Tag: Page Turners

Alcohol & Advil: Miracle Creek and Southern Lady Code

April 18, 2019 Mini Book Reviews 9

Alcohol and Advil Literary Style

 

Welcome to Alcohol & Advil, where I pair a book likely to cause a “reading hangover” (i.e. the alcohol) with a recovery book (i.e. the Advil)! For me, the “alcohol” is usually a book that I either absolutely loved or one that punched me in the gut in an emotionally depleting way…and, in this case, it’s both.

I should call this my tropical beach edition of Alcohol & Advil. I read both these books while on vacation and the alcohol in this case was a drink called a Cucumber Swizzle (kind of like a Moscow Mule, but with cucumber in it).

This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link).

The Alcohol

Miracle CreekMiracle Creekby Angie Kim
Fiction – Mystery / Thriller (Release Date: April 16, 2019)
368 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Sarah Crichton Books)

Plot Summary: When there is an explosion at Korean immigrant Young and Pak Yoo’s “Miracle Submarine” alternative autism treatment facility, resulting in two deaths, everyone at the facility that day becomes targets of the investigation.

My Thoughts: Miracle Creek is a courtroom drama, but it’s so much more than that. It’s highly literary and tackles multiple serious issues, yet doesn’t forego the fast-moving plot of a traditional courtroom drama. The story starts off with a bang…literally and figuratively. I was hooked immediately. Each person involved in the explosion at Miracle Submarine has their own secrets and knows little parts of the story that others don’t know…meaning no one has the complete picture. And, you can tell that Angie Kim was a trial lawyer in real life…the courtroom drama portion of the story is masterful with multiple legitimate suspects (without resorting to gimmicks) and evidence that looks one way when considered through a particular lens and a totally different way when considered through another.

In addition to the “who caused the explosion and why” angle to the story, Miracle Creek addresses children with severe disabilities (including autism) and what life is like for those who care for them. It’s about the thoughts probably anyone in the position of caregiver to a disabled family member has at their toughest moments, but are unacceptable to speak out loud. It’s about the experience of immigrating to the U.S. and trying to fit in, but also trying to retain some of your native culture and identity. It’s about being Korean American in particular. And, it illuminates how the legal system can sometimes subvert the truth. Miracle Creek is the most thoughtful courtroom drama I’ve ever read and would make an excellent book club pick. A 5 star read for me and I can confidently say it will be on my Best Books of 2019 list come December!

We’ve been lying about so many things for a year, deciding for ourselves what’s just or not, what’s relevant or not. We’re all to blame.

The Advil

Southern Lady Code Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis 
Nonfiction – Memoir / Essays (Release Date: April 16, 2019)
224 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Doubleday)

Plot Summary: Ellis (an Alabama native living in New York City) shares her outrageous take on Southern etiquette and eccentricities. 

My Thoughts: Ellis’s short story collection, American Housewife (my review), was hit and miss for me, but the hits led me to believe I’d love her brand of nonfiction social commentary. And, I was mostly right! Ellis has an inappropriate, outrageous sense of humor (my favorite!). And, pairing it with her spot-on social commentary on the South can be magic. Ellis now lives in New York, which I think gives her some necessary perspective on the South that makes her commentary even better. She covers marriage, thank-you notes, general etiquette (courtesy of her mother), and crazy stories from her childhood a la Jenny Lawson (I loved these).

Some of these essays are outrageously funny, while some are still fairly outrageous (but less so for Ellis), but also poignant. And, the ones with some poignancy were my favorites. She writes poignantly about her decision to be child-free in “Free to Be…You and Me (and Childfree)” and her friend Meredith’s work as an Assistant District Attorney in the Bronx in “Serious Women.” And, her social commentary shines in “Party Foul” (a crazy story from her childhood) and “Emily Post for the Apocalypse” (her mother’s view on manners for “extreme situations”). The only mis-step for me was the mini-essays that are collections of one-sentence thoughts on a topic…these just didn’t work for me and broke up the rhythm of collection. Southern Lady Code was exactly the balm I was looking for following the immersive experience of Miracle Creek!

“Sorry you saw something that offended you” is Southern Lady Code for: Get that stick out of your butt, Miss Prissy Pants.

What’s the last book that gave you a reading hangover? And, what did you cure it with?

Pin this post…

Miracle Creek and Southern Lady Code
Get Weekly Email Updates!

An Anonymous Girl by Sarah Pekkanen and Greer Hendricks: Spoiler Discussion

January 17, 2019 Discussions 17

This post is full of spoilers, so STOP READING AFTER THE FIRST SECTION if you don’t want to know the ending (or other details).

An Anonymous GirlFiction – Thriller
Released January 8, 2019
384 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (St. Martin’s Press)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link), through which I make a small commission when you make a purchase (at no cost to you!).

Y’all know I have an incredibly finicky relationship with psychological thrillers. But, I think I’m starting to figure out one element that can make me like them: having part of the story told from the perspective of a psychologist or psychiatrist. I like to dig into people’s minds and have always had a weird fascination with the brains of serial killers. So, psychological thrillers that are heavier on the psychological and lighter on the thriller tend to work for me. An Anonymous Girl fits this bill.

It’s less reliant on action and outlandish plot twists…the suspenseful question is not what will happen, but who you can trust. The beginning of the story sucked me in in a creepy, unsettling way. There was a “WTF is going on” vibe (What exactly is this study about? What does Dr. Shields want with Jess?) and Dr. Shields, the psychiatrist in this story, gives off a Herman Koch vibe (especially like Dear Mr. M and Summer House with Swimming Pool). This book is a giant mindf*ck!

STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW SPOILERS!

Who’s the puppeteer in this drama?

I went back and forth constantly on this question. Obviously, Dr. Shields is set up in the beginning to be the character you should definitely not trust.

But, as the story progressed, there were moments I thought Thomas was behind it all. Why was he hiding his affair with April…to the point of inventing a fake affair with Lauren from the boutique? The moment when he revealed he’d purposely texted Dr. Shields to make her think he was having an affair made me think he was controlling far more than I’d thought…that he knew how in love Dr. Shields was with him and used that to get her to take certain actions.

Then, at the very end, I thought maybe Jess was pulling a lot more strings than I’d thought (more on that below when I talk about the ending).

With whom did your sympathies lie throughout the story?

My sympathies shifted between characters throughout the story. In the beginning, my sympathies were with Jess. She was a hard-working girl trying to make it in the big city while carrying around this huge burden from childhood (that she’d locked Becky in her parents’ bedroom the day she fell out of the window) and also trying to help her family out financially. But then, the way she treated Noah irritated me. She wasn’t as pure good as I’d thought.

I was never super sympathetic towards Thomas until the very end. He seemed to be manipulative and arrogant. But, he did go out on a limb to help Jess get out from under Dr. Shields’ thumb. And, he lied to protect Jess from Dr. Shields by telling her that he and Jess never slept together. In the end, I feel like he was just a guy caught up in this crazy web that he couldn’t get out of and was trying to mitigate the damage. I more felt sorry for him than anything else.

By the very end of the story, my sympathy for Dr. Shields actually grew. I’d always thought she was a cold, calculating sociopath…but, the situation was more complicated than that. Yes, she was calculating. But, she was driven by her love for Thomas, which sociopaths aren’t capable of. And in the end, she was willing to sacrifice herself for him. I think she was just an unhinged woman who became incredibly dangerous because she knew how to read and manipulate people through her profession. If she hadn’t been a trained psychiatrist (and so good at it), she’d probably just be a run-of-the-mill woman driven crazy by a man.

And, coming back around to Jess…she seemed much colder and more calculating at the end of the story (see below for more).

Did you ever think Jess was starting to lose her mind and inventing things that didn’t really happen?

Around the 42% mark, I suspected Jess was starting to lose touch with reality. I wondered if she was overly paranoid and was imagining everything that happened in her life was orchestrated by Dr. Shields.

While a lot was (chicken soup on the doorstep?!), I do think Jess was becoming somewhat paranoid. But, I kind of can’t blame her.

How did you interpret the ending?

The end of the Epilogue totally threw me for a loop. Jess blackmails Thomas for money…granted it’s to help her family and Jess was put through the wringer by Dr. Shields. Dr. Shields got Jess fired, ruined a promising relationship, and did promise to help Jess’s father financially. But, the whole encounter left me cold.

And how about these last lines after Jessica confronts Thomas with her blackmail proposal?

Perhaps you are confident in your decision. Or maybe an insistent question will haunt you: Was it all worth it, Jessica?

Is this implying that Jessica orchestrated this entire thing start to finish and actually used Dr. Shields and Thomas? That was my first thought, but it seems highly unlikely given how the story unfolded. She got into Dr. Shields’ study by accident, but is there a possibility Jess somehow found out about the study and arranged to do the make-up of one of the participants? I feel like there’s no way that could’ve happened. Too many pieces wouldn’t make sense if that was the case.

So, what does that last line mean? Did Jess just start orchestrating at a certain point in the story (when she realized she could get something out of it for herself and her family)? Or, did she really just think she deserved what Dr. Shields had promised her family and that she’d suffered so much that she deserved to be compensated? I’m guessing it’s probably the middle choice.

But, is there something I’m missing? What else could that last line mean? Tell me your thoughts in the comments!

Let’s discuss! What did you think of An Anonymous Girl? And, how did you interpret the last line of the Epilogue?

Get Weekly Email Updates!

January 2019 Books to Read (and Skip)

January 15, 2019 Mini Book Reviews 23

January 2019 Books to Read

I’ve had a pretty good start to 2019 reading! But, it’s not what you’d normally expect from me. The books that worked for me were almost all brain candy and mysteries / thrillers! And, the two books that didn’t were both literary fiction…my usual go-to genre. I have no idea what’s going on with my reading, but I’m rolling with it.

Also, stay tuned for a Spoiler Discussion of An Anonymous Girl on Thursday!

Hosted by Modern Mrs. Darcy.
This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link).

Read These

An Anonymous GirlAn Anonymous Girl by Sarah Pekkanen and Greer Hendricks
Fiction – Mystery / Thriller (Release Date: January 8, 2019)
375 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (St. Martin’s Press)

Plot Summary: Jessica Farris signs up for a supposedly anonymous study only to find that Dr. Shields (the psychiatrist conducting the study) seems to be able to get into her head in a much deeper way than she imagined.

My Thoughts: I have an incredibly finicky relationship with psychological thrillers. But, I think I’m starting to figure out one element that can make me like them: having part of the story told from the perspective of a psychologist or psychiatrist. I like to dig into people’s minds and have always had a weird fascination with the brains of serial killers. So, psychological thrillers that are heavier on the psychological and lighter on the thriller tend to work for me. An Anonymous Girl fits this bill. It’s less reliant on action and outlandish plot twists…the suspenseful question is not what will happen, but who can you trust? The beginning of the story sucked me in in a creepy, unsettling way. There was a “WTF is going on” vibe (What exactly is this study about? What does Dr. Shields want with Jess?) and Dr. Shields, the psychiatrist in this story, gives off a Herman Koch vibe (especially like Dear Mr. M and Summer House with Swimming Pool). This book is a giant mindf*ck!

It’s all so proper and precise and insane.

Talk to Me by John KenneyTalk to Meby John Kenney
Fiction – Brain Candy (Release Date: January 15, 2019)
320 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (G.P. Putnam)

Plot Summary: When star news anchor Ted Grayson gets caught on video berating a female make-up artist, the media (including his own journalist daughter) attacks and Ted is forced to re-evaluate his entire life.

My Thoughts: Talk to Me is definitely Brain Candy, but it’s Brain Candy with substance (my very favorite type of Brain Candy). It’s a snarky story that’s ultimately about regret…taking place in today’s media world. Kenney’s commentary on today’s brand of journalism is spot-on and pokes fun at pretty much all parties involved. He skewers political correctness and those who don’t buy into political correctness, traditional news anchors and click-bait “news” websites…no one escapes unscathed. But, buried under all the snark is some actual heart. Ted’s struggle with his family (both wife and adult daughter) is sad, yet so common in today’s highly driven world. By the end, I felt bad for pretty much every character in the book (well, all except one side character). I also got a kick out of the quirky personalities in Ted’s newsroom…especially Murray, a Dwight Schrute-type who writes for Ted’s broadcast. My one complaint is that it dragged a bit through the third quarter. If you’re interested in stories about falls from grace, today’s media climate, and life regret, Talk to Me is for you.

How do you explain to people that after a while the money ($11 million a year) doesn’t matter, that houses don’t matter, the fame doesn’t matter? How do you explain to a nation that prizes those very things above almost all else? How do you say to your eight million viewers each evening, viewers who think you have a dream life, a dream wife, a perfect daughter, that you are a vapid, empty shell of a person with almost no real relationships and little to no integrity, that you’ve given up long ago on being a journalist?

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson WalkerThe Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
Fiction – Literary (Release Date: January 15, 2019)
320 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House)

Plot Summary: A “sleeping sickness” (i.e. people fall asleep for long periods of time and have vivid dreams) befalls one floor of a college dorm in a small town in the California mountains (Santa Lora), but then begins to spread to the town, putting everyone on high alert.

My Thoughts: Many people raved about Walker’s debut novel, The Age of Miracles, but I missed that one. I’ll definitely be going back to it, though, because I almost 5 star loved The Dreamers! It’s like a more literary version of Megan Abbott’s The Fever (which I loved). The Dreamers is not a thriller by any means, but it still had me on the edge of my seat with incredible tension and suspense. Walker did a fantastic job conveying the fear that an epidemic of a never-before-seen disease can cause…and it reminded me of the early days of the AIDS epidemic when the general public didn’t know how it was transmitted, etc. This is a novel about fear, hysteria, isolation, and human behavior in the face of those things. And, I love her writing style…it’s simple, yet incredibly compelling, and sets a just slightly mystical mood (which is about all the mystical I can tolerate). The Dreamers has been compared to Station Eleven (my review) and I’d say the epidemic portion of the book is somewhat similar, but overall The Dreamers shines on its own. My only small complaint (and what made me rate it 4.5 rather than 5 stars) was a somewhat anti-climactic ending. This one has a shot at making my Best Books of 2019 list! 

This town, these neighbors walking their dogs on the streets – this does not look like a place where a plague is right now unfolding. You can draw a lot of comfort from the normalcy of others – if this thing were really spreading, would the neighbors be raking their lawns? Would the mailman be delivering catalogues?

The Suspect by Fiona BartonThe Suspectby Fiona Barton
Fiction – Mystery / Thriller (Release Date: January 22, 2019)
416 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Berkley Books)

Plot Summary: When two British girls go missing while backpacking in Thailand, journalist Kate Waters tries to piece together what happened to them. 

My Thoughts: Fiona Barton is a popular mystery writer (The Child and The Widow), but this is the first time I’ve read her books. Y’all know mysteries aren’t my usual reading fare and this one didn’t blow my mind, but I solidly enjoyed it (which is more than I can usually say about mysteries!). It’s more police procedural than thriller and it doesn’t try to play “gotcha” with anything outlandish…which I appreciate in a mystery or thriller. It’s just a solid story untangling what went wrong when two girls go missing while backpacking in Thailand. It explores the dynamics of foreigners traveling in Thailand and the Thai government’s philosophy of handling incidents involving foreigners (i.e. try to avoid needing the Thai police if you’re a foreigner traveling there). It reads quickly and I was interested in how it was all going to come together. This is the third book in the Kate Waters series, but I didn’t feel lost at all jumping in without having read the first two books. A compelling mystery and a perfect palate cleanser.

Everyone wants to know the truth. Except those who don’t. Those who stand to lose by it. I know that now.

The DNF’s

Sugar Run by Mesha MarenSugar Run by Mesha Maren (January 8, 2019)
DNF at 18%
I was really excited about this one…the premise seemed right up my alley. But, I ended up feeling really disconnected from the characters and felt like too large a percentage of the writing described scenery and surroundings rather than focused on the characters.

 

 

Talent by Juliet LapidosTalent by Juliet Lapidos (January 22, 2019)
DNF at 8%
I know, a quick DNF. There was just a bit too much navel-gazing and entirely too much pontificating about Pop Tarts (yes, really). And, I heard from someone who actually finished it that the Pop Tart pontificating continues throughout the whole novel. 

 

What’s the best book you’ve read so far this month?

Pin this post…

January 2019 Books to Read

 

Do you want a monthly personalized book recommendation from me and access to our private Facebook Group?
Support Sarah’s Book Shelves on Patreon for access to these special bonuses (more details here)!

Get Weekly Email Updates!

4 More Books Perfect for Summer: Calypso, The Banker’s Wife, The Book of Essie, The Favorite Sister

July 19, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 23

More Books Perfect for Summer Reading

 

I posted my 2018 Summer Reading Guide back in May and I told you I’d be adding more books to that list throughout the summer because I tend to find more books perfect for summer as the summer goes on! This is the last crop of books I’ll be adding…and they’re some good ones! After today, The Book of Essie will take over the top slot in the “Something Fun” category from Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties!

Coincidentally (or maybe not so coincidentally since I do love the behind-the-scenes of reality TV), two books on this list are set on reality TV shows and do a great job of portraying what goes on behind the scenes of those types of shows. And, two of these are Book of the Month picks!

4 More Books Perfect for Summer

CalypsoCalypso by David Sedaris
Nonfiction – Memoir/Essays (Released May 29, 2018)
288 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Book of the Month (Publisher: Little, Brown)

Plot Summary: Sedaris’ latest essay collection focusing on middle age.

My Thoughts: David Sedaris is generally known for his dark humor and his ability to make readers sob and laugh hysterically on the same page. Personally, I didn’t cry or laugh hysterically while reading Calypso, but I did chuckle and get sad and appreciate the crap out of his dark humor. I love how Sedaris says things that most people probably think, but are too scared to say out loud. He’s not worried about offending anyone and talks frankly about his own family. In this collection, Sedaris talks a lot about his sister’s downward spiral and eventual suicide and his father’s aging process and how seeing him age impacts his complicated relationship with him. But, it’s not all serious. He also talks about the outrageous and hilarious…like wanting to feed a tumor he had removed to a special turtle at his beach house. I read one essay a night before bed and was always tempted to keep going for one more essay. And, though I read this one in print, Sedaris is fabulous on audio!

My father has done this all his life. You’ll be talking to him and he’ll walk away – not angry but just sort of finished with you. I was probably six years old the first time I noticed this. You’d think I’d have found it hurtful, but instead I looked at his retreating back, thinking, We can get away with that? Yippee!

Banker's Wife The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger
Fiction – Thriller (Released July 3, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (G.P. Putnam)

Plot Summary: When a private plane carrying a Swiss banker and his wealthy client goes off the radar, his wife is left to piece together the shady dealings Swiss United Bank was involved in.

My Thoughts: I needed a fast, easy read after a heavier book and The Banker’s Wife hit the spot! Despite it’s unfortunately domestic sounding title (really…can publishers try for at least one thriller without “Wife” or “Girl” in the title?!!), it’s more of a conspiracy / financial thriller. It’s purely plot driven (so much so that I forgot to highlight passages to share in this post!) and will keep you turning the pages. There are characters who resemble real life people enough to make you wonder, which I always love to see in my reading (see if you can spot Donald Trump, the Fanjul Family, and the late crime/society journalist Dominick Dunne)! If you’re a sucker for a good conspiracy theory involving powerful people, The Banker’s Wife should be right up your alley!

Book of EssieThe Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir
Fiction – Brain Candy (Released June 12, 2018)
336 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Book of the Month (Publisher: Knopf)

Plot Summary: When the youngest daughter (Essie) of a evangelical reality TV family becomes pregnant and realizes her mother is working with their show’s producers to come up with the best way to spin it for the show, she decides to take matters into her own hands.

My Thoughts: The Book of Essie is the type of brain candy I love…a story about weighty topics that reads quickly and easily. The first line will grab you immediately and I was dying to find out how all this was going to turn out. Essie has had enough of the tight leash her family has her on and the glaring media spotlight, so she hatches a plan that involves a male classmate (Roarke) and a reporter with past ties to a religious cult (Liberty). Essie is sneakily subversive and I loved her…she’s someone you can root for. A lot of bad stuff went on with this family, but the story is ultimately hopeful. And though I did have to suspend disbelief at some of Roarke’s decisions, I just went with the story and it was a 100% satisfying vacation read. Bonus: you get an interesting behind-the-scenes look at reality TV and image management in the media spotlight.

First Line:

On the day I turn seventeen, there is a meeting to decide whether I should have the baby or if sneaking me to a clinic for an abortion is worth the PR risk. I am not invited, which is just as well, since my being there might imply that I have some choice in the matter and I know that I have none.

Favorite SisterThe Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll
Fiction – Brain Candy (Released May 15, 2018)
384 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Simon & Schuster)

Plot Summary: A shocking death occurs during the filming of a Real Housewives-esque reality TV show.

My Thoughts: I DNF’d Knoll’s first novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, but decided to give The Favorite Sister a chance once I heard it was about reality TV. I’m glad I did because it was just the type of brain candy I love: smart, a bit different, and containing an ending that’s surprising, yet makes sense with the story looking back on it. I’ve always been intrigued by how the sausage gets made in reality TV and The Favorite Sister doesn’t disappoint in that department. In addition to the reality TV scoop, you also get a big dose of passive-aggressive sister dynamics, feminism, and motherhood (although she does occasionally get a bit heavy-handed with all the issues). If you read Reality Steve’s blog, liked Bachelor Nation by Amy Kaufman (my review), or love the TV show Unreal, The Favorite Sister is for you! Warning: if dislikable characters ruin books for you, steer clear of this one!

We don’t need to draw knives and weapons. The most effective way to destroy someone on the show is to disengage, to deprive her of the drama, of the meaningful connections, of the great and powerful storyline. In our world, your sharpest weapon is a polite smile.

What are your best reads of this summer so far?

Get Weekly Email Updates!

Why I Generally Don’t Like Thrillers…and 6 Types of Thrillers That DO Work For Me

May 8, 2018 Discussions 25

Why I Don't Like Thrillers

 

Y’all have heard me complain about my prickly relationship with thrillers for years now. And, based on all that complaining, you’d think I’d just avoid the genre entirely. But, I don’t. Because, when I do find a thriller that works for me, it’s one of my favorite reading experiences! And, then I keep trying and failing to replicate that experience.

Ever since Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train were such mega-hits, publishers have been churning out psychological thrillers at a feverish pace, chasing that lightening in a bottle success. My personal opinion is that this has put a ton of mediocre to terrible thrillers out there. There are the ones that rely on some outlandish gimmick to surprise the reader, the ones that are completely predictable, and ones that involve the supernatural or paranormal…all of which drive me crazy.

So, I’ve been trying to choose my thrillers wisely and really consider what makes a thriller work for me. From what I can tell, I prefer thrillers…

With A Surprising, Yet Not Outlandish Ending or Twist

This is the #1 thing a thriller must have for it to work for me. After I finish, I want to be able to look back on the story and say, “I did not see that ending/twist coming, but it totally makes sense in hindsight.” And, it’s unfortunately really hard to ride that perfect line between surprise and inevitability.

Successful Examples: Emma in the Night (my review), The Wife (the Alafair Burke version), Gone Girl

That Delve Deep Into a Topic

Certain thrillers are defined by a topic they delve deep into and I like how the topics differentiate these thrillers from everything else out there…and help you learn something in the process.

Successful Examples: Emma in the Night – narcissism (my review), The Guest Room – sex trafficking (my review), The Sleepwalker – parasomnia (my review), You Will Know Me – elite women’s gymnastics (my review)

That Feel Like or Are Something Else

Some books are technically considered another genre entirely, but read like a page turner. Again, this helps these thrillers stand out from the very crowded pack.

Successful Examples: Dark Matter – Sci-Fi (my review), Bull Mountain – Grit Lit (my review)

With a Bit of Romance

Normally, I can’t stand cheesy romance in my fiction. But, the romance I find in thrillers is usually of the darker, more twisted (rather than cheesy) variety…and I can totally handle that.

Successful Examples: Quicksand (my review), The Roanoke Girls (my review), Dead Letters (my review)

That are International

I’ve had good luck over the past few years with translated thrillers. Most were run-away bestsellers in their home countries and then made their way to the U.S. market. There’s something about an international thriller (European in these cases) that has a completely different feel than U.S. thrillers. There’s more subtle emotional tension rather than a reliance on suspense driven by action.

Successful Examples: Based on a True Story (spoiler discussion), Fear (my review), After the Crash (my review)

That Feel Literary

I’m not sure how to define this except to say that I know it when I see it. Often, thrillers rely on plot-based action, but I love it when a thriller also has strong character development and great writing. 

Successful Examples: Since We Fell (my review), Social Creature

How do you feel about thrillers? Are you a fan or not? What types of thrillers work for you and what thriller elements bother you?

Support Sarah’s Book Shelves on Patreon!
(and get personalized book recommendations and access to our private Facebook Group)

Get Bonus Content!

Backlist Beauties: The Best Backlist Books I’ve Read in 2017 So Far

October 10, 2017 Book Lists 21

Since my Fall reading has been so lackluster, I thought it would be a good time to share some of the best backlist books I’ve read in 2017 so far. When new releases aren’t working for you…dive into the backlist for some relief!

I always say I’m going to make more time for backlist titles and, every year, I don’t follow through. My goal is to read enough additional backlist titles by the end of the year to warrant another Backlist Beauties post!

This post contains affiliate links.

The Best Backlist Books I’ve Read in 2017 So Far

Books for Living by Will SchwalbeBooks for Living by Will Schwalbe
Nonfiction – Essays (Released December 27, 2016)
288 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Knopf)

Plot Summary: The author of The End of Your Life Book Club‘s collection of essays featuring individual books and how they impacted his life.

My Thoughts: Each chapter of this introspective collection focuses on one book and how it impacted and contributed to Schwalbe’s life. He covers classics (Stuart Little), nonfiction (The Importance Of Living), serious books (A Little Life), and lighter fare (The Girl on the Train). I certainly hadn’t read all the books he discusses, but I related to many of his points about life. And, I’m now in the process of reading a couple books Schwalbe talked about in Books for Living (What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott). This book would be a fantastic gift for serious readers or someone who is reflecting a bit on life. 

Reading is a respite from the relentlessness of technology, but it’s not only that. It’s how I reset and recharge. It’s how I escape, but it’s also how I engage. And reading should spur further engagement.

Dark Matter by Blake CrouchDark Matter by Blake Crouch
Fiction – Thriller / Sci-Fi (Released July 26, 2016)
354 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Crown)

Plot Summary: After college physics professor Jason Dessen is abducted at gunpoint one night, he awakens in another world.

My Thoughts: Despite the hype, I avoided this book for quite awhile because I’m decidedly NOT into sci-fi. But, Dark Matter is sci-fi like The Martian (my review) is sci-fi (i.e. it has broad appeal). There’s definitely some science in it, but the story is deeply human and is more about life choices than the science. The story begins with a “WTF is going on here” vibe reminiscent of The Beautiful Bureaucrat (my review). I had no idea what was going on for awhile, but could not stop reading. Dark Matter is a page-turner in the purest sense…with an action-level on par with an episode of 24

No one tells you it’s all about to change, to be taken away. There’s no proximity alert, no indication that you’re standing on the precipice. And maybe that’s what makes tragedy so tragic. Not just what happens, but how it happens: a sucker punch that comes at you out of nowhere, when you’re least expecting it. No time to flinch or brace.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam HaslettImagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
Fiction (Released May 3, 2016)
368 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Little, Brown)

Plot Summary: A multi-generational family saga of the impact of depression and mental illness on a family.

My Thoughts: Incredibly sad, but poignant, this 2016 National Book Award Long-Lister is beautifully written and captures the frustration, resentment, and crushing sense of responsibility and worry that come with having a family member who suffers from mental illness. While extended sections from Michael’s perspective are hard to read and nonsensical at times with long tangents on esoteric music, they serve a distinct purpose (allowing the reader inside mind of someone suffering from depression). And, the second half flows beautifully toward the inevitable, yet still drama-filled conclusion.

There is no getting better. There is love I cannot bear, which has kept me from drifting entirely loose. There are the medicines I can take that flood my mind without discrimination, slowing the monster, moving the struggle underwater, where I then must live in the murk. But there is no killing the beast. Since I was a young man, it has hunted me. And it will hunt me until I am dead. The older I become, the closer it gets.

Lots of Candles Plenty of Cake by Anna QuindlenLots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released April 24, 2012)
182 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Random House)

Plot Summary: A combination memoir/essay collection covering marriage, girlfriends, motherhood, faith, loss, work, and much more!

My Thoughts: Listening to Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake was like seeing a therapist and falls into the same category as Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. Quindlen just has such a grounded, practical outlook on life that really puts things in perspective for me. Highly recommend for anyone craving a “life wisdom” type read!

Being a parent is not transactional. We do not get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward: We are good parents, not so they will be loving enough to stay with us, but so they will be strong enough to leave us.

Mothering Sunday by Graham SwiftMothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Historical Fiction (Released April 26, 2016)
177 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Knopf)

Plot Summary: While the staff of British estates has time off for Mothering Sunday of 1924 (a Protestant and Catholic religious holiday that was somewhat of a precursor to our current secular Mother’s Day), Jane (a maid) and Paul (an heir to the neighboring estate) meet to continue their illicit affair.

My Thoughts: Mothering Sunday is a technically a romance, but is so unconventional that I hesitate to call it a romance at all (maybe also because I’m not a romance fan). It’s a quiet, gorgeously written story about the evolution of a woman (Jane) from the Mothering Sunday tryst with her illicit lover to late in her life. The story is unique, yet not weird and I could say the same about Swift’s writing style. Mothering Sunday reminded me a bit of Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon (my review) and would be an excellent choice for fans of Downton Abbey.

It was called “relaxation,” she thought, a word that did not commonly enter a maid’s vocabulary. She had many words, by now, that did not enter a maid’s vocabulary. Even the word “vocabulary.” She gathered them up like one of those nest-building birds outside. And was she even a maid any more, stretched here on his bed? And was he even a “master”? It was the magic, the perfect politics of nakedness. More than relaxation: peace.

One True Thing by Anna QuindlenOne True Thing by Anna Quindlen
Fiction (August 30, 1994)
315 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Random House)

Plot Summary: Ellen Gulden returns home from her prestigious job as a New York City journalist to care for her mother as she’s dying of cancer…only to be accused her mercy killing.

My Thoughts: I’m a bit late to the Anna Quindlen party, but she’s fast becoming a go-to author for me whenever I’m craving some “life lessons/perspective” in my reading. She just gets life…especially marriage, motherhood, and women’s work/life balance. One True Thing explores the relationship between Ellen (an ambitious career woman) and her mother (a Stepford-style stay-at-home mother) and their efforts to understand each other as people before it’s too late. This novel is heartfelt, sad, moving, and thought-provoking and reminded me a bit of My Name is Lucy Barton (a novel about a mother and daughter getting to know each other during a hospital stay) and Home is Burning (a memoir about children serving as caregivers for their parents). 

But in the end what was important was not that we had so misunderstood one another, but that we had so misunderstood her, this woman who had made us who we were while we barely noticed it.

Get Weekly Email Updates!

3 More Books That Are Perfect for Summer Reading: Beartown, Standard Deviation, Since We Fell

June 22, 2017 Book Lists 21

When I originally posted my 2017 Summer Reading Guide, I said I’d be adding more books that are perfect for summer reading to that list throughout the summer. Well, here’s the first installment of add-ons! And, they are GOOD.

BeartownBeartown by Fredrik Backman by Fredrick Backman
Fiction – Sports (
Released April 25, 2017)
432 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Simon & Schuster)

Plot Summary: While small, down and out Beartown goes crazy over its youth ice hockey team’s run in the Swedish national tournament, something explosive happens to throw the town’s and team’s hopes into jeopardy.

My Thoughts: I was hesitant to read Beartown because I abandoned Backman’s smash hit, A Man Called Ove, pretty early on. But, Beartown is an entirely different story and is one of my favorite books of the year so far! Beartown has been compared to Friday Night Lights, which is accurate in that this is a story of a town who’s hopes are declining every day and whose youth sports team is really the only thing it’s residents have to be proud of. Backman makes you feel the core emotions of sports…what makes something that can seem frivolous mean so much to some people.

It’s only a game. It only resolves tiny, insignificant things. Such as who gets validation. Who gets listened to. It allocates power and draws boundaries and turns some people into stars and others into spectators. That’s all.

Like Friday Night LightsBeartown is far more than just sports fiction. It’s about high school, marriage, intense pressure on young children, bullying, class, and violence. The first paragraph smacked me in the face and I was fully engrossed until the very end. It’s a book you can fly through…I couldn’t stop turning the pages even though I easily guessed the what and who of what happened (thanks to a super spoiler-y comparison a major book blogger made to another book…GRR). Beartown would make a fantastic summer reading book and is jam packed with discussion material for book clubs.

Since We Fell by Dennis LehaneSince We Fell by Dennis Lehane
Fiction – Thriller (
Released May 9, 2017)
432 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Ecco)

Plot Summary: After a traumatic experience as a broadcast journalist covering the earthquake in Haiti, Rachel becomes a recluse despite her happy marriage…until she begins to question everything about her life and is sucked into something far bigger than she ever imagined.

My Thoughts: Since We Fell is the first psychological thriller I’ve enjoyed in ages! Maybe that’s because it reads more like character-driven fiction, especially in the first half. The twists do hit like an avalanche eventually…there’s just a solid set-up to make you care about the characters first. And, those twists all surprised me, yet made sense with the story, which is the number one criteria that a thriller must have for me to enjoy it…and where most thrillers fall apart for me. Since We Fell is a thriller for people who have been frustrated with psychological thrillers lately…and, if this isn’t enough, check out this first line:

On a Tuesday in May, in her thirty-fifth year, Rachel shot her husband dead. He stumbled backward with an odd look of confirmation on his face, as if some part of him had always known she’d do it.

Standard Deviation by Katherine HeinyStandard Deviation by Katherine Heiny
Fiction (
Released May 23, 2017)
336 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Knopf)

Plot Summary: When Graham and his bubbly second wife (Audra) become friends with Graham’s introverted first wife (Elspeth), Graham begins to ponder the state of his marriage and his family (including a ten year old son with Asberger’s).

My Thoughts: Standard Deviation is one of those novels where not a ton happens, but the “yes, that’s exactly how it is” writing and spot-on commentary about marriage, introverts and extraverts, and parenting carry the story. It’s an honest rumination on a not perfect, but not completely dysfunctional marriage. Though Graham and Audra certainly have their issues, there is a clear love for each other that was a nice change of pace from my usual fare of stratospherically dysfunctional marriages/families. I loved Graham’s (who narrated the book) salty, dry sense of humor and the way he honestly addressed the aspects of marriage and parenting that it’s socially expected of people to always portray as unicorns and rainbows.

Graham didn’t admit this to anyone, even Audra, but part of him was secretly pleased that Matthew had been caught looking at porn on a school computer. Wasn’t that—wasn’t that something normal kids did?

Audra is a massive chatterbox and someone who I don’t think I could be friends with in real life, but her total lack of filter made her amusing to read about. The collision between Audra’s extraversion (she constantly invites random people over for dinner and to stay as houseguests in their NY apartment) and Graham’s introversion, as well as Matthew’s Asberger’s, added a bit more intrigue to the story. My only complaint was an overly abrupt ending that will probably irritate some people. If you like straight talk about marriage, this book is for you!

Get Weekly Email Updates!

Alcohol & Advil: White Fur and Do Not Become Alarmed

June 8, 2017 Mini Book Reviews 12

Alcohol and Advil Literary Style


Welcome back to Alcohol & Advil, where I pair a book likely to cause a “reading hangover” (i.e. the alcohol) with a recovery book (i.e. the Advil)! For me, the “alcohol” is usually a book that I either absolutely loved or one that punched me in the gut in an emotionally depleting way…and, in this case, it’s the former.

The Alcohol

White Fur by Jardine LibaireWhite Fur by Jardine Libaire
Fiction (
Released May 30, 2017)
384 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon 
Source: Publisher (Hogarth Books)

Plot Summary: Jamey Hyde (a wealthy Yale student from the Upper East Side) and Elise Perez (Hyde’s New Haven neighbor who grew up in Connecticut public housing) embark on a relationship, which Jamey’s family is determined to destroy.

My Thoughts: The premise of this book sounds completely cheesy and I’m normally not a fan of love stories in my reading, but I loved this one! It’s raw, gritty, edgy, and uncomfortable…while also managing to be a study of class in America. And, it features the most gorgeous writing I’ve seen in months! The settings of 1980’s New Haven and New York City certainly account for some of the grittiness, but Libaire’s writing and storytelling takes care of the rest. And, Libaire’s spot-on and perfectly worded social commentary about the wealthy provides a nice change of pace from Jamey and Elise’s dark and intense relationship.

Binkie, the one and only. He can hear her rings clacking on the plastic phone, and he chuckles, envisioning with amusement the bejeweled and suntanned manicured grip his grandmother thinks she has on his balls. And she does.

I don’t normally describe love stories as suspenseful, but this one kicks off with a Prologue that had me dying to know how Jamey and Elise would get from Point A to Point Z. My only complaint is that the actual Point Z didn’t work for me…it didn’t fit well with the rest of the story. Nevertheless, White Fur is one gorgeously written, highly literary, and totally unique (so unique that I can’t think of a single book to compare it to) love story…and is one of my favorite books so far this year!

The Advil

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile MeloyDo Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy
Fiction (
Released June 6, 2017)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Riverhead)

Plot Summary: While on a holiday cruise through Central America, cousins Liv and Nora’s children (along with two friends) disappear during a shore excursion.

My Thoughts: Following the gorgeous writing of White Fur, I was looking for a purely plot-based book and I found it in Do Not Become Alarmed. Though the plot requires the reader to suspend belief a few times, I flew through this novel.

The bulk of the action takes place in an unnamed Central American country that’s supposed to be “the Switzerland of Central America” and very safe for tourists…based on clues in the novel, it sounds like a fictional Costa Rica. The story is told from the perspectives of the different sets of parents (who have their own dynamics and are experiencing cracks in their relationships with each other as a result of the children’s disappearances) and the missing children. It’s a “shit hits the fan on an International vacation” story in the vein of Siracusa (my review) and would be a perfect vacation read…as long as you’re not traveling with young children through Central America! And, it’s going on my 2017 Summer Reading Guide.

Looking for a specific book recommendation? I’ve got you covered!
Participate in a limited time, free trial of my
new PERSONALIZED BOOK RECOMMENDATION service!