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.

Book Review: The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy

An addictive psychological thriller about a group of women whose lives become unexpectedly connected when one of their newborns goes missing.

They call themselves the May Mothers—a collection of new moms who gave birth in the same month. Twice a week, with strollers in tow, they get together in Prospect Park, seeking refuge from the isolation of new motherhood; sharing the fears, joys, and anxieties of their new child-centered lives.

When the group’s members agree to meet for drinks at a hip local bar, they have in mind a casual evening of fun, a brief break from their daily routine. But on this sultry Fourth of July night during the hottest summer in Brooklyn’s history, something goes terrifyingly wrong: one of the babies is abducted from his crib. Winnie, a single mom, was reluctant to leave six-week-old Midas with a babysitter, but the May Mothers insisted that everything would be fine. Now Midas is missing, the police are asking disturbing questions, and Winnie’s very private life has become fodder for a ravenous media.

Though none of the other members in the group are close to the reserved Winnie, three of them will go to increasingly risky lengths to help her find her son. And as the police bungle the investigation and the media begin to scrutinize the mothers in the days that follow, damaging secrets are exposed, marriages are tested, and friendships are formed and fractured.

I feel like I should start this review with a disclaimer:

Thrillers are not my jam. And neither is the so-called mommy-drama genre, where domesticity and gossip and childraising are backdrops for intrigue and danger.

So why did I pick up The Perfect Mother? Easy. My book group made me do it.

This is our book of the month for October, and — feeling guilty for missing the last couple of months — I was determined to participate this time around.

So let’s get to it:

In The Perfect Mother, a group of Brooklyn women who all became new mothers in the same month form an ongoing support and social club, where they exchange online tips and gather at the park for company and (it seemed to me) to compare their little darlings against all the others, and hopefully feel smug and self-satisfied as a result.

Oh dear, I’m not going to be very good at writing this review. Again, forgive me, but the odds of me liking this book were pretty slim from the start.

As the story progresses, a baby is kidnapped from his crib while his mother is out partying with the other women on a rare, adults-only outing. Immediately, there’s recrimination and blame and remorse. How could she leave her baby with a nanny she’d only just met? How could all these new moms be out getting so rip-roaring drunk when they have babies at home? Whose bad idea was it really to even go out in the first place? Why does everyone feel so pressured to be there?

Why are these people so in each others’ business and so damned judgy? Ugh.

Anyway, the mystery proceeds from this point. It turns out that everyone is keeping a secret or ten. Certain characters become overly involved (um, obsessed) with Winnie and her past and her connections and her life. It’s all just toooooo much.

The ending is supposed to be a twist, but is it patting myself on the back too much to say I saw it coming from really early on? Not to be too spoilery, but if you’ve seen The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, you’ll at least have a good hunch about why the kidnapping happened, if not whodunit exactly.

Okay, I’m pretty much sucking at writing this review, but I just don’t think I can maintain my interest long enough to say much more that’s meaningful. But let me attempt to at least inject a little positivity in this thing:

The book does move quickly, and made for an engaging read on a long flight. I wasn’t bored while reading it… just increasingly annoyed by the sniping and the mommy stereotypes and the ridiculousness of some of the relationships.

I guess it’s clear that I didn’t like this book. Oh well, at least I’ve been a faithful book club member this month!

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The details:

Title: The Perfect Mother
Author: Aimee Malloy
Publisher: Harper
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Length: 341pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Library

Book Review: Ghoster by Jason Arnopp

Jason Arnopp – author of acclaimed cult hit The Last Days of Jack Sparks – returns with a razor-sharp thriller for a social-media obsessed world. Prepare to never look at your phone the same way again . . .

Kate Collins has been ghosted.

She was supposed to be moving in with her new boyfriend Scott, but all she finds after relocating to Brighton is an empty apartment. Scott has vanished. His possessions have all disappeared.

Except for his mobile phone.

Kate knows she shouldn’t hack into Scott’s phone. She shouldn’t look at his Tinder, his calls, his social media. But she can’t quite help herself.

That’s when the trouble starts. Strange, whispering phone calls from numbers she doesn’t recognize. Scratch marks on the walls that she can’t explain. And the growing feeling that she’s being watched.

Kate refuses to leave the apartment – she’s not going anywhere until she’s discovered what happened to Scott. But the deeper she dives into Scott’s digital history the more Kate realizes just how little she really knows about the man she loves.

SMART PHONES BAD.

That seems to be the thesis statement of this horror novel in a nutshell.

Smartphones, and people’s obsession with them, may literally be the root of all evil.

Kate is a successful paramedic who has only recently kicked a very nasty smartphone habit. She finally recognized that she was addicted to stalking exes through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and hooked on the mini-highs caused by the dopamine rush she gets each time someone likes her posts or tweets.

And then she meets Scott, someone she first noticed on Tinder, who shows up in the flesh at a digital detox retreat she attends. Their connection is instant and powerful, and Kate is swept up in a fast-moving romance with this hot guy who seems too good to be true.

And ya know… if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

After an intense few months, Scott asks Kate to move in with him, and she delightedly agrees, giving up her job and apartment and moving hours away to live with him in Brighton. But when she arrives, he’s not there, and his apartment is completely empty. Except… she finds his smartphone, and her old obsession kicks back in, leaving her no room for any other thought but cracking Scott’s password and seeing what his phone can tell her about him and where he might have gone.

But this goes beyond a woman being ghosted by a skanky boyfriend. Weird stuff is happening — like ghostly blue figures who show up in the apartment in the middle of the night, and strange phone calls on Scott’s phone warning Kate to get out. Kate can’t shake the conviction that there’s more to the story than just being cruelly dumped, so she keeps digging, to such an extent that it’s affecting her new job (okay, among other things, she shoots up amphetamines so she can stay awake for her 12-hour ambulance shifts), and her best friend Izzy has to swoop in to pull her back from the edge.

As Kate digs into Scott’s phone, she discovers creepy images and disturbing videos, evidence of his pursuit of other women, and connections to other people who may have also disappeared. And the more Kate digs, the weirder and more disturbing and dangerous it all becomes.

Ghoster is a fast read that drew me in from the beginning… but I didn’t really think it was all that great a read. Sure, it’s entertaining and never dull, but it’s awfully preachy about the downfalls of social media and the need for approval online. And I just had a problem with Kate as a character. She simply didn’t feel real to me at all. Her attitudes, her habits, her social media usage, the way she speaks — none of it felt authentic to me. On top of that, Kate is just hard to like as a person. She makes terrible choices and is a pretty lousy and irresponsible friend.

On top of all that, the reveals we get late in the book about Scott’s inner truths and the key to his personality and behavior seems like revisionist history. We’re led to believe one version of Scott, and it turns out that he’s quite different than first presented. A twist like that can be a good thing, but in this case, I didn’t find it believable.

As for the supernatural aspects of the story, it’s a neat twist, but not as well developed as I would have liked, and too many of the odd occurrences end up having fairly pat, mundane explanations.

I realize this sounds like a pretty negative review, but if I had to assign a numerical rating, I’d give this book 3 stars. Ghoster definitely held my interest and kept me turning the pages, despite the simplistic point it seems to be making about our society’s dependence on social media and the character/plot elements that bugged me.

I’d be interested in hearing opposing views from other readers!

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The details:

Title: Ghoster
Author: Jason Arnopp
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: October 22, 2019
Length: 496 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: ARC received from the publisher

Book Review: The Institute by Stephen King

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Stephen King, the most riveting and unforgettable story of kids confronting evil since It—publishing just as the second part of It, the movie, lands in theaters.

In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”

In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help. But no one has ever escaped from the Institute.

As psychically terrifying as Firestarter, and with the spectacular kid power of It, The Institute is Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.

When it comes to crafting stories about kids in creepy peril, Stephen King is… well… king.

The Institute doesn’t start the way you think it will — no mention of main character Luke or the Institute itself for about 50 pages. Instead, we meet Tim Jamieson, an ex-cop from Florida who sets out hitchhiking without a whole lot of purpose and winds up in a small town in South Carolina, where he joins the local sheriff’s department as a night knocker, sort of an unarmed watchman position. Eventually, Tim feels like he’s possibly, finally found a home and a new meaning for his life in this little town.

And that’s the last we see of Tim for a few hundred pages.

The main focus of the story is introduced when we meet Luke, a brilliant 12-year-old about to start MIT, whose incredible mental abilities come with a side of very mild telekinetic power. It’s his telekinetics, rather than his brain power, that make him a target for the Institute and land him in this isolated facility in Maine. The children at the Institute are put through a barrage of shots and sinister tests, all designed to enhance their TP (telepathy) and (TK) telekinesis. During their free time, the kids can hang out, basically keep whatever hours they choose, and do whatever they want, including drinking and smoking. In fact, drinking and smoking are encouraged, since the kids earn vending machine tokens through good behavior, and an addiction is a marvelous motivation to keep earning those tokens.

The purpose of the Institute is slowly revealed, but long before we learn why they’re doing what they’re doing, we know enough to know it’s bad. The treatment of the kids is horrific. They’re subjected to physical and emotional torture and abuse, and there’s very little concern about whether the kids are actually healthy, so long as their TP and TK abilities are honed and developed.

I’m not going to go too far into plot here — as with most Stephen King books, it’s best to just read it and put the pieces together as you go along.

So is The Institute a must-read? Well, for King fans, absolutely. It’s not skin-crawling horror like his recent book The Outsider, but it is still chilling and disturbing and creepy. That said, the book is a bit long, and takes a while to really get going. It took me two false starts before I really got into it, hitting stumbling blocks with the sudden transition from a story about an adult in South Carolina to the main story about the kidnapped children. Ultimately, it comes together and the story really works, but I think there are places where the action could have moved forward a little more quickly.

If you enjoy King’s writing, you’ll enjoy The Institute. As for me, as I always love when Stephen King references himself (and with over 60 novels in print, he has a lot of source material to choose from!). Here’s one example from The Institute that made me happy:

Back in the main corridor — what Luke now understood to be the residents’ wing — the little girls, Gerda and Greta, were standing and watching with wide, frightened eyes. They were holding hands and clutching dolls as identical as they were. They reminded Luke of twins in some old horror movie.

Good stuff.

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The details:

Title: The Institute
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: September 10, 2019
Length: 561 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased

Take A Peek Book Review: The Warehouse by Rob Hart

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Paxton never thought he’d be working for Cloud, the giant tech company that’s eaten much of the American economy. Much less that he’d be moving into one of the company’s sprawling live-work facilities.

But compared to what’s left outside, Cloud’s bland chainstore life of gleaming entertainment halls, open-plan offices, and vast warehouses…well, it doesn’t seem so bad. It’s more than anyone else is offering.

Zinnia never thought she’d be infiltrating Cloud. But now she’s undercover, inside the walls, risking it all to ferret out the company’s darkest secrets. And Paxton, with his ordinary little hopes and fears? He just might make the perfect pawn. If she can bear to sacrifice him.

As the truth about Cloud unfolds, Zinnia must gamble everything on a desperate scheme—one that risks both their lives, even as it forces Paxton to question everything about the world he’s so carefully assembled here.

Together, they’ll learn just how far the company will go…to make the world a better place.

Set in the confines of a corporate panopticon that’s at once brilliantly imagined and terrifyingly real, The Warehouse is a near-future thriller about what happens when Big Brother meets Big Business–and who will pay the ultimate price.

My Thoughts:

Hmm. The synopsis gives the impression that this is a much darker read than it really is. I experienced The Warehouse as a more of a satire than a thriller, for the most part. In The Warehouse, Cloud is everything, and has basically taken over much of what we might consider normal life, including privatizing government agencies such as the FAA and creating their own energy sources. No matter what you want, Cloud can provide, and Cloud seems to be the only source of steady employment left in the US — providing not only a paycheck, but also housing, access to material goods, and even to rare commodities such as hamburgers.

Of course, there’s a price, like a total lack of privacy, having every move tracked, having performance rated in real-time, and having no say over work assignments —  not to mention an economic set-up that’s like a throw-back to the days when workers owed their souls to the company store.

We get to know Cloud through the experiences of Paxton and Zinnia, two new employees learning the ropes, each with their own agenda, as well as through the blog entries of Gibson Wells, Cloud’s multi-billionaire founder and CEO, now ailing and attempting to create a record of his legacy before his death.

The plot moves along quickly, but I didn’t altogether connect with the book as a whole. I wasn’t particularly interested in Paxton or Zinnia as individuals, and while the inner workings of Cloud were interesting and disturbing, the book’s uneven tone (is it dark? is it dark humor? is it a thriller?) left me mostly unengaged. I should probably mention that a particular reveal made me want to hurl… but hey, maybe you have a stronger stomach than I do!

Overall, The Warehouse is an entertaining read, but without the solid impact I’d been expecting.

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The details:

Title: The Warehouse
Author: Rob Hart
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: August 20, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: The Mother-In-Law by Sally Hepworth

 

A twisty, compelling novel about one woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law that ends in murder…

From the moment Lucy met her husband’s mother, Diana, she was kept at arm’s length. Diana was exquisitely polite, and properly friendly, but Lucy knew that she was not what Diana envisioned. But who could fault Diana? She was a pillar of the community, an advocate for social justice who helped female refugees assimilate to their new country. Diana was happily married to Tom, and lived in wedded bliss for decades. Lucy wanted so much to please her new mother-in-law.

That was five years ago.

Now, Diana has been found dead, a suicide note near her body. Diana claims that she no longer wanted to live because of a battle with cancer.

But the autopsy finds no cancer.
The autopsy does find traces of poison and suffocation.
Who could possibly want Diana dead?
Why was her will changed at the eleventh hour to disinherit both of her adult children and their spouses?

With Lucy’s secrets getting deeper and her relationship with her mother-in-law growing more complex as the pages turn, this new novel from Sally Hepworth is sure to add to her growing legion of fans.

The Mother-In-Law kept me guessing all the way to the end. What a ride!

Through chapters that alternate between the past and the present. we learn about Lucy’s highly charged relationship with her mother-in-law. Lucy’s mother died while Lucy was still young, and she’d hoped that Diana would be like a second mother to her — embracing, warm, someone to share love and secrets and confidences with. Diana is none of these things — a stiff, proper, upper class woman who seems more focused on the refugee women she helps than on her own children. And every time Lucy thinks they’ve finally made a connection, Diana’s coldness or insensitive comments push Lucy away one more time.

We also get chapters from Diana’s perspective, showing us the other side of the story. Diana would be no one’s definition of warm and cuddly, but by showing her background and her thoughts, we gain an understanding of why she behaves as she does, and how her internal thought processes run in very different lines that what’s obvious from the outside.

As the story opens, Lucy and her husband Ollie get the news that Diana is dead. While it initially appears to be a suicide, there is enough contradictory evidence at the scene to cast doubt on that assumption. Was it murder? If so, who would have a reason to want Diana dead? And why was Diana keeping so many secrets — about her health, and about her intentions for her fortune?

This book is completely absorbing and fascinating. Diana comes across as very unlikable at the start, but as we get to know her, we start to see how her core beliefs stem from the challenges and struggles she experienced as a young woman, and we see how her unwillingness to help her grown children comes not from being miserly, but from trying to get them to work for what they want. At the same time, I can easily imagine how painful it must have been for Lucy to constantly hope for a closeness that just wasn’t available to her, and the hurt she experienced as she perceived herself as being rebuffed and belittled time and time again.

I’ve read several other books by this author, all just as compelling and full of complex characters. The Mother-In-Law is a terrific read — highly recommended!

For more by this author, check out my reviews of:

The Things We Keep (my favorite!)
The Family Next Door
The Mother’s Promise
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The details:

Title: The Mother-In-Law
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: April 23, 2019
Length: 347 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: Surface Tension by Mike Mullin

 

After witnessing an act of domestic terrorism while training on his bike, Jake is found near death, with a serious head injury and unable to remember the plane crash or the aftermath that landed him in the hospital.

A terrorist leader’s teenage daughter, Betsy, is sent to kill Jake and eliminate him as a possible witness. When Jake’s mother blames his head injury for his tales of attempted murder, he has to rely on his girlfriend, Laurissa, to help him escape the killers and the law enforcement agents convinced that Jake himself had a role in the crash.

Mike Mullin, author of the Ashfall series, delivers a gripping story with memorable characters and all-too-real scenarios.

Surface Tension is a high-action suspense thriller about a 17-year-old boy, Jake, who stumbles into a domestic terror attack by accident — but because of a traumatic brain injury and corrupt law officials, isn’t believed when he tells his story. Thanks to his remarkably loyal girlfriend Laurissa, he persists in trying to uncover the truth while staying a few steps ahead of both the terrorists and the FBI agent who want to see him dead.

Meanwhile, the lead terrorist’s daughter Betsy is embroiled in the attack and the follow-up attempts on Jake’s life, but as she learns unpleasant truths about her father, she too realizes that he and his organization must be stopped.

Mike Mullin, who wrote the amazing Ashfall trilogy, excels at quick bursts of action and leaving the reader panting for more at the end of each chapter. This is a hard book to put down once you start. At the same time, I felt that the credibility of the plot got thinner and thinner as the story moved forward, until the climax and resolution seemed basically unbelievable. Add to that a tacked-on final chapter that makes it clear that this story isn’t actually over, and I wound up feeling somehow underwhelmed by the book as a whole.

It’s a fast, entertaining read, but the plot doesn’t really hold together in a way that makes a whole lot of sense. I stayed interested all the way through, but if there is a sequel, I won’t be bothering with it.

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The details:

Title: Surface Tension
Author: Mike Mullin
Publisher: Tanglewood
Publication date: May 8, 2018
Length: 350 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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