Memorable characters are the bright spots in a forgettable plot.

HOW TO SET YOURSELF ON FIRE

A box of love letters leads to an unlikely friendship between a socially awkward woman and a grief-stricken girl.

Sheila, the protagonist of Evans’ debut novel, appears to be at an all-time low. At 35, she keeps leaving her temp jobs. She sleeps strange hours and spends most of her time in the shared concrete courtyard outside her apartment where she hears everything her neighbor Vinnie does. On top of this, her grandmother has just died. Sheila is not a conventionally likable character, but her incredible oddness makes her interesting. She has a knack for off-putting responses and laughing at precisely the wrong times. When she learns that Vinnie’s ex-wife has been in a terrible accident, she asks him for the details. “I’m just a sucker for the gore,” she says. Eventually, this accident brings Vinnie’s 12-year-old daughter, Torrey, to live with him. Soon, Sheila is getting to know her neighbors as people. She shows Torrey a box of love letters written to her grandmother, letters Sheila did not know existed until her grandmother’s death. The two become obsessed with the letters and the man who wrote them. The friendship that develops between Torrey and Sheila gives the book its real heart. Torrey matches Sheila’s extreme immaturity with her own wisdom, and their bond feels unexpected and fresh. The characters are stronger than the plot, however, which unfolds predictably. The letters themselves—which have such a powerful hold over Sheila and Torrey—are overly sentimental and melodramatic. Perhaps this is the point, but so many of them are included it begins to drag the book down. And Evans includes a few narrative elements that feel gimmicky and don’t quite land.

Memorable characters are the bright spots in a forgettable plot.

Pub Date: May 8, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-945814-50-1

Page Count: 312

Publisher: Dzanc

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2018

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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Why you double-crossing little double crossers! Fiendishly clever.

PRETTY THINGS

The daughter of a grifter plans to fund her mother’s cancer treatment with a revenge con.

Rich people suck, don’t they? Nina Ross found this out in her adolescence, when her romance with Benny Liebling was broken up by his status-obsessed, old-money father, who found them screwing in the guest cottage of the family’s Lake Tahoe estate. Back then, Nina had a future—but she’s since followed her con-artist mother into the family business with the help of a handsome blue-eyed Irish confederate named Lachlan. “Here’s my rule,” Nina tells him. “Only people who have too much, and only people who deserve it.” Of course, he agrees. “We take only what we need.” With her art history background, Nina is usually able to target a few expensive antiques they can lift without the rich dopes even noticing they’re gone. But now that Nina's mother is hovering at death’s door without health insurance, she’s going after the $1 million in cash Benny mentioned was in his father’s safe all those years ago. So back to Lake Tahoe it is. The older Lieblings are dead, and Benny’s in the bin, so it’s his sister Vanessa Liebling who is the target of the complicated caper. Vanessa is a terribly annoying character—“I couldn’t tell you how I went from a few dozen Instagram followers to a half-million. One day, you’re uploading photos of your dog wearing sunglasses; and the next you’re begin flown to Coachella on a private jet with four other social media It Girls…”—but, in fact, you’ll hate everyone in this book. That is surely Brown’s (Watch Me Disappear, 2017, etc.) intention as she’s the one making them natter on this way. She also makes them vomit much more than is normal, whether it’s because they’re poisoning each other or because they’re just so horrified by each other’s behavior. Definitely stay to see how it all turns out.

Why you double-crossing little double crossers! Fiendishly clever.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-47912-3

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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