Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Book Review: Kiss Kill Vanish by Jessica Martinez

Imagine being 17 and being head over heels in love. Valentina Cruz was living a favored life of opulence and ease in Key West. Her father's art dealing business provided them with all the necessities of life and then some, and his new employee, the handsome and charming Emilio, took her breath away, and miraculously (to her) reciprocated her interest. He even chose her over her two beautiful, fashionable, and popular older sisters. Even though her mother left them when Valentina was very young, life just couldn't be better.

Until she watches Emilio murder a man, shoot him in cold blood at point blank range, at her father's order.

Her life completely upended, unsure who she can trust, Valentina runs. Landing in Montreal, she scrapes together a living playing on the street with the mandolin she stole from Emilio. She learns how to do basic things - laundry, cooking, cleaning - that she'd never had to do before and gains pride in her self-sufficiency. She starts modeling for a local painter, befriends a local restaurant owner who allows her to practice her mandolin in the empty bar after closing, and finds a dingy apartment she can afford to share with roommates. "This is a cold, disgusting hellhole, but it's mine. I pay for it with money that nobody was murdered for."

Of course, that's not the end of it, and Valentina is dragged back into a criminal world of murder, intrigue, and suspicion.

Despite the rather extreme circumstances, Valentina's character rang true as a teenager who discovers that her entire life is a lie. Just about every time she turns around there's something else she learns that was kept from her, another person who withheld the truth or used her or isn't who she thought. She begins to look back and see the small details she ignored growing up that all pointed to the truth, "but when you've known something forever, you don't see the evidence against it, not even when it's sprouting all around you, blooming and strangling like noxious weeds. Really. You don't. It's only after, looking back, that you see the choking innocents [sic], and then you hate yourself." Confirmation bias is a powerful thing, but man, girl's going to have major trust issues for the rest of her life.

The beginning of the book is pretty slow-paced, more a psychological study than action novel.  The inner workings of Valentina's mind, trying to process the incredible betrayal and falsity of her life, were fascinating and engaging.  Martinez deftly navigated Valentina through a journey of rebuilding from the ground up, deciding who she wants to be and how to get there on her own. Themes of what integrity is worth, wealth and poverty, the ends justifying the means, running away versus facing problems head on, the pain that knowledge and truth can bring compared to the pain that comes from willful blind ignorance, are all dealt with through Valentina's eyes.

The action picks up about half way through, which is where I started liking it less. The plot twists get more and more fantastic and less and less believable, and Valentina starts making some pretty rash and ridiculous decisions, like sneaking across an international border and trying to take down a drug cartel and a corrupt FBI agent all by herself. Well, ok, not completely by herself, but with a recently-cleaned-up druggie she barely knows.

The strength of this book is the tension Martinez writes into the character of Valentina, her struggles to define who she is when everything she has known is ripped away from her and her determination to maintain her integrity on her own terms. I feel the action toward the end distracts from that, though I can see how others would read it as the natural, though far-fetched, progression of her journey.

Kiss Kill Vanish
by Jessica Martinez
ISBN: 9780062274496
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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