Book Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager

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Final Girls by Riley Sager

Quincy Carpenter is a survivor. Ten years ago, she was the only survivor of a horror movie-style massacre and joined the ranks of the “Final Girls.” A term given to two other women who survived similar massacres. Quincy has determinedly put the past behind her. She can’t remember much of what happened that night, and she has moved on, courtesy of Xanax and an obsession with baking. All she wants is to be “normal,” and not to be identified solely as a victim.

But her carefully constructed house of cards falls down when Lisa, one of the Final Girls, is found dead, her wrists slit. Soon the only other Final Girl, Sam, arrives on her doorstep. Sam’s method of dealing with her past is an exercise in self-destruction, and her presence sends Quincy spiraling down into instability. When the police investigation of Lisa’s death reveals that she was murdered, Quincy finds herself in a position where she can trust no one around her; not even her own memories.

This book surprised me. I went in expecting something leaning more towards the horror genre, and ended up with a tense little psychological thriller. I really enjoyed this book, and read it straight through in one sitting. The novel is told from Quincy’s point of view, and we get a first hand look at the rituals she holds herself to in order to maintain her grasp on normalcy. It is all too easy for the rampaging presence of Sam to knock these habits into disarray, and Quincy’s mental state with them. Interspersed between the chapters dealing with the here-and-now are chapters flashing back to the night of the massacre that Quincy survived as a college freshman. As both stories unfold, we must call into question everything we had learned before.

Sager does a brilliant job keeping the suspense going in this book. Her use of false leads and red herrings is masterfully done. Sager uses twists subtly telegraphed to hide other plot twists you will not see coming. We think we have guessed at a character’s hidden secret, only to have that secret be revealed as surface clutter to a more cunningly hidden depth.

Fans of Lisa Unger, Ruth Ware, or Karin Slaughter will likely enjoy this book. Anyone looking for a unique and riveting take on the horror genre should also pick up this book.

An advanced copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

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Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

It’s been a year since Sybilla “Billie” Flanagan disappeared while on a solo hiking trip. Missing and presumed dead, her grieving husband and teenage daughter have been left to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. Then one day at school, Billie’s daughter has a vision: her mother is alive, somewhere out there, and needs Olive to come find her. Jonathan, Billie’s husband, initially dismisses the idea that Billie is still alive. After all, he has just recently been able to accept the fact of her death. But then a chance encounter with one of Billie’s friends reveals that his wife has been keeping secrets from him for years. The deeper he digs into his wife’s mysterious past, the more uncertain he becomes about the woman he married, and whether she did actually perish a year ago.

This is a tight, subtle thriller. We know Billie, former wild child turned Berkeley super mom by the holes she left in the lives of those around her. While Olive and Jonathan work in their own ways to find out what happened to Billie, we see her surface persona slowly scraped away, and something different and darker start to show through underneath. Every revelation about who Billie was adds more mystery, rather than less, to her ultimate fate. Through the course of the book, you find yourself very smugly sure that so-and-so knows what happened to Billie, only to have that assumption ripped away a few chapters later, and your focus moved on to a new suspect.

Fans of mysteries and thrillers will probably enjoy this book. The story has several elements in common with Gone Girl. If you’ve enjoyed books in that vein, this is a good pick for you.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

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The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Helena grew up in an isolated cabin deep in the marshes of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she understood the horrible truth of her unconventional childhood: her father was a kidnapper and rapist, and her mother his victim and prisoner. Now an adult, Helena has two young children of her own, and her father, known as The Marsh King, has been in prison for over a decade. Then one day, state troopers show up at her door; her father has escaped from prison. Helena knows that he will be coming for her, but her father is a consummate woodsman, able to disappear into the wilderness at will. Helena will have to use every bit of information he taught her in order to track him down and keep her family safe.

This nail-biting thriller contains shades of Room by Emma Donoghue and Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller. The story weaves between the present day, where Helena is living a more or less normal life in rural Michigan (though she still struggles with the intricacies of society), and her childhood living on the land in the isolated cabin on the marsh. We can acutely feel the subtle damage done to Helena by her father, yet she was raised to more or less worship him. Her father is a rapist, a kidnapper, and a sadist, but he was also the man who raised her, and what little girl doesn’t want the approval of her father? This dissonance between the facts and the feelings of her childhood present Helena with a horrible and complex dilemma. She knows her father is an evil man, and that he means to hurt her and her family, but how do you truly stop being daddy’s little girl?

I really liked this book. Dionne has taken a theme that occupies both newspaper headlines and our nightmares and made it into a terrifyingly realistic, gripping story. The weaving of past and present events is done well, revealing in increments the full story of Helena’s childhood. If you’ve been looking for a fast-paced, stay-up-until-one-in-the-morning read, this is the perfect book for you.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Blackout by Marc Elsberg

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Blackout by Marc Elsberg

 

The entire European electric grid has gone dark. From Britain to the Czech Republic, millions are without power. As the blackout continues, international authorities are unable to find the cause of the disaster, or who might be responsible. Chaos and unrest continue to build as people are left without food, heat, water, or medical care. Hacker Piero Manzano believes he may have discovered the cause of the blackout, but he quickly finds himself Europol’s number one suspect. Manzano must continue his investigation on the run, and with the help of an American journalist, he sets out to find those responsible. But time is not on his side, without backup power, nuclear power plants across the continent are beginning to go critical.

This is a scary book. Elsberg has thoroughly researched and crafted this book to hew as closely as possible to reality. His knowledge of electric grids, cyber security, and international policing and politics is comprehensive and used to best effect. In Blackout, we find a very real look at what a major terror attack against our power supply might look like.

My major problem with the book it that it lacks heart. The book reads more like an overview of events rather than a novel with characters we are supposed to care about. However, this may not be Elsberg’s fault. Blackout was originally published in German in 2012, the version I read (to be published in June of 2017) was translated into English. Translation of literature is a complex and fraught artform. Without careful attention to form and intent, the heart and soul of the book (or poem, etc.) in question can be lost. I am wondering if that is what happened here. As I do not speak German, that will have to remain merely a hypothesis until some kindly German-speaking person reads the book in its original form and lets me know if they found the same problem.

Still, this is a vivid and haunting picture of events which I could potentially see in my lifetime. The realism of the book is haunting, and will stick with you even after you’ve finished reading. If you’re looking for a disaster story, this one takes the cake.

 

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Only Child by Andrew Pyper

The Only Child by Andrew Pyper 

Dr. Lily Dominick is a forensic psychiatrist. She has dedicated her life to evaluating and understanding the worst people humanity can produce. When she is called in to evaluate a John Doe arrested after brutally mutilating a man, her carefully ordered life begins to unravel. The man claims to be over two hundred years old, and to have inspired the most infamous gothic monsters of the eighteenth century: Dracula, Mr. Hyde, and Frankenstein’s monster. When the man escapes, he draws Lily into a twisted game of cat and mouse. Lily must unravel the truth of this dangerous man’s past, and uncover his link to her own shadowed childhood.

This was an interesting take on the standard gothic horror motif. The dangerously supernatural intrudes into the life of a woman determined to be so mundane she is nearly invisible. At the same time, we feel an undercurrent of some unnamable strangeness lurking just beyond Lily’s conciousness. As the novel progresses, we are forced to wonder how much of what is happening is real, and how much might be some repressed part of herself coming to the surface at last.

I will say that some aspects of the novel verge into ridiculous territory. At some points Michael (the monster/madman) is genuinely creepy and terrifying, and at others he seems to lean toward emo-hipsterishness (I was a murderous, blood sucking maniac before it was cool. Also, I’m the one who made it cool). But really, as a gothic villain (and this is a gothic horror at heart) he really has no choice but to wallow in such self-centered psychosis.

In all, this is a good choice for fans of the genre. The writing is a bit flowery at times, which I know can turn some people off, but I personally feel that it fit well with the overall feel of the book. If you like your gothic horror with a fair dose of Silence of the Lambs, then this book is a good fit for you.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

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New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

This is one of the Hogarth Shakespeare series; the Bard’s classic plays reimagined by modern-day authors. Last year I got to read Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest. Now, I’m moving on to Othello as envisioned by Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier sets her retelling in 1970s Washington DC. The era, with its incendiary post-civil rights racial tensions, provides a brilliant backdrop for a story that orbits intimately around Othello’s otherness (both his race and, presumably, his religion).

Disconcertingly, Chevalier has set her story in an elementary school. The major players are now sixth graders; the horror and the tragedy of the plot enacted by eleven year olds. A bold choice, but one that ultimately plays out well. The petty intrigues and backstabbing of playground rivalries seem to need only a small push to spiral into terminal misunderstanding and violence.

The story, set over a single school day, begins with Osei, also called O, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat starting his first day at a new school, and the only black student enrolled. He quickly befriends Daniella (also called Dee), one of the most popular girls in school, and the two hit it off almost instantly. Unfortunately, Osei’s unlikely friendship with Dee, and his acceptance by Casper, the most popular boy at the school, inspire bully Ian to concoct a malicious plot to put the “uppity” Osei in his rightful place.

New Boy is a powerful retelling of a play that is in itself timeless. Othello continues to resonate with audiences today because the attitudes of racism, resentment, and revenge are depressingly familiar to us all. The child-like cruelty of the elementary students in New Boy is at once horrifying and familiar. The reinforcement of this cruelty by the adults in the picture (who, as one character points out, “should know better”) provides further commentary on the pervasiveness of racism and the continuous effort at education and cultural exploration needed to help combat it. By setting the story in the 1970s, Chevalier gives us some temporal space from such abominable ideas, but recent events should quickly make it obvious that we have not come nearly as far as we would like to think.

In all, this is a great modern retelling of a Shakespeare classic (is that redundant? I think it may be). Othello is an important story, and New Boy will make it more accessible for those who don’t have the time or inclination to wade through the Bard’s archaic prose.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker


Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker

You might know this by now, but I’m a huge Jane Eyre fan. I will devour everything and anything related to the book. So when I saw that a book from Mr. Rochester’s point of view was coming out, I jumped on the opportunity like one of my dogs on an errant piece of cheese.

Mr. Rochester did not disappoint. The story begins with young Edward Fairfax Rochester as an unloved second son, torn from Thornfield Hall by an indifferent father to begin his education. The book follows Mr. Rochester though his teen years (banished from his father and older brother to a mill to learn to run a business), through his days in Jamaica (where he meets the mysterious and beautiful Bertha Mason), to his dissipation on the continent (where we meet the opera singer, Celine), and finally, to his fateful journey back to Thornfield where he meets a kind young governess after his horse slips on the ice.

Shoemaker has done a great job of adhering to the tone of the original book; the prose mimics Bronte’s style incredibly well. Shoemaker also manages to bring a fresh feeling to the classic book, while at the same time staying true to the original, no mean feat. In this regard, the book reminds me of Phantom by Susan Kay, another novel which expanded on a well-known story, but remained undiminished even next to the original.

While you do not technically have to read Jane Eyre before reading Mr. Rochester, I would certainly recommend that you read Jane Eyre first. Fans of Jane Eyre should definitely read this book, as should anyone with a love of classic and/or British literature.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

I remember reading about the radium girls as a side bar in The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum. The story was fascinating enough as a side bar, but in The Radium Girls, Moore brings these women to life. These girls, some as young as thirteen or fourteen years old, worked painting watch dials with luminescent radium paint. The work was considered to be quite a few steps above common factory work; the work was skilled and the girls were considered lucky to be able to work with the new miracle substance: radium. With our current knowledge, what happened next should surprise no one. The girls began to get sick, many horrifically so. Their battle for compensation from the radium companies would reshape the nature of worker’s rights in the United States.

The Radium Girls is thoroughly researched and impeccably written. The depth of Moore’s work is nothing short of breathtaking. She uses primary sources, including the letters and diaries of the girls themselves, and the reminisces of their families, to give each one a unique, real voice. Moore takes the story from the original girls hired in the manufacturing boom brought on by World War One, through the following decades into the present day. Though it has been one hundred years since radium dials exploded as a wartime necessity, the ripple effect of the fates of the dial painters is still very much felt today.

Moore has done an amazing job with this story. Her careful attention to detail makes these women, who lived and died so long ago, seem real and alive in the pages of the book. Her narrative is both educational and absorbing, making this a great nonficton read even for those who normally avoid the genre. Any fan of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot should read this next.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown


The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

This historical fiction follows the career of self-styled (and real life) Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, as told by his sister, Alice. In the 1640s, during the English Civil War between the Catholics and Protestants, Hopkins gained infamy for his dogged pursuit of witches in the Southeast of England. It is estimated that anywhere from 100 to 300 women perished due to his work. Like the witch hysteria of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, Hopkins focused his attentions on independent, outspoken, and/or unpopular women. And, the times being what they were, a good deal of anti-catholic hatred also informed his persecutions.

This book is told from the point of view of Matthew Hopkins’ older sister, Alice, recently widowed and returned to her hometown. Through guile and intimidation, Matthew enlists Alice to help him in ferreting out witches, which she does with increasing reluctance. As Matthew’s obsession grows in intensity, so does the menace Alice can sense underneath his brotherly affection.

The Witchfinder’s Sister is a carefully researched and intricately detailed historical fiction. Underdown does a great job conveying the sense of claustrophobia and dread that haunts the main protagonist. There are no (real) witches or demons here; the horrible things humans are capable of inflicting upon one another more than serve to provide horror.

I will say, however, that as a protagonist, Alice Hopkins does feel a little bit flat. She seems to have no agency or larger sense of herself beyond what others want of her. Rather that being an active part of the story, she seems to simply drift from plot point to plot point. While this may be intentional on the part of the author (a more spirited woman would likely have fought more), it does make her a bit dull and frustrating as a narrator. By contrast, Underdown did a wonderful job with Matthew Hopkins, he is terrifying and broken, a source of horror and begrudging pity.

Fans of darker historical fiction, or those interested in the histories of witchcraft hysteria will likely enjoy this book. Underdown does a fantastic job of bringing England in the 1640s to life, and her sense of pacing palpably increases the reader’s sense of dread as the narrative unfolds.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King

Feast of Sorrow: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Crystal King
I’m really on an Ancient Rome kick. After reading Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George, I went looking for something juicy to follow up. I was not disappointed by Crystal King’s debut historical fiction.

The story follows the slave Thrasius, bought by the disgustingly rich Roman aristocrat Apicius to run his kitchen. Apicius is an already famous gourmand, and he wants to climb to the top of Roman culinary society by becoming an advisor to the Roman Emperor. Willing to go to any expense and any excess to achieve his goal, the book follows Thrasius and Apicius across a sweep of decades.

King has done a masterful job in her debut work. As with any book about Ancient Rome, the drama is high and the casual violence and cruelty is breathtaking.  The world occupied by Thrasius and Apicus is vividly wrought, with a great deal of attention paid to historical accuracy. While Thrasius and his fellow slaves are fictional (identities of Roman slaves are understandably shrouded in the historical record), Apicius and his family (and other high-born Romans in this book) were all real people. Apicius himself is credited with the creation of a series of cookbooks, some of which still survive today.

King carefully crafts her major characters, giving them a multifaceted existence which lends complexity and humanity to the story. King also does a wonderful job weaving a number of disparate historical threads together into a coherent story. The span of decades allows the reader to watch as the characters grow and develop.

Any fan of historical fiction will enjoy this book. King has a wonderful (and rare) talent for blending the historical and fictional aspects of the book together, providing needed background without sacrificing pace. This is a fine drama, and should appeal to a wide variety of tastes.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.