The Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson

I have wanted this book for months and finally bought it and read it, and it was well worth the wait! I am also very excited that this is the first in a series. I adore DI Anjelica Henley and would read a dozen books about her solving gruesome murders.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: In The Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson, DI Anjelica Henley investigates a spate of dark, grisly murders in which victims have been dismembered and scattered around London. She quickly discovers a link between this new serial murderer and notorious serial killer Peter Olivier, known to the public as The Jigsaw Man. Henley, battling panic attacks leftover from her own encounter with The Jigsaw Man, must find the copycat before the killings escalate and before the original Jigsaw Man figures out how to insert himself back into the spotlight.

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: This book was action-packed from the first page, and the escalating tension and increasing body count absolutely propelled me through the book. The plot was engaging and I felt real anxiety as Henley and her team worked against the clock to track down the killer. Henley was an excellent protagonist – strong and hardworking, with a true dedication to her career, and I loved how doggedly she pushed forward to stop the killings, even as her panic attacks threatened to derail her progress. This book also has one of those tight-knit police teams, which I love (think about Brenda Lee Johnson’s colleagues in The Closer), and it was fun to get to know some of Henley’s fellow officers and how well they all worked together.

Maybe the best thing about this book, though, is The Jigsaw Man himself. Peter Olivier was deliciously horrifying – the stereotypical charming psychopath who will kiss you in one moment and then stab you in the eye the next. I just loved this character. See you in my nightmares, Olivier.

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: This book may have been a little too dark, even for me. The main story was dark, the backstory was dark, Henley’s personal life was dark. It was allllll dark and I ached for a little lightness. A little romance. Some joking between the characters. Something. While I don’t need a book to be funny, I do think that some witty repartee could have gone a long way toward relieving some of the tension of this book. And maybe it’s just that Matheson and I don’t have the same sense of humor; I do remember a few moments that seemed to nod toward levity, but that didn’t fully work – for me – to give me a break from the pulse-thumping urgency of the story.

Should You Read This Book? If you like fast-paced, heart-pounding action, enjoy deeply disturbing villains, and love a strong-but-struggling-to-overcome-her-demons protagonist, you should pick this up right away. But keep in mind it is not for the faint of heart. There’s plenty of blood and gore throughout – the killing in this book is no joke.

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

It’s Murder Mystery Monday! And I recently read an excellent one that I want to recommend to you: Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz – the second in the Susan Ryeland mystery series (will there be more? I hope so!). 

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: Following her involvement in author Alan Conway’s murder and the subsequent implosion of her career, (former) book editor Susan Ryeland has moved to Greece, operating a resort with her partner Andreas. Bored with hotel management, missing her life as an editor, and uncertain about her relationship, Susan jumps at the chance to head back to London when she’s offered the chance to solve another real-life mystery. The Trehanes operate a luxury hotel called Branlow Hall, and their daughter Cecily has gone missing. Just before she disappeared, Cecily had been investigating an eight-year-old murder that took place at Branlow Hall. 

Susan’s star writer, Alan Conway, had written a book loosely based on the Branlow Hall murder – Atticus Pund Takes the Case. And Cecily was certain that Conway had proved they’d arrested the wrong murderer.

Did her discovery put her in danger? And will Susan be able to decode Conway’s book to learn the truth – before she puts her own life at risk?

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: First, from an entirely technical standpoint, this book completely wowed me. It is a book within a book. A literary turducken. As in, Horowitz wrote two entire books and put one inside the other. You have Moonflower Murders, in its entirety… but then, to get to the bottom of the mystery, you read the entire volume of Atticus Pund Takes the Case. I am in awe. I have not yet been able to complete ONE book, let alone TWO IN ONE. And both of them are good! They have distinctive characters and styles and the mysteries are engaging and twisty. I enjoyed the whole thing very, very much. 

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: This is one of those books I just adored. I can’t think of a thing I disliked, truly. Was it the best, most compelling mystery I’ve ever read? No, I suppose not. But it was interesting and fun and there were lots of twists and turns and I did not guess the murderer for a very long while, which is satisfying. 

Should You Read This Book? If you are a fan of puzzle-like mystery stories, you will absolutely enjoy this one. A very pleasing read.

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

I am so terrifically behind on my reviews. I have read 56 books this year and have reviewed… far fewer than that number. The sad part is that I have already written MANY of my reviews, I just haven’t posted them.

Today, instead of posting a review for a book I read way back in APRIL, I am going to post a review of the book I finished most recently: The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn HardcastleIt is possible that I am the last person on the planet to read this book, but I loved it and, if you somehow have managed to avoid it this long as well, I want you to read it and love it too.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: Aidan wakes up in the body of someone else. Bit by bit, he uncovers the facts: he was summoned to Blackheath – a decaying mansion deep in the woods – to solve the mystery of who killed Evelyn Hardcastle. Until he finds the killer, Aidan must relive the same day over and over again, each day in the body of a different guest. And someone doesn’t want Aidan to succeed…

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: This is one of those books that had me completely entranced by its logistics. As with many books about time travel (although this doesn’t deal in time travel, per se), I kept thinking – with great admiration – about how complex the mechanics of the story were, and kept wondering how the author got it all to work. (How did the author keep track of every person and their whereabouts throughout the book? How did he determine the order in which we meet the guests, and how did he dole out specific pieces of knowledge to each person? How did he fit all the action into the specific timeframe surrounding Evelyn’s death?) The book takes place over the course of one day, but we get to live that day from the perspective of different guests, giving us new views of its goings-on, new interactions, and new insights into Evelyn’s murder. I loved how different each person was, and how Aidan came to know their strengths and weaknesses. I also loved the writing style. Turton’s prose is so vivid and descriptive and his use of figurative language was wonderful. It was a really fun and fascinating read and I loved every minute of it. 

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: There is an inciting force at work in this novel, and I wish the book had delved more into the how and why behind it. It’s kind of hard to discuss without spoilers, but I wish I had more information about some of the tertiary characters – Anna, the Footman, and one of the other guests. I also found the solution to the mystery itself a little puzzling; it didn’t feel particularly earned. Part of me wants to go back and reread the book with the knowledge of whodunit, just so I can see if there were clues I missed along the way. But another part of me is content to feel mild disappointment with the killer’s identity and unmasking, simply because I found the rest of the book so satisfying.

Should You Read This Book? If you appreciate intricately designed storytelling, then this book is for you. A wholly original, enjoyable read for sure.

My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

THIS BOOK. I didn’t know quite what to prepare myself for, seeing as this was my first Stephen Graham Jones novel. But My Heart Is a Chainsaw blew my expectations out of the water. 

Rating: 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: Jade Daniels, a half-Indian high school senior, lives in tiny Proofrock, Idaho with her abusive father. Horrible things in its history made Proofrock and its idyllic Indian Lake what it is, and Jade – a scholar and enthusiast of horror films – is certain that her hometown is ripe for its own slasher cycle. When the first body shows up and proves her right, she’s equal parts elated and determined – because she, more than anyone else, knows exactly what’s going to happen… and just how much blood is about to be spilled. 

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: First, I LOVED the beginning. It really set the tone. It was creepy and gory and absolutely wonderful. Not since that scene in Scream when Drew Barrymore is on the phone, her popcorn popping in the background, have I felt such a delicious thrill of excited foreboding. 

The protagonist, Jade is a remarkable character. She is brave, she is humble, she is self-sufficient, she is witty, she is resilient, she is self-aware, she is optimistic, she is relentless. She felt so real to me. I completely 100% understand why the title of this book is “my heart is a chainsaw,” because I think Jade would believe that of her own heart. In its destructiveness, in its ability to evoke panic and chaos. In its absolute symbolism of the genre she loves. But I don’t think her heart IS a chainsaw; I think it’s an open wound. You’ll have to read the book to find out why, and to understand what hurt her and whether she can ever fully heal. 

This book is, in large part, an homage to the horror film. References to Jaws, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Scream, and many more abound. While I mostly enjoyed the horror movie nostalgia that was threaded through the narrative, it got to be a little much for me… but it felt very in-character for Jade. I could imagine how many people (including her beloved history teacher and the local sheriff) she wearied with her enthusiastic overview of the latest horror flick, and so felt a lot of empathy for how it must feel to have a passion that few people share or understand. (By the way, I couldn’t help thinking of Survive the Night by Riley Sager while I was reading this. Jones used horror films in much the same way as Sager used suspense films as a tool to move its plot forward and motivate its protagonist. I found it much more successful here, partly because of Jade’s unbridled adoration of the genre.)

I also loved how completely bonkers the last third of the book is. I mean, it’s a horror novel, so I expected blood and gore. But WOWZA did it over-deliver. While I felt like the “who done it and why” portion of the book got a teeny bit convoluted, I didn’t really care because I was on the edge of my seat, waiting to find out who was going to die next and how. The writing is, unsurprisingly, extremely cinematic, and I can’t imagine it will be long before My Heart Is a Chainsaw comes to theaters near all of us. 

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: Okay, real talk: there was a point in the middle of the novel – maybe the middle third – where this book dragged a bit for me. The primary plot stagnated a bit, and Jade’s obsession with horror films got a little tiresome for me. But I stuck it out, and I am SO GLAD because the payoff in the final third or so is just completely worth a little bit of a slog through the middle. 

Should You Read This Book? This was a phenomenal, layered, pulse-pounding, gruesome horror novel with a tender beating heart at its center. If you like horror, you will love this. If you like great writing, you will love this. If you like complex characters with satisfying story arcs, you will love this. You will love this. 

Thank you so much to Gallery Books, NetGalley, and the author for the free e-arc of this book in exchange for my unbiased review! 

* So many content warnings, which seems obvious because of the genre. But if you want specifics, I am happy to share more details.

The Grandmother Plot by Caroline B. Cooney

Do you remember The Face on the Milk Carton? How about Flight #116 Is Down? Or maybe one of the YA horror trilogies, like Fog, Snow, & Fire or The Vampire’s Promise? These books were a staple of my middle school years. So, when I saw that their author, Caroline B. Cooney, had a new book coming out earlier this month, I requested an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley right away. To my delight, they approved my request and I got my hands on an electronic version of The Grandmother Plot

I was expecting a thriller, but what I ended up with was a surprisingly honest and candid portrayal of Alzheimer’s disease and how it affects those afflicted with the disease and all the people they love. It was never sappy, because it was told in such a matter-of-fact and sometimes sardonic manner. But I found it moving nonetheless. Freddy, the protagonist of this book is a wonderfully drawn and deeply likable young man, and I found myself sincerely caring about him and his attempts to do the right thing  – moreso than I did about getting to the bottom of the mystery.

Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: Freddy – a lampworker (i.e. glassblower) and a stoner – is staying in his grandmother’s house, trying to make the perfect glass pipe in between visits to his grandmother at the memory care center where she lives. The intersection of Freddy’s passions – making beads and drug paraphernalia out of glass – has gotten him tangled up with some shady characters. One of them wants something Freddy doesn’t want to give him, and has sent his goons to find Freddy and make him comply. Now, one of the residents at his grandmother’s nursing home has been murdered, and Freddy can’t rule out that it’s because of him. With help from his friend Laura – a sixty-something musician with a passion for pianos, organs, and smashed brass – Freddy tries to uncover the identity of the murderer… before his beloved grandmother becomes the next victim.  

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: This book was a tender but very straightforward depiction of what it’s like to love someone whose memory has failed. Throughout the story, you get a glimpse of the struggles faced by many dementia patients and their loved ones. Cooney writes about dementia in such a wry, frank way – her prose is sincere and sympathetic toward everyone involved in dementia care, but does not shy away from how upsetting and sometimes absurd it can be. The exploration of memory care was the real heart of this book, I felt. 

I also loved the characterization, particularly of Freddy. He was such an unlikely hero; a pothead who basically leeches off his grandmother, he hasn’t renewed the car insurance or notified the Social Security department that his late mother should no longer be getting checks. But he is such a loving person, not just to his grandmother, whom he cares for despite all the challenges and difficulties and sorrows that accompany her disease, but to the other nursing home residents, their family members, and the nursing home staff. I really liked Freddy, and found myself rooting for him. 

This book also did something I love, which was to toss in details about the lives and occupations of people I know nothing about. It must have required tremendous research on the part of the author, and I found it fascinating to read about lampwork, and Freddy’s process of making beads and pipes. I also loved learning about Laura’s passions. It’s wonderful to be caught up in a story, but when the characters have interests that are totally new to me, I find it so fascinating to learn about them and it was evident that Cooney was fascinated with what she’d learned as well. 

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: This book was marketed as a thriller, and there is, indeed, a murder and a mystery to solve. But it didn’t read like a thriller. The tension fell a little flat for me, and the stakes didn’t seem very high. And the resolution didn’t feel particularly satisfying for me. I guess I got too caught up in what Freddy and Laura were doing in their spare time, and just wasn’t that interested in the actual murder investigation. 

The only other complaint I had was that I felt that Laura’s fascination with Charles Ives took up too much real estate in the book and didn’t really go anywhere, for me. 

Should You Read This Book? For me, this wasn’t an edge-of-your-seat thriller, although the mystery is solid. But the book has plenty to recommend itself nonetheless: It’s an easy read with vivid, truly likable characters and offers a very moving portrait of the effects dementia has on its victims and their loved ones. I think it’s well worth your time. Now excuse me as I go track down a copy of Cooney’s other most recent book, Before She Was Helen.

Thanks so much to the author and publisher and NetGalley for the free eARC of this book in exchange for my honest review!

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

There are three things you need to know about my experience of reading Jean Hanff Korelitz’s latest novel, The Plot. First: Once I started, I did not want to stop. I took this book with me EVERYWHERE.

Second: I listened to this book, and the audiobook was excellent. Just putting that out there, in case the experience of reading the print book is vastly different.

Third: I found this book to be super predictable and yet it was RIVETING. I did not care that I knew what was going to happen, I had to find out HOW and I had to find out WHY. 

This book is really good. Just a fun, enjoyable, absorbing thriller.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: Jake Bonner’s first novel achieved critical success, but never skyrocketed him to the level of Famous Author. His subsequent books are less well-regarded. To earn a living, Jake starts teaching at Ripley, a relatively unknown, low-residency MFA program. There, he meets a student who has a dynamite idea for a book. A plot that could sell a million books. A plot that even a terrible writer could turn into a best-seller. Over the years, Jake keeps wondering when the book will appear on the literary scene, but when it never does, he figures that his student simply never finished the manuscript. Then, as his own career continues to dwindle, Jake discovers that the student with the remarkable plot is dead. Jake figures that a writer can own his own words… but he can’t own the idea for a plot. And, he tells himself, a writer owes it to an idea – especially one as explosive as this one – to bring it to life. So he writes a novel – Crib – using his student’s plot. Just as he and the student suspected, the book is an immediate international hit. Jake’s entire life changes in an instant – he suddenly has the wealth and fame and credibility he always dreamed of. All because of this extraordinary plot. But someone knows that the plot doesn’t belong to him… and Jake needs to own up to his theft… or else.

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: This was a good, solid, well-written, well-crafted thriller. It’s also a good example of how books don’t necessarily need to shock and surprise to still be captivating reads. While I figured out the main twist very early on, I still couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. In fact, knowing (or suspecting I knew) what Jake didn’t know heightened the tension for me. When would he uncover the truth about his blackmailer? Plus, while I guessed the broad strokes, there were lots of little details that made it absolutely fascinating to read. 

I also really liked the characterization. As a would-be writer myself, and a former writing teacher, I get really cranky about plagiarism. But I’m also aware that ideas occur to people simultaneously, and, as Jake points out, there are really only so many types of plots. Most books are variations on a handful of stories – it’s the details and the storytelling that make us keep reading the manifold variations on a single plot over and over again. This is all to say that I both strongly disagree with Jake’s decision to steal his student’s plot… and also, in some small way, understand it. I kept wanting to hate Jake, but I didn’t. He wasn’t the most likable protagonist I’ve ever encountered, but he wasn’t terrible. He seemed to have some good in him. So I didn’t mind being in his head for most of the book. He felt like a real person, with real complexity.

I also liked how the story unfolded – on the one hand, it was very linear, with all the detours into the past occurring in real time by way of Jake interviewing people about the past or reading old newspaper articles and the like; on the other hand, we got little snippets of Jake’s book Crib, which helped reveal what this exciting bestselling plot looked like, while also giving us insight into the blackmailer’s beef with Jake. 

I also loved the ending. It wasn’t surprising, but I found it very satisfying. Very. Satisfying. Indeed.

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: Jake was kind of an idiot. So much so that his naiveté veered very close to unbelievable, for me. I cannot say more. 

Should You Read This Book? If predictability is a dealbreaker for you, then I would skip this one. But if you don’t care about being surprised as much as you care about tight writing, compelling storytelling, and escalating tension, then you should definitely read this book. 

Audiobook Review: As I mentioned, I listened to this book instead of reading it in print. And it was so well done. The narrator – Kirby Heyborne – was excellent. He has kind of a quiet, soothing voice, and at first I wasn’t sure if I liked it at all. But very quickly, I realized that he is a very good voice actor. He did such a great job of making each character’s voice distinctive – even characters we met only briefly had their own distinct inflection or accent or speaking style. Plus, I felt like Heyborne really excelled at putting just the right level of feeling into each sentence – I never once felt like he was over-acting or was pulled out of the story because of him. In fact, I feel like he really enhanced the book for me. My only complaint is that he pronounced “Whidbey Island” as “Wid-bay Island.” I grew up visiting that island and always heard it pronounced “Wid-bee Island,” so it kind of grated on my ears. But I recognize that could be my mistake, or an acceptable alternative pronunciation, and I also know that even an awesome reader like Heyborne simply may not know how to pronounce it. So it doesn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the audiobook. In fact, I would give the audiobook narration five stars. I would definitely listen to more books narrated by Heyborne.

Books That Broke My Heart

Do you like books that make you cry? It’s my understanding that some people seek out tear-jerkers, just for the release. I am pretty much always on the edge of tears anyway, so I don’t really need a book to give me a push. 

Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying I’m sad all the time – it’s just that I tend to be A Crier. I tear up at sappy movies… at the end of the school year, and the beginning of the school year, and anytime a teacher says something nice about my daughter… I get misty when my friends have new babies or get promotions or talk passionately about something they’re working on… and, man, Subaru commercials make my eyes a little damp. 

So it isn’t a surprise that a good book – even if it’s not necessarily a sad book – can get me a little choked up. (Anxious People, I’m looking at you.) 

But despite the occasional sniffle, I wouldn’t say that many books make me cry-CRY. Perhaps that’s because I read a lot of thrillers and murder mysteries and I’m so eager to find out whodunit that I can’t spare a tear for the victims. Perhaps it’s because I actively steer clear of tear-jerkers. (The same goes for movies and TV shows – give me a fast-paced action adventure over a sappy romance any day.)

However, I will admit that a small handful of books have made me full-on WEEP. Like, ugly cry. Nose running, tears gushing, sobbing out loud. 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: This book follows four classmates across the decades of their friendship. It is the saddest, most devastating book I have ever read. It is also beautifully written, the characters are complex and nuanced and wonderful, the story is exquisitely plotted — it’s a book that will change you. I think about the protagonist, Jude, ALL THE TIME and I read this book back in 2016. 

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: A writer’s mentor dies and leaves her his dog. This is not a storyline that appeals to me. And yet this is one of my FAVORITE BOOKS OF ALL TIME. Yes, the caps are necessary. The writing in this book is perfect. It’s insightful, fascinating, funny. And when it ended I sat on my couch and cried until I had no tears left. (You can find my full review here.)

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger: This is a love story between Henry and Clare. Henry has a unique genetic quirk: he involuntarily travels through time. The way this book is put together — crisscrossing time — is masterful. And the love story is perfection. You absolutely fall in love with Henry and Clare, and the heartbreak of their relationship worms its way into your soul.

What books have made you cry?

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

This slim little novel, with its short chapters and vivid characters, is an absolutely chilling fable of ambition. A fable without a moral, perhaps, which makes the truth at its core toll with horror. 

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: Jivan, a Muslim girl from Kolkata trying to pull herself and her parents out of poverty, becomes the scapegoat for a government eager to punish terrorists for a recent and deadly attack. Her fate falls to two people who know her: Lovely, a hijra actress whom Jivan has been teaching English, can attest that Jivan was carrying a package of textbooks on the day of the attack – not a bomb, as so many assume. And PT Sir, Jivan’s former physical education teacher, who brought her food when she was hungry and encouraged her athleticism at school. Lovely and PT Sir are both called to testify in Jivan’s trial. But their involvement in her case puts their own social aspirations at risk. 

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: This book was magic, from beginning to end. I loved everything about it.

I love the way Majumdar uses imagery. She has a vivid way of describing things that makes the events and her characters’ feelings jump off the page. But she also has this tendency to end sections with a small image or two that adds this wonderful lyrical complexity to the prose. I just love it. It gives you a moment of pause between more plot-driven segments… it zooms in, focusing onto something very small (“There is a thin shard of porota sticking to the rim, an airy nothing made of flour. Not even a fly would be nourished by it. I pinch it with my fingers, and put it in my mouth.” “The fragrance of the pickled lime makes my tongue water. The salt and acid play on my tongue, and I chew the sourness down.”), and it also, sometimes, somehow simultaneously, zooms out (“Outside, the din of car horns.” “Somewhere a clock ticks. Far away, an ambulance siren sounds.”) so that you become aware that these characters’ stories are part of a bigger, more complicated, more beautiful or, often, more cruel, universe. These details from the world intrude on her characters’ thoughts – removing us from the action in a way that emphasizes its poignancy.  It’s a very simple rhetorical technique, and yet I find it very effective and often quite heartbreaking.

The three primary characters in the book – Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir – are so different from one another, so beautifully imagined, so complex, so real. I would read an entire book about each one. Majumdar somehow made me care about them so deeply – even PT Sir, whose trajectory is uncertain; is he a villain or a hero? – that I was on tenterhooks waiting to learn how their stories would play out. They each had very distinct voices. Today, when books are often told via the perspective of multiple characters, I think it’s rare to find that each perspective has its own distinctive voice. But Majumdar was very successful in achieving this with each of her characters. 

There is a simplicity in the way Mujamdar tells this story that is very effective, as well. A relaying-of-the-facts, anthropological remove in her descriptions of the mundane and the extraordinary, the repellant and the picturesque, the heart-breaking and the charming, often all bound up together. 

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: It feels like a cop-out to say that I only wish it had gone on longer. But that’s truly my only complaint. 

Should You Read This Book? Yes. It is startling, upsetting, but also tender and honest. It takes an unforgiving look at corruption and morality. It was beautifully written, very easy to read, and one of the best books I’ve read so far in 2021. Buy a copy – you won’t regret it.

Dream Girl by Laura Lippman

I received an ARC of Dream Girl from Net Galley and Faber & Faber LTD in exchange for my honest feedback. 

This book. Oh, happy sigh. 

I have to admit, Laura Lippman’s Dream Girl started out a little slow for me, but really gained momentum and by the time I was about a third of the way in, I had entered can’t-put-it-down mode. 

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: Sixty-one-year-old author Gerry Anderson – renowned for his novel Dream Girl – has moved back to Baltimore to care for his mother in her final days. Then an accident leaves him bed-bound, with only his personal assistant Victoria and his night-nurse Aileen for company. The pain and immobilization are bad enough… but then he begins receiving mysterious communications from someone who says she is Aubrey, the main character in Gerry’s most famous book. The only thing is, there is no Aubrey. Gerry made her up. 

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: I loved that this book was told from the perspective of a writer. I know it can be dangerous to conflate author and protagonist, but it’s difficult to separate the two, especially when the main character is a writer! Of course, Gerry has his own… idiosyncracies that I doubt Lippman shares. But I couldn’t help but wonder if her experience as a successful-for-many-years writer were helping to shape some of Gerry’s musing about art and teaching. 

I also loved that Gerry’s thoughts were so infused by other works of art. We get lots of references to King and Roth and Hammet… and so many others. There are lots of movie references – most of which went right over my head and made me want to seek out the films in question. It made the book feel so layered – like every novel is a palimpsest written over the top of all the works that came before. As a would-be writer myself, I found that so comforting in some way. 

The plot of this book felt familiar in some ways; I am sure it was informed by MANY of the books and films mentioned throughout, but I was able to see the influence of one book/film couplet in particular, which I loved because it both acted as a guidepost and a differentiating point.  

I also liked seeing The World Today through the eyes of a sixty-one-year-old man. Lippman was able to explore some of today’s social issues (#metoo, changes in preferred language style, Twitter) through Gerry, which I enjoyed. He was, for me, a deeply unlikable character… and yet Lippman crafted him in such a way that I ended up sympathizing with him and seeing the world from his perspective.

This was the first book I’ve read in a while that had a single narrative perspective, which I enjoyed. However, the chapters did alternate between the present and the past. I think it was done really well, and helped enhance the feeling of being inside a drifting, dreamy mind while also building out Gerry’s character for us. 

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: Because so much of this book takes place inside Gerry’s mind, it had a meandering, dream-like quality that I found difficult to attach to at first. It felt, for awhile, like listening to someone monologue – and some of that felt very “kids these days! Back in my day, I had to walk up hill both ways…” But it grew on me, and I was able to appreciate how complex and nuanced Gerry was as a character. 

The ending felt a little unsatisfying to me. Or, maybe not unsatisfying (I felt like things happened as they should), but unrealistic. Of course, I don’t want to say too much lest I spoil it for you. But once you read it, let me know how you feel about it. 

Should You Read This Book? This is just on the edge of horror – not so gruesome or terrifying as many books, but more of a smoldering, dreamlike build to truly horrifying events. The writing was excellent and the characterization was nuanced and the undercurrent of social commentary was really sharp and thought-provoking. I loved it and I think you will too.

The Shadows by Alex North

This book was on my radar because I’d enjoyed Alex North’s previous novel, The Whisper Man. I listened to the first two-thirds of that one on audiobook and read the last third. My memory of it was that it was well-paced, well-written, and eerie… and that the resolution to the mystery was fairly disappointing. But that disappointment was negligible compared to my overall experience of the book, and I was eager to buy the next North novel when it came out. 

The Shadows, which shares a detective from the previous book, started out very slow for me. I’m not sure if it was the pacing of the book, or if I was burned out from reading multiple thrillers in a row, but I just could NOT get into it. It took me more than 100 pages – probably closer to 150 – before I felt like it got going. But then I was really glad I’d stuck with it, because it became extremely hard to put down.

Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: We follow two main characters to the small, rundown town of Gritten. Paul has returned to Gritten – his hometown – for the first time in twenty-five years to care for his mother, whose rapidly declining health has landed her in hospice. Police detective Amanda is investigating a horrific murder that took place in her town of Featherbank – a murder that has ties to an equally disturbing murder in Gritten’s past. Paul knows the details of that long-ago murder all too well, because it involved his best friends. Including Charlie Crabtree – who disappeared after the murder and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Everyone has always insisted he died, lost forever somewhere in the depths of the sinister forest known by townspeople as The Shadows. But now that Paul has returned to Gritten, a series of upsetting incidents remind him of Charlie and their troubled history… and these events keep escalating. Paul and Amanda must face up to their pasts as they try to figure out what’s going on – and discover what really happened to Charlie.

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: This book was full of genuine surprises for me. Because I read so many thrillers/mysteries, and because that’s the sort of television show I gravitate toward, and because I love trying to solve a mystery as I go along, it’s increasingly rare that I find myself caught off guard. But this book caught me off guard, not once but several times. I had a general idea of who I thought was responsible… and I was SO WRONG. Delightful. 

This book also felt very thoughtful to me, which I liked. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good ol’ mystery where all you have to think about is who killed whom and why. But I really enjoyed how this book prodded at some deeper themes – the relationship between parents and children, what inner strength means and where it comes from, how history informs the present, the power we have over our own trajectories and thoughts and dreams. I enjoy North’s writing style, and often found the imagery quite beautiful. 

As in The Whisper Man, we get to know the main characters (Amanda and Paul, here) quite well, and I really enjoyed discovering their backstories and how their histories motivated them. 

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: As with its predecessor, finding out the murderer’s identity was kind of a letdown. We get a chilling echo of something revealed earlier on in the book, which I enjoyed… but it also felt a tiny bit contrived, as though achieving that echo was the only reason for making the murderer out to be who it was. This didn’t ruin the book for me – what came before and what came after were too strong. But it was a little bit disappointing. 

There was one point in the book when I felt a little… manipulated. The plot hit a point that surprised me, and for a moment I could not understand how it could be true. The “explanation” for how it could, indeed, be true felt a little bit unbelievable, but also logical in the universe of the book, so I got over it. But it did stand out as a point that pulled me right out of the magic of the story.

Should You Read This Book? While this took a long time to catch hold for me, I would ultimately say it’s an excellent book that’s definitely worth a read. For me, it was a stronger and more cohesive book than The Whisper Man, with a similarly deeply creepy and unsettling backdrop that made The Whisper Man a gripping novel. The Shadows has cemented Alex North as a writer whose books I will continue to seek out.