Sharp Objects

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Camille Preaker’s Chicago newspaper tasks her with reporting on a string of child murders happening in her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri. During her visit, Camille stays with her controlling mother, Adora; her quiet stepfather, Alan; and her beautiful and wild half-sister, Amma. As Camille seeks to unravel the mystery brewing in her small hometown she also battles her own demons, including her mental health and the memories of the death of her other little sister. The grisly details around the Wind Gap murders cast suspicion on many of the town’s residents, but the most puzzling detail is the removal of the victims’ teeth.

There are many female characters in this book, but they aren’t the stereotypical female characters you often see in these dark thrillers. Camille is headstrong, vulnerable, and flawed. I disagreed with many of her choices, but most of them felt realistic given her personality and history. Though at one point I was internally yelling at Camille, “Why would you do that?!” The book takes place in a small Midwest town before cell phones were widespread, and it isn’t surprising that the men in the story all seem to have an idea of what a lady should be, but very few of the female characters fit into this “box.” This is one reason why I really like Gillian Flynn’s novels. She knows how to write very complex and realistic female characters that defy tropes, and she doesn’t flinch away from portraying the dark or un-lady-like sides of life. Specially, I liked that her female characters used sex in ways that male characters often do; for example, as a sort of selfish release without strings attached and as a transactional act. The characters in this book– even the “good” ones– do morally questionable things. Many of the characters are morally gray, which adds realism to the cast.

Coming from a small Midwest town myself, I thought Flynn’s portrayal of the people and culture was mostly spot on. For example, the rich families get away with a lot, the residents are wary of outsiders, the kids are more wild than their parents realize, and though a small town may look charming on the outside, covered up crimes and hidden addictions are below the surface. I felt immersed in the story because of the mystery itself, the characters’ secrets, and the overall dark atmosphere.

A lot of messed up things happen during the plot of the novel. Aside from the actual murdering of young girls, there are many descriptions of sex, drug use by minors, self harm, child abuse, and prescription drug abuse to name a few. The pacing is fast and tense, with most of the events happening within a span of a few days, perhaps a week. Thrillers are known for their twists, but I could see some of the plot points coming. However, I believe this was Gillian Flynn’s first book, so it is clear that she has since made her writing even less predictable. Also, this book was published in 2006, so there have been many newer books that have overused some tropes and it may be a bit unfair to judge an older thriller for such things. Despite that, some of the twists near the latter half of the novel still took me by surprise.

Though it may not be Gillian Flynn’s best novel, it still had me hooked from the first chapter, and especially if you’re a fan of hers and haven’t read this one, I would recommend it as long as the darker parts don’t bother you too much. This is certainly a solid mystery/thriller for those who enjoy the genre. I’d give Sharp Objects somewhere between 3.5 to 4 stars.

The Turn of the Key

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It has been a quite while since I read a thriller, but I usually get in the mood for them around this time of year. A couple of years ago I read Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10. I certainly didn’t hate that novel, but I thought it had some imperfections that bothered me. Since then I have heard many people rave about Ware’s other books, so I thought I would take a second look at the author’s work by reading one of her newer books that appealed to me.

The Elincourts purchased Heatherbrae House, an old home in the Scottish countryside with a violent and mysterious history. They have used their architectural and technological knowledge to make it into a “smart home.” All they need now is a reliable nanny to take care of their four children while they are busy with their demanding careers. They have actually had several nannies, but each one has made a hasty exit after experiencing odd, possibly supernatural, experiences within the home. With the high salary and a chance at a new life, Rowan Caine decides to apply to be their newest nanny. What could possibly go wrong?

The novel opens with Rowan writing to a lawyer who might be able to get her out of prison. She is in prison because she has been accused of killing one of the Elincourt’s children, but she claims she is innocent. Throughout the novel she narrates her tenure as the family’s nanny. If you do not enjoy an epistolary format, don’t worry. It is very easy to forget that Rowan is writing the story for someone else. She only addresses the lawyer by name a few times in the beginning and a handful of times throughout the rest of book.

I love a good haunted house story, and not only does Heatherbrae House have a mysterious history but it being a smart house makes for even more unsettling situations. The rooms being filled with security cameras, everything being controlled by a phone app, and being able to talk to people in different rooms via the speaker system all lead to many crazy and creepy happenings. In my opinion, the best parts of this novel were the atmospheric and suspenseful scenes. The author is talented at drawing you in and making you question everything, including the narrator herself.

However, as with The Woman in Cabin 10, I sometimes got annoyed at the main character’s decision making. Admittedly, Rowan isn’t nearly as frustratingly stupid as The Woman in Cabin 10‘s lead, but there were still a couple of instances that made me angry at Rowan. I also noticed that both main characters in Ware’s novels turned to alcohol or made mistakes because of alcohol, which sometimes felt like a lazy plot device in my opinion. Maybe just don’t drink on the job?

Anyway, one other thing I disliked was the way the novel wrapped up. I’m a big fan of thrillers where it is unclear if a supernatural force is really there or not, and I actually love when the novel doesn’t answer whether it is there or not at the end. This novel makes a clear distinction about the cause of the strange occurrences, which is fine, but the twist is somewhat easy to guess and wasn’t a twist I particularly liked. I didn’t quite understand Rowan’s motivation for taking the nanny position by the end, and I felt that the conclusion wasn’t as interesting as the journey. I know that is rather vague and subjective, so I definitely encourage you to pick up the novel and form your own opinions.

Despite my gripes, this was a fun, atmospheric, and fast-paced book that I ultimately enjoyed reading. Three and a half stars out of five for The Turn of the Key.

The Only Good Indians

This was an extremely unique read. I went in knowing that it was written by and about Native American men, specifically Blackfeet, and that there was a killer elk after several of the characters. Honestly, that was more than enough to interest me. I mean, seriously, have you ever heard of something like that before in traditional publishing?

Ten years ago, Lewis, Ricky, Cass, and Gabe went hunting where they were not supposed to be. Like anyone who is young and stupid, they thought they wouldn’t get caught. What happened was much worse than they imagined. They survived the hunting trip, grew up a little, and some moved off of the reservation. Ten years later Ricky is standing outside of a bar miles and miles away from the reservation. Not long after that moment, he is dead. The reports claimed that he was beat up in a bar fight, but when strange things begin happening to Lewis, he questions the media’s mundane narrative.

So, let’s start with the pros. This is a super unique premise with characters you don’t see very often in fiction in general, let alone in horror. I really enjoyed the characterization in the novel. All of the Blackfeet men were well written. I got a clear sense of each one’s personality and what they cared about. The story is told in a few different perspectives, but each voice felt different. The book went by quickly because I kept wanting to turn the page and figure out what was happening. It was gripping for sure, but there was ample time to get to know everyone. I also really liked the writing style itself. It was almost conversational or casual in tone. It felt like the story was being told to me instead of me actually reading it. I didn’t check out the audiobook, but if it is read well, I think that the writing would lend itself really well to that format.

I’ll admit that what I didn’t like was all up to personal preference, so there’s a good chance that you might disagree with my small “cons” list. I usually go into my books pretty blindly without wanting to know too much. So, though I usually don’t mind some gore, there was quite a bit in this novel. If you don’t like descriptions of blood, guts, and dead animals (dogs, if that bothers you), you might not want to read this. There was just a bit too much gore description for me, personally, but I could have easily looked up the amount of gore or trigger warnings if I hadn’t wanted to go in without knowing anything. The was creepy and tense, but I wouldn’t call it scary, and I think that the imagery would be great for a slasher movie. However, what I found the scariest, and what hooked me and made finish the rest in one sitting, was one character’s decent into madness and how the other characters heard about and interpreted the subsequent events.

So, to sum it up, if a Blackfeet-inspired slasher sounds like something you’d like this spooky season, don’t hesitate to read this!

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

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Each night Evelyn Hardcastle is murdered, and each morning Aiden Bishop wakes up in a different body. Aiden is tasked with solving the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle in order to escape this time loop. He cycles through eight different party guests’ bodies at Blackheath Manor, but if he cannot solve the murder after spending 24 hours in each of the eight hosts, Aiden forgets everything and starts the cycle anew. There are also a few other “competitors” who are intent on solving the mystery so they can escape instead. Aiden does not know how long he has been stuck here or why he is here. All he wakes up remembering is a name on his lips: Anna.

Yes, this is a mystery with a fantasy-ish twist. That might sound awesome already, but if I could give everyone who picks up this book one warning, it would be this: as long as you are okay not knowing exactly what is happening for most of the novel and as long as you are okay not knowing all the hows and whys for this plot even happening, then you’re on the right track to like this book. I say this because just like Aiden the reader is dropped into the middle of the action without knowing anything. The book is from Adien’s first-person perspective. We only know what Aiden knows and sees around him, so this takes the already claustrophobic atmosphere up another notch. As I mentioned, Aiden isn’t alone in this “competition,” and his competitors are ruthless. So, there’s lots of intrigue, action, secrets, twists, and timey-wimey stuff to confuse and delight you if you can stand being in the dark for a while.

I had a hard time putting this one down. First, I wanted to know what the hell was going on, then I had to know who committed the crime. The twists kept me on my toes. I guessed very little of what happened, but I was able to piece together a couple things and that was very satisfying. The plot is very complicated, but I’m sure more attentive readers could do much better than me with predicting things. In my opinion, the ending wasn’t as satisfying as some of the other reveals, and the more I think about the ending, the more questions are actually raised. This book was heavily inspired by Agatha Cristie’s mysteries, but there’s much more to the mystery than just “who did it.” The author has stated that he spent 3 months just planning this novel out, and after finishing it, I don’t doubt that’s the true.

Reviewing the characterization is a bit hard for this book. There’s a large cast, but since many aren’t “real” and repeat their actions over and over, it was hard for me to feel for most of them. I wouldn’t even say that Aiden as a main character did anything for me, but that was probably because he was always in another person’s body. We are told, not shown, Aiden’s past, so this also made it hard to connect with him and his motivation to solve the mystery. I think Aiden’s thin personality made some sense though, because if he fails too many times at the mystery (the book tells us he has already failed a lot) he will lose his personality completely, and while he inhabits the guests’ bodies he also takes on aspects of their personalities. For example, one host has a quick mind but a slow body. (The way he is described is a bit gross and fat-phobic if that bothers you.) Another host is very sexual, while another is very timid. Hosts have talents and weaknesses. Some hosts have stronger personalities than others, which makes it hard for Aiden to always keep his mind to himself and stay on task. I loved how these aspects of the characters shaped how the mystery played out. There are also a few constant “competitors,” as I have called them, but I don’t want to say too much about them.

As with many complex and astonishingly unique novels, I am always afraid of how the author wraps things up. It’s one thing to love the journey, but I also want a satisfying end. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle‘s ending is pretty good, but I still want more answers. The mystery and murder stuff is tied up quite nicely, but the time-bending and the whole point of the time loop as well as the “supervisors” mentioned have me scratching my head. Are there other time loops out there like Evelyn’s murder? And most importantly, will we get these answers in more books?! Time will tell. I gave The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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.

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.

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.

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.