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: 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 is found murdered in an abandoned building in 1973, Detective Sasagaki begins the 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 murder victim, 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 their place was 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: 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!

Book Review: The Mermaid by Christina Henry (2018)

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Review #85

Once upon a time there was a mermaid who was curious about the lives of men. One day she swam too close to shore, and was trapped in a net by a fisherman. Moved by her alien beauty, the fisherman released the mermaid back into the sea. But the mermaid, entranced by the loneliness in the eyes of the fisherman, used an ancient magic to give herself legs and join the fisherman on land. He named her Amelia and together they lived a long and happy life, until the day came when the fisherman went out to sea and didn’t come back. Isolated in her small cabin on a cliffside, Amelia spends her days watching the sea and missing the fisherman. Many years pass, until another man comes into her life. A man by the name of P.T. Barnum.

Christina Henry has published several revisionist fairy tales, included Lost Boy which I reviewed earlier this year. I would describe her latest novel, The Mermaid, as a re-imagining of the classic story of a mermaid who dreams of life on land. The plot of The Mermaid bares almost zero resemblance to the original Danish fairy tale, choosing instead to follow its own path to 19th century New York City.

The opening of The Mermaid reads very much like a classic fairy tale, with very little dialogue and an omniscient narrator who constructs a sweet and believable love story between a mermaid and a fisherman. The rest of the novel switches to a more modern narrative with the mermaid Amelia as its heroine, a creature who is older and stranger than anyone around her realizes. Christina Henry does a wonderful job of portraying Amelia has inhuman but not inhumane. She has difficulty identifying with those around her but is filled with empathy for the everyday struggles of the people she encounters in New York.

If The Mermaid is lacking anything, it’s a solid antagonist. Because Henry has grounded her story away from its Danish roots, Amelia never makes a deal with a vengeful sea witch. There is no pressing time limit for her to win her true love and remain human. The nearest thing to a villain is P.T. Barnum as the immoral collector of freaks and oddities, but even he is presented as distasteful and greedy rather than actively monstrous.

So far I have enjoyed both of Christina Henry’s novels. I love the imaginative way she transports her readers to another time and place. Her writing is captivating and begs to be read. I’ll keep my eyes open for her next fairy tale interpretation.

My rating: 4/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (2006)

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Review #84

Shortly after a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital, Chicago journalist Camille Preaker is summoned back to her rural Missouri hometown to cover the brutal murders of two young girls. This means that Camille must get back in touch with her family, who she has been estranged from for many years. Her neurotic, hypochondriac mother doesn’t seem overjoyed to see her eldest daughter. Her half-sister has grown into a beautiful and manipulative teenager. And her stepfather seems content to sip cocktails and watch from the sidelines. While investigating in a town that seems increasingly hostile, Camille must struggle to maintain her own mental health while trying to find out everything she can about the deaths of two girls who begin to evoke memories from her own past.

Six years before Gone Girl became a runaway bestseller and changed the thriller genre forever Gillian Flynn published her debut novel, Sharp Objects. It’s easy to see Flynn’s obvious talent as well as how she grew as an author with her follow-up books. Sharp Objects is a shorter novel that immediately dives into a dark and haunted place and stays there for the duration.

Everyone in this book seems to be suffering from some form of deeply unhealthy obsession. Even the town itself has a kind of malignant tumor that infects the overall atmosphere. Camille’s family is a warped and twisted caricature of love. Her mother Adora demands control over everyone in her life and is willing to excise anyone who defies her authority, even her own daughter. Camille’s thirteen year old half-sister Amma has learned how to play her mother and everyone else in the town, consummately changing personalities to fit people’s individual perceptions. For Camille, who is dealing with a history of self-arm and anxiety, this is the worst place she could possibly be.

Gillian Flynn deserves props for presenting an honest and unflinching portrayal of mental illness. Camille’s fragile mental state is never romanticized, but neither does it define her entirely. She is more than her illness, and works every day to better herself. At the same time she is ashamed of what she believes to be a weakness, and self-medicates with drugs and alcohol to dull her pain. The longer Camille remains with her family, the stronger the urge to self-harm becomes.

I really enjoyed this novel for its dark and twisted portrayal of familial bonds. The tangled relationship between Camille and those who are supposed to love and support her are described in a realistic if incredibly destructive manner. I could easily relate to Flynn’s protagonist who has to hold on to her inner strength when it becomes nearly impossible to do so.

My rating: 4/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Off to be the Wizard by Scott Meyer (2014)

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Review #83

Martin Banks is just a normal, everyday guy who enjoys digging into the depths of the internet in his spare time. On one of these nighttime expeditions, he stumbles across a discovery that will change his life forever. The world as we know it is nothing more than a computer program; a computer program that Martin is able to change at will. He vows that he will use this newfound power sparingly and with great care. This vow lasts for approximately forty-eight hours before Martin finds himself fleeing back in time to medieval England. He decides to pose as a wizard and make a life for himself in the tiny village of Leadchurch.

Author Scott Meyer makes the smart decision early in this novel not to waste time on how any of the plot elements work. The computer program controls everything about the world because it does, and Martin is able to use this to alter his appearance, his bank account, and his location by teleporting. There is very little time given over to trying to apply logic to an inherently illogical premise, and Meyer avoids getting bogged down in the details.

Instead, he offers up a wildly silly story of a man who tries to fool a village of 11th century English villagers that he is a wizard. Martin downloads the computer code into his phone, and uses it to make himself hover, emit sparks, and speak in a booming voice. Don’t bother asking how his phone continues to work in the past, it just does. This process is laid out in a highly enjoyable montage that reminded me of The Matrix, if Neo were learning break-dancing instead of kungfu.

Overall, Off to Be the Wizard was smart, irreverent, and short enough that it ended before the situational comedy began to wear thin. It never made me laugh out loud, but instead caused a kind of perpetual smirk from beginning to end.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Off to Be the Wizard here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: Blankets by Craig Thompson (2003)

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Review #81

Craig Thompson lives a lonely life in rural Wisconsin. The son of incredibly devout Christians, his early life is defined by love for God combined with the sense of shame that he will never be pure enough to earn God’s love in return. He has an ongoing sibling rivalry with his younger brother Phil and constantly feels both protective and smothered by their relationship. When Craig is in high school he attends a Christian Bible Camp. There he meets Raina, and a budding romance springs up between them which causes Craig to begin questioning his faith.

The early parts of Thompson’s novel deal mostly with his relationship with his little brother. Since Craig is constantly bullied at school because his family is poor and highly religious, he is incredibly lonely. But instead of turning to his brother for friendship, he belittles Phil and tries to make himself seem smarter and more powerful than his sibling. At the same time, Blankets is interspersed with memories of he and his brother as they play together, draw together, and bicker with one another. Sibling relationships are always a strange mixture of love and irritation, and Thompson depicts that dichotomy with humor and humility.

The bulk of Blankets is dedicated to Craig’s relationship with Raina, and the emotional highs and lows that accompany a first love. Thompson portrays their budding romance as a whirlwind of new experiences, new hormones, and new revelations that will test their tenuous bonds. We as readers know how incredibly rare it is for people to end up with their first loves, and yet I found myself hoping against hope that things would somehow work out for the two of them. Thompson shows that he has a poetic soul in these sections, and the way that Craig sets Raina on a a pedestal of perfection is beautifully written. She is highly idealized, and often represented as a goddess or an angel with a halo upon her head. There is also a running undercurrent of fear since Craig does not believe himself to be worthy of anyone’s love, and he lives in a state of anxiety that Raina will one day realize how deficient he is.

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The writing in this novel was poignant and powerfully honest. One of the reasons that memoirs can leave such an indelible impression is that they require the author to bare their soul entirely.  Thompson draws upon that extreme confusion that all teenagers feel at some point. A crisis of faith, a feeling of shame for his own desires, a realization that a love for God does not always have to mean an attachment to organized religion are the cornerstones of Blankets.

The illustrations in this book are wonderfully expressive, and I was continually impressed by the amount of detail that Thompson was able to cram into the small panels of this novel. He draws the harsh winters of Wisconsin with a deft and loving hand that make me eager for the first snowfall of the season.

If I had to make a criticism of Blankets, it would be that there were certain aspects that Thompson left too vague. At one point he suggests that he and his brother were molested by a babysitter. This is given about two pages early in the novel, and revisited with two pages towards the middle. I kept waiting for the author to explain more about what happened with the brothers and the babysitter, but he never touches on it again. This is one example of a plot line that is never followed, and I was frustrated by the fact that Thompson would drop such a bombshell on his readers but never lead it to any conclusion.

This is the second graphic memoir that I’ve read this month, the other being Persepolis. I find myself increasingly drawn to this niche genre because of its stark and beautiful honesty, and the talent by the author to expose their innermost pain and joy to strangers. Reading Blankets was looking straight into the soul of a fellow human, and seeing myself reflected back.

My rating: 4.5/5

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

Happy reading everyone!