Book Review / Books

2023 in Book Reviews: Wilderness, The Family Game, If We Were Villains & The Villa

Long time no speak! 👋🏼 Life has been a whirlwind with a lot of work and travel. While I’ve not been as chronically online as previous years, you’ll be pleased to know that I’ve still been reading. A lot. And I have many thoughts, which I now have the time and headspace to share.

I’ve decided to group my reviews so I can capture a few books in one post rather than spamming the inboxes of the lovely people still subscribed with four posts a day. Today, I’ll be reviewing B.E. Jones’ Wilderness (soon to be a Amazon Prime Video series with Jenna Coleman and Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Catherine Steadman’s The Family Game, Rachel Hawkins’ The Villa and M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains.

Two weeks, 1,500 miles, three opportunities for her husband to save his own life. It isn’t about his survival – it’s about hers. Shattered by the discovery of her husband’s affair, Liv knows they need to leave the chaos of New York to try to save their marriage. Maybe the roadtrip that they’d always planned, exploring America’s national parks, just the two of them, would help heal the wounds.

But what Liv hasn’t told her husband is that she has set him three challenges. Three opportunities to prove he’s really sorry and worthy of her forgiveness. If he fails? Well, it’s dangerous out there. There are so many ways to die in the wilderness. And if it’s easy to die, then it’s easy to kill too. If their marriage can’t survive, he can’t either.

Ok. I LOVED this. Wilderness is pure psychological thriller perfection. Liv is the Welsh equivalent of Amy Dunne which really left me no choice but to stan this whole entire novel and I cannot tell you how I excited I am for the Amazon Prime series!

Scenes of Will and Liv’s doomed road trip to rescue their relationship are interspersed with a glimpse of the events that led to the breakdown of their marriage. The way Jones writes is addicting and impeccably paced – the isolation and tension is palpable on each page. As mentioned, Liv is the star of the show. Lately, she’s been dressing for revenge and you really can’t help but root for her! She’s not entirely likeable but the emotions in Wilderness are so heightened that one can’t help but empathise with her feelings of anger, paranoia and pain.

Wilderness is packed to the brim with twists and turns aplenty, a few of which did veer into WTF territory. However, I was so transfixed by the story and the characters that I didn’t mind the over-the-top dramatic finale. A superb suspenseful thriller that has me itching to read more from Jones ASAP.

A rich, eccentric family. A time-honored tradition. Or a lethal game of survival? One woman finds out what it really takes to join the 1%.

Harry is a novelist on the brink of stardom; Edward, her husband-to-be, is seemingly perfect. In love and freshly engaged, their bliss is interrupted by the reemergence of the Holbecks, Edward’s eminent family and the embodiment of American old money. For years, they’ve dominated headlines and pulled society’s strings, and Edward left them all behind to forge his own path. But there are eyes and ears everywhere. It was only a matter of time before they were pulled back in. After all, even though he’s long severed ties with his family, Edward is set to inherit it all.

Harriet is drawn to the glamour and sophistication of the Holbecks, who seem to welcome her with open arms, but everything changes when she meets Robert, the inescapably magnetic head of the family. At their first meeting, Robert slips Harry a cassette tape, revealing a shocking confession which sets the inevitable game in motion. What is it about Harry that made him give her that tape? A thing that has the power to destroy everything? As she ramps up her quest for the truth, she must endure the Holbecks’ savage Christmas traditions all the while knowing that losing this game could be deadly.

Continuing the thriller praise (rare from me!) with Catherine Steadman’s exhilarating The Family Game. Truthfully, I’d been going through a read slump when I picked this up on a whim and it reignited my love for the genre.

The Family Game had all the key ingredients you want from a thriller. Mysterious wealthy family? Check. Murder? Check. A puzzle to solve? Check. An intense Christmas tradition complete with an appearance from Krampus? Check! (Trust me on this – that scene had me holding my breath for dear life!!).

Annoyingly, there’s not much else I can say that isn’t in the description without giving it all way. While things are slow to start, once the games begin then you’ll struggle put this one down. It’s a great cat-and-mouse chase between Harriet and the Holbeck family and contains the perfect amount of intrigue, tension and pure chaos!

As kids, Emily and Chess were inseparable. But by their 30s, their bond has been strained by the demands of their adult lives. So when Chess suggests a girls trip to Italy, Emily jumps at the chance to reconnect with her best friend.

Villa Aestas in Orvieto is a high-end holiday home now, but in 1974, it was known as Villa Rosato, and rented for the summer by a notorious rock star, Noel Gordon. In an attempt to reignite his creative spark, Noel invites up-and-coming musician, Pierce Sheldon to join him, as well as Pierce’s girlfriend, Mari, and her stepsister, Lara. But he also sets in motion a chain of events that leads to Mari writing one of the greatest horror novels of all time, Lara composing a platinum album––and ends in Pierce’s brutal murder.

As Emily digs into the villa’s complicated history, she begins to think there might be more to the story of that fateful summer in 1974. That perhaps Pierce’s murder wasn’t just a tale of sex, drugs, and rock & roll gone wrong, but that something more sinister might have occurred––and that there might be clues hidden in the now-iconic works that Mari and Lara left behind. Yet the closer that Emily gets to the truth, the more tension she feels developing between her and Chess. As secrets from the past come to light, equally dangerous betrayals from the present also emerge––and it begins to look like the villa will claim another victim before the summer ends.

I feel medium about this. The reason it’s four stars is that 95% of it was great. I was initially so hooked that I was hurtling through the novel at breakneck speed. Aaaaand then the ending happened. Don’t me get wrong, I completely understand the plot twist ending for Emily and Chess and why it exists. I just… didn’t love it, I guess. For me, it cheapened what was otherwise an excellent mystery thriller.

Truthfully, upon reflection, I think the 1974 flashbacks were far stronger and, dare I say it, more interesting than the Emily-Chess plot. I found myself racing through the modern day chapters with Emily and Chess so I could quickly return to the drama of Mari, Lara, Pierce and Noel. Those scenes were some of the most beautifully written and heart wrenching.

With Hawkins taking inspiration from Fleetwood Mac, the Manson murders and Percy and Mary Shelley’s summer with Lord Byron at Lake Geneva castle (what a combo!), The Villa certainly delivered something compelling and unique. I just had to knock off a star because, while it was a full circle moment, Hawkins lost me with the ending.

Oliver Marks has just served ten years in jail – for a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day he’s released, he’s greeted by the man who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, but before he does, he wants to know what really happened a decade ago.

As one of seven young actors studying Shakespeare at an elite arts college, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingenue, extra. But when the casting changes, and the secondary characters usurp the stars, the plays spill dangerously over into life, and one of them is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless.

As a Shakespeare geek, this was everything I hoped for and more. It absolutely ruined me.

Art bleeds into reality in M.L. Rio’s art conservatory as the drama students find themselves smack-bang in the middle of their own Shakespearan tragedy. They’ve been playing the same characters over and over again during their studies and as a result, they’ve started to become the roles they often play on stage. There’s the hero, the villain, the tyrant, the ingenue, the temptress… and the extra.

It’s all so terrifically well done. M.L. Rio perfectly captures the determination and drive of this ensemble that is too wrapped up in their own thespain world to comprehend reality, which leads to very dark consequences. The novel is rife with envy, unrequited love, anger and resentment – all stirring around in a pot until it eventually bubbles over and, in this case, fully explodes.

I went in blind not really knowing really what to expect and I think that’s the best way to experience this story. I assumed it was going to be the usual dark academia murder mystery but it was far more than that. It’s a vivid and atmospheric novel that brings all the joys of Shakespearan tragedies to life in a modern day setting. If We Were Villains is beautiful, horrifying and heartbreaking all at once and has become one of my new all-time favourites.

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