Picture this: you’ve started a mystery/thriller/sci-fi/suspense novel—any book that sucks you into a plot that requires full buy-in on the reader’s part. And you do. And it’s well written, it’s all working and then BAM!, it’s not. You’re left like Nathan Lane in The Birdcage, a gay man trying to play a straight man discussing the Miami Dolphins. The betrayal, the bewilderment. Here then are mini-reviews of two recent reads that were working oh-so-well for me right up until the last quarter of the book when they went oh-so-bad.
The Hand That Feeds You by A.J. Rich
Published by Scribner
Publication date: July 7th 2015
If you need thrillers that attack from the very first page then look no further. The Hand that Feeds You opens with Morgan Prager walking into her apartment to find her dogs frantic and covered in something sticky. Her fiancé Bennett lies on the floor dead. Dead and torn into pieces. Not surprisingly Morgan goes into shock but even in her dissociative state she cannot believe that her beloved rescue dogs, a Grand Pyrenees and a pit-bull, could have done this. Unfortunately, forensics proves differently and Morgan has to deal with the grief of a dead fiancé and trying to prove her dogs are innocent before they are euthanized.
Author A.J. Rich assembles the cast and plot of The Hand that Feeds You neatly and with precision. Morgan finds an animal rights lawyer and sympathetic worker at the shelter to help her dogs but wrapping up her fiancé’s life proves to be the difficult part. Namely, because he isn’t who he said he was. In fact, finding out who he was at all is almost impossible and as Morgan does uncover clues the picture is not a pretty one.
Much of The Hand that Feeds You works, partly because of the gross novelty of a person being killed by a domesticated pet(s). That plus the increasingly distressing details of Bennett’s past life are more than enough to sustain the tension to a finale but instead new elements continue to pile on. This loss of control culminates in a sudden reveal that feels like the novel has slipped the leash. This might be due to the fact that The Hand that Feeds You has not one but two authors: Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment, who wrote the novel as A.J. Rich. I could almost see them sitting in a room with no conclusion, a looming deadline, and one of them saying, “Oooo, how about this?” and the other replying, “Welll…OK” without conviction, but without any other ideas either. You read it and let me know if I’m barking up the wrong tree.
The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon
Published by Doubleday
Publication date: August 4th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Fantasy
In the pantheon of bad girls author Jennifer McMahon makes sure that at a young age Amy has earned her spot. She’s the cool girl who wears make-up you’re not allowed to, convinces you to try smoking or to have a drink, and is the first one to kiss a boy. She’s the high-strung, dramatic instigator, the girl with all eyes on her. So it’s hardly surprising when, at the beginning of The Night Sister, she’s found dead of suicide after murdering her husband and son. Her young daughter is found hiding on the roof outside her bedroom window, numb with shock. What happened is clear but why is not and
McMahon knows how to work a slow burn with her novels. Without resorting to theatrics, she infuses enough plausible scariness into her novels to keep the reader jittery and uncertain. In The Night Sister this comes from two sisters—one with a fascination with Alfred Hitchcock, a family motel built with a replica of the Tower of London next to it, and the legend of women who shape shift at night and kill. Add in a small town, a timeline that moves between three generations of a family’s women, and unrequited love and you’ve got a heady mix of real life and horror.
It isn’t until the the book reaches its final stages that the mystery unravels and as it does the whole garment falls apart. I’m not one who always solves the literary puzzle in mysteries but in this case McMahon is not able to carry off a diversion large enough to keep her secret safe. And quite frankly, the theme of a monster that can’t help being a monster is one she used in her previous novel, The Winter People, and it doesn’t play as well the second time around. It is a great humanist construct but when applied to monsters, I’m a stake-through-the-heart, shoot-with-a-silver-bullet, hunt them down and kill them kind of gal. Letting them live makes me think ‘sequel’ but The Night Sister doesn’t have enough to pull me back in a second time.
Sarah's Book Shelves says
Ha! It’s back to that old journey or the ending question!! At least you enjoyed some of the journey with these.
Ugh. I’m so with you on Hand. That book had me enthralled out of the gate, but the further I read, the more it lost me. The reveal felt like a rabbit out of a hat, but I think we both had issues long before then. I should go reread my review to remind myself but I can’t even. I do remember thinking “How is this woman studying profiling and can’t even see the connection between the people being killed?” Drove me batshit. And settle in, because it’s all coming back to me. So. Her supposedly beloved fiance was just killed but she’s out looking for sex AND all angsty over the lawyer and whether or not he’s into her? Really? Frankly, I think between the way she dealt with that and the state of her dogs emotionally, she was the sociopath. Obviously I’m going a bit overboard there, but I felt the authors tried to infuse her with all of this caring and emotion that was not evidenced by her actions, either with regard to Bennett or, more problematically, her dogs, who were still alive. Again, ugh. So disappointing. Ok, I’mma stop ranting now. Luckily for you I haven’t read the other book. 🙂
I LOVE your rant! I was OK with most of Hand but you make good points. I lost it when the killer was revealed- it was so random and fast, it felt as if they threw a dart and said, “Oh, OK, let’s go with this.” And then I was angry.
Once I got going it all started coming back to me. 🙂 And it was maddening because it was a premise with some novelty to it, as you noted. Then to just blow it up was irksome. And they just made the protag seem like an idiot with no real emotion or conscience and though they tried to tie things in with that weird flashback, it just didn’t work. All that being said, however, I was fairly well entertained until that reveal.
I had a similar reaction to The Night Sister as you did, but overall I liked it better. I think The Winter People worked a lot better and I enjoyed it much more. I thought The Night Sister (hate the cover, for what it’s worth) worked the decrepit motel angle well and I did find it suspenseful, but overall…it was just okay. One weird high point that I should note, I really enjoyed the character names in this one – Piper, Margot, Louisa, Levi – all names I enjoy.
That’s what bothered me the most about The Night Sister- I loved the motel aspect. It was the very ending that bothered me. And you’re right- great names. Piper, especially.