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

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

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 – 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 – 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 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

Book Review – I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

an excellent psychological thriller

Ahhh.. what could be better than devouring a heart-stopping thriller that nags away at my mind every time I have to put it down, continually urging me on to greedily sip away at the rapidly simmering plot. You know a thriller is that good when you reach a stage you try to read it slowly so it doesn’t end so quickly, but yet you yearn to find out what happens next.

I guess I didn’t bother to disguise in the opening of this post that I thoroughly enjoyed this book – my first one by this author. Writing was easy to read, flowing prose – short and rapid-fire lines to build suspense and long structured sentences where detailed explanations were needed.

Jenny Gray, devastated with the loss of her son in a traffic accident and unable to deal with the public opinion that she just let him go ‘for a split second’ before a car rammed into him, escaped from her home to the countryside to leave her past behind. What happens next? Can she ever truly run away from it all?

MAJOR spoiler follows in white text: ( Of course, if you’ve already read the book, Jenna didn’t lose her son; she was the wife of the cause of someone losing their son) END spoiler.

The twist around the middle of the story was absolutely astonishing. And totally unexpected. The plot thickens quickly after that; and we find out more details about her history. The story is simultaneously told from the perspective of the two detectives on this hit-and-run case. I enjoyed how the sub-plot from their view is substantially enjoyable as well (in some cases the author doesn’t develop them properly, instead focusing on the main plot). Chapters are chopped up into neat and appropriate chunks. Oh, did I mention a counter-twist towards the end? Twist-ception indeed!

Most of the characters were believable and people you could feel sympathetic to. Of course, there were unlikable characters as well. So thoroughly unlikable that the more you read on, the more you would wish them dead. Mackintosh does a great job at throwing you clues here and there: a single word, sometimes a little phrase that makes your blood run cold – something a book can do that would require a spectacular director to emulate in a movie. I absolutely could not put down the last few chapters, almost afraid the ending would be one I did not like. Thankfully, that did not happen.

I look forward to reading more from Mackintosh.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I’ve gotta apologize for taking so darn long to write my next review. Gone Girl just took sooooo long to read. I got interested in this as many readers have compared it to The Girl on the Train, which was one the books I’ve read before this.

To start off, this is a great book because of several reasons. The climax of the story, unlike some other mediocre thrillers, is not a “two-pump chump” one. It is unlike a ‘sneeze’ towards the end (pardon the reference) – but akin to a slow release of dopamine. The heart-pumping, jaw-dropping moment actually starts around the middle of the book, and like a good whiskey, leaves a long lingering pleasant aftertaste all the way to the end. I thought the ending was rather unique, it does not have a heart-stopping deeply catharsis ending like Behind Her Eyes, but one that still leaves me well satisfied – the kind of ending that makes me think of Edgar Allan Poe, somehow. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it is such a suitable ending for psychological thrillers feat. unstable state of minds.

Well first, a quick summary: Nick Dunne lives with his wife, Amy. They have been married five years. Amy disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary. As the police investigates, Nick becomes the main suspect as clues pointing to problems in their marriage surface. This carries on all the way to right about halfway in the novel. Then the twist, and the other side of the story begins. I couldn’t tell you any more about the story without giving away the best bits – except perhaps to say that the “state of mind” play is rather brilliant.

The story is narrated in the voices of the two main characters – Nick and Amy. It goes back and forth between the present Nick and the past Amy. It would normally irk me as I don’t do flashbacks very well. However, Flynn helps her readers out here by chronologically ‘time-stamping’ each change in narrative. As the story goes on the past and present melds together into one very nicely towards the end.

Rating: 4.8/5 (loved the ending, loved the pleasantly lingering aftertaste of a good book that carried me from the middle towards the end and thereafter. Loved the state of mind plays.   Cons: very slow beginning – you start to wonder if you’ll like the book, and if this is going to be another run-of-the-mill thriller (it isn’t). The beginning of the book was when I took the most time to read, compared to total time taken for the entire book)

Book Review – A Stranger in the House by Shari Lapena

Tom and Karen Krupp are the perfect happy couple. She waits for him to come home from his accounting job everyday with a nice home-cooked meal in tow. They are even planning to start a family soon. However, one evening, Karen disappears, leaving her cell phone in the house, doors unlocked, pasta water boiling. She subsequently gets into a car accident and suffers from amnesia, forgetting what happens that night. Tom gets home, couldn’t find her, calls her friends and then the police. A dead man gets found a few days later. As she gets investigated due to the murder (it took place near the place of her accident), she slowly regains her memory, recalling the frightening events that took place that fateful night.

As I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but find similarities to Lapena’s first novel I read “The Couple Next Door“. The narration is mostly third-person and thus makes for easy reading. Some people however, would find it boring and yearn for the messiness of flashbacks, different perspectives, etc. The pleasant thing I found about Lapena’s writing is that she doesn’t wait TOO long to show you her secret. For example, something might happen, and makes you eager to find out why. Most of the time, the ‘why’ is answered in the next chapter (or next few).

As usual, this book has not disappointed the love-for-domestic-thrillers in me. in the spirit of her previous book, everyone has secrets to hide. Well, almost everyone. Even her neighbors are involved. (Hint, hint). Plot is fast paced and uncovering of secrets quite nicely paced out. i thought I would be left unfulfilled at the ending but turns out the last two pages did justice to that. Several parts left me reeling, plus the characters are really believable too.

Rating: 4.75/5 (Good pace of plot twists, easy reading. Doesn’t leave you on a cliffhanger for long – some might like it, some might not, to each his own. Great ending but a little abrupt, could have been more work done there leading up to the conclusion)

Book Review – The Collector by John Fowles

This book had been lauded as one of the pioneers of the psychological thriller genre. “Hailed as the first modern psychological thriller” was the exact phrase quoted, I believe. So I naturally got rather excited about it.

It is a little different from the books I’ve read so far. Most of those are in the fashion of a shocking plot twist or slow unraveling of events more than halfway or towards the end of the story. For this novel, the crux of the story lies not in the twist of events, but rather the psychological state of mind of the main narrator, as well as the mind games played by our two protagonists.

Frederick C is an entomologist (a word I’ve googled that means butterfly collector). He capture specimens, kills them, preserves them and puts them away in his collection. His favorites are of course, rare specimens. His social inadequacies limits his interaction with others and as a result he keeps to himself most of the time. He sees Miranda, a young art student at an art gallery one day, and not unlike capturing a rare specimen – he formulates a plan to capture her. The rest of the story is about the events that transpire when Miranda is in his ‘possession’, so to speak. We get to hear the story both from the twisted mind of Frederick and the prisoner- Miranda, in a first person narrative style, which is interesting as you start to understand the turning of the cogs in a deranged person’s mind.

Even though the plot of the story is a terrible and horrific one (young girl gets captured and imprisoned by middle aged man – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what usually happens), there is something uncommon about the situation. It does not develop in the usual predatory way, but rather in a clinical way, almost artfully described. His careful yet distancing treatment of her is perverted yet I couldn’t take my eyes off the pages. Plus, the use of her narrative does lend a fresh perspective on the story too.

Rating 5/5 (I can see why this was likened to a pioneer in modern psychological thrillers. Unputdownable, riveting. See inside the head of a social outcast with mental issues, but all laid out in a almost what one might call tasteful way. I look forward to reading his other works)