Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Book review: ‘Behind Her Eyes’ by Sarah Pinborough ★★

Louise, a receptionist at a psychiatrist’s office, makes the mistake of kissing her charismatic new boss, David. In her defence, she doesn’t know he’s her new boss – not until the morning after the night before, when he walks into his new surgery with his glamorous wife, Adele, in tow. Louise bolts for the loos, trying to compose herself.

Against her better judgement, Louise (who has enough on her plate as a single mother of a six-year-old), falls for David’s charms again. He has the decency to act guilty about it – they both know he’s married – but she just can’t help herself. She’s characterised as bit of a frumpy, plain, do-gooder. I get that she’s supposed to be relatable, but it was all a bit depressing.

She gets herself into a very sticky wicket when she also becomes friends with his wife, Adele, who just so happens to bump into her after she’s done the school run. Behind her glam exterior, Adele seems timid and afraid of her husband. Over at Adele’s for lunch one weekday, Adele happens to mention the large cupboard of prescription meds David is making her take. And she also makes Louise swear she won’t tell David about their friendship. Louise is worried that David is abusive, but this is all undermined by the chapters in Adele’s perspective. There’s really no mystery here. Oh, and there’s the obligatory time travel passages that take us back a decade to Adele’s teenagerhood after her parents have died. All this does is interrupt the plot without adding anything else in terms of intrigue or character empathy.

I think this book was a bit of a case of the sunk cost fallacy. It was long (was it? Or did it just feel that way. I’m not sure) but I kept going with it, thinking that all might be redeemed by some hair-raising twist in the second half. And by the time I realised that probably wouldn’t be the case, it was too late to really stop – I’d invested too much.

I very rarely struggle to find positive things about a novel that I end up finishing (I rarely finish books I’m not enjoying. Very rarely indeed) but this winds up having a supernatural/paranormal element which could not be further from my thing. Not to say I’d completely rule out any genre, but this is pitched as a psychological thriller – and then it veers into territory I most certainly had not signed up for.

Perhaps if you go into it with that expectation, you’ll enjoy it a lot more than I did. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be bothering with the Netflix adaptation.

Every Vow You Break by Peter Swanson Book Review

Book Review | Every Vow You Break by Peter Swanson

It was time for a gear shift around here, after the emotional upheaval of last week’s reading.

Peter Swanson’s latest addition to the genre starts off the way any good thriller starts off: a hasty marriage to someone you don’t know that well. Abigail is living paycheck-to-paycheck, working in publishing in New York, when handsome, kind, and obscenely wealthy Bruce sweeps her off her feet. Things might be moving a little too fast, but before she knows it she’s said yes to the proposal and is off on her California bachelorette party with her girlfriends.

With one too many drinks in her system, and nagging doubts about the wiseness of her decision, she’s ready prey for a handsome stranger who charms her one evening after her friends have gone to bed. One thing leads to another, and they have a one-night stand. Wracked with guilt, Abigail returns to New York, determined to keep her infidelity a secret from Bruce and reassuring herself it was nothing but a drunk mistake.

‘Deep down, she knew that Bruce was more in love with her than she was with him. But wasn’t that the case with every couple? There was always one person in each relationship who cared a little more than the other. And wasn’t it better to be the person who cared less?’

The one-night stand man, who she calls Scottie (they didn’t reveal their real names to each other), is, as it turns out, quite unhinged. He tracks Abigail down and begs her not to marry Bruce. He’s lurking in the shadows on their wedding day. And then he shows up on the exclusive, remote island off the coast of Maine, where Bruce has taken her for the honeymoon.

This seemingly idyllic island has an oppressive, menacing quality to it. Swanson builds up the suspense and tension in a masterful way, a slowly creeping sense of dread coming over Abigail. At first there’s the fact that there’s no phone reception (sold as an ‘off the grid’ experience), an uncomfortable ratio of staff to actual guests, and almost no women. Then there’s the aforementioned stalker who also appears. And Abigail realises nothing is quite as it seems.

‘That whole day she felt like a chasm had opened up in front of her, a big black hole she was powerless to escape.’

I sometimes find with thrillers that the best bit is just before you know what’s happening. When all the cards are still to play for, when the narrative might go in any number of directions. Swanson does a great job at building up the menace in a propulsive way, and then he doesn’t really know what to do with it once the big reveal has happened. The plot goes a little bit wild and becomes less psychological thriller and veers more into horror territory. It’s cinematic in its unravelling, but not quite believable and not entirely wrapped up in a satisfying way.

Without giving anything away, there’s a clever and compelling commentary on the dangers of toxic masculinity, incel culture and radicalisation – an ever-increasing concern, particularly given tragic events like those in the UK last week. Mix these hateful beliefs with almost unlimited access to money and resources, and you have a very dangerous cocktail indeed.

I enjoyed this one – more so than the previous two, All The Beautiful Lies and Eight Perfect Murders. Nothing has yet measured up to The Kind Worth Killing – but as a page-turning, unpredictable thriller, I’d recommend Every Vow You Break. Even if you now have the Police song stuck in your head on repeat. 🙂

Book blog - 2021 new releases

4 upcoming releases I’m excited for

It’s a funny old time. Not much is known for certain – I’m finding it hard to think much beyond the next 2 months! But in this great age of uncertainty, I find it comforting to know that there are new book releases on the horizon that I have to look forward to.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Expected publication: September 2021

The heroes of Cloud Cuckoo Land are trying to figure out the world around them: Anna and Omeir, on opposite sides of the formidable city walls during the 1453 siege of Constantinople; teenage idealist Seymour in an attack on a public library in present day Idaho; and Konstance, on an interstellar ship bound for an exoplanet, decades from now. Like Marie-Laure and Werner in All the Light We Cannot See, Anna, Omeir, Seymour, and Konstance are dreamers and outsiders who find resourcefulness and hope in the midst of peril. Doerr has created a tapestry of times and places that reflects our vast interconnectedness—with other species, with each other, with those who lived before us and those who will be here after we’re gone.

Why I’m excited: I loved All The Light We Cannot See, and while the plot of this one looks quite quirky, I will read anything Anthony Doerr writes. His writing is just phenomenal.

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins

Expected publication: August 2021

Laura has spent most of her life being judged. She’s seen as hot-tempered, troubled, a loner. Some even call her dangerous.

Miriam knows that just because Laura is witnessed leaving the scene of a horrific murder with blood on her clothes, that doesn’t mean she’s a killer. Bitter experience has taught her how easy it is to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Carla is reeling from the brutal murder of her nephew. She trusts no one: good people are capable of terrible deeds. But how far will she go to find peace?

Why I’m excited: I’m a sucker for a good psychological thriler, and The Girl On The Train was one of the psych thrillers that really kickstarted a wave of new psych thrillers. So you can bet I’ll be reading this one come August.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Expected publication: September 2021

Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood. Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon are still young—but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

Why I’m excited: Sally Rooney really has been captapaulted into stratospheric heights, and although Normal People and Conversations with Friends were enjoyable but didn’t knock my socks off, I can’t resist getting on board a hype train once in a while.

Pub date is so far off there’s not even a final cover!

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Expected publication: January 2022

In an alternate version of 1893 America, New York is part of the Free States, where people may live and love whomever they please (or so it seems). The fragile young scion of a distinguished family resists betrothal to a worthy suitor, drawn to a charming music teacher of no means. In a 1993 Manhattan besieged by the AIDS epidemic, a young Hawaiian man lives with his much older, wealthier partner, hiding his troubled childhood and the fate of his father. And in 2093, in a world riven by plagues and governed by totalitarian rule, a powerful scientist’s damaged granddaughter tries to navigate life without him—and solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearances.

Why I’m excited: Oddly, this structure sounds like Anthony Doerr’s – three timelines; long-ago past, near-present, and distant-future. That aside, it’s no secret that A Little Life is one of my favourite books of all time, and yes I have pre-ordered a signed copy even though I’ll have to wait all the way until January 2022!!

What are you looking forward to?

All images and descriptions taken from Goodreads.

Book Review | The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

“The facts, such as they were, were simple: Alicia was found alone with Gabriel’s body; only her fingerprints were on the gun. There was never any doubt she killed Gabriel. Why she killed him, on the other hand, remained a mystery.”

Alicia Berenson has been locked away in a psychiatric unit in a supposedly cut and dry case of husband murder. She’s not said a word since the crime took place, and Theo Faber, psychotherapist and self-aggrandising narcissist, is convinced he is the one to ‘save’ her.  

“I became resolved to stop at nothing until Alicia became my patient. There was no time to waste: Alicia was lost. She was missing. And I intended to find her.”

What follows is a in equal parts intriguing and meandering narrative to get to the bottom of what really happened the night that Gabriel was found riddled with bullets while his wife sat covered in his blood. We alternate between past and future, Theo’s unreliable narration slotted between entries from Alicia’s diary – and it’s a good job we got out of Theo’s head at times, because this protagonist really wound me up.

There were the bones here of a really good, gripping tale. The parts where Michaelides talks about the development of personalities and psychiatric disorders, embedding quotes from the likes of Freud, add an extra dimension to an otherwise fairly thin story, where it feels as if we only scratch the surface of the relationships and personal histories and motivations. And whilst the psychological grounding worked well for dramatic effect at the beginning, I’m less convinced that it pulled off what it was trying to do, particularly when key to a final denouement plot point.

You have to overlook a lot. And honestly, sometimes I do. Sometimes plot holes aren’t a deal breaker to me if the narrative can sustain my attention regardless, if there’s a reasonable balance of credibility and incredulity. But here, I’m afraid, it just didn’t entirely work for me. Clever, yes – and full of potential. But not quite clever or deep enough to live up to my expectations.


Book Review | The Truth Hurts by Rebecca Reid

Yesterday, hurricane Zeta knocked out the power across our state. I just about made my way through a work presentation in the morning, wedged into a corner of our living room, clinging to the 2 bars of signal and 25% left on my battery. By noon, all devices were out of juice – so what better time, free of other distractions, than to devour something in one sitting?

The Truth Hurts is the perfect curl-up-in-bed-on-a-random-Thursday-afternoon-in-a-blackout-while-a-hurricane-passes-through read. It’s domestic noir/twisty romance that starts when our protagonist, 28-year-old Poppy, is ousted from her Nannying post in the small hours of the morning while in Ibiza. With no money and no plan, she rocks up at a bar where she meets the charming financier Drew, in his forties. They begin a whirlwind romance, Drew’s lavish spending a far cry from the kind of lifestyle Poppy has been used to, scraping by for low wages with no family support.

At first, they’re living the perfect fantasy life, the finite holiday romance that is all the sweeter for its ephemeral state.

‘They never shopped for more than a day or two in advance, as if they were worried that this, whatever it was, had a shorter lifespan than the peaches or bread that they bought, as if anything more permanent might jinx the little world they had built.’

But then things get serious – much more serious, as Drew proposes. (None of these are spoilers, by the way – you’ll learn as much from the blurb). Gina, Poppy’s best friend, eggs her on – and they’re soon legally wed. There’s another important ‘catch’ to their relationship: neither of them can talk about the past. ‘It’s not relevant,’ Drew says. ‘I don’t believe that total transparency is always the way toward happiness.’ So Poppy finds herself married to man and she has no idea where he went to school or who was his first kiss or what his mother was named. You might question as to why anyone would agree to such an arrangement – but taking into account the depths of Poppy’s isolation and money troubles, it makes some sense.

They leave Ibiza for the country estate Drew has bought for the both of them, Thursday House in Wiltshire.  Another thing that we readers know: the novel opens with the destruction of this home. So whatever goes down here, we know it can’t be good.

Yes, there are some considerable plot holes, and the ending is all a bit silly – but there’s lots to enjoy in this twisty tale. Drew is a bit two-dimensional, but Poppy is a fleshed-out character, and we get a great insight into her plucky personality through her friendship through the vivacious Gina. There’s also a dual narrative following Poppy’s previous nannying job – where all is not as it seems.  The Truth Hurts isn’t a book with multiple shocks and twists, but it’s addictive and suspenseful – exactly what I was looking for.

‘Something low in her gut shifted as she said it. A feeling like Christmas being over or Sunday night, like the taste in your mouth after you ate something sugary. But that was stupid. The house was perfect. She was just unsettled by the mirror, nervous and superstitious. Everything was fine. She repeated the words over and over inside her head.’

Book Review | The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Jules and Will are set to be married on a secluded island off the Irish coast. For Jules, a magazine editor-in-chief, it is all about ‘creating the right optics.’ The problem is, reaching the island involves crossing choppy seas, miles from the mainland – and it’s effectively a mass grave, thought to be the site of a Viking massacre. So, it doesn’t quite scream ‘romance’, but maybe the rugged desolation is part of the appeal?

The happy couple, however, have only known each other a few months, and Jules recently received a hand-delivered note advising her that Will isn’t who she thinks she is. Brushing these concerns aside, she is determined to have her picture-perfect big day – and feature it in the magazine afterwards, of course.

Aside from the bride and groom, there is an ensemble cast of characters in the mix – a mess in a less tightly-woven narrative, but a technique that works well here with Foley’s sufficiently distinct voices. A large part of the story focuses on a sadistic clique of boys from Will’s elite boarding school childhood. When the men find themselves back together to attend the wedding, there’s something dark glittering under their schoolboy manners, a regression back to heady teenage days of mischief and mayhem. Only their high jinks have rather sinister undertones.

‘Here there’s the added danger of the whole island. The wildness of this place gets under your skin. These guests will feel themselves far from the normal moral codes of society, safe from the prying eyes of others. These men are ex–public schoolboys. They’ve spent much of their lives being forced to follow a strict set of rules that probably didn’t end with their leaving school: choices around what university to attend, what job to do, what sort of house to live in. In my experience those who have the greatest respect for the rules also take the most enjoyment in breaking them.’

There’s a Riot Club (disturbing drama about a loosely-fictionalised group of boys at Oxford University) kind of nastiness about the dynamic of the group, an aggressive, toxic masculinity that is all the more shocking for these being family men in their mid-thirties, with children, wives, and sensible jobs. It gives you the sense that some pretty terrible stuff must have gone down during their school days – which, of course, it has. And the ripple effects of childhood ‘fun’, of pranks gone wrong, go far and wide.

‘There wasn’t time for anger at first. Only for the huge, existential shock of it: the bottom dropping out of everything.’

It is a little heavy-handed on the foreshadowing; characters announcing that various signs are ‘ominous’, from the cries of the native birds to the incoming storm. But the atmosphere of barely concealed doom is well crafted from the start, despite the island playing host to a supposedly joyful event. There are lots of backstories, hidden traumas to come to the surface – and it isn’t too difficult to figure out how everything ties into the plot at large – but it is still a careful juggle, and Foley pulls it off. An entertaining read for fans of the claustrophobic and drama-driven psychological thriller.


Book Review | One by One by Ruth Ware

When you think that tech start-ups have come up with everything, in comes Snoop. Snoop is the brainchild of Topher St Clair-Bridges and Eva van den Berg – two millennials just as monied as their names would suggest. The concept: tune into whatever anyone else in the world is listening to, hearing the same song at exactly the same time. In a few short years, Snoop has risen, on the surface, to stratospheric heights – and they now have to choose between being bought out and going public with an IPO. There are many millions on the line, and deep divisions form amongst the shareholders.

‘He is an arrogant public school boy who got lucky with a great idea and, more important, a mummy and daddy who were prepared to bankroll him.’

In an effort, perhaps, to put on a unified front, the company plan a getaway to an exclusive ski resort: there’s a whole host of characters on the guest list (a complicated introduction to the cast which necessitates some flipping back and forth for the first couple of chapters to remember who’s who). Ware pokes good-natured fun at the try-hard absurdity of millennial corporate culture, with company roles such as ‘Head of Beans’, ‘Chief Nerd’ and ‘Head of Cool’. It’s a pretty insufferable line-up, but unlikeable characters have never really put me off.

‘Her voice is high and sharp, her accent cut-glass, a few vowels away from full Princess Margaret.’

The chalet hosts, Erin and Danny, are in their early twenties and the most likeable of the bunch. It’s their job to give the guests an experience to remember. Only soon the trip becomes memorable – for all the wrong reasons. A fierce snowstorm hits, wiping out their electricity, phone reception and water supply. The group are now facing the daunting prospect of many hours – or days – before they can be rescued. In the fine tradition of Agatha Christie, members of the group start turning up dead. And in the extreme weather, pitch black darkness and encroaching cold, with a killer on the loose, the tension mounts. Understandably.

Despite being compelling and enjoyable, with a gripping and high-stakes denouement, Ware’s latest offering fell a little flat for me. There were too many characters introduced up front, and the reader can deduce pretty quickly who is there as a filler and who we are supposed to be invested in. This narrows down the suspect list rather early on, meaning that the revelations, when they come, are more of a ‘why’ than a ‘who’. Perhaps it’s because I’ve recently read Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party, but psychological thrillers with groups of people trapped in a house in extreme weather are starting to feel a little too derivative.

That said, I’ll keep coming back to Ruth Ware’s fiction – some of her best works to date include The Lying Game (2017) and The Turn of the Key (2019).



With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. One by One will be published on November 12th 2020.

Book Review | The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

Ah, old friends. The sort with whom you can slip back into your old roles, share in-jokes, drink an irresponsible amount of alcohol and imagine yourself eighteen again. There’s something about those longstanding ties of friendship that keeps the characters at the heart of The Hunting Party reconnecting once a year, on New Year’s Eve, to recreate the bond they once had as young adults.

The group were at Oxford together and are now in their early thirties. There’s the attractive, intimidating, queen bee Miranda, married to the equally attractive hedge fund manager Julien. Samira, who was once the life and soul of the party, married to Giles – new parents who have brought their baby along. Nick, close friends with Katie, and Bo, an American recovering drug addict. Mark, one of the ‘lads’ with an aggressive streak, and keen-to-please Emma, his girlfriend – and the only one who isn’t part of the original clique. And then there’s Katie, an ambitious but introverted lawyer in the city, and Miranda’s best friend. If some of these sound like caricatures, I suppose it’s because they are – there isn’t enough time in this pacy read to render all of these characters three-dimensional, and some are very much secondary and deployed as plot devices than having any narrative autonomy in their own right.

Emma is newest to the group, having met Mark after university. Desperate to ingratiate herself with the inner circle, and particularly with Miranda, she books a retreat in the Scottish wilderness. It’s a hostile environment at the best of times; at this time of year, it’s ‘the sort of weather that people die in,’ one character remarks. It’s bleak and beautiful and desolate. It’s also almost impossible to reach in a snowstorm. What could possibly go wrong?

But group aren’t entirely alone up there. Also up at the house are Doug, an ex-serviceman, and Heather, both running away from tragedy. And it’s refreshing to hear a perspective from voices outside of the privileged, Oxbridge-educated, upper-middle class Londoners with their first-world problems (that can get a little grating.) It’s clear that those who choose to holiday in the house really have no idea what they’re potentially letting themselves in for.

‘These are people who live charmed existences. Life has helped them to feel untouchable. They’re so used to having that invisible safety net around them in their normal lives—connectivity, rapid emergency services, health and safety guidelines—that they assume they carry it around with them everywhere. They sign the waiver happily, because they don’t really think about it. They don’t believe in it. They do not expect the worst to happen to them. If they really stopped to consider it, to understand it, they probably wouldn’t stay here at all.’

And, of course, one of them soon ends up dead – and the culprit has to be another within the group. ‘The inner circle has imploded from within,’ Katie remarks, and the carefully-constructed façade will soon come crashing down.

There are – as the blurb will tell you – definite echoes of Agatha Christie and Ruth Ware, particularly with the clever rendering of expansive landscape and claustrophobic atmosphere. Although the large cast of characters was initially overwhelming, I felt that those we heard from in alternating points of view throughout had distinct enough voices so as not to hamper the pace or trajectory. This is the kind of compelling and compulsive psychological thriller I most enjoy – where the monsters come not from outside, but from within – from the people you love and trust the most.


Book Review | The Body Lies by Jo Baker

A move from clamour of London to the idyll of a university town was the chance for a fresh start for our unnamed narrator. Having survived a sexual assault by a stranger,  she was desperate to leave the city with her toddler son, Sammy, while her husband stayed in London to fulfil his work responsibilities. She takes up a position as a university MA professor in creative writing, having had some limited success with a published novel earlier in her life.

Our narrator is quite quickly out of her depth, having extra responsibilities heaped onto her whilst dealing with the tensions in her MA group between writers of different sensibilities, and the graphic and esoteric writing of one student in particular, Nicholas. Nicholas professes to the group that everything he writes about is true, and that he’s pushing form to its experimental limits, to ‘sound out the depths, map this darkness.’ He’s a character who wouldn’t be out of place with Donna Tartt’s elite clique of students in The Secret History.

Physicality and the writing of the body is also a theme in the novel that I thought was explored well and with a knowing self-consciousness. An early discussion in the MA group devolves into a heated argument over opening with the ‘anonymous dead girl’ trope in crime fiction, and how such scenes can be faithfully rendered without reducing a female body to the sum of its parts. Our narrator questions this responsibility: ‘I was struggling with my own question of whether there was a way to write female without writing body, and whether there was a way to be female without being reduced to body.’ This is, incidentally, the way The Body Lies begins – with a dead body – and so the narrative offers us no answers about the ‘appropriate’ way to write trauma and the female body, only questions.

The gap between an academic critique of bodies and the way bodies behave in real life is also explored by one of the other ‘handsy’ professors in the English department, someone who has ‘such a heightened critical awareness of fictional bodies,’ and yet is –

‘so blissfully unaware of the actual real-world effects of his own. His presence seemed to tentacle its way into every available space, so that one shrank and sidled and crammed oneself into corners to avoid it.’

Existing as a woman in this world, our narrator finds herself ‘reduced to body.’ She is objectified and her agency is robbed from her – both in the act of her sexual assault and in the appropriating of her life through the process of loosely disguised fiction. Because she suddenly becomes a central – and chilling – part of Nicholas’s twisted narrative, finding herself ‘caught in the landscape of his imagination.’ This fascinating premise is what drew me to this novel: the intertextuality and blurring of the lines between reality and fiction.

The writing style in this novel was perfectly pitched for a literary psychological thriller. The atmosphere is well-drawn and transports the reader to the University town, with its ‘very British kind of melancholy,’ pathetic fallacy deftly employed. And yet, while this started off so strong, I felt that the narrative lost steam as we approached the second half, and the story culminated in a stereotypical and cinematic conclusion that felt trite after the originality of the first half, devolving into predictability in a horror-movie-esque showdown.

I also had some issues with the central characters – whilst some peripheral characters were well-drawn – particularly the sleazy head of department and the earnest American student Meryl – I don’t feel like we got a real sense of Nicholas, beyond his writing. Additionally, whilst our narrator is undergoing deeply traumatic experiences, I found her sense of fatalism and lack of agency to be distressing from a character point of view and frustrating from a narrative point of view. The novel explores some fascinating and complex ideas about fact/fiction and sexual politics, I just wish it could have kept going with the intrigue and momentum that is built up so masterfully in the first half of the novel.  A worthwhile read, despite the shortcomings.



Read if you enjoyed: The Secret History by Donna TarttBlack Chalk by Christopher Yates