Review | Safe House, Jo Jakeman

SafeHouseCoverIn Safe House, a woman named Steffi is trying to escape her past by changing her name to Charlie and moving to a remote coastal village. In her life as Steffi, she inadvertently helped her ex-boyfriend cover up a murder, and her mistake gave him the opportunity to commit another murder before he was caught. Even though Steffi was ultimately the one who provided police with the evidence to jail him, she still faced the brunt of public censure and had to spend a couple of years in jail. As Charlie, Steffi hoped to get a completely new start, but instead finds that someone from her past is determined to track her down.

Safe House is a solid and emotional thriller. I like how the author delved a bit into Steffi/Charlie’s psyche, and how she was so easily gaslighted by Lee because she grew up with a similarly abusive father. Part of me wished the author had leaned into that part of the story a bit more, but another part liked that the author maintained a subtler take on the subject.

The story was interesting enough for me to finish the book, but it never really grabbed me and made me NEED to keep reading. Based on the description, I thought it would be a super tense cat-and-mouse game where Steffi/Charlie could feel the person from her past breathing down her neck. There was some scary stuff going on, we also had chapters from the point of view of the person tracking Steffi down, and there was a satisfyingly surprising reveal near the end. But the story for me didn’t quite have as much urgency as I expected / hoped for.

I was also kinda meh about the beginning, where we meet Steffi’s lawyer friend Conor and the cops who were investigating the initial murders. The way it was set up, I thought Conor would play a much bigger role in the story, but he pretty much disappeared for most of the book. I didn’t really get much of a sense of his friendship with Steffi/Charlie and why he’d be the one person she’d trust at that super vulnerable part of her life.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | The Happy Ever After Playlist, Abby Jimenez

HappyEverAfterPlaylistCoverOkay, how much do I love this book?! The Happy Ever After Playlist begins with a meet-cute facilitated by an adorable dog jumping into the heroine’s car. As if that weren’t enough to make me melt, we then have the hero admitting that he loves his dog like his own child. As a cat mom myself, I absolutely fell in love with both Sloan and Jason within the first couple of chapters. As their long-distance flirtation deepened over their shared love for Tucker the dog, I very quickly found myself eager for them to find their happily ever after.

Sloan and Jason had the cutest chemistry together. I remember taking a while to warm up to Kristin and Josh in The Friend Zone — I hated the whole ‘not like other girls’ vibe, and their flirtation felt more snarky/angsty than flirty/swoony at times — but I fell in love with Sloan and Jason almost immediately. I’m still not too keen on their shared love for hunting, but that’s a personal bias rather than a book flaw.

I love that the will-they/won’t-they question of Sloan and Jason getting together was based on a very real predicament: Sloan was still grieving the death of her fiance, and struggled to be able to move on. Jason very quickly decided he wanted Sloan in his life, but was dealing with a major career shift and had to decide if being with him at this time would be best for Sloan. Despite some heavy issues to work through, the first half of the book was very much a fun and fluffy rom com that was just a pleasure to read.

The second half switched to a more serious exploration of how Sloan and Jason can actually fit into each other’s real lives, and the story became even stronger for it. I love that Jimenez explored both the swoony heart-racing aspects of falling in love and the harsh realities that real life goes beyond the swoon.

Jason is a singer on the verge of stardom, and Sloan is an artist who has to figure out if she can actually live with the touring rock star life style. Jimenez does a great job of showing the physical and psychological toll that touring takes on Sloan, and the immediate improvement when she takes a vacation to focus on her artwork. We also see Jason’s dilemma, how he quickly tires of the touring / stardom aspect of his career, but has worked too hard to give it up easily. Neither of them is a jerk about it — both are incredibly supportive of each other’s happiness and respective careers; it’s just a matter of figuring out how to make a difficult situation work.

There was also a subplot about Jason being stalked and Sloan being targeted. The prime suspect is Jason’s ex Lola, whose flagging career could use a boost from Jason’s rise, but as this thread develops, it begins to move away from the jealous ex trope to a more expansive critique of celebrity culture and the superstardom industry. This was probably my least favourite part of the book — I’m meh on the jealous ex trope in general, though I did like how things eventually turned out. But I found this plot thread to be somewhat melodramatic and unnecessary, especially given all the very real issues that Sloan and Jason were already working through without it.

There’s also an author’s note where Jimenez explains that she’d written this before The Friend Zone, which I appreciated. I thought that Sloan’s fiance dying in The Friend Zone was totally random and unnecessary, and apparently some other readers felt the same, but the author’s note explained that because she’d written Playlist first but Friend Zone came first chronologically, that twist was necessary.

Overall, I loved The Happily Ever After Playlist. From the best ever meet-cute over a dog to a delightfully cheesy over-the-top resolution, this story was super sweet and cute and feel-good.

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Thank you to Forever Romance for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Sparrow, Mary Cecilia Jackson

SparrowSparrow is a fairly intense book about surviving abuse and having to live with the fallout afterwards. The titular character, Sparrow, is a talented teenage ballet dancer who has grown up trained to hold in her secrets. Sparrow’s major secret — and the one that colours all the decisions she makes throughout this novel — involves a truth about her mother, who died years ago.

The focus of this novel is Sparrow’s relationship with her boyfriend Tristan, a handsome and popular boy who turns out to be controlling, abusive, and overall a horrible person. Because of Sparrow’s history with her mother, she does her best to keep Tristan’s behaviour under wraps. Even as her friends and family express concern about how scared she seems of Tristan, Sparrow insists that everything’s fine. The novel switches POV from Sparrow and her friend and dance partner Lucas, taking us through the months of Sparrow and Tristan’s relationship, from the very first meet-cute to Tristan’s increasingly violent outbursts, and finally to a confrontation that proves almost fatal.

Coming into this novel, I knew that it would tackle the subject of abuse. Not sure how I got the impression, but for some reason, I thought it would involve a single incident of rape near the beginning, followed by a long yet ultimately hopeful process of healing. It’s an intense topic, and one I wasn’t sure I could handle yet I was curious enough about the book overall to give it a try.

Yet it turns out my presumption was wrong. Rather than showing us the fallout from a single incidence of abuse, the author takes us through the long-term reality of dealing with abuse on a daily basis. I don’t think there was any actual sex in the book; rather, a lot of Tristan’s abuse was emotional and physical. He was often jealous of Sparrow’s friendship with Lucas, and there were scenes when Lucas would discover Sparrow on the ground after an argument with Tristan. All that to say: this was a different type of difficult read than what I was expecting, and I wish I’d had a clearer idea of what to prepare myself for when I started.

Much of the power of Jackson’s storytelling is that she intentionally withholds specifics from us. In a way, that should make the story easier to bear, but instead, it’s an almost smothering reminder of the weight that silence can have. We learn the specifics of what Sparrow’s mother did near the end, and in a way, the knowledge brings with it a form of relief, of catharsis. It’s not easy to read, but it’s far preferable to the obscure allusions Sparrow makes — and immediately pulls away from — throughout the book.

Even with Sparrow’s relationship with Tristan, so much of the worst parts are deliberately kept between the lines. The story is told in fragments, jumping back and forth in time to reveal little vignettes as we go. We see Sparrow terrified about not answering Tristan’s texts immediately — and Jackson’s writing makes us feel her terror on a visceral level without actually labelling it such — but we don’t see all the conversations and arguments that led her to becoming that jumpy. We see glimpses of Tristan accusing her of being attracted to Lucas, of Tristan being pouty because she forgot to wear a piece of jewelry, of Tristan giving one of Sparrow’s friends the finger for no good reason… and somehow, because these glimpses are so brief and disjointed, they’re even more disturbing. We know there’s a lot more than what we’re seeing, and like Sparrow’s family and friends, we feel frustrated at our inability to stop the inevitable crisis.

It’s an intense, sad story. The ending is far from happy, but it does have a tinge of hope and catharsis. (CW: child abuse, domestic violence)

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Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.