Before She Knew Him, by Peter Swanson (Review)

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Before She Knew Him
by Peter Swanson

Genre: Thriller

Length: 320 Pages

Release date: March 5, 2019

Publisher: William Morrow

Synopsis: 

Catching a killer is dangerous—especially if he lives next door 

From the hugely talented author of The Kind Worth Killing comes an exquisitely chilling tale of a young suburban wife with a history of psychological instability whose fears about her new neighbor could lead them both to murder . . .

Hen and her husband Lloyd have settled into a quiet life in a new house outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Hen (short for Henrietta) is an illustrator and works out of a studio nearby, and has found the right meds to control her bipolar disorder. Finally, she’s found some stability and peace.

But when they meet the neighbors next door, that calm begins to erode as she spots a familiar object displayed on the husband’s office shelf. The sports trophy looks exactly like one that went missing from the home of a young man who was killed two years ago. Hen knows because she’s long had a fascination with this unsolved murder—an obsession she doesn’t talk about anymore, but can’t fully shake either.

Could her neighbor, Matthew, be a killer? Or is this the beginning of another psychotic episode like the one she suffered back in college, when she became so consumed with proving a fellow student guilty that she ended up hurting a classmate?

The more Hen observes Matthew, the more she suspects he’s planning something truly terrifying. Yet no one will believe her. Then one night, when she comes face to face with Matthew in a dark parking lot, she realizes that he knows she’s been watching him, that she’s really on to him. And that this is the beginning of a horrifying nightmare she may not live to escape. . .

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My thanks to William Morrow for sending me a copy of this book at no cost in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Before She Knew Him is a quick and super creepy read. I will preface this review by saying that I think the synopsis is slightly misleading. It asks: Could her neighbor, Matthew, be a killer? Or is this the beginning of another psychotic episode like the one she suffered back in college, when she became so consumed with proving a fellow student guilty that she ended up hurting a classmate?” You may be led to believe that there’s some mystery surrounding whether or not Matthew is actually a murderer, and there truly isn’t.

The novel is told through multiple point of view characters, one of which is Matthew himself, so it is revealed very early on that Hen’s suspicions about him are correct. So what’s sort of framed in the synopsis as a mystery for the reader is more Hen’s own internal struggle with herself and her struggle to be taken seriously as someone with a mental illness. Hen may remind readers a lot of Anna Fox from The Woman in the Window or Rachel Watson from The Girl on the Train. Mira, Matthew’s wife, is also a point of view character for a few chapters, and these chapters were a lot of fun. It was interesting to see Matthew through her lens and watch how her impression of him slowly changed throughout the story. 

Gendered violence is a major theme throughout the book; men who hurt women and men who hurt other men to protect women are central to most of the violence which occurs. Given the subject matter, I’d like to give a trigger warning for this novel in regards to sexual violence, with the caveat that it never becomes graphic or overly descriptive in this  regard.

Overall, the story was fast-paced, deliciously creepy, and has just enough twists and turns to keep the reader super engaged without veering into ridiculousness. Swanson juggles various point of view characters without the novel feeling overly crowded or jumbled. I would definitely recommend this novel to fans of A. J. Finn or Paula Hawkins!

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Thank you for reading! Have you read Before She Knew Him? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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Review – The Lost Man, by Jane Harper


The Lost Man
by Jane Harper

Genre: Mystery

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: February 5, 2019

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Synopsis: 

Two brothers meet at the border of their vast cattle properties under the unrelenting sun of outback Queensland, in this stunning new standalone novel from New York Times bestseller Jane Harper

They are at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old, no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron. The Bright family’s quiet existence is thrown into grief and anguish. Something had been troubling Cameron. Did he lose hope and walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects…

Dark, suspenseful, and deeply atmospheric, The Lost Man is the highly anticipated next book from the bestselling and award-winning Jane Harper, author of The Dry and Force of Nature.

rating

five

My thanks to Flatiron Books and NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

This book threw me though a loop. For about a third of it, I wasn’t sure if I’d like it at all. It felt very slow getting started and I wasn’t feeling very invested in the mystery yet. However, having read and loved Jane Harper’s previous work, I stuck it out, and I’m so glad I did. If you pick up this book and it doesn’t grab you right away, do yourself a favor and keep reading, because I can promise it’s worth it.

Like Harper’s prior two novels, The Lost Man is richly atmospheric. The Australian outback almost seems to be another character in the novel, with heavy emphasis on the ways the harsh wilderness impacts the daily lives of each of the characters. There is a strong sense of community by necessity. Nathan, the protagonist, for reasons that are revealed later in the novel, has been cut off from this community, and it takes its toll in various ways, from the practical to the psychological.

Harper has done a remarkable job of writing morally grey characters in this novel. We know early on that Nathan has done something horrible enough to warrant being shunned by his community, but we spend a lot of the novel not knowing what this is. As the plot progresses, Harper reveals not only Nathan’s past mistakes, but those of many of those around him. The story explores the many ways that humans can be flawed, how we excuse one another’s flaws, and the ways people lash out when hurt. Nathan starts out viewing many of those around him through rose-colored glasses, but by the end, his perception feels raw and real.

This review is brief and kind of vague, because I truly feel it’s best to go into this book as blind as possible. The blurb gives you very little idea what to expect other than some sort of mystery surrounding Cameron’s death. What follows is a really interesting blend of mystery, suspense, and family drama. The characters within this story and the moral questions they raise will stay with me for a long time to come.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read any of Jane Harper’s work? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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ARC Review: Not Her Daughter, by Rea Frey

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Not Her Daughter
by Rea Frey

Genre: Mystery/Suspense

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: August 21, 2017

Blurb via Goodreads:

Emma Townsend. Five years old. Gray eyes, brown hair. Missing since June.
Emma is lonely. Living with her cruel mother and clueless father, Emma retreats into her own world of quiet and solitude.

Sarah Walker. Successful entrepreneur. Broken-hearted. Kidnapper.
Sarah has never seen a girl so precious as the gray-eyed child in a crowded airport terminal. When a second-chance encounter with Emma presents itself, Sarah takes her—far away from home. But if it’s to rescue a little girl from her damaging mother, is kidnapping wrong?

Amy Townsend. Unhappy wife. Unfit mother. Unsure whether she wants her daughter back.
Amy’s life is a string of disappointments, but her biggest issue is her inability to connect with her daughter. And now Emma is gone without a trace.

As Sarah and Emma avoid the nationwide hunt, they form an unshakeable bond. But what about Emma’s real mother, back at home?

rating

four

I received an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Not Her Daughter is fast-paced, engaging, and a relatively quick read. It opens with a relatively common situation: a stressed-out mother in a crowded public place is a little rough with her daughter. Maybe a little too rough. Maybe it’s an isolated incident.  Maybe it’s not.

Those “maybes” start to pile up, and Sarah Walker, our main protagonist, can’t cope with the thought of leaving an innocent little girl in a bad situation. When she happens to encounter Emma again, she views it as a sign that she needs to find out more. After witnessing another act of cruelty by Amy, Emma’s mother, Sarah does the unthinkable and takes her. What follows is Sarah’s desperate effort to stay ahead of the hunt for Emma’s kidnapper while attempting to give her a better life.

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Amy is miserable, both before and after the kidnapping. She has anger management problems and a marriage that leaves her feeling smothered. She has never been able to bond with Emma in the slightest, and her younger child also prefers her husband to herself. She seems to spend every waking moment itching to escape.

What’s interesting about this book is that one has to question the reliability of both of the main POV characters. Sarah has unresolved trauma from childhood caused by her mother. She is also dealing with emotional distress caused by a recent breakup of a long-term relationship. She is feeling desperate and alone, and she sees herself in Emma. Emma gives her a sense of purpose and perhaps a chance to rescue the little girl she once was herself. Can this desperation cause Sarah to read too much into a situation?

Amy resents Emma deeply, and seems to ascribe a level of malicious intent that is simply not believable in a five-year-old child. Emma fidgets because she knows it drives Amy crazy. Emma climbs a tree because she’s so desperate to pull the attention away from Amy and onto herself. Emma does absolutely everything she does because it is her life’s mission to make Amy as miserable as possible.

The images of Emma conjured up by each of these women cannot possibly be the same child. Sarah or Amy must be mistaken. Personally, I think they both are to some extent, and part of the fun of this book was in trying to suss out a clear impression of the real Emma.

Parts of the plot strained the limits of credulity, especially the resolution, but that’s okay. Reading ordinary and perfectly believable events would not have made for a very interesting story. This is Frey’s debut novel, and while I think there was some room for improvement, it was a fun read. I look forward to seeing how she grows as an author over time.

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