Dangerous Girls- Abigail Haas

Anna and her boyfriend, Tate, head down to Aruba for spring break with a group of their wealthy prep school friends, including Elise, Anna’s best friend.  Elise is soon found murdered and Anna finds herself trapped in a strange country, accused of the brutal murder.  There are so many stories and rumors flying it is impossible to know the truth.  Haas tells the story of Anna and Elise through flashbacks to the early days of their friendship, the days surrounding the murder, and Anna’s trial.  The truth unravels to reveal a twisted conclusion.

This was a fun thriller, perfect for summer.  A terrible crime in paradise.  Rich, spoiled, bored kids on the beach with booze, sex, drugs.  A murder with many believable suspects and an accused killer who draws a whole lot of sympathy to her cause.  A Nancy Grace type talk show host who spins the story so it sells.  An intense friendship.  And a heck of a twist ending.  An ending that I couldn’t stop thinking about because holy unreliable narrator, it couldn’t really be true, could it?

Reviewing thrillers is always tough because of spoilers and because I read them so fast I don’t think about the details, so really, if any of those elements listed above appeals to you, check this out.  I can’t say I’ve read much in the way of YA thrillers/mysteries, but this one is one of the more fun and creative thrillers I’ve read recently- adult or otherwise.  I think there is supposed to be a companion novel to this one called Dangerous Boys, which I will  definitely check out when it comes available in the US.

How To Be a Good Wife- Emma Chapman

As far back as Marta can remember, she has been a dutiful wife and mother.  But her son has recently left home for the first time and Marta decides to stop taking her pills.  Just to see what might happen.  Soon she starts seeing a blonde, gray-eyed girl who seems to be trying to tell her something.  The visions of the girl seem like memories to Marta.  But she can’t trust her memory, either, as she finds herself smoking when she doesn’t remember ever having been a smoker.  Memory or delusion?  Either way, Marta is in danger.

I won this book in a giveaway from Gone Pecan a few months ago.  I like thrillers so I thought this would be an interesting one to try.  What impressed me about this book was the tone.  The entire book was dark, stifling, and tense.  Marta narrates in present tense, which isn’t always my favorite, but worked well here to build suspense and kept with the quiet tension running throughout the book.  The book is set somewhere in Scandinavia during the winter, which also helped with the feel, too.  It’s cold and dark and Scandinavia=thriller in my mind (too much Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I guess).  I also liked that Marta’s narration never resolves the ambiguity of what is happening to her.  We never learn whether she is the victim of a crime or the victim of her own mind.  I like a thriller with an open-ending and while the ending here is pretty definite there is no resolution to a lot of the questions that come up and I like being left to mull things over for myself.

What I wasn’t too keen on here was the plot in general.  I guessed what Marta’s repressed past was on like the second page of the book and while it didn’t really detract from the story or make it less satisfying, it was a little disappointing.  If you have read any number of the popular thrillers in the last 5 or so years (especially something like Before I Go to Sleep, which is mentioned in the book blurb on the ARC I won), then the twist isn’t really a surprise.  So I kind of had a “this has been done” feeling while reading, even though I think the writing was a lot better and fresher than some books with similar plots.  Also, one thing I like about thrillers is the plot twists and the author’s ability to mess with my mind.  Guessing the secret meant no plot twist thrills for me.  But I guess Chapman has messed with my mind, with that ambiguous ending, so credit where it is due.

If you like thrillers, the writing in this one is good and it is worth picking up just for Chapman’s ability to create a creepy atmosphere and build tension.  It won’t make my list of best thrillers ever (Gillian Flynn has ruined me for other authors), but I’d be willing to read another book from Chapman if/when there is another.

The Preservationist- Justin Kramon

Goodreads Summary:

To Sam Blount, meeting Julia is the best thing that has ever happened to him.

Working at the local college and unsuccessful in his previous relationships, he’d been feeling troubled about his approaching fortieth birthday, “a great beast of a birthday,” as he sees it, but being with Julia makes him feel young and hopeful. Julia Stilwell, a freshman trying to come to terms with a recent tragedy that has stripped her of her greatest talent, is flattered by Sam’s attention. But their relationship is tested by a shy young man with a secret, Marcus Broley, who is also infatuated with Julia.

Told in alternating points of view, The Preservationist is the riveting tale of Julia and Sam’s relationship, which begins to unravel as the threat of violence approaches and Julia becomes less and less sure whom she can trust.

Hmmm.  I am left a bit confused by how I feel about The Preservationist.  It was creepy and unsettling and sometimes nauseating and I definitely felt like looking behind me when I walked to my car across campus last night.  It was a quick read and I had to race through the last few chapters to find out what happened.  These are generally characteristics I enjoy in a thriller.  However, another thing I like about thrillers is plot twists and mysteries and surprises and something about the plot of this book just felt so… obvious.  Obvious to the point that I think maybe I was supposed to know who was untrustworthy from the beginning.  But then, if I’m supposed to feel like something is off with a character, isn’t it better if it sort of creeps up on me the way it did in Gone Girl or The Dinner or The Haunting of Hill House rather than loudly blares the serial killer alert from the very beginning?

And since I can’t stop talking about multiple POVs, I ought to point out that Kramon uses multiple POVs here.  It was sort of interestingly deployed as we get third person perspectives from Julia, Marcus, and Sam.  And they all lie or hide things from the reader, which is sort of jarring in a multiple third-person POV situation because it starts to feel omniscient and then you realize that oh, wait, no, they’re lying to me (to themselves?) again.  I will say that this book would not have been anything special without the multiple POVs and I actually liked its use here quite a bit.

I definitely enjoyed this book more than I did not enjoy it, but I feel like it was missing something that would bump it into the omgawesome bracket.  I do look forward to seeing if Kramon writes any more thrillers (his debut was a coming of age story) because there is definite potential here.

The Dinner- Herman Koch

So, if you know me, then you know when I see the words “A European Gone Girl” I cannot stop myself from picking up the book.  This is the sixth book I’ve read because of a connection or comparison to Gone Girl.  And this is the first non-Flynn one that I actually think comes close to recreating some of the WTFery of Gone Girl.

The Dinner takes place at a restaurant where the two Lohman brothers and their wives have met to discuss an issue with their teenage sons.  It is told in first-person by Paul who slowly reveals more and more about the dark truth about himself and his family.  I’ll leave my description really limited because this is a thriller and the less said the better.

This isn’t really a book with crazy, shocking plot twists, but rather a carefully-paced revelation of the lengths the Lohmans will go to protect their children and to preserve their happy family.  I really love a book where the ordinary is horrific.  I really love a book where that horror is revealed slowly, carefully, quietly.  This is why I am a huge fan of Shirley Jackson.  It is also why I enjoyed this book.  It does that disturbing everyday thing really well.  I also think there is something interesting about examining the lengths a parent will go to to protect their child.  We say we would do anything to protect our children, sacrifice our own lives for them, but do we also have the potential for evil in our efforts to protect them?

The first-person narration was also a highlight of the storytelling.  I was disturbed to be in Paul’s head, yet there is no way out of it.  If you want to find out what happens, you are stuck with Paul.  I love that I leave this book with questions about how reliable Paul’s account was (some of Paul’s stories have a certain dreamlike quality to them).  I am also happy to have a book with only one narrator… it is weird when it is refreshing to have a limited, unreliable POV, but that goes to show how over multiple POVs I am.

Anyways, this was a disturbing little psychological thriller.  I really think if you enjoyed Gone Girl for its disturbed and unreliable narrators and the fact it revolved around horror in the ordinary, you will also like The Dinner.  It’s a much quieter ride, but definitely worthy of the comparison.

Line of Vision- David Ellis

Marty Kalish has been having an affair with Rachel, the wife of a wealthy cardiologist.  When Rachel’s husband disappears, we find that Marty knows quite a bit about what has happened to the doctor– he was at the scene of the crime and goes to lengths to cover his tracks for his whereabouts on the night of the murder.  When he falls under suspicion by the cops, he confesses to the murder.  But Marty’s guilt is never entirely evident, as we watch him mount his defense and prepare for his day in court.

I picked up this legal thriller, not realizing it was a legal thriller, after finding the title on a list of Gone Girl read-alikes.  While it wasn’t quite as much of a crazy ride as Gone Girl, I definitely can see the similarities.  This is a thriller that will leave you thinking at the end.  Truth is relative and you find yourself with a narrator you can’t really rely on.  The major difference is that Line of Vision ultimately has a lot more legal drama to it and is focused much more on truth and the law rather than a relationship.

Marty is the narrator here and boy, is he an unreliable narrator.  I have no idea what really happened to the doctor after listening to Marty’s story evolve and witnessing some of his strange actions leading up to the trial.  I have no idea if I like Marty… sometimes he is very sympathetic, others times he comes off as a sociopath.  Being in Marty’s world the whole time is very limiting because we only get the picture he wants us to have (and the story keeps changing), but it is pretty absorbing at the same time.  I almost didn’t want to know how Marty came off to other people… it would have ruined the whole sympathetic sociopath thing he had going on.

The crux of the book comes down to something that Marty’s defense lawyers mention– that the truth of a crime lies somewhere in the middle of all the narrative constructed about it by the media, the defense, the prosecution, the accused, etc.  We are given multiple stories about Marty’s involvement in the murder of the doctor and relationship with Rachel and left to assume that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  I imagine that this book leaves one feeling much like they would if they were given the opportunity to assess the various defense and prosecution strategies, as well as the testimony of the accused and the media’s side of the story.  There would be a lot of conflicting details and a lot of half-truths and somewhere in the mess there might be what actually happened.

If you like a legal thriller, an unreliable narrator, and don’t mind leaving a thriller with a question mark hanging over your head, give this one a try.  It was a nice change of pace from my usual reading fare and it is always fun to be left thinking about a book for days after finishing it.

Sharp Objects- Gillian Flynn

You probably know that I loved Gone Girl and was highly impressed by Gillian Flynn’s writing and characterization.  So I was super excited when Flynn’s Sharp Objects came in the mail from one of my favorite blogging buddies, Kyle!

Camille, a police beat journalist for a minor newspaper in Chicago, is sent on assignment to her home town of Wind Gap, Missouri to cover the possibly connected murder of one young girl and the disappearance of another.  Camille is reluctant to be returning to her family and her hometown after years away, but gets caught up in investigating the girls’ disappearances and learning more about their lives.  At the same time that she is investigating these crimes, she is forced to confront her past and the evil around her.

This is a book that I don’t want to discuss too much because it is a thriller and the plot is more fun when you don’t know much of anything about it…. so uhh, I’m going to discuss some other random things about the book and hope that you’ll read it and track me down to talk about it in more explicit detail in the spoiler-free zone of email.

The most notable thing about this book is that it centers around violence and evil in women and girls… which is quite a departure from the typical crime novel or thriller which usually have men committing violence against women.  The forms of “evil” in the women characters are large and small– self-mutilation, murder, but also gossip and emotional manipulation.  Maternal or sisterly relationships are all pretty messed up.  The women in this book are mostly selfish, manipulative, mean, and competitive… the inverse of how we normally see women portrayed in our culture, especially when it comes to white female victims of violent crimes.

Masculinity is also inverted in this book, too.  That is, the men are almost womanly.  Camille’s stepfather is almost a non-entity he is so weak-willed and nothing-y… he basically serves to soothe Camille’s mother after she’s had a tantrum.  Camille’s boss and one of the fathers of the missing girls are the most parental (maternal?) figures in the books.  The brother of the missing girl actively grieves and cries in public and is ridiculed and under suspicion because of this “abnormal” reaction to the loss of his sister.

Anyways, if you liked Gone Girl I’d recommend you also check out Sharp Objects.  The characters are almost as twisted as Nick and Amy were and while the plot was a little more predictable here and less of twist-fest, it was still pretty interesting.  Flynn is quite skilled at creating female villains who break the mold and that in itself make her fun to read.  Also, if you are into gender stuff in your literature, read this one.  It is thought-provoking, disturbing, and quite entertaining!

Gone Girl- Gillian Flynn

Holy cow.  This book was a total mindf*ck and I would have willingly sat through another 400 pages just to see where these crazy characters would go next.

Amy Dunne goes missing on her 5th wedding anniversary, leaving behind a special anniversary treasure hunt for her husband, Nick.  Nick quickly becomes the prime suspect in Amy’s disappearance, but Amy’s body never turns up.  What starts out as a stereotypical case of a husband killing his wife slowly morphs into the tale of a really disturbing relationship.

This book will drag your sympathies all over the place… it is told in alternating chapters between Nick’s  narrative of the days following Amy’s disappearance and Amy’s diary entries.  I didn’t really like either Nick or Amy, but found myself feeling sorry for or siding with each of them throughout the story.  Nick comes off as pretty self-absorbed.  Amy’s diary will make you feel pretty sorry for her, but I also came away with the feeling she was a bit manipulative.  As the characters become better revealed throughout the book, it is astonishing how these characteristics (self-centeredness and manipulativeness) spiraled out of control… reaching extremes I wasn’t predicting.

This book was strangely addictive… there were some suspenseful moments, but mostly I just couldn’t get these characters out of my head.  I am still sitting here wondering what their ultimate fates are and how much of the truth either character told me.  The ending doesn’t really resolve the situation, but I’m not unsatisfied with it.  The open-endedness of it just leaves the horror of the situation lingering which is ultimately more frightening, I think.  I’m not sure I’ve ever read a thriller where I was forced to think this much, where I was surprised by every twist and turn or where I actually enjoyed the twisted characters as much as I did here.  This book has gotten a lot of attention because it is (IMHO) that good.  If you want to spend the day with an absorbing, twisted, mind-boggling-in-the-most-fun-way book, I highly recommend you grab Gone Girl.  Then come talk with me about how messed up Nick and Amy are.

Into the Darkest Corner- Elizabeth Haynes

Into the Darkest Corner

Into the Darkest Corner is a psychological thriller told in chapters which alternate between the past (2003-2004) and the present (2007-2008).  In the past, Catherine Bailey meets the charming and very sexy, Lee.  As their relationship intensifies, so does Lee’s creepy and abusive behavior.  Things culminate with Lee being sent to jail.  In the present, Cathy has developed a severe case of OCD and cannot shake her fear of Lee, even though he is in jail.  As Cathy starts taking some steps towards healing, she finds out Lee has been released from jail and his mind games begin once again.

Every now and then I get on a psychological thriller kick.  These things are like crack to me, as I CANNOT put them down (if I keep reading the scary will end, it will, it will) and they give me such a rush that I want to read them back to back to back.  I spent last fall reading thriller after thriller after thriller until I was sort of worn out of all the rape, death, and seriously creepy dudes.  This marks my first trip back to the genre and I have to say, this was pretty enjoyable.

The alternating timelines were really effective for this story.  As the tensions were escalating in the past, the present was very calm, which really increased the sense of foreboding.  Also, I felt that increased terror you get when you know something bad is going to happen.  Knowing the ending of the first timeline going in (the second chapter is court transcripts from Lee’s trial) made all the initial encounters with the sexy good-times Lee all the more disturbing and suspenseful.  Towards the end of the book, however, the strict alternation between the two timelines stops, which was a little confusing, but not terribly disruptive.  Also, the very start of the book is a bit disorienting and confusing (it takes a few chapters to introduce Cathy and that totally threw me, no knowing who I was following) and did not immediately grip me.  That said, once I got into the real meat of the story, I had a hard time putting this one down!

Cathy was an interesting and strong character, at least in the present.  I liked that her mental illness was treated with sensitivity and the acknowledgement that she needed professional help to deal with a disorder which had taken over her life.  I also liked that Cathy was pretty smart and, despite the fact that everyone around her denied Lee’s abuse, she (eventually) learned to stick to her guns and not lose it completely.  It was also great to see Cathy transform from a victim to a surprisingly strong and confident fighter-back.  Cathy also begins a healthy romantic relationship with her neighbor, Stuart, and that also seemed to be pretty realistically portrayed.  Although, Stuart has to the be the most patient and forgiving man on the planet to put up with some of Cathy’s OCD behaviors/fears.  Overall, I really liked the Cathy character and I found myself siding with her so much that I began to wonder if she would turn out to be an unreliable narrator and my good impressions of her would be dashed (she isn’t, so don’t worry about that).

If you are in the mood to abandon yourself to a thriller, I’d recommend this one.  It’s creepy and suspenseful with a likeable main character whose trauma affects her realistically, but doesn’t stop her in her tracks.