Book Review: Good Me, Bad Me

With many thanks to Goodreads — I won this in a giveaway!

HOW FAR DOES THE APPLE REALLY FALL FROM THE TREE?

Good Me Bad Me is dark, compelling, voice-driven psychological suspense by debut author Ali Land:

Milly’s mother is a serial killer. Though Milly loves her mother, the only way to make her stop is to turn her in to the police. Milly is given a fresh start: a new identity, a home with an affluent foster family, and a spot at an exclusive private school.

But Milly has secrets, and life at her new home becomes complicated. As her mother’s trial looms, with Milly as the star witness, Milly starts to wonder how much of her is nature, how much of her is nurture, and whether she is doomed to turn out like her mother after all.

When tensions rise and Milly feels trapped by her shiny new life, she has to decide: Will she be good? Or is she bad? She is, after all, her mother’s daughter.

Good Me, Bad Me is an intense first-person visit inside the mind of a troubled teen. Milly is struggling to figure out who she really is: Can she live a normal life after 15 years with a psychopathic murderer for a mother? Does she truly have a shot at being good?

Milly’s story starts when she turns in her mother after the 9th in a long series of child murders. On the outside, her mother wears a kind and lovely public face, working at a women’s shelter, providing care and comfort to desperate women and their children. In reality, though, she’s an expert at gaining people’s trust, never letting them see below to the hellish, sadistic creature underneath. Milly (whose real name is Annie) has been living alone with her mother since age 4, when her father left and took her older brother with him. Since then, Milly has been both horribly abused and victimized herself, and forced to watch (and sometimes participate) as her mother abducted, tortured, and murdered young children.

Finally free, with her mother behind bars, Milly is taken in by a foster family. Her foster father Mike is also the psychologist who works with Milly to prepare her for her mother’s trial, where she’ll be the star witness, but the home life isn’t all rosy. Saskia, the mother, is a mentally unstable coke addict who’s physically present but emotionally absent. Most problematic for Milly is Phoebe, Mike and Saskia’s teen daughter, who emphatically does not want another foster kid in the house, resents the attention Milly absorbs, and sets out to bully and harass Milly at every turn, especially at school, away from her parents’ eyes.

We see everything from Milly’s point of view — and inside Milly’s head isn’t a very comfortable place to be.

Milly’s narrative of events is continuously peppered with 2nd person comments, as she maintains a one-way dialogue with her mother — the “you” who fills Milly’s thoughts and to whom Milly is constantly trying to justify herself. She doesn’t want to be like her mother, but the darkness keeps threatening to engulf her. We see her struggle to find a place for herself and be normal –but there are also lapses, incidents where Milly lets her inner demons take over as she engages in behaviors that are questionable, at best.

Like Milly, we never see the mother directly over the course of the book’s action. The closest Milly comes is when she testifies in her mother’s trial, during which she’s sheltered from viewing her mother by a screen. She knows she’s there, can sense her presence, but never actually sees her — and this holds true for the reader as well. Milly’s mother’s presence is a constant, even though we never see her directly. Between Milly’s inner dialogue with her mother and her nightmares about her, we feel her shadow over every scene.

I did have a few minor quibbles with the plot and the narrative. While we get enough information over the course of the book to get the basic idea of what Milly’s mother did over all those years and how Milly was victimized, we don’t see any of it directly. I’m not looking to wallow in the muck here, but there’s a bit of vagueness that started to irritate me after a while. A few more details would have been helpful about Milly’s earlier life — did none of her teachers over the years ever notice anything off about this poor abused child? Her scars may not have been visible, but surely some professional might have noticed her emotional damage?

I question too the lack of proper attention Milly received after her mother’s arrest. Mike represents a huge problem for me — he’s her foster parent, and is supposed to care for her, yet is also her court-sanctioned psychologist and is secretly writing a book about her. After all of the years of suffering, it would seem to me that Milly needs much more than she’s given, and the assumption that she can live a normal life with just weekly therapy seems terribly misguided. Without giving too much away, it’s clear that this is not a good foster placement for Milly, but if Mike is the only one providing her mental health care, there’s no way for the situation to improve.

When Milly gets into her inner monologues and dialogues, the writing becomes choppy and disjointed, reflecting her mental state. This is effective, but occasionally veers into Yoda territory: (“Committed, she is.” “Slice we do, a cut here, a snip there.”) Still, the sentence fragments that form Milly’s narration illustrate the way her thoughts push and pull at her constantly:

Your voice in my head. THAT’S MY GIRL, YOU SHOW THEM. THANKFUL NOW, YOU SHOULD BE, FOR THE LESSONS I TAUGHT YOU, ANNIE. Your praise, so rare, when it comes, rips through me like a bush fire swallowing houses and tress, and other teenage girls who are less strong, in its hot, hungry mouth. I meet their stares, the remnants of Izzy’s gum hanging off my chin. Thrown by my defiance, they are, I see it. Fleeting. The twitch around their succulent lips, eyes slightly wider. I shake my head, slow and deliberate. Izzy, the hungrier of the two, takes the bait.

The book builds to a climax that was not at all what I’d expected. It’s disturbing but makes sense, and left me with a huge sense of unease — which is a sign that this thriller accomplished what it set out to do.

Good Me, Bad Me is a tense, suspenseful read that I really couldn’t put down or get out of my thoughts. The inner life of a damaged soul is not a pleasant thing to see. Definitely check out this book if you like psychological depths and twists, but be prepared for sleepless nights.

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The details:

Title: Good Me, Bad Me
Author: Ali Land
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: September 5, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Psychological thriller
Source: Goodreads giveaway

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Book Review: A Perilous Undertaking

perilous-undertakingBook the Second in the wonderful Veronica Speedwell mystery series by Deanna Raybourn!

Veronica Speedwell returns in a brand new adventure from Deanna Raybourn, the New York Times bestselling author of the Lady Julia Grey mysteries…

London, 1887 . . Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an invitation to visit the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women. There she meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Accused of the brutal murder of his artist mistress Artemisia, Ramsforth will face the hangman’s noose in a week’s time if Veronica cannot find the real killer.

But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems and unmasking her true identity is only the first of the many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia’s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime.

From a Bohemian artists colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed….

Victorian era? Check.

Intelligent, non-conformist heroine? Check.

Flouting of social niceties? Check.

Sexy, mysterious partner, and oodles of sexual tension? Check, and check.

Oh, and not incidentally: A ripping good murder mystery? Yup, big check.

Prolific author Deanna Raybourn released the first Veronica mystery, A Curious Beginning, in 2015. (I reviewed it, here.) In it, we met the irrepressible Veronica Speedwell, an accomplished lepidopterist in her mid-twenties who finds herself suddenly at the center of strange plots and attempted violence. Veronica is headstrong and unabashed, and while she has the gentility and manners of a lady, she is quite proud of her scientific accomplishments — and is quite blunt about taking lovers during her overseas expeditions and her general enjoyment of the carnal arts.

I blinked again. “Is it not possible to enjoy bed sport during one’s pregnancy? You mean women have to go without for the duration? Nine months without sexual congress? That’s monstrous.”

By some odd twists and turns, she finds herself under the protection of Stoker, a (gorgeously muscled) man of good family who is haunted by clouds of scandal and mystery stemming from his own natural history expedition which ended in disaster in Brazil.

Side note — a word on Stoker’s appeal:

When a gentleman of excellent breeding and perfect vowels assumes the guise of a ruffian, women are frequently reduced to a state of helpless infatuation.

The two end up on the run together, trying to figure out who’s out to murder Veronica and why. It’s absolutely fun, full of hijinks and smart, quippy dialogue. Veronica and Stoker quickly became one of my favorite non-couple couples in fiction!

In A Perilous Undertaking, Veronica and Stoker are somewhat in the doldrums after a planned expedition is cancelled, until Veronica is summoned by a mysterious upper-class lady to take on the task of absolving a condemned man of murder. Lacking much else to do and needing a challenge, as well as fueled by a personal motivation that I’ll leave unspecified (spoilers!), Veronica accepts her assignment. With Stoker as her sidekick/co-adventurer/protector, she sets out to explore the world of a bohemian artists colony, its patrons and participants, and the secret and slightly kinky goings-on that a whole slew of people might want to kill to cover up.

She fell silent, gripped by genuine emotion, and against my will, I found myself in danger of liking her. For a potential murderess, she was rather engaging.

Once again, Deanna Raybourn creates a highly entertaining adventure that lets her characters shine. Veronica and Stoker are quite a pair, and you could cut the tension between them with a knife. They live and operate outside the bounds of proper Victorian society, yet they’re able to infiltrate into the upper reaches and still maintain their zest for scientific knowledge and experimentation.

Some rather comical incidents (including encounters with a large and inconvenient tortoise) lighten up the tension of the more dangerous escapades. There are injuries, life and death situations, narrow escapes, and acts of great daring. At the same time, we learn more about Veronica and Stoker’s inner lives and what makes them tick.

I think it’s pretty obvious that I loved the heck out of this book! The characters are just so delightful. I only hope that the author continues the series, as I want more! Veronica and Stoker clearly have plenty of adventures ahead of them and, at the risk of sounding completely voyeuristic, I want to get to see where their relationship goes, when and if they finally take the plunge and acknowledge their mutual attraction.

I suppose you could read A Perilous Undertaking on its own, as there are enough hints and reminders sprinkled throughout to cover the essential backstory — but why would you want to? Start with A Curious Beginning, then continue straight on to A Perilous Undertaking. You’re in for a treat!

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The details:

Title: A Perilous Undertaking
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication date: January 10, 2017
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Mystery/historical fiction
Source: Won in a Goodreads giveaway!

 

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