Mini reviews of four audiobook thrillers: “Finlay Donovan Knocks ‘Em Dead”, “Grave Reservations”, “Someone Is Lying” and “Tell Me Lies”

In the past few months, I’ve been using thrillers as comfort reads – books the will keep my attention, pique my curiosity and either make me smile or play a game of ‘Find The Liars’. I don’t expect them to be books that will make it to my, ‘I’m so glad I read that’ list but I do expect to be entertained by a well-put-together story with clever plot twists and engaging characters. All four of the books I’m reviewing here did that for me. I’m writing mini reviews because I have COVID at the moment so, my energy is low but I want to remind myself of what I enjoyed about these books before the year ends.

Meet Finlay Donovan:
– Single mum
– Floundering crime writer
– Accidental hit-woman

Ever since she was overheard talking about her new book – and someone got the wrong end of the stick – she’s been busier than ever, living the life of murder and mayhem usually reserved for her characters. All while trying to finish said book.

Finlay’s got a lot on her plate: first the pet goldfish ends up dead, now it’s looking like her ex-husband might be next.

Between writer’s block, the Russian mob, and that target on her ex’s back, Finlay is ALMOST at the end of her rope.

Let’s hope there isn’t a noose at the end of it.

I read ‘Finlay Donovan Is Killing It’, the first book in this series back in April. I was so taken by the quirky humour and the clever way Elle Cosimano turned the bizarre events that lead Finlay Donovan to become an accidental hit-woman into a successful, if more than a little clichéd, romance novel that Donovan is writing, that I picked up the next book and dived in.

Of course, the second book had lost the advantage that the first book had, of being a startling idea and a fresh and bold conceit. This time I knew what to expect and I wondered whether there would be enough there to make the second book worthwhile. I was pleased to find that the second book was just as much fun.

Elle Cosimano had come up with another way to complicate Finlay Donovan’s life and to have her and her friend, Vero at risk. Finlay discovers that someone is trying to place a contract to kill Finlay’s ex-husband – something Finlay can’t reveal to the police without revealing all the illegal things she did in book one. She also becomes aware that complications with Vero’s past are catching up with them and may make things worse.

I liked that Finlay was more grown up in this book and didn’t do her annoying headless chicken act.

The book is easy to read, with short functional sentences that don’t feel sparse but don’t slow things down any either. The humour is still there and still works and the plot has the ‘I can’t look away from this’ appeal of watching the fall of a set of dominos that have been laid out in a complex and improbable pattern that you won’t be able to see until they’re all down.

What I liked most were the exchanges between Finlay and her agent. Finlay, under pressure to produce her next book, is again translating the bizarre events of her life into a novel. As she and her agent discuss the pitch for the book, Elle Cosimano has some fun exposing the kind of ‘which tropes will sell the best?’ conversations that I assume she must have had with her editors. For example: should Finlay keep the hot cop AND the young lawyer or make her character choose between them? What amused me most about this was that she was explaining to me the clichés the book I was reading was based on and then still managed to twist those clichés into something fresh enough to be fun.

Meet Leda Foley: devoted friend, struggling travel agent, and inconsistent psychic. When Leda, sole proprietor of Foley’s Flights of Fancy, impulsively re-books Seattle PD detective Grady Merritt’s flight, her life changes in ways she couldn’t have predicted.

After watching his original plane blow up from the safety of the airport, Grady realizes that Leda’s special abilities could help him with a cold case he just can’t crack.

Despite her scattershot premonitions, she agrees for a secret reason: her fiancé’s murder remains unsolved. Leda’s psychic abilities couldn’t help the case several years before, but she’s been honing her skills and drawing a crowd at her favorite bar’s open-mic nights, where she performs Klairvoyant Karaoke—singing whatever song comes to mind when she holds people’s personal effects. Now joined by a rag-tag group of bar patrons and pals alike, Leda and Grady set out to catch a killer

‘Grave Reservations’ is the first book in a series. It was a fun read but didn’t leave with a strong desire to read the rest of the series.

The idea behind the book, a travel agent who is psychic in an unreliable, not always helpful way, who gets pulled in to a murder investigation by a Seattle cop that she prevented from getting on to a plane that later crashed, was fresh and attractive. I particularly liked that our heroine moonlights at a nightclub performing a ‘Psychic Singer’ show where she touches an object from a member of the audience and then sings the song that captures the emotion behind the object in a way that means something to its owner.

The dialogue worked well and sometimes made me smile. The prose surprised me. There was no edge but that seemed to be a choice, not a failing. Everything moves along by giving me mostly what I’d expect, so that I don’t even notice the writing. I think that’s clever.

The plot was low-key both in content and in pace. It felt safe. It had enough mystery to keep me turning the pages and the characters were easy to like but there was nothing that really grabbed hold of me and made me want more.

It’s been a year since Erica Spencer died in a tragic accident at a party, and the community where she lived has moved on with their lives.

Everybody has secrets. Some are worth killing for.

Someone thinks it wasn’t an accident. Someone thinks it was murder.

And when an anonymous podcast names six local suspects, shock waves ripple through the neighbourhood. Before the podcast is over, the police will be opening more than one murder enquiry. Because someone is lying. But who?

This is a very clever thriller, with an origami plot that keeps folding itself into increasingly complex and surprising shapes. That alone would have kept me turning the pages to see how my understanding of events was going to be re-arranged, yet there’s more to this book than its plot.

The plot is wrapped around the apparently shiny-happy lives of a group of wealthy people living in a gated community in Cheshire. This is an area of the England that I’m familiar with and part of the fun of the book was seeing how accurately the people inside the gates were portrayed. I gave way to shameful Schadenfreude as I watched the lives of the people in this privileged community being exploded in public. None of the people are easy to like but none of them are demons either. By the end of the book I felt sorry for most of them.

This is the kind of thriller that ITV or the BBC are good at turning into a four-part mini-series that will capture the attention of the nation. If they do make a TV version, I’ll certainly watch it.

One thing about the book that I don’t understand is why its title has been changed. When I bought it in 2019, it was called ‘Someone Is Lying’. That title works, allowing for the fact that almost everyone is lying about something. If you buy it today, it comes with the title ‘The Perfect Guests’. I have no idea why and I can’t see the link to the plot. Book marketing remains one of the mysteries of life.

Psychologist Margot Scott has a picture-perfect life: a nice house in the suburbs, a husband, two children and a successful career.  

On a warm spring morning Margot approaches one of her clients on a busy train platform. He is looking down at his phone, with his duffel bag in hand as the train approaches. That’s when she slams into his back and he falls in front of the train.

Margot’s clients all lie to her, but one lie cost her family and freedom.

This one had me on the edge of my seat a lot of the time. It’s riddled with lies and deceptions and soaked in threat and guilt. It opens with a woman pushing a man in front of a train on the Melbourne Metro, then most of the rest of the novel is about how the anger and hate behind that push was generated. It’s not a linear path and it’s filled with surprises.

On the whole, I found the plot elaborate but just about believable, if you take into account that events are driven by an obsessive, detailed-oriented, sociopathic narcissist.

The psychologist herself was a little harder to take. Every time she took what was obviously the wrong decision, I wanted to shout at her: “You’re a practising clinical psychologist. Have you no insight into yourself?”. Her teenage son showed a lot more good sense than his mother did most of the time.

By the end of the novel, I understood that, although the plot was driven by the evil manipulations of a narcissist, the success of the plot depended on the inability of the psychologist to control her risk-taking urges.

This was a solid, memorable story, with one of my favourite villains and least favourite heroines of recent time.

I recommend the audiobook version. Aimee Horne’s narration is perfect. If you’re an Audible member, this book is included in your membership.

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