Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

Real World

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As we get closer to fall, I get more in the mood to read mysteries and thrillers. I’m also craving some Gothic fiction, so this fall’s reviews might turn out to be very fitting for the season.

If you remember my review of Out, Real World is by the same author. In Real World, we follow four Japanese high school girls. The girls are all friends, but you can tell that there are some issues with their relationships with one another. As she is getting ready in the morning, one of the girls hears glass breaking and a scream from the house next door. After frantically calling her friends, she sees the neighbor’s son exit the house looking quite pleased with himself. The girls are soon tangled up in a murder investigation, and their differing personalities make them handle the situation in very different ways.

I liked this novel, but I would say that Out is a little stronger in both plot and characterization. In Real World, each chapter is written in first person perspective, but the narrator differs between chapters. The strongest part of the novel, in my opinion, was the characters and how in depth their narratives were. This is a very short novel (~200 pages), but each character is given a bit of backstory, and their pasts impact the current plot line. The reasons behind the decisions that the characters make and why they react to certain events in a specific way are all connected. It was interesting to see how the author pulled back each layer of the characters’ personalities and pasts to highlight their unique thought processes.

Despite all of that, I still considered some of the choices the characters made to be a bit dumb. All of the main characters are teenagers, so some questionable choices are going to be made, but I had a hard time understanding why anyone would make some of these very dangerous choices. Sometimes it felt as if the character made a choice simply to move the plot forward, which made some events near the end feel unrealistic. I also had some issues with the dialogue feeling a little stilted, which could be a translation issue. The author writes in Japanese of course, and the translator for Kirino’s other novel, Out, was different from the translator or Real World, so there could be some difference in translation quality.

I gave Real World three out of five stars. It was an entertaining and fast-paced read, but I felt some character choices and plot points were a little unrealistic. I will certainly read more from this author if I can find more translated works from her.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

The Chalk Man

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The Chalk Man alternates between two time periods: 1986 in which the characters are young teens to 2016 when they are adults bordering on middle age. After Eddie’s friend received a large bucket of chalk for his birthday, the friends began to use the chalk to write secret messages and make rude drawings around town. It was innocent enough, but the fun ended quickly when the chalk drawings were connected to a string of murders. The quaint English town was quickly upended by salacious and bloody scandals. Now, in 2016, the past comes back to haunt Eddie and his friends when they become the targets of a new murder spree.

Since I’m still battling a reading slump, I wanted something fast paced and gripping. The Chalk Man definitely made me turn the pages, but by the end, I was slightly dissatisfied. The plot was the main draw for me, and I felt it was executed pretty well. There are a lot of twists, turns, and red herrings. I was hoping that the “bad guy” wasn’t the person that the book seemed to be pointing the reader toward in the beginning. Luckily, it wasn’t that predictable. Although, a couple “hints” toward the real bad guy were pretty heavy handed. As always, there are some overly convenient plot devices to move the story in the intended direction, and some parts of the plot could be more clearly explained to tie up lose ends. However, it was not bad. It was entertaining. The book is fairly short and the pace is quick, which could be a pro or con depending on what you’re looking for.

Eddie and his friends did not do much for me as characters. The story was told from Eddie’s perspective, so it is a little limited in what we know and see. Add to that, Eddie as a narrator was slightly unreliable, which made the book a bit more interesting. Still, if you’ve read a lot of the domestic thrillers with unreliable narrators, this is not something new. (This time at least it wasn’t a woman with a drinking problem…) Somehow, despite seeing everything from his point of view, I did not feel very connected to Eddie or any of his friends. Maybe I am spoiled from the mountains of character development in Stephen King’s novels, but I felt like The Chalk Man could have spent a little more time on the main characters and their relationships.

All in all, it was an OK read. For a debut novel, it was good. The writing has some personality, and it pulled me into the story well enough. The plot was unique to me, but the book as a whole could have used a little more polish and depth. I would still recommend The Chalk Man as a quick, entertaining thriller. If you consider some thrillers as “beach reads,” this one might qualify. I gave The Chalk Man a middle-of-the-road three out of five stars.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky

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I am back with another Two Dollar Radio book review. You know those “blind date with a book” things where you get a random book? The book might be wrapped up so you can’t see the cover, but a few details, like themes, setting, similar titles, are usually written on the wrapping. Anyway, I bought some surprises, and I was pleasantly surprised that I liked what I got!

Leah Shepherd’s life is rather mundane these days. Her job is to assist poor women and children at a nonprofit organization in Kentucky. She is not married and has no children, but she is active in her church and helps little old ladies. However, when Leah was a young girl, her brother Jacob went missing. His disappearance has haunted her for many years, but now she may have to confront her troubling past. A man contacts Leah at work claiming to be her lost brother.

There’s a mystery in this novel, but I am not sure if I would call it an actual mystery novel. The plot feels too quiet, too literary, and too experimental to appeal to readers who love traditional mysteries or thrillers. The prose in Ancient Ocean of Central Kentucky is very descriptive and very beautiful, but it is also a little on the experimental side because the author does not follow traditional grammar rules. There are incomplete sentences, run-on sentences, and though it is not written in verse, it at times reads like poetry. The feeling of the novel rests on the prose. Short, choppy lines make the plot hurried and urgent, while long, lazy lines evoke the slow, sticky feeling of a warm summer day. The author uses descriptions of people, places, and random objects to paint his settings. The description at times feel random in what is focused on or mentioned, but together, the lines paint a very realistic and lively sense of place.

The plot itself is realistic, but the writing gives the novel a surreal, dreamy quality. Much of the novel is in a kind of stream of consciousness style. Time periods, perspectives, and settings all come and go between paragraphs, but there are many page breaks between the paragraphs, so it does not feel too confusing. This is the kind of novel that you read less for the plot or character development and more for the feeling the words on the page evoke within you. The author gives a clear picture of the characters because he uses the same descriptive style. We may never find out exact answers about the characters’ lives, but we are given just enough details and scenes to ascertain who these people are and what drives them. Leah, of course, is the main focus, but even the nameless women who come into her office seem like real people.

This is a very unique novel in its writing and plot, but I wouldn’t say I felt confused during my reading experience. However, at times I felt like I was taking a peaceful but un-directed float down a lazy Kentucky river in the summer. If this sounds like your kind of thing, go for it. I had a great reading experience with this novel, and I hope other readers also give it a chance. I rated Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky four out of five stars.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

All the Missing Girls

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Nicolette Farrell is back in Cooley Ridge, North Carolina for the first time in ten years. As a teenagers, Nic, Beth, and Corinne tore up their small town. They were always taking risks, causing trouble, and the rumor was that they swapped boyfriends sometimes. Those wild, carefree days came to an abrupt end when Corrine disappeared. After her disappearance, Nic moved away from everything she knew to start a new life. Now Nic’s father is ailing, and her brother has called her back to help sell their father’s house. But soon after Nic returns, another young girl goes missing.

The gimmick of this thriller is that it is told backwards. There are few chapters in “present time” to orient the reader, but then the story skips ahead a couple of weeks. From then on, each chapter tells about the previous day’s events. So, after the first few chapters, we start on Day 15. The next chapter is Day 14, then 13, 12, etc. Slowly everything is revealed about Nic, her past, Corinne’s disappearance, and the new disappearance Nic is present for. This is a creative way to organize the plot, but I felt that the execution was imperfect. I am not saying I could do better, but as a reader, it was sometimes a bit hard to keep things chronologically in my mind when the book/plot was going backwards. Beyond that, there was not anything too special about this thriller. It did the small town mysterious vibe very well though.

Organizational choices aside, how was the rest of the novel? It was OK. There were a good number of twists, and some caught me by surprise. There were quite a few secondary characters that matter to the plot. They are written well enough to not be confused with each other, but none of them stand out. I had to look up some of the characters’ names (including the main character’s) even though I only read the book a week ago. No one was very memorable.

Some of the conflicts in the novel made me frustrated. I am beginning to really hate when characters have disagreements that are easily solved by simply communicating. I realize that miscommunication happens a lot in real life, but sometimes these characters (mainly Nic) would neglect to tell another character something important, only to have it come back to bite them in the ass later or it created some misunderstanding that could easily have been prevented. Nic is a character that has a lot of secrets, but I could not always get behind her actions and decision-making. Still, she was not as frustrating as the main character in The Woman in Cabin 10

So, yes, this was a very “OK” read. It was nothing too special, but I did blow through the first half of the book in one day. Of course, it took me about a week to pick it back up again and finish it. If you would like to read a small town domestic thriller with a uniquely organized plot, you might want to try All the Missing Girls.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

The Woman in Cabin 10

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I love mystery/thriller novels, but I realized I had read all of mine on my to-be-read shelf. This led me to discover a little app called Scribd where I could download and rent audiobooks, ebooks, and magazines for a small, monthly fee (less than Audible with unlimited books, not sponsored of course). Since I was also going on a 12 hour drive, I decided I needed something audible and suspenseful to keep me awake. I had never read anything by Ruth Ware before, but I knew she had been getting some buzz about her novels. So, I chose The Woman in Cabin 10.

Laura “Lo” Blacklock gets a chance report on an exclusive cruise ship for the magazine she has been working at for several years. This could be her big chance to make a name for herself as well as schmooze with rich and influential people. The perks of getting on the luxurious cruise with a press pass don’t hurt either. Lo is installed in cabin nine of the small cruise ship. Before the first night’s dinner on the cruise, Lo meets a strange young woman in the next door cabin– cabin 10. Lo continues with her night of drinking and getting acquainted with the rich and famous passengers, but she never sees the woman from cabin 10 at dinner. When Lo finally lays down to sleep, she hears a scream and a splash from the direction of cabin ten’s balcony. Lo reports what she has heard to the crew, but… no one is registered to cabin 10 and no passenger or crew member is missing.

I liked quite a few things about this novel, but in the end it was a middle-of-the-road read. I liked the closed setting of the cruise ship in the cold sea. The writing was not extremely descriptive, but it set the tone and atmosphere very well. The suspense built at a steady pace until around the halfway point. After perhaps 60-70% of the book, things began to fall apart for me. Up until that point, the plot felt like a very entertaining nod to an Agatha Cristie novel. Then, well… things got weird.

Let’s back up a bit. My main dislike throughout the novel was our main character, Lo. The novel is told from her first-person perspective, so we get into her mind a lot. Despite being in her head, she made some odd decisions that I could not understand her logic for. At one point, Lo is scared and alone in her apartment at night. She has had a traumatic experience with a burglar earlier that day, and everyone makes a point to tell her that burglars commonly return to a place they have burgled before. Understandably, she cannot sleep, but she decides it is a good idea to leave her house with its repaired and improved door locks while in her pajamas after midnight and walk around the city. There are also a few smaller examples of her questionable decision making, like the instances when she gets drunk even though she says, repeatedly, that she should not. She does very little research on the cruise when it is supposedly a career making opportunity. She is assaulted by a man, but cries on his shoulder in the next scene. There were multiple instances of me yelling at the audiobook for her to do something. At times, Lo is frustratingly passive about what is happening around her.

My favorite part of a novel like this is getting to know the side characters and guessing who the bad guys are. The Woman in Cabin 10 did this for a bit, but as I said, near the end it lost its way. The climax felt sudden, and the resolution did not make a lot of sense. Again, Lo made some odd decisions. She trusted people she should not and told other people things she should not. She did not listen to explicit advice from other characters. It is stated that she has depression and anxiety (and perhaps a drinking problem), but that does not explain her lack of logical thinking and carelessness.

The Woman in Cabin 10 was entertaining, but it was not without its issues. I enjoyed the audiobook itself. It was read very well, but Lo’s character made me want to tear my hair out. I rated The Woman in Cabin 10 a respectable three out of five stars.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

A Killer in King’s Cove

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I used to read constantly in high school. I had a book in my face between classes, in class after lectures, and during my ride on the school bus every morning and afternoon. I stopped reading for a few years, but when I picked the hobby back up, I read a lot of cozy mysteries. Sure there’s murder and backstabbing, but a cozy mystery isn’t like a bloody thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat. A Killer in King’s Cove is pretty darn cozy first book to the Lane Winslow series, and it was a nostalgic read for me.

It is 1946 in the wilds of British Columbia. Lane Winslow, a British ex-intelligence officer, has moved from England to British Columbia, Canada for some much-needed relaxation. Lane bought a house in a small, rural community so that she could start her life over. Unmarried and only in her mid-twenties, Lane is a curiosity in her new community. Just as she is beginning to settle in, a man’s body is found in a stream near her home. The body lacks any identification, but within its pocket is a single piece of paper with Lane’s name on it. As the local police get involved, Lane finds it harder and harder not to reveal her past life.

A Killer in King’s Cove has a good cast of characters. Most of the characters are older than Lane, and have lived in the community for quite some time. So, as you might guess, there’s a good bit of gossip always going around between the residents. Lane is very much the outsider to them, but she is welcomed for the most part. She has a grouchy old man for her closest neighbor. There’s a few older couples, an old lady with a rifle who might be a bit mad, a house full of unmarried old women, and a family of Americans that most everyone dislikes to some extent. The characters fall into a few tropes, but they all have complex lives that extend beyond the book’s main plot. I can see many of them being front and center in subsequent books in the series. I liked Lane as a character, but she did not always make the best decisions. And, with Lane being so young and unmarried, there are of course some men chasing after her.

Unfortunately, the plot just isn’t the best. The first one hundred pages are primarily an introduction to Lane, her past, and her neighbors. The action takes off shortly after the one hundred page mark, but it all goes a bit predictably. The “bad guy” is quite obvious early on, the mystery itself is not very complex, and the romantic subplot goes as expected. It was all just OK. However, this is only the first book in a series about Lane Winslow, and I would imagine that the series gets better from here. I am unsure if I will continue the series, but I see potential in it. I am not very interested in cozy mysteries these days, but I enjoyed the small nostalgia trip this book gave me.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

Confessions

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Trigger warning for… everything? This book is pretty dark. There’s murder, sadistic/psychopathic behavior, abuse, school violence, and probably other stuff I forgot. Just beware if any of that sounds troublesome to you! On the bright side, I could not put this book down. After the first chapter I was a little disturbed though. There was also a point where the book made me really uncomfortable, so I had to take a break, but I still couldn’t stop myself from finishing this 235 page book in one night. Despite how deeply this novel had its hooks in me, I only rated it 3/5 stars.

Confessions opens with a middle school teacher named Yuko Moriguchi telling her class that she is retiring from teaching. The past few months have been rough for Yuko because her four-year-old daughter mysteriously died at the school. The police branded her daughter’s death as an accident, but Yuko has proof it was murder. In fact, she knows exactly who killed her little girl. The culprits are in her classroom. As Yuko finishes her goodbye speech to the class, she also tells them she has begun her plan for revenge on the students who killed her daughter.

I thought this was going to be something like Battle Royale. It’s not. The revenge plot and violence isn’t fast paced, but something about the book kept me quickly turning the pages. What drives the novel are the questions surrounding Yuko’s daughter’s death, the character connections that are slowly revealed, and the act of revenge itself has some twists and turns. The chapters are narrated by several different characters. We see Yuko’s perspective, the killers’ thoughts, and other students’ views. The characters are decently written. They have motives, but some of their actions, connections, and reasoning hover between being extremely convenient to the plot and being unbelievable. The characters do what they need to do to further the plot, but I would not say I was very connected to any of them. The plot suffered a bit from the too-convenient moments, but the ending contained a twist I wasn’t expecting and found hard to believe, which left a bad taste in my mouth for the book as a whole.

Three out of five stars is not a bad rating. I was obviously pretty engrossed in the novel to finish it in one evening, but it lacked some of the plot and character depth that I prefer to have when I read. For me, this was a good palate cleanser of a book. It was quick, engrossing, and put me in the mood to keep reading more books.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

House of Leaves

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After bingeing on Joe Hill’s novels, I wanted something similar. House of Leaves came up on many bizarre horror reading lists, so it eventually ended up in my Amazon cart and into my mailbox. Then it sat on my shelf for a while because I just had a feeling I would love it. I wanted to save it for when I needed a book to get me out of reading slump. I successfully avoided any spoilers for months. Then, finally, the time came. I took House of Leaves off of my shelf, and I was prepared to have my mind blown… Maybe I hyped it up too much for myself, but I thought it was a unique, smart, but ultimately underwhelming read. If you are planning on reading this book, I would say to go in as blind as possible. So, although there will be no real spoilers, you may want to skip this review to be completely in the dark (haha).

House of Leaves is supposedly written by a man named Zampanò. In the book, Zampanò analyzes a documentary film called The Navidson Report which was made by a photojournalist named Will Navidson. In the documentary Navidson records his family’s arrival into their new home. But suddenly black hallways manifest in the walls of their dream home. The house’s inner dimensions grow and change while the house’s outside measurements stay true. Navidson takes it upon himself to explore these dark hallways, and what he finds there is unsettling. Zampanò mysteriously dies very early into the novel, leaving his work on House of Leaves in disarray, unfinished, and, in some spots, completely destroyed. A man named Johnny picks up Zampanò’s pieces and tries to complete House of Leaves himself, but Johnny finds that the completion of the book takes a severe toll on his mind and body.

The next thing that I think is important to mention to someone thinking about reading the novel is that it’s pretty experimental in how the narrative is structured. OK, but what do I mean by that? What I mean is that this simply isn’t an easy read. It takes some work and thought to read between the lines and get the full story. (Although, really, you never get the full story.) First off, did you read my summary? It’s a book of an analysis a dead guy wrote about a documentary film about a man’s house that has void-like hallways/rooms in it that another guy found and tried to finished for the dead guy. OK, OK, but what does that mean? It means that the book itself is filled with academic-sounding chapters with fake quotes and footnotes. The footnotes sometimes refer back to previous footnotes or refer to the appendices in the back of the book or they may be missing completely. The footnotes also contain unhinged ramblings from Johnny as he reconstructs Zampanò’s analysis. The text itself is often arranged in odd patterns, reflecting the characters’ journeys through the house or their descent into madness. There are letters, pictures, poems, music, transcripts, and other kinds of mixed media throughout the book. It is all very unique and interesting. I am sure the author put a colossal amount of work in piecing it all together, and I respect that. But, for me, the question at the end of the day is simple: Does it work?

The answer is yes, no, and it depends. I enjoyed the uniqueness, but after hundreds of pages of the same thing, it became a little tedious for me. The book could have shaved off a few hundred pages and been perfectly fine. The academic sections by Zampanò were interesting to me, but again, all the fake quotes and such got old. My interest was in Will Navidson’s house and his family. When Zampanò wrote about what happened in The Navidson Report, I was hooked. I could do without as many footnotes and pseudo-academic writing, but I understand why they were included. I could even do without some of Johnny’s sections (mainly the ones about all these hot chicks he and his friend somehow have sex with), but his unreliability as a narrator does add to the unsettling tone of the book. There were parts that really worked for me, but in the end, I felt that the author tried too hard to do something different that it took away from the parts of the plot and characters that really shined. I am a huge scaredy cat, but it was hard to find the book scary when I had to flip around the book’s footnotes and appendices and turn the pages around in different angles just to read them properly. It took me out of the scary vibe.

Now, before you start typing up an angry comment about me being too stupid to “get it” or whatever, many, many, many people love this book. And that’s great! I was so excited to read this book too. It just didn’t meet my expectations, that’s all. Will it work for you? Maybe! Probably! If you got this far into my rambling and are still interested, go for it! It is certainly an experience, and I would recommend reading it at least once.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

Out

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It took me almost a month to read this book, but that has nothing to do with how much I enjoyed it. In fact, it was written in such a tension-packed way that I was just too anxious to pick it up.

Out follows four Japanese women who work the night shift at a boxed lunch factory. The four women are friendly coworkers, but they do not often see each other outside of work. They all have very full home lives with their children and husbands. Their hard, but predictable lives change when one of the women kills her abusive husband and recruits her coworkers to help dispose of the body. Things don’t go as planned, and the women soon find themselves working against the police and an underground crime ring.

So, why was this book a nail-biter? The four women are just regular housewives who have never done anything murder-related. A couple of the women are particularly bad at being careful with what they do and say. It is obvious that their plan is going to be tripped up… it is just a matter of when and how. However, I am not at all saying that the character were badly written or that they made unrealistic or dumb decisions. The characters are actually great. There are some strong, independent women in here! I am sure readers will recognize the kinds of people in this novel (the quiet, serious one; the one who puts others before herself; the self-absorbed one; etc.) If your group of strictly “work-friends” decides to commit a crime, odds are that not everyone in the group is going to be able to pull off their part of the job perfectly.

Aside from the tension-filled plot and awesome characters, this book approaches sexism in modern-ish (2000’s?) Japan and it deals a bit with how Japanese people of mixed decent are viewed. There is also a fair bit of gore, assault, and rape within the book. It’s pretty dark in content, themes, and atmosphere. I did find the ending to be slightly disappointing, but I was happy that it did not turn into a “damsel in distress” trope. I gave this novel a solid 4 out 5 stars.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

Dark Places

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The “Satan Sacrifice” at the Day’s farm in Kinnakee, Kansas makes media waves in the late 80’s, but seven year old Libby Day is caught up in the storm. Her memories of the night are fuzzy, but she testifies that her brother, Ben Day, is the killer of her mother and two sisters. Today, Libby is struggling to get by. The money from donations, media coverage, and her unsuccessful memoir is gone. Accustomed to living off her tragedy, Libby strikes a deal with a club that obsesses over mysterious murders. She agrees to start digging up the past for money, but she gets a lot more than she expects out of the deal.

I read and loved Gone Girl earlier this year and could not find any other book to satisfy my thriller cravings until picking up Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. Hype be damned, Flynn is just good at writing thrillers. I’m no thriller connoisseur, but I have found a lot of tropes and similarities between the ones I have read. Though Flynn’s plots aren’t completely unique, she manages to take me by surprise often. There are three points of view in Dark Places. Of course we have Libby, but there are chapters with Ben and Patty (their mother) as the main characters. Ben and Patty’s chapters are rooted in the past while Libby’s focus on present day. All three characters’ chapters contain many details that overlap with the same events being seen in different perspectives. I really love this as it shows how differently people interpret the same conversations or actions. I wish the supporting characters were fleshed out a bit (I often confused the names of Libby’s sisters) and I want to know more about certain plot points, but I felt mostly satisfied with the way that the novel ended.

The novel was not perfect, but what book truly is? With thrillers and mysteries I usually find a plot hole, some event that doesn’t really make sense, or something that leans too heavily on coincidence. I did find something of that nature in Dark Places, but it was just so fun to read. I love the feeling when I read a book and simply cannot put it down. Even when I have to take a break from the book, it is stuck in my head. That is what Dark Places did to me and– I hope– will do to you.