book review: The Missing Years by Lexie Elliott

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THE MISSING YEARS by Lexie Elliott
★☆
Berkley, April 23, 2019

 

Beginning with the terrifically gothic premise, The Missing Years is an easy book to like. Ailsa Calder, a young woman living in London, finds herself inheriting half of an old Scottish manor when her mother dies. Though she initially wants nothing to do with it, she’s unable to sell it unless the joint owner agrees; the problem being that the other half belongs to her father, who disappeared without a trace twenty-seven years ago. So Ailsa moves into the manor with her half-sister, and from the very first night, she can’t shake the suspicion that something is deeply wrong with the house.

The atmosphere in this book, as I’m sure you can imagine, was pitch-perfect, and that’s really the main reason I’d recommend it. The setting of a creepy old house in the Scottish Highlands is hard to mess up, and Lexie Elliott mercifully uses it to its potential. The potentially supernatural element (is the house actually haunted?) is mostly kept ambiguous until the conclusion, which is how I prefer it when a supernatural element encroaches on a thriller; it’s always interesting to me when characters feel like they’re losing their grip on reality.

The problem with this book for me was that it was severely under-edited. This is a very slow-building mystery, which is fine, but when your book is a slow burn, you still need something to propel it forward; instead I felt like The Missing Years was just spinning its wheels for about two-hundred pages. I felt like I was slowly being driven mad by the sheer amount of repetition here – I wasn’t sure I could take another instance of Aisla anthropomorphizing the house without losing the last shred of my own sanity. I’m not kidding, there is barely a page where Aisla doesn’t reflect on the feeling that the house is watching her, which I thought was a rather ham-fisted addition to what was otherwise a fantastically rendered setting.

I still mostly enjoyed reading this, and I’d suggest picking it up if the setting appeals to you, but if you prefer your thrillers on the fast paced side, it’s probably best to skip this one.

Thank you to Berkley for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pick up a copy of The Missing Years here on Book Depository.

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book review: The Killer In Me by Olivia Kiernan

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THE KILLER IN ME by Olivia Kiernan
(Frankie Sheehan #2)
★★★★☆
Dutton, April 2, 2019
(Too Close To Breathe)

 

Every time I’ve read a thriller recently I’ve been left with the thought ‘do I actually like thrillers or am I just reading these out of habit.’ Well, it turns out I do still like them! I just wish they were all on Olivia Kiernan’s level – her Frankie Sheehan series is shaping up to be one of my favorites… which is odd as I really dislike police procedurals most of the time. So more power to Kiernan for being able to hook me on a formula that I’m not wild about.

And while I enjoyed Kiernan’s debut, Too Close to Breathe, I think its sequel The Killer in Me is superior in just about every way. More intricate plotting, more sophisticated writing, and more of that ‘can’t put it down’ factor. So while it’s always fun to go into a sequel being familiar with the characters, you could easily read The Killer in Me as a standalone. There are five murders at the heart of this novel, though two took place 17 years ago, as Seán Hennessey has just been released from prison where he served a sentence for murdering his parents, though he continues to profess his innocence. But when a series of eerily similar murders begins to occur, naturally Seán is the number one suspect. It’s a great premise, and Kiernan manages to expertly balance her various subplots so that it’s difficult to predict exactly what it’s all building up to.

Incidentally, I did have the exact same complaint about The Killer in Me as I did about Too Close to Breathe, which is that Frankie tends to make leaps the size of the Grand Canyon while doing a psychological profile on the killer(s), which invariably turn out to be accurate. So that’s a bit annoying, but you can’t have everything. All things considered, I think Olivia Kiernan is a brilliant new voice in the Irish crime genre, and if you like your thrillers on the dark and psychologically distressing side, you won’t want to miss this series.

Thanks so much to Dutton for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pick up copies of Too Close to Breathe and The Killer In Me over on Book Depository.

book review: The Hiding Place by C.J. Tudor

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THE HIDING PLACE by C.J. Tudor
(UK title: THE TAKING OF ANNIE THORNE)
★★☆☆☆
Crown, February 5, 2019

I was all over the place with this book. It was at times gripping, laughable, chilling, confusing, and dull, so I’m not having the easiest time gathering my thoughts and deciding on a rating.

To be honest I’m not exactly sure what the main mystery here was supposed to be so I’ll spare you from too many plot details, but basically, when Joe Thorne was a teenager his sister Annie died, following a period where she went missing for 48 hours before turning up again. Now Joe is a teacher at his old school and he has reason to believe that whatever happened to Annie is happening again. That doesn’t give you a good sense of just how convoluted this was, but I guess that’s the gist.

So that’s criticism number one: there are too many plot threads. Half of them are unnecessary and half of them are left unresolved. There’s also a supernatural element that is only halfheartedly integrated into the story, and the lack of answers we receive about this felt to me like Tudor didn’t have any of the answers herself and fell back on the lazy excuse of ‘well it’s supernatural, I don’t need to explain it.’ Since so much went unexplained, the ending was all kinds of anticlimactic, and the ‘final showdown,’ if we can call it that, was probably one of the worst thriller scenes I’ve ever read. But hey, at least Joe has no illusions to the contrary about what kind of book he’s in. “And then, feeling very much like a character in a bad thriller, I say: ‘I think we should talk.'”

And that’s another problem, the desperate attempts to overcompensate for dull moments with humor that doesn’t land. In the first half of this book in particular you could hardly go a page without cringing due to something like this:

“Never go back. That’s what people always tell you. Things will have changed. They won’t be the way you remembered. Leave the past in the past. Of course, the last one is easier said than done. The past has a habit of repeating on you. Like bad curry.”

… which was frustrating when the strongest thing about this book is its atmosphere. When your book manages to be as creepy and downright terrifying as this one can be at times, you shouldn’t sacrifice the tone for these silly throwaway lines. And the thing is, this book was properly brilliant at times. Certain scenes, particularly the flashbacks, were tense and vivid and gripping, and I had plenty of moments of not being able to put this book down because I needed to know what happened next. So in that way, it was one of the more fun reading experiences I’ve had recently. Unfortunately I was rewarded for racing through it with an altogether terrible ending.

So on the whole, where this is good, I actually think it’s better than The Chalk Man. Where it’s bad, it’s worse by far. The Hiding Place is certainly more ambitious, but The Chalk Man is more consistent. (I’ve also seen many reviews comment on the transparent similarity to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, but as I haven’t read any King myself I can’t personally comment on that – I just wanted to mention it for everyone else’s consideration.)

Thank you to Netgalley and Crown for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The Stranger Inside by Laura Benedict

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THE STRANGER INSIDE by Laura Benedict
★★☆☆☆
Mulholland, February 5, 2019

 

The Stranger Inside has a pretty enticing premise: Kimber Hannon returns home from a week away only to find herself locked out of her house. When she notices someone inside she calls the police, who get him to open the door; he produces the paperwork complete with Kimber’s forged signature and insists that he’s renting the house for six months. Overcome with frustration, Kimber rushes inside her house, only to have the man grab her and whisper in her ear ‘I saw what you did.’

So that was a great opening, but it’s all downhill from there, I’m afraid. Which was more of a mess, the plot or the characters? Let’s start with the latter: Kimber has to win some kind of award for being the most insufferable protagonist in literary history. I truly do not believe that a protagonist needs to be ‘likable,’ but they sure as hell need to be interesting or sympathetic or something to hook the reader, especially in a thriller. I could not have cared less about Kimber: she’s selfish, remorseless, and emotionally immature, and why should I care that it all stems from a troubled adolescence when none of it is satisfactorily examined. At one point she befriends the wife of a man she had an affair with just because she thinks it would be funny to get back at him, without a second thought about the wife’s feelings, and we’re supposed to sympathize with her when she starts to realize this woman is actually a person? I really did not get the impression that Kimber was deliberately constructed to be a compelling antiheroine; I think she was supposed to be a flawed person who still deserved our sympathy, after everything. It didn’t work.

The plot itself was all kinds of ridiculous, with varying degrees of success; at times it was ridiculous and fun but at other times it was just ridiculous and boring. There were just too many convenient plot devices and moments that demanded suspension of disbelief. The pace at which information was revealed was haphazard at best, and it was a shame, because even the moments that should have been shocking were neutered by weak storytelling.

Now I’m going to end this review by going into spoiler territory, which I don’t often do, so that just goes to show how much the ending pissed me off.  [HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILER] Regarding the twist that Kimber didn’t actually kill Michelle: Why does Kimber deserve this narrative absolution?! She hasn’t displayed an OUNCE of guilt throughout the entire book; at one point when she’s accused of being a murderer, this is Kimber’s reaction: “[S]he has never imagined her sister’s death to be a murder, herself an actual murderer. In her head it’s always I killed Michelle or I accidentally killed Michelle or I took my sister’s life.” … how does that make it ok?! You literally pushed your sister off a cliff?!?! I’m pretty sure if I killed my (nonexistent) sister I’d be eaten up with guilt, regardless of how ‘accidental’ it was? Maybe the potential emotional impact of this ending could have been earned if there were even a hint of a possibility that Kimber cared anything for Michelle, but it felt like (literally) handing a get out of jail free card to a person you desperately want to see go to jail. Not even remotely satisfying. 

Also, love that the mentally ill character turns out to be evil. Real original, that!! [END SPOILER]

Thank you to Netgalley and Mulholland Books for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The Dry by Jane Harper

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THE DRY by Jane Harper
★★★☆☆
Flatiron Books, 2017

 

This was a perfectly competent thriller and I’m not sure I have much else to say about it. I will admit I had been expecting something a bit more… unique? shocking? twisted? original? – because it seems to be so universally adored. But it’s clearly so adored because it’s a perfectly solid book that’s pretty hard to find fault with.

The setting is just perfect, the arid Australian farmland brought to life vividly. It’s funny how the setting of a thriller never seems to be the most important element, but it’s always a bit striking when you find one set somewhere other than small town England or wintry Scandinavia or New York City. Characters and environment play off each other well, and Harper captures that small-town claustrophobia perfectly.

I do have one huge criticism, and that’s the use of italicized flashbacks to show backstory. Frankly I found it lazy – can you really not work that information into the description and dialogue? – but it also pulled me out of the story constantly. You’d be in the middle of a meeting between a detective and a suspect, and all of a sudden you get two paragraphs in italics about the detective’s childhood, and it really did not work for me.

But, ultimately I was satisfied. I read it in two days, it was a compelling read, the big reveal was perfect, and there were enough subplots and character intrigue that it’s gripping from start to finish. I’m definitely interested in checking out the sequel, with hopes that the italicized flashbacks do not continue. 3.5, I am having the hardest time settling on a star rating and whichever one I end up clicking in two seconds is going to be a rather arbitrary choice.

book review: The Lies We Told by Camilla Way

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THE LIES WE TOLD by Camilla Way
★★★★☆
Berkley, October 2018

 

The Lies We Told was a fun, pacy, and twisted read; I had some ups and downs with it but ultimately it left me satisfied. It follows two seemingly disparate story lines; one centers on a mother, Beth, raising a sociopathic daughter in 1980s Cambridge, and one follows a young woman, Clara, in present-day London whose boyfriend has gone missing.

I tend to be decent at figuring out twists in thrillers, but I have to admit that The Lies We Told kept me guessing practically up to the last page. I didn’t have the faintest clue as to how the two plotlines were connected, which made for an entertaining ride, and I was very satisfied with the conclusion.

The writing isn’t anything spectacular and the character work leaves a lot to be desired (most characters are driven by a singular motivation and don’t have much of a personality outside that), but in terms of intricate plotting, Camilla Way nails it. Interestingly, I rather thought the opposite of her other novel that I’ve read, Watching Edie – I thought the characterization was fantastic, but that there wasn’t much of a plot holding the whole thing together up until the final reveal. The Lies We Told similarly hinges a lot of its payoff on a big twist, but unlike Watching Edie, it reveals information at a steady enough pace to keep you engaged from start to finish. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a solid and gripping thriller.

Thank you to Netgalley, Berkley, and Camilla Way for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The Line That Held Us by David Joy

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THE LINE THAT HELD US by David Joy
★★☆☆☆
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, August 2018

 

The Line That Held Us is less of a mystery than it is a present day Aeschylean revenge saga set in Appalachia, which explores the gruesome ramifications of a hunter accidentally shooting and killing the brother of one of the town’s most notorious and violent men. The premise was really fantastic, but David Joy didn’t exactly sell me on its execution.

The thing that most struck me about this book was a noticeable lack of tension in Joy’s writing. Moments of horror and extreme violence were unable to hit any emotional beats as Joy’s prose was so lifeless and perfunctory. At one point there was a paragraph about how a man parked his car down the street rather than parking it in front of someone’s house, which laid out these reasons in unnecessary detail before concluding helpfully: ‘… and that’s why Calvin had driven past and parked up the road.’ Thanks, I couldn’t have deduced that myself.

The lack of suspense unfortunately extended from the writing to the plot, which unfolded as inevitably as you’d expect from the onset. But I do think some writers can pull this off spectacularly, writing a novel which feels like an inevitable train wreck that you’re unable to interfere with or look away from, and therein lies the tragedy. I think this tried to be one of those novels, but without any sort of momentum or tension to drive it forward, it failed miserably.

And then there’s the treatment of the sole female character, who has no personality whatsoever but that doesn’t matter anyway, because her pregnancy quickly becomes her entire identity. “You’re going to get out of here for this child, she thought, the world having taken on a singular meaning. Nothing mattered outside of what she carried.” (I’ll have to remember that the next time I’m kidnapped: as long as I’m not pregnant, there’s nothing to worry about.) I mean, I understand the sentiment he’s going for, but women having no purpose in their lives until they become mothers is a trope that should have died 50 years ago.

Anyway, for all that, I didn’t hate this book – it was very quick and readable (despite the fact that I prolonged it for over a month, but that says more about my lack of free time than it does about the quality), and I know I’m in the minority in not thinking this was brilliant. But still… this just didn’t do it for me.

Thank you to Netgalley, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and David Joy for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.