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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Review – The Au Pair, by Emma Rous


The Au Pair
by Emma Rous

Genre: Mystery

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: January 8, 2019

Publisher: Berkley Books

Synopsis: 

A grand estate, terrible secrets, and a young woman who bears witness to it all. If V. C. Andrews and Kate Morton had a literary love child, Emma Rous’ The Au Pair would be it.

Seraphine Mayes and her twin brother Danny were born in the middle of summer at their family’s estate on the Norfolk coast. Within hours of their birth, their mother threw herself from the cliffs, the au pair fled, and the village thrilled with whispers of dark cloaks, changelings, and the aloof couple who drew a young nanny into their inner circle.

Now an adult, Seraphine mourns the recent death of her father. While going through his belongings, she uncovers a family photograph that raises dangerous questions. It was taken on the day the twins were born, and in the photo, their mother, surrounded by her husband and her young son, is beautifully dressed, smiling serenely, and holding just one baby.

Who is the child and what really happened that day?

One person knows the truth, if only Seraphine can find her.

ratingfour

The publisher compares The Au Pair to the work of V. C. Andrews, and with the gothic horror vibe of the story, I get where that comes from. Honestly, though, I found myself thinking more of Lifetime movies while reading. It’s definitely the epitome of guilty pleasure reading, and Rous has no issues with straining the limits of credulity of her readers.

The plot is fun and the atmosphere is mildly creepy, particularly in the flashback scenes to Laura’s timeline. I definitely think that of the two timelines, Laura’s story was stronger than Seraphine’s. Watching things spiral out of control at Summerbourne due in large part to Ruth’s selfishness and instability was infinitely more engaging than watching Seraphine learn about these events years after the face.

The overall story is suspenseful but does feel rather shallow. Rous attempts to do something deeper by exploring themes of identity and family (i.e., the question of whether blood matters more than who raised you) but never really gets anywhere meaningful or evocative in that regard. Seraphine spends most of the book questioning whether her parents were really her parents at all, whether her supposed twin brother is even related to her. With the closeness of a twin relationship in particular, family is very central to Seraphine’s sense of identity. There’s never really any gradual shift in this regard. Blood matters very much to Seraphine… until it simply doesn’t anymore.

Overall, this was a fun read with loads of suspense and mystery but with twists that can border on the ridiculous at times. The Au Pair is the ultimate brain candy: the perfect book to binge when you’re looking for an easy, entertaining read.

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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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