reviews

Watching You; Lisa Jewell

Watching You: Lisa Jewell
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2018
Pages: 324
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Slytherin

Tom Fitzwilliam has enjoyed a successful career as a schoolmaster, being placed into struggling schools across the country and fixing them up again. And the women are taking notice even today. New neighbor Joey isn’t sure about her marriage, but Tom sparks something inside her that she hasn’t recognized in her own marriage. Teenage Jenna helps deal with the reality of her paranoid mother by hanging out with her friend Bess–who also seems to harbor an interest in their teacher. And then there’s Tom’s son Freddie, who watches everyone and everything play out within his neighborhood…including a seemingly fraught relationship between his mother and father.

It isn’t long before someone’s obsession reaches a breaking point when someone is killed in the Fitzwilliam house. Soon neighbors and friends find themselves questioning each other and wondering how far is too far.

Watching You is an interesting twist on the mystery thriller that brings several different stories together and turns them into one. Many people have roles (albeit sometimes small) in this neighborhood of colorful homes. The title manifests itself in different ways; watching a love interest, watching your neighbors, and even keeping an eye on your family and friends.

The novel reads like a thriller or character study rather than a mystery. It focuses more on the events themselves then it does with the police procedural, though chapters are interspersed with interview snippets. Readers don’t even know who was killed. I had the “who” and the “why” about midway through, but Jewell includes other twists and last-minute thoughts that will shock even the best detectives.

And because they don’t know who for most of the book, it presents itself as more of a character study. This isn’t a bad thing here, though, because I found most of them to be interesting and not caricatures. I liked that Tom wasn’t the perfect definition of handsome as you might expect. I liked getting a glimpse into the life of semi-popular-but-not-entitled Jenna. Overall, Jewell does a great job writing characters as unique people. The character who fell a bit short for me was Joey and sometimes I found myself being bummed out when the chapter changed to to her arc again. I initially thought it would mostly be her story since we spend a lot of time in her perspective in the beginning, but it isn’t. There is nothing new about her affairs and watching her miss her dead mother (yet another “missing parent” subplot I thought was unnecessary).

Yes, there are certainly a lot of stories here! One might even wonder if there are too much. By the end of the book it was pretty clear to me that a lot of the chapters were filler meant to serve as red herrings, which I guess is a good thing if you like to challenge yourself to solve the plot before the pages end. However, again, the characters were for the most part interesting and I didn’t mind. On the other hand, some of these subplots stray considerably from the main storyline. Freddie, Tom’s son, is an awkward teenager who struggles with the fact that he may have Asperger’s. He also struggles with dating, and while they do give some interesting insight, they add nothing to the overarching story. Entire chapters are devoted to his dating life and probably weren’t needed. It’s some nice representation, but it should have been tied into the novel. I was also questioning why he suddenly started acting according to his new label after he realized he had the disorder. Overall, everyone has a part to play even though I felt at times like Jewell went out of her way to include stories for the sake of throwing us off. Of course, then the book would be a lot smaller, so I guess it kind of works.

As for guessing? This could either be an easy or challenging book to solve, depending on your experience with the genre. I read one sentence or two that blew the thing open for me, but then again I could just be speaking for myself. One aspect of there being several characters to hear from is that everyone has a reason for having a motive, from Jenna’s paranoid mother to Joey herself, and that adds an extra challenge as well as a new level of interest.

Watching You is a somewhat slow burn, but it does begin to get interesting in the second half. which I liked better. I don’t have a lot more to say about it than that other than it’s an interesting look at obsession with interesting characters, and if that’s your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

3 stars

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Every Breath You Take

Book Club Questions (spoilers obviously)

  1. There is a lot of “watching” to be done in this book. Who watches who? When is it harmful and when it is okay? Does social media make it more acceptable for us to spy on people?
    1a. Did you ever learn something about someone else that you weren’t supposed to by watching them? What was it? How did things play out from there?
  2. Who did you first guess to be the murderer? Who did you think was murdered?
  3. Think back to a time in school when there was a big scandal. What happened and what came of it, if anything?
  4. Rebecca has a clear-cut motive for what she did. Do you think that she is a good or bad person? What would have been a better way to go about it? What would you have done?
  5. How much was Tom to blame in any event described in the novel? Do you think he was involved in Viva’s death, directly or indirectly? Was he an intentional womanizer or just a victim of his circumstances?

reviews

Someone We Know: Shari Lapena

Someone We Know: Shari Lapena
Genre: Mystery/suspense
Published: 2019
Pages: 292
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Ravenclaw

In the dark of evening, a teenage boy sneaks into his neighbor’s house and hacks into their computers. Just for fun.

Right after that, a body of someone in the same neighborhood is discovered. Amanda was pretty and flirtatious, and the women hated her. She flirted with everyone’s husbands, and now she has been murdered.

So the question is, who did it? Who is keeping secrets? It turns out that pretty much everyone has something to hide, from Amanda’s ex-husband to the boy’s mom to the new woman across the street. And what did the teenage boy discover that could help or hinder the investigation?

Murder mysteries never really appealed to me. I thought, what kind of entertainment was it to see people getting killed and to figure out who did it? Isn’t that making light of something serious? But this isn’t what Someone We Know tries to accomplish. Instead of glamorizing murder, it struck me as a cautionary tale about lying and keeping even the smallest secrets from family and neighbors.

We’ve seen most of this before. There’s a suburban vibe to things, a neighborhood where nothing rarely ever happens. But…*gasp!…people are hiding secrets. Most of what drives the actions is based on an affair, too, something we’ve seen plenty of times before. As a result, the first half of the book was pretty bland. Readers are introduced to the families on the block, though we don’t know a lot about the families other than that they’re suburban neighbors. Then we have the two detectives who question everyone; readers see the first questioning and then the detectives talk about it amongst themselves. Then this process is repeated with more families. So it gets kind of repetitive in that way, but beginner readers might like the chance to have the information repeated and discussed.

As for the characters themselves, while not interesting, I did find myself caring about what would happen to them. Olivia struck me as a moderate Republican with a baby-boomer the-world-today-sucks attitude and I didn’t like her, originally (not necessarily because of party). Carmine was new to the neighborhood, so you wanted to root for her, but she was such a busybody. One detective, too, seemed to play the obligatory role of the guy who just seems to be there to taunt people and get them in trouble. Actually, there aren’t too many characters here that I really liked. On the other hand, I didn’t despise reading about them either, like there was just enough to be interesting. I was especially interested in Raleigh, the teen hacker who sneaks into people’s houses. At first I didn’t understand how the two stories interacted, but I apprenticed it more when he started playing a role in the mystery. I was disappointed that most scenes involving him were left as cliffhangers, particularly one where readers actually see him break into a house. I would have liked more tie-ins to his storyline. Still, I found myself becoming very drawn to these characters and as a result, got more and more into the book as it went on.

The first half was very generic, but when things pick up, it’s harder to put down. Lapena is good at utilizing twists that make you go back and forth; it’s no longer a straightforward book. Just when you think you know who did it–bam, another piece of evidence comes up. I did figure it out well before the book ended, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing with mysteries. Part of the fun is trying to get ahead of everyone else. Of course, I don’t know whether I first pieced it together because of the clues, or rather, because of the writing and the way that Lapena drops in seemingly useless details. But then you get to the end only to have another whammy revealed, leaving readers with a chill. THIS is the way to end a thriller. You give the characters their ending, and there is closure, but there is still a sense of something wrong that’s a little different. Many authors lately have failed to achieve this balance, and it’s led to hasty endings. Will there be a sequel?

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I wasn’t expecting much, but as things started to come together, it improved and I enjoyed trying to guess who was behind Amanda’s murder.

4 stars (upgraded from 3.5)

SONG OF THE NOVEL- Somebody That I Used to Know

Book Club Questions (spoilers!)

  1. The novel deals with keeping secrets and telling lies. Describe a time you told a lie or kept a secret that had more serious consequences than you expected. Is it ever okay to lie?
  2. Which characters, if any, did you relate to? Which did you dislike? Do you think that their pasts might have shaped the way that they acted?
  3. Who did you originally guess to be the murderer? Why?
  4. If you discovered tomorrow that your best friend committed a heinous crime, could you still be friends? Why or why not? What if it was your significant other, or a family member?
  5. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises in the novel is that characters’ judgments aren’t wrong about Richard Pierce, as seen in the epilogue. Where do you see things going next? For other characters?
reviews

The Perfect Girlfriend: Karen Hamilton

The Perfect Girlfriend: Karen Hamilton
Genre: Psychological thriller
Published: 2018
Pages: 332
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Slytherin

Nate and Juliette are meant to be. Just ask Juliette: it was fate that brought them together years ago.
But now Nate has broken up with her. Juliette isn’t worried though: fate is clearly on their side. And she’d do anything to get them back together again, even if that means getting a new job and flying around the world so she can keep an eye on–and manipulate– his activities.
Juliette isn’t worried. Because she has a plan to get him back for good, whether he likes it or not.

The Perfect Girlfriend is a combination of things I most enjoy in a psychological thriller: an unstable main character (NOT necessarily unreliable), a romance gone wrong, and a woman doing sneaky things to accomplish her goal that we may or may not see coming. Although it’s maybe a done concept by now, when it’s done right, it never fails to satisfy me, and I’d say that Hamilton has done just that.

It’s a slow burn, but the devil is in the details. During the first half, I actually found myself most interested in the details of the career of Juliette/Elizabeth, our main character who is also a flight attendant. It’s not a world I know very much about and few readers probably won’t either. An airplane is a great place for drama to happen, given that it’s so far from ground and claustrophobic. While the book does take a while to get going, I was entertained by her life story and still kept on the edge of my seat to see exactly what this plan would be. Casual bits are dropped to the reader over time, and there are some details which I simply figured out on my own. This is a unique way of writing plot twists–by not ending chapters on big reveals or making a big fuss, but instead by casually revealing things in a way that makes sense.

Adding to the suspense and making up for semi-slowness is Juliette’s cold and calculating voice. She is a good planner, but she is also delusional especially in regards to others’ thinking and her voice captures that very well. My only issue with that is that Hamilton sometimes seems to assume that Nate is thinking the same way, even though Juliette is supposed to be quite the sociopathic thinker and thus typically inaccurate. (Near the end, you’ll see what I mean–it seems unlikely things would just end that way.) She is also sympathetic in that I know what it feels like to have those types of feelings for someone you want to be with when you’re lonely; Hamilton accurately captures those flashes of rage and jealousy. Her backstory adds to the suspenseful tone as well–yes, there is a dead mother scene and yes, it probably could have been left out–but there is also a childhood trauma that plays a part in making Juliette the person she is. You never stop getting the feeling that things are coming, and come they do, particularly as the novel progresses.

Mid-book, the plot jumps from 25 mph to 100. This is when the plans really begin to pick up, but there are other forces from the past too: Bella, Juliette’s tormentor from boarding school, is tied into everything as well. So as she tracks down Nate, there are other parts devoted to her getting revenge. At times, I felt sympathetic to the point where halfway through the book I wondered: is Juliette the good guy here? At first it seems like there are just many subplots, but readers will find that they tie together in the end. As for the action itself? Sometimes I did have to suspend disbelief, for example during a scene where she is tricking Nate into taking a bigger step by using drugs and the later evidence shows that he is happy about taking that step. It seemed to me that it would be pretty difficult to get someone to go through with those kinds of things whilst on drugs and to look happy about them even more. No doubt that Juliette gets lucky sometimes. Still, it’s exciting. But I would also love to see a thriller where everything goes wrong for the person in question.

I won’t spoil the ending here, but it’s a little different than what you might expect. It wasn’t entirely my cup of tea, but it was fine, and I also thought that again it was unlikely that the characters were accepting their fates at that point in time when there were still things that could be done. Or maybe it was just me overthinking things. Otherwise, I can’t think of many things that bothered me in this novel. This was a hard one to put down. If you like thrillers about romance gone wrong, you’ll enjoy The Perfect Girlfriend.

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Look What You Made Me Do; Taylor Swift

4.5 stars

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Should Christians Read Thrillers?

I recently came across a blog post where the blogger wondered if some certain Christian books could qualify as Christian. The books had some edgy themes that the faith doesn’t really encourage.

I used to think the same way. I avoided all these types of books, thinking they wouldn’t be very clean entertainment. But are they as bad as they sound? With recurring themes such as cheating, killing one another, and keeping secrets and lies, it doesn’t sound that way.

I find that most people read thrillers to be surprised. They like the heart-pounding suspense or solving a mystery. To sum up, we read these books for the excitement, or an escape.

First off, the main characters don’t always condone the behavior. Granted, not all characters are good people. But how many of us are perfect? We’ve all done things that we shouldn’t. I feel, too, that not only are the characters avoiding the people that display this behavior, but the readers aren’t supporting it either. They’re holding their breath, hoping that the good people win in the end. Heck, even the Bible has many moments it doesn’t encourage. Just because Judas betrays Jesus doesn’t mean the Bible condones cheating. Something being written about doesn’t mean the author agreeing with it. Actually, a lot of the thrillers I’ve read recently serve as warnings against the behaviors displayed. I’ll often finish the book feeling grateful for the life I currently have.

These type of books also often deal with larger issues. You warns against social media use. Obsession warns us how envy can tear lives apart. Never Let You Go deals with relationships. In fact, many of the ones I’ve read deal with abusive relationships in some degree. This is a very real issue, and in many thrillers, readers can go along and root for the characters to go on and have a better life. It really opens your eyes to the issues and what these women content with. So the overall message is not necessarily harmful. Nobody here is rooting for the bad guy. That was how I originally thought of these types of books.

Still, there are times when us Christians need to watch what we read and continue holding themselves to that moral standard. This may be up to you. Do Christian readers find themselves sympathizing with or rooting for the villain, like Joe Goldberg of You fame? Do they find themselves thinking about how exhilarating cheating on a marriage could be after reading about the exciting affair a side character committed? Maybe it’s time to take a break from these types of novels. For me, I personally draw the line at murder mysteries, particularly the light-hearted ones. Murder is a thing that really happens to people and I don’t like to make light of that. Whereas with thrillers, we sympathize with the main character (usually) and we hold our breaths, hoping that everything turns out for the best–and we’re stunned when it doesn’t. Ultimately, that’s what I want anyway.

Of course, not all characters are likable and that’s a different story. Take Pekkanen’s The Perfect Neighbors, where several have dirty secrets to hide. I didn’t feel like I wanted any of them to win. Same with A Simple Favor...nobody was likable and all deserved what was coming to them. I didn’t enjoy those books as much. As long as the reader can separate good from bad, and realize that maybe that the characters aren’t role models, there isn’t a problem. However, I feel like those books aren’t as enjoyable anyway. There need to be some well-intentioned characters for me to like a book, but that isn’t always obvious before I delve into one. It’s very easy to accidentally pick up a racy book when that content isn’t advertised, like I did with Kiss Quotient. It happens.

I think that if Christians are looking for a good, wholesome book where the character is perfect, they will never finish that quest. You might as well give up reading altogether. But that’s because we’re all flawed. And isn’t that why we read: to go on a journey with a flawed character and watch them change over time? We can hope, anyway. I think that if readers are reading for the sake of trying to figure out a mystery, or just to be excited, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, in some cases we should still be watchful of content and be alert to books that are making light of serious issues. That to me is where the problem occurs.

Christianity has become so much more about judging others’ behavior than it is about God and faith and I think that needs to change. It might start with books.