The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

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After the tease of cooler weather a couple weeks ago, this week it seems like the autumnal air is finally here to stay. I've been trying to sprinkle in a few spookier reads among my usual genres, and have been eagerly awaiting Sarah Pearse's novel The Sanatorium since it was released. It was hard not to be sucked into the world that Pearse has conjured.  A decommissioned sanatorium turned luxury hotel is the kind of setting that just brims with the creepiness that I crave during this time of year. Throw into that the promise of a mystery, and I was completely sold. 

Le Sommet has been strategically positioned amongst the dense forest and steep mountain peaks of the Swiss Alps, giving it both a sense of grand majesty and unyielding isolation. In the early days of its operation, this setting helped the sanatorium stay out of sight and out of mind, a place where society could hide away the people who couldn't function within it. All these years later, that kind of treatment has been halted and the building that housed it relegated to an abandoned vestige of the past. But the former Sanatorium is being given new life, renovated into a minimalist hotel that combines the historic location with more modern amenities. Even as the hotel opens, however, it isn't without controversy. The architect of the redesign has gone missing, vanished without a trace. 

Elin Warner has recently taken some time away from her job as a detective. The pressure was becoming too much to handle and negatively impacting her performance. This break is intended to help her replenish her mental and emotional health. She's surprised to hear from her estranged brother and is even more surprised when he invites her to visit the recently opened Le Sommet to meet his new fiancee Laurie. Elin is hesitant to go, but without the excuse of work the keep her home, she sees no real alternative. Her arrival to the austere establishments coincides with a blistering storm, mirroring the foreboding unease she feels. 

Things with her brother aren't much better than they've been before, and she can't help but question his intentions for inviting her there. The next morning, Elin awakes to learn that Laurie has disappeared in the night.  Her experience as a detective kicks into high gear as she begins investigating the strange disappearance. The more she looks into things, the direr the situation seems. Even worse, the winter storm has cut off all access to the outside world. What Elin could never imagine is the sheer scope of the danger she and the rest of the guests at the hotel have just placed themselves into. You see, unbeknownst to anyone else, another woman has gone missing. With her out of the picture, the knowledge of this place and its history have vanished too. Now Elin will have to dig deep into her own investigative prowess to uncover the truth before it is too late. 

Sarah Pearse's debut novel The Sanatorium offered the promise of a classic locked-room mystery set in a brilliantly unsettling location. Indeed the opening of the novel perfectly sets the scene and adds to the dread with a mysterious figure hooded in a historical gas mask from a hundred years ago. But then, all pretense of a spine-chilling mystery is dropped in favor of a family drama that had me scratching my head. Surely this wasn't the same book I had just begun to read! Don't get me wrong, there are portions of this novel where glimmers of that opening suspense shine through, but for the most part, the book is more the main character grappling with her own drama than actively investigating a mystery. What should have been a chilling examination on the sins of the past turned out to be a slow unearthing of family secrets that made reading this book more of a chore than it needed to be. I've seen that Pearse has written a follow-up novel featuring her heroine, but after trudging through this one I don't know that I'll be rushing to pick it up. Simply put, The Sanatorium just wasn't for me. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 40)


Deadly Cross by James Patterson

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With as many books as I read each year, it is pretty rare for me to keep up to date with a series. There are just too many books to read with not enough time! That being said, James Patterson's Alex Cross series is the exception. My mom has gifted me the latest book each year for Christmas, so it has become a personal tradition to stay current on Patterson's series. Alex Cross continues to be his best and most consistent character, so I always look forward to reading the next one. As has become another kind of tradition, I've procrastinated nearly a year to read the current book Deadly Cross. Armed with my hardcover copy and an afternoon to kill, I finally settled into the familiar warmth of the latest Alex Cross novel. 

DC Metro Police Commissioner Bree Stone has called upon her husband Alex Cross to review the scene of a brutal murder. The half-clothed remains of a man and woman have been found in a car right outside of a prominent charter school. The school happens to be the same institution that Alex's daughter attends, and Alex is surprised to see that he is familiar with both of the victims. The first is the very much still married man who founded and runs the charter school. The second is both a former patient of Alex's and the ex-wife of a man at the height of his political career. As Alex assists Bree in taking in the scene he is certain of one thing. This murder is about to rock the entire community. 

Patterson usually has multiple cases going on in his books, and this one is no exception. As the main murder investigation progresses, Alex, his partner Sampson, and Bree also focus on the disappearance of several missing girls, and an odd incident that has seen various politicians shot at. There's a lot happening in the book, but it all comes together in the end. Beyond the various mysteries, Patterson spends a good amount of time updating us on his characters. The Cross family has grown over the course of the series, and we get to see a bit about how each of them is doing. Tragedy strikes the extended Cross family early on in the book, and it forces Alex to slow down, reflect on his own life, and volley with the worth of his career in relation to his role as a father. 

As far as James Patterson novels go, Deadly Cross is a pretty good one. Patterson seems to have found his stride again with the characters, and this one continues the story with everything I've come to appreciate about these books. First, there are the mysteries. Three of them to be exact. Each of them draws in both Alex and the reader as they begin to mesh with his personal life, tying him closer to each case. I was enthralled with the hunt and couldn't stop reading. Patterson is known for burning through a plot, and this one certainly had the pages flying. I've always said, though, that the true strength of the Alex Cross series lies within the characters that Patterson has built over the course of 28 novels. Deadly Cross sees the family grappling with their own mortality and coming together to face an unexpected tragedy. It was hard not to share in all of their emotions, especially having seen them evolve with each new book. Character work and the ever-intriguing puzzle of several active investigations propel the book, making it one of the better Alex Cross novels in recent years. Suffice it to say, I'll be eagerly awaiting the next book later this year. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 39)

The Perfect Ruin by Shanora Williams

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Sometimes it is best to go into a book blind. I won a copy of Shanora Williams's latest novel The Perfect Ruin in a Goodreads giveaway that I didn't remember entering. (Please tell me I'm not the only one to have done this!) I didn't even recall reading a blurb about the book, so I had zero expectations about what it would be. It turns out that knowing nothing was the perfect way to approach this novel. Williams shrouds much of the motivations of the first part of her book in mystery, so coming in with no preconceived notions about what the story is really worked to my advantage. 

Ivy has spent years in therapy recovering from the trauma of her childhood. When we first meet her, we don't know exactly what that trauma is, and it isn't clear why she has faced such a long period of recovery. What we do know is this. Ivy's therapist has just revealed the name of a person who is responsible for much of her troubles. Armed with this new information, Ivy has vowed to get revenge. To reveal any more of the plot would rob you of the discovery that makes reading the novel as much fun as it is. Suffice it to say that each of the characters keeps their secrets close and their enemies even closer. 

The Perfect Ruin reads a lot like one of those made for T.V. melodramas where every character has a secret and each reveal becomes more shocking and outlandish than the last. That's not a knock on the quality of writing by any means. In fact, each layer of the plot in this one kept me turning the pages waiting to see what crazy thing would happen next. I do think, however, that reading this book will require you to suspend your disbelief to fully enjoy it. Many scenes reminded me of classic prime-time soap operas like Desperate Housewives or Dallas. It is a credit to Williams that I found myself caring about the characters in this one, especially as they acted from mostly selfish motivations. The ending of the book did crescendo to one too many twists for my tastes, but it was all in good fun and in keeping with the momentum that drove everything before it. The Perfect Ruin is the best kind of popcorn read, an entertaining page-turner that never takes itself too seriously. 

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 38)


The Chain by Adrian McKinty

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"They have all sipped from the Drink Me bottle. They have all unwound the clew of red thread. They have all fallen through the looking glass."

For most parents, there is perhaps no worst fear than losing their child. We can probably agree that they'd do anything to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their kids. In his 2019 novel The Chain, Adrian McKinty digs into the depths of just how far a parent will go to protect their child. I first heard of the book when another author, Don Winslow, began to tout it on his Twitter. It sounded like the kind of thriller that I find hard to ignore, so I quickly pre-ordered a copy. Then, as is too often the case with some of my most hyped books, I let it sit on my shelf unread for two years. While time may have heightened my expectations for the novel beyond what it ultimately delivered, it is still a worthy read for anyone looking for a breakneck thrill. 

Imagine for a moment that you're having a bad day. You just got a call from your oncologist that they need you to come into the office for some urgent news. You already know what that news is. Your cancer has returned. This is probably one of the worst days of your life. Just as you're thinking that things can't get any worse, however, your phone rings again. This time the voice on the line is unrecognizable, mutated by an electronic filter designed to hide the identity of whoever you are speaking to. They tell you that your child has been kidnapped, and the only way you'll ever see them again is by following their instructions with no deviations. You've just become another link in the chain.  

This is the nightmare that unfolds for Rachel Klein at the start of the book. She quickly compartmentalizes the news around her cancer to face the more pressing matter of her daughter's abduction. Within the next 24 hours, she has to come up with a ransom or risk never seeing young Kylie again. But the money isn't the most disturbing part of the abductor's request. You see, the person holding her daughter is no ordinary criminal. The person is actually a mother herself, facing the same exact nightmare as Rachel. Her own son has been taken, and if Rachel doesn't also abduct a child within the next day, they will both lose their own. 

The premise of The Chain is quite ingenious in both its simplicity and its execution. Adrian McKinty imagines a diabolical scheme that sees normal people turning into the worst kind of desperate criminals in only a few short hours. The mechanism of this concept lies within the willingness of parents to protect their children at all costs. As each new child is taken, the next parent must pay a ransom and kidnap another child, thus feeding into the chain in an endless cycle. From the opening pages, I was glued to this narrative, unable to look away from the terrifying story as it unfolded. The genius of McKinty's writing in this work is his ability to balance relatable characters with an unrelenting pace. Seriously, I tore through this novel within a few hours but was surprised at how nuanced the character work actually was. The book isn't without its flaws, and I found the last act unworthy of the brilliant setup that preceded it. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more original and engaging read. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 37)

You by Caroline Kepnes

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What is the last show that you binged? I recently ripped through season one of You on Netflix. I know I'm late to the party with this one, but wow was it a wild ride! I had a moment while watching the first episode where things began to feel a bit too familiar to me. Imagine my surprise when I realized that not only was the series based upon a book but that I had actually listened to the audiobook before. Never one to shy away from a book-based series, I did what any self-respecting bibliophile would do. I reread the book! Caroline Kepnes's novel was every bit as fun and twisted as I remembered it being. 

Joe Goldberg has quite the obsession. In fact, it is an obsession that many of us readers can probably relate to. Joe loves books. He's a voracious reader and has turned this passion into a career. Joe works at and runs a book store in New York's East Village, a place where he's made quite the comfortable life for himself. There isn't a ton of money in selling books, but this day job affords him the ability to collect and sell the rarest editions of classic novels. In the collection and preservation of these valuable works, Joe lets his obsession run wild. It is in the book store that Joe first lays eyes on Guinevere Beck, a gorgeous college student who is perusing his shelves. As she completes a purchase, Joe takes notice of her name on her credit card. Later that evening he Googles her name, and a new obsession is born. 

Think about how much information about a person you can find on the internet. Most of it is even willingly shared on the web through our use of social media. It isn't hard to imagine then the information about Guinevere Beck, or just Beck as her friends call her, that Joe is able to unearth. She posts about everything she does, a fact that Joe instantly uses to his advantage. The pair have an "unexpected" run-in at a bar, and things begin to kick into high gear. Joe's obsession with Beck sees him manipulate more encounters until he becomes her boyfriend. He will stop at nothing to become Beck's perfect man, even if that means resorting to the darkest of acts imaginable. 

It seems appropriate that I would kick off my October reading with a book like You. My love of horror runs deep, but with this novel, Caroline Kepnes presents a different kind of terror. There's an undercurrent of fear that runs through every moment of the book. Not the kind of classic fright that may immediately come to mind when thinking about this spooky season, but rather psychological suspense that will nonetheless chill you to the bone. Obsession of any kind can be potentially dangerous, but the infatuation behind the story in You is as uncomfortable to read about as it is enthralling to behold. As I did while reading Jeff Lindsey's Dexter novels, I often found myself feeling a bit guilty for enjoying the story of Joe as much as I did. Kepnes manages to make the reader empathize with and root for her demented main character, even as he sinks to the depths of his despicable delusions. You won't be for every reader, but if you too are looking for a creepy story that provides a unique kind of scare, this one just might do the trick. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 36)

A Song Everlasting by Ha Jin

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What defines who you are? I've played piano for most of my life, studied music through two college degrees, and have worked as a professional musician. My love and understanding of music are intimately intertwined with my lived experience and have helped to shape me into the person I am today. There came a point in my life, however, when I had to learn that it was okay for me to separate myself from that art. By its very nature, art can be all-consuming, a 24/7 obsession that can be easy to lose yourself in. I am lucky to have found a balance in my life in which I know that being a musician is only part of who I am. It doesn't define the entirety of my being. Instead, I know that my life is a rich tapestry of the things I've done, the passions I've uncovered, and the people with whom I surround myself. Condensing the richness of that life into a single label does a disservice in defining the person I am. 

In A Song Everlasting author Ha Jin grapples with the mystery of defining a person through the intimate portrait of one man. Yao Tian is an acclaimed Chinese singer who is revered in his country as a brilliant artist and loyal patriot. Tian has built quite the life for himself, his wife, and their daughter. He approaches his art with the same duty with which he honors his country, a duty that drives him to sing nationalist songs and tour with the national choir. His traditional upbringing and culture also bind him to another kind of duty, the duty of being the patriarch of his small family. Tian has a comfortable life, but he's eager for more. Not more for himself, but for enough money to provide his daughter with the best college education possible. It is in this desire that Tian begins to lose himself and threaten all of the things that define him. 

On a trip to New York with the Chinese choir, things begin to unravel. Tian accepts an extra gig for a generous cash payout. He knows the money will help with his daughter's tuition. Plus, the event is advertised as a celebration of unity between China and Taiwan, a cause that Tian believes aligns with the priorities of his country. But as he attempts to return home, Tian is startled to learn that he's been fired from the choir and blacklisted by the very government that he's dutifully served. It turns out that the organizers of the private event he sang at are actually supporters of Taiwan's secession. In an instant, everything that has ever defined Tian is taken away from him. He is stuck in a foreign country with no feasible path back home. He has lost the career that defined him and worst abandoned his family. Now he'll have to carve out a new path, learning more about himself and what truly makes up a man in the process. 

I was drawn to A Song Everlasting by the summary that the publisher provided when they offered me a copy to review. I was instantly connected to the idea of a musician losing the means to a career that defined him. What I didn't expect was how deeply moved I would become by his story. Ha Jin writes with utilitarian ease that could be misconstrued as sparse. I found, however, that his words work in service to the story, disappearing from thought to allow the reader to focus more on the life that is being portrayed. In fact, I often found myself forgetting that I was reading a work of fiction at all, completely invested in the man and his situation. A Song Everlasting challenges definitions of tradition and duty and instead finds vibrance in the plainness of everyday life. Like a song itself, the book works not in a singular moment or event, but through the combination of its various characters, moments, and emotions. I left the novel stunned by the ideas that it contained, awed by the very splendor of its simplicity.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 35)

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