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Review: The Clockwork Dynasty

I don’t often read about robots or artificial intelligence. Humans are interesting enough, and even fictional revelations of humanity can be relevant in real life, while (in my life, at least) encounters with robots are all but nonexistent. Every now and then though, I like to pick up a book out of my normal range, and with Daniel H. Wilson’s The Clockwork Dynasty, I found an automaton book that actually shocked me.

About the book: In early 1700s Russia, two theclockworkdynastyavtomat are awakened. They are brother and sister, a clockwork man whose life goal is justice, and a small woman whose dedication is logic. They are meant to serve the tsar, Peter the Great, and to succeed to “eternal tsardom” when he dies. Instead, they are exiled, and will spend hundreds of years traveling the world and trying to fulfill their life goals while keeping their true identities secret. In present day US, a researcher of clockwork artifacts forces her way too close to the truth of the avtomat, and begins to learn about a secret existence hiding amongst humanity. When her course clashes with the clockwork man’s, the two reveal and seek great secrets– the long extent of the avtomat history, the reason they’re dying out now, and how to revive them– before their mysteries are lost forever.

“New frontiers are waiting to be explored, no matter what the schoolteachers say or how many books have been written. Maps are just a lie we tell ourselves to feel safe.”

The Clockwork Dynasty utilizes a back-and-forth format, alternating chapters of Peter’s (the avtomat man’s) past and June’s (the human researcher’s) present. This gives the reader a rich sense of the different time periods at play in the narration and the variety of countries involved, as well as the dual perspectives of humanity and avtomat. Peter and June both narrate their chapters in the first person, and their similarities and differences are striking.

“We came striding out of the past, yet are bones are made of the future.”

“Most people are too caught up in the present to care about the past. But when I look at something old, when I touch it, I feel like I’m reaching into another world. A place with secrets. So, yes, part of the reason I’m helping you is because I’m curious.”

Fortunately, the characters are just as remarkable individually as they are in comparison. The full cast is wide, featuring both humans and avtomat, and although the narration is limited to two perspectives, the reader is provided a clear view of several main players. Peter’s sister, for instance, stands just outside of the major plot line, but she gives the reader a fuller sense of clockwork life through which we can better understand which of Peter’s quirks are facets of avtomat and which are his own personality. The brother/sister dynamic between clockwork creatures is highly intriguing because they are not siblings in the same way that humans are. There are also friendships and enmities within the wider avtomat population, which are equally interesting, though moreso for the secrets they reveal about the avtomat history and secrets. There is no romance in this novel, though at times the dialogue leans toward innuendos that feel oddly placed for asexual creatures. I rarely seek out books without romance– and yet, there is no romance whatsoever within this novel, and it is stronger for it. Any sort of side plot featuring a love story would have felt forced and unnatural, and I found that the rest of the not-quite-human relationships provided all the emotion I needed.

“I think we are but two small pieces of interlocking machinery in the great, faceless mechanism of the world.”

This book was described to me as a “science fiction thriller,” which I suppose I would agree with for lack of a better genre to name. The pacing, however, is not what I would call typical thriller pacing. There are only a few action scenes that were full of excitement and suspense; though there is a lot of action in the book, the intricate level of detail and elaborate prose slows down the pace. The reveals don’t kick up the reader’s adrenaline and keep him/her on the edge of his/her seat, but they’re undeniably surprising and each one opens up new ways to think about this fictional world and ultimately about the real world. I don’t truly believe that avtomat have been hiding in plain sight for thousands of years, but I do believe that the past contains mysteries that are still relevant today, and that present and future advancements in science are capable of revealing what has never been known or even seen before. The novel uses ideas like these to keep the story of clockwork lives connected to reality, and it plants beautiful ideas of life and reason into the framework of the plot. So while there are plenty of battle scenes and literal races for the truth, this is a book for the contemplative reader, and the reader more tolerant of flowery prose.

“‘We fall through the years,’ he continues, ‘like dust motes through a shaft of sunlight. We dance, each of us reflecting the same brilliance. And though we spiral into darkness, the light remains.'”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was a bit skeptical when I picked this one up, but it was definitely a risk that payed off in the end. This level of unexpected enjoyment is why I continue to pick up books that sound just outside of my normal reading range. Occasionally, I learn that I like something odd and surprising, like science fiction thrillers. I don’t know that I’ll be reading anything further from this author (although anything is possible), but I do know that I’ll be approaching books that I wouldn’t normally read with a more open mind in the future, which was the goal. I highly recommend exploring genres you don’t normally reach for, because those are the books with the greatest power to impress.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ernest Cline’s Ready player One is a faster-paced science fiction thriller. This one’s about a near future dystopia in which much of the world lives primarily inside a virtual reality instead of actual reality. There’s an on-going challenge inside this virtual oasis, a game-within-the-game, that can change everything–if only one knows enough about 80s pop culture to find the clues and best the creator.
  2. Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter is another fast-paced sci-fi thriller. The main character of this one is a scientist with the skill to solve the mystery of dark matter– and use it to explore alternate realities. The twists in this novel are mind-boggling. If you’re looking for something completely unpredictable with high stakes and high suspense, this is it. You don’t even have to know anything about science or dark matter to love with this one.
  3. The Magicians by Lev Grossman is an urban fantasy adventure story with some strong similarities to The Clockwork Dynasty. If you like the idea of a secret world hiding within the bounds of everyday reality, this is a top contender about powerful magicians, in which the magic is a science to be studied rigorously rather than the usual (and frustrating) inexplicable miracle. This is a character-driven start to a trilogy that spans worlds and prompts the reader to view reality with an open mind.

What’s next: I’m currently reading both Saga: Book One (a compilation of the first three volumes of the graphic novel series Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples) and Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, a classic serial killer thriller with the perfect amount of horror for Halloween. I’ll probably be reviewing both of these next week, but it’s anyone’s guess as to which one I’ll be finishing first.

What spooky and thrilling reads are you exploring this Halloween?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Lies She Told

It was the blend of fiction and reality in this thriller’s premise that drew me in. The blurred line between what we create with our imaginations and what we draw from our real lives is one of the most fascinating points of literature for me, so when I saw that Cate Holahan’s Lies She Told was supposed to feature a thriller writer whose latest book reveals eerie clues about a murder close to her own life, I jumped on board.

About the book: Liza and her husband, liesshetoldDavid, are trying to become parents. Liza is taking experimental fertility treatments because she wants to be a mother so badly, but David is pulling away, immersing himself in work, giving up. Liza has not given up, and is also struggling to produce another best seller to revive her dwindling book sales. She’s under so much pressure writing her latest thriller that she lives in a haze, filtered through the eyes of her fictional main character. The hormones from the fertility treatments and the extra alcohol she’s been consuming in response to an upcoming writer’s conference are further muddling her mind, so when lines start to cross between the murder committed in her novel and the real case involving David’s missing best friend, she’s more confused about the truth than anyone.

“The faithful often find themselves blindsided. They don’t suspect anything because they can’t imagine doing something so awful themselves.”

Unfortunately, the intrigue stopped there for me: with the premise. This is one of those books that seemed great in theory, but the execution of the story did not live up to my expectations. That said, I’ve seen some pretty good reviews for this book, so it’s possible that my expectations were too high.

The biggest problem for me was the predictability; I was able to guess almost every reveal before it was delivered, which made the big surprises fall flat. It wasn’t until the last fifty pages that something happened that I truly hadn’t been expecting, though at that point it was getting late and I was getting tired, and as soon as I had been given the information I could see all the clues I had overlooked. I love thrillers that have all the answers woven in before the reveals, so that the big surprises have not only surface shock value, but the shock of highlighting all the clues in retrospect. When the reader could have pieced the puzzle together, but didn’t– that’s a winning thriller, in my opinion. Lies She Told, on the other hand, uses very transparent clues that send the reader little warning signals whenever key details come up. The narrator very blatantly dismisses facts that seem odd, and thus the reader knows exactly what to pay attention to.

One aspect that seemed most promising at first is the metafiction component. Liza’s chapters about Beth, the main character of her new thriller, are interspersed throughout the novel. The back-and-forth format between Liza’s real life and Beth’s supposedly fictional murder make a nice contrast (not difficult to follow at all, though the parallels are clear and fascinating), and provide great opportunity for Holahan to write about writing a thriller. Again, this is something that I love in theory, but that fell flat for me in this novel. Somehow, it felt like a call for attention whenever narration was devoted to the writing process of a thriller, like Holahan was pointing out what her aims were in certain sections so that no matter what else was happening the reader could note that she was paying attention to the right things– not the fact that Tyler’s arms resemble kettlebells, not the cheesy, uncomfortable position shifts in the sex scenes, not the psychiatrist-falling-for-his-patient trope. Instead of fun insights, it felt like seeing the writer’s mental checklist, the mechanics behind the creativity, and those metafictional moments became magic-less moments instead of intriguing ones. The most interesting opportunities, like the one when Liza is asked where her book ideas come from, are dismissed too easily. “They’re just there.” She makes no attempt to consider the question deeper, and from that alone the smart reader knows that this, too, is an important detail.

“To be a writer is to be a life thief.  Every day, I rob myself blind.”

Furthermore, something about the writing style more generally was disagreeable to me. While I respect Holahan for her interesting and vivid metaphors, some of them felt so extremely unusual that they’d pull me out of the story or leave me thinking about something entirely separate from the plot. Take this one, for example:

“Ignorance is never bliss. It is to walk around with a cancer in your colon, one that could be cut out safely within seven years but is instead allowed to grow, undisturbed, while you focus on other matters, unaware that it is spreading to your gut, infiltrating your bone marrow, your blood, all your vital organs until it has twisted your body into something grotesque and unsustainable. Until you’re too sick to survive. I need to know.”

Vivid, right? And yet, what are you thinking about by the end of it? I, for one, was no longer thinking about ignorance or bliss. There are no primary characters with cancer in this story, or any sort of relatable sickness, and yet we have this very close image of it, in excruciating detail. It’s memorable, which I appreciate in a metaphor, but it strays from the story. It convinces me that cancer is terrifying, not that Liza can’t go on without learning what her husband may or may not be up to behind her back.

Of course, even after all of these mildly disappointing factors, my opinion of this book might still have been salvaged if it hadn’t been for the bland ending. Liza’s ending, on the one hand, is strong and eventful. But then she thinks she can do something different for Beth in her novel, and that’s where the story ends– on Beth’s very uneventful “justice.” I was expecting a punch in the final paragraph, a “just kidding, she’s been tricked, something sinister is still at work,” but instead the ends are neatly tied in the least dramatic way possible. Everyone is primed to be on their worst behavior, and somehow, nothing happens. Some people like neat endings where everyone wins, but I am not one of those people.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I wanted to like this book. I really did. I love Book of the Month and I’m always so excited about starting any of the books they’ve selected. At first I thought this one was just starting slow, as some thrillers do, but my appreciation for the book just never grew. Again, I want to reiterate that I don’t think Lies She Told is a bad book. It just wasn’t the book for me.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’re looking for a murder mystery with domestic intrigue and carefully planted clues about what’s really going on, try Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go, a masterpiece thriller that starts slow and builds to intense suspense, with a perfectly creepy ending.
  2. If you’re looking for a mystery completely out of the norm that’s guaranteed to surprise you, try Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes, a previous Book of the Month thriller that quickly became one of my favorite books of the year due to its shocking twists.

Coming up Next: My next review will feature George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, the third book in his Song of Ice and Fire series. I have high hopes for this volume, and I’ve been doing that “saving the best for last” thing by leaving this one until the end of the month. But now, down with the Lannisters!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Blinds

When I came came across Adam Sternbergh’s new release, The Blinds (via BOTM), I was hesitant. It’s described as a speculative Western thriller, which sounded both chaotically fun but also a bit wackier than my normal reading material. The prospect of futuristic cowboys threw me off, but Sheriff Calvin Cooper does not disappoint– considering he’s one of the biggest criminals in town.

theblindsAbout the book: Caesura, Texas– aka The Blinds– is an experiment. 48 convicted criminals have signed on to have their past crimes and traumas wiped from their memories so that they can live in the “safe” environment of Caesura, under new names. 100 miles from civilization, with only a weekly supply truck and a police-use fax machine for contact with the outside world, Caesura has been constructed specifically for this experiment. But eight years after its inception, the experiment may be falling apart. There are deaths. Fires. Vandals. Liaison officers are coming in to investigate, and the outside world is clashing with the closed-off Caesura community. What happens when 48 of the nation’s most notorious criminals who remember their criminality but not their crimes are nudged out of their comfort zone?

“This may not be a prison, and it may not be purgatory, but it’s sure as hell not a paradise, either. This is the Blinds.”

About the format: The book is divided into sections by day, Monday through Friday of one eventful week in western Texas. These sections are further divided into chapters, and the chapters are further divided into smaller sections within. The narration flows smoothly from one character’s perspective to another, sometimes between sections, sometimes between paragraphs with no clear division of where one character’s experience stops and another begins. In this way, the reader is given a sense of the Blinds on a wider scale, which also makes it harder (and more fun) to guess who’s involved in what.

Now let’s talk about the premise. The implications of the memory wipe alone is highly intriguing, but the town… a whole town of convicted criminals fenced in together who may or may not remember key details of their past activities is the perfect literary recipe for disaster. They’re even allowed to leave whenever they want– with the caveat that no one who leaves is allowed to come back. That’s what hooked me. The idea of those 48 criminals, strangers living together by choice, suddenly provoked by the outside world. But Sternbergh is not an author who wins readers with a strong premise and then leaves them dissatisfied with a boring plot– the town is a constant mystery, between the unexplained deaths inside it and the unexpected attention from its outside connections. The characters are a ceaseless surprise with how far they are willing to go, and for what, or for whom. And just when you think you’ve got it down, there’s another level of conspiracy revealed. And none of it would be possible without this unique cast of fogged villains.

“It’s hard enough to live with what you’ve done. It’s immeasurably harder to live with knowing you’ve done something, but not knowing what exactly it is you did.”

The characters are excellent. The writing style, and the present mysterious situation in Caesura, reminds the reader of each character’s humanity, vulnerability, and the promises that have been made to them about their quality of life in Caesura. No matter what crimes they’ve committed in the past, they are all (slightly muddled) citizens of a small town– neighbors, friends, assistants. They work together: the town has a nurse, a librarian, a repairman, a bartender, a commissary man… They’re all just people, looking for a break from the real world, and a fresh start. Some of them will turn out to be surprisingly evil. Some surprisingly good. They are all morally gray (at best), and yet the reader can sympathize with so many of them because at heart, they’re all just fighting to survive.

“The minds of the innocent are simple and so easily explained. The minds of the guilty, however– they are endlessly fascinating, once you really roll up your sleeves.”

I would not call this a thriller, exactly. A mystery, certainly, but the pacing is not as break-neck suspenseful as I usually expect from a thriller. There’s an interesting style used for the reveals in this book though– a little hint that someone knows more than they should about some crime or other, and then the next section of their perspective proceeds as though the reader knows about that crime and that character’s involvement, but then something further happens. The surprise is rarely ever a dramatic whodunnit moment; the surprise comes in the fact that the murder everyone’s concerned about is only the beginning– and that the characters who thinks they’re in charge are just players in someone else’s plot. The surprise comes from the “wait, there’s more?” moments, which happen repeatedly and never disappoint.

It’s not the kind of horror book that will give you nightmares, but be prepared for some criminal details that boggle the mind. There’s not much gore or senseless maliciousness described, but keep in mind that there are at least 48 criminals in this book that even the prisons didn’t want to hold on to.

“Some stories are probably better lost forever, never remembered, never told.”

But The Blinds is not one of them.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a great read. It’s the kind of well-plotted, well-characterized book that anyone who appreciates adult literature should pick up, regardless of genre preference. I wasn’t sure about this one when I looked up its genres, but I’m immensely glad I stepped out of my normal reading zone to give The Blinds a chance. I’ll be keeping an eye on this author in the future, but more immediately I will use this experience to try stepping out of my normal reading zone more often. There are some gems out there in the rarely-reached-for genres. (Who even knew Speculative Western Thriller was a genre?)

Further recommendations:

  1. Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is another speculative fiction tale with a unique sort of “prison.” In this book, the failing U.S. economy drives whole communities into experimental towns in which the population spends six months in prison voluntarily (half at a time), which creates enough employment and resource for the other half of the town to live on. And every six months, the citizens switch, until things start to go awry…

What’s next: I’m picking up The Bane Chronicles next, a collection of short stories written by Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, and Maureen Johnson. It’s the next stop on my tour through the Shadowhunter books, now that I’ve finished The Mortal Instruments. It’s all about Magnus Bane and his warlock exploits.

Have you dabbled in any unusual genres lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Fierce Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

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