The Mistake I Made (September 8, 2015) by Paula Daly

The Mistake I MadeThe Mistake I Made by Paula Daly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thank you to the publisher through NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review The Mistake I Made by Paula Daly.
If you’re a fan of Paula Daly, one of the hot new domestic-thriller novelists in the UK, then you will enjoy her latest offering. Having read Daly’s two previous novels, I came to this one with high expectations.
Unfortunately, I enjoyed this book less than Daly’s previous two novels. For me, The Mistake I Made was high on the “ick” factor, with our protagonist Roz in just a bunch of awful situations. The beautiful backdrop of England’s Lake District (which also features Daly’s other novels) was not enough to lift the pall of desperation that lay heavy on this story.
On the plus side, The Mistake I Made Was gripping and held my attention. On the minus side, the novel made me feel stressed rather than offering excitement or escapism. (In this way, tonally, it reminded me of The Girl on The Train, by Paula Hawkins.)
Ultimately, several weeks after finishing the novel, I find myself unable to recall much more than the introduction featured on Goodreads and NetGalley.

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Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense (August 11, 2015) by Julia Heaberlin

Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of SuspenseBlack-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense by Julia Heaberlin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense, by Julia Heaberlin, is a book which was both more, and less, than I had anticipated.
This thriller is compared (as is everything else these days, insomuch as the comparison now seems almost meaningless) to the novels of Gillian Flynn. It is also compared to the novels of Laura Lippman.
I’m a fan of both Flynn and Lippman, but I think they write very different kinds of novels.
In this case, I think that both comparisons were apt, and it is in part because Black-Eyed Susans does have similarities to the work of two dissimilar authors that it is not entirely successful.
Black-Eyed Susans has a wonderful sense of place; it is set in Texas, which author Heaberlin clearly knows intimately and loves. In this way, Black-Eyed Susans reminded me of the southern-gothic atmosphere that Flynn crafts so well.
However, Black-Eyed Susans is much less dark in tone than Flynn’s novels. Instead, it feels wholesome in the same way that Lippman’s mysteries do. In the end, Black-Eyed Susans felt like a psychological-thriller that chickened out when it came to going to any truly “dark places.”
In a nutshell, here are a few other things that really stood out to me about Black-Eyed Susans:
I loved how Heaberlin included facts and idiosyncrasies about the Texas justice system. Her depiction of the death penalty in Texas was both enlightening and disturbing, an intimate look at what the town of Huntsville, with its “death house,” is really like.
Heaberlin’s description is based on research and interviews with experts (police, forensics experts, defense attorneys, advocates) and the novel never seems voyeuristic. Instead, in Black-Eyed Susans, Heaberlin gives insight into a powerful, disturbing reality that most of us know little about.
What I didn’t like as much was the way Heaberlin worked out the part of the plot which centered around our unreliable narrator Tessa’s buried memories.
The story flips between Tessa as an adult, counting down the days to her convicted “monster’s” execution, and her memories from childhood, as she first recovered from being assaulted by a serial killer. In the end, I found the explanation of what really happened to Tessa to be a bit of a letdown. The resolution detracted from the power of some earlier scenes in the novel.
Also, I was disappointed that the “fairytale” element of the story was never fully developed.
Ultimately, I think Heaberlin had two or three separate (and very intriguing) ideas for the type of story she wanted to tell. I hope as she continues writing, she develops more tonal clarity and confidence.
I highly recommend Black-Eyed Susans, especially for the fascinating peek into forensics, DNA, and the criminal justice system today. And I think many readers, will, like I did, really enjoy some of the wonderful and complex main characters, like Tessa, her daughter Charlie, their eccentric neighbor Effie, and the team of advocates who made them, and me as a reader, see the world in a new way.
Thank you to the publisher through NetGalley for my arc of Black-Eyed Susans: a Novel of Suspense. This review also appears on Goodreads and Facebook.

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The Ice Twins (May 19. 2015) by S. K. Tremayne

The Ice TwinsThe Ice Twins by S.K. Tremayne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Ice Twins is an absorbing, fast-paced read which I debated between giving 4 and 5 stars. Although not a “perfect” book, it is one of the most interesting suspense novels I’ve read this year, and so, in some ways I think it merits 5 stars.
However, this review reflects my personal reactions to the book, and so I’ve rated it 4 stars. This is because, for all its strengths, I just didn’t love it as much as I felt I should. Below, I’ll try to explain what was great about The Ice Twins, and also, why it didn’t fully succeed for me.

First, a quick plot introduction:
The Ice Twins is told variously from the points of view of Sarah and Angus Moorcroft, the parents of identical, seven-year-old, twin girls. As the story begins, we find out that they are grieving over the death of Lydia, the quieter, more bookish twin. Nearly a year before, Lydia fell from a balcony while vacationing at her grandparents’ home in Devon. Sarah, Angus, and Lydia’s twin sister, Kirstie, have been unsuccessfully trying to recover from this tragedy ever since.
Finally, in an attempt to start anew, the family moves to a small tidal island off the coast of Scotland, which Angus’ family has owned for generations. However, moving to Eilean Torran (Thunder Island) proves to be anything but a good idea. What follows is part psychological thriller, part ghost story, part domestic noir, and part horror, as they (and the reader) begin to suspect that the apparent facts of Lydia’s death are not as straightforward, as they at first seem.

My thoughts:
Author S.K. Tremayne (a pen name for a published author living in Britain), has, in many ways, absolutely nailed it in the choice of Eilean Torran (a fictional name for an actual tidal island near Skye) as the setting for this tale.
The Isle of Skye is well known for its unusual quality of otherness and solitary beauty. Tremayne knows this area well, and has capitalized on this eerie atmosphere in The Ice Twins.
Now, I’m a reader who loves sense of place above pretty much all else. And I am enamored of Scotland. I honestly can’t ever recall having had the experience of reading a contemporary novel in which I felt that the atmosphere was overemphasized before. However, in The Ice Twins, Tremayne inserts descriptions of the light, sea, and sky, so frequently and indiscriminately, that I realized I was beginning to skim some sentences.
For me, it was the quality and the quantity of the description, rather than the fact of description itself, which was problematic. I think that the best authors create a sense of place with enough well chosen, and well-placed words. Description can be almost like poetry, with powerful lines that set a scene, or turn up at perfect points in a narrative, anchoring the reader in a place and time. But the best writers do this, and then entrust the reader with that sense of place, that imagination. It felt to me like Tremayne thought we would forget we were on a Scottish island unless we were constantly reminded.
One thing I did really enjoy was that Tremayne inserted photos of the sea, island, lighthouse, etc., throughout the novel. These pictures added to my immersion and pleasure in the atmosphere.
So this whole ‘sense of place’ thing has another important dimension. Tremayne speaks highly of Skye in the author introduction. As mentioned above, Skye is world-famous for being a “thin place,” a place of unparalleled but stark beauty. However, after reading The Ice Twins, I felt like Skye was a place of nightmare. The photos coupled with the descriptions of the characters and the place evoked a sense of primal fear in me such that I questioned my long-held desire to visit Skye.
I think this reaction goes hand-in-hand with another reason I didn’t love The Ice Twins, which is that it has strong elements of a horror novel.
While I love psychological thrillers and suspense, I am not, so much, a fan of horror. Obviously, the genres sometimes merge. For me, one of the tonal elements that I do not like about horror is the (sort of obvious) goal of creating a sense of “horror” in the reader. I don’t like being taken to a place of primal fear. The Ice Twins was a psychological chiller, a tale of domestic noir, a mind-trip, a novel of suspense. But ultimately, it left me with that icky feeling that all is not right with the world, that deep evil lurks beneath seemingly calm waters, and that none of us is safe.
More than anything, I think this is why I did not love the book. I’d love to hear other readers’ reactions to the novel, especially regarding the portrayal of Skye and its tidal islands.
Thank you to the publishers through NetGalley for my advanced review copy of The Ice Twins.

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The Lie (23 April 2015) by C. L. Taylor

The LieThe Lie by C.L. Taylor

First of all, big thanks to the publisher through NetGalley for my copy of The Lie by C.L. Taylor. Here’s my honest review.

I enjoyed the first half of The Lie immensely. However, as the story progressed, my initial reading pleasure transformed into something much more like stress.
Then, between chapters 34-38, a graphic sequence of violence, including murder, rape, and torture, occurred, which left me feeling completely blindsided and sick to my stomach. These chapters colored my experience of the rest of the novel.
Apart from that, the second half of The Lie was less successful than the first, in that I found the plot resolution underwhelming (compared to the initial, amazing premise). I also felt that the character development was a bit too neat and tidy to feel wholly satisfying.
I was especially excited to read The Lie because I loved Taylor’s debut novel Before I Wake. I was also really interested by the premise of The Lie, that of a group of close female friends who take a “vacation of a lifetime” to a spiritual retreat in Nepal. In short order, however, the complex and convoluted bonds of female friendship are tested, as the women become victims of what is actually a cult.
Although The Lie had a rip-roaring good premise, the actual exposition was not as interesting or thought provoking as I had hoped. I think there are two main reasons I felt this way.
First, in my opinion, the supposed close friendship between the four women was obviously unhealthy and full of drama and jealously from the beginning. I fully agree that female friendships are complex, but the characters in The Lie didn’t seem to start out with a basic trust or respect for each other that I consider essential in someone I consider a close friend. So, I didn’t find the deconstruction of the friendships in The Lie as interesting as it could have been.
Second, the cult in the novel was somewhat unconvincing to me because I didn’t sense a level of mystification or brainwashing which distinguishes cults from say, a group of thugs. The retreat in The Lie did have some cult-like characteristics, such as frequent observation of members in order to control them, some religious ideology, and punishment for members who did not cooperate. However, as a reader, I was not convinced that Isaac at any time believed what he was teaching (for example, about “letting go of attachments”). It seemed that he and his group of close pals were up front with each other about the fact that they just wanted to sleep with a lot of women, and get away with assaulting anyone they didn’t like.
I felt like the other members were afraid of Isaac, but it didn’t seem like there was a lot of brainwashing or internalization of religious values. In this way, the cult experience that the four friends encountered seemed much closer to the experience of escaping from being kidnapped by a gang of criminals. Thus, the characters mainly had to recover from their physical wounds, and the emotional traumas of having been abused. On the other hand, the main character Jane had not at any time been brainwashed, such that she needed any kind of deprogramming in order to see the world clearly again.
Ultimately, I felt disappointed because The Lie relied more on soap-opera-ish drama and violence to tell a story, than on delving into the murky workings of female friendship, or of psychological manipulation.

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One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis (US Release 27 January 2015)

One Step Too FarOne Step Too Far by Tina Seskis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thank you to William Morrow publishers for this wonderful debut novel by author Tina Seskis.
The following review will be, to the best of my ability, spoiler free.
One Step Too Far is a thriller that manages to be exciting, escapist, and compulsively readable, as well as well-written, subtly plotted, and touching. It surpassed my expectations of a run-of-the mill domestic-noir novel, and instead, left me impressed and moved.
Here’s what you should know about One Step Too Far if you’re considering reading it:
The first chapter is written in the first person, and after reading only that, I was concerned that I was in for just another vague, amateurish attempt at a mind-trip, of the type which have been abundant in the wake of Gone Girl.
However, happily, I turned the page on chapter one, and continued reading chapter two, which shifts perspective, and time, into the past. Immediately, we are drawn into the middle-class, 1970’s, brown-carpeted world of Frances, a wife and mother in the process of giving birth for the first time. The shift to the third person also came with a shift in writing style, and all of a sudden, I felt like the IQ of the novel had gone way up.
Without being at all derivative, the writing reminded me of that of Kate Atkinson. Tina Seskis captures the foibles, humor, and tragedy that combine in our lives as human beings.
From here on out in the story, Seskis moves in and out of different perspectives and time periods, but I continued to be impressed and enchanted by her narrative voice.
One Step Too Far is a lot of things. It is, of course, a thriller with a big plot twist which took me completely by surprise. It is also a novel filled with subtle dark humor, especially at the beginning of the novel. As the novel progresses, it is very much a drama and character study of one woman’s choices, her experiences, and how she copes and moves through the world. It is a novel which is absorbing in its gritty descriptions of poverty, as well as the glitz of wealth and privilege. Towards the end of the novel, as the twist is revealed, there is tragedy and grief, and eventually, a sense of catharsis. The pacing is not always even. For example, the last couple of chapters confused me as the narrative abruptly jumped ahead years into the future.
In this way, One Step Too Far is not a perfect novel. But it is immensely enjoyable, it is well written, absorbing, and it has a soul.
As a side-note, Tina Seskis mentions in an afterword that she wrote this novel compulsively in the last few months of her mother’s life. Her mother read the novel as it was written, and Tina Seskis dedicated One Step Too Far to her.
One Step Too Far is a novel that is clearly written from a place of passion. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to reading more from the creative mind of Tina Seskis.

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Blue Labyrinth by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Blue Labyrinth (Pendergast, #14)Blue Labyrinth by Douglas Preston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have….”
the Pendergast series…by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.
Luckily for longtime fans, this latest thriller featuring inimitable FBI agent/aesthete/prodigy Aloysious Pendergast is in many ways the best story we’ve had from the authors in a while.
Blue Labyrinth takes a few chapters to really get into the swing of things. But about the time Pendergast (thankfully back to his sneaky, snarky, healthy self) travels to the Salton Sea in the desolate California desert, readers will feel themselves being absorbed into the familiar magic of the story.
From then on, Blue Labyrinth does a deft job of pulling together elements from Pendergast’s convoluted past, as well as developing his future, all the while, putting him and his loved ones, as always, in mortal danger.
I was ultimately pleased with this latest installment of the series. I was disappointed that we didn’t see more travel…one of my favorite things about Preston and Child is their ability to take readers to new places and introduce us to art and music that we might not already be familiar with. With a few exceptions, Blue Labyrinth took place mainly in locations which Pendergast has already frequented.
I was also not fully satisfied with the ending of the novel, which seemed to leave the series open for new chapters, while also providing enough of a conclusion that it could be the last entry in Pendergast’s literary life.
The fact that Blue Labyrinth left me wanting more is a sign that this novel was a big success. I hope that Preston and Child find future inspiration to write about Pendergast, Constance, D’Agosta, and Margo Green. At the beginning of Blue Labyrinth, Pendergast was planning to visit relatives in France, and I would love to read a Pendergast thriller in that location.

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Dark Tide by Elizabeth Haynes

Dark TideDark Tide by Elizabeth Haynes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am rounding this up from 3.5 to 4 stars because I’m feeling a little like defending this underdog of a book; one which seems to be the lowest rated and reviewed of Elizabeth Haynes’ novels.
I love Haynes’ thrillers, from her debut Into the Darkest Corner, featuring a heroine with OCD and a scary stalker, to her third novel, Human Remains, featuring a very twisted murder method.
Dark Tide is Haynes’ second novel, and I’d never read it because all the reviews I saw were disappointing.
Luckily for me, I recently found myself in a reading slump, craving a thriller from one of my favorite authors (in the vein of Julia Crouch, Elizabeth Haynes, Nicci French). So, I picked up Dark Tide from my local library, and I’m so glad that I did.
I’ve found that having very low expectations of a book or movie often means that I actually appreciate the good things about it more. And while Dark Tide was different from the other thrillers I’ve read by Haynes, and was weak in some ways, I also found it to be quite enjoyable.
My favorite things about Dark Tide were the two “themes” it is based around, which are: fixing up and living on a houseboat on a marina near London, and pole fitness/dancing.
Both of these things are subjects I know next to nothing about, and I found reading about the main character, Genevieve’s, experience of them to be absorbing escapism.
Genevieve herself is a good person, and the tone of Dark Tide is also, at heart, decent. It’s a thriller in which bad people do bad things, but in which plenty of good, imperfect, people, also try their best. I really liked this about Dark Tide.
*Quick side note: I’ve recently been reading a lot of thrillers which are also categorized as “horror” and have realized that the element of horror…of a world that is ultimately evil and terrifying and bleak, is not one I enjoy immersing myself in. I love suspense and thrillers, and I like twisted plots, and mind-trips. I like excitement, but I don’t enjoy pure terror. Dark Tide is a good example of a thriller in which there was plenty of suspense, but which left me feeling hopeful.
Also, it is worth noting that I read the US edition of this novel, and the afterword stated that in this edition, the author appreciated that she had been encouraged to further develop Genevieve’s backstory. So it is possible that Dark Tide had differences from its original UK incarnation (Revenge of the Tide) which improved my impression of it.
Also, Elizabeth Haynes’ website includes a wonderful blog about Dark Tide with photos of many of the locations in England which inspired her novel.
Ultimately, Dark Tide is an enjoyable romantic-suspense novel, light on plot, but rich in interesting characters and settings. It’s different fare from the other novels I’ve read by Haynes, but I’m so glad I decided to give it a try.

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