September Book Review Club: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

I love suspense thrillers – really, if I’m being honest, they’re my favorite kind of book. I love to tuck into a good mystery or a nonfiction book about a topic I love but, at the end of the day, it’s suspense thrillers I go back to when I want to get lost in a book. They’re fast-paced, plot focused, and have just the right amount of tension to keep you up reading into the wee hours of the night. The problem, of course, when you read a lot of books in the same genre back to back is that the plot lines start to feel… old. Nothing is fresh. The “surprise twists” start to be come predictable, the characters do exactly what you expect them to do, and the bad guys all have the same motive. If you’re lucky, the writing sets some apart from others, or maybe some exotic locales can serve to add a dash of something new.

That’s why, after reading Emma in the Night, I realized that I had lucked into something great.

The story starts with a bang, as 18-year-old Cass Tanner knocks on her family’s front door late one night. Cass has been missing and presumed dead, along with her older sister Emma, after they both disappeared one night three years prior. As family and investigators gather around her to hear her account of what happened that night, Cass begins to tell her story – a story that involves a baby and an escape from an island where she and Emma were being held captive. The forensic psychologist assigned to the case of the missing sisters, Dr. Abby Winter, is suspicious of how polished Cass’ story seems to be, as she has long believed something else was going on in the Tanner household when the girls disappeared. In alternating chapters, Cass tells investigators how to find her sister while Abby seeks to discover what, if anything, Cass feels she still needs to hide.

The multiple POV style seems to be gaining popularity in the genre and sometimes it feels overused but here it was executed perfectly. You get to hear Cass’ inner thoughts as she narrates her story for her audience, all the while following Abby as she becomes increasingly emotionally invested in the case and begins to see herself and her family in Cass’. As the book goes on both characters become *less* reliable, leaving you on unstable footing as a reader. For a less talented writer this could cause the characters to seem inauthentic or less sympathetic, but in Walker’s skilled hand this feels more like two sincere people who cannot both possibly be telling the truth.  The narration unspools like this gradually until you suddenly realize that you don’t know what has been the truth and what has been a lie. Small revelations appear at just the right time, hinting at something larger that dances just out of view of the reader. When the truth comes out, it’s jaw dropping. In most of my reading I can say that I saw bits of the ending coming even if I didn’t actually guess the entirety of the outcome. With this one I was completely blindsided and couldn’t have been happier to have been so surprised. It was entirely satisfying, especially because the book stayed strongly character driven throughout.

My only real criticism of this novel is that some of the mental illness suffered by the characters was dealt with in a heavy-handed way. I think most readers would recognize the problems this family was facing without it being spelled out so directly and it felt a bit like a “tell” rather than a “show” by the author. However it was such a small problem that the rest of the novel’s strengths more than made up for this flaw.

To find a thriller that examines mental illness and it’s devastating effects on a family while also maintaining a strong pace and compelling characters is a treat. This is a novel I highly recommend.

 

For more great reviews this month, check out Barrie’s Blog!

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@Barrie Summy

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Despite this being the story of the famous Borden ax murders, at it’s heart it’s really the story of a terribly dysfunctional family. Sarah Schmidt’s novel paints a fabulously unsettling picture of the Borden family – a family ruled by a tyrannical, miserly patriarch, an addled stepmother, codependent and unstable sisters, and poor Bridget the maid, who sees everything but is powerless to intervene or escape.

Lizzie is an unreliable narrator (as is to be expected, I suppose) and the narration in the chapters told from her perspective is dizzying in it’s erratic and piecemeal presentation. Her thoughts jump around, concentrating heavily on sensation – what she felt, saw, heard, tasted – and she focuses on seemingly unimportant details (these details would prove to be important later, of course). I am delighted, however, to see that the other characters in the story are very well fleshed out and were what grounded the novel when Lizzie’s narration took a fantastical turn. Schmidt’s ability to write the characters in such a believable fashion serves to highlight just how unbalanced Lizzie was.

The gruesome nature of the crimes lends itself to a few death scenes in the novel which are handled in an understated but deeply unsettling way. The reactions of each character to the bodies are entirely in line with their characters. For those with squeamish stomachs, I advise avoiding food while reading. Also perhaps food after reading as well considering how food is also handled in the boo (the MUTTON STEW! <gag>).

This book is dark, haunting, unsettling, but also beautiful in it’s style. Schmidt’s expert combination of historical accuracy and creepy storytelling makes for a superb and fresh retelling of a well-known American murder.

(Thank you to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic Press for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Final Girls by Riley Sager

Final Girls attempts to turn the horror trope of the “final girl” – the blood-stained heroine who makes it out alive at the end of a slasher-horror flick – on it’s head, with great success.

Our heroine, Quincy, is one of three “final girls” but is trying desperately to move on with her life. Between her baking blog and her fiance, she’s making a good start. The police officer who saved her life contacts her to let her know that the first “final girl”, Lisa, has been found dead in her home of a suicide. The other final girl, Sam, shows up at her apartment out of the blue, and the news hits that Lisa’s death might not have been at her own hands.

For anyone who is a fan of the slasher horror genre, this book is a treat. It reminded me so much of Scream that I could almost picture the scenes in my head, playing out like a movie, as I read. This book is not a wink-and-nudge commentary on the genre, though. It takes itself very seriously and, as a result, does a better job translating into a proper suspense-thriller than it might have had it attempted any level of camp. Watching Quincy’s perfect facade crumble under the strain of Lisa’s death and Sam’s arrival was cringe-worthy, and I found myself shouting at her to just go back to baking! The flashbacks Sager used to fill us in on exactly what happened the night of the massacre Quincy survived were well executed and were a nice way to show, rather than tell, the reader about that night. Sager successfully juggles several red herrings that lead up to a twist that, I’m happy to report, I didn’t see coming in the least. (Others have said they did correctly predict the ending, so perhaps I should have as well. I was just having so much fun I clearly wasn’t paying close attention!)

This book is pure entertainment and a ton of fun. It’s entirely suitable, though, for someone who stays away from horror but might want to dip their toes into something that will leave them up late at night with the lights on. 🙂 (Does that classify a horror-lite?)

* Thank you to NetGalley and Dutton for an advance copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.*

May Book Review Club: The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

Hercule Poirot is having a quiet dinner in his favorite London coffeehouse when he encounters a young woman who confesses to him that she is terrified of being murdered but refuses his offers of assistance.  Later that day Poirot hears of a series of bizarre murders at an upscale London hotel and accompanies the Scotland Yard detective staying in his boardinghouse to the scene of the crime. There they find three bodies laid out identically in three separate rooms …each with a monogrammed cuff link left in their mouth. He can’t help but think that the young woman he met earlier that night may be the murder’s fourth victim…

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 I personally really enjoyed this book, though I know it’s taken some hard hits from other reviewers and even some critics.  I didn’t go into this expecting the writing to mimic Christie’s writing because – and she’d tell you this herself – Sophie Hannah isn’t Agatha Christie! Of course the writing won’t be a replica of the original Poirot works.  Hannah does, however, capture Poirot’s personality – his disdain over a lack of imagination in his detective partner, his excitement when he’s put two clues together, and his pompous explanations at the close of the book.  Hannah also successfully captures the importance of motive and psychology to the plot. She is able to show us both the morality and the darkness of the characters in her story in a way that was vitally important in all of Christie’s work. The charming English village, the “locked room” setting for the murders, and the narrative voice of Catchall, Poirot’s sidekick from Scotland Yard all act to set the scene for a tale told in Christie’s world, if not in her voice.

In the end, the Monogram Murders should not be looked at as a “continuation” of the Poirot library, but rather a new interpretation of an old familiar character. The puzzling twists and turns of the plot, the voices of the characters, and the seeming impossibility of the mystery are all echoes of the Christie I love, with the fabulous writing of Hannah to pull it all together.

For more great reviews this month, check out Barrie’s Blog!

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@Barrie Summy

April Book Review Club: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Rose is out riding her new bike when she falls through the earth and makes an astounding archaeological discovery – a massive hand, buried in what appears to be some kind of man-made chamber whose walls are covered with carvings. Seventeen years later, Rose is a physicist, working to crack the code of the carvings on the cave walls, hoping to find an answer to the hand. Theories and conspiracies abound, especially in light of carbon dating that places the hand well before technology should have existed to create such a thing. As Rose and her colleagues are interviewed regarding their work by a man who seems to know more than he lets on, the question remains – what is this ancient sculpture and is it safe in the hands of those who hide it from the American public?

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“Am I ready to accept all that may come out of this if it works? It might give us the cure for everything. It might also have the power to kill millions. Do I want that on my conscience?”

This book was just a ton of fun. Mysterious artifacts, government conspiracies, fringe science, international political intrigue, an icy “mastermind”…this book was like a science-fiction version of Indiana Jones, if Indy had ever stuck around after getting back from his treasure hunting. It was solidly science fiction while still being grounded in enough real life to make it feel relatable. That’s not to say the science was sound (interspecies breeding when it comes to humans is an old trope but still firmly in the realm of fiction) but it was at least recognizable, to some extent.

The story is told through journal entries and interviews, with a handful of radio transcripts and news reports thrown in as well. It’s been done (and perhaps overdone) but it worked really well here. The interviewer becomes a character in and of himself and you come to realize that he knows a bit more than he originally lets on. I got a total Smoking Man vibe from him and loved every bit of it. Interestingly, you eventually realize that the “files” you’re reading are numbered and that they are incomplete – numbers are skipped with no explanation – and I immediately wondered if this was a part of the mystery. Are they implying that there’s information we’re *not* being given? Will we see it later? As mysteries are solved more arise, teasing the reader all the way to the end.

All in all this book was a complete win for me. It was exciting, action-packed, and I can’t wait to dive into the sequel, Waking Gods, that was published today.

(Thank you to NetGalley and to Del Ray Publishing for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Want more reviews? Check out the Book Review Club over at Barrie’s Blog!

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@Barrie Summy

March Book Review Club: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

How interesting can a book about a group of parents brought together when their children attend the same kindergarten class possibly be? Very, when put in the capable hands of Liane Moriarty.

Madeline is a fixture at Pirriwee Public School, having sent her 14-year-old daughter Abigail through already. Now, on her daughter’s kindergarten orientation day, she is confident that the morning will be business as usual. It is, until a stumble in the street brings her into contact with Jane, a new mom in town. Madeline introduces Jane to her friend Celeste and the three are fast friends. By the time orientation is over Jane’s son has been accused of hurting a young girl in his class, Jane defends her son when he says he didn’t do it, Madeline defends Jane from the girl’s angry mother, and battle lines have been drawn. The book takes off from there, touching on school bullying, helicopter parenting, sexual violence, domestic abuse, female friendship, self-confidence, single parenting, money, blended families, the pressure of keeping up appearances, and the dangers of gossip while racing toward a stunning murder during the school’s Trivia Night fundraiser.

Sending your children to school is not unlike going back to school yourself and Moriarty captures that with biting accuracy. The “Blonde Bobs” (known for their similar fashionable haircuts) are the Type-A moms of Pirriwee Public, running committees and signing petitions. Moriarty perfectly captures these women and the children they treat as trophies. One parent quips that a mother is lucky to have a child that is both gifted and has a mild peanut allergy, exemplifying the ways in which motherhood is often viewed as a competition and how having more of a struggle is seen as a badge of honor and a sign of dedication. There’s also a quiet rivalry brewing between the “career moms” and the “stay at homes” that any mother would probably recognize on some level. As a woman with a child in elementary school, I do not find these characterizations to hit far from their mark.

Moriarty peppers the novel with police interview tidbits from the other parents at the school that serve as a Greek chorus, commenting (usually with a delicious bit of snark) about the goings-on at the school. Their insight into the dynamics of the school community were a great insight into how much gossip and social alliances can color the reputations of others. They were often some of the funniest, laugh-out-loud moments in the book.

Mrs. Lipmann: Look, I’d rather not say anything further. We deserve to be left in peace. A parent is dead. The whole school community is grieving.

Gabrielle: Hmmm, I wouldn’t say the entire school community is grieving. That might be a stretch.

The characterization was perfect, with each woman, husband, and child having a unique voice and well-developed persona. The infuriating voice of Madeline’s teen daughter was even spot-on, projecting just the right balance of self-absorption, self-righteousness, and naiveté all at once. When you can accurately capture how infuriating and adorable a 14-year-old girl can be, you know you’ve done something right.

There were no wasted scenes and no points at which the book dragged. All of the subplots converged and were resolved at just the right time and the ending was satisfyingly believable. In the end, Big Little Lies showcased just what kind of lies we tell ourselves and other and the disastrous consequences those lies can have.

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@Barrie Summy

Flu strikes serious reader…

In a perfect world, when a woman obsessed with books is knocked into bed by a nasty flu bug she should be able to plow through piles of books between bouts of coughing and sips of tea….right?

Nope.  Not this time.  I’m struggling to make my way though a 350 page YA – The List by Patricia Forde.  It’s good.  I like it.  I don’t have the energy to hold my tiny kindle and stay awake for more than a few pages at a time.

Useless lump of germs here.  Boo hiss.

So, I’ve checked out the February BOTM choices to have my box shipped…cuz when I feel better I’ll need more books on my shelves.  On their way to me are The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker and Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson.  It’s the little things.

 

February Book Review Club: Security by Gina Wholsdorf

“The best security is invisible security. The most thorough safety is safety one’s object of protection doesn’t know about.”

Security is really best described as a slasher film in book form and hits all the right notes in that regard. It follows the story of Tessa, the hotel manager at Manderly Resort, the newest, flashiest high-profile resort hotel on the Santa Barbara coast. As she oversees the staff in their preparations for Manderly’s grand opening the next day a killer stalks the halls, murdering everyone who crosses his path. All of this is narrated by a mysterious stranger who is watching the bloodbath over the hotel’s closed-circuit security system.

Told in the third-person omniscient voice, Security has a different feel than most novels. Because the narrator is telling the reader what happens as they view it on the hotel’s incredibly comprehensive security cameras, we get not only a play-by-play of the horror as it happens but also this unknown viewers opinions which are usually laced with a bit of dark humor. For example, we get this during a scene in the kitchen:

“Brian is attacking the grease on his hands with a kitchen towel. The towel has red stains on it, most likely cherry coulis. One could not rule out the possibility that the stains are not cherry coulis.”

One of the things that makes this book unique is the way the author chooses to show simultaneous action. The pages are split in half, thirds, or quarters with each scene playing out in those sections, giving the impression that they are being viewed on side-by-side television screens as they are being relayed to the reader by our mysterious narrator. In any other book this might feel gimmicky but here it’s used perfectly (and sparingly) to remind you how the narrator is privy to the events as they unfold. I also have to add that when you slowly begin to realize who the narrator is, your jaw will drop. It was a stroke of genius that I never saw coming.

The characters were both stereotypical in their make-up – the tightly-wound girl boss, the faithful maid, the temperamental French chef, etc. – but incredibly well-developed at the same time. The book follows traditional slasher-film rules so much that each death is predictable but in a way that doesn’t decrease the enjoyment of the book. (I actually had fun guessing who would die next!) Despite all the blood and gore there’s a certain playfulness in it’s tone that makes it a fun read. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and because of the format, as a reader you’re able to join in on that fun. You’ll find yourself thinking “NO! Don’t open that door!” as you read, just like you would were you watching it on a screen. It was a total success in that regard.

With nods to Stephen King, Alfred Hitchcock, and of course Daphne du Maurier, this debut – DEBUT! – novel is a gift to horror fans. Security is funny, clever, bloody, and tremendously inventive. It certainly isn’t going to be for everyone but if you like slasher films and don’t mind a little gore in your life, give this a try. Pop a bowl of popcorn, grab a soda, and settle in to read this book from start to stop. You’re not going to want to stop reading and this book almost requires movie theater butter.

Backlist Bump: This novel is so unique there’s no book I would recommend based on structure, but if you want to be familiar with a handful of the many references found in the book, read Stephen King’s The Shining, Rebecca du Murier’s Rebecca, and Cornell Wolrich’s It Had to Be Murder.

For more great February reviews, please take a look at Barrie’s blog:

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@Barrie Summy

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

This is the first book I’ve read by Kathleen Rooney, and it’s the first book of 2017 to get 5 stars.

Tuesday, January 17th is the publication date for this amazing book, but if you’re a member of the Book of the Month club you may have snagged your copy early.  If you haven’t put this on your TBR – do it.  Order it, reserve it at the library – but read it!  It’s fantastic.

It’s December 31, 1984.  Lillian Boxfish is 84, getting off the phone with her only child who is letting her know that his step-mother is dying, and he’d like her to move to Maine to be closer to him and his family.  Lillian loves New York City.  She’s not going anywhere, other than to dinner at 5:30 for her New Year’s Eve tradition at a friend’s restaurant.

She walks to the restaurant, but finds she’s not hungry, and after a drink decides to take a longer walk around the city she loves, passing by various places that have played significant roles in her life.  She encounters people along the way with the best and the worst intentions.  Lillian sees them with a keen, clear eye, and levels people with her sharp wit, and with understanding that she has learned in her 80 plus years of life.

Lillian is a feminist, a career woman, a poet, a lover, friend and mother.  She looks back on her life with a clarity and sense of humor that is a joy to read.

I’m thrilled that NetGalley gave me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for a review.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

Bryn Greenwood’s novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was my favorite book of 2016.  Thought provoking and original, it left me recommending it to nearly everyone.  It does have some themes of neglect and abuse, so it’s not for people who don’t enjoy books that have darker themes.

This novel starts in 1975 from Amy’s perspective. Her weird, mute cousin Wavy is visiting with her baby brother Donal. Wavy won’t talk, won’t eat and doesn’t play normally. Amy finds her fascinating – and Wavy is.

The story spans 15 years, from 1975 – 1990, while we get the story from virtually all perspectives – Wavy, Donal, Kellan, Amy, Val, Brenda, Renee…and more. The reader sees an incredibly complex story of chronic abuse, drugs, friends, family, sex, love and hate. Told by a less skilled writer, this could have been an incredibly ugly novel, but instead, the love and beauty are allowed to shine through the ugliness, and we can see that broken, illegal, legal, and love are all different based on perspective and that the best intentions can lead to both hell and to redemption.

I couldn’t put this book down – the plot is fantastic, moving along quickly, giving the reader multiple points of view on a scene when needed, or only one. It allows the most jaded reader to believe in looking beyond the surface appearance, or the words on the jacket, because the story comes from knowing both the ugly parts and the beautiful ones, and some of the mundane between.

Families have always been different from one another, but the family that is different from the heterogeneous norm has historically been so hard to justify – this novel examines the most imperfect group of people and sorts through the beautiful and ugly parts to show the reader that good can win, that families are difficult and hard to categorize but still love.

Bryn Greenwood has a fantastic, utterly readable narrative that is nearly impossible to put down. I woke at 3 am and was too tempted by her words to roll over and try and sleep, so instead I picked up my Kindle again. She is clearly and amazing talent and I look forward to more books by this author.

 

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26114135-all-the-ugly-and-wonderful-things?from_search=true