Posted in Recent Releases

The Last Flight, by Julie Clark

Release date: June 23, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆  (8/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: The Last Flight is a mystery/thriller novel written by Julie Clark and published by Sourcebooks Landmark on June 23rd, 2020. Clarke is a teacher who previously published a fiction novel titled The Ones We Choose in 2018, about family secrets and the struggle to know who we really are. The tagline for The Last Flight reads, “Two women. Two flights. Once last chance to disappear.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Claire Cook is the not-so-happily married wife of Rory Cook, son of the late, beloved senator Marjorie Cook and now head of the Cook Family Foundation. The Cook family is, as author Clarke divulges, “a political dynasty second only to the Kennedys” – both in power and financially. As Rory’s very-public wife, Claire spends her days presiding over foundation meetings, heading up charity events, and striving desperately (and futilely) to avoid upsetting her abusive husband. Although they are surrounded by constant help, everyone turns a blind eye to Claire’s bruises and injuries, and she feels more alone than she ever could have imagined – and controlled, down to every last moment of her day.

Now that Rory is getting ready to announce his decision to run for a Senate seat, and Claire is scheduled for an out-of-town meeting, she knows: this is her last chance to escape. She has a plan, and she’s prepared to put it into action, having precisely worked out every single detail. There’s only one flaw: Rory has changed her flight at the last minute, booked her for a different meeting, and – unfortunately for Claire – intercepted her “escape” package, complete with her fake ID, passport, cash, and a detailed letter to him explaining her disappearance.

The book references the #MeToo era, and it highlights the very real fear that women face when they decide to come forward and reveal the truth about abuse or rape.”

Claire is at the airport nursing her drink, and a paralyzing sense of terror and uncertainty, when a mysterious woman named Eva sits next to her and offers up the con of a lifetime: switching flights. Is this meeting suspiciously timed and too perfect to be merely coincidental…or is it kismet, and an amazing alignment of the fates? Both women have pasts they desperately need to escape, and both need a way to keep the dark forces in their lives from finding out where they’ve gone.

Impulsively, Claire makes the switch – and they each board the other’s plane. But after arriving in Berkeley with next to no money, and no plan or fake IDs in place, Claire learns that the plane Eva supposedly boarded for her has crashed into the Atlantic, with no survivors. She finds Eva’s home and takes shelter, desperate to move forward and forge her own path. However, Eva wasn’t leading a normal life…and Claire must come to terms with both her own demons, and those of the mysterious woman whose life she’s now living, in order to take her next step forward.

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first read by Clark, but I would definitely pick up any future thrillers by her. This was a quick-paced read, and one I finished very easily in 2 days (with two young kids and a full-time job, I should say) at a slim 302 pages, somewhat widely-spaced. 

To be perfectly clear up front, this is NOT a murder-mystery; the progression of the plot depends not on unraveling events that have already occurred, but on trying to predict and understand what’s going to happen to these two women as they attempt to break free from their troubled pasts. The chapters switch back and forth between events happening to Claire in real-time, and events that happened to Eva in the six months prior to their meeting in the airport. This helps us establish the truth behind Eva’s life and why she was running, and lets us see the real-time consequences of Claire’s actions as they unfold after her escape.

The book references the #MeToo era, and it highlights the very real fear that women face when they decide to come forward and reveal the truth about abuse or rape. As Claire tells her friend, “In a perfect world, I’d hold Rory accountable. But I don’t have it in me to take on a fight like that. One that would go on for years, that would seep into every corner of my life and tarnish anything good that might come afterward. I just want to be free of it.” And while Eva’s story is more complicated, we are told that her once-hopeful future was completely derailed by a white male student – one who was protected by his money and privilege, even as he destroyed every facet of her life and the educational opportunity she’d fought so hard to attain.

As Claire and Eva both learn, there is freedom in truth-telling, and in trusting others and building a support network.”

This novel also touches on the complicit and willful ignorance of these types of abuse that are feigned by those surrounding men in power; the assistants and staff are themselves afraid of the consequences of speaking up, knowing they will likely lose everything for accusations that would be called baseless and lies. This lack of support, combined with the very-real fear of losing everything, is why some women would rather run than stand up and be counted. However, running away isn’t exactly the “easy” way out; Claire realizes she would be running for the rest of her life, saying, “I would never be truly free if I scurried away to hide under another rock. I’d be complicit in Rory’s abuse as long as I continued to protect him.” 

As Claire and Eva both learn, there is freedom in truth-telling, and in trusting others and building a support network. Eva must learn to accept that true love and acceptance comes “without asking for anything in return.” Near the end of her own story, Claire muses, “For too long, I believed my voice alone wouldn’t be enough. That nobody would want to hear the truth and step in to help. But when I needed it most, three women showed up. … If we don’t tell our own stories, we’ll never take control of the narrative.”

In the end, after leaving desperate situations to find safety and protection, both women realize that their journeys have become a quest to find their own true identity. “Are we who we say we are, or do we become the person others see? Do they define us by what we choose to show them, or what they see despite our best attempts to conceal it?” Claire wonders. Both women have a hard time being vulnerable and telling people the truth about the darkest parts of their lives, and neither leaves this story without serious and very real consequences – but, in some small measure at least, they’ve discovered how strong they can be when fighting for themselves and the women surrounding them.

Posted in Can't-miss Reads, Upcoming Releases

Behind the Red Door, by Megan Collins

Release date: August 4, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★  ☆  (9/10 stars)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: Behind the Red Door was written by Megan Collins, whose successful mystery/thriller novel The Winter Sister was published in 2019 (and featured in the Book of the Month club as their monthly thriller). Behind the Red Door is set to be released on August 4, 2020 by Atria Books. The novel is about “a woman who comes to believe that she has a connection to a decades-old kidnapping, and now that the victim has gone missing again, begins a frantic search to learn what happened in the past.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Fern Douglas is a happily married school social worker on summer break – the only time of year she’s not actually “allowed” to concern herself with the students she cares for during the academic term. She lives with near-constant anxiety, which she proactively manages with medication and visits to her therapist, and she’s attempting to enjoy a quiet and relaxing summer with her husband Eric.

Her weeks of (hopefully) mindless relaxation are interrupted by a phone call from her father, Ted, who asks her to return home to New Hampshire to help him pack up for a big move to Florida. Shortly before she leaves Cambridge to make the trip, she’s startled by a news story about a woman named Astrid Sullivan. Astrid had disappeared from her home in New Hampshire 20 years ago, only to be returned – bound and gagged – two weeks later…and now, she’s disappeared again.

Collins unravels the mystery thread by thread, moment by moment, as Fern’s memories and instincts grow stronger – and as she, by default, becomes more comfortable standing up for herself.”

Fern is overwhelmed by thoughts that she knows Astrid, that she’s seen her before…but where? Her return home is plagued by dreams that seem more like memories, and complicated further by her psychologist father Ted’s typically cold and clinical relationship to his daughter – whom he’s always viewed more as a scientific experiment than his own child. He even deserts her at the local hardware store, forcing her to accept a ride home (and thus reluctantly reconnect) with her biggest childhood bully – all in the name of his dedication to research. 

But Fern brought home more than just boxes and packing supplies; she also bought a copy of Astrid’s recently released memoir, giving a new and detailed account of her captivity. As Fern delves into Astrid’s descriptions, her own memories are triggered…and she falls farther into a dark web of deception, mistrust, and doubt. What really happened to both Astrid and Fern twenty years ago, and who can she trust now, as the days pass relentlessly by with no signs of Astrid’s return? Is it Fern’s destiny to uncover the truth, or to disappear unseen into the darkness as well?

MY THOUGHTS: I devoured Collins’ first novel, The Winter Sister, when it was released in February 2019, so I was eagerly anticipating this new release. I enjoy nothing more than a twisty thriller that delves into someone’s past, and this book definitely delivers that – once I started, I didn’t want to put it down until I was finished. And, to be fair, that’s saying a lot, because there are very few books I’ve read this year – even 9/10 star books – which managed that feat.

According to her biography, Collins has taught creative writing at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and Central Connecticut State University, and she’s won several literary prizes…which naturally lends itself to a more poetic/academic way of writing (which I enjoy). Her descriptions of anxiety, for example, are dead-on for anyone who’s suffered from it before: “In the daylight, things are different. They always are,” Fern says; then, “Even so, it’s like I’ve walked into a spiderweb I can’t wipe off, the silk of that dream sticking to my skin.”

If you enjoy an unreliable narrator, but a LIKEABLE one (I know – it DOES happen), you’ll feel right at home in Fern’s story. Her nightmare of a childhood makes it no surprise that she’s blocked out large portions of her memory, enclosing them (at least temporarily) in darkness for her own safety and sanity. “Our brains can do that,” Fern muses. “Especially when we’re kids. They can scrub out whole people, whole experiences, leaving only a tiny trace of the truth.”

Behind the Red Door is as much about hard-earned redemption and self-awareness as it is about a mystery needing to be solved.”

And to her credit, Collins doesn’t turn Fern into an unmotivated alcoholic (a la The Girl on the Train, or The Woman in the Window), or give her any unhealthy coping mechanisms that make it hard to root for her. Instead, we want to hold a mirror up to Fern’s distorted view of family and her childhood, and gently let her know that what she’s been through is not acceptable, and – in fact – is completely to blame for her constant worry and fear.

Let’s also not forget, in the midst of this self-exploration and psychological deep-dive, that we’re in the middle of a mystery spanning twenty years. Where IS Astrid, and are Fern’s dreams and memories of her real? And if they are, is Fern in danger too? Collins unravels the mystery thread by thread, moment by moment, as Fern’s memories and instincts grow stronger – and as she, by default, becomes more comfortable standing up for herself.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a well-written psychological thriller. Behind the Red Door is as much about hard-earned redemption and self-awareness as it is about a mystery needing to be solved. And even if you guess the ending – and thus, by the nature of this story, the beginning – I think the plot’s arc of resilience and self-reconciliation still keep the story fresh and inspiring, and ward off any disappointment that would be felt with just a basic whodunit.

Posted in Recent Releases, Upcoming Releases

The Night Swim, by Megan Goldin

Release date: August 4, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆  (7/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: The Night Swim was written by Megan Goldin, and is set to be released by St. Martin’s Press on August 4th, 2020. Goldin is the bestselling author of The Escape Room, so this isn’t her first foray into the mystery/thriller world. The book’s tagline reads, “a true crime podcast host covering a controversial trial finds herself drawn deep into a small town’s dark past and a brutal crime that took place there years before.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Rachel Krall is the host of the very successful podcast Guilty or Not Guilty, where she examines one specific true crime case each season. In her first two seasons, Rachel has helped put guilty people behind bars, and even released innocent ones who were wrongly convicted. 

In a bid to keep her popularity and ward off the many copycat podcasts who are repeating her successful formula, she decides to go inside a rape trial for her third season. It’s a somewhat controversial decision, but she’s determined to put her listeners “in the jury box,” so to speak, so that they feel like they have a stake in the outcome of the trial. This requires traveling to a small town on the east coast, where a local boy and champion swimmer has been accused of raping a 16-year-old. Determined to provide an impartial overview, Rachel schedules meetings with all of the parties involved and documents each day at trial for her listeners. 

In fact, as we’ve learned in the ‘Me, Too’ movement, half of these people don’t even think about themselves as rapists, thanks to toxic cultural norms. If you’ve seen the pictures on social media showing protest signs that read, “How come every woman knows someone who’s been raped, but no man knows a rapist?”, you’ll know what Goldin (and I) am referring to.”

However, immediately upon her arrival, she is flooded with mysterious letters from a woman named Hannah who is determined to have Rachel tell her own story. Hannah writes about her sister Jenny, who she says was murdered 25 years earlier in the same small town. Rachel tries not to get involved but finds herself drawn to Hannah’s story; soon she’s trying to keep up with a grueling trial-and-recording schedule, while also digging into Jenny’s mysterious death from decades prior.

As the trial unfolds and the locals become familiar faces, Rachel begins to see connections between both Jenny’s story and Kelly’s case. Who among the older residents can she trust, and why – 25 years later – are people compelled to either continue keeping secrets, or lying to keep them from coming out? And what will it cost them all to find out the truth?

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first work by Goldin, but – and keep this in mind as you read my honest opinions below – I will definitely read her future books. The topics covered in this novel – rape, podcast culture, the justice system – are very timely and reflect too many true-to-life cases to count. Goldin does a good job allowing Rachel to reflect on what this idea of rape culture, and victimology, does to both the accused and the accusers, and her incredibly detailed reflections on why rape victims do not report their crimes are hauntingly realistic. I’ll reflect more on that at the end of my thoughts here…but now, for my brutally honest take on this book.

I actually thought this was a debut by Goldin (having not read any of her previous works, and also clearly having overlooked the blurb about her previous novels). Why, you may ask? Well, to be fair, the book felt like a first draft in need of a good polish and editing. For one, the initial dialogue between Rachel and her producer Pete was a bit cringe-y, and I say this lovingly as a wannabe writer who has the hardest time crafting realistic dialogue. It seemed stilted and as if it were set up just to info-dump, while not actually sounding like how ANYONE would really talk. (For example: “It was bound to happen,” sighed Pete. “You are a household name.” And: “I could ask the cops to look into it. See what they can find out,” Pete offered. “My contact in the FBI said we shouldn’t hesitate to file a complaint after the death threats you got last year. I still have his card with his direct number,” he added.)

Secondly, I didn’t feel like all of the scenes were necessarily realistic. I, for one, am from a small town, and I don’t think anyone would ever erupt into a heated (yet very generalized “guilty/not guilty”) argument about a local trial in the grocery store lines, with the clerk taking part as well…but that’s just my experience. It’s also not terribly likely that years after one young girl’s death, someone would still have graffitied “whore” on her tombstone, especially when the boys who raped her repeatedly were all dead or had suffered tremendous medical consequences. The waiter at the local hotel also probably wouldn’t point out that you look like you’re there for a murder trial because “you don’t have a vacation vibe,” and also simultaneously say that the town is small (“Everyone knows the boy involved. Some personally and some by reputation. And this town is small enough that people can pretty much guess who the girl is”) and then, four sentences later, say the exact opposite unironically (“I don’t think it’s true that everyone knows everyone here. Maybe once. Neapolis isn’t a small town anymore.”)

WHAT I LIKED: Now, with THAT out of the way…I truly enjoyed the way the book was structured (and that has NOTHING to do with the fact that I myself have written an entire outline for a mystery book with podcast episodes included as part of the plotline). I didn’t particularly connect much with the main character of Rachel, likely because we know literally nothing about her except what she does in regards to researching this case, and her podcast musings. However, I felt like the podcast “episode” chapters gave us the most insight into her thoughts as a character, and thus gave Goldin (as the author) a place to air her deepest thoughts on rape culture and how the victim is always the one who pays the price for the crime that happened to them – regardless of whether or not the perpetrator is caught, convicted, and serves time. (Hearing the details of what happens when a rape kit is taken in the hospital was incredibly horrifying, and I could easily understand why so many women wouldn’t bother to go through this after an assault.)

The reality is that these types of situations – both Jenny’s and Kelly’s – do happen every single day, and often the perpetrators go on to live seemingly normal lives (as per Jenny’s murderer in the novel) and/or aren’t even convicted (see: real-life Brock Turner, who was actually witnessed and stopped mid-crime yet was spared jail time to “preserve his future”). In fact, as we’ve learned in the Me, Too movement, half of these people don’t even think about themselves as rapists, thanks to toxic cultural norms. If you’ve seen the pictures on social media showing protest signs that read, “How come every woman knows someone who’s been raped, but no man knows a rapist?”, you’ll know what Goldin (and I) am referring to.

Goldin does a good job allowing Rachel to reflect on what this idea of rape culture, and victimology, does to both the accused and the accusers, and her incredibly detailed reflections on why rape victims do not report their crimes are hauntingly realistic.”

Goldin makes some very valid points about how the system victimizes rape victims continuously even after the crime is long past. In one of her episodes, Rachel opines, “One of the questions I keep asking myself is whether it’s worth it. When a person goes through a terrible trauma, her mind is conditioned to forget what happened. Memory loss from trauma is a protective mechanism. It helps us stay sane. In this case, a sixteen-year-old girl is being asked to recount, in front of a large group of strangers, in public, every single traumatic, horrific moment of that night on the beach so that maybe, just maybe, her alleged rapist will be punished for what he did to her.” She goes on to say, “The trauma of testifying is one of the main reasons why so many rape victims opt not to testify and why so many rapes are never prosecuted.”

As Rachel says in her podcast episode, and Goldin is saying overall with this book, our society is more than willing to discuss grisly murders in great detail – but rape, not so much. True crime is a booming industry right now, and there are thousands upon thousands of social media groups dedicated to discussing Bundy and Gacy and Keyes, and dissecting their every preference and action. But we feel uncomfortable even using the word “rape,” and – like some of the characters in this novel – many people want to say it’s a gray area in a world of black and white. Goldin wrote this novel to show the importance of recognizing the trauma that rape victims go through, and to point out that we should be just as horrified by every sexual assault and sex crime that occurs as we are by murder and carnage. As she says in the novel, rape victims are still alive to relive the assault and the trauma every day – and they deserve our care and respect for what they’re going through.

Posted in Upcoming Releases

Don’t Look for Me, by Wendy Walker

Release date: September 15, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ 

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: Don’t Look for Me was written by Wendy Walker and is set to be released on September 15, 2020 by St. Martin’s Press. It’s a mystery/thriller novel, which is Walker’s specialty; her previous psychological suspense novels have hit international bestseller lists. The tagline reads, “The greatest risk isn’t running away. It’s running out of time.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: It’s been exactly one year since Molly lost her 9-year-old daughter Annie in a tragic accident – one where Molly had been behind the wheel. Her life has fallen apart in multiple ways – her son is away at boarding school, her oldest daughter seems to hate her guts and is in the throes of her own downward spiral, and her husband barely acknowledges her existence. 

Just as she thinks it can’t get any worse, she finds herself out of gas…in the middle of nowhere…at night…in the midst of a category four hurricane. The darkness brewing inside of her threatens to combust when faced with the darkness surrounding her, and she briefly considers starting a new life…but then headlights appear in her path, and she flags the vehicle down, relieved to have found safety after all. Or so she thought.

However, this fact doesn’t deter from the addictiveness of the unfolding plot, which continually brings in new residents of the small town with their own intriguing secrets and unique potential reasons to break the law.”

Two weeks later, Nicole is awoken by a phone call after yet another night of drinking and strange men. The woman on the other end of the line tells her that she saw Nicole’s mother on the night of the hurricane…the night she disappeared without a trace. She gives Nicole details that weren’t released to the public, and that only someone who had actually seen Molly would know…and Nicole decides to take the stalled police investigation into her own hands. She packs her bags and heads to Hastings, the small town where her mother was last seen, vowing not to return home without Molly.

Nicole’s desperation to find out what has happened to her mother, and her mother’s own battle for her life, sets off a series of events and confrontations that reveal explosive twists and some seriously devious minds. What follows is a story of small-town secrets, corruption, captivity, poverty, abuse, and murder…and not everyone involved will make it out alive. 

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first novel by Walker, although after reading it, I can safely say I will likely read her future books as well. 

This is your basic psychological suspense novel, written from two different points of view – Molly’s and Nicole’s – in alternating chapters that take us backwards and forwards in time. We see Molly’s dilemma starting from the very beginning of her terrifying journey, up through the point where her and Nicole’s timelines merge days later; Nicole’s story in Chapter 2 starts on day 14, two weeks after her mom’s disappearance.

I enjoy a novel told from two points of view, especially with this type of storyline – and Walker makes it an easy transition from one point of view to the next, keeping some chapters incredibly short as the tension ratchets up. There are some twists and turns in the novel, although not necessarily ones that could go unpredicted, mind you (unlike in Alice Feeney’s roller-coaster His & Hers). This isn’t a surprise, considering the limited pool of guesses as to who Molly’s kidnapper could be in such a small town. However, this fact doesn’t deter from the addictiveness of the unfolding plot, which continually brings in new residents with their own intriguing secrets and unique potential reasons to break the law. 

Walker is here to tell us that, in our darkest hour, we must actively choose survival and life over death every day.”

At its core, I think Don’t Look for Me is a darkly-told but heartbreaking view of the reality of living with the loss of a child, especially when you were responsible – even though it was an accident. We see the various ways people would cope with this type of immense loss: Molly longs to run away at the beginning of her story. She feels incredibly unloved and unwanted – and she’s not wrong. Her own husband spends nights away from her and turns her own name into a way of belittling her when she experiences anxiety; he seems to throw himself into his work and away from his family. Nicole, who was just a teenager herself and witnessed the horror, feels responsible herself and lashes out both at Molly and her own life. She turns this loss – the “empty hollow spaces” that take over her life – into alcoholism and promiscuity, just searching for any numbing relief for the pain and loss of feeling. 

These destructive coping mechanisms for grief could be the permanent undoing of relationships and someone’s quality of life, which Walker doesn’t shy away from in this novel. We can see the future for these people, and if things don’t change, it would be bleak. Don’t get me wrong; this novel is still a quick-read mystery/thriller at heart – and not the deep or overly “hopeful” and upbeat storyline of a general fiction novel. But Walker is here to tell us that, in our darkest hour, we must actively choose survival and life over death every day. Even if we’re wallowing in grief and loss so immense we can’t see the light for the darkness, there is still something worth fighting for, and Walker shows us what that is as we watch Molly and Nicole’s story unfold.

Posted in Can't-miss Reads, Upcoming Releases

His & Hers, by Alice Feeney

Release date: July 28, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★  ★ ☆ 

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: His & Hers is a new mystery/thriller book by Alice Feeney, the New York Times bestselling author of thrillers Sometimes I Lie and I Know Who You Are. This twisty summer read is set to be released July 28th by Flatiron Books. The tagline reads, “There are two sides to every story: yours and mine, ours and theirs, His & Hers. Which means someone is always lying.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Anna Andrews has happily settled in as a network news anchor for the BBC during their popular afternoon/lunch time slot. She was promoted from a correspondent position two years prior when her predecessor left on maternity leave with the first of two back-to-back babies, but now, her loyalty and hard work is about to be rewarded with…a demotion, right back to the correspondence desk. Because the previous network news anchor is back to resume her career – and with no contractual claim to a job that was never hers, Anna is forced to step down. 

Fuming but resigned, Anna’s forced to trek off to fight viciously for a few precious moments of air-time while covering a rare murder in the small English village of Blackdown – where she happens to be from. Of course, no one at the BBC knows this, because no one at the BBC really knows Anna that well. Her alcoholism, her failed marriage, her previous affairs, her lost family…these are all things Anna has gotten good at keeping to herself. But it seems like someone in Blackdown remembers the past all too well, and things are about to get very out of hand, in a gruesomely murderous way.

Essentially, every character is a villain – it’s just a matter of figuring out WHICH villain is responsible for this special kind of misdeed.”

Detective Jack Harper is the head of the Major Crime Team in Blackdown, where he’s moved after leaving London to be a “big fish” in a smaller pond. His existence in the quaint village has been lackluster and less-than-thrilling so far, except for an illicit affair with one of the local women…who just so happens to wind up dead, the first victim of a brutal murderer on a rampage. No one knows about his affair, except for the person who suddenly seems to be planting evidence to suggest Jack is responsible…or are they?

Jack and Anna have a past that not everyone in their present lives knows about, with intricate threads that stretch into the current day. Both are very flawed and nearly self-destructive in nature, and they each have their own secrets from each other, as do the people closest to them. The reader must determine the truth: whose story is real, who is keeping us in the dark, and who has the biggest motive to commit such heinous murders? The reality in this twisted tale might be much murkier than you’d think.

MY THOUGHTS: This is my second read by Feeney, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading His & Hers much more than my first foray into her dark mind (which was Sometimes I Lie, and which I remember literally nothing about more than a year after reading it, which is par for the course with my brain). I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, and it’s one of the summer thrillers that I sped through the quickest this year. 

This novel is presented with three narrators; the chapters switch back and forth from “her” (Anna’s) viewpoint and “his” (Jack’s) viewpoint, à la the title of the novel. They’re interspersed with interludes throughout the novel that are written by the perpetrator of these murders, also written in the first person, and with no reveal of who the actual murderer is until the very last few pages.

Feeney is not for the faint of heart; her writing runs deep and dark, and she really wants to explore all of the blackest parts of the human psyche. She’s fascinated with secrets, and with talking about all of the different ways we can hide or change parts of ourselves to fit in and please those around us. “There is a version of me I can only ever be with myself,” the murderer writes in one the first-person admissions sprinkled throughout the novel. “I sometimes think the secret to success is the ability to adapt.”

The crime scenes and victims are brutally staged, almost theatrically so, and we learn in flashbacks how each of these victims are personally linked to both Anna and Jack. There’s sex, abuse, torture, blackmail, cheating, addiction…the list of deadly sins is nearly complete amongst both the victims and the survivors. “We’re all addicted to something: money, success, social media, sugar, sex…the list of possibilities is endless. My drug of choice just happens to be alcohol,” Anna muses.

Feeney is not for the faint of heart; her writing runs deep and dark, and she really wants to explore all of the blackest parts of the human psyche.”

Apparently, Feeney’s endings are somewhat legendary (and not necessarily in a good way) among mystery/thriller fans…which is probably why I only remember that vague unease I had when I finished her first big novel. But – speaking strictly as the reader who is continuously disappointed when I can guess the ending of most mystery novels – I can truly appreciate a master of her craft like Feeney. 

Make no mistake – Feeney weaves plots so complex that it’s incredibly hard to guess an ending (or “whodunit”). The potential motives of each character cut so deep in almost every thought and memory they linger over; it’s like gazing into a house of mirrors, with a dozen inverse reflections staring back at you. (“People rarely see themselves the way others do; we all carry broken mirrors,” the murderer writes.) Feeney’s books are nothing less than a deep dive into the most (negatively) formative and emotional journeys these characters have experienced, providing them all with a richly-historied reason to kill. Essentially, every character is a villain – it’s just a matter of figuring out WHICH villain is responsible for this special kind of misdeed.

This novel featured multiple shocking reveals, a building crescendo of deception after deception that had me thinking I had everything figured out more than once…and I was wrong every single time. Only the last few pages told the truth, and immediately after finishing them, I went back and reread the first few pages…and everything fell neatly into place, like I finally had the missing pieces of a puzzle.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Good Sister, by Sally Hepworth

Release date: April 13, 2021 (I KNOW, I KNOW…sooo far in the future. But it’s really good and worth the preorder/wait, you guys!!!)

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ 

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: The Good Sister was written by bestselling author Sally Hepworth (known recently for her hit The Mother-in-Law, published in 2019). It’s set for release in April 2021, by St. Martin’s Press. The Good Sister is a mystery/thriller about a pair of twins whose lives are so incredibly intertwined that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins…and how that closeness – and the secrets kept between sisters – can be both life-saving and absolutely deadly.

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Rose and Fern are fraternal twins with an incredibly close bond and a tragic history. Their mother overdosed when they were 12, resulting in their placement into foster care. Told through Rose’s reflective journal entries and Fern’s current-day circumstances, we learn the details of their tragic childhood and how the sisters still remain close to this day. 

Rose takes it upon herself to be the protective twin; she is diabetic and has spent her life taking care of her sister, even taking the blame when their volatile mother was looking for a target. Fern has social anxiety and sensory processing issues; she is likely on the autism spectrum but was never diagnosed, and lives a life of regimented schedules and predictable activities, which she finds calming. Fern spends most of her days working as a librarian, which is her dream job; she is incredibly happy with her life and her work commute, just a quick and calming walk from her flat. Rose’s life, however, is beginning to pull at the seams. Her husband Owen has run off to London, and she is attempting to win him back; we learn that Rose believes he left because she suddenly decided she wanted children, eventually pushing him away with her zealousness. 

It’s absolutely as much a book about finding yourself and learning the importance of opening yourself up to love, as it is a book about murder and betrayal.”

When Fern learns about her sister’s troubles, she begins to brainstorm all of the ways she could help Rose achieve her dreams and get the life Fern thinks she truly deserves. After all, Rose has kept Fern’s secrets for years, and helped her clean up her messes – and some of the things in their past are, well…truly dark. Too horrific to tell someone outside of their sisterly bond. But at the same time, a new man walks into Fern’s life, and she is given the chance at a new form of happiness she didn’t realize was possible.

When their pasts and present collide – and when the only other witness to the twins’ most horrific secret starts to talk again – Fern must decide what the future holds for her. Which of the people in her life is looking out for HER best interests, and who is determined to wreck her future for the happiness of their own? Her choice may have deadly consequences, and it’ll be the most important decision she’ll ever make.

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first read by Hepworth (despite the fact that I’ve had The Mother-in-Law on my TBR shelf since last year……oops), and I found this book very enjoyable. I would absolutely read more books by this author, and it’s honestly moved The Mother-in-Law up on my (neverending) list of books to read soon. 

It’s technically a mystery/thriller, but I would consider it more of a psychological suspense novel that explores family bonds – the tightest, one might say, being that of twins – and the boundaries of individualism and self. (Fern ruminates at one point, “Maybe when it comes to sisters, boundaries are always a little blurry. Blurred boundaries, I think, are what sisters do best.” ) It also reflects on how our best-laid plans in life may not have room for what will truly make us happy, and we may have to learn to be more flexible than we’re typically willing to be.

Fern was an incredibly written character, and one of my favorite recent literary protagonists; seeing the world through her eyes as someone on the autism spectrum was both eye-opening and educational. We see duality not just in the twins, but in Fern herself: her flaws and her strengths, her weaknesses and her coping mechanisms. She may seem rigid about her routine, and adamant about refusing to learn the library’s technical side…but we also see her softness at the hands of Rose and the children who visit the library.

This book examines the price that is often exacted at the hands of systemic abuse and mental manipulation. The plot becomes tense as the reader realizes the terrible situation Fern is in long before Fern does – but it’s a very quick read with an ending that ties up all the loose ends. It’s absolutely as much a book about finding yourself and learning the importance of opening yourself up to love, as it is a book about murder and betrayal. 

Readers will bond with Fern immediately and really root that she can come out of this awful situation with the happiness she desperately deserves. Seeing her journey in learning to trust herself – and trust that she has made good decisions and can live a good life with people who truly care for her – is a very satisfying one.

Posted in Recent Releases, Upcoming Releases

The Safe Place by Anna Downes

Release date: July 14, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ 

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: I was happy to receive an ARC of this book directly from the publisher (Minotaur books), as I am a huge fan of thrillers and can’t resist a twisty summer beach read. (This will 100% be an unbiased review, as you can tell by the number of stars given above.) This is a debut novel for Downes, and I would like to point out that the version I read was the paperback ARC (which did have some spelling errors and spacing errors that I know will be removed prior to the finished product). The Safe Place is a debut mystery/thriller novel with the tagline, “No Phones. No Outsiders. No Escape.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: We meet our protagonist Emily on her absolute worst day – she’s flubbed an audition that she desperately needs as a struggling actress, and she loses her temp job as a receptionist at a financial firm. She’s about to be evicted from her terribly basic flat in London, and her bank account is in overdraft. When her agent calls a meeting to tell her that she’s moving to America and Emily is being dropped by the agency…well, Emily hits rock bottom.

Should she dare call her adoptive parents to ask for monetary help? The last time she’d spoken with her mom, Juliet, they had an explosive argument about how Emily only ever comes home when she needs money. When Emily swallows her pride and tries anyway, Juliet realizes that Emily has forgotten her birthday, and she hangs up the phone…leaving Emily ashamed, depressed, and completely out of luck.

But then, her luck seems to change…when a chance encounter on the street ends with Emily’s former boss, Scott Denny, saving her from an almost-deadly accident. Scott offers her the chance of a lifetime – move to France, live in a gorgeous palatial estate hidden away on the coast, and help his wife and daughter with tasks around the estate. She would be “a housekeeper/au pair/personal assistant,” in his own words, and she would really be doing him quite a favor. Emily is flabbergasted by this opportunity – and more than a little attracted to Scott, who is seeming more and more like a knight in shining armor. The chance of a lifetime has fallen into her lap…but should she take it?

What was refreshing was that this wasn’t the same storyline you find in SO many thrillers (Did someone cheat? Did the husband/wife do it? Did someone fake their own demise?), which made it more interesting.”

Feeling like she has no choice, Emily says yes, and is whisked into a world of riches beyond her imagination…and a level of privacy she’s never experienced, complete with miles of wooded seclusion, security cameras in almost every room, and a required signature on a non-disclosure agreement. She falls in love with the two gorgeous homes and the beautiful infinity pool, but she also falls hard for Scott’s wife, Nina, and their lovely but troubled young daughter, Aurelia. Aurelia has many health challenges that stem from an incident in her infancy, Nina confides; she is mute, allergic to the sun, and has tantrums and night terrors that border on violent. Emily recognizes parts of her own troubled childhood in Aurelia, and she begins to grow incredibly close to both women.

But as her time at Querencia continues, Emily begins to realize that some things are never what they seem. Was this opportunity really too good to be true, and did it just happen to fall into her lap? Or was she hunted down and chosen for reasons unknown to her? She begins to see that the houses are not the only things on the island hiding secret rot and decay inside, and her slow unraveling of the truth behind the Denny family’s secrets and seclusion is a tense and taut journey that includes flashbacks from Nina’s perspective, as well as current views of how the truth is literally tearing Scott apart.

It all culminates in a terrifying and tragic confrontation – who will come out of this summer alive and unharmed, or will they all be transformed forever? And is it ever okay to bury a difficult and horrifying truth, or is it always better to bring dark deeds to light – even when the consequences could be utterly devastating?

MY THOUGHTS: I enjoyed the story and felt compelled to read until the end to find out what was truly happening at Querencia, and I wasn’t disappointed in the unique yet ripped-from-the-headlines plot twists. I will admit that it took me about 50-75 pages to feel invested in finding out what would happen, but then again, I am a (very) picky mystery/thriller reader…and by the time Emily was at the beach house, I was completely drawn into the plot. What was refreshing was that this wasn’t the same storyline you find in SO many thrillers (Did someone cheat? Did the husband/wife do it? Did someone fake their own demise?), which made it more interesting.

The setting itself was enough to make this book a good summer/beach read, and it was described in lush detail. If Querencia existed in real life, this is the type of place I would like to retire to (after winning the lottery). The character of Nina was well-written and we were able to get a solid peek into her background, her marriage with Scott, and her reasons for all of the questionable decisions she made. I do believe that Downes needs more space to flesh out her relationships between the characters; the attraction between Emily and Scott felt a bit forced or sudden, and Emily occasionally felt flat or a bit too one-dimensional…but I definitely feel like Downes’ character development will likely only grow in her future novels, likely with the help of great editors and publishers.

Both Scott and Nina were excellent examples of tragic characters with vastly different flaws and coping mechanisms. Downes did a good job showing us the many facets of mental illness, depression, anxiety, and grief…and the decisions the characters made reflect reality for a lot of people who have faced, or are facing, tragedy and loss.

(For more sensitive readers, the book does contain scenes depicting self-harm, kidnapping, suicide/suicide attempts, natural infant death, and what could possibly qualify as Munchausen’s-by-proxy.)

Posted in Recent Releases, Upcoming Releases

Florence Adler Swims Forever, by Rachel Beanland

Release Date: July 7, 2020

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: Florence Adler Swims Forever is a historical fiction novel set to be published by Simon & Schuster and released on Tuesday, July 7th, 2020. This novel is author Rachel Beanland’s debut. The tagline reads, “Over the course of one summer that begins with a shocking tragedy, three generations of the Adler family grapple with heartbreak, romance, and the weight of family secrets.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: It’s the summer of 1934 in Atlantic City, and Florence Adler is home from college for the summer to practice for her upcoming swim across the English Channel. Her “home” is a cramped apartment near the beach, where her parents Esther & Joseph reside each summer so they can rent out their actual beach home for seasonal visitors. Joseph owns his own booming bakery business, which has allowed him to bring a young lady from Germany named Anna – the daughter of an old friend – to stay with them when it’s a particularly dangerous time for Jewish people in Europe. Florence’s niece Gussie is also sharing the apartment for the summer while her mom, Florence’s sister Fannie, is on bedrest in a local hospital for the last few months of her pregnancy.

This full house is shocked and upended when an unexpected tragedy occurs, when Florence doesn’t return after going out for a routine morning swim. Suddenly Esther and Joseph find themselves in charge of following centuries-old Jewish traditions and working through the grief of their loss, while also devising an elaborate plan to hide Florence’s sudden death from Fannie (and the community at large). Their remaining daughter already lost one baby the previous summer and is dangerously close to premature childbirth again. The juxtaposition of following strict religious tradition while breaking modern grieving etiquette affects everyone in different ways, both positive and negative…from Florence’s friends, to Fannie’s daughter and husband, to outsider Anna.

In Florence’s story, we see how unexpected tragedy and sudden loss can work to both tear apart and strengthen relationships within families.”

While we see the family and friends of Florence work through her loss and the ensuing madness of pointedly “forgetting” it happened, we also learn the history of each character. This includes multiple firsthand accounts of growing up in the Jewish tradition, but in radically different socioeconomic circumstances and geographical regions…and the way these differences have affected the family members and how they interact with each other today. Some relationships strengthen, and a new romance blossoms…but other unions become fraught with the strain of loss, and we as readers must finish the book to see if they’ll survive the circumstances.

MY THOUGHTS: This novel was definitely an enjoyable read for me, even though it’s not my favorite/most comfortable genre (mystery/thriller), and it sucked me in after I got about 33% of the way through. If you enjoy both a summer read AND a historical novel, this would be an excellent choice for summer 2020.

The novel is written from the points-of-view of each of the main characters (minus Florence, unsurprisingly), and the book cycles naturally through these characters as the storyline progresses – with each chapter telling the unfolding events from the viewpoint of the character most affected at that moment in time. We see Esther’s grief and determination, Joseph’s sadness and stoicism, Gussie’s curiosity and childlike bluntness, and Fannie’s confusion and loneliness, to name just a few. We also learn their unique histories, which gives us a good background with which to judge their current actions and decisions.

In Florence’s story, we see how unexpected tragedy and sudden loss can work to both tear apart and strengthen relationships within families. The slight fractures that already exist within relationships – which can go largely ignored during times of happiness or contentment – can seemingly become as wide and irreparable as the Grand Canyon in the face of loss. Similarly, friendships and relationships can spring up when two people rely on each other for comfort, closeness, and a certain consolation that only they can provide as witnesses to this same grief. 

Because of the multiple points of view, we can see poignant instances of grief and loss, particularly with Florence’s mother, Esther. There is a passage toward the beginning of the book when Esther is crushed with the realization that she will be telling people she’s lost a daughter for the rest of her life. [Please note: the publisher expressly forbids direct quotes from ARCs (advanced reader copies), which is what I used to read this novel…so I cannot use any direct quotes in my review.] Fannie also struggles with what seems like postpartum depression from her loss of son Hyram the year before, combined with her fears for her current situation…and the spectre of her future knowledge of her sister’s sudden death hangs over our heads as readers as we wait for that shoe to drop.

This novel raises some very interesting questions about what we would do for the people we love, and whether or not the decisions that Fannie’s family made were done in her best interest. Is it better to tell elaborate and months-long lies that involve weaving an incredibly intricate and dangerous web of deception, if you’re trying to protect a family member in a delicate situation? Or is this a betrayal that could never be forgiven?

My only wish for this novel is that it were longer; I would desperately like a more concrete conclusion to this story, where we as readers would know what the future holds for everyone and how the truth affects Fannie and her family’s closeness moving forward.

Posted in Can't-miss Reads, Upcoming Releases

Every Now and Then by Lesley Kagen

Release Date: October 6, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: Every Now and Then is a coming-of-age fiction/historical fiction novel coming out in October 2020. It was written by Lesley Kagen, a NYT bestselling author (and actress/speaker) who has published 10 novels. It’s set in the summer of 1960, which is the summer that changed the lives of three best friends forever.

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Every Now and Then begins at the start of the hottest summer on record in the small town of Summit in 1960, where three eleven-year-old best friends – Frankie, Viv, and the narrator, Biz – are let out of school early due to the heat. The girls are excited for the early start to their normal summer activities: watching horror movies at the theater on Saturdays, visiting (and spying on) the Broadhurst Mental Institution, and spending all of their nights in Biz’s treehouse. Biz’s father is the town’s doctor whose ancestors founded the city, so they lived in a large mansion (the “crowned jewel” of the neighborhood) with Biz’s aunt, Jane May. Her mother had died shortly after childbirth, so Aunt Jane May – her mother’s sister – had moved in to help raise Biz and keep up with the household duties. 

Biz’s father, Doc, built her the treehouse (the “Taj Mahal of hideouts,” Biz says) as a memorial to his late wife, and Frankie and Viv spend every summer night in the treehouse with Biz…as long as they’re all getting along, of course. They call themselves the Tree Muskateers; Viv is the short-tempered but charming one, Biz is the hopeful peacemaker, and Frankie is the brains. Frankie is also biracial, which was seen socially as a cardinal sin at the time; her mother Dell was black, and her unknown father was white, so she was “adopted” by her mother’s Italian employers to keep the town racists at bay.

The girls spend much of their summers in Mud Town, where the people of color live, and visiting Broadhurst…but this summer, they create a list of goals to accomplish. They want to get to know the mental patients better, and their aim is to find a way to access the yard where the orderlies take the non-violent patients to enjoy the fresh air. The town holds a meeting regarding a violent child murderer who’s being transferred to Broadhurst, but the girls feel safe; the violent offenders are locked up on the third floor, and besides, they know that the adults cannot be trusted in matters regarding race or mental illness. (At the town meeting regarding Wally Hopper, the child murderer, Biz says, “When a handful of men leapt to their feet, raised their fists, and yelled, ‘Yeah, yeah!’ it reminded me of the scene in Frankenstein when the villagers came hunting for the monster with torches blazing and pitchforks waving.”)

I actually burst into tears at the last paragraph of the last chapter, which was so touching and tied the entire story together so beautifully.”

But there’s more to Broadhurst than meets the eye, and soon the girls find themselves in over their heads. People are disappearing, and there are rumors among the staff (and in Biz’s house among her father and Aunt Jane May, late at night) that the doctor is performing experiments that are at best, unethical, and at worst…well, Biz isn’t sure. The determination of the three girls to set things straight and uncover the answers to all of their small town’s secrets – including daring missions led in the dark woods in the middle of the night – will land them in a world of trouble they never imagined, and it will leave them all with lasting scars.

MY THOUGHTS: This book was my first book by Kagen, and I truly enjoyed it and found it to be a fantastic read. The release date is October, but it describes a nostalgic summer as a child/preteen so perfectly that I wish it was released now for everyone to enjoy. I give it a rare 10 stars, and I actually burst into tears at the last paragraph of the last chapter, which was so touching and tied the entire story together so beautifully. (I teared up again just rereading it for the review.)

I think it’s also an incredibly timely book in regards to its discussion on race and prejudice in 1960. Biz, the protaganist, often waxes poetic about her dreams of unity and reconciliation for the future; she is already sharp enough to see how the townspeople truly feel about the people of color living in Mud Town: “No one had yet challenged the unspoken rule in Summit: you colored people stay on your side and we’ll stay on ours – unless you’ve come to do yard work, clean house, or haul away junk.” By the end of the novel, she comes to understand what Jimbo meant when he told her that “Mud towners” (the people of color) never show up at town meetings because, “Us givin’ our opinions to those in charge is ’bout as useful as throwin’ a T-bone to a toothless dog.'” 

Kagan writes Biz as a sympathetic character; she still has the innocence and hopefulness of a child, but she often displays a maturity beyond her years. Biz says that people who suffer from any kind of mental illness are “almost always portrayed as deranged monsters” in the movies. She and her friends are 11 and are young enough to only see the humanity and similarities between themselves and the people of Mud Town, and the patients at Broadhurst…but she realizes that the adults have prejudices that keep them from seeing these truths. And the book doesn’t end without a hopeful note; at the Fourth of July celebration, Biz says, “But, you know, watching just about everyone in town breaking tradition to enjoy folks from both sides of the tracks making beautiful music together on the birthday of the land of the free and home of the brave, I couldn’t help but feel that I was witnessing a small miracle.” 

The historic setting and nostalgia of the time period makes the story feel safer than it should, especially knowing that there are parts of this novel that read like a horror movie. There are predators in 1960 just like there are predators today, and the woods surrounding the mental institution are not the safest place for young girls to be roaming free…which they’ll discover more than once, and which allows Kagen to use her poetic writing style in a darker and more Poe-like manner: “The town had fallen into a scared silence beneath a moonless sky, and the air was so hot and thick that it dampened the crickets and frogs and other night sounds to near nothing as well. Or maybe those creatures of God were sensing that evil was on the prowl and they didn’t want to give their hiding places away.”

Last but certainly not least, the girls themselves and their friendship – despite the differences between them – makes the story an unforgettable read. Seeing how they made up for each other’s shortcomings and came to each other’s aid was touching, especially when viewed from the lens of their time: “We had black and white blood running in our veins, and if the three of us could get along, hell, anybody could.” The brief prologue, and satisfying epilogue, let us know not just the effects of that summer on the trio in 1960, but how it played out within the rest of their adulthood as well.

Posted in Recent Releases, Upcoming Releases

Home Before Dark by Riley Sager

Release date: June 30, 2020

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: Home Before Dark, by Riley Sager, is set to be released on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 by Dutton Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House). It enjoyed an early release as part of the Book of the Month subscription box program, which is how I got my hands on this copy a month early.

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS

Maggie Holt has just experienced one of the biggest losses of her life, when her father dies after battling a terminal illness right before her thirtieth birthday…and it’s even more devastating because her father has lied to Maggie her entire life, and refused to stop even on his deathbed. In his last moments, Maggie begs him to tell her the truth about her childhood, but he simply apologizes instead with his last breaths.

The Holt family, you see, is no ordinary family; in a plotline eerily similar to The Amityville Horror, they had lived in an infamously “haunted” house named Baneberry Hall for exactly 20 days when Maggie was five years old, before fleeing in the middle of the night, never to return. Or so Maggie thought. Her father had chronicled the story in his bestselling novel House of Horrors, which provides her with her inheritance: a lump sum of money from his profits, and – in a shocking twist – Baneberry Hall itself. 

Maggie has spent her entire life dealing with the unwanted stardom that comes from being the star of a “real-life” horror novel. Her father wrote about Maggie’s visions and her experiences with the murderous ghosts who haunted Baneberry Hall, and her life has been unfairly shaped by this label that was unwittingly placed on her. She can’t even remember her childhood or her time at Baneberry Hall, and both of her parents have spent nearly 25 years refusing to answer her questions about what was real and what was simply fiction. But now, she holds the keys to Baneberry Hall in her hands…and with her mother’s insistence that she never step foot in the home again, her resolve is solidified.

Her return to Baneberry is interspersed with excerpts from her father’s novel, and we can see the mysterious occurrences that happened before are now happening again. Maggie meets people chronicled in the book, and she is desperately seeking answers from them about what was real and what was not…but the longer she stays in the home, the more the lines begin to blur between truth and fiction. Objects appear and disappear; strange noises are heard, and old secrets are uncovered that should possibly have stayed buried…including the unsolved disappearance of a young girl who had babysat Maggie on multiple occasions, on the very night they fled Baneberry.

As Maggie gets closer to the truth, the occurrences intensify, and she starts to question everything she’s assumed she knew over the years. What REALLY happened at Baneberry Hall 25 years ago, and how will she leave this house alive again now once she discovers the truth?

MY THOUGHTS: I should start with a full disclosure: I’ve read every Riley Sager book since the initial publication and release of Final Girls, so I’m definitely a fan. I have a terrible memory, so I can’t promise definitively that this is my favorite Sager novel (because I remember next to NOTHING about Final Girls), but I enjoyed it more than Lock Every Door, his 2019 summer thriller release. And I genuinely look forward to every new Sager novel with eagerness (and an automatic preorder) in a way that I don’t for any other author, save Stephen King. 

There’s nothing better than a good haunted house mystery to me; my first ever “scary” book was Nancy Drew’s The Ghost at Blackwood Hall, which my mother handed me when I was six years old…and I’ve been obsessed ever since. Sager is excellent at blending a mystery/thriller – complete with an unsolved murder – and the seemingly paranormal, with the caveat that he (almost) always ends the story firmly on solid ground, with realistic (read: events were generally caused by a human) revelations. In this book, he immediately wants you to know that this is no Amityville Horror rip-off (which crossed my mind when I read the description, if I’m being honest); in fact, he mentions Amityville early on as an “inspiration” for Maggie’s father to write his own story of their supposed experiences. This book is actually told in two parallel stories: Maggie’s father’s book, House of Horrors, and Maggie’s own first-person experiences in the present.

Not only does he find ways to make ghostly occurrences feel possible (before shattering your visions and bringing them back down to reality), but he also finds ways to weave deep human experiences and emotions into his popular fiction. A lot of Home Before Dark is about grief, and as someone still experiencing this emotion after a difficult loss this spring, I found it immensely relatable. (In Chapter One, Maggie tells us, “Grief is tricky like that. It can lie low for hours, long enough for magical thinking to take hold. Then, when you’re good and vulnerable, it will leap out at you like a fun-house skeleton, and all the pain you thought was gone comes roaring back.”) His characters, like Maggie, have often experienced a deep trauma of some sort, and their stories involve them coming to terms with reality and learning how to find their own inner strength even as their preconceived notions of safety crumble around them. 

And Sager manages to accomplish all of these things with twists that the average mystery/thriller reader can’t see coming. And coming. And coming. (He usually has a good 2-3 per novel…sometimes more.) I did actually guess the ending of this novel – as I mentioned in previous book reviews, my track record on figuring out “surprise endings/unpredictable twists” within the first 50 pages is typically about 85-90% – BUT his spiral-shaped way of telling the story made me think I was wrong first, before it curved back around. And Sager deftly weaves more mysteries into his novel than just a simple whodunit – was House of Horrors mostly based in truth, or entirely fictional? Why did Maggie’s parents insist on lying to her throughout their lives, even on her father’s deathbed? And who is responsible for both the experiences Maggie had as a child, and the ones she’s currently living through in the present?

I definitely enjoyed this intricately plotted book, and will continue to read (and preorder) all of Sager’s future releases. I like my mysteries with a dose of humanity, reality, deep emotion, ghostly occurrences, and murder…which is probably too much to ask for most writers, but is honestly just par for the course for Sager.