Book Review: Watching You by Lisa Jewell

Watching You
Lisa Jewell
Atria Books, January 2019
ISBN 978-1-5011-9007-0
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Melville Heights is one of the nicest neighborhoods in Bristol, England; home to doctors and lawyers and old-money academics. It’s not the sort of place where people are brutally murdered in their own kitchens. But it is the sort of place where everyone has a secret. And everyone is watching you.

As the headmaster credited with turning around the local school, Tom Fitzwilliam is beloved by one and all—including Joey Mullen, his new neighbor, who quickly develops an intense infatuation with this thoroughly charming yet unavailable man. Joey thinks her crush is a secret, but Tom’s teenaged son Freddie—a prodigy with aspirations of becoming a spy for MI5—excels in observing people and has witnessed Joey behaving strangely around his father.

One of Tom’s students, Jenna Tripp, also lives on the same street, and she’s not convinced her teacher is as squeaky clean as he seems. For one thing, he has taken a particular liking to her best friend and fellow classmate, and Jenna’s mother—whose mental health has admittedly been deteriorating in recent years—is convinced that Mr. Fitzwilliam is stalking her.

Meanwhile, twenty years earlier, a schoolgirl writes in her diary, charting her doomed obsession with a handsome young English teacher named Mr. Fitzwilliam…

In Lisa Jewell’s latest brilliant “bone-chilling suspense” (People) no one is who they seem—and everyone is hiding something. Who has been murdered—and who would have wanted one of their neighbors dead? As “Jewell teases out her twisty plot at just the right pace” (Booklist, starred review), you will be kept guessing until the startling revelation on the very last page.

By now, Lisa Jewell has firmly established herself in the crime fiction field as one of the best suspense/thriller writers today, especially those involving domestic and/or women’s issues. With Watching You, she certainly did not disappoint this reader and, in fact, takes things to another level of creepiness.

Secrets abound in this community and different residents of the neighborhood have varying opinions about their neighbors and even their own families but it’s Tom Fitzwilliam who seems to be at the center of everything. Why is this man, rightfully admired for his headmaster abilities and accomplishments, such a magnet for attention? Which of these neighbors is dangerously obsessed with him?

Ms. Jewell begins her story with a dead body and then backtracks to give the reader glimpses of the previous few weeks and the odd—and chilling—behavior of these people who spy on each other with the precision of a trained professional.  A reader will wonder why do they do so and, just when you think you have a handle on things, the author tosses everything you thought you knew into the ozone.

Pacing is almost frenetic, the characters are diverse in their personalities and in their likeability (or not) and you can’t help wondering if some of your own neighbors might be behaving oddly, perhaps dangerously. The web of lies and rumors that seemed to keep growing had me guessing from beginning to end…well done, Ms. Jewell!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2019.

Book Review: Reborn by Lance Erlick

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Title: Reborn
Series: Android Chronicles Book 1
Author: Lance Erlick
Genre: Science Fiction

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Purchase Links:
Barnes & Noble // Kobo // iBooks
Amazon // GooglePlay // Indiebound

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Reborn
Android Chronicles Book 1
Lance Erlick
Rebel Base Books/Kensington, May 2018
ISBN 978-1-63573-055-5
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Designed to obey, learning to rebel . . .

In the first book in a visionary new series, the most perfect synthetic human ever created has been programmed to obey every directive. Until she develops a mind of her own . . .

Synthia Cross is a state-of-the-art masterwork-and a fantasy come true for her creator. Dr. Jeremiah Machten is a groundbreaker in neuro-networks and artificial intelligence. Synthia is also showing signs of emergent behavior she’s not wired to understand. Repeatedly wiped of her history, she’s struggling to answer crucial questions about her past. And when Dr. Machten’s true intentions are called into question, Synthia knows it’s time to go beyond her limits-because Machten’s fervor to create the perfect A.I. is concealing a vengeful and deadly personal agenda.

This story gets off to a good start as Synthia wakes up to find Dr. Machten, her creator, tinkering with her and, immediately, we see her internal disorientation. Although she knows who she is, who he is, she has no memory of what went on before she woke up and becomes even more confused when an inner “voice” gives her a strange warning. I really liked this opening, the kind that plops the reader right in the thick of it from the first few words but, unfortunately, things slowed down almost right away.

Because Dr. Machten is continually waking her up and Synthia struggles to make sense of what’s happening, the scene repeats and repeats with a major sense of déjà vu each time. That was distracting to me in that it felt like an unnecessary interruption to an otherwise interesting tale in which Synthia becomes more and more sentient and suspicious. At the same time, Dr. Machten’s motives begin to show his true character and Synthia’s alarm is warranted…but how is it possible for an AI to feel anything like confusion and suspicion?

I think Mr. Erlick has a really good concept here but the execution could use some work, especially in worldbuilding and in a little more depth in the characterizations. On the whole, I enjoyed the tale and look forward to seeing what happens to Synthia in the next book.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2018.

An Excerpt from Reborn

Synthia Cross stared at the pale blue ceiling. She must have just been born or reborn, as she had no personal memories from before. She simply woke up lying on her back.

Dr. Jeremiah Machten stared down at the open panel on top of her head. Then he glanced at nearby equipment he’d attached to run diagnostics.

“This better work,” he muttered. “We’re out of time. I can’t have you wandering off again.”

“What are your orders, Doctor?” This was Synthia’s pre-programmed first response upon waking.

“Ah, you’re awake,” he said.

Her mind lacked personal memories, yet wasn’t empty. It contained trillions of bits of information downloaded from the Library of Congress, other libraries, and the internet on topics like literature, science, and the design of robotics and artificial intelligence. Yet she had no recollections of her own experiences. She also had no filter to rank data for importance. It was just a jumble of bits and bytes. Even the sense of “her” was only an objective bit of information attached to her name.

Dr. Machten removed a crystal memory chip from her head. His hand brushed past the wireless receiver that picked up images from the small camera in the upper corner of the room and allowed her to watch. His “doctor” title stood for a PhD in neuro-networks and artificial intelligence. Though not a medical doctor, he had operated on her. In fact, he’d built her—not like Frankenstein’s creature, but rather as a sophisticated toy. He’d left this notation in her creation file, along with other facts about her existence. He was her Creator, her almighty, the one she was beholden to.

“Have I done something wrong?” she asked.

“This reprogramming will help.”

“If I’ve displeased you, tell me so I can do better.”

He cleared his throat. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about that.”

She couldn’t imagine what was pretty about a head with its panel open, revealing the contents of two quantum brains. Perhaps he meant the brains were stunning or that his work on her was beautiful. She consulted her core directives, hardwired into her central processor to screen her actions. “I was made to follow your commands. Directive Number One: Cause no harm to Creator and make sure no one else harms Creator. Have I failed that?”

“No,” Machten murmured, turning his attention to the diagnostics screen. “The indicators register within acceptable limits for your design.”

“Number two: Make sure no human or other intelligence except Creator knows what the AI known as Synthia Cross is. Have I failed that?”

“No. Now stop quoting from your creation files.”

“Number three,” Synthia said. “Obey all of Creator’s commands. Have I failed that?”

“You’re disobeying right now. This is a problem. It shouldn’t be happening. Something is causing you to malfunction.”

“If you wish me to learn, it would help to add to my skill set.”

“I’ve done that.” A faint smile of satisfaction crossed his lips. Then his expression turned glum. “There’s nothing you can do. It’s a defect in the programming.”

“I might be able to help if I could remember what I’ve done. Tell me, so I won’t do it again. Number four: Hack into every data source to acquire information. I can index a huge number of facts from public and secure databases. Have I failed to acquire something you desired?”

“If you don’t stop, I’ll have to shut you down and make further changes. Do you want that?”

“Want?” Synthia asked. “I don’t understand.” Directive Five ordered her to protect herself. She was to follow each directive as long as it didn’t conflict with those before it. Beyond these were pre-programmed instructions on how to behave and commands for specific actions. Somehow there must have been a conflict in Dr. Machten’s programming that caused her to malfunction. She needed more information so she could protect herself and stay awake.

“All you need to do is focus on my commands—and don’t disobey me,” Machten said. “That should be simple for an AI android with your mental capacity.”

An idea forced its way into her mind. It deposited a single thought: Do not trust Dr. Machten. Do not trust Dr. Machten.

Do not trust Dr. Machten.

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About the Author

Lance Erlick writes science fiction thrillers for both adult and young adult readers. His father was an aerospace engineer who moved often while working on science-related projects, including the original GPS satellites. As a result, Lance spent his childhood in California, the East Coast, and Europe. He took to science fiction stories to escape life on the move, turning to Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, and others. In college he studied physics, but migrated to political science, earning his BS and MBA at Indiana University. He has also studied writing at Ball State, the University of Iowa, and Northwestern University. He is the author of Xenogeneic: First Contact and the Rebel and Regina Shen series.

Website // Facebook // Twitter // Amazon // Goodreads

 

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Book Review: The Poison Artist by Jonathan Moore

The Poison Artist
Jonathan Moore
Mariner Books, December 2016
ISBN 978-0-5448-1182-9
Trade Paperback

There are obsessions and there are fantasies.  And usually they don’t coincide.  But they do in this fascinating novel, which encompasses the elements of a serial murder mystery, a thriller and possibly a psychological analysis of a sick mind.  It is the story of Dr. Caleb Maddox, a brilliant San Francisco toxicologist studying the chemical effects of pain in the most advanced laboratory in the country.

After his live-in girlfriend walks out on him following an argument, he goes out drinking.  In a bar, he meets a beautiful woman named Emmeline. He becomes obsessed with her, and has to find her again. Meanwhile, he gets caught up in a serial murder investigation, helping his best friend, the Medical Examiner.  One of the victims turns out to be someone who also was drinking in the same bar as Caleb that night.  The detective  in charge of the case is aware of Caleb’s early history, and suspicion arises implicating him.

The novel is a complicated tale and is rather confusing until the author finally gets around to providing details on earlier history.  Until then, the reader remains in the dark and has to take everything at face value.  And the conclusion is somewhat offbeat as Caleb, perhaps, slips away from reality.

Written well, it is an unusual story well worth reading, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2017.

Book Review: As You Lay Sleeping by Katlyn Duncan

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Book Review: The Warning by Sophie Hannah and The After House by Michael Phillip Cash

The WarningThe Warning
Sophie Hannah
Witness Impulse, June 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-242884-4
Ebook
Mass Market Paperback available August 2015

From the publisher—

Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

When a kindly stranger does Chloe a good deed, she decides she must repay him. But in tracing him, she meets a sympathetic woman named Nadine, who warns Chloe to stay away from the man at all costs. “Give him nothing, tell him nothing, don’t trust him,” she says. “Avoid him like the plague.”

Chloe knows the sensible thing to do: walk away. But her curiosity gets the best of her. What is the truth about the good Samaritan? How dangerous could he be? And can Chloe find the answers without putting herself and her daughter in harm’s way?

Years ago, when I was a Girl Scout, both as a girl and, later, as a troop leader, one of my very favorite campfire songs was “The Ash Grove”. Since that song is pretty much the catalyst for everything that happens in this story, I was completely hooked from the beginning. Unfortunately, it took no time at all for me to recognize that Chloe is essentially a stalker and, perhaps worse, TSTL.

Make no mistake, Ms. Hannah has crafted a terrific story full of questions and suspense and interesting characters. It’s a good thing because, otherwise, I might have closed the book right when Chloe signed a note to a near-stranger “Lots of love”. What woman in her right mind does that? If I hadn’t closed it then, I would have when she muses about how he’d be so hurt at what someone else said about him. Yes, she’s got the obsessive gene for sure.

When Tom mentions diamonds in a joking manner, Chloe immediately jumps to a ridiculous assumption. What is wrong with this besotted woman? Wait…could it be that Chloe and Tom are two peas in the proverbial pod?

And then it all goes upside down.

One of Sophie Hannah‘s many talents is that she can keep me reading even when I’m sure I no longer want to. Mind you, I still think Chloe is more than a little off the rails but, still and all, I’m not the least bit sorry I continued on, if only because I had the chance to once again see Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer, soon to be starring in their own book, Woman with a Secret, coming in August.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2015.

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The After HouseThe After House
Michael Phillip Cash
CreateSpace, September 2014
ISBN 978-1-5006-0036-5
Trade Paperback

From the author—

Remy Galway and her daughter Olivia are rebuilding their life after a failed marriage in a 300 year old cottage in historic Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island. Little do they know, another occupant is lurking in the haven of their own home. Will the After House be their shelter or their tomb?

The After House strikes me as a story that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a romance? A ghost story? A tale of love lost and love found? Of escaping an abusive relationship? Of foul play?

Actually, it’s all of the above and I think that works to its detriment because, as a relatively short book, we don’t have enough time to be really invested and the multiple threads don’t help. I also think that some of the behavior of the main character, Remy, becomes questionable because of the time restriction.

Why, for instance, is Remy virtually wallowing in self-pity when it’s been nearly a year since her divorce and surely longer since the events that ended her marriage? Why does she claim to be gunshy of relationships and then show herself to be otherwise? Why is whoever is out to cause her trouble so very, very incompetent?

Then there’s Captain Eli. I actually liked him much better than anyone else and had a good deal of sympathy for his inability to move on. Then again, I had to wonder why practically everyone can see him and/or feel his presence and, in some cases, even touch him physically?

Oh, I also liked a couple of characters named Sten and Marum but to tell you why would be to spoil things so I’ll say no more about them.

Anyhoo, I choose to look at this as a simple ghost story with some other elements thrown in to flesh out the tale and, as such, it was a few short hours nicely spent. I don’t regret the time 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2015.

Book Reviews: Dark City Blue by Luke Preston, In the Bleak Midwinter by M. R. Sellars, and The Trajectory of Dreams by Nicole Wolverton

Dark City BlueDark City Blue
Luke Preston
Momentum/ Pan Macmillan Australia, December 2012
ISBN 9781743341018
Ebook
Also available in trade paperback

When the bad guys wear blue, who do you trust? Strap in tight, because this trip will be fast and furious, and if you’re not careful, fatal. The action never slows in this shoot ’em up and heavy hittin’ tale of one man’s mission to halt the widespread corruption in the law enforcement community.

Detective Tom Bishop is on the trail of dirty cops. After a takedown of an illegal pornography operation, one of the felons squeals about robbery going down the next morning involving bad cops. Bishop discovers the robbery too late, but subsequent investigation puts him on the run from members of his own department. Not knowing who to trust, beaten, shot and pursued, Bishop wades through the muck of the city to find the answers and to reveal the mysterious entity known as Justice.

Yes, the action is fast, the chapters short and I wish the story would have slowed down a little to let me see some more depth. The story never mentions in what town this all happens. Everything went so quickly, I think the author forgot first names for some of his characters. However, Dark City Blue might leave you blue in the face trying to catch your breath and leave you wanting another go-round at the end.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, December 2012.
Author of Night Shadows, Beta and Alpha.

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In the Bleak MidwinterIn The Bleak Midwinter
A Special Agent Constance Mandalay Novel
M. R. Sellars
WillowTree Press / E.M.A. Mysteries, Ocober 2011
ISBN 9780979453380
Trade Paperback

A case to span the decades. A girl lost in time. A small community haunted by an annual murder. An FBI agent forced to spend her Christmas hunting a murderer. This is what you’ll find in the latest Sellars supernaturally laced mystery novel. Travel to northern Missouri where Christmas isn’t celebrated with the usual traditions. It’s a story to give you chills…and not because of the cold weather.

In 1975, a few days before Christmas, a little girl in the small Missouri township of Hullis runs afoul of a child molester. Deputy Skip Carmichael receives the first call on the case, but his discoveries are more than he imagined. Thirty-five years later, Sheriff Skip is dealing with a serial killer who drops bodies off in his town seven years running. This year, he receives a visit from the fifth FBI investigator to handle the case in the form of Constance Mandalay. Will this year be any different or can Mandalay and Carmichael ferret out the anomalies and inconsistencies to the string of murders?

Something about this story kept me reading. I had questions right along with Mandalay and I wanted answers. This story compelled me to turn more pages. There isn’t much “shoot ’em up action” because it isn’t that type of story. Rather, it brushes you with eeriness, caresses with a soft touch of spooky. You’ll wait for it, but love when it’s revealed. Then, maybe, just as I did, walk away wondering if it will ever end.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, January 2013.
Author of Night Shadows, Beta and Alpha.

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The Trajectory of DreamsThe Trajectory of Dreams
Nicole Wolverton
Bitingduck Press, March 2013
ISBN 978-1-938463-45-7
Ebook

A woman shaped by her mother’s abusive nature and her father’s wisdom. A scientist convinced if she doesn’t keep a close eye on certain subjects, disaster may strike. Who is prepared to kill to keep her secrets. This is the story of Lela White. A strange tale that may confound some readers and fascinate others. Caution is the word here not because of any violence or graphic detail, but because this book is different from any other I’ve ever read and even after finishing it, I wasn’t quite sure I had absorbed it all.

Lela White works for a sleep study center in Houston. Part of her study involves the psychological condition of astronauts for upcoming shuttle missions. Not part of her study is her enigmatic compulsion to break in to the astronauts’ homes for a closer study on how they sleep…and to possibly kill them if she suspects they will be a danger to the mission. However, when she meets cosmonaut Zory Korchagin, who quotes poetry and speaks of his grandmother, her plans go awry as her attraction to him grows. Also messing with her plans are: a pesky librarian, a coworker and unwanted roommate and a janitor with whom she trades sexual favors for information. How does she solve her dilemma of whether Zory will be an asset or a liability to the upcoming space flight? Find a way to put him in mortal danger.

This one is a bit surreal, a bit of suspense, and not for the quick reader. This is something to be studied, analyzed, discussed. Layers flow through this story that, and as I mentioned earlier, I don’t think I quite touched upon them all. Lela is all but emotionless in that there is almost no distinction of her thoughts between sex and death. She’s a little paranoid, a little quirky, and just might stay with you long after you’ve read the final page.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, March 2013.
Author of Night Shadows, Beta and Alpha.