“The Wives” by Tarryn Fisher

The WivesThe Wives is a psychological thriller with a unique twist: the protagonist is in a plural marriage, so she shares her husband with two other women. This isn’t a “Sister Wives” situation, though; the first-person narrator of this novel lives in Seattle, while the other two are in Portland. Seth, the husband, works in both cities. He keeps all three separate, spending different days of the week with them. Our narrator only knows his other wives as Monday and Tuesday; she is Thursday.

Inevitably, Thursday’s curiosity about Monday and Tuesday turns into an obsession, and when she finds a piece of paper in Seth’s pocket with Monday’s real name on it—Hannah—she decides to snoop. She drives down to Portland and manages to befriend Hannah, not letting on that they have a lot in common. When she notices bruising on Hannah’s arm, she begins to fear that Seth has a violent streak.

This book is completely bonkers, though an attempt has clearly been made to make everything seem vaguely plausible, like having Seth be the scion of a fundamentalist Mormon sect, and Thursday earnestly stating that she tried dating other men after learning about Seth’s polygamous ways; they simply couldn’t measure up. (“I really, really liked him. There was something about him—a charisma, maybe, or a perceptiveness.”) I wasn’t surprised when it all got a little too nutso toward the end, but by that point, it was an hour past my bedtime and I was still turning the pages, eager to learn the secrets Seth and his wives were hiding.

“Girls Like Us” by Cristina Alger

Girls Like UsI read Cristina Alger’s Girls Like Us right after watching the HBO movie “Bad Education,” and by coincidence, both of them—one a work of fiction, one based on a true story—take place on Long Island. While the film is set in an upscale community not far from Manhattan, Girls shows a different side of the island, one in which “gangs… are still prevalent. Violent crime is high; drugs are everywhere. For all the wealth in Suffolk County, nearly half of the Third Precinct lives at or just above the poverty line.”

However, towns both rich and poor have their problems, and while “Bad Education” showcases a couple of corrupt school administrators, Girls Like Us features a Jeffrey Epstein-like character who preys on young women who are hard up and desperate for cash. FBI Agent Nell Flynn thought she had left Suffolk County behind long ago, but when her estranged father dies in a motorcycle accident, she comes back to settle his estate. Nell’s mother died when she was young, and her police officer dad was an abusive alcoholic; she couldn’t move away quickly enough.

On medical and administrative leave after killing a man in the line of duty, Nell has plenty of time to work on preparing the family home for sale. But when the mutilated body of a young woman is found nearby, Lee Davis, her father’s partner on the police force and a friend of Nell’s from their high school days, asks her to help out. Another corpse had been discovered in the area a few months prior; both women had been dismembered and wrapped in burlap. Nell’s dad had been working on that case when he died. The second body and similar M.O. indicates that a serial killer could be at large, but the chief of detectives doesn’t want to bring in the FBI: “He’s about to retire and the last thing he wants is mass hysteria over a serial killer in Suffolk County,” Lee tells her. However, a little low-key, unofficial investigating by a visiting agent would be fine.

Nell agrees, and the two of them begin to uncover plenty of secrets in Suffolk County, the kind of secrets people would kill to keep. Some of them concern her father; was he really trying to solve that first murder, or was his goal to cover it up? Even her mother’s long-ago death comes back to haunt her, as a local journalist has been reporting on the man convicted of her murder, believing that he may have been coerced into confessing. At first, Nell is furious with her, but then she realizes that she must follow the truth, no matter where it leads her.

There are a lot of different threads to follow in this fast-paced book; in the early chapters, we learn that the man Nell shot was an associate of the Russian Mafia, and she’s worried that has made her a target. That storyline sort of peters out, though, which makes me wonder if this is the first novel in a series, and Nell will be back to do battle with criminals bent on revenge. In Girls Like Us, Alger captures the rugged beauty of coastal Long Island, and she has created a worthy heroine in Nell, a crusader who risks her own life in order to seek justice for a pair of vulnerable young women.

“The Vacation” (a.k.a. “The Holiday”) by T.M. Logan

The Vacation by T.M. LoganWho was she? Which one of my friends had betrayed me?

Kate and her three best friends from college, Jennifer, Rowan and Izzy, used to reunite every year for a weekend away, until babies and husbands and work commitments interfered. Now that they’re all turning 40, they decide to go all-out with a week in the south of France, with families in tow. For Kate, that means her husband Sean, 16-year-old daughter Lucy, and 9-year-old son Daniel. Rowan has arranged for them all to share a magnificent vineyard estate. Sounds like paradise, right?

However, Sean has been acting odd lately, and when Kate snoops through the text messages on his phone, she finds evidence that he’s having an affair—with one of her three friends! Now, instead of having a relaxing holiday, Kate (who works as a crime analyst with the Metropolitan Police) must try to figure out which of her pals is the guilty party. Plus, Lucy, as well as Jennifer’s two sons, Ethan and Jake, are going through some major teenage drama; they may be hundreds of miles away from their London homes, but thanks to social media, there’s really no getting away from it all. And then there’s the perilous cliff on the property, which looms over the proceedings like Chekhov’s gun.

The HolidayThis is one of those novels where everyone is hiding secrets, and the mutual mistrust between the vacationers leads to huge problems that could be, at least to some extent, cleared up if people were only honest with each other. (Of course, when one person is finally about to reveal a shocking truth, they are interrupted by a disaster just as they’re about to say something that could clear up most of the misconceptions.) More than once, I thought of the old adage, “Never assume—it makes an ass out of u and me.” However, Logan is an ace at building suspense, and the conclusion genuinely surprised me. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as his previous book, 2018’s Lies, but this summer thriller (already a bestseller in the U.K. under the title The Holiday; it will be published in the U.S. later this year) would still provide a few pleasurable hours of poolside reading.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Publishing Group for the review copy via NetGalley.

“The Silent Patient” by Alex Michaelides

The Silent PatientThe Silent Patient is one of those thrillers that has a great big twist. Is it a clever twist? Yes. Did I figure it out ahead of the reveal? No way. However, it comes at the very end of the novel, which itself is… not dull, exactly, but a very slow burn.

Alicia Berenson was a gifted painter who killed her husband, a well-known fashion photographer, by shooting him in the face. What made her commit such a violent and shocking crime? No one knows, because after the murder, Alicia stopped speaking. Tucked away in a secure psychiatric facility, Alicia has become an object of fascination to psychotherapist Theo Faber, who followed her case in the press and manages to join staff at her unit. He desperately wants to figure out if he can reach her and determine the reason for her silence.

I’d really be curious to read an actual psychologist’s review of this book, because Theo doesn’t seem to be very good at what he does—ethically speaking, his actions often leave a lot to be desired. For instance, he keeps dropping in on people who knew Alicia, such as her late husband’s brother and her socially-maladjusted cousin, in order to pump them for information. And he doesn’t seem to be a terribly good employee, since he cares about exactly one patient in the psychiatric unit. At a staff meeting, Theo looks around the room at his co-workers: “I knew what they were thinking—I was letting it get personal, and letting my feelings show; but I didn’t care.”

Meanwhile, adding an extra layer of drama, Theo discovers some email messages that indicate that his wife is cheating on him. “You don’t need to be a psychotherapist to suspect that Kathy had left her laptop open because—unconsciously, at least—she wanted me to find out about her infidelity,” he muses. But he can’t make up his mind whether he should confront her, or ignore it and simply hope she eventually chooses to end her extramarital relationship.

The Silent Patient is an easy read, but it’s the sort of book I had no problem putting down once I’d read a few chapters; I didn’t find it to be the kind of thriller that kept me breathlessly turning the pages. Whether you’ll want to give it a try depends on how willing you are to spend your time reading a two-star book with a four-star ending.

“Good Girl, Bad Girl” by Michael Robotham

Good Girl, Bad GirlWhen you pick up a novel titled Good Girl, Bad Girl, you are probably going to assume that it’ll be about two young women: one a saint, the other a sinner. At first, it seems like murder victim Jodie Sheehan must have been the good girl; she was a pretty figure skating champion who lived with her family in a nice neighborhood. Evie Cormac, a troubled teenager confined (with the aid of an ankle monitor) to a high-security children’s home, is “a danger to herself and others,” according to a social worker.

A few years ago, Evie became a media sensation when she was discovered holed up in a hidden room of a house owned by a low-level gangster. The man had been tortured to death, and when Evie was found, she was a total mystery: despite DNA tests and public appeals, the authorities never figured out where she came from or who she was. At that point, she didn’t even have a name, so she was given a new one, and cycled in and out of foster homes before being placed in Langford Hall.

Her social worker recruits Cyrus Haven, a psychologist who works with the local police in Nottingham, England, to see if he can help Evie. Cyrus also comes from a violent background; his brother murdered their parents and sisters, and Cyrus was only spared because he was away at football practice.

As Cyrus investigates Jodie’s death and gets to know Evie, it becomes apparent that pigeonholing either girl as “good” or “bad” is overly simplistic; both of them have secrets and complicated histories. I assumed Good Girl, Bad Girl was a standalone, like Robotham’s last book, The Secrets She Keeps, so I expected that by the final page, everything about Evie’s past would have been revealed. But while Jodie’s killer is unmasked in the end, Evie remains, in many ways, an enigma.

A second novel featuring Cyrus and Evie, When She Was Good, will be published this summer. Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin series (also about a psychologist!) ran to eight volumes, so it’s likely that Evie’s backstory will be parceled out in dribs and drabs in future books. My guess is that there may also be more to Cyrus’s family tragedy than meets the eye. In any case, I found Good Girl, Bad Girl to be fast-paced and intriguing, so I’m definitely on board for the sequel.

“The Last Mrs. Parrish” by Liv Constantine

The Last Mrs. ParrishAfter linking to Reese Witherspoon’s online book club a couple of weeks back, I thought I’d scan through the list to see which of her choices I hadn’t read yet. One of them was The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine (pen name of sisters Lynne and Valerie Constantine), which Reese described as a “fun and fast-paced story… filled with envy, deception, and power. It’s a great reading escape, and there is a thrilling twist at the end! Be warned—you will not be able to put this one down!”

That sounded like my kind of book, so I gave it a try, and Reese (we’re on a first-name basis, right?) was certainly right about the “can’t put it down” factor. I started it on a Saturday afternoon and finished it less than 24 hours later.

Maybe two minds are better than one when it comes to psychological suspense, since the Constantine sisters have written a novel that’s comparable to the work of Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen, whose three books I consider the peak of the post-Gone Girl twisty-thriller genre. The narrator of The Last Mrs. Parrish is Amber, a young woman who escaped her rough upbringing in Nebraska and moved to a posh town in Long Island with a plan to snag a rich husband and live a life of leisure. Not just any rich husband, though; Amber has her eye on Jackson Parrish, the fabulously wealthy owner of an international real-estate firm. There’s just one not-so-little roadblock: Jackson is already married, and his wife, Daphne, is herself gorgeous and intelligent, as well as the mother of their two daughters. That doesn’t stop Amber from insinuating herself into the couple’s lives in an effort to tank the Parrish marriage so she can step in.

This is, of course, the kind of thriller where everyone has secrets—lots and lots of them. Amber thinks Daphne is just another pampered rich lady whom she can easily outsmart, but Daphne’s not going to go down without a fight…

The ending is so perfect that I felt like applauding. The Last Mrs. Parrish delivered everything I wish for in a page-turner.

“The Whisper Network” by Chandler Baker

The Whisper NetworkA couple years ago, a young female journalist started a Google spreadsheet called “Shitty Media Men,” aimed at warning women about male co-workers with reputations for sexual misconduct. “The anonymous, crowdsourced document was a first attempt at solving what has seemed like an intractable problem: how women can protect ourselves from sexual harassment and assault,” wrote the spreadsheet’s creator in an article for New York Magazine’s The Cut. “One long-standing partial remedy that women have developed is the whisper network, informal alliances that pass on open secrets and warn women away from serial assaulters.”

The problem with Shitty Media Men, of course, is that unlike old-fashioned whisper networks, it was right there in black & white, ready to be screenshotted and shared. There was a swift backlash once the list went viral, with detractors claiming that it would allow vindictive anonymous accusers to derail the lives and careers of innocent men without granting them due process. However, several prominent males did wind up losing their jobs in the wake of the list, most notably New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier.

It seemed inevitable that a fictionalized version of this juicy story would provide material for a novel. In Chandler Baker’s Whisper Network, it’s the “BAD Men” (Beware of Asshole Dallas Men) list which starts the ball rolling. The action takes place at an athletic apparel company called Truviv (think: Nike), where the general counsel, Ames Garrett, seems like a shoo-in to become CEO after the unexpected death of the current chief executive. Sloane Glover, an in-house lawyer at Truviv, adds Ames to the BAD Men list (“Issues with physical and interpersonal boundaries at the office; pursued sexual relationships with subordinate co-workers; sexist”), hoping to derail his rise to the top, but once the names on the spreadsheet are made public, Ames dies, seemingly of suicide. Suddenly, Ames starts being treated as a victim of what one local newspaper columnist refers to as a “feminist witch hunt.”

Baker smartly adds several complicating factors to the story: for instance, Sloane and Ames had had a sexual relationship at one point. Ames had just hired a new, pretty young female attorney, and Sloane is pretty sure he’s intent on making her his next conquest. In one particularly inspired touch, Sloane and her two best friends at work, Ardie and Grace, conduct clandestine meetings in the legally-mandated private room in which new mom Grace pumps breast milk.

The novel is told in the voice of an omniscient narrator, who makes statements about the general plight of women in modern America which female readers will no doubt find highly relatable: “We had guilt of every flavor: We had working-mom guilt, childless guilt, guilt because we’d turned down a social obligation, guilt because we’d accepted an invitation we knew we didn’t have time for, guilt for turning away work and for not turning it down when we felt we were already being taken advantage of.”

Whisper Network is an honest-to-goodness page turner (I stayed up past my bedtime in order to finish it, because I simply had to find out what would happen next), as well as a book I’d place in a time capsule to show what life was like for women in as the first fifth of the 21st century comes to a close. Would a female reader in 2039 feel satisfied that the lives of working women have improved significantly during the past 20 years? Let’s hope that’s the case.

“Conviction” by Denise Mina

ConvictionConsidering the enormous popularity of true crime podcasts, it’s surprising that Conviction is the first mystery I’ve come across that uses one as a jumping-off point. The main character, Anna, is a busy mum of two who loves to escape into audio stories: “A good podcast can add a glorious multi-world texture to anything. I’ve resisted an Assyrian invasion while picking up dry-cleaning. I’ve seen justice served on a vicious murderer while buying underpants.”

Unfortunately, her latest download (“Death and the Dana: A sunken yacht, a murdered family on board, a secret still unsolved…”) hits a bit too close to home for Anna when she realizes that one of the victims is Leon Parker, a former friend of hers. She had lost touch with him and had no idea that he’d married a billionaire and lost his life aboard a yacht reputed to be haunted. Anna listens to the podcast with increasing alarm, wondering if Leon could have possibly killed himself as well as his two children, who were also aboard.

Already shaken up, things for Anna get even worse when her husband tells her he’s leaving her for her best friend, Estelle, and taking her on holiday to Portugal. While they’re away, a desperate Anna teams up with Estelle’s partner Fin, a rock star who suffers from anorexia, in an attempt to figure out what really happened to Leon.

The first few chapters, where we get complete transcripts of the podcast, are incredibly gripping, but once Anna and the fragile Fin begin their quest, the book goes off the rails a bit as Fin decides to produce his own podcast. Despite the fact that he is recording it on the fly on his phone and posting it to Twitter, it becomes a major sensation. Perhaps Fin’s fame would help garner some extra attention, but today’s top podcasts have high production values and are carefully edited, not produced on the run during, say, a train journey, which is guaranteed to have lots of extraneous background noise.

Naturally, Fin and Anna start to get too close to the truth, which puts their lives at risk, and soon they’re outrunning hit men and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. I stuck with the book because I’d enjoyed the first half so much, but the second half is significantly more implausible and less compelling.

“The Turn of the Key” by Ruth Ware

The Turn of the KeyIf last year’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway took inspiration from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, then the title of Ruth Ware’s latest thriller, The Turn of the Key, seems to pay homage to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. I’ve never read James’ novella, but according to an interview, Ware herself hadn’t read it either when she began writing: “I vaguely knew what the plot was, that it was about a governess and ghosts, but that was about it… It was only about halfway through that the penny dropped. At that point I decided that I had better read The Turn of the Screw so I knew what I was dealing with and so that I could ensure any overlaps were deliberate rather than accidental.”

Screw was published in 1898, while Key is undeniably a product of the 21st century, with most of the action taking place in a “smart house” in Scotland owned by two architects. The Elincourts have four children and are seeking a nanny who is willing to relocate to their remote Highlands home, a Victorian lodge that’s been modernized with a wide array of cutting-edge features. Lights, heat, phones, curtains, the coffeemaker and the shower—all those and more are controlled by the “Happy” system.

Rowan Caine figures dealing with the complicated app is a small price to pay for what seems like the perfect job, thanks to its fat salary and the luxurious environs of Heatherbrae House. But then she starts hearing frightening sounds, including footsteps from the supposedly sealed-up attic above her room, and mysterious shrieks that definitely aren’t coming from her young charges. One of the daughters, eight-year-old Maddie, seems convinced that they are sharing the house with ghosts. The fact that several previous nannies had left the Elincourts’ employ abruptly seem to indicate that something is very wrong.

Rowan may not believe in ghosts, but when both parents have to go out of town, leaving her alone with the children, the spooky goings-on accelerate, driving her nearly to the point of madness. “Suddenly… I understood what dark terrors had driven those four previous nannies out of their post and away. To lie here, night after night, listening, waiting, staring into the darkness at that locked door, that open keyhole gaping into blackness… I would not sleep again tonight. I knew that now.”

The Turn of the Key is an ideal Halloween read, though I must admit that I found the ending rather disappointing, as Ware throws in perhaps one twist too many. If you’re not already a fan of her work, this is perhaps not the best book to start with (I’d recommend either Mrs. Westaway or The Woman in Cabin 10), but all of her talent for creating a creepy, evocative mood is on full display here, and Key does provide plenty of gothic, spooky fun.

“Under a Dark Sky” by Lori Rader-Day

Under A Dark SkyIf you were to ask me to describe my ideal reading environment, I might picture a rainy Sunday afternoon, a mug of tea and a comfy couch. Or perhaps a deck chair next to a pool. Even a long flight, provided turbulence and screaming infants were kept to a minimum.

The opposite of those scenarios involves me spending all day trying fruitlessly to catch up on my never-ending workload, followed by a few hours moving and sorting boxes as I try to clear out a relative’s multiple storage units. At the end of the day, I collapse into bed, pick up a book, and feel my eyelids starting to droop almost immediately. That’s why it took me two weeks to finish Lori Rader-Day’s Under A Dark Sky, and the reason I suspect I can’t quite give this novel a fair shake. It’s almost 400 pages long, and it felt long, but is that just because I was reading it in such small increments, when I wasn’t at my best?

The book has a fascinating premise: Eden Wallace, a young widow from Chicago, arrives at a dark sky park (an area with no artificial lighting, allowing visitors to observe the night sky free from light pollution) in northern Michigan on what would have been her 10th anniversary. After her husband was killed in an accident, Eden developed a paralyzing fear of the dark. But she also came across some papers indicating that he’d been planning to take her to the park as an anniversary surprise. Sure, it seems like a terrible idea (sort of like someone who has an incapacitating tulip phobia deciding to visit Amsterdam in the spring), but she decides to go anyway, bringing along some high-wattage lightbulbs to help keep her room nice and bright.

She immediately discovers, to her dismay, that her husband had only rented one room in the park’s guest house, not the entire thing, so she’s going to be sharing the facilities with six annoying millennials who are having a reunion four years after they graduated from college. (Five, actually—the sixth woman is the new girlfriend of one of the alums.) Eden decides she has no interest in crashing their party, and plans to head home the next day. But when one of her fellow guests is murdered, she is forced to stick around until the culprit is found.

Rader-Day writes beautifully about grief and fear, but I feel like the novel could have been a little tighter and the killer’s motive a little clearer. Still, Under A Dark Sky did make me want to visit a dark sky preserve someday. The one in the book is based on the real-life Headlands Park in Mackinaw City, MI, and yes, it has a guest house, though anyone who reads this book will no doubt think twice before agreeing to share it with a group of strangers.