Tag Archives: psychological thriller

Review: Fierce Kingdom

As excited as I am about each of the books I choose from Book of the Month Club, I’m acquiring a little backlog of them. So I’m proud of myself for reading at least one of my (two) new August selections within the month! It wasn’t only satisfying to cross a title off a list, though– Gin Phillips’ Fierce Kingdom is an incredible read.

fiercekingdomAbout the book: Joan and her four year-old son, Lincoln, frequently spend their afternoons in the zoo after Lincoln’s school session. On this day, though, they’re far back in the children’s play area, completely alone, and cutting it close to make it back to the gates before closing time. Joan hears a noise she can’t place, until she sees bodies littering the ground on the path to the zoo’s exit. She spends the next three hours running and hiding from gunshots and “bad men,” trying to keep her son quietly obedient without frightening him. Animals are loose, the few straggling visitors who were trying to leave just before closing are running amok, and unexplained gunshots cut through the air near and far as night falls and the police fail to take the situation under control.

“The glass makes all the difference. A dog or cat– a domesticated thing– is totally different. A wild animal in front of you, not a pet but a real animal, is every impulse all at once. You believe it is sweet and affectionate, and this can be true, but it will also make you bleed without remorse. […] You cannot know a wild thing.”

There are a lot of great technical aspects to this book– the level of suspense worked into those three hours of panic, the focus on the psychology of the characters, the setting of the zoo, the age of the boy, the careful but not-boring descriptions of each feature of the zoo. But there are also a few details that felt weak. For instance, there are chapters mixed in with Joan’s that highlight the other characters’ perspectives. Is the purpose of these chapters to humanize the characters and make the reader more sympathetic to each of their cases? If that’s true, I think they’ve failed. Joan has such a level of observation that we learn more about these other characters, and perhaps feel sorrier for them, when we see them through her eyes. With the exception of the chapters of the gunman’s perspective, which add suspense to Joan’s terror (although they don’t give the reader much explanation of his motives, which feels like another failure), the book would’ve been stronger if it eliminated those extra chapters and stuck to Joan.

“The outside world is irrelevant. It is, somehow, clarifying to feel her shirt snagging against the bricks behind her and to feel the pain in her left shoulder where Lincoln’s weight pulls and to know that it is only the two of them, and it has been from the beginning.”

I also thought some of the plot details went a bit wonky. For one thing, there’s a time when Joan finds a supposedly soundproof room. She’s suspicious of how safe and soundproof it really is, and yet even as the girl who opens the room is talking about hearing the vibration of the vending machines through the walls, and the sound of a door opening, and the shots from the gunman, Joan never seems to pick up on these details as proof that sound passes through the room.

I was also skeptical of Joan’s inuries. She’s only in the zoo for three hours, large chunks of which are spent in stationary hiding. She’s resourceful. So it surprised me that she would be so careless about wounds– that she wouldn’t seem to mind at all when injury happened accidentally, that occasionally she would cause or exacerbate her own injuries, and that when she noticed she was injured she did nothing to care for the wounds. She seems like the sort of person who would be conscious of the dangers of blood loss or an inability to move certain parts of her body. She’s worried from the beginning about her sandal breaking, but she never takes a moment to check it and see if anything can be done to prevent that. Carelessness about her personal well-being is, to an extent, understandable while she’s so concerned with her son’s safety, but she can’t keep him safe if she’s dead. It doesn’t make sense for her to be so observant about everything around her and yet remain so blind to her own condition.

“She wonders, again, if God is punishing her for thinking her child is more important that the other woman’s child. She would do it again in a heartbeat, cannot really regret it even with the guilt weighing on her like wet wool, and she wonders, sometimes, about her ideas of God.”

Fierce Kingdom‘s strength lies in the shocking psychological layer to the thrilling tale. There is not a lot of fast-paced action, although there is some, but the real thrill originates in the shock value of what this mother will do or not do to keep her own son quiet, hidden, and safe. Would she separate from her son? Would she face a gunman? Would she face a loosed animal? How will she act toward the other people fleeing and fighting for their lives? How far will desperation drive her to go?

“This would be different if she were alone. If she had been strolling through the zoo by herself when the gunfire started. She would have run, surely. She would have hidden. But then what? She is reasonably strong and reasonably fast, and she is smart, and if she were alone, she would by now have decided that she should not be waiting around for anyone to save her.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’ve seen mixed reviews for this one, so I started out a little wary; I was pleasantly surprised. You know that tone of writing in thrillers that keeps the reader feeling like something’s off even before the action starts? This book gave me that feeling from the first page to the last one, and constantly kept me guessing even though it’s more of a race against the clock than a mystery. This isn’t a tale of a quest for answers, it’s an exploration of humanity, and it felt alarmingly plausible. Another BOTM win. 🙂

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like new psychological thrillers with an eerie atmosphere and a close look at character, check out Ruth Ware’s new release, The Lying Game. Although the plot of this one is very different (a murder mystery involving four girls who did something stupid in their days of new teenage friendship), there is also a small child in this one, with a protective mother who must stay one step ahead of the danger.
  2. Another new psychological thriller choice with high stakes and introspective focus is Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water, a well-crafted mystery of women who’ve turned up dead in the Drowning Pool. Practically everyone in town looks suspicious in one way or another, but someone knows the truth.

What’s next: I’m currently reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is a classic fantasy/adventure that I know some small details of (Gandolf, a ring, a quest, a dragon, etc.) but not much else yet. I tend to start my classic of the month too late, but I think I will finish this one before the end of the month, and (/because) I think I’ll enjoy it.

Do you prefer classics with solid reviews behind them, or new releases you can help the book community “discover” by taking a chance before it’s proven to be great?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

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Review: The Lying Game

I’m still mentally kicking myself for putting Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood back on the shelf that first time I saw it, because when I did finally get around to reading it, it instantly became one of my favorite books of the year. I also loved Ware’s 2016 release, The Woman in Cabin 10. So of course, I pre-ordered The Lying Game and read it within the first week of receiving it, but this review will be different from those other two, because Ware’s 2017 release is a whole different creature.

thelyinggameAbout the book: Isa spent one eventful year at Salten House boarding school, in which she made three best friends who played a game of lies. The game alienated them from the rest of the girls in the school and the townfolk in the village, reinforcing their friendship. But there were rules to the game–rules about lying to each other, and knowing when to admit the truth, and those rules have been broken. Now, seventeen years later, a body has surfaced near the Mill where the four girls spent their free time before expulsion from the school, and their lives begin to unravel. Isa hasn’t seen any of her friends in years, but she packs up her infant daughter and travels to Salten immediately when she gets the message. Despite changes that might have driven the four apart over the years, they are still inextricably linked by a lie they’ve been telling since that night at the Mill… a lie that incriminates them all, but will be even more deadly when the truth surfaces.

“We have been lying for almost twenty years, the three of us. But now, at last, we know why. Now, at last, we know the truth.”

The best things about They Lying Game are 1: the atmosphere, and 2: the characters. Ware does a fantastic job drawing unique characters with complicated backgrounds, and on top of that the location feels almost like a character itself. There are dark corners, strange noises, problematic storms, and isolated spaces. The dilapidated Mill house is as much essential to the story as the people who inhabit it. The Reach they all swim in is as much a friend as a threat waiting to pull someone down into its depths. The Lying Game is full of seemingly ordinary details that are twisted just enough to turn dangerous. The main character’s mounting anxiety creates plenty of opportunity for shadows to take on a life of their own. And Ware lets them have it.

“Why didn’t I realize? Why didn’t I realize that a lie can outlast any truth, and that in this place people remember? It is not like London, where the past is written over again and again until nothing is left. Here, nothing is forgotten, and the ghost of my mistake […] will haunt me.”

The downside: this pacing is so slow. The tension is almost all internal worry with very few cues from the outside world to indicate that there really is something amiss. I would classify this as a mystery rather than a thriller, unlike Ware’s previous books. It felt a lot like the shift between Paula Hawkins’ first book, The Girl on the Train, and her new, slower novel, Into the Water. Both sorts of mysteries have their merit, and The Lying Game is still full of psychological intrigue, but I think it’s important to know which variety you’re picking up, because finding a different pacing than you’re expecting can affect your experience of the book.

Let’s also talk about missed opportunities.

First, there’s very little actual danger. The main character, Isa, has a small baby, still breastfeeding, who goes everywhere Isa goes and is never far from her mind. There’s so much focus on the baby that she’s an obvious vulnerable point for Isa. Every time Isa leaves the baby alone with someone new or leaves her sleeping alone in a different room, I thought something would happen with the baby. But on the few instances when there seems like a possibility for the baby to be in danger, the problem is solved before it even becomes a problem. I probably sound like a creep, wishing for something terrible to happen to an infant, but in any sort of murder mystery the main characters’ vulnerable points should be pushed in the narration. A missing baby or a baby held hostage as Isa gets closer to the truth would’ve really ramped up the stakes in this one, but instead baby Freya seems only to be along for the ride, rather purposelessly.

“All at once, I have a strong urge to snatch up my sleeping baby and press her into my breast, hugging her to me as if I can fold her back inside myself, as if I can protect her from this web of secrets and lies that is closing in around me, dragging me back to a decades-old mistake that I thought we’d escaped. I am starting to realize that we didn’t, none of us. We have spent seventeen years running and hiding, in our different ways, but it hasn’t worked, I know that now. Perhaps I always knew.”

Secondly, the Tide Mill is a secluded house, deteriorating on the edge of a body of water. The electricity is faltering and unpredictable, the wooden walkway leading to the house from the shore is completely covered with water in high tides, there is no reliable car on the premises for anyone to make emergency trips into town– instead, the quickest way to civilization is through miles of dangerous marsh. Eventually, the house does become a part of the plot. But none of the details that make it a great spooky setting come into play. When the main character finds herself alone in the house with a potential killer, there’s very little fear because the house is familiar and everyone inside it has been a friend to her. The Lying Game does atmosphere well– but it could have used that atmosphere once its established. Instead, it misses that opportunity.

But at least it’s not too predictable. I had it narrowed down to two choices for the killer, and even though one of them turned out to be correct, the mystery still didn’t end the way I expected.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m disappointed that I didn’t like this book more, because I absolutely loved Ware’s previous two books. It’s not even the fact that it wasn’t really a thriller that disappointed me– I love a good slow mystery as well. It just felt like there was so much unrealized potential in The Lying Game. Nevertheless, I was still drawn in by the writing and the setting, and Ware remains one of my favorite novelists. I will absolutely still be picking up Ware’s next book, whatever it may be.

Further recommendations:

  1. Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water also involves a body washing up from the water, although this one really did drown–the question is whether the drowning was intended, and by whom. This one’s also a slower psychological mystery, though the stakes are higher.
  2. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go is an excellent mystery/thriller that seems to start slow and then increases quickly. Even that slower-paced beginning turns thrilling when the reader discovers all the secrets perfectly concealed in the first part of the book.
  3. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is full of domestic intrigue in a group of friends whose children are involved in a bullying scandal at the local kindergarten. The politics of the parent group, combined with the unsolved mystery of what’s happening in the kids’ class, keeps the reader guessing and ends with a shocking death.

What’s next: I’ve recently finished reading Riley Sager’s Final Girls, a slasher thriller also released in July that’s a lot more pulse-pounding than The Lying Game. This one’s way more than suspenseful– it’s like watching a gory horror film unravel in your mind. Stay tuned for more details.

Have you read any great mysteries lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Girl Before

The Girl Before is a psychological thriller, and JP Delaney’s debut novel (although I believe it’s a debut under a pseudonym from an author who’s been published previously). I bought it on a whim  when it was brand new, and picked it up this month as a much-needed palate-cleansing thriller. Probably not many people consider thrillers palate cleansers, but the good ones are quick reads that run lightly through the gamut of emotions and plot devices and seem to work for me as a reset button on my reading mood, which is helpful at the end of a long month.

thegirlbeforeAbout the book: Edward Monkford is a mysterious, slightly creepy, totally obsessive architect, famed for his minimalist designs. He’s built an extraordinary house in London that can be rented cheap–which attracts a lot of attention to the space, but only a rigorous application, a personal interview, and a lot of luck can secure a new prospective tenant access to the home. There is a list of rules a mile long for how new residents are to live in the space, and the fact that the house collects constant data on its inhabitants is enough to discourage some potential renters. But Emma and her boyfriend, Simon, make the cut and take up residence at One Folgate Street, only for things to go awry very quickly. Three years later, Jane is granted permission to live in the space, and is sucked into the mystery of Emma’s unsolved death as her own life is increasingly entwined with Edward Monkford and One Folgate Street. Jane tracks down all of Emma’s old connections, finding odd parallels to her own life in places, and glaring inconsistencies in others. Her involvement–or perhaps her presence alone–sets danger in motion, and soon it’s not only Emma’s life on the line.

“It’s a fortress, I’d said to Simon. But what if the house itself decides not to protect me? How safe am I really?”

About the layout: The first hundred pages or so of this book continually impressed me. The narration starts out with two alternating perspectives (Then: Emma, and Now: Jane). These two main characters are both distinctly different and beautifully parallel. Right away, the two characters are set apart by their private circumstances, and the sections are also easily distinguishable by their dialogue–the Then: Emma sections do not use quotation marks for spoken words, a tactic that both helps set her apart and gives her sections a feel of memory rather than physical presence, which is fitting because her story has already ended several years before Jane’s starts. Once the two women are separated in the reader’s mind, however, their stories become a tennis match of back-and-forth rallies: one of the women tours One Folgate Street. The other one decides to apply for residence there, and sends off the application packet. The first woman’s application packet is accepted. The second woman moves into the apartment. Etc. There are so many similarities between what happens to the two women regarding the house and its architect that many of the sections seem to pick up right where the previous one left off. The only times both stories are narrated in full detail are to display repetition in Edward Monkford’s habits. Futhermore, the unlabelled chapters are also divided with headers featuring odd questions from the application packet that both pique the reader’s interest and pertain to the content ahead. It’s a gorgeous and effective format that’s both easy to read and logistically pleasing.

I will admit, though, that the tension is mild, at best. For the first two thirds of the book there’s intrigue and foreboding rather than anything really terrifying or dramatic. The reader learns early on that Emma has died mysteriously. The reader is also guided to believe that Jane’s story is following a similar, disastrous path. That, and Edward’s growing creepiness, are the driving forces through much of the book, rather than any immediate danger.

“I can’t go back, I say. […] When something’s gone that wrong, you can’t ever put it right.”

Seeing the ending coming a mile away is one of the biggest downfalls of a book for me, but that’s not exactly what happens here. There’s a good amount of misdirection, which leaves the possibility of surprises. If the reader can figure out which point of the story to focus on, the plot twists aren’t ground-breaking, but neither are they overt. All of the clues are given before they puzzle is assembled, which means that prediction is possible. But the narration is multi-layered enough that even when a prediction plays out correctly the reader is propelled onward to see how all of the misdirections will fall into place.

My problem with this book did not stem from predictability, but rather from a let-down with the final reveals. The climax of the story passes quickly and with few shocks. Once the true culprit is made known, the clues are obvious. Even that didn’t bother me. It was the  language usage at the very end of the book that finally made me dock a star. The narration repeatedly tries to nudge the reader into shock, using phrases like, “And then I finally told him the truth,” and “This was my intent all along,” followed by rather bland reveals that seem to matter little after death has struck. I did retain a lot of respect for the choices the characters each made at the end–the book wasn’t wrapped up too neatly, but everyone went the way their character seemed destined to go, be it for better or worse. It was the fact that the story kept trying to make me think something grand and outlandish was happening when there were only bland, minor details left to be explained. And yet, as I mentioned, I remain content with each character’s ending.

“You can make your surroundings as polished and empty as you like. But it doesn’t really matter if you’re still messed up inside. And that’s all anyone’s looking for really, isn’t it? Someone to take care of the mess inside our heads?”

It also bothers me a bit when psychological thrillers draw on the trope of dangerous men preying on women who look a certain way. (There’s definitely a Fifty Shades vibe in this book. I’m recommending adult audiences only, here). I can understand how it might be startling and strange to meet someone who looks very much like a lost loved one, but matching victims seems like such an obvious tactic.

Furthermore, secrets are unrealistically unguarded here. Everyone involved in Emma’s life is just helpful enough to provide the next clue for Jane–the psychologist, the retired cop, the ex-lovers; everyone’s willing to share a name or personal detail.  Are real people so quick to share other peoples’ private information?

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I didn’t love the characters of this book, but I was okay with that because I don’t think the reader is meant to. At some points, in fact, I was truly disgusted by some of the things they said or did or even thought. And yet the construction of the book was laid out so perfectly that I didn’t mind some questionable content. I don’t think this is a book for everyone, but for readers who look as much between the lines as at them, the style of the formatting in this book is worth any imperfections in the story itself. I believe this is going to be made into a movie, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for it, as well as for future works by this author.

Further recommendations:

  1. Whether you like The Girl Before or not, if you’re looking for a great mystery/thriller with an unbelievable ending, it’s Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough. This one has a slower, more literary start, but again, all the clues are woven in and you still won’t guess where this one’s heading. If surprises in books are your thing, this is the book for you.
  2. Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger is another good recent release involving a unique home, a death, and an unexpected look-alike. This time, though, I fully support the use of nearly identical women because it makes an excellent plot point.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the recent(ish) sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird. I may or may not review it in full. I don’t usually post complete reviews of classics–my thoughts on To Kill a Mockingbird will go up in my monthly wrap-up and I’m not sure yet whether to post for its sequel or whether it makes more sense to simply review it more briefly alongside its classic counterpart. I’ll decide as I’m reading. Either way, you’ll see my thoughts on Go Set a Watchman soon. And after that, I’ll be starting a new fantasy trilogy and reviewing its first book, A Discovery of Witches, as usual.

What are you reading to wrap up the month of May? Anyone else use thrillers as palate cleansers?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: I Let You Go

Clare Mackintosh’s debut thriller I Let You Go has been on my TBR for several months, but I finally dove in. I know February is the month for romance, and it’s also black history month, but a thriller is always a nice palate cleanser for me between books I feel more obligated to read. This one, though, turned out completely different than I expected.

iletyougoAbout the book: one rainy evening, a five year-old child is walking home with his mother when an erratic driver comes out of nowhere and ends his life. The police have no leads. The car and its driver are nowhere to be found. The boy’s mother moves away to escape her memories and the lack of answers behind the crime. But the trouble won’t end for our main characters until the case is closed–and some of them may be in more danger than they think.

“I grip the edge of the table with both hands, anchoring myself in the present as the past threatens to take over. I can hear the screech of brakes, smell the acrid stench of burning rubber on wet tarmac. When Jacob hit the windshield, for an instant he was just inches away from me. I could have reached out and touched his face through the glass. But he twisted from me into the air and slammed onto the road.”

This one starts slow. From all the reviews I’d read/heard, I had the impression that this book was a thriller with great plot twists. I wasn’t really invested in any of the characters or their situations for close to 150 pages, though. I wanted to know who had committed the crime from the prologue and why, but there seemed to be no clues. I couldn’t quite bring myself to care about the main detective on the case who is having trouble with his marriage or the woman who is so traumatized by the child’s death that she moves to a secluded cottage near Penfach and takes up photography to pay her rent. It isn’t until the first plot twist arrives around page 150 that the story becomes real intriguing.

I wish I could talk about the element of this story I loved most, because there’s something so beautiful about literature that combines a great plot with masterful use of the writing craft. And yet, to explain why that slow bit in the beginning became my favorite part of the book would be to spoil perhaps the best plot twist this book has to offer. I was on the lookout for clues in those slow, early chapters, and I still missed entirely the great move Mackintosh makes with her writing. It takes a remarkable author to pull off such an elaborate twist–for the truth to remain hidden until a specific moment of the story, and then for the truth to seem so obvious and apparent once the curtain is lifted and the key detail emerges.

Those first 150 pages bored me. But as soon as I got through them, I wanted to turn around and read them straight through all over again.

” ‘What’s going on?’ I ask him. ‘God knows, love, but it’s always the same. Up and down like a bleedin’ yo-yo.’ “

Part two (of two) feels like a whole different story after that first big reveal. Part one is sad. Part two is scary.

In the first section, we have alternating chapters in two first-person perspectives. Although there are important details gleaned from the detective’s point of view, and he helps ground the narration through that first crazy plot twist, I never cared for him much. I would’ve been happy with a lot fewer details about his difficult son and his unhappy wife and his apparent unwillingness to to change anything in his life in any sort of helpful way for them. All those background details seemed unnecessary to the main portion of the story that truly interested me, and yet there were times when the story benefited from his perspective, so I couldn’t begrudge his presence entirely.

When we hit part two, another layer is added. The reader is given a third perspective, a character who uses the second-person narration style to address his part of the story to one of our other main characters. This guy is charming at first, and then, oh, so creepy. He provides the missing pieces that our other main characters either a) don’t know, or b) won’t admit. This guy holds nothing back. His awfulness (hidden behind charm at first) is extremely compelling, and obliterates any lingering sense of boredom from the first part. Every bad character trait I could possibly imagine this guy exhibiting showed up on subsequent pages. As soon as I thought “Oh no, what if he does this?” he went and did just that. There were times I wish Mackintosh had drawn a line with this character–he becomes so completely evil that he almost ceases to feel human. But the reader still has alternating chapters in the woman’s and the detective’s perspectives to keep him/her on track and the story from seeming too impossibly far-fetched.

This story is dark. Its characters are sad or horrible or down-on-their-luck, or, at times, just plain blind. A couple moments toward the end seem obvious (who sends the victim home before capturing the dangerous criminal who poses a giant threat?) or easy (after Mrs. Peterson spends so long keeping secrets, she spills the whole truth at the first sign that an outsider has an inkling of what’s been going on), the expert layout and the continuous plot twists keep the story unpredictable. Nothing goes quite how the reader thinks is should. Safety is always elusive.

“I hesitate. How can I explain that bad things happen around me? I would love to have something to look after again, but at the same time it terrifies me.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I liked the characters. I liked the plot. I loved the way the story was laid out. I wish I could talk more about how answers are concealed or revealed through the POVs featured in I Let You Go, but the plot and its construction are inseparable here and this is definitely a story best to begin without knowing much about it. This is one of my favorite thrillers since my first experience with Gone Girl four years ago, and I will definitely be picking up Mackintosh’s newer release, I See You.

Further recommendations:

  1. For fast-paced thriller action and crazy plot twists, there’s nothing like Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. Although this one’s science fiction, I would definitely still call it a psychological thriller and it’s probably my current favorite thriller of all time.
  2. Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner is another mysterious England-based crime novel. This one is for readers who like close looks at all the characters’ lives, as in the first part of I Let You Go, and especially the detectives’ perspectives. This crime is depicted almost entirely through the police investigation, but it’s also an exploration of character and tragedy in the same way that I Let You Go explores those aspects.

Coming up Next: I’ve just finished reading City of Glass by Cassandra Clare, the third book in her Mortal Instruments series. This is the last book in the Mortal Instruments series that I’ve read previously, so I still have some interesting looking-back thoughts to compare, and then I’ll be charting new territory (at least for me) as I continue with the fourth book next month. Stay tuned for more thoughts on Clary, Simon, Jace, and the Lightwoods, and their battles between good and evil in the Shadowhunter world.

What’s a book that has surprised you this year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Dark Matter

Blake Crouch’s new science fiction thriller Dark Matter has been sitting sadly unread on my shelf for months, and I finally did the right thing and started reading. This was the last official book on my January TBR, so it was an exciting experience both because the story is out-of-this-world fantastic and because I finally feel like I’m back on top of my reading. If I had read this book a month ago, it would have been on my list of favorites for 2016. Instead, it gets to be my first favorite read of 2017, and I hope it’ll also be yours.

darkmatterAbout the book: Jason Dessen had the potential to be a great scientist, but he dedicated his time to his new wife and son instead of continuing his research. Now he’s an undergrad professor with a teenage son in the Chicago suburbs, and though he wonders what his life would have been like if he’d taken another path, he’s happy with where he ended up. Until he’s kidnapped by an eerily familiar man and wakes up in a strange place among strange people who seem to know him already. The city looks like Chicago, but not quite. Streets have different names. Buildings are moved or missing or replaced. His home isn’t his home, and his family is gone. The problem could be a dream, a brain tumor, or, though at first it seems impossible, an open door to alternate realities. Is it possible that some other version of Jason completed his research and bridged the gap between the known universe and the universes of paths not taken? Or is it all inside his head? Has he been a renowned scientist all along, and stumbled upon a discovery that altered his memory?

“At this point, I’m not even sure what to be afraid of–this reality that might actually be true, or the possibility that everything is going to pieces inside my head. I liked it much better when I thought everything was being caused by a brain tumor. That, at least, was an explanation.”

The scenes of this book are vivid, but no matter how grounded the reader is in place detail, the entire book is a mysterious enigma. After the opening scene of “family night,” (which ends with the narrator announcing that it would be the last night the family shares in their home, an excellent move on Crouch’s part) the reader finds him-/herself just as confused about what’s real and how it’s happening as the narrator, with just enough clues to avoid becoming totally lost in the plot. Dark Matter is nonstop action, with plot twists from far left field that keep the reader guessing through every chapter.

“My thoughts fire at the speed of light. Is there even a drug capable of this? Creating hallucinations and pain at this level of horrifying clarity? This is too intense, too real. What if this is actually happening?”

“And if I have lost my mind, what then? What if everything I know is wrong?”

There’s definitely some science to this story. Just enough to clarify the plot, but it’s a complex plot and the science aspects take some concentration. There are some truly mind-boggling statements in Dark Matter. It’s not so technical that readers can’t follow what’s going on without a scientific background, but there are times you may feel like you’re sitting in on a quantum physics class. That said, it’s the most enjoyable science class I’ve ever experienced.

“What if our worldline [perceived reality] is just one of an infinite number of worldlines, some only slightly altered from the life we know, others drastically different? The Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics posits that all possible realities exist. That everything which has a probability of happening is happening. Everything that might have occurred in our past did occur, only in another universe.”

At its core, Dark Matter is a thriller. If you like that genre, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

What really appealed to me, though, was the concept of a fourth dimension, and of the possibility of access to other lives. I love theories like that. Just when I thought I had a handle on the rules of this world, the narrator would take a step sideways into a whole other world and the rules flew out the window. This is a book that plays with time and space, and “what if”s, and the basics of what makes a person be that person. It’s about questions of reality and identity, set into a thrilling chase to regain one’s life before that life no longer exists.

“It occurs to me that if I do survive, I’ll carry a new revelation with me for the rest of my days: we leave this life the same way we enter it–totally alone, bereft.”

What if you could take another path?

“It’s terrifying when you consider that every thought we have, every choice we could possibly make, branches into a new world.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I wish I could give it more. I loved the characters that felt so real. I loved their choices. I loved the premise. I loved the narration. This is not a book for everyone, but don’t let that scare you–I guarantee it will take you by surprise, no matter what your preconceptions of the book might be. Dark Matter is best approached with an open mind, because it goes where no book has gone before.

Further recommendations:

  1. If the never-ending plot twists are what get you going, you must pick up Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, and if you’ve already tried the first book and found it not to your liking (how could such a thing be possible?) pick up the next book anyway because it only gets better from there. This series is a dystopian tale set on Mars and through space, but it’s the compelling characters and gut-wrenching surprises that sealed the deal for me. Pick it up yesterday.
  2. If thrillers are your literary niche, try Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10, which was released at about the same time as Dark Matter. This one follows a woman on a small ship aboard which one of the passengers goes missing–and none of the others will admit she ever existed at all. Fearing danger for the rest of the people on board, the narrator sets out to discover what happened to the missing woman, and risks becoming a killer’s next target.

What’s next: I’ve just finished reading Flight by Sherman Alexie, and will be reviewing that soon. This one’s a book about an orphaned teen of mixed parentage who looks for meaning in his life after a close brush with death that allows him to experience other killers’ perspectives firsthand. Then I’ll be caught up on my reviews, but never fear–I’m on such a great reading streak that I’ve already compiled a full plan for next week. Great things are in store.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Do you crave books that veer so far from “normal” that the reader must question absolutely everything that’s been told, including the characters’ identities? Search no further that Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a psychological thriller that begins so ordinarily only to leave you wondering whether a single statement can be trusted.

imthinkingofendingthings“Something that disorients, that unsettles what’s taken for granted, something that disturbs and disrupts reality–that’s scary.”

About the book: A young woman and her fairly new boyfriend, Jake, take a short road trip to the farm Jake grew up on. Before they even arrive, however, Jake’s girlfriend is thinking about ending the relationship. What should be a nice meal shared with Jake’s parents turns into a strange evening full of odd coincidences, confused conversations, and a chase through an empty school building late at night. Nothing is quite as it seems, but only the girlfriend seems to notice that anything is amiss. Before long, the reader will begin to wonder whether anyone will make it home from this trip at all.

“Questions are good. They’re better than answers. If you want to know more about life, how we work, how we progress, it’s questions that are important. That’s what pushes and stretches our intellect…Not knowing is human.”

Best aspect: there’s so much commentary, slightly philosophical in nature, about humanity in general. Whole paragraphs about what’s worth living for, whether loneliness is an acceptable condition, how people interact with others and the world; these statements begin as broad generalizations that many readers can likely relate to, but then morph into something a little more twisted that  change the reader’s perspective on what is happening in the story. These little nuggets of “wisdom” seem not only to apply to various facets of life, but to the book itself. In the quotation above, the narrator is championing questions and uncertainty–qualities this book is filled to the brim with. Another example: in stating that thoughts are closer to truth than actions, the reader is guided to pay more attention to what’s inside the characters’ minds than the motions they make in the world. These relatable signposts keep the reader invested in the puzzle and offer clues at the same time.

Worst aspect: when the explanation finally arrives for all the oddities in this plot, it is so brief, and so strange, that much is still left to the imagination. The reader must inhabit the narrator’s mind and make his/her own assumptions about the narrator’s decisions on including certain details. This would be an aspect I could better appreciate if a little more space in the story was dedicated to it. From the slow, ordinary start to the novel (which helps make the uncanny coincidences more unsettling later on), to the gradual build in tension, the reader’s uncertainties about the story feel well-paced and necessary to the reading experience of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. The answers, however, are so compact and drive toward such a hasty end that the only way to truly grasp everything is to follow the narrator’s advice and start over from the beginning with the knowledge about the characters you’ve gained by the end. I love a book that makes me want to read it more than once–I’m a little less fond of books that force me into a second read.

“Both fictions and memories are recalled and retold. They’re both forms of stories. Stories are the way we learn. Stories are how we understand each other. But reality only happens once.”

One definite plus about my experience with this book, however, was that I picked the perfect time of year to read it. I didn’t add a lot of extremely creepy or scary books to my October TBR this year, but this one surprised me with its unnerving plot and shiver-inducing details. This short novel is fraught with eeriness, from mysterious men staring in through bedroom windows, to a dark, dank cellar lined with spooky paintings, to a secret inhabited closet in a locked and deserted school. Reality goes off its rails as one simple thought, “I’m thinking of ending things,” leads to its only possibly conclusion. This book is absolutely frightening not only because of the monsters outside, but the ones within.

“What if suffering doesn’t end with death? How can we know? What if it doesn’t get better? What if death isn’t an escape? What if maggots continue to feed and feed and feed and continue to be felt?”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I would’ve thought this book was perfect if it weren’t for the drastic difference in pacing between the opening and ending. The concept for this novel is particularly appealing to me, and I found the questions and answers equally disturbing and appealing. Halloween really is the perfect time of year for this book. Not only was I pleasantly uneasy while reading this book, but all those little philosophical snippets fed my curiosity about the meaning of life. I’m Thinking of Ending Things has the sort of depth that encourages multiple reads, and will reveal new vantages to the same questions every time. And it’s short, so those potential rereads aren’t daunting. I haven’t gone through it a second time yet, but I probably will at some point. If you like creepy puzzles, pick this one up.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood is another psychological thriller with a creepy puzzle and surreal setting. These characters will also lead you to second guess everything you know about what’s happening in the novel, and the and the answers will surprise and tug at your heart. Read my complete review here.
  2. You may also like Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, a truly frightening psychological thriller in which the narrator’s curiosity for truth will lead to dangerous places, even inside the self. This one’s perfect for this time of year.

Coming up Next: I’m reading Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses, the first volume of a popular YA (though I’d consider it NA) fantasy series. There’s been lots of hype about this one’s sequel, but stay tuned to find out whether the first book about the faeries of Prythian and the mortal who may be able to save them all lives up to expectations.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Couple Next Door

Happy fall, y’all! Looking for a creepy read this October? Start with Shari Lapena’s debut thriller, The Couple Next Door.

About the book: Marco and Anne Conti decide to continue with their dinner party plans even after their babysitter cancels, opting to leave their six month old baby home alone next door. Despite checking on her every half hour and carting around an auditory baby monitor, they’re in for a shock when they return home after 1 a.m. to discover their daughter is missing from her crib. Detective Rasbach is all-inclusive in his search, aiming suspicion at everyone from the missing babysitter, to the Contis’ neighbors, to the parents themselves. Everyone has a secret to hide, but which of them is responsible for the baby’s kidnapping? As Anne and Marco crack under the strain of being questioned about the disappearance of their child, their relationship falters and hidden details of their pasts begin to leak out. But everyone of suspicion seems to be accounted for–so where’s the baby?

I loved this story, but mildly hated its presentation. Here are a few reasons why:

The detective’s close presence in this story opens up the novel for difficult speculation early on. Almost as soon as the police arrive, Detective Rasbach is insinuating that the baby’s parents may be the guilty parties. He suggests that the baby may already be dead. His probing questions and his doubts about everyone’s morality instantly raise the tension of the novel. However, he feels like a literary device planted in the book specifically for this purpose. Detective Rashbach is a very stereotypical sort: very little personality appears other than predictable traits like that nothing surprises him, and he seeks the truth beyond all else. In fact, he was so thorough that there was almost no need to think while reading this book at all–every possibility was spelled out explicitly, thecouplenextdoorand often more than once. Rasbach wasn’t the only character speculating, but he was the only one who felt superfluous. Of course, any good crime novel needs a detective, but I wish this book had found a way to use the other main characters to increase suspense without stating everything so obviously–by eliminating access to Rasbach’s thoughts, the reader would be much more involved in finding the answers to this mystery, and more engaged in the book overall. Being able to see the detective’s actions without being force-fed all of his reasoning would allow for more showing, less telling. Here’s a sample of Rasbach regurgitating information the reader has already been given:

“Detective Rasbach observes the couple closely. A baby is missing. Taken from her crib–if the parents, Marco and Anne Conti, are to be believed–between approximately 12:30 a.m. and 1:27 a.m., by a person or persons unknown, while the parents were at a party next door. The front door had been found partly open. The back door might have been left unlocked by the father–it had in fact been found closed but unlocked when the police arrived. There is no denying the stress of the mother. And of the father, who looks badly shaken. But the whole situation doesn’t feel right. Rasbach wonders what is really going on.”

Another aspect that bothered me about this book was its third person narration. Statements like “Rasbach wonders what is really going on” seem obvious and almost insulting. This also ties in to my call for more showing than telling, but it goes beyond that. The narrator clearly has more knowledge of the situation than any of the characters do, and seems to be toying with the reader like a cat with a mouse: dangling snippets of revealing information in front of him/her that have been denied to the reader earlier for no apparent purpose. I think this book would’ve had a lot more potential if the reader had been able to see directly through each character’s eyes with an alternating first person perspective. To be able to see selective thoughts of all the suspects and still wonder who is guilty and what has become of the baby would give this novel real power.

But don’t let my complaints about the book’s narration steer you awry: I loved The Couple Next Door‘s plot. I like to know as little as possible about thrillers going in, and in this case I knew so little that I hadn’t even expected the kidnapping, which is essentially the main focus of the book. I was expecting a murder, like most psychological thrillers seem to feature, but a kidnapping made this story so much more exciting. And then there were all the characters, all with secrets, but mostly normal ones. Every character seemed absolutely ordinary, sometimes even more ordinary because of their secrets–everyone’s got something they like to hide from the world–but if everyone was so ordinary, where was the baby?

The most interesting part of the book, though, is the real danger that persists for a few of the characters–especially the baby–after all the secrets are out and still the baby is not returned. When the likely kidnapper is revealed, twisted motives and all, and all the only thing that remains to be discovered is the baby’s hiding place, the real tension of the novel begins, and it is glorious. Some are worried about the baby, some are worried about taking the fall and landing in jail, some are not worried enough about landing in jail, but throughout it all the action speeds up rather than slowing down.

“Crime has not worked for him, and yet he seems to be digging himself in deeper and deeper.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was highly anticipating this novel. I thought it would be the next In a Dark, Dark Wood or All the Missing Girls, and maybe that’s why I disliked it. I set my sights high too early. I did end up enthralled by the plot in the last fifty pages or so, when there was more acting and less speculating, but it wasn’t enough to overcome my dislike for the slow and obviously pointed narration for the rest of the book. Don’t get me wrong–this is not a bad book. In fact, it may even be a great book. It’s just not the book for me. Before The Couple Next Door, I read Pierce Brown’s Golden Son, which is a book for intelligent readers. You have to pay attention and think hard about the details to keep up with the possibilities and plot twists. Going from that to a novel in which every angle is presented in excruciating detail multiple times and from multiple perspectives was difficult to take. I felt a bit like my intelligence as a reader, my ability to connect the dots, was assumed by Lapena to be completely absent. I don’t think the story would’ve worked without any direction from the narration, but there is an overabundance of it as it currently stands.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware is a psychological thriller in which a woman who believes she’s heard a murder is trapped on a small upscale boat with guests and crew who deny that the possibly murdered woman ever existed. As the protagonist’s anxiety increases, so will the reader’s. You can find my full review here.
  2. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn would be another great choice for October if you’re looking for a psychological thriller that’s more scary. In this one, like in The Couple Next Door, the suspects are also closer to home than the reader might expect.

Coming Up Next: I’m trying another psychological thriller to keep me in the Halloween spirit, this time Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Crammed full of philosophical thoughts and inexplicable coincidence, this short thriller certainly keeps readers on high alert. Check back soon for my full review.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant