THE LAST TIME I LIED by Riley Sager
CBTB Rating: 4.5/5
The Verdict: chilling beach reading for fans of Pretty Little Liars
What do you get when you cross a creepy cabin in the woods with drama worthy of Pretty Little Liars? Meet one of the most deliciously entertaining “popcorn reads” of the summer: THE LAST TIME I LIED by Riley Sager. Sager took the crime writing world by storm last year with his stellar psychological thriller FINAL GIRLS, and this July, he’s back—and, with his newest release, he’s proving once and for all that he’s here to stay. In his New York Times bestselling novel THE LAST TIME I LIED, Sager leans into a subtle brand of suspense driven by interpersonal secrets, richly-developed atmosphere, and drama a plenty. Where FINAL GIRLS was an ode to slasher films, THE LAST TIME I LIED isn’t quite as dark or bloody—though it’s no feel-good summer camp story, either. Sager strikes a pitch-perfect balance between horror elements and a lighter suspense plotline in his newest book, and the result is an endlessly entertaining summer binge-read. Pick up THE LAST TIME I LIED for its gorgeous cover, stay for its addictive and twisty story of years-old secrets and a summer vacation gone very wrong.
Two Truths and a Lie. The girls played it all the time in their cabin at Camp Nightingale. Vivian, Natalie, Allison, and first-time camper Emma Davis, the youngest of the group. But the games ended the night Emma sleepily watched the others sneak out of the cabin into the darkness. The last she--or anyone--saw of them was Vivian closing the cabin door behind her, hushing Emma with a finger pressed to her lips.
Now a rising star in the New York art scene, Emma turns her past into paintings--massive canvases filled with dark leaves and gnarled branches that cover ghostly shapes in white dresses. When the paintings catch the attention of Francesca Harris-White, the wealthy owner of Camp Nightingale, she implores Emma to return to the newly reopened camp as a painting instructor. Seeing an opportunity to find out what really happened to her friends all those years ago, Emma agrees.
Familiar faces, unchanged cabins, and the same dark lake haunt Nightingale, even though the camp is opening its doors for the first time since the disappearances. Emma is even assigned to the same cabin she slept in as a teenager, but soon discovers a security camera--the only one on the property--pointed directly at its door. Then cryptic clues that Vivian left behind about the camp's twisted origins begin surfacing. As she digs deeper, Emma finds herself sorting through lies from the past while facing mysterious threats in the present. And the closer she gets to the truth about Camp Nightingale and what really happened to those girls, the more she realizes that closure could come at a deadly price.
If you asked me to name a few of my personal favorite “guilty pleasures,” they would align pretty darn perfectly with the themes and topics Riley Sager plays with in THE LAST TIME I LIED. Topping my list? Pretty Little Liars (which I’m not ashamed to admit is my all-time favorite TV show) and horror movies. It’s no surprise, then, that I loved THE LAST TIME I LIED. In his newest offering, Sager plays with the very same elements that have made Pretty Little Liars such a smash hit: interpersonal drama, lies and betrayals, and a dose of urban legend-worthy suspense elevate this “missing girl” story from good to great.
Perhaps the first question readers will want to know about Sager’s newest book: is it as horror-inspired as was FINAL GIRLS? The answer, both in my own reading experience and supported by a recent conversation I had with Riley, is no. Where FINAL GIRLS was a direct ode to slasher films, complete with a vengeful killer straight out of a movie like Scream, THE LAST TIME I LIED is a lighter brand of suspense - but it’s one that works so well on multiple levels, and delivers a welcome reminder that a book doesn’t need to be in-your-face gory to be genuinely chilling. In THE LAST TIME I LIED, readers venture back to summer camp… but this isn’t the summer camp of your childhood. (Or, at least, I’m hoping it isn’t!) Camp Nightingale, the fictional-yet-recognizable summer camp of Sager’s newest outing, quickly became arguably my favorite “character” in this twisty suspense novel. Complete with a shadowy backstory, mysterious proprietor, and dark, expansive lake, Camp Nightingale has all the makings of a horror movie setting, yet Sager masterfully toes the line between campy and true-to-life here; he keeps things just close enough to reality to deliver a reading experience that feels cinematic and authentic all at once. You know those moments in horror films where you want to shout at the main character not to go into the basement or to stay away from the abandoned house? You’ll feel that way in THE LAST TIME I LIED, too. We know that nothing good can come of Emma returning to camp, yet we go with her anyway - and that’s where the dread of this story sets in. As Emma searches for the truth about her friends’ disappearance years prior, readers unravel the bizarre and almost urban legend-worthy backstory of the camp alongside our protagonist... and the more you learn about the eerie Camp Nightingale, the more you’ll be glad your parents didn’t send you there.
What would a “beach read” be without a healthy dose of drama? Sager serves up some seriously entertaining interpersonal secrets and betrayals in THE LAST TIME I LIED. Alternating between past and present, Sager explores the group dynamics of teenage girls as seen through the eyes of our protagonist, Emma. In the past, readers meet Emma’s original cabin-mates - the young women whose disappearance years prior has left our present-day Emma grappling with PTSD. When Emma returns to camp as an adult, she finds herself charged with looking after another group of young women, this time as a camp counselor - and it’s through this lens that Sager slowly but surely reveals to the reader just how damaged Emma truly is. It’s a brilliant concept: by putting Emma back in the same physical and emotional environment in which her original trauma occurred, Sager allows the true extent of this trauma to make itself known to the reader gradually and authentically. There’s a ring of truth to the group dynamics explored in THE LAST TIME I LIED, too; granted, the interactions between these young women are certainly dramatized for effect, but some of the mind games and manipulations that play out among these characters will feel all too familiar. And lest you worry that Sager relies too heavily on stereotypical portrayals of teenage girls for your taste, allow me to briefly mention my favorite camper from the story: Miranda, a confident and self-assured young woman who reads over 100 mysteries a year and hopes to be a detective when she grows up.
Where FINAL GIRLS was all nail-biting tension and page-turning suspense, THE LAST TIME I LIED is a much slower burn of a story - and that’s not a negative by any means, simply something to be aware of as you dip in. It took me about 100 pages to fall in sync with the book’s pacing, but once I did, I devoured THE LAST TIME I LIED in a couple sittings. It’s been quite a while since I read a suspense novel with a twist that blew me away as thoroughly as did the twists found in THE LAST TIME I LIED; Sager has crafted not one but two thoroughly shocking reveals that are likely to surprise even the most seasoned suspense reader. As CBTB readers will know, I’m a stickler when it comes to plot twists: the “twist” needs to be something that, once it’s revealed, feels totally logical to the reader - yet I also want it to thoroughly shock me at the same time. These are high expectations to have, and they’re not easily met - but Sager met them and then some. If twisty psychological suspense novels are your thing, THE LAST TIME I LIED belongs on your summer reading list, plain and simple. Part dramatic confection, part chilling suspense, all “popcorn reading” entertainment, THE LAST TIME I LIED cements Riley Sager as one of the most exciting new voices in crime fiction today.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Dutton (July 3, 2018)
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