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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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.

ratingthree

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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Before She Knew Him, by Peter Swanson (Review)

Image may contain: 1 person
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. . .

ratingfour

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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Watching You, by Lisa Jewell (Review)


Watching You
by Lisa Jewell

Genre: Mystery, Thriller

Length: 320 Pages

Release date: December 26, 2018

Synopsis: 

Melville Heights is one of the nicest neighbourhoods in Bristol, England; home to doctors and lawyers and old-money academics. It’s not the sort of place where people are brutally murdered in their own kitchens. But it is the sort of place where everyone has a secret. And everyone is watching you.

As the headmaster credited with turning around the local school, Tom Fitzwilliam is beloved by one and all—including Joey Mullen, his new neighbor, who quickly develops an intense infatuation with this thoroughly charming yet unavailable man. Joey thinks her crush is a secret, but Tom’s teenaged son Freddie—a prodigy with aspirations of becoming a spy for MI5—excels in observing people and has witnessed Joey behaving strangely around his father.

One of Tom’s students, Jenna Tripp, also lives on the same street, and she’s not convinced her teacher is as squeaky clean as he seems. For one thing, he has taken a particular liking to her best friend and fellow classmate, and Jenna’s mother—whose mental health has admittedly been deteriorating in recent years—is convinced that Mr. Fitzwilliam is stalking her.

Meanwhile, twenty years earlier, a schoolgirl writes in her diary, charting her doomed obsession with a handsome young English teacher named Mr. Fitzwilliam…

rating

three

Watching You is a weird book for me to rate, because for most of the first half of the story, I was decidedly not invested. We know early on that there has been a murder, but a lot of the story focuses on other things and I really wasn’t dying to untangle the mystery. Think Big Little Lies, where the story opens with the aftermath of a murder, then goes on to focus on entirely unrelated things in the lives of those close to the incident. I definitely got a vibe that Lisa Jewell was inspired by Lianne Moriarty while reading this.

A major drawback for me, however, was that Lisa Jewell doesn’t seem quite as skilled as Moriarty when it comes to making the reader truly care about her characters. I spent a decent chunk of the book learning about the lives and backstories of characters who simply didn’t quite feel like people to me. However, by the latter half of the book, as the mystery started to fall into place, I started to feel glad I stuck with it.

Watching You plays with the reader’s expectations in a really fun way and is practically begging you to make assumptions that will later be proven wrong. The perspective shifts with each chapter, giving the reader a new, limited point of view and set of biases depending on which character is narrating. Alternating points of view can sometimes feel really sloppy, but I thought this was something that was handled really well throughout the novel. The reader will need to piece together clues known only by individual characters if they have any hope of guessing the resolution.

Watching You is a smart and twisty mystery story that may take a while to pique your interest… but definitely earns the time investment by the end.

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