Stolen Things, by R.H. Herron (Review)


Stolen Things
by R.H. Herron

Genre: Thriller

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: August 20, 2019

Publisher: Dutton

Synopsis: 

A sensational crime, a missing teen, and a mother and daughter with no one to trust but themselves come together in this shocking debut thriller by R. H. Herron.

“Mama? Help me.”

Laurie Ahmadi has worked as a 911 police dispatcher in her quiet Northern California town for nearly two decades. She considers the department her family; her husband, Omid, is its first Arab American chief, and their teenaged daughter, Jojo, has grown up with the force. So when Laurie catches a 911 call and, to her horror, it’s Jojo, the whole department springs into action.

Jojo, drugged, disoriented, and in pain, doesn’t remember how she ended up at the home of Kevin Leeds, a pro football player famous for his on-the-field activism and his work with the CapB—“Citizens Against Police Brutality”—movement. She doesn’t know what happened to Kevin’s friend and trainer, whose beaten corpse is also discovered in the house. And she has no idea where her best friend Harper, who was with her earlier in the evening, could be.

But when Jojo begins to dive into Harper’s social media to look for clues to her whereabouts, Jojo uncovers a shocking secret that turns everything she knew about Harper—and the police department—on its head. With everything they thought they could rely on in question, Laurie and Jojo begin to realize that they can’t trust anyone to find Harper except themselves . . . and time is running out.

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

This book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. It’s compulsively readable and fast-paced, but the twist at the end is a bit much to swallow. I loved the alternating perspectives. “Mom who is practically married to her job” alternating with “teen daughter who the mother doesn’t know half as well as she thinks” is a little overdone in the genre at this point, but I thought it worked really well here.

There is a wide divide between the two POV characters, not just for typical “angsty teens are unreachable” reasons, but because Jojo is at a point in her life where she’s figuring out her own politics and value system, and they don’t align with those of her parents. Mystery/thriller novels are best, in my opinion, when they’re not driven solely by the mystery; Stolen Things has lots of interesting relationship dynamics to keep the story interesting.

One of the predominant themes of the book is police brutality, and that is part of what’s driving a wedge between Jojo and her parents, who both work in law enforcement (her father as a police chief and her mother, a former police officer as a 911 dispatcher). Also prominent in the story is an exploration of rape culture and victim blaming. While including social issues like these in a story can be admirable, I’m not sure that a fast-paced thriller is really up to the task of treating these topics with the gravity that would be necessary for them to feel like a natural part of the story. While the book is not categorized as Young Adult and is a bit too dark to fit into the genre, some of the passages which centered on social issues had a very YA feel to them.

Overall, this was definitely a page turner, but some sections felt awkward and fell flat. Stolen Things was worth a read and may be a great choice for fans of authors like Mary Kubica and Megan Miranda.

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The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware (Review)

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The Turn of the Key
by Ruth Ware

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: August 6, 2019

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Synopsis: 

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

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My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

The Turn of the Key is Ruth Ware’s fifth novel, and I won’t lie… her work has been a little hit and miss for me. I was so looking forward to her prior book, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, and ended up finding a bit predictable and boring. The Turn of the Key is Ware at her very best; I couldn’t put this book down! The basic plot points (not to mention the title) suggest that the book takes heavy inspiration from The Turn of the Screw, but the story has been thoroughly modernized, and knowing the ending of the classic novella won’t give away the ending of this one. Ware will keep you guessing.

The book takes place mainly in the ancient house owned by the family that hires the protagonist, Rowan, as a nanny. The environment has the Gothic vibe typical for a Ware novel, but there’s an interesting dynamic introduced by all the upgrades the owners have made to the home, converting the old house into a smart home, with lights, cameras, and everything down to the coffee maker controlled by an app.

The contrast between the old fashioned home and all the tech creates a kind of dissonance that’s off-putting for Rowan and creates a sense of tension. It also introduces some ambiguity to the creepy situations that follow; are the flickering lights being controlled by spirits who want Rowan to leave, someone with access to the app intentionally messing with her, or just a glitch in the system?

The story itself is told in the form of a letter which Rowan writes to a solicitor from a jail cell, asking for his help. We don’t find out until late in the story what exactly has led to her arrest, but she insists on her innocence. This was the perfect format to tel this story, because it leaves the possibility of an unreliable narrator wide open. Rowan obviously has a huge vested interest in how this story was told, and I spent a lot of the book wondering how much of Rowan’s story to believe.

My main quibble with the book was probably the hint of romance in it, but I’m personally a hard sell when it comes to romances. Nothing about the story line felt particularly awful, but it just felt a bit unnecessary and shoe-horned into the book.

Overall, this was definitely one of Ware’s strongest novels. After Mrs. Westaway, I was a little hesitant about picking it up, and I’m so glad I gave it a shot!

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Whisper Network, by Chandler Baker (Review)


Whisper Network
by Chandler Baker

Genre: Fiction, Mystery

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: July 2, 2019

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Synopsis: 

Four women learn their boss (a man who’s always been surrounded by rumors about how he treats women) is next in line to be CEO—what will happen when they decide enough is enough?

Sloane, Ardie, Grace, and Rosalita are four women who have worked at Truviv, Inc., for years. The sudden death of Truviv’s CEO means their boss, Ames, will likely take over the entire company. Ames is a complicated man, a man they’ve all known for a long time, a man who’s always been surrounded by…whispers. Whispers that have always been ignored by those in charge. But the world has changed, and the women are watching Ames’s latest promotion differently. This time, they’ve decided enough is enough.

Sloane and her colleagues set in motion a catastrophic shift within every floor and department of the Truviv offices. All four women’s lives—as women, colleagues, mothers, wives, friends, even adversaries—will change dramatically as a result.

“If only you had listened to us,” they tell us on page one, “none of this would have happened.”

ratingfour

My thanks to Flatiron Books 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. 

When I saw Whisper Network described as essentially a mystery novel for the #metoo era, I was super intrigued but also a little wary. I think with books that seem very timely, there’s always the risk that they’ll come across opportunistic and insincere. Not so with Whisper Network, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise of a novel.

An undercurrent of whispers in the corporate world comes to a head when the sudden death of Truviv’s CEO leaves one infamously badly behaved higher up in the company poised to take over. The story takes place mainly in one timeline as tension is mounting, with hints at the disaster to come shown in the form of police interviews after the fact. (Think Big Little Lies style snippets, giving you tiny bits of information at at a time.)

Of the four main characters mentioned in the synopsis, Sloane and Roselita seemed to be the best developed. I think the sheer number of POV characters is part of what kept this from hitting a full five stars for me. I understand why the author made the choices she did, as she was trying to weave together a lot of secrets and personal histories, so this may be down to my own personal taste, as I generally like spending more time in a novel with one or two characters in order to really understand them. I would have liked a bit more focus on Sloane and Roselita, but your mileage may vary.

As a woman in a professional setting, there was something kind of cathartic about this novel, particularly certain sections which were written somewhat aside from the main narrative, and read almost like a plea directly to the reader, such as the following passage:

So when we said that we would prefer not to have to asked to smile on top of working, we meant that: we would like to do our jobs, please. When we said that we would like not to hear a comment about the length of our skirt, we meant that: we would like to of our jobs, please. When we said that we would like not to have someone try to touch us in our office, we meant that: we would like to do our jobs. Please.

Every woman with a job, particularly those of us with already relatively high-stress jobs, can feel this in her bones. The frustration of having so much to deal with at work… and then having someone else’s inappropriate behavior thrown on top of it like the cherry on top of the sundae is just too real.

Baker has written several books prior to Whisper Network, but appears to have focused on the young adult genre. I think she’s starting to find her groove with her latest novel and I hope she comes out with more adult fiction in the future!

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The Invited, by Jennifer McMahon (Review)

invited
The Invited
by Jennifer McMahon

Genre: Horror, Mystery

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: April 30, 2019

Publisher: Doubleday

Synopsis: 

A chilling ghost story with a twist: the New York Timesbestselling author of The Winter People returns to the woods of Vermont to tell the story of a husband and wife who don’t simply move into a haunted house, they start building one from scratch, without knowing it, until it’s too late . . . 

In a quest for a simpler life, Helen and Nate abandon the comforts of suburbia and their teaching jobs to take up residence on forty-four acres of rural land where they will begin the ultimate, aspirational do-it-yourself project: building the house of their dreams. When they discover that this charming property has a dark and violent past, Helen, a former history teacher, becomes consumed by the legend of Hattie Breckenridge, a woman who lived and died there a century ago. As Helen starts carefully sourcing decorative building materials for her home–wooden beams, mantles, historic bricks–she starts to unearth, and literally conjure, the tragic lives of Hattie’s descendants, three generations of “Breckenridge women,” each of whom died amidst suspicion, and who seem to still be seeking something precious and elusive in the present day.

ratingthree

My thanks to Doubleday 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. 

The Invited is a super fun ghost story from Jennifer McMahon with an intriguing mystery to unravel. Helen and Nate abandon their jobs and the city life they know to build their own house in the woods of Vermont. The setup is a bit tropey and cliche; unwelcoming backwoods locals clash with outsiders from the city, rumors of a buried treasure, and a marriage strained by supernatural occurrences. Both Helen and Nate become caught up in their own respective obsessions related to the haunting of their new land.

I think the heavy use of familiar tropes made the ghost story feel cozy rather than overdone, and it made for a nice contrast to the creepier elements of the story. Helen’s background as a history teacher meshed well with her character’s growing obsession with the dark history of the land, and what starts out as a rather understandable fascination slowly begins to feel a bit sinister as the story goes on.

The novel is compulsively readable and I flew through most of it in a couple of days. That being said, there were a few reasons for my middle of the road rating, despite enjoying a lot of the aspects of the story. There were a few moments of clunky writing that read more like a debut author or a rough draft than what you’d expect from someone with multiple prior novels, like McMahon.

There’s a section of painfully unnatural dialog which was clearly only written the way it was because a character needed to overhear a key bit of information in order for the plot to progress. There are a few coincidences that strain the limits of credulity, and a plot twist connecting the modern story with the historical background of the land which can be seen from about a million miles away. This was a fun book, but it’s hard to call it anything more substantial than fun.

Jennifer McMahon’s The Invited may be a great choice for fans of Megan Miranda and Riley Sager.

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The Perfect Girlfriend, by Karen Hamilton (Review)


The Perfect Girlfriend
by Karen Hamilton

Genre: Thriller

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: March 26, 2019

Publisher: Graydon House

Synopsis: 

YOU’VE NEVER READ A LOVE STORY AS TWISTED AS THIS.

Juliette loves Nate.

She will follow him anywhere. She’s even become a flight attendant for his airline so she can keep a closer eye on him.

They are meant to be.

The fact that Nate broke up with her six months ago means nothing. Because Juliette has a plan to win him back.

She is the perfect girlfriend. And she’ll make sure no one stops her from getting exactly what she wants.

True love hurts, but Juliette knows it’s worth all the pain…

ratingtwo

My thanks to Booksparks and Graydon House for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

I’ve said a lot on this blog that I’m overly picky about thrillers, and when I need to write a negative review of one, I tend to preface it with that information. It’s my little “Dear Book, it’s not you, it’s me,” disclaimer. In this case, though, I really don’t think it’s me. This was… rough. Despite the interesting narrative choice of choosing a villain as the point of view character, The Perfect Girlfriend is simply the one thing it’s unforgivable for a thriller to be: boring.

The novel follows Juliette, who is hardcore obsessed with her ex boyfriend. The story opens with a traumatic event from her childhood; I don’t know if this is meant to make her more sympathetic throughout all of the awful things she’ll then go on to do, or if it’s simply there to give a “reason” as to why she’s a bit… unbalanced. In any case, something about it feels very tacked-on, as if the author realized she needed to give Juliette some meat to her personality other than an all-consuming obsession with Nate, but it certainly doesn’t have the impact of making her feel multi-dimensional.

After the breakup, Juliette gets a job as a flight attendant in order to be closer to Nate, who is a pilot. With the two of them now working for the same airline, she now simply has to wait to “coincidentally” bump into him and leap on the opportunity to rekindle the old flame. The whole flight attendant job is (part of) what I’m talking about when I say this book is boring.

I checked the author’s GoodReads profile to confirm a nagging suspicion and, lo and behold, she formerly “worked as cabin crew for a major airline.” The sheer amount of rambling about the ins and outs of being a flight attendant left the impression that the author was itching for a way to work some of her insider information into the novel. Unfortunately, it was just a bit much, and seemed particularly unnatural given that the story is told from Juliette’s perspective, and Juliette doesn’t care about being a flight attendant; she’s simply using the job as a means to get to Nate.

But beyond the surplus of tangential information, there was simply nothing surprising in the plot. Towards the end, there is a confrontation on a plane which leads into what I’m assuming is meant to be a “big reveal,” but even at that point I was just left thinking, “Well… yeah, clearly.”

Furthermore, I’m simply sick to death of stories about a woman obsessed with a man. Yes, I know, this was a stalker story, so I knew what I was getting into going into it, but can we please do away with female characters who have nothing to their personalities beyond their acute fixation on a man? We are not little baby ducks who imprint on the first one to give us the time of day. I promise.

Needless to say, this one was not a hit for me. However, the GoodReads algorithm says fans of this book also enjoyed: The Perfect Girlfriend to fans of Beautiful Bad, by Annie Ward, The Rival, by Charlotte Duckworth, and I’ll Be Watching You, by Courtney Evan Tate, so if you’ve read and enjoyed any of those, you may have a very different experience with this one than I did.

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Thank you for reading! This book hit some of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to fiction. What are some of yours? Let me know in the comments!

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The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag (Review)


The Wolf and the Watchman
by Niklas Natt och Dag

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: March 5, 2019

Publisher: Atria Books

Synopsis: 

In this breathtakingly bold, intricately constructed novel set in 18th century Stockholm, a dying man searches among the city’s teeming streets, dark corners, and intriguing inhabitants to unmask a ruthless murderer—perfect for fans of Perfume and The Alienist.

It is 1793. Four years after the storming of the Bastille in France and more than a year after the death of King Gustav III of Sweden, paranoia and whispered conspiracies are Stockholm’s daily bread. A promise of violence crackles in the air as ordinary citizens feel increasingly vulnerable to the whims of those in power.

When Mickel Cardell, a crippled ex-solider and former night watchman, finds a mutilated body floating in the city’s malodorous lake, he feels compelled to give the unidentifiable man a proper burial. For Cecil Winge, a brilliant lawyer turned consulting detective to the Stockholm police, a body with no arms, legs, or eyes is a formidable puzzle and one last chance to set things right before he loses his battle to consumption. Together, Winge and Cardell scour Stockholm to discover the body’s identity, encountering the sordid underbelly of the city’s elite. Meanwhile, Kristofer Blix—the handsome son of a farmer—leaves rural life for the alluring charms of the capital and ambitions of becoming a doctor. His letters to his sister chronicle his wild good times and terrible misfortunes, which lead him down a treacherous path.

In another corner of the city, a young woman—Anna-Stina—is consigned to the workhouse after she upsets her parish priest. Her unlikely escape plan takes on new urgency when a sadistic guard marks her as his next victim.

Over the course of the novel, these extraordinary characters cross paths and collide in shocking and unforgettable ways. Niklas Natt och Dag paints a deliciously dark portrait of late 18th century Stockholm, and the frightful yet fascinating reality lurking behind the powdered and painted veneer of the era.

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

The Wolf and the Watchman is a slow burn mystery set in 1790’s Stockholm and it is dark and gritty, to stay the least. The story opens with the discovery of a body which has been badly mutilated over what seems to be a long period of time, then dumped unceremoniously in a river. The mystery at the heart of the novel is intriguing: what could possibly lead a person to commit such a heinous crime? This was thought out and unspeakably brutal, the exact opposite of a crime of passion.

18th century Stockholm is brought to life in the pages of The Wolf and the Watchman, but the portrayal is overwhelmingly dark and dreary. Niklas natt Och Dag seems fascinated with the dark side of human nature, and the story explores the myriad of ways that people exert power of one another: for personal gain, for revenge, out of fear, or for the simple gratification of the act itself. Despite the presence of characters investigating the murder in the hopes of bringing justice, the overall impression is quite morose. (As of this writing, this novel has a 3.95 average on GoodReads, so I think it’s worth noting my rating is a little below the average. This may be less due to quality than it is to personal taste; I found the book a tad too dark.)

The major characters were very well developed, and I was particularly intrigued by Kristofer Blix, a young man who worked as an apprentice surgeon during the war. His role in the mystery is not immediately clear, Kristofer’s sections are told in the form of letters to his sister detailing his downward spiral culminating in his connection to the larger story.

The Wolf and the Watchman is a great choice for fans of dark and gritty historical fiction and slow burn mystery novels.

Content warnings for graphic violence and sexual violence. 

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As Long as We Both Shall Live, by JoAnn Chaney (Review)

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As Long as We Both Shall Live
by JoAnn Chaney

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Length: 324 Pages

Release date: January 15, 2019

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Synopsis: 

What happens when you’re really, truly done making your marriage work? You can’t be married to someone without sometimes wanting to bash them over the head…
As Long As We Both Shall Live is JoAnn Chaney’s wicked, masterful examination of a marriage gone very wrong, a marriage with lots of secrets…

“My wife! I think she’s dead!” Matt frantically tells park rangers that he and his wife, Marie, were hiking when she fell off a cliff into the raging river below. They start a search, but they aren’t hopeful: no one could have survived that fall. It was a tragic accident.

But Matt’s first wife also died in suspicious circumstances. And when the police pull a body out of the river, they have a lot more questions for Matt.

Detectives Loren and Spengler want to know if Matt is a grieving, twice-unlucky husband or a cold-blooded murderer. They dig into the couple’s lives to see what they can unearth. And they find that love’s got teeth, it’s got claws, and once it hitches you to a person, it’s tough to rip yourself free.

So what happens when you’re done making it work?

ratingone
Oh, boy, this book was definitely not for me. I’ve said it on here before, but I’m a bit of a thriller snob. Excessive plot twists, overly tropey plot lines, and stock characters, oh my! While I definitely enjoy the occasional thriller (The Silent Patient, An Anonymous Girl, and No Exit come to mind) this… was not one of those for me. Spoilers ahead for this review (as much as I normally hate to include them), because I don’t know how to explain my issues with this book without going into major plot points.

The prologue had me hooked and I went into this novel feeling optimistic. The opening line reads, “If you try to kill your wife without a plan, you will fail,” and goes on to lambaste the stupidity of the average killer, eventually closing with this: “So here’s the thing: if you want to kill your wife, don’t. Don’t kill her, don’t touch her. Ditch the bitch, if you have to, get on with your life. Or make it work. But kill her? Nope. You want the opposite of Nike’s advice: Just don’t do it. Because sooner or later, no matter how careful you think you’ve been, you’ll get caught.”

Given the genre, you can pretty much assume that there’s some misdirection going on here, and this won’t be a book about a man killing his wife and getting caught. So, what’s the next most obvious assumption when Matt’s wife disappears? If you’re picturing Amy from Gone Girl right now, bingo. As if to desperately try to convince the readers that the novel is paying homage to Gone Girl rather than blatantly trying to ride on its coattails, Matt references his wife’s obsession with the book while trying to convince the detectives that he’s being framed.

Speaking of the detectives, a frankly uncomfortable amount of time is spent inside the head of the spectacularly unlikable Detective Ralph Loren. Loren is totally obsessed with sex and crude seemingly for the sake of being crude (and then genuinely shocked when another character calls him crude… okay, buddy.) The author seems hell-bent on convincing the reader that this serial sexual harasser secretly has a heart of gold, with numerous characters remarking on what a great guy he is deep down.

I’d say that there was some social commentary intended here about how willing people are to look the other way when it comes to men like this, but it doesn’t seem supported by the narrative. There’s an entire mystery subplot surrounding whether or not Loren killed his prior partner and it turns out he was innocent the whole time. You see, Loren was the only one who cared that his partner was beating his wife, and it was the wife who finally snapped and killed him. Loren got blackmailed roped into covering up the crime, when his only real crime was caring too much about a battered woman. …okay.

Finally, what is it with thrillers that think they can make a compelling story by pure quantity of twists? You have to earn your twists by setting them up, and less is more. Think about Gone Girl, the book that this one so desperately wants to emulate. There were a few things that could be considered minor twists, but really the main thing was that Amy was behind her own disappearance. That was the whole crux of the story, Flynn focused on it, and it worked really well. I’m writing this review a while after finishing the book, and three big twists come to mind right away. I’d be willing to wager that I’ve forgotten one or two of them already.

Save yourself some time and frustration and just read Gone Girl. 

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