Tag Archive | psychological suspense

The Kind Worth Killing – Peter Swanson

kindworthI have been in a bit of a reading slump this year – which seems like a ridiculous thing to say considering we are only two months in. The first couple of books I read at the start of 2017 were lackluster at best, and I just haven’t been able to find my reading groove. Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing may have actually changed all that.

Lily Kintner and Ted Severson meet in a bar at Heathrow. Over martinis,  Ted discloses a few details about his life including the fact that he thinks his wife, Miranda, is having an affair with Brad,  the contractor that is building their dream home in a coastal town in Maine.

Ted admits to Lily that he wants to kill his wife. Perhaps even more unusual, Lily offers to help. It might take a teensy bit of suspension of disbelief to believe that a cuckolded husband would meet a beautiful woman in a bar in a foreign country who expresses a desire to help him plan his wife’s murder, but stranger things have surely happened.

Once on the plane, Lily suggests that “…since we’re on a plane, and it’s a long flight, and we’re never going to see each other again, let’s tell each other the absolute truth. About everything.” During the trans-Atlantic flight, the two reveal tidbits both mundane and philosophical. Lily remarks: “…everyone is going to die eventually. If you killed your wife you would only be doing to her what would happen anyway. And you’d save other people from her. She’s a negative.”

Lily isn’t quite as forthcoming about her life as Ted is about his. Her story is revealed in alternating chapters. The daughter of  bohemian academics, Lily is an intelligent, thoughtful child. Through her eyes, we learn about growing up in “Monk’s House,” a Victorian mansion  deep in the Connecticut woods, about an hour from New York City.

There was never only one guest at Monk’s House, especially in the summertime when my parents’ teaching duties died down and they could focus on what they truly loved –  drinking and adultery. I don’t say that in order to make some sort of tragedy of my childhood. I say it because it’s the truth.

Lily has a skewed morality, but it’s the very thing that makes her such a fascinating character. She’s a charming psychopath, and it’s almost impossible not to like her, to root for her, even. She’s  – by far –  the most interesting of cast of characters in Swanson’s novel. She reminded me a little bit of Alice Morgan, a character in the brilliant BBC crime series, Luther. (If you haven’t ever seen the show, you must watch it immediately. It’s on Netflix.)

There are twists and turns aplenty in The Kind Worth Killing. The plot did unravel slightly for me towards the end, but that in no way undermined my enjoyment of the shenanigans these people got up to.

The Kind Worth Killing was a whim purchase for me. I needed a book for my book club and this one was popular on Litsy. I am pleased to report that everyone in my group really enjoyed the book, even though it was definitely a departure from the sort of stuff we normally read.

This is a page-turner.

A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay

23019294Paul Tremblay’s novel A Head Full of Ghosts has been sucking up all the oxygen on the Internet for the past few weeks and even Stephen King said that it scared the “living hell” out of him. As you might imagine, that’s probably pretty hard to do and therefore high praise.

The Barrett family are kinda sorta normal in a completely dysfunctional way. Dad, John, has just been made redundant at the job where he’s worked for the last nineteen years. Times are tough and he hasn’t been able to find work since. Mom, Sarah, is tense and cold. Then there are the daughters: fourteen-year-old Marjorie and eight-year-old Meredith or Merry. The story is actually narrated by Merry, aged 23. She is sharing what happened to her family the year she was eight with best-selling author Rachel Neville but she is unsure how to proceed because she doesn’t “know how to explain to her that [her] sister hasn’t aged at all in fifteen-plus years and there never was a before everything happened.”

Despite the six year age gap, Marjorie and Merry are close. They share made up stories and have a sister-speak  shorthand. When Merry visited Marjorie’s room “she was convinced that [she] was going to grow up exactly like Marjorie, entering her room was like discovering a living, breathing map of [her] future.”  Lately, though, Marjorie has begun to act strange.

She tells Merry that the posters on her walls “disembodied hands, legs, arms, hair and a pair of eyes” were like that when Marjorie had woken up. She writes Merry a note that tells her:

I sneak into your room when you are asleep, Merry-Monkey. I’ve been doing it for weeks now, since the end of summer. You’re so pretty when you are asleep. Last night, I pinched your nose shut until you opened your mouth and gasped.

Merry isn’t the only one concerned about Marjorie. She’s seeing a psychologist and then John decides he needs to get the church involved. That’s how the Barrett family find themselves at the center of a reality television series, The Possession. No one could have predicted how it would all turn out, least of all Merry, but when she agrees to talk to Rachel Neville, the veil of what really happened in the Barrett house is lifted.

Or is it?

A Head Full of Ghosts is not scary, let’s just get that out of the way. It’s creepy and mind-bending and certainly capitalizes on the whole reality TV phenomenon. But full out pants-wetting scares are in short supply.

Truthfully, I am not sure how I feel about this book. I didn’t love it. I found it odd and unsettling, for sure, and neither of those things are bad necessarily, but I wasn’t enthralled. I kept changing my mind about what I thought was really going on  – which also isn’t a bad thing. I don’t need my fiction to be tidy.

I guess how I feel about A Head Full of Ghosts is that despite its numerous accolades, I wouldn’t tell everyone to read it, but I definitely would read another book by Tremblay. How’s that for wishy-washy?

 

 

 

I Let You Go – Clare Mackintosh

There have been a lot of books in the suspense thriller vein of late and I love them, especialllet you goy in the summer when I just want to give my brain a break from school.  Publishers always want to draw comparisons to Gone Girl, which is the book that perhaps kick-started this newest craze, but I think it’s better to let a book stand on its own bookish merits.

Clare Mackintosh’s novel I Let You Go is definitely top of the thriller heap. I couldn’t put this book down and galloped through it in just a couple of sittings.

In the book’s opening pages, a mother is walking home in the pouring rain with her young son. Just at the road across the street from their home, he lets go of her hand and runs across the street. Out of nowhere, a car comes barreling down the street and hits the boy. From this point on, I Let You Go is a grab-you-by-the-throat suspense thriller that follows Jenna Gray as she goes to the Welsh coast to escape the tragic death and the police detectives, Ray and Kate, who are trying to find the driver behind the wheel.

Jenna’s grief is palpable. “Everything has changed,” she muses. “The instant the car slid across the wet tarmac, my whole life changed.” She stays until she can’t anymore and then, packing only what will fit into her holdall, including a box of treasures from her life, she runs away.

Unable to resist, I open the box and pick up the uppermost photo: a Polaroid taken by a soft-spoken midwife on the day he was born. He is a tiny scrap of pink, barely visible beneath the white hospital blanket.

As a mom, it’s hard to imagine how Jenna will ever survive this tragedy, but survive she must. She finally settles in a tiny tourist town called Penfach, somewhere outside of Swansea. There she rents an isolated, dilapidated cottage and begins the arduous process of overcoming her grief.

In the meantime, Ray and Kate sift through the non-existent evidence, hoping for a break in the case. Mackintosh spent twelve years as a police officer and so these sections are authentic, but don’t weigh the narrative down with unnecessary police jargon. In addition, Ray and Kate – especially Ray – are given interesting personal lives, which add another dimension to the story.

It doesn’t always work, but it does here – Mackintosh pushes the story along and months pass. Jenna starts to make a life for herself; Ray and Kate are taken off the hit and run case because they’ve done all they can do and then all hell breaks loose in a totally WTF fashion. You’ll know what I mean when you get there and from that moment on, it is a breathless race to the book’s conclusion.

LOVED IT!

 

 

 

The Crooked House – Christobel Kent

I can certainly see why Christobel Kent’s novel The Crooked House has drawn comparisons with the British mystery Broadchurch. Like that story, Kent’s novel takes place in an isolated village (in this case, Saltleigh) and concerns a horrific crime which has rippled out into the community.

Alison used to be Esme and when she was fourteen her entire family was slaughtered. 748d3761900605840ce32be83a67d549Since that horrible night, Alison has flown under the radar. She lived first with her aunt in the south and then, after school, she moved to London where she worked in publishing, and where she met Paul. Paul is older, in his forties, and a professor. They had “Long, lazy conversations about books and movies and work, eating dinner at his big wooden table, or leaning against each other on his old sofa.” Alison likes him, so when he asks her to accompany him to Saltleigh to attend the wedding of a former girlfriend, she can’t seem to refuse even though she hasn’t been back since the crime.

Saltleigh is the same as Alison remembers.The smells, the colours, the landscape, and the memories of living there with her older brother, younger twin sisters, and her parents are palpable. On the first morning, while Paul sleeps on, Alison answers the memories and goes to her childhood home.

The house was boarded and derelict, weathered plywood splintered and graffitied at each window and the purple spikes of some plant sprouting above the lintel over the front door. The little enclosed yard behind where they had hidden and whispered and left secret messages. Thirteen years.

Despite the fact that she has spent the last thirteen years trying to forget, the memories have been triggered by coming back and she can do nothing but follow where they lead. What really happened that night?

The Crooked House was clearly a big hit in the UK. My version was covered with praise – a combination of praise from other authors, which is always suspect to me, and from the press.  Good Housekeeping said it “Demands to be read in one sitting.” I think that might actually be wise advice because although I did like this book (it’s clever, smart and well-written), I found it really disjointed. It shifts time periods all over the damn place and there are loads of characters and subplots (all relevant, mind you) to keep track of. If I managed to read without interruption, I easily settled into the book’s rhythms. but it definitely wasn’t a book you could pick up on the fly.

I think this book would make an excellent mini-series or movie. Get on that, would you, BBC!

I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Iain Reid

Um. WTF? So, I saw I’m Thinking of Ending Things at the book store. Sounded good. Bought it. Read it straight through. Listened to author Iain Red talk about it on CBC Radio. You were no help at all, by the way, Iain, so I am going to work on the premise that I know what happened. Kinda. Sorta.

Im+Thinking+of+Ending+ThingsThe unnamed narrator and her boyfriend, Jake, are on their way to visit Jake’s parents for the very first time. Their relationship is new, but already the narrator is “thinking of ending things.”  It’s not that she doesn’t like Jake. They met at a party and she tells us “He wasn’t the first guy I noticed that night. But he was the most interesting.”

On the long, snowy drive to Jake’s family home Reid’s characters exchange awkward conversation about, among other things,  secrets, space, and memory. She remarks, “Part of everything will always be forgettable. No matter how good or remarkable it is. It literally has to be. To be.”

The journey also gives her an opportunity to catalogue her relationship with Jake. She mentions the way he chews, the toothpaste lingering on the corner of his mouth, his “jagged cheekbones.”  The narrator comments that “Individually, we’re both unspectacular.” But that isn’t exactly true.

When the narrator and Jake finally arrive at the family farm, it’s isolated and creepy. A tour of the outbuildings reveals dead lambs “Limp and lifeless, stacked  up outside against the side of the barn.” They visit empty pigpens and the chicken coop before the narrator catches a glimpse of a “gaunt figure, standing, looking down at us.” Don’t go in that house is probably what you’re thinking. You wouldn’t be wrong because from this point on I’m Thinking of Ending Things takes a turn off awkward street onto sinister avenue.

Jake’s parents are strange. His dad is “reserved, borderline standoffish.” Jake’s mom smiles a lot and is wearing “so much makeup I find it unsettling.” Dinner conversation is bizarre. Jake contributes nothing; “I have never seen Jake so singularly focused on his plate of food.”

A surreptitious tour of the house reveals a basement that Jake had claimed was not used, but which the narrator reveals is “not true at all.”  She discovers a disturbing painting and a bookshelf filled with pages and pages of equally disturbing drawings.

And all this would be enough to make your skin crawl, but Reid’s novel is not nearly as straightforward as this. For instance, the narrator has been receiving strange phone calls from someone she refers to as “The Caller.”  When she doesn’t answer, he leaves her strange, cryptic messages: “I feel a little crazy. I’m not lucid” says the first. The narrator also refers to a childhood memory of being watched through her bedroom window. Trying to figure out how these elements play into Reid’s narrative is half the fun of this puzzle of a book. Or half the frustration, depending on how you look at it.

By the novel’s conclusion, I thought I’d figured out what was going on. I actually thought I’d figured it out by page 88. If I’m right, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a trippy, creepy thriller that pushes lots of suspense-thriller boundaries. It also has something to say about  identity and memory. Even if I’m not right – and we’ll never know because, hello – spoilers – it’s still a great book.

Highly recommended.

 

Still Mine – Amy Stuart

I haven’t read a book quite as weird as Amy Stuart’s Still Mine  in a long time and I still can’t decide whether it was good weird or just weird. It reminded me a little of Go With Me – a quirky, but affecting novel by Castle Freeman Jr.

still-mine-9781476790428_hrClare O’Dey has run away from her abusive husband, Jason. In an unusual twist, the man Jason sends to find her, Malcolm Boon,  hires Clare to go to Blackmore, a remote mining town in the mountains, to look for another missing woman, Shayna Fowles.  For reasons that won’t be immediately clear, Clare invests wholeheartedly in the search for Shayna, a woman whose past is as tricky and messed up as Clare’s.

Blackmore is a shriveled up nothing of a town. “A blast at the Blackmore Coal Mine five years ago killed thirty-two men and trapped  eighteen others underground for three weeks,”  Malcolm’s notes tell Clare. She pretends to be a photographer in town to take pictures, but it’s a ruse no one buys. The only hotel in town is closed and so Clare rents a trailer on Charlie Merritt’s property. Charlie is the town drug dealer and his property (his father and brothers were killed in the mine) butts up against Shayna’s parents’ place.  Clare figures it will be a good place to snoop.

Blackmore is filled with broken people: Jared, Shayna’s ex-husband; Sara, her friend; Derek, the town’s only doctor and Shayna’s parents, Louise (who is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s) and Wilfred, her father, the man responsible for saving the eighteen men who did make it out of the mine alive (but also the man Charlie holds responsible for the deaths of his father and siblings). None of them seem to know what happened to Shayna and with no police in town, no one is looking for her.

As Clare attempts to find out what has happened and which of the town’s odd assortment of outcasts might be responsible for Shayna’s disappearance, her own past is revealed; her own frailties are exposed. Like Shayna, Clare has a penchant for drugs and alcohol, making Charlie particularly dangerous to her. She also finds herself strangely attracted to Shayna’s ex-husband, Jared. She forges a bond with Louise, replacing the mother she recently lost to cancer. In many ways, Clare steps into the life Shayna has abandoned. Even so she realizes

These people in Blackmore, they are not Clare’s friends. Derek and Jared and Sara and Charlie. They are not even one another’s friends. They are only characters in Shayna’s story and Shayna is not here.

Still Mine is an unusual, albeit strange, psychological mystery. Apparently there is a sequel on the way, but I was quite content with how the book ended.

Definitely worth checking out.

 

That Night – Chevy Stevens

I suppose that some fans of psychological suspense might call BC-based Chevy Stevens the Canadian Gillian that nightFlynn – except that, in my opinion, Flynn takes the prose prize and the plotting prize and, well, all the prizes, really. Sorry, Chevy.

This is the second novel I’ve read by Stevens. The first, Still Missing, won the International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel in 2011. I liked Still Missing, actually, though – if memory serves – I wasn’t keen on its ending. I didn’t like anything about That Night, although I wanted to. I didn’t abandon it to my Book Graveyard, though,  and I guess that’s saying something. Maybe it’s because Stevens is Canadian.

Toni Murphy and her boyfriend, Ryan Walker,  are in prison for the murder of Toni’s younger sister, Nicole. They maintain their innocence and while the evidence against them is circumstantial at best, they’ve both been locked away for fifteen years. (Not in the same institution, obviously.) The novel weaves between the events leading up to Nicole’s horrific murder, Toni’s incarceration and ultimate release (after serving her full sentence) and her attempts to reintegrate herself into society in her hometown of Campbell River, a town on Vancouver Island.

Toni is the problem child and Ryan is the son of a drunken criminal – so a bad boy by blood. Everyone seems to be waiting for them to get into trouble even though Toni seems more like a victim than a victimizer. She and Ryan are just waiting for high school to be over so they can get on with their lives together. Toni is especially anxious to get out of Dodge because of Shauna McKinney. “Most of the girls in our class either feared her or desperately wanted to be her friend, which I guess was kind of the same thing in the end,” Toni observes. Toni and Shauna used to be friends, but a misunderstanding over a boy changed all that and now Shauna does whatever it takes to make life living hell for Toni. Clearly, Toni is not as bad-ass as people think she is.

Nicole is the golden girl, the  mom’s favoured daughter because of her grades and sunny disposition. Until she starts hanging out with Shauna and her hench-women. Then she’s sneaking out of the house, coming home drunk and acting all weird.

Stevens’ first person narration allows us to see Toni’s journey through her final months in high school and then a sped up fifteen years in the big house where we watch Toni negotiate her way through a system that is bound to fail her. She makes friends; she makes enemies, and finally she is paroled. One of the conditions of her parole is that she has no contact with Ryan, who has also been released and who has also headed back to Campbell River. Despite the no contact rule which, if broken, has the potential to send them back to jail,  Toni and Ryan are determined to find out what really happened to Nicole.

Mostly I didn’t like That Night because I didn’t care about any of the characters. Toni’s parents were particularly irksome. Yes, it’s true that they’ve lost one daughter at, supposedly, the hands of another. But she swears she didn’t do it. How about a little faith, people?

When the true story of what happens is finally revealed, all the pieces click into place with precision, but ultimately this is less a mystery and more a story (sort of) of redemption. I found the writing a bit clunky – lots of exposition – and the characterizations superficial. For me, That Night wasn’t all that.