Tag Archives: suspense

Marie’s Reading: “Behind Her Eyes” by Sarah Pinborough

behind-her-eyesI assumed this thriller has a mind-blowing, unpredictable tweest.  The jacket copy asks you first thing: “Why is everyone talking about the ending of Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes?”

I love this kind of guessing game!  Uh, let’s see:

  • It was Earth all along
  • Turns out it’s man
  • It’s made of people
  • Nicole Kidman was the ghost the whole time
  • The entire novel was a dream
  • The entire novel was a paranoid delusion
  • The entire novel was a fantasy played out in a snowglobe
  • Identical twins
  • Christopher Walken is a robot
  • They’ve been dead the entire time
  • It’s the sled
  • He’s been dressing up like his dead mom
  • There are two killers
  • It was an Army test
  • It was aliens

Is there a prize if I guess correctly?

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough is an engaging and twisty thriller with plenty of psychological suspense and tension.  Pinborough has a background in writing horror and dark fantasy, and it really shows here.  The story involves Louise, a single mother in London.  One night she meets a guy named David in a bar, who confesses he’s married.  And then it turns out that David is Louise’s new boss, and they both find it difficult to deny their attraction.  On top of that, Louise becomes friends with Adele, David’s troubled and mysterious wife.

Louise gets dragged into the dysfunctional relationship between David and Adele, and she’s not sure which of them she can trust.  If she can trust either of them to be telling the truth about their backgrounds and pasts.

The narrative goes back and forth between Adele and Louise, and with Adele in particular, you’re never quite sure how much to believe.  As the book goes on, you’re drawn into an intense triangle between these characters–the friendship between Louise and Adele, the passionate affair between Louise and David, the mysterious and perhaps sinister marriage of David and Adele.  The plot is intricate, playing with past and present, with perceptions and secrets, until the final confrontation and shocker ending.

Yeah, about that ending.  I don’t want to spoil it, but I will tell you this, my fellow thriller and mystery fans: it’s definitely unpredictable.  Dirty pool.  So blatantly entirely impossible that you’d ever figure it out that this is all I could think of after finishing:


“You’ve all been so clever for so long you’ve forgotten to be humble!  You tricked and fooled your readers for years.  You’ve tortured us all with surprise endings that make no sense!”

My Lionel Twain-esque initial reaction aside, though, I did enjoy this novel immensely.  It’s well-engineered, it’s atmospheric, it’s twisty, and the cat-and-mouse aspect is great fun.  I liked the growing sense of dread and unease, and the crazily building tension.

Just open your mind to the idea that you’re in a psychological thriller that doesn’t play by the usual rules.  Once you get over the shock, it’s actually pretty refreshing!


Marie’s Reading: “Don’t You Cry” by Mary Kubica

don't you cryDon’t You Cry by Mary Kubica is everything I want in a thriller.

I love thrillers.  I love the suspense, the just-this-side-of-credible motivations and reveals, the mystery element, the cliffhangers, the insanity, the secrets.

(Reading over that list just now I realize I’m also describing why I love Gothic fiction, too–just throw in some heavy atmosphere and deep sense of the uncanny to the above, and you’ve got Gothic!)

Anyway, Don’t You Cry is a great choice if you’re a fan of books like The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins or Her by Harriet Lane.  It’s got a fast pace, a great puzzle, and a really good reveal at the end.  It’s very cinematic, too–the writing is very scene- and plot-focused, almost like a crime show.  Actually, that describes the overall tone and feel of this novel pretty well: it’s like a TV drama.  There’s a very good dose of Crime Fiction in this particular book.

The story is told in two alternating voices.  There’s Quinn, who awakes one day to find that her reliable, kind roommate Esther has disappeared.  Quinn finds some mysterious letters among Esther’s possessions, and begins to try to unravel why Esther has gone missing.  The other story is told by Alex, a recent high school graduate who feels he’s wasting his young life in his small town taking care of his alcoholic father.  Then all of a sudden a mysterious young woman shows up in town, and Alex is immediately smitten.

For both Quinn and Alex events turn dark and sinister very quickly.  Only at the end do we see the connection between these storylines.  All the way through, though, there are themes that tie everything together beyond just the plot–Kubica puts a lot of emotional focus on the relationships between parents and children, and the theme of abandonment.   There’s a nice emotional buildup right alongside the intensifying plot buildup, which makes the ending more satisfying.

If you’re after a fast, compelling, and twisty thriller, give this one a try.


Surprise Smekday!

With the 26 Books to Read in 2015 Challenge taking up a lot of my time, I haven’t done my Surprise Smekday Meme in a while.  I’ve just been letting books fall by the wayside (or kicking them to the curb) without even acknowledging that I’ve given them a try.  In case you’re new or can’t remember the last Smekday or just have no idea what I’m talking about, click here.

Jamie Kornegay’s novel Soil, though, deserves a mention.  It’s been on my coffee table for over a month.  It was briefly on my nightstand.  It rode around in my bookbag for a few days.  I kept telling it, “Soon!  Right after my book club book is done” or “Soon, I promise, but I need to get another zombie story in for my Halloween prep!” and “Sorry I only had time for a page, I need to leave for work!”

This book has been patient and uncomplaining.  It’s so forgiving that it immediately pulls me in whenever I do get a chance to pick it up, with its evocative writing that grips you from the get-go, its haunting atmosphere even two chapters in, and a story all about a descent into madness and paranoia.

soilI heard about this book last month on NPR’s All Things Considered, and it sounded great.  It is great.  The sense of place, the setup, the main character.  All of it is shaping up to be a wonderful book.  The story is about a man, abandoned by his wife and son after becoming obsessed over agricultural improvements, finds a dead body on his property.  Already paranoid, he assumes he’s being framed for murder.  So instead of calling the authorities, he decides to get rid of the body himself.

Sorry, Soil.  I really do like you and I think this is a real shame and I really really promise I’ll check you out again.  Sometime.  Later.  Not sure when.

If this description appeals to you, do give Soil a try and give it the attention it deserves.  I failed this poor novel badly.


Marie’s Reading: “Her” by Harriet Lane

HerHi.  How are you?  Great.  I’m okay, thanks.

So I finished one of the novels I was excited to read when last we met.  It’s the one called Her, about a woman named Nina who has a mysterious connection to a woman named Emma–a connection that could probably be called a grudge.    From the start we know that Nina remembers Emma, but Emma does not remember Nina.  We also realize quickly that Nina is not altogether quite right upstairs (she indulges in quite a bit of distanced psychological torture and gaslighting).  Emma is simply overwhelmed by her current life circumstances, and in just the right place emotionally to fall into Nina’s traps.

Sounds good, right?  Remember?  I was all:


Her by Harriet Lane is a novel that eases along, sidling up to you, until it grabs you by the neck in the final few moments.  You never reach a crescendo, nor are you desperate to keep turning pages.  The reveal, when it comes, seems so small–but to Nina, it is huge. The ending is a flurry of panic and a moment of realization which puts the novel’s events into perspective.

Lane uses a dual narrative, going back and forth between Emma and Nina.  But instead of a strictly linear narrative, you see events through the eyes of both characters.  After finishing the book you get a sense of how this device really does help reinforce the novel’s ending as well as Nina’s actions.  Nina and Emma have distinct voices and well-drawn concerns.  When you’re in Emma’s world you feel her annoyances and her disappointments and she’s a lot more sympathetic than when you see her through Nina’s eyes.  It’s a good device for getting characters across, along with their first-person voices.

In all, if you’re expecting a thriller in terms of pacing, your reaction to this novel might be more like this, as mine was initially:


But then, the more I thought about it, the more I recognized how insidious the plotting and character development is.  You’re not watching a trainwreck or a roller-coaster, but rather a spider building a web.  Her is a slow burn attached to an uncertain explosive.

I was reminded a lot of Patricia Highsmith’s early stories when I got to the end.  Give those a try for a readalike.  Liane Moriarty or Kate Morton might appeal as well, if you enjoy stories where there are secrets to be revealed and dark motivations to uncover.  The recent The Girl on the Train, which I talked about here, might also appeal to those who enjoy the narrative voices and construction of Her.


“Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives : Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense” Edited by Sarah Weinman

We’ve been getting much too scary lately.   Yeesh, there’s a Horror Month twist ending for you–turns out Horror fan Marie has been a wimp all along.

Shown: Marie, October 2014

Shown: Marie, October 2014

Let’s dial back the Horror as we ease into Halloween proper, and pump up some classic dark Domestic Suspense.

Troubled Daughters

This wonderful collection contains dark stories by the likes of Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith.  They’re the big names, so it was nice to get to know the work of other writers of short domestic suspense.  If you’ve burned out on Horror this month right along with me, Domestic Suspense is a good way to soothe yourself while still remaining dark just before Halloween.

What is Domestic Suspense, you ask?  Let’s go to the expert–editor of this collection, Sarah Weinman!  In her view, this subgenre can be described as:

To my mind, it’s a genre of books published between World War II and the height of the Cold War, written by women primarily about the concerns and fears of women of the day. These novels and stories operate on the ground level, peer into marriages whose hairline fractures will crack wide open, turn ordinary household chores into potential for terror, and transform fears about motherhood into horrifying reality. They deal with class and race, sexism and economic disparity, but they have little need to show off that breadth.

That seems pretty accurate to me.  I’d also add that these stories have a few hallmarks of Suspense and Dark Fiction, and even a touch of Horror–a sense of unease, of waiting danger, unreliable narrators, mounting tension, and a not-always-neat ending.  The Domestic part comes, as Weinman notes, from the tight focus on interior and domestic life.  It’s the seedy underbelly of straight-up Domestic Fiction.

Each of these tales is a gem, sure to entertain and wrong-foot you.  They’re short and well-paced, so it’s a great book for dipping into a bit at a time.  That’s assuming, of course, that you’re able to put it down at all.

Halloween Read: “The Boy Who Could See Demons” by Carolyn Jess-Cooke


I was shelf-reading yesterday afternoon in the adult fiction section and this title caught my eye: The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke.  Shelfari says I read it in August 2013.  Wow.  As soon as I saw it I thought, Oh yeah!  That book!

And then I said to myself, “Self, you big stupid, you spent an hour and a half writing that blog post about Oculus and you didn’t mention this novel!  How could you do that?  It’s so obviously the perfect book companion to that movie!  You loved it and it didn’t even occur to you to mention!  You should feel bad about yourself.”

Shelf-reading makes me surly.  Keep that in mind if you ever see me loose in the stacks.

Anyway!  The Boy Who Could See Demons.  It’s the story of a young boy named Alex who has his own personal demon, a creature named Ruen that only he can see.  Ruen is trying to convince him to kill someone.  Alex begins to harm himself and others during blackouts, always believing that Ruen is responsible.  Enter Dr. Anya Molokova, a child psychiatrist whose own daughter suffered from severe schizophrenia.

It’s taut, gripping, suspenseful and moving, with a twist at the end that’s both surprising and sad.  The storytelling is intricate, and there’s a lot of discussion of dealing with mental illness–either your own or that of someone you love.  You never quite know what’s real in this story until the very end.  It’s a great ride that’s a nice choice for readers who like a lot of suspense and dark fiction over straight-up Horror.  And, of course, a nice read for people who enjoy twisty-turny movies like Oculus.



Marie’s Reading: Everything by Jennifer McMahon

jennifer mcmahonLiterally.  I have done what I set out to do, and have read every book by Jennifer McMahon.

I regret nothing.

Continue reading →

“Help for the Haunted” by John Searles

We’ll ease into our Halloween celebration of Horror fiction with a book that falls into the Not-Quite-Horror category: Help for the Haunted by John Searles.

Help for the Haunted

It might be worthwhile to revisit what “Horror” actually means, since we’re devoting the month to it.  I discussed this last year, but just to recap:  When we talk about a horror novel, we’re talking about a story which is intended to frighten the reader.   There’s usually, but not always, a supernatural element.  Last week, while we were talking about H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, my husband summarized the genre like this:

“Normal person goes to place.  Sees spooky thing.  Discovers that ‘Oh no! The world is run by an evil chaotic force!’  The end.”

He thought he was kidding.

But he was absolutely correct.  That is exactly what the Horror genre boils down to.  And in the case of Help for the Haunted, that is not what’s going on.  There are certainly horror elements, as well as elements of suspense and a little bit of mystery, too.  It’s dark fiction, but it’s not a horror story.   The point is not to instill fear in the reader.  Instead, we want to see everyone saved, and the mystery solved.

Here’s the story:

Sylvie Mason’s parents have an unusual occupation—helping “haunted souls” find peace. After receiving a strange phone call one winter’s night, they leave the house and are later murdered in an old church in a horrifying act of violence.

A year later, Sylvie is living in the care of her older sister, who may be to blame for what happened to their parents. Now, the inquisitive teenager pursues the mystery, moving closer to the knowledge of what occurred that night—and to the truth about her family’s past and the secrets that have haunted them for years.  -Amazon

This novel is a great example of Dark Fiction.  The atmosphere is bleak and a bit ominous.  There’s suspense and a touch of violence.  Most important, there’s a hint of something, if not supernatural, then at least not quite right.   At the same time, there isn’t that core horror element of a supernatural threat, that “evil chaotic force” which turns the world upside-down.

Instead, it’s the people in this book who turn their own lives upside down.  The chaos is familial relationships, tensions between people with deep bonds, and the ugly truth of how far some will go to maintain the reality they’ve created for themselves.  Also, the heart of the story is Sylvie putting the pieces of her life back together, and trying to turn the world rightside-up again.  It’s that crucial difference that keeps this novel from being Horror.  In a Horror novel, the world generally does not get righted again.

If you want more Dark Fiction suggestions, you can take a look at the post I linked above from last year: Not-So-Horrific Horror.  Check out the Suggested Reading tab here on the blog, too–there are a couple of lists that might be promising.

And when you decide you’re ready to cross over to the side of full-on Horror, I’ll be here.  Waiting.


Marie’s Reading: “The Asylum” by John Harwood

the asylumI cannot give you a better teaser of a summary for The Asylum than the one provided on the dust jacket, so here it is:

Confused and disoriented, Georgina Ferrars awakens in a small room in Tregannon House, a private asylum in a remote corner of England. She has no memory of the past few weeks. The doctor, Maynard Straker, tells her that she admitted herself under the name Lucy Ashton the day before, then suffered a seizure. When she insists he has mistaken her for someone else, Dr. Straker sends a telegram to her uncle, who replies that Georgina Ferrars is at home with him in London: “Your patient must be an imposter.”

From there we are with Georgina (or the woman who believes she is Georgina), as she attempts to make sense of her situation.  We share her confusion and fear, as well as the desire to know the truth about her circumstances and identity.   Discovering the truth, we soon come to realize, hinges upon finding a writing box, a series of letters, and a brooch.  I don’t want to give too much away, as uncovering the many intricate plot points are most of the fun of reading this novel.  Suffice it to say that letters are found, secrets are uncovered, and the ending, while not shocking, is certainly a surprise!

If this all sounds like something straight from the pages of a dark, Gothic, melodramatic Victorian thriller, that’s because it is.  More or less.  As I discussed in my gushing review of Harwood’s other novel, The Seance, the mood Harwood creates is perfect.  The sense of time and place is superb, and Harwood really excels at writing in the style of a late Victorian novelist without it coming across as parody or over-the-top.   Not only are you absorbed into the textured world of late 19th century London and the cold, dreary asylum in Cornwall, you also get the sense that you are truly reading a story of the period.

There are striking similarities between Asylum and Sarah Waters’ novels Affinity and Fingersmith.  I’d suggest either of those books if you enjoyed Asylum.  They share the same style, atmosphere, and Gothic tone, as well as strong female protagonists.  In fact, the plot is almost identical to Fingersmith in a few places, though the resolution is quite different.  For a more modern Gothic novel, with the same sense of mystery and secrets, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale might be a good choice.

If you like twists and turns but aren’t into the Victorian setting and atmosphere, try Gone Girl or Dark Places by Gillian Flynn for modern thrillers that boast great twists, plenty of dark secrets, and loads of suspense.  Her books are darker, more intense, and at times more violent, but still work as read-alikes, I think.


Marie’s Reading: “The Secret Keeper” by Kate Morton

secret keeperI’ve failed my third-grade level Language Arts assignment.  Three times I have tried and three times I have failed to summarize Kate Morton’s latest novel, The Secret Keeper, in a coherent paragraph.  It’s a hard storyline to describe succinctly, because it’s not just storyline.  There are a million storylines going at once with a bajillion characters inhabiting them.

I might be embellishing just a tad.  Find Amazon’s description, my thoughts, and read-alikes after the jump. Continue reading →