Tag Archives: thriller

Review: Baggage

91vkke5j99lRecap: Anna Ray has a secret. For years, she’s carried it around with her, and every on February 17th, she relives the same traumatic incident from her childhood that she can’t talk about. And then she relives the other traumatic incident from her adulthood — the day her husband killed himself. Those two deaths have permanently cursed February 17th for her, only to be made worse when yet another person she knows well dies on the very same date.

Her cousin, Jeannie, has already flown in to stay with her for the week that haunts Anna so much. Now the two of them together become wrapped up in a murder investigation a professor at the college where Anna works. He just so happened to have had a crush on Anna and used to date Jeannie. Investigators won’t leave them alone, even as one of Anna’s students becomes a prime suspect in the case. But the date and the baggage of February 17th also won’t leave Anna alone, and ultimately she has to come to terms with what this all means for her.

Analysis: Author S.G. Redling does a good job of showing us how torn Anna and Jeannie’s characters are and how much baggage they really have. But with all that baggage, it was frustrating to me that the reader doesn’t learn exactly what happened in Anna’s past until the very end. I think it would have made the story’s climax more climactic had we had more insight beforehand. The details about that traumatic childhood incident also could have been explained more plainly — I found that section a little confusing and had to re-read it several times.

That said, Redling builds great suspense as the end of the novel nears, and it has a very Gone Girl thriller feel. The twist at the end is great mystery writing and exactly the kind of twist any reader hopes for. The relationship between Anna and Jeannie is also great, though I found it hard to believe that growing up, Anna never told Jeannie exactly what happened on that February 17th of yesteryear.

MVP: Jeannie. She’s a bit of a hot mess, like Anna, but she’s there for her. She’s a good role model for Anna and completely nonjudgmental, which is exactly the kind of woman Anna needs in her life.

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Movie vs. Book: Dark Places

Libby Day didn’t have an ordinary childhood. She grew up alone — not because her parents both died, nor because she was left behind, but because her mother and two sisters were murdered by her brother. “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas” is her claim to fame even 25 years later, and in many ways, the murders still rule her life. She spent decades surviving off money earned through life insurance policies, donations and book sales from the memoir she wrote. Now her money is running out. Her brother is still in jail. They still don’t talk. And Libby hasn’t started a new life because she can’t let go of her past.

But she then learns a “Kill Club” exists, where people investigate some of the nation’s most infamous crimes and murders. The Day murders are a favorite in the club. When Libby realizes she can take advantage of the club by accepting money from them in return for speaking to other people associated with her brother’s murders, she does it. She is desperate for money. But she soon realizes that most members of the “Kill Club” think she’s weak and a liar. They believe her brother isn’t the killer. Being seven at the time of the murders, Libby doesn’t remember much, so she sets out to re-investigate the murders herself and encounters an entire secret history of the Day family that she never knew existed.

Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places includes many of the same things that readers liked about her more famous bestseller Gone Girl: rotating — and untrustworthy — narrators and perspectives, suspense, mystery, a big twist and general creepiness. Gone Girl has its bloody, gory moments, but Dark Places trumps those. The killing scene is gruesome, and there are sections about sacrifices to Satan that can’t help but cause goosebumps. Generally speaking, the film does a good job of portraying the same creepiness the book offers, but still doesn’t compare.

The casting is a little off. Charlize Theron as Libby Day is all wrong; she is too beautiful, too confident, too “cool” to be the unconfident misfit that is Libby Day. Similarly, Chloe Grace Moretz is too angelic to play a Satan-worshipper. But it’s more than just the casting. The flashback scenes including killing scene is hokey. Shot in black and white and shaky, it looks more “Blair Witch Project” than “Psycho.”

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong with the movie, other than to say it just doesn’t feel right. There are a few characters that are left out or killed off, including Libby’s Aunt Diane. Some of the interviews Libby conducts are also excluded. I understand those choices were made for time purposes. Otherwise, the movie follows the book closely enough. But there’s something about it — maybe it’s the fact that the book is just so creepy, so dark, so twisty that it’s hard to create a visual version that can even remotely compare. The movie doesn’t allow us to connect with the characters like the book does — and suddenly I found myself more curious about when the movie would end than “Did her brother really do it?”

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Review: The Girl on the Train

Recap: Rachel rides the train two hours a day from home to her office in London. Much of that train ride is spent drinking, and most of it is spent thinking about, staring at, or creating a fake backstory for the people who live in a house she passes on her ride. Rachel has become obsessed with the attractive couple who lives there, not only because they’re along her train route, but also because they live down the street from her old house, where she once resided with her ex-husband.

Her ex, Tom, has since remarried and has a child with his new wife, Anna. But Rachel isn’t as estranged from Tom as he and Anna would like her to be. Rachel’s drunken days and nights have done nothing but lead to dozens of phone calls to Tom and countless embarrassing moments.

But one day, Rachel witnesses something while she’s on the train — a moment involving the woman with whom she’s obsessed. So when that woman goes missing the next day, Rachel realizes she might have a very important and useful clue. She reports it, and quickly finds herself completely wrapped up in the mystery. But with all her drinking and knowledge not more valuable than that of a girl on the train, investigators and those involved don’t know whether to trust her.

AnalysisThe Girl on the Train has been touted as “the next Gone Girl.” It’s a bestseller that has flown off the shelves in the last several months. It’s obvious why. Its similarities to Gone Girl are strong — chapters alternating between the perspectives of several different characters, unreliable narrators, and a suspenseful mystery, mixed with a fair amount of violence. But there are differences too. The end of the novel is sadder than Gone Girl, but better justified.

Ultimately, The Girl on the Train is a page-turner, even to the final pages. Just when I thought the story was over, it wasn’t. The book is full of twists and turns, and each character is more pathetic and crazy than the next. Even as we, as the reader, are inside the heads of several characters, they each have so many issues, it’s hard to tell what they’re actually thinking and where the story will actually go. Dark and twisty, The Girl on the Train is compelling and raises the question how well do you really know anybody?

MVP: Rachel. She is a hot mess. Most of the book, I cringed on her behalf, wondering why she couldn’t get it together. But I wanted her to be right, and despite her repeated failures and embarrassment, she’s never gave up, and resilience is commendable.

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Review: Amazon Burning

Recap: When a traumatic and potentially life-ruining legal matter threatens Emma Cohen’s shot at finishing college, she takes a sabbatical — which isn’t really much of a sabbatical at all — interning for the newspaper her father works for during a summer in Rio De Janeiro. It starts out fun, but quickly becomes dramatic when a famous environmentalist is suddenly murdered.

She flies with her father to the Amazon to cover Milton Silva’s suspicious death and funeral. Along the way, she meets a good-looking photographer, Jimmy, but because of her ongoing legal battle in New York, she must keep her hands off. Emma decides to focus on the story of Milton Silva and — together with Jimmy — begins to investigate.

But the deeper they dig, the more they come across crime and suspicious activity. Add to that the craziness and chaos of Amazonian weather and and you’ve got yourself a crazy thriller-adventure with a little romance mixed in.

AnalysisAmazon Burning starts off strong. There’s a mysterious murder. There’s a college girl, with a secret of her own, working to uncover all the details. There’s a sexy man, a sexy location and a sexy summer season. But the story itself doesn’t exactly live up to the hype.

As Emma and Jimmy get deeper and deeper into their investigation, they open up, and we finally learn what Emma’s secret is. But their investigation doesn’t go as far as they’d like. They get closer and closer, but ultimately reach several dead ends. As it turns out, the biggest plan they coordinate winds up screwing up a federal investigation that’s going on at the same time.

As much I wanted to root for them, their inability to solve the case made it hard. Then I got to thinking — why would they even try to solve it? As a journalist, I understand the job of a reporter, and of course, were one to come across a case that they thought they could solve, that’s great. But more likely than not, reporters are following cases and  reporting on them, not solving them themselves. That’s the job of an officer or detective. The journalist aspect story seemed far-fetched, especially by involving a college student. And when Emma and Jimmy wind up failing anyway, it makes the story that much more unfulfilling.

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Review: I’m Glad I Did

Recap: JJ Green comes from a family of lawyers, and she’s expected to become one as well. But as a 16-year-old growing up in New York City in the 1960s, she doesn’t want to be a lawyer; she wants to be a songwriter. She lucks out when she nails an interview and lands herself an internship at one of the biggest music publishing offices in the city. That’s when she makes a deal with her parents: if she writes and sells a song to be published by the end of her summer internship, her parents will have to let her continue on the songwriting path.

As her internship begins, JJ is quickly thrown into the real world and adult life — meeting Luke, a cute, older boy on the elevator and running into her estranged Uncle Bernie, who’s said to be involved in some illegal side activities. But things get real, real fast when she learns that one of her friends has died, and it just happens to be the same woman who recorded an amazing demo for JJ’s new song. The police rule it a suicide, but she knows there’s more to the story. Suddenly her songwriting summer is swirling with love and the mystery of murder. She wants to help solve it, but she also has to sell her song — big goals for one young girl in one short, crazy summer.

Analysis: “I’m Glad I Did” isn’t only the title of the book. It’s also the title of JJ’s original song. It’s also how I felt after having read the book. Yes, I am aware that those three sentences were a little hokey. To be fair, the book is a little hokey as well. But as a YA novel, it should be exactly that, and a lot of fun. The book had some dark undertones, dealing with interracial relationship in the 1960s, gambling, alcoholism, drug addiction, and death. But ultimately it was fun. This girl is living the dream — writing songs with a dreamy boy in New York City and solving a murder mystery. Is it a little far-fetched? Yes. But I put myself into the mind of a 14-year-old girl reading this book, and I couldn’t help but think JJ was awesome and living a pretty fabulous life.

What’s impressive about I’m Glad I Did is that it was written by Cynthia Weil, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame songwriter. She helped write classics such as “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “On Broadway.” Knowing that, I trusted her take on what happens behind the scenes of the songwriting business in the 1960s. I had to imagine that at least some of the story came from real-life experience, and that only made the story more intriguing and exciting.

MVP: JJ. She’s a teenage badass. She stands up to her parents and works toward the career she wants. She stands up to police, insisting they continue to investigate the murder. For a girl who considers herself to be unconfident, she sure is ballsy. And it’s fun and empowering to see her succeed time and time again.

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New Book Coming in ‘Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ Series

The author of the series may have passed away more than a decade ago, but his work hasn’t stopped.

According to Entertainment Weekly, a sequel to Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series — which includes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest — is due to be released in 35 countries later this year.

The Swedish publisher hired author David Lagercrantz to finish the story Stieg Larsson began writing before he died.

I first reported more than a year ago that the sequel, entitled That Which Does Not Kill, would be released in August 2015. Shockingly, it’s on time. The author finished it in November, and a release date is set for August 27th.

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Review: In the Company of Educated Men

Recap: When three friends graduate from Harvard, they feel like the world is their oyster. Sort of. In reality, they’re clueless about where they want to go and what they want to do. Lennie comes from a wealthy family and can virtually do whatever he wants. Paul is quite the opposite. Louisa is the beautiful brainiac with all the potential and no particular goals. A few weeks after they leave school, Lennie is on a mission; he wants an adventure. So he enlists Paul and Louisa — whether they like it or not — and sets out on a cross-country road trip.

But things get interesting — and frightening — when the trio is held up at a gas station in the middle of nowhere by a man with a gun. The man turns out to be a teenager who then hops into their car, looking for a ride to California. As they ride along, scared they’ll be shot and killed, the group realizes there’s yet another person in the backseat — a little girl who followed them out of a diner and into the car with plans to run away from her parents.

Lennie, Paul and Louisa all have different plans for what they should do next — what’s the safest and most ethical option? But while Lennie continues looking for adventure, everything falls apart in a tragic, horrifying and life-altering way.

Analysis: When I first started reading In the Company of Educated Men, I thought this would be just your average coming-of-age story. But when the three friends got held up at the gas station, I scratched my head wondering where this was going. Suddenly, the story became completely unpredictable to me.

The best way to describe this novel is to call it an “extreme” coming-of-age novel — one that portrays how how an eclectic group of young adults from different socioeconomic backgrounds handles a bizarre, rare and extreme situation. Along with fighting for their lives, the friends fight amongst themselves, leading to betrayals and changing their friendships forever.

For Lennie, the incident does more than just alter his friendships. It changes the entire course of his life, as he realizes he became more focused on having an adventure than taking caring for others. In an effort to avoid hurting others anymore, he goes on to lead a life of solitude and correct his earlier mistakes. The story is written through a series flashes — jumps between the incident and 10 years after the incident until the reader finally learns at the end of the novel what happened and how Lennie resolved it.

In the Company of Educated Men exemplifies that young people make mistakes, but how you deal with those mistakes is what most affects your life. In the Company is dark and frightening, but full of lessons about growing up, growing apart and learning from your erroneous ways.

MVP: Louisa. She’s the only character that truly stays calm and holds herself together both during and after the “incident.”

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Review: Dare Me

Recap: Addy and Beth have worked hard to make it to the top of their high school cheerleading squad, with Addy always coming second to Beth. Beth is the girl who rules the school — a beauty, a force to be reckoned with, an angsty problem child with an attitude. But things go sour for Beth, when a new young Coach takes away her “Captain” status and leaves no one but herself in charge. Meanwhile Addy  is fascinated by Coach.

Coach whips the girls into shape, but also enforces strict liquid diets. She invites the team over to drink in her backyard while her husband works late. She has sleepovers with the girls. So while the girls’ bodies tighten and they learn to stunt and tumble, they also develop eating disorders, party hard, have sex, and do drugs. She encourages them to experiment with boys. Addy feeds into all of this, while Beth vehemently dismisses it.

The team is cast under Coach’s spell, especially Addy, who has become Coach’s favorite. She’s the one Coach calls when she finds the dead body of someone close to her. She says it was suicide, but was it? While Coach claims she’s innocent, Beth works to convince Addy that Coach can’t be trusted. But in this dark world, who can?

Analysis: With Dare Me, author Megan Abbott aims to prove there’s more to the world of cheerleading than a mess of lollygagging girls focused on ponytails, sparkles, and miniskirts. This is a dark, twisted story of manipulation, trust, and loyalty. Dare Me is like an unfunny, hyped-up, crime-infused version of Mean Girls.

The prologue sets the creepy, twisted tone of the novel, describing the scene of the mysterious death. One would think that the novel would center around that death. As it turns out, midway through the novel, we’ve already learned who died and have some idea of how. At that point, I thought the remainder would focus on the fallout. But ultimately, the death serves little purpose other than developing relationships between other characters. In the end, it’s the one character that seemed to be the most important, who matters the least.

That’s when it becomes obvious that this isn’t a novel about a crime. It’s a novel about girls becoming women —  how friendships ebb and flow, how quickly loyalties can change, how women at times can be both subtle and dramatic, and how much they manipulate each other because of jealousy and competition. It’s a precautionary tale of three good girls gone bad — two of whom manipulate each other and the third who — in a surprising twist — manages to manipulate the reader.

MVP: Beth. She is the one every guy wants and every girl wants to be. She is both admired and hated. Everyone knows a girl like this. Especially in high school. At the end, her pure evil juxtaposed with her sheer vulnerability makes her the novel’s most complex character.

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Review: The Winter People

Recap: On page one, we dive into the diary of Sara Harrison Shea, known from legends dating back to  the early 1900s as the woman who mysteriously died at 31 and whose husband killed himself soon after. The reason? According to the legend, Sara’s daughter, Gertie, — who was already dead — killed her. According to the legend, Gertie is a “sleeper,” a person who has been revived from the dead. This legend carries on for generations throughout West Hill, Vermont, the land of the “Devil’s Hand,” where every few decades another mysterious death happens and where stories of “sleepers” live on.

In present day, it’s troubled teenager Ruthie and her six-year-old sister, Fawn, who are left to wonder if the stories are true. But as soon as their mother Alice goes missing, they’re forced to find out once and for all. They stumble upon several wallets in their home. The wallets belong to people who they’ve never heard of. They set out to find the couple, only to learn that they are dead too. Suddenly their mother’s disappearance seems like less of a coincidence and more of a strategic kidnapping — and possible death — that can only be explained by more than 100 years worth of mythology and mystery.

Analysis: The sci-fi mythology and mystery around which the story centers is just the beginning. Author Jennifer McMahon’s storytelling is what makes The Winter People complex, scary, and page-turning. The novel flips back and forth between 1908 and present day — between diary entries from Sara Harrison Shea and the perspectives of Ruthie and several other characters. Over time, the bits and pieces from each section come together to show that the characters are connected and that the legends may be truer and (literally!) closer to home than Ruthie thinks.

The beginning is confusing. There are lots of characters, and it’s hard to keep the relationships between them straight. But it’s clear from the onset that very strange things are happening in this town, and albeit (so!) creepy, The Winter People is written in a way that makes you want to learn the truth, no matter how horrifying it might be.

It’s worth noting that a lot of the gruesome sections are focused around young girls, and the creepy wackjobs generally turned out to be women. Maybe the author’s way of saying all women are a little crazy? But as I think it’s her way displaying that all women have their secrets — and to discover them is either a blessing or a curse.

MVP: Ruthie. She’s the most stable of the characters and the only one who’s not creepy. She should be commended for keeping a good head on her shoulders and keeping calm during her journey to uncover the mystery.

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Review: The Killing Chase

Recap: When Detective Alan Beach gets called to investigate the case of a serial killer, his own killer instincts kick in. Almost immediately, he — along with his new partner, James Foxx — realizes whoever is murdering these people is a Brian Adler copycat killer. But notorious serial killer Brian Adler — who Beach had previously investigated — died nine months ago, and his case files were kept private. So who is committing these murders? That’s what Beach and Foxx attempt to figure out while Alan Beach’s former partner Jake Riley work on the other side of the world with his own team, on a mission to find and kill the man who murdered Jake’s brother.

A sequel to author Craig Hurren’s The Killing Code, The Killing Chase picks up with the same characters — Alan Beach and Jake Riley — a few months later. Their positions have changed, but their attitudes and determination to get answers remains the same. So does their reliance on companions and teamwork — helping each other to achieve their own individual goals. But will Jake find his brother’s killer? Will Beach solve his own serial murder case? And will they and their friends and colleagues make it out alive?

Analysis: Like The Killing Code before it, The Killing Chase offers just what readers want from a crime/detective novel — some mystery, some bad guys, and some friendship between the crime-fighting detectives. And what the first novel in the series lacked in plot twists and turns, The Killing Chase more than makes up for — seemingly dead characters who are alive! Seemingly trustworthy characters who are anything but!

It must be pointed out, however, that some of the writing in The Killing Chase is hokey, if not lazy. The dialogue between the detectives can be a little gimmicky. I found myself rolling my eyes at their jokes instead of laughing along. And the “love story” that popped up two-thirds of the way through the novel felt forced. On some level, crime and detective novels aren’t necessarily meant to be well-written. They’re plot-driven. So if you’re willing to look past a few rough patches and focus on the story itself, it is enjoyable.

Just keep in mind, too, that The Killing Chase is a true sequel. Its story is heavily reliant on the plot from the first book in the series and could make it difficult for someone to fully understand if they haven’t read The Killing Code.

MVP: Jake Riley continues to be the coolest and most enjoyable character to read about in the series.

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