Tag: Mystery

Review: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker


We believe what we want to believe. We believe what we need to believe. Maybe there’s no difference between wanting and needing. I don’t know. What I do know is that the truth can evade us, hiding behind our blind spots, our preconceptions, our hungry hearts that long for quiet. Still, it is always there if we open our eyes and try to see it. If we really try to see.

Three years ago, sisters Emma and Cass went missing. On the day Emma in the Night opens, Cass turns back up on her mother’s lawn with a story of captivity and escape. Cass insists that Emma and her young daughter, born on the island where the sisters were held, is still there awaiting rescue. Leading the FBI’s efforts to untangle what happened is forensic psychologist Dr. Abby Winter, a woman still healing from the wounds the case left when it was fruitlessly investigated three years prior. Dr. Winter never got over the conviction that Judy Martin—Emma and Cass’s mother and a textbook narcissist—was involved. But how would Judy be tied to the couple who kept Emma and Cass hostage on the island? The more the bureau digs, the more the stories –including Cass’s—begin to unravel. Why is Cass lying? And who else is?

POV Characters
The story is told in alternating chapters by our omniscient narrator following Cass and Dr. Winter/Abby, though the chapters following Abby fell flat for me. I’m not sure if the author spent more time with Cass (I didn’t count pages and am not going to now), if she was better developed, the first-person narrator for Cass helped, or I simply identified with her more. The end result for me, however, was that Cass felt more well-rounded and I cared about what happened to her. In contrast, Abby’s trauma is obliquely referenced but doesn’t ever feel well fleshed out. For the reader to really appreciate how this case affected Abby, rather than vaguely referencing her (also narcissistic) mother and telling us Abby substitutes alcohol for sleep, Walker needed to show us. Because of the reference to her background with no real flashbacks or substance, the book almost read as if it were a continuation in a series and the reader should already know Abby’s background rather than a new stand alone book with a fleshed out character. I did, however, appreciate that Dr. Winter and her partner Leo could have a history as friends, work together through the entire book, and keep their friend boundaries. The book would have been way too messy had this become a romantic relationship.

Though I found her more compelling overall, I did find Cass’s voice inconsistent through the narrative. Particularly in the first 2/3 of the book, she comes across as very childlike though she’s 18 when the book opens. This could be explained by her being emotionally stunted by her narcissistic mother and three years in captivity, yet Cass’s decision-making and her voice age up quickly to that of an 18 year old in the last chapters of the book after the truth is revealed. This did not feel like part of Cass’s manipulation, but rather an inconsistency in the writing.

Emotionally brutal plot
While Emma in the Night is, relatively speaking, not a physically violent/graphic thriller overall, it is shockingly emotionally brutal. As the novel progresses, more and more of Judy Martin’s background and her treatment of her children is revealed. At times, these stories of Judy’s pathological choices are as disturbing as graphic scenes of violence. This is not a book I would recommend for friends who are survivors of child abuse themselves or work closely in that field—this would not be an escapist read.

Along the same vein, even for a psychological thriller, the lengths the various characters go to manipulate each other is extreme, though nothing quite like Gone Girl. The book has the feel of an unreliable narrator because of how manipulative each of the characters are, though Cass never lies directly to the reader. While Cass’s sections are written in first person, Abby’s are an omniscient third person, which lends to the odd/untrustworthy feeling of the entire narrative.

If you’ve read some of my other reviews, you know that accuracy in mental health portrayals can make or break a book for me. I’m not familiar with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, so it was harder for me to judge those aspects here. It rang true for the little I know and I didn’t see anything in the DSM that would make me question whether Judy’s portrayal in Emma in the Night was inaccurate.

I did struggle some with Cass. As I noted, her voice shifts about 2/3 of the way through the book and she makes some choices that would have seemed out of character or even impossible in the early chapters. In contrast, her explanation as to how she could have gotten used to life over the last three years ring true—people, especially children, can be remarkably resilient. We can also be our own worst enemies at times when evaluating what we deserve. Cass’s monologues for the earlier parts feel accurate to me for someone who had survived trauma. With the later parts, however, I do not see how this woman-child possibly gained perspective and made some of the choices she made without serious therapy. I hope for her sake, she got some when the book ended.

In Sum
Overall, this was another easy palate cleanser. (I may be the only person I know who treats thrillers like palate cleansers, but my usual fare is either LitFic or deals with heavier topics like racism or transphobia). But I digress—Emma in the Night isn’t perfect, it isn’t high fiction, but it isn’t trying to be. It is a much-better-than-average contribution to the thriller genre and has a unique twist with the in-depth look at narcissistic personality disorder and how it may (or may not) have contributed to what happened. The book isn’t too neat or terribly unbelievable but has a definite ending. There’s more than one twist, which makes figuring out everything going on more of a challenge or surprise, depending on how you read thrillers. I recommend Emma in the Night for fans of the genre or anyone looking to pick up a dark, fast-paced thriller that doesn’t read like a police procedural—with the caveat about the subject matter mentioned above.

Finally, if you’re like me and occasionally wonder what on earth made you go to law school, it’s always nice to see a lawyer succeed at something more interesting than being a lawyer. On days when I almost can’t take it anymore, I can comfort myself with the idea that maybe I too could become a novelist like Walker.

Published August 8, 2017 by St. Martin’s Press (@stmartinspress)
Author: Wendy Walker (@wendygwalker)
Source: Book of the Month (chosen by guest judge Krysten Ritter @therealkrystenritter)
Date read: September 18, 2017
Rating: 3 ½ Stars

Review: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka


Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for sending me an advance reader copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Nostalgia is my favorite emotion. It’s like, you think you know how to deal with the passage of time, but nostalgia will prove you wrong. You’ll press your face into an old sweatshirt, or you’ll look at a familiar shade of paint on a front door, and you’ll be reminded of all the time that got away from you. If you could live it all again, you’d take a long moment to look around, to examine knees against knees. Nostalgia puts you in this dangerous re-creation something you can never have again. It’s ruthless, and for the most part, inaccurate.


On February 15, the town of Broomsville, Colorado awakes to find that fifteen year-old Lucinda Hayes has been murdered. As the small town swirls with grief and gossip, we follow three characters—Cameron, a neighbor who loved her and may have also stalked her; Jade, a classmate who hated her for being everything she couldn’t be; and Russ, a police officer torn between his duty to serve and his duty to protect, especially to protect Cameron. As more is slowly revealed, the book begs the questions—Who are you when no one’s watching? And can you ever really know someone if you’re only ever watching from the outside?

At first, I assumed, based on the title, that Girl in Snow was a YA book. A few chapters in, I realized that wasn’t the case. Instead, the title is a nod to the way works of art are named, as we see Lucinda, left for dead on a snowy playground, through the eyes of two classmates/neighbors and a police officer involved in the investigation.

From the first sentences on, the readers knows the central point around which the rest of the book turns is the murder of a fifteen year-old girl, but no one knows who murdered her. Ok, so this book must be a thriller/murder-mystery—indeed, a quick check of Amazon has the book categorized as “women’s fiction” and “literary fiction” and then in the sub-genres of “mystery, thriller, and suspense” within each.

Except, even this genre didn’t fit neatly, or at least, does not follow the typical structure of a mystery/thriller/suspense novel in my book. The bulk of the book follows three characters and the choices they (and others) make when they think no one is watching. Far more time is spent on character development than dropping clues, such that when the killer is identified, the resolution is swift, almost an afterthought to the other sub-stories being told about Cameron, Jade, and Russ. (Which, in the interest of #nospoilers is not say that it isn’t one of them, but simply that the focus of the book isn’t on who did it as much as how these three characters are coping with the murder and the role they have in the event and the resulting investigation).

The highlight of Kukafka’s first novel is Cameron. It’s never directly stated, but his mannerisms seemed to indicate pretty strongly to me that he is on the spectrum—making collections, storing images, intensely focused, but socially withdrawn. Cameron is obsessed with watching—he prowls the neighborhood at night, watching the inhabitants, especially watching Lucinda. Though they have had almost no actual interaction, Cameron loves the Lucinda he watches. When Lucinda’s body is found, he is immediately a suspect—though he has been careful, he’s less clever than he thinks and people know he’s been watching Lucinda. Even Cameron wonders if it might be him, as the night of her death is missing from Cameron’s memory.

Protecting Cameron the best he can is Russ, a police officer who was Cameron’s father’s partner for years on the force before Cameron’s father was forced to leave in shame. Russ, more than the other main characters, has let what others see of him define who he actually is—with the result that he’s walking around half-alive, still consumed with his missing partner and his promise to keep his son safe.

Finally, we have Jade. I loved Kukafka’s little details with Jade—I may have cheered out loud at the reference to her listening to Box Car Racer and Dashboard Confessional (the book is set so that they are teenagers in the late 90s’/early 2000s’ when I was). Jade is that kid in school who doesn’t seem to have friends but also don’t seem to want them. It’s easier to reject someone before they reject you. She’s prickly and unattractive. And yet, like Cameron, she steals her way into your heart.

The last thing you want is for any of these three to have been involved in Lucinda’s death. Yet Jade hated her, Cameron stalked her, and Russ has hidden evidence to protect someone in Cameron’s family before.

These characters are what made Girl in Snow stand out from the typical murder mystery from me. I usually spend my entire time reading, trying to pick up clues. I can usually figure out the murderer and, often, the motive at least a few chapters before the big reveal. I didn’t find myself doing that with Girl in Snow. Kukafka made me care, desperately, more about who I hoped didn’t commit the murder than about who did. I didn’t spend my time looking for lots of clues, rather I waited for Cameron to work his way through his memory, hoping that when it came back it wouldn’t be him. I won’t say more and spoil the book, but turning this typical view of the mystery on its head was one of Kukafka’s better choices, as the book was richer than your typical mass market paperback murder mystery, though diehard mystery/thriller fans may find the ending rather abrupt with very few clues leading you as to both who the murderer was and why.

In some ways, by choosing the three characters she did, Kukafka chose the three anti-heroes. None of the three of them are likeable. Even the other significant minor characters—Ivan, Ines, and Cynthia—wouldn’t have been terribly likeable had their narrative been added. But then again, the more you find out about someone you’ve been watching, in many ways, the more unlikeable they become. Just as Cameron never got a full glimpse of Lucinda in his hours of watching her, perhaps love is coming to know someone, to find them unlikeable, and choosing them anyway.

I struggled more with rating this book than with others. As I noted, since it didn’t read like a typical mystery/thriller to me, it didn’t seem fair to judge it against others in that category I’ve enjoyed or think are well done. It was almost more of a straight literary fiction novel that happened to be set around a murder. With that in mind, I gave this book 3 ¾ stars—it’s well-written, tightly-edited, and Kukafka can turn a beautiful phrase, though it didn’t have the pop of something like This is How It Always Is or even Almost Sisters. It wasn’t as stand out as other lit-fics I’ve recently read, so that knocked it down a bit.

However, this was by no means a book that’s finding itself on my running list of “Books I should have abandoned” (looking at you Hillbilly Elegy). I was engaged, I enjoyed the story, and I thought Kukafka did well by her characters. I loved her gentleness with Cameron in particular. If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you know I can get a little heart-eyes over flowery prose—this book isn’t flowery. The prose is well done without being over the top. So while I didn’t love the prose as much as I did in something like The Heart or Exit West, I know those books also drive some readers a little nuts. If that’s you, you’ll do fine with Girl in Snow—it’s beautiful but not showy. If you generally enjoy non-standard murder mysteries and highly character-driven books, I suspect you’ll find Girl in Snow worth your time.

Published: August 1, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster)
Author: Danya Kukafka (@danyakukafka)
Date read: August 15, 2017
Rating: 3 3/4 Stars

Review: I Found You by Lisa Jewell


She wants to keep the key to the door of this life she has had such a small taste of…

On a rainy afternoon Alice comes across a man on her beach. The man, named “Frank” by the youngest of Alice’s three children, has lost himself—his name, his place, his past. Against her better judgment and the judgment of her neighbors, Alice takes him in, slowly coming to love the man before her, even as they both strive to find out who that is exactly. Simultaneously, Ukranian Lily Monrose, the twenty-one year old newly-arrived bride of Carl, is reporting her husband missing. Put off by the police, Lily takes matters into her own hands, looking for her husband while simultaneously navigating her new world of London with its unusual inhabitants.

Interspersed with the modern story is the tale of Gray and Kirsty, a teenage brother and sister on summer holiday who meet and fall into the web of Mark, a boy more complicated than anyone realizes.

Structure and Characters

I Found You has an interesting structure in that while it is a mystery/thriller, the twist is revealed well before the end of the book, leaving over an hour of the recording (I listened to this one on audiobook) to wrap up. This structure could be listless and dragging if Jewell hadn’t developed her characters with such depth that I felt compelled to find out what happened to them. It is one of the main strengths of this book that Jewell develops her characters so compellingly that even outside of the mystery and the twist, the reader is hooked by the relationships. Will Lily find her husband and, if so, what will happen to her? Will Alice wind up with Frank? In fact, Jewell does such an excellent job putting her characters forefront that the twist was all the more shocking for its darkness—I had almost forgotten I was reading a book that had been compared to The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. (Both books, by the way, that I absolutely hated. Can we retire comparing books to those two yet? Take heart, you too can love this book if you hated those.)

Strangers and Being Found

In I Found You, everyone is a stranger. Alice is a refugee to Ridinghouse Bay, seeking quiet and solitude after a tumultuous life (both generally and romantically). Frank, by virtue of having no idea of who he is, is quiet literally a stranger to everyone, including himself. Lily as the recent immigrant is strange to everyone around her. Gray is the quintessential teenage boy, finding himself, but lonely and adrift in the way only teenagers can be. Carl and Mark are both strangers even, or especially, to those who know them.

In some ways this is a relief. Strange does not have to mean bad or even that one will always be lonely. Some strangers are dangerous, but not everyone is and some strangers are worth taking risks to welcome. Which leads to the title—if everyone is a stranger, then everyone is waiting to be found. Indeed, there are at least seven combinations of characters finding each other in an overlapping scheme that could each give impetus to the title here. I love that Jewell leaves who found whom ambiguous.


One of the things I appreciated most about I Found You was Jewell’s ability to make me identify with and care about someone who is nothing like me. Alice makes bad choices. Alice watches the telly rather than reading books. Alice lives somewhat messily. Alice is almost nothing like me and yet I loved her and rooted for her. It’s rare I can be made to care deeply about someone that I cannot find a single thing in common with and it speaks to Jewell as a writer to be able to develop her so gently and so well. Additionally, if you had asked me before I read this book, I would not have believed that you could convince me that a likeable, mostly rational character would invite a total stranger to live in her house and yet, Jewell made that choice fit into who Alice is. Of course Alice would invite Frank in and, of course, the reader will love her for it.


I admit that I particularly enjoy getting audiobooks when the reader is foreign, even where the original language is still English. There’s something fun about listening to a British accent telling the story, describing people in their jumpers eating scones (ok…I’ll stop). The audio for I Found You is voiced by Helen Duff, who does an excellent job. Because so much of the story is told (particularly at the beginning) around Alice’s point of view, I came to hear her voice as Alice’s, drawing me closer to her as a character. Since Alice is nothing like me and makes choices I wouldn’t make (hello bringing in strange amnesiac living on the beach), this extra level of connection to Alice was valuable to me as a reader/listener. She also does an excellent job with Lily’s Ukranian-accented English. Duff’s voice is melodic and soothing for an audiobook without being so soothing that one loses what’s going on. (We’ve all been there right? The voice is so soothing you stop paying attention to the actual words and have no idea what is happening.) The cadence and rise and fall of Duff’s voice were a perfect selection for I Found You and make this book particularly fun as an audiobook.


I will start by saying that I am particularly sensitive to people using mental illness as a plot device and it is almost never something I think is done well. With that out of the way, it irked me to no end that the villain in this case was described at one point as mentally ill. While it is true that sociopathy and psychopathy are in the DSM V, these are personality disorders which should be distinguished from things like bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia. We’ve come to believe and accept that sociopaths and psychopaths are dangerous (a gross generalization as well) and when those groups are lumped in with general mental illness, we’ve created a culture that believes having any mental illness automatically means you’re dangerous. In fact only 3-5% of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness. On the contrary, having a mental illness makes you more likely to be the victim of a crime than a perpetrator.

To a lesser extent, I had trouble believing some of Lily’s actions. She is supposed to be a brand new immigrant, only twenty-one and married to someone almost twice her age. While I did not think she had to be a shrinking violet (and was glad she wasn’t), her choices and decisions made me forget how young and new-to-the-country she was supposed to be. While Jewell has points of her character development that remind you of her age—her grocery store run for what is ultimately 90% junk food—overall, she was a bit too capable and old-sounding to be the almost child-bride she was supposed to be. This may also have been as a contrast to Alice, whose character was developed so well that it highlighted ways in which Lily wasn’t as much.


For a book with as many twists and turns as this one—no one’s real life is actually like this, right?—Jewell does well to conclude the story in a way that is satisfactory without being too neat and tidy. At some point in a book like this, everyone’s hands have gotten too dirty for everything to end happily ever after, something Jewell seems to recognize. In that way, it would be easy to end this book earlier, to leave the reader hanging. The story itself is messy enough (in terms of action, not in terms of Jewell’s writing or story development) that it would be plausible for no one to have a happy ending. It is a credit to Jewell that in addition to hooking the reader with her characters, she then cares enough about them and us to allow us some resolution without completely losing the plot. There may be some who think the story ends implausibly; however, I didn’t find it any more implausible than the rest of the book. (I need to think things like this are implausible. I need to think that people like Amy in Gone Girl and certain characters in I Found You are not actually running around out there.)


I Found You is great for the beach or a dark and stormy summer night on the veranda. It’s never going to be read for a literature class, but it’s not trying to be high literature. I love books like this for a palate cleanser when I’ve been reading things that are heavier. I Found You is an excellent contribution to its genre.

Published: April 25, 2017 by Atria Books (@atriabooks)
Author: Lisa Jewell (@jewellwrites)
Date Read: June 26, 2017 (by Hoopla audiobook)
Rating: 3 ¾ stars