Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Thriller (page 1 of 6)

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

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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

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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?

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

We Were Liars - E Lockhart - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Mr Nobody - Catherine Steadman - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Out Of Breath - Anna Snoekstra - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone - Felicity McLean - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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.

The Likeness - Tana French - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Likeness here.
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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

The Chain – Adrian McKinty

The Chain has one of those plots that pulled me in, before I’d even finished reading the blurb. Picture this: a woman receives a phone call, advising her that her daughter has been kidnapped while waiting for the school bus. Terrifying, of course. She has to pay a ransom, but she also has to kidnap another person’s child, in order to secure her daughter’s safe return. Isn’t that twisted? I love a good ethical dilemma, as you know, so I ran out to pick up a copy of The Chain as soon as I could.

The Chain - Adrian McKinty - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Chain here.
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Adrian McKinty has cited an interesting mish-mash of sources as inspiration for The Chain. It seems he combined stories of cartel kidnappings where family members could be substituted for the original victim, and the strange chain letter trend of his youth. Reading the book, it’s easy to see how these ideas melded together.

The main character, Rachel, is a divorcee whose cancer has recently returned. All of those troubles are shoved to the side, though, when her daughter Kylie is kidnapped. A terrified voice at the other end of an unknown number tells Rachel “you are not the first, and you will certainly not be the last,”. She is now part of The Chain: a series of parents and loved ones held together by their complicity, kidnapping someone in order to secure the return of their own.

The “chain” is more like a web, with the anonymous masterminds keeping tabs on their victims, using them where necessary to convince new victims to play along. The whole operation exploits the fierce love that parents have for their children, coupled with their fear of punishment should their involvement be revealed. None of them can dob anyone in without throwing themselves under the bus, too.

The Chain is told through short, punchy chapters. The story moves fast, and there are plenty of moments that will twist your stomach and hitch your breath. As well as the obvious trigger warning for violence against children, I should warn you about content relating to cancer, addiction, and dog death. Also, I don’t know if this constitutes a trigger warning, but there are a LOT of guns in this story. Like, everyone’s got a gun, everyone’s looking for a gun, everyone’s shooting a gun… it’s a surprisingly American idiosyncrasy for a thriller by an Irish writer.

It also has an unusual structure for a thriller – perhaps because McKinty originally conceived The Chain as a short story. There are two “parts”, and they read more like a first book and a sequel – smushed together into a single volume.

In the beginning, I felt like McKinty leaned a bit too hard into the people-put-everything-on-social-media aspect. Characters on the “chain” turn to Facebook and Instagram to stalk potential victims, and manage to turn up all kinds of information with very little effort. That might make sense if the story was set in the earliest days of social media, but these days I can’t think of anyone who would put their home address or phone number publicly visible on Facebook. It just stretched the bounds of believability.

McKinty also had a few hats-on-hats-on-hats, plot-wise. The Chain is such a compelling idea, I’m not sure he really needed the main character’s cancer diagnosis, or the side character’s heroin addiction, or the villain’s whole hippie commune back-story, or… Simplifying the story flies in the face of everything we’re told about how characters should be “complex”, but I think it would have made the hair-raising plot more impactful.

The story is definitely going to lend itself to a screen adaptation, though – I’m surprised we haven’t seen one already. Rights to The Chain were purchased by Universal Pictures back in 2020, and a director and writer have signed on, but no other news as yet. It definitely has the chops to make a Don’t Say A Word-type psychological thriller.

All told, The Chain is a high-octane thriller for fans of adrenaline-pump stories. As to the major question at its heart (“how far would you go to protect your loved ones?”), I still haven’t decided. In that respect, at least, this one will stick with me for a while.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Chain:

  • “Hopefully this crap will earn McKinty enough money so he can return to his earlier writing style.” – kb
  • “I read this in one day while my kids were playing on the beach. I literally couldn’t put it down. I had to know what happened next… now I have no idea where my kids are. Thanks a lot.” mrs. jones
  • “If you have seen the movie Taken with Liam Neeson you basically read this book. I imagine this book being as cheesy action film that is totally predictable. I’m taken back from the amazing reviews it has received. How much did they pay Stephen King to write that review?” – andrew ji
  • “”Rachel knows and Ginger knows. And Ginger knows that Rachel knows and Rachel knows that Ginger knows.” Really captivating stuff right there.” – Amanda E

Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn

Back in 2006, before Gone Girl took over all the best-seller lists and became shorthand for the unlikeable female narrator, Gillian Flynn released her quiet debut: Sharp Objects. It didn’t take long to catch on. Even back then, the seeds of what makes Flynn’s books so popular (especially with women) were beginning to sprout.

Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Sharp Objects here.
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Sharp Objects follows Camille Preaker, a journalist for a small Chicago newspaper, as she’s drawn back to her hometown to report on the abduction and murder of two young girls. At first, Camille doesn’t seem particularly unusual – sure, she’s a bit of a drinker, and she clearly has some unresolved issues with her family, but who doesn’t? Gradually, as the events of Sharp Objects unfold, you realise how dark she really is, and why those issues with her mother and her hometown might never be untangled.

And who are the other players? Well, the dead/missing girls, of course: Natalie Keene and Ann Nash, both boisterous young girls with rebellious streaks. There’s also Camille’s sisters: Marian passed away when Camille was still very young, but Amma is still around. She’s 13 years old, and a master manipulator. Amma and Camille’s mother, Adora (what a name!), is a strict disciplinarian and judgemental as heck. She comes from old money and she knows just how to wield her influence, inside of the family and out of it. The men in the story recede right to the background: Camille’s editor Frank Curry, long-time small-town cop Chief Vickery, and the big-time city detective called in to help out, Richard Willis.

Camille gets pushed and pulled, from pillar to post, as she tries to craft a neat story out of a very messy situation. Returning to your hometown is stressful under normal circumstances, but when you’ve got an editor breathing down your neck for copy, a mother who doesn’t want you around, two dead girls with their teeth pulled out, and a history of mental instability… yeah, you’re not going to have a good time. Eventually, though, she does figure out who killed the little girls. I’ll respect the convenant against spoilers, for once, but I will say that the conclusion is fairly predictable (aside from a couple of fun twists right at the very end).

The plot of Sharp Objects isn’t quite as propulsive or gripping as Gone Girl, but it’s still highly readable. It’s also much darker, if you can believe it. It turns out Flynn never shied away from mining the depths of female psychopathology to turn our collective stomachs. This book mixes together the “beautiful woman with dark secrets” idea with the essence of Southern Gothic, and the results are very good. Flynn has said that she was working at Entertainment Weekly as she was writing Sharp Objects, and she initially struggled to maintain the “moist, gothic tone” of her draft manuscript – she “didn’t want it to be EW bouncy”. I’m glad she stuck at it.

(Oh, and, of course, the trigger warnings: violence against children, alcoholism, sexual assault, and – the biggie – self-harm.)

After the super-mega success of Gone Girl and the corresponding film adaptation starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, Sharp Objects got the screen treatment, too. It became a 2018 HBO mini-series, and won considerable critical acclaim. Viewers praised the visuals, directing, and performances of Amy Adams (as Camille) and Patricia Clarkson (as Adora). It sounds like it’s worth checking out.

So, it would seem that Flynn is no one-hit wonder. Even though Sharp Objects didn’t quite live up to her most popular book, it was still good enough to convince me to check out the rest of her back-list. Plus, Flynn has hinted that she’s working (slowly) on a new one – so I’ll be staying tuned for news on that front, too.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sharp Objects:

  • “The author is not good and the editing is terrible. Lack of research. Weird, untrue statements about farming” – PaigeB1920
  • “We get it, you’re bitter and woke and you wish all your old high school mates were miserable. Most people actual just want good for others. Get over yourself. And get over high school.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Please tell me you have better things to do than read about a serial killer who kills little girls and pulls their teeth. I do.” – SAF/ALF
  • “The descriptions are so detailed, that I have to wonder about the author’s own mental health. The characters are sick, the details are sick and the town is sick. Not a redeeming thing in this story. I have to wonder about Reese as well. I gave three stars because it is well written for a sick story.” – Happy Thoughts
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