I was NOT expecting this slim novel to be so awesome, so horror-based, and so suspenseful. Loved it. It would have been an automatic 5 stars, but some things didn't jive.
The Return comes out on March 24, 2020!
Elise is told her best friend, Julie, went missing on a solo hiking trip. Two years go by, and Elise refuses to believe or accept that Julie's dead. She's sure Julie will turn up again, good as new.
Two years to the day that Julie disappears, she returns. She doesn't remember anything about her time missing, and things are...different. But Elise is ecstatic anyway—Julie came back.
To celebrate Julie's return, Elise and Julie's two other friends organize a girl's weekend at a lodge in the New England woods. The lodge is crazy wacky—think individually-themed rooms, Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton, and The Shining all in one—and the girls are immediately set up for a weird time.
But the lodge isn't the weird part. Julie is.
Something's wrong with Julie, and it might not be what Elise is expecting...
Wow. What a cool, unique, horrific debut. This clocks in at just under 200 pages, and I devoured it in one sitting. The suspense was killer—at any given moment, I was on pins and needles waiting for the next creepy thing, the next reveal. The girls' friendship dynamics were painfully raw, honest, and full of recognizable traits that I identified with from my own friends. The reveal, while easier to guess than others, was still well done and I loved the final climax.
The only thing that kept The Return from being an automatic 5 stars for me was the overall pacing. You can tell that this story had a killer hook and good suspense, but due to the lack of a side-plot or believable red herrings its pacing suffered. Lots of dialogue-based scenes and not enough significant action. However, as the suspense was done SO well, this was relatively easy to ignore. It would have been a much bigger problem if this novel had been longer.
Thank you to Berkley via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
A man waits for his girlfriend to pick up his Skype call. Waiting for her on the webcam, he sees something in her apartment that he wasn't expecting to see—her murder.
Concept: ★★★★ 1/2
Watching from the Dark comes out on February 25, 2020.
Watching From the Dark is the second novel in the British detective series centered on DCI Jonah Sheens and his police team, Hanson, Lightman, and O'Malley.
Aidan Poole is waiting for Zoe on Skype one night, and instead of a chat he's greeted with a gruesome murder. Who killed Zoe, and what should he do about it?
Adding fuel to the fire, Aidan doesn't directly go to the police, and his dodgy avoidance of detail raises the suspicions of DCI Sheens.
As the secrets and lies start to bubble to the surface, it appears that Zoe's life as a graduate art student wasn't as simple as it appeared...
So, some background on this series and my views on DCI Sheens. I read and reviewed the first novel, She Lies in Wait, last year and thought it was...fine. I loved the set-up and I liked the twisty turns to the finish line, but I really, really struggled with feeling a connection to DCI Sheens and found the final reveal to be a small letdown.
I had a similar experience with Watching From the Dark. So at this point it's safe to say that this is definitely a "me" problem and not the fault of these books.
The initial set-up, great. The red herrings and false alarms, entertaining. The interpersonal quagmire of the victim, really interesting. But the detective? Nope. I still didn't vibe with DCI Sheens. I found his sections distanced, nonessential to the plot, and his team's belief in his infallibility seemed extremely bizarre and unfounded to me—he's this super great detective, supposedly, but throughout the entire book the only word I could use to describe him is...predictable. Seconded by the word reactionary. If you took out Sheens and replaced him with a pigeon, the plot would still go on...and the murder would still get solved, as it seems to be his other detective, Hanson, that does most of the mental detecting. She's got character, and I've said it before, she'd make a more compelling lead protagonist.
In addition to my continued lack of interest in Sheens, I also found the ending of Watching From the Dark to be an interesting choice considering the different options presented to us throughout the book. Again, given my response to both books in this series, it seems to be a compatibility issue on my part—which is so personally frustrating, as I keep finding myself drawn to these books.
However, to end on a positive note, this novel did one thing right—I was engrossed in the whodunit pacing. I may have tried to skip through Sheens' parts, but in terms of the mystery itself I found it extremely compelling and couldn't wait to find out who did it.
Thank you to Random House for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Gorgeous writing, extremely suspenseful. The Alaskan wilderness and one woman's drive to find answers gives this narrative its propulsive drive.
Villain(s)/Reveal(s): ★★★ 1/2
It's 1941. Elisabeth Pfautz is living at home in Tanacross, a barely-there outpost of rural Alaska with her husband, John, and their young daughter, Margaret. They've been in Alaska for a while now, following John's teaching posts wherever they lead, and Elisabeth is just along for the ride with an unhappy marriage, a gloomy home life, and the ghosts of the unsolved secrets of her past.
Elisabeth's twin sister, Jacqueline, disappeared when she was a child.
I'll be right back, don't worry.
Jacqueline never came back, and after decades of searches in the Pennsylvania town where it happened, the case has gone cold.
In Tanacross, Elisabeth meets a stranger and he needs a place to stay for the night. She offers him their spare room despite her reservations, as her home is the unofficial B&B when Tanacross gets white guests.
The stranger, Alfred, is odd. He's a German during a time when to be German is to be the enemy, and frankly, he's creepy. By the next morning, Alfred's murdered Elisabeth's neighbor in an act of (seemingly) cold blood. He's immediately whisked to Fairbanks and interred in the prison.
But Elisabeth begins to receive letters from the murderer in jail. Alfred claims to know what happened to Jacqueline, and he can prove it. To Elisabeth, this permanent hole in her life sucks her into Alfred's narrative, and Elisabeth finds herself responding to his letters and following his bread crumb trail.
What happened to Jacqueline?
First off, let me say that this is some of the most gorgeous and suspenseful writing that I have read in a literary suspense novel in quite some time. For the writing quality alone, this novel is worth the read. Fleischmann can weave his words together with a flourish.
In fact, at times I forgot that I was reading a mystery/thriller, and completely engrossed myself in the literary suspense. This is less a "whodunit" and more of a character study of Elisabeth and Alfred, complete with beautiful described scenes and flashbacks.
However, I will say that I found the ending to be not quite...what I expected. Considering the near-flawless writing and the fantastic characterization of Elisabeth, I was a bit surprised by the direction taken at the end. Again, the "whodunit" was not the driving force for my reading experience, but I still found the reveal(s) to be a weaker ending. Why did we make that final choice?
Overall—what a read. I hope others enjoy this interesting tale set in one of America's most memorable landscapes, as it is such an impressive debut. I'm incredibly interested to see what Fleischmann writes next.
Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
The perfect cocktail: a spooky, decaying motel in the middle of nowhere. A night shift clerk. Murder. Dual-timelines. Ghosts. Welcome to the Sun Down Motel.
Plot: ★★★★ 1/2
I have been so excited to read this latest Simone St James novel, it's kind of surreal that I've finished it. Haunted hotels are one of my favorite tropes in fiction, so let's put the mild disclaimer here that I was basically guaranteed to—at minimum—enjoy this at the 3 star level for setting alone.
The Sun Down Motel is the kind of place your mother would worry about you frequenting. It's decayed, it's filled with characters of the night, and it's known to be haunted.
It's also the place where Vivian Delaney disappeared in 1982. One night, she vanished—and was presumed killed. It turns out many young women in the town of Fell, New York, met grisly ends during that time.
Is Fell just a dangerous town, or is there something else coming for these girls?
Told in a dual-timeline with Vivian Delaney in 1982 and her niece Carly in 2017, The Sun Down Motel really maintained my attention. I loved the unfolding of the plot via the two POVs, and felt the author really nailed the suspense as information was revealed in a way that provided the reader with more information than the protagonists knew, and vice versa. St. James knows how to keep you invested in the mystery, that's for sure.
If I had to pick a weak spot, I'd say the characters were the least interesting part of the entire thing. I loved the setting (obviously, see above) and I loved the murder mystery itself, but I could honestly take or leave Carly—she could have been anyone. Vivian had more originality, but not much more. The most intriguing characters were one the side—I loved Marnie, the freelance photographer who interacts with Vivian in 1982, and Nick, who interacts with Carly in 2017.
I also wish that there had been more suspense tied to the spooky elements. In other books with ghosts/etc, the atmospheric angle of the haunting is used to aid the suspense, and provides a mystery element in itself—i.e. what is making that noise? who is that? etc. In this, the ghost angle is figured out pretty early on and then just...taken in stride? I wish it had been more mysterious, and a bigger portion of the plot.
Oh, and the murderer(s)? Yes. That was GOOD. I really liked the whodunit reveals, and it definitely lived up to the concept.
Fast-paced, fantastic setting, and the amount of drama that you'd expect from Pretty Little Liars, this is a fun romp for fans of boarding school mystery/thrillers.
Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Reveal(s): Not overly surprising, but incredibly entertaining
Enjoyment: I love boarding school mysteries, so... yes.
Nestled in a small town in Virginia, there sits a prestigious all-girls boarding school catering to the elite. Appearances and social ties are everything, and these girls are primed for success at any cost.
Enter Ash, a girl with a secret and everything left to lose.
Ash has come to the Goode School to escape her tragic recent past and remake herself in the image of a Goode girl. Goode girls are honorable, smart, and polished. Goode girls are dedicated to their studies and are guaranteed spots at Ivy League schools. Goode girls can't afford to have setbacks or secrets.
But this "perfect" boarding school is built on secrets, hazing, and lies. Nothing is what it seems, and Ash finds herself not only in danger of revealing her true past but also getting crushed by Goode's other members—who have some serious qualms about an English girl one-upping them on their home turf.
I loved this devious, back-stabbing, girls' revenge mystery/thriller story. It definitely knows its audience, and it caters to us well. There is plenty of intrigue, hidden romance, double-crossing, atmosphere, and of course murder(s).
In particular, I loved the framing of the story—we have several POVs, and certain facts that I took for facts turned out to have different conclusions. Which was sometimes a nice surprise and sometimes an easily guessed—yet entertaining—reveal. I will say that I definitely guessed the largest mystery plot point, but I still kept reading because the story itself was so entertaining.
My main reluctance to rate this higher was due to the easy to guess plot points and the pacing. At times, this felt long. It IS long, but unlike some long books that feel short, this one feels as long as it is.
Come for the drama, stay for the drama! This is definitely a worthy inclusion into the genre of boarding school mysteries. I loved it.
Thank you to Harlequin - MIRA for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
A 911 dispatcher receives a call. It's her daughter. What would you do?
Writing: ★★★★ 1/2
Have you ever had a thriller where the writing was so good, so intense, that you enjoy yourself even as the plot takes off in odd directions? Yeah, that's Stolen Things.
Laurie is a 911 dispatcher. Her husband, Omid, is the local police chief. One day at work, the woman on the other end of the line isn't a stranger—it's Laurie's daughter, Jojo, and she's been drugged, assaulted, and left in an unknown location.
There is no force stronger than a determined woman with nothing to lose and everything to save.
Laurie, Omid, and the police team find Jojo quickly and discover that she's in the home of famously anti-police pro football player Kevin Leeds. Leeds' athletic trainer is found dead near Jojo. Jojo's friend, Harper Cunningham, is still missing. What happened?
Stolen Things takes off like a rocket. A woman on a mission, Laurie commits to finding the perpetrator and avenging her daughter's assault with a vengeance that was one of the reasons she voluntarily took herself of the police force—Laurie didn't trust herself to act rationally when it came down to the wire. Well, now it's down to the wire. And Laurie says f*** it.
One of the many things I loved about Stolen Things was its portrayal of motherhood as a source of strength, not weakness. Laurie was a strong character, and while some of her decisions where definitely questionable, I have to admit that I understood them. Her choices were bad or more bad, and she chose based on what would be the best for her family. There was a ruthlessness that I admired.
Things I didn't like:
The writing was killer, but the references to this exact place in time were numerous. As I was reading, I was able to resonate with certain cultural references, but at the same time it kept throwing me out of the story as I was reminded that this story was happening NOW, in 2019. I'm not sure these references will hold up in 5 years. I also struggled with the author's intense opinions shining through the mystery. Now, for the most part I was in agreement with the author's stance, but just because I agreed doesn't mean it wasn’t distracting—in my opinion, the mystery should have been the forefront.
Original notes: This was such an engaging read. I actually bit my nails while reading—call this an honest nail biter. Others have mentioned the heavy-handed beliefs of the author detracting from their reading experience, and I have feelings about that too. Review to come!
Thank you to Dutton via Netgalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Riley Sager's third novel brings to mind the classic intrigues of the Gilded Age, but with a distinctly modern twist. I loved this one, folks!
Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Lock Every Door was not exactly what I expected when I assumed I was reading a Riley Sager novel. His 2018 hit, The Last Time I Lied, was a creepy, somewhat spooky, dialogue-driven narrative with barely-there descriptions that evoked vivid senses of atmosphere culminating in a pulse-pounding conclusion. Lock Every Door, by contrast, is a study in description, Hitchcockian-level creeping senses of unease, occasional action, and a reflection on modern times.
I loved it anyway, but it was different.
The Bartholomew is a stately apartment building with an exclusive list of New York's richest living within its historic gilded halls. The apartments are sumptuous, the clientele discrete. No press, no guests, and no prying allowed.
Jules is a recently single, recently fired 20-something girl scraping her way through life in New York City. Her family is dead/out of the picture, and she's essentially on her own in the world (excluding her good friend Chloe, who allows her to crash on her couch). When the advertisement for an apartment sitter finds Jules, she can't believe her luck. It's at the Bartholomew, and they want to pay her to apartment sit in one of New York's richest zip codes.
It's the deal of Jules' lifetime. But is it too good to be true?
The rules for apartment sitters seem strict, but Jules needs the money and figures she can ignore the odd parts of the job. That is, until one of her fellow apartment sitters goes missing. Jules quickly finds herself in a cat-and-mouse game with a villain that she can't find and the results are not what she expects.
Like Riley Sager's previous works, I had a fantastic time reading this. The writing is irresistible, and Lock Every Door is an unputdownable mystery. My only problem was its tough introduction--it takes a while for the plot to get going, and the descriptions of the apartment building are a bit much right on the offset. But, once you're invested in the narrative, all of the descriptions become part of the atmosphere so all is forgiven. The ending wasn't exactly shocking for me, but it was moderately surprising and still enjoyable. I confess, I wanted a similarly creepy ending to The Last Time I Lied, where the narrative spools out with an intriguing last call. The ending to Lock Every Door felt much more finite.
Thank you so much to Dutton via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.