BOOK REVIEW | The Institute by Stephen King

4/5 stars

Reading Stephen King is always fun, even when the story is about kids being kidnapped, incarcerated, and forced to undergo brutal experiments and punishments.

It’s best to go into The Institute without knowing too much – much of the horror and tension comes comes from trying to figure out what on earth is going on. The story begins with Tim, a police officer who is starting anew after a series of events lands him in a small town where he’ll work as a “night knocker”. Gears switch to Luke Ellis, a gifted boy on the brink of starting at a school for exceptional children. On one fateful night, in under 2 minutes, Luke is kidnapped and his parents murdered. He wakes up in a room nearly identical to his own, but far from home.

At the “institute”, Luke meets other kids who are there under similar circumstances. Kalisha and Nick help him to settle into this new world, and he does the same for the kids who come after him. The kids don’t know why they are there, but they know it has something to do with their exceptional abilities. Some of the kids are TK (telekinetic), and others TP (telepathic), all with varying degrees of skill and control. The adults running the institute are brutal, often torturing the kids if they misbehave or sabotage the experiments. Eventually, kids are moved to the “back half” and never seen again. No one has ever escaped before, but Luke is determined to take action before he’s lost forever. Tim and Luke eventually collide, leading to an action packed finale.

As usual, King writes kids so well. Every once in a while he uses a phrase that sounds a little dated when it’s supposed to be said by a 12 year old, but aside from that his kids are always endearing, even (especially?) when flawed. They form special friendships at the institute, especially Luke and a younger boy named Avery. They are bound through their shared trauma.

I haven’t read Firestarter, but I’ve heard many others say that there are a lot of similarities to The Institute so I may need to read it soon! This will keep you flipping the pages as you seek to find out why these kids have been taken, and why there is such an interest in their unique abilities.

BOOK REVIEW | Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey

3/5 stars

*I received a digital review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Unspeakable Things is available now.

Unspeakable Things follows Cassie, coming of age in the 1980’s, and her older sister Sephie as they navigate both a troubled home life as well as rumors of children being taken in the town of Lilydale, a small community in Minnesota.

This is a slow burn mystery, with multiple red herrings at play – tension is building up to something sinister, and it seems that almost any of the adults in town could be implicated. Most of the action, and the best parts of the story, take place in the final chapters of the book. Unfortunately, the final reveal does not come as a surprise.

I really enjoyed parts of this book, and found others to be wholly unnecessary. Without giving too much away, there are elements at play which do nothing to move the story forward, but I suppose are rather to establish a dysfunctional home life for the sisters. But, we already know that some of the people closest to them are unreliable, so there are things I could do without.

Strangely, the incredibly important epilogue was left out of the book. To read this final section, readers must head to Jess Lourey’s website to see where the central characters end up. To me, the epilogue was critical to my full understanding and resolution of the story, so it seems an odd choice to leave it out.

Note that this book does have descriptions of abuse towards children, as well as implied assault by a parent. It’s not extensive, but this could certainly be a troubling read for some. Overall, it was ok. I liked Cassie and rooted for her, and found myself moving very quickly through the book at the end.

BOOK REVIEW | The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

3/5 stars

My first time picking up Ruth Ware was exciting – I’d wanted to read her for ages! I started with The Woman in Cabin 10 as it sounded a bit less formulaic than some of her other plot lines, and I am always intrigued by a locked room mystery.

Lo Blacklock is an ambitious travel journalist with an amazing opportunity in front of her – she will set sail on a new luxury cruise liner, the Aurora, mingling with the other elite guests; this is sure to be a big break in her career. Prior to her departure, Lo experiences a traumatic event leaving her tired and anxious, but ready to relax for a week of decadence.  Her week on board takes a turn for the macabre when Lo witnesses a woman being thrown overboard, and continues to spiral when her account is not taken seriously. All passengers are accounted for, so who was the woman she saw?

This was an average read for me: I wasn’t kept on the edge of my seat, but I was curious to see where Ware would take the story. Lo is continuously set up as unreliable, and as readers we question her account of what she saw, but not so much as to truly discredit her. Lo experienced trauma, she is sleep deprived, she drinks too much, and is on medication for anxiety – yet, none of these things made me question her sincerity. So, the unreliable narrator thread sort of missed the mark for me. I will say that I didn’t guess what the big reveal would be, which was refreshing.

This is a fairly standard, solid thriller. I don’t think it will blow fans of the genre away, but was still an enjoyable read regardless. I would recommend this book to readers who are not well versed in thrillers, looking for a light way to discover the genre – there’s enough tension to keep the readers engaged, but not too much violence to turn off less desensitized readers.

 

BOOK REVIEW | The Outsider by Stephen King

4/5 stars

The first half of this book was such a blast, and one of the best thriller / mystery / police procedurals I’ve read in a long time. I was powering through at a pretty quick pace, until about the half way mark when the story takes a severe left turn. I like to go into books pretty blind, so I wasn’t aware that there would be a connection to the Bill Hodges trilogy. King loves connecting his stories together, but unfortunately I found this took away from an otherwise stellar narrative.

The premise: a young boy is violently killed but the prime suspect, coach Terry Maitland, has an indisputable alibi. Multiple eye witnesses claim to have seen Terry near the scene of the crime and with the victim, but there is no way he can be responsible – a man can’t be in two places at once. Due to the horrific nature of the crime police are looking to make an arrest ASAP to ensure the public feels safe, and when the DNA comes back as a match they arrest Terry publicly, leaving tragedy behind for his family. As the story progressive it becomes more and more apparent that Terry can’t be responsible, but DNA doesn’t lie…

If you haven’t read the Bill Hodges trilogy and would like to, do not read The Outsider first. It’s a stand-alone book, but will spoil the series for those who haven’t read it. When the mystery seems impossible to solve, King brings back Holly Gibney from his trilogy (which I loved) – the anxious, quiet, yet shockingly astute partner who played a pivotal role in those books. This is also the point in the book that dives into the supernatural, which can go either way for me. I generally don’t like supernatural stories, but King often does it extremely well. It was good here, just not as good as the first half of the story.

I love Stephen King, and this was so close to being a home run! My review sounds a bit negative but I really enjoyed the book, even though it felt a bit disjointed. Fans of King will appreciate his dedication to continuing to surprise, even with so many stories under his belt.

BOOK REVIEW | The Comewdown by Rebekah Frumkin


3/5 stars

A sweeping family epic that covers a lot of ground without turning into a paperweight, Rebekah Frumkin’s The Comedown is perfect for readers who enjoy dysfunctional family narratives.

The basic plot: a drug deal goes wrong, thus entangling the dealer’s and the addict’s families for generations. There’s a mysterious yellow suitcase that everyone wants to get their hands on, issues of race and religion, and a whole lot of characters named Leeland or Lee. There are a lot of characters, time frames, and multiple family lines to follow – bookmarking the character map at the start of the book is a must.

The first half of this book felt like a 5 star read for me, and then it eventually started to feel like a chore. I could have been the problem – I just isn’t care to decipher which Leland I was reading about in any given moment, and therefore started to fall off track with the book. Sometimes I want my books to feel like work, especially when the payoff is there. This wasn’t one of those cases.

Frumkin is clearly a fantastic, clever writer – I initially though this book would be a slam dunk for me. I could very well pick this up for a re-read in a year and absolutely love it from start to finish, but I just wasn’t fully jiving with it this go around. It’s a good book that lost it’s way by becoming unnecessarily complicated.

BOOK REVIEW | The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

5/5 stars

I’ve loved The Talented Mr. Ripley since the movie was released in 1999, and have been meaning to read the book ever since. I finally picked it up, and what a reading experience it was! I absolutely adored this book from the first page to the last, and can’t wait to watch the movie again to compare the two.

Tom Ripley is a fraudster – he tricks people into sending him cheques rather than the bank, and is genuinely proud of himself whenever he pulls off a deception. There is a sense of longing for more: bigger stunts and riskier plans are on the horizon. When an opportunity arises for Tom to go to Italy to convince playboy Dickie Greenleaf to come home to America, all expenses paid by Dickie’s concerned father, he jumps at the opportunity.

Once in Mongibello, the small Italian town where Dickie has been living, he intentionally bumps into Dickie and his girlfriend Marge, convincing them that he is an old friend. Dickie and Marge invite Tom into their home, and Tom soon realizes that he quite likes the life Dickie is leading – maybe he’d like to live this way too. A chance to make an easy dollar soon turns into a frightening obsession, and eventually to murder. What follows is a complex and expertly plotted tale of escape in plain sight. Tom Ripley is a sick genius, able to manipulate any narrative to suit his own.

Highsmith masterfully delves into the mind of a psychopath; early in the book she details a moment in which Tom rubs his hands together while laughing quietly to himself after pulling off fraud, and it’s so deliciously creepy that I knew I was in for a good ride. Throughout the story, it’s easy to both sympathize with and be disgusted by Tom; Tom’s is able to convince himself so thoroughly of his version of events that it’s easy to forget what really happened. My only critique is that it ends so abruptly – I guess I’ll have to pick up Ripley Underground soon!

BOOK REVIEW | Tangerine by Christine Mangan

3/5 stars

Obsession takes stage in Tangerine. This is a dark story of a friendship gone terribly wrong, resulting in both tragedy and despair.

College roommates Alice and Lucy had a tumultuous friendship, but developed a close bond regardless. When tragedy occurs the women go in different directions, leaving behind their plans for the future. A year later, the women unexpectedly reunite in Tangier, Morocco. As the story unfolds, we learn that Lucy has dark motivations, ultimately leading Alice down a disturbing, black hole. The book is also littered with references to how exotic Tangier is, how bright and colourful the clothing is, etc. The story is about a sheltered woman in the 1950’s, but I found the romanticizing of Morocco to be a little tiresome.

Reading this book alongside of The Talented Mr. Ripley gave me whiplash – Mangan was clearly influenced by the amazing Patricia Highsmith. The parallels between the two books are uncanny, though the stories do eventually go down different paths. Highsmith actually mentions Tangier as a place where one of her characters may have ran off to, so it’s incredibly difficult to appreciate this in its own right when it’s so heavily borrowed. Mangan has something good going here though, and I look forward to checking out her future work with hopes that she will find her own voice along the way.