Tag Archives: mystery

Review: Beautiful Bad by Annie Walker

Beautiful Bad

Can we agree that the unreliable narrator has been used so much in recent mystery/suspense fiction that it’s starting to become a cliche?

Part of what makes The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Gone Girl work is that the reader becomes invested in the characters in the story, so when the reveal comes that our narrator is unreliable, it’s a clever shock that (looking back) we should have been coming.

Alas, Beautiful Bad overlooks the lesson of having the reader invest in the characters, so when the various twists and turns start to pile on late in the story, they’re not so much earned but seemingly feel inevitable — and not in a good way.

The story starts off in media res, giving us details on the police showing up to the home of Maddie and Ian, where something bad has happened. It then jumps around in time, showing us the unfolding drama that led up to the night in question in which (wait for it….) someone died under mysterious and problematic circumstances.

Jumping around in time, the story catalogs the romance of Maddie and Ian (if you can call it that), how it split two best friends Maddie and Joanna and then offers glimpses into Maddie’s therapy sessions following a life-altering incident. Honestly, part of my problem with the book comes down to the central love triangle of Maddie/Ian/Joanna (and there’s even Ian’s crazy ex-girlfriend who keeps lurking about, but the less said about her, the better), never really gels into anything all that interesting.

A lot of it stems from a lack of investment in any of these characters — and more a desire to reach into the page and tell everyone involved to grow the heck up already. The story and situations make it difficult to believe that Maddie is attracted to Ian, much less that these two would wait around for each other for seven-plus years before getting married and starting a family.

And then, we get to the twists and turns of the second half of the book. Maddie has a mysterious accident while camping that leaves her permanently scarred physically and emotionally. The novel offers hints of what might have happened that night in an attempt to keep readers second-guessing what we know about the characters and situation. We even get a chapter or two from Ian’s point of view so maybe we can understand a bit of where he’s coming from in this situation.

It all keeps drawing us back to the night in question and the death of a character. Honestly, by the time we get there, I’d pretty much sussed out what was going on. But I was less interested in finding out the impact on the characters than I was in seeing if I’d deduced the solution correctly as I went through the final third of the novel.

There are some flashes of something more to this novel in isolated moments. But this one is probably the literary equivalent of a Lays’ potato chip — vaguely satisfying while you’re chewing on it, but it isn’t going to provide much long-term nutritional value.

I wanted to like this one a lot more than I did.

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Review: 56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard

56 Days

A chance encounter in the local grocery store leads to a growing attraction between Ciara and Oliver, only for this budding romance to be threatened by the early days of Covid-19 and their local lockdown. Rather than risk losing this newfound connection, Oliver invites Ciara to move in with him — after only dating for two weeks.

Weeks later, the police are called to the apartment they shared. There’s a body in the tub and the other person is missing.

So begins the saga of Catherine Ryan Howard’s 56 Days. It’s tempting to call this one a Covid-19 mystery, but doing so probably sells the overall story a bit short.

Over the course of the story, we move back and forth in time and perspective — from the detectives looking into the case to chapters told from Oliver and Ciara’s points of view. Howard deftly toys with reader expectations, creating assumptions and then slyly pulling the rug out from underneath you as new revelations or details unfold. At first, it’s a clever twist or two that keeps the story moving.

And then, we get to the second half of the book, where assumptions are turned entirely on their ear and while looking back they weren’t necessarily unexpected turns, the turns still left me scratching my head, thinking, “Well, that’s an interesting choice.” For the sake of not ruining things, I won’t go into too great a detail on it, except to say that I can’t quite determine if the final twists were really great or just a really interesting choice by Howard. I will give her credit though — she’s kept me thinking about this book long after I finished and even recommending it to several people just so I can see what their reaction to the final third of the novel is.

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Review: The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

The Last Thing He Told Me

When Hannah Hall meets Owen Michaels, both parties have a no dating policy. Hannah’s policy stems from Owen’s connection to a client and Owen’s stems from being a single father to his teenage daughter. But an innocent evening to see a play in New York turns into something more and soon Owen is leaving behind the Big Apple to marry and live with Owen and his daughter, Bailey, in Saucelito on a floating houseboat.

Owen works for a software company that is working on the next big thing and collecting investors. Then, one afternoon, a knock at the door finds a girl from Bailey’s school with a note in hand, saying that Owen has to go away and he needs Hannah to protect Bailey. Seems that the software company is under scrutiny and being raided by the government, something that comes as a complete shock to Hannah. But that is only the first of multiple shocks as Hannah beings to slowly peel away the layers of Owen’s life and finds that her husband may not be exactly who said he was.

Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me starts off at a brisk pace, only to slowly lose momentum over the course of the story. Seeing this novel pick up all kinds of praise and be included on multiple year-end “best of” lists, I was curious to see if it could live up to the hype and praise piled on it.

Alas, this novel just never quite clicked for me in the way it has for others. The revelation that Owen may not be who he claims comes in the first half of the novel and from there, the peeling away of layers had me shaking my head in disbelief as one revelation after the other kept coming to light. Part of this is Dave’s use of flashbacks to set up things and to show how Hannah slowly begins to suspect that Owen isn’t all he claims to be. These moments are meant to illuminate Hannah’s journey of discovery but had me wondering, “Why isn’t she seeing that he’s hiding something?” to myself.

And once we get to the big reveal of where Owen has gone and why I found my eyebrows raising higher than expected. The revelation feels like it’s ripped from the pages of a sudsy nighttime drama and not grounded in the real-world authenticity that Dave seems to be working hard to establish.

I suppose part of my disappointment stems from the previously mentioned expectations. But part of it comes from that looking back at the novel, it’s not nearly as substantial as it could have been. I went in expecting a nice meal and left feeling like I’d only get a hot dog and bag of chips. Nothing wrong with the hot dog and chips unless you’re expecting more.

Lots of readers seem to love this one and it’s going to be a TV series on Apple TV at some point. This reader isn’t one of its biggest fans, though.

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Review: The Night Swim by Megan Goldin

The Night SwimAfter two successful seasons of a true-crime podcast, Rachel Krall has found the third season for her show – the small-town trail of a young man accused of rape and its impact on him, the alleged victim, and their community.

Reading Megan Goldin’s The Night Swim, I couldn’t help but wish I’d decided to listen to the audio version of this story. Well, at least that was the case in the chapters when Megan is narrating her podcast. I couldn’t help but feel I was missing something by not listening to Rachel narrate the story as it unfolds.

Rachel’s investigation into the current rape charge brings up some old undercurrents and possibly cover-ups in the small town. The Night Swim doesn’t pull any punches or shy away from examining the implications of the rape on all those associated with it. It’s a hard, eye-opening look and yet, somehow, the novel walks a fine line. The mystery of what happened the nights in question drives the narrative and while I wouldn’t call this a suspense thriller, I will say that I was curious to see where the actual truth would lie in the final pages.

As with many great crime novelists working today, Goldin’s interest isn’t just in solving the central mystery but looking at the impact that mystery has on its characters and society as a whole. Coming away fromThe Night Swim, I found myself thinking about it and pondering those implications long after the final page was turned.

I received a digital ARC of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

Then She Was Gone

Driven to raise her math grade from a B+ to an A, Ellie begs her mother, Laurel, to hire a tutor for her. The tutor does her job, but Ellie begins to get an odd vibe off her and decides to end the lessons. A few weeks before her exams, Ellie mysteriously vanishes.

A decade later, Laurel is beginning to piece her life back together. Divorced, she’s met a new suitor who seems like the perfect guy. He has two daughters and one of them, Poppy, is the spitting image of Ellie. Is Laurel seeing a ghost or is there something more sinister going on here?

All of that sounds pretty exciting, right?

This is why I’m a bit sad to report that Lisa Jewell’s Then She Was Gone isn’t nearly as exciting or thrilling as a whole as the individual components make it sound like it should or could be. Part of the issue is that once Jewell puts all the pieces into play, there aren’t any huge shocks or revelations to come. I’d figured out a large part of what was going on long before the book begins to pull back the curtain on where Ellie went, who Poppy really is, and just how the math tutor ties into all of it. I kept waiting for something darker or more sinister to come of the story and nothing really did. Maybe I’m too conditioned by other suspense thrillers with a dark streak to really fully enjoy this one. But I did find myself reading more to see if my suspicions were correct than because I was fully invested in the story unfolding.

That’s not to say this is necessarily a bad book. It’s just one that disappointed me a great deal, especially after hearing positive reviews from other readers who share my tastes.

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Review: The Wife Who Knew Too Much by Michele Campbell

The Wife Who Knew Too MuchConnor Ford is the one itch that Tabitha Girard has never been able to resist scratching. It begins during their teenage years when Connor and Tabitha have a summer romance while she works as his grandmother’s country club. Connor’s grandmother doesn’t approve of the pairing and soon finds a way to break the two up.

Years later, Connor wanders into the restaurant/bar where Tabitha is waitressing, and the two attempt to pick up where they left off. The only things standing in their way are Tabitha’s recently released from jail ex-husband and Connor’s wealthy wife, who are suspects that Connor is stepping out on her. Thanks to an iron-clad prenup, if Connor leaves his wife, he loses everything.

So, when Connor’s wife turns up drowned in her swimming pool after a summer party and Tabitha reveals she’s expecting Connor’s child, suspicions begin to mount. After quickly and quietly marrying Connor, Tabitha begins to suspect that her new husband may be keeping secrets from her — deadly secrets. Continue reading

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Review: Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier

Little SecretsWhile finishing up her Christmas shopping in a crowded Seattle market, Marin Machado lets go of her four-year-old Sebastian’s hand for just a moment to text back to her husband. But in those moments, Marin’s world is shattered when Bash disappears and can’t be found.

Fifteen months later, Marin still hasn’t recovered from the shock and her marriage to Derek is on rocky ground. Haunted by “what ifs” with Bash, Marin wasn’t expecting the private eye she’s hired to discover another secret — Derek is having an affair with a younger woman named MacKenzie Li.

Enraged, Marin turns her pent up and anger and frustration about doing whatever it takes to rid herself of MacKenzie, which includes stalking her at her place of work, researching her on social media, and installing a shadowing app so she can keep track of everything Kenzie and Derek say to each other. Continue reading

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Review: You Are Not Alone by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

You Are Not AloneShay Miller’s life isn’t exactly coming up roses at the moment. Laid off from her data analyst role, she’s temping while looking for a new job. Lonely and struggling to find connections, she lives with her best friend Sean, who she secretly harbors a crush on. Sean’s girlfriend Jody isn’t thrilled with the living arrangements and is making noises that it might be time for Shay to find somewhere else to live.

But Shay’s world is upended one morning during her commute when she witnesses Amanda throwing herself in front of a subway train. Reeling from the event, Shay finds herself drawn into figuring out what would lead Amanda to end her life — and that investigation leads her right into the orbit of the Moore sisters, Cassandra and Jane.

Cassandra and Jane are everything Shay wants to be with a close circle of friends, a self-assuredness, and the world seemingly their oyster. But Cassandra and Jane harbor dark secrets and their motives in taking Shay under their wing may not be as altruistic as they appear on the surface.

To say much more would be to give away some of the reveals in Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen’s latest thriller, You Are Not Alone. Hendricks and Pekkanen keep the plot propelling forward by doling out clues and alternating perspectives between the first-person narration by Shay, third-person check-ins on the Moore sisters and flashbacks to other people who have come into the sisters’ orbits. The story gives you just enough to keep the pages turning, curious to see what will happen next to Shay and what the Moore sisters’ overall end game could be. It certainly kept me guessing at times.

That isn’t to say this is a perfect thriller. It’s a great popcorn novel — and one that doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny, especially as the end game Cassandra and Jane have in mind comes to light. The less you examine the details, the happier you’ll probably be with the story overall.

Watching as Hendricks and Pekkanen ratchet up the suspense, dread, and paranoia over the middle third of the novel is a lot of fun and really kept the pages turning. But it’s one the story reaches the third portion that things begin to slowly unravel.

If you’re looking for something fun to take your mind off things, this one is a great distraction.

 

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Review: Friend Request by Laura Marshall

Friend RequestReceiving a friend-request from someone you haven’t heard from in a quarter of a century is fairly innocuous. Unless it’s a friend-request from someone who’s been dead for the past twenty-five years.

Louise has been haunted by the role she played in the death of her friend, Maria Weston for twenty-five years, inhibiting her ability to connect with people today for fear they’ll discover who she really is and reject her just as she rejected Maria years before.

Then Louise gets a friend request from Maria. Assuming it’s a prank, Louise accepts and opens up old wounds that threaten to destroy the life she’s built and her sanity.

Laura Marshall’s Friend Request provides a timely warning in the day and age of social media to be careful how much of yourself you put out there. The hook is a solid one and for the first quarter of the novel, watching Louise attempt to figure out just who is behind the warnings and if Maria could, possibly, be alive is intriguing enough. Peppered with flashbacks to the fateful time in high school, Friend Request sets itself up for some interesting revelations and reveals.

Or at least it feels like it should.

The middle half of this novel feels like it’s spinning the wheels a bit as Louise tries to figure out who is torturing her and why. It makes the final denouncement of who is behind the keyboard and several other revelations about what happened to Maria feel a bit anti-climatic once we get there. There are a couple of good twists in the final pages and Marshall sets them up well. But, by the time we got to them, I was so weary of Louise’s self-doubt, guilt, and increasing paranoia that I was more relieved the novel was finally moving forward than I was in finding out who was behind this revenge plot.

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Review: You Were Made for This by Michelle Sacks

You Were Made for ThisNo one here is exactly what they appears to be….

That quote from the first season of Babylon Five applies in spades to the trio of protagonists in Michelle Sacks’ debut novel You Were Made for This.

When Sam inherits a house from his Swedish aunt, he and his wife Merry decide it’s the perfect time to move and set-up the perfect home for their newborn son, Conor. As Merry delves into becoming the perfect stay-at-home mother, Sam pursues his passion to become a filmmaker. But lurking below the surface are secrets that each is hiding from the other — whether it’s Sam’s real reason for fleeing his job as a professor or Merry’s true feelings on becoming a mother.

Enter into this scenario a visit from Merry’s oldest friend, Frank. Frank knows Merry better than anyone else and her visit begins to slowly shatter the illusion that Merry and Sam have built up. It also exposes some older, deeper wounds and resentments that Merry and Frank harbor from growing up together. Continue reading

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