Stolen Things, by R.H. Herron (Review)


Stolen Things
by R.H. Herron

Genre: Thriller

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: August 20, 2019

Publisher: Dutton

Synopsis: 

A sensational crime, a missing teen, and a mother and daughter with no one to trust but themselves come together in this shocking debut thriller by R. H. Herron.

“Mama? Help me.”

Laurie Ahmadi has worked as a 911 police dispatcher in her quiet Northern California town for nearly two decades. She considers the department her family; her husband, Omid, is its first Arab American chief, and their teenaged daughter, Jojo, has grown up with the force. So when Laurie catches a 911 call and, to her horror, it’s Jojo, the whole department springs into action.

Jojo, drugged, disoriented, and in pain, doesn’t remember how she ended up at the home of Kevin Leeds, a pro football player famous for his on-the-field activism and his work with the CapB—“Citizens Against Police Brutality”—movement. She doesn’t know what happened to Kevin’s friend and trainer, whose beaten corpse is also discovered in the house. And she has no idea where her best friend Harper, who was with her earlier in the evening, could be.

But when Jojo begins to dive into Harper’s social media to look for clues to her whereabouts, Jojo uncovers a shocking secret that turns everything she knew about Harper—and the police department—on its head. With everything they thought they could rely on in question, Laurie and Jojo begin to realize that they can’t trust anyone to find Harper except themselves . . . and time is running out.

ratingthree

My thanks to NetGalley and Dutton for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

This book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. It’s compulsively readable and fast-paced, but the twist at the end is a bit much to swallow. I loved the alternating perspectives. “Mom who is practically married to her job” alternating with “teen daughter who the mother doesn’t know half as well as she thinks” is a little overdone in the genre at this point, but I thought it worked really well here.

There is a wide divide between the two POV characters, not just for typical “angsty teens are unreachable” reasons, but because Jojo is at a point in her life where she’s figuring out her own politics and value system, and they don’t align with those of her parents. Mystery/thriller novels are best, in my opinion, when they’re not driven solely by the mystery; Stolen Things has lots of interesting relationship dynamics to keep the story interesting.

One of the predominant themes of the book is police brutality, and that is part of what’s driving a wedge between Jojo and her parents, who both work in law enforcement (her father as a police chief and her mother, a former police officer as a 911 dispatcher). Also prominent in the story is an exploration of rape culture and victim blaming. While including social issues like these in a story can be admirable, I’m not sure that a fast-paced thriller is really up to the task of treating these topics with the gravity that would be necessary for them to feel like a natural part of the story. While the book is not categorized as Young Adult and is a bit too dark to fit into the genre, some of the passages which centered on social issues had a very YA feel to them.

Overall, this was definitely a page turner, but some sections felt awkward and fell flat. Stolen Things was worth a read and may be a great choice for fans of authors like Mary Kubica and Megan Miranda.

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The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware (Review)

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The Turn of the Key
by Ruth Ware

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: August 6, 2019

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Synopsis: 

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

ratingfour

My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

The Turn of the Key is Ruth Ware’s fifth novel, and I won’t lie… her work has been a little hit and miss for me. I was so looking forward to her prior book, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, and ended up finding a bit predictable and boring. The Turn of the Key is Ware at her very best; I couldn’t put this book down! The basic plot points (not to mention the title) suggest that the book takes heavy inspiration from The Turn of the Screw, but the story has been thoroughly modernized, and knowing the ending of the classic novella won’t give away the ending of this one. Ware will keep you guessing.

The book takes place mainly in the ancient house owned by the family that hires the protagonist, Rowan, as a nanny. The environment has the Gothic vibe typical for a Ware novel, but there’s an interesting dynamic introduced by all the upgrades the owners have made to the home, converting the old house into a smart home, with lights, cameras, and everything down to the coffee maker controlled by an app.

The contrast between the old fashioned home and all the tech creates a kind of dissonance that’s off-putting for Rowan and creates a sense of tension. It also introduces some ambiguity to the creepy situations that follow; are the flickering lights being controlled by spirits who want Rowan to leave, someone with access to the app intentionally messing with her, or just a glitch in the system?

The story itself is told in the form of a letter which Rowan writes to a solicitor from a jail cell, asking for his help. We don’t find out until late in the story what exactly has led to her arrest, but she insists on her innocence. This was the perfect format to tel this story, because it leaves the possibility of an unreliable narrator wide open. Rowan obviously has a huge vested interest in how this story was told, and I spent a lot of the book wondering how much of Rowan’s story to believe.

My main quibble with the book was probably the hint of romance in it, but I’m personally a hard sell when it comes to romances. Nothing about the story line felt particularly awful, but it just felt a bit unnecessary and shoe-horned into the book.

Overall, this was definitely one of Ware’s strongest novels. After Mrs. Westaway, I was a little hesitant about picking it up, and I’m so glad I gave it a shot!

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The Perfect Girlfriend, by Karen Hamilton (Review)


The Perfect Girlfriend
by Karen Hamilton

Genre: Thriller

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: March 26, 2019

Publisher: Graydon House

Synopsis: 

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

Juliette loves Nate.

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

They are meant to be.

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

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

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

ratingtwo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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. . .

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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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