Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Thriller (page 1 of 6)

The Silent Patient – Alex Michaelides

If you’re not intrigued by The Silent Patient, I don’t know how to help you. You’re certainly the exception rather than the rule. It debuted in 2019 at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List, and went on to win the Goodreads Choice Award (Mystery & Thriller). Even now, years later, it remains a #BookTok darling and I still see it all over #Bookstagram. So, naturally, my curiosity was piqued.

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Get The Silent Patient here.
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Michaelides has said he rewrote the draft of The Silent Patient about fifty times before locking it in. I suppose he was trying to mix the strange bedfellows of his influences in just the right measure. He drew from the Athenian tragedy Alecstis for the plot, and Agatha Christie novels for its structure and tone. That should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect.

The story begins with a forensic psychotherapist, Theo, drawn to the case of a woman at a psychiatric facility called The Grove. She has not spoken in over six years. Theo finagles his way into a job there, convinced that he’s the only one who can reach her and find the real reason for her protracted silence.

The crime? Well, it’s a doozy. One day, Alicia shot her husband Gabriel repeatedly in the face, and then cut her own wrists. There was no financial motive for the crime, and no apparent conflict in the marriage. She hasn’t said a word to anyone in the years since, not even in her own defense. The judge sent her to the asylum instead of jail, on the grounds of diminished capacity (that’s “insanity”, to our Law & Order watchers), but her elective silence has endured even the staff’s best efforts and powerful psychotropic medications.

So, you’re curious, right? I sure am! I dove headfirst into The Silent Patient, desperate to find out why Alicia wouldn’t speak. It’s easy and interesting reading, and reminds me very much of Don’t Say A Word (one of the few psychological thriller films I’ve seen more than once). I think Michaelides’s background as a screenwriter shines through; he knows just how to set up a story to hook the audience, and pace it out to keep them there. It turns out he also spent a bit of time working at a secure psychiatric facility for teenagers when he was a student, which gives the setting a ring of authenticity.

As The Silent Patient progresses, you realise that both Theo and Alicia have been victimised by a nameless, faceless man in their lives. For Alicia, it was her stalker. For Theo, it was his wife’s lover. As the man gets closer to each of them (which feels like it’s happening in real time, with extracts from Alicia’s diary punctuating Theo’s timeline), the tension rises to almost unbearable heights. Is it just therapeutic countertransference between Alicia and Theo? Or are they actually connected?

If you plan on reading The Silent Patient for yourself, this is where you’re going to want to stop. If you’re just here to get some answers or you don’t give a shit about spoilers, work away.

Alicia finally does speak, around page 270 (in my edition). The Big Shock Twist(TM) comes about 30 pages after that. It turns out, Theo hasn’t been completely clear with the reader about the timeline of events. He’s led us to believe that his wife’s affair has been concurrent with his treatment of Alicia, but actually it happened six years prior – yep, in the lead-up to Alicia murdering her husband. Alicia’s husband was the one sticking it to Theo’s wife, and Theo was the one “stalking” her, figuring out how to insert himself into her life and reveal to her the truth of her husband’s infidelity. He basically goaded her into murdering her husband, and then tries to kill her once she starts speaking again so she can’t dob him in. He gets his just desserts, though, because Alicia magically manages to scribble out one last diary entry pointing to him as her killer.

Looking over that paragraph, it all sounds a lot more complicated than it felt as I was reading The Silent Patient. I suppose the frequent allusions to Greek mythology and the clues that Michaelides peppered throughout the novel made it all feel quite natural and inevitable as it played out. So, this might be one you just have to read for yourself to form a complete picture. I’m not sure it *quite* lives up to the unbelievable hype, but it’s definitely a decent, pacy read for the next time you want some twists and turns in your literary life.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Silent Patient:

  • “The author did as much as he could to wreck the plot, and he succeeded.” – Donna
  • “Yet another “bestseller” glamorizing a psychopathic man-baby who deals with infidelity by torturing and killing innocent women.” – Dave
  • “OOOOh, how mysterious! Why is the patient silent? She likely didn’t want to be included in this boring novel. But she had no control, poor thing.” – frances henry

I Saw A Man – Owen Sheers

I’ve been curious about I Saw A Man ever since I heard Annabel Crabb rave about it on the Chat 10 Looks 3 podcast ages ago. It took me a couple of years to come across a copy, then a few more to finally get around to reading it – but I’m so glad I persisted.

I Saw A Man - Owen Sheers - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I Saw A Man starts out as a love story between Michael and Caroline, two adventurous journalists who have reached the point where they start to think about “settling down”. They are tragically torn apart when Caroline is killed in a drone strike while filming a documentary in Pakistan. Michael, bereft, moves to a small London apartment to try and re-start his life. Not ready to fully face the world, he finds himself growing close to his neighbours, the Nelsons: Josh, Samantha, and their two young daughters.

The Nelsons appear to have a perfect marriage, but Michael grows close enough to them to see the cracks. Josh is a work-hard-play-hard banker at Lehmann Brothers (bear in mind, this story is set in 2008), and Samantha is stifled and resentful of her domestic servitude. Both love their daughters deeply, and appreciate Michael as a buffer in their strained relationship.

Then, the unthinkable occurs, and everything changes.

Normally, I’m happy to blow past any concerns about spoilers to tell you the full story – but the twist in I Saw A Man is so powerful, so brutal, and so laboriously built up, that I’ve decided to hold back this time. Unfortunately (or fortunately, maybe, if you’re hate-reading this) it makes this review a short one, as there’s not a lot more I can say without revealing too much.

Sheers is prone to extended detours in his telling of this story, with accompanying shifts in timeline and geography. I Saw A Man stretches over years and continents, expanding and contracting until the nature of the catastrophic event is revealed about half-way through. The remainder is a bit more straightforward, running parallel to the fall-out and pursuit of redemption.

I Saw A Man isn’t a thriller, but it’s every bit as tense and gripping. It penetrates far more deeply than your standard paint-by-numbers airport novel, though. Sheers interrogates the psychology of trauma, the capriciousness of chance, the weight of grief, and the morality of complicit silence. Plus, it there’s a clever turn towards the meta at the end. If you’re looking for a pacy whodunnit to read on the beach, this ain’t it.

I think I Saw A Man would be a good pick for fans of Ian McEwan’s Atonement era, but I must say I enjoyed it much, much more than anything of his that I’ve read so far. Sheers takes McEwan’s preoccupation with moral dilemmas and shaves off all the flowery language, leaving us with a far more frank and brutal narrative. Of course, that’s not for everyone, but it certainly is for me.

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Saw A Man:

  • “This book is a long succession of uninteresting events that happen to extremely uninteresting characters narrated in painstaking detail.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Turgid tosh.The rave reviews are exceptionally misleading.” – john anthony
  • “the prose is great. Pass the Prozac.” – Rick Mitchell

The Dry – Jane Harper

I was feeling increasingly ridiculous being an Australian reader who had not read a single Jane Harper novel. She’s one of our biggest authorial exports of recent years, up there with Liane Moriarty. Her novels are crime thrillers set in regional areas – real “small town with a dark secret” stuff – and they’ve won more awards than you can poke a stick at. I decided to start with The Dry, her debut novel first published back in 2016, which went on to sell over a million copies.

The Dry - Jane Harper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a fictional town five hours’ drive from Melbourne. It’s an El Niño summer (like the one we’re predicted to have later this year), and severe drought has hit the town hard. A farmer, Luke Hadler, shot his wife and son in cold blood, before turning the gun on himself – or so it seems. Most of the townspeople are happy to assume that it was the last desperate act of a depressed man driven to the brink, but Luke’s parents think something more sinister might be afoot. After all, why would Luke leave his 13-month-old daughter unscathed?

They call in Aaron Falk, Luke’s childhood friend, who now works as a financial crimes cop in the big smoke. Falk’s not overjoyed to be returning to his hometown, after he left amid scandal as a teenager. He thinks he’s just going to attend the Hadler family funeral, shake a few hands, and be on his way. Of course, they reel him back in, and he finds himself working with the local cop to find out the truth of the Hadler deaths.

All of this suggests that The Dry is a quintessentially Australian story. There have, after all, been several tragic murder-suicides along these lines in regional communities over recent years, and anyone who’s spent more than a minute in a drought-affected area can tell you that it’s thoroughly believable.

You can understand, then, why I was a bit put off by Harper referring to a Hill’s hoist as a “rotary line” in the Prologue. I have never, in my whole life, heard an Australian call it anything other than a Hill’s hoist. What the fuck is she playing at? There were also flies eating the freshly-shot corpses of the Hadley family, but honestly I found that less disturbing than the patois fail.

Aside from a few qualms like that one, The Dry is remarkably well written. The prose is taut and evocative, a step above Liane Moriarty in my view (though it would certainly appeal to readers who like her books). Take, for instance, the way that Falk is lured back to Kiewarra – he receives a note from Luke’s father that reads “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.” In context, it struck just the right ominous note, compelling you to read on without over-egging the pudding (as first-time thriller writers are wont to do).

I will concede, though, that most of the plot twists were very predictable. At one point, I literally shook my copy of The Dry and said – out loud – “ISN’T IT OBVIOUS?! HE’S GAY!” as the obtuse characters stumbled around, stymied by their own terrible gaydar. Given that Harper has nailed the “voice” for her thrillers, I’d imagine she’ll come around to better plotting with time.

(Because this is My Thing now, I will give a trigger warning for a dog death: it’s just a mention, a sad one, but very brief and the dog doesn’t actually feature as a character.)

I can totally see why they cast Eric Bana as the lead in the film adaptation of The Dry. He’s the perfect Aaron Falk, exactly as you’d picture him. I’ll definitely be watching it, as soon as I get a chance, now that I’ve read the book. When it was finally released (after COVID-19 delays) in 2021, it broke box office records, becoming one of the highest-grossing Australian film opening weekends ever. If I’m honest, I’m more excited for movie night than I am seeking out any more of Harper’s books. The Dry was good, mostly, but not so good that I simply must read more.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Dry:

  • “I do not like to read about the shooting of rabbits and all kinds of cruelty to other animals. I know the people in the town it takes place in do it to survive and feed their families but I still don’t want to read about it. The villain was no surprise either. I guessed it was him by about the second time his character was introduced. No, I am not that smart. It was just obvious.” – Sabrina
  • “Found this dry all around. Main character dry. Supporting characters dry. The weather was dry…but I only felt it when it was directly mentioned.” – thom coco edwards
  • “It was a laborious read and I forced myself to get to the end. The mist “gratifying” part of the book was deleting it from my kindle.” – An Avid Reader

11 Summer Thrillers and Mysteries

We tend to think of thrillers and mysteries as cold weather reads, but sometimes there’s nothing better than a page-turner to get your heart racing when you’re sunning yourself by the pool (or escaping the heat in the air-con). Here are eleven summer thrillers and mysteries that work for warmer seasons.

11 Summer Thrillers And Mysteries - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers - Liane Moriarty - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Liane Moriarty writes the perfect summer thrillers and mysteries, just what you need for the beach bag. Best of all, with Nine Perfect Strangers, you can follow it up by bingeing the TV series. The setting is a dream: a tranquil retreat, where (you guessed it) nine perfect strangers come together, hoping to meditate and massage their way to relaxation and enlightenment. Little do they realise the resort’s director is on a mission to do more than revitalise. Pick this one up when you want a big and varied cast, and reassurance that no picturesque vacation is exactly as it seems in photos.

The Mother-In-Law by Sally Hepworth

The Mother-In-Law - Sally Hepworth - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sally Hepworth writes scintillating and compelling domestic suspense. The Mother-In-Law is the perfect summer thriller to pick up if you’re spending the season with in-laws who are driving you crazy. Diana, Lucy’s titular mother-in-law, is a pillar of the community – or so it would seem. She dies by apparent suicide, but the autopsy reveals foul play. Plus, her will was changed at the last minute, disinheritng both of her children. Very suspicious, wouldn’t you say? Everyone in the family has something to hide, and Lucy might just find herself at the end of an accusation.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient - Alex Michaelides - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you need summer thrillers and mysteries that will draw you in, and drown out the sounds of kids fighting or neighbours partying, you can’t go past The Silent Patient. Alex Michaelides combines “Hitchcockian suspense, Agatha Christie plotting, and Greek tragedy” in this deeply psychological heart-pounder. A woman, who seemed to be living her best life, shoots her husband five times in the face – and then refuses to speak a word. Theo Faber is a criminal psychologist, determined to unravel the truth; he’ll go to any lengths to find out what she’s hiding. But what’s driving him to pry open this particular case? Read my full review of The Silent Patient here.

Did You See Melody? by Sophie Hannah

Did You See Melody - Sophie Hannah - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Did You See Melody? (also called Keep Her Safe, in some territories) is a dream-come-true summer mystery for fans of true crime and armchair detectives. Picture this: you walk into your hotel room and realise there’s been some kind of mistake, because it’s already occupied. It takes a minute until it clicks, the young girl you saw in your room is America’s most famous victim. Her parents are serving life sentences for her murder. Except, she’s clearly alive. She’s who you saw. Right? Or is your tired mind playing tricks on you? Did someone lead you to that room on purpose? So many threads to pull!

The Safe Place by Anna Downes

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What better setting for summer thrillers and mysteries than a working holiday? That’s what Emily Proudman thinks she might be getting in The Safe Place. She’s a down-on-her-luck actress with just a couple of bit-parts on her reel, and she desperately needs a change. The opportunity of a lifetime falls in her lap, working as a nanny for a woman and her six-year-old child on their secluded but luxurious French estate. Is it too good to be true? Of course it is! This woman is hiding something, and the child might be in danger. Read my full review of The Safe Place here.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

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Are you looking for summer thrillers and mysteries that you can read with your #BookTok-obsessed teen? Check out We Were Liars, one of best-sellers in the genre. The Sinclair family is beautiful, privileged, and they spend every summer on their private island together. This year, though, something is different. Cadence, the narrator, was in an accident last time she was on the island. She now suffers crippling migraines, and can’t remember anything about what happened. But now that she’s back, and everyone’s pretending that everything’s normal, her memories are starting to return. What happened? Everyone who could tell you is lying. Read my full review of We Were Liars here.

Mr Nobody by Catherine Steadman

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Okay, yes, I’m spoiled by Australian beaches and couldn’t imagine wanting to spend a summer on the British shore – but even I can concede the cool waters and biting winds are the perfect setting for Mr Nobody. This summer mystery revolves around a man who washes up, drifting in and out of consciousness, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. The media dubs him “Mr Nobody”, and everyone wants to know what happened – except him. Dr Emma Lewis is a psychiatrist who knows that solving the mystery about this man would be a turning point in her career. But what if something connects them, something she’s tried hard to keep buried?

Out Of Breath by Anna Snoekstra

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Have you ever dreamed of going off the grid? Escaping somewhere beautiful, with a bunch of likeminded people, and working on yourself away from the stresses and pressures of everyday life? Anna Snoekstra’s summer thriller, Out Of Breath, is about what happens when that dream turns into a nightmare. A sequestered community in Western Australia seems like the perfect place for Jo Ainsley to hide, and their free diving hobby is an incredible rush. But her new family is harbouring sinister secrets, and Jo has to choose between her first real home and uncovering the truth. Read my full review of Out Of Breath here.

Call Me Evie by J.P. Pomare

Call Me Evie - JP Pomare - Keeping Up With The Penguins

New Zealand’s tourist trade is booming, but in Call Me Evie, Kate Bennet isn’t there to check out Hobbiton. She’s living in an isolated beachfront cabin with an older man – a captor, or a benefactor, depending which way you look. He calls her Evie, and tells her he’s hiding her there to keep her from the consequences of something terrible she did, back in Melbourne. That doesn’t jibe with Kate’s memories of home, of big houses and beautiful friends and loving boyfriends, but the man insists she’s forgetting the trauma she’s inflicted. Should Kate take his word for it and live out her life as Evie? Or will she recover the memory of whatever it is she did, and face up to the fall-out?

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

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The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone captures the essence of ’90s Australian summers like no other mystery novel has to date (and I say that as a reader who lived through a bunch of them in real life). Tikka Molloy was eleven years old the summer that the Van Apfel girls disappeared. Hannah, Ruth, and Cordelia all vanished into thin air the night of the school concert, and they’ve never been seen again. Years later, Tikka returns to her hometown, unable to shake the sense of dread that came with the disappearance of her friends and playmates. Did they run from the suffocation of their evangelical parents? Or were they taken by someone with sinister motives?

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls - Emma Cline - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Emma Cline uses one of the most infamous summers in American history as inspiration for The Girls. Drawn loosely from the crimes of the Manson Family, this stunning summer thriller follows a lonely teenager as she’s swept into a world she doesn’t quite understand. The older girls who captured her attention seem happy and carefree, living the kinds of lives she can only dream about. She’s captivated by them, thrilled to join them at their ranch, but she’s being drawn closer and closer to an unthinkable act of violence that will change the trajectory of her life forever. Pick this one up if you’re nostalgic for the ’60s but in the mood for something dark and twisty to counterbalance the sunshine.

The Likeness – Tana French

You ever hear the premise of a book that’s just so outrageous, you drop everything to pick up a copy? That’s what happened for me with The Likeness, a 2008 murder mystery by the reigning queen of Irish crime, Tana French. It’s the second book in her Dublin Murder Squad series, but the first one to catch my eye.

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The Likeness begins in 2005, in Dublin, where detective Cassie Maddox is trying to find her balance after a major trauma on a previous case with the Dublin Murder Squad. (Okay, yes, maybe it would’ve been better to read the first book in the series first, because there was a lot of allusion to it in the early chapters, and again towards the end. But I still managed to enjoy The Likeness as a stand-alone, without that richer understanding of the narrator’s background, so it’s not a requirement per se.)

Cassie gets a frantic call from her detective boyfriend, begging her to come out to a crime scene. A dog walker has discovered a girl’s dead body – sadly, nothing unusual about that. What is unusual, however, is the young woman looks exactly like Cassie. Yep! Folks, we’ve got ourselves a doppelgänger.

Not only do they look eerily similar, but it turns out the dead girl was living under an alias that Cassie had used in a previous case while working undercover.

This is the main thing you need to know about Alexandra Madison: she never existed. Frank Mackey and I invented her, a long time ago.

The Likeness (page 3)

The similar looks and the shared alias prompts Cassie’s former boss to suggest a whacky idea. Cassie should go undercover, posing as the dead girl, to see if she can find any leads as to who might have killed her. Cassie will live in her house, attend her classes, drink with her friends – all the while keeping her eyes peeled for a potential murderer.

The premise is ludicrous, of course, but French makes The Likeness seem almost believable. She has serious literary talent, and manages to steer away from the schlock. I went in expecting an over-the-top high-octane thriller, but what I got was intense and intricate.

Once Cassie Maddox goes undercover, The Likeness has a much stronger dark academia flavour than I was expecting. All the key ingredients are there: Trinity College, literary studies, hyper-intellectual hobbies, a close-knit group of friends, an undercurrent of threat, a dark crime, secrets around every corner…

French also folds in a Gothic sensibility, with most of the action taking place in a run-down Edwardian mansion that Cassie-slash-Lexie shares with four fellow students. It has all kinds of symbolic significance, tied into the English oppression and persecution of the Irish (which also pops up in the narrative), as well as being creepy as heck.

As the undercover operation plays out, Cassie gets in too deep – of course. Has there ever been a story about an undercover cop who doesn’t? But rather than falling in love with a murderer or getting addicted to the drugs peddled by people she’s trying to arrest, Cassie slots herself into a found family. They’re more than just housemates – they’re connected by something much deeper, and much more permanent. Trust me when I tell you, The Likeness has a lot more going on than an attention-grabbing plot.

The twists weren’t shocking, but they weren’t completely predictable either. I made a note of who I liked as the killer in Chapter 2, and I was off base – not far off, but still couldn’t pick it. The Likeness isn’t a read-it-all-in-one-sitting grip-the-pages-til-your-knuckles-turn-white thriller. It’s one to pick up when you’re looking for a more complex story, one that weaves together police procedure and Gothic intrigue and psychological games. Even if the twists didn’t surprise me, the whole of the novel sure did.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Likeness:

  • “the whole concept of The Likeness is ludicrous, yet it’s written with enough gravitas and pathos as if it was a greek tragedy. Oh the anguish, the despair, the sighing and the worrying – all over a contrived plot any decently drawn fictional character would laugh their ass off over.” – Lush Landscapes
  • “If I had a dime for every time Cassie felt like she’d been kicked in the stomach, I could buy a latte.” – Renee Downing
  • “The story is very interesting, but I don’t like reading a bunch of sweat words. I don’t think that all cops sweat like that, maybe most do, but don’t like the Lord’s name taken in vain. Otherwise the writing was very well done.” – Darlene Webster
  • “Tana French is a talented writer, but she badly needs an editor or friend who will tell her when she’s wrong. She was wrong about the ending for “In The Woods” and she was wrong all over the place with this book.” – Melanie White
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