Posts Tagged ‘mystery’

After reading and really enjoying Sager’s first novel Final Girls, I was eager to check out his latest book, The Last Time I Lied, when I found out about it. It helped that the protagonist was a young woman with a dark past (my favorite kind of character to work with) and the story combined an old horror trope with some of the new thriller-type storytelling that we’ve seen in novels like Gone Girl and The Woman in the Window, as well as in Sager’s last book. What more could I ask for? Excited, I downloaded the audio book before the New Year, and started listening.

The Last Time I Lied follows Emma Davis, a New York City artist who is invited back to Camp Nightingale as an art instructor for its first summer in fifteen years. One problem: Fifteen years ago when Emma was a camper at Camp Nightingale, her three bunkmates went missing and were never found. This incident has haunted Emma all through her teens and adulthood, and she decides to go back to see if she can’t finally put the past to bed and maybe even find out what happened to her friends. Weaving between the past and the present, Emma arrives at camp and finds very little is as it seems, and gets caught up in a web of mystery, one with her old bunkmates at the center of it, and which threatens to entrap her and the current crop of campers inside.

One thing I loved about this story is that the camp setting and the camp reminded me of my own camper days. Yeah, my camp was co-ed and Jewish in nature and the one in the book is a secular all-girls camp, but the amount of swearing, the hormones and the differing personalities that sometimes get along and sometimes clash kind of brought me home. But beyond that, this novel is just as twisty as Final Girls was. Every moment you think you know what’s happening or what’s happened, the story throws you for a loop and introduces new information that makes you rethink everything. I was only able to guess a couple of those twists out of all of them, and given that I’m not normally very good at doing that for most mysteries,

I also felt a lot of connection with Emma herself. She’s a very well-developed character, and I understood how the events of the past affected her in the present (I’ve been there too, though nowhere as severe). But you also see how caring she is, and how that caring makes her want to seek out the truth and to protect those around her. She’s a great example of a protagonist for this sort of story, and I hope I can learn from reading her story to write those sorts of characters in my own stories.

A few things did stick out for me with this story. Remember those twists I was able to guess? Well, at times said twists did feel a bit obvious, so the emotional response at their reveal wasn’t as strong as it could’ve been. At least for me. For others, it could be different. Also, there’s this subplot involving a relationship between Emma and another major character she has history with, not all of it good. And while that subplot did add some drama to the story, I didn’t like how it concluded. Without spoiling anything, after everything that occurs in the novel, I find the hints as to the direction the relationship may go in the future hard to believe.

But all in all, I really enjoyed The Last Time I Lied. It’s a twisty story with plenty of surprises and great characters that play off each other in all the best ways. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving it a 4.3. Sign up and dive right in for a great thrill ride.

I’m looking forward to Sager’s next novel, Lock Every Door, when it comes out this summer. And if you read Final Girls or The Last Time I Lied, you will be too.

You know, I’ve never reviewed a proper Stephen King story on this blog before. I’ve reviewed plenty of adaptations of his work, but never any of his actual stories. Probably because I’ve either gotten to them too late and so much time has passed that doing a review seems silly (which is true with the vast majority of his bibliography) or I didn’t feel there was enough to talk about to actually write a decent review (such as Gwendy’s Button Box, co-written with author Richard Chizmar). So I’m glad I’m finally able to review one of his books here. And this one is something else: it’s his latest novel, The Outsider.

The Outsider follows Ralph Anderson, a detective in the small city of Flint City, Oklahoma. The novel opens with Ralph and his fellow officers arresting Terry Maitland, a local teacher and boys’ baseball coach who is beloved by Flint City, for the horrific murder of a young boy. The state’s case seems ironclad: there’s not only eyewitnesses, but a ton of physical evidence linked back to Maitland. But soon after the arrest, evidence arises to cast doubt on Maitland’s guilt, and it’s just as ironclad. The contradiction in this case leads to a domino effect as Anderson and his allies try to figure out if the beloved Coach Maitland is hiding a darker personality, or if someone else, someone darker and worse, is at large in the town.

Now before I go into my review, let me just say that this book shares a few characters in common with King’s Mr. Mercedes trilogy, and contains a few spoilers. So if you haven’t read those books yet and would like to be surprised, probably hold off on this book until you’ve read those.

So I have to say, I came away very satisfied with this story. I like how King starts out with this novel seeming like a regular thriller-mystery: he shows the arrest, switching between the action and then showing interviews and documents from the investigation. The Outsider continues in this vein for a little while, but then goes in a different direction that defies your expectations so far. From there it develops into a compelling and strange read with some great characters. I especially liked Holly Gibney, who comes from the Mr. Mercedes trilogy. She’s neuro-atypical, like myself, but is shown to be an integral part of the investigation and makes certain leaps that, without her, the other characters might never be able to. It’s a very real portrayal of someone with disabilities, and I related to Holly on a number of levels. I love those sorts of portrayals of neuro-diverse people in fiction, and I hope to see more in the future.

But probably the novel’s greatest strength is just how hard it is to put down. King takes mystery, the strange, great characters, and much more to make a read that’s hard to put down. Normally I’m able to restrain myself to reading during my lunch break or on weekends, but this novel was so good, I found myself reading it late into the evening at times (which helped me to get to this review today).

That being said, The Outsider does have its issues. One of the biggest ones is that we’ve seen a lot of the concepts used and explored in the book in other King novels, and frankly done better there. I won’t say what, but they’re pretty obvious, and every time they came up, I kept thinking to myself, “This feels like a lighter/duller version of insert-story-name-here.” That, and I felt that the climax could’ve been a bit more epic. It was decent, but I felt it was hampered by too much exposition on the parts of the characters and the story’s villain, who is humanized a little too much (that makes more sense if you’ve read the book). Which, unfortunately, lowers the terror factor with a creative villain that could be as scary as some of King’s other famous villains. I was disappointed about that.

Overall, The Outsider is an entrancing and powerful read, subverting your expectations and leaving you wanting more. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving it a 4.6. Check it out, and get sent down a mine shaft full of the strange and the unsettling.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’ve got my own novel to work on, so I’m going to get on that this evening. Until then, pleasant nightmares!

I’ve been keen to read this novel since Stephen King tweeted about it months ago, saying this novel, which apparently is the first work of an already-established author published under a pen name, was the first great thriller of 2017.* By the time it came out on July 11th, I was one of the first people to get a copy at the library. And while I don’t always agree with King on what makes a good story (see my review for A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay), I have to say, he was right that this is a great thriller novel, possibly the first great one of 2017 (I haven’t read most of the others that came out this year, so who am I to judge?).

Final Girls follows Quincy Carpenter, the lone survivor of the Pine Cottage Massacre, in which a man she only refers to as Him killed all her friends while on a camping trip and she was the only survivor. This has made Quincy part of an exclusive club known as the Final Girls, women who have survived horror-movie style massacres and, like the girls in those movies, are the only ones to survive. The other two are Lisa Milner, the survivor of a sorority house murder spree in Indiana, and Samantha Boyd, who escaped and killed a killer known as the Sack Man at a motel in Florida. Quincy, who has no memory of the events at Pine Cottage, wants nothing but to keep up her baking blog, maybe marry her defense attorney boyfriend someday, and have some definition of normal.

That is, until Lisa Milner dies under mysterious circumstances in Indiana, and Samantha Boyd shows up at Quincy’s apartment in New York to talk. Suddenly Quincy’s life is thrown into a maelstrom as Sam’s presence threatens not just to unearth the memories from that fateful night, but change her world forever.

Immediately, you feel like this is two stories in one, a standard slasher and a mystery/thriller. On the slasher hand, you get to read Quincy’s recollections of Pine Cottage, which are told in third-person POV and past tense. And on the other hand, you get the events of Quincy’s current life, which are told in first-person POV and present tense, which is a mystery/thriller mixed with the story of two completely opposite people trying to bond over an incredible and dark situation. And both stories are peppered with references to horror movies, especially the best of the slasher genre. There are some obvious ones: Quincy’s last name is a reference to director John Carpenter of the Halloween series, while Lisa Milner’s massacre is an obvious reference to Black Christmas. But there are other, subtler references.  The mystery elements definitely remind me of the Scream movies and the TV series, which utilize mystery to offset themselves from tried-and-done-to-death slasher stories, as well as elements that make me think of Urban Legend. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, there are probably references I don’t recognize from movies/comics/shows/books I haven’t seen or read yet.

I also really enjoyed the characters. Quincy felt incredibly real to me: rather than being a character who’s always good and delicate or always damaged and dealing with her issues, she’s actually a pretty good balance of both. She’s clearly made some progress in trying to move on and have a new normal, but she also has issues that she doesn’t want to address, even takes some joy in, and those occasionally threaten the balance she’s trying to maintain in her life. It’s very refreshing to see such a realistic character like that. I also found Samantha Boyd (or Sam, as she prefers), to be very real. She’s a girl whose life is one defined by horrors, and who’s trying, in her own way, to reach out to the one person left in the world who knows what it’s like to have felt horrors like hers. The way she does it isn’t exactly smooth, but it does feel like someone with her background might use to reach out and find some mutual catharsis.

But the best part of the story is definitely how twisty it is. Even when we go back to Quincy’s past, it is anything but a standard slasher, going in directions you don’t see coming. Just today, while reading the last 70 or so pages, I kept marveling at surprise after surprise after surprise. And that’s pretty much how it is for most of the book, especially in the latter half of it. I think even some veteran mystery/thriller fans will find themselves surprised at the twists in store here in Final Girls.

If there’s one thing that might have been a drawback for this novel, I felt that the moments that Quincy and Sam were trying to bond were a little slow at times, but that may be nitpicking on my part. They were still well-written parts, and they showed both how much these girls wanted to be friends and how much they rubbed against each other as people.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving Final Girls a well-earned 4.6. From one page to the next, you never know what to expect, and it will only leave you wanting more. Go ahead, pick it up, and find you have a hard time putting it down.

* This tweet and hints about the author’s identity make me think it might be Stephen King’s son Joe Hill doing his own Richard Bachman turn, but that’s just my guess.

"No Matter How Improbable" by Angela Misri

“No Matter How Improbable” by Angela Misri

I’m of the opinion that the third book in a series can be really hard to pull off, especially when the first two books were just that awesome. I’m glad to say that while the third book in the Portia Adams Adventure series by friend and fellow writer Angela Misri is a bit darker than the previous two books, it’s still a great read and I enjoyed reading it from start to finish.

So if you’re unfamiliar with the book series, it follows Portia Constance Adams, a young woman who finds out she’s the granddaughter of John Watson (as in Holmes and Watson), and moves into 221B Baker Street and begins solving mysteries in 1930s London. The third book starts with Portia now known to the great wide world as the new consulting detective at 221B, and, in addition to a bit of annoying notoriety, she’s dealing with some rather upsetting aspects of being human. Namely, you sometimes argue with, and sometimes you even lose some friends.

These themes of struggle with your friends and loss are present throughout the book, and they can be either a plus or a minus, depending on the reader. In my case, I think I’ll go with a plus. Seeing Portia’s struggles with her friends, which often are somehow wrapped up with the cases she’s taking on, makes for great character development, and makes you want to read more to see how she resolves these problems. You also feel a lot of what Portia’s feeling as you read on, which shows how good Angela is at making you feel what the character feels.

I also found the cases in the story very compelling. Again, I struggled trying to figure out who the culprit or culprits were in each case, and each time I was pleasantly surprised (I’m better at figuring out culprits on crime shows than I am in the books, it seems). My favorite was the mystery “Principessa”, which follows the actual Princess Francesca Maria of the Italian royal family. It was pretty cool, seeing an actual figure from history in a historical mystery novel.

If there were things I thought could’ve been improved upon, I did think that the final casebook was a little crowded. So much was going on in that book–a strange death, a couple of odd men following a friend of Portia’s, and a suspicious psychologist–that it’s hard to keep track of what is part of which case when. That, and in the beginning of the last chapter, there’s a scene where Portia shows some really deep emotion, but it’s only glanced over. I really would’ve enjoyed seeing more attention paid to that scene, as I think it would’ve been a very memorable scene if that had been the case.

Other than that, I really enjoyed No Matter How Improbable. It was a great read, and I really can’t wait for the fourth book. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving it a 4.3 out of 5. Definitely check it out (and the first two books, too) if you have the chance.

Angela Misri

Angela Misri

Twice already I’ve had the great fortune to talk to my friend Angela Misri about her detective character Portia Adams, and the books she’s written with her. I’ve also had the pleasure of reading and reviewing both books, and I have to say, Angela knows how to tell a compelling mystery story in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes.

Which is why I’m glad to welcome her back and talk to her about the third Portia Adams book, No Matter How Improbable, which I’m sure will be as excellent as the first two books.

RU: Welcome back, Angela. It’s good to see you here again. Now, in the first book, Jewel of the Thames, Portia comes to London, starts a new life, and realizes her heritage. In the second book, Thrice Burned, Portia makes a big decision about her life and her career, as well as facing new challenges in her life. What can we expect for her in the third book, No Matter How Improbable?

AM: Where the first and second books were very much about discovery and building confidence, book three has a central theme of loss. Loss of friends, loss of family, loss of the comfort of anonymity. This book will force Portia to develop as a person amongst all the other humans around her. She no longer doubts herself as a detective, but she finds herself doubting her relationships, which for a highly intelligent introvert can be debilitating.

RU: I bet. And speaking of Portia, characters often change between books. How has Portia changed between Books 2 and 3?

AM: I would say that she has grown to have more confidence in her abilities, she’s more grounded and she knows what she wants to do with her life. She is also starting to see the value of friendship and relationships, something she never had as a child.

RU: Moving onto the mystery bits of the book, can you give us a hint of what sort of cases Portia will be handling?

AM: Ha! I can indeed! One of the casebooks will involve an Italian Princess (hence the beautifully designed book cover by Emma Dolan), one will harken back to a story from the original Sherlock Holmes canon and the last casebook will cause Portia to lose not one, but two of her close friends. How’s that for a hint?

RU: It seems that Portia’s growing more popular every day. Can you tell us about some memorable fan experiences and the growing fan base around the character?

AM: I have been very lucky in my fans who show up again and again for each book event, and bring their friends, and take my books to their classes and do book reports, and so many other things. It’s hard to pick one interaction, but I recently got an email from a woman in Texas asking for a signed copy of Jewel of the Thames for her daughter’s birthday. She said her daughter read it cover-to-cover and it’s her favourite book. I wrote back suggesting I instead send her a birthday card containing a signed bookplate sticker that she could just put in her daughter’s book (to save them a bit of money). She wrote back to say she needed a new copy of Jewel because her daughter had ‘worn out’ her copy. That is such an incredible compliment to an author.

RU: Will there be a fourth book, and when can we expect it?

AM: There will indeed be a fourth book, but I’m currently negotiating the contract, so I am not sure when it will be out. I can tell you that the first casebook in the fourth book comes back to Portia’s roots – it’s set in 1932 Toronto, Canada.

"No Matter How Improbable" by Angela Misri

“No Matter How Improbable” by Angela Misri

RU: Ooh, I love those sorts of stories. They tend to dredge up so many memories! So with Portia’s growing popularity, can we expect a Portia Adams TV or movie adaptation? Anything like that coming out anytime soon?

AM: My agent continues to look for those opportunities, but nothing yet – keep your fingers crossed!

RU: What are you working on besides Portia Adams these days?

AM: I have a zombie book and a contemporary detective novel (not YA) too that I am working on. I also have a chapter in an upcoming Sherlockian anthology that I just sent in to the editors.

RU: Are there any subjects or characters you hesitate or refuse to write about in your stories?

AM: I’m not big on sex scenes in books (either that I am reading or writing) and I will never write a rape scene because I think it’s too disturbing. I also will probably never write about the death of a child because as a mother, I can’t imagine putting those words on a page.

RU: What do you do when you’re not writing?

AM: I’m a digital journalist, so I freelance articles, build websites and digital strategies for clients and I teach at various universities in Toronto.

RU: Is it difficult balancing time between being a full-time writer and a full-time human being these days?

AM: No more so than any other kind of balancing – no stage of my life has had just ONE thing in it. From student to mother to writer, I’ve always balanced my main focus with other things I needed to do. I will say that it took me nearly 6 months to establish a routine as a writer that worked for me.

RU: Finally, let’s assume you got the chance to collaborate with any writer of your choosing on a story or a series. Who would you pick? (And if you say me, I will squeal like a teenage girl at a One Direction concert.)

AM: You, of course Rami, if I had the ability to write horror like you do, I would pitch you an idea so fast your head would spin. Or if we could collaborate on a story where I write the basic mystery and you write the horror… I don’t know, I think it could be neat.

I’d probably pick the same person you’d pick – Stephen King. Or Mark Gatiss in my case, but I’d probably be way too intimidated to string a sentence together. Thanks for asking!

RU: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! *cough* Excuse me. Well, thank you for joining me Angela, and I hope to see you back here soon.

No Matter How Improbable will be available for purchase in Canada on March 22. For all those outside of Canada, please email the author herself for a copy. Also check out my interviews for Jewel of the Thames and Thrice Burned to get links for those books. If you’d like more from Angela, you can visit her website, A Portia Adams Adventure. Trust me, it’s well worth checking out.

And if you’re an author wanting to do an interview, check out my Interviews page and leave a comment. We can discuss it there.

Have a good one, my Followers of Fear!

It’s Friday again. You know what that means. It’s #FirstLineFriday!

Here are the rules: On Fridays you write up a post with the title #FirstLineFriday, hashtag and all, and then explain the rules like I’m doing now. Then you post the first one or two lines of a potential work, a work-in-progress, or a completed or published story. Then you solicit feedback from your readers. It’s a lot of fun, believe me.

This week’s entry comes from an idea I’ve been sitting on for a while, a mystery/thriller series that I think would be really fun to write. Enjoy:

Agent Danvers burst through the front door of the King James Sniper, turned into the living room, and found the Sniper beaten to a bloody pulp, bound and gagged on the living room floor.

Tell me, what do you think? Does this sound intriguing? Any grammar or punctuation or spelling problems? Let’s discuss.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’ve got things to do today before Shabbat rolls in, so I’m going to get on that. Have a good one, my Followers of Fear.

Let me just say, it’s always a pleasure reading books by friends, especially because they’re usually really good. And this is no exception. Thrice Burned, the second book in Angela Misri’s Portia Adams Adventures series, has the young detective now living at 221B Baker Street taking on some twisty new cases, while at the same time adjusting to her growing social circle and trying to find the answers to her own deep and complex personal dilemmas.

As expected, the mysteries in this volume are hard to decipher and make you want to read late into the night just to find out the answers (I was able to make some guesses on one of the mysteries that turned out to be true, but that was about it). The resolutions are also fun to watch, and sometimes can be a little touching, usually coinciding with Portia finding something new about herself or making an important decision in her life. Praise should also go to the new characters of Annie Coleson, an energetic and free-spirited journalist, and Gavin Whitaker, an ambitious forensic pathologist with a mind to match Portia’s, who challenge our protagonist in so many fun ways.

And of course, there’s Portia. Honestly, I can see why so many readers identify with her. Her struggles feel more real than many YA heroines, most of whom have to deal with nothing bigger than which boy they like more. Portia Adams has to contend with so much in her life, including where she wants to go with her career, having to adjust to the presence of new people in her life who take her out of her comfort zone in so many ways, earning the respect of her peers in law enforcement, how to be an introvert when society doesn’t always allow for that, the travails of having a mind unlike anyone else’s, and so much more. It’s good to see such a well-rounded character, and I think the character of Portia is going to grow in popularity as more people find her and feel like they they’ve gone through what she’s going through at some point in their lives.

My one complaint would be that at times it feels like the story emphasizes Portia’s personal problems more than the mysteries she’s supposed to be solving, but then again this is technically a YA novel, and they’re supposed to be big on character development, so I can see why.

In any case, this is a great second installment to a series I can see going on for several books, and I can’t wait for March 2016, when the third book in the series comes out (okay, I can wait, but it’ll be agonizing). For great storytelling, characters you feel can come off the pages, and for mysteries that will leave you on the edge of your seat, I rate Thrice Burned a 4.3 out of 5. If you can, definitely check this series out, especially if you like yourself a good mystery.

For more on Portia Adams and her adventures, read my interview with the author, as well as my review of the first book Jewel of the Thames and the interview I had with Angela prior to that one’s release.