Under My Skin by Lisa Unger (2018)

Finding Lisa Unger’s books last spring was a delightful surprise: here was an author whom I had never read, writing thrilling and complex books, and who had a stack of older novels I could devour. A book-lovers dream! Under My Skin is her latest novel, and while it departs from the spooky, magical-realism of some of her recent novels, it is still a great read.

One morning almost a year ago, Poppy Lang, awoke to find her husband gone from their bed and police detectives in her lobby, there to tell her that he had been mugged and murdered in the park during a jog. Days later, Poppy disappears for almost a week and returns with no memories what-so-ever of the time she has been gone, and no memories of the weeks leading up to her husband’s death.

The twelve months that follow are terrifying and disjointed: consumed with grief, her mind distorted by pills and booze, swaddled by friends and family trying to cushion the blow, wracked with fear and not knowing why. Finally, there is a glimmer of…something. Hope? Memory? Healing?

Poppy and her therapist discuss her emergence from the cocoon that has been her life for the past year. She starts to remember tiny details, things she has forgotten, pieces of information that had been missing until now. A face, a name, the logo of a bar, a fight, a conversation overheard. Problem is, these bits of information are surfacing in nightmares and hallucinations; out of order and not always accurate. Some of it is real, Poppy knows, but which parts she is still unsure.

“These events might seem like hallucinations, but they’re more like dreams. The state is called hypnagogia, the transitional phase between sleep and wakefulness or between wakefulness and sleep. The sensations are there — be they visual, olfactory, auditory — and are often quite vivid.” 156

Sick to death of not fully being present in her life and finally ready to face the facts of her husband’s murder, whether or not its causes her to spiral out of control again, Poppy ditches the pills and alcohol and starts forcing herself to remember. The well-meaning (and down-right controlling) people in her life attempt to stop her, convinced she will have another breakdown. Without their support, Poppy must strike out on her own, take risks and “invite darkness” into her life to get the information she needs.

What follows is a thrilling, if chaotic, descent into Poppy psyche. She is forced to really examine her marriage in those final months, and collect clues — however scant– that might lead her to places or people that will spark real memories. The more of herself she regains, the more the people around her grow nervous: some fearing she will find out things about her husband best left buried with him; some fearing she will find out who played a role in his death.

“Marriage is a mosaic, comprised of pieces–some broken and jagged, some shiny, some dull, some golden. The pieces don’t matter as much as the whole picture of your life together.” 191

While not as dark and terrifying as some of her other books, Under My Skin was a well-paced thriller with a heroine who was easy to route for getting better and getting answers. Great reading for Halloween!

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Fragile by Lisa Unger (2010)

In the small, upstate New York town The Hollows, an idyllic appearance obscures the town’s darker parts, its past secrets always lurking just out of sight. Returning to their childhood home to raise their family are the town’s lead detective, Jones Cooper; his wife and town psychologist Maggie; and their son, Ricky whose recent rebellious streak has his parents on edge.

When Ricky’s flighty, melodramatic girlfriend goes missing, he and both his parents are pulled into the dramatic search for her. Ricky’s newfound defiance of his parents crumbles under his fear for Charlene and the increasingly intense pressure he feels from local police. His parents, meanwhile, are concerned deeply for the missing girl (despite the fact that both dislike her and wish her out of their son’s life) and greatly unsettled by similarities between Charlene vanishing and the disappearance and grisly murder of their friend that happened when they were both teenagers.

As the search for Charlene unfolds, Jones seems to be unraveling. His behavior grows more and more erratic and his relationship to his wife and son grows ever worse. Baffled that this case seems to be affecting her husband so much, Maggie worries that Jones is keeping vital information from her — and the men on his police force — that might incriminate one or more of the people she loves.

Local residents begin to weigh in on the girl’s disappearance and soon what seemed like a runaway situation or possibly a stranger-abduction comes into focus as a crime committed by someone close to the girl.

As with all of her books, Unger writes a fast-paced and character-driven thriller that was hard to put down.

Crazy Love You by Lisa Unger (2015)

crazy love you

Ian Paine has fought mightily his entire life to achieve the normalcy he has craved since childhood. In the opening chapters of the book, readers find Ian successful and somewhat of a celebrity among the fans of his graphic novels. Behind the tidy facade he shows the world — a New York hipster and creative genius — is a man struggling with addiction, rage, and mental instability.

After a childhood trauma tore his family apart, Ian was left a desperately lonely boy: mother gone, father remote and largely absent, and not one single friend to rely on. Lost and confused, he wanders into the woods and stumbles across a girl living on the fringes of The Hollows. Priss does not care about Ian’s terrible family history, his obesity, his strangeness, nor his lack of friends. She become his best, and only, friend.

Inside Priss, however, there is a dark streak, an anger at the world that often shows up in unexpected ways. Ian — weak, cowardly, downtrodden — draws strength from the fiery rage that often motivates Priss to act out, take risks, and defend herself. Soon, he is letting Priss stand up to fight off his tormentors too. He learns too late that Priss cannot control her outbursts and more often than not allows her acts of defense to become violent.

As they grow up, Priss begins to exert more and more control over Ian’s life. She tempts him with alcohol, drugs, sex and he welcomes the blissful relief from anxiety and sadness that those vices bring him. Yet, as he enters his twenties, Ian begins to pull away from Priss and get his life in order. He builds a career as a graphic novelist, gets fit, and tries to limit the drinking binges and drugged out evenings Priss often suggests.

When Ian meets and falls in love with Megan, he is dizzy with relief that a normal gorgeous woman wants Fatboy, the unloveable, ugly duckling Ian fears is always lurking inside , waiting to ruin his life. Almost immediately Priss’s anger and jealous cause trouble. She starts with small pranks and modest manipulations, trying to tempt Ian away from Megan. When he resists, she becomes more and more unstable.

Ian, in an attempt to deal with the pressures of work, love, and Priss, begins to rely more and more on old vices to ease his anxieties. This only puts more strain on his relationships and beings to make Megan doubt that he is a reliable enough man to love. The harder he works at making Megan happy, the more furious Priss grows. Soon is not only his life that Priss is intent to ruin, but Megan’s as well.

A twisty story that does not come into focus until the very end, Crazy Love You was wonderful and spell-binding.

In The Blood by Lisa Unger (2014)

in the blood l unger

Lisa Unger has done it again, In the Blood is a terrifying, twisting thriller that delves deep into the psyche of its many, well-drawn characters. Unger present a story that raises questions about the role of mental illness and past trauma have in shaping a young life, and about whether or not all those who struggle can be saved or if some are born beyond saving.

Against all odds, Lana Granger has overcome a traumatic childhood to become college student who, with the help of good friends and trusted advisors, is about to successfully graduate. Lana seems normal to the outside world, but inside fights mightily to keep her past secret, even from those she loves the most. When she is hired to be a babysitter for a deeply troubled boy who struggles with a form of mental illness that makes him violent and deceptive, her own struggles as a child resurface. She is, in part, hopeful that her childhood experiences can allow her to help Luke and his mother; and partially terrified that he might be one of those kids who cannot be helped.

Immediately, Luke begins to challenge and manipulate Lana, drawing her into a series of dangerous games. Luke is obsessed with their town, The Hollows*, and its notorious reputation for being the site of several grisly murders. He devises a game (without his mother’s knowledge) for he and Lana to play, that has them looking into the people who were murdered and the places those crimes took place. What starts out as a creepy game turns much more sinister when Lana’s best friend goes missing.

Soon Lana has drawn the attention of the local police who suspect she in involved in her friend’s disappearance. Their probing into her past makes Lana feel unhinged and she begins taking greater and greater risks, both in her “games” with Luke and in her search for her friend.

In the Blood, delves deep into the lives of the mentally ill and their loved ones, shining light on the seemingly impossible task of treating and managing complex issues that, if left alone, can turn deadly. A truly outstanding book and a unique and thought-provoking story-line — impossible to put down.

*The Hollows is a town that is the setting to several of Lisa Unger’s thriller.

Die for You by Lisa Unger (2009)

die for you l unger

Is there anything better than discovering a writer whom you have never read, who has a body of work several books deep, books that are all intriguing and impossible to put down? That is how I feel about my recent “discovery” of Lisa Unger —¬† I’m thrilled to have so many of her excellent thrillers stacked on the bedside table, ready to be read one after another.

Isabel Raine has a lot to be thankful for when she wakes up on the last day of her “normal” life. She is a beautiful, vivacious, novelist whose books are best-sellers. She is happily married to the gorgeous and successful Marcus, and together they live a life of luxury and excess; they are the envy of many.

After a lazy morning at home together, Marcus leaves Isabel at home and heads (presumably) to work…and that is the last time she hears from him. After one day, she is furious, thinking that he is sleeping off a drinking of a binge or with another woman. After two days, she begins to panic after she receives a terrifying voicemail and then becomes the victim of an FBI raid of Marcus’ office.

When Isabel awakens in the hospital, she and Marcus are suspects in a complicated string of crimes and she must fight for the police to see that she is as much of victim as the others whom her husband has harmed. As she begins to piece together what has happened she realizes that she has no idea who she was married to all those years, everything she thought she knew about Marcus was a lie. The man she trusted above all else has robbed her of her money, her home, and just possibly may take her life.

Die for You is part of the sub-genre of thrillers in which women are duped by con-artist husbands. Unger is a clever writer with a great sense of timing and a real knack for developing characters that are sympathetic and multi-dimensional. Worth a read, but she has others that are better (specifically In The Blood and Ink and Bone.) For reviews of other Unger books, check out the “Lisa Unger” tag on this site.

Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger (2006)

Ridley Jones is the bright and successful daughter of her wealthy, doting parents. She is living a life of freedom and exploration in New York City, made possible by her job as a writer and a large inheritance from a deceased uncle. Her life, she reflects often, has been unremarkable and trouble-free. Not for long.

When she jumps in front of a bus to save a child and becomes front page news, Ridley life is suddenly very interesting to many people, not everyone’s interest is positive.

When a photograph and newspaper clipping appear in her mail, along with a note, asking “Are you my daughter?” Ridley’s life is thrown into a tailspin. She is forced to follow a trail of strange leads into a dark and terrible underworld she knows nothing about and wishes she wanted nothing to do with; but her desire for the truth is too great.

Helped along by a sexy neighbor, a grouchy cop, and her own investigative skills she uncovers the fact that her family’s has past more sordid than she ever could have imagined.

The Red Hunter by Lisa Unger (2017)

“You cannot look into the outer world to feel safe, to feel at peace. You cannot look without for understanding or for justice. You must look within. ‘There is no external refuge.’ ” 352

Claudia and Zoe have never met and the two are living very different lives, but they linked to one another. At the beginning of their stories, the link that connects them is a terrible one: both women are the survivors of brutal attacks. As the story progresses, troubling circumstances will bring them together in a much more tangible way, but this time they will face tragedy with strength.

Seventeen years ago, newly married Claudia was giddy in love and ready to start a family when a man attacked and raped her in her apartment. The rape left Claudia pregnant with a baby whose paternity she stubbornly refused to verify, a refusal that led to the destruction of her marriage. Undaunted by these emotional and physical burdens, Claudia moved on: went to therapy, learned self-defense, and tried to raise her daughter with as much love and wisdom as she could. Today, Claudia is a middle-aged single mother, living and raising her teenage daughter in a rural New Jersey town. She works tirelessly to fix up an old mansion left to her by her father.

When she was fifteen, Zoe’s family was murdered in a home invasion and she was tortured almost to death. Her survival was fueled by her rage at what had been taken from her and by the love of an uncle who took her in. Today, Zoe is a twenty-something young woman who appears to be living an unremarkable life in New York City with her aging uncle and a part-time job. But behind that invisibility , Zoe is a fierce martial artist and fighter who considers herself a vigilante; seeking justice for those who are being victimized or abused.

Unwittingly, Claudia’s renovation of the house is the catalyst that sets into motion a series of events that will bring the two women together. The house Claudia inherited is the very site of Zoe’s torture and her parents’ murder. Her decision to renovate has brought great interest to the town’s residents and, unfortunately, the interest of the men who committed that horrible crime ten years prior.

Zoe chases down the men who murdered her parents, and those men are closing in on Claudia. All that the reader can hope for is that these two, fierce women are strong enough to never be victims again.