Exhalation – Ted Chiang
This is a really brilliant collection of sci-fi stories. They are proper speculative what-if stories, like sci-fi should be, not just relationship drama in space or whatever. Almost every one is thought-provoking and memorable.
The Escape Room – Megan Goldin
This is about a group of high-powered banking employees who are summoned to a corporate team-building exercise which turns out to be a too-real escape room where their secrets are revealed to each other.
The actual escape room part was pretty unsatisfying. The puzzles weren't very interesting, and the characters were very bad at solving them (like there was a message written in a straightforward A=1 B=2 etc alphanumeric cipher that they didn't have a clue what to do with). They're supposed to be very intelligent people who work with their minds. My 10yo could have solved it easily and my 7yo could probably have got there sooner than these people did.
The most memorable part about this book for me was the horrifying peek inside the City banking industry. These are people who get into work before dawn and leave after midnight, then commute home across London, and subsist on energy drinks and stimulants, who have to wear expensive designer clothes and makeup as part of the job requirements, and who are devastated to get only a £300k bonus if a colleague got a £600k one.
The Dilemma – B A Paris
Livia is throwing a huge 40th birthday party that she's been really looking forward to. Her daughter Marnie is on her gap year and can't get a flight home for the party. She actually does get a flight at the last minute, and arranges with her father to keep it secret from her mother and turn up to the party as a birthday surprise. But the plane crashes. Her father doesn't know if she was definitely on it and if she's OK, and he's unsure whether to tell Livia, or to just try and keep everything normal until after the party, since it might all be fine and the party means so much to Livia. But Livia has her own secret involving Marnie that she's weighing up whether to tell her husband or not.
I don't think this was as good as B A Paris's debut Behind Closed Doors, but it was pretty good.
Don't Say a Word – A L Bird
I was excited to read this because A L Bird's The Good Mother is possibly my favourite psychological thriller of all time, but this wasn't as good. It was quite good and had a reasonable twist, but not spectacular. It's about a single mother who's on the run with her 10yo son from something in her past.
I also found it quite implausible that a mother of a 10yo boy would *mistakenly* assemble a Lego kit the boy was given and not realise the boy would want to do it himself. It's not even like the usual "some assembly required" toys, where some kids would want it done for them so they could get on with playing with the toy and others would want to do it themeslves; with Lego the whole point is doing it yourself. I almost wonder if it was originally written as Playmobil or something and then changed.
The Classroom – A L Bird
Another deliberate attempt on my part to seek out more A L Bird, but this one also doesn't live up to her first one.
It's about a mother who's anxious about her daughter starting school, and a teacher who seems too interested in the little girl.
I'm actually struggling to remember the outcome, but I think it's that the teacher actually is the girl's mother: the girl's father had an affair with a young woman, and arranged that he and his wife would take in the resulting baby to replace one they lost, with the wife not realising exactly where the baby came from. Five years later, the birth mother wants her back, so gets a job as a teacher at the child's school.
Watching You – Lisa Jewell
I liked this. There were several interesting characters with interconnected lives. I particularly liked the probably-autistic teenage boy, who I was worried was going to end up being a villain because he liked to spy on people from his window, but he was actually portrayed very sympathetically and ended up being key to solving a mystery. I liked his style of thinking and his banter with his father was enjoyable. I don't remember all the details of this, but would like to reread it sometime.
The Silent Patient – Alex Michaelides
This is about a psychiatrist, Theo, working with a woman, Alice, who shot her husband a few years ago and hasn't spoken a word since. He wants to get through to her where other doctors have failed, and solve the mystery.
This was quite compelling, with the artistic lifestyle of Alice and her husband well portrayed.
The outcome was impressively twisty.
I had to go back and skim-reread the book to verify that there were chapters about Theo working with Alice and chapters about Theo's love-life outside of work, and that these were completely distinct. So you assume that they're sequential, and there's nothing preventing that interpretation, but there's nothing explicitly supporting it either (he never mentions his relationship in conversation with a colleague, or has any thoughts about it during the narration of his work chapters, or vice versa). So actually the relationship chapters were set several years previously, and Theo was actually responsible for the death of Alice's husband, and his work with her in the present day is not an attempt to heal her psychologically or solve the mystery, but to keep the mystery hushed up.
The Playdate – Alex Dahl
This is about a kid who goes on a playdate to a school friend's house and then disappears - when her parents go to collect her, the supposed family house where she was playing is just an Airbnb that a kidnapper was renting.
This was quite an interesting and twisty story, but I didn't like the characters. Both her parents, especially her mother, could have done a lot more to save her a lot sooner, and since they didn't, it came across like they didn't care that much.
In the process of working with the police to see if there was anything in either parent's past that could be important, the girl's father came clean about an internet affair he'd had. The mother was very angry and unforgiving about this, while choosing not to come clean about her own past secrets. If she had, they might have found the girl after a weekend, and everything could have turned out basically OK, rather than after two years when she'd been living a different life with a different name and got confused about her identity. And even if the mother hadn't confessed to her own secrets, if the family or the police had been vaguely competent, they could at least have compared photos or descriptions of the father's cyber-girlfriend and the mother of the school friend, and realised it was the same person, rather than dismissing the online affair as irrelevant to the kidnapping and not finding out until the end that they were the same person. But the only reason the father had an affair with this woman is because she sought him out because she was already looking for revenge on the mother for her own dark secret.
Sara's Game – Ernie Lindsey
This is about a woman whose kids are kidnapped from their separate schools simultaneously, by someone who contacts her wanting to play a "game" with her for their lives.
Sara is a strong, resourceful and likeable character. I didn't know how to feel about this book. On one hand, the "game" is cleverly designed and kind of fun in an abstract way, like a treasure hunt across town following one clue to the next, culminating in an escape-room-like climax (more so than The Escape Room). But on the other hand, the fact that her kids' lives are the stakes in the game, and the opponent is clever and calculating and capable of hurting them, turns it into something horrific. It's a weird superposition of emotions. It's like this book is partway between a fun escape room / treasure hunt / puzzle hunt and something like Saw, which I haven't seen and really don't want to see because even brief descriptions of it are too horrible. It seems weird that something could even exist that's in between the two.
It's comparable to reading an erotic story that incorporates something like your kinks but takes them further than you would like, and you don't know whether to be intrigued or repulsed.
There are two sequels. Normally if I like a book I'm glad there are sequels, but in this case I felt for Sara so much and was so relieved that everything turned out OK for her and her family, that I was actually sad that there were sequels, because I thought they'd suffered enough and deserved a quiet life from now on. I guess that's a mark of good writing, to make me care that much about fictional characters as if they were real.
The Choice – Alex Lake
This has a very compelling hook: a couple's children are kidnapped, and the ransom demanded is the mother in exchange for the kids.
I really enjoyed this. The couple come across as having a strong relationship, and work together to solve the very difficult situation they find themselves in. They are brave and ingenious, and work against the bad guy rather than against each other.
I was guessing all through until the final reveal, but also found the final reveal plausible.
The Catch – T M Logan
This is told from the POV of a father whose young adult daughter's new boyfriend seems too good to be true. The father is suspicious that he's hiding something, but the mother and the young woman herself think he's being silly or paranoid and get angry with him for not dropping it. He becomes increasingly obsessed with spying on the boyfriend and tracking him and trying to prove there's something not right about him.
This was good and kept me guessing, and I like the double meaning in the title.
The Wife – Shalini Boland
This is about a woman who fainted on her wedding day and doesn't remember the events immediately beforehand. Now she's celebrating her tenth wedding anniversary at the same venue and it's starting to stir some memories. She's also trying to track down her missing sister, who's been semi-estranged and away travelling for most of her adult life.
Her sister turned up to the wedding and made a scene, and there was a fight and the fiancé ended up killing the sister. Since the now-wife doesn't remember any of this, her now-husband and his family didn't tell her and let her carry on trying to find her sister. But now the hotel garden where they buried the sister is being dug up, so the husband and his very loyal family are willing to do anything to prevent the secret coming out, including trying to kill the wife.
The Family Upstairs – Lisa Jewell
I didn't enjoy this as much as others by Lisa Jewell. I didn't find it very convincing.
There's a rich but otherwise normal family living in a big house in London. The parents let an acquaintance come for the weekend to film a music video for her band, but she doesn't leave after it's over. Then her boyfriend comes to stay, then another family who are friends of theirs move in as well, and none of them leave. Then the father of the newest family becomes some kind of cult leader, sleeping with both the other women, and making increasingly strict and abusive rules for the rest of the house to follow. The kids (his own and the ones who originally lived in the house) are made to drop out of school and are literally never allowed to leave the house, and they wear home-made black robes and eat only vegetables. It's all very messed-up. I don't have a problem with messed-up in the service of an interesting and compelling plot, but this seemed more like a catalogue of random and implausible bad things happening.
It didn't seem plausible to me that the other adults in the house would just accept and submit to all this, especially given the negative effects on their own children, and it didn't seem plausible that no one from the kids' schools or the neighbourhood or former friends of the original couple would check in with them.
Also, some chapters are narrated by Henry, the son of the family originally living in the house, and some chapters follow a woman called Lucy several years later. Henry has a sister who he only refers to as "my sister", and as the reader you begin to suspect that she is Lucy, but this is not revealed until near the end. But at one point in the middle of a chapter Henry does refer to her as Lucy. It doesn't come across as a big reveal, and he always refers to her as "my sister" every other time, so I think it's just a mistake on the author's part.
Apple of my Eye – Claire Allan
This is about a pregnant woman receiving sinister anonymous notes from someone who wants her to think her husband is cheating on her.
I think she was a bit too quick to believe them without any evidence, and to move to "oh no everything I thought I believed was a lie and I'm now going to have to raise this baby alone." The couple seemed to have a fairly good relationship at the start, so she should have had a stronger prior for "someone is playing a prank" or "someone is spreading malicious lies" than for "my husband is cheating".
There was quite a good twist, although I figured it out fairly early on.
Also, if you are trying to convince someone that their partner is unfaithful, I'd have thought fake evidence would be more successful than anonymous notes (or maybe both in tandem). The person writing the notes could have planted receipts from lingerie shops or romantic restaurants or something, and I'm not sure why they didn't.
The Good Samaritan – C J Parsons
This one was very good.
The main character, Carrie, is a mother who's on the autistic spectrum and finds it difficult to read others' emotions or express her own in conventionally recognisable ways. I identified with her for this, although I think she is more extreme in that direction than me.
Her 5yo daughter Sofia goes missing in a park. A woman she's never met helps her look, but they don't find Sofia and end up calling the police. A day or two later, a man she's never met finds Sofia locked in a shed while he was out for a walk, and rescues her, unharmed. He has a good alibi for the actual disappearance.
Both of these "good Samaritans" become quite close to Carrie quite quickly over the following weeks – but there are hints (to Carrie and/or the police, or just the reader) that each of them might be hiding something or might be involved in the abduction. Each of them becomes aware of the other's existence and warns Carrie that the other is suspect (for their tangential involvement in the events of the abduction and their subsequent fast-moving relationship with Carrie) and is not to be trusted, and Carrie doesn't know who to trust, and neither did I. The book really kept me guessing, right up until the climax, where Carrie is put in an acute situation where her and Sofia's lives depend on her making a snap decision which of the two of them to trust.