Book Review: CROSS HER HEART by Sarah Pinborough

In Cross Her Heart, Lisa is a mother and career woman who’s just starting to open up after decades-old trauma she refuses to speak about. Ava is Lisa’s daughter, a frustrated teen who’s desperate to get some independence from her smothering mother. And Marilyn is Lisa’s best friend and coworker, a kind, generous woman who seems to have it all. Of course, this novel is a thriller, which means all of them are hiding secrets that threaten to tear them apart.

Cross Her Heart is a well-plotted thrill ride written in no-nonsense, clear prose that’s fun and easy to read even through the twistiest of turns. Unfortunately, I found a few of its tropes grating, and thought it was a tad too long, leaving me liking it but not loving it.

You can read my full review below.


9780062856791

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

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  • publisher: William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: September 4, 2018
  • length: 352 pages
  • cover price: $26.99

I was lonely for a long time. In some ways, I still am. I try to be kind to lonely people now. I’ve learned that kindness is important. What else is there, really?

Cross Her Heart, page 9*

Cross Her Heart moves at breakneck speed from the very first page, when a mysterious man identified only as Him in the chapter header discovers a note from the woman who’s leaving him. Bitch, he thinks. And with that, Cross Her Heart establishes that this is a story about the cruelty women endure, mostly at the hands of men, but sometimes at the hands of each other.

It alternates between the perspectives of three women (with a few additional perspectives thrown in here and there): mother Lisa, daughter Ava, and Lisa’s best friend Marilyn. Each is obviously holding something back, but Sarah Pinborough manages the withholding deftly, unspooling the plot just fast enough to keep you flipping pages. She writes each perspective in an open, first-person style that feels disarming in a thriller. From that disarmingly open quality comes the thrills.

Pinborough is an eminently talented writer. I was in awe of the lightness of her prose compared with the darkness of her subject matter and the density with which she needs to keep throwing us clues and red herrings. She’s written over 20 books between pen names, so it’s clear she knows what she’s doing. This was one of the first twisty-turny books I’ve ever read where I think I was able to keep a handle on the plot the entire time–that’s a good thing, since being surprised is a good feeling, but being confused is not.

Unfortunately, despite the quality of the writing and the obvious care with which the plot has been drawn, the actual events and characters of Cross Her Heart didn’t grab me, and in some cases, actively pissed me off.

First, Cross Her Heart has a sordid, mushy, nastiness to it. There’s a lot of unpleasant sex, vicious abuse, slimy office drama, incompetent cops, and opportunistic, cruel paparazzi. These details are the spice to a lot of successful thrillers, but in Cross Her Heart they feel not quite repellent nor fun enough to drive the plot. They clunked leadenly across the page, making me feel sad and bored instead of interested.

Cross Her Heart also has a strong bent of female empowerment to it that is at times glorious, but more often struck me as hollow and almost silly. The close female friendship between Lisa and Marilyn veers from cliché to interesting and then back to cliché; Ava is at times a believable teenager who’s understandably struggling to live with her mother’s strange moods, and at times a sullen kid who makes terrible, horror movie, don’t go upstairs, what the hell, are you kidding me!!!!-type decisions.

I think that while Pinborough excels at plot, she’s less good at characterization–at least in this novel–and that results in characters occasionally doing things that are wildly out of character for the sake of the next move in Cross Her Heart’s chess game.

At least the female characters feel at least little bit real, whereas the male characters range from cartoonishly evil to a cartoonishly good-hearted deus ex machina. It’s an intriguing flip from the usual thriller problem of terribly characterized women and just-okay men, but that doesn’t make it good writing.

Next, I’m going to give some very light spoilers in the paragraph below, because they’re important to my lukewarm reaction to this book. Skip if you’d like to go in totally cold.

Most frustratingly of all for me, towards the end of Cross Her Heart, there’s a distinct tone of lesbian panic, which fully spoiled the “girl power” qualities of the book. I’m not going to go into details, but when your gayest character is also the most evil, it’s going to rub me the wrong way. (Looking at you, Disney movies.) It’s not that you can’t have a queer baddie, but Cross Her Heart’s baddie seems to be evil partially because she’s queer and sexually frustrated, which, ugh.

/spoilers.

Lastly, Cross Her Heart is just slightly too long. It could definitely have done with a twist or two edited away; my nominee would be the final reveal, which removed some intriguing moral ambiguity and made it less satisfying. The pages still flew by, but the excessive length made Cross Her Heart‘s flaws more noticeable.

It’s silly to ding a book for following genre conventions; I love thrillers, Cross Her Heart is a thriller, and sordidness is a key element of thrillers. The taboo is part of the thrill. But I was frustrated at the particular sordid buttons Pinborough decided to push here. As competent and enjoyable as Cross Her Heart is, it lacks the spark that makes dirty secrets fun instead of just dirty.

I’m glad I read Cross Her Heart, but I just didn’t love it. I’d recommend it for people who are true thriller fans, but if your experience with the genre is primarily through crossover authors like Stephen King and Gillian Flynn, you might have a harder time with it.

For all its twists, Cross Her Heart still feels like a train on a straight track. Its thrills come from its breakneck speed and Pinborough’s obvious skill as a conductor, but there’s nothing truly special about the ride. ★★★☆☆


I received a copy of Cross Her Heart from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

*Page numbers and quotes came from my advance reader copy, which is an uncorrected proof. These may be different in the final version of the book.

Book Review: USEFUL PHRASES FOR IMMIGRANTS by May-Lee Chai

I am having another week of feeling Extremely Not Well–it turns out chronic illnesses are, well, chronic! –which means I’m not able to give May-Lee Chai’s newest short story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, the full review it deserves. I thought I’d do the next-best thing for this lovely book and write a shorter review instead.

Read it below!


Useful Phrases for Immigrants Cover.jpg

Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-Lee Chai

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  • publisher: Blair (an independent publisher)
  • publication date: October 23, 2018
  • length: 166 pages
  • cover price: $16.95

Like that, he felt a stab of ice shoot through his body. He knew in an instant, less than a heartbeat, his luck could change.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants, page 60, “The Body”

Useful Phrases for Immigrants is a slim and unassuming short story collection with oomph in its aftertaste; quiet but powerful in the way only truly experienced and confident writers can achieve. (Author May-Lee Chai is certainly experienced: Useful Phrases is her tenth book. I’ve previously read and loved her YA novel, Dragon Chica, about a girl struggling to adjust to life as a refugee in the U.S. after fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime with her family.)

Chai’s style is both understated and vivid, especially in my favorite stories in the collection, the titular “Useful Phrases for Immigrants,” “First Carvel in Beijing,” and “Shouting Means I Love You.” I particularly enjoyed how diverse Chai’s subjects are: nearly all are Chinese and/or Chinese American, and among them are gay and bi people, Taoists and Buddhists and Catholics, Californians and New Yorkers, the poor and middle class, country kids and urban ones, small children and wizened adults. (Most of the characters are women, something I also appreciate.) Rather than hammer home one single point about one single thing, Chai layers her conflicts like ambitious, gorgeous piano chords.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants exemplifies what good literary fiction can do: it broadens your understanding of what it means to feel human, or happy, or sad, or angry, or bitter, or delighted, or victorious, or often, a little of all of those things at once. It does this without feeling cloying or heavy. It’s a cliché of writing advice, but showing really does go farther than telling, and Chai is a master of showing. She doesn’t tell you what to pay attention to in each tableau; she just creates eight beautiful tableaus that you’ll find yourself thinking about for a long time afterwards.

I absolutely loved Useful Phrases for Immigrants. Even if you’re not sure if you’ll like it, at only 166 pages, it’s easy to take a risk on. ★★★★★


My copy of Useful Phrases for Immigrants came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

We need to talk about the CRAZY RICH ASIANS trilogy!

Crazy Rich Asians Movie Poster.jpg

Crazy Rich Asians burst into my consciousness this summer like a firework. I’d never heard of the novels, but the movie had left my friends and social media timelines positively gleeful. First, it was a rom com, a genre in need of a revival and refresher. Second, its primarily Asian cast made it a big step forward for Hollywood, where Asian and Asian American actors are usually relegated to stereotypical, un-sexy, un-romantic roles.

And lastly, most importantly: it was fun, at least as far as I heard. (I was drowning in wedding planning when it came out in theaters, so I missed it then, but I’m planning to rent it on streaming ASAP.)

The movie version of Crazy Rich Asians was opulent, sweet, sexy, fun, fashionable, and full of mouthwatering food. It was a hit at the box office and critically. It was a sensation.

So when I saw the novel that started it all–Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan–I snapped it up at my library as fast as I could. I clutched it in my grip on the way to the checkout counter like someone was going to snatch it from me, and as I walked home, I had a giddy, dizzy feeling like I’d just accomplished a covert operation.

(I’m kind of dramatic when it comes to books, you see.)

In truth, Crazy Rich Asians came out back in 2013, so I doubt anyone was going to mug me for it. But this series has been crazy popular since its release, and after reading the first book, it’s not hard to see why: they’re bitchy, gossipy, silly, escapist, ridiculous, and high on the hog, but they’re also whip-smart about politics, family, love, loss, and the ever-shifting role Asians play in a world where white people have traditionally reigned supreme–but don’t any longer.

So far I’ve read Crazy Rich Asians and the second novel in the trilogy, China Rich Girlfriend. I reviewed Crazy Rich Asians a few months ago, but the reason I’m throwing China Rich Girlfriend out to a discussion post instead of trying to articulate my feelings in a review is that…I had a lot of feelings.

The whole trilogy is clearly satire, but where the plot of Crazy Rich Asians was at least a little bit plausible in the real world, China Rich Girlfriend ups the ante to ridiculous heights. There are hushed-up murders, poisonings, last-minute trips to Paris ateliers, helicopters crashing weddings…you get the picture.

The truth is that I loved the first and second books in the trilogy, but if you think of my positive feelings as matter, I had a lot of squicky feelings that quelched those adoring feelings like anti-matter. The experience of reading them is fantastic, but I walked away  from the last page with a whole tangle of ambivalence and nothingness.

For every great zinger the books get off, there are bizarre moral equivalencies and mean jokes that make me recoil. For every genuinely sweet scene, there are scenes that I think are supposed to be sweet, but instead come off intensely creepy.

For example, I still haven’t fallen in love with Rachel and Nick, the couple at the center of the series, because they are simultaneously too perfect…and also terrible? There are nods to the fact that their obscene wealth (and the obscene wealth of those around them) is morally appalling when you consider how many people are starving and struggling around the world. But then they’ll turn around and say that at least rich people spend their money on quality things, whereas the poor and middle class buy stuff from sweatshops which just…perpetuates poverty? I’m genuinely uncertain whether this is a position Kwan agrees with or is skewering.

I don’t even know. It’s a lot. I think it would be a lot even if you’re not a pinko like I am. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be rooting for, and what’s supposed to be making fun of these ridiculous characters, and what’s supposed to be sympathetic to them.

I haven’t  read Rich People Problems yet, and I really want to, but I’m bracing myself for an even bigger tangle of feelings about it. I’m dying to know how the Kitty Pong and Astrid Leong subplots conclude, since I don’t really give a damn about Rachel and Nick. I’m looking forward to losing myself in this world of insane opulence, but also not looking forward to the conflicted feelings that this particular brand of escapism stirs up in me.

How many novels have I read in my life about “crazy rich” English, French, Italian, American (etc. etc.) people in my life? So many. And frankly, the fact that those books treat it as tacky to talk about wealth when the entire story and lives of the characters are defined by wealth is maybe even weirder than the way Crazy Rich Asians throws a party and rolls around in it.

So I’m sensitive to the fact that my knee-jerk reactions may not be fair ones.

Am I a snob? A prude? Do I need to just shut up and love the books, which are incredibly funny and well-written, instead of overthinking it? I don’t know, and that’s why we need to talk about Crazy Rich Asians, whether you’ve seen the movie, read the books, both, or neither.

What are your thoughts? How crazy is too crazy? Did you love them, hate them, or have mixed feelings like I did? Let’s try to avoid big spoilers, but if you simply must talk about the twists (so many twists!), go ahead and put SPOILERS in all caps or something first.

Have at it in the comments!


I checked out these novels at my local library and was in no way sponsored or compensated for this post.