On a night flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the mysterious Lily Kintner. Sharing one too many martinis, the strangers begin to play a game of truth, revealing intimate details about themselves. Ted talks about his marriage and his wife Miranda, who he’s sure is cheating on him. But their game turns dark when Ted jokes that he could kill Miranda for what she’s done. Lily, without missing a beat, says calmly, “I’d like to help.”
You know from that description that this is going to be a thriller. I was fairly certain it would be in the vein of Gone Girl, and it certainly was.
This book takes you on a delightful rollercoaster of emotions. It’s hard to determine precisely who to root for because they’re all just so darn despicable. In a way, you’re kind of glad that they’re taking things into their own hands amongst themselves because then society won’t be burdened by dealing with it ourselves. On the other hand, there’s certainly an aspect of “look how off the rails things get when we let just any individual decide who deserves what.” That said it’s never heavy-handed. It has more of a delightful sneaky glance into disastrous lives ala a murdery Lifetime movie.
The plot is kept moving forward and twisty and full of surprises partially through alternate viewpoints (more than two). This is a technique I really enjoy when done well, and it was done quite well here. The transitions felt smooth and natural. Never cheap.
I also must say as a New England local that the author got both the logistics and the vibe of multiple New England locations right, everywhere from the ritziest Boston neighborhoods to central Massachusetts towns to rural Maine. If you want a true sense of the area and can handle some murder, definitely pick this up.
I’m not sure how I feel about how the book ended, which is what kept me from loving it. I knew where it was going by about two-thirds of the way through, and I just don’t think it was as smooth as the rest of the book. That said, I do think it ended at the right point in time (with the particular plot it was telling). It left me perfectly satisfied, unlike quite a few thrillers lately.
If you’re still looking for a quick Halloween read, pick this one up. It’ll keep you up and on the edge of your seat waiting to see who comes out on top.
4 out of 5 stars
Amy Stevenson was the biggest news story of 1995. Only fifteen years old, Amy disappeared walking home from school one day and was found in a coma three days later. Her attacker was never identified and her angelic face was plastered across every paper and nightly news segment.
Fifteen years later, Amy lies in the hospital, surrounded by 90’s Britpop posters, forgotten by the world until reporter Alex Dale stumbles across her while researching a routine story on vegetative patients.
Remembering Amy’s story like it was yesterday, she feels compelled to solve the long-cold case.
The only problem is, Alex is just as lost as Amy—her alcoholism has cost her everything including her marriage and her professional reputation.
In the hopes that finding Amy’s attacker will be her own salvation as well, Alex embarks on a dangerous investigation, suspecting someone close to Amy
I devoured this book so quickly that I forgot to mark it read in GoodReads for a few weeks. It’s a thrilling read on a lot of levels. Amy’s questionably vegetative state would give anyone chills, as would how she wound up there. Even before full details of the attack are known, everyone knows it was pretty gruesome. Alex’s “functional” alcoholism also sends chills down the spine. She’s lost almost everything, but she still drinks enormous amounts of alcohol every day. The juxtaposition of the two women is what makes the psychological thriller so thrilling. They’re both being held paralyzed in a state by an illness and any one of us could fall to either of those states.
I know the average reader is probably most interested in the mystery aspect of the thriller–the whodunit. I will say in short that it’s a well-done mystery. I had my suspicions but exactly how things ultimately went down was still enough of a surprise that I was delighted, and I thought the resolution was well-done. What I was much more fascinated by though was Alex.
A “trouble-making journalist” or a detective who drinks too much is the norm of thrillers and noir but usually that is played up as something slightly dangerous but also sexy. Here there is nothing sexy about Alex’s alcoholism. She wets the bed every night. It at first seems this is because she drinks at least one glass of water per glass of alcohol to stave off hangovers but later it’s clear it’s from her body shutting down from her alcoholism. Alex is a great example of a “functional” alcoholic. She’s holding down a job (sort of, her alcoholism stole her dream career from her), she runs every day, she’s capable of looking into this mystery of Amy. But slowly other things are revealed that makes it ever clearer that no, she’s not homeless, but she is far from functional, unless by functional you simply mean she can sort of exist in human society. She is nowhere near what she could be because of the alcohol, and she’s lost almost everything (career, husband, and more). I really liked that the reader is both compelled to respect Alex’s smarts and tenacity as a reporter but also to feel empathy and horror at how much alcoholism is stealing from her. Even if the reader doesn’t have an interest in addictions, it still makes Alex a well-rounded character. She is more than just that smart journalist. There are whole worlds going on in her own life outside of her investigation.
Overall, if you’re looking for a thriller with a twisting plot that also turns some thriller/noir conventions on their head (not least of which the fact that both leads are women), then you should pick this book up.
4 out of 5 stars
Mental Illness Advocacy (MIA) Reading Challenge
Specific illness –> Addictive Disorders
Trigger Warning/Content Note:
Contains discussions of rape and sexual assault.
When Helen agrees to swap places with her identical twin sister Ellie at the age of six, she thinks it’ll be a short fun game. But then Ellie refuses to swap back. Forced into her new identity, Helen develops a host of behavioral problems, delinquency and chronic instability. With their lives diverging sharply, one twin headed for stardom and the other locked in a spiral of addiction and mental illness, how will the deception ever be uncovered?
This book is an amazing depiction of gaslighting. Gaslighting is an insidious form of abuse where the abuser insists to the abused that reality is not in fact reality, and the abused is crazy. (For more about gaslighting, see this great information from the National Domestic Violence Hotline). This book makes gaslighting completely real and understandable for anyone, whether they’ve gone through it themselves or not. It’s easy to see immediately how poor Helen gets slowly tortured and driven mad by everyone denying to her that she is who she says she is. The author takes care not to demonize Ellie though, since it’s abundantly clear part of why Ellie doesn’t want to switch back is because their mother has pre-decided which twin will be the good twin and which the bad, and she consequently treats Helen far better than she treats Ellie. Why wouldn’t she not want to switch back?
How this childhood trauma has wounded Helen becomes more clear over the course of the book. But it’s not just a plain recounting of they switched places then Helen went crazy. The book opens with Helen trying to rebuild her life from addiction and Ellie being in a coma from a car accident. Ellie’s husband reaches out to Helen in the hopes that hearing from her twin will bring her out of it, and slowly long-held secrets reveal themselves.
I thought the whole way through the book that it was slowly building to a certain ending. Then something else came at me out of left field and I was left breathless and aching for Helen. That’s not to say it’s a tragic ending, but it is a shocking one. One that left me with a very different “bad guy” than I thought I had the whole book.
It’s a stellar read, and one of those books that I wish I was able to read for the first time again. It’s that good. Recommended to lovers of psychological thrillers and/or twin swap afficionados.
5 out of 5 stars
Book Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (Audiobook narrated by Rebecca Lowman, Cassandra Campbell, Mark Deakins, and Robertson Dean)
Libby Day testified that her brother murdered her mother and sisters as part of a Satanic cult ritual when she was just 7 years old. Twenty-five years later, running out of money, she agrees to help a group known as The Kill Club investigate the murder. Their members disagree on how actually killed her mother and sisters, and with her connections they think she can help them crack the case. Libby is sure her brother Ben did it, but money is money, and it sure beats a regular job.
This is my third Gillian Flynn novel, and I must admit it was the one I liked least. I was actually suspicious it was a first novel, as it had that feel–a lot of what works in her other novels is present but it’s less well-executed. However, it actually was published after Sharp Objects (review), so who knows what happened here. Regardless, while I found the mystery intriguing and I definitely listened to the audiobook every chance I got, the plot is not as tightly told nor is the central mystery as believable as it is in her other works.
What worked the best for me was Libby, a childhood survivor of a gruesome murder, as some sort of modern day noiresque private investigator. A woman PI with a personal connection to the murders was just delicious to read. I’d love to see more of that in literature. I also liked seeing a thriller that included a queer person (her aunt is a lesbian) without that being used as a way of othering someone strange or being attached to a perpetrator. Her aunt is a bystander in every sense of the word. She is never a suspect, she provides Libby with a home environment after the murders, and her sexual orientation is just a part of who she is, not a plot point. I also liked the changing perspectives among Libby present, Libby past, her mother, and her brother. I thought it added to the mystery since seeing these other perspectives did not immediately reveal precisely what was going on. I also thought it made it harder to judge her mother than it might be if the reader hadn’t had her perspective.
However, this was the first time that I was both sure who the perpetrator was quite early in a Flynn novel and also that I was disappointed by who the murderer is. I thought there was nothing creative or exciting about it, and honestly it kind of bugged me a little bit. There is also one trope that shows up here that bothered me. It could be a bit spoilery (not too bad) so skip the next paragraph if you’re concerned about that.
Libby at the end of the book ends up in a scenario that is very similar to the first murders that she survived. It’s basically a trauma survivor finding that all their fears were right by improbably having almost the same scenario happen a second time. I think it was supposed to be scary, but it just irritated me.
I also must say that I felt the whole Satanic scare thing was very dated. Yes, I get it that was a huge thing in the 80s and this is a story about murders that happened 25 years ago but something about it just made the whole book feel dated to me. I couldn’t get into it partly because I was certain that the book would ultimately reveal Satanism had nothing to do with it, since that’s just the way that plot point always goes. I suppose you could sum up most of my issues with this book as the plot was too predictable to be much fun.
Overall, if you’re a big Gillian Flynn fan and just want to experience some thrills, this book will provide some of them with the dash of strong female characters you’ve come to expect. However, do expect to be a bit disappointed by a more predictable plot and twist that isn’t all that twisty.
3 out of 5 stars
On Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary, Nick comes home from working at the bar he co-owns with his sister to find his wife gone. The door is wide open, furniture is overturned, and the police say there is evidence that blood was cleaned up from the floor of the kitchen. Eyes slowly start to turn toward Nick as the cause of her disappearance, while Nick slowly starts to wonder just how well he really knows his wife.
I’d been wanting to read this since it first came out, but when the previews for the movie came out, I knew I also wanted to see the movie, and I just had to read the book first. Because one should always read the book first. A friend head me talking about it and offered to loan me her copy, and I flew through the book in just a couple of days. Even though I had guessed whodunit before I even started to read it, I was still swept up in a heart-racing read.
There have been many reviews of Gone Girl, so I am going to try to focus my review in on why I personally loved it, and also address a couple of the controversies about the book. Any spoilers will be marked and covered toward the end of the review. Please note that this review is entirely about the book and does not address the movie at all.
The tone of the book sucked me in from the beginning. How the book alternates between Nick’s current life and Amy’s diary of the early years of their relationship clearly showed that the relationship started out strong and fell apart, and I wanted to see how something so romantic could have gone so awry. Amy’s diary entries simultaneously sound feminine and realistic. She swears to the same extent that my friends and I do, and I loved seeing that in romantic, feminine diary entries. Nick’s portions, in contrast, perfectly demonstrated the measured response to a disappearance that could easily happen if a relationship was on the rocks a bit at the time. Nick’s reactions felt very realistic to me, and I appreciated it.
Even though I predicted the whodunit, I still found the end of the book to be thrilling, as exactly how it happened was not something I was able to predict.
If you don’t want any spoilers and just want to know why you should read the book, let me just say that anyone who has been in a long-term relationship will find the complex relationship between Nick and Amy frightening and chilling and will be left giving their partner side-eye periodically throughout the book. If you like the idea of a book that makes you freaked out at the thought of how truly awry a relationship can go, then you will enjoy this thriller.
On to the spoilers.
This book has been accused of misogyny for three reasons. Nick’s internal dialogue, the character of Amy, and the fact that Amy falsely accuses an ex-boyfriend of rape. I did not find this book to be misogynistic at all, and I will now address each of these points.
Nick clearly struggles with how he relates to women due to the fact that his dad is a misogynistic bastard. It is realistic for a good person to struggle with bad internal dialogue due to hearing such dialogue from a parent. This is a very real thing that happens, and that people go to therapy for. The very fact that Nick fights against this internal dialogue shows that he knows that it’s wrong and is trying to win out over it. Just because one character has misogynistic internal dialogue does not make an entire book misogynistic nor does it make that character misogynistic. It just makes the book realistic. In fact, I find the fact that Nick ultimately defeats his internal misogynistic dialogue by realizing that it’s ok to hate women who are actually horrible but not all women to be really progressive. Some women are horrible people. Nick learns to turn his internal “women are bitches” dialogue into “Amy is a bitch,” and I think that’s awesome. Now, this point is related to the next point, the character of Amy.
There is at least one strain of feminism that thinks that it’s anti-woman to ever portray any women as bad or evil. There is also the strain of feminism that just says men and women are equal and should be treated equally. I am a member of the latter portion. It is equally harmful to never want to admit to women’s capability for evil as it is to say all women are bad or all women are childlike or etc… There are bad women in the world. There are evil women in the world. Women are not automatically nurturing, women are not automatically good at mothering, women are not automatically goddesses. Women are capable of the entire spectrum of evil to good, just like men are. It is unrealistic to act like women are incapable of evil, when we in fact are. This is why I find the portrayal of Amy as a narcissistic sociopath to be awesome. Because there are women just like her out there in the world. I was continually reminded of one I have known personally while I was reading the depiction of Amy. The patriarchy hurts men and women, and one way that it does so is with the assumption that women are incapable of evil. Nick and Amy’s other victims are unable to get people to believe them about Amy because Amy is able to externally project the virginal good girl image that the patriarchy expects of her. They don’t expect her to be evil. She appears to be a card-carrying, patriarchy-approved cool girl, therefore she is not evil and Nick and the others are delusional. It’s an eloquent depiction of how the patriarchy can hurt men, and I think that a lot of people are misinterpreting that a misogynistic slant.
Finally, the false rape accusation. Yes, it is extremely unlikely to happen. (An analysis in 2010 of 10 years of rape allegations found that 5.9% were able to proven to be false and 35.3% were proven to be true. The remaining 58.8% fell into a gray area of not being proven either way. Source) However, this means that false allegations of rape do indeed happen. 5.9% is not zero, and this isn’t even taking into account the gray cases that couldn’t be proven either way. Just because we have a problem with rape in this country and with rape culture does not mean that every accusation of rape is actually true. Just as not all men are rapists, not all women are truth-tellers. And let’s not forget that men can be raped, and women can be falsely accused of rape as well. Amy’s false rape accusation also fits well within her character development. As a teenager, she falsely accused a friend of stalking her. Then she accuses this man she dated in her 20s of raping her. Then she frames her husband for her murder. It’s a clear downward spiral, and the false rape accusation, complete with faking restraint marks on her arm, is a realistic warm-up to her insane attempt at framing her husband for her own murder. It fits within the character. It is not a malicious, useless, throwaway plot point. It fits who Amy is, and real life statistics support that it could indeed happen.
All of these aspects of Amy and Nick and Amy’s relationship are part of what made me love the book. I am tired in thrillers of so often seeing only men as the sociopathic evil. I have known women to be sociopaths in real life and in the news, and I like seeing that represented in a thriller. I also appreciate the fact that Nick is by no stretch of the imagination an innocent golden boy. He has some nasty internal thoughts, and he was cheating on Amy. And yet I was still able to feel sympathy for the cheating bastard because he gets so twisted up in Amy’s web. It takes some really talented writing to get me to sympathize with a cheater at all, so well done, Gillian Flynn.
Finally, some people really don’t like the end of the book. They wanted Amy to get caught or someone to die or something. I thought the ending of the book was the most chilling of all. Nick is unable to find out a way to escape Amy, so he rationalizes out their relationship to himself (she makes me try harder to be a better person or face her wrath), and ultimately chooses to stay in the incredibly abusive relationship for the sake of their child when he finds out she was pregnant. It is realistic that Nick is concerned that if he divorces her he won’t be able to prove anything, she may falsely accuse him of things, and he won’t end up able to see his child. This is something people on both ends of divorced worry about, and Nick has proof that Amy is unafraid to fake major crimes just to get even with him. It is so much more chilling to think of Nick being trapped in this toxic relationship, justifying it to himself along the way, in an attempt to protect their child. Bone. Chilling. Because it could, can, and does happen.
Overall, the book is an excellent depiction of how the patriarchy hurts men as well as women, depicts a chilling female sociopath, and manages to be thrilling even if you are able to predict the twist.
Recommended to thriller fans looking for something different but don’t be surprised if you end up giving your significant other funny looks or asking them reassurance seeking questions for a few days.
5 out of 5 stars
Annie O’Sullivan extremely forcefully declares in her first therapy session that she doesn’t want her therapist to talk back to her; she just wants her to listen. And so, through multiple sessions, she slowly finds a safe space to recount her horrible abduction from an open house she was running as an up-and-rising realtor, her year spent as the prisoner of her abductor, and of her struggles both to deal with her PTSD now that she’s free again and to deal with the investigation into her abduction.
I was intrigued by the concept of this book. Yes, it’s another abduction story, but wrapping it in the therapy sessions after she escapes was an idea I had not seen before. So when I saw this on sale for the kindle, I snatched it up. I’m glad I did, because this is a surprisingly edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Stevens deals with the potential issue of back-and-forth with the therapist by having Annie say in her first session that in order to feel safe talking about what happened to her, she needs the therapist to say very little back to her. It is acknowledged that the therapist says some things to Annie, but it appears that she waits to talk until the end of the session when Annie is done talking. What the therapist says isn’t recorded but Annie does sometimes respond to what she suggested in later sessions. This set-up has the potential to be clunky, but Stevens handled it quite eloquently. It always reads smoothly.
The plot itself starts out as a basic abducted/escaped one, with most of the thriller aspects of the first half of the book coming from slowly finding out everything that happened to Annie when she was abducted. The second half is where the plot really blew me away, though. The investigation into her kidnapping turns extremely exciting and terrifying. I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice to say that I wasn’t expecting most of the thrills to come from the investigation after the kidnapping and yet they did.
Annie is well-developed. Her PTSD is written with a deep understanding of it. For instance, she both needs human connection and is (understandably) terrified of it, so she pushes people away. Stevens shows Annie’s PTSD in every way, from how she talks to her therapist to how she behaves now to subtle comparisons to how she used to be before she was traumatized.
Other characters are well-rounded enough to seem like real people, including her abductor, yet it also never seems like Annie is describing them with more information than she would logically have.
I do want to take just a moment to let potential readers know that there are graphic, realistic descriptions of rape. Similarly, the end of the book may be triggering for some. I cannot say why without revealing what happens but suffice to say that if triggers are an issue for you in your recovery from trauma, you may want to wait until you are further along in your recovery and feel strong enough to handle potentially upsetting realistic descriptions of trauma.
Overall, this is a strong thriller with a creative story-telling structure. Those who enjoy abduction themed thrillers will find this one unique enough to keep them on the edge of their seat. Those with an interest in PTSD depicted in literature will find this one quite realistic and appreciate the inclusion of therapy sessions in the presentation.
5 out of 5 stars
Tom Starks has not been the same since his wife, Renee, was brutally murdered with a baseball bat in a parking lot. He’s been struggling for the last three years to raise her daughter, who he adopted when he married Renee. When Renee’s killer is released after a retrial finds insufficient evidence to hold him, Tom becomes obsessed with dealing out justice himself.
I was so excited that two of my 2014 accepted review copies fit into the RIP IX reading challenge! This book’s title jumped out at me immediately when it was submitted, and I had been saving it up specifically to read in the fall. I’m glad to say that this thriller does not disappoint, although it goes in a bit of a different direction than I originally anticipated. And that’s a good thing.
The main character is not who you usually see from a thriller with a person seeking violent justice. He’s bookish. Rather weak and simpering. Afraid of his own brother-in-law, who used to be a boxer. But he was madly in love with Renee, and so when her supposed killer is released, he becomes obsessed with making him dead. The catch is, Tom quickly figures out that maybe he’s not cut out to do the killing himself, and that’s where the book gets unique and interesting. I was expecting from the title and description to see a typical bad-ass main character chase down a killer around the country (or the world) and ultimately get his revenge. That is not at all the story we get, and yet, it is still thrilling. There is still violence and chase scenes, it’s just they aren’t the ones you usually see in a book like this. And that helps it. That helps keep the thrill level up, since it’s so much harder to predict what’s going to come next. Tom, with his weakness and inability to parent well, is almost an anti-hero, and yet we keep rooting for him because his grief for his wife is so powerful and relatable. It’s strong characterization and plotting mixed into one.
The scenes where Tom is seen teaching The Count of Monte Cristo at the community college where he works slow the thrill down. They feel a bit too aware of themselves, with comparison between The Count of Monte Cristo and the plot in this book. Plus scenes of classroom literary analysis simply slow the thrilling plot of the book down. The one scene where it really works is one scene in which Tom is freaking out about his own life so much that he fails at teaching well. This establishes that Tom’s life is starting to get out of control. Overall, though, there are just too many scenes of him teaching for a thriller.
The setting of Baltimore is interesting, and I was glad to see that it wasn’t set in the more stereotypical Washington D.C. Aymar writes Baltimore beautifully. I’ve never been there, but I truly felt as if I was there, seeing both the run-down aspects, as well as the beauty. I often end up skimming over setting descriptions, but Aymar’s drew me in.
The plot has just enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing, but not so many that the reader feels jerked around. Also, the plot twists stay rooted in reality. I could truly see this happening in the real world, and that makes a thriller more thrilling.
Overall, this is a unique thriller, with its choice to cast the opposite of a bad-ass in the role of the main character. This grounds the typical revenge plot into reality, lends itself to more interesting, unique plot twists, and has the interesting aspect of a flawed, nearly anti-hero main character that the reader still roots for. Recommended to thriller fans looking for something different and those interested in first dipping their toe into the thriller genre.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review