Book Review - Nikki's Secret by William Malmborg
Updated: Jul 19, 2018
A pervy and demented little revenge thriller, with a few horrific elements thrown in for good measure.
Well, I think I still prefer Vickie's Secret to Nikki's Secret, but all in all this was a rather enjoyable & twisted little urban revenge thriller. I honestly can't remember how I heard about this one, especially since I tend to lean more towards supernatural thrills over the antics of mental instability. I had also never heard of this author before. Regardless, I was actually decently impressed with this twisty tale.
Nikki's Secret is a pretty small and self-contained story; only involving four people and just a handful of locations. But that really doesn't diminish the tale in any way, as it's actually pretty well plotted. There are a few plot holes that don't really get answered (or if they did I missed it), but typically everything lines up. I'd hesitate to lump this in with traditional horror (regardless of what the cover says), as it only skirts the edge of that genre. It's definitely more a straight up tale of mystery and good old-fashioned revenge, with a heavy focus on cyberstalking and sexual perversions and a bit of slasher horror thrown in for good measure.
As with all of my reviews, I will attempt to keep spoilers to a minimum. As a thriller/whodunit, the mystery and the "why" are part of the appeal of Nikki's Secret, so I feel they should be left for other readers to discover organically. So if it's not mentioned in the official book synopsis, I'll do my level best to avoid mentioning it here.
Since I don't read a whole lot of thrillers, I can't really definitively compare Nikki's Secret to anything else...but I'll do my best anyways. It has a bit of the unreliable narrator approach a la Gone Girl, more than a fair share of allusions to cybersex and the folks who seek it out, much like The Girl in Apartment 6E, and a shade of jealousy turned violent (to which the closest comparison I can come up with at the moment is the first season of American Horror Story with Kate Mara's character). And maybe it's my lack of exposure in the thriller genre, but even with so slight similarities to some other stories out there, everything in this book felt pretty fresh and original.
In fact, I don't know that I've read a book where the characters have so much internal dialogue (other than Dune of course), with so much of that dialogue being really on the nose. William Malmborg really delves into the headspace of the protagonists AND the antagonists, constantly giving us their day-to-day and situation specific thoughts. From the "what should I eat today?" generic musings to the deeper & crazier "what's the best way to kill someone without getting caught?", we ride along as the characters think things through. That's not to say that there's not plenty of actual character interaction taking place, as there is, but we get just as much insight into what the characters are thinking as we do with what they are saying. From relationship insecurities to work woes, and from little self-deceptions to huge justifications, their thoughts are on full display. Some of it is imminently relatable, like when one of the characters is starting to fall for someone, and all the excitement and fear that that brings. Some of it entirely batshit crazy, like when a body needs to be dismembered without the usual heavy duty tools.
I'm gonna be honest; this book has some pretty twisted events going on in it. From graphic language to graphic sex to graphic violence, Nikki's Secret is not for the faint-hearted. And while none of it is particularly new, it's laid out in such a matter-of-fact manner that it might be off-putting to some. Personally, I really enjoyed that William Malmborg didn't pull any punches and just laid it all out there. Murder and stalking isn't a clean or easy business, and he definitely doesn't hide that fact.
Any good thriller needs a good cast of characters, and this the area where Nikki's Secret gets a little wobbly. For while we have three main protagonists, only one of them is really likeable for most of the book. And honestly I get it. Books can absolutely have protagonists who aren't necessarily "good" people, since there's plenty of those in the world. For a realism approach, it works well. It just makes it hard to root for someone when they don't give you a lot of reasons to see past their flaws. And some books can manage to have a character grow and start to develop a few redeeming qualities (one character in this book starts to go that way), but sometimes the opposite occurs and you start to like the person less and less.
Our main protagonist, Kimberly, is definitely the stand out of the bunch. While she has a bit of a tragic backstory, she's ultimately just a normal college-aged gal trying to get through school and get on with her life. And I like the approach to her character, keeping her 100% normal. She has a job that she doesn't really love and occasionally screws up at, and sometimes tries to find a reason not to go to. She's in a relationship that she knows isn't really going anywhere, but she keeps giving herself little justifications for staying in it. She has issues with her internet service and gets tired of explaining it to the customer service rep. She's just a normal girl who involuntarily gets involved in some crazy revenge shenanigans. I think she handles the initial insanity just like anyone else would; a mix of disbelief, fear, anger, and resolve to not let it get the best of them. She's also the only character that I had a consistent appreciation for throughout the story.
The other main protagonist is Kimberly's upstairs neighbor, Bill. As an aspiring horror author who is just now to the point where he is making money off of his works, Bill is initially a cool character who I instantly liked. I like books, ergo I like authors. And he has a cat! But it's Bill who inadvertently sets the book's events in motion, and while mistakes happen and his intentions were never malicious, he has caused some grief in his past. But while he owns up to the fact, he really feels no remorse for it, and would do the same thoughtless things again if he had to start all over again. This ultimately made me start to dislike his character, especially given some of his motivations. And while I didn't overtly HATE him, I definitely liked Bill less and less as the story goes on.
Our third character, who gets much less page time than Kimberly and Bill, is Mark. Now, I have some seriously mixed feelings about this guy. When we first meet him, he's actively trying to hook up with the titular Nikki, just on the promise of no-strings-attached dirty sex. Are there plenty of young men out there looking for exactly the same thing? Yep. And as a virgin, he's even more motivated, as it's basically a contest within himself. But while sometimes a story involving a guy trying to lose his virginity without all the messy complications of a relationship can be mildly amusing (like in a sex comedy like American Pie), here it just comes across creepy and pathetic. Which, ultimately, is how it is in real life. But while he starts out as little more than a walking hard-on, he actually kind of develops into someone sorta decent. He actually changes his view on relationships (a little bit), and becomes more than just a penis with legs. I still never really clicked with his character, but I went from actively disliking him to more of a "meh" stance.
And the final character of the bunch is Nikki herself. Now, who she is and what her story is should definitely be left alone, as really any discussion of it would be heading into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that she's definitely got a secret, and she definitely could benefit from some therapy. But ultimately she's a cool character, and while her justifications don't always line up, this girl gets results! As for what Nikki's secret is, that's best left for the reader to discover.
And that's really it for the characters of the book. There are a couple of ancillary folks that come in and out of the tale, but only as dressing.
One of the coolest aspects of the book, for me anyways, is the simple realism of it. People have jobs, people have classes, people have money woes. I get really frustrated at times when I'm reading a book and it seems that protagonists, especially the younger ones, seem to have unlimited funds and endless amounts of free time. But these characters, especially since they are barely into adulthood, really can't just spend all their time trying to solve the mistaken identity mystery in this book. To eat at home and save money, or to go the convenience route and eat out? To drive or walk? To pay for internet or to freeload off of free wi-fi? To skip out on work and potentially be on the rocks with the employer? These are the little questions that our characters are asking themselves, and lends bit of everyday reality to the proceedings. It helps give the tale a grounded feel, as these are things that many of us, especially our younger selves, can relate to.
The cyberstalking part seemed pretty well thought out, with all the I's dotted and the T's crossed. This book definitely highlights the dangers of being too free with personal information on the web, and made me want to recheck my Facebook privacy settings! And like I mentioned, while there's not a whole lot of instances with gore or sex, what is here is pretty explicit. There are plenty of references to cybersex and adult sites, and allusions to rape fantasies and naughty bedroom escapades. As for the gore, it only crops up a few times, but it's pretty "in your face". It's also, at one point in the book, completely hilarious, though I am sure that wasn't intentional. I mean, a tub full of body parts getting in the way of taking a shower to get clean is, on the surface, just horrifying, but the way it is written just had me laughing. Can't really help it though, I'm kind of twisted. Sorry, not sorry.
There were a few problems that I had with the book. Primarily, I really struggled with the motivations of the men. Every male character in the book only does something for the female characters with the hope/promise of some kind of sexual favor. Are there guys like that out there? Definitely. But did the tale need every guy to be like this? No, it didn't. Guys like sex, it's 100% true. But are all guys only motivated by sex, or will only help a girl with the hope of sex? No. So that was a little frustrating. Please give men more dimension! It's like the Bechdel test, only maybe the Sexdel test? Whatever it is, the men in this book fail it. Every. Damn. Time.
There were also a couple of typos and a plot point about the stalker knowing Kimberly's work schedule that (to my knowledge) never got resolved.
Also, while there are some devious plots going on, the vast majority of the events in the book are actually fallouts from things not going the way they were planned. Honestly, this book could be the definition of “unintended consequences”. There were times when it worked, and times when it didn’t. But what initially seemed like a super-villain level plot just ended up being reactions to reactions to other reactions.
My final gripe is that, while there was no holding back on the blood and the perversions and the danger to our characters, there was never really a sense of dread hanging over the proceedings. Yeah, we get a little bit of the fear that Kimberly faces knowing she's being stalked, but honestly the relationship fears were more fleshed out than the actual "I might die" fears. There's a lot of frustration felt by our characters for sure, but I really thought there should have been more of a sense of paralyzing fear gripping the whole proceedings. And, given the potential danger, Kimberly just comes across as kinda dumb since she just sticks around, knowing full well she might be in danger. But such are the actions of any of the young people in horror/thriller books I guess.
But, all of those little nitpicks kind of fall by the wayside when the last chapter hits. I can't even call it a twist per se, but it's something that definitely reminds the reader that, regardless of how the actual mystery got resolved, one of the characters still isn't free & clear of the craziness. It was a delicious little jab right at the end of the tale, and finally gave the book the sense of ominousness it was missing.
So, I had some issues with the book for sure, but I really did enjoy it regardless. The twisted part of me enjoyed the mystery and the stalking, but I still was off-put by several other parts of it. I wanted a little more terror/horror, but what was here wasn't bad. Check it out if you are in the mood for something a little naughty, a little dirty, and a little bloody.
3 out of 5 dirty and deranged stars!