Tag: Thriller

Review: The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh


Here’s to the person you might have been, and to the person you have become. May they never meet in a dark alley.

Welcome to the town of Ceasura (a.k.a. “The Blinds”)—a forgotten spot in west Texas, home to criminals and innocents, all of whom have had the memories of what they did and what they know wiped. Here is where the undesirables are hidden, those who made the Faustian bargain to sell their memories to save their skins. The town is puttering along just fine with this group of criminals and innocents—though no one knows which is which—intermingling in relative peace and isolation until one of their own is murdered. With no one in or out, the killer must be among them. The murder also invites the outside world in—something that hasn’t happened in eight years. As the crime is investigated, the foundation upon which the town was built starts to crumble—after all, if everyone is a former criminal, it could be anybody and nobody’s safe.

The Cost
If you could chose to forget the worst things you did—the ways in which you hurt others—would you? While it may be better for society that some (most) of these people aren’t out and about committing crimes anymore, I really had to question this cost. In many cases, before the “technique” was refined, the removal of memory resulted in the removal of far more than just the memory of the crimes the town’s inhabitants committed or witnessed. Is it worth the cost of forgetting who you are in exchange for forgetting what you did? I suspect most of us would say “no,” but then most of my readers (…I assume) are not serial murders.

Nature vs. Nurture
When their crimes were removed from their memories, interestingly, so were many of the criminal proclivities—this is true for all but one person, though for reasons that become clear s/he was left with those proclivities for a reason. Towards the end of the book, as things in The Blinds start to unravel, you discover who some of the town’s occupants really are and what their crimes were. Many of the crimes are the sort where there was an internal motivation—a want, a need, a proclivity—that you wouldn’t think would be totally uprooted simply by removing the memories of the crimes. And yet, life in the Blinds has been, until very recently, pretty crime-free. Though not the main thrust of this book, this choice has interesting implications for the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate. If your proclivity towards a crime was removed with the memories, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that crime/criminal motivations are the result of Nurture—so that they can be uprooted? If they’re Nature, then they’re inborn and mere removal of memory wouldn’t remove the natural hardwiring of the brain. Tied then to the larger theme, you have implications for the value of human life—if you could remove criminal proclivity along with the memory of crime, then no life is beyond repair, no life is irredeemable, no matter the crime.

The Value of Human Life
It’s rare that a suspense book inspires deep philosophical debate and yet, here we are. In setting up Ceasura the way he did, Sternberg invites the reader to consider larger questions about the value of human life and the way it is measured. As the roots of The Blinds are exposed, the reader learns the forgotten/removed crimes of some of the town’s inhabitants—and they are exactly as bad and as heinous as they could be—there’s a child pornographer, a torturer for hire. Sternbergh deliberately chose crimes for which there is no sympathy. But here is the slippery slope—as I discovered who some of the occupants were, my bent was to show no mercy and not to mourn if bad things happened to these people. But if I don’t mind bad things happening to these people, where do we draw that line? Who decides who gets to die? Is any crime truly deserving of death? Does it change the evaluation if the person has no memory of the crime and has not done anything since?

I don’t want a philosophical debate, I just want a suspense novel
While I tend to overthink everything (as the previous paragraphs likely demonstrate), The Blinds is also an excellent book as a pure suspense novel. Because no one knows who they are, there are several mini revelations and twists in the book—some are more obvious than others, but all seemed to me to be fairly well done. The premise is certainly unique, the villain(s) interesting (though who the villain(s) are is really up for debate if almost everyone is a criminal….but I digress). The writing is tight, the characters believable with individual personalities, even with everyone being somewhat of a blank slate. The book was well-paced so I never felt like I had to push through at any point—from the beginning it was engaging. I would go so far as to say it’s my favorite suspense novel so far this year.

Who would you be?
One of the fun little details in the book is that everyone chooses a new name from two lists when they first arrive. One name from a classic Hollywood star (recognizable) and Vice Presidents (“What’s more forgettable than a vice president?”). This fun little detail invites the reader to think about what they would name themselves. Should anyone come looking for me in The Blinds, they can ask for Audrey Biden.

Published August 1, 2017 by Ecco (@eccobooks), an imprint of HarperCollins (@harpercollinsus)
Author: Adam Sternbergh
Date read: October 1, 2017
Rating: 3 3/4 stars

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: 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