Book Review: White Bodies by Jane Robins

White Bodies by Jane Robins

Callie and Tilda are twins, though they couldn’t be more different. Tilda is beautiful, outgoing, and a successful actress. Callie is quiet and introverted, and worships the ground her sister walks on. When Tilda becomes involved with successful stockbroker Felix, Callie is at first happy that her sister has found someone so perfect. But after Tilda starts behaving oddly, and displaying mysterious bruises, Callie begins to worry that Felix is dangerous. Getting drawn into an internet site for abused women, Callie becomes more and more obsessed with revealing the truth about Felix. But as the foundations of Callie’s concern begin to shift and crumble, can her perceptions be trusted?

I am now in full-fledged psychological thriller burnout. I have to admit that I feel a bit more justified in my feelings on the subject after reading Emily Martin’s article on Bookriot entitled “Why We Should Stop Searching for the Next Gone Girl” (warning: spoilers for Gone Girls, The Couple Next Door, and The Girl on the Train). Martin makes the point that in the rush to achieve to runaway success Gillian Flynn did with Gone Girl, folks have been cranking out similar stories, each trying on their own brand of mental illness to up the suspense. However, as much as Amy Dunne was a psychopathic bitch, her flaws and intelligence made her a complex and compelling (if horrible) character. As Emily Martin points out in her article, Flynn was able to give us a leading female character who was pretty much unlikeable in every way.

The inevitable consequence of Flynn’s success, according to Martin

. . . is a new and equally problematic female character archetype – the unwieldy off-the-rails woman. This woman is not any more complicated than the “strong female character.” Her craziness is not a personality, and her bouts of insanity that not even she can control allow for absolutely any twist possible that the writer wants to imagine.

And with this, I can finally put my finger on what has been bugging me about this genre recently. None of the recent protagonists of these books have been more complex than their mental illness. And while our current protagonist, Callie, is probably the weirdest I’ve seen yet, simply being crazy does not a compelling character make.

The books also by necessity rely heavily on inevitable plot twist(s), and this one is no exception. The problem is, that while reading these books (much like watching an M. Night Shyamalan movie) we are looking into every crevice and casually uttered word for said twist. With that amount of scrutiny, any surprises the plot might hold are going to be guessed long before the climax; if not from the evidence at hand, then simply by trying to think of ways to make the ending more shocking.

I apologize that this review is less about White Bodies specifically and more about the genre as a whole, but the field is crowded at the moment, and it takes a truly remarkable talent to separate oneself from the pack. White Bodies, unfortunately, does not do this. Callie is simply one more protagonist who’s mental illness is used to facilitate contortions of the plot.

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

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Book Review: That Last Weekend by Laura DiSilverio

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That Last Weekend: A Novel of Suspense by Laura DiSilverio

Five college friends stayed at the same castle-like bed and breakfast every year, until tragedy struck. Pushed away by suspicion and fear, and drifting further apart due to distance and time, they now barely speak to one another. Until, ten years after that fateful night, each receives an invitation to return to the Chateau du Cygne Noir for one last weekend. The demons of the past and the present join forces, and death stalks the chateau. The five friends must confront their past and rip open old wounds to finally uncover the truth.

If all this sounds like a Christopher Pike novel to you, you are not far off (old person question: do people still read Christopher Pike books? Or are you looking up his Wikipedia page right now?). I’m not sure if I’m just burned out on the psychological thriller genre, but I just couldn’t get into this book. I tried, but ultimately, I couldn’t get behind any of the main characters, and reading the book felt a bit like my middle school reads attempted an Agatha Christie radio drama.

But, maybe I’m being overly harsh. I’ve certainly been hitting the psychological thrillers harder than the whiskey recently, and I have to say, they’ve all started to look alike to me. I think too many plot twists may have turned my head. If you’re generally a fan of the genre, or you’re old enough to look back at The Midnight Club with something like nostalgia, then give this book a whirl. I’d like to know if quiet, self-conscious, jogging female protagonists have turned me into a bitter old hag.

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

Book Review: Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

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Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

Milly used to be Annie. But everything changed when she walked into a police station and told the officer on duty about her mother. Annie’s mother was a serial killer. Annie got a new foster family and a new name, and her mother is in jail.

But the trial is coming up, and Milly-Annie must face her mother one more time, must be the one who sends her away for good. But with the stress of the trial and tensions in her foster family; is Annie her own person, or simply her mother’s daughter?

This is one of those ubiquitous psychological thrillers which are all the rage these days (young people, grumble grumble). But Good Me Bad Me stands out from the pack for being a truly disturbing read. Honestly, parts of this book read more like a horror novel than a psychological thriller. I’m a fan.

Milly’s past is shown to us in flashes and snippets, with a lot left implied or unsaid. Her mother is truly a boogeyman figure, who looms dark and sinister even when Milly is supposed to feel safe. And yet, Milly’s relationship with her mother is more complicated than monster and victim. Milly hates and fears her mother, yes, but these emotions are tangled up in a truly twisted love of the person who raised her, and a desire to make her mother proud (The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne superbly explored this fucked up family dynamic).

The book loses a bit of steam for me when it goes in for all the high school drama (yes, yes, teenagers are the real psychopaths, this is old news). Though the truly horrific bullying experienced by Milly provides a great backdrop for her struggle between some semblance of normality, or the sociopathic tendencies nurtured by her mother.

In all, this book is a standout in an overcrowded genre. Those who enjoy their books dark, disturbing, and more than a bit fucked up will want to add this one to their to-read lists.

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

Book Review: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

 Three years ago, sisters Emma and Cass disappeared. Now Cass has returned, but what happened to Emma? As Cass begins telling her family and the FBI about what happened to her and her sister, it becomes clear that there are many hidden depths to Cass’s story, and that multiple people are playing for their own ends. The more Cass reveals, the more questions arise. And it is impossible to tell who, if anyone, can be trusted to tell the truth about Emma.

God, I have read a lot of psychological thrillers in this vein recently. With the success of titles like The Girl on the Train and In a Dark, Dark Wood, these types of books are definitely in vogue. And I do generally enjoy this genre; but even I’m starting to feel worn down by plot twist after plot twist. I’m going to try very hard not to make Emma in the Night suffer for my over-saturation.

This book is a fine example of the genre. Walker keeps us guessing for most of the book about who can be trusted and who cannot. The character of Cass is definitely front and center, and those surrounding her, especially her mother, sister, and the FBI psychologist interviewing her are left a bit flat by comparison. I did enjoy the slow pulling back the layers of the months and years preceding Cass and Emma’s disappearance. Walker’s portrayal of the facade of a typical upper-middle-class home hiding dark secrets was well done.

So if you (unlike me) are not burned out on a genre turned into the literary equivalent of an IPA, this book has a lot to offer. Fans of Paula Hawkins and Ruth Ware will like this book.

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

Book Review: Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

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Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

In 2002, popular college professor Chuck Buhrman was brutally murdered. His teenage daughter, Lanie, watched as Warren Cave, the neighbor’s son, pulled the trigger. Buhrman’s death ripped his family apart. Lanie and her twin sister, Josie became estranged, and their mother abandoned her children to join a cult.

It has been over a decade since Chuck Buhrman’s death, and Josie has survived by cutting herself off from everything and anything to do with her family. But suddenly a podcast revisiting the events of that night goes viral, and Josie finds that, ultimately, there is no escape from the past.

Dragged back home by the death of her mother, Josie is forced to confront the fact that Lanie may not have told the truth about what happened the night their father died. Afraid of both knowing and not knowing, Josie and her carefully constructed life slowly begin to unravel.

Thrillers like these are very much in vogue right now. I know I’ve been reading quite a few. That’s not a bad thing by any means, but when everyone is trying to get on the “Girl on a Train,” wagon, everything can start to look the same. This book, while similar to those put out to great effect by Paula Hawkins, Clare Mackintosh, and Ruth Ware, does stand out for it’s up-to-the-minute plot. With the rise of true-crime podcasts like Serial, obscure crimes and obscure people suddenly find themselves pushed into the limelight. Some will certainly relish their moments in the sun, but I think that many would find unexpected national scrutiny to be something out of a nightmare.

The use of the viral podcast and the effects of sudden and unwanted infamy make this story stand out. Writing this story from the point of view of the victim’s family, now with the sympathy of the nation turning against them, was an excellent choice, and the paranoia and claustrophobia caused by the sudden scrutiny was well written.

Those who have enjoyed books like The Girl on the Train, In a Dark, Dark Wood, or I See You will probably like this book. If you’re a fan of Serial or other such true-crime podcasts, this book might be right up your alley as well.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley 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: In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
Nora Shaw lives an isolated life, and prefers it that way. She keeps to her schedule in her tiny studio in London, and relishes in the safety that her lack of social contact provides. Then one day, an email arrives, inviting her to her school friend Clare’s hen party. Nora hasn’t seen Clare in a decade, not since she walked out of school and never looked back. Reluctantly dragged into the party, Nora finds that not everything is as it seems. Something is deeply wrong at this party, and Nora must figure out what is going on before it costs her her life.

This is Ruth Ware’s debut novel, and it is an edge of the seat mystery/thriller. Ware paints a scary portrait of revenge and obsession, but as a reader, you’re never really sure who is truly obsessed. Nora herself seems to become more and more unreliable as a narrator as the story goes on, bringing everything that came before into question. The twists are numerous and surprising, once you’re sure you know where the book is going, it throws you in a different direction entirely. The false leads and narrative dead ends keep you guessing throughout the book.

Fans of books like The Girl on the Train and I See You, or fans of Tana French or Gillian Flynn will find a lot to like in this book.

Book Review: The Night Bird by Brian Freeman


The Night Bird by Brian Freeman

Sitting in traffic on the San Francisco Bay Bridge, a young woman has a sudden, violent mental breakdown. Tearing the flesh of her arms, torso, and face, she appears to be running from some invisible horror when she throws herself off the bridge.

And she is not the first. Detective Frost Easton is heading the investigation of similar deaths in the city, all with one common thread: Psychiatrist Dr. Francesca Stein. Dr. Stein’s controversial methods of helping highly phobic patients seem to be falling apart, unless someone is out there, targeting her former patients in a twisted attack. When Dr. Stein begins to receive taunting messages signed by “The Night Bird,” the clock is ticking for her and Easton to find the psychopath before more people die . . .

This is an enjoyable and fast-paced mystery. I greatly enjoyed the use the author made of the fragility of memory and the power of suggestion. The beginning (after the fantastic first casualty) was a bit awkward and stilted, but Freeman quickly finds his voice. Some aspects of the plot and the characters are a bit out there, but that may well be attributable to the story being set in proudly weird San Francisco.

In all, I enjoyed this book, some parts were genuinely creepy, and the requisite plot twists included several I didn’t see coming. Fans of darker mysteries will probably enjoy this novel, it’s not quite as violent or as twisted as a Jefferey Deaver book, but feels similar.

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

Book Review: Ill Will by Dan Chaon

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Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Thirty years ago, Dustin’s aunt, uncle, mother, and father were brutally murdered. His testimony helped to put his adopted older brother, Rusty, in prison for the crime. Now, Rusty is being released from prison, his innocence proven by DNA evidence. But if Rusty didn’t commit the murders, then who did?

In the meantime, it appears that a serial killer might be operating in northern Ohio. Dustin, now a psychologist in Cleveland, becomes obsessed with a series of suspicious deaths after one of his patients brings up his own investigation. As Dustin and his family are pulled apart by both the events of thirty years ago and today, the nature of right and wrong, sanity and insanity becomes more and more muddled.

This was a fascinating book, though at times I found it difficult to read. The story, which weaves between past events and the present day, is mainly from the point of view of Dustin himself, and his adult son, Aaron. The story begins with Dustin learning of Rusty’s release from prison. This knowledge, and the anticipation of retribution from his adopted brother, start off a chain of events leading Dustin down a rabbit hole of obsession. Aaron, dealing with drug addiction, is nearly as unreliable a narrator as Dustin.

As the two men move through the story, the narrative literally fragments, some pages having several competing point-of-views for the same people of the same event. Thoughts and sentences are often left unfinished, as minds drift and alternative thoughts impose themselves upon the narrative. Ill Will explores the fragility of self and the unreliability of perception and memory.

I enjoyed this book. It is a uniquely written thriller, and the plot twists and turns and doubles back on itself often enough to confound the reader. In places, the formatting, especially with the competing narratives, can make the book hard to follow. To me, the book is reminiscent of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, a psychological thriller which also used atypical formatting to advance the plot. And, like House of Leaves, I strongly suspect that this is a book you will either love or hate.

I would recommend this book to someone who likes darker psychological thrillers, but not to anyone who requires concrete endings or neatly tied loose ends. In that regard, Ill Will is a lot like the recently published Universal Harvester by John Darnielle (my review can be read here) in that it is a creepy book which will mess with your head, and the ending will leave you with nearly as many questions as answers. In sum, I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but it is certainly not for everyone. If you enjoyed either of the two books previously mentioned, then I strongly recommend reading Ill Will.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Ill Will will be available for purchase on March 7th, 2017.

Book Review: The Girl from the Sea by Shalini Boland

The Girl from the Sea by Shalini Boland

I picked out this book on a whim and I was not disappointed.

A woman wakes up on the beach, washed in with the tide and half drowned, and she has no idea who she is or what happened to her.

Reunited with her boyfriend as the police search for clues, she is reintroduced to her former life. And at first it seems pretty idyllic. She lives in a beautiful town, in a great apartment, and seems to have it all. But as she starts trying to reclaim a life she cannot remember, it seems that underneath the surface shine dwells so etning rotten. With no memories to rely on, she must question everything about herself and her family and friends. After all, she didn’t end up nearly drowned by accident, did she?

This was a fun, quick read (I finished the book in an afternoon). The whole novel is told from the first person perspective, which can be a risky move for an author. However, in Girl from the Sea, the narration is well done, and our perspective from the woman’s point of view is nothing short of paranoia inducing. As a reader, you begin to question the motives of every character you meet, parsing dialogue for inconsistencies and clues. You, much like the protagonist, have no idea who you can trust, or whose version of events is true. It is very, very hard to put this book down once you start.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of psychological thrillers. If The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl are in your TBR, I would advise adding this book to your list.

A free copy of this book was provided by the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Girl from the Sea is currently available for purchase.