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 | Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

5/5 stars

Finally, my first Megan Abbott! I loved this book and may or may not have purchased a few other Abbot books while reading this. I’d heard that Abbott writes women perfectly, and I absolutely loved her treatment of the two central characters in this story. If you’re a fan of Abbott, let me know what I should read next!

Diane and Kit bond through academics and athletics while in high school, each pushing the other to excel. Both have an aptitude for science, rising to the top of their class. Diane is mysterious, never revealing too much about herself, but it’s clear that her home life has something to be desired. Her mother is beautiful and elegant, but leaves her to live with her father. On one fateful day, Diane makes a critical choice and ultimately discloses a dark secret to Kit. Burdened with knowledge she wishes she didn’t have, Kit looks forward to a future after high school, a future without Diane.

Fast forward years later, and Kit is working in a prestigious lab under the guidance of renowned scientist, Dr. Severin. When the opportunity to be a part of a ground breaking research project arises, Kit is desperate to be selected for the team. The study is in PMDD, or Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder – an affliction that causes women to suffer in extreme, and even violent, ways during their cycles. Abbott weaves a tale of blood, hysteria, and the stereotypes women face as a result of their biology. Diane, a rising scientist in her own right, is recruited by Dr. Severin, thus reuniting the old friends.

Written in alternating timelines, Abbot is able to build to a denouement that isn’t necessarily shocking, but completely satisfying, though tragic. Diane is troubled and complex, yet somehow sympathetic. With perfect pacing and tension, this was a home run for me.

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 | Snap by Belinda Bauer | Man Booker Prize 2018

5/5 stars

What a journey! This was a a fantastic crime read that packed an emotional punch in its last few lines. If you enjoy police procedurals and are looking for a unique story, this is a must-read. For readers that want to try the genre and are uncomfortable with the vast amounts of graphic violence in most crime novels (not me), this will satisfy as well.

Jack, Joy, and Merry are waiting by the side of the road in their broken down car: their mother had gone to call for help and would be back soon. An hour passes, and the kids decide go searching for her, unaware that they would never see her again – she was found stabbed to death days later. Three years pass, and the kids are living alone in their family’s house having slipped through all the cracks in the system.

Jack, the eldest at 14, turns to burglary to take care of his sisters. When he thinks he discovers a key to his mother’s death, he takes an unconventional approach to get the police to re-open the investigation. Meanwhile, a pregnant lady named Catherine, experiences a home invasion while her husband is away for work. These two narratives play out simultaneously, seemingly unrelated. Their stories, however, will soon collide.

There were a few elements that didn’t work for me; a secondary character named Smooth Louis, for example. He’s a mentor to Jack / petty criminal who is obsessed with removing all hair from his body. He’s always shaving it away, but we have no idea why. It’s never explained and his character doesn’t go anywhere. I’m all for weird for the sake of weird, but it just didn’t make sense in this book. Secondly, Bauer likes to call everyone fat. I can’t tell you how many times in this book her characters are described as fat and disgusting – it was a bit much. I’m sure there are more creative ways to describe someone’s size.

I sort of wanted to give this book 4 stars, but it was so damn addictive that I have to give it 5. This was an incredibly interesting choice for the Man Booker longlist – it’a an excellent crime read and I’m curious as to why the judges decided to include this genre into the prize for 2018. Looking forward to reading more of the longlist next!

BOOK REVIEW | Find You in the Dark by Nathan Ripley

3/5 stars

Look, this book isn’t going to win any awards for its quality of writing, but Find You in the Dark shines in plot. After reading countless thrillers that feel all too similar, it was refreshing to read one that had an entirely unique premise. This was a really fun read!

Martin Reese retired young after his tech company exploded, leaving him with both ample financial resources and plenty of time on his hands. He is a devoted husband and father, who happens to have a bit of a twisted obsession: he seeks out the bodies of murder victims from unsolved cases, uncovering them for the police to find. To carry out his compulsion he tells his wife, Ellen, that he’s going camping and uses his alone time to uncover bodies. Martin’s focus is on the victims of a long captured serial killer, Jason Shurn, and he gets his intel from a cop who sells him case files on the sly.

Before long, a past family tragedy takes centre stage, reaching a breaking point when his daughter disappears. Shurn may not have acted alone, and Martin has enraged someone by uncovering victims from the past. Martin will have to succumb to an internal darkness to save his family and get his daughter back.

I’ve heard this book compared to Dexter, but I have a hard time seeing that. Unlike Dexter Martin isn’t a killer. He’s simply a man who has taken an interest in true crime to the next level, albeit a twisted one. The book is a little long and though it drags a little, I was compelled to keep reading. Side note – Nathan Ripley is a pseudonym for Naben Ruthnum, an Indian writer from Canada. He’s said he used the new monicker because of the expectations that come with having an ethnic sounding name. I must say, I wish he used his real name! Shatter the expectations! OK, back to business – 3 stars, because it was hard to put down.