No Exit

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Taylor Adams
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. date: Jun. 2017 (read in Jul. 2019)

Oh boy… I don’t know how to rate this. It’s a fast-paced, dark psychological thriller. It definitely kept me on the edge of my seat, but it was so exhausting to read. The premise was interesting, as the name suggests, this is a closed room mystery thriller where are protagonist is trapped in a snowstorm nightmare with no way out.

Darby Thorne is on her way across the Rockies to visit her dying mother for Christmas when the snow forces her to stop at a rest stop to wait out the weather. There’s 4 other people at the rest stop and no cell service. While there, she discovers one of the others is concealing a massive crime and her attempt to right the wrong ends in a nightmare of epic proportions.

So I wasn’t sure how much of the plot to reveal in my review, but apparently I never read the synopsis before reading this book because Darby discovering a child trapped in a dog cage in the back of one of the vehicles at the rest stop was a total shocker to me, but is actually revealed right in the book synopsis. I wish I’d known this going in because it might have greatly influenced my decision to read this book. I hate stories that mess around with children and find them difficult to read, so had I realized that earlier, I might have opted out of this one. But my book club picked this as our July read, so I stuck it out.

Overall, I do think this was quite a good book and I can see why people might like it. It’s super fast-paced, the stakes are high, the setting is claustrophobic, and our protagonist is relatable. But I personally struggled with it because it includes child violence and graphic depictions of torture and other violence. I find all these things extremely disturbing and hate reading anything with torture in it, particularly if child violence is involved. I had to give up Game of Thrones after season 3 because I couldn’t deal with the torture.

Which is why I’m unsure how to rate this. I don’t think anyone is going to argue that this is outstanding literature. It’s a mindless thriller book that I think pretty much accomplishes what it sets out to. There’s very little character development and it didn’t make me think that much; there are no hidden meanings or deep themes weaved into the story. Mostly it just made me anxious for the entire week that I was reading it. I propelled through it, but mostly just because I wanted it to be over.

I do think the book was dragged down a little bit by the setting and timeline. Any book that takes place in a span of 8 hours with a setting this small will face a challenge in keeping the reader engaged and I don’t think Adams really overcame that. The story started to feel repetitive and towards the end it was really dragged out. There are several false endings and I feel like the author kept dragging it out to make a large enough page count to call this a proper book. Despite the tense nature of the story, I started to get bored towards the end as the same trauma kept repeating itself. Plus, a lot of the drama was unbelievable and I think the author relied on a lot of what I would consider lazy plot devices to carry the story (i.e., the never-ending cell battery and repeatedly using the same escape route).

Beyond that I don’t really have a whole to say about this one. The idea held a lot of promise, but I don’t think the author quite delivered. As a mystery/thriller, I’d give it 3 stars, but I’m going to give it 2 stars overall because it just wasn’t for me. It’s not a reflection on the book or the writing, just that it wasn’t to my tastes.

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Miracle Creek

Rating: ⭐
Author: Angie Kim
Genres: Mystery, Fiction
Pub. date: Apr. 2019 (read May 2019 on Audible)

I heard really good things about Miracle Creek, which is what inspired me to pick it up, but I was still totally blown away by this book! I like mystery/thrillers,but they don’t normally stand out in the way a good literary fiction or historical fiction book does. Miracle Creek was everything I didn’t know I was looking for in a mystery novel.

What makes this such a great read is that the author weaves so much nuance into the rest of her story. It’s primarily about solving a crime, but there’s so much else going on and the characters are incredibly well developed and have a huge amount of depth. Kim tackles everything from alternative medicine, to parenting less-abled children, to cultural diaspora, to the challenges of simply growing up.

Miracle Creek is primarily about the Yoo family. Pak, Young, and their daughter Mary, moved to the United States from Seoul, Korea. Each character faces their own challenges in moving to America and their new routines start to create a distance between each of the family members. Pak decides to start up a new business called Miracle Submarine, which is all about the healing powers of hyperbaric pressure chambers, or HBOT. HBOT is a pressurized chamber that allows the patients to breathe in pure oxygen, which is touted as having all kind of medical benefits. However, the benefits are not totally proven and it is a controversial practice.

Pak, Young, and Mary’s lives, as well as the lives of their friends, are totally torn apart when one evening, someone lights a cigarette outside the chamber and blows it up, killing two of the patients inside. The rest of the book is a courtroom drama, investigating who was responsible for the explosion and what exactly happened to lead up to that moment.

The courtroom drama is the focus of the novel, but everything else that happens outside the courtroom is really what makes this read so thrilling. We get to experience the trial from a number of different perspectives. We are never really sure who actually committed the crime, with new evidence continuously keeping you guessing. But the decision to tell this story through multiple perspectives is super effective. Kim humanizes every single one of her characters, making it easy to empathize with them, even when some of their actions shock you.

Outside of the courtroom, she explores so many different conflicts that each character is facing. I loved that I got to explore what it was like for Young living within the confines of a traditional Korean marriage and the impact that moving to America had on her family. I sympathized with Pak being a goose father and the perceived loss of his wisdom when he could no longer communicate himself eloquently. I was captivated by Elizabeth and the other autism moms – the level of responsibility that was thrust upon them and the continued heartbreak every day as they had to watch their children be only a fraction of who they knew they could be. The conflict they felt about HBOT and all the treatments they put their children through and whether it was really worth it and who they were doing it for? I felt bad for Janine as she struggled in her relationship with Matt and the fetishization of Asian women and her indignation that being attracted to Asian women could even be considered a “fetish”, like it was something dirty.

Every single character in this book is so nuanced. I constantly marveled at the author for how she played with so many different social issues and commentaries, all while maintaining an equally thrilling courtroom drama. I loved how she played with regret and “what if’s. How things could have been so dramatically different had one character taken a slightly different action. I wasn’t particularly surprised with the solving of the crime, but I was impressed with how Kim decided to end her novel. In the same way that the story was filled with moments of frustration, bitterness, and anger at the hand that had been dealt to each character, the ending carried on the same theme of cold, hard reality. It reminded me at times of a Greek tragedy in that you saw how easily things could have been different, but the characters, blind to their own shortcomings and missing information, barrel into the unknown, only increasing their mistakes. This book had a lot of irony and that’s what really sticks with you. It get’s under your skin and you get caught up in the what ifs.

I can’t believe this is a debut novel and I can’t wait to see what Angie Kim writes next. Highly recommend this thoughtful and thrilling book!

The Turn of the Key

Rating:
Author: Ruth Ware
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. date: Sep. 5, 2019 (read May 2019)

Let’s just start by saying: I love Ruth Ware. I’ve read everything she’s written and it’s taken me a while to figure out what it is I like so much about her. None of her books are my favourite, yet I always can’t wait to get my hands on her newest book. It took a while, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I love her books because they are just so damn readable. She has this old school Gothic mystery thing going on and her closed-door crimes are very reminiscent of Agatha Christie.

The Turn of the Key has similar elements to some of her other books, but I actually found it quite different. Ware takes a different approach to this book, telling us upfront what the central crime is, just not who is involved or how it happens. Rowan Caine is our main character and has been working as a nanny for the past few years when she takes a position in a private home in remote Scotland looking after the Elincourt family. Sandra and Bill are both wealthy architects and have converted their home from an old estate into a modern architectural marvel, integrating all kinds of fancy technology into the design to make it a “smart home”.

It’s a lucrative position for Rowan, but when Sandra and Bill take off immediately after arriving, leaving her alone in the huge house with their 4 children, she starts to wonder if there may be more secrets about this post than she was made aware. Previous nannies quit the position because of fears of the house being haunted, of which Rowan is skeptical, but as strange things start happening, she can’t help but wonder if the weird things happening are a result of the faulty smart home technology, or something more sinister.

Ware takes an interesting approach by opening the story with Rowan in prison for the death of one of her charges. We don’t know which child has died, or how, but Rowan maintains that she is innocent and recounts her story in a letter to a lawyer requesting he help her. This book is creepy. I could see how some readers might not like it as much as some of her others because it is more of a slow burn mystery, but I really liked it. Ware spends a lot of time developing the atmosphere of the story and drawing us further and further in to this creepy house in Scotland. It does take a while for the action to get going, but I loved how remote the story was and how it made me question every single interaction for potential answers. I also loved her use of smart home technology in the story. Technology has gotten so creepy and this really drew attention to the ways it has invaded our lives and in some cases made things more complicated.

One of the main complaints I’ve had with Ware’s books in the past is that I think she has really weird pacing. She tends to hit the climax at around 70% in the book, the mystery always continues, but when you hit the high point that early it’s hard to stay engaged for the last 30%. That was not the case with this book. She keeps you on edge, with the creepiness continuing to amp up until the very end.

The only thing I will say is that things finish up so quickly at the end and are so easily explained that it was a bit of a let down. I mostly correctly predicted the ending, but it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book. The atmosphere was what won this book for me and I really liked the creepiness factor. My only complaint now is that I have to wait 4 months for everyone else to read this and another year or more for her next book!

Special thanks to Simon and Schuster and Edelweiss+ for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Stories You Tell

Rating:
Author: Kristen Lepionka
Genres: Mystery
Pub. date: Jul. 9, 2019 (read Mar. 2019)
Series: Roxane Weary #3

Thanks for Minotaur Books for providing me with a free advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This series is fantastic! I really liked the first book, but honestly, they just keep getting better and better. Roxane is such a great character and I love the balance Lepionka has found between the mystery element and the development of her recurring characters. The secondary characters change up a bit from book to book, but I love Roxane’s relationship with her family and her growing friendships with Tom and Shelby. No comment on Catherine.

Lepionka is a really great writer. I’ve said this in other reviews, but I know she’s great at connecting her readers with her characters because of the level of frustration you feel for them. The characters are extremely compelling and her plots of so relevant to today’s society. They are always, predominantly, mystery novels, but she weaves a lot of relevant social commentary into her stories that makes them so much more meaningful and relatable to her readers. She didn’t have to do anything special with these books and I think they still could have been successful, but I love that she takes the effort to make her stories diverse.

I love that Roxane is bi-sexual and I love how she incorporated some thoughtful commentary on racial justice and equality in this book. Her previous books have focused on the inequity that women face in the justice system and I like how she spent a little bit of time in this book looking at how black people are disenfranchised in the system and drawing attention to the ways in which white people don’t realize what kind of privilege they actually have.

I’m not going to get into the plot too much. At this point, the plot of the mystery doesn’t really matter to me, I’m here for Roxane. I would definitely recommend reading the series in order though because otherwise you’ll miss out on all the great character development! The only thing that wasn’t great about the book was that the transitions between scenes were very abrupt, with no break in structure to let us know the scene had changed. I think this is just a quirk of the ebook arc I had though and I’m expecting this will be changed in the finished copy.

So in conclusion, I highly recommend this series. I totally flew through this installment and read the whole thing in a single day!

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Rating:
Author: Stuart Turton
Genres: Mystery, Thriller, Science Fiction
Pub. date: Feb. 2018 (read Mar. 2019)

Where do I start with this book? It has such great reviews on Goodreads and I was super excited to read it, but honestly every time I picked this up I found myself literally starting to fall asleep after a single chapter. I really can’t explain it, the plot is totally bonkers but for some reason I just didn’t find it compelling. The book did pick up around the 50% mark and I found it a bit easier to read, but it’s so confusing in the first half that it was just painful to read.

The plot synopsis is super compelling though. The story is set at Blackheath Manor, home of the wealthy Hardcastle family. It’s not clear what year the story is set – there’s both cars and carriages in the story so it’s certainly not modern day and had a bit of an old-timey feel to it, with maids, butlers, and footmen. The Hardcastles have invited a ton of guests to the manor for a party, but what they don’t know is that at the end of the night, their daughter Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered, though it won’t look like a murder.

Enter our main character, Aiden Bishop. Aiden wakes up in the body of one of the party guests, Sebastian Bell, with absolutely no memory of who he is or how he got there. Through a series of events, he is tasked with determining who killed Evelyn Hardcastle. The catch is that every day he will wake up and re-start the day of Evelyn’s death in the body of a different guest. He will have 8 hosts and therefore, 8 chances to re-live the same day and solve the crime.

Confusing right? But also, super compelling! Why is Aiden stuck in this body-snatching loop, we have no idea, but the idea is certainly intriguing. Overall I thought this was the most well done part of the book. Did I love the writing or the way the characters were portrayed? No, but I liked how the personalities and quirks or each host influenced Aiden’s abilities and slowly started to take over his mind the longer he was in their body. He moves from the cowardly doctor, to the quick-witted Lord, to the perverted creep, to the clever cop, all of who aid and hinder him in his search for the truth.

There’s a lot going on in this book. I won’t get into the intricacies of the plot, but as you can imagine, with 8 different hosts, plus several rival hosts, and tons of party guests – the cast of characters and sequence of events becomes easily confused. It is somewhat effective to chuck your reader into the middle of story without any preamble, because it helps them to relate with Aiden, who has absolutely no memories prior to waking up as Sebastian Bell. It’s just as confusing for the reader as it is for Aiden. But this only takes your reader so far. If they can’t eventually make sense of the story, it makes for a confusing and frustrating read.

There is a really fine line with mystery novels. You want to trick your readers and leave them guessing, but you also want to give them enough information to encourage them to try and solve the mystery themselves. For me, the most satisfying mystery novels are the ones where I think I have things figured out and then the author throws you for a loop with a killer twist and then totally blows your mind (Alice Feeney’s, Sometimes I Lie, and Riley Sager’s, The Last Time I Lied, come to mind – also pretty much anything by Ruth Ware). Mystery books that give you nothing annoy me. I love a twisted, clever plot, but when it’s too convoluted, I don’t even bother trying to think up what happened and it kind of takes the fun out of it. JK Rowling’s latest book in the Cormoran Strike series suffered from this and I wrote a review for that book about how I dislike the dramatic multi-chapter info-dumps for convoluted plots like this. (I love this series though and the characters! Her latest plot was just a little too confused)

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is definitely a clever plot, I’ll give Turton that. He says in his acknowledgements that he spent 3 years working on this book and I believe it. Any book that looks at the same day 8 times is going to require a tightly plotted story. But there were just too many unexplained details in this book to keep me interested. I do think there’s overdoing it, and for me, this story got lost in the plot. I also disliked how he had Aiden’s different hosts following up on these leads without including us, the reader, in them! Like when Ravencourt starts leaving these random notes everywhere and Rashton was secretly recruiting support to confront Daniel? Turton just sprung those things on his readers without really explaining them. The plot is so convoluted, you can include your reader in some revelations without worrying they’ll solve the mystery. I need some pay-off to follow along with this 450 page book. I don’t want to invest in a confusing mess of a story for this long with no pay-off until the last 10%. Especially if your ending is going to be as f-ed and anti-climatic as this one was (more on that later).

Overall, this book was just too long. We have to read about every single thing all 8 hosts do without even getting any of Aiden’s revelations or clues. I felt like Aiden was getting nowhere with his investigations for 80% of this book and then suddenly he has all the answers? I really wish Turton had taken us on that journey with him. I actually quite liked the story arc with the 19-year old murder mystery and I thought that death was actually easier to solve and we had more clues to work with. But the present day death was a bit of a mess.

The idea of the 8 different hosts was definitely a clever one, but it was pretty painful to read. I’m really unsure what to think about the author or Aiden after reading this book. The fatphobia was disgusting. Can I believe someone would struggle to suddenly be in an obese body? Sure, but we’re supposed to like Aiden and he’s just so fat-phobic when he’s in Ravencourt’s body, it’s awful and I hated him for it. I don’t have a problem with an author writing from this lens if that’s integral to their character (ie, it’s a shitty character and we’re not meant to like them), but because we’re supposed to like Aiden, I place the blame on the author and I really don’t think the fat shaming had any reason to be in this novel. The descriptions were over the top and insulting and went way beyond mere discomfort with a body.

Also, why are none of the hosts women? I mean, thank god none of the hosts were women because I really wasn’t looking forward to reading from the perspective of a man in a women’s body after the mess that was Ravencourt, but like, what are the odds none of the 8 hosts would be women? Seems unlikely. This story was really about men though. The women are all secondary characters and only ever really serve as props to move Aiden’s story forward. This book was published in 2018, like come on, I’m so done with stories with women as props.

But my biggest problem with this book was the flimsiness of the time-travel theory. There’s all kinds of different time-travel theories out there. There’s the “everything is destined to happen” theory a la Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and The Time Traveller’s Wife, where everything that happens in the future is present in the past (ie. future Harry saves past Harry and knows it’s possible because he saw himself do it in the past). In this kind of time-travel theory, you don’t really have any ability to change time. You may not know all of what the future holds, but any interactions with future selves will be the same from both sides of the time travel.

The other theory that comes to mind is the Back to the Future type of time travel, where every action has a direct result on the future, such as Biff going back in time to give himself the Almanac. In this scenario Marty can no longer return to the present because the past has created an alternate future.

I’m going to get into some light spoilers on the type of time travel used in this book now if you want to tap out of the review.

It becomes clear from pretty early on in the novel that Turton is employing the first type of time-travel. Aiden interacts with future hosts and his future hosts also interact with past hosts to ensure the same sequence of events. Presumably his last host creates a compendium of all his interactions that he gifts to Anna because she has a book that she uses in every new life to ensure the days proceed as instructed by Aiden’s future host. I struggled with this type of time travel for this book because if everything is pre-destined, how is Aiden ever supposed to solve the murder? He tries several times to change the day, but ultimately his characters always follow the same course, which makes him a passive player in the whole thing. We learn this is not his first loop inhabiting these 8 bodies and the order of the hosts does change, but it all seems pre-destined to me, so what’s the point. Everyone’s just playing a role for the other hosts and nothing you do is ultimately going to change that.

But where things really get messed up is that he eventually does break the loop. He’s supposed to wake up one of his past hosts in the middle of the night with a message, but he never does, so wouldn’t that make the whole thing collapse? If he never wakes a host up, then it shouldn’t have happened in past host’s timeline. He eventually does appear to follow the rest of the loop, but once it changed I was like, what kind of theory are we following here?? The plague doctor encouraged Derby to give the compass to Bell because otherwise the whole timeline would change, impacting future Aiden, but then he goes and changes it later anyways with seemingly no consequence.

I also thought the ending was weak. I’m going to get into MAJOR spoilers now.

The whole “Blackheath is a prison” thing actually didn’t bother me that much. At least it was an explanation that was somewhat clever. But the whole thing with Anna was poorly done. First of all, despite all their interactions, Aiden and Anna have virtually no relationship. Aiden decides to trust Anna even though she’s done nothing to warrant his trust. His decision to trust her comes before she saves his life, but after he sees her with the Footman attempting to kill him. Why on earth would he trust her after that?? It made no sense. Plus, we have absolutely no sense of who Anna really is because the interactions between Anna and Aiden, while important to the plot, have no character depth or development.

I feel like the author was trying to bring some depth to his story by making it this whole “redemption plot” to move his readers or something. But it was too little, too late for me. If you want me to think Anna is a good person, you should have invested in her character more. You can’t just throw in this bombshell that she’s a horrible murderer at the end of the story and then expect us to buy into her redemption. “It’s okay, Aiden thinks she’s redeemed even though he has absolutely no evidence and can’t remember the 1000 loops that came before, but we should just trust his gut feeling anyways.” NO.

Mostly Aiden was just an enigma to me. Sometimes he was heavily influenced by the personality of his hosts, while other times he was extremely adamant in his morals and feelings. He loved Evelyn based on one interaction with her as Bell, even though all the other evidence from his other hosts indicated she kind of sucked. Also, what was up with Daniel? Now that was a more compelling character, but I didn’t really get how things worked for Daniel and Anna. Didn’t they wake up every day with no memory? I understood Anna because Aiden gave her a book of instructions to follow, but what’s up with Daniel? Would he do the same thing every day or was he different every day? Presumably he had to be the same based on the type of time travel the author employed for Aiden, so wouldn’t he just be doing the same thing for 8 days of every loop? I have no idea really. How did he know about Ravencourt’s letter? Overall, it felt like there’s still a lot of unanswered questions. Why was Bell’s arm all shredded? What happened in previous loops to make Aiden like Anna? Why did the Senior Mr. Hardcastle have to die? How did Aiden figure out who the real Evelyn was? Also, are we just going to skip over the fact that Hardcastle’s response to his artist beating the shit out of his butler is just to string him up in the gatehouse? WTF?!

So that’s my review. It’s long, so I mean, props to the author that his novel did have enough depth to write a review like this, but overall I thought it was flawed. I’m going to give 2 stars because, while I didn’t enjoy the book, it’s undoubtedly clever and original and I think he deserves props for that. Plus, clearly a lot of people really like this book. I wouldn’t recommend this book, but I also wouldn’t be deterred from reading it, except for the fat shaming. That was terrible.