Epiphany Jones – Review

“In Hollywood it’s not what you create that matters, it’s the image you portray.”

Before I start this review, I need to warn readers that this book has almost all the trigger warnings a book could have. It is dark, brutally so, and deals with very real but very horrifying issues like child sex trafficking, rape, abuse, and mental illness. These scenes, while not overly graphic in nature, are very realistic and chilling.

This review may also contain minor spoilers. I will avoid them as much as possible, but be warned, minor spoilers may find themselves below.

Epiphany Jones is a difficult book to describe. It feels strange to describe a book that so accurately explores grotesque topics as good. But for all its horror, it is a very good book. Grothaus balances the gut wrenching scenes with sharp dark humor, and the combination is both unsettling and entertaining.

Jerry, a unique unreliable narrator, struggles with mental illness. He is subject to hallucinations of a very visceral sort, believing that these people he sees are real at first. He also has a massive porn addiction. Of course, he’s been in therapy and these visions go away when he’s on medication. The problem is, he isn’t always on his medication. And it doesn’t really do anything for the porn problem.

“When you think something isn’t real you just don’t pay too much attention to it. But you sober up quickly when your imaginary friend stabs you with a spork.”

Unfortunately for Jerry, he finds himself off his meds and in the middle of the theft of a priceless Van Gogh. And he’s the main suspect. Which forces him into hiding with Epiphany Jones, a woman who hears the voice of God. She is his only chance at redemption.

But in order for Jerry to clear his name, he must solve the mystery of Epiphany and what she wants. And that takes him down a dark road into both of their pasts.

“I’m pretty sure Epiphany doesn’t have a three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule. It’s gotta be two, at most. After that she probably kills you.”

At the beginning, we don’t know how or why Epiphany has chosen Jerry to help her find whatever she’s looking for. It is a very violent path that we go down unraveling the mystery behind Epiphany and, surprisingly, Jerry as well.

Their two histories are intertwined in ways that Jerry refuses to believe until the evidence is overwhelming and pieces of his long buried memory begins to surface. This truth forces Jerry to confront the demons of his past and decide who he wants to actually be moving forward.

“People in real life, when something bad happens, they don’t turn into action heroes or detectives, like they do in the movies. In real life you take the path of least resistance. You do the easiest thing that ensures your survival.”

Even though this book was published June 2017, the subject matter is hauntingly relevant, given news coming out of Hollywood lately. Grothaus has taken the shiny veneer of off what we believe Hollywood to be and taken us into the dark, black rumors that have been whispered about for decades.

It isn’t even raising the idea that Hollywood executives could take place in sex trafficking, of children no less. It’s the entire dirty underside of Hollywood. How people in power abuse their power. Whether it’s the publicist who gets a young woman to sleep with his son over promises of stardom, or succumbing to the whims of a Super Star who must be given whatever perverse pleasure they demand. There is a side to Hollywood carefully controlled and very well hidden.

“The people with the real power in Hollywood don’t need to be recognized. They make the celebrities. And they know each star is just a cog in the wheel. A brand. Each star will be replaced when the time comes.”

What makes this book so good, even though the subject matter is so difficult, is that you can’t help but feel the truth in his words. Sex and power always go hand in hand, and abuse of both always follows closely behind.

But what makes the book even more exceptional, is the accurate examination of trauma and how these deep, deep traumas that occur in childhood, scar and haunt their victims forever. Both Jerry and Epiphany experienced traumatic shocks when they were young. And the extent of that trauma shows in their adult lives.

These fissures in their mental health are clearly shown throughout the plot to be attributed to their experiences as children. Sometimes it’s easy as a society to rank someone’s trauma as better or worse than others. It would have been easy to do that. To show that Epiphany had far more reason to behave in the ways she did than Jerry had. Instead, we get their mental illnesses shown to us as separate and unique as their personalities.

Their experiences shaped them, molded them, and we are shown their pasts in a slow reveal. Grothaus takes us down dark roads and blind alleys, making us assume opinions of both characters. It’s only after opinions are formed that he shines the lights and opens doors to give us more truth and fill in the missing gaps. It is an exercise in empathy. It is an exercise in judgment. And it’s bloody brilliant writing.

“The guy who’s heart you broke when you cheated on him thinks you’re a manipulative bitch, but the homeless person you gave five dollars to thinks you’re a gift from God. The thing is, in a way, everyone is right.”

There is humanity dripping off of these pages, demanding that you open your eyes and look around. It’s easy to hide from these dark subjects, to turn and pretend that it doesn’t happen, that it couldn’t happen. But Hollywood is literally the business of turning humans into a commodity. All Grothaus does is ask us to examine the possibility of what that can truly mean.

This book won’t be for everyone. As I mentioned, there are some dark parts that are very difficult to read. But beyond those passages, this book is stunning in it’s black humor and keen insight. This is a book that will change you, and stay with you long after you close the cover.

Thank you Orenda Books for sending me a copy to read and review!

Exquisite – Review

“I was suspicious of love and what it did to people – those dark depths of anguish and horror; the thought of it all made me shudder.”

Bo Luxton has the life everyone wants. A successful writing career, loyal husband and two adorable daughters. She is the very picture of happiness and contentment. All she wants is to share her happiness with others. To help guide fresh new talent into the literary world, giving back to the world that has given her so much.

Alice Dark is young and lost. Full of hidden but unused talent, she writes an entry to a writing retreat, expecting it to end in nothing but disappointment like every endeavor before. To her surprise, she is selected and given the chance at everything she’s ever wanted.

From the moment Bo read Alice’s words, she knew this was the young talent she had been looking for. And from the moment Alice spoke with Bo, she knew this was a woman whose wisdom could guide her. Mentor and mentee. Two paths destined to cross and become entwined. So how does it all go wrong?

This book is breathtaking in it’s intensity! Every page has you swept into the story, the suspense building with a subtlety that is, well, exquisite. You know something is off, but it’s difficult to put your finger on it. For the life of me, I could not tell which direction Stovell was taking me. I only knew it was going to be a dark and twisted path.

“There’s only one direction this can go, and that is straight to hell.”

We are given the story of Alice and Bo in parts. The first is a story, a woman in prison, but where and when is yet to be determined. Is she a narrator, a story from one of the writers, or a third party yet to be presented? And then we get chapters from both Bo and Alice’s perspectives. These are alternating until after the retreat, where we get only Alice and then only Bo. And then back to alternating as we get closer to the truth.

Each side is presented, with their own slant told. And Stovell is masterful in her writing, never giving us enough clues to get a grasp on what’s actually taking place. Page after page has us feeling as if we are trapped in a cage of quicksand and fog. Nothing is steady, nothing is sure, except that someone is lying.

“The thing about being hurt badly is that the only person who can make you feel better is the person who hurt you, and so you keep going back and they keep making you better, but then they hurt you again, and so it goes on.”

Exquisite kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. I never knew who to trust, who was the victim and who was the assailant. Even when Stovell unveiled the details, the truth was so sinister, it hits you in the gut, hard and unexpected. Again, the word exquisite fits so perfectly, because that level of story telling is exquisite. You know something is coming, and yet it still manages to hit you by surprise. The title perfect in so many ways.

I am a huge fan of psychological plots, especially where the characters are so deeply complex it’s difficult to fault them for their flaws, and Stovell does not disappoint. But there’s also a deeper villain uncovered, and the cold, sinister motivations are chilling and pathological. We are introduced to someone unrelenting and unapologetic in their behavior, and that persona is truly terrifying. To be lulled into complacency, into sympathizing with someone this evil in nature gets under your skin. Stovell has given us a villain that really does make you stay awake at night because this is the type of villain that is real.

If you are a fan of psychological suspense or thrillers, you need to get your hands on this book. It is masterful in it’s suspense, brilliant in it’s psychology, and breathtaking in it’s twists. In all, this book is exquisite.

Thank you Orenda Books for sending me a copy to read and review!

Block 46 – Review

There are some books where the synopsis cannot possibly prepare you for what you are about to read. Where the synopsis cannot begin to encompass the words contained within the covers. Where words like shocking and breathtaking are inadequate to describe the experience.

Block 46 is one of those books.

It’s been one week since I finished this book, and I am sitting here struggling to form words for this review. Everything I want to say feels inadequate. Or is full of spoilers. And this book should not be spoiled.

The premise of two dead bodies, mutilated in the same way but found in different countries sounded interesting. Then you add in the story of a young man struggling to maintain his humanity in Buchenwald during the Holocaust.

“Are the two murders the work of a serial killer, and how are they connected to shocking events at Buchenwald?”

That one sentence from the back cover was enough to captivate me. However, the skill in which Johana Gustawsson draws the reader in, made me frantically turn the pages wanting to know what was happening and what would happen next.

How do you tie in current events with the horrors of the past? Each clue we are given doesn’t make sense. How can a survivor match the profile of a killer between 35-45 years old? How could we believe that someone who fought to live would then seek to take lives?

The art of suspense in this book is deeply psychological. Gustawsson takes us down a path, unveiling glimpses of the scenery around us, making us comfortable with where we think she is taking us. She allows us to form our own opinions and solidify our beliefs before she reveals the reality.

Profiling serial killers is already a plot line full of psychological suspense. I’ve always been fascinated with the skill behind profiling. How can you put yourself in the mind of a killer and maintain your humanity. To hunt, or be hunted. To take the clues from gruesome and horrific scenes where pain and terror taint every surface is impressive. And also terrifying.

But there is more than the psychology of a profiler or a serial killer lurking in these pages. There is the exploration of being a victim, of being a survivor.

I think alternating the story with scenes and descriptions from the Holocaust, makes this book especially haunting. She does not back away from the horror of a concentration camp. We are shown the brutality in a matter of fact narration, which serves to only drive home the harshness of that reality. There is no minimizing the horror, no glamorizing or softening the impact.

There is evil in this world and Block 46 doesn’t allow you to forget this.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I am always surprised when a plot twist manages to actually shock me. This book didn’t feel predictable exactly, but I did feel comfortable with the direction it was taking me. Except, when the end came, I found that I wasn’t prepared at all for what the ending revealed.

The twist was unexpected, but the ending felt more like being in a fight. The hits continue to land from all around, leaving you gasping as you turn the final pages.

Block 46 is a book that will stay with you long after you put it down. I find myself picking it up, only to shake my head as I remember the journey it took me on. Johana Gustawsson artfully weaves suspense and mystery together. I am in awe of the final result.

Anyone who enjoys suspense, mystery and thrillers needs to read this book!

Thank you Orenda books for the amazing opportunity to read and experience this exceptional novel.

 

 

Six Stories – Review

“There is evil in the world. There is definitely evil in this world of ours.”

Two sentences never summed up a book more appropriately. Six Stories is a phenomenal psychological thriller. It’s also so much more.

There is so much to love about this book!

The first thing I love about it, is the format. It’s written in an interview style, simulating a podcast series, named, Six Stories. In this series, the host takes the listener through old, unsolved crimes in six segments, each focusing on a different aspect of the case.

In every voice, Wesolowski uses font to differentiate who is speaking. In this way, he is able to structure the narration to mimic the interview style without making it noisy to the reader. I found myself hearing the individual voices of each speaker, as if I was actually listening to a podcast. It is superbly executed!

The heart of the story is a murder mystery. A teenage boy disappears from a camping trip with an outdoor club. With no body to be found, and no witnesses, the police rule it an accident. The conclusion holds true, when the body is discovered by the owners of the land a year later. The case is settled, but not.

Twenty years later, Scott King, the host of Six Stories, begins interviewing the individuals involved in the case.

The most unsettling aspect is that initially, no one knew why they boy disappeared. The kids he was with had no memory of the night. The adults supervising them had no answers either. Was it murder? An accident? Something else? Even after the body was found, no further clues were uncovered.

As the interviews progress, we are drawn into the year leading up to the night of the disappearance. We see a story unfold of teenagers raised to be kind and accepting. We are shown that perhaps behind the curtain, when left on their own, that perhaps they weren’t as kind and accepting as the adults in their lives thought.

What is really compelling about this novel, though, is the deeper and more subtle commentary and examination of social issues.

The broader, more initial comment, is on media coverage.

“Again, it all makes you speculate: should a tragedy like the one that befell Tom Jeffries in 1996 happen now, what might be the impact on someone like Derek of the trial by media and the press condemnation that would surely ensue?”

I found that quote, and the varying commentary of similar tone incredibly fascinating. We have a tendency now to speculate on any and all news coverage that comes our way. When the news contains missing children, or violence, or murder, we demand coverage constantly. We want to know everything about the victim, the suspects, anyone involved. And often, with that demand, we tend to make our judgements outside of the courtroom. We decide the guilt or innocence based on that speculation.

The other nuance of that commentary is that, the podcast is a result of that demand. New outlets for talk radio, news programs, blogs, they all arise from our constant need to know. Even though this host assures us that he is in no way leading us to a conclusion, that he only presents the evidence and allows his listeners to draw their own judgements, it is still astute to wonder at the change of times.

It raises an interesting question beyond simply wondering on the specific outcome of the case. Does that level of public scrutiny, or public judgement, taint an investigation? Would the outcome have been different?

In fact, the only person who seems aware of the damage media scrutiny can wreak, is the first interviewee, Harry Saint Clement-Ramsay, the son of the wealthy land owner and the one to discover the body a year later. He is wary of participating because he knows full well what can happen when you open the door to media coverage.

The brilliance in the novel, though, is the discussion and questions raised in regards to bullying. Media coverage is a subtle nod to the idea of bullying. Not simply in the way it is covered, but also in how it can be a form of bullying itself. This is smart, and is presented subtly, in small comments sprinkled throughout the interviews. However, there is a deeper conversation that also occurs.

“You see, the thing is, unless you’ve been on the other end of bullying, you don’t really know how much these smaller things can affect you.”

This is referring to the small taunts, the minor insults and whispers that all children are guilty of. How can those small things be considered bulling? Should they be considered bullying?

Again, the author alludes to the fact that this disappearance happened before Columbine, before bullying was a topic being examined and discussed all over the world. The nuances of what bullying is, was, could be, were never looked at in the case of Tom Jeffries. If they had, would they have made a difference? Drawn a different conclusion?

At the heart of this novel, I believe this is the question. What impact can these small teases, these minor occurrences have on a child. When is teasing not teasing? At what point do we look at our children, really look at them, and intervene?

The difference between the adults being interviewed and the children actually involved was startling. They tell a set of two different stories, paint two different pictures. The overall scene is the same, but the details are strikingly different.

“Is this a lesson? In some ways, I suppose it is. Tom Jeffries was clearly an unpleasant character whose actions went largely unpunished. A group of teenagers who were allowed softer boundaries than most, raised to be accepting and tolerant, yet still allowed  one of their members to feel victimised.”

When is tolerance too tolerant? It is a profound and impactful question. One that isn’t raised as often as perhaps it should be.

The quote at the beginning then becomes two fold. There is the evil we know, the evil we are comfortable facing. It is outlandish, public, overt. Then there is a more subtle evil. The kind that grows before our eyes. The kind that we feed every day.

Matt Wesolowski draws the reader in, unfolding the mystery slowly, leading us to a conclusion we think we are prepared for. Yet, when we reach the end, we still find ourselves shocked. It is skillful writing that blindsides you with a twist you never see coming.

This book was masterful and well done. In the way of life, we are given answers that are full but not fully satisfying. We know, but we are uneasy with the knowledge. Because embracing it, makes us face hard truths.

I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys suspense, mystery or thriller genres.

Once again, thank you Orenda Books for allowing me this amazing opportunity! I loved this book and look forward to reading more from the author, Matt Wesolowski.