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.

Friday Bookbag, 7.6.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I’m back after my restful hiatus (the surgery was a raging success!) and I’m ready to catch up on all the reading I’ve fallen behind on this month. These books have more than whet my appetite. Let’s dive in!


The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun (translated by Sora Kim-Russell)

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The Hole Cover

the premise: Ogi caused a car accident that killed his wife and left him severely disabled. As he reckons with intense grief and guilt, his mother-in-law begins acting strangely, causing him to question everything he thought he knew about his former life with his wife.

why I’m excited: This book was a massive success in Korea, and the English translation was a nominee for the 2017 Shirley Jackson awards. It’s a terrifying, novella-length thriller that’s apparently reminiscent of Stephen King’s Misery. Doesn’t that sound amazing? I’m in. (I’m also seriously excited about the state of Korean literature, since this book also sounds reminiscent of The Vegetarian by Han Kang, which I loved. I hope the success of these books spurs more translations into English.)

All the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother by Danielle Teller

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9780062798206the premise: It’s right there in the title: All the Ever Afters is the story of Cinderella’s stepmother. In this version, stepmother Agnes starts out as a serf and nursemaid to Ella, the beautiful, ethereal girl who will eventually become a princess. After Ella’s marriage, horrible rumors begin to spread about her childhood,  and Agnes fights to hold on to the real story.

why I’m excited: I’m not sure if any Cinderella-related story is actually “untold” at this point–it’s one of the most popular and most-adapted stories of all time–but this one caught my eye because it looks like it’ll dig deep on the misogyny and class politics that underpin the fairy tale. I hope it’s not too gritty, since I’ve gotten quite sick of Gregory Maguire-style retellings (which this is getting compared to), but I’m excited to give it a shot.

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

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Girls Burn Brighter Coverthe premise: Poornima and Savitha are best friends living in an impoverished Indian village, but when an act of staggering cruelty drives the two girls apart, Poornima is determined to be reunited with her best friend. She escapes an arranged marriage and travels the breadth of India and the world on her mission, uncovering startling secrets along the way.

why I’m excited: You know, this one could be hit or miss for me. I sometimes struggle with the kind of novel, like this one, that seems determined to expose the horrible underbelly of the world. But the focus on the girls’ friendship is a strong point in its favor, as are the extremely positive reviews the book has received. I’m hoping the pessimist in me is wrong and that the optimist in me finds the insides of this book to be as brilliant and striking as its cover design.

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9780062856791the premise: Lisa is a single mother living a quiet life–too quiet, at least according to her daughter, Ava, who wishes to live a normal life with her secret boyfriend. Lisa’s friend Marilyn is concerned about Lisa’s isolation, but she has problems of her own. When a betrayal buried deep in Lisa’s past threatens to have terrible consequences in the present, the secrets these three women keep from each other become explosive–and devastating.

why I’m excited: I received this advance reader copy from the publisher (it doesn’t come out until September) and I am beyond excited for it. I’m a huge fan of literary thrillers, especially ones starring women. I also can’t get enough of the “dark secrets in her past” trope. This and Pinborough’s earlier novel, Behind Her Eyes, have gotten rave reviews from people like Stephen King; the buzz they’ve already generated in Pinborough’s native U.K. is astonishing. I can’t wait to lose an afternoon or two to this one.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

The SHARP OBJECTS miniseries on HBO: Are you planning to tune in?

The HBO adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel, Sharp Objects, starts broadcasting on Sunday, July 8th!

It stars Amy Adams as a self-harming journalist who returns to her Missouri hometown to investigate a series of brutal murders of young girls, and the trailer moves from kinda-creepy to goddamn terrifying in the span of 90 seconds:

*flails*

I read the book back in 2016 and it was truly one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever read. I have a low tolerance for horror, especially psychiatric horror, but Gillian Flynn hooked me with Sharp Objects just as much as she repulsed me. It’s a complicated book that touches on all sorts of common mental illness triggers but also turns stigma on its head. It’s deeply upsetting but you can’t put it down. What a feat.

Flynn is best known for her novel Gone Girl, and while I love that book (and the movie adaptation) with all my heart, I think Sharp Objects might be an even tighter story structurally and conceptually. This wonderful interview with Flynn about female rage and unlikable characters only increased my excitement for the adaptation–she’s been heavily involved in the series’ development since day 1, so I think viewers have a good chance of a home run here.

I’m sure that the Sharp Objects miniseries is going to leave me trembling and sleeping with the lights on, but I plan to give it a shot anyway. If I can tolerate it, I might even give weekly recaps a try here on the blog.

What do you think? Have you read Sharp Objects? Are you excited about HBO’s newest addition to its Sunday night lineup? Let me know in the comments!

Sharp Objects debuts Sunday, July 8th at 9pm Eastern on HBO and HBO GO.

Book Review: ORPHAN MONSTER SPY by Matt Killeen

It’s hard to think of a novel I’ve read recently that seems more destined to make the leap into film than this one. Orphan Monster Spy–about a blonde and blue-eyed Jewish girl who becomes a spy at a Nazi boarding school after her mother’s murder in 1939–is a thrilling, risky, messy, wonderful firecracker of a novel. Dialogue is a weak point, and sometimes the novel’s little nods to the rise of Naziism in the U.S. today threatened to pull me out of this ostensibly historical fiction. But I can’t be too harsh–Matt Killeen works magic on every page, and Orphan Monster Spy is unlike anything else I’ve read. It’s technically YA, but I’d recommend it for anyone who loves taut, cinematic thrillers in the vein of Atomic Blonde (a.k.a. The Coldest City) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

You can read my full review below.


9780451478733

Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: March 20, 2018
  • length: 432 pages
  • cover price: $18.99

Finally, the car came to a stop. With difficulty, Sarah opened her eyes, blinked to clear her vision, and looked up from her hiding place in the footwell. Her mother was slumped in the driver’s seat, her head against the top of the steering wheel. She was gazing through the spokes to where Sarah crouched. Her mother’s eyes were almost the same, wide and pretty. Her pupils were so big Sarah could nearly see herself in them. But now they seemed dull. Her mother was no longer in there.

Orphan Monster Spy, page 1

Sometimes one book makes me fall in love with all books all over again. Orphan Monster Spy is that kind of book, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s a damn good read. Its almost unbearable tension and sadness is balanced with humor and small victories that had me pumping my fist as much as I was biting my nails.

15-year-old Sarah doesn’t keep kosher or go to synagogue, and she even has a “good Aryan” Gentile father, but she can’t erase her mother’s Jewish heritage. Trapped in the Jewish ghettos of Berlin and Vienna in the 1930s, blonde and blue-eyed Sarah and her actress mother are targets of the increasingly hostile Nazi government. When they try to make a run for the Swiss border in 1939, just before Germany invades Poland, Sarah’s mother is brutally murdered, and Sarah finds herself on the run.

That’s where the book opens, and from there, the plot moves at the speed of light. Sarah saves an enigmatic British spy from suspicious Nazis, and in turn, he protects her, employs her, and places her undercover at an elite Nazi boarding school where she must befriend the daughter of a scientist building a “grapefruit bomb” (nuclear weapon) that could level whole cities in minutes.

The setup is quick and direct, leaving plenty of time to dig deep into Sarah’s character (fascinating) and life at the Nazi boarding school (even more fascinating). The high-stakes final act, in particular, is breathtaking.

I love the breadth and depth of YA novels that exist now, more than existed even a few years ago when I was a teen. (I’m only 23!) I don’t read much YA anymore, but I picked this one up because I like WWII history and literary-ish thrillers. Boy, was I not disappointed. I was shocked at how much depth and historical detail Killeen managed to cram into this book without compromising the taut, gritty narrative. It’s a YA book that feels perfectly YA (as I define it: young protagonist, fast pace), but it’s unique and edgy enough that I’d also recommend it to someone who thinks they’re above YA. (Like myself, sort of.)

A couple of things don’t ring so true, though.

One, Killeen does the thing I hate in multilingual novels: he has characters say things in their native language (mostly German, here) and then has them immediately “repeat it” in English. It doesn’t make any sense and I wish authors would either only use words that I could pick up through context clues or would just use the English versions. I know it’s set in Germany; I don’t need to be constantly yanked out of the story by something that feels like the author being clever instead of being authentic to the characters.

Two, speaking of being authentic, this book is at times heavy-handed with its social commentary at the expense of its characters. I struggled with how to phrase this criticism because Orphan Monster Spy’s subject matter is inherently timely and social justice-y and I don’t want to ding it for that. That’s part of why I chose to read it, after all, and I wish more stories faced anti-Semitism and oppression as head-on as this one does. Still, there are times where it’s so blatant it practically breaks the fourth wall.

For example, in one conversation with Elsa, the Nazi scientist’s daughter whom Sarah is tasked with befriending, Elsa lets slip that America is full of Nazis. Sarah, deep in character as another good Nazi girl, reminds Elsa that America is not to be trusted. Elsa just laughs and tells her that American Nazis are even more dangerous than German ones because they have to hide their true colors.

I mean, I can’t fault Killeen’s accuracy on that count, but it’s such a transparent aside that it felt like it had been sung out by the gospel Greek chorus from Hercules(It certainly doesn’t feel like natural conversation.)

In the end, though, this book is so dazzlingly ambitious, smart, and compulsively readable that those things barely impacted my enjoyment of it.

Orphan Monster Spy is a desperate book for desperate times; its mission statement–take down Nazis, get revenge, survive–shouldn’t feel so relevant in 2018, but it does. For those tired of fighting the good fight, this book is a heady infusion of entertainment, energy, and pure steel. 4/5 stars.


My copy of Orphan Monster Spy came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.