Brand new review: The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

By Ekta R. Garg

December 4, 2019

Genre: Thriller

Release date: August 23, 2016

Rating: Binge it! / 5 stars

When a child goes missing, the new parents enter what they think can only be the worst experience of their lives. As time passes, though, they learn things about one another that terrify them even more than losing their baby. Author Shari Lapena will keep readers glued to the pages of her well-executed novel The Couple Next Door.

In a small town in upstate New York, Anne Conti struggles with motherhood. The thought of the baby, it turns out, was much easier to handle than the baby herself. Anne and her husband, Marco, feel stuck in a seemingly never-ending string of diapers and sleepless nights with Cora.

Their next-door neighbors, Cynthia and Graham, invite the couple over for a small birthday celebration. Cynthia, though, specifies that the dinner is for adults only. At the last minute, Anne and Marco’s sitter cancels and they’re faced with a choice. Do they take the baby next door anyway, or should they not go to the party?

Marco proposes an alternative. The couples live in row houses, so the Contis actually share a wall with their friends. What if they leave the baby home for a few hours? They won’t be going very far; in fact, they’ll be close enough for the baby monitor to work. At six months old, Cora isn’t mobile enough to get into any serious trouble. What could possibly happen?

Anne’s unease is juxtaposed with her growing resentment of Cynthia’s life. Just for once, she thinks, she’d love to go back to those carefree days when she could do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. She had a life once too; it included a job as a curator at an art gallery and friends. And Marco’s explanation makes sense. Despite her better judgment, they leave the baby home with the agreement that one of them will check on her every half-hour.

Even with the precaution of the baby monitor and checking on Cora, the unthinkable occurs: Cora is kidnapped. In the following days, after interactions with the media and the police, secrets start to come to light. More than once, both Anne and Marco see each other as strangers. How is it possible not to know these things about one another?

Author Shari Lapena starts with a taut situation and only tightens the strings of tension as the book proceeds. With careful plotting and character revelations, she lets loose one thread at a time only to wrap it pages later around the central pin keeping the entire story in place. Anne’s growing disillusionment with Marco stands in stark relief to Marco’s increasing desperation. Both cross lines that often sever relationships; in the end they realize their individual deceptions only tie them more closely to one another.

Lapena has drawn the supporting characters in realistic lines as well. Anne’s parents love Anne and hate Marco. Despite this familiar trope to the thriller genre, Lapena makes the different facets of the tense relationship three-dimensional. Readers may feel like they’re encountering people they actually know. As time progresses, the characters feel worse about one another, which creates the best of scenes in thriller fiction every single time.

Readers who enjoy fast-paced books and thrillers that make them shiver a little even at the end will definitely want to read this novel. I recommend readers Binge it!

Latest review: I Will Make You Pay by Teresa Driscoll

By Ekta R. Garg

October 16, 2019

Genre: Thriller

Release date: October 10, 2019

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A journalist experiences extreme anxiety when a stalker sends her threatening messages. As the messages escalate in scope and type, she battles her fear as well as the looming questions of who would do this to her and why. Author Teresa Driscoll keeps readers guessing all the way to the last pages of her excellent novel, I Will Make You Pay.

On what feels like an ordinary Wednesday, reporter Alice Henderson answers the phone at her desk to a distorted voice. The caller makes a threat and hangs up, leaving her breathless with terror. Her coworkers rally to cheer her up, but Alice is shaken. Then on the following Wednesday, another threat comes from the mystery man. This time Alice’s editor takes it more seriously and calls the Devon police department.

Alice doesn’t understand what’s happening. It’s not like she’s a reporter for one of the big-time publications out of London. She works on a small newspaper out of a city suburb, and for the most part she does special features. Why would anyone want to hurt her? What could she have possibly done to anger someone so much?

Her boyfriend, Tom, furious at her stalker, hires a private investigator. Matthew Hill used to work as a policeman but has since changed careers. He promised his wife that life as a PI would bring in better money and offer less dangerous work. After taking on Alice’s case, he’s not so sure the latter is true.

As the weeks go by, the attacks get worse: more menacing and definitely more personal. They happen every Wednesday, a day Alice has come to dread and hate. With a forced leave of absence keeping her away from the office, she splits her time between Tom’s home and her sister’s house. She just can’t sit on her hands, however, so Alice begins to work on other story ideas. She refuses to let the stalker ruin her life, even if he is bent on making her suffer for some unknown crime.

Matt Hill is determined to keep Alice safe, and a lead on a possible suspect gives him hope. The pieces don’t quite fit the puzzle, however, and as each Wednesday comes and goes Matt realizes he’s working against a clock. He uses every resource at his disposal, calling in old favors at the police department, to make sure the stalker can’t hurt Alice—or worse.

Author Teresa Driscoll takes a familiar storyline and infuses it with freshness. She builds a likeable, relatable protagonist in Alice. As the attacks on her get worse and no obvious suspect is brought forward, readers will begin to worry about who’s threatening her and why.

Driscoll takes a major risk in not revealing any connection between Alice and her stalker until the last couple of chapters, a feat considering the book runs more than 60 chapters long. In this case, however, the risk pays off. She accomplishes this by a two-pronged approach: offering readers compelling subplots with their own twists and turns and including a parallel storyline of the stalker’s life without giving any identifying details.

The result gives fans of thrillers an interesting advantage. By the end, they will know much more about the stalker than Alice will. In many cases where readers have more information than the characters, readers can get frustrated waiting for characters to “catch up” to the story. Here, with careful planning, the plot makes sense as is. It allows for a richer, more satisfying experience. The resolution also plays closer to the reality of these types of cases.

Those who appreciate thrillers or books about British characters (or both) will certainly enjoy this novel. I recommend readers Bookmark I Will Make You Pay.

Latest review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

By Ekta R. Garg

August 7, 2019

Genre: Thriller

Release date: August 6, 2019

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A nanny discovers she got much more than she anticipated in what sounded like the “perfect” job. Between creepy elements in the house and children who won’t listen, the young woman fights her growing anxiety and paranoia until she finds herself in prison. Except she says she’s innocent. Author Ruth Ware offers readers her latest thriller in the mostly successful novel The Turn of the Key.

When Rowan Caine answers the ad to become a live-in nanny for a family in the Scottish Highlands, she has no idea she’ll end up in prison accused of murdering one of her charges. Yet here she sits writing to a lawyer, hoping he’ll take her case. She wasn’t the perfect nanny by a far stretch, but Rowan didn’t kill the child and she needs someone who will listen to her story and help her figure out who did.

She’d answered the ad after getting fed up with her employment in a London nursery. Moving to Scotland from a busy city seemed like the perfect life change, and her meeting with her employer, Sandra Elincourt, sealed the deal for Rowan. She wanted more than ever to live in Heatherbrae, the renovated Victorian smart home that did everything anyone needed with the swipe of a screen. Almost overnight Sandra left Rowan with a toddler and two elementary-aged children to join her husband, Bill, on a business trip.

The learning curve for Rowan was steep: dealing with the temperamental smart home app, the temperamental children, and the temperamental housekeeper who clearly disapproved of her. Stories of the home being haunted by its former inhabitants didn’t help, although the mysterious handyman Jack Grant provided Rowan with a distraction. All of Rowan’s instincts told her that something was off about the situation, but she would never have imagined the circumstances leading to the death of one of the children under her care.

Rowan knows she’s not blameless. She lied to get the job, and she’s held things back from her employers. Yet insists she’s innocent of the murder, and she’s hoping the lawyer will understand her position after hearing her story. She doesn’t want to die for someone else’s crime, and despite the tough time she had dealing with the kids she can’t stand the thought of the unnecessary loss of such a young life.

Author Ruth Ware takes her time building the suspense, which may force readers to reevaluate what they think they might know about standard thrillers. At face value, the novel seems to be a “begin-at-the-end” kind of book with the protagonist leading readers through the “how” and “why.” Yet two shocking revelations at the end of the novel—one spelled out, one implied—will make readers pause and rethink what they’ve read.

The result is an ending that could be too subtle. The killer is revealed point blank, but another part of the story might escape notice. Some readers may not understand Ware’s aim in the closing pages, resulting in confusion or the assumption that she took the easy way out. Some of Rowan’s choices regarding the smart home or the outrageous behavior of the oldest child under her care might make readers wonder about her capability for the job. This point gets explained later in the book, but some readers might miss it due to Ware’s aim for subtlety.

Ware excels in revealing tidbits of information along the way, and here, too, she drops breadcrumbs for her readers to follow. Some of them lead to the most unexpected places. Others won’t reveal anything too startling. The end seems to want to convey the final surprise, but the framing of the story might make some readers miss that last shocking piece of information altogether.

Diehard Ruth Ware fans will enjoy this one. Those new to her work might do better starting with a different book. I recommend readers Borrow The Turn of the Key from their local libraries.

Brand new review: Escape Room by Megan Goldin

By Ekta R. Garg

July 3, 2019

When four executives get trapped in an escape room together, they realize that the challenge is more than just finding an exit. It’s about getting out alive. Author Megan Goldin deals her characters harsh circumstances but lets the plot slide toward the end of her debut novel The Escape Room.

On a Friday night, Wall Street executives Vincent, Sylvie, Jules, and Sam receive a mysterious invitation to a team-building exercise. They’re invited to an escape room in one of the company’s new high rises still under construction. None of them want to go, but none of them can decline either. The company, Stanhope and Sons, has been in trouble lately, and rumors of layoffs have everyone nervous. The four execs are nothing if not ambitious, and they’ll do anything to keep their jobs—including participating in a stupid escape room.

They enter the elevator in the skyscraper and realize soon enough that the elevator itself is the escape room challenge. As the senior-most administrator among them, Vincent tries to take control by looking for clues. Sylvie, Jules, and Sam make efforts to help, but the clues are few and far between. Meanwhile, they suspect that Vincent lured them into the elevator in an attempt to make them look bad in front of upper management at the end of the exercise.

The clues go from scarce to bizarre, and it becomes clear that they no longer need to worry about who will win: they need to worry about who will survive. As they try to work out who would bring them into this situation and why, the four discuss the last few years at the firm. The name of a former employee comes up: Sara Hall, newly hired out of college. Their working world is one of ruthless hours and even more ruthless tactics, and Sara just couldn’t keep up. Her dismissal from Stanhope was almost inevitable. Each of the executives can’t help wonder if they’re next.

Author Megan Goldin builds a fair amount of suspense in the novel. The narrative alternates between the executives caught in the elevator and Sara Hall’s experience in working for Stanhope and Sons. Sara’s portions of the book move at a steady pace, and readers will find their curiosity mounting in wondering how she fits into the other half of the book.

Unfortunately, that part of the book drags down the entire story. The novelty of the executives caught in the elevator wears off after it’s made clear that they’re not making much progress in getting out. They hurl insults at one another and even injure one another during heated arguments; beyond that, however, and the odd clue, Vincent, Sylvie, Sam, and Jules don’t engage in much action.

More astute readers may figure out about halfway through why the four have been brought together, and because the novel starts with the end of the story they’ll already know the outcome of the escape room exercise. What is left, then, is the why and how. For those readers who make it to the big reveal at the end, they’ll find it rushed. Details are shared in what could be imagined are breathless tones, as if the characters were running to the end of the book and trying to fit in every single little detail before they get there.

Sara Hall’s portions of the novel are much more interesting than the elevator scenes; it’s a shame the entire book didn’t revolve around her. Goldin could have taken her time to develop Sara’s rise and fall within the company and the consequences of her actions. As it is, because Sara must share time with the four company sharks, readers don’t get to spend as much time with her as they would probably like.

The ambiance of the world of Wall Street feels somewhat familiar; there isn’t much new information offered on the strain of the working hours of real-life executives. Readers may not be able to stick with this one to the end. I recommend they Bypass The Escape Room.

Latest review: Convergence by Ginny L. Yttrup

By Ekta R. Garg

March 6, 2019

Genre: Suspense; Christian fiction

Release date: March 1, 2019

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it / 2.5 stars

Strange occurrences remind a psychologist of a horrific event from her past, and she must deal with the post-traumatic stress. As she does so, she turns to her faith for guidance and also goes with her instinct to confront the incidents. Seasoned author Ginny L. Yttrup tries her hand at the suspense genre in the well-meaning but ultimately unsuccessful novel Convergence.

Dr. Denilyn Rossi spends her days teaching and working on her latest book about psychology. At least, she’s trying to do both. Eight years earlier, after her book about cyberbullying hit the bestseller list, Deni became a celebrity and the victim of a stalker. She suffered a brutal attack but survived and has spent every day since healing both inside and out.

Despite undergoing a divorce and changing jobs from practicing psychologist to the head of the psychology department at a university, Deni managed to pull her life back together. The man who attacked her is behind bars, and she’s well-respected and well-liked by colleagues and students. All seems to be moving in a positive direction, except for the fact that Deni can’t shake the feeling that someone is following her again.

At first she thinks the sensation is brought on by the upcoming anniversary of her attack and that her convicted attacker is up for parole. As a psychologist, she knows that both events can cause post-traumatic stress disorder. But the more she pays attention to the feeling, the more she realizes she may not just be experiencing stress.

Her close friends encourage her to seek guidance from her faith in God, and Deni does. She also reminisces about her friend, Adelia Sanchez. Years ago, Deni, Adelia, and two other good friends led whitewater rafting expeditions, until an accident made them leave the water. Memories of Adelia, of her failed marriage, and the life-changing encounter with the man who stalked her follow Deni everywhere she goes these days.

Her faith provides her solace, true, but she also knows she can’t just sit back and wait for circumstances to play out on their own. She believes she’s following God’s will by creating her own solution. Deni just doesn’t know if this time she’ll succumb to the danger.

Author Ginny L. Yttrup delves into the genre of suspense for the first time, but unfortunately her debut leaves much to be desired. The story flips between Deni in the present day, Deni in the past in the weeks leading up to her attack, and Adelia. The constant ping-ponging between timelines and characters will leave readers confused at times, despite Yttrup starting each chapter with the date and the character speaking. Early on Yttrup establishes Deni as the protagonist; however, Adelia’s portions come later in time than Deni’s, and readers won’t know until the last third of the book why the story was structured this way.

Successful suspense books depend on bursts of information followed by bursts of action; in the case of Convergence, Yttrup has taken a more thoughtful approach. This allows for readers to get to know Deni and to understand how she depends on her faith to get her through difficult times. In and of itself, this portion of the writing works well. Framed by a larger story that tries to be a suspense/thriller novel, the more introspective portions of the book just stick out. They slow down the story, and many readers may get impatient.

Yttrup also errs when it comes to releasing information; the characters in the book often know much more than readers do. Characters discuss important events without naming them, and readers will have to infer much of the information for a long time before they’re given confirmation. The cloak-and-dagger device only works for so long; after the halfway mark, it becomes tedious, as does the book.

Fans of Yttrup’s other work may want to pick this one up. It does a respectful job of showing how a person’s faith works organically within his or her life. Strictly as a suspense or thriller, though, the novel doesn’t work at all. I believe Convergence Borders on Bypassing it.

Newest review: The Suspect by Fiona Barton

By Ekta R. Garg

January 16, 2019

Release date: January 22, 2018

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Rated: Bookmark it! / Four stars

A reporter discovers she has close ties to a story she’s covering and finds herself in the spotlight. As each piece of news comes to the forefront, she must decide whether she can remain an impartial bystander or become an involved mother. Author Fiona Barton brings back her smart journalist character in her latest novel The Suspect.

When a pair of teenage girls go missing during a trip to Thailand, British journalist Kate Waters jumps at the chance to cover the story. She’s built a reputation for herself at her paper and has enough contacts to guarantee she’ll get the exclusive interviews with the girls’ families as well as vetted information from the police. Despite the obvious jealousy from colleagues at rival papers, Kate uses the trust she’s built with her sources in the most honorable way.

Although she may not admit it to anyone else, the story has some personal resonance for Kate. Two years earlier, her older son, Jake, dropped out of his course at the university and decided to travel. Since then Kate and her husband have only had intermittent communication with Jake. Kate understands how the mothers of the two missing girls must feel. It’s almost as if Jake himself is missing.

She receives the shock of a lifetime when she discovers that not only is Jake not missing, he’s right in the center of the story of the girls in Thailand. Kate does the honorable thing and steps away from the story as a reporter, but that doesn’t stop her involvement as a mother. When word comes that the girls’ situation may have become much more complicated than anyone could imagine, Kate gets bombarded by the media and learns firsthand how the people in her own articles must feel. It makes her even more determined to get to the bottom of it all and bring Jake home.

Author Fiona Barton has returned with another thriller that will keep readers up late at night even as they agonize over the choices the characters make. Kate Waters is smart and confident, but Barton doesn’t let that get in the way of possible vulnerability. Readers who are mothers will feel Kate’s heartache and root her on. While her husband and younger son don’t figure in the story as much, Barton doesn’t abandon them completely. The overall affect reinforces the idea that sometimes a mother treads the path of parenthood in emotional isolation.

If the book is to be faulted anywhere, it’s in predictability. Readers will guess in many instances long before Kate does where the story will go. Some of the plot points won’t surprise anyone except the characters. Barton saves them by making them three-dimensional, well-rounded people and also with her artful prose, but it’s a shame that some of the thriller isn’t so much.

In the end, however, Barton does provide readers with a plot that also has heart. She manages to keep a few surprises in store, and in some cases she doesn’t hesitate to follow tragedy to its end. Not every story can end with roses and rainbows, and Barton makes that clear in this book while twisting readers’ emotions into the most delightful knots all at the same time.

Thriller lovers and those who enjoy Barton’s books will like The Suspect, which is why I recommend readers Bookmark it.

Latest review: An Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

By Ekta R. Garg

Date: January 9, 2019

Genre: Thriller

Release date: January 8, 2019

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

A woman joins a psychology study as a way to make some quick cash, only to discover that she’s been drawn into a situation that runs past academics. The longer she stays in the study, the more questions she begins to ask even as she realizes that every question might bring her closer to the destruction of her own life. Co-authors Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen return after a successful debut with another fun thriller in their latest book An Anonymous Girl.

At 28, Jessica Farris seems to have the life any young single person would want. She lives in New York City and works as a makeup artist. At one time she even joined the teams behind off-Broadway shows. Although she’s technically a freelancer now, Jessie has landed a steady position with BeautyBuzz. They send clients her way who want makeup done for a variety of special occasions.

Despite the good relationship she’s built with BeautyBuzz, Jessie still struggles with her finances. Her parents bear all the responsibility for taking care of her younger sister, Becky, and all the medical bills that come with her condition. Countless times Jessie has put money toward Becky’s bills without telling her parents. While she’s happy to help her family, the strain—both financial and emotional—of doing so weighs Jessie down all the time.

When she finds out about an opportunity to earn extra money by participating in a psychology study on morality and ethics, she jumps at the chance. After all, she reasons, how hard can it be to answer some questions? The professor, Dr. Shields, gets his data, Jessie gets the $500, and she doesn’t have to worry about her rent for this month.

The questions catch Jessie completely off guard, however. They challenge her to dig deeper inside herself that anyone has done in a long time…or maybe ever. Dr. Shields, too, surprises Jessie, first because the professor is a woman and secondly because she seems to have a way to pull out Jessie’s deepest hurts and soothe them.

In exchange for what begins to feel more like therapy and less like a study, Jessie agrees to participate in real-life experiments for Dr. Shields. She meets people, asks questions, initiates encounters. Throughout the process, however, Jessie’s gut begins sending her warning signals and she figures out that Dr. Shields has an ulterior motive for the experiments and the entire study. What she’ll need to find out is how she can extract herself from the entire situation before she gets too entangled.

Co-authors Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen offer readers a taut thriller. Protagonist Jessie comes across as likeable and relatable. Even though Hendricks and Pekkanen gloss over some of the minor details—Jessie’s relationships with her friends and even her parents—Jessie herself will convince readers to stick with the book all the way to the end. Equally fascinating is Dr. Lydia Shields. She’s the perfect antagonist, smart, rich, well-spoken, and always put together. The motive for her study may not feel new, but her execution of her reasons for it will keep readers flipping pages.

The last few pages, too, feel like the best conclusion for all characters involved, even if they come across as a little rushed. Readers will appreciate a win for women, although the last few paragraphs of the book come across as underwhelming. A big victory requires a closing just as smart and intriguing as the rest of the story. Greer and Pekkanen don’t quite deliver on that aspect, but the rest of the book stands out and readers will forgive them the lack of a punchy closing sentence.

Fans of good thrillers will definitely love this one. I recommend readers Binge An Anonymous Girl.