Book Review: The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Title: The Plot
Author: Jean Hanff Korelitz
Publisher: Celadon Books
Publication date: May 11, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Jacob Finch Bonner was once a promising young novelist with a respectably published first book. Today, he’s teaching in a third-rate MFA program and struggling to maintain what’s left of his self-respect; he hasn’t written–let alone published–anything decent in years. When Evan Parker, his most arrogant student, announces he doesn’t need Jake’s help because the plot of his book in progress is a sure thing, Jake is prepared to dismiss the boast as typical amateur narcissism. But then… he hears the plot.

Jake returns to the downward trajectory of his own career and braces himself for the supernova publication of Evan Parker’s first novel: but it never comes. When he discovers that his former student has died, presumably without ever completing his book, Jake does what any self-respecting writer would do with a story like that–a story that absolutely needs to be told.

In a few short years, all of Evan Parker’s predictions have come true, but Jake is the author enjoying the wave. He is wealthy, famous, praised and read all over the world. But at the height of his glorious new life, an e-mail arrives, the first salvo in a terrifying, anonymous campaign: You are a thief, it says.

As Jake struggles to understand his antagonist and hide the truth from his readers and his publishers, he begins to learn more about his late student, and what he discovers both amazes and terrifies him. Who was Evan Parker, and how did he get the idea for his “sure thing” of a novel? What is the real story behind the plot, and who stole it from whom?

Hailed as breathtakingly suspenseful, Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot is a propulsive read about a story too good not to steal, and the writer who steals it.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that The Plot is an unputdownable page-turner. I finished it within 24 hours — I just couldn’t stand waiting to see how it all turned out!

In The Plot, our focus is on Jacob Finch Bonner, a has-been writer who burst onto the literary scene years earlier with a well-reviewed first book, then flamed out on his second book and couldn’t even find a publisher for his third or fourth. He can’t bring himself to write, and supports himself through teaching at a mediocre MFA program that’s open to anyone who wants to write, no competitive admissions process required.

When the super obnoxious Evan Parker shows up for Jake’s class, Evan is dismissive and rude, and asserts that he’s just there to get the initials MFA into his credentials. He insists his plot is amazing, can’t fail, and will make what he writes a huge bestseller and get him a major movie deal. Jake can’t believe Evan’s arrogance, but when he finally coaxes the plot out of Evan, he has to reluctantly agree that Evan has something unique and possibly quite valuable. Of course, it’s insulting that Evan insists that it doesn’t take writing talent to make a great book — all that’s needed is a great plot, and he has one.

Years go by, and Jake supports himself through online teaching and an editing business. But when he hears that Evan has died, he’s curious about the plot of his book. Surely, if someone had published such a story, he would have known. After googling and poking around, Jake becomes certain that Evan never did write his book… and since the plot was never used and never truly left Jake’s mind, well, why not?

Jake’s book is everything that Evan knew his plot would lead to. Crib is a huge bestseller, an Oprah book, and is about to be optioned by Stephen Spielberg. But Jake’s success is disturbed when he receives an email calling him a thief. His anxiety leads him into a deeper look into Evan’s life, and the more he digs, the more he understands about how someone like Evan could have come up with this amazing plot in the first place.

I can’t go into more detail than that, because spoiling this book would be unforgivable! Suffice it to say that Jake’s investigation reveals plenty of weirdness and unexpected twists, and I found it fascinating.

The Plot gives us a lot to think about, both in terms of the book’s storyline and the suspenseful elements, but also in terms of the world and inner life of a writer. As one character points out, ideas can’t be copyrighted. So if someone has a story idea but never uses it, and someone else knows about the idea and does use it, is it stealing? On the surface, yes… maybe? Was it ethical for Jake to write a book based on a plot concept that, as far he knows, was never used and was never even written beyond the draft of a first chapter? If Jake took the story outline he heard from Evan and turned into a compelling novel, was that Jake’s work in reality? How much credit, if any, does he owe to Evan? The questions are fascinating to think about, and my feelings and opinions on these issues continued to change throughout the novel.

I did pretty much nail the biggest plot twist early on, but that doesn’t mean that I truly figured it all out. I may have had a good idea of the “what”, but the “why” and the “how” were surprising and really well put-together, and I loved all the little ups and downs of Jake’s search for the truth.

I will say that the very end was not what I expected, and I’m still struggling with it! Not because it doesn’t work — it absolutely does! But I will say that my sense of fairness feels upset. This is not the ending I wanted for the characters… but it totally works in a very creepy sort of way.

The Plot has lots of disturbing developments, but it’s not graphically violent. As I said, beyond the actual intrigue and action, I also appreciated the thoughts on a writer’s life, the highs and lows of success as an author, and the various questions brought up about who gets to tell whose stories and whether it’s true to say that each person has a story that’s uniquely theirs to tell.

I think one sign that The Plot is really well done is that even though I felt disappointed by some of Jake’s actions and decisions and what these say about his morality or lack thereof, I still rooted for him and cared enough about him to want him to find a way out of the increasingly perilous place he finds himself.

The Plot is one of the buzziest books this summer, and with good reason. It’s a fast, engrossing story that kept me hooked until the very end. Check it out!

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Book Review: Rabbits by Terry Miles

Title: Rabbits
Author: Terry Miles
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: June 8, 2021
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Conspiracies abound in this surreal and yet all-too-real technothriller in which a deadly underground alternate reality game might just be altering reality itself, set in the same world as the popular Rabbits podcast.

It’s an average work day. You’ve been wrapped up in a task, and you check the clock when you come up for air–4:44 pm. You go to check your email, and 44 unread messages have built up. With a shock, you realize it is April 4th–4/4. And when you get in your car to drive home, your odometer reads 44,444. Coincidence? Or have you just seen the edge of a rabbit hole?

Rabbits is a mysterious alternate reality game so vast it uses our global reality as its canvas. Since the game first started in 1959, ten iterations have appeared and nine winners have been declared. Their identities are unknown. So is their reward, which is whispered to be NSA or CIA recruitment, vast wealth, immortality, or perhaps even the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe itself. But the deeper you get, the more deadly the game becomes. Players have died in the past–and the body count is rising.

And now the eleventh round is about to begin. Enter K–a Rabbits obsessive who has been trying to find a way into the game for years. That path opens when K is approached by billionaire Alan Scarpio, the alleged winner of the sixth iteration. Scarpio says that something has gone wrong with the game and that K needs to fix it before Eleven starts or the whole world will pay the price.

Five days later, Scarpio is declared missing. Two weeks after that, K blows the deadline and Eleven begins. And suddenly, the fate of the entire universe is at stake.

I’m not sure I’m actually up to the task of righting a Rabbits review, but I’ll give it a shot!

Rabbits is both the name of this novel and the name of the game within the novel. Rabbits — the game — is secretive and mysterious. No one knows for sure if it actually exists, who created it, how you play, who has played, or how you win. Yet there are countless online discussion groups devoted to Rabbits, as well as countless die-hard gamers who live and breathe for the opportunity to find out more and maybe even get to play.

K, the main character of the book, holds regular workshops on Rabbits in a Seattle arcade, where he reveals rare recordings and shares the lore of the game. It’s all based on rumors and hearsay and dark web conspiracies, but K is more successful than most. Gifted since birth with the ability to see and recognize patterns and connections, he’s highly skilled when it comes to recognizing the anomalies and seeming coincidences that are so crucial to Rabbits.

K also presents as being somewhat imbalanced, losing time, having strange freakouts, and becoming so obsessed with clues and the game that he forgets to eat or sleep. As the book opens, K receives a strange warning from a tech billionaire rumored to be a winner of an earlier iteration of the game. He states that there’s something wrong with the game, that it’s up to K to fix it, and that if he doesn’t, the world may be doomed. No pressure though!

We follow K and his maybe-girlfriend Chloe through a baffling series of symbols, puzzles, and patterns as they work to solve the riddle of Rabbits and, hopefully, to keep the multiverse from imploding. Reading Rabbits, I couldn’t help thinking that it’s sort of a Da Vinci Code kind of mystery wrapped up in gamer-speak, with a techno-thriller pace and edge to it all.

Rabbits is incredibly confusing, and to be honest, I don’t think I could actually tell you what Rabbits — the game — actually is or how someone wins. The book is convoluted as heck, although I can’t say it doesn’t have enjoyable moments. The mindfuckery is leavened by funny dialogue and pop culture references — in between all the parts that left me scratching my head and utterly bewildered. More often than not, I found myself incredibly impatient with all the twists and turns, and I just couldn’t suspend disbelief enough to buy into the idea that these hidden clues could actually make sense to a real person.

I think maybe I’m just not the right audience for Rabbits. The book is long, and while there are some fun passages and escapades, overall it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I will say, though, that it’s made me hypersensitive right now to patterns and coincidences… like why do I always happen to be glancing at a clock when it’s 9:20?

Maybe it’s the game. Maybe I’m playing and I don’t even know it!

Final note: Rabbits is also the name of a podcast created by the novel’s author, Terry Miles. I haven’t listened to it, and understand from the book’s marketing that it’s not necessary to have listened to the podcast to read the book — but it’s also about the game Rabbits. The podcast can be found at: https://www.rabbitspodcast.com/

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Book Review: I Don’t Forgive You by Aggie Blum Thompson

Title: I Don’t Forgive You
Author: Aggie Blum Thompson
Publisher: Forge
Publication date: June 8, 2021
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

An accomplished photographer and the devoted mom of an adorable little boy, Allie Ross has just moved to an upscale DC suburb, the kind of place where parenting feels like a competitive sport. Allie’s desperate to make a good first impression. Then she’s framed for murder.

It all starts at a neighborhood party when a local dad corners Allie and calls her by an old, forgotten nickname from her dark past. The next day, he is found dead.

Soon, the police are knocking at her door, grilling her about a supposed Tinder relationship with the man, and pulling up texts between them. She learns quickly that she’s been hacked and someone is impersonating her online. Her reputation–socially and professionally–is at stake; even her husband starts to doubt her. As the killer closes in, Allie must reach back into a past she vowed to forget in order to learn the shocking truth of who is destroying her life.

Allie is new to the close-knit, overly involved neighborhood when she attends a party that changes everything. The community is full of successful, highly ambitious people whose children all attend the same school. Everyone knows everything about everybody, and it’s cliquey and overwhelming to outsider Allie. After some mild flirting over a glass of wine, Allie finds herself cornered and assaulted in the bathroom, and leaves feeling shaken up and terribly worried about her future in the neighborhood.

Among the neighborhood women, she has few allies, and when she decides to share her terrible experience with her closest neighbor, the word spreads that she’s accused the (now dead) man of assault. The crisis escalates as Allie discovers fake Tinder and Facebook accounts pretending to be her, causing horrible damage to her reputation, and soon leading even her husband to mistrust her.

Meanwhile, an old secret from Allie’s troubled past seems to be resurfacing, and to make matters worse, her mother and sister are entangled in problems as well. As the police start to zero in on Allie as a murder suspect, her panic worsens — there’s no one she can trust, and no one seems to believe that she’s been set up.

I Don’t Forgive You is a fast read, setting up the key conflict quickly and then piling up clues and suspicions left and right. There are lots of possible solutions to the question of who’s setting Allie up and why, and the plot intentionally plays up all the potential misdirections before finally revealing the answers.

The book kept my interest, although I’m not a huge fan of these types of suburban, gossipy neighbor thrillers. I couldn’t feel overly invested in the PTA drama, the judging women treating Allie horribly, or Allie’s own poor decision-making in times of crisis.

My big takeaway from this book is — stay off the internet! It’s like an object lesson in the dangers of identity theft and the value of cyber security. I think Allie’s awareness of online security protocols is probably pretty typical of most people — we assume passwords and firewalls are enough to keep us safe, and we tend to be blind to all the many, many ways people with bad intentions can mess with us.

I Don’t Forgive You is a good entertaining read. It didn’t particularly rise above average for me, but take that with a grain of salt, since thrillers in general aren’t usually my preferred genre. This would make a good summer read, a fun choice for reading in a beach chair or by the pool!

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Book Review: The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

Title: The Last Thing He Told Me
Author: Laura Dave
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: May 4, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Thriller/contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

We all have stories we never tell.

Before Owen Michaels disappears, he manages to smuggle a note to his beloved wife of one year: Protect her.

Despite her confusion and fear, Hannah Hall knows exactly to whom the note refers: Owen’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Bailey. Bailey, who lost her mother tragically as a child. Bailey, who wants absolutely nothing to do with her new stepmother.

As Hannah’s increasingly desperate calls to Owen go unanswered; as the FBI arrests Owen’s boss; as a US Marshal and FBI agents arrive at her Sausalito home unannounced, Hannah quickly realizes her husband isn’t who he said he was. And that Bailey just may hold the key to figuring out Owen’s true identity—and why he really disappeared.

Hannah and Bailey set out to discover the truth, together. But as they start putting together the pieces of Owen’s past, they soon realize they are also building a new future. One neither Hannah nor Bailey could have anticipated.

In Laura Dave’s unputdownable new novel, Hannah is happily married to Owen, and trying her best to get Owen’s 16-year-old daughter to accept her, or at the very least, to not actively dislike her. Owen and Hannah met and married and moved in together in his Sausalito floating home, all within the space of two years. But suddenly, their life is irreparably disrupted.

Owen’s tech company’s CEO is arrested for fraud and stock manipulation. It’s a huge scandal, but making matters worse for Hannah and Bailey is that Owen disappears as the news breaks. He hasn’t been arrested, and he hasn’t been directly implicated or accused of wrong-doing. Instead, he simply vanishes, leaving Hannah a scrawled note telling her to protect Bailey.

Hannah can’t believe that Owen is anything but a victim of circumstance, but his cryptic note confuses her. She’s even more disturbed when a Federal Marshal and then the FBI come knocking on her door, all looking for information on Owen’s whereabouts. With no way to reach Owen and no idea what he could be hiding, Hannah suggests to Bailey that they take matters into their own hands and go look for him instead.

Based on some loose memories of Bailey’s from her early childhood, as well as hints from some of Owen’s stories of his college days, they’re soon on his trail — but Hannah is horrified to discover that none of the history Owen shared with her seems to be true. Not his real name, not his family background, not his education… and if all of this is fabricated, then who really is this man she fell in love with and married?

Despite her own fears, Hannah realizes that she needs to honor Owen’s request to keep Bailey safe, even if Bailey seem to detest her and even if she doesn’t actually know what she’s protecting her from. But as they travel together to a new town and track down seemingly random facts and vague clues, they come to realize that they only have one another to rely on… and as they start putting the puzzle pieces together, Hannah becomes more and more certain that she may not like the answers she finds.

The Last Thing He Told Me is an intricately plotted web of misdirection and secrets. Through flashbacks, we see Hannah and Owen’s courtship and marriage, and learn the stories he shared with Hannah about his past. In the present, we see Hannah being truly there for Bailey, and Bailey’s grudging realization that Hannah might be the only person in the world she can fully count on.

There are deep, dark, dangerous secrets to be uncovered, and harsh truths for both Hannah and Bailey to confront. Ultimately, Hannah faces a decision that affects all of their lives, and only she has the ability to make sure that she’s choosing a path that carries out Owen’s wishes for Bailey.

I did not see where the story was going, and I was completely hooked on trying to figure out Owen’s secrets and why he behaved the way he did. Needless to say, the resolution was not what I expected! Kudos to the author for keeping me guessing all the way through!

In addition to the puzzle of the events of the story and the truth behind Owen’s disappearance, I really liked the developing trust and connection between Hannah and Bailey. I came to respect and admire Hannah very much — she’s put in an impossible situation, with no good options, and finds a way to do the right thing even when it feels like the worst choice in the world.

I picked up this book before it was announced that this would be the Hello, Sunshine choice for May. I’m delighted to see it getting so much attention! The Last Thing He Told Me is a gripping, fascinating read that practically demands to be discussed, and I think it would make a great book group selection.

Highly recommended!

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Buy The Last Thing He Told Me at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

Book Review: The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Title: The Good Sister
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: April 13, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From the outside, everyone might think Fern and Rose are as close as twin sisters can be: Rose is the responsible one and Fern is the quirky one. But the sisters are devoted to one another and Rose has always been Fern’s protector from the time they were small.

Fern needed protecting because their mother was a true sociopath who hid her true nature from the world, and only Rose could see it. Fern always saw the good in everyone. Years ago, Fern did something very, very bad. And Rose has never told a soul. When Fern decides to help her sister achieve her heart’s desire of having a baby, Rose realizes with growing horror that Fern might make choices that can only have a terrible outcome. What Rose doesn’t realize is that Fern is growing more and more aware of the secrets Rose, herself, is keeping. And that their mother might have the last word after all.

I have not been disappointed in a Sally Hepworth book yet, and The Good Sister is no exception! Talk about a page-turner! I couldn’t put the book down, and finished this compelling story in one day.

Rose and Fern are adult sisters who’ve only had each other to rely on for as long as they can remember. Rose is calm and responsible and protective; Fern has sensory issues and struggles to understand the nuances of interpersonal communications, completing missing nonvisual cues and unable to take words as anything but literal.

When Rose shares with Fern her heartache over infertility, Fern decides to have a baby for Rose. And when she meets a sweet guy at the library where she works, Fern realizes that he’s a good candidate for the baby’s father.

Things don’t always go as expected, and as Fern becomes attached to the man she calls Wally, Rose becomes uneasy about the relationship and the feeling that Fern is pulling away from her.

Man, this book is hard to talk about without entering spoiler territory!

Told through Rose’s diary entries and Fern’s first-person narration, we learn bits and pieces about the sisters’ bond, their painful childhood, and their memories of their mother. We also learn more about why and how Fern became so dependent on Rose, and why neither of them consider Fern to be reliable or trustworthy.

It’s only as we get deeper into the story that we start to realize that neither sister is telling the whole story, and that what we’re hearing might not be the true picture of certain key events. Puzzling out the pieces and figuring out what’s true and what’s a lie makes this an incredibly engrossing read.

I especially loved Fern’s character. She’s unusual and has certain needs when it comes to interacting with the world, but she’s also very loving in her own odd way. And hey, she’s a librarian! And a really great one — despite her outward prickliness and tendency to ignore people who ask for help with the library photocopier, she’s terrific at helping people find what they need, whether it’s the right book or a bit of distraction, a way to calm down or even just some basic toiletries so they can use the public showers.

The plot of The Good Sister has some very clever twists and turns, and honestly, I just could not stop reading once I started. I won’t say more about the story, because it’s just too much fun to experience it without advance clues or information. Sally Hepworth has written yet another engrossing story with memorable characters, and I heartily enjoyed it. Don’t miss The Good Sister!

Shelf Control #259: Wayward Pines trilogy by Black Crouch

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Book 1: Pines (2012; 303 pages)
Book 2: Wayward (2013; 298 pages)
Book 3: The Last Town (2014; 294 pages)

What it’s about (synopsis for Pines – via Goodreads):

Wayward Pines, Idaho, is quintessential small-town America–or so it seems. Secret Service agent Ethan Burke arrives in search of two missing federal agents, yet soon is facing much more than he bargained for. After a violent accident lands him in the hospital, Ethan comes to with no ID and no cell phone. The medical staff seems friendly enough, but sometimes feels…off. As days pass, Ethan’s investigation into his colleagues’ disappearance turns up more questions than answers

WHY CAN’T HE MAKE CONTACT WITH HIS FAMILY IN THE OUTSIDE WORLD? WHY DOESN’T ANYONE BELIEVE HE IS WHO HE SAYS HE IS? AND WHAT’S THE PURPOSE OF THE ELECTRIFIED FENCES ENCIRCLING THE TOWN? ARE THEY KEEPING THE RESIDENTS IN? OR SOMETHING ELSE OUT?

Each step toward the truth takes Ethan further from the world he knows, until he must face a horrifying fact—he may never get out of Wayward Pines alive…..

How and when I got it:

I grabbed the entire trilogy during a Kindle price drop a few years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I never watched the Wayward Pines series while it was on TV (two seasons) and was only vaguely aware of it, but after reading Blake Crouch’s fabulous Dark Matter in 2016, I knew I needed to read more by this author. The Wayward Pines books sound eerie and mysterious. What is going on in this town? Why is it cut off? I love how sinister (and potentially King-like) the plots sound, and I’ve really been looking forward to reading the books.

This could be another series to add to my goals list for 2021!

What do you think? Have you read these books or seen the TV adaptation?

Please share your thoughts!



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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Title: The Turn of the Key
Author: Ruth Ware
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Length: 337 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, The Turn of the Key is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

The Turn of the Key is my book group’s pick for November, and I suppose I’m glad to have been “forced” to read it. I’ve been hearing about this book and author Ruth Ware for a while now, so it’s good to know what all the fuss is about!

From the start, we know that there’s something off about the main character. We meet Rowan as she reaches out by letter to a lawyer she’s heard about, one who might be able to turn around her hopeless case. Rowan is in prison, awaiting trial for murdering a child left in her care. And while Rowan admits that she’s done plenty wrong, she insists that she didn’t kill the child.

From here, she relates her strange story, starting with the advertisement for a nanny. A wealthy couple is offering a huge salary for a live-in nanny for their four children at their Scottish estate. To Rowan, this is simply too good to be true. The money involves a huge step up for her, she’s ready for a change, and as we later learn, she has other reasons for wanting the position too.

It’s a weird set-up. The house is a huge, beautiful old Victorian, but the back half has been totally converted into a sleek, glass-walled modern structure. The estate encompasses acres of woods and trails that the children are free to roam about unattended. The children range from toddler to teen, and seem like a handful, but Rowan is enchanted.

Less enchanting is the smart-house design. Everything is run via an app called Happy, that controls all lights, locks and unlocks doors, interfaces with phone calls, replenishes the grocery list, plays music and audiobooks, and so much more. There are cameras everywhere. Creepy!

The parents, Sandra and Bill, are strangely hands-off, to say the least. Upon hiring Rowan, they depart on a business trip the very next day. Suddenly, Rowan is left alone with children who don’t know her (and seem very hostile), a house she doesn’t know how to operate, and only a thick binder left behind by Sandra to offer her instructions on the daily routines and needs of the children.

There are so many red flags that honestly, if I were in Rowan’s shoes, I’d be heading for the hills. Being left alone with children I’ve just met for weeks? Living in an isolated old house? The creaky floors and strange noises? The scary walled garden? The impossible-to-figure-out house app and Sandra’s remote surveillance? No thank you very much.

Still, we also suspect early on that Rowan has secrets. What was her real reason for wanting this job? Why does she hesitate when someone calls her by name? Why does she hide her necklace and just seem so damned awkward all the time?

I had a lot of guesses about Rowan’s secrets, but I was wrong. I was slightly more on target with some of my guesses about the murder — I mean, I got that wrong too, but I figured out some of the “hows” at least!

The ending is pretty abrupt and perhaps a little manipulative, and there’s an ambiguous line thrown in right before the end that has me wondering what happened to Rowan after she finished telling her story.

Overall, I was only partially engaged; hence my 3-star rating. Granted, I’m not a thriller fan in general, so take my responses with a grain of salt. Still, I thought there was something stilted about the set-up, and felt that Rowan’s actions didn’t make enough sense going along. She displays a temper toward the children that made me go in some really dark directions which turned out not to be true — which is a relief, but then why such strong displays of anger? For a childcare professional, Rowan’s anger issues seem really inappropriate and probably should disqualify her from working with children.

Also, it didn’t feel rational to me that a person would show up and take this job in the first place with no adjustment period, and the smart-house aspects are creepy without really adding to the plot. Likewise, the awful garden is in the mix as a danger sign and huge clue… except in the end, it doesn’t really have anything to do with what’s going on, except for being yet one more thing to freak out the main character.

Rowan’s letters from prison make her sound pretty unhinged, so learning that she’s not as unreliable a narrator as we’re led to believe makes me feel like I was being handled, rather than tricked by a clever story.

I don’t know. I was engaged and needed to see how it all turned out, but never particularly connected to any of the characters or cared about them as individuals — not even the children, who didn’t seem particularly realistic.

So yeah, just a 3-star read for me. *Shrug*. Kind of disappointing, considering that I have another book by this author on my shelf. Here’s hoping I have better luck with the next one!

PS – I keep having to stop myself from referring to this book as The Turn of the Screw… and I assume that’s an intentional nod to the classic. New nanny, strange and potentially haunted house, weird children… although the Henry James version doesn’t include invasive smart devices and apps!

Book Review: The Children of Red Peak by Craig DiLouie

Title: The Children of Red Peak
Author: Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: November 17, 2020
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Bram Stoker Award-nominated author Craig DiLouie brings a new twist to the cult horror story in a heart-pounding novel of psychological suspense.

David Young, Deacon Price, and Beth Harris live with a dark secret. As children, they survived a religious group’s horrific last days at the isolated mountain Red Peak. Years later, the trauma of what they experienced never feels far behind.

When a fellow survivor commits suicide, they finally reunite and share their stories. Long-repressed memories surface, defying understanding and belief. Why did their families go down such a dark road? What really happened on that final night?

The answers lie buried at Red Peak. But truth has a price, and escaping a second time may demand the ultimate sacrifice.

Reading The Children of Red Peak gave me serious chills — but I’m not sure whether this story needed the horror/supernatural element to have that effect. How can a story about childhood survivors of a death cult be anything but horrifying?

In The Children of Red Peak, we meet the three main characters — David, Beth, and Deacon, at the funeral of their childhood friend, Emily. Emily has committed suicide, leaving a note that says simply “I couldn’t fight it anymore”.

Fifteen years earlier, these four people, plus David’s older sister Angela, were the sole survivors of a brutal yet mysterious mass suicide out in the desert at a location known as Red Peak. A religious congregation, led by their pastor, endured weeks of starvation, hard labor, and mutilations before finally drinking poison (and murdering those who balked) — all with the goal of gaining eternal life in heaven, leaving behind the rest of the world to suffer the end times.

The survivors were all teens at the time, and after their rescue and extended psychological treatment, they eventually went their separate ways and made lives for themselves. But none are truly happy, and none can really explain what happened on that terrible day at Red Peak.

Through chapters that alternate between Beth, David, and Deacon’s perspectives, we learn about their varied current lives — Beth is a psychologist, Deacon an up-and-coming rock star, and David a cult exit counselor. We also see the characters start to allow their memories to resurface, so we get the backstory of the Family of the Living Spirit, its road to ruin, and the events of the final day in bits and pieces, until they eventually add up to a disturbing, terrible whole.

While there is a mysterious supernatural (religious?) element that comes into play, for me the true impact of this book lies in the description of the Family of the Living Spirit’s trajectory toward destruction. When we’re introduced to this community, they are a peaceful, religious, spiritual group living off the land on a small farm, devoted to the worship of the Living Spirit, but also living a joyful, celebratory life.

It’s only when the pastor discovers a miracle in the desert that the group’s emphasis on gaining eternal life kicks into high gear. With growing fervor for the apocalypse and their crossing over, the congregation evolves quickly into a doomsday cult. Choices are removed, blind obedience is emphasized, and increasingly destructive behaviors are held up as testaments to faith. It’s horrible, especially as we see these events through the eyes of people who were children at the time.

I’m not sure that I loved the climax and conclusion of The Children of Red Peak. The story of the cult and its destructive power is the true horror — for me, the addition of a supernatural element seems almost beside the point. Yes, it’s all very scary and horrifying, but even if this story were just about the delusions and failings of a group of brainwashed people, it would be just as scary and horrifying.

Maybe even more so?

The ending gives us a way out, so to speak. It allows for the possibility that the group’s beliefs might actually have had some sort of fulfillment, in its own awful way. And truly, there are no excuses. Whether the events were the work of a supernatural or divine being, it still resulted in suffering, death, and the permanent psychological damage done to the children who survived.

The Children of Red Peak is thought-provoking and utterly devastating. I came to really care about the characters, and found the entire story and the characters’ various endings heart-breaking and tragic.

This is a powerful read, and I just wish I had someone to talk about it with! Craig DiLouie is a gifted writer, and I will gladly read whatever he writes next.

For more by this author, check out my reviews of:
One of Us
Our War

Book Review: The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian

Title: The Red Lotus
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: March 17, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Midwives and The Flight Attendant comes a twisting story of love and deceit: an American man vanishes on a rural road in Vietnam, and his girlfriend, an emergency room doctor trained to ask questions, follows a path that leads her home to the very hospital where they met.

The first time Alexis saw Austin, it was a Saturday night. Not in a bar, but in the emergency room where Alexis sutured a bullet wound in Austin’s arm. Six months later, on the brink of falling in love, they travel to Vietnam on a bike tour so that Austin can show her his passion for cycling and he can pay his respects to the place where his father and uncle fought in the war. But as Alexis sips white wine and waits at the hotel for him to return from his solo ride, two men emerge from the tall grass and Austin vanishes into thin air. The only clue he leaves behind is a bright yellow energy gel dropped on the road.

As Alexis grapples with this bewildering loss, and deals with the FBI, Austin’s prickly family, and her colleagues at the hospital, Alexis uncovers a series of strange lies that force her to wonder: Where did Austin go? Why did he really bring her to Vietnam? And how much danger has he left her in?

Set amidst the adrenaline-fueled world of the emergency room, The Red Lotus is a global thriller about those who dedicate their lives to saving people, and those who peddle death to the highest bidder.

The Red Lotus is a thriller that moves between Vietnam and New York, ratcheting up the tension until it’s impossible to put down.

We open with our main character Alexis, an ER doctor, waiting anxiously at a luxurious hotel for her boyfriend Austin to return from a solo bike ride across difficult terrain in Vietnam. He’s late, and getting later. Eventually, she reports him missing to their bike tour guides, the local police, and the American consulate, which dispatches the resident FBI representative to assist with the search.

After many hours, Austin’s body is finally found. He’s apparently been killed in a hit and run on a steep mountain road.

But we know there’s more to the story, having read a chapter from Austin’s point of view, in which he’s stopped on the road, taken blindfolded to an undisclosed location, and interrogated. Forcefully. Austin is clearly involved in something sketchy, and just as clearly, he’s in way over his head.

After identifying Austin’s body, Alexis sadly returns alone to New York, but certain inconsistencies nag at her. His injuries can’t all be accounted for as due to a hit and run accident. And why did he lie to her about his father and uncle’s service records in Vietnam? She should probably let it go, but one of her skills as an ER doctor is pattern recognition — spotting key facts and connecting the dots to find out what’s really going on. For her own peace of mind, Alexis has to know the truth about Austin and the real reason he insisted on their trip to Vietnam.

I really don’t want to give away anything more about the plot. There are many different point of view characters, and the intricacies and clues pile up quickly.

Early on, we’re aware that there’s something awful going on behind the scenes involving medical research and murky, disturbing science. How this involves Alexis and Austin is one of the driving mysteries of The Red Lotus.

Even as early as about a third of the way into the story, I just couldn’t stop reading. I had to know if my guesses were right (and some were! yay, me!), how the crazy plotlines would unravel or come together, and whether Alexis herself would end up in mortal danger (she does).

Chris Bohjalian is a master storyteller, and his books never fail to surprise me with their intricate plots and compelling characters. I loved how seemingly secondary characters in this book still got their own backstories and, in the case of the PI Alexis hires, a rich life story full of challenges, love, and loss.

Maybe I just didn’t read the synopsis thoroughly before picking up this book, but I was expecting something more focused on the aftermath of the Vietnam War — and while that does come into play, the true pulse-pounding aspect of the story is along the lines of a medical thriller.

As I said, there’s not much more I can say without giving out major spoilers, so I’ll stop! The Red Lotus is a fascinating, disturbing read, and I just couldn’t look away.

If you enjoy medical thrillers with an international setting and a brave, intelligent lead character, check this one out!

Book Review: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Title: The Silent Patient
Author: Alex Michaelides
Publisher: Celadon Books
Publication date: August 18, 2020
Print length: 325 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.

Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London.

Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him… 

I’ll be blunt — this book annoyed the hell out of me. It’s super hyped, has tons of buzz, and I have friends who’ve insisted that I just had to read it. When my book club picked it as our August book, I knew my time had come.

In brief, this is a psychological thriller about Alicia, a woman who was convicted of murdering her husband and has been confined to a mental institution ever since. From the time she was discovered near her husband’s bloody body, she hasn’t spoken a word. Alicia, a talented artist, made only one communication since Gabriel’s death — a self-portrait, with the mysterious word “Alcestis” written at the bottom.

Theo Faber is a psychotherapist who became fascinated by Alicia’s story and the ensuing notoriety. Years later, he has the opportunity to work at the hospital where she’s a patient, and there he dives into her case, determined to understand why she hasn’t spoken in six years.

From the start, I was annoyed by Theo, and because he’s our point of view character, I felt impatient with the book as a whole. Theo overcame a horrible childhood to achieve professional success, and yet from the moment he transfers to the Grove, he seems to be flouting every rule of professionalism in his obsession with uncovering Alicia’s secrets.

It’s clear that there’s more to the story of the murder than what people accept as the truth. As Theo digs, several potentially shady people emerge as either witnesses or possibly perpetrators of some terrible acts. Aaaaaand… I won’t say too much more about the plot.

The resolution to the mystery took me by surprise, but I felt that the author only managed to achieve this through some sleight-of-hand involving the plot timelines that left me feeling manipulated, rather than pleasantly shocked by the cleverness of it all.

Theo’s actions often make no sense in the big picture, and I’m not sure that I buy the crime scene set-up and explanation as presented either. Yes, it’s twisty and full of unexpected revelations, but I felt too often that I was being “handled”.

I know I’m in the minority on this one. My book group seems to have loved The Silent Patient, and so did my husband and a few other friends. It’s a very quick read, and I was never bored — I think I tore through this book in about a day and a half, and reached a point where I couldn’t put it down.

So yes, it’s an absorbing read and I needed to keep going once I started. But something about it doesn’t sit well with me, and that’s why I gave it three stars.