Tag Archives: thriller

Review: The Turn of the Key

I’ve always had such fun with Ruth Ware’s thrillers (I think I’ve read all of them!) so of course I picked up her 2019 release, The Turn of the Key. I really liked this one, though I think I’m becoming a bit too familiar with Ware’s style… I saw through some of the mystery, though I still found it an engaging read!

theturnofthekeyIn the novel, Rowan answers a nannying ad that sounds like a perfect fit for her; in addition to great pay, she’d have a room in a private home in exchange for looking after 3 or 4 children (the eldest being away at school for part of the story) in a remote Scottish smart house while the parents are away for work. The catch is that between leaving her old job and moving from London for the new one, she has no time to familiarize herself with the house or the children before her new job begins. The smart system that runs the house seems to be acting up, and the children are fighting the presence of yet another new nanny- apparently the last few have been scared away by the house’s tragic history. Can Rowan brazen it out and find her footing in what could be a dream job, or will the house and the girls get the best of her?

“Maddie’s expression was very different, harder to read, but I thought I could tell what it was. Triumph. She had wanted me to get into trouble, and I had.”

In case you haven’t picked up on it by now, let me mention again that I love classic retellings. Ware’s The Turn of the Key is a loose retelling of Henry James’s eerie The Turn of the Screw, which I read and appreciated for its atmosphere and strangeness earlier this summer. The reader does not need to know anything at all about James’s original story to enjoy this thriller, which is more similar in setup than in plot, but I found the small connections quite amusing.

The Turn of the Key is formatted as a series of letters to a lawyer that the incarcerated nanny hopes will help her case; as the story opens, she has already been arrested for the death of one of the children. This structure, which assumes the lawyer already knows the basic facts of the sensationalized case (such as the nanny’s ulterior motive for applying to this particular job, and the identity of the dead child) allow our narrator to hint at but largely withhold key details from the reader and thus frame her tale as a mystery. Some of the nanny’s direct pleas to the lawyer and guesses at his reactions to the most controversial moments of her narrative felt overdone and pulled me out of the main story, but overall I found it an effective framing technique. There is some extra significance given to these letters at the end of the book that lends purpose to the structure. Once it gets going, the mystery flows well and it’s easy to retreat into Rowan’s experience with the children and the house until the letters become more essential to the story.

“It sounded… well… as if there was someone pacing in the room above my head. But that made no sense either. Because there was no room up there. There was not so much as a loft hatch.”

For readers new to Ware’s work, I think The Turn of the Key would be an excellent place to start. As usual, she gives us a remote location, a house that feels almost like a character in itself, a handful of side characters that are difficult to decide whether to trust, and a narrator with a secret up her sleeve. Intriguing  questions are introduced immediately. Some things seem “off” pretty early on- Rowan is a qualified nanny who does seem to care about children, but we know right away that she had another reason to apply for this particular job, and little details in the story she gives her new employers don’t quite add up. Then there’s the malfunctioning smart system in the house, which seems in perfect working order except that it seems to be following orders no one in the house is authorized to access in the control menu. But though some aspects may be a bit transparent, Ware still manages to hold the reader’s attention and offers a movingly human solution to the mystery of the unpredictable smart house. I was thrilled to discover this isn’t just another reiteration of technology going rouge with the belief that it knows better than the humans.

Though I did think the source of the novel’s suspense and ultimate solution seemed unique enough, this isn’t a ground-breaking thriller. I haven’t read any of the other titles from the recent nanny-thriller trend, but still found notable similarities to other recent thrillers I’ve read- the strain from lack of sleep, the too-good-to-be-true ad, the certainty that the culprit must be inside (or very near) the house, etc. It’s a fairly standard representative of its genre, though undeniably solid for its lack of flare.

My only real hold-up here is that I think I’m becoming too familiar with Ware’s style. I’ve read all five of her books now, with a bit less enthusiasm for each volume, though I think that trend comes down to my knowing Ware’s style well enough by now that she can’t quite shock me anymore, rather than a decline in Ware’s capability as a writer. I believe that if I had read her books in any other order, I would feel the same after finishing them as I do now- that the mysteries are becoming a bit too transparent to truly surprise me. And yet, even so, I always enjoy the creepy atmosphere Ware provides, the realistically flawed protagonists, the uneasiness over knowing that every strange occurrence is not a supernatural terror but the work of a malicious (or at least misguided) human hand. Though I saw through some of Ware’s slight-of-hand tactics here straightaway, I was nonetheless drawn in by the creepy noises and touchy technology, the difficult children, the dynamic between Rowan and the family/staff at Heatherbrae. I found this a quick, easy, and mostly satisfying read, despite its failure to stand out from the thriller crowd, and I would highly recommend it to the right reader.

“I did hate them- in that moment. But I saw myself, too. A prickly little girl, full of emotions too big for her small frame, emotions she could not understand or contain.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. There’s just something about Ware’s writing that keeps me coming back, and I did have a good time with this one just as all the others. I’ll probably pick up her next book, as well. But I’m also content to put the thriller genre aside for a little while- at least until I need something spooky to pick up in October.

What’s your favorite Ruth Ware novel?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Lock Every Door

CW: murder, missing person, cruelty against those in poverty

Final Girls is one of my all-time favorite thrillers. The Last Time I Lied was less exciting as a follow-up, though still entertaining. With a 2/2 track record, I could not miss Riley Sager’s 2019 release, Lock Every Door. I wasn’t quite confident enough to buy a copy outright this time around, but I should have been!

lockeverydoorIn the novel, Jules answers a vague ad for an apartment-sitting job. She’s just broken up with her boyfriend and needs a temporary place to stay. She’s also just lost her job and needs some quick money. But the gig turns out even better than she could have imagined: the apartment is a luxurious two-story place in the Bartholomew, famous for housing the rich and famous, and the pay is phenomenal. Jules can’t believe they’re even letting her through the door, much less willing to pay her to live in such a fancy place. Some of the rules are a little weird, but Jules moves in anyway. When one of the other apartment sitters goes missing though, Jules can’t deny that there might be more to the Bartholomew than meets the eye.

The bulk of this story takes place over six days, alternating between past and present narration; until the two meet, the past contains the meat of the story while the present serves as quick, tantalizing glimpses of the fallout to come. When the story lines merge, the narration spirals through several more climactic days before reaching its final conclusion.

” ‘I really don’t think this is a good idea,’ Nick says.

‘You said you wanted to help.’

The two of us are in the kitchen of 12A, standing shoulder to shoulder as we stare into the open dumbwaiter.”

After the initial introduction of characters and premise, it actually took me a while to warm up to this one. Sager does a lot of things right with Lock Every Door, but sadly he gives us a main character of the sort that appears in cheesy horror films, making obvious, life-threatening mistakes. Though Jules’s backstory and perspective are unusual and fascinating, her actions are frustratingly careless; it wasn’t until the plot picked up in the second half that I was able to fully invest in this story.

“Nick was right. This is not a good idea. I’m literally inside the walls of the Bartholomew. Any number of bad things could happen.”

But there is plenty to hold the reader’s attention in the meantime. First, the narration provides a wonderful set of creepy details to lend the proper atmosphere, including gargoyles perched around the building and an ancient dumbwaiter in Jules’s apartment; the narration doesn’t try too hard to force these elements into the plot (it bothers me when thriller/horror stories try to cram too many unrelated creepy elements into one plotline), but their presence keeps the reader alert and unsettled as any good thriller should. There’s also just enough suspicious activity surrounding the Bartholomew to keep the reader curious about what exactly is going on. Even Jules herself offers a distraction from her poor detective skills with an interesting exploration of what it’s like to be the one left behind in a Missing Person situation (or two), and how thoroughly the strain of poverty can break a family down. Though her specific situation is uncommon, her feelings of ordinariness and inadequacy occasionally come across as disturbingly relatable.

“I’m a dime a dozen, and everyone is looking for a quarter.”

By far the most compelling part of this novel is the mystery itself- the red herring, and the final solution. I thought it was superbly crafted; I caught all the key clues and still wasn’t quite able to solve the puzzle- the very best type of thriller experience! Furthermore, the themes behind the mystery are engaging and conducive to further thought, unlike the standard “girl finds herself running for her life from new lover / new lover’s ex” situations that really are a dime a dozen. Lock Every Door is a wild story, but (for me, at least) the concept is just plausible enough to leave me questioning the ways in which the wealthy and powerful might be abusing their levels of influence. It was almost convincing enough to allow me to overlook how very bothersome I found Jules. Almost.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though not quite on par with Final Girls (which somehow manages both to spoof the slasher thriller genre and also provide a captivating story that fits within it), I did find Lock Every Door a step up from The Last Time I Lied and am eager to see what Sager will come up with next. There’s no word of a fourth release yet, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out, and I might even look into buying my own copy of Lock Every Door for a future revisit. All in all, quite a success, and I think my luck with thrillers is really turning around this year!


The Literary Elephant

Review: Recursion

CW: suicide, death (including death of a child), gun violence, nuclear attack, Alzheimer’s diesease

Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter may very well have been one of the books that “broke” the thriller genre for me. I read it in early 2017, only a few months before every thriller I picked up started to seriously disappoint me (with the major exception being Riley Sager’s Final Girls). It was my first sci-fi thriller, and such an all-around fun experience that there was no way I could miss Crouch’s 2019 release, another sci-fi thriller, titled Recursion.

recursionIn the novel, Barry is investigating a suicide in which the victim (prior to jumping) claims to have been affected by False Memory Syndrome- a new “disease” slowly sweeping the world that leaves those affected with two sets of memories, one “real” and one “false.” His investigation soon becomes much more hands-on than he intended. Meanwhile, Helena has been forced to switch her life’s focus from saving memories for those with Alzheimer’s to erasing all traces of her invented technology from the world; she learns the hard way that manipulating memories- even with the best of intentions- can only go horribly awry.

” ‘What’s more precious than our memories?’ he asks. ‘They define us and form our identities.’ “

Much in the spirit of Dark Matter (comparisons are inevitable), Recursion is also a story of what-ifs, in which some of the main characters are able to re-live parts of their lives as though they’d made different choices. Both titles examine some of the moral and emotional consequences of altering reality, as well as dissecting the science (in a novice-friendly way) that might lead to these possibilities. And of course, both are fast-paced adventures full of unique threats and psychological twists and turns.

Recursion opens on Barry’s first brush with False Memory Syndrome, which provides a perfect introduction to a concept that is, at first, as mysterious to the protagonist as the reader. When the time is right, the story doubles back to Helena’s research efforts, switching to a new protagonist with more knowledge on memory and the pertinent technology to guide the reader through a phase of discovery. Of course the two plotlines eventually merge, as Helena and Barry meet and unite against a common enemy- someone who wants to use Helena’s invention to change the world in the name of progress, no matter the consequences.

“Memory is … the filter between us and reality. You think you’re tasting this wine, hearing the words I’m saying, in the present, but there’s no such thing. The neural impulses from your taste buds and your ears get transmitted to your brain, which processes them and dumps them into working memory- so by the time you know you’re experiencing something, it’s already in the past. Already a memory…We think we’re perceiving the world directly and immediately, but everything we experience is this carefully edited, tape-delayed reconstruction.”

If the science sounds intimidating or you think sci-fi just isn’t the genre for you, rest assured that it’s largely a conceptual backdrop to a fairly accessible thriller plot. Crouch throws in a few sentences that must be based in fact- statements about neurons firing in the brain, memory storage, and déjà vu- but the rest is one big thought experiment mainly featuring the fictional logistics of time travel via memory. As long as you understand the gist (the heroes and villains are obvious enough), it’s really not strictly necessary to pay close attention to all of the specifics. In fact, even the scientists in Recursion require plenty of trial and error with the equipment in order to understand what it’s capable of. There’s no need to worry about getting bogged down in details.

It’s a smart, exciting ride that balances right on the edge between realistic and fantastic, with just enough realistic detail to ground the reader while allowing the imagination plenty of room to run free.

“Time is an illusion, a construct made out of human memory. There’s no such thing as the past, the present, or the future. It’s all happening now.”

But there are a few ways in which the layering of timelines frustrated me. Note: these are fairly small issues that come down to stylistic preference.

First is the repetition. There are moments, days, and even years that some characters experience repeatedly; in a few instances, a particular event is written out numerous times, back to back, highlighting variations. This tactic does lend credence to the matter of false/dead memories causing insanity, depression, and/or suicidal thoughts, but I nevertheless found it annoying to know I was reading scenes that were ultimately not leading anywhere productive.

Second, once it becomes clear that characters who possess the proper knowledge and equipment can revisit key moments limitlessly, the stakes are lowered. It is infinitely harder to worry about heroes dying or villains causing irreparable damage when one only has to make provisions for re-entering the moment if things turn sour, and try another path.

Third is the way that these relationships are skewed by the lack of chronology. There are several occasions in which a character must introduce him- or herself to someone they already know well, which allows for alliances to be formed with proof of knowing someone else’s secrets rather than a gradual rapport built from circumstance and personality. As a consequence, I can recall many of the events of this book, but I would struggle to tell you what kind of person any of the main characters are beyond basic motives- doing what is right, saving the world, making a name for oneself with a life-changing invention. Unfortunately, I did find it harder to invest in characters that I wasn’t able to fully understand, and books in which the characters feel like afterthoughts to the plot (even a stellar plot) never have quite the same strength that character-driven narratives do for me.

This is starting to look like a list of complaints rather than a recommendation to read a book that I had an excellent time with, but that is only because I can’t help comparing my Recursion reading experience to that of Dark Matter, which I enjoyed slightly more- possibly only because I happened to read it first. In the end, both are great books that I can’t see disappointing many readers, including those who are wary of the sci-fi aspect. My only gripe here is that when I have read a book that I loved (Dark Matter), I don’t hope for the author to write a very similar book that will give me a repeat experience (Recursion); I hope for something that raises the bar. Though I think Recursion is an excellent book on par with Dark Matter, it  wasn’t quite the step up into new territory that I was most hoping for.

“We have made it far too easy to destroy ourselves.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This has been an extremely difficult book to review, because 1) everything is a plot twist so it’s hard to talk about without spoilers, and 2) I struggled to find the right balance between explaining why I both had a great time reading it and yet also didn’t. I believe this is a personal quirk, that for something to impress me enough for a 5-star rating it has to be great but also hold an element of surprise; sometimes greatness itself can be a surprise, but with a follow-up title I definitely need something new to supercede the greatness that I was already expecting based on the first book. (Does this make sense to anyone other than me?) In any case, I’m still on board to read more of Crouch’s work- I’m hoping to pick up Pines this October, and I’ll certainly keep an eye out for future publications as well.

Have you read any of Blake Crouch’s novels? What’s been your favorite so far?


The Literary Elephant


Review: Little Darlings

The summer spooks continue with twins and changelings, a new mom who’s a bit mentally unstable, and a years-old unsolved case of attempted baby-snatching. Such is the content of Melanie Golding’s thriller debut, Little Darlings.

littledarlingsIn the novel, Lauren gives birth to twins. The experience is much more traumatizing than she had been led to believe, and she’s beyond exhausted before she even meets them. To make matters worse, she endures a terrifying experience in the hospital, in which a strange, dirty woman with eel-like twins of her own threatens to take Lauren’s babies when she refuses a one-for-one trade. No one believes Lauren’s story. But the strange woman is persistent, and when an accident with the twins culminates in Lauren insisting that her babies have been exchanged, it’s up to one stubborn detective to find proof that Lauren’s claims are not as crazy as everyone thinks.

The early chapters start this book off with a bang as the narration takes the reader through visceral details of Lauren giving birth to the twins. A bit of grit always appeals to me in novels- I like to know that the author won’t shy away from anything difficult, and Golding proves herself right away with ripped stitches and an invasive fix made by a doctor who says “tell me to stop if it hurts too much,” and then doesn’t. I’ve never given birth, but by the time Lauren is finished I felt like I had.

I also appreciated the way that the narration flirts with Lauren’s “madness” throughout the story. The chapters alternate between Lauren’s perspective and that of DS Harper, a woman willing to bend the rules and follow her hunches; neither of them can abide by the hospital’s assurances that the woman who threatened to take the twins was a figment of Lauren’s overtired imagination. And yet, there’s plenty of room for doubt. Through these two women’s experiences we see many other characters dismiss Lauren’s claims primarily because they seem too far-fetched or inconvenient. The doctors seem eager to medicate Lauren into a stupor and the police just don’t want the expense of spending more time on the case than needed. Is Harper’s gut correct? Are money and protocol guiding the case toward its easiest conclusion, or is Lauren seeing things that aren’t there? A shadow on the hospital camera and trampled grass in an area where Lauren claims to have seen the threatening woman suggest one possibility, while Lauren’s own admittance that she’s only been managing a couple of hours of sleep at a time for weeks and is off her depression medication suggest quite another. It’s a proper mystery.

” ‘You used to walk, every day,’ said Patrick, apparently struggling not to sound accusatory, failing. ‘You said it kept you sane.’ […] For thirty-one days, her boots had stood unused on the shoe rack by the back door.”

Unfortunately, I felt that some of the characterization was overdone and at times even nonsensical. Of course different characters perceive each other in different ways, but Patrick (Lauren’s husband) swung so wildly from devoted family man to selfish cad that it’s impossible to say what kind of person he is or what his motives might be.

DS Harper bothered me as well. It seems she is meant to be taken as a sympathetic and plucky detective, willing to see past the beauracracy of the police department and go the extra mile to track down criminals. Instead, her flagrant and unnecessary penchant for rule-breaking mars this image and makes it difficult to take her seriously. If she doesn’t respect the law enough to follow it, how can we respect her as the potential hero? Many of her decisions seem poor and/or unnecessarily risky. Harper jumps to quick assumptions, makes impulse decisions, and is clearly willing to believe what seems plausible to no one else. Her vote of confidence in Lauren, sadly, does not particularly imply credibility.

Furthermore, there seems to be an odd gap between the real and the magical in this story. Lauren keeps the otherworldly details about the mysterious woman and her babies-that-are-not-quite-babies to herself. Somehow, everyone concludes she is seeing things even without those details. And yet, how could so many people become involved in a case involving infant twins whose mother is worried about them being “changed” without anyone even jokingly making a connection to changeling tales? (Isn’t changeling lore fairly common knowledge?) For the reader, the magical influence is obvious; the characters, even Lauren, seem to remain oblivious.

But the biggest disappointment arrives in the final few chapters, as the solution to the mystery is finally revealed. My issue is not with the reveal itself- it’s not offensive or plot-holed or particularly problematic. Strangely, it does not adhere to traditional changeling narratives at all. I expected, from the premise and the direction the entire novel seemed to be taking, at least the possibility of fairies. Instead, after following Harper into the beginning of a seemingly-unrelated case, we learn a very different truth about what has happened, a truth not hinted at in the premise and tangentially mentioned only once in the story. To me, this complete change of direction feels like a cop-out of sorts; a departure from the original topic. It’s a creative answer to the problem, but left me feeling like I was in one of those awkward conversations where two people are talking about two different things without realizing that they’re not on the same page.

Nevertheless, I found Lauren and the central mystery engaging throughout most of the novel. I never stopped wanting to know whether the mysterious woman was real and what would happen to Lauren’s babies. Despite its faults, I cannot say that Little Darlings was not an entertaining read. It has some great things to say about new motherhood and modern relationships, and will probably delight many readers who their thrillers dark with a dash of magic.

“You can’t stay here until you’re sane. You won’t ever leave.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was a pretty average read for me- some ups, some downs, worth a few hours of amusement. It’s quick and easy to read as a great summer thriller should be, though ultimately it left me dissatisfied. Little Darlings is a debut that feels like a debut, but I enjoyed enough of its elements that I would probably give this author another try in the future.

Have you read Little Darlings? 


The Literary Elephant

Review: Looker

I’ve read two books widely classified as “thrillers” so far this year, and it’s probably telling to admit that the one I liked the most was the one that felt the least like a true thriller. I was drawn to Laura Sims’s debut, titled Looker, for its similar placement on the edge of the genre.

lookerIn the novel, an unnamed woman’s obsession with her neighbor (“the actress”) grows as her life begins to collapse. She hasn’t been able to conceive, her husband has left her, and she’s digging herself into some trouble at work. In an effort to push away all the complications that weigh her down, the actress becomes more and more of a fixation for this woman.

Much like Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer, Sims’s Looker is a captivating little novel (only 180 pages!) with thriller elements, though classifying it as a traditional, full-blooded thriller would be to its detriment. Rather, Looker is a psychologically-driven character study of one unnamed woman’s mental deterioration over the course of a few weeks.

Though much is made of our narrator’s preoccupation with the actress- and indeed this facet of the “plot” bookends the story- it is only a side-effect of the greater issue here: the woman’s frustration with her inability to conceive a child of her own. Years ago, she and her husband moved to this neighborhood full of families-in-the-making, close to a park, with the spare room of their apartment a permanent nursery-in-progress. If at times Looker seems confused about what sort of book it is trying to be, that may come down to the fact that our narrator focuses on the actress in order to avoid what is truly on her mind.

” ‘A kid, do you have a kid?’ She’s looking at me intently now. Careful now, careful. ‘No,’ I say. ‘I don’t.’ I try to say it lightly, breezily, like it doesn’t mean a thing, like it isn’t weighed down with the agony of years of trying, of my lost marriage, of the terrible emptiness of that extra room, but I fail. Sadness and the bitterness of failure lodge in the back of my throat, and I see that she has seen it. Sensed it. I panic.”

Looker brims with potential. There are so many feminist undertones layered into the story with varying degrees of subtlety; the woman notes feeling blamed for her inability to conceive- by her husband, her doctor, her community- as well as for her impending divorce; she feels fiercely the hypocrisy of her boss lecturing her for a transgression he has committed himself. But all of this is tainted by the fact that she is essentially going crazy because she can’t have a child. The kicker is that it’s unclear whether she wants one for any reason other than the fact that she can’t conceive. Unlikeable characters can certainly be compelling in their own way, but this woman seems contrary for the sake of being contrary, always wanting what she doesn’t have and quickly tiring of what is within her grasp. What should have been a moving and tragic situation becomes a bit absurd when the reader realizes how uncomplicated the situation is. We learn early not to trust much that this woman says, even within her own thoughts, though Sims never uses the misdirection that should be possible through such a lack of trust to any advantage.

But disappointments aside, this is a fast-paced stunner of a book that could easily be read in one sitting (though technically I read it in two because I “sampled” about 20 pages the day before I was actually intending to read the book). Sims allows for white space between paragraphs and proper breaks between scene shifts, but there are no chapters. It is hard to stop once you’ve started. The story takes a detour in the middle when an incident at school (our narrator is a professor in a dwindling college English department) pushes the actress out of focus for a time, but Sims does not loose track of where the plot is headed. When the final act spins out on the page, it manages to hit that sweet spot right between surprising and inevitable.

“How does one get to live such a charmed life? How does one get to literally have it all? It strikes me as funny- that billions of us should be schlepping along, some of us barely surviving, while one person gets to be praised and lifted up by eternal light.”

I was left with one major curiosity: how the woman’s relationship with her husband ended. She thinks about him often and he does make a couple of small appearances, but much of their relationship is left mysterious. It is clear that this woman’s take on events is not necessarily a fair depiction of things, but I think Sims missed an opportunity by avoiding showing what the final straw was for this couple, as it seems to have marked the beginning of the narrator’s madness.

Nevertheless, Looker is certainly engrossing and unique as-is, a debut full of promise for what Sims might have in store. Anyone looking for (whether you know it or not) an unusual, thriller-like vignette will find this an intriguing read.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though this one was dark and fun to read, I predict that it will turn out to be rather forgettable. Looker has a lot of potential, but there’s something a bit distasteful to me about a woman going crazy because she can’t have a baby, and being jealous of another woman as a result. But this is Sims’s first novel, and it certainly holds enough promise that I’ll be interested to see where her writing goes next.


The Literary Elephant

Review: No Exit

Taylor Adams’s No Exit is certainly a seasonal thriller, and now that we’re well into March I knew I was cutting it a bit close. But last weekend was blizzard weather for me again, which seemed like the perfect chance to finally pick this one up.

noexitIn the novel, a college student is racing home through the Rockies  to see her mother, who has just been diagnosed with a late-stage cancer and doesn’t have much time left. When she gets caught in a blizzard at high altitude and worries her car won’t make it much farther through the snow, she is forced to pull into a rest stop. She sees three other vehicles in the parking lot and four people inside; and then she finds a child locked in a pet cage in the back of the van next to her car. With the roads closed for the night, no cell service, and no idea which of the strangers inside she can trust, Darby fights to save the kidnapped child as the rest stop environment- both inside and out- grows more dangerous.

“On her way, she chose to circle through the parking lot, around this small collection of trapped cars. No reason, really. She would later look back on this mindless decision many times, and wonder how differently her night might’ve played out if she’d merely retraced Ashley’s footprints instead.”

This was a challenging read for me right from the beginning. It began with a misconception about the premise- I expected Darby’s rescue attempts to parallel a whodunnit mystery; not knowing which of the strangers posed the greatest threat was a big part of No Exit‘s appeal for me. Instead I found the “who” established early on (though not quite as straightforwardly as Darby at first assumes) and the “why” almost completely irrelevant. There is little to no mystery here, though there is plenty of suspense. I wish that distinction had been more clear from the synopsis, but I was willing to adjust.

My next concern was the blizzard. For a storm repeatedly referred to as “Snowmageddon,” I expected the weather to play a major role in this story. Darby realizes that every move made outdoors will leave tracks in the snow, but the few instances where those tracks should have given someone away go unnoticed. The one time that an attempt is made to follow another person’s footprints, the results are inconclusive. Furthermore, though I believe the temperature is noted at 4 degrees early in the night, the cold does not seem to affect any of the characters. Some of them spend a significant amount of time outdoors, apparently with bare hands that retain their dexterity (one of the characters unlaces a shoe and uses it to break into a vehicle) rather than experiencing any numbness. No concern about frostbite or getting lost in the snow makes its way into the narration, both of which should be major concerns for anyone outside in blizzard conditions. Darby does wonder how long the inappropriately-dressed child would last on her own outside, but the adults remain oddly invincible. The weather does absolutely nothing for the plot beyond closing the roads, which seems like lazy writing (at worst) or a missed opportunity (at best).

Speaking of invincibility, the extent to which these characters are able to get back up and keep going also stretches the reader’s suspension of disbelief at times.

Even that, I could have overlooked. What really wore me down in the end was the relish with which near-death experiences and severe injuries are detailed. Usually, I’m a reader who appreciates some grit and gore. I hate reading about rats (thanks, 1984) much more than a bit of blood. But the various ailments and traumas in No Exit are described with the careful specificity I had hoped to see with the weather, and they go way beyond the necessary logistics of noting which characters are out for the count. I understand that the villain here doesn’t empathize with others, but this person takes such excessive delight in causing pain and death that I had to set the book down a few times- rare for me.

In the end, my abhorrence of the villain’s actions turned into a bit of grudging respect for Adams’s craft; if he was looking for a strong reader reaction, he certainly succeeded in my case. I loathed this villain enough to make an addition to my Least Favorite Characters of all time list, population now 3. (The other two are Dolores Umbridge and Jack Randall.)

Fortunately, all of the small details of the story pull together quite nicely in the end. Every little object and conversation and idea comes back into play at just the right moment. Scenes that left me dubious early on turned out to be clues that Darby ignored or overlooked, which I especially appreciated. I was afraid those moments of skepticism were early red flags for plot holes, but Adams is craftier than that. The writing itself may be a bit bland, but the plot is electric.

“Because if saving a nine-year-old from child predators isn’t worth dying for, what the hell is?”

No Exit gets points for decent twists I didn’t see coming, and deft juggling of plot threads. This is one of those rare thrillers that might be worth more than a single read- early scenes and dialogue would reveal more of interest to a reader in the know. Unfortunately, that rereader is not me. I had a hard time stomaching this book once, and was happy to return it to the library as soon as I’d finished. It’s certainly unique, for those who quickly tire of predictable thrillers with the usual tropes, but enter with caution and a strong constitution.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wavered between 3 and 4 for this one because I did appreciate Adams’s craft and the unpredictability of No Exit, but in the end I think the unpleasantness of a few particularly traumatic scenes will stay with me more strongly than my appreciation for the plotting. The middling rating reflects not a mediocre story, but a book full of extremes.


The Literary Elephant


Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s recent thriller My Sister, the Serial Killer has been all over my social media feeds for months, and seeing it on the Tournament of Books longlist (and now shortlist) made me finally look into its premise and put an immediate library hold on the title. After a bit of a wait, I accidentally read most of the book the same afternoon that my hold came up at the library. It was that addicting.

mysistertheserialkillerAbout the book: Korede and Ayoola are sisters living in Lagos, one a prominent nurse, the other immensely beautiful. They love and loathe each other as any sisters do- but they also hide murders. Three times, Korede has come to Ayoola’s rescue as her beautiful sister stands over a dead man with a bloody knife in her hand, and Korede has been fiercely loyal to her younger sister in the wake of these dramatic events. Korede is not sure what Ayoola’s boyfriends have done to warrant such fates, but she does not doubt her sister… Until Ayoola sets her sights on the doctor that Korede likes from work, and Korede is forced to choose whose well-being she cares more about protecting- and what will it will mean for Korede if anything happens to either of them.

“He blinks at me, as though seeing me for the first time. ‘You’re worse than she is.’ “

The book opens on the death of Ayoola’s third victim. Korede explains the cleanup process, which involves a lot more than the physical removal of the body and blood; Ayoola shows no remorse, and must be coached on how to handle police interviews and which posts are appropriate on social media while her boyfriend is supposedly missing. From there, the story moves away from the gore and toward the rationale that enables Korede to live with her sister’s (and her own) actions. Thriller fans looking for scares and suspense should look elsewhere. This is not an action-packed psychological ride aiming to shock through plot twists and seemingly ordinary characters who find themselves in frightening situations. But if you’re here for fast-paced dark humor stemming from hilarious/horrifying irony, My Sister, the Serial Killer is probably the book for you.

” ‘You’re not the only one suffering, you know. You act like you are carrying this big thing all by yourself, but I worry too.’ ‘Do you? Because the other day you were singing ‘I believe I Can Fly.” Ayoola shrugs. ‘It’s a good song.’ “

Though Korede narrates the entire novel, both sisters (and the incredible push-and-pull dynamic between them) stay front and center throughout the novel. Ayoola remains slightly more mysterious if only because the reader has learned by the end of the story that Korede’s impressions of her sister are biased– sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. These are strong women who do horrendous things, but Korede’s rationale paves a clear path from choice to choice until it seems things could never have gone any other way. It’s impossible and amusing and so compelling.

The only thing that could’ve made this book better for me is something to take away from the experience other than a simple good time. None of the premise strikes me as very plausible (which is part of what made it so fun), but I’m afraid my inability to place any part of the story in the real world will also prevent the story from sticking in my mind. Perhaps if the characters’ motives had been explored a bit more deeply or the consequences of their actions dealt with a heavier hand, these women and their murders might have made a more lasting impression. Entertainment value is high, and Braithwaite certainly has things to say, but I wouldn’t have minded her speaking them a bit louder.

“For some reason I cannot imagine her resorting to stabbing if that particular knife were not in her hand; almost as if it were the knife and not her that was doing the killing. But then, is that so hard to believe? Who is to say that an object does not come with its own agenda? Or that the collective agenda of its previous owners does not direct its purpose still?”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I may bump this down to 4 in time if the story doesn’t stay with me as well as I hope it will, but I had an unbelievably good time reading this short novel. It absolutely flew by. Maybe I’m looking for the wrong sorts of thrillers lately, because My Sister, the Serial Killer impressed me so much more than anything else from that genre has in the last year.

Further recommendations:

  • Though a bit more traditional as far as thrills go, Riley Sager’s Final Girls is a great read for anyone who likes a bit of a laugh with their gore and suspense. This novel is a spoof on the slasher genre, providing thrills by upsetting the reader’s expectations of old horror films and mainstream thriller/mysteries. In this book, the sole survivor of a killing spree is facing a second attack years later that will lead her to question the “facts” from the first event.

What’s the last book you read that didn’t quite seem to fit the genre it’s marketed in? Was it a good surprise, or a bad one?


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Lies We Told

I’ve been having some bad luck with thrillers this year; or perhaps, I’ve gotten too good at seeing through the clues to be impressed with anything mysterious/suspenseful that I’ve picked up this year. And yet, they always tempt me. So from Book of the Month’s October selections, I chose another thriller: Camilla Way’s The Lies We Told. I read this book at the end of November.

thelieswetoldAbout the book: Clara wakes up one morning in the apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Luke, and discovers that he never came home. He doesn’t show up to work that day, either. Clara checks with his friends and family, and then she calls the police. But things keep getting weirder, especially with Luke’s family. What Clara doesn’t know is that there’s a connection between Luke’s disappearance and another family’s tragedy years earlier. In the 1980’s, Beth notices that her young daughter is behaving strangely, even before the girl learns a devastating secret about her parents. As the two narratives merge, long-standing lies (and more recent ones) might ruin everything for Clara.

“She couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very wrong. Despite his colleagues’ laughter, she didn’t really think he’d been with another woman. Even if he had, a one-night stand didn’t take this long, surely. She made herself face the real reason for her anxiety: Luke’s ‘stalker.’ “

My main problem with the thrillers I’ve been picking up in 2018 is that I read them expecting to be surprised, and am let down when I can predict what’s going to happen. Whether this is a fault of the books I’ve been reading or a recent proficiency in mystery-solving, I’ve been disappointed. Fortunately, The Lies We Told was a welcome deviation from that cycle. Though I was able to put some of the pieces together ahead of the characters, none of the clues struck me as so blatantly obvious that the puzzle was all but assembling itself. The Lies We Told kept me thinking, and a correct guess felt rewarding rather than frustrating. Furthermore, the big twists connecting the book’s two narratives did take me completely by surprise.

Another boon is the fact that both story lines held my attention completely, even before they started coming together. Clara’s present-day search for Luke is very different than Beth’s odd experiences with her young daughter, but I never found myself hurrying through one to get back to the other. There are a few clear red herrings meant to trick the reader who tries to figure out the way that the two stories connect, but despite seeing a few answers that were not going to pan out for Clara, I was no closer to stumbling upon the correct answer myself. I would be incredibly impressed by any reader who’s able to solve this mystery ahead of the characters, as the hints are extremely subtle.

But perhaps the best feature of all is the unique, trope-defying details of the crimes involved in this novel. We’ve seen the jealous girlfriend, the abusive husband, the missing wife that many thrillers incorporate. But I can’t think of a single other thriller in which it’s the boyfriend who’s kidnapped, there’s no female-female hate inspired by some unhealthy romance, and the villain’s motives are explained by trauma and disorders rather than unexplored cruelty. The Lies We Told is full of strong women who don’t always make the right choices but do stand up for themselves, and men who get what they deserve when they’ve crossed someone.

” ‘Funny,’ she said, ‘how it’s always us women who are left to deal with the shit men leave behind, isn’t it?’ “

Let’s talk briefly about the quotes that I pulled. Maybe no one pays attention to the lines I like to include in my reviews for a sampling of the author’s writing, but I’d like to point out that today’s quotes were chosen solely for their content. The first gives a glimpse of the book’s premise, and the second demonstrates the kick-ass nature of the women who impressed me in the story. But I didn’t mark a single line in this novel that stood out to me just because it sounded nice or resonated with me. That’s pretty rare. Though the plotting of The Lies We Told is undeniably competent, the writing on a sentence-by-sentence level does not try to impress. That’s not a deal-breaker for me, but it is something I noticed fairly early.

My only real complaint is a lack of suspense. So many of the dangers in this book crop up quickly and don’t give the reader a chance to be scared for the characters before disaster strikes. The villain’s acts are calculated, not crazy. There’s a lot of tragedy in this book, but not many real thrills; until the final, disturbing implication at the end of the novel, I was never worried about Clara’s safety at all. That said, Camilla Way does nail the ending.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though I still haven’t found a new favorite thriller this year (but hey, there’s still time), it was such a relief to read one this solid and engaging after a string of duds. Way strikes me as an author to watch, though I’m undecided about picking up her previous thriller, Watching Edie. I’m curious, but I don’t have any strong feelings one way or the other yet so I’ll keep my options open.

Further recommendations:

  • Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go is a great mystery/thriller for readers who like to be surprised. The first half might seem a bit slow, but there’s a twist at the halfway point that’s practically impossible to predict even when you know something’s coming. And then that first part looks a lot more interesting, just as the pace picks up for the second half. It’s wonderfully constructed.
  • But if you’re looking for a bit more suspense, nothing beats Riley Sager’s slasher thriller Final GirlsThis one also has a bold twist that managed to surprise me, but also every weird clue along the way is engaging and intriguing. This one would make a great film.

Any 2018 thrillers that have disappointed you this year?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Cross Her Heart

I read and loved Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes last year, and was excited to see her newest release, Cross Her Heart, available through Book of the Month Club for September. I knew going in that this new thriller lacked the sort of genre-bending twist that sold me on Behind Her Eyes, but even with that expectation I was disappointed by this run-of-the-mill thriller.

crossherheartAbout the book: Lisa has a good job, a daughter she’s proud of, a great friend… and nightmares about her dark past. No matter how much better she’s doing and how well-hidden she is, Lisa cannot escape what happened years ago. When signs from an old “friend” begin turning up in the present, Lisa doesn’t know how to cope. Ava doesn’t know how to deal with her mother’s newfound paranoia, and no one knows what to do when Lisa’s cover is blown and she’s spirited away to a safehouse– too late to save herself and Ava from the schemes of someone desperate for revenge.

“Life Is a series of deals, that’s what I’ve learned. Most get broken.”

I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what went wrong here for me– I think it was just a bit of everything. I will mention a few specific complaints, but I want to lead by mentioning that I’ve read quite a few thrillers now and my main problem lately seems to be that they’ve gotten predictable now that I know what to expect. This bothers me because I think thrillers, as much as any other genre, should hold up even (especially) if the reader is well-versed in the genre. But Cross Her Heart bored me within the first 10 pages, and never really improved.

One of the first issues I had with this book was characterization. I absolutely loved Marilynn’s character, but she is not the main focus (a tragedy) and the characters that do receive more attention are far more clichéd and unexciting. Ava is a selfish, naïve teenager whose mistakes are obvious from the start, and Lisa is the irksome mother who says her child matters more than anything, and yet she has no idea what’s going on in Ava’s life and makes no effort to keep her safe when scary things start happening around their home. And then there’s Simon, the sort-of love interest who really has no place in the story beyond giving depth to Lisa’s (and Marilynn’s) work life, which again, is not the main focus here. Other coworkers are clearly only present to add possibilities to the list of potential threats, and the people from Lisa’s past are flat and stereotypical, full of evil that lacks an underlying motive.

“I know that rage can lead to terrible things. Can leave someone with regrets like tombstones that have to be carried through life, backbreakingly heavy and deserved.”

Furthermore, the stakes are low. Lisa, the main target, states plainly and repeatedly that she’s willing to die for her daughter. If Lisa doesn’t mind dying, why should the reader mind for her? And with Lisa standing as this person’s sole target, why should I worry about anyone else? I couldn’t even bring myself to care about Ava potentially being stuck in the crossfire– she runs open-armed into the danger, and isn’t a very sympathetic character.

This cast is presented through a range of first, second, and third person perspectives. The sections are labeled by name and (predictable and tired) time stamps: Before, After, Now. The reason this format ultimately failed for me is that it allows for a repetitive duality to the reveals. Every plot twist is shown through at least two characters’ perspectives, hinted at in a sort of bland and overt way by one party and then expanded on by the next. This method muffles a lot of the novel’s shock and suspense.

The biggest obstacle though, is that this is not a mystery one could plausibly solve before the detectives. Pinborough withholds her clues. From the first chapter, it’s clear that the author (and many of the characters) know more than they’ll share; the mystery is a mystery only to the reader. When the author has to play her cards so close, you know the answer’s just too simple.

“Someone can do a terrible, unforgivable thing, and yet you forgive them if you love them. The heart is such a strange thing.”

And that ending– it’s just a little too neat. There are hardly any witnesses to the final act, the witnesses’ credibility should be questionable to the police, and even if the police have no trouble seeing the light there isn’t much to witness. Unless the culprit has made a full confession off-page, I just don’t buy how quickly things turn happy after the big showdown. In my experience, what is true matters a lot less than what people believe to be true, and there are a lot of beliefs that require overturning for this ending to work.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There was absolutely nothing gripping about this story for me. I wasn’t surprised, I only cared about one lesser character, and the writing style didn’t impress me. I think plenty of readers will be satisfied with the content of this novel, but I was hoping to be wowed. Sadly, Cross Her Heart was enough of a disappointment that I think I’ll be crossing Sarah Pinborough off my list of future interests; I think Behind Her Eyes was a one-off for me with this author.

Further recommendations:

  • Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger is a twistier case that mixes past accusations with present-day drama. The main character of this story must also confront signs of danger in and around her own home and decide whether her friend is the person she claims to be.
  • Another big hit in the thriller world this year with a few thematic similarities (past crimes forced back to the present, teenagers gone missing, false accusations, etc.) is Riley Sager’s The Last Time I LiedThis one’s about a woman who goes back to summer camp where her friends went missing years ago, and new disaster strikes. Though if you’re really looking for a great thriller (and something more different), I can’t recommend Sager’s previous novel, Final Girls, highly enough. This one’s a slasher thriller about a woman who avoided a violent killer once– only to be targeted again.

Do you have a go-to mystery/thriller writer who always comes through? Or have you been disappointed by a thriller author you’ve loved in the past?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Snap

The Man Booker longlist for 2018 was announced a few weeks ago, and I added several of the titles to my TBR. I don’t know how many I’ll end up reading, but I do want to get through a few before we see the shortlist. For my first longlist choice, I picked Belinda Bauer’s Snap, a mystery/thriller that I thought would be a quick (and easily available) read to help me dive into the longlist.

snapAbout the book: Eileen Bright leaves her three children in her broke-down car on the side of the road so she can call for help. The year is 1998, and calling for help means walking to the nearest pay phone. Jack, the oldest of the children at eleven years old, watches the hands on his wristwatch mark an entire hour in the stifling car before he decides to investigate. But it’s already too late. Three years later, another woman is awakened by a noise in the night when she thought she was alone. What seems at first like a thwarted burglary turns out to be much more when Catherine finds a knife and death threat by her bed, and doesn’t call the police.

Based on the first two chapters, I thought I was going to love this book. The first chapter focuses on Jack after his mother leaves the car. The second chapter follows Catherine as she’s forced to acknowledge a burglar in her dark house. These chapters are creepy, intriguing, and introduce a lot of questions that had me hooked.

But from there, though the events themselves remain captivating, the rest of the book begins to fall apart. The characters are notably juvenile, which is less excusable after the eleven year-old becomes the “man of the family” and is forced to grow up fast, and the frightened pregnant woman in the middle of the night is more thoroughly developed. This impression might have been influenced by the writing style, which has an overhanded way of repeating or italicizing important words and phrases. There are many short two-or-three-word paragraphs apparently meant to pack a punch that instead just seem to state the obvious.

But the biggest problem, for me at least, is the level of coincidence this plot relies on. Though the underlying mystery remains intriguing, the connections are almost always based on someone remembering something they shouldn’t be able to, or someone having a “feeling.” The point at which the murder weapon is identified by someone who picked it up and just knew it was the exact knife from the Eileen Bright case and couldn’t name a reason for that knowledge beyond instinct, Snap was ruined for me. The characters do occasionally remark on the role coincidence plays in life and investigations, but there is absolutely no commentary that can ever make coincidence come across as anything other than an excuse in fiction. There’s one moment where a chance connection is actually likened to magic, which… is ridiculous. It’s just lazy writing for a mystery to come together with coincidence and “magic” rather than hard work and tangible evidence.

“Marvel nodded. He liked a good hunch himself, and was open to the instincts of others.”

“Rice’s face broke into a broad grin. ‘Sometimes feelings are facts!’ “

I had other issues with this book, including the way women– and pregnant women specifically– are portrayed. Catherine in particular leans on the excuse of hysteria related to pregnancy to rationalize many of her actions, and most of the other characters seem inclined to agree: pregnancy makes women do stupid things. It was horrid seeing Catherine use this mentality as a crutch, and horrid seeing the way some of the men thought of her pregnancy.

“Adam While’s wife opened the door looking like a whale.”

First off, ew. I hate it when the first thing a male character notices about a woman he’s meeting (or vice versa) is that she’s beautiful, or ugly. Yes, appearance is one of the first things we notice when meeting new people in real life as well, but it’s much more pleasant (and easier to visualize) when actual physical descriptions are provided rather than subjective impressions. The latter are only helpful in revealing the character of the observer. But comparing a pregnant woman with a whale neither helps the reader’s opinion of this police officer, nor provides much of a visual for Catherine.

And speaking of officers, let’s look at the policework in Snap. I don’t think there was any investigation at all of the murder weapon until a particular question about it is raised three years later. Someone on the police force looking into the origins of the knife might have uncovered the truth of the murder long before Jack’s life went off the rails. And are they planning to prosecute the murderer at all after this “investigation?” On what evidence? Have they attained anything legally? And how did Marvel not suspect, when another officer talks about Adam’s wife leaving him, that maybe she didn’t come back? And when do criminals– even juvenile ones– get to walk away free and clear after admitting to over a hundred crimes, on good faith?

I know I’ve listed a lot of complaints, but I didn’t actively hate this book. It disappointed me, but it was great starting out, turned bland for the rest of the first half, and then felt rushed from there. The bare bones of this story are superb, and even though I found fault with a lot of the rest of it, Snap still stands out as a story that had a lot of potential that it just didn’t reach. There were even times, outside of the characters’ thoughts, when I even liked the writing style.

“The breathless air twitched in the wake of each car, then flopped down dead in the dust again.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Much like the last thriller I read (Riley Sager’s The Last Time I Lied), this one seemed so promising, and just didn’t deliver. I’ll keep trying, but it’s been hard finding a good thriller lately. Snap turned out not to be a great start to the Man Booker longlist, though if they get better from here maybe I’ll be glad to have started on the less impressive end of the spectrum. (Prediction: Snap will not make the shortlist.) Next up for Man Booker I’ve got Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea and Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under coming my way. I’m also planning on picking up Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room from my library soon. Hopefully these choices will be better fits.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you had better luck with Snap than I did and want something similar, you might enjoy Cate Holahan’s Lies She Told, a metafiction thriller about a thriller writer who is undergoing hormone treatments to boost her fertility, and thinks the hormones are making her think and behave erratically.
  2. I keep recommending this, but if you’re looking for a better mystery with plenty of suspense, Riley Sager’s Final Girls is a fresh take on familiar slasher thriller tropes. In this novel, the sole survivor (final girl, if you will) of a murder spree is running for her life again– maybe from the same crazed knife-wielder who killed her friends last time.

Do you read any longlist books, or do you wait for the shortlist or winner? Or steer clear of literary prizes altogether? I’m not convinced literary prize nominees are always the best choices, but I always find it interesting to see what gets picked.


The Literary Elephant