Tag Archives: thriller

Review: Final Girls

When Riley Sager’s slasher thriller Final Girls appeared in the Book of the Month selections for July, my first thought was that it was the wrong time of year for so much gore and horror. But there’s been so much talk about it being the thriller of the year that I had to pick it up, even though it’s not October yet.

About the book: Quincy is a Final Girl. final girls.jpgDuring her sophomore year of college, she spent a weekend at a cabin with five friends, and was the only person to leave alive. How does one come back from something like that? Quincy is still figuring it out. She’s got her baking blog, her victim money, her loyal boyfriend: Jeff, and the cop who rescued her from the massacre ten years ago: her friend and protector Coop. It’s been both a blessing and a curse that she can’t recall the hour of bloody gore that ended her friends’ lives, but now it’s time for Quincy to remember. One of the other two Final Girls has been found dead, and the second just showed up at Quincy’s door, for friendship or blackmail, no one’s quite sure. Could she and Quincy be the next targets? And why is Quincy so afraid that He is still out there, the lone killer she remembers running from through the woods around the cabin, the murderer she saw shot the same day she escaped? She’s right about one thing: the danger is still out there, and no one is safe.

“I’m his creation, forged from blood and pain and the cold steel of a blade. I’m a […] Final Girl.”

You know those cheesy old horror flicks that are as funny as they are scary, where the kids make stupid choices and can’t stay upright when they’re trying to run and some crazy guy (or lady) in a mask walks around slowly with a bloody weapon and kills them all? At first, this book seems exactly like reading one of those movie scripts. It’s complete with new college students staying alone in a cabin in the woods, most of them more concerned with teenager things like birthdays and losing their virginity than with the safety precautions they laugh at. There’s love and love triangles, the ominous glimpses of a single, all-purpose knife, an illicit party with illegal substances, the inevitable ghost stories, and they’re all wrapped up in their own worlds. Enter: escaped asylum patient. Even ten years later, Quincy’s life looks a little cheesy. She’s got a bland boyfriend, a cutesy blog, a permanent Xanax prescription, and she’s most definitely not one of those Final Girls, she’s moved past that.

Except she hasn’t. Just when you think you’re in for an eye-rolling cliche, Quincy shows that all of those details are a shield, and the real Quincy is pretty messed up underneath. The reader has to think twice (at least) about what she’s capable of… and what condemning secrets are hidden in that missing hour she’s blocked from her mind. No one believes she’s really forgotten that night, except maybe Quincy from force of trying.

“I became a blur, a smudge of darkness stripped of all my details.”

Once the mystery starts, all resemblance to those cheesy horror films fades until the only similarities left are the murders themselves and the constant ominous details, the literary equivalent of the scary movie sound effects and slow pans over sharp edged objects and moving shadows. Everything is described with reminders that death is the focus of the novel, and murder is never far from the reader’s mind even in relatively safe scenes:

“I close my eyes, wishing sleep would grab me by the throat and drag me under.”

“I fall silent once I’m actually inside. I don’t want Pine Cottage to know I’m here.”

The best part of this book (and any good thriller) is the unpredictability. Almost every single character looks suspicious, with the exception, perhaps, of the bland boyfriend, Jeff. No one is who they appear, although some characters are more up-front about their true nature than others. I always make a guess about the killer when reading a mystery or thriller, and this time I was truly shocked– so shocked that I couldn’t stop reading until I knew everything, which led to my reading this entire book in one day. The balance was just so perfect–that light cheesiness at the beginning that kept the book fun and self-aware, and then the more intense plot twists and increasing danger as the mystery picked up. I didn’t love all of the characters, but I loved the story that was forged between them.

” ‘What’s that name the papers call you?’ ‘Final Girls.’ I say it angrily, with all the scorn I can muster. I want Detective Hernandez to know that I don’t consider myself one of them. That I’m beyond that even now, even if I no longer quite believe it myself. ‘That’s it.’ The detective senses my tone and wrinkles her nose in distaste. ‘I guess you don’t like that label.’ ‘Not at all,’ I say. ‘But I suppose it’s better than being referred to as victims.’ ‘What would you like to be called?’ ‘Survivors.’ “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This has absolutely been one of my favorite thrillers this year, and you can bet that I’ll be recommending it to all my thriller-reading friends. This book was published under a pseudonym, so I don’t know if the author will stick with that and keep publishing more books like this, but I hope to see another Riley Sager thriller on shelves in the future because I know now to pick those up immediately. Final Girls has reinforced my interest in the genre, and my appreciation for Book of the Month Club. I can’t wait to read my August selections.

Further recommendations:

  1. Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes was a BOTM selection earlier this year, another thriller-with-a-twist. This one veers into another genre at the end, which would spoil the book to talk about, but if you’re looking for mysteries with shocking twists, this is the one. It starts a little slow as a sort of domestic mystery, but the pace and the stakes pick way up at the guaranteed-surprising end.
  2. Anything by Gillian Flynn would be a good fit for Final Girls fans. If you haven’t read or seen Gone Girl yet, you’re missing out on the thriller that made me fall in love with thrillers, and if you don’t want to read that one you should pick up Sharp Objects or Dark Places, both of which are fantastic and will probably scare you.

Coming up Next: I’m just finishing Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, a short fantasy novel about the place where the world as we know it meets the world of faerie. Tristran Thorn, the main character, has one foot in both worlds and needs them both as he sets out on a dangerous quest to retrieve a fallen star for the girl he wants to marry.

What are you reading for a thrill this August?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Perfect Stranger

I read Megan Miranda’s 2016 thriller All the Missing Girls (narrated backward, to surprising effect–link to my review below) last fall, and was eager to pick up her 2017 (loosely termed) companion novel, The Perfect Stranger.

About the book: Leah Stevens’ journalism FullSizeRender (14)career (or more accurately, her quest for the truth) has tanked and sent her life spinning off in a new, unprecedented direction. Eager to escape the fallout, she runs into an old roommate at a bar and agrees instantly to relocating to a small west Pennsylvanian town where she’ll acquire her teacher’s license in a hurry and work at the local high school. Her chosen roommate, the enigmatic Emmy, is running from her own past, like Leah. Leah doesn’t pry. But when crime becomes a problem in the previously quiet town and Emmy doesn’t come home, Leah must risk having her own history dredged up to report Emmy missing. As the cops start the search–led by the attractive Detective Donovan, who’s after truths of his own–Leah is forced to admit that there are a lot of important details she doesn’t know about her friend. When strange links keep appearing between the death and destruction sweeping through town and Emmy’s suspicious actions, Leah is more shocked than anyone to realize that the common denominator to all the town’s emerging problems is the name Leah Stevens. Somehow, even Leah is involved, though everyone has a different opinion on whether she’s a suspect or a victim–or still in danger.

“I had brought myself to a place where people stop caring who you are or what happens to you. The type of place where people don’t look too closely or for too long.”

With many thrillers, the scare comes from the twists and turns, the implications and surprises of the wrong person being in the right place at a bad time. With this one, the creepiness emerges not through the plot twists, but through Leah’s internalization of everything that’s happened in her life. She’s got a history of being accused rather than helped or believed when she tries to tell someone the truth, so she holds everything closer now. Truly, there’s not much action at all for the first two thirds of the book, and yet that was the part that hooked me. The scary parts of this book are the surety that some things will not work out right for the narrator in the end. She has done things wrong that will prevent her from going back to her old life and being re-accepted by the people she’s left behind. There are truths she can’t ever reveal about others because they’ll cause problems for her, too. The scary part is seeing that something dangerous is going on now, and there’s nothing she can do about it.

With her experience as a crime reporter, Leah’s accustomed to proximity with the morbid and frightening, and dismisses it easily. When the trouble starts in Pennsylvania, when she realizes it started long before her move to Pennsylvania, Leah sees that she’s been in danger longer than she ever realized.

“The problem was with me. I had become effectively desensitized to the danger of words.”

Leah’s close relationship with the main detective on the case is both helpful and hindering. He’s the kind of guy who, like her, is willing to bend the rules to uncover the truth. This means that he’s willing to share more information with her than he should, sometimes, but also that when it suits him he’ll use her to reach his own goals, regardless of the consequences for Leah. They need each other, but they can’t quite trust each other. He’s a compelling character in his own right–he’s not the cop that shows up in most thrillers, and that’s why I liked him. He’s just a guy. Sometimes he’s part of the problem. He feels even more real than Leah sometimes. Megan Miranda does supporting characters well.

On another note, while the reader is always looking carefully at every word the characters speak, looking for double meaning and hidden motives in thoughts and statements? Megan Miranda takes a new tack in The Perfect Stranger–or, at least, a less common one. She points out that the reader should be thinking more about what’s not present than what is, which makes the story more of an engaging read, trying to assemble pieces that aren’t even there.

“Sometimes it’s what’s missing that’s the answer. Sometimes that’s the story. The missing knife. Or the No comment, or the demand to speak to an attorney. Sometimes what they don’t say is all the evidence you need.”

My thoughts in context with All the Missing Girls: after the unique structure (the backwards chronology) of Megan Miranda’s first adult thriller, I expected something more from The Perfect Stranger than a straight-forward thriller; and thus, I found myself a little disappointed. I also had been under the impression that these were companion novels–even the cover designs seem to suggest that–but they really don’t have anything beyond genre in common. However, while the story wasn’t quite what I expected, it did interest me enough that I read the whole book in three sittings, in just over 24 hours. Also, the writing style seemed much improved in this newer volume. I didn’t experience those cringe-worthy moments of seeing the writing trying to point something about itself out to the reader the way I did in All the Missing Girls, which made the narration more pleasant in this one.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. While not my favorite thriller of all time, I did not regret reading this one. These are the sorts of thrillers that don’t wrap up neatly, that leave some hidden truths still secret at the end. I like that. I’ve given both of Megan Miranda’s thrillers the same rating, but if I really had to choose a favorite I’d probably say I liked All the Missing Girls better. There are pros and cons to each, of course. I would read another one if Megan Miranda were to publish a third adult thriller in upcoming years, so I’ll be on the lookout for that.

Further recommendations:

  1. All the Missing Girls, firstly, would be a good choice for fans of The Perfect Stranger who haven’t yet read Megan Miranda’s first adult thriller.
  2. If you really want to read a mystery/thriller with a startling (and downright spooky) ending, check out Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes. I’m talking about the kind of ending that leaves readers with the creepy-crawlies, the kind of ending that you never see coming though all the clues are there.
  3. If it’s disturbing characters you’re after, and surprising tactics like Megan Miranda’s backwards narration in All the Missing Girls, don’t miss Caroline Kepnes’ You, a creepy “romance” thriller in which the narration is provided by the unbalanced stalker.
  4. And finally, if you like the struggling/ruined journalist aspect mixed with small-town intrigue, try Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, where one writer goes back to her hometown to write a story that she did not expect to turn personal.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Leigh Bardugo’s Ruin and Rising, the third and final book in the Grisha trilogy, which I started earlier this year. I can’t wait to see how it’ll all end, and then to dive into the Six of Crows duology soon, as well. Although I don’t particularly like all of the characters in this trilogy, I can’t wait to find out what Ravka’s fate will be, and what will become of the Darkling. I’m determined to finish this one before the end of April, so expect a review soon!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Behind Her Eyes

I was so glad to see that one of the Book of the Month Club selections for February was a proper thriller–brand new, hot off the press of course–because that’s exactly what I was in the mood for this month. I was even more excited for Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes by the time it arrived in my mailbox, and I’m glad I did find time to read it toward the end of the month; not only because I don’t want to fall behind with my BOTM boxes so early in the year, but because this book was everything I wanted it to be.

About the book: The reader follows two first-person behindhereyesnarrators, one in the present and one that spans a few different time frames from the present and past. Louise, the first character, is an ordinary single mom working as a secretary in a top-notch psychiatric clinic. Her husband is taking their small son for a month’s vacation, but Louise won’t mind having the time to herself because she’s made some new friends with which to fill the gaps. Adele is a stunning, friendly woman who reaches out to Louise with unfailing kindness. She seems a little nervous and maybe even afraid of her husband, and theirs certainly seems to be a strange marriage, but she persists through the challenges because she loves her husband immensely. Even their love is strange, though:

“Dinner’s ruined. We’re ruined. I sometimes wonder if he wants to kill me and be done with it all. Get rid of the albatross around his neck. Perhaps some part of me wants to kill him, too.”

The biggest problem is that Louise met a man in a bar just before the clinic took on a new doctor–and it turns out that the man she kissed at the bar is her new boss. Worse, he’s Adele’s husband. But he’s charming and attractive and he wants Louise–and she can’t resist. She knows its wrong to be friends with Adele while she’s having an affair with the woman’s husband, but she thinks she’s keeping secrets from them both and it can’t last past the end of her son’s vacation anyway. Louise decides to play with fire and keep both relationships–but perhaps there’s more the matter with the marriage than she thinks, and her secrets aren’t quite so hidden. On top of this tangled web, Adele is teaching Louise lucid dreaming, which is another element that adds to the confused mess between the three.

“Everyone’s life is probably a mess of secrets and lies when you boil them right down. We can never see who someone really is underneath the skin.”

This entire book had that wonderful dreamlike quality in which something is always slightly off. Maybe you can tell you’re dreaming, and maybe you can’t, but all these little signs are in place to warn you that reality has been slightly skewed. This is amplified by a slight paranormal element weaved throughout the book, reminding the reader that he/she is not in Kansas anymore.

“Sharing a secret always feels great in the moment, but then becomes a burden in itself. That gnawing in the pit of your stomach that something has been set free and you can’t call it back and now someone else has that power over your future.”

The only thing I would changed about this book is the romance–there’s all the evidence of love between David and Louise, and maybe the problem is only that the reader sees nothing through David’s eyes directly, but the love feels rather inexplicable to me. There’s no denying that it’s there, I just couldn’t quite figure out how it came to be. I like Louise as a character. But what about her and their relationship made David fall in love with her? I just couldn’t quite put my finger on the factor that would tip him from lust into love. But again, maybe that’s because we’re following Louise, who doesn’t seem to understand it any better than I do. I just wish I’d seen more of the falling-in-love part so that their relationship wouldn’t feel like a plot device.

“Had they told each other about me? Them and me. Always them and me, no matter how much I feel inserted between the two of them. Inserted or trapped. One or the other.”

And let’s talk about that surprise ending: I did guess some parts of the big reveal before it arrived, but only bits and pieces as the story neared its end. There are clues hidden throughout the book, and if the reader follows them closely the end is clear, although no less impactful if the reader is determined enough to put it all together him-/herself. However–there are 2-3 pages, one final section right at the end, that sneak up on the reader. This part is shattering and redeeming; it’s not the end the reader hopes for, but it’s so flawless, so perfectly fitting, so creepy and cunning that I loved it even while I hated it. The final clue that makes this ending fall into place comes so close to the end, and seems to be pointing to another major problem for the narrator that even with all the pieces it would be easy for the reader to be too distracted with what is right in front of them to put this final piece into place and shape the entire picture. Seeing the entire book with this new frame was what tipped my review from a 4 to 5 star rating. It’s the kind of ending that makes the reader think, “this was going on the whole time?” and turn back to the beginning to see the story again with fresh information. And that, in my opinion, is what makes a good thriller ending.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book didn’t seem to have quite as much scare and fighting-for-survival as other thrillers I’ve read, but it was clear from the beginning that the characters were involved in something strange that foretold disaster. These are exactly the characters I expected to meet in a thriller–the puppet, the puppet master, and the one somewhere in between who can see the strings but not quite escape them. Even without the tension of “who’s going to die now?” these characters and their unusual situation kept me fully invested. (Don’t let me lead you astray, though, there’s definitely murder involved. It’s just not the driving force behind the tension.) There was so much more to take from this book than I expected going in.

Further recommendations:

  1. I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh should be your next thriller to read if you like those surprise truths that are nearly invisible in the narration the first time through, but seem to have a lot of supporting evidence once you know. If the crazy twist ending is your favorite part of Behind Her Eyes, don’t miss I Let You Go.
  2. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a strong recommendation if you like the atmosphere of the narration in Behind Her Eyes. Although The Woman in Cabin 10 has more of the scare factor, it also has the close study of character and the persistent tension that something is slightly off about the reality presented to the narrator.
  3. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is just an all-around good thriller. It’s full of mind-boggling plot twists that the reader doesn’t expect, and it has that great element of a narrator who ends up most afraid of himself. For an exciting read that’ll keep you on your toes, Dark Matter is the way to go.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel, the first book in her Infernal Devices trilogy and the fourth book in the great 2017 publication-order Clare binge I’m partaking in. I meant to finish this one in February so expect a review pronto. Shadowhunters in Victorian London is too good to read slowly, so it won’t take me long. I’m having a very different reaction to the book than when I first read it, though.

Have you read any great thrillers lately? I absolutely love trying put their pieces together, but I hate the disappointment when I actually manage it, so sometimes it’s hard for me to find a good one like Behind Her Eyes that will really surprise me. Do you know of any thrillers with totally unpredictable endings?

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: The Grownup

Gillian Flynn was one of the first thriller authors I ever read, back in the Gone Girl heyday and she certainly knows what she’s doing in that genre. I’ve recently read her newest publication, a short story (only 66 pages) called The Grownup. This book is nothing like I expected, but it’s certainly worth talking about.

P. S.–this book is for grownups. I would not recommend it for middle teens or below.

About the book: The unnamed narrator of thisthegrownup book first made her living by begging on the streets with her mother, making up stories that played on people’s sympathies so that the two could afford to live without real employment. From there, our narrator found work as a professional hand job distributer, in a building that doubled as a fortune-telling booth. When carpal tunnel becomes a real problem, the main character decides she’s good enough at reading people and guessing what they want to hear that she’s ready to take on the role of a psychic. Most of her clients are easy–bored housewives who need a little injection of drama and eagerly fill in all of the blanks themselves. One woman whom is easily coaxed into expensive “house cleansings” which could make our narrator a fortune if the trend catches on. But the cleansings do not go as expected. The house may actually be haunted. One of the children living there is clearly disturbed. Something isn’t right, and maybe they won’t all escape. But the question remains–where is the danger originating? Who is in trouble, and who is the trouble?

The fun of this book is that someone must be lying, but the reader must decide for him- or herself which version of the truth to believe; the narrator’s life depends on whom she trusts, though she may also be untrustworthy. Her talent for spinning stories and her profession as a “psychic” alert the reader to the narrator’s proclivities toward convincing lies.

We see only background details that relate to the plot since this book is so short–only a snapshot of each character. This means that every sentence is important, every action and conversation and thought revealed must be weighed carefully as the reader endeavors to sort out what will become of each of the characters. And that job is left entirely to the reader–this book ends in a precarious place with no more than insinuations in each direction, leaving the reader to decide whether the narrator found safety or dug herself into deeper catastrophe. This is a book that requires the puzzling out of clues, and a possible second read to sort out opinions once all of the information has been presented. This is a story that makes readers think, even after putting the book down.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I read this book in one very short sitting over a week ago now, and I’m still trying to sort out what I think is going on with the ending. I wish I could say more about my own theories, but I don’t want to spoil the surprises of the story. I definitely think I’ll be rereading this one at some point to see if my ideas hold up, and I appreciate that this book is short enough that I could do that at any time. The Grownup made me laugh, it made me worry, it left me constantly wondering what would happen next. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like creepy stories and want something a little more full-length, let me suggest Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. I thought this was the creepiest of Flynn’s novels, and it has a lot of the same qualities as The Grownup, only darker–much darker. The narrator of this book goes back to the place where her family was brutally murdered during her childhood and finds herself in fresh danger as she begins to piece together what she couldn’t understand at such a young age.
  2. The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane is a great choice for readers who enjoy trying to decide which parts of the story are real. A mild magical realism tale, this book focuses on an elderly woman who lives alone after the death of her husband and begins to sense that a tiger is inside her house at night. The government worker who arrives to help our protagonist manage day-to-day life takes the tiger in stride, but brings other problems for our confused main character. This one sorts itself out in the end, but it’s a wonderfully unusual journey to the truth that keeps readers wondering whether the danger is real or imagined.

I haven’t read much short fiction. Short stories, yes, and I love them, but usually those are even shorter than The Grownup. I like long books so much that I hardly ever read short works, and I really want to find more books under 200 pages or so to give this format more consideration. I’m not necessarily looking only for creepy thrillers, so if you have any great recommendations of short books for me, please leave a comment so I can check it out!

Coming up next: I’ve just finished reading Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, a science fiction thriller. I put off reading this one for months, and I’m so mad about that because it absolutely swept me away. It certainly would’ve found a place on my favorite books of 2016 if I had read it sooner, and even though it’s early in the year, I think it has a good chance of finding its way onto my 2017 list of favorites. Check back tomorrow to find out why!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: And Then There Were None

Agatha Christie is a staple of the mystery genre for a reason. I recently read one of her best-known stand-alone novels, And Then There Were None, which did not disappoint. This one’s a thrilling classic.

About the book: Ten people have been lured to Soldier Island, all under false pretenses of andthentherewerenoneemployment or a summer holiday vacation. By the end of the very first night, however, they discover that they’ve all been lied to, that some of them have kept secrets from each other, and that the systematic elimination of every one of them has already begun. The next morning, after a thorough search, the already-dwindled party realizes that they are in fact alone on the island–if there really is a murderer, he or she is hiding in plan sight, posing as one of the potential victims. Can they discover who it is before it is too late?

“He said: ‘Oh, yes. I’ve no doubt in my own mind that we have been invited here by a madman–probably a dangerous homicidal lunatic.’ “

The characters–the heart of any novel, in my opinion–have been expertly crafted. Not a single one of them is lovable, and yet they are all uniquely colorful and curious beings. Every single one of them is accused of murder; some of them admit freely to killing, and yet, they are all so afraid to die. There is something wonderfully freeing about meeting morally suspect characters: they seem perfectly capable of doing absolutely anything, from making the most heroic sacrifices to the darkest betrayals. The characters of And Then There Were None are not necessarily good people, but they are good to read–wild cards one and all. The most chilling aspect of the tale is that under the premise of the killer hiding among the others, he or she must necessarily be acting the part of a frightened victim as well as the truly terrified ones. He or she must be crazy enough to set up an elaborate ten-murder scheme, but also sane enough to remain undetected even as everyone begins to look at each other suspiciously.

” ‘Many homicidal lunatics are very quiet unassuming people. Delightful fellows.’ “

As for the technical aspects of the story: the narrator is an omniscient third party, who focuses on one character at a time and can describe that target so closely that his or her very thoughts are exposed. This is a precarious technique for a story in which the murders are ongoing and the narrator must not reveal which character is the culprit. Christie handles it fantastically. There are times when this narration allows for the reader to make guesses as to the killer, and times when it helps the reader by supplying information to eliminate one. Christie keeps readers on their toes by seeming to close all the doors of possibility, and then pointing out a window that has been left open. This mystery would not be possible without the narrator Christie gives it.

I am also particularly fond of the format Christie employs in this novel; the chapters are further divided into distinct subsections. The action frequently flows without break from one into the next–even in the middle of a conversation–and the subsections are relatively short, which together make the book easy to read and read and never stop. There’s nothing especially unique about this layout, but it’s my personal favorite: a nearly continuous stream, presented in bite-sized pieces.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This one had been on my TBR for a little while, but I was in no hurry to read it. Then out of the blue a friend lent me her copy and I decided it must be time. I’ve read some Agatha Christie stories prior to this, and enjoyed them, but none of them have stuck in my mind. This one, I think, won’t be leaving any time soon. I was completely caught up in the story, and the plot was masterfully crafted. The reader sees each character’s thoughts and actions, and still cannot deduce who is the culprit. I can’t resist that. I’ve heard of a YA book entitled Ten that is supposedly very similar to this one, and I think it might be interesting to check that out in conjunction with this one. Perhaps in the next month or two while this one’s still fresh in my mind I’ll find a copy for a comparison.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a 2016 thriller in which a woman goes missing on a small boat. The only passenger who believes the woman existed at all is a journalist who realizes the killer must be one of the other passengers. As she persists in seeking the murderer–convinced that anyone aboard might be next to die–it becomes apparent that the journalist herself may be a target.Check out my complete review here.
  2. Robert Galbraith’s (J. K. Rowling’s) The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first book in a modern mystery series set in London. A detective down on his luck, along with the secretary who’s more of a partner despite the fact that he can barely pay her, sets out to work against the police and popular opinion to find a murderer from a cast of seemingly innocent characters. No one could have done it–but yet, one of them did. Check out my complete review here.

Coming Up Next: I’m currently reading the final book in the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, titled Winter. I’m looking forward to seeing how the myriad plot threads from the first three books finally come together here–and how the story will look after reading Fairest, a companion novel following the villain’s perspective. I’ve already read Fairest and will include my review of that book and how it relates to the series along with my thoughts on Winter.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant