The Perfect Girlfriend, by Karen Hamilton (Review)


The Perfect Girlfriend
by Karen Hamilton

Genre: Thriller

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: March 26, 2019

Publisher: Graydon House

Synopsis: 

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

Juliette loves Nate.

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

They are meant to be.

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

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

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

ratingtwo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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No Exit, by Taylor Adams (Review)


No Exit
by Taylor Adams

Genre: Thriller

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: January 15, 2019

Synopsis: 

A brilliant, edgy thriller about four strangers, a blizzard, a kidnapped child, and a determined young woman desperate to unmask and outwit a vicious psychopath.

A kidnapped little girl locked in a stranger’s van. No help for miles. What would you do?

On her way to Utah to see her dying mother, college student Darby Thorne gets caught in a fierce blizzard in the mountains of Colorado. With the roads impassable, she’s forced to wait out the storm at a remote highway rest stop. Inside, are some vending machines, a coffee maker, and four complete strangers.

Desperate to find a signal to call home, Darby goes back out into the storm . . . and makes a horrifying discovery. In the back of the van parked next to her car, a little girl is locked in an animal crate.

Who is the child? Why has she been taken? And how can Darby save her?

There is no cell phone reception, no telephone, and no way out. One of her fellow travelers is a kidnapper. But which one?

Trapped in an increasingly dangerous situation, with a child’s life and her own on the line, Darby must find a way to break the girl out of the van and escape.

But who can she trust?

With exquisitely controlled pacing, Taylor Adams diabolically ratchets up the tension with every page. Full of terrifying twists and hairpin turns, No Exit will have you on the edge of your seat and leave you breathless.

rating

four

No Exit will have you balanced on the tip of a knife for the entire duration of the plot. Darby is in a mad rush home to see her dying mother at the beginning of the story, but her plans are quickly thrown off the rails when a severe snowstorm leaves her stranded at a remote rest stop. Her concerns about her mother soon take a back seat to something even more harrowing: a kidnapped child locked in the back of a van.

This novel occasionally pushes the limits when it comes to suspension of disbelief, as thrillers often do. The dominating law of the universe constructed in this story seems to be Murphy’s law, and while it sometimes lends a certain degree of predictability to the plot, often the fun lies in seeing how Darby will react and adjust in the face of each new obstacle. This is one of those books where it’s difficult not to picture yourself in the protagonist’s shoes, and while Darby occasionally has mind-numbing lapses in judgments, I’m not sure I’d fare much better when thrown so unexpectedly into a crisis like this.

The overwhelming majority of the book takes place within the confines of the remote rest stop, lending an air of claustrophobia to the story and keeping tensions high. The pacing is lightning-fast, the stake are high, and the villain is so easy to hate. No Exit is an immensely fun thriller that’s just dying to be made into a movie!

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Thank you for reading! Have you read any books that take place entirely or mostly within one room? Was that a positive or a negative for the plot? Let me know 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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