I’ll Be You, by Janelle Brown***

Janelle Brown has written several successful novels, among them Watch Me Disappear and Pretty Things, both of which I read and reviewed; I rated both five stars. So I was greatly looking forward to I’ll Be You, anticipating the same sort of page turner I associate with this writer. Sadly, that’s not what I found. Though it has some nice moments, the pacing doesn’t measure up, and the whole thing is burdened with trite story elements and devices.

Nevertheless, my thanks go to Random House and Net Galley for the review copy. This book will be available to the public April 26, 2022.

The premise: Samantha and Elli are twins, and they grow up in Southern California as child actors, with the sort of rabid fan base that makes it hard to go out in public. Sam loves acting, but Elli doesn’t, and as they grow up, Elli leaves it all behind, attends college, then marries a successful career man and buys a home in the ‘burbs. They can’t have children of their own, but adopt Charlotte, who is now two.

Samantha discovers the horrible truth, that her skills were good enough when she was a child actor; twins are popular in the industry, because child labor laws prohibit any child from working more than half a day. Identical twins can each work a half day, and so filming can take place all day. Once she is grown and looking for a single, adult career, however, she finds roles hard to come by. The drug habit she’s developed as an adolescent burgeons into something larger, more horrible, and she’s been in and out of clinics ever since, sometimes on her sister’s dime.

Now Elli has taken off and left Charlotte with their mother, who is having trouble keeping up. Mom calls Sam, figuring that helping care for Charlotte is the very least that Sam owes their family. And Sam comes. Soon it becomes clear to Sam that Elli isn’t just off on a weekend retreat, but has been absorbed into a cult; in order to save her sister, she has to (yeah, this again) pretend to be her. Meanwhile, Mom is no help whatsoever, caught in a combination of denial and family roles, in which Elli is the good daughter, and Sam isn’t.

So we have here just about every overused element I’ve seen in the last ten years. We have the alcoholic addict that wants to drink but mustn’t, needs to use, but must resist. Over. And over. And then we have Bad Mama, a very popular mechanism of late. Mothers can rarely be good guys in today’s novels, and they’re (we’re,) such low-hanging fruit. As if that isn’t sufficient, we also have the twins-changing-roles trope, slightly modified. Even the name—Elli—can anybody out there write a novel, oh please, in which the protagonist is not Allie, or Alex, or Ellie, or some other variant on this same, eternal name?

I made it through the first forty percent or so withholding judgment, because I figured this author is one that can pull it out of the water and make it shine. But I realize this book is not up to snuff when I see how frequently I am setting it aside to read my other galleys. When I read the other two of Brown’s novels mentioned above, I started them, stuck with them to the exclusion of other books, finished them fast, and reviewed them. This time I would often consider opening it, and then decide on another book instead. Finally, I resolved to finish it, and so I did, but as you can see, I wasn’t impressed.

Brown is a capable novelist, and I’m not giving up on her. Anybody can have a dud someplace in their career. But as for this book, I advise you to read it cheap or free, if you read it at all.

Best Historical Fiction of 2019: Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts

Honorable Mentions:

The Last Act, by Brad Parks***-****

Tommy Jump needs money.  His acting gig is about to end and his girlfriend Amanda is pregnant. Then an old childhood friend contacts him about an unusual acting role—that of criminal. Tommy and Danny go back a long way; Danny invites Tommy to sit down and asks him to do a job for the FBI that involves infiltrating a prison. It’s risky and involves being locked up for a goodly while, but the money is enough to live off of for years, and the upfront payment will provide for Amanda and the baby while he is away. It doesn’t take long for Tommy to agree.

I was invited by Random House Dutton to read and review this psychological thriller, the first of a new series.  Author Brad Parks has won the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty awards, so it’s fun to get in on the ground floor here. This book is for sale now. (Another title by this author, “Closer Than You Know,” was released the same day but isn’t from this series.)

While Tommy—who now poses as Pete Goodrich, a high school teacher locked up for his one and only felony—is away, Amanda, who’s an artist, gets an invitation to meet with a prominent gallery owner. Turns out the gallery owner wants Amanda to share something more personal than paintings, and here I have to wonder why this thread is even included.  Jodie Foster, an actor, producer, and director, once remarked that men all tend to go down the same path when determining motivation for a female character.  Almost reflexively, they say it was rape. She must’ve been raped. She is traumatized by rape. And so when the gallery owner reaches into Amanda’s shirt, I roll my eyes and say, here we go again.

Fortunately, this event has little to do with the rest of the story, and once we are past it and back in jail with Tommy Pete, the pace quickens and tightens. Our protagonist is charged with getting close to a big player in a Columbian cartel, a man in possession of important documents that Danny says can crack this whole case. Tommy takes risk after risk in ways that were never planned and that could, if things go amiss, either buy him an extended sentence he’ll probably have to serve, or worse, could get him dead. The prose is taut, and the pages turn themselves. Who’s lying, and who’s telling the truth?

The story is almost entirely Tommy’s, but we briefly meet Tommy’s mother. Amanda and Tommy go visit her before he pleads guilty, and initially I bristle when they agree on the drive over to tell Tommy’s mother to ‘behave herself.’  Perhaps it’s because I am the mother of three grown sons, but I felt a snarl forming when I read this. Don’t talk to your mother that way! But that disappears completely when we meet this woman, whose nickname is “the BBC” because of her propensity to share personal information widely. I love this character! I. LOVE. THIS. CHARACTER. Our time spent with her is way too fleeting, but since we are on book one of the series, I suspect she is introduced to us for future reference. I hope Park will develop her with care and skill. I want to see Park develop a female character, but in particular, I want to see him develop this one. Because I really, truly, very muchly looove—wait. Did I already say this?

Ahem. I may have gotten carried away. Now where were we? Ah yes, this is the place where I ruin the ending by telling you how it all shakes out. No, of course not! Go get it and see for yourself.

Recommended to Parks’s readers, and to those that enjoy a good series.