Book Review: Friend Request by Laura Marshall (2017)

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Review #96

When Louise Marshall receives a friend request on Facebook from Maria Weston, she is surprised to say the least. When they were in high school together, Louise wasn’t too kind to Maria. In fact, she was a bit of a bully. So why would Maria be reaching out after twenty-seven years? Plus there’s the fact that Maria is dead. Isn’t she?

My most recent post was entitled I’m Breaking Up With the Modern Thriller Genre. I explained how the recent trend towards unnecessary plot twists, shoddy characterization, and clumsy foreshadowing has killed my enjoyment of recently popular thriller novels. Friend Request by Laura Marshall was the book that broke this reader’s patience.

In this novel are the same tired cliches and overused stereotypes that have made the thriller genre an exercise in frustration. There are the obligatory flashbacks that serve no true purpose except to drum up a false sense of suspense. In this case, we visit Louise and Maria as they go through their senior year of high school in 1989. Instead of giving us a window into this time period which may have been fun or added relevant details to the overall plot, instead we just have Louise continually torn between her desire to be part of the popular crowd and her budding friendship with the new girl at school. There’s potential here for an insightful look at the long-term affects of teenage bullying, but Marshall never really connects the dots.

We also have multiple plot twists which serve no real purpose and fail to offer any surprises. When I think of novels such as Ender’s Game, Fight Club or any of Tana French’s Dublin Murder series, the thing that stands out is that all of the elements of the pre-twist narrative fall into place once the twist is revealed. If you go back and re-read any of these novels, you can logically and rationally follow the plot with the knowledge of the twist already in place. However, the plot twist in Friend Request is a cheat. It’s utterly out of left field and literally made me face-palm once I realized that this was what Marshall had spent so much time and effort building towards. I love a good plot twist but they need to make sense within the larger story, and the one in this novel fell completely flat.

I may have liked this book more if I hadn’t experienced a recent run of similar faux-thriller novels which can all be boiled down to the plot-line “white woman with quirky but interesting career is somehow surprised when the past comes back to haunt her”. My frustration with Friend Request is more due to my overall frustration with the current state of the thriller genre itself. So I’ve decided to take a break and focus on a few other genres for awhile. Perhaps with some time I will be able to come back and appreciate this novel on its own merit.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Friend Request here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

I’m Breaking Up With the Modern Thriller Genre

 

 

thriller

Dear Thriller Genre,

You and I used to be so close. We would stay up all night together, cuddled up on the couch with a glass of wine or a mug of hot chocolate. There was a time when I used to want to spend time with you more than any other genre out there. I will always treasure the tingles I got from turning your pages.

But something happened a few years ago. You changed, thriller genre, and not for the better. I think it all started with The DaVinci Code, when millions of people began noticing how a few well-placed plot twists could reel a reader in and keep them glued to your pages. People love to hate Dan Brown, but I really enjoyed DaVinci. I thought it was the first step on a whole new journey we could take together.

Then along came a little novel called Gone Girl. Now don’t get me wrong, this book was amazing and kept me captivated for all of its four-hundred page running length. Gillian Flynn didn’t pull any punches and every aspect of her novel came together to form a cohesive plot-line. It’s remembered for having a crazy twist around the halfway mark that turned everything on its head.

Unfortunately, my dear thriller genre, too many of books published in the years since Gone Girl have taken the “crazy plot twist” aspect of the bestselling novel while neglecting the “cohesive plot-line” part. They’ve exchanged memorable characters for clumsy foreshadowing. There is now a puzzling trend to have a last page “final twist” that is left unresolved, like Michael Myers coming back for one last scare. It’s all just starting to feel terribly cheap and lazy.

Not to say that these aren’t talented authors who are contributing to the thriller genre. I just think that the publishers understand that these “predictably unpredictable twisty” thrillers are huge sellers right now, and are choosing the books that they publish with the idea that they can use the tagline “The Next Gone Girl” over and over again.

I’m hoping that this current trend will die off in a few years, thriller genre, because I really do admire the authors that have contributed to your lists in the past. I’m just weary of being continually disappointed every time I hear about this great new thriller, only to find that it contains the same exact tired tropes arranged in slightly different ways.

This is not to say that I am giving up on thrillers entirely, just that I’m going to have to be a bit more discerning. I’m not going to be taking recommendations from “most popular” lists. I’m going to begin avoiding some of the most popular thriller authors that are currently writing. There are a few writers out there who haven’t forgotten what it means to truly draw in their readers using tension and suspense, and I’ll continue to read their work.

I hope I don’t sound ridiculously pretentious. I definitely don’t consider myself a “high-brow” reader, one who feels that certain genres or types of books are beneath them. But of all the modern thrillers I’ve read this year, only a slim few have managed to bring me anything in the way of surprise or originality.

So for now, thriller genre, I’m afraid I’m going to have to quit you. Hopefully the annoying changes that I’ve seen in recent years will begin to wane once there’s a new trend for publishers to follow. At which time, I’ll be waiting with open arms.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager (2017)

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Review #95

Ten years ago, Quincy Carpenter and a group of fellow college students ventured into the Pennsylvania woods for a party weekend at an isolated cabin. Forty-eight hours later, Quincy stumbled out of the forest, covered in blood and screaming that her friends had all been murdered. She was the sole survivor.

Now, Quincy has a loving fiance and a successful baking blog. She feels that she has finally managed to shed the image of the “final girl” that the media tried so hard to pin on her. But when a fellow survivor turns up dead and another appears on her doorstep, Quincy finds herself reliving the painful memories she has worked so hard to forget.

I reviewed another of author Riley Sager’s works earlier for this website, and thought that he relied too heavily on unnecessary plot twists and clumsy foreshadowing. For the bulk of Final Girls, Sager manages to avoid the ridiculous plot twists and focuses on a more character-driven story. Quinn is a relatively sympathetic character, although she does ramble on a bit too heavily about the same three subjects: Xanax, baking, and her fiance. I much preferred the enigmatic Sam Boyd, a fellow “Final Girl” who shows up at Quinn’s home and immediately makes herself at home. In my mind, she was Eliza Dushku’s character Faith from Buffy. We want to like her, but we are never sure whether or not we can trust her.

Sager’s use of flashbacks continues to be a thorn in my side. The sections that take place in 1989 are utterly useless. They do nothing to advance the overall plot, and they are far too short and deliberately vague to make us care for the fate of Quinn’s doomed friends. Just as in The Last Time I Lied, these sections felt clunky and heavy-handed. Sager relies too much on continuously stating “that one terrible thing that happened”, as if by repeating himself it will serve to drum up an atmosphere of suspense. Instead it just began to feel tedious.

I think I’m going to start avoiding the “popular” thrillers that crop up like daisies every year. Obviously there are a great deal of people who love them, or they would not constantly be popping on on my radar. However, I seem to forget that these novels are nearly always going to rely on the cliched tropes and nonsensical plot twist endings that have come to define the modern interpretation of the genre. I am tired of finding myself perpetually disappointed.

The ending for Final Girls in particular, was utterly ridiculous.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Final Girls here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

 

Book Review: Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix (2014)

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Review #94

Odd things have been happening at the Orsk store at night. Merchandise is being destroyed. Disturbing graffiti turns up in the restrooms. A foul smelling substance is being smeared across the furniture displays. Hoping to avoid being fired for lackluster performance, Amy volunteers along with two other employees to stay overnight in the Orsk store in order to unravel the mystery of the phantom vandal.

The idea of a horror novel set in one of the most banal of locations (a knockoff IKEA store) in one of the most banal of regions (Cleveland, Ohio) tickled my fancy right from the start. The first half of Horrorstör has a joyful time poking fun at big-box consumer culture, including excerpts from the Orsk catalogue, the Orsk employee handbook, and a map of the Cleveland store. Amy’s boss quotes from the Orsk customer service guide as if it is the Holy Bible. Basically, all of the characters in Horrorstör are walking caricatures, including protagonist Amy as the disgruntled slacker who believes she has settled for a job that is unworthy of her talents. Author Grady Hendrix drops bread crumbs of spooky happenings once in awhile, but dedicates the first hundred or so pages of the novel to roasting the retail environment and those who dwell within its overly lit halls.

The second half of Horrorstör takes a sharp turn into a paranormal ghost story. Turns out the executive bigwigs at the Orsk corporate office didn’t pay close enough attention when they paid bottom dollar for their newest store. They built their Cleveland location on the grounds of a former prison which was ruled by a sadistic and cruel warden. Now the spirits of the warden as well as the disgruntled inmates are roaming the Bright and Shining Path of the Orsk store. Only they’re looking for blood rather than bookcases.

Both sections of Horrorstör work on their own, but I’m not sure they work together. The beginning has a wry, tongue-in-cheek tone that is utterly lost once the main ghost story begins to pick up pace. Hendrix spends a bit too much time playing with his setup, and fails to build up any suspense in the early pages. The second half of the novel is a series of claustrophobic and tense chase scenes that include quite a bit of uncomfortable physical horror. But because we didn’t spend that much time getting to know the characters as anything other than caricatures, we’re never terribly invested in their fates.

Overall, I liked Horrorstör better in concept than in execution. The comedy and horror work against one another as opposed to in harmony, and the juxtaposition was too sudden and jarring.

My rating: 3/5

You can find Horrorstör here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: You by Caroline Kepnes

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Review #93

When a beautiful young aspiring writer enters his bookshop, Joe Goldberg is immediately enthralled. He realizes they are destined to be together so he does what seems natural to him, he invades her life. By finding out where she lives, entering her apartment uninvited, and stealing her phone, Joe manages to insert himself in her life almost seamlessly. His obsession grows as the young woman begins to trust and even love him. Increasingly possessive, Joe becomes determined to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of his happiness, even if means killing people to do so.

First things first, this book was amazing. It is one of those novels that pulls you in from the very first page and then you can’t function normally in the real world until you finish it. It’s one of those novels where you sacrifice sleeping at night so you can read a few more chapters. If I were a smoker, this would be the kind of book that would have me chain-smoking out of pure nervous energy as I flipped the pages as quickly as possible.

You is non-stop tension from beginning to end. The narrator is a psychopath with delusions of grandeur. Joe truly believes that entering a strange woman’s apartment and masturbating on her bed is a perfectly natural way of expressing his adoration for her. Anything that he sees as a hindrance to their “love” is a threat that must be removed without hesitation or remorse. He is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Author Caroline Kepnes makes the bold choice to write her novel using the second-hand voice. I typically find this style of narration to be tedious and annoying, but here it gives us a look into Joe’s mind in a way that first or third hand perspective would not have done. It is a chilling, cold, reptilian brain that is all the more nerve-wracking because on the outside Joe would seem like a perfectly normal guy who works in a bookshop. But under the surface he is calculating and manipulative. Since we only see the female character through Joe’s eyes, she is basically a hyper-sexualized depiction of feminine perfection.

It’s almost sick how compelling Joe’s character is. I felt a little demented myself after spending so much time in his head. And even though you can probably guess the ending from the first chapter of the book, it got there in an entirely different way than I had originally anticipated.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It is twisted and dark and brutal. It may be triggering for survivors of rape or sexual assault. It will definitely make you think twice before striking up a conversation with a stranger.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find the sequel.

My rating: 5/5

You can find You here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl (2018)

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Review #92

 

Beatrice and her friends were a tightly knit group at their prestigious Rhode Island boarding school, until a tragedy struck which left Beatrice’s boyfriend dead at the bottom of a quarry. Jim’s death was ruled as a suicide, but Beatrice never quite believed that could be true. Years later, she attempts to reconnect with her friends at Wincroft, the seaside mansion where she spent so many happier days. After an awkward evening with too much alcohol, a man appears at the door. For Beatrice and her friends, time has become stuck. They will continue to repeat the same day over and over until a decision is made. Only one of them will get a second attempt at life.

Marisha Pessl’s Night Film will definitely make the list of my favorite books I’ve read this year. It was so incredibly unique and creative, and it kept me guessing the whole time without feeling gimmicky. Neverworld Wake is a very different kind of novel; it is oddly repetitive and stale at times, and the characters lack the complexity that I felt so compelling in Pessl’s other novel.

I can’t say too much about the plot without giving away some important spoilers, suffice to say that it involves a kind of purgatory that Beatrice and her friends find themselves trapped in. Too much of the novel is devoted to Beatrice idly following her friends around as they devote themselves to whatever distractions entertain a person who is stuck in limbo. If her explorations contributed anything to the plot, or if they advanced the characterization of the other men and women, this would have been less tedious. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for most of the novel, and the characters remain flat and lifeless caricatures. I felt a lack of curiosity towards the fate of Beatrice and her friends, mostly I just wanted them to do something other than bitching at one another.

This novel is geared more towards a YA audience than Pessl’s previous works, and that may have contributed to the lackluster narrative. Where Night Film was filled with sex and murder and danger and suspense, Neverworld Wake avoids all of the above and suffers a bit for it. Not that sex and murder are intrinsically necessarily for a good suspense novel, but the adult themes do serve to heighten the tension.

On a positive note, I admired the controlled way that Pessl unravels her plot. She leaves small clues like bread crumbs scattered throughout her narrative, and only after finishing the novel can you follow them backward to a full understanding. Pessl avoids the smug “Have you figured it out yet?” foreshadowing that characterizes too many YA thrillers. This puts it in a higher echelon than comparable novels such as We Were Liars or The Last Time I Lied.

I hope that Marisha Pessl does not intend transition to YA permanently. Not that she doesn’t have the talent for the genre, but because it is a rare and delightful thing to find a thriller that keeps its fangs.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Neverworld Wake here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Journey Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino (1999)

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Review #91

When a local pawnbroker turns up murdered in an abandoned building in 1973, Detective Sasagaki begins a hunt for his killer. He eventually links two young people that seem to be connected with the crime. One is the sullen, brooding son of the murdered man, the other is the beautiful and captivating daughter of the prime suspect. The story of these individuals spans the course of twenty years as Detective Sasagaki pursues his murder suspect to the point of overwhelming obsession.

The cover states that author Keigo Higashino is the “Japanese Stieg Larrson”, and I did find a lot of similarity to Larrson’s Millenium trilogy. Journey Under the Midnight Sun occasionally suffers from too many characters, to the point where I had difficulty remembering who a specific character was and what was their place in the overall plot. Also similar to Larrson, too many of these characters have very similar surnames which added to my initial confusion.

The two central characters are Yukiho and Ryo, young children at the beginning of the novel whose lives are shaped by their relationship to one another. Yukiho seems to be blessed with preternatural beauty and grace. After the events that set the main plot into motion, we follow Yukiho through her expensive prep school, into marriage, and eventually life as a successful business woman. Wherever Yukiho goes, men fall in love with her and women envy her. As she moves through life, a series of unfortunate events seem to occur to those who would deny Yukiho the things she desires.

Ryo is the maladjusted son of the murdered pawnbroker. Unlike Yukiho, who was able to attend a prestigious school and university, Ryo is instead sent to the local public school. He discovers an interest in the emerging world of computer technology, and finds himself working alongside a group of people who steal video games and sell them on the black market. As Ryo sinks deeper into a dark world of crime and isolation, secrets from his past threaten to consume him.

The setting, which begins in the early 1970’s and spans nearly twenty years, is a fascinating look at the changes that occurred in Japanese society as it was swept up in the technological revolution and became a powerhouse in the computer and video game industries. The rise of Tokyo real estate prices, the beginning of the digital black market, and the loss of “traditional” class and gender roles all paint the portrait of a rapidly changing world where people could either change with the times or risk become obsolete.

This novel was a twisty-turny rollercoaster ride of a thriller. Despite the overabundance of supporting characters, they all have an important role to play and once I got them puzzled out they sprang to life with motivations and desires of their own. Journey Under the Midnight Sun is the written equivalent of film noir complete with chain-smoking detectives, alluring femme fatales, wide-eyed innocents, and devastating betrayals.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Journey Under the Midnight Sun here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James (2018)

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Review #90

Vermont, 1950 Idlewild Hall is where parents send their daughters once they had deemed lost causes. Whether illegitimate, rebellious, or simply inconvenient, the girls all find themselves at Idlewild. Four girls find themselves bonding after being unceremoniously dropped at the school and form a tight friendship, until one of them vanishes without a trace.

Vermont, 2014 Twenty years after her older sister was found murdered on the now-abandoned grounds of Idlewild Hall journalist Fiona Sheridan returns to her hometown in rural Vermont to cover the story of the school’s restoration. Confronted with memories she has worked so hard to bury, Fiona becomes determined to uncover the mystery of her sister’s death.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that split perspective narratives are difficult to do well because one of the narratives will almost always end up being more compelling. In The Broken Girls, the chapters set in 1950 move at a faster clip and have a stronger voice. Even though these chapters vary between the four girls who reside at Idlewild, they still manage to accomplish more character development than the chapters written from Fiona’s point of view.

The problem is that Fiona spends an inordinate amount of time repeating herself about how broken up she is over her sister’s death, and lamenting that she and her police officer boyfriend may not be meant for one another. Not until the final seventy pages or so does Fiona’s narrative begin to pick up momentum and by that point the tension is lost.

The Broken Girls is billed as a paranormal suspense, but seems to be lacking both paranormal and suspense. The “ghost” story is glaringly underutilized; at no point does the spirit of Idlewild present any kind of threat or intrigue.

Author Simone St. James does get points for her creepy, Gothic atmosphere, I could almost feel the chilly and crumbling halls of the neglected school. I also greatly enjoyed the way that St. James depicts life as a girl in 1950 feel like a prison. That the girls of Idlewild consistently rebel against the tight strictures imposed by the adults around them made me silently cheer for their victory.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Broken Girls here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage (2018)

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What would you do if you find yourself unable to love your child? What if your child didn’t love you? Eight-year old Hanna is sweet and precocious for her father, even if she is unwilling to speak. But for her mother Suzette, Hanna is a manipulative and destructive child who seems hell-bent on destroying the relationship between her parents. As Suzette becomes increasingly strained by Hanna’s behavior, Hanna’s tricks become more sophisticated when she decides that she may have to remove her mother from the picture altogether.

I read a lot, and I mean a lot of horror novels, but this debut novel by author Zoje Stage scared the pants off me. The premise is entirely ridiculous and utterly silly but it’s crafted within enough care to keep the level of suspense heightened until the very end.

The split narrative varies between mother and daughter so that the reader comes to sympathize with both characters. It would be easy to write off Hanna as a deranged child psychopath like Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son, but that would be too easy. Instead we can understand Hanna’s skewed viewpoint and how she has somehow come to view her mother as the enemy. She is never depicted as a “demon child” so much as a confused and disturbed little girl. We can also understand how Suzette has reached a breaking point when it comes to parenting a increasingly difficult child.

There is a hint of Rosemary’s Baby in Suzette’s relationship with her husband. He is too often absent, and since Hanna puts on her best face for her Daddy, inclined to side with her. As the father, Alex is the least developed character and too often plays the role of biased mediator. There are many instances where he says that his wife is “over-reacting” and that there daughter is simply “under stimulated” at home. This is a fairly lazy plot device in 2018 when most parents are more involved in their children’s upbringing.

This book is sure to be controversial with the mommy crowd, particularly the ending. As a currently childless woman, I found the ideas presented in Baby Teeth to be simultaneously disturbing and highly entertaining. It was certainly a compelling read from beginning to end.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Baby Teeth here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (2015)

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Review #88

Caden Bosch is on a ship headed towards the Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth located in the Marinas Trench. Sometimes. Other times he is a fifteen-year old high school kid who is beginning to have difficulty distinguishing between what is real and what is not. Caden Bosch is elected the ship’s artist, whose job it is to document the ship’s crew with pictures. Sometimes. Other times he is a boy who cannot stop moving, who quits the track team and instead wanders for miles around his neighborhood. Caden Bosch is beginning to contemplate mutiny against the ship’s captain but is still holding on to his allegiance. Sometimes.

Neal Shusterman dives deep into the heart of mental illness with Challenger Deep, and explores how a person’s mind can begin to betray them. Caden Bosch is never diagnosed with anything specific, but his symptoms exhibit signs of schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder. He begins to feel constant paranoia and anxiety, and his social functions plummet as he loses the ability to hold a sustained conversation. Shusterman, who uses many personal details from the life of his own son, portrays Caden as someone who has great inner strength but finds that all the perseverance in the world cannot always combat the continuous onslaught of mental illness.

Shusterman depicts the confusion that Caden feels by ensuring that his readers have some difficulty discerning exactly what is going on at any given time. His chapters are short, only three or four pages long, and vary from Caden on board a sailing ship in the middle of the Pacific to Caden trying to hold on to the pieces of his life while his illness threatens to consume him. The first fifty or so pages of Challenger Deep twist into a big jumble before settling into a more straightforward narrative. In this way Shusterman helps us to empathize with his protagonist.

Challenger Deep represents a brutally honest, yet ultimately sensitive portrayal of mental illness. Caden’s struggles are never glamorized or dramatized for effect. We identify with his struggles and rejoice with his rare glimmers of hope. He understands that he will never be “cured” and instead has to come to terms with the fact that his mental illness with be with him for the rest of his life. Instead of this being a sour note, Caden is able to meet it with resignation.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Challenger Deep here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!