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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Take A Peek Book Review: The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian

“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)

Cassandra Bowden is no stranger to hungover mornings. She’s a binge drinker, her job with the airline making it easy to find adventure, and the occasional blackouts seem to be inevitable. She lives with them, and the accompanying self-loathing. When she awakes in a Dubai hotel room, she tries to piece the previous night back together, already counting the minutes until she has to catch her crew shuttle to the airport. She quietly slides out of bed, careful not to aggravate her already pounding head, and looks at the man she spent the night with. She sees his dark hair. His utter stillness. And blood, a slick, still wet pool on the crisp white sheets. Afraid to call the police–she’s a single woman alone in a hotel room far from home–Cassie begins to lie. She lies as she joins the other flight attendants and pilots in the van. She lies on the way to Paris as she works the first class cabin. She lies to the FBI agents in New York who meet her at the gate. Soon it’s too late to come clean-or face the truth about what really happened back in Dubai. Could she have killed him? If not, who did?

My Thoughts:

I’m usually a big fan of Chris Bohjalian’s novels, but The Flight Attendant was only so-so for me. Maybe it’s the premise itself: A woman with a history of drinking until she blacks out wakes up in a strange bed beside a dead body. I feel like I’ve seen this before, either in movies or TV shows. And maybe it’s just the fact that I’m not a big fan of thrillers, so it takes a really unusual and exceptional one to draw me in.

In any case, the story was engaging and kept my attention, but it still felt like a fairly flat reading experience. I had a hard time sympathizing with Cassie. If ever there’s someone who could be described as her own worst enemy, Cassie is it. Between drinking, sleeping around, and lying, it’s no wonder Cassie finds herself in a world of trouble. The only surprise is that it’s taken this long for her drinking problem to get her into something that can’t be laughed off or talked away.

I found the espionage aspects of the novel somewhat impenetrable. The details didn’t really come together for me, although I suppose if I’d been more interested, I could have tried harder to follow the ins and outs. Still, it’s really Cassie’s story that matters, and I followed all of that just fine. The ending was a bit pat, despite a few surprises.

Chris Bohjalian is an amazing author and I’ve loved so many of his books. This one, however, was mostly a miss for me, although I can see it being of much greater appeal to readers who really enjoy the thriller genre.

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The details:

Title: The Flight Attendant
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: March 13, 2018
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: The Marriage Pact


Newlyweds Alice and Jake are a picture-perfect couple. Alice, once a singer in a well-known rock band, is now a successful lawyer. Jake is a partner in an up-and-coming psychology practice. Their life together holds endless possibilities. After receiving an enticing wedding gift from one of Alice’s prominent clients, they decide to join an exclusive and mysterious group known only as The Pact.

The goal of The Pact seems simple: to keep marriages happy and intact, and most of its rules make sense: Always answer the phone when your spouse calls. Exchange thoughtful gifts monthly. Plan a trip together once per quarter. . . .

Never mention The Pact to anyone.

Alice and Jake are initially seduced by the glamorous parties, the sense of community, their widening social circle of like-minded couples–and then one of them breaks the rules. The young lovers are about to discover that for adherents to The Pact, membership, like marriage, is for life, and The Pact will go to any lengths to enforce that rule. For Jake and Alice, the marriage of their dreams is about to become their worst nightmare.

The premise of this book sounded intriguing: A mysterious, secretive club, with complicated rules and requirements, dedicated to enhancing and strengthening marriage. Alice and Jake join the Pact mostly on a whim — they’re amused by the sense of formality and ritual during the initial sales pitch, and sign the contract without a moment’s hesitation. After all, if they sign now, they’ll be just in time to attend the big fancy party coming up.

Uh oh. Never sign without reading the fine print! Alice, a lawyer, really should know better.

Alice and Jake soon learn that there’s a dark side to the Pact. First tip should have been the manual — a huge volume containing endless rules about how to behave in the marriage — and long lists of punishments, graded misdeamenors to felonies — for marital infractions big and small. The couple simply doesn’t take any of it seriously. They act like it’s a silly game. No one actually MEANS any of this stuff, right?

Wrong.

They realize quickly enough that crimes like lack of focus on the marriage carry a penalty, such as relatively benign mandatory counseling sessions with a more senior Pact member, or required early-morning workout sessions with a trainer when one’s weight falls outside the prescribed limits. Yes, there are weigh-ins. Shudder.

The penalties escalate with the severity of the crime against the marriage, and before they know it, Alice is being manacled and shackled and carted off to a prison facility in the Nevada desert. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Too late, Jake and Alice realize that the Pact is not a game at all… and that there’s no way out.

What I liked:

The premise is certainly different, I’ll grant the book that. It’s intriguing at the start to wonder about the true agenda of the Pact. As each consequence become harsher than the previous one, the suspense ratchets up. The book moves quickly, and the tension continues to mount as the book proceeds. Who can be trusted? Where can they turn? Is the danger real? There’s definitely a lot to keep us going.

I liked Alice and Jake as characters, although I need to counter that by saying that they’re way too smart to end up in the situation they find themselves in.

And stretching for anything else positive to say — well, I did like the author’s use of the San Francisco setting. Every time Jake describes which route he took from his house, I can picture the turn-by-turn directions, and I enjoyed seeing “my” beach, Ocean Beach, feature into the plot.

 

What I didn’t like:

Oh, where to start?

My biggest issue, and the one that will pretty much keep me from recommending this book, is that it pretty quickly changes from being dark to being outright sadistic. Yes, people, the punishments include all sorts of sadistic, painful torture and humiliation, and that is so NOT what I thought I was signing up for. The book became frankly unpleasant by the last third. I don’t mind creepy thrillers — but this isn’t that. The Marriage Pact gets into detailed descriptions of horrible acts involving pain and loss of control and cruelty for the sake of cruelty.

Beyond the awfulness of those parts, the plot itself doesn’t hold together. I made light of it earlier, but really, these are two well-educated people who should absolutely know better than to sign contracts on the spot, as if they’re buying a timeshare that they’ll regret later. There’s every indication right from the start that they’re getting involved in something big and scary, and they just ignore the warning signs and sign on the dotted line. Sheesh.

Also, hate to say it, but the Pact just never made sense to me. It’s filled with rich and powerful people, the implication being that if you ever try to leave or expose the Pact, they have the power and the reach to destroy your careers, your reputations, and possibly even your chance of staying alive. But why? The Pact is dedicated to the preservation of marriage. Fine. But what drives all these people to enforce it and be loyal to it? It’s not about money or power — it seems to be only about dedication to the Pact itself. The rituals of punishment, coupled with the loyalty of Pact members, just doesn’t add up.

 

Wrapping it all up:

Reading The Marriage Plot is like watching a train wreck. It’s a horrible sight, but I had a hard time looking away. I did want to know what would happen next and whether Alice and Jake would find a way out. Also, the truly sadistic, torture-ific parts don’t come until later in the book, and by that time I was too far in to walk away without finishing. I guess not everyone will be as bothered by those parts as I was, but that’s definitely not what I thought I was signing up for when I started this book.

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The details:

Title: The Marriage Pact
Author: Michelle Richmond
Publisher: Bantam
Publication date: July 25, 2017
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Library

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Book Review: Mr. Mercedes

In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in a distressed Midwestern city, hundreds of desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair. Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.

In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime. When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the “perk” and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.

Brady Hartfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. He loved the feel of death under the wheels of the Mercedes, and he wants that rush again.

Only Bill Hodges, with a couple of highly unlikely allies, can apprehend the killer before he strikes again. And they have no time to lose, because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim thousands.

Mr. Mercedes is a war between good and evil, from the master of suspense whose insight into the mind of this obsessed, insane killer is chilling and unforgettable.

I’m super late to this party, having finally read Mr. Mercedes just about three years after its publication. Why did I wait so long? No idea… but I’m glad I convinced myself to pick up the paperback that’s been sitting on my shelf for so long.

In Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King introduces us to a wonderful main character, Bill Hodges — a retired detective with nothing much to do except watch TV and fiddle with his gun, until he’s contacted by an elusive mass murderer who lives for the destruction he causes. As Hodges becomes reenergized by his search for the killer, he risks himself, his allies, and possibly thousands of lives to track down the psycho before he strikes again.

The plot is so tight and exciting that it’s impossible to look away. I sped through the story, because it’s one of those books where you just need to know what’s next and what’s after that.

I loved the main character and his two unlikely sidekicks, and found the chapters told from the killer’s perspective utterly chilling and convincing. Ick. Inside Brady’s head is not a healthy place to be. I also loved the shout-outs to King’s earlier works, as well as the mention of Judas Coyne from Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box.

I can’t wait to continue with this trilogy! Stephen King is my go-to guy for when I need a book to keep me company while traveling, and he never lets me down. Mr. Mercedes is a winner. A must-read for King fans, of course (and why did I ever doubt that?), but also just a great crime thriller for anyone who enjoys the intensity of the genre.
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The details:

Title: Mr. Mercedes
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: June 3, 2014
Length: 436 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased

Book Review: The River At Night

A high-stakes drama set against the harsh beauty of the Maine wilderness, charting the journey of four friends as they fight to survive the aftermath of a white water rafting accident, The River at Night is a nonstop and unforgettable thriller by a stunning new voice in fiction.

Winifred Allen needs a vacation.

Stifled by a soul-crushing job, devastated by the death of her beloved brother, and lonely after the end of a fifteen-year marriage, Wini is feeling vulnerable. So when her three best friends insist on a high-octane getaway for their annual girls’ trip, she signs on, despite her misgivings.

What starts out as an invigorating hiking and rafting excursion in the remote Allagash Wilderness soon becomes an all-too-real nightmare: A freak accident leaves the women stranded, separating them from their raft and everything they need to survive. When night descends, a fire on the mountainside lures them to a ramshackle camp that appears to be their lifeline. But as Wini and her friends grasp the true intent of their supposed saviors, long buried secrets emerge and lifelong allegiances are put to the test. To survive, Wini must reach beyond the world she knows to harness an inner strength she never knew she possessed.

With intimately observed characters, visceral prose, and pacing as ruthless as the river itself, The River at Night is a dark exploration of creatures—both friend and foe—that you won’t soon forget.

You know when you go to a horror movie, and the main character does really stupid things, and you just want to shout at her (because, let’s face it, horror movies love to make it about a her)… NO! TURN BACK! DON’T OPEN THE DOOR! DON’T GO DOWN THAT CREEPY CORRIDOR!

Well, in the case of The River At Night, it’s more like NO! DO NOT GO OFF INTO THE WOODS TOTALLY UNPREPARED! DO NOT GO INTO A RURAL AREA WHERE THE ONLY PEOPLE AROUND FOR 30 MILES ARE CREEPY, SEXIST HUNTERS! DO NOT PLACE YOUR LIVES IN THE HANDS OF A 20-YEAR-OLD WITH NO BACKUP!

Okay, on the one hand we have a very readable, action-packed story that keeps the adrenaline pumping. On the other hand… STOP MAKING STUPID DECISIONS!

In The River At Night, four women in their mid-thirties decide to follow ringleader Pia’s crazy push to embark on a white-water rafting adventure for their annual get-together, rather than basking on a beach or basically anything at all sane or safe. Instead, they drive nine hours into the Maine wilderness to go rafting on a pristine river with a tour company — really just a father and son — who don’t even have a website, as Wini points out.

I mean really. Who doesn’t have a website?

Anyhoo… the four friends have been getting together for years for their annual escape from their real lives, their meaningless corporate jobs, their unhappy marriages, their stressful obligations. Wini, as our main character, is particularly in need of escape this year after the implosion of her marriage and the suicide of her mentally ill brother.

Pia is the wild one, always in the lead, always pushing the others to take chances and live on the edge — so when she decides they need this life-affirming adventure, the other three fall in line, with some doubts, but ultimately following along. Off they all go to REI to buy their shiny new gear, and then it’s off to the wilds, where they encounter creepy people in a remote general store before arriving at the wilderness lodge from which they’ll start their river adventure.

Their guide is young, sexy, and perhaps has a shady past. No one is 100% comfortable, although Pia insists that everything is fantastic. And then, of course, they hit the river, and pretty quickly all hell breaks loose. Before long, the four women find themselves without a guide, without their gear, completely cut off from the outside world with no means of communication, and with no clue what to do.

And then they encounter the crazy hill folk.

Yikes.

While the book held my attention and kept me turning the pages, certain things just drove me nuts.

First of all, I can’t stand when people place themselves in peril as a growth opportunity. Nope, I’ve never rafted before, so it makes total sense for me to do so on a dangerous river with an unknown guide and no support systems! Slow your roll, sisters.

Second, there are about a thousand warning signs that any rational person might have considered. The roads are creepy. They’re miles past any sign of civilization. Their cell phones don’t work. All the buildings they see along the way are falling apart. The few people they encounter are weird and menacing.

Third, loose ends and/or unexplained bits. If these women are the first to hit this pristine river, then what are all the other people doing at the lodge? Where are they all off to? Did our group of supposedly smart women ask any questions at all about emergency procedures or insurance or any other of about a thousand what ifs? What was up with that kitchen worker at the lodge who seems like she has an agenda with guide Rory but then disappears from the story? What about Rory’s dad? If they had to hike to get to the launching spot because there aren’t passable roads, how did their raft and gear get there? On and on and on.

What really made me bonkers was how these women see themselves and each other. There are repeated references to them being middle-aged. Hello? Middle-aged at age 35? Um, no. Or take this brief description — Wini’s view of one of her friends:

It occurred to me that here was a woman who might not age well, especially in the face. Too many of her emotions already lived there in ever-deepening lines around her eyes and mouth — even at age thirty-seven. But I loved her scrappy toughness; in fact, we all made fun of her for injecting her own Botox […]

I mean, really. Who talks about her friends this way?

Finally, though, the straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the crazy hill folk. If this had just been about a group of women, ill-advised and ill-prepared as they were, having to survive alone in the wilderness, it might have worked for me a lot better. I mean, there are even some good passages that convey the fear of all that they face:

Full on darkness, and all its terrors. I suddenly understood cultures that believed in demons and chimeras, werewolves and gollums. With no walls around us, no light or source of warmth, what besides the monstrous makes sense? Every sound was a beast.

So if it were just about surviving a rafting accident, maybe what happens might have sustained an air of believability. Because no matter how dumb the whole enterprise was, it’s conceivable to think that Pia’s strong personality might have been able to convince everyone else to play along against their better judgment. And given that, it could be really exciting or inspiring to see them working together, overcoming obstacles, outsmarting their own circumstances.

But nope. The crazy hill folk, rather than the river and the wilderness, becomes the chief danger. At which point I got muscle strain from how hard I was rolling my eyes. I mean, our heroines end up fleeing the crazy lady with a gun by jumping on a wooden raft and going down a series of waterfalls without any oars… and somehow survive? None of what happens makes a lick of sense. And never mind the continuity bits, such as having a dinner of roasted varmints and then on the next page talking about incessant hunger. And why bother having a character warn about getting sick from drinking the river water if nobody ends up getting sick?

I don’t know. There are definitely exciting moments in this book, but ultimately, the profound personal growth these characters supposedly undergo because of their ordeal feels flat and false. Wini starts bland, and ends bland. I never quite got the friendship between these women, and that didn’t change by the end of the book.

And then there’s the fact that even in the next to last paragraph, as Wini is supposedly being positive, she’s still focusing on her “aging body” and “dull job”. Way to be upbeat, Wini!

So, once again, I find myself rambling on about a book I can’t really recommend. Sure, it’s a fast-paced read and it never lost my attention — but too many pieces make little sense, and the weird plot choices only make it worse. Besides which, for me, a book in which supposedly smart people make decision after decision that’s foolish or illogical — well, no. Clearly, that’s a situation that leaves me fuming, so this just probably wasn’t a good reading choice for me at all.

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The details:

Title: The River At Night
Author: Erica Ferencik
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Publication date: January 10, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Library

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