The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll (2018)

 The Favorite Sister is set, primarily, in the world of reality-TV and follows the rise and fall of the stars of a fictional show called, Goal Diggers. At its outset, Goal Diggers intended to be the first feminist reality TV show: following the story of four young, ambitious women who are working to make their unique ideas into million-dollar businesses. This show is not intended to be The Bachelor, with cat fights and backstabbing. These are women who will hold each other up, support one another, and not succumb to sabotage to get ahead.

However, as the show grows in popularity, the show creators see a chance to increase ratings by pitting the women against one another, creating conflict, firing stars who are too old for their demographic, and using manufactured drama to win fans. The ploy works, the show becomes at hit and its stars celebrities. But soon the drama and competition between the cast becomes all too real, and a show meant to hold up feminist women as role models for the new millennium, becomes just another venue for showing women that what really matters are looks, money, and fame.

Among the main narrators of the story are Brett, Stephanie, and Kelly. Brett is a gritty, tattooed, lesbian who rises to fame with a no-nonsense attitude and (apparent) disregard for the trappings of wealth. Stephanie is an African-American writer who is the elegant, calm, intelligent leader of the group. And finally, Kelly, Britt’s older sister who has grown more and more resentful of Britt’s fame and riches and has maneuvered herself on to the show, bringing with her ratings-spiking drama and deception.

As the book picks up speed, the characters start unraveling. Soon the years of lying, in-fighting, competition, and artifice begins to wear on everyone. Fights abound, friendships crumble, and — feeling that this may be there last chance to “win” — businesses are sabotaged.

Despite the fact that the story is interesting, it is also tawdry and out of touch, much in the same way that reality TV is. On the surface, Knoll has presented readers with a story that harshly criticizes the manufactured and manipulative world of reality TV; but she has failed offer an alternative to us. Every character is the book is selfish, cruel, and unlikable — there is not one person who stands to represents “real” women. Every woman in the book — from the precocious twelve year old to the aging octogenarian — is deceitful or desperate (or both) and more than willing to discard her integrity for money and fame…or at the very least for name-brand clothing and the envy of others.

While the story is sensational fiction, it is telling that there are no depictions of women in the story who seem like those in my life. Surely Knoll is not suggesting that any woman can be corrupted into be hateful and shallow with the smallest of promise of celebrity, money, or status? Yet that is what each character in the book does…shed her decency when presented with financial gain. In the book that is (at least attempting) to put forth feminist counter-arguments to the nature of celebrity worship, reality TV, and social media, the characters never live up to their own self-proclaimed ideals.

In many ways, the book is aiming to make money sensationalizing the sleazy and back-biting world of reality TV, just like the characters in the book. By failing to offer characters or plot lines that balance out the outlandish ones in the book, no real lessons are learned nor warnings sounded…and the result is a book that leaves readers feeling that the views of women are in no way furthered. We are being given the same stories as always about how — at our core –we petty, competitive, and looks-obsessed.

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The Matchmaker by Elin Hilderbrand (2014)

Moving means that I am currently too far from my (beloved) former local library branch to borrow books and still too disorganized to have been to my new library to check out books there. As a result, my reading options are limited to a stack of dusty paperbacks I found in last year’s beach bag, thus The Matchmaker!

Dabney Kimball Beech is beloved on her island home, Nantucket, not simply because she is a fourth-generation local, nor due exclusively to her encyclopedic knowledge of every inch of the island, but also for her renown as a matchmaker. More than forty couples have been matched by Dabney: all are soulmates, all are still together.

Dabney herself, however, is not living in bliss with her soulmate, Clendenin Hughes. Dabney met Clen at age fourteen and has never once (in thrity-four years) wavered in her belief that he was her soulmate. Despite a deep, desperate love for one another, the two split: Clen to travel the world as a journalist and Dabney to remain on her beloved Nantucket. Clen left Dabney with one parting gift: their daughter Agnes.

Fast forward almost twenty-five years to present day Nantucket: Dabney is known and loved by all Nantucket — residents and tourists alike. She is married to a renown economist to whom she has a pleasant but rather loveless marriage. She is the mother to twenty-four year-old Agnes, who Dabney loves with all her heart, despite Agnes’ engagement to a man Dabney knows is not Agnes’ soulmate.

After almost three decades, having recovered from the tumultuous time after Clen left the island and her years as a single mother, Dabney is living a good, content life. Until she receives an email from Clen, alerting her to the fact that he is returning to Nantucket.

Suddenly, Dabney’s ordered, calm, predictable world in thrown into chaos. She no longer knows who she is; Clen’s return has ignited a flame inside her. She is consumed with a renewed passion for — while still processing her heartbreak by — a man who she has loved for most of her life. She finds herself risking her job, her marriage, her standing in the community, all for chance to be with her true love.

Life, however, will not be put on hold. Dabney cannot act without consequences. By discarding her perfect, predictable life; she must face hard choices about who she will be going forward. A wonderful beach read by one of my favorites, Elin Hilderbrand! Anything by the author is great for summer reading, whose books are all set on the island of Nantucket and never fail to deliver a great story with wonderfully written characters, a dash of drama, and lush descriptions of Nantucket and its residents. Three other of my favorites are: Barefoot, The Island, and Beautiful Day.

 

Mrs. Caitlin Macy (2018)

At the ritzy, elite private pre-school of St. Timothy’s, New York City’s most wealthy parents come together to form a deliberately unaffected and (outwardly) non-competitive social circle. Underneath the pretense, however, there is a clear hierarchy in place among the well-heeled women who make the daily drop off with their toddlers. The families on scholarship are welcomed but not warmly, relegated to socializing mostly with the nannies. The working moms coldly judged by those who stay home. The rich striving to be accepted by the super-rich, keeping their jealousy barely contained.

Into this mix come three women who, despite outwardly having nothing in common, will soon find their lives intricately linked. Gwen and Phillipa have a connection through their childhood home; Minnie and Phillipa through an early job they shared; and all three through their husbands work in the world of New York City finance.

All three women seem to feel equally drawn to and repulsed by one another. At times they find themselves revealing their darkest flaws, other times lying to cover up their most innocuous ones. With maneuvering, posturing, and manipulations, the three women and their husbands jostle among one another as the tension rises.

Who will reveal the others secrets? What will be revealed from each of their pasts? Or from their husbands? Will those in the group who appear the most powerful, be revealed as the most vulnerable?

Macy does a fantastic job filling readers with a sense of impending dread. It simmers just below the surface as the plot thickens and the tension rises. Readers will feel drawn along, waiting to find out whose life will be ruined and why. A great read!

Fragile by Lisa Unger (2010)

In the small, upstate New York town The Hollows, an idyllic appearance obscures the town’s darker parts, its past secrets always lurking just out of sight. Returning to their childhood home to raise their family are the town’s lead detective, Jones Cooper; his wife and town psychologist Maggie; and their son, Ricky whose recent rebellious streak has his parents on edge.

When Ricky’s flighty, melodramatic girlfriend goes missing, he and both his parents are pulled into the dramatic search for her. Ricky’s newfound defiance of his parents crumbles under his fear for Charlene and the increasingly intense pressure he feels from local police. His parents, meanwhile, are concerned deeply for the missing girl (despite the fact that both dislike her and wish her out of their son’s life) and greatly unsettled by similarities between Charlene vanishing and the disappearance and grisly murder of their friend that happened when they were both teenagers.

As the search for Charlene unfolds, Jones seems to be unraveling. His behavior grows more and more erratic and his relationship to his wife and son grows ever worse. Baffled that this case seems to be affecting her husband so much, Maggie worries that Jones is keeping vital information from her — and the men on his police force — that might incriminate one or more of the people she loves.

Local residents begin to weigh in on the girl’s disappearance and soon what seemed like a runaway situation or possibly a stranger-abduction comes into focus as a crime committed by someone close to the girl.

As with all of her books, Unger writes a fast-paced and character-driven thriller that was hard to put down.

Crazy Love You by Lisa Unger (2015)

crazy love you

Ian Paine has fought mightily his entire life to achieve the normalcy he has craved since childhood. In the opening chapters of the book, readers find Ian successful and somewhat of a celebrity among the fans of his graphic novels. Behind the tidy facade he shows the world — a New York hipster and creative genius — is a man struggling with addiction, rage, and mental instability.

After a childhood trauma tore his family apart, Ian was left a desperately lonely boy: mother gone, father remote and largely absent, and not one single friend to rely on. Lost and confused, he wanders into the woods and stumbles across a girl living on the fringes of The Hollows. Priss does not care about Ian’s terrible family history, his obesity, his strangeness, nor his lack of friends. She become his best, and only, friend.

Inside Priss, however, there is a dark streak, an anger at the world that often shows up in unexpected ways. Ian — weak, cowardly, downtrodden — draws strength from the fiery rage that often motivates Priss to act out, take risks, and defend herself. Soon, he is letting Priss stand up to fight off his tormentors too. He learns too late that Priss cannot control her outbursts and more often than not allows her acts of defense to become violent.

As they grow up, Priss begins to exert more and more control over Ian’s life. She tempts him with alcohol, drugs, sex and he welcomes the blissful relief from anxiety and sadness that those vices bring him. Yet, as he enters his twenties, Ian begins to pull away from Priss and get his life in order. He builds a career as a graphic novelist, gets fit, and tries to limit the drinking binges and drugged out evenings Priss often suggests.

When Ian meets and falls in love with Megan, he is dizzy with relief that a normal gorgeous woman wants Fatboy, the unloveable, ugly duckling Ian fears is always lurking inside , waiting to ruin his life. Almost immediately Priss’s anger and jealous cause trouble. She starts with small pranks and modest manipulations, trying to tempt Ian away from Megan. When he resists, she becomes more and more unstable.

Ian, in an attempt to deal with the pressures of work, love, and Priss, begins to rely more and more on old vices to ease his anxieties. This only puts more strain on his relationships and beings to make Megan doubt that he is a reliable enough man to love. The harder he works at making Megan happy, the more furious Priss grows. Soon is not only his life that Priss is intent to ruin, but Megan’s as well.

A twisty story that does not come into focus until the very end, Crazy Love You was wonderful and spell-binding.

In The Blood by Lisa Unger (2014)

in the blood l unger

Lisa Unger has done it again, In the Blood is a terrifying, twisting thriller that delves deep into the psyche of its many, well-drawn characters. Unger present a story that raises questions about the role of mental illness and past trauma have in shaping a young life, and about whether or not all those who struggle can be saved or if some are born beyond saving.

Against all odds, Lana Granger has overcome a traumatic childhood to become college student who, with the help of good friends and trusted advisors, is about to successfully graduate. Lana seems normal to the outside world, but inside fights mightily to keep her past secret, even from those she loves the most. When she is hired to be a babysitter for a deeply troubled boy who struggles with a form of mental illness that makes him violent and deceptive, her own struggles as a child resurface. She is, in part, hopeful that her childhood experiences can allow her to help Luke and his mother; and partially terrified that he might be one of those kids who cannot be helped.

Immediately, Luke begins to challenge and manipulate Lana, drawing her into a series of dangerous games. Luke is obsessed with their town, The Hollows*, and its notorious reputation for being the site of several grisly murders. He devises a game (without his mother’s knowledge) for he and Lana to play, that has them looking into the people who were murdered and the places those crimes took place. What starts out as a creepy game turns much more sinister when Lana’s best friend goes missing.

Soon Lana has drawn the attention of the local police who suspect she in involved in her friend’s disappearance. Their probing into her past makes Lana feel unhinged and she begins taking greater and greater risks, both in her “games” with Luke and in her search for her friend.

In the Blood, delves deep into the lives of the mentally ill and their loved ones, shining light on the seemingly impossible task of treating and managing complex issues that, if left alone, can turn deadly. A truly outstanding book and a unique and thought-provoking story-line — impossible to put down.

*The Hollows is a town that is the setting to several of Lisa Unger’s thriller.

Die for You by Lisa Unger (2009)

die for you l unger

Is there anything better than discovering a writer whom you have never read, who has a body of work several books deep, books that are all intriguing and impossible to put down? That is how I feel about my recent “discovery” of Lisa Unger —  I’m thrilled to have so many of her excellent thrillers stacked on the bedside table, ready to be read one after another.

Isabel Raine has a lot to be thankful for when she wakes up on the last day of her “normal” life. She is a beautiful, vivacious, novelist whose books are best-sellers. She is happily married to the gorgeous and successful Marcus, and together they live a life of luxury and excess; they are the envy of many.

After a lazy morning at home together, Marcus leaves Isabel at home and heads (presumably) to work…and that is the last time she hears from him. After one day, she is furious, thinking that he is sleeping off a drinking of a binge or with another woman. After two days, she begins to panic after she receives a terrifying voicemail and then becomes the victim of an FBI raid of Marcus’ office.

When Isabel awakens in the hospital, she and Marcus are suspects in a complicated string of crimes and she must fight for the police to see that she is as much of victim as the others whom her husband has harmed. As she begins to piece together what has happened she realizes that she has no idea who she was married to all those years, everything she thought she knew about Marcus was a lie. The man she trusted above all else has robbed her of her money, her home, and just possibly may take her life.

Die for You is part of the sub-genre of thrillers in which women are duped by con-artist husbands. Unger is a clever writer with a great sense of timing and a real knack for developing characters that are sympathetic and multi-dimensional. Worth a read, but she has others that are better (specifically In The Blood and Ink and Bone.) For reviews of other Unger books, check out the “Lisa Unger” tag on this site.