Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Thriller (page 1 of 5)

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
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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

The Nothing Man – Catherine Ryan Howard

I think this might be the year I finally catch up on all the books that slipped by me during the pandemic lockdown(s). A few weeks ago, it was The Secrets Of Strangers, and now it’s The Nothing Man. Corvus Books (and Allen & Unwin) sent me this one towards the end of 2020 – better late than never, right?

The Nothing Man - Catherine Ryan Howard - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Nothing Man here.
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This one didn’t really catch my eye until I read – and loved! – 56 Days. That book made Catherine Ryan Howard an automatic-buy author for me, and luckily I already had The Nothing Man on the to-read shelf.

It turns out it’s got a cracker of a premise. The Nothing Man is the moniker given to the man who assaulted and murdered a series of people in the early 2000s, in their Cork homes. They called him that because the Gardaí had “nothing” on him. This isn’t a whodunnit, though. You know from the very first chapter that Jim is The Nothing Man.

Nowadays, Jim is working as a security guard in a supermarket. When the story begins, he’s just learned that a book has come out about his (as yet unsolved) crimes – he spots a woman purchasing a copy from a display at his work. It’s a memoir by the sole survivor of The Nothing Man’s last attack. At just twelve years old, Eve Black suffered the loss of her entire family at his hands, and now she’s writing a book about her experience, in the hopes of gathering new information to crack the case.

So, we’ve got a book-within-a-book situation in The Nothing Man. It’s a really clever way of having the two perspectives play out: Eve’s search for her family’s killer, and Jim’s present-day life as an undetected “former” serial killer. The chapters alternate between extracts from Eve’s book, and Jim’s reactions as he reads them. He quickly realises how close she is to stumbling onto the truth of his identity, and he feels backed into a corner. He’s going to have to find a way to thwart her before his facade is broken down.

The Nothing Man is a very creepy, very detailed crime novel. You should know before you pick it up (trigger warning time!) that it contains graphic descriptions of violent sexual crime, and twisted psychological games – and one particularly horrible instance of cruelty towards a dog 🙁

That said, it’s so well-written and propulsive, it’s difficult to put down – even when it turns your stomach. Howard masterfully balanced Jim and Eve’s perspectives, giving the “victim” just as strong a voice and an active role in what unfolds (something all-too-often missing from crime thrillers, with passive dead girls left voiceless in the narrative).

Plus, The Nothing Man culminates in a satisfying ending that seems, granted, a little unrealistic – but not overwrought or overdone.

This is the perfect fiction book for fans of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark. Howard even cites that specific book as inspiration in the Acknowledgements for The Nothing Man. If you’re looking for a book to give a true crime aficionado – or if you’re one yourself, looking to try something different – this is the one to go with. Catherine Ryan Howard remains a must-read author for me!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Nothing Man:

  • “I was truly scared to read more, but was too anxious to stop!” – Teresa C
  • “I am Irish and I tend to steer clear of books set in Ireland like the plague because they are more often than not leprechaun inducing hokum. I bought this book because it kept popping up in my recommendations – I confess I had never heard of the Author and didn’t realise that the book was set in Ireland. When I finally got around to reading it, the penny soon dropped and I will admit my heart sank. What was ahead? Donkeys carrying turf around a bog? Twenty chapters of people roaring drunk in pubs? Would everyone be dressed in flatcaps and Aran jumpers?
    What followed was one of the most original thrillers I have ever read and frankly could have been set anywhere in the world. What a refreshing change!” – Nicci
  • “I tend to read in bed before going to sleep. Not a good idea with this book” – ET1959
  • “The author writes very fluently, drawing you in to the story and making you feel engaged with the characters. I didn’t empathise strongly with the mass murdering psychopath to be fair but that’s probably a good thing.” – NeilS

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things – Iain Reid

Iain Reid was already an award-winning nonfiction writer when he decided to turn his hand to fiction. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is his first novel, and despite his past success, he had trouble finding anyone willing to publish it. “Just about everyone in Canada rejected it,” he has said, “until Simon and Schuster made a modest offer.” I bet they’re I-told-you-so-ing all over town, because I’m Thinking Of Ending Things went on to become a New York Times Best Seller, got translated into twenty languages, and scored a Netflix adaptation.

I'm Thinking Of Ending Things - Iain Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is a road trip novel in the psychological thriller/horror fiction vein. My edition – and most editions, I think – comes with no blurb, so you truly go in blind. The story begins with a nameless narrator and her boyfriend, Jake, in a car en route to visit Jake’s parents for the first time. She’s thinking of ending things, but Jake doesn’t know that yet.

That’s not all Jake doesn’t know yet. Our narrator is also being stalked by The Caller, a man who leaves her cryptic voicemails, somehow calling her from her own number.

So, yeah. You’re already drowning in hints that something’s hinky.

The evening with Jake’s parents, on a remote farm in the middle of winter, is creepy as hell. The conversation is awkward, the parents are weird, and the narrator can’t make sense of the weird things she sees – like a photo of herself as a child in Jake’s room. They only met a few months prior at a pub trivia night, so it seems impossible that he could have it, but she’s soon distracted by another unsettling conversation with Jake’s dad and a visit to the harrowing basement.

How do we know when something is menacing? What cues us that something is not innocent? Instinct always trumps reason.

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things (Page 17)

On the drive home, Jake wants to stop for ice cream. The narrator thinks she recognises one of the girls behind the counter, and is extra-creeped out when the girl subtly mentions being “worried” for her. When they leave, Jake comes up with a flimsy excuse to detour past the local high-school. And that’s where I’m Thinking Of Ending Things really takes off.

The chapters are interspersed, too, with italicised pages – apparently extracts from a gossipy conversation about some kind of tragedy or scandal. They gradually nudge the reader towards the novel’s horrifying conclusion.

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things would be a great spooky read for Halloween. I read it all in one night, because I definitely would have had nightmares if I’d put it down halfway. Mr Keeping Up With The Penguins walked into the room unexpectedly when I was about three-quarters of the way through, and I jumped so high my head just about hit the ceiling.

The ending was a bit murky, though, and it didn’t quite satisfy after such a hair-raising build-up. This might be one where you have to google “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things ending explained” after you finish. Reid has said that he left things open to interpretation on purpose, because he “appreciates books that put some of the onus onto me to decipher and complete the story”. That’s great and everything, but I like my mysteries completely solved – if only so I can still get a good night’s sleep afterwards.

Still, I enjoyed reading I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, and I definitely want to check out the 2020 Netflix adaptation – especially since I realised Toni Collette is in it (one of my faves). Tl;dr? I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is Under The Skin meets Gone Girl meets Fight Club, and it’s definitely not for wimps.

My favourite Amazon reviews of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things:

  • “If you’ve been debating getting this story since BookTok recommended it, do yourself a solid and make the purchase. Not only is the story incredible, but the cover has a matte finish that feels amazing in your hands.” – Mv
  • “Thank goodness I downloaded this one from the library and wasted time instead of money.” – cschlingmann
  • “One of the reviews said you will read this in one sitting–you will–but not because it’s good. You will do it to end the pain.” – Michael Blake
  • “It’s Fight Club … in the snow.” – Listener

The Secrets Of Strangers – Charity Norman

So, I’ve had The Secrets Of Strangers sitting on my shelf for… a while. Like, years. I received an advance copy back in March 2020. My apologies to Allen & Unwin for the delay in getting to it, but in my defense, a lot of things slipped past the goalie for all of us that particular month.

The Secrets Of Strangers - Charity Norman - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I was curious about The Secrets Of Strangers because it sounded, from the blurb, a lot like what happened the day of the Lindt Cafe siege here in my city, except that it’s set in London (and it turns out, having read it, it’s not all that similar at all).

It’s a busy morning at the Tuckbox Cafe when a young man walks in with a shotgun and fires. Most people manage to scatter, but a small group are trapped and become hostages. Over the course of the novel, their histories and secrets come to the surface.

Neil is an older man, sleeping rough with his dog, Buddy. He came to the Tuckbox Cafe just looking for some warmth and some tea on his birthday.

Abi is a lawyer, running late to court. She’s defending a woman who shook her infant child, on the same day she finds out her fifth cycle of IVF hasn’t resulted in pregnancy.

Mutesi is a grandmother who works as a carer in a nursing home, and has seen more than her fair share of loss. She’s just coming off a night shift, and she meets her daughter-in-law and grandson at the Tuckbox, as she does every week.

Rosie is one of the cafe staff members working when the shooting starts. She also happens to be sleeping with her boss. She hides in the kitchen cupboard, terrified, for hours.

Sam is the gunman, a camel whose back has broken under one too many straws.

Outside of it all is Eliza, a hostage negotiator with young kids at home, charged with getting everyone – including the gunman – out of the Tuckbox Cafe safely.

The stories of all of these characters – hostages, hostage-taker, negotiator – are told in alternating viewpoints across chapters. The plot is a lot more character-driven than you might expect of a crime thriller. The Secrets Of Strangers isn’t so much about the events in the cafe itself as it is what led up to them, and what’s motivating each of the characters as the situation unfolds.

I actually really appreciated how Norman depicted how long and (believe it or not) boring these situations can be. Adrenaline can only rush for so long; after a while, your mind starts to wander, you need the bathroom, you get thirsty, your phone goes flat. When a siege stretches into its eleventh or twelfth hour, as it does in The Secrets Of Strangers, people get tired and the dynamic shifts. There isn’t a neat narrative arc playing out.

Allegiances shift over the course of the novel, too. Your perception of who the “real” villain is will likely change. I’m not sure how I felt about that, though. The resolution felt simultaneously too neat and a bit problematic (IYKYK). The Secrets Of Strangers had a hurt-people-hurt-people, sympathy-for-the-devil type of message, and I just didn’t really vibe with it. But it was a compelling read nonetheless, and Norman clearly has a real talent for writing page-turners.

Pick up The Secrets Of Strangers when you want a beach read on the grittier side that you can devour in a day.

Want more? Read my review of Charity Norman’s seventh novel, Remember Me, here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Secrets Of Strangers:

  • “It’s a well-written page turner that keeps you wondering how and if they will all get out alive, but fear not, nothing bad happens to Buddy the dog. 4.5 rounded down for the (admittedly well-executed) present tense.” – Joanna J
  • “I was initially drawn to this book as I myself work in a cafe.” – Carolyn
  • “It was easy to read and I did want to know what happened but I wasn’t thrilled.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Was a bit like a social workers case load! Not really my kind of book.” – Amazon Customer
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