thrillers

Ottessa Moshfegh’s Wry, Oddball ‘Eileen’

eileen

I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special. — Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen: A Novel

Thus opens Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, a narrative which might indicate our title character is just another girl. But Eileen is an odd young woman, obstinate and unaware in her peculiarities, and this novel’s glimpse into her strange world is at once intimate and incredibly uncomfortable, like a stranger standing too close in an elevator.

It is 1964, and Eileen’s life is bleak. Unmarried, single past her prime in a period not kind to women aged out of the dating pool, Eileen lives with her father. Dad is a former police officer with such a drinking problem, Eileen hides his shoes to keep him from bolting, blackout drunk, into the neighborhood to stir up trouble.

Eileen’s combinations of repression and disinhibition read like a roller coaster of the roles our society demands women to fill. She works at a juvenile detention center, called a boys’ home in those days, and fantasizes about one of the guards, while simultaneously fearing and trying to control her own body, its needs and its functions.

As a character study alone, Eileen is a beautiful, bizarre joy to read. But the real fun comes with the arrival of teacher Rebecca Saint John to the prison. The dazzling, poised Rebecca forms an unlikely friendship with Eileen, albeit a relationship unequal on all levels. The reader can see what Eileen is too girl-crushed to notice–what does this charming vixen want from our dowdy, awkward, dark little narrator?

The big reveal, appearing like a band-aid ripped off in a magnificent and unexpected twist, made me guffaw aloud, which I rarely do. I won’t give anything away here. This is a clever and unique read, full of strange things and strong, warped women.

Eileen on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further reading:

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In Ava Marsh’s ‘Untouchable,’ ‘Fifty Shades’ Gets A Murderous Makeover

untouchable

Every now and then, I find myself finishing a book and wondering how to review it. Ava Marsh’s Untouchable, featuring Stella, a forensic psychologist-turned-high class call girl (!), is one of those books. It is sexy, it is violent, and it gets down deep into the issues of sex, class, and power controlling our society today. Whether Untouchable handles those issues well or not is subjective, based on the values of the reader. I think much dislike or love of the book will stem from value judgement of it–how it portrays women as call girls, women as sexual beings, women as victims and perpetrators of violence.

Enough analyzation, already. Let’s get to the plot! Stella is a classy call girl, getting down and dirty with men for money. Marsh describes this experience through Stella’s eyes in explicit visuals–from the arousing to the repelling, and everything in between, it’s all there. Get ready to be turned on, then skeeved out. After a party with some high-powered men, one of Stella’s fellow prostitutes ends up dead. The police aren’t too interested in the dead hooker in a hotel room, but Stella thinks there’s a reason for the murder and wants justice. Through her own investigation, utilizing her network of johns and fellow working girls, Stella uncovers what happened to her friend while risking her own life.

The combination of sex and violence make for some heart-pounding, eye-popping, page-turning stuff. Marsh isn’t afraid to build Stella as a fallible character, who makes an occasionally shockingly cruel mistake. If you are looking for a hooker with a heart of gold story, you won’t find it here.

After reading Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery last year, I believe Untouchable did glamorize the profession a bit. This may be a cultural difference–Ava Marsh lives in London, where prostitution is not illegal, although activities surrounding it are. Marsh’s Stella is a high class girl, and her friend is murdered for an elaborate reason not directly related to her profession. But Kolker’s (nonfiction) book described a much bleaker and much more dangerous life, where men who like to kill women specifically seek out prostitutes because they realize so few people notice when prostitutes go missing. Because of this, I have mixed feelings about Untouchable–I applaud Marsh for discussing prostitution at all in a world that often doesn’t, but wonder if she padded the bleaker details surrounding the profession a bit.

Untouchable on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

When The Bachelorette Party Goes Very, Very Wrong: Ruth Ware’s ‘In A Dark, Dark Wood’

in a dark dark wood

Scout Press is a new imprint from Gallery Books “dedicated to being on the lookout for modern storytellers.” They’ve roared onto the scene with two releases, Ruth Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Woods and (now Longlist National Book Award Nominee) Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family. I received a promo e-mail about Scout Press before these two were released, and like a chump I passed them over. Once I heard the endless roaring buzz of praise, I picked up In A Dark, Dark Woods on audio, and listened everywhere, all the time, unable to stop.

Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Wood sounds like many things–don’t confuse it with Into The Woods, the Broadway play adapted into a feature film, or master of mystery Tana French’s novel In The Woods. Ever since the Brothers Grimm put the grim in our fairy tales, the woods have been a nightmarish place to lose yourself and tap into the pulse of a canopied underworld severed from sunlight and all things good. In A Dark, Dark Wood acts as an homage to so much that lives in the dark of our nightmares–ghosts, guns, unrequited loves, strangers prowling, phone lines cut, murders in the midst.

In this mystery, instead of wolves or headless horsemen, the woods brings horrors of a particularly modern variety. Reclusive author Leonora reluctantly agrees to attend a long lost school friend’s hen party (for us unaware Americans, that’s the British equivalent of a bachelorette party). The most majestic and notable part of this novel is the hen party’s setting, a glass house nestled amidst a muddy and isolated woods far out in the English countryside. Each attendee to the soiree feels like a performer, vulnerable and exposed in front of a vast expanse of trees. This is the type of isolated home found at the end of a muddy long drive, where cell reception blips from on bar to none, where the land line in the kitchen feels like a life line to the outside world.

The night turns strange quite quickly. Clare, the bride-to-be, has invited a ragtag bunch, with Leonora and her sarcastic sidekick Nina not necessarily adding to the party atmosphere. There’s new mother Melanie, who struggles to pull her eyes up from her phone, aghast at no reception. There’s flamboyant and coke-touting Tom, the hard partying token gay man at the celebration. And finally, there’s Flo. Flo worships Clare, dresses like Clare, and insists that Clare will have the best hen party ever. No matter what.

The isolated party in a strange glass house, fueled by alcohol and Flo’s intensity, quickly moves past social niceties and into the realm of something else. Leonora wakes up battered and brutalized in a hospital bed, police at her door. No longer in a glass house, no longer at a hen night. She takes us along in her struggle to remember what exactly turned a hen party into a much darker, more dangerous trip into the woods.

Ware’s building of suspense is magnificent here, especially in the first half of the novel. Unfortunately, amnesia plays a critical plot point near the end, which always tries my patience as a mystery lover. The writing here is so good though, that I’m willing to overlook this. I do hope Ware steers clear of such devices in her next book. The setting and characters build an unbearable, but irresistible paranoia, that makes In A Dark, Dark Wood an ideal mystery, a quick one to flip through then finish.

In A Dark, Dark Wood on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further Reading:

‘Scream’ Meets Agatha Christie In ‘A Dark, Dark Wood’ (npr.org)

Author Interview: Ruth Ware (auntagathas.com)

Finding thrills in ‘A Dark, Dark Wood’ (usatoday.com) – Finch’s USA Today review is much less tolerant of the amnesia device, and I don’t disagree with his points, I just still enjoyed the book.

Linwood Barclay starts new trilogy with ‘Broken Promise’

Book Review-Broken Promise

I was excited to dig in to blockbuster thriller writer Linwood Barclay’s Broken Promise after I read his stand-alone mystery Trust Your Eyes. Barclay built Trust Your Eyes around a concept wacky enough to be truly memorable in a field of lookalike plots. A schizophrenic man obsessed with a Google Street View-like program, who spends his hours touring streets all over the world, sees something he shouldn’t. Trust Your Eyes is definitely worth picking up, if you haven’t checked it out!

So what about Broken Promise? It centers in Promise Falls, a small town with all the dressings: cops with inflated egos, an amusement park and newspaper both gone belly up, and a nefarious ex-Mayor circling for power. As I went into the book cold, I didn’t realize that Broken Promise is the first of a planned trilogy about Promise Falls. So (a bit of a spoiler alert here), those expecting loose ends packaged up nicely in a bow, be prepared! You’ll have to wait for books two and three to find out what’s rotten in this not-so-ideal American setting.

And there’s definitely something stinking in this city–attempted rapes on the college campus, squirrels hung in an odd formation in a local park, mannequins with a veiled threat riding on the Ferris wheel in the abandoned amusement park after hours. In the midst of some of this madness is out-of-luck journalist David Harwood, who returned to his hometown of Promise Falls for a job at the local paper just before it went out of business. Now he’s unemployed, and living with his parents and his young son.

While the strange happenings in Promise Falls are intriguing background noise, the main plot of this novel centers around David’s cousin Marla. Marla’s been slightly unhinged since she lost her baby a few years ago. When David arrives at her home to deliver some food, and finds Marla caring for a baby boy, he knows something isn’t right.

This mystery wasn’t my favorite–it seemed fairly obvious to me, once all the characters were introduced, what exactly had happened. However, because I’ve enjoyed a previous book from Barclay so much, and because he’s so highly praised as a popular thriller author, I’ll be tuning in to the rest of the series and seeing what’s in store for David and the town of Promise Falls.

Broken Promise on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Summer Reads: S.J. Watson’s ‘Second Life’ Is A Sexy, Slow Burn

SecondLifeCover

I loved S.J. Watson’s first novel, Before I Go To Sleep. I read it last summer, by the pool and by the air conditioning, in just a few days. It is a Memento-style thriller that keeps you guessing throughout its infuriating repetitions as its narrator wakes up each day forgetting the last. It has been adapted into a movie starring Nicole Kidman (which I didn’t think was as great as the book).

This translated to my excitement upon landing an advanced copy of Second Life, Watson’s new book out earlier this month. Second Life focuses on Julia, a woman adrift after the murder of her sister.

Julia is happily married to surgeon Hugh, raising son Connor, when she gets the horrible news that her sister has been killed in Paris. The history between Julia and her sister Kate is full of strife, as their childhood wasn’t a happy one. Julia seems haunted by her memories: not only of her relationship with Kate, but also of her own past, in which she struggled with addiction while living as an artist in Berlin.

Seeking answers where the police find none, Julia teams up with Kate’s best friend Anna to explore the dating site which Kate frequented before her death. While investigating her sister’s murder, however, Julia finds herself feeling undeniable chemistry with a stranger in an online relationship. Her stability, her sobriety, everything she thinks she knows–Julia loses these remnants of normalcy as things spin around her. Her identity fractures and she finds solace in a second life separate from her happy home, with deadly results.

For those who are expecting an equivalent follow-up to Before I Go To Sleep, this felt quite different to me. Second Life felt hazier, the headiness was more prominent, even though both novels focus on women confused by the world around them. This is something I’d love to ask S.J. Watson about, in an interview: “Why these books from the perspectives of manipulated women?” I’d love to see him write about a man in the same vulnerable position as either of his two main characters. Other than this similarity however, Second Life moves at a much slower pace than Before I Go To Sleep. The book spent quite a bit of time describing Julia’s emotions; none of the descriptions explained to me some of her behavior.

If you loved the sexy sinister vibe of Apple Tree Yard, however, this book has your name all over it. I never saw its ending coming. The ending made up for some of the slower parts of the story, as I always love a great twist.

What will come next from S.J. Watson? At this point, I consider him one of the modern masters of the plot twist. I’m already eagerly awaiting his next book.

Second Life on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Renee Knight’s ‘Disclaimer’ Is This Summer’s Big Thrill

disclaimer

Imagine picking up a book, and being drawn into its story. But suddenly the action swerves, the story turns much darker, and you find yourself appear in the text, a character recognizable except for a name change. The book begins to reveal a secret–a secret you’ve kept to yourself for years, that simply no one could know. And yet, there it is, drawn out on the page, this horrible action, stepping out of the past and into this plot.

When you flip to the disclaimer at the beginning of the book, that page with copyright information which assures the novel’s status as a work of fiction and says, “Any resemblance to any persons living or dead…,” the entire disclaimer is crossed through with a red line. Someone, you realize, is playing with you. Someone, you realize, has written this book just for you.

This is what happens to Catherine Ravenscroft in Renee Knight’s novel Disclaimer. Catherine, successful documentary film maker, transforms from a successful businesswoman into a bundle of nerves as she tries to trace The Perfect Stranger, the novel infiltrating her life and her history, down to its source.

In alternating chapters, the author of the novel is revealed, but this is a story of appearances and expectations, two of the most difficult things to interpret. By the end of the book we’ve learned many times over, thanks to Knight’s nuanced characters, just how much looks can deceive, and just how far the stories we tell ourselves can be from the truth.

Disclaimer on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Emily Schultz’s ‘The Blondes:’ Viral “Blonde Fury” Strikes Women and Our Standards of Beauty

blondes-coverEmily Schultz, founder of Joyland Magazine, has written about an epidemic in The Blondes. This is the story of a virus, yes, and about its outbreak. But like Megan Abbott, Schultz’s horror bubbles up from society’s standards for women and their appearances. This is an epidemic that seems to step down off billboards and rock the collective consciousness, as much of the world demands its women trustworthy, both well-coiffed and well-behaved.

We learn of the virus through the memories of Hazel, narrating to her unborn child. Both the child’s existence and the virus’s bloom up around Hazel’s innocent graduate student life, a Canadian visiting New York indefinitely, hoping to clear her head of romantic entanglements. The story alternates between then, Hazel’s life in New York as the virus hits, and now, as Hazel holes up in a cabin alone, pregnant, wondering if the woman she was living with will return or if she’ll be forced to give birth alone.

Hazel explains in the book’s opening, to her unborn daughter:

We are not like men; men shake hands with hate between them all the time and have public arguments that are an obvious jostling for power and position. They compete for dominance— if not over money, then over mating. They know this, each and every one. But women are civilized animals. We have something to prove, too, but we’ll swirl our anger with straws in the bottom of our drinks and suck it up, leaving behind a lipstick stain.

The virus, nicknamed “Blonde Fury,” removes the veil of civilized nature that Hazel refers to here. Although the science behind the virus isn’t explained, and is referred to vaguely, it targets blondes. It targets the image of blondes we are all familiar with–women towering tall in high heels and perfect lipstick. It leaves them snarling and disheveled, animal-like, unable to be subdued by uniformed men. It hits a group of flight attendants, as they storm down the hall of an airline. It turns what we’ve been taught to identify as beautiful into something animal, furious and deadly.

Men are told what to watch out for on the news. Women who have anxiety are quarantined, suspected of having the virus. Suddenly, the female is feared. The story of the outbreak itself, like all virus tales, is strange and surreal, and Hazel’s own lack of direction leaves her adrift in the effects of the virus both in Canada and the U.S., an observer in both her own life and the world. At times hilarious, at times lonely, The Blondes always relays a striking picture of a world quick to adapt to “Gold Fever.”

You can watch the sort of strange, perhaps not representative of the book at all, trailer here:

The Blondes by Emily Schultz on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

A Brain Full Of Crime-Solving Crayons: The Kalireads Interview With Colby Marshall

Today marks the release date for Colby Marshall’s Double Vision, the second book in her Dr. Jenna Ramey series. Colby took some time to answer my questions about sensing colors, women in mysteries, and what she’s reading.

Review – The Night Season by Chelsea Cain

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The Night Season is the fourth of Chelsea Cain‘s Gretchen Lowell and Archie Sheridan series, and I grabbed it on a whim, seeking a fast and easy mystery. In The Night Season, Portland is flooding and people are dying, and the two things may or may not be related. Gretchen Lowell, the beautiful and bewitching serial killer who previously batted Archie Sheridan around like a cat playing with a wounded mouse, moves from a central figure in the story to an ominous and ever-looming presence. She’s never really gone and certainly not forgotten, tucked away safely in prison for now, but still drowning Archie just as much as the water that floods into the city around him.

Let me start by saying California is in the midst of a drought, and all the rain in this book was making me crazy! We’ve had some days here where the humidity feels like it just can’t hold, like the sky will have to burst open and rain, but the rain doesn’t come. When the soggy, sand-bagged, and serial killer-infested floodwaters of a thriller make you pine for rain, you know something is very wrong.

For those unfamiliar with the twisted love story of the Gretchen Lowell and Archie Sheridan series, it started with Heartsick in 2007. That book introduced us to the bold, unabashed premise of a cop so enmeshed with the serial killer he hunted and ultimately put behind bars that he’s in love with her, that he needs her like he needs the next fix of the pain pills he’s popping. After tracking Gretchen Lowell for 10 years, Archie Sheridan wasn’t sure where the line between obsession and love was drawn, and that was just how the sadistic Lowell liked it. Heartsick overtly asked all sorts of important questions about the dependence of those who fight evil on that evil, in the same vein as Thomas Harris‘s Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs.

Despite the dark, depressing threads of possession running through these books, I love Cain’s comic characters, especially Archie Sheridan’s spunky sidekick, crime reporter Susan Ward. The Night Season features a cast full of oddballs, as we’d expect nothing less from Cain, but none are so odd that they become caricatures or stereotypes of real life. I would love to see a Susan Ward spin-off series where we explore her world a bit more without Sheridan, although I realize Cain would then be required to create an unusually high amount of odd happenings in Portland for Ward, as a journalist, to discover and document away from her police pals. There’s something innately likable about Ward and the gusto with which she crashes crime scenes, a gal who brings her hippie momma’s goat into the living room to keep him out of the rain, and who stomps about the floodwaters with punky hair and big boots.

And Ward does provide much needed comic relief–Cain doesn’t ever turn away from an opportunity to describe a gruesome scene, as these are definitely thrillers. Especially in Heartsick, the first book, there are some descriptive moments of torture where the gore factor is very, very high. If cozy mysteries are more your thing, and you steer clear of the blood and guts, you may want to think twice about checking out this series.

Chelsea Cain also has a new book out tomorrow, One Kick, which I’m hoping to read soon, as the premise sounds a bit cheeky but irresistible. Kick Lannigan was kidnapped as a kid, and trained by her abductor for five years to be a lethal killing machine. She pursued her odd abilities after her escape, and by her twenties she sounds like a well-rounded secret agent, as she’s studied martial arts and knife-throwing. Then, other children get kidnapped, and Kick realizes what she’s spent her life training for. If Kick is as oddly charming as Susan Ward, then One Kick sounds like a promising combination of misery, humor and ka-pow.

The Night Season by Chelsea Cain on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Heartsick (Gretchen Lowell and Archie Sheridan #1) on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org – this is only $2.99 on Kindle right now, a great deal.

One Kick on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

ChelseaCain.com – she is going on tour for One Kick, with dates announced on her official site.

Review – The Never List by Koethi Zan

the never list

In honor of Halloween I’m reading some seriously scary books right now (revisiting The Shining, listening to Snow White Must Die). The Never List by Koethi Zan had been on my to-read list for a bit, and I decided this was the appropriate season to check it out. The Never List chronicles the aftermath of heroine Sarah’s traumatic kidnapping, in which she and her best friend were chained in a basement and tortured with two other girls.

The Never List is a quick read and it is hard not to fall for Sarah’s frank and wry narrative voice. You will find yourself cheering for her as she overcomes fears, deals with her past, and becomes a stronger person. I listened to this on audiobook and it was the best kind of story to listen to, as it kept me looking for chores around the house I could do while I kept listening.

Clearly, this is a book only for the bravest of readers. I was a bit hesitant about the subject matter, as I enjoy a great twisted tale of suspense but dislike the sort of gruesome and gory torture porn that horror films like Hostel have made popular.  The Never List is tastefully done for such dark subject matter, in the way that I think the best tales of suspense often are. Although we get flashbacks of what Sarah and the other girls suffered through, the focus of the book is not on human suffering.

Zan has done a great job of creating a gang of likable female sleuths who have overcome an awful trauma together. When the three kidnapping victims who escaped the basement are told their captor will be eligible for parole, they reunite to investigate loose ends of their case, assisted by a benevolent male FBI agent always a phone call away but slow to arrive in crucial moments. The Never List is the girl-power thriller that The Shining Girls wanted to be;  these women are honest, flawed, strong, taking control of their past and their future.

I heard about this book because of its odd timing – right around the time of its release (July 2013) we all watched in horror as women were rescued from Ariel Castro’s home in Cleveland. The similarities between the real life news story and the events in the work of fiction are bizarrely similar–three women kept chained in a house by a sadistic man. There is an interview on mybookishways.com about Zan’s almost surreal reaction to watching the news in Cleveland unfold. As she says, “I’d written a book based on my worst nightmare, and there it was on the screen—real.” It was such an eerie coincidence.

I look forward to Zan’s next work, as I believe this was her first novel and it was an impressive start. Having completed the The Never List, my house is swept, my laundry is done, and I’m all ready for Halloween.

The Never List on Amazon

The Never List on IndieBound

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