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.

Book Review · Fantasy/Magical Realism · Young Adult Fiction

Every Heart a Doorway

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This book was everywhere a few years ago. Since then there has been about one new book in the series per year. If you know me, you know I love Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Inkheart trilogy, or anything where a kid finds himself/herself somehow in another world. “Portal fantasy” appears to be the term thrown around to describe these novels and Every Heart a Doorway, so we will go with that. Every Heart a Doorway is a portal fantasy with a boarding school setting, a murder mystery, a diverse cast, and some hints at romances to come. On paper, it sounds great. In reality, it was a bit of a disappointment to me.

Nancy arrives at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Nancy is under the impression that this is simply a boarding school her parents have sent her to because they do not believe that she has traveled into another world. However, the school is specifically for children who have traveled to other worlds. Their parents think that their children have ran away, been kidnapped, or abused, while the children all know that their experiences in various fantasy worlds were real. The Home for Wayward Children helps kids who have returned from their portal world either find their way back to their doors or come to terms with their lives in the “real world.” Nancy meets the proprietor, Ms. West, as well many of the other children staying at the school. While Nancy went to a world very much like the underworld, many others went to candy lands, nonsense worlds, rhyming worlds and worlds with vampires, goblins, insect queens, and the list goes on. Just as Nancy starts to understand her peers and the school, brutal murders begin happening, endangering all of the students. Nancy and her newfound friends must figure out what is going on in order to save their school from possibly closing down, which would leave all of the children without a place to call home.

The characters were probably the strongest part. Nancy and her friends were all good characters. Some of their banter was entertaining, and the cast was diverse with asexual and trans characters. I praise the representation, but some of the conversations about sex felt slightly forced. Especially when the book as a whole is so short, it feels odd to have characters take so much time to talk about sex, sexuality, and masturbation in a fantasy novel. Is it cool that we talk frankly about sex in a YA novel? Definitely! Is it cool that it takes up more time than other aspects of the plot and characters? Maybe not. Again, I truly appreciate that the author spends time on these topics (the author also writes about sexuality/gender issues very beautifully and with respect), but give me all of that in addition to more of the fantasy, magical, creepy school goodness I was promised in the blurb.

This is a novella-sized story that tries to fit in a lot in a short number of pages, and it does not work perfectly. The pacing feels odd. We start with Nancy arriving at the school, we get to know her, she gets to know a few students, then all of the sudden MURDER. The murder mystery consumes the plot from then on. I was looking forward to getting to know the fantasy aspect of how these portals or doors to other worlds work. I was looking forward to exploring the school building (What huge mansions and expansive grounds in a fantasy novel do not have secrets?), the classes, the students, the teachers, and the various worlds more, but there just wasn’t time to develop anything fully. Now, I know that there are several more books in the series, and you cannot expect everything to be explained in the first book of a series, but there was so little here that I do not feel inclined to pick up the next book. The ending also felt abrupt. The murder mystery is rather quickly and easily dealt with at the end. The author drops some hints about how the magic/doors work in the final scenes, but it is too late in the plot to get any actual answers.

I liked a lot of what Every Heart a Doorway had to offer, but it just needed more— more descriptions, more details about the plot/mystery, more character development, more information about the school, magic system, etc. Is this an incentive to read more of the books? Maybe. I am curious about the rest of the series, but I am not sure if I will read them all. If you’ve read any more of the series, let me know your thoughts in the comments. Am I complaining about things that get better in the next books? Tell me! As of now, I gave Every Heart a Doorway a rating of 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.