Book Review – What Lies Behind by J.T. Ellison

This would be the second book in the “Samantha Owens” series I’ve read by Ellison, and….. well it’s pretty similar to the previous one. In short, it’s a readable thriller, but not exactly what I was expecting (read: psychological thriller).

I haven’t read many series, because I like to read a fresh story from a new perspective. Furthermore, this is the kind of story in series that are written in a way that the reader needn’t necessarily have read the previous book in order to understand the plot. Hence, if you have read the previous book you would be lambasted with an introduction to the main recurring characters you would have already learnt about in the previous book. A double edged sword argument here – the writer tries going in-between to please a majority audience.

Very very short spoiler-free executive summary: Medical examiner-turned lecturer Samantha Owens gets drawn into a national security situation. Many people killed. She, along with her ex-US Army Ranger boyfriend and friends from the FBI, etc work to uncover a multinational terrorist plot threatening to kill millions.

I feel that this book suffers from the same issues as the previous one in the series – fragmented plot and too many characters whose link to the main plot are not clearly mapped out. I got confused again as to how the roles of some of the characters, aside from the 3 main ones, are actually tied to the terrorism plot. However, after awhile (and might I add – just like the previous book), I realized you didn’t actually need to know in order for the story to advance. So I just soldiered on.

Story only gets really exciting at the very last bit. The huge part before was a mediocre read. Not bad, but like I said, mediocre. I guess this would probably be the last book I will read for this genre by same author. If there was another one with a more domestic setting, I might give it a go.

Rating: 3/5

Book Review – When Shadows Fall by J.T. Ellison

I’ve been looking around for psychological thrillers by this author as her name was thrown among the list of authors allegedly praiseworthy in this genre. A lover of psychological thrillers ( ahem: me) always looks forward to the recurring instruments used, i.e., unreliable narrators, alcohol(sometimes)-induced blackouts and the like, with increasing anticipation at how they are eventually executed. I was ever so slightly skeptical when I held the paperback in my hands. The cover design didn’t feature your typical “lady in a red dress” or “a pair of all-seeing eyes” (you know what I’m talking about – the book version of a “clickbait”). In fact, the color scheme didn’t even scream “modern”, but looked 10 to 20 years before its time. With that lowered expectation in mind, I took the plunge..

Samantha Owens is a pathologist. Having performed autopsies on bodies for a long time now, she recently retired to teaching. On the first day of work, she receives a letter from a man, telling her that he has died and asks of her help to solve his death. Things escalate quickly and she gets caught up in this mystery as people who are involved starts dying. Together with her ex-FBI colleagues and her ex-armed-forces boyfriend, she rushes to uncover the mystery.

Writing makes for easy reading and the occasional nuggets of interesting romantic developments, unexpected plot twists and outlandish point-of-view from the characters kept me going. I felt that the characters were not exceptionally well developed and some parts were unbelievable. However, the ease of reading and unexpected developments somehow makes up for it. Don’t come here expecting a huge plot twist or unreliable narration though, most of the characters are pretty honest.

The main characters, Samantha (or Sam as it is often referred to in the story), as well as her FBI friend Fletcher are very likable ones. This is one story where it’s pretty much good vs. evil, not much grey area.

On the downside for me, I just can’t seem to wrap my head around the intricacies of the main sub-plot. There were characters like Doug, Detective Frederick, and a whole bunch whom I can’t remember the names of. Ellison tries to explain through Sam and Fletcher how they were involved and even throws in a final chapter adding ” I guess by now you know I killed…..” as if to point me in the right direction, but it was still very confusing for me. I know I’m supposed to go “aha!”, but my brain went “huh?” on me. Eventually, I realized you didn’t really need to know; so just skim past those parts, I promise it will be okay.

Rating: 3.5/5 (decent read, moderately interesting, falls short on character development, not really typical of a psychological thriller, somewhat confusing in the details)

Book Review – The Missing by C.L. Taylor

Fifteen year old Billy Wilkinson goes missing one day in the middle of the night. His mother, Claire is distraught and starts running public appeals. Six months later, the police still has not arrested anybody nor found the body. However, the Wilkinson family is one who keep secrets from each other. As Claire uncovers one secret after another, everyone becomes a suspect. Questions pop up like field mushrooms in the morning after a humid and rainy evening. Can she trust her own children? Can she trust her husband? Or her best friend Liz? Does anybody actually know what happened to Billy? Is someone keeping the terrifying secret? Or is Claire going mad?

There are three factors that make this book an exciting read – the first is what I would call the constant ‘evolution of suspect’. As Claire starts observing oddities in her family members’ everyday behavior, the secrets harbored by each family member starts to get uncovered. The imaginary cogs in my brain start trying to work how how he/she could be involved, until Taylor reveals another secret in the next few chapters, providing new fodder for the Sherlock Holmes in me to feed on. This book will definitely keep you guessing, all  the way till the last few chapters where the big reveal happens.

The second plus for me is the exacting use of the unreliable narrator technique. The primary narrator, Claire, is revealed to have some sort of dis-associative amnesia (whatever that is), causing her to have blackouts and waking up several hours, or even days later, not knowing what happened throughout the blackout. Things are only revealed later on when she tries piecing the events together. Claire also sometimes see things that aren’t actually there, think of wild thoughts that are completely illogical. Somewhat similar to a previous book I’ve read with an excellent unreliable narrator technique too – The Girl on the Train.

The third is a twist on the use of the unreliable narrator. Interspersed in between some of the chapters, we are privy to a text conversation between two people. A ‘Jackdaw44’ and ‘ICE9’. We have no idea who they are and how they are related, but suffice to say the subject matter of their conversation caught my attention quickly. Taylor integrates this well with the ‘evolution of suspect’ mentioned in point #1. As each secret gets revealed, an increasing number of suspicious people get chalked up to be possible participants in the conversation. A million thoughts begin to run through my mind as I flip back and forth on the text exchanges to make sure I haven’t missed a little clue here and there, perhaps misread a word, or carelessly skimmed over a tiny detail.

Of course, with all great psychological thrillers, the big twist at the end did not disappoint. The big reveal tied up all the oddities that appeared earlier perfectly. It does also provide for a balanced closure, and left me my thoughts steaming over the book for awhile.

Rating 5/5 (well balanced flavors in the book – mystery, domestic noir, crime, suspense – promises to keep you guessing till the end)

Book Review – The Accident by S.D. Monaghan

I’ve been trying to get my hands on this book for awhile, and I must say I was pretty excited when I finally came across it in the ‘new releases’ section at my local library.  After further research, I realized this is a first, debut, novel for Monaghan (I especially love debut novels, by the way), though I might have guessed since I couldn’t find any other works by said author. So, let’s get down to it.

David and Tara have just moved into their beautiful house and are expecting a baby. Finally settling down with her ex-college professor has always been Tara’s dream – she was sure he is the one since a long time ago. However, as the reality of being with one man for the rest of her life starts setting in, she decides to have one last fling with who other than Ryan – her ex-boyfriend, who incidentally happens to be the builder-supervisor in charge of constructing their dream home! This is where things start getting interesting as we begin unraveling the deceit. To add to that, David discovers their illicit encounter, and confronts Ryan, and… things happen in the process.

This is your typical domestic noir psychological thriller chuck full of lies, deceit, scandals, flings, a ‘stolen kiss between illicit lovers in the dark corners of the house’ type of novel. All the elements one would expect from such a genre are there. What sets it apart is that it is very well written – scenes are descriptively written and quite creative in the use of imagery. Monaghan doesn’t patronizingly make use of long-winded complex sentences that are difficult to understand, but at the same time he shows you the set-up of the atmosphere, the scene, rather than tell it to you. The unexpected twists are spread out nicely over the middle of the book as well as towards the end. I couldn’t help reading on as I really wanted to find out what happened – again, signs of a good storyteller. Hints are dropped periodically, keeping that nagging doubt in your mind firmly where it belongs.

Just as the back page of the novel says – A thriller for fans of The Couple next door (review here) and books by Rachel Abbott – this debut was a commendable effort. My only complain is that the ending seems to tie everything up too nicely, even ending with a rather cheesy chapter. Sometimes I prefer when things are a little darker a little more noir, morally ambiguous, and so on. I know, I know, not everyone gets me.

Rating: 4.5/5 (Descriptive writing but yet easy to read. Addictive premise. Slightly lackluster ending)

Book Review – Sleep Tight by Rachel Abbott

I have been slow in reading recently, in part to perhaps a weariness of not having recently sent my eyes on a really good thriller. For ease of explanation, “really good” refers to a book that gets me thinking days after I’ve read it, and leaving remnants that still reside in the nooks and crannies of my brain even when I’ve already started reading the next book. More than I care to admit, I might have also been a little discouraged by some reviews from other readers. However, this was still interesting enough to get me to continue. Well, also not forgetting that it’s high time for another review-post. Okay, moving on from the chit-chat.

Robert and Olivia Brookes are married, with three kids. One day, Robert Brookes disappear with the three kids. Olivia files a police report and the police comes over to investigate. However, it seems that Olivia has forgotten that her husband told her he brought the kids to the beach, as shown when he later comes home with them to see the police swarming over their house. The case is thus closed and they move on, with Olivia being more careful not to forget. A decade later, Olivia is the one to disappear, as Robert returns home to find his wife and their kids missing. The police is once again called to investigate, and of course, they start uncovering secrets and things that just don’t add up. Detective Tom and Becky race again time to find out what happened to Olivia and her children.

Now that I’ve given you a sketchy outline of the story, I reckon you would think it sounds quite promising. It did sound that way to me too. Overall I felt the story could have been shortened at parts, as there were quite a number of parts where Olivia was “internalizing conversation” as she expresses how she feels. I would be fine with this as it gives us deep insight into how the characters think – but the thing was that it wasn’t exactly clear as to what she was referring to, or sometimes even who. I got confused at parts in the story as they referred to the two “similar” characters (inside hint for those who’ve read:brothers)

The plot itself was still alright, exciting enough to get me to continue but just short of heart-stopping for me to power through with unreserved motivation. There were some twists towards the end which was nice and unexpected, but I feel that they could have been more well-developed and reorganized to be less confusing for a longer lasting mind-gasm. I went ‘What? Who?’ (re-read last paragraph with furrowed eyebrows, trying to make sense of it all) Think of this: You’re doing it, and you’re almost there. Your partner, who should be screaming your name, starts telling you the complex procedure needed to transfer music from a PC into an iPhone for setting them up as its ringtone. Mood obliterated.


Rating: 3.5/5


P.S. I actually wanted to read ‘Stranger Child’ (by same author). I picked up this book as that was not available. I mean to give Rachel another chance. Till I manage to get my hands on that!

Book Review – The Lie by C.L. Taylor

INTRO: I’ve been hunting for books by this author for awhile now. As some of you may know, I thrive on an unhealthy diet of dark, psychological thrillers – the darker, the twistier, all the better. I look forward to having my mind blown, spun, and slid into the deep abysses. I look forward to a book which tells me all of the things which I shudder at even daring to think about. According to goodreads (cliched, yes I know), C.L. Taylor was one of the top selections – though I think ‘The Accident’ was the top pick (sadly I couldn’t find it).

BRIEF without spoilers: Jane Hudges has a loving partner and a animal caretaker job she enjoys working at. However, that wasn’t the case 5 years ago. Five years ago her real name was Emma, and she went on a holiday to Nepal with 3 of her friends – Daisy, Leanne and Al. They went on a Nepalese retreat in the mountains. That was when everything went wrong and secrets between their picture-perfect friendship started to unravel. Things start to get bad to worse. This story tells us what happened.

NARRATIVE STYLE: Alternating flashbacks between the present forward-moving and past forward-moving. Segregated by chapters, no surprises there.

WRITING is easy to read, fast paced. Minimal bombastic words. Rather the page-turner.

MY TWO CENTS’ WORTH: The first 3/4 of the book hooked me in, line, sinker and all. It was darn exciting and the turn of events quickly got very dark. I experienced the telltale signs of a good thriller – the “I better continue reading this in the morning” spine-chilling feeling. There were moments when I went Oh Shit… and the chapter cliffhanged, continuing with the flashback 5 years ago/later. I do take some issue with the last 1/4 of the book though. It is rather odd as MOST books will start slow but have a great later half – this book defies that generalization. So anyway, at the last 1/4 portion, too many characters got involved (of which some I’ve already forgotten who they are as they didn’t seem significant earlier) and events started seeming a tad too fantastic. If a similar situation had occurred, it seems that a logical person would have made different choices, and much earlier at that.

Having said all that, I did enjoy this book for the most part. Though I was kinda expecting more at the end , like something which would change my whole perspective on what I’ve just read ( I think about Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes at this point. Review here. Go read it if you haven’t. )

Rating: 4.5/5 (hooks you in at the beginning and start devouring you quickly, almost finishes satisfying you but stops short of doing that fully 🙂 )

Book Review – The Killing Lessons by Saul Black

A terrifyingly perversely addictive dark thriller to be read in the daytime. 5/5.

Do not read this. No reader deserves to be frightened by this” – screamed the front cover. Pffffttt… This, of course, egged me on even more. I love a hauntingly terrifying dark thriller, blacker than darkness itself. Kinda makes me remember what I read about an advertisement for a printer that has a new black ink that is true black, as compared to other inkjet printers that combine the three primary colors to make black, which is more like very, very dark grey in comparison. Anyway, I digress.

Two terrifying killers are on the loose, mutilating their victims in a obscene, unnaturally strange order. It is detective Valerie Hart’s job to uncover the mystery and piece the scraps of clues together. However, vodka-bingeing Valerie does not exactly have her life in order either, crippled with a devastating history of herself and the only man she’s ever loved. Meanwhile, one of the victim’s daughter manages to survive and run away from the crime scene. Badly injured in her escape, will she ever be able to make it in time to exact justice on her mother’s killers? In a twist of irony, the killers are not spared from mental stability either. Part of the story is told from their point of view.

This book manages to explore all the unspeakable fears we feel but do not say, or rather – do not dare to think about. Ruthlessness and perverseness are just some of the feelings that may creep into your mind when devouring the story. At many times, you may even be tempted to skip through a few pages or cheat and look ahead just to see where the plot brings you. I know, because it happened to me a few times (chuckle). I just wanted to silently motivate ten year old Nell (survivor of her mother’s murder) on. C’mon Nell, you can do it, don’t look behind now, No! Go the other waaayy, you get the idea. It is with such believability and relatability that Black connects you with the characters.

We also get to see through the eyes of the deranged, albeit mentally corrupted killers, and get some background information into how they became so. This balances the story somewhat without making the murders seem like faceless crimes, and also lends believability by giving them “motive” for their crime. I use “motive” here loosely for political correctness, as there is obviously no justifiable reason for their crime in modern civil society.

Overall, a very compelling page-turner. Don’t read this at night in the middle of a dark cabin smack in a secluded forest. you’ve been warned.

Rating: 5/5