I was an instant fan of JoAnn Chaney after reading her first novel, What You Don't Know, a fantastically captivating serial killer novel that is a cut high above the rest of the thrillers out there. I also love that it is set in Colorado, since it's always fun to read a book set where you live.
To be honest, if I hadn't read Chaney's first book and been so blown away by it, I probably would have passed this one up. The cover is terrible, the title forgettable, and I am not generally a fan of domestic thrillers, which is the box this book is weirdly and desperately trying to shove itself into.
But it's so much more than that.
Chaney has this brilliant way of creating a narrative that is about so many different things that when they all tie together it's like a bucket of cold water coming down on you—you didn't realize how closely all the threads were really connected, how all the themes, the characters inner struggles, the mysteries of the plot lines all came together. Brilliant.
This book instantly drew me in: it begins in alternating chapters set in Colorado in 1995 and 2018, following two women. One finds out her husband Matt is cheating on her, and she's going to confront him—but it all goes terribly wrong. The other is going on a romantic getaway weekend in Estes Park with her husband Matt, and things take a turn for the worse when she stands a bit too close to the edge of the cliff.
Yep, you guessed it. Both women wind up dead and the husbands are the same guy. Did he get away with murdering both his wives? What is going on here? Nothing is as it seems in this book, and you really have to read it to untangle all the mysteries!
As a murderino and Colorado native, I recognized that this book has to be based in part on one of our pretty famous murder cases: that of Toni Henthorn, who was pushed off a cliff in Rocky Mountain National Park by her husband. There are lots of similar details: this couple was hiking to celebrate their anniversary, one piece of evidence was a map marked with an X where she fell that investigators found in his belongings, a huge life insurance policy was taken out before her death, and evidence also suggests he killed his first wife in a staged accident in 1995. (He was sentenced to life in prison in 2015.)
Though the book diverges from the true crime events quite a bit, it is interesting to see where Chaney got her inspiration from!
I highly recommend both of her books and look forward to reading more from her in the years to come.
My thanks to Flatiron Books for sending me an advance copy of this one to read and review.
I love finding an author that you know when you turn to the first page and start reading, you are in good hands. Is there anything better?
Malfi is like that. From the moment I began his short story collection We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone I knew I had stumbled on something special. (And “stumbled on” really is not the right phrase, as Sadie of @mother.horror has been championing Malfi’s books for ages. I’m just a bit slow on the uptake.)
It’s not just that he’s telling a good story, though he definitely is—more on that later. There is just something so real that resonates through his work, something that makes you lose yourself within the pages when you start reading. Isn’t that why we all read? We want to forget about the background noise and just dissolve into another story for a while, one where things might be falling to pieces, but where there might be a logic, a key, something we can try to figure out before heading back to the mundane reality of our own existence.
That’s why I read, why I’ve always found solace in books. And there is something special about a book that cuts through everything like that, that puts you fully in the story.
As far as the narrative itself, there is definitely something to coming-of-age-in-small-town tales. I have a lot of love for the types of stories that depict ragtag groups of latchkey kids going about on their own and solving some kind of mystery that is far above their pay grade. There is a certain mystique to stories depicting kids in general—I think we all miss those days. And children are in a unique position for horror: they believe easily in the boogyman. Their belief makes them a vulnerable target, but it also makes them able to see clearly enough to fight back.
December Park is about the missing children of Harting Farms in the early 1990s and the mysterious figure of the Piper, whom everyone believes to be a serial killer picking off kids, though only one body has turned up. Angelo and his friends are determined to figure out what’s going on by using what they know about the town, its secret places and shortcuts, and any information they can dig up on their neighbors. Everyone is a suspect.
But this book is about so much more than the investigation. It is about the boys and their personal lives, their aspirations for the future, what they share with each other and their families and what they keep secret. It is about the divide between being a child and being an adult, how they see differently, the trust that is lost, and all the forgetting that you do along the way to adulthood. It is about small towns and the way that horrific crimes impact the people who live there. It is about trauma and how events affect people differently. It is about perception and memory.
Though the investigation into the Piper is the main plot thread, I found myself almost more interested in the characters and their lives, which I think is the key to good writing that most authors ignore. So many mystery/thriller books just seemed shoved through a tube where the plot has to go from A to B to C without letting the story develop naturally.
And I really felt a kinship with the boys—their late-night bike rides, their walkie-talkies, how they caused some mischief and chaos, how they stood up to bullies, how they alternately supported and ragged on each other. Getting to know them and watching them grow throughout the narrative is one of the highlights.
When it gets down to the horror—you won’t be disappointed. I wouldn’t consider this book heavy on action, but it has perfect narrative flow, letting tension ebb and flow and ratcheting up the suspense when necessary. By the last 200 pages, I couldn’t be torn away and had to finish. Malfi has a great descriptive voice and you can see each scene—in all the gruesome detail you could ever hope for.
This is such a phenomenal book. I can’t recommend it more highly. On my shelf, it sits beside other great horror coming-of-age stories like King’s It, McCammon’s Boy’s Life, and Simmons’s Summer of Night. I can’t wait to read more of Malfi’s work.
The plot of The Night in Question is tangled enough that attempting to give a solid synopsis will only result in unraveling it, so if you’re intrigued at all by a cab driver who has information about a crime but doesn’t exactly do the right thing with it, you might want to check this one out.
This thriller plays on the reader’s expectations, making you second guess who is the bad guy all throughout—is it the famous man Paula dropped off? Is it someone else in the apartment where she left him? Is it Paula herself? As the story develops, you find out you really can’t trust anyone, which definitely keeps you reading.
For me though, that’s not really enough—especially for a thriller. It needs to be amazing, to go to the edge and then over it into territory I’ve never explored with a book before. I found this narrative pretty run-of-the-mill as far as thriller fare goes.
I found the alternating chapters from Detective Puhl’s perspective that were tucked in between to be distracting. This seems like a small detail, but I read through a bunch of other reviews, and the detective character isn’t mentioned in one of them. She is a partial narrator but not important enough to call out in the description of the book (from the publisher) or in reviews? It seems strange that she would seem so insignificant, but her stereotypical characterization and lack of real action to move the plot forward made her forgettable. The only reason the chapters from her perspective were in the book at all was to give the reader information that we couldn’t have gotten from Paula’s unreliable perspective, and it just felt like sloppy writing to me. Maybe the book just should have been written from third person omniscient, instead?
The final twists and turns of the book were a bit confusing to me—I felt that everything should have been apparent to Paula much sooner. And of course, the narrative itself hides crucial information until it feels the need to share, which I find unfair as a reader.
How are we supposed to solve the mystery if we aren’t given all the clues? Isn’t that the whole point of reading a thriller? You want to put together all the pieces before the characters, figure out whodunnit and why. If the narrative doesn’t offer the opportunity to do that, I feel it is, at least in part, a failure.
My thanks to Sourcebooks for sending me a copy of this one to read and review.
While I was definitely intrigued by the premise of Baby Teeth, this one unfortunately, was not for me.
The narration switches between Suzette and her seven-year-old daughter, Hanna. Hanna is very intelligent, but she has a dark side that seems to only come out when her mother is around. She has chosen to be nonverbal, has gotten herself kicked out of several schools, and generally makes life hell when she doesn't get her way. But for her dad, she is, of course, an angel.
I found the back and forth of the plot to be repetitive. Even though Hanna's misdeeds escalate throughout the book, it felt fairly unbelievable. Though she is described as intelligent, many of Hanna's thought processes—how she got from how she felt about something to what she wanted to do about it—felt much too sophisticated for such a young child.
Even if a reader could accept that, the level of language used in Hanna's sections was wildly varied and some of the descriptions that she used felt way off-base to me. I don't think a seven-year-old would ever describe a slinky evening gown as "an oil slick of a dress," and that's just one example.
I also found Suzette an extremely frustrating character—if I had a child who was exhibiting strange behavior only to me, the first thing I would do would be to try to catch that behavior on video. No one even suggests this! It drove me a little crazy.
The ending of the book was especially disappointing. Especially after being so honest and
If you are looking for a good story about mother's and their creepy children, I can wholeheartedly recommend Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin or Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child. Both of those books are incredibly wrought portraits of family in crisis and truly held me in suspense that I felt deep in the pit of my stomach long after I put the book down.
My thanks to St. Martin's Press for sending me an advance copy of this book to read and review.
What a world we live in.
Just this year, there have already been over 20 school shootings in the United States. If that isn't enough to make you start seeing that there is something horribly wrong in our society these days, I don't know what will.
What if there were a place you could go, a place to live away from all the chaos, the news feeds, the violence, the technology? A quiet back-to-nature sort of society of like-minded individuals who just wanted to reboot and get back to what really matters, like spending time with family? Would you give up all the modern conveniences to know you'd be safe and far away from potential man-made disasters?
That's the idea behind the island community of Halcyon. But this book is so much more than that.
This is an intricate multi-perspective book that seems almost disparate in the beginning, jumping from one plot thread to another that is completely unrelated (but also totally captivating, I might add). But hold on. Because the more you learn, the more you (almost) wish that you could have stayed in the dark just a little bit longer, dreaming of that perfect place.
But everyone has their darkness, and everywhere has its flaws. Eden doesn't exist in Halcyon—at least not once you scratch the surface.
There is so much that I loved about this novel. I wouldn't call it a slow burn, because although it does take a while to get to the island itself, there is so much going on in the plot that I really stayed invested in the characters, their individual stories, and the mystery behind putting together the missing pieces.
And the pacing really does not let up. Though at some points I could definitely see where the story was headed, I was propelled through the pages by the writing and the characters. The only weak link of the characters to me was Shirley, the older sister, who felt underdeveloped at times and was used as a device to move the plot toward its inevitable conclusion rather than a person making decisions of her own.
As I have been thinking through why we read (and need) horror a lot recently, I think this book offers a great argument for exactly why horror is so important. It touches on real-world issues, fears, and frustrations about the state of our society and then imagines what if?
That "what if" spins a lot of different directions, but most memorably for me, in the mind of young Edith. Suffice to say that she reminded me a bit of some kids from King novels.
I went into this book not really knowing what to expect, and I was totally blown away. Youers has a great talent for story and I would love to read another of his books!
My thanks to St. Martins Press and the author for sending copies of this one to the Nightworms to read and review!
This story follows three estranged friends as they travel to Tulum, Mexico on a sun-soaked vacation in hopes of rekindling their long-lost camaraderie.
But this is more than just a case of friends losing touch or having a little fight. Ashley and Natalie developed a hair styling brush together that has turned into a very profitable business, but they are currently arguing about whether or not to sell. And Lauren hasn't spoken to either of them in over a year, since her husband Geoff died and she had a major blow-up with Ashley.
Mexico is supposed to be about reconnecting. But they all have secrets they are keeping, hidden agendas for coming on the trip, and the fact that Ashley, the queen bee of their group, seems to want to spend more time with a flirty local guy than her supposed friends does nothing to ease the tension.
On the last day, Ashley turns up missing after a night of heavy drinking and Natalie, who was with her last, can't remember anything. Where is Ashley? What happened to her? And who was involved?
I would describe this book as a chick-lit/thriller. It is very invested in developing the relationships between the girls, explaining their past and how the tensions have developed, and offers, from each of their own perspectives, how they feel like the third wheel of the deteriorating friendship.
It vacillates between all three girls' perspectives, and also switches between before and after Ashley's disappearance. There is a great build-up of tension; I was never sure who to suspect, or if any of them should be suspects at all.
Sometimes the scene would even play out from one character's point of view, and then get recapped in the next chapter by another character, and it was really fascinating to see how they each thought about and responded to each situation. Of course, each girl thinks that she is in the right, but from an outside perspective, it is easy to see how they are all to blame for the state of their damaged friendship.
By the time these girls make it to Mexico, there aren't enough tequila shots or mezcal margaritas in the world to bring them back together. I can't say that I especially liked any of the girls, but their story is definitely compelling! And I still rooted for them to pull it together.
I think the ending didn't quite pay off to the way the suspense built up throughout the book. I think it lets the characters off the hook a little too easily. I don't want to say much more so there aren't any spoilers!
This will be a great beach read this summer, but don't forget your sunscreen, because you won't want to put it down!
My thanks to the authors for sending me an advance copy to read and review.
A weekend of corporate bonding in the woods goes awry when five women go out on a hike, but only four come back. What happened out in the woods? And where is Alice?
This book is the follow-up to The Dry and I read them both in quick succession. I am pleased to say that I found them to be very different books, in style, substance, and structure—which in my book, is what success is all about when it comes to thrillers with a successive character. Readers who liked The Dry should find plenty here to keep them riveted to the page.
I thought this thriller was similar in structure to Ruth Ware's In a Dark, Dark Wood, but with a much more interesting and smart storyline. As such, it follows Aaron Falk and his new partner in the present while they try to uncover leads on the missing woman who is entangled in an ongoing financial investigation.
At the end of each chapter, it also gives small snippets of what happened before five becomes four, before and as things go astray, and the interesting part begins as the reader tries to unravel fact from fiction, truth from lies, and it becomes clear that there is much more at stake here than first meets the eye.
The converging storylines are a nice way to build tension and definitely kept me reading chapter after chapter. I began to suspect one person after the next—it really could be any of them at so many different points of the story!
While The Dry told a story that was much more personal for Aaron Falk, the lead investigative character that ties the two books together, Force of Nature gives him room to breathe, not feeling the need to give him the tired, worn-out characteristics of a tired, worn-out cop.
I found him interesting, as the way he gets entangled in these cases is not at all straightforward—as a federal agent dealing with financial white collar crime, he doesn't get much practice at crime scenes anymore. Though he may be a little bland, he is capable enough, though in both books, the plot does seem to be lead along without much of his help.
Harper's writing is not very stylistic; it gets right to the bones of what is going on, and though I can't fault her for that, as I've read plenty of bad thriller writing to know that her straightforward and well-formed prose is a breath of fresh air, there's nothing wrong with a bit of style either.
If there are more Aaron Falk mysteries to come, I'm not sure if I'll continue to follow them—I am not much of a serial thriller/mystery reader myself. Though I would be interested to see what else Harper may have up her sleeve—if there is a standalone novel in the works, I'd happily devour it.
My thanks to Flatiron Books for my copies of these two novels.
There are a lot of thrillers on the market, so it takes a particularly intriguing premise to get my interest piqued in one of these trendy books these days.
Need to Know is about Vivian, a bright CIA analyst on the trail of Russian sleeper cells in the US. It is a unique blend of domestic and spy/political thriller that I personally have not encountered and that is definitely one of its strong points. Originality is key for thrillers in my book!
After a cursory Google search (call me naive, but I know nothing about sleeper cells and this book had me feeling more than a little paranoid) it seems that the initial concept is not at all far-fetched. Also, if you've seen the TV show The Americans, it probably seems like a similar setup.
But this book is set in modern-day Washington DC and the story follows Vivian's perspective as she uncovers huge information about a sleeper cell that puts everything she holds dear—including her husband and four young children—in danger.
It is hard to talk about this book without revealing the first twist (yes, I said first, as in there are more), but I don't want to ruin it for you!
The author herself is a former CIA analyst who specialized in counterterrorism, so that was definitely a plus when it came to the more technical bits and the behind-the-scenes portions of the book. But this also showed in her writing, as it felt a bit juvenile at times and could use some strengthening.
It is a very fast-paced read, one that I got through in just one night—I guarantee that once you read the first chapter, you'll be sucked into the second, and from there it is difficult to leave the story without knowing what happens next.
While this definitely is a fun book, I wouldn't consider it very deep or engaging. It leads the reader around the plot threads on a leash and doesn't offer much in the way to let the reader in to a deeper level where they could participate in solving the twists themselves. I found it to be a fairly surface-level book.
I definitely appreciate the domestic angle, but kids-in-peril plot lines never hold a lot of stock for me personally. I never felt that close to the children in the book as their characters are not well-developed, nor did I feel them to be in immense peril. The story is definitely Vivian's and that is where the bulk of the characterization goes.
This is the sort of book that is perfect when you just want to let your brain go on autopilot and let the book drive. It feels very cinematic and would make for a great movie.
Overall, I found it to be a good, but not overly engaging read.
Thank you to Ballantine Books for my copy to read and review.
I had a slow reading month in October, but November is already off to a whirlwind start with a thrillerthon weekend.
I missed out on Lapena's wildly popular The Couple Next Door, so when sent copies of both of these just in time for Halloween, I figured I'd dive in and here is your double-hitter review.
The Couple Next Door begins with a bad parenting decision that only gets worse: when Anne and Marco's babysitter cancels last minute, they decide to attend their next door neighbor's dinner party anyway, bringing along a baby monitor and checking in every half hour, but leaving baby at home. Not good.
Of course, when they finally arrive home for the night, they find they front door unlocked and the baby missing. What follows is a tangled web of lies, deceits, and unsteady foundations that come crumbling down around the family and everyone they are connected to.
While the pacing might be quick enough to keep a reader turning pages, the writing is so simplistic and (sorry to say) boring that it was hard to imagine someone actually tearing through the pages of a book like this actually caring about the characters.
Have thrillers really come to this? That all that matters is finding the twist, the whodunnit, that crucial unmasking-the-murderer, I-would-have-gotten-away-with-it-if-it-weren't-for-you-meddling-kids scene?
When books can't deliver on style, I find myself just scanning the pages and drifting off. I'll probably solve the mystery, but who cares? If you aren't invested in the people, in their story, what's the point of figuring out who took the baby?
This book was so easy to read. 308 pages and it probably took me less than two hours to read. There just wasn't any substance, no sentences you wanted to stop and read again, no interesting turns of phrase, no indication at all that the author was in fact interested in writing. It's all just plot device spewed out on the page.
And if you want to talk about that ending, feel free to send me a note. Because I have some thoughts.
All that said, there was a germ of an interesting idea here, so I didn't want to give up.
A Stranger in the House follows Karen, who, while driving erratically in a bad part of town, causes a car accident that gives her amnesia. When it turns out that her car is connected to a grisly murder scene nearby, all the lies connected with her past and present start to come uncovered. And perhaps she's not the only one with a few secrets.
I fell into the story of this one a lot more naturally, though the writing definitely had not improved. There are a lot of similar elements: a husband and wife at odds over a criminal situation they are involved in, neighbors who know more than they let on, and a familiar homicide detective makes an appearance.
But I just don't think a somewhat interesting plot can make up for tedious and uninspired writing. Aren't we here for the writing? Or does that not matter anymore? I guess I'm honestly interested to know what people consider "good."
For example, in these books, even as it switches between the different character's perspectives, there is no differentiation in the writing. It feels as though the only reason for the change is because that specific character knew something we needed to know, so they got the floor. It is so stilted.
And as far as the plot of A Stranger in the House goes, I have three words: gunshot residue test. That's all I'm saying.
I can't exactly recommend these books. But there are plenty of people who loved them. If you are looking for a fast, brainless, twisty, whodunnit sort of read, one where you don't have to do a lot of thinking or puzzling, this will totally be your jam. If you have higher aspirations for crime books, we'll have to keep looking.
My thanks to Pamela Dorman Books/Viking for my copies of these books.
Get your copies:
The Couple Next Door
A Stranger in the House
Find out more about the author:
Find out more about the publisher, Pamela Dorman Books (Viking, PRH)
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Cute pumpkin carving templates sent by Viking. What a cool idea!
Having (somehow) not picked up Fiona Barton's debut The Widow last year despite the fervent admiration that went around for it, I jumped at the chance to read her second book early. When I finished after two intense sittings, I scrambled to the book store and quickly devoured her first as well!
I do enjoy reading thrillers, but generally I feel let down by them by the time I finish. The plots tend to be too predictably easy to solve—my personal rule is that if I've figured out the "twist" within 50 pages, it isn't a very strong narrative. (The downfall of the rule being that I have to read the whole book to find out if I'm right or not!) But Barton's books felt very different from that model of storytelling.
The characters are just as crucial as the plot, or perhaps even more so, and while this may seem like a small detail or even an obvious statement, I feel that it is something that is lacking from a lot of thrillers on the market. There is a lot of care put into these characters—you get to know them and through them you feel the story more than just read it.
For me, that is what makes a story. It isn't just the straight telling of a narrative, it is how the characters lead you to their story, through their eyes, and through them you fall into the story and find yourself truly caring about what happens.
The Child centers around the skeleton of an unidentified infant that is uncovered at a construction site in London. There are four alternating perspectives that swap between each chapter:
Kate, an intrepid reporter, takes an interest in the case and starts writing about it and asking questions.
Angela reads the articles and is certain the skeleton is her first born child, who was stolen right out of her hospital room decades earlier.
Emma sees the articles too and she is completely shaken, fearing some deep-buried secret from her past may be coming back to haunt her.
And Jude, Emma's mother, who only recently came back into her daughter's life after throwing her out when she was sixteen.
Kate's digging will uncover the connections between these women, the past, and the secrets they've hidden from each other and themselves.
There are a few recurring characters in Barton's books, but it isn't really a series; the story isn't about the reporter, Kate, and her dogged search for the truth, though both books include her and she is integral in both. Each book instead felt very much like its own entity.
Similarly, both books alternate perspectives of characters, but while temporal fluctuation between the past and the present was a crucial factor in The Widow, The Child often marks the how the same time passes for each character—a different but very effective technique that kept me turning the pages!
By no means are these characters perfect—they are flawed, sometimes even despicable—but they are human and their mistakes make them real and relatable.
By the time I got to the conclusion of The Child, I realized I'd been holding my breath a lot, waiting to see what would happen—I was really emotionally invested in these characters! That's what good writing will do and it's worth running out to get Barton's books to see what I mean.
This post is part of The Child's release blog tour! Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this, Berkley Publishing!
You can visit Fiona Barton online at fionabartonauthor.com and on Twitter @figbarton. Join the conversation using #TheChild.
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Find out more about Berkley Publishing (Penguin Random House)
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.