The Perfect Guests (2021)

Book: The Perfect Guests
Author:
Emma Rous
Publication Info: 2021, Berkley Books
Genres: Thriller/Suspense, Mystery, Dual POV/Timeline
My Rating: 1 or 2 stars, didn’t really like it (unfortunately) 

The Perfect Guests

Today’s review is for The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous (2021) published by Berkley Books in January of this year. It is categorized as a thriller/suspense novel. It’s a little under 300 pages, set in England, and utilizes a dual POV and past/present timeline alternating between chapters. This is similar to the author’s previous release, The Au Pair.

I received an electronic copy of this book through a sponsored giveaway by the publisher, facilitated through NetGalley, in exchange for honest feedback.

The USA Today bestselling author of The Au Pair returns with another delicious, twisty novel–about a grand estate with many secrets, an orphan caught in a web of lies, and a young woman playing a sinister game.


I read The Au Pair last year on a whim. I just searched in my library’s database for the keyword “England” and the book popped up. I had no prior knowledge of the book whatsoever; in fact, based on its cover and title, I thought it was a romance. However, it was a really surprising and captivating read. I decided to be on the lookout for more by Rous, and I was quickly rewarded with news of this release of The Perfect Guests. Yet, I was left feeling a bit let down with The Perfect Guests… unfortunately for me, it was not worth the excitement.

As a reviewer, I do not like leaving negative feedback. However, sometimes negative feedback is the most honest feedback. As I discussed above, I am a fan of the author and their previous book; I want her books to succeed. Despite my build up to what is going to be some critical points made, I will say that the book holds a 3.49 average rating on Goodreads (over 5,000 ratings).

Without further delay (anxious sweating), I need to dive into some of my feedback for this book. The review will first be a summary (spoilers will be indicated before in bold, so be careful) and then a review which includes the pros and cons of this book. Scroll to the very bottom for links to where you can get it if you feel so inclined!

Summary

The past storyline is set in 1988 with Beth Soames as the main point of view character. Beth, a preteen, is orphaned after her parents and disabled brother are killed in a car accident while rushing to the hospital. Through these circumstances, she ultimately arrives in the care of the Averell family. The Averells live in a large, grand estate (Raven Hall) in the Fens, which is coastal area of east England, and seem pretty welcoming when all things are considered. Beth meets their daughter, who is around her age, named Nina. The story follows these two girls as their friendship develops. One of the constant themes throughout this development is Beth’s sense of identity being tied to 1) keeping the family happy so they don’t chuck her out, 2) listening to what Nina wants to do because of #1, and 3) not having much opportunity to leave the estate due to its isolation from the local village and Nina’s parents’ rigid insistence that they stay on the estate. They find some solace in exploring the grounds, including often swimming in the lake (see cover photo) and hanging out with one local boy.

The modern timeline is set in 2019, with the main point of view being Sadie, a wanna-be actress struggling to make ends meet. We are introduced to her as she is clearing out her mother’s belongings and receives a call from her agent about participating in a murder mystery event as a hired guest. When she hears about the pay and the opportunity, Sadie is invigorated and readily agrees. When she turns up to the (seemingly) elaborately organized event at Raven Hall, she has mixed feelings about the guests, the estate, and the host. There seems to be a lot of fire damage to the building, and some of the areas of the home are just plain creepy. According to locals and information she gleans, the family who had lived in the Hall for ages had been turned out since a tragedy occurred some decades before… but now, guests are arriving who seem to have mixed emotions, various ties to the place, or just seem a bit off. When all is said and done, Sadie is wondering if this isn’t just an acting gig… and she may be correct.

Summary P2 (Spoilers)


This book utilizes dual timelines (past and present day) and two different main character points of view. The past is focusing on the Averell family (owners of Raven Hall) and Beth, and the present focuses on Sadie and the guests at the all-but-abandoned Raven Hall. The reader knows that a tragedy happened at Raven Hall due to Sadie’s timeline revealing this info, but it is not clear until about halfway to little bit over halfway through what exactly happens. This is the build-up: the reader knows a tragedy is going to happen in the past timeline (due to foreshadowing given in the present day), and thus knows that the present day timeline (murder mystery game) is shady and very likely related to this event.

Spoilers below this line in this section due to the nature of the discussion on themes utilized by the author. This would spoil some of the plot revelations if you are looking to read this book. Scroll past this until the next section to avoid.

There are several themes throughout the character development in this book which relate to the overall plotline. One of the major themes is Beth’s sense of obligation to the family. As the family takes Beth in with seemingly no legal or moral obligation to do so, Beth seems to feel bound to pleasing the family, following their rules, and not making much fuss. Leonora is Nina’s mom, and she has some rigid rules about her daughter’s life, including all but limiting her to isolation at the estate. She does not often leave the area, and she only has one other real friend, a local boy named Jonas. As you can probably already guess, there is romantic tension in this whole situation. Having developed a teenage relationship with Jonas, Beth starts to detach herself from the obligations of keeping to the estate or following along with what Nina wants to do… however, something even more impactful occurs which alters her forced loyalty the family.

Throughout the story, a “grandfather” figure often travels to the estate from his base in the USA. Every time, the family just straight up freaks out, especially Leonora. Her husband, Marcus, travels the world for business, so sometimes he’s not there… but he’s often there when the grandfather figure turns up. The relationship between the grandfather and Nina’s parents is very tense, as he is characterized as harsh, unreasonable, and terse. Unfortunately, on his first visit, Nina is too sick to come down to see him (for the first time ever), so Leonora asks Beth to pretend to be her. He wouldn’t know because he’s never met or seen a picture of her, so why not? She dresses up a bit differently, does her hair up, and plays the violin for him. He is moved and wants her to come back with him to America, which she declines. This is recurring plot point, but it just becomes odd that Nina is always suddenly too sick to see her grandfather when he does turn up…. and that Beth has to pretend to be her every time…

In the present day, Sadie takes on the acting job of pretending to be a guest for this murder mystery game at a fancy estate (Raven Hall, former home of the Averells and Beth in the past timeline). The whole thing seems really organized and legitimate, from the promised pay to the formalities of 1) her invitation, 2) going through her agent, 3) sending her clothes and instructions, 4) picking her up and transporting to the location. It all just seems like a budding enterprise hoping to act out a game in a perfect setting: an old, abandoned estate with a blemished past. However, Sadie starts to pick up on some of the body language of the guests and the pitfalls of the host and game. Something just seems off; the building seems spooky, one guest in particular seems very agitated and out of place. There’s no cell phone service, and the cars are gone… a few people just got a bit sick off one of the dishes… someone has disappeared? It all seems to be going to pieces when…

You guessed it, there’s an ulterior motive for having this get together. But why Sadie? And who is everyone else? And why?

Major spoilers!! Please don’t read past this line if you have any intention of reading this book. Skip to next section (see headings).

The reader knows that there is a tragedy coming. The present-day Sadie timeline knows that something happened at Raven Hall, but we don’t know what. We do know that the past timeline is probably building up to that revelation. Importantly, there are several things going on that hint at what it could be. First, there is the hunch that Leonora is poisoning Nina, but we don’t know why. Beth figures out that it’s something in her drink and it’s linked to grandpa’s visits. Could it be one poisoning too far? Or could it be that the secret will be let out and something happens to Beth? Or could it have something to do with the lake… it’s on the cover, they go out there a lot, and there’s something going on with Nina and Beth’s relationship as they start to clash over boys, wanting to go out, disagreements, and her parents. Why is there fire damage to the estate? It’s damaged near Nina and Beth’s old bedrooms; did they get trapped in a fire? If so, why and how?

There’s also something going on with the whole grandpa storyline. Why does he keep coming back? Why does he want to get rid of the estate and why does he want Beth/Nina to come back with him so badly? Also, what’s the whole deal with Leonora being so attached to the house? Who is running the mystery game and why… is it revenge?

Well, we figure out that Marcus (Nina’s dad) has died around the time of the tragedy. Did it have something to do with the fire? Did Leonora or the grandpa go crazy and try to get rid of the estate? Or was it something to do with…

yep, yet another timeline. Sometimes we get to read this other POV but we don’t know (or at least I didn’t) who it is until the end of the read. Someone is sneaking around trying to get back into the estate but someone else lives there now. Is it Leonora after being turned out? Is it Beth due to being kicked out? Or maybe Nina coming back to reclaim after her parents couldn’t keep it for some reason?

Who bloody knows…. because….

Review


This book has way too much going on and none of it made any sense by the end. It’s convoluted, trite, and forced. Too many twists, no substance to most of them, and little character development enough to understand why any of this is happening. This is especially the case with Sadie’s timeline. So many new characters are introduced (although several are not technically new, as they are featured in the past timelines) and the reader is aware that they have some ties back to the past, but it’s not clear how or why. The ultimate point to all of this was that the family, specifically Leonora, was obsessed with Raven Hall and for some reason they are turned out. It becomes a point of the book that the murder mystery game has something to do with that, but we don’t figure out why until the last few sections.

As I said earlier, I liked The Au Pair. The weakness of that release (and many other reviews agree with this) was the ending. The build up was interesting and entertaining, but the final bang was unbelievably forced and left me thinking, “Really? After all that… this is the big revelation?” It’s like the conclusion of an undergraduate paper written before the deadline… it’s like you just want to get it over with, so you slap it together and say bye. That’s a real shame because I think Rous is talented and a budding author in this genre. I think that she has a knack for the dual pov/timeline writing style, but her weakness is in 1) the endings, 2) too many loose plotlines.

This book would’ve benefited substantially from being clearer in its character development, concise in its choice of twists and turns, and choosy with its elements of suspense. You have an orphan, poison, fire, spooky house, murderer, dead husband, mean grandpa, murder mystery game, someone may have disappeared, house marred in tragedy, someone is snooping in the yard, was someone upstairs or left that door open?, did someone poison the dessert, why did she look at me funny?, I’m going to snoop in people’s rooms, ew this room is creepy, oops someone tried to catch me on fire…

But why though?

That’s the main critique that I have. Why? Why? Why? Drive it home. Why did these characters care so much about this place, why stage a game to exact revenge?

Spoilers

To hide false paternity? Really. That’s all? Because someone fell in the lake and died… but didn’t really? Only one person did, and it wasn’t who you thought because you ran away and hid your whole life and identity and now they found out and want to kill your daughter that they’ve been stalking so they came up with this huge elaborate plan to do so?

I guess. It just ends abruptly with a Scooby-Doo style, “and I would’ve gotten away with it too!” ending and I just didn’t like it.

Which stinks because I was looking forward to this release. I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you think I’m wrong and it sounds really good. In which case, I say go for it! I want Rous’s books to succeed and I will give her next book a go, whenever it comes. I just think that I see some patterns for improvement in The Au Pair and in The Perfect Guests. As with all writers, practice makes perfect and with each book, I hope the best for her stories!

Links

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53231988-the-perfect-guests

Jane in Love (2020)

Jane in Love

Book: Jane in Love
Author: Rachel Givney
Publication Info: 2020, William Morrow
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Romance, Time Travel, Alternative History

I received an early review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for honest feedback.

Summary

Regular ol’ Jane Austen is 28 and unmarried, and that’s a big problem for a lady in 1803. All she really wants to do is write and wander around Bath, imagining her stories, but outside pressures beckon for her adherence to the social standards of the time. Rebuffed and momentarily embarrassed by matchmaking gone wrong, Jane utilizes a local’s help and finds herself transported to the year 2020. Understandably, she’s just a bit shocked, as coming to terms not only with the spell she’s under and the wonders of the future takes its toll.

Jane Austen Profile: Novelist of the Romantic Period
I just wanna write and read, is that such a big deal, smh…

Jane materializes on the set of an Austen period drama right in front of our secondary character, Sofia. Sofia is a beautiful, highly sought after film actress who is coming to terms with 1) a divorce from the director of the film she’s currently in and 2) feeling overshadowed and losing her spark. Believing Jane is an elaborate behind-the-scenes prank due to the nature of the film, so she ends up going along with Jane’s assertion of her identity and ignorance of the 21st century. During the course of events, Jane meets Fred, Sofia’s brother, who she has conflicting feelings for. As Jane starts to realize she’s famous in the future, she has to make some tough decisions about what she wants from life.

Review


I am going to approach this review in two ways. First, I will approach as a die-hard Jane Austen fan. The second approach will be taking the book at face value, as if I could replace “Jane Austen” with “Mary Smith” and the storyline would stand as is. I think this helps me not only contextualize my feelings about the book, but it also is fair because my negative thoughts stem from the first approach and wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the main character wasn’t Jane Austen. Does that make sense? Read on, maybe it will…

The book begins with Jane Austen pretty much getting set up with a rich man she just met who she daydreams might be a fun match; her mother is absolutely gasping to get Jane married off, and she sells one of her most treasured necklaces to pay for an extravagant dress with the expectation that marriage is imminent after one meeting. Word gets back that the man gets engaged to someone else, Jane is embarrassed. Mum comes in and finds GASP! THE DREADED PAPERS? JANE! HAVE YOU BEEN WR…. WR…. WRITING AGAIN? And she burns the manuscript. Jane’s super upset about it, but eventually she takes a scrap to a witch and gets transported in time, so it’s all good.

My first major, major issue with this book is the way Jane’s mother is portrayed. It’s honestly like the author watched Pride and Prejudice (2005) and modelled her after Mrs. Bennett. From what we know, Cassandra Austen was not a busybody snob who disapproved of Jane’s writing. Quite the contrary, she was supportive of all her children’s intellectual capabilities and they all received good educations. Right off the bat, I was feeling pretty bummed about think book. Strike 1, so to speak.

However, it didn’t really raise any additional major issues of that nature. So, moving on… Specific spoilers after this point.

So, Jane has to deal with modern Britain. Like I said, she materializes on the set of an Austen period drama where everyone is about to do a dance sequence, so she thinks she’s just wandered off and woke up somewhere weird (keeping in mind they’re in period dress, so it looks somewhat normal). She has a Darcy-Elizabeth esque interaction with Fred, and pride and prejudice happens. Haha.

Moving on, the dealing with Britain part of the book is actually quite funny. Jane’s got to find the old witch’s house, so she’s seeing cars, the Tube, getting on trains, figuring out money and prices of things, gets pickpocketed. The true London experience. One of the best parts of the book that I think goes unstated in many reviews is that Jane Austen has had a long lasting impact on culture, arts, and literature. When she goes through the museum or sees her books in a shop, I really smiled. It made me wish that this book were actually possible, and that Jane Austen knew that we are still loving her work so many years later.

Jane Austen Centre, Bath
Imagine going to the future and seeing you have a museum named after you and following your life… that would be like a weird fever dream for sure.

Her interactions with modern society are hilarious and often made me think that they would make a great film or short series. It would be something I’d watch if somethings were tidied up, such as:

Now, she experiences an interaction with a bookseller that is a bit ridiculous. She helps him out in a very minor way, and he offers her a rare edition of one of her novels because she’s enthralled with it — why didn’t he recognize her? Like, she’s holding one of her own books and he wouldn’t be like, “Wow, you look like Jane Austen! You’ve never heard of her? No? Well, take this rare book because you helped me not drop any.” Okay, I know this is a time travel novel and we should suspend our reality, but come on.

Combining this with Sofia’s long, drawn out whining about her sleazy husband not wanting her anymore and trading her for a younger starlet, I don’t know why 45% of the story was included. It needs an Edward Scissorhands style chop in many areas, and if that happened, I think it would be a really fun book.

Now, what was done really well makes up for a lot of this, in my opinion. Sofia thinking that Jane was an actor for behind the scenes / prank scenes was a really good idea. It helped Jane have interaction and build a relationship with someone from the present without someone just thinking she’s nuts…. end of. I think that the author did a great job at covering many of those bases that would make this totally ridiculous, even if I found some of it a bit lacking.

As for the romance, it doesn’t really come into play until the late bits of the book, almost to the end. It’s a slow-burn situation, but Jane actually likes him for quite some time (in my opinion) and only realizes after a near-death accident. Jane has to decide whether she wants to stay in the modern day with her newfound love or go back to her day and write her books. See, if she stays, her books get erased. It’s kind of like that time travel trope where if you mess with something in the past, it alters the future, and vice versa. I won’t say what her decision is, but I found it to be bittersweet.

TL;DR

Pros: This book is funny, unique, and includes Jane Austen (that’s a pro, even if there are some elements I thought could’ve been better). Light, easy, and mostly clean. My favorite parts were Jane navigating modern London. Author did a good job at making some of these storylines cover plot holes that could easily have sprouted up with a storyline like this. Where some failed, many others succeeded.

Cons: Jane Austen’s mother being portrayed like an uppity woman who did not approve of her writing. Sofia’s long and drawn out whining about her terrible, sleazy scumbag of a husband not wanting her anymore. Fred and Jane’s marriage is a bit rushed and unrealistic (I mean, less than a month of knowing one another, but whatever, it’s time travel…. the whole thing is unrealistic!).

Rating: 3 stars for “liked it”

Links

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50706465-jane-in-love

Broadchurch (2014)

Book: Broadchurch (based on the television series of the same name)
Author: Erin Kelly
Publication Info: 2014, Minotaur Books
Genres: Fiction, Cop Drama, Police Procedural, Mystery, Suspense, TV Novelization

Broadchurch

Today’s book is Broadchurch by Erin Kelly, published in 2014 by Minotaur Books. It is based off the UK television series Broadchurch, which ran for 3 seasons a few years ago. It was a total hit, but I didn’t get ’round to watching it until 2020’s quarantine brought opportunities to blow through that endless To Be Watched list. Immediately, I knew I had come across an awesome show. I am already a fan of Tennant and Colman, so I cannot believe that it took so long for me to watch this show; however, there are so many other movies and series out there that I haven’t watched yet, knowing darn well they’re probably just as good.

When I found out that there was a book version of the show, I was curious to know how it translated. Earlier this year, I also watched “The Stranger” on Netflix, a UK rendition of a Harlan Coben book of the same name. The show and the book were dissimilar but kept the major premises; so, I wanted to see how the book interpreted the show.

It’s interesting to see how books and media are related. Books are made into shows or films, and sometimes shows are turned into books. So, in this instance, I’m sort of talking about both the show and the book because they are almost identical in all ways that matter.

Summary


In an idyllic coastal English town, the murder of an 11-year old boy shocks the small, tight-knit community. We are introduced to detective Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman in the show), recently returned from a transatlantic vacation hoping for the good news of a promotion; however, she is gutted when she finds out she’s been usurped by an infamous cop from a botched high-profile case, Alec Hardy (David Tennant in the show). Career tensions are however set aside momentarily when the body of a teenage boy is found on the beach of Broadchurch, and Ellie and Alec are tasked with finding out what happened.

Broadchurch' Returns, a Disappointing Shell of Its Former Self (Trailer) |  IndieWire



Ellie discovers quickly that the deceased is Daniel (Danny) Latimer, the son of her close friends Beth and Mark Latimer and the best friend of her own pre-teen boy. The story spends time developing Ellie as a detective — this is her first big murder case, she is so close to the family and community that it is hard to put those biases aside). Whereas, Alec’s hardened nature, while frustrating to Ellie, guides her during the investigation. The storyline is similar to that of the “small-town community has secrets unveiled during investigation of a crime” trope. Characters have motives that are hidden under layers of secrets. Each of these secrets are suspicious in their own right.

Ultimately, the investigation takes its course, and they do figure out who killed Danny. This book only covers the first season of the show, so if you’ve watched the show, then you know who it is and what happens after during the trial. However, as just a book, you’ll only know the killer and assume that it is over.



Review


First, let me say that I loved the Broadchurch television series (season 1 is great, 2 is good but I could do without the Lee Ashworth storyline, 3 is okay). For the purposes of this review, I’ll just be taking the book into consideration, but I will preface this section by saying that the book is a pretty solid rendition of the show. It stays true to the dialogue, nature, premises, and actions of the characters. If you’ve seen the show, you know what happens in this book.

This is my first book by the author, Erin Kelly. Immediately after finishing Broadchurch, I picked up another of her books (I got several when checking out at the library), The Burning Air. So, really, I can say this: Kelly has a straightforward way of writing. She does not spend extra pages talking about the beauty of someone’s frown lines. In the case of this book, her interpretation of the show is straightforward and true to the plot. In several cases, I think it’s pretty much exactly the same dialogue and timeline.

So, let’s approach this as if you hadn’t seen the show and it was just a book you found at the library. First, the writing is straightforward. There is a litany of characters, all intertwined in this intimate small-town, which means that you have to either keep track of them all or only focus on Ellie or Beth. You may find it difficult to form any attachment or allegiance to the characters in the book, whereas the series is the exact opposite (I think I was rooting for Ellie and Alec, as well as the Latimer’s from Day 1, with blind allegiance!). The book moves quite quickly, and since there is a lot to digest without any significant amount of time spent with one character or POV, it may all feel rushed. Yet, at the end of the reading, these are my key takeaways:

The book and show’s entertainment value came from two areas for me. The first is the relationships of the town’s citizens.

Broadchurch series 2 episode 8 review - Den of Geek

There are a lot of characters to get to know in this book. You have Ellie and Alec as the two lead detectives. They each have their own backstory, with Ellie having Joe and her sons involved in the plot; Alec has a brooding backstory but it doesn’t come up hot until later in the show. He does however bring baggage and journalist Karen. You also have the Latimer family (Mark, Beth, Chloe, Liz, and Danny). They are all part of the plot and have some sort of development as characters. Then you have the attractive Australian pub owner, Becca Fisher, and the creepy news agent, Jack Marshall. Oh, and don’t forget the cute and modern vicar Paul. The gambler Aunt (Ellie’s sister) and her son, Olly, the journalist, who works with Maggie at the Broadchurch Echo. There’s also Nigel, Mark’s best friend and co-worker, and his side story with the creepy misanthrope Susan. There’s a lot to cover here… but it all weaves together quite concisely in the end.
The second factor contributing to the value of this book’s entertainment value is the revelations and secrets that serve as sort of red herrings during the typical “small town” uncovering during the investigation of a high profile crime shtick. The best part in Broadchurch is how all of these secrets and revelations actually turn out to harm the pursuit of justice (see: second series, you won’t know that in the book). In the book’s view, the killer is found out not due to the revelation of all these secrets and twists, but rather due to the perpetrator just giving up the ruse. As a result it seems like all of this was done for a waste — so many lives were touched by the killer, some more than others in terms of harm…. but this, in my opinion, is an example of how a “happy ending” is not really happy in all cases. It’s just an ending, it’s the best you can get in this situation.
This novelization would not be as impactful if you didn’t know the show’s plot or ending before you read it. The value of this storyline is best exhibited through its media portrayal, with excellent acting from household names. Yet, if you are a fan of reading and a fan of reading interpretations of tv shows you like (some reviews I have seen are like me: I like to see what others see in the show, how they convey the same story I watched) then this will be a good read for you.

TLDR

Book gets 3.5/4 stars. It’s good, but the tv show is better.
TV Show gets 5 stars for me for the first season. The rest is fine. I loved the courtroom drama, but the new characters not so much…

Content Warnings: Murder, death of child and related grief processes, PTSD, cursing, sexual references, inappropriate sexual relationships (adultery and adult-child). They say that there is not any sexual relationship between the killer and Danny, but there is grooming and inappropriate relations regardless. Suicide. 

Links

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19561890-broadchurch