers and beer and casseroles.

A lot of Mercy's storyline centers around the treatment of women in the prepping community, so WHY would Mercy still be buying the idea that there are foods men eat and foods women eat? And if that's not the case, why doesn't Mercy order a burger or even just a sandwich once and a while? Maybe she just likes salads, but I'm sorry, no one likes eating warm celery, almond butter, and JERKY in a hotel room by themselves. NOBODY. Don't lie to me. It's just a strange characterization and I cannot see where it fits in within the story, especially given Mercy's other traits of preparedness, doggedness, and focus on physical strength and health. Anyone knows that eating a salad with just salsa, tortilla chips, and olives is not a well-rounded meal; there is no protein in that meal. 

Overall, I really enjoyed the plot. For the first time in a long time, the reveal of the "bad guy" felt like an actual surprise. I didn't guess it 1/4 of the way through like usual. I can't wait for the second in the series to come out on June 6. 

Book Review: Camino Beach, by Amanda Callendrier

camino beach review

It's been a minute since I've posted a book review, but I think I'll be posting more in the future. You can always follow my colorful reviews on Goodreads here. Let's get started! 

This book is Camino Beach, by Amanda Callendrier. It's a debut novel and here's a teaser description: 

In this poignant debut loaded with humor, heartbreak, and Southern charm, old friends road-trip their way to solving a mystery and righting a long-ago wrong.

I was attracted purely because of this description, because I love Southern novels; I love road trip stories; and I love mysteries. 

Friends, this book was absolutely none of those things. Note: this review does contain spoilers to the entire nonexistent plot of this book. 

The setting was absolutely nonexistent. If you removed the specific town name, you could plop this novel down in any setting and it would be exactly the same, minus Myrtle Beach. And spoiler alert, they spend approximately 12 hours in Myrtle Beach in one of the most useless and rambling plot lines ever. 

Most importantly, do you want to read a book full of absolutely repulsive characters who have absolutely no conscience or self-awareness? This is the book for you then. 

TRIGGER WARNING: This book contains the sexual abuse of a teenager by a teacher. It is treated like said teenager "cheating" on his girlfriend. It never acknowledges that he was sexually abused by a teacher in a position of power. This is abhorrent. It happens near the end of the book; if it had been "revealed" earlier, I would have put it on my "do not finish" list. I just want to warn you. I didn't like the book before this was revealed, but it made me absolutely sick that I'd obligated myself to review it. 

In 1997, Sarah and Kristen were just two absolutely awful teenage girls in some vague Southern Town. They graduated high school, went on to college, graduated, and went onto equally disappointing lives: Sarah is divorced, lives in an apartment above the bookstore she owns, and routinely treats her next door neighbor/former classmate/best friend, Jack, like absolutely crap; on the opposite end of the spectrum, Kristen is a tiny, blonde former gymnast who married a big ol' slob named Chris (yes, they are both named Kris/Chris) and has three anonymous children that she never talks about except to complain about them. She works some kind of job, but otherwise, buys Jimmy Choos, lives in a McMansion, and drives a Rover. 

In high school, there was a third friend, Roxanne, the only likable one in the bunch. Roxanne was impulsive, self-destructive, and, most of all, fun. However, she disappeared before they graduated and while they did call local boarding schools after her mom (their gym teacher, inexplicably) told them she was sent to boarding school, they didn't do much to find her. 

Except when their 20 year high school reunion rolls around. 

Kristen decides it's time to bite the bullet and find Roxanne. Sarah, our primary narrator, is nervous because she did something "awful" that she is sure is the cause of Roxanne's disappearance. They go on a saga to buy an El Camino because Roxanne owned one. This takes up approximately 1/3 of the book. They buy an El Camino named Elvira. 

Jack decides to join them for the trip to Myrtle Beach, after Kristen's private investigator turns up an address for Roxanne there. We are treated to multiple unpleasant scenes were Sarah is an absolute nightmare of a human to her ex-husband. 

Ok, slight diversion from going over the plot: Sarah got divorced because... reasons? It's never fully explained, which is fine, but she treats her ex like absolute garbage. Why? Because Sarah is a garbage person. There, I said it. Take this character and throw her away; she is a self-centered, obnoxious, mean, vile human being. There is nothing redeemable about Sarah as a character. I do not understand why she has friends or why she received this characterization. She sucks. She divorced her husband because he was slightly resistant to her taking out a loan to buy a bookstore. Listen, do you know how much of a struggle it is to own an independent bookstore? It is NOT easy. I love bookstores and I'd be hesitant too! But this book apparently takes place in an alternate reality where people go to bookstores all the time. Her ex-husband is a professor, a fact that they make fun of every time he is mentioned. That's right, he's the only person in the book who uses his brain and they treat him like dirt. Cool. 

They head for Myrtle Beach. Along the way, they stop in Sarah's college down and Kristen, another garbage person, destroys a college students senior project. Seriously. 

They get to Myrtle Beach and find a hotel that is $60 a night, but also has a bar beside the pool. There are so many awful, useless parts to this book, but the road trip to Myrtle Beach (the only road trip) only takes up about 5 chapters, tops, and is super pointless. 

The next morning, they surprise drop into Roxanne's address. Surprise, it's not Roxanne. It's her mom, Mrs. Wilder, their mean gym teacher. She has no idea where Roxanne is. Cool! They leave, meet Jack's college roommate Bert for margaritas, get drunk in a Mexican restaurant, and then they all get into a massive fight. 

Then, they go home. There is no plot.

This is the part of the novel where I stopped caring. It was so anticlimactic. They literally just go home. Kristen gets a bug in her butt to go check school records; they do and guess what? The school has all their school records. Listen, a records room with your "official record" is a thing that literally doesn't exist. But whatever, in alternate reality where garbage people are allowed to flourish, it's real. It's so exhausting to have this scene. As if there is some giant room in every public school where they keep every piece of banal information about every kid that ever stepped in the building. 

Anyway, they end up finding a sticky note on the back of Roxanne's file with the number of a school that's in, you guessed it, Sarah's college town. They do no research and go. They find Roxanne. She's perfectly normal, living in a nice little house with her daughter, also named Sarah. She is pleasant and happy, but she's not the Roxanne they know. 

Ok, let's back up a minute: throughout all these scenes, we get treated to scenes from high school Sarah. HS Sarah is somehow 400x worse than present day Sarah; she is boring, mean, and absolutely obsessed with herself. So, the entire novel I thought the bad thing she did to Roxanne would be huge: she ratted out Roxanne about drugs or she actually murdered her or SOMETHING. No. Here's what she did: she signed a statement saying that Roxanne had been cheating off her homework to avoid getting her scholarship taken away. 

I'm sorry, but that's not awful. That's barely even bad. That's literally what every teenager would do if they were caught to be helping their friend cheat. Roxanne had been cheating off Sarah; Sarah admitted it; and...?

Anyway, in their meeting with Roxanne, it turns out that's NOT why Roxanne left school. She left because her mom had been messing around with Roxanne's boyfriend. So the principal helped her transfer schools and leave. Cool for Roxanne. She met her current husband, got pregnant, got married. She chilled. Never once does anyone say, "Holy crap, your mom sexually abused a student?" No, they act like her boyfriend Mark cheated on her. These. People. Are. Garbage. 

So, after all that time, the bad thing Sarah did didn't even matter. It's not even part of the story. The only person who cares about it is Sarah because she's obsessed with herself. 

Kristen and Sarah then leave.

Because Sarah is obsessed with her stupid self, she goes to visit the former principal to ask WHY he made her sign that statement. I'm not sure why. It's pretty obvious. They were busting Roxanne, rightfully, for cheating. The principal basically says he just did it to make a point and that it's ok that she signed it because all teenagers do selfish stuff. No kidding, the principal, even though we're supposed to see him as some kind of delusional mean guy, is the only intelligent character in this book; he looks Sarah dead in the face and is like, "people usually grow out of being so selfish, but whatever, you seem like a piece of work." 

Sarah feels enlightened and goes to Kristen's house. Kristen had spent tons of time complaining about her husband; however, when Sarah brings up this past conversation in relation to her talk with the principal, Kristen acts like Sarah is accusing her of something. Listen, Kristen, I know you're a few slices short of a whole pie, but follow along. Kristen ends up getting a new shower head and is suddenly in a better mood, proving that she's an absolutely repulsive, stupid character and Sarah isn't much better. 

So Sarah leaves, feeling pretty low. She calls Bert to ask him to go to the reunion with her and he says no, because Jack made it clear he likes Sarah. Jack is a pushover and while he is pretty obnoxious, he deserves better than Sarah, a woman who literally never thinks of anyone but herself. 

So Sarah goes to the reunion with Jack and proceeds to get drunk within, like, 5 minutes. Then Mark, Roxanne's high school boyfriend who was sexually abused by a teacher, comes up and asks about Roxanne. Sarah, who is awful, acts belligerent and causes a scene; then Jack punches a man who was sexually abused as a teenager by a teacher and they act like he's a hero. Wow, I'm so glad I read this book. 

Kristen and Roxanne then bust into the reunion, dressed to the nines. They all go outside and make the real Camino Beach and get even more drunk in the back of it. It turns out, Roxanne did name her daughter after Sarah (WHY) and apparently had watched Sarah a few times while she was at college because she literally lived in the same town. This is proof that Sarah is totally self-absorbed; Roxanne had been in this sandwich place once while Sarah was there and SARAH DIDN'T EVEN NOTICE. 

Eventually, Jack confesses that, actually, he really likes Sarah. They kiss. It's totally inexplicable why Jack likes her because, again, Sarah is an absolute garbage can of a human being. 

If you want to read a book about the most self-absorbed awful people in the entire universe, go ahead. Read it. I have no idea why it was written. A bunch of boring, mean white women going on an adventure to find the friend they treated like crap 20 years ago. Nothing redeemable. Nothing to learn. Awful people not getting their comeuppance.

Is it Bad to Write Bad Reviews?

I'm a very active Goodreads reviewer. (You can add me on Goodreads here.) Since I read a good number of NetGalley books, and some of those books are categorically Not So Great, I end up writing a fair number of bad or so-so reviews. Sometimes, I get replies that my review is too harsh (as if holding authors and editors to standards of grammar and cohesive plots is "too harsh", but ok) or a "doozy." 

I read a lot of romance novels. And I'd say about 75% of published romance novels are categorically "bad." They might be "so bad they're good" or that kind of guilty pleasure bad. But they're still bad, in terms of plot and characterization. That's what I review for: is the plot cohesive? Are the characters well-rounded? Are their actions believable within their universe and personality? No? Then, you have work to do. 

There are a pretty high number of Goodreads users who start reviews with something like, "If I don't like a book, I don't finish it or review it." So basically, they only review the books they like. That's fine, but how does that help other readers decide if a book is worth their time? How does it help bring attention to something a newer author needs to work on? How does it help people find diverse books? Here's the thing: it doesn't. 

It's not possible to like everything. And that's ok. 

I love reading! I even love reading terrible books (really). But if I start a book with all 5-star reviews and realize halfway through it feels like it was written all in one sitting with absolutely no editing work or attempt at cohesiveness, well, I'm gonna be a little disappointed. And I'll start to question my sanity. What are those 5-star reviewers seeing that I'm not? It leads to me feeling a little, well, confused. Then I remember: so many people just don't write bad reviews. They don't want to do it. 

I totally understand. When you're reviewing a book, you're reviewing someone's work. Even if it is bad, it's something they worked hard on. But that being said, no one can improve if they aren't told how to. They can't change things if they don't know they need to, if they don't know that it isn't working. As a writer who really struggles to share my work publicly, it can be stressful to ask for feedback on something that feels so personal--but you need feedback to grow. Even professional author's need readers feedback to see what works and what doesn't. 

Readers also need that feedback to make better decisions about what books they want to read. 

So, is it bad to write bad reviews? Is it mean? Should I stop doing it? No, absolutely not. Writing critical reviews of books isn't a personal attack on an author; it's a necessary part of interacting in the literary world. We have to be critical some times to effect change and improve literature. 

Book Review: "Four of a Kind," by Kellie Sheridan

I started this book fully prepared to dislike it. Between the cover and the description, it seemed like a lot of Bad Waiting to Happen. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Which just goes to show, you can't judge a book by its cover. 

Disclaimer: A received a copy for an honest review from NetGalley. Also, this review does contain spoilers. 

Yes, there is a little bit that could do to be changed. Mainly, the quads' R-names really should have been rethought; I still can't 100% tell the difference between Reilly and Reece. Realistically, new parents of identical quadruplet girls would not name all of them incredibly similar sounding names: Reilly, Reece, Reagan, and Rhiannon. That was the first unbelievable hurdle to jump over (never mind the statistical possibility of identical quadruplets, all of whom are perfectly fine with no lasting difficulties from, I don't know, sharing a womb). 

Another difficulty was the fact that occasionally, the book does veer into sounding just a little too try hard, including the moments when Reagan seems to slip into seeming, well, too much like a narrator. I think that's one of the biggest downsides of the book; occasionally, Reagan will think something that is so incredibly not something a teenager would think about themselves (such as "Curse my teenage hormones!" What teenager says that!?) that it takes you out of the moment entirely. Basically, Reagan's internal dialogue often did not feel natural or normal, probably because of editing.  

The one thing I will say is that it felt like the book ended just a little too abruptly. It was quite a short book; I read it in a total of perhaps 4 hours. It felt like towards the middle a lot of random "drama" happened, such as Reece dyeing her hair and Rhiannon disappearing. Regarding that second incident, I think Reagan's non-anger at Rhiannon was the most disappointing part of the book; talk about being untrue to teenagers! Rhiannon's behavior lead to Reagan having to abandon her first ever date--what a dick move for her sister to pull. It was an incredibly important moment for Reagan and actually felt like the climax of the novel: Reagan, who is shy and nerdy, is on a date with a guy she really likes. That's the ultimate end-game for Reagan, what her narration has been about essentially since the beginning. And instead of anything happening, the moment is ruined, about 5 minutes in, by her sister's disappearance. And we're supposed to believe that Reagan isn't mad?  

Any teenager, or adult, honestly, would be livid, but Reagan was just "too good" for that. It's those moments where she slips (alongside her parents and sisters) into being just a little "too perfect," just a little idealized. I wanted some messiness from Reagan, but it didn't happen. There were a few moments like this where the reactions of characters seemed to be just too fake and unrealistic. No one, absolutely no one, reacts to teenagers breaking rules with, "Well, maybe we need to readjust the rules." No, if my kid disappeared and turned off her phone, she'd be getting grounded until summer at the very least. But not Rhiannon's parents!

Then, after Rhiannon came back and Reagan got to do a date re-do, the book ends. We get a brief scene where Reagan acts in a play, but that's it. It's a bit anticlimactic; there is no big action that creates tension or changes things. Things seem... the same as when the book started, plus a boyfriend. Maybe Rhiannon's disappearance is meant to be the climax, but it didn't feel like it; Reagan found her within 10 minutes of starting to look, so, you know. 

All this being said, it wasn't an entirely unpleasant book to read; I would definitely recommend it as the start of a series to younger readers (I'd say it's definitely written at around 6th or 7th grade level).

A few additional notes: this book does win points for attempting to include a diverse cast. Based on descriptions, Reagan's love interest, Kurt, appears to be biracial (it's never explicitly stated) and one of the quadruplets (Reilly) identifies as gay. These are just two examples. It is always difficult to praise diversity in a book that centers around four, beautiful, identical, white girls, but alas, I have to give Kellie Sheridan credit for at least including diverse characters, even if they are secondary in this novel. (From my understanding, this is the first in a series about the quadruplets. Here's to hoping for more in the sequels!) 

Book Review: The Fall of Lisa Bellow

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. 

I suppose my one gripe about "The Fall of Lisa Bellow" by Susan Perabo is that, if the revolving incident is a story about a kidnapping, it is perhaps tidiest (and most comforting in terms of storytelling) to come to some kind of resolution. A beautiful book, with interesting female characters, that unfortunately falls prey to the desire to be more mysterious than it is and focuses too heavily on the psychology of an incident versus the incident itself. 

Meredith's family is still reeling from her brother, Evan's baseball accident that left him blind in one eye. She survives a robbery at a local deli where another girl from her 8th grade class is kidnapped, seemingly for no reason. She becomes obsessed with Lisa Bellows, a girl she had simultaneously hated and revered (like most popular 13-year-old girls, of course) afterwards, imagining the apartment where she was kept and the things that were happening to her. 

Simultaneously, her mother struggles to parent two children who have now been inexplicably hurt by forces that she could not control or protect them from. Just as with the Lisa storyline, this storyline, at the end, felt dropped and did not seem to have much of a resolution, except that Claire managed to carry Meredith out of a bathtub. Which I guess means their relationship has healed or something? 

The book felt, in some ways, as if it got rushed to finish at the end. (Almost like it was a NaNoWriMo novel that Susan got bored with two days before the end of November!) 

One chapter, it's the day after Thanksgiving; and then, the next chapter, the last chapter it turns out, is just before Christmas break. In that time, we skip two or three weeks of time. It's confusing; it's nonsensical; it tries to be tidy when it isn't. Perhaps Susan Perabo wanted to show that healing from trauma sometimes happens in skips and jumps, or sometimes one big thing happens and then it's a slow roller coaster from there. Either way, it feels abrupt: one moment, Meredith has a freak out at Colleen Bellow's house where Colleen gives Meredith a hardcore sleeping pill and the next moment, she finally tells Colleen the last thing Lisa said to her and then tells her mom she's ready. Then the book ends. That's it! For the reader, it's not a comforting, or complete, ending. 

That didn't, however, stop me from giving the book a solid rating of four out of five stars--it's just that good, despite the lack of resolution. (Perhaps some authors would argue that the purpose of the book isn't resolution, but I would argue that good storytelling relies on resolution, ultimately. To subvert that requires the novel to have a wider, larger purpose or point and I'm not convinced that "The Fall of Lisa Bellow" achieves that, despite being a great novel.) 

The weakest plot line, really, centered around Meredith's mother, Claire. The book seemed to want to be the story of a mother and daughter, but it seemed to be more the story of a mother who doesn't really like her daughter very much, who prefers her son, except that her son doesn't like her very much, so ultimately, she doesn't really like any of them, her son, her daughter, or her husband. She seems to have contempt for every single character, but not for any clearly definable reason. 

It's all very unfortunate, but when Claire isn't likable (even in the slightest), or relatable, or magnetic, it all falls a bit flat. (I will say, I admire where authors write female characters that are unlikable, complicated, messy, and/or honest. But in this case, I don't think Claire is really any of those things; she is simply a character that I cannot bring myself to care about whatsoever because she seems to have no purpose or motivation.) 

I have a hard time sympathizing with Claire or understanding her motivations for anything; even as a mother myself, I found myself questioning why she was making things so difficult for her children, her husband, and herself. Sometimes we are all our own worst enemies, but at a certain point, you have to realize that. Why fight your son who wants to play baseball again? Why make him feel bad about it? Why bully her own daughter? Why not be on her daughter's side for once? She's clearly an unhappy character, made to represent a woman trapped in a life where she was unaware that parenthood would be difficult. The part of the novel, where she expresses surprise that parenting would be a difficult job and not always happy, is the easily most unbelievable of the novel. Almost every parent realizes, about 6 hours after you give birth, that parenting is the hardest shit you've ever done and it doesn't get any easier until you die. 

Meredith's storyline is more interesting. She moves from being what she refers to as "middle-popular"--better than some girls in her 8th grade class, but definitely not popular-popular--to being in the popular crowd, all because she witnessed Lisa's abduction. For the sake of this review, let me say now, I think Lisa was abducted by her mother's boyfriend; her mother was involved and is stressed out about it, that's why she gets weird; and that Lisa is dead way before the end of the novel. Ultimately, Meredith's trauma-induced hallucinations are just that, hallucinations, and Colleen knows the entire time that her boyfriend killed her daughter. I wish, however, that there was some kind of real resolution to that, that we actually knew the full story. My guess is based entirely on conjecture. 

Her transformation is almost instantaneous: Lisa's friends want her around, Lisa's mom wishes her to be part of the group, and her old friends become annoying enough that she's ok leaving them behind. By the end of the novel, she's rapidly unraveling, imagining an alternate reality where she's with Lisa, but at the same time, obsessing over an algebra problem. (I hate algebra, so I'll admit to skipping over the detailed explanations of math I surely learned in the 9th grade and have willed myself to forget.)  

Personally, it all gets a little too convoluted, a little too strange. I wanted to know what was happening, but I never got an explanation. At the end, I wanted to know if Meredith was ok, if Claire had reported Colleen for giving Meredith a freaking sleeping pill after guilt tripping her into staying at her house (honestly, what kind of parent WOULDN'T call 911 if you find your daughter knocked out in a strange woman's bath tub?), if Lisa survived. I needed a resolution, but there was none. 

That being said, it was a beautifully written book with a gripping plot. I just wish that it hadn't been so hastily ended.