The Hypnotist – Lars Keplar

I am going to take a little break from reading translations now. I know some people don’t mind them, but it’s the rare translation that doesn’t irk me. Lars Keplar’s well-reviewed suspense thriller The Hypnotist was another translated miss for me.

Detective Joona Linna is on the hunt for a serial killer after a family is discovered in their home stabbed to death. Well, the father was killed elsewhere, the oldest sister is missing, and the son – although suffering from major injuries – has survived, but is in a coma. Linna figures that time is of the essence because what if the killer is after the sister? He needs whatever information the survivor, Josef, can provide. Who you gonna call?

That would be Erik Maria Bark, disgraced hypnotherapist. He’s got all sorts of professional and personal baggage, but he’s absolutely the dude you want to call if you want to reach someone unreachable. Apparently. He takes some convincing, though, because he has sworn off practicing hypnosis.

Okay – so I was relatively invested in the beginning. Gruesome murder. Conflicted doctor. Whodunnit. You know, all the things. But then the translation started to irritate me, mostly the dialogue which always seems clunky and inauthentic to me. I sorta feel like once something’s been translated into English, a native English speaker needs to have a pass at it to smooth out the rough edges or something. Or maybe that’s what has happened. In any case, when there’s a lot of dialogue it just rips me out of the story because I keep think, people don’t speak this way.

Listen to this exchange between Linna and a witness. (And it’s not even a good example.)

After a while a man appears with a towel wound around his hips. His skin looks as if it’s burning; he’s leathery and very tanned. “Hi. I was on the sun bed.”

Nice,” says Joona.

“No, it isn’t,” Tobias Franzen replies. “There’s an enzyme missing from my liver. I have to spend two hours a day on that thing.”

“That’s quite another matter, of course,” Joona says dryly.

“You wanted to ask me something.”

“I want to know if you saw or heard anything unusual in the early morning of Saturday, December twelfth.”

Tobias scratches his chest. His fingernails leave white marks on his sunburned skin.

“Let me think, last Friday night. I’m sorry, but I can’t really remember anything in particular.

OK, thank you very much, that’s all,” says Joona, inclining his head.

Yep. That’s your crack detective, right there. No wonder it took 500 pages to solve this thing.

And then, the whole thing started to fall apart for me.

Josef goes missing. And then is rarely mentioned again. His sister is put into witness protection…and is rarely mentioned again. Then we get all this stuff about Erik Maria Bark’s past. (Yes, that’s how he’s referred to almost every time.) And his son, Benjamin, goes missing. And his wife’s ex-cop father gets involved. And all these previous hypnosis patients come into the mix. I just lost interest in the whole proceeding and I slogged through only because I was mildly interested in seeing how the whole thing played out.

Unsatisfactorily, I must say.

This is the beginning of a series featuring Detective Linna. I will not be reading any more.

Our Little Secret – Roz Nay

New-to-me Canadian writer Roz Nay’s debut, Our Little Secret, delivers the goods. I couldn’t put this book down.

Our Little Secret is Angela Petitjean’s story, and it unfurls in an interrogation room at the local police station. Detective Novak is asking questions about a missing woman, Saskia Parker.

That’s the thing: they sound like they’re asking about Saskia, but all roads lead to Mr. Parker and me. The police want to know if I’m in love with him, and they ask it like it’s the simplest explanation rather than the most complicated. My definition is nothing like theirs, though.

Angela meets HP, (the Mr. Parker in question) when they are in Grade 10. This is a new school for Angela and she tells the detective that “Moving when you’re fifteen is terrifying.” Angela is immediately targeted by the mean, cool girls until HP comes to her rescue. That moment forges a bond between the two teens. Over the course of the next two years, Angela (or “Little John” as he calls her) and HP are inseparable, but not romantically linked.

I never understood why HP had chosen me as his friend, or how I’d gotten an all-access pass to him. It was like having a key to the White House. He told me everything he thought and felt and wanted, and I don’t think he told anyone else in the world…

By the end of high school, though, their relationship shifts gears. And then, Angela gets an opportunity to spend a year at Oxford, but HP stays behind. The distance complicates their new status. Enter Saskia, an effusive Australian HP meets while visiting Angela in England..

Our Little Secret garnered a lot of praise when it was published in 2017. I find thrillers are hit and miss. They sound good, but they ultimately disappoint. Not this one.

I felt terrific sympathy for Angela, who claims and maintains her innocence after Saskia goes missing. Her friendship and then romantic relationship with HP is believable and complicated. There’s angst here and I love me some angst. It’s only as her story unravels, that we start to see that her version of events might be just a tad unreliable. But we all revise our histories to a certain degree, don’t we?

If you’re looking for an addictive, well-written, smart thriller, look no further.

Highly recommended.

Verity – Colleen Hoover

Verity is one of those books that sucked me in with its hype. In fact Colleen Hoover herself has legions of fans and her name seems to be synonymous with romance of the sexy kind, but the only other book of hers I’ve ever attempted I DNF, and have no idea what it was called. It was just…meh.

So along comes Verity, and it seemed as though everyone in the bookish circles I hang out in was talking about it. I am nothing if not a lemming. People were saying things like “It is a dark, addicting, and compelling psychological thriller” and “Creepy, unsettling, hard to read in parts” and “Five stars”. I mean, c’mon, what’s a girl to do? So, I ordered it.

People, I am here to tell you: Do NOT believe the hype.

Lowen Ashleigh is a struggling writer who, while published, is broke and desperate when she meets Jeremy Crawford. (Their meet cute is more ick cute, but whatever.) Turns out Jeremy is married to Verity Crawford, author of the best-selling Chronics series. The series is incomplete because Verity has been in a horrific car accident and can’t finish because she’s a vegetable, so her publisher is looking for a ghost writer. Jeremy wants Lowen. For reasons.

This opportunity couldn’t come at a better time. Lowen’s mother has just died, her personal life is a bit of a mess, and she needs the cash. It’s problematic that Jeremy is so hawt, but necessity is a great motivator, so Lowen moves to the Crawford mansion. The plan is to go through Verity’s office and look for the meticulous notes she’s made about the next three novels so that Lowen can start writing them.

Lowen finds something a lot more than Verity’s notes, though; she finds her autobiography and shocker! Verity is not a nice person (which is how Lowen justifies getting nekkid with Jeremy).

What you will read will taste so bad at times, you’ll want to spit it out, but you’ll swallow these words and they will become part of you, part of your gut, and you will hurt because of them.

Hoover might have been talking about this book, really. It’s a train wreck peopled with one dimensional characters who are handed backstories as character development. Lowen is a sleepwalker; Jeremy grew up on an alpaca farm. Say what? That’s not character development, it’s just ridiculous.

The “hard to read” stuff fans were talking about might be some of the info Verity reveals in her autobiography, like SPOILER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!SPOILER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!how she tries to abort her twin girls (whom Jeremy loves more than her) with a coat hanger or maybe how Verity uses sex (not even kinky sex) to manipulate Jeremy. None of this sex is titillating or even very well-written. END SPOILER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!ENDSPOILER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Almost immediately after Lowen arrives, strange things start to happen. Think Rebecca if it had been written by a teenager. Verity seems to be looking at Lowen, even though she’s not supposed to be cognizant . One day she catches Crew (Jeremy’s son) waving up at his mother’s bedroom window? Why?! Verity can’t possibly be standing at the bedroom window. She can’t walk. Then there’s the time that she and Jeremy are making out on the couch and Lowen spots Verity standing at the top of the stairs. But WHO CARES? Aren’t we supposed to root for these two crazy kids? I mean, Verity is a monster, right?

Not so fast. There’s a twist NO ONE SEES COMING. But you’ll have to wade through all the other nonsense (not to mention the clunky exposition and dialogue) to get to it, and by then it will feel more like a bait and switch than a twist.

Hoover says in her acknowledgments that Verity “is a personal indie project.” (I suspected as much when my copy arrived and it has clearly been self-published. That should have been my first clue.) Although Hoover is traditionally published by Atria (a division of Simon & Schuster), for some reason she wanted to do this on her own. Apparently it was originally only available online. Like fanfiction. No, wait, that’s giving fanfiction a bad rap. I have read loads of fanfic that is a billion times better than this.

The best thing about my physical copy of this book is the paper it was printed on. It was really nice. The book was a waste of my precious reading time.

The Lies They Tell – Gillian French

Pearl Haskins lives with her alcoholic father on the wrong side of the tracks in Tenney’s Harbor, Maine. (For the record, I am spelling harbour that way because, USA.) Pearl works at the local country club, where the wealthy summer folk flaunt their, well, wealth. It was here, at Christmas, that Pearl last saw the Garrisons: David, the patriarch; Sloan, his beautiful wife and two of their children, seventeen-year-old Cassidy and ten-year-old Joseph. Tristan, the oldest Garrison child, is not present. Later that night, while Pearl’s dad sleeps in the Garrison’s gatehouse, someone broke into the house and shot the Garrisons in their sleep, then set their mansion on fire.

Gillian French’s impossible-to-put-down YA mystery The Lies They Tell picks up the story the following summer. Pearl has graduated from high school and she’s still working at the country club, still impossibly in love with her best friend, Reese, and still trying to manage her father’s drinking, which hasn’t really improved because most of the summer elite blame him for what happened at the Garrison’s – even though he is clearly not to blame. In fact, the culprit was never caught and the main suspect, Tristan, has an ironclad alibi.

And now here he was “with his entourage, the boys of summer, owning the place.” For reasons Pearl can’t quite understand, she is drawn to Tristan, “gripped by the physical and emotional recoil she – and almost everyone else – felt in his presence.” She feels a kinship to him because she senses he is “so alone, even in a room full of people….”

When one of Tristan’s friends, Bridges, takes a romantic interest in Pearl, she suddenly finds herself drawn into a world which she has only ever watched from the outside. Bridges seems nice and seems to genuinely like Pearl, but is he to be trusted? The third boy in the group, Akil, seems to openly disapprove of her. And Tristan, he doesn’t seem to know she exists, until he turns his laser focus on her.

I really enjoyed this novel. For one thing, it’s very well-written and the characters are believable. You know how characters in mysteries and thrillers sometimes do stupid things? Not here. Pearl is smart. She wants to figure out what happened to Tristan’s family, on the surface so that the blame can be shifted away from her father, but also because Tristan just seems like a whipped puppy to her. As she sifts through the gossip and tries to make sense of Tristan himself, she comes closer and closer to danger.

Like Pearl, I kept changing my mind about whodunnit and by the time I got to the book’s final pages my palms were sweating.

Highly recommended.

A Game For All the Family – Sophie Hannah

gameSophie Hannah’s novel A Game For All the Family belongs in the “WTF did I just read category?” Hannah is a well-known and much-lauded British writer of thrillers, but this is the first book I have read by her.  And I didn’t love it.

Justine Merrison has left her high powered job as a TV exec to move from London to a country house called Speedwell located in Devon. She will do “Nothing” with a capital ‘N’ except look after her fourteen-year-old daughter, Ellen, and her opera-singing-husband, Alex.

Life in Devon doesn’t turn out to be as blissful as Justine imagined though. Only a few months into the move, she starts to receive anonymous and increasingly threatening phone calls. Then Ellen starts to act strangely, and when Justine presses her Ellen admits that her best friend at school, George, has been expelled because of a stolen coat, which Ellen insists that she gave to him. When Justine goes to Ellen’s school, the headmistress assures Justine that no such pupil has been expelled. In fact, George doesn’t even exist.

Interspersed with this weirdness, is a story Ellen is writing for school. The story traces the strange history of the Ingrey family, also inhabitants of Speedwell House.

Perrine Ingrey dropped Malachy Dodd out of a window. She wanted to kill him and she succeeded. Later, no one believed her when she screamed ‘I didn’t do it!’

Eventually these two stories (Justine’s and Ellen’s made-up story – or is it? duhduhduh) merge. I was constantly adjusting my notion of what was true…if, in fact, the truth could be stranger than fiction, or the fiction  actually be the truth. Ellen says as much in her story:

But what about you, who are reading this story? Do you respect the truth? I haven’t told you what it is yet, have I? I could have done quite easily, but then you would have taken it for granted. I don’t want you to do that. I think you’ll appreciate the truth more if you struggle for a while to work it out.

I suppose that’s the ‘fun’ of any mystery/thriller: trying to work it out. There’s no question, Hannah is a capable writer and A Game For All the Family is a skillfully plotted story, it’s just that after I feverishly turned all 419 pages, I felt sort of disappointed in where I landed.

The Perfect Girlfriend – Karen Hamilton

perfectgfThere’s no nuance in Karen Hamilton’s debut novel The Perfect Girlfriend. The narrator, Juliette (aka Lily. aka Elizabeth) is crazy. For reasons. She’s on a mission: to reclaim Nate, the man who dumped her seven months ago, unceremoniously kicking her out of his swanky Richmond (near London) flat.

Nearly seven months ago, Nate had appeared in a chapter of my life like a scene from a romantic novel. As I’d taken my gaze away from my computer screen at the hotel reception desk – a work smile fixed firmly in place – I’d struggled not to gasp out loud. The man in front of me looked as though he had absorbed the best bits of life and shrugged off anything unpleasant or sad.

A one-night stand turns into co-habitation, but that is short lived and Nate tells Juliette that he needs some space. He finds her a new apartment in Reading, moves her in, pays three months rent for her and bids her adieu. Of course, Juliette isn’t having any of it. She wants Nate and “his family’s welcoming acceptance, the comfortable lifestyle and kids who grow up to be a footballer….”

Juliette has a plan. First, she takes the course to be a flight attendant. (Nate is a pilot.) She makes sure that she doesn’t bump into him, thus providing him with the “space” he claimed to need. She tries to make friends. She tries to “improve” herself in an effort to be, well, the perfect girlfriend.

Perfect psycho girlfriend.

Hamilton pulls out all the stops when it comes to unhinging Juliette. She has keys to Nate’s apartment. She knows all his passwords. She puts spyware on his phone. She knows his work schedule. She sabotages any perceived romantic relationship between Nate and other women. And if you think these psycho ex-girlfriend moves are mere child’s play, just wait.

There is also the problem of Bella. Her identity is revealed slowly, so I won’t spoil it here. She is a thorn in Juliette’s side and as Juliette says herself “Revenge is a dish best served cold, and mine is going to be frozen.”

Look, we’ve all had a relationship that has made us a little bit crazy. I am pretty sure I have done more than one slightly crazy thing to get the desired object of my affection to like me back. The trouble with Juliette is that she has no dimension. I think we’re supposed to feel some sympathy for her because of a childhood trauma, but I didn’t. Another “big” reveal is meant to add fuel to that flame, but it really just seems more convenient than anything.

Still, the unembellished prose races through the crazy landscape of Juliette’s plan to win Nate back and most readers will enjoy the ride.

Topping From Below – Laura Reese

In the world of BDSM, topping from below means that the submissive partner is actually toppingtrying to control the scene, aka control the top (dominant person). That’s exactly what Nora Tibbs is attempting when she pursues a relationship with Michael (referred to as M.) the music professor she’s convinced murdered her younger sister, Franny,  in Laura Reese’s novel Topping From Below.

It’s reasonable that a reader’s first question might be why in the hell she would get involved with the dude she thinks tortured and killed her sister. Is it because “He is swarthy, good-looking, if you like that type, slimly muscled and dark-complected, with an angular face that could have been sculpted….”  Or is it because Nora feels like she can control any situation?

Whatever the case, the cunning M. knows who Nora is from their meet cute and, says the spider to the fly, come on over and I’ll make you dinner and tell you stories about how I degraded your sister, but whom I most certainly did not kill, and in exchange, you’ll let me tie you up, and abuse your body in numerous other ways and trust me, you’ll like it.

The thing is, Nora does  like it.  She likes it even when M. hurts her, which I suppose is one of the tenets of BDSM: pain and pleasure combined under controlled circumstances. She tries to make sense of it but “My feelings are paradoxical: I hate him, fear him, yet at the same time his dominion over me, however brief, is intoxicating.”

She likes it so much that she no longer feels anything remotely like sexual desire towards her bland, blond, dependable boyfriend, Ian. M. sucks her further and further into his world and reveals to Nora, bit by by, her sister Franny. He also encourages Nora to reveal parts of her own life that she’s kept buried for many years, to try to get to the underlying reasons for why she seems to lack the ability to get truly close to anyone. Despite the fact that there’s a ten-year age gap between Franny and Nora, they are similar on that front.

Obviously, readers will have to suspend disbelief to reconcile how a seemingly intelligent woman (she’s a bloody science journalist, for goodness sake) would allow herself to pursue the guy she thinks killed her sister. It’s not the kinky sex that’s at issue here, really, because you’ll find no judgement from me on that front.  There are some instances of “Really? Um, a world of no,” but Reese writes it all like she means it and I have to admire that. Lots of people would find the sex in this book unpalatable.  Let me put it this way; Topping from Below is NOT your garden-variety Fifty Shades of Grey

 

Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith

Child 44, Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 debut, likely would have languished on my tbr shelf indefinitely if it hadn’t been for Litsy  Every month, a Litsy member, Sarah,  hosts a book spin. We choose 20 books from our TBR shelf and she chooses two random numbers, a #bookspin and a #doublespin. It’s our opportunity to clear some books from our shelves. Even if you end up abandoning the books (which I did the first couple months), at least they’re off your shelves.

child44Leo Demidov is a member of MGB, Russia’s State Security Force under Stalin. It’s 1959 and everyone is suspicious of everyone else. Leo has arrived at his position by way of a decorated stint in the army. He’s good at his job. He

enjoyed the independence of his operations, although he was careful to keep that observation to himself. […] He’d flourished. As a result he’d been awarded the Order of Suvorov Second Class. His levelheadedness, military success, good looks and above all his absolute and sincere belief in his country had resulted in him becoming a poster boy …

Things get dicey for Leo, though, when he is asked to check in with a colleague who insists that his four-year-old son has been murdered. The authorities have called the death an accident, though, and Leo is tasked with convincing the family that no further investigation is needed. This event is the beginning of the cracks in Leo’s life and his belief in a state where Stalin’s “well-known aphorism Trust but Check” actually means “Check on Those We Trust.” It is almost impossible to determine who is trustworthy because everyone seems to have something to hide.

When an operation Leo is in charge of goes awry, he’s demoted and sent to work in a backwater town. That’s when the bodies start piling up, bodies of kids. Leo convinces his new boss that there’s a serial killer on the loose and the two men start investigating – no easy task when the authorities aren’t really willing to share information, even with each other.

Child 44 is a thriller and there were certainly some exciting moments. Leo is a great character, and I was invested in his growth from rule-follower to renegade truth-seeker. I think this books, which is the first in a series, would likely appeal to many readers, but I felt sort of ambivalent about it. Perhaps it was all the Russian names, or the fact that we got just about every character’s backstory and so the plot dragged a little.

Still, I had no trouble reading it. It’s a solid book.

Follow Me Down – Sherri Smith

When Mia’s twin brother Lucas goes missing after being linked to the death of one of his followstudents, Mia has no choice but to return to her small North Dakota hometown. Sherri Smith’s debut novel Follow Me Down plumbs the depths of sibling ties, and uncovers the slimy underbelly of a town that seems to be filled with dark secrets and duplicitous characters.

Mia isn’t exactly living her best life in Chicago when the Wayoata Police Chief calls her asking if she’s heard from her brother. (She hasn’t.) She works the night shift at a corner pharmacy, lives alone and is generally a prickly character. Lucas was always the golden child.

Lucas was already showing signs of how annoyingly good-looking he was going to be.[…] Blond, startling blue eyes, and movie star bone structure. […] As an adult, I’d actually witnessed women going slack-jawed over him, like, unable to speak for a few seconds as they took him in.

Mia is convinced that her brother is innocent of any wrongdoing; he just doesn’t have it in him to hurt anyone. He is a beloved English teacher and hockey coach at the local high school. The local police, including her childhood friend Garrett Burke, seem to have their sights set on Lucas, though, and Mia is sure that she has to a) find her brother and b) prove his innocence.

To say Follow Me Down is jam packed is an understatement. Mia ignores Garrett and turns over every rock possible trying to figure out what might have happened, not only to her brother but to the teenager he is accused of killing. The rumour mill is working overtime, and people in the community seem to think that Lucas and Joanna Wilkes were having an affair. Mia’s amateur investigation seems to stir up a hornet’s nest. A black truck keeps following her and trying to run her off the road; someone seems to be sneaking into her brother’s apartment and taking things; there are more shady characters than you can shake a stick at.

The whole time Mia is sleuthing, she’s self-medicating from her own personal stash of prescription meds. On more than one occasion, I wondered whether she was a reliable narrator. I can’t say that I warmed to her, really.

Still, by about the half-way mark there was no turning away from this story. I needed to know what happened to Lucas, and even if Mia didn’t exactly endear herself to me, I was still invested in her quest for answers.

A solid read.

Deep Winter – Samuel W. Gailey

deepwinter-3My son actually purchased this Samuel W. Gailey’s novel Deep Winter because he liked the cover. In my experience, this isn’t generally a great way to choose a book, but when he was doing a purge this book ended up off his bookshelf and on mine because I thought it sounded good.

This is the story of Danny Bedford, a man who, when he was a kid,  suffered brain-damage after a near drowning that cost him the lives of both his parents. Since then he has been raised by an abusive uncle and now lives a solitary life over the laundromat where he works. His only friend is a waitress named Mindy.

Danny lives in Wyalusing, a backwater town in Eastern Pennsylvania. When the novel opens, Danny has trekked the three miles out to Mindy’s trailer to deliver a carved bird he’s made for her birthday. He comes across a scene of horror: Mindy is dead. 

Her body sprawled out on the trailer floor next to Danny like a discarded rag doll. He knelt beside her with his hands folded and clenched together in his lap, like he was praying at her bedside. Blood soaked into the faded carpet from an open wound on the back of her head, and a few pieces of jagged glass were still stuck in her scalp.

Because Danny intellectually impaired, it’s easy to pin Mindy’s death on him, and that’s exactly what happens. What follows is the story of that death, and the malevolent tendrils that reach out into the community because of it.  The story is told from multiple points of view, which probably helps things move along. 

Gailey’s novel is populated by a relatively unpleasant cast of characters, most notably Sokowski, the Deputy, and his side-kick, Carl. In fact, the villains are so awful they’re almost caricatures. It takes place in the dead of winter, during a storm, and is almost relentlessly grim. 

Gailey has written for film and TV and that’s how Deep Winter reads. There’s not a lot of literary bells and whistles, here. That’s not a criticism, really, although I didn’t love the book. It’s a straightforward, nuance-free crime thriller and I doubt you’d have any trouble turning the pages.