book review: The Body Lies by Jo Baker

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THE BODY LIES by Jo Baker
★★★★★
Knopf, 2019

 

Despite not fitting neatly into the mystery/thriller genre, The Body Lies is one of the most tense, terrifying things I’ve ever read.  It follows an unnamed narrator (a normally irritating, overused convention, which is employed here with actual purpose) who takes up a teaching position somewhere in the north of England following a violent assault in London.  While at the university, she awkwardly attempts to mediate heated discussions on gender politics in her MA writing course, while receiving increasingly disturbing submissions from one of her students.

The Body Lies has a meta element that’s almost tongue in cheek; one of her students criticizes another for writing a detective novel which opens with the discovery of a dead girl, while Baker’s novel also opens with a dead female body.  But this book is a series of subverted tropes, of self-conscious commentary on these common, taken-for-granted elements that comprise so many thrillers.  It’s a razor sharp commentary and a compelling story all in one.

What also sets it apart from the genre is that the identity of the dead girl never really feels like the point.  For the first time… probably ever reading a thriller, I cared less about the mystery and more about the safety and the sanity of the protagonist, whose experiences as a woman in academia are all chillingly relatable.  This book isn’t the type of terrifying where there’s a serial killer lurking in the corner – it’s the sort of terrifying that hones in on the disturbing, oddly normalized commonalities of womanhood that are too easily accepted.  I raced through this, not because I was intent on getting to the bottom of the mystery, but because of the increasing sense of crushing dread that I couldn’t escape every time I attempted to step away from this book.

If I have to nitpick, I’d say the ending was let down by a too-long resolution which insisted on wrapping up every minor subplot in a neat bow, which is probably my least favorite way to end a novel, but I loved everything else about this, and I think it’s one of the smartest, most unsettling things I’ve read in a long time, that I’d encourage literary readers and genre readers alike to pick up.


You can pick up a copy of The Body Lies here on Book Depository.

book review: The Whisper Man by Alex North

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THE WHISPER MAN by Alex North
★★☆☆☆
Celadon Books, 2019

 

All I really look for when picking out a thriller is an intriguing premise, and The Whisper Man absolutely had that covered: 20 years ago in a small English town, a series of murders occurred where a man would lure little boys outside by whispering at their windows, hold them captive for a brief period, and then kill them. The culprit was caught with damning evidence, but now, 20 years later, a series of murders is starting up that bear a startling resemblance to those committed by ‘The Whisper Man,’ who is still incarcerated.

I think there are two types of successful thrillers: one where the delight comes from the reader feeling involved in the whodunnit, where there are so many potential suspects you’re bound to be wrong no matter who you guess; and one where guessing the identity of the murderer isn’t really the point, but there are still so many twists and turns that you enjoy the ride anyway. The Whisper Man manages to fall in neither category. This neither had a thrilling murderer reveal, nor much momentum on the way there. Instead it hinges on family dynamics and the theme of fatherhood, which I suppose is done well, though it appears to have been at the detriment of… literally everything else.

I’ve seen others describe this book as creepy, scary, etc., and I have to wonder if I just missed something. Aside from a few moments that hinted at the possibility of something paranormal at play, I just found the atmosphere in this book conspicuously absent. In fact, the whole book felt muted, like it was being held back from achieving the real dread or terror that it was obviously striving for. The plot was likewise uninspired and straightforward; I’m just not sure what this book’s hook was supposed to be, once the promising exposition is out of the way. We just sort of amble through a rather aimless narrative about serial killers and creepy children – it’s like Alex North put a bunch of horror tropes into a blender and mixed them until they lost their flavor. There was just nothing unique or potent or memorable about this book.

Contrary to everything I’ve just written, I might recommend this to readers who are new-ish to thrillers (I will concede that a few of my ‘that was so obvious’ moments come from too much familiarity with the genre) but my overwhelming feeling about this book is one of anticlimax. If you’re looking for a safe, tame option in the genre, give it a shot; if you need something a bit more dark and twisted, definitely keep looking.


You can pick up a copy of The Whisper Man here on Book Depository.

book review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk | BookBrowse

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DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD by Olga Tokarczuk
translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
★★★★★
Riverhead, August 13, 2019

 

A subversive feminist noir mystery set in a remote Polish village, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead both dazzles and defies categorization. Olga Tokarczuk’s seventh novel (her fourth to be translated into English) follows Janina Duszejko, an elderly woman living as a recluse on the outskirts of a Polish town close to the Czech border, who spends her days reading horoscopes and translating the poetry of William Blake. But it’s a far cry from an idyllic life for Janina, whose beloved dogs have gone missing and whose neighbors keep mysteriously turning up dead.

Read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can also read a piece I wrote on Women in Translation Month HERE.


You can pick up a copy of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead here on Book Depository.

book review: The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn

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THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn
translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger
★★★★★
Orenda Books, 2016

 

What a bizarre, enchanting, darkly chilling little book. I am not in the habit of quoting others’ reviews in my own, but there’s a blurb from crime writer Rod Reynolds on the book that says ‘A masterclass in suspense and delayed terror, reading it felt like I was driving at top speed towards a cliff edge – and not once did I want to take my foot off the pedal’ – and I think that sums it up better than I could.

I’ve had this book on my shelf for years, and I can’t remember where or how I first heard about it, but I think I had it in my head that it was going to be a fairly standard thriller, which I had been in the mood for. But it was no disappointment to me when it turned out to be a different beast entirely. The Bird Tribunal felt to me like a modern-day Scandinavian Rebecca, following a young woman living in the shadow of her enigmatic employer’s first wife, but with all the dreary atmosphere and profound social isolation of Wuthering Heights. But though I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as a thriller, and I think it might disappoint readers who are specifically seeking out twists and turns, the tension and sense of growing dread I experienced while reading this were palpable.

The relationship between Allis and Sigurd is a tender, terrifying thing; this is the hook that gets its claws in you from the offset. Through Allis’s first person narration we’re drawn into her obsession with Sigurd, a distant, surly man who employs Allis as a kind of housekeeper while he awaits his wife’s return. Though Allis is blind to so many of the warning signs that the reader has access to, her obsession with Sigurd doesn’t feel unnatural or unrealistic or frustrating – reading this book isn’t like watching a train wreck so much as feeling like you’re the one steering the train. I wouldn’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this as the sense of discomfort I felt while reading it was pretty significant, but the fact that I stayed up until 1 am finishing this after taking Benadryl two hours earlier since I couldn’t tear myself away kind of says it all.


You can pick up a copy of The Bird Tribunal here on Book Depository.

book review: Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

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LOCK EVERY DOOR by Riley Sager
★★★★☆
Dutton, July 2019

 

I can’t think of another contemporary thriller writer that does the page-turner as well as Riley Sager, and here he’s come up with yet another brilliant premise: a young woman answers an ad to be an apartment sitter in a swanky building in the Upper West Side – and she’s being paid $12,000 to do it, so what’s the catch? (I think the less you know going into this book the better, so I’ll just leave it there.) I imagine that Lock Every Door‘s pace will be the main drawback for some – our protagonist Jules does play amateur detective to no avail for about half the book – but with the way Sager writes, she probably could have been playing a game of chess and I’d have been equally as thrilled.

And no spoilers, but I loved that ending. I imagine it’s also going to divide opinions, as it’s not the most… conventional thriller resolution, but I thought it hit that perfect sweet spot of ‘I really should have thought of that, but I never would have thought of that.’ In my opinion this isn’t as strong as Sager’s debut Final Girls (which is pretty hard to beat), but I liked it a lot better than his follow-up effort The Last Time I Lied. I found Lock Every Door to be creepier and more original, and its protagonist more convincing. I do think Final Girls and The Last Time I Lied are more traditional crowd-pleasers, so maybe stick to one of those for an introduction to Sager, but I loved this; this is the most fun I’ve had with a thriller in ages.


You can pick up a copy of Lock Every Door here on Book Depository.

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.

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.