Review | Keep You Close, Karen Cleveland

41753974Keep You Close is a taut and thrilling page turner that challenges us to consider: how far would you go to protect someone you love? Stephanie Maddox is an FBI agent and single mother who learns that her teenage son Zach is being investigated by a colleague for potential involvement with a terrorist group. Her duty as an FBI agent dictates that she stay out of the investigation completely, but her love for her son makes that impossible.

I enjoyed this book. It’s not quite as gripping as the author’s earlier novel Need to Know, but Cleveland is a talented storyteller, and drops just enough clues and red herrings along the way to keep me invested in the outcome. Mostly, though, the strength of this book is in its protagonist. Despite her high-powered job and unusual circumstances, Stephanie is a very relatable woman. I love how her investigation into her son’s case slowly unearths the possibility that her career may be directly responsible for the current situation. Without spoiling anything, Stephanie works in the Internal Affairs division, which understandably puts a target on her back from some of her colleagues. She has also used her professional position in the past to go after Zach’s father, a rapist and a powerful man with ties to organized crime. The twists and red herrings did feel a bit much after a while, and part of me wished the story had kept a narrower focus, but I like the emotional arc of Stephanie’s fear that her son may be an innocent victim of her choices.

I do wish Stephanie had a bit more uncertainty about Zach’s innocence throughout the novel. Instead, apart from a few niggling doubts here and there, she seems almost fully convinced of his innocence and the story spirals out more into her investigation into past enemies. Some things do happen, particularly near the end, that somewhat complicate Zach’s role in the whole affair, but I think fewer red herrings and a tighter focus on the particulars of Zach’s case would have built up to this emotional payoff much more powerfully.

Overall, this is an entertaining read, and a fun thriller. In my review for Need to Know, I mentioned how much I loved the way Cleveland shows her protagonist balancing the professional and personal parts of her life, and I thought Keep You Close tackles this same theme in a different way.

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

Review | Bright, Burning Stars, A.K. Small

42288387I love, love, absolutely love ballet stories. There’s something about the glitz and glamour of dancing itself contrasted with the hours upon hours of literal blood, sweat and tears that dancers have to put in. And when it comes to books and movies, these usually come served with a dose of romance, fierce rivalry, and lots of real-life issues we non-dancers rarely have to think about. (For example, in this book, the lead student in the ballet class is called The Ruler, because she is shaped like a ruler when viewed from the side.)

So Bright, Burning Stars checks a lot of my must-read boxes. It’s set in a French boarding school. It’s about an elite class of ballet dancers. And it focuses on the friendship AND rivalry between two of the school’s top female dancers: Marine Duval and Kate Sanders. Marine is a quiet, ‘nice’ and naturally talented girl who wants to be a dancer mostly as an homage to her twin brother who died a few years ago. Kate is a fiercely ambitious American who grew up poor and whose mother left the family, and who views a dance career as an escape from the realities of her childhood. Only the very top student in their class can move on to the next level at the end of the year, so both girls must battle each other — and the aforementioned Ruler — for that spot.

Bright, Burning Stars features a lot of the usual dance story tropes, and does so very well. We learn about the intense pressure ballet students face to lose weight and perform at superhumanly high levels, and how as a result, these students confront eating disorders, drug use, an unexpected and potentially career-ending incident. There’s also a rivalry over a boy that threatens their friendship, though to the story’s credit, the rivalry over the boy they nicknamed “The Demigod” was less out of the usual romantic attraction, and more because The Demigod is so talented that performing with him elevates his female partners’ performances, and therefore, having chemistry with him can help your chances at being the top student.

I love the characters of Martine and Kate, and how their strengths and vulnerabilities complement each other. For example, we learn how Martine has a natural musicality and talent for dance that Kate lacks, yet Kate has the intense driving ambition and star quality that Martine doesn’t exhibit. I also love the strength of their friendship, and even when they were at odds with each other, I really wanted them to reconcile.

I also really love the way the author talked about the dancing. She used a lot of terms I’m not super familiar with, but she also gave a very strong sense of the magic in the movements. I especially loved reading the sections where Martine loses herself in the music — in one scene, to a Jay-Z track — and I would’ve loved to see that unfold on screen.

I was initially unsure how to feel about the ending, as it wasn’t the super perfect happy ending I’d been rooting for. But after a bit more reflection, I think it was probably the best ending for both characters, and very true to who each of them has become. They both had to give up a bit of what they wanted, and yet still ended up with something that they very much dreamed about. They also both grew a lot over the course of the novel, and I thought both had strong character arcs. Overall, like the best ballet stories, Bright, Burning Stars took a turn towards a darker side of this reality than I anticipated, yet also treated us to the magic and glamour that makes ballet so wonderful in the first place.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen & Son for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | The Spanish Promise, Karen Swan

43558824A Karen Swan novel is almost inevitably a promise of escape to an exotic locale and the luxurious lifestyles of the super rich. Her books are full of heart, and a wonderful delight to lose oneself in. The Spanish Promise is one such book. It tells the story of a wealth counsellor, Charlotte, who is hired by a wealthy Spanish family to convince a woman they’d never met to give up her claim to a massive inheritance from the family patriarch. To do so, Charlotte travels to Spain mere days before her wedding, and learns that the truth behind the inheritance is more complex than she and the wealthy family had initially believed.

I enjoyed Charlotte’s story. I loved the travel to Spain and the luxurious estate she ends up staying in. I also loved meeting the unwitting heiress Marina, and seeing the reveal of her connection to the Mendoza family unfold. The subplot about Charlotte’s love life — her impending marriage to a man she doesn’t really love and her coincidental reunion with an old flame — is tied in well to the main plot and to Charlotte’s personal growth as a character, but was nowhere near as interesting to me as the rest of the story.

Rather, the story that really hooked me was the secondary storyline, set in 1930s Spain and featuring a woman named Nene living during the Spanish Civil War. Nene belongs to one of her region’s wealthiest landowner families. Her best friend growing up is a boy named Santi, whose family works at the estate, and while Nene herself strongly believes that wealth shouldn’t be conflated with worth, her background prevents her from fully being part of Santi’s world. The tensions between Nene’s and Santi’s families erupts as the Civil War breaks out, and Nene must decide where she stands.

I absolutely loved Nene’s storyline, and often found myself wishing to hurry up Charlotte’s sections so we could get back to the historical part of the story. I loved Nene’s friendship with Santi. I hated what her brothers did to Santi’s family just as much as I hated what Santi did in retaliation. I feared for Nene’s safety during the Civil War, and felt for her as events unfolded with seeming inevitability. Nene’s storyline and Charlotte’s eventually converge, and Swan does a good job in showing us the parallels between both heroines. But it was Nene’s story that kept me hooked, and that formed the emotional core for the story.

The Spanish Promise is a wonderful escape and a moving story about family and love. I loved it.

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Thank you to Publishers Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.