book reviews: Home Before Dark and Survive the Night by Riley Sager




HOME BEFORE DARK by Riley Sager
★★★★☆
Dutton, 2020


I read this book over a year ago and annoyingly never got around to reviewing it — I’m only returning to it now as I’m about to review Riley Sager’s newest offering, Survive the Night, and I’m a completionist. So, here we are. Let’s see if I can come up with a few sentences. 

I’ve read all of Sager’s books now and this isn’t one of my favorites from him; I’d put it second to last, with only The Last Time I Lied below it.

Meaning: I still liked it quite a lot.

Set in a decaying Victorian estate in Vermont (can’t go wrong there), Home Before Dark is a sufficiently eerie and unsettling haunted house horror story which indulges a lot of genre’s tropes, but which doesn’t ultimately subvert them in a very interesting way. I think I had more problems with this novel’s resolution than any of his others, but still, Sager is the absolute master of gripping, pacy thrillers, and this one is no exception; definitely recommended if it catches your eye.




SURVIVE THE NIGHT by Riley Sager
★★★★☆
Dutton, 2021


In the style of a somewhat modernized film noir, Survive the Night tells the story of Charlie, a New Jersey college student looking for a ride home to Ohio on a cold winter’s night. At the college’s ride board (this is set in the 1990s, pre-the sort of technology that we’d use today for this kind of arrangement), she meets Josh Baxter, also heading in that direction, so she gratefully accepts the ride. The only snag: Charlie’s roommate and best friend was recently murdered by a serial killer. The longer Charlie and Josh spend in the car and the more they get chatting, the more Charlie starts realizing that certain details in Josh’s story aren’t adding up, and she starts to wonder if she’s trapped in the car of her roommate’s murderer.

I read this in a single sitting — I think it’s Sager’s most successful page-turner to date, which seems almost counterintuitive; you’d think that a girl being trapped in a car wouldn’t exactly make for the most gripping of reads, but this might be his most tense, terrifying work yet. The set-up may sound simple, but the way this story unfolds could not be more unpredictable if it tried. 

This book DOES however include the cringiest line I’ve ever read in the history of my entire existence, so I cannot in good conscience recommend it without warning you that this is a series of sentences you are going to have to read with your very own eyeballs — apologies for subjecting you to this:

She’s no longer the scared, self-loathing girl she was when she left campus. She’s something else.

A fucking femme fatale.

File this under: more reasons I try to avoid thrillers by men.

Anyway, after my eyes were done rolling into the back of my skull, I pushed onward and yeah, what can I say, I had a lot of fun reading this. Certain elements of the resolution were brilliant, others were a bit silly, but all I can really ask of a thriller is to keep me guessing and keep me on my toes, and Sager always delivers on that front. I’ve become less confident through the years about his ability to write women — see above quote (I thought his female protagonist in his debut, Final Girls, was written brilliantly, which lured me into a false sense of security) — so the more of his books I read, the more the shine does slightly wear off, but I doubt I’ll be able to quit him any time soon; his books are too damn addicting.

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 Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager

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THE LAST TIME I LIED by Riley Sager
★★★☆☆
Dutton, July 10, 2018

 

The Last Time I Lied is a perfectly worthy successor to Sager’s Final Girls, which was one of my favorite thrillers of 2017. His follow up novel is every bit as fun and twisty as his first, and I read the bulk of it in one sitting. Sager returns to his tried and true cabin in the woods setting, this time following Emma, a painter who spent two weeks at a summer camp fifteen years ago which ended with the disappearance of three of her friends; now Emma is returning to Camp Nightingale as an art teacher, hoping to get to the bottom of the events of that first summer.

But as gripping and addicting as it was, the criticisms kept piling up as I read. Emma was a notably bland narrator, who had no personality beyond her survivor’s guilt about the girls’ disappearances. And Sager’s depiction of female friendships was frankly bizarre to me: Emma was unnaturally interested in describing and thinking about other girls’ appearances, and Sager seemed obsessed with the idea of every single friend group having an ‘alpha,’ whatever that means (I mean, I know what it means, but how many friend groups have you been in that have an established alpha??? is that a thing that happens in real life???) And look, I’m not claiming that you can’t write a sufficiently gripping drama set at an all-girls camp – of course teenage girls can be catty and mean to one another – but some of the social dynamics that Sager relied on to tell this story didn’t quite ring true for me, and felt more like stereotypes than actual human behavior.

But my biggest issue (which I won’t get into very much to avoid spoilers) was that there were just so many coincidences and contrived plot points. Throughout the book clues essentially fell into Emma’s lap, to an extent where it struck me as laughable that the police could have overlooked some of these things for fifteen years.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, though. I had a lot of fun with this. But when I take a step back from the readability factor, I think the overall construction of The Last Time I Lied could have been stronger. But I still devoured it. And I think some people will take issue with the (outlandish?) final reveal, but personally I loved it – that was exactly the jaw-on-the-floor kind of shocking twist that I loved about Final Girls so much. Sager knows how to keep you hooked until the last page, that’s for sure. If you’re looking for a good and gripping beach read this summer, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this.

Thank you to Netgalley, Dutton, and Riley Sager for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Final Girls by Riley Sager

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FINAL GIRLS by Riley Sager
★★★★★
Dutton (Penguin), July 11, 2017

Wow, this book. Believe the hype, guys!

I know the major bookworm stereotype is devouring books in one sitting, staying up way too late to finish them, but I actually rarely do that. I usually read a few chapters before bed and put the book down at a reasonable hour, no matter how addicting. Not the case with Final Girls. Thanks to this book I am running on very few hours of sleep, but it was worth it. There was no point in the second half of this book where I would have felt satisfied putting it down and going to bed without getting to the bottom of things. Because each time I thought I had this book figured out, Sager threw another twist into the mix.

Final Girls is about Quincy Carpenter, a young woman who survived a massacre ten years ago, where she went on vacation with five friends and all of them ended up murdered. Two other women were the sole survivors of similar attacks, Lisa Milner and Samantha Boyd. The media collectively refers to them as the ‘Final Girls,’ referring to the horror movie trope where one girl is left alive at the end of the film. The story picks up when Lisa is found dead, and Sam suddenly shows up at Quincy’s door, intent on making her confront the events of that night, despite Quincy’s insistence that she can’t remember anything that happened.

Part thriller and part horror, this novel was tense and addicting, with a tone not quite like anything I’ve ever read before. The chapters which offered flashbacks to the night of the massacre were properly terrifying. I don’t scare easily, which is a shame, as I love the feeling of being scared in a controlled environment, but I have to admit, I was on the edge of my seat here. The looming inevitability of the night’s events lent even the most innocuous of scenes a sinister edge.

The present-day narrative involving Quincy and Sam is more slow moving, but never dull. This novel unfolds at a satisfying pace, and is filled to the brim with fascinating, enigmatic characters, not least of all Quincy herself.

Tense, gripping, and downright terrifying at times, Final Girls is one of the more memorable thrillers I’ve ever read. Riley Sager is a pseudonym for an author who’s previously published under a different name, and I have to say, I am dying to find out who (s)he is so I can read more of his/her work.