Book Review: You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

Devon Knox is a teenage gymnastics prodigy. Her parents, coaches, and gymnastics gym have dedicated all their resources to helping her become an Olympic-level athlete. When a tragic death shakes their insular gymnastics community, rumors and suspicion begin tearing everything apart. As it becomes clear just how many secrets are hidden in this small community, Katie, Devon’s mother, finds herself unwillingly dragged closer and closer to the truth.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I am pretty much entirely over the psychological thriller genre right now. I bought this book through the Book of the Month club a while ago, and hadn’t been able to bring myself to read it until now.

I’m very glad that I did. This is a psychological thriller done right. Abbott skillfully weaves the Knox family around one another and around their friends, and the author does a wonderful job of infusing nearly every interaction with a sense of menace.

This is a story about obsession, but not in the way you would expect. The goal of getting Devon to the Olumpics has consumed everyone in her orbit. When the unexpected occurs, it is unsettling to watch how this carefully constructed group begins to fray at the seems.

Psychological thriller fans will obviously enjoy this book. But even those who aren’t such big fans of this genre, or (like me) needed a break, will find Abbott’s portrayal of obsession and paranoia well worth the read.

Book Review: The Exes’ Revenge by Jo Jakeman

The Exes’ Revenge by Jo Jakeman

The Blurb:

A wickedly dark debut thriller about three women who’ve all been involved with the same man and realize the one thing they have in common is that they all want revenge against him…

Divorces are often messy, and Imogen’s is no exception. Phillip Rochester is controlling, abusive, and determined to make things as difficult as possible. When he shows up without warning demanding that Imogen move out of their house by the end of the month or he’ll sue for sole custody of their young son, Imogen is ready to snap.

In a moment of madness, Imogen does something unthinkable–something that puts her in control for the first time in years. She’s desperate to protect her son and to claim authority over her own life.

But she wasn’t expecting both Phillip’s ex-wife and new girlfriend to get tangled up in her plans. These three very different women–and unlikely allies–reluctantly team up to take revenge against a man who has wronged them all.

I wasn’t expecting to like this book as much as I did. About a quarter of the way in, I was ready to give up, chalk it up to another psychological thriller looking to hit the same buttons as countless other ones before. Then, the plot takes a hard left-hand turn and I found myself no longer in the gray muck of psychological thrillerville, but in the sparkly, colorful, oversaturated world of a pulp revenge story.

After a manner of speaking. The Exes’ Revenge lacks the gratuitous violence of the best pulp, but it is nonetheless a fast-paced story of revenge and unexpected consequences. The story follows the strengths and weaknesses of three very different women. They all have the same problem, but all have different priorities and goals, and all will go about wreaking revenge in their own way. There is something supremely satisfying in seeing a justly deserved revenge story play out.

So psychological thriller lovers will find getting into this story easy as falling down the stairs. But even those who aren’t thrilled with the genre (ha) can enjoy this book. Revenge is sweet, after all.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

Hanna is nearly perfect, at least according to her daddy. So what if she still isn’t speaking at age seven? She’s clearly very intelligent, and more than capable of communicating in her own way. Those schools she’s been expelled from? They just didn’t understand her. Suzette, Hanna’s mother suspects something is wrong. Her precocious child is displaying worrying tendencies towards manipulation and violence. While her husband remains blind to Hanna’s problems, Suzette begins to suspect she may be the target of Hanna’s wrath.

Let me say at the start that my interpretation of the book may be a bit different from most. I am emphatically childfree, don’t really care for children in any case, and tend to regard most of them as tiny little psychopaths until they reach their midtwenties. Am I justified in this point of view? Probably not. But that’s the mindset I’m coming from when reading this book.

And it was nightmarish. The book is great, don’t get me wrong. It is tightly written, and the alternating points of view between Suzette and Hanna let us truly get to know the central characters. I had to take a break from the book about 100 pages in because it was keeping me up at night. The utter despair and hopelessness of Suzette’s situation is wrenching. She is trying (though imperfectly) to do right by her daughter, though years of abnormal and worrying behavior from Hanna have made her a bit ambivalent about motherhood. Compound this with her husband’s need to see only the perfect, upper-middle class family he desires, and Suzette is entirely alone to deal with her daughter. This I find terrifying: when dealing with mental and behavioral abnormalities in childhood, it is generally left to the mother to wonder where she went wrong, and what she could have done differently. And in all cases, motherhood is a condition with no escape. Someone may regret bringing a child into the world, but there are few socially acceptable ways to divorce oneself from parenthood, especially when being “a good mother” is considered the epitome of female (and especially middle class) success.

Well, enough ranting. I did, obviously, pick the book back up (and finished the remainder in one sitting). In the interests of keeping this review spoiler-free, I’m going to say little about the latter part of the book, but I will say that I was surprised by the direction the story took.

In sum, this book is a nuanced look at motherhood and psychopathy, at the loneliness of being a stay at home mother, and the frustration of being an atypical child. This book intimately describes the horror of finding out that, rather than the sweet, beautiful child you may have dreamed about, you have given birth to a monster, and are now tethered to its side.

I’d be curious to see what more maternally-minded people thought of his book? We’re their sympathies (like mine) fully with Suzette? Or do they see something redeeming in Hanna? Do they feel the horror as “that could have been me”? Or does the horror lie in “Suzette should have done x,y,z”? I would love to hear your thoughts, feel free to leave me a comment or two!

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

It’s hard to be a single mom in London, but Louise feels like she might have lucked out when she meets a handsome, interesting man on a night out at the bar. Then, come Monday, she discovers her new boss–her new, married boss is none other than the man from the bar. Vowing not to take it further than a drunken kiss at a bar, Louise’s life gets more complicated when she winds up befriending the man’s beautiful, fragile wife. But the married couple hides some dark secrets in their past, and the more Louise learns about the pair, the more questions arise. Something is clearly very wrong, and Louise seems to be in danger, but from whom?

This was a surprisingly haunting psychological thriller. The story doesn’t turn the (rather tired) genre on its head, but rearranges the pieces a bit, adds some original new elements, and delivers a story with twists and turns and (I’m delighted to say) an unexpected ending. I’ve railed before about the saturation of psychological thrillers right now, and for the most part I’ve become just so jaded about the whole genre. It’s wonderful to know that there are author’s out there with the skill to make thrillers fun again.

So if you’re looking for something fresh in the thriller department, and an unpredictable, grab-you-by-the-back-of-the-neck plot, this is the book for you.

Book Review: Mister Tender’s Girl by Carter Wilson

Mister Tender’s Girl by Carter Wilson

Fourteen years ago, Alice Hill was brutally attacked by two of her schoolmates, twin girls obsessed with Mister Tender, a demonic bartender character created by Alice’s father. After the attack, her father vowed never to create another Mister Tender graphic novel again. But there are people out there still obsessed with Mister Tender, and Alice, still bearing the physical and emotional scars of her attack, slowly starts to feel he shadowy presence of someone in the background. Someone who knows everything about her past, someone who wants to own her future…

First of all: hurray! A psychological thriller that bring me back hope for the genre! If you’ve been following my reviews you’re no doubt aware that I was getting mightily sick of the damaged heroine psycho trope of most thrillers on the market now, looking to pick up some lingering success from Woman on the Train or Gone Girl. Most fall disappointingly short, but Mister Tender’s Girl has that ineffable something, a spark of real suspense and credible characters that make the genre so much fun.

It doesn’t hurt that the story is based on a true story, the Slender Man stabbing that took place in Wisconsin in 2014. It might just be me, but the fact that something this messed up has actually happened grounds the story and makes it that much more compelling.

Wilson offers us a vastly damaged protagonist in Alice, but her paranoia and PTSD seem to have been earned, rather than tacked on by an author trying to make a main character different. This is a girl who has gone through hell–and has the psychological scars to prove it–yet is trying her best to deal with her past and succeed in the present. The plot twists and turns, as it should, but Wilson is able to keep the plot twists feeling organic. Remember folks, it’s not how many plot twists you have, but how you use them.

This is a dark, occasionally grim look at the fragility of a woman who’s life is falling apart, and who may never have been in control of it in the first place. Yet Wilson is able to set this fragility against a determination and strength that may save her, or may hasten her undoing. In short, this book has restored my faith in the psychological thriller genre.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Bookish First in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: White Bodies by Jane Robins

White Bodies by Jane Robins

Callie and Tilda are twins, though they couldn’t be more different. Tilda is beautiful, outgoing, and a successful actress. Callie is quiet and introverted, and worships the ground her sister walks on. When Tilda becomes involved with successful stockbroker Felix, Callie is at first happy that her sister has found someone so perfect. But after Tilda starts behaving oddly, and displaying mysterious bruises, Callie begins to worry that Felix is dangerous. Getting drawn into an internet site for abused women, Callie becomes more and more obsessed with revealing the truth about Felix. But as the foundations of Callie’s concern begin to shift and crumble, can her perceptions be trusted?

I am now in full-fledged psychological thriller burnout. I have to admit that I feel a bit more justified in my feelings on the subject after reading Emily Martin’s article on Bookriot entitled “Why We Should Stop Searching for the Next Gone Girl” (warning: spoilers for Gone Girls, The Couple Next Door, and The Girl on the Train). Martin makes the point that in the rush to achieve to runaway success Gillian Flynn did with Gone Girl, folks have been cranking out similar stories, each trying on their own brand of mental illness to up the suspense. However, as much as Amy Dunne was a psychopathic bitch, her flaws and intelligence made her a complex and compelling (if horrible) character. As Emily Martin points out in her article, Flynn was able to give us a leading female character who was pretty much unlikeable in every way.

The inevitable consequence of Flynn’s success, according to Martin

. . . is a new and equally problematic female character archetype – the unwieldy off-the-rails woman. This woman is not any more complicated than the “strong female character.” Her craziness is not a personality, and her bouts of insanity that not even she can control allow for absolutely any twist possible that the writer wants to imagine.

And with this, I can finally put my finger on what has been bugging me about this genre recently. None of the recent protagonists of these books have been more complex than their mental illness. And while our current protagonist, Callie, is probably the weirdest I’ve seen yet, simply being crazy does not a compelling character make.

The books also by necessity rely heavily on inevitable plot twist(s), and this one is no exception. The problem is, that while reading these books (much like watching an M. Night Shyamalan movie) we are looking into every crevice and casually uttered word for said twist. With that amount of scrutiny, any surprises the plot might hold are going to be guessed long before the climax; if not from the evidence at hand, then simply by trying to think of ways to make the ending more shocking.

I apologize that this review is less about White Bodies specifically and more about the genre as a whole, but the field is crowded at the moment, and it takes a truly remarkable talent to separate oneself from the pack. White Bodies, unfortunately, does not do this. Callie is simply one more protagonist who’s mental illness is used to facilitate contortions of the plot.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: That Last Weekend by Laura DiSilverio

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That Last Weekend: A Novel of Suspense by Laura DiSilverio

Five college friends stayed at the same castle-like bed and breakfast every year, until tragedy struck. Pushed away by suspicion and fear, and drifting further apart due to distance and time, they now barely speak to one another. Until, ten years after that fateful night, each receives an invitation to return to the Chateau du Cygne Noir for one last weekend. The demons of the past and the present join forces, and death stalks the chateau. The five friends must confront their past and rip open old wounds to finally uncover the truth.

If all this sounds like a Christopher Pike novel to you, you are not far off (old person question: do people still read Christopher Pike books? Or are you looking up his Wikipedia page right now?). I’m not sure if I’m just burned out on the psychological thriller genre, but I just couldn’t get into this book. I tried, but ultimately, I couldn’t get behind any of the main characters, and reading the book felt a bit like my middle school reads attempted an Agatha Christie radio drama.

But, maybe I’m being overly harsh. I’ve certainly been hitting the psychological thrillers harder than the whiskey recently, and I have to say, they’ve all started to look alike to me. I think too many plot twists may have turned my head. If you’re generally a fan of the genre, or you’re old enough to look back at The Midnight Club with something like nostalgia, then give this book a whirl. I’d like to know if quiet, self-conscious, jogging female protagonists have turned me into a bitter old hag.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

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Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

Milly used to be Annie. But everything changed when she walked into a police station and told the officer on duty about her mother. Annie’s mother was a serial killer. Annie got a new foster family and a new name, and her mother is in jail.

But the trial is coming up, and Milly-Annie must face her mother one more time, must be the one who sends her away for good. But with the stress of the trial and tensions in her foster family; is Annie her own person, or simply her mother’s daughter?

This is one of those ubiquitous psychological thrillers which are all the rage these days (young people, grumble grumble). But Good Me Bad Me stands out from the pack for being a truly disturbing read. Honestly, parts of this book read more like a horror novel than a psychological thriller. I’m a fan.

Milly’s past is shown to us in flashes and snippets, with a lot left implied or unsaid. Her mother is truly a boogeyman figure, who looms dark and sinister even when Milly is supposed to feel safe. And yet, Milly’s relationship with her mother is more complicated than monster and victim. Milly hates and fears her mother, yes, but these emotions are tangled up in a truly twisted love of the person who raised her, and a desire to make her mother proud (The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne superbly explored this fucked up family dynamic).

The book loses a bit of steam for me when it goes in for all the high school drama (yes, yes, teenagers are the real psychopaths, this is old news). Though the truly horrific bullying experienced by Milly provides a great backdrop for her struggle between some semblance of normality, or the sociopathic tendencies nurtured by her mother.

In all, this book is a standout in an overcrowded genre. Those who enjoy their books dark, disturbing, and more than a bit fucked up will want to add this one to their to-read lists.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

 Three years ago, sisters Emma and Cass disappeared. Now Cass has returned, but what happened to Emma? As Cass begins telling her family and the FBI about what happened to her and her sister, it becomes clear that there are many hidden depths to Cass’s story, and that multiple people are playing for their own ends. The more Cass reveals, the more questions arise. And it is impossible to tell who, if anyone, can be trusted to tell the truth about Emma.

God, I have read a lot of psychological thrillers in this vein recently. With the success of titles like The Girl on the Train and In a Dark, Dark Wood, these types of books are definitely in vogue. And I do generally enjoy this genre; but even I’m starting to feel worn down by plot twist after plot twist. I’m going to try very hard not to make Emma in the Night suffer for my over-saturation.

This book is a fine example of the genre. Walker keeps us guessing for most of the book about who can be trusted and who cannot. The character of Cass is definitely front and center, and those surrounding her, especially her mother, sister, and the FBI psychologist interviewing her are left a bit flat by comparison. I did enjoy the slow pulling back the layers of the months and years preceding Cass and Emma’s disappearance. Walker’s portrayal of the facade of a typical upper-middle-class home hiding dark secrets was well done.

So if you (unlike me) are not burned out on a genre turned into the literary equivalent of an IPA, this book has a lot to offer. Fans of Paula Hawkins and Ruth Ware will like this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

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Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

In 2002, popular college professor Chuck Buhrman was brutally murdered. His teenage daughter, Lanie, watched as Warren Cave, the neighbor’s son, pulled the trigger. Buhrman’s death ripped his family apart. Lanie and her twin sister, Josie became estranged, and their mother abandoned her children to join a cult.

It has been over a decade since Chuck Buhrman’s death, and Josie has survived by cutting herself off from everything and anything to do with her family. But suddenly a podcast revisiting the events of that night goes viral, and Josie finds that, ultimately, there is no escape from the past.

Dragged back home by the death of her mother, Josie is forced to confront the fact that Lanie may not have told the truth about what happened the night their father died. Afraid of both knowing and not knowing, Josie and her carefully constructed life slowly begin to unravel.

Thrillers like these are very much in vogue right now. I know I’ve been reading quite a few. That’s not a bad thing by any means, but when everyone is trying to get on the “Girl on a Train,” wagon, everything can start to look the same. This book, while similar to those put out to great effect by Paula Hawkins, Clare Mackintosh, and Ruth Ware, does stand out for it’s up-to-the-minute plot. With the rise of true-crime podcasts like Serial, obscure crimes and obscure people suddenly find themselves pushed into the limelight. Some will certainly relish their moments in the sun, but I think that many would find unexpected national scrutiny to be something out of a nightmare.

The use of the viral podcast and the effects of sudden and unwanted infamy make this story stand out. Writing this story from the point of view of the victim’s family, now with the sympathy of the nation turning against them, was an excellent choice, and the paranoia and claustrophobia caused by the sudden scrutiny was well written.

Those who have enjoyed books like The Girl on the Train, In a Dark, Dark Wood, or I See You will probably like this book. If you’re a fan of Serial or other such true-crime podcasts, this book might be right up your alley as well.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.