Review – Still Lives, by Maria Hummel


Still Lives
by Maria Hummel

Genre: Mystery, Thriller

Length: 275 Pages

Release date: June 5, 2018

Synopsis: 

Kim Lord is an avant-garde figure, feminist icon, and agent provocateur in the L.A. art scene. Her groundbreaking new exhibition Still Lives is comprised of self-portraits depicting herself as famous, murdered women—the Black Dahlia, Chandra Levy, Nicole Brown Simpson, among many others—and the works are as compelling as they are disturbing, implicating a culture that is too accustomed to violence against women.

As the city’s richest art patrons pour into the Rocque Museum’s opening night, all the staff, including editor Maggie Richter, hope the event will be enough to save the historic institution’s flailing finances. Except Kim Lord never shows up to her own gala. Fear mounts as the hours and days drag on and Lord remains missing. Suspicion falls on the up-and-coming gallerist Greg Shaw Ferguson, who happens to be Maggie’s ex. A rogue’s gallery of eccentric art world figures could also have motive for the act, and as Maggie gets drawn into her own investigation of Lord’s disappearance, she’ll come to suspect all of those closest to her.

Set against a culture that often fetishizes violence, Still Lives is a page-turning exodus into the art world’s hall of mirrors, and one woman’s journey into the belly of an industry flooded with money and secrets.

rating

two

I really thought I was going to love this book. With so much of the plot revolving around an art installation that was meant to be critical of society’s voyeuristic fascination with murdered women, I thought Hummel might have some point to articulate about it with a bit more substance than, essentially… “thing bad.” If it was there, perhaps it went over my head, but the book as a whole felt so meandering and disjointed that I don’t feel I can really be blamed. The artist in question, Kim Lord, is missing for the majority of the novel, and her disappearance provides the thrust of the story. This almost feels like a missed opportunity, as Kim Lord seems like she would have been a much more interesting character to explore than the protagonist, Maggie.

Maggie works in typesetting for the art gallery hosting Still Lives, Kim Lord’s most recent exhibit. Kim Lord’s current boyfriend, Greg, is Maggie’s ex, which is what draws Maggie into the action after Kim disappears. Maggie seems to still be pretty hung up on Greg, but we never really know enough about him as a person or their relationship to know or care why.

Honestly, a lot of Maggie’s back story seems to be really thinly sketched out. The novel is fairly short at under 300 pages, and I’d say perhaps it could have used some more space to fill out Maggie as a character, except that the 275 pages we already have seem to drag by rather slowly. I won’t go into details, but Maggie is struggling with a death in her past for which she feels responsible. Hummel tries to paint a picture of what led up to this to help us understand Maggie’s guilt, but even after finishing the novel, I feel pretty fuzzy on this.

I had a lot of difficulty keeping the characters straight, which isn’t generally a problem for me. There’s nothing worse than hitting a big reveal in a mystery novel only to say, “Wait, who was that again?” Character motivations felt like a bit of a stretch in more than one instance, in part because most of the characters were so thinly developed that they never felt like people.

Still Lives had a lot of promise, but I felt really let down by the author’s failure to fully flesh out any of the characters or to explore any of the themes she raised in any meaningful way. I wanted to love this book, but I think the best thing about it was the pretty cover.

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Review – Before We Were Strangers, by Brenda Novak


Before We Were Strangers
by Brenda Novak

Genre: Mystery, Thriller

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: December 4, 2018

Publisher: MIRA

Synopsis: 

Something happened to her mother that night. Something no one wants to talk about. But she’s determined to uncover her family’s dark secrets, even if they bury her.

Five-year-old Sloane McBride couldn’t sleep that night. Her parents were arguing again, their harsh words heating the cool autumn air. And then there was that other sound–the ominous thump before all went quiet.

In the morning, her mother was gone. The official story was that she left. Her loving, devoted mother! That hadn’t sat any better at the time than it did when Sloane moved out at eighteen, anxious to leave her small Texas hometown in search of anywhere else. But not even a fresh start working as a model in New York could keep the nightmares at bay. Or her fears that the domineering father she grew up with wasn’t just difficult–he was deadly.

Now another traumatic loss forces Sloane to realize she owes it to her mother to find out the truth, even if it means returning to a small town full of secrets and lies, a jilted ex-boyfriend and a father and brother who’d rather see her silenced. But as Sloane starts digging into the past, the question isn’t whether she can uncover what really happened that night…it’s what will remain of her family if she does?

rating

two

My thanks to The Girly Book Club and Booktrib 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 concept behind Before We Were Strangers felt really promising to me, and I was excited to dig into it. The protagonist is seeking to solve a 23 year old disappearance and she suspects her own father; that should surely come with an interesting set of challenges. Unfortunately, the novel fell really flat for me, and I think a lot of my issues with it can be summed up by saying that it simply did not have believable character motivations in a lot of different plot points.

For starters: the romance. Sloane’s high school boyfriend, Micah, and her best friend, Paige, married after Sloane skipped town at 18. When Sloan returns to her hometown early in this story, their marriage has fallen apart because (obviously) no one could ever hold a candle to Sloan (groan) and Micah is still hung up on his high school girlfriend when he’s pushing 30. I truly hope it’s self evident to anyone over the age of 22 why this just makes me cringe. It’s not romantic, it’s obsessive and weird. The only thing that throws this into the “romance” category rather than “stalker” category is the fact that it’s somehow miraculously reciprocated. Your high school sweetheart being The One can be a cute angle; less so when your high school sweetheart is still pining after you after 10 years of no contact.

Strike two: big, bad daddy. As is clear from the blurb, Sloane returns home in large part to confirm her suspicions that her father was responsible for her mother’s disappearance. From the sound of things, it appears that most of the people in town agree with that sentiment; they’re all just too terrified of him to do anything about it. What can they possibly do to stand up to this intimidating, powerful… small town mayor? Yes, he has money and connections, but surely I’m not the only one who had trouble buying that an entire town would suspect him of murdering his own wife and yet be cowed by his seemingly unlimited power as… mayor.

Sloane’s brother, Randy, stands by their father to a frankly confusing degree, seemingly for no other reason than to provide a contrast to Sloane and throw one more obstacle at her. We are shown over and over just how horrific of a person their father is, in regards to his parenting, his treatment of women, and his willingness to manipulate everyone around him for his own gain. And yet Randy is his most steadfast supporter, despite being older than Sloane and presumably more aware of the abuse their mother suffered at his hands before her disappearance.

His jaw hardened. “You’re crazy! Our mother abandoned us! That’s the harsh truth you’re trying to avoid–and you’re willing to risk sending our father to prison in order to achieve it. Why? How will tainting Dad’s reputation or getting him embroiled in a police investigation help you or me or anyone else?”

“Our mother deserves justice!”

“And our father deserves more thanks than to have his daughter return to town only because she’s bent on destroying him.”

Finally, the writing style as a whole fell really flat for me. The dialog often felt clunky and unnatural, and the descriptions were sometimes unintentionally funny when they were meant to be building tension. One such example is this: “He hurried through the dining room to the kitchen and saw a large knife lying on the floor. That caused him to gulp, but it was nothing compared to finding the blood on the carpet…” The phrase “that caused him to gulp” was so awkward and cartoonish and that it made me burst out laughing in the middle of the climax of a thriller. I’m going to have to go out on a limb and say that’s probably not what the author was going for with that line.

Overall, this was just a disappointment for me. It had such great potential as a concept, but the plot felt incredibly flimsy, the characters consistently lacked believable motivations, and the writing was really unpolished. Novak has a good deal of novels under her belt, but this felt like a first attempt.

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Review – Our House, by Louise Candlish


Our House
by Louise Candlish

Genre: Mystery, Thriller

Length: 404 Pages

Release date: August 7, 2018

Synopsis: 

On a bright January morning in the London suburbs, a family moves into the house they’ve just bought in Trinity Avenue. 

Nothing strange about that. Except it is your house. And you didn’t sell it. 

When Fiona Lawson comes home to find strangers moving into her house, she’s sure there’s been a mistake. She and her estranged husband, Bram, have a modern co-parenting arrangement: bird’s nest custody, where each parent spends a few nights a week with their two sons at the prized family home to maintain stability for their children. But the system built to protect their family ends up putting them in terrible jeopardy. In a domino effect of crimes and misdemeanors, the nest comes tumbling down.

Now Bram has disappeared and so have Fiona’s children. As events spiral well beyond her control, Fiona will discover just how many lies her husband was weaving and how little they truly knew each other. But Bram’s not the only one with things to hide, and some secrets are best kept to oneself, safe as houses.

rating

three

Hello, friends! I just want to take a second to say I’m sorry for the delay since my last post. I’ve been out of town visiting family and now I’m way behind schedule. However, since I’m not working this week, I should be getting right back on track! Now, on to the review.

I had pretty lukewarm feelings towards Our House. The concept was interesting, but the pacing felt very slow for a mystery/thriller, and in the end I feel like it made very little impression on me. The format was one of the more interesting things about this novel; we alternate between Fiona’s perspective and Bram’s. Fiona tells her story in part through a podcast about victims of crimes. Those segments are followed up with what seem to be twitter threads discussing that episode. (This had a lot of potential, but I think if you want an example of the podcast concept being done really well, you’d be better off reading Sadie, by Courtney Summers.)

Another issue I had with this was that I found the major characters to be extremely unlikeable. While this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for a book, if it’s not bringing something really interesting to the table, then at the very least, I need someone who I can root for. Our House did not deliver in this regard. Bram is horrible; he is a sorry excuse for both a husband and father, cowardly, impulsive and childish to the extreme. Fiona is naive, kind of oblivious, and uptight. The two of them as a couple strain the limits of credulity. Granted the novel is predicated on the two of them splitting up, but how they became a couple in the first place is beyond me. Bram is a compulsive rule-breaker and Fiona thinks a speeding ticket is a horrific black mark on a person’s character. These two stayed together long enough to have two children?

All that being said, I do think I could have loved this book were it not for the sluggish pace. It opens strong, and we are thrown right into the action, with Fiona coming back to her house to find strangers moving into it and Bram MIA. This is followed up with the opening of a confession letter from Bram, so we know very early on that he is responsible but are given no inkling as to why. I had very little idea of what to expect from there, and Candlish throws in so many twists and turns that you’re guaranteed to be surprised more than once.

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Review – Her Pretty Face, by Robyn Harding


Her Pretty Face
by Robyn Harding

Genre: Thriller, Mystery

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: July 10, 2018

Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press

Synopsis: 

The author of the bestselling novel The Party—lauded as “tense and riveting” by New York Times bestselling author Megan Mirandareturns with a chilling new domestic drama about two women whose deep friendship is threatened by dark, long-buried secrets.

Frances Metcalfe is struggling to stay afloat.

A stay-at-home mom whose troubled son is her full-time job, she thought that the day he got accepted into the elite Forrester Academy would be the day she started living her life. Overweight, insecure, and lonely, she is desperate to fit into Forrester’s world. But after a disturbing incident at the school leads the other children and their families to ostracize the Metcalfes, she feels more alone than ever before.

Until she meets Kate Randolph.

Kate is everything Frances is not: beautiful, wealthy, powerful, and confident. And for some reason, she’s not interested in being friends with any of the other Forrester moms—only Frances. As the two bond over their disdain of the Forrester snobs and the fierce love they have for their sons, a startling secret threatens to tear them apart…because one of these women is not who she seems. Her real name is Amber Kunick. And she’s a murderer.

In her masterful follow-up to The Party, Robyn Harding spins a web of lies, deceit, and betrayal, asking the question: Can people ever change? And even if they can, is it possible to forgive the past?

rating

three

I received a free copy of this book through a GoodReads giveaway. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

**As you may know, I try to keep my reviews spoiler-free unless indicated otherwise. As a necessity of discussing certain aspects of the plot which impacted my enjoyment of the book, this review will contain more plot information than I generally like to include. No end-game plot twists will be revealed, but other minor spoilers do come into play here.**

Her Pretty Face is loosely based on events surrounding real-life serial killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Amber Kunik (the character loosely based on Karla) pushes the blame for her role in a murder solely onto her boyfriend and partner in crime, Shane Nelson. After she obtains a plea deal based on her testimony, video evidence later shows her to be a much more willing participant in the torture and slaughter than she had claimed. Amber walks free after an unjustifiably short prison sentence.

The major part of the novel takes place years later, and Amber has taken on a new identity and gone into hiding. While it is obvious from the importance placed on the Amber Kunik case within the narrative that we will see Amber again, we are not told anything about her new identity.

The biggest strength in this novel lies in its characters. The central POV character is Frances, somewhat of a misfit mom and painfully insecure around the other mothers at her son’s school. Her son has emotional issues and has been ostracized by the other children as a result of his acting out. Frances, in turn, has been ostracized by the other moms. When Kate comes to her defense in front of the other moms, Frances latches onto her in a borderline unhealthy friendship. Frances is lonely and guilt-riddled by events in her past; while her constant insecurity was occasionally grating, I truly felt for Frances and she made for a good protagonist.

We also get to peek into the mind of Daisy, Kate’s teenage daughter. I understand why these chapters were included, as they relayed information crucial to the plot and foreshadowed upcoming twists. That being said, Daisy’s chapters were sometimes difficult for me to stomach. Daisy is bullied quite relentlessly by some of the other students, but can’t be bothered to defend herself because she’s to above it all. Daisy is too cool for their petty, childish high school drama, because Daisy is very Mature for Her Age and Not Like Other Girls. I do think she improves as a character later in the book, but good lord did I have some eye-rolling moment with Daisy.

Finally, there’s DJ, the younger brother of Amber Kunik’s murder victim, Courtney. DJ’s chapters are told in flashbacks to the 1990’s, when Courtney first went missing and the subsequent murder trials for Amber and Shane. DJ is around ten years old when his life is thrown into disarray by the death of his sister. He develops and obsession with Amber Kunik due to her lack of remorse and ability to fool everyone around her into viewing her as a victim.

The problem with this novel comes with the plot twists. There are two instances where Harding’s attempts at misdirection are really poorly executed. You can’t spend several chapters hinting relentlessly at something without the average mystery reader picking up on the fact that they need to look elsewhere. Harding’s giant neon arrows pointing at red herrings only had the effect of eliminating them as actual suspects. Had the clues pointing at these people been a bit more subtle, I’d have actually been more inclined to be misled.

Her Pretty Face is a novel you can absolutely enjoy if you’re not going into it hoping to be surprised. If solving the mystery before it’s actually revealed kills a book for you, this is probably not the right book for you.

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Have you read any other novels based on real-life crimes?

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Review – Sadie, by Courtney Summers


Sadie
by Coutney Summers

Genre: Young Adult, Mystery

Length: 311 Pages

Release date: September 4, 2018

Synopsis: 

Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meagre clues to find him.

When West McCray—a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America—overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

rating

five

“It was a terrible thing, sure, but we live in a world that has no shortage of terrible things. You can’t stop for all of them.” 

Let me start by saying that I listened to this as an audiobook, and the story is so well suited to that format. Sadie’s first person point of view chapters are broken up with excerpts from West McCray’s podcast on the subject of her disappearance. This was recorded with a full cast, so you’re treated to the varying voices of all the people interviewed by McCray and it really lends a sense of realism to the narrative.

GoodReads users have labeled this as “young adult,” but I’d personally place it more in the “new adult” category due to the maturity of some of the themes. Sadie is a fast-paced mystery that almost borders on horror at times, as it explores the depths of human depravity and selfishness.

Mattie once asked me… she’d just come home flush from a crush on Jonah Sweeten and asked me how you know when you like someone, and if I liked any boys like she did, and I didn’t know what tot tell her. That I tried not to think about that kind of stuff, because it was painful, because I thought I could ever have it, but when I did end up liking someone, it always made me ache right down to my core. I realized pretty early on that the who didn’t really matter so much. That anybody who listens to me, I end up loving them just a little.

As fun as the “podcast” chapters were, I often spent them looking forward to hearing from Sadie again. This was partly because we get to untangle the mystery through her perspective, but mainly because I found her to be a really interesting and sympathetic protagonist who fails to fall into the pitfalls and cliches common in YA novels. Sadie’s story does not hinge on finding love with a boy or on finding a sense of identity as she ventures into adulthood.

Sadie’s story is a single-minded hunt for revenge against the person who took her sister’s life. This is complicated by her young age, her gender, and a stubborn stutter which causes people to underestimate her at every turn. Essentially, this unassuming girl has been given a storyline you’d expect in a male superhero origin story. But she has a car and a knife and she’s pretty sure she can handle it. Besides, she spent most of her childhood learning how to be stronger than the world had any right to expect of her, mainly in service of keeping her little sister safe; now that Mattie, the center of her world, has been taken from her, the only thing she has left is the hope for justice.

Part of what I love about Sadie is that she’s so angry in a way we don’t often get to see in young female heroines. While there’s a plethora of teenage angst when it comes to characters in her age group, this is different. This is a deep, simmering rage at a sense of powerlessness and injustice on the most personal scale, and it’s heavily gendered. This is resentment at being underestimated, absolute fury over having devoted her life to one thing only to be sabotaged by a predator.

Sadie expertly handles harsh realities such as sexual abuse, addiction, and poverty. This novel gives us a protagonist who, despite the fact that circumstances have made her a victim, has such fierceness and agency, such determination to be in control of her own story.

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Review, Lies by T.M. Logan


Lies
by T.M. Logan

Genre: Psychological Thriller

Length: 418 Pages

Release date: September 11, 2018

Synopsis: 

WHAT IF YOUR WHOLE LIFE WAS BASED ON LIES?
When Joe Lynch stumbles across his wife driving into a hotel car park while she’s supposed to be at work, he’s intrigued enough to follow her in.

And when he witnesses her in an angry altercation with family friend Ben, he knows he ought to intervene.

But just as the confrontation between the two men turns violent, and Ben is knocked unconscious, Joe’s young son has an asthma attack – and Joe must flee in order to help him.

When he returns, desperate to make sure Ben is OK, Joe is horrified to find that Ben has disappeared.

And that’s when Joe receives the first message . . .

rating

four

“Cats don’t need anyone, they can do fine on their own. They live in the moment and trust their eyes and ears, what they can see in front of them – I think we can all learn something from that.” 

I’ve read a few seriously lackluster psychological thrillers lately that had me wondering if many this genre as a whole was just no longer doing it for me. Lies was a pleasant surprise that reinvigorated my affection for these kinds of books. Lies is fast-paced and filled with tension from start to finish, with twists and turns to keep you turning the pages.

The main drawback for this novel is that it is sometimes repetitive in that condescending way that seems to imply the author doesn’t feel the reader is capable of keeping up. For example, at one point, the protagonist listens to a voicemail from someone, and then recaps for the reader who that person is and how he first made contact with them. All of this had already been included in the narrative, and not terribly far back.

These sections, however, are brief and few and far between. For the majority of the novel, it doesn’t feel like Logan has given the readers too much or too little information. The author leaves just enough breadcrumbs for the mystery to be a fun puzzle. Combined with the fast pace and the high stakes for the protagonist, it’s immensely easy to get emotionally invested in the story.

Joe Lynch is in serious danger of going down for a murder he did not commit, a murder he’s not convinced has even happened at all. As the evidence piles up against him and seemingly everything that can go wrong does go wrong, he comes to the soul-sucking realization that he cannot trust anyone. If anyone is going to clear his own name, it’s him. This is a high-tension Gone Girl scenario, except the reader doesn’t have the benefit of knowing the fate of the missing person; we are kept in the dark with the protagonist.

Technology was heavily involved in the plot of Lies in a way that felt very natural and fun. From spyware on cell phones to forensic analysis of Facebook posts, the novel feels very modern. I’ve found that a lot of books either ignore ubiquitous technology such as social media, or force it in awkwardly. Joe uses Google like it’s his job and Facebook stalks people for clues.

Twisty and dark, this is a perfect October read to get you into the Halloween spirit. One you get into it, you won’t be able to put it down.

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Also by T.M. Logan…

29 Seconds 

Give me one name. One person. And I will make them disappear . . . 

When Sarah rescues a young girl in trouble, she expects nothing in return. But her act of bravery puts a powerful and dangerous man in her debt. He lives by his own brutal code, and all debts must be repaid – in the only way he knows how.

He offers Sarah a way to solve a desperate situation with her intolerable boss. A once-in-a-lifetime deal that will make all her problems disappear.

No consequences. No comeback. No chance of being found out.

All it takes is a 29 second phone call.

Because everyone has a name to give. Don’t they?

Thank you for reading! What’s the best psychological thriller you’ve read lately? Have you read Lies? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Review – Dead Ringer, by Kate Kessler

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Dead Ringer
by Kate Kessler

Genre: Mystery, Thriller

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: October 23, 2018

Publisher: Redhook

Synopsis: 

A gripping thriller by Kate Kessler (author of the Audrey Harte novels), in which an FBI agent becomes entwined in a missing persons case that directly connects to a horrific event from her past.

Eighteen years ago, FBI Agent Rachel Ward’s mirror twin, Hannah, was taken by the Gemini killer, a serial killer who delights in sending photos of his victims to their twins. Rachel assumes her sister has been dead for years, but she’s never stopped hunting the monster who took her. Now, another twin has been taken, and when the case reopens, Rachel is assigned as an agent. But her relentless hunt for the killer may drive her to her breaking point.

rating

two

Disclaimer: I won a free ARC of Dead Ringer in a GoodReads Giveaway. All opinions are my own. 

I truly hate being the first person to voice a negative opinion about a book, and other reviewers on GoodReads seemed to love this one, but this was definitely a dud for me. Dead Ringer was filled with twists and turns, but you’ll see every last one of them coming a mile away.

When I read mystery/thrillers I don’t put a lot of thought into them as I’m reading, intentionally so. I treat these books like candy, and I’d much rather be surprised than be able to pat myself on the back for guessing correctly. So if I’m seeing every plot point coming in a book like this, there’s a problem. I’m sure a lot of the foreshadowing was intended to build a sense of foreboding, but I also didn’t find it remotely frightening, so all it did was suck any mystery out of it.

There was also the issue of what felt like lazy writing. Instead of showing us how the protagonist, Rachel, is feeling, the author routinely has Rachel’s boyfriend, Trick, ask her how she’s feeling about specific events, so that Rachel can simply monologue about it to the reader. Rachel’s thoughts and feelings could have been much more seamlessly woven into the story, especially considering she’s the POV character. This method was clunky and felt like the author didn’t know how else to tell us what Rachel was thinking.

In case Rachel’s ordeal fails to get your heart racing, the author has a backup plan, which is switching to graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse suffered by the kidnapped twin, Hannah. So, that’s… fun? (Is this considered a spoiler? I mean, we’ve got a serial killer kidnapping teenage girls, so it’s pretty much the obvious.) Basically, graphic sexual abuse and occasional violence were used in place of actually suspenseful plotting. It reminded me a bit of The Butterfly Garden, by Dot Hutchison, except The Butterfly Garden actually managed to be spine-tingling. In short, this was not my cup of tea.

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