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. . .

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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The Promise, by Teresa Driscoll (Review)


The Promise
by Teresa Driscoll

Genre: Psychological Thriller, Mystery

Length: 309 Pages

Release date: February 7, 2019

Publisher: Thomas and Mercer

Synopsis: 

The chilling new psychological thriller from the #1 bestselling author of I Am Watching You.

It was their darkest secret. Three schoolgirls made a promise – to take the horrible truth of what they did to the grave.

Thirty years later, Beth and Sally have tried to put the trauma behind them. Though Carol has distanced herself from her former friends, the three are adamant that the truth must never come to light, even if the memory still haunts them.

But when some shocking news threatens to unearth their dark secret, Beth enlists the help of private investigator Matthew Hill to help her and Sally reconnect with estranged Carol ­– before the terrible act they committed as teenagers is revealed.

Beth wishes she could take back the vow they made.

But somebody is watching and will stop at nothing to ensure the secret stays buried. Now, with her beloved family in peril, can Beth still keep the promise?

rating

three

My thanks to NetGalley and Thomas & Mercer 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. 

Teresa Driscoll first came onto my radar last year when I read I Am Watching You with my book club. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending of that novel, I did find it an overall really enjoyable reading experience, so I was quick to request a copy of The Promise when I saw it on NetGalley. The basic premise of the story (three women with a deep, dark secret going back to their boarding school days) was super intriguing to me and was giving off some Ruth Ware vibes.

Unfortunately, I think some of that promise was lost in the execution. Part of what fell flat for me was the sheer number of separate perspectives that Driscoll is trying to juggle within this book. The reader will spend time in the heads of Beth, Sally, and Carol, as well as Matthew, a private investigator which fans may recognize from Driscoll’s prior novel (I Am Watching You). I think limiting this to one or two perspectives may have made for a better reading experience. I’m not one to dislike multiple perspectives on principal, but I don’t think it worked very well here.

My other main issue with this was that the pacing felt rather slow. Almost 70% of the book is spend leading up to a big reveal which becomes a bit too easy to guess before you actually get to it. (Interestingly, this was the opposite problem I had with Driscoll’s last novel, which I thought dropped far too little foreshadowing and left me feeling a little cheated. This can be a really difficult balance to strike and may even vary from one reader to the next, so your mileage my vary.)

All that being said, there were some things that I really enjoyed about this novel. The relationships between the three women throughout the years were really fun to explore, and the story was atmospheric and full of suspense. The last quarter or so of the book picks up the pace in a huge way and made up for some of what I thought was lacking early in the story. This would be a good selection for a lot of fans of Ruth Ware, Liane Moriarty, and of course, Teresa Driscoll’s past work.

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Thank you for reading! Does guessing the big twist ruin a mystery novel for you? Would you rather be surprised by the ending or validated in your suspicions? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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The Silent Patient, by Alex Michaelides (Review)


The Silent Patient
by Alex Michaelides

Genre: Thriller, Mystery

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: February 5, 2019

Synopsis: 

Promising to be the debut novel of the season The Silent Patientis a shocking psychological thriller of a woman’s act of violence against her husband—and of the therapist obsessed with uncovering her motive…

Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.

Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London.

Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him….

rating

five

“…we often mistake love for fireworks – for drama and dysfunction. But real love is very quiet, very still. It’s boring, if seen from the perspective of high drama. Love is deep and calm – and constant.” 

This book was such a pleasant surprise for me. Some of you may have noticed I have a tendency to nitpick thrillers to death, and the mental health aspect of this one in particular had me a bit nervous. I’ve seen one too many horror stories which can basically be boiled down to “Aren’t crazy people super scary, guys?” This didn’t feel like that, and I’m grateful for that. So I’m glad I gave into the hype to give The Silent Patient a chance.

The novel alternates between Alicia Berenson’s diary entries from prior to her husband’s murder and Theo Faber’s perspective as he works with her as her psychotherapist, determined to get her to speak again. Both characters were incredibly intriguing and the pacing was perfect.

Michaelides did stunningly well (especially for a debut author!) at writing a really balanced book; there was enough action and suspense to make it compulsively readable, but the character development provided a sense of substance that can sometimes be missing from this genre. But by far the highlight of the book for me was the twist towards the end. It’s not too heavily foreshadowed, so it comes as a huge shock in the best way, and throws everything before it into a totally new light.

This review is a bit brief because I really feel like this is a good book to go into largely blind and just enjoy the ride. The Silent Patient gets five full stars from me! It’s such an impressive debut and I can’t wait to see what Michaelides writes next!

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Thank you for reading! What thrillers have you enjoyed lately? Do you have a favorite novel with a huge twist ending? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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Review – The Night Olivia Fell, by Christina McDonald

The Night Olivia Fell
by Christina McDonald

Genre: Mystery

Length: 320 Pages

Release date: February 5, 2019

Publisher: Gallery Books

Synopsis: 

In the vein of Big Little Lies and Reconstructing Amelia comes an emotionally charged domestic suspense novel about a mother unraveling the truth behind how her daughter became brain dead. And pregnant.

A search for the truth. A lifetime of lies.

In the small hours of the morning, Abi Knight is startled awake by the phone call no mother ever wants to get: her teenage daughter Olivia has fallen off a bridge. Not only is Olivia brain dead, she’s pregnant and must remain on life support to keep her baby alive. And then Abi sees the angry bruises circling Olivia’s wrists.

When the police unexpectedly rule Olivia’s fall an accident, Abi decides to find out what really happened that night. Heartbroken and grieving, she unravels the threads of her daughter’s life. Was Olivia’s fall an accident? Or something far more sinister?

Christina McDonald weaves a suspenseful and heartwrenching tale of hidden relationships, devastating lies, and the power of a mother’s love. With flashbacks of Olivia’s own resolve to uncover family secrets, this taut and emotional novel asks: how well do you know your children? And how well do they know you?

rating

three

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book as a BookSparks Winter Reading Challenge official ambassador. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

I struggled a lot with how to rate this novel. I settled on a middle-of-the-road rating because, while it seems most readers really enjoyed it, it didn’t work very well for me, for reasons that aren’t necessarily the fault of the author. The main thing that held this book back for me is that it bears a lot of similarities to another book I’ve read, Reconstructing Amelia. (I will go over this in detail later in the review, with a spoiler warning before that section.) I want to be clear that I’m not alleging plagiarism; similar ideas can surely occur independently, but there was enough in common between the stories that this felt like a reread for me.

This book is marketed as a mystery thriller, but I think emotional angle was the main strength of the novel, as opposed to the twists and turns. After Olivia’s fall, Abi learns that she is on life support and will not recover. She is kept on life support to keep her developing fetus alive long enough to perform a C-section. Abi has to grapple with the conflicting emotions surrounding knowing that getting her grandchild will mean losing her daughter. As she counts down the days, it’s obvious how heart-wrenching this is for her. I seriously felt for Abi and the months she spent in limbo, with her daughter not truly alive, but still breathing.

Olivia, who we get to know through flashbacks, was likable, but not always believable as a teenage girl. Her mother is relatively strict and over-protective. Olivia rarely balks at this, and when she does, has a habit of immediately mentally reminding herself that it’s only because her mother wants what’s best for her. I’m not trying to say she needs to be a total brat to be a realistic teenager, but Abi’s habits as a mother would honestly lead me to expect more frustration out of Olivia than she shows. She read less as a genuine teenager and more as a teenager as seen through a thin layer of wishful thinking from an overprotective parent. On a similar note, I would have liked to see a bit more of a distinction between Olivia and Abi’s voices in their respective chapters.

Spoilers for the bullet points ahead!

As discussed, on to the similarities to Reconstructing Amelia. Here are the characteristics in common between the two. (Apologies if I’ve mis-remembered anything, as it’s been a number of months since I read Reconstructing Amelia, but I feel like I remember it pretty well.)

  • Workaholic single mother’s teenage daughter dies, or in Olivia’s case, becomes brain-dead
  • Death / injury is the result of a fall which is initially dismissed as a potential suicide
  • Teenage daughter’s recent falling out with her best friend
  • Mystery surrounding paternity of the daughter provides a suspect for a potential killer
  • Mother has to work to solve the case on her own because the police aren’t taking it seriously
  • Plot unfolds in alternating chapters; flashbacks from the daughter’s perspective leading up to the night of the fall, current timeline from the mother’s perspective as she tries to solve the mystery
  • Killer turns out to be someone who cared for the girl, who lashed out in a moment of anger, and didn’t actually mean to kill her

Olivia’s pregnancy does provide a divergence from that structure, but the similarities are still too much to ignore. I wanted to like this novel, and it seems other readers generally liked it, but I unfortunately spent the whole book feeling like I was watching a rerun of a crime drama. If you haven’t read Reconstructing Amelia, odds are you’ll enjoy this book; otherwise, prepare for déjà vu.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read The Night Olivia Fell and/or Reconstructing Amelia? 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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Review – The Stranger Inside, by Laura Benedict


The Stranger Inside
by Laura Benedict

Genre: Mystery, Thriller

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: February 5, 2019

Publisher: Mulholland Books

Synopsis: 

Kimber Hannon’s belief that she has complete control over her life is shattered the night that she comes home from a trip to find her key no longer opens her front door. There is a stranger living in her house. A stranger who claims he has every right to be there, with the paperwork to prove it. When she confronts the man, he lets her get close enough to whisper, “I was there. I saw what you did.”

She doesn’t know how he knows her, but with those words Kimber knows this stranger isn’t after anything as simple as her money or artwork or charming Craftsman bungalow. She has to find out exactly what he wants and get him out of her carefully orchestrated life before he ruins it.

There are plenty of people in her life who might help, but should Kimber trust any of them? Her lawyer, Gabriel, is also her ex-lover; Diana, her best friend, doesn’t know Kimber slept with her husband; her ex-husband has a new, happier life since leaving her; and her co-workers know she’ll do anything to get her next sale. And no one can know the real reason this man is in her house. Without trust, everyone’s a stranger….

rating

two

My thanks to Mulholland 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. 

Maybe I’m overly picky when it comes to thrillers, but The Stranger Inside unfortunately had a few things that are deal-breakers for me when it comes to this genre, principal among them being a supremely unlikable protagonist. Unlikable protagonists aren’t an issue for me in all fiction, but in a thriller, I need to be rooting for the main character for the story to have any emotional thrust. I could not root for Kimber. If Kimber was on fire and I had a glass of water, I’d drink it. (Okay, maybe that’s a bit much, but I was unable to find any empathy for this woman while reading.)

Kimber is habitually dishonest and selfish. A lot of this seems to come from her traumatic past, but I can only give a character so much leeway for that, and Kimber pushes the limit. She’s emotionally distant in relationships, but don’t worry, she has a foolproof plan for dealing with that: she just sleeps with married men! No strings! This was bad enough, but I can look past it in a fictional character to an extent. Kimber takes it to another level, though, when she decides to befriend the wife of one of her former flings, purely because she think it’ll be funny to unnerve him. The wife’s feelings don’t seem to cross her mind for a minute.

At this point I’m just like…

The second deal-breaker for me was the ridiculously convoluted plot. Some thriller writers seem to think that they can create an engaging story by the sheer quantity of twists. Quality, not quantity, please. Yes, if you throw in enough twists, at some point every reader is going to say, “Well, I didn’t see that coming.” The Stranger Inside is almost guaranteed to surprise you at least once, but this is in part because the twists are ridiculous. Obviously, I can’t go into detail here without veering into spoilers, and maybe your experience will be different, but I wasn’t buying some of these plot points.

Clearly, this novel didn’t work for me, but the creep factor behind the basic concept is super intriguing, there are loads of characters to suspect, and I do think there’s an audience for this book. This might be a good choice for fans of The Night Olivia Fell, When the Lights Go Out, and The Wife Between Us.

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Thank you for reading! What’s the best thriller you’ve read lately? I need some recommendations after this! Give me complex characters and well thought-out twists!

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