Reading List by Jennie for October through December 2022
All suspense this time, and I didn’t read much. Janine and I reviewed Moira’s Pen together.
The Break by Katie Sise
This was another “new mother in New York” thriller; this feels like a little sub-sub-genre I’ve stumbled upon (I really like Mother of All Secrets which I read a bit earlier in the year).
Rowan O’Sullivan has recently given birth to Lila; she lives in New York with her husband Gabe. When the story starts, Rowan, who is a mystery writer (I don’t love the meta career choice) has a lot on her plate. She had a traumatic birth: she collapsed on the street, hemorrhaged and nearly died. Rowan is neurotic, insecure and fears she’s losing her mind. (I feel like it took a long time for anyone in the story to talk about a post-partum depression diagnosis, though to be fair there ended up being reasons for that, sort of.) Days before the story begins, Rowan had attacked Lila’s part-time caregiver, June, convinced that June was trying to harm the baby. Rowan is also stressed about own her mother, who has dementia and is in a care facility.
The story goes back and forth in time (a conceit I enjoy) and introduces us to June, a beautiful, young recent transplant from upstate New York. June wants to be an actress, and to that end gets a job as an assistant to Louisa, an agent at a prestigious talent agency. She starts dating Harrison, an older man who is Gabe’s agent (Gabe is a screenwriter). Through Harrison, June meets Rowan and Gabe.
In the present day, after Rowan meets with June to apologize for attacking her, June goes missing. There are a lot of red herrings – is something going on between June and Gabe? What about June’s creepy roommate Sean who seems to be too interested in June and her affairs. What is it that Rowan can’t remember?
The Break didn’t wow me for some reason; it held my attention well enough but the writing and characterization felt a little stilted. Sometimes with thrillers I feel like I can see the seams too much (too be fair, that’s true of different genre novels, like romance, as well). Various characters pop up in turn and act just a little bit creepy or weird or untrustworthy in some way. There were a couple of mysteries to be solved: Rowan’s missing memories and what happened to June? The disposition of both did contain some surprises, so that’s something. Ultimately I gave The Break a B.
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Bright and Deadly Things by Lexie Elliott
I picked this one up because it was academia-adjacent, and I do love a good dark academia thriller. It ended up being a bit different than most of the thrillers I read.
Emily is a recently widowed Oxford academic on retreat at a rustic (too rustic for me – it was without electricity or running water!) chateau in the French Alps. The day Emily is set to leave for her trip, she misses her flight and returns home to find a masked intruder, who flees. Emily is shaken (even more so after learning there was also a break-in at her office) but determined to make the journey. It’s an annual gathering of students and professors, though this is the first time she’s been invited. Once there Emily reconnects with friends and colleagues, among them Will, his partner Jana, and Peter, who worked closely with Emily’s late husband Nick. Emily also meets Mike, a Canadian colleague of Nick and Peter’s, and various students who’ve been invited to the retreat, including the vivacious Sofi, her closest friend, Julie, and James, who appears to be as total prick for no apparent reason.
The group settles in for the first night at the chateau but there’s an odd energy in the air. There’s a grandfather clock that ominously chimes at unexpected times. Emily is the recipient of an unexpected and unwelcome kiss. The next day, things get weirder; Emily realizes someone has searched her room. Glass fragments are found in her wineglass, luckily before she can drink from it. And then she stumbles on a shocking sexual liaison.
Eventually, one of the group goes missing and is found dead – murdered. I was a bit disappointed with the identity of the victim; it felt cliché and vaguely misogynistic (the sexy character always seems to be the first to go). As the group waits for clearance from the police to leave, suspicions are heightened and various people act out.
I say this felt a bit different than my usual thriller – it was a little less frenetic. There were twists, sure, but nothing too out of left field. There’s a mild paranormal element to Bright and Deadly Things that didn’t add much to the story for me. The chateau has suffered several fires over its long history, at strangely regular intervals. (It turns out that it’s due for the next one…right as the story takes place!) The grandfather clock looms over the house and the characters; there is a strong suggestion that it has an unhealthy influence towards reckless behavior, and the denizens of the chateau find that they all dream about the clock each night (which would be enough to weird me out). The weather and the isolation (the chateau can only be accessed by a tram up the mountain and then a walk down) also prey on the characters. Emily has to contend with 1) her suspicions that someone is searching for something related to her late husband’s research; 2) her fear that a killer is on the loose and 3) uncertainty about whether 1&2 are related or not.
I gave Bright and Deadly Things a B – I found the story and characterizations mundane, but the setting was interesting and the resolution to the mysteries was reasonably satisfying.
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One of Those Faces by Ellie Grawl
This was one of the most over-the-top suspense books I’ve ever read, and that is saying something. I wrote out a spoiler-filled review, but will try to summarize with a not-as-spoilery version (WARNING: it’s still rather spoilery).
Harper is 25 and living in Chicago. She is a mess due to a traumatic childhood. A woman named Holly is murdered across the street from her home and Harper discovers that the woman looks just like her. Eventually it ends up being that there are FIVE other women who look just like her. Why is never explained (spoiler #1). Also, they are all already dead or die in the course of the book (spoiler #2).
Harper is freaked out by the doppelgangers but also distracted by a number of other issues: her creepy landlord, her new boyfriend, an old boyfriend who pops up, and her friend/boss Erin, who is a drug addict. Harper drinks and doesn’t sleep and generally does not have her life together. But she becomes obsessed with the murder (eventually murders, spoiler #3) and makes contact with the detective handling the case, trying to get some answers.
Someone Harper knows eventually is suspected in Holly’s murder and commits suicide (he sort of confesses in a suicide note but in the end it’s actually not clear if he killed her or not) [spoilers 4&5]. Harper is attacked and has to fight her attacker to the death (spoiler #…can we just accept this is a VERY spoilery review?). She finds out disturbing news about her new boyfriend. Her old boyfriend is the victim of a hit and run. Her friend ODs. More murder. The killer of…some of the women who look alike, but not all of them (again, not clear) is unmasked and Harper, sigh, once again has to fight to the death. There is a last shocking twist, and the book ends.
Issues: the sheer number of deaths. There are eleven deaths if you count two that happen before the book starts, and also one person who is never confirmed dead because the loose ends in this book are CRAZY. And also a cat, who is also a loose end because he’s not confirmed dead but still the most upsetting because he’s a CAT and I don’t want to read about cat murders. There are three car accidents. There are two fights to the death. There is, again, never any explanation for the six identical women (I will be fair and admit that two are twins, but STILL). It is unclear who is responsible for several of the deaths.
Also, for some reason people in this story drink an insane amount of coffee. I did a count and the word “coffee” appears 86 times in the book.
This is just a crazy book and maybe not very good? But I tore through it and found it super-readable. B+ and I would absolutely read this author again.
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The Locked Door by Frieda McFadden
Nora Davis is a successful surgeon in her 30s, but she hides a dark past. When Nora was 11, her father was arrested; it turns out he was a serial killer torturing and murdering his victims in the family basement (which Nora, understandably, was forbidden to enter). The set-up was a little dark for me; I prefer my suspense books less macabre. Anyway, Nora has changed her last name and no one in her current life knows anything about her past.
There are hints early on, and indeed throughout the book, that Nora has a dark side that is reminiscent of her father. While she has built a life for herself and can be seen outwardly as a success, she’s repressed and friendless; she hasn’t had a relationship in years. Nora ends up running into an ex-boyfriend from college one night in the bar she frequents, and they begin a tentative relationship. But meanwhile, it appears that a copycat killer has begun to kill young women using her father’s old modus operandi. Not coincidentally, these women turn out to be former patient’s of Nora’s, a fact that brings Nora to the attention of the police.
Nora then has a couple of goals: to keep her true identity a secret from her co-workers and the general public, and to figure out who is trying to frame her for these murders. She visits her father, imprisoned for life, but he only plays mind-games. Various suspects and red herrings are advanced, but I will say I was genuinely surprised by the identity of the villain. I feel like I should have seen certain clues, but I honestly didn’t. My grade for this was a B-/C+, mostly because of Nora. Her dark side was a little intriguing, but also a little off-putting, and ultimately I found her too unsympathetic a protagonist.
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No One Knows Us Here by Rebecca Kelley
This one was a little odd. It’s the rare thriller that I read that doesn’t have some aspect of mystery. The book starts with the protagonist (the story is told in first person) plunging a knife into the chest of an unidentified man. I suppose the identity of the victim could be the mystery, but it isn’t really.
Rosemary lives in Seattle; she’s young, underemployed and living in the closet of her ex-boyfriend (they share an apartment with several other roommates, and when they broke up Rosemary didn’t have the money to move out). Her mother and stepfather have died in a car accident, and Rosemary’s younger half-sister, Wendy, runs away from her grandmother’s house, where she’s been living, and ends up with Rosemary. Rosemary doesn’t feel equipped to take care of Wendy, but after realizing how traumatized and desperate Wendy is, she promises to make it work somehow.
An ex-roommate of Rosemary’s provides an opportunity of sorts when she introduces Rosemary to the world of high-end escorts, specifically offering “the girlfriend experience.” Through this Rosemary meets Leo Glass, a young billionaire CEO who has created a revolutionary (and rather creepy) app that allows people to watch each other through cameras placed in public spaces.
Leo is outwardly attractive but inwardly a really strange guy. I got both vague Mark Zuckerburg vibes and also the sense that this book was sort of a funhouse inversion of Fifty Shades of Gray, minus the BDSM and the characters actually, I guess, loving each other. Maybe it was just the Pacific Northwest setting and the inscrutable male protagonist (and to be fair I only ever read the first book in the Fifty Shades series).
Rosemary has the misfortune of meeting and falling for her next-door neighbor basically the same day she moves into the fancy apartment Leo secures for her. She starts something with him and then ends it but her life starts to spiral as she settles in as Leo’s girlfriend. Wendy becomes distant and secretive, and Leo is just odd in a rather menacing way (without being overtly abusive) and insanely manipulative and controlling.
I’m going to include a big spoiler here because I’m not sure how I feel about it:
I felt for Rosemary, even when she doesn’t make the smartest choices; she has had a pretty difficult life and was a sympathetic protagonist. The setting was interesting to me and the whole story was effectively creepy. I gave this a B+, and I’ll keep my eye out for future works by this author.
Thanks for sharing your reading, Jennie. None of these books are calling to me, but it was interesting to hear about them nonetheless.
Thanks for your list. I haven’t read a great romance all year myself, so I’ve been reading a lot of thrillers. I read one about Hollywood fixers that was extremely dark and I’m reading a Tartan Noir book now that is also extremely dark. One of Those Faces may fit right in with my current reading mood.
“And also a cat, who is also a loose end because he’s not confirmed dead but still the most upsetting because he’s a CAT and I don’t want to read about cat murders.”
Hear hear. I don’t either!
@Kareni: Thanks for reading!
@Jenreads: It really is crazy in the best way – at least I found it so.
I just read a very dark thriller and it reinforced my belief that I like to strike a balance between dark and lightness in my thriller reading. Sometimes they hit too hard.
@Janine: I know, right? You don’t just do that to a cat!
@Janine: @Jennie: Hell no to cat murders.