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, 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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Review – Silent All These Years, by T. A. Massa

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Silent All These Years 
by T. A. Massa

Genre: Thriller

Length: 203 Pages

Release date: September 11, 2018

Synopsis: 

A broken daughter’s search for the truth unwinds a spiraling journey of panic, lust, and murder in this manipulative thriller from debut author T. A. Massa.

Melanie Stewart has just been left ten million dollars by a man she never knew. Should she accept the money? What if it means her mother, Marilyn, who died when she was only three years old, was murdered by the man who left it to her?

Melanie is trapped with crippling anxiety after the loss of her mother at a young age and the fatal stabbing of her fiancé on the night of their engagement.

When she discovers she has been written into the will of Roger Andrews, a name linked to the mysterious death of her mother, Melanie must trudge down a path of buried memories, reliving painful heartache, all while attempting to restart her life and trust a new admirer.

Told from the alternating perspectives of Melanie’s investigation and Marilyn’s last weeks leading up to her death, the clues unravel one by one, leaving you guessing until the final climax. Who should Melanie trust? What happened to Marilyn all those years ago?

rating

twoI received an ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to T. A. Massa. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the author. 

Silent All These Years has one of my biggest pet peeves for a thriller: the whole plot depends on the protagonist being ridiculously, unbearably gullible. The villain is painfully obvious from the moment they appear in the story, and Melanie ignores red flag after giant, waving red flag as she walks blissfully into danger. When the threat is so obvious (not just from the reader’s perspective, mind you, but when there are countless things that should truly give the protagonist pause) and the protagonist remains so oblivious, it becomes difficult to get invested in the character.

You know that moment in a bad horror movie where the person being chased runs up the stairs instead of out of the house to call for help? That’s what this whole book felt like this for me. What are you doing, Melanie? What is going through your head? Do you want to get murdered, Melanie? Because this is how you get murdered . 

I also had a difficult time empathizing with the trauma that has left Melanie with PTSD, mainly because the deceased fiancé never feels like a fleshed-out character. There are a few sparse flashbacks to when Nathan was alive in Melanie’s chapters, but never enough to give the reader any kind of an idea who he was as a person. Nathan exists in the story solely as a means to explain Melanie’s fragile state. The problem is that without a clear picture of Nathan and his relationship with Melanie, it feels very hollow. The readers are not made to feel Melanie’s pain, we are simply told that she is in pain.

I did enjoy some of the chapters which were written from Melanie’s mother’s perspective, however. Marilyn’s love for her daughter is palpable and tender. Her last days aren’t spent mourning her own impeding death, but the realization that she won’t be there for her young daughter anymore.

The story is fast-paced and does have some unexpected twists in regards to the mystery of the mother’s death. Fans of Riley Sager or Mary Kubika may find this an entertaining read.

You can purchase the Kindle edition of Silent All These Years here. 

Thank you for reading! Have you read Silent All These Years? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
What’s most important for you in a thriller?

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Review – The Woman in the Window, by A. J. Finn

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The Woman in the Window
by A. J. Finn

Genre: Mystery, Thriller

Length: 429 Pages

Release date: January 2, 2018

Publisher: William Morrow

Synopsis: 

Anna Fox lives alone—a recluse in her New York City home, unable to venture outside. She spends her day drinking wine (maybe too much), watching old movies, recalling happier times . . . and spying on her neighbors.

Then the Russells move into the house across the way: a father, a mother, their teenage son. The perfect family. But when Anna, gazing out her window one night, sees something she shouldn’t, her world begins to crumble—and its shocking secrets are laid bare.

What is real? What is imagined? Who is in danger? Who is in control? In this diabolically gripping thriller, no one—and nothing—is what it seems.

rating

four

You can hear someone’s secrets and their fears and their wants, but remember that these exist alongside other people’s secrets and fears, people living in the same room.

This book was so hyped-up; I was seeing it all over the blogosphere for weeks and I was so excited to read it. Perhaps my expectations were too high; I liked this book, but I didn’t love it.

The Woman in the Window deals with some heavy issues: substance abuse, agoraphobia, and depression, to name a few, but the overall vibe is still rather fun. Anna Fox, the agoraphobic protagonist, copes with her isolation in two major ways: spying on the neighbors and indulging in old, black and white movies. The story is filled with references to classic Hitchcock films like Vertigo and Rear Window, both in the form of direct mentions as well as similarities in stories.

The Woman in the Window almost feels like a love letter to classic thrillers. If you’ve seen and loved many of these films, you’ll probably eat these references up. If you haven’t, they can start to feel almost excessive, in a way that’s reminiscent of the copious 80’s pop culture references in Ready Player One. (Although I’m not sure any book has quite as many superfluous references as Ready Player One does; let’s hope not, anyway.)

The climax felt a little bit cheesy, albeit probably intentionally so, as it again felt like an allusion to old horror films. And when I say cheesy, I mean there was a grandiose villain speech wherein they explained how/why they had done what they’d done. It felt a bit silly in a way that broke the tension at a point that could have been a truly spine-tingling scene.

There were a couple of major twists in this book, both of which seemed like they had a proper amount of foreshadowing in retrospect. (I suspected one twist ahead of time, and the other seemed obvious to me once it had been revealed.) The Woman in the Window may not shock you, but I can guarantee you’ll have fun reading along to see if your suspicions will be confirmed. Pop some popcorn for this one; it’s a quick roller coaster of a read!

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Review – Good Me, Bad Me, by Ali Land

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Good Me, Bad Me
by Ali Land

Genre: Psychological Thriller

Length: 338 Pages

Release date: January 12, 2017

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Good Me Bad Me is dark, compelling, voice-driven psychological suspense by debut author Ali Land.

How far does the apple really fall from the tree?

Milly’s mother is a serial killer. Though Milly loves her mother, the only way to make her stop is to turn her in to the police. Milly is given a fresh start: a new identity, a home with an affluent foster family, and a spot at an exclusive private school.

But Milly has secrets, and life at her new home becomes complicated. As her mother’s trial looms, with Milly as the star witness, Milly starts to wonder how much of her is nature, how much of her is nurture, and whether she is doomed to turn out like her mother after all.

When tensions rise and Milly feels trapped by her shiny new life, she has to decide: Will she be good? Or is she bad? She is, after all, her mother’s daughter.

ratingthree

Good Me, Bad Me hinges on Milly’s lingering guilt over her mother’s actions and the nature/nurture question: is Milly, bound to her serial killer mother through genetics and also environment, destined to become just like her? The book opens shortly after Milly has turned her mother into the police. She is living with her foster father / psychologist and preparing for the upcoming trial against her mother.

The brain of a psychopath is different from most, I’ve weighed up my chances. Eighty per cent genetics, twenty per cent environment. Me. One hundred per cent fucked.

I really liked the narration style; the story is told in first person from Milly’s point of view and the sometimes disjointed sentence structure does a good job of relaying her mental state. Every flash of anger or dark thought causes ripples in Milly’s psyche: is this the beginning of becoming like Her?

As the main character, Milly was obviously the most developed, but some of the secondary characters felt lacking and one-dimensional. Her foster father is nurturing, her foster mother is in a constant drugged-up fog, and her foster sister is a bully. Her real mother, whose running commentary is constantly in Milly’s thoughts, takes on the air of a venomous spider looming overhead in a web. Perhaps the one-dimensional portrayal of everyone around her was an intentional writing choice meant to reflect Milly’s self absorption and shallow understanding of other people, but in any case, it felt like the novel suffered for it a bit.

The mother, dubbed the Peter Pan Killer by the media for her fondness of killing little boys, was sufficiently creepy despite being on the sidelines throughout the book. Milly’s memories of her mother’s “life lessons” are more than enough to paint her as a villain. Speaking of the mother, a novel about a serial killer who tortures and kills children could have easily felt overly sordid and tasteless. Land never goes into detail about what was done to each of the children, however, relying instead on implanting the mother’s voice into Milly’s head, encouraging her to manipulate and hurt, to make the reader squirm.

Being inside Milly’s head and watching her struggle to find a moral compass after years of abuse at the hands of a monster and her conflicted feelings about the mother she still loves on some level made for a really engaging read. While I found the narrative somewhat lacking and a little too predictable, Milly herself was intensely interesting.

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Review – Before I Go to Sleep, by S. J. Watson

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Before I Go to Sleep
by S. J. Watson

Genre: Mystery / Thriller

Length: 359 Pages

Release date: June 14, 2011

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Christine wakes up every morning in an unfamiliar bed with an unfamiliar man. She looks in the mirror and sees an unfamiliar, middle-aged face. And every morning, the man she has woken up with must explain that he is Ben, he is her husband, she is forty-seven years old, and a terrible accident two decades earlier decimated her ability to form new memories.

Every day, Christine must begin again the reconstruction of her past. And the closer she gets to the truth, the more unbelievable it seems.

ratingtwo

Before I Go to Sleep was a book with an interesting premise but a failure in execution. Christine’s nightly memory wipes mean that she starts each day as a blank slate (at least in terms of the last twenty or so years of her life) and spends all of her time trying to fill in the blanks of those lost years. The problem? This becomes repetitive and dull quite fast, and the reader sees plot twists coming ages before the protagonist does.

It becomes clear very early on in the story that something is very wrong. Christine finds a note which she’s left for herself, warning her not to trust her husband, Ben. Despite this, as she keeps track of everything she learns in her journal and catches him in lie after lie, Christine makes seemingly endless excuses for Ben. He must be lying to her to protect her. He must have a good reason for not wanting her to get medical treatment to help with her memory. He must love her. Christine, we need to talk. I know you’re going through a lot of trauma, but come on. If something feels ominous as hell, listen to your gut. Or if you can’t listen to your gut, maybe listen to very clearly worded messages from yourself. 

The pacing in this also just felt very off. I think the story the author wanted to tell here could have been adequately told in a novella. The slow, creeping pace was, I think, meant to slowly build a sense of dread before the climax at the end, but it was really just boring because the resolution became obvious too early. You’ll spend half the book waiting for events you’ve already guessed to finally play out on the page.

Major spoilers for the section ahead! 

The entire plot hinges on one key fact: the man Christine believes to be her husband, Ben… (gasp!) isn’t Ben! He’s actually a man with whom she’d briefly had an affair, and he became overly attached in the violent, stalker ex-boyfriend sense. He is the reason for the injuries which led to her memory loss. After she spent years in several different hospitals and her husband left her, Not Ben took it upon himself to pose as Ben and check her out of the inpatient facility.

Despite the fact that this is an amnesiac patient who can’t identify her own husband, apparently no one in this healthcare facility felt the need to check any form of identification on the man who decided to take her home. I don’t work in healthcare, but that sounds like… not how that would work. Can I get a sequel with the lawsuit where Christine makes millions of the hospital that sent her home with her stalker, no questions asked? Because I need that sequel. Christine deserves it.

One last issue, and it’s a biggie: Christine’s memory issues are basically magically cured when she recovers the memory of the attack which caused the problem. (Her doctor makes a comment about how she may not actually be cured, but the overall vibe is very much that everything is going to be Just Fine now!) There’s a kind of throwaway line about how, since an initial trauma caused her problems, it’s certainly plausible that another trauma could have cured them. I… have no words for that, honestly.

Again, I really loved the premise for this book, which sadly made the shoddy execution all the more disappointing. This book needed half the length and maybe a third of the foreshadowing that it had to make it a truly good read.

Thank you for reading! What’s a book you’ve read lately that had a painfully obvious plot twist? Were you still able to enjoy the book? Discuss in the comments!

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