Review: People Like Her by Ellery Lloyd

This debut suspense thriller by Ellery Lloyd — the pseudonym for wife-and-husband writing team Collette Lyons and Paul Vlitos — explores the dark underbelly of Insta-fame, and the dangers (and superficiality) of living life on the internet.

“People Like Her” is slick, suspenseful and smartly plotted. It has three separate perspectives: London-based Instagram sensation Emmy Jackson, better known as “Mamabare,” celebrated for always telling the unembellished truth about parenthood; her husband Dan; and the mysterious antagonist scheming against them, targeting one of their children, for reasons that come to light in the novel’s final third.

Everything about Emmy’s Mamabare personality is premeditated. Bad hair days are prearranged; the mess of the kids’ playroom is controlled. But despite the artificiality of her posts, Emmy believes her intentions are pure, even when they’re guided by paid sponsorships. Dan is thankful for the income — Emmy is the sole breadwinner of the family while he toils away at his novel — but he remains concerned about the constant invasion of his family’s privacy. And he should be.

Emmy’s off-the-cuff, unsubstantiated parental advice has the potential for unintended consequences. And indeed, unbeknownst to her, one glib remark has set off a chain of events leading to an unquenchable thirst for revenge by a person with the audacity and skill to pull of the unthinkable.

“People Like Her” builds steadily, ratcheting up to revelations that turn out to be red-herrings, keeping readers on tenterhooks as the menacing presence closes in on the Jackson’s. It’s never anything less than utterly absorbing, at times nail-bitingly harrowing,  lives and relationships in the balance as the climax looms. It’s just a shame that the payoff is rushed, the novel’s coda all-too predictable, plucked from the genre playbook. It’s entirely efficient and satisfactory, but in a crowded field you need that standout twist, something to make the reader gasp, to stand apart. There’s enough here to suggest Ellery Lloyd is capable of producing something like that. In the meantime, if you’re after a page-turner to propel you through a weekend, give it a whirl.

ISBN: 9781529039399
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 12/01/2021
Imprint: Mantle
Pages: 336
Price: $32.99

Review: The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

WomanInTheWindowWith The Woman in the Window, A.J. Finn has concocted a Hitchcockian brand of domestic noir whose pacing forces us to reexamine our casual use of the word compulsive. Finn has put the rest of the thriller-writing world on notice: he’s going to be around for a while.

It has been ten months since the title character, Anna Fox, last left her home. She lives alone in an expensive family home in uptown Manhattan, whiling away the hours by gazing through her window, spying on her neighbours, watching old black-and-white movies, playing chess, and chatting on an online forum. A glass of merlot is usually never too far from her hand as she goes about these pursuits. In fact, drinking wine should really be considered an activity of its own; so, too, her casual pill-popping of her many prescribed drugs.

Anna is not a recluse by choice. She is agoraphobic — a ruthless anxiety disorder — as a result of a traumatic event in her not-too-distant past. As a child psychologist, she recognises her symptoms, knows how debilitating they are; but she is powerless to overcome her own personal psychosis. Her heavy consumption of alcohol inoculates Anna from dealing with her reality; separated from her husband and daughter, a ghost anchored in the land of the living.

Her sedate daily routine is interrupted when the Russell family move in next door: Paul and Jane, and their son Ethan. Anna forms an immediate and unlikely comradeship with the teenage boy, who seems like he needs a friend as he exposes his father’s violent tendencies. Jane, who also visits, is more obscure in her observations of Paul, but Anna still gets the sense this is a family on tenterhooks. Her worst fears are confirmed when, through her binoculars, she witnesses what she perceives to be an act of violence. The police’s investigation is perfunctory at best, Anna the very definition of an unreliable witness; so she continues to gaze upon the Russell house, desperate to prove what she saw while imprisoned in her own home.

The Woman in the Window literally interrupted my professional and personal life. Once in, I simply had to stay in, and stick with it to the end. Finn’s debut is a supercharged domestic noir in the tradition of Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train, Renee Knight’s Disclaimer and, of course, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The elegant prose and its blistering pace keep the heart of the novel beating even when some revelations prove predictable. The book never strays too far from convention, but its pedal-to-the-floor narrative drive propels it above and beyond its kin. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.

ISBN: 9780008234164
ISBN-10: 0008234167
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 448
Imprint: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publish Date: 2-Jan-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: This Is What Happened by Mick Herron

9781473657342When discussing his film Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock explained to Francois Truffaut that he “was directing the viewers… I was playing them, like an organ.” Which is precisely what Mick Herron does in This Is What Happened, shrewdly manipulating the reader, keeping them in suspense right up until the nail-biting finish. What seems at the start to be another in Herron’s long line of successful spy novels seamlessly transforms into an ingenious and intense psychological thriller that what will surely stand as one of the finest thrillers of 2018.

Twenty-six-year-old mail room employee Maggie Barnes is hiding in the lavatories of a 27-story London office building in the middle of the night. She has been recruited by MI5 agent Harvey Wells to upload spyware on the company’s computer network from a USB drive. She is untrained, totally inexperienced, and a nervous wreck; but she is empowered by her mission for Queen and Country, feels good to be doing something meaningful, having found herself isolated in the bustling metropolis of England’s capital. But her mission goes sideways, fast, just as readers would expect, and we are trained, based on years of reading the genre, to assume that her escape from the clutches of this “evil corporation” will be the book’s focus. Which is precisely when Herron pulls the rug out from readers’ feet.

This Is What Happened is not an espionage novel. It is a pared-down, sumptuous, enthralling, propulsive masterclass of suspense with a hard-boiled heart. It’s Hitchcockian, dark and menacing, and intricately-plotted. The kind of book you’ll blow through in a single night.

ISBN: 9781473657342
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: John Murray Publishers Ltd
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division
Publish Date: 1-Feb-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

9780718187446 (1)With The Chalk Man, C.J. Tudor has crafted a slick, razor-sharp novel of psychological suspense, which dangles the possibility of a supernatural influence on events sparingly enough to keep the story rooted in reality. This is a tense, cleverly-constructed thriller, and debut author Tudor deftly unspools the harsh realities of stale, childhood friendships, humankind’s capacity for debauchery, and the pain of confronting the past, even as she unravels her tautly-plotted mystery. The Chalk Man is book that will appeal as much to readers of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train as it will Stephen King enthusiasts looking for something to rival Misery, and provides some not-so-subtle winks at the grand-master’s It.

It opens in 1986, when Eddie Adams, a seemingly average twelve-year-old, who hangs out with his mates (using chalk messages as secret codes), does his best to outrun local bullies, and stay out of the lives of his parents (his mother is an abortion provider, and her father is a struggling freelance writer) finds the decapitated and dismembered body of a local girl. In the current day, 2016, Eddie is now an insular school teacher, who is contacted by someone from his past claiming he knows who really killed the girl. This alone might not be enough to instigate a personal crusade, but when chalk, and chalk symbols, start appearing around the quiet village Eddie has never moved away from, it’s clear someone has an agenda.

The Chalk Man flits between events in these timelines, exposing how Eddie’s various relationships have changed, painting a portrait of a man with secrets of his own, even as he seeks the the truth about what happened two decades ago. These chapters — short and sharp, which always end on cliffhangers — build momentum, and a propulsive page-turnability veteran suspense writers will envy. Readers will question the motives — even the sanity — of every character who appears in these pages, and that includes Eddie. Vitally, Tudor doesn’t attempt too many genre hijinks or red-herrings to bolster her narrative; her vision is clear, her storytelling is crystalline. The Chalk Man is tour de force, a blistering novel of psychological terror and menace.

ISBN: 9780718187446
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: Michael Joseph Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 11-Jan-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

9780751567397When the notorious child abductor known as the Marsh King escapes from a maximum security prison, his daughter, Helena, tracks her father through the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan while reflecting upon her childhood as his prisoner. Pitched as a breathless race-against time to stop the Marsh King from reaching her family, The Marsh King’s Daughter is less of a pulse-pounding thriller and more of a coming-of-age tale, with the bulk of the story comprised of flashbacks to Helena’s youth. Trouble is, though fascinating and insightful, these flashbacks serve onto to derail the momentum of the chase, the result of which is an enjoyable, if somewhat uneven novel.

Born and raised in a swamp, Helena had no idea that she and her mother were captives until they were rescued. Trained to trap, hunt and kill, Helena and her mother’s rescue plucked her from anomalous existence to another: a foreign world of electronic gadgets, the internet, and a population grossly enamoured in the goings-on of celebrities. She isn’t comfortable in this world; misses the solitude of the wilderness. Meeting her husband, Stephen, eased the transition; so too the birth of her daughters, which focuses Helena, gives her a purpose, makes her something other than merely a survivor. She’s never told Stephen about her past; lied from the beginning, wanting to separate herself from the past. So when when notorious kidnapper, rapist, and murderer Jacob Holbrook escapes police custody thirteen years after she helped put him away, not only does Helena worry for the safety of her children, the sanctity of her marriage is also under threat.

Conceptually, there’s a lot to love about The Marsh King’s Daughter. Who better to track the Marsh King than his daughter, who learned everything from him? And initially, as the narrative flits between past and present, the pages almost turn themselves, Karen Dionne superbly ratcheting the tension. But just when the novel should be shifting gears, propelling readers to its climax, the novel stalls; more flashbacks, more backstory. It’s all interesting stuff, but it dampens the intensity of the chase, and the confrontation between father and daughter. Helena’s conflicted feelings towards Jacob — part love, part hate — make for fascinating reading, but strip the Marsh King of his ferocity. The more light you shine on a monster, the less frightening he is. They hunt in the dark for a reason.

Its unevenness aside, The Marsh King’s Daughter is a propulsive read. It’s a fine character-driven psychological thriller for readers who’ve grown tired of such novels set in the suburbs, and looking for a fresh landscape to explore.

ISBN: 9780751567397
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 320
Imprint: Sphere
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 13-Jun-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

9781408708330.jpgDennis Lehane is the author of one of my favourite novels of all time — Shutter Island — and as a long-time admirer of his Patrick Kenzie / Angie Gennaro crime series, as well as the stellar Coughlin trilogy, I was very much looking forward to his new standalone book. And Since We Fell, ultimately, doesn’t disappoint, despite its slightly meandrous beginning, when it feels like Lehane is taking the scenic route to the novel’s core. But when the moment arrives (which will remain unspoiled in this review, obviously), everything clicks into place, and the novel kicks into Lehane’s trademark high gear.

Since We Fell follows Rachel Childs, a former television journalist, who lives as a virtual shut-in after a mental breakdown she experienced on-air as a result of coverage of the massive earthquake that shattered Haiti in 2010. Despite her struggles, life’s not altogether so bad for Rachel: she lives a wonderful life with her husband, who demonstrates incredible composure and understanding of her situation. Then, as a result of a chance encounter one afternoon, everything changes, and Rachel realises she’s been involved in a massive conspiracy; a deception unlike anything she could’ve possibly anticipated. To face the truth, and to survive it, she must overcome her greatest fears.

Lehane’s latest is a satisfying physiological thriller that becomes utterly relentless once it gains traction. The background into Rachel’s past seems excessive at times, even though it’s ultimately necessary information for readers to fully understand her motivations. But once you get through it, when you reach the moment, the plot comes together in exhilarating fashion. The tension is ratcheted up to the nth degree, and readers will be turning the pages as fast as they possibly can to see how the story plays out.

Dennis Lehane’s novels are at the top of the genre’s food chain. Since We Fell is blessed with a compelling narrative and top-notch writing. It will satisfy Lehane’s legion of fans and convert new ones. At a time when our bookstore shelves are packed with titles trying desperately to be the next Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, Since We Fell will satisfy fans of both, but remains its own distinct beast.

ISBN: 9781408708347
Format: Paperback (231mm x 154mm x 33mm)
Pages: 432
Imprint: Little, Brown
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 9-May-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom