Book Review – Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

An much darker-noir version of the movie 50 First Dates!

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An much darker-noir version of the movie 50 First Dates (if you’ve seen it!).

What would you do when your mind has turned against you, when the grey matter inside your head that differentiates truth from make-believe cannot be trusted?

TL:DR summary: Christine Lucas had a tragic accident which causes her memory to ‘reset’ every morning; effectively she cannot remember everything from a point in her childhood up to the night before she falls asleep. After waking up in bed one morning with the man she has been married for decades with, she is guided by somebody (no spoilers here) to find a journal, in which she discovers she has secretly been writing down the day-to-day events of the last few weeks. What secrets will she discover? Captain Obvious hint: some things aren’t what they seem (again, no spoilers!). The answer here is not so obvious! The guessing game and many twist and turns that Watson teases you with from time to time will send your head spinning.

To me a debut novel generally sets the tone for the kind of work the author would excel at, or at least give the reader a glimpse of the kind of themes they would be comfortable writing on. I’ve been searching for this book for awhile now, and after reading Watson’s second novel Second Life, I definitely had high hopes for this one. Notwithstanding the fact that this is slightly higher rated on goodreads.

This is a difficult book to put down. The narrative is fast spaced and unlike some psychological thrillers which take awhile to take off, this is akin to a bloodsucking leech that refuses to give up, gripping you from the very start and refusing to let you go until the very last word. I consider this book to be very special because of the blurred lines drawn between reality and fantasy. What would you do when your mind has turned against you, when the very thing inside your head that differentiates truth from make-believe cannot be trusted? Are you actually starting to go crazy and imagining things? I absolutely loved the premise – anything is possible.

The chronological narrative may seem messy at first. It goes like this: present day – 3 weeks before in a forward linear fashion up to almost present day – then present day moving forward inter spacing with the past few days! However, I feel that Watson has done a fantastic job of not driving the reader crazy with well spaced chapters with dates to help with the setting.

Rating: 5/5 (an absolute must-read for fans of psychological thrillers)

 

Book Review – Second Life by S.J. Watson

Do you live two lives? Have another side of you no one knows about? Do you compartmentalize a secret life from you significant other, children, close friends, etc?

Do you live two lives? Have another side of you no one knows about? Do you compartmentalize a secret life from you significant other, children, close friends, etc? Julia is one such person. In her public life, she’s married to a top surgeon, has a son, and lives a suburban English life in London. On the other side of the line she has a lot more on her plate than she has let on to anybody else. Having just got over the loss (brutal murder) of her sister Kate, she grapples with raising her teenage son and at the same time privately investigating the cause of her sister’s murder.

The most exciting part of this book comes after the one-third mark. Although the beginning was a tad slow, it was interesting enough not to make the whole process overly weary. Right after I learn about Julia’s “other life” is when things start getting interesting. You see, this all unravels when she starts investigating her sister’s murder, driving her deeper and deeper into a pit she is unable to climb out of. Ina sadistic way, a part of me – actually most part of me, really wanted her to go down that slide, just to find out what would come out of it.

Although there are places where I find her actions somewhat extraordinary, Watson tries to explain through Julia’s POV in her stream-of-consciousness ramblings – it also helps that we learn of her past alcohol addiction and panic attacks, and later on – her drug history. This certainly helped me feel more relatable to her and her actions. Perhaps if you’re struggling with a married with kids scenario, Julia is presenting to you a solution to that problem, together with all the justifications you would probably have made in your head.

Of course, in true psychological thriller style, the plot twists at the end were nothing short of a blast. Who really killer her sister? Is her husband who he says he is? Is her relationship with her son all that straightforward? You’ll have to read it like I did, to find out. My only gripe here is that I found the ending a little complex to understand, underneath the tangled web of relationships. A few times I went: Who is related to who again?

Rating: 4.75/5 (slow start but picks up good momentum less than halfway through, unexpected plot twists, dramatic ending albeit slightly complex.

Book Review – After Anna by Alex Lake

Relatable psychological thriller for all parents

A refreshing read from the crime based psychological thrillers I’ve been feeding on so far. My head is still reeling from the heart-pounding shocking revelations that happened towards the end of the story. I say this again, you should read it if you’re game for a tale of an unbelievable but yet entirely possible story, and even more relatable would it be to you if you’re a parent yourself.

As usual, a short summary: 5 year old Anna had been forgotten to be picked up from school by her mum, Julia. She goes missing for a week. Public pleas, missing persons report in the papers all to no avail. Julia is devastated – it doesn’t help that her marriage is not exactly in a good place either. A week later, Anna shows up unharmed but with no recollection of what happened. At this point, I was like, WTF? *intrigued* why the hell would someone kidnap a 5 year old and return her a week later unharmed? Oh, this is not a spoiler BTW. It was pretty early in the story where the kidnapper’s POV took place. So anyway, the real problems took place (interestingly enough) after Anna was returned. Such a refreshing storyline. Whodunnit mysteries always get my attention. I was trying hard to guess who was the main culprit behind all that kidnapping halfway through, and this time I finally got it (yeeah)!

Writing is fast-paced, and un-put-down-able. I haven’t used that description on a book for ages, because it simply wasn’t true. Sometimes the book starts slow and pick up later. Some books I’ll put down for a good show on TV. Or a chance to go out and get wasted. But this one, I’ll bring along to read while getting wasted. I enjoyed the ending of the book to boot – nothing too cherry-blossomy or tied-up-in-a-neat-packagey, but the kind of open ended closure I have learned to adore.

Notable point: You get the narrative from the kidnapper’s point of view interspersed with the main narrative, but it doesn’t give anything away. This does kick up the suspense a notch. For those who’ve read it already – I’m sure you’ll all agree that I couldn’t think of anyone better than THAT person to be the kidnapper, and ultimately to be served due justice, isn’t it?

I am sure this will be relatable to all readers who are parents, and even to some of those who aren’t. What happens when your child disappears one day? When you forget to pick him/her up from school? Anna’s fear, coping mechanism and course of actions were all very thoroughly explored and thus drew me in. I could sympathize with her situation, and I guess it made the whole narrative so much more endearing to me.

Rating: 5/5 (good plot device, refreshing storyline, fast paced, relatable to parents, balanced ending)

I look forward to reading more books from this author. Until then!

Book Review – The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney

50 Shades of Grey meets Gone Girl?

I was particularly intrigued by a fellow reader’s comments on this book. 50 Shades of Grey meets Gone Girl. Well, I kinda enjoyed both of those books more than I would care to publicly admit, so when I found it available at the public library I was browsing at, I immediately checked it out in anticipation of an exciting read.

The premise on the outset seems clichĂ©d and overused. Spoiler-free summary first. Emma and her partner Simon are looking for a place to stay within their budget when they came across this house, which came at a very special price. It was within their budget and yet its beautiful minimalist modernist design far exceeded their expectations. However, it does come with a set of rules written by its architect who happens to be semi famous. Some of those rules happen to be well, unorthodox (think no carpets, no pictures, etc). Flash forward to several years later – Jane, who is recovering from a personal tragedy, also stumbles upon this house and decides to stay there, for the same reasons as Emma (nice place and great price point). She slowly discovers the reason why the previous occupant is no longer staying there, and how much similarities she share with her.

The narrative flickers back and forth between Emma:Then and Jane:Now. I use flicker in this sense because each section is usually only a couple of pages long. There’s even a blank page! Quite a clever use of stylistic element there if you ask me. This does make for unconfusing reading, albeit unconventional.

The best part about this novel is how it held me in suspense, how it made me constantly wonder what exactly was going on inside their minds. It was only later when you realize what they are saying vs what they are actually thinking doesn’t always correlate. Oh yes, they lie. A lot The use of the unreliable narrator here is awesome to say the least. Oh, and the icing on top – the rules, sexual escapades that take place, does invoke a certain nostalgic deja vu from 50 Shades! Get prepared for some shocks!

There are several commendable plot twists here, which I will have to refrain from describing for a spoiler free review unfortunately, but it does come close to Gone Girl.

I only take issue with the ending of the book. I felt it could’ve been ended with a better wow factor. I was expecting another plot twist at the very last page, but I waited for a final climax that didn’t come (pun intended 🙂 ). Well worth the read though.

Rating : 5/5

Book Review – I See You by Clare Mackintosh

Finally! I’ve read another psychological thriller I feel worthy of the genre and all the elements associated with it. Deceit, suspense, lies, etc. I thrive on that sort of thing.

Following from the first novel I’ve read from Mackintosh, I feel that this one does it better. I’m not saying the previous one I’ve read (I Let You Go) is bad – on the contrary it was very good too (5/5), but this one is even better. The premise, though albeit slightly unbelievable, is still nonetheless intriguing and hooked me in, line-sinker and all.

The story bubbles with suspense – which was why I loved it. You know how horror movies create suspense through lighting, music, and so on? Well, Mackintosh does exactly that through her writing. How brilliant is that? My heart was pounding against my ribs as I neared the big reveal towards the end, I swear I might have even cheated by restlessly peeking ahead just to glimpse an idea of what was going to happen.

The story is narrated from two people’s point of view mainly – Zoe and Kelly. Zoe saw her face in the newspapers one day while she was on the Tube (underground subway), but she couldn’t be sure it was here as the image was just a little grainy. After that, she noticed another familiar face in the papers, and so on. She starts uncovering the mystery behind the photos, as well as why the people listed in the papers start dying one after the other. Kelly, who is a police officer, receives the report from these women whose photos appear in the papers. She works with the Transport Police to uncover the mystery before they run out of time and more people are killed.

The twist at the end was satisfying, just like in ‘I Let You Go’ and did not disappoint. Even the very final twist at the epilogue ended the story with just the perfect amount of flourish just so that it doesn’t seem too overly “neatly wrapped-up”. Mackintosh hinted at so many possible suspects along the way, giving away so many clues here and there but not committing to anyone that it really kept me on the edge. The characters are so likable it caused me to sympathize with some of them, silently rooting for their innocence.

An excellent psychological thriller well worth reading, contains the correct ingredients for this genre and laden heavily with suspense.

Rating: 5/5

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)