Posted in Books you might have missed, Can't-miss Reads

There’s Someone Inside Your House, by Stephanie Perkins

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆   (9/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: There’s Someone Inside Your House was written by YA author Stephanie Perkins, and can best be classified as a YA horror/thriller with romance. It was released by SPEAK, a division of PenguinTeen books, in 2017 and reprinted in 2018. A review from Mashable calls it “the best new horror of the season,” while Seventeen magazine wrote, “Turn on ALL the lights before reading this hair-raiser full of serious Scream vibes.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Makani Young has been living with her grandmother in Nebraska for a year now, stuck in the midst of cornfields and high school football rivalries. However, she’s still learning to adjust to life in the states and away from her native home in Hawaii; the weather, the clothes, the vibes – everything is different. But she left for a reason, she reminds herself – one that she doesn’t care to revisit anytime soon.

Makani has become close friends with Alex – who wears torn fishnet tights, combat boots, and loads of black eyeliner – and Darby, Alex’s best friend who has recently transitioned from “Justine” and is still working on his own acceptance at the rural high school they attend. She’s also working through her disappointment after a summer fling with Ollie, a skinny, pink-haired misfit who works at the local grocery; he never called after their last hookup, and she’s pissed…but not too pissed to stand up for him after an encounter with the aggressive jocks at school, brokering a newfound peace.

It ticked all my guilty-pleasure boxes: a depraved serial killer, an unpredictable motive, a smart and feisty protagonist with her own secrets, a mysterious and alluring love interest, and the occasional POV chapters told by the victims in their last moments.”

Any semblance of calm Makani has found in her new town is shattered when first one student, then another, is found brutally murdered – and the police, including Ollie’s older brother, have no clue who the murderer is. Worse yet, strange things have been happening in her grandmother’s house…cabinets are left open, and items are moved around the house. Both she and her grandmother blame each other, but…could it be something more sinister? 

Makani and her friends – including Ollie – must band together to figure out who is behind the slayings, which are starting to intensify in both method and recurrence. But, just as importantly, who will be the next victim? And can they find the answers before anyone finds out about Makani’s own dark past?

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first novel by Perkins, and I immediately went online after finishing it and looked for more books by her…but, to my great sadness, it appears everything else she’s written thus far qualifies strictly as teen romance. (Which is great for people who love those books – just not my usual genre.)

I consider this lack of thrillers for me to catch up on a travesty, because I found this book incredibly entertaining and suspenseful. It ticked all my guilty-pleasure boxes: a depraved serial killer, an unpredictable motive, a smart and feisty protagonist with her own secrets, a mysterious and alluring love interest, and the occasional POV chapters told by the victims in their last moments. I have to agree with Seventeen magazine that this book was perfect for fans of the Scream movie series (or maybe just the first and fourth movies…?), and for anyone who loves a good slasher-movie turned literary venture.

Makani is a relatable teenage heroine – quick-witted, secretive, loyal to her friends, and begrudgingly besotted with Ollie and his own secrets. (In short, a much more likable character than Neve Campbell’s whiny and occasionally-clueless Sydney Prescott.) Makani deals with the typical teenage dramas: falling hard for a mysterious and quiet boy, guiltily lying to her grandmother, and staying up all night to talk on the phone with her crush. However, she also has heavier baggage to carry, including an emotionally distant and troubled relationship with her self-centered parents, and a new last name courtesy of her own previous misdeeds in Hawaii. This gives her a gravitas that helps her fight her way through the darkness that descends on the town as the slayings continue, and find the drive to figure out the truth behind what’s happening.

I have to agree with Seventeen magazine that this book was perfect for fans of the Scream movie series (or maybe just the first and fourth movies…?), and for anyone who loves a good slasher-movie turned literary venture.”

Perkins writes a refreshingly diverse group of misfits in this novel, with a biracial, island-loving Makani, a transgender Hufflepuff-ish Darby, a goth-y and sarcastic Alex, and a mysteriously quiet and orphaned Ollie. She also includes goosebump-inducing chapters narrating the final moments of each clueless murder victim, which really invokes a sense of fear and dread in the reader. I found that to be an extra-inventive touch, and one I’d love to see in future horror novels. And while I wouldn’t classify this as a classic whodunit, I would like to point out that the ending is pretty brutal – and the violence is graphic and gruesome, but not in a twisted or over-the-top way for horror/thriller fans. 

I was pretty amused by the Amazon reviews that refer to this book as “just a romance,” or “really more a romance than a thriller.” I wholeheartedly disagree; there was more foreboding, more disquiet, and more actual murder than there ever were mentions of kissing or *gasp* dating. And anyway – can’t the two genres meet? I mean, Heather Graham has made a killing as a paranormal romance author, and her books are almost completely centered on the romance, with murders almost as an afterthought. I found this book to be a lovely and frightening mystery starring a couple of misfits who just happen to find understanding, and occasional moments of peace and calm, in each other’s arms…which, to me, is a perfect story. Especially when a ruthless killer is hunting them down. (What can I say? We like what we like.)

Posted in Recent Releases, Upcoming Releases

The Weekend Away, by Sarah Alderson

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆   (8/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: The Weekend Away is a mystery/thriller novel that was written by Sarah Alderson and released by Avon/Harper 360 books. (The Kindle edition is available right now; the paperback, at least in the US, shows a release for April 2021 but may be out sooner.) Alderson is the author of such novels as The Sound and Hunting Lila, and has also written contemporary modern fiction as Mila Gray. The tagline for this novel reads, “Two friends go on holiday. Only one comes back.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Orla is about to go on her first weekend away with her oldest friend, Kate, after giving birth to her daughter nine months before. It’s the first time she’s leaving baby Marlow alone with her husband, Rob, and while she’s anxious about being so far away from her family, she’s excited to have a weekend away with her best friend of more than 20 years.

Once upon a time, Orla and Kate had vowed to save one weekend a year to travel to some exotic foreign location together – the type of promise made by young, naive friends, Orla assumes. This was before she and Rob spent years trying to conceive via IVF and failing, until miracle Marlow came along…and before Kate married a man she’s now desperately trying to divorce and forget, in spectacular fashion. It’s been years since they took one of their trips, but now they’re in gorgeous Lisbon, in an apartment – with a view and a hot tub – that seems too good to be true. What could go wrong?

I found this storyline refreshing and different from many of the cookie-cutter thrillers out there now; having it take place in a foreign city, with only strangers to aid Orla, and with very few clues, made it a definite page-turner.”

To Orla’s shock and dismay, their first night together includes a late-night dinner, drugs, a trip to a bar, and – to her utter horror – Kate insisting they bring two gorgeous single men back home with them. Suddenly drunker than she’s ever been – despite having only had a little to drink – Kate has no defenses, and the men escort them back to the apartment. The next thing Orla knows, it’s mid-afternoon the next day…and Kate has disappeared.

The only thing worse than having a friend go missing is having it happen in a foreign country on a weekend trip…and having to try to convince the authorities to take Kate’s disappearance seriously. Orla is overwhelmed with confusion, and doubt, and a black hole where her memories of Friday night should be. Who can she trust in this strange place? And who is lying to her? As she spirals further into the mystery and her own rogue investigation, trying to figure out what happened to Kate, she leads herself further and further into danger – and, possibly, directly into the trap of a potential murderer.

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first novel by Alderson, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would categorize this as a guilty-pleasure read, and a fast-paced one at that. It’s not a genre-bending or envelope-pushing type of story; you won’t find a social message or soliloquy on injustice in this novel. This is for fans of twisty and juicy mystery stories like those told by BJ Paris, or Shari Lapena, or maybe Ruth Ware (God help us) – but well-written.

There’s always something extra dark and creepy about the thought of a loved one disappearing while you’re vacationing in a foreign country. Things and places are unfamiliar, systems are structured differently, and having authorities take the disappearance of a tourist seriously seems like an uphill battle no one would ever want to take on. If anyone reading this is from the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark generation, like myself, you might remember a particularly haunting story about a mother and daughter vacationing in a foreign land, and she woke up one morning to find her mother completely gone – vanished without a trace. When she asked the hotel employees about her mother, they told her no one else had checked in with her…and when everyone who’d seen them together refused to admit that her mother had ever been there, she began to question her own sanity.

In the same way, Orla begins to doubt Kate’s motives, and her own faulty memory on what happened that fateful evening…and the farther along she gets with her investigation, the more it looks like she should have been questioning her friend all along. But who can she trust in Lisbon (and back home, for that matter), and is it possible someone might be working alongside her just to cause her harm in the end?

I admit that the ending is one I vaguely saw coming in the first few chapters, only because the overall motive is very reminiscent to one used in a book I refused to finish a year ago by a popular mystery author I’m not a big fan of (not Ware, you’ll be thrilled to know). However, that did not deter me from continuing with this book at all, because the twists and turns the story took were very entertaining and did not solidify what I’d guessed until the very last couple of pages. I found this storyline refreshing and different from many of the cookie-cutter thrillers out there now; having it take place in a foreign city, with only strangers to aid Orla, and with very few clues, made it a definite page-turner.

This is absolutely a thriller I’d recommend to any fan of the genre, especially if you’re tired of the typical plotline and are looking for more international intrigue. And I’m happy to say that while I skimmed the book again page-by-page for a detailed plot review, I was intrigued and amused to see many hints that I’d never have picked up on without knowing the ending – which is not something I think I’ve ever said about a mystery story before. (Usually I see every single red herring and “hidden-but-obvious” clue with a 97% precision rate. Just guessing.) 

Posted in Academic religious, Nonfiction, Recent Releases

Can We Trust the Bible on the Historical Jesus?

Release date: September 22, 2020

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆  (8/10)

BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE BOOK, THE AUTHORS & THEIR CREDENTIALS: Can We Trust the Bible on the Historical Jesus? is a collaboration between Bart D. Ehrman, Craig Evans, and Robert Stewart. The content of the book is mostly a transcript of a debate between Ehrman and Evans at the seventh Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum in 2012, regarding whether or not we can consider the biblical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) to be accurate historical representations of the physical Jesus. 

Both Ehrman and Evans are highly acclaimed Biblical scholars, professors, and authors with two very different responses to their studies: Ehrman is a confessed agnostic, which happened in the middle of his career, after he researched and finished his New York Times bestselling book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer. Evans, however, is an evangelical Christian speaker and theologian who travels and speaks at colleges and churches internationally; he is, however, quick to state that he’s not a conservative Christian in this debate.

As Stewart points out in his intro, history is subjective and interpretive; what passes as historical one century will be debunked and replaced generations later.”

Both men have written and edited many books, and both have extensively studied language and the historical origins of Christianity, specifically focusing on the history of how the Bible was written and the accuracy of the gospels themselves. (And that is just a VERY small fraction of their studies and works, but it’s what pertains to this book; feel free to look them up to get a more in-depth idea of their other areas of expertise.)

Robert Stewart is a professor of Philosophy and Theology at New Orleans Baptist Seminary, and – more importantly to this specific debate – he’s the Greer-Heard Chair of Faith and Culture. He writes an informative (but definitely academic and slightly dry) introduction and ending essay to bookend the debate itself; the number of footnotes in this book, especially in Stewart’s sections, is alarming and indicates the vast amounts of material – somewhat contradictory in nature – that exists regarding this hot-button topic.

MY THOUGHTS: I am a recovering English major (ha), and a nerd for the history of language, religion, and Christianity in particular, so I was incredibly excited to get my hands on a copy of this book in Netgalley. 

Full disclosure: I own six other books by Ehrman already, and none by Evans (merely because I’d never heard of him), so I FULLY expected to walk away from this debate on Ehrman’s side before I even started this book. However, I was committed to going in with an open mind, and I found myself more fascinated than I’d imagined I would be by the opposing side that was presented by Evans. In short (truer words were never spoken): Ehrman does not believe we can trust the picture painted of Jesus by the gospels as a historically accurate one; Evans does.

Let’s unpack why: Ehrman has made his career pointing out the many troubling parts of the Bible that contradict one another (see Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible, and Why We Don’t Know About Them), and diving deeply into the meanings behind these contradictions. He’s very clear to point out that each gospel writer – not ACTUALLY disciples of Christ, but educated Greeks writing decades after the death of Jesus – has their own agenda and their own targeted audience, which I won’t go into because it’s a moot point in this specific book. Because of these clear agendas – and because of the very nature of these sometimes uncomfortably irrefutable and irreconcilable differences (including whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem or Nazareth, whether it was a virgin birth, and whether he was horrified or accepting of his crucifixion) – Ehrman does not believe the gospels themselves can provide us with a reliably historical picture of who Jesus was as a person. He also points out how some of the historical “facts” provided in the gospels actually CANNOT be true, like Herod’s census, and were thus only included to further the author’s own narrative.

Evans, on the other hand, takes a slightly more accepting view of what qualifies as historical documentation. To him, the gospels meet several of the tests of historical authenticity (explained in detail in Stewart’s introduction), and to help his argument, he uses the fact that many biblical scholars from the past few centuries are willing to accept the gospels as historical documents. As Stewart points out in his intro, history is subjective and interpretive; what passes as historical one century will be debunked and replaced generations later. Evans points out that the gospels are written within an acceptably close timeframe to the life of Jesus and thus can be considered fairly historically accurate; there are multiple stories and events corroborated among them, and the differences can be chalked up to the cultural practices of teaching at the time. He introduces us to a concept called chreiai, where Greek students “in late antiquity” would memorize certain sayings by well-known teachers, writers, or philosophers. They were then encouraged to take that phrase, use the knowledge they gained regarding the subject, and make it their own – even changing and modifying it to prove their own point. To Evans, this explains why certain parables and stories are different among the synoptic gospels. (Although even Evans agrees to leave the gospel of John out of most of this debate, as it’s so out of left field.)

…Each gospel writer had a specific audience in mind and a specific argument they wanted to make with their own portrayal of Jesus. And doesn’t this knowledge – combined with the knowledge that the authors of the synoptic gospels shared the same sources, including copying each other – affect how literally we can consider their versions of events?”

I won’t go into detail regarding the depths of their debate, or all of the ways in which they actually seem to agree – even though Evans may not necessarily see it that way, Ehrman does. However, I will say that your takeaway from this book will depend on your overall approach to the Bible, and how you view it. Are you looking for a historically accurate (dare I say, even factually infallible, you westernized evangelical Christians, you???), educational book about supposedly true-to-life people and events? Or do you view it more as a comprehensive collection of stories and experiences meant to teach and provide guidelines for a more fulfilling, spiritually-rich life? Neither Evans nor Ehrman may change your views completely, but you’ll walk away with more of an appreciation for both sides of this argument.

And to be fair, there are some validities that can be found within both arguments. Evans gives us a good overview of what historians actually look for when verifying reliable, hopefully accurate sources; logically speaking, it’s true that multiple accounts corroborating certain events lend credence to the probability that those events actually happened. As he points out, we don’t have videotapes from the time of Jesus, or Caesar, or Napoleon; all we have are multiple accounts that we can parse and examine closely, and use to construct a reasonably reliable narrative – especially when combined with our established archaeological and anthropological knowledge of the cultural, societal, and religious norms of the day.

However, you cannot discount Ehrman’s point that these accounts are gospels, not textbooks or biographies (just like the New Testament letters were correspondence sent directly to certain communities with unique challenges, and not general guidelines for Christian living for everyone – but that’s another story for another day). There is a purpose for these, and that purpose is to tell a carefully crafted set of stories to spread the “good news” of Jesus. Not only that, but each gospel writer had a specific audience in mind and a specific argument they wanted to make with their own portrayal of Jesus. And doesn’t this knowledge – combined with the knowledge that the authors of the synoptic gospels shared the same sources, including copying each other – affect how literally we can consider their versions of events?

While this book can be a bit dry and academic in its explanations of historicity and what scholars really think, the actual debate between Ehrman and Evans was a fascinating one. I’m very glad that it’s captured in writing for students of the historical Jesus to read and examine. It’s not often that we get to read a point-counterpoint argument where one biblical scholar is directly answering the questions posed by their “opponent,” and I fully appreciated both this cyclical back-and-forth discussion, and their ongoing arguments and answers to the difficult questions posed.

Posted in Can't-miss Reads, Upcoming Releases

The Drowning Kind, by Jennifer McMahon

Release date: April 6, 2021

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★  (10/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: The Drowning Kind was written by Jennifer McMahon and will be released by Gallery/Scout Press in April of 2021. McMahon is a New York Times bestselling author and the prolific writer of MANY successful, haunting mystery/thrillers, including The Invited, The Winter People, and The Night Sister. The tagline for her new novel reads, “From the New York Times bestselling author of The Invited and The Winter People comes a chilling new novel about a woman who returns to the old family home after her sister mysteriously drowns in its swimming pool…but she’s not the pool’s only victim. Be careful what you wish for.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Jax is a social worker counseling troubled kids in Seattle, thousands of miles away from where she grew up in New England. Estranged from her older sister, Lexie, she is suddenly drawn back into the past – and the home she’s run away from – when her sister leaves her a series of increasingly troubling messages on her answering machine.

Lexie is bipolar, and Jax’s propensity to want to rescue her sister – plus her unexpected bitterness over Lexie’s inheritance of their grandmother’s vast fortune and property the year before – have led her to start a new life so far away. But it’s become clear to Jax that Lexie has stopped taking her medication, and when she asks their aunt to check on her, she is given the troubling news that her sister has been found dead in the pool on her property.

This book has many layers – it’s a historical family tale, a ghost story, a mystery, and a treatise on the depths of love and loss. I feel as if I could peel apart a completely new understanding and appreciation for this story with each successive rereading of the book.”

Jax must return home to Sparrow Crest, where she and Lexie spent all of their childhood summers with their late grandmother. She’s there to arrange Lexie’s funeral and take care of her affairs, including a cleaning of the neglected large stone mansion…but she’s also intensely curious about what happened to cause Lexie’s death. Lexie was a champion swimmer, one who knew all the ins and outs of their grandmother’s mysterious (and seemingly bottomless) pool, and how she could drown is beyond Jax’s comprehension.

What Jax finds will lead her down the same troubling, haunting, and terrifying path Lexie took before her own death – and to the same shocking revelations that Lexie uncovered in her final days. Some legends are true, some ghost stories are all too real, and sometimes, when we make a wish…we aren’t prepared to pay the price it costs.

MY THOUGHTS: This was not my first McMahon novel, but I read The Invited so many years ago that it might as well be. I loved this novel immensely, and I wish I could go back and read it again for the first time. I sped through it in two days, and it was only in rereading it for a detailed review that I noticed some of the very clever “easter eggs” sprinkled throughout the novel that tie the past – and the dead – to the living in the present time.

This novel goes back and forth between the late 1920s/early 1930s, before Sparrow’s Crest is built, and the summer of 2019, when Jax loses her sister and must return home. We are able to see how the decisions of Jax’s ancestors create a ripple effect that lasts for generations, impacting the lives – and deaths – of the Monroe family for at least a hundred years. When they are willing to overlook the warnings and whispers of curses to fulfill their own selfish desires – including, in many cases, a desperate desire to avoid grief and loss – they start an avalanche of loss and tragedy for decades to come. McMahon is there to remind us that trying to control any aspect of life is a tricky business; she chillingly writes, “The spring does not give without taking. Miracles are not without their price.”

McMahon is an incredibly literary writer, which you’ll know if you’ve ever enjoyed any of her previous novels. Her vivid imagery of Sparrow’s Crest, and its cursed pool and overgrown gardens, are enough to catapult you into the middle of the story…and her depictions of grief and loss are beautifully haunting and realistic. But let’s not forget that this is a suspenseful ghost story, and there are parts where I found myself curling up under the covers and holding my breath as I waited for Jax to grab the flashlight, or follow the watery footprints, or find out what was causing the pool gate to bang open in the middle of the night.

I loved this novel immensely, and I wish I could go back and read it again for the first time.”

This book has many layers – it’s a historical family tale, a ghost story, a mystery, and a treatise on the depths of love and loss. I feel as if I could peel apart a completely new understanding and appreciation for this story with each successive rereading of the book. It’s the second excellent novel I’ve read this year about the incredibly close and tenuous bond between sisters (the first being The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth, also slated for release next year). A sisterly relationship can be volatile, fraught with jealousy and envy and bitterness…but it’s only (typically) because the love is so deep and intense and unmatched that it’s as hard to be apart as it is to be together.

The ending is as good and haunting as the story itself, and it does not disappoint. I’m so excited for this book to get published so I can discuss it with everyone – and until then, I’m definitely making plans to get my hands on more of McMahon’s books.

Posted in Books you might have missed, Recent Releases

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, by Holly Jackson

Release date: February 4, 2020 (illustrated edition)

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆  (8/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder was written by Holly Jackson and published by Delacorte Press in February 2020. This is actually going to be the first book in a series; the second novel, Good Girl, Bad Blood, will be released in February 2021. The tagline reads, “For readers of Kara Thomas and Karen McManus, an addictive, twisty crime thriller with shades of Serial and Making a Murderer about a closed local murder case that doesn’t add up, and a girl who’s determined to find the real killer–but not everyone wants her meddling in the past.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Pippa Fitz-Amobi – known as Pip – has a very well-adjusted life in a Connecticut small town. She lives with her mother in a blended and incredibly close biracial family, and she has two best friends she’s known forever. So why is she so obsessed with the idea of solving a local murder mystery that everyone has already considered solved for five years now?

After all, the town’s residents know what happened – or, so they think. Andie Bell was a gorgeous, blonde, popular senior who went missing on a Friday night and was presumably murdered by her boyfriend, Sal Singh. Sal supposedly confessed in a text to his father, killed himself in the woods without disclosing Andie’s location, and left his family ostracized by a town who viewed them as evil and part of the “other.” 

Pip is a great protagonist; she’s persistent, she’s ballsy, and she’s incredibly intelligent, yet she’s also vulnerable and flawed, which made for an entertaining read.”

Pip – who once considered Sal a hero for his never-ending niceness, and how he helped her deal with a bully – is not convinced that this is what actually happened. She decides to focus her senior thesis on how the media handled Andie’s disappearance and jumped to naming Sal the murderer (no “allegedly”)…but she immediately breaks the rules of her project by contacting Sal’s surviving family and involving his older brother, Ravi.

Together, the two of them begin their own dangerous and thorough investigation into what actually happened that night in 2014 – and as they uncover previously unknown details, and begin to piece together the truth, Pip realizes they’re surrounded by suspects. Clandestine meetings, threatening notes, blackmail, and deadly confrontations all lead up to an explosive ending that shocks even Pip herself.

MY THOUGHTS: This is Jackson’s first novel, although the second book in this series will be coming out in a few short months. I really enjoyed this book and read it in one day; it’s 387 pages, but it’s well-spaced and does include illustrations, maps, etc., which I always appreciate. I felt it was fairly easy to see that there would likely be sequels to this novel; the story of Andie Bell was tied up neatly, but there were other mysteries involving town residents that weren’t wrapped up by the end of Andie and Sal’s story.

This story was told in chapters that gave us real-time looks into Pip’s actions and conversations, interspersed with her project diary and transcripts of interviews she conducted. For someone with ADHD (okay, I’m just talking about me here), who really enjoys something slightly different every few pages, this was great. It also really helps the reader feel as if they are involved in the investigation themselves and taking part, and are thus more invested in the outcome of the mystery.

After all, the town’s residents know what happened – or, so they think. Andie Bell was a gorgeous, blonde, popular senior who went missing on a Friday night and was presumably murdered by her boyfriend, Sal Singh.”

In regards to whodunit, this novel follows a trend I’ve noticed A LOT in the mystery genre in the recent 1-2 years. It’s not a clear-cut answer, and there’s more than one twist and turn as things come to a head. This IS very much a young-adult mystery novel, so I feel safe saying it’s not a shock that a couple of the clues I picked up on super-early did indeed pan out in the end…but the meaning they had, while huge, was not the final reveal. (What a mysterious review to a mystery within a mystery.)

Pip is a great protagonist; she’s persistent, she’s ballsy, and she’s incredibly intelligent, yet she’s also vulnerable and flawed, which made for an entertaining read. I also really enjoyed her growing relationship with Ravi and their banter and bonding, which gave a lighter note to the darkest times. I will definitely be picking up the future novels in this series, and recommending them to my own daughter once she’s old enough to read them.

Posted in Recent Releases

One by One, by Ruth Ware

Release date: September 1, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆  (6/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: One by One is the newest thriller by bestselling author Ruth Ware; it’s set to be released September 8th, 2020 by Scout Press. Ware is the author of hits The Turn of the Key, The Woman in Cabin 10, The Lying Game, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, and In a Dark, Dark Wood. The tagline for her newest reads, “Getting snowed in at a beautiful, rustic mountain chalet doesn’t sound like the worst problem in the world, especially when there’s a breathtaking vista, a cozy fire, and company to keep you warm. But what happens when that company is eight of your coworkers…and you can’t trust any of them?”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Sigh. This book is enough to make me rethink my strict “four-paragraph, uniquely-written summary” rule. Here we go:

St. Antoine, an exclusive French ski resort, is the destination for the incredibly successful social media company Snoop’s corporate getaway. The company’s two co-founders, accountant, software programmer, lawyer, social media specialist, app designer, and lawyer have trekked up to an incredibly remote chalet in the mountains for a set of meetings…and they’ve invited along the only other shareholder, former employee Liz, to their mysterious retreat.

The company’s employees – minus Liz, the ex – are all somewhat entitled brats…which soon becomes apparent to chalet employees Danny (the cook) and Erin (the cleaner/host). Why? Because they’re worth many millions if a rumored buyout goes through – a buyout that not all of them are eager to consider, and which hinges on Liz’s decision – and also because this is a book where they have to die off one-by-one (title alert!), so you can’t like them too much.

People will compare it to Agatha Christie; please ignore them. I’ve read both books now, and neither of them are Christie-like, but they suffice for 2020 popular mystery/thriller books.”

Soon enough (spoiler-but-not-really alert), they begin to die off (or mysteriously disappear), one by one. Stuff happens. Truths come out. People doubt literally everything they see, and every single person around them. Accusations are hurled. Snow is hurled, by the mountains themselves in the form of an avalanche. Power goes out, because why not? Also, they are stranded, so how can they call for help? (Spoiler-but-not-really alert: they can’t.)

Not everyone dies. We learn the truth, which is not a twist, but is also not the complex explanation you probably thought it was. There’s an ending. Lessons are learned, probably. (I DID finish the book, I promise.)

MY THOUGHTS: Gotta start this with a FULL DISCLOSURE: I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Ruth Ware. Or, at least, a like/dislike one…my feelings aren’t really a strong hate as much as they are a big “meh.”

You may have seen this mentioned in my previous posts, but…I’ve read three of her five previous novels (The Woman in Cabin 10, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, and In a Dark, Dark Wood). I read 100 pages of The Turn of the Key last summer – it came in two of my book subscription boxes, so I was surrounded by copies – and realized I couldn’t care less what happened, so I put it down and never picked it back up. I’ve tried to read The Lying Game on three(!!!) separate occasions, and cannot get more than 3 chapters in before I’m so bored I can’t keep going. And despite finishing The Woman in Cabin 10, the intro to the book was so poorly written that I was incredulous that people were raving about it; I only finished it because everyone insisted it was great, and I was a tad bit disgusted with myself afterward. (Please, if you haven’t read that one yet…don’t bother. Leave it on the discount table and walk away quickly. You are welcome.)

Having said that, I actually enjoyed The Death of Mrs. Westaway, and I appreciated the atmosphere and gloominess of In a Dark, Dark Wood – but I did see the endings coming super-early in both books. I finished those mainly to see if I was right, and because the characters (and the situations they found themselves in) were entertaining enough to keep me reading despite knowing what was likely coming.

So. One by One. This novel is vaguely similar to Shari Lapena’s An Unwanted Guest, which involves a remote cabin/chalet, a treacherous snowstorm/avalanche, and a murderer picking guests off one by one. (Get the title now? Ha ha.) People will compare it to Agatha Christie; please ignore them. I’ve read both books now, and neither of them are Christie-like, but they suffice for 2020 popular mystery/thriller books.

Did I see the ending coming? Yes – this is not a twisty novel, folks. If you think too deeply about it, you will likely be wrong. Use the KISS factor – Keep It Simple, Stupid (according to my past English teachers…? Hopefully this is universal?). If you’re like me, you’re reading more to see how the story unfolds, and who is murdered next, and why precisely you think they were the next victim. And while the motives aren’t completely crystal clear, and you can’t precisely predict each new move by the killer, you may genuinely not care. (Just me? No…?)

WHAT I LIKED: (If you’re incredibly perceptive, you’ll realize this section only pops up in less-than-stellar reviews. Because A) there’s usually always something good/enjoyable, B) not everyone has the same taste as me and some truly enjoy all of Ware’s novels, and C) it reminds me to try to be nice.)

On my scale of “DNF” to “It was okay” for Ware novels, I would firmly place One by One on the “It was okay” end of the scale. I enjoyed reading about the location, and I do always appreciate a good classic whodunit where people are murdered one by one (I keep doing this). I particularly enjoyed the character of Erin, and the switching of perspectives between her and Liz with every chapter was mostly seamless and served the story well.

Stuff happens. Truths come out. People doubt literally everything they see, and every single person around them. Accusations are hurled. Snow is hurled, by the mountains themselves in the form of an avalanche.”

Most of the characters are unlikable because they genuinely have to be in this kind of story, and with this kind of plot…but Danny was my personal favorite, and I would want to be his friend in real life. And kudos to Ware for giving us the amusing biographies of each of the Snoop employees at the beginning of the novel; because of this, the readers could keep up with the group from the very beginning, and we knew what we were in for with this clash of personalities with murderous personal conflicts, in a stranded place, and in dire circumstances. 

Unlike The Woman in Cabin 10, I personally found this one worth finishing – despite the lack of an actual twist, and even when you can kinda sorta see what would happen ahead of time. I found Erin likable enough to want to know how her story ended, and while the motives and uncovered truths were lackluster (or vaguely unrealistic?) at best (IMHO), I enjoyed fitting the final pieces into the puzzle. But if you find yourself putting it down and considering not finishing it? I wouldn’t bat an eye, or blame you one bit…life is too short to read books you don’t enjoy. (And you can DM me if you just want to confirm the ending. I’ll tell you.)

Posted in Books you might have missed, Can't-miss Reads, Upcoming Releases

When No One is Watching, by Alyssa Cole

Release date: September 1, 2020

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★   (10/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: When No One is Watching is a contemporary fiction/thriller novel written by Alyssa Cole and set for publication September 1, 2020. This novel is being published by HarperCollins Publishers by their William Morrow Paperbacks division. Cole has won multiple awards and accolades for her works, including historical, contemporary, and sci-fi romance novels. The tagline for this novel reads, “Rear Window meets Get Out in this gripping thriller from a critically acclaimed and New York Times Notable author, in which the gentrification of a Brooklyn neighborhood takes on a sinister new meaning…”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Sydney Green has returned home to the Brooklyn neighborhood she’s spent her entire life in, save those few years she doesn’t want to think about in Seattle. She’s left her ex-husband there, with his controlling ways and abusive tendencies, and she’s settled into her new role as caretaker for her ailing mother. She’s even started a new project of her own: a “real” history tour, one focusing on the contributions of people of color in her historically black neighborhood, in response to the white-washed tour of homes she recently took. 

But time passes, and her mother declines, and Sydney finds herself aimlessly wandering through the area she’s known so well for years. Her neighbors’ names, their children, their habits, their jobs – these are all things that have imprinted on her very being, and made her an integral part of the Gifford Place family. But an ominous pall has settled over the street, and things are changing rapidly and alarmingly. Neighbors aren’t just selling their homes; they’re vanishing completely, and without telling anyone where they’re going. Entire storefronts disappear overnight, to be replaced with generic cafes and organic sandwich shops. New, lighter-skinned residents are incredibly quick to pick a fight with their older neighbors and call the authorities – men in uniform who never seem to pick the side of the “angry” black residents who are being targeted.

Cole has been receiving industry buzz for this novel in recent weeks, including a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly – and let me just say that I, like these reviewers, was absolutely blown away by this novel.”

Sydney knows the often-buried history of her neighborhood, and New York and America writ large; she’s no stranger to the cultural death toll that gentrification takes, or how it remakes entire neighborhoods and wipes out generations of minorities in the blink of an eye. But her gut is telling her that all of these mysterious happenings, and the sudden presence of threatening individuals and police patrols, are no coincidence, and that something more sinister is actually happening.

Together with Theo – her new white neighbor from across the street, who has his own dark secrets to contend with – she digs into the truth behind the new pharmaceutical company that’s moving into the neighborhood and causing these sweeping changes. Can she trust Theo with her own terrible truth, and if so, can they work together to find out the truth behind the implosion of Gifford Place? And even if they find the answers they’re looking for…can they stop it?

MY THOUGHTS: Cole has been receiving industry buzz for this novel in recent weeks, including a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly – and let me just say that I, like these reviewers, was absolutely blown away by this novel. Her previous works in the sci-fi romance and historical genres have passed me by, but I for one am so grateful this book found its way into my hands this year.

I finished this book in less than 24 hours – in fact, it’s safe to say I actually DEVOURED it. (With two young attention-seeking kids, and multiple loads of laundry and dishes to do for the upcoming school week, natch.) The story flips back and forth between the perspectives of Sydney – the protagonist who’s watching the Brooklyn neighborhood of her youth fall prey to a greedy and malevolent gentrification – and Theo, her new (white) neighbor across the street with secrets of his own. It’s gritty, it’s realistic, and it’s enthralling.

Cole skillfully – and seemingly effortlessly – weaves together threads of contemporary fiction, the darkest parts of American history, and the creeping dread that something terrible is happening and cannot be stopped. And if you are an empath, or if books actually physically affect you – by leaving you feeling overwhelmed, claustrophobic, or irritated when the characters are in seemingly no-win situations – then you will FEEL that dread. You will feel it in your bones, and you might want to stop turning the pages…but you can’t.

Cole knows that this level of unease and discomfort is necessary to accurately portray what Sydney is going through. The atrocities perpetuated throughout history – our own American history, on our own land, by people we’ve deemed heroes instead of monsters – SHOULD indeed make us feel uncomfortable. And in achingly realistic scenes that mirror headlines today, we see militaristic policemen arresting young black men with no reason, and patrolling a peaceful neighborhood multiple times a day to maintain a semblance of power. There’s also a rage-inducing scene depicting a belligerent, rich white man taking over a piece of land with both a fake deed and the full support of the corrupt local police department. The officers threaten the “angry black” person – who actually has true legal ownership of the land – with arrest for refusing to leave. “The police came for [him]. The knowledge that it can happen just like that, that they can show up and ruin your life, feels like an itch in the middle of my back that I can’t reach,” Sydney bemoans.

Cole skillfully – and seemingly effortlessly – weaves together threads of contemporary fiction, the darkest parts of American history, and the creeping dread that something terrible is happening and cannot be stopped.”

Cole wants us to know that just turning a blind eye to entire infrastructures and systems that perpetuate this racism is not acceptable, and it’s costing people everything even now, in 2020 – their homes, their hopes and dreams, even their lives. If it’s shocking to read some of the historical facts presented in this novel – including detailed and historically accurate information about how we turned the loss of slavery into a successful ongoing system of oppression and voter suppression – I think we really need to sit with it and ask ourselves why. (The same with the incredibly tense ending to this novel, and the depictions throughout the book of violence, murder, and bloodshed.) We’re meant to ask ourselves why we’ve been trained to see these things as okay in certain situations, but not in others.

And Cole does all of this with a literary magnificence and such beautiful prose that I really hesitate to label this book as a “thriller,” considering what usually passes in that genre. As Sydney’s neighborhood becomes more and more alien to her, she stares out at the bleak beacons of change, complete with cranes that have “the American flags attached to them flapping darkly in the wind, signaling that they came in peace when really they were here to destroy. To remake. … The landscape of my life is unrecognizable.” You can’t miss this metaphor.

Sydney learns, as we do while reading the book, that this travesty is nothing new. “People bury the parts of history they don’t like, pave it over like African cemeteries beneath Manhattan skyscrapers. Nothing stays buried in this city, though,” she muses. (Even – horrifyingly – the once-successful slavery theme park, “Black America.”) However, by the end – which is explosive, shocking, and yet satisfying after such a heavy journey – she learns that the power always belongs to those who band together to right the wrongs: “Bad things happen in this world, every minute of every day. We try to stop them, when we can, how we can. We try to look out for one another.”

Posted in Upcoming Releases

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, by Marie Benedict

Release date: December 29, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆  (9/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: The Mystery of Mrs. Christie is a historical fiction novel – based on the real life of mystery novelist Agatha Christie – that is currently set to be released on December 29, 2020. This novel was written by best-selling fiction writer Marie Benedict, and is being published by Sourcebooks Landmark. The tagline reads, “Marie Benedict, the beloved New York Times bestselling author of The Only Woman in the Room, uncovers the untold story of Agatha Christie’s mysterious eleven day disappearance.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Agatha Miller is surprised when she’s unexpectedly swept off her feet – literally – by airman Archie Christie on a dance floor in 1912. Breaking all the social conventions, and going against the polite society rules she’s observed her whole life, Agatha is surprised to find herself agreeing to a dance with this charming but uncouth young man. Her intended beau is off at war, and she plans to enjoy her life to the fullest while he’s away, as he himself instructed. After all, it’s just a dance, she thinks – nothing more.

Fourteen years later, the pair are married and have a daughter, Rosalind. They’re living at Styles, an estate charmingly named after Agatha’s first successfully published mystery novel. She’s written many published works since, and is in fact still enjoying the publicity of her most recent one, when something completely unexpected happens: Mrs. Christie disappears. 

Writing a fiction book that’s centered around events that truly happened is a tricky thing; it requires an author to strike a careful balance between what actually happened in real life, and what the author’s conjectures are regarding the people’s motives, thoughts, and feelings.”

Her unexpected absence is an alarming fact that’s relayed to Mr. Christie by phone as he sits at a celebratory dinner with a young woman he’s unusually close to, for a married man. He returns home to find a hidden letter addressed to him – one that gives him incredibly strict instructions to follow. Any deviation from the writer’s rules, and he’ll be paying steeper consequences than he can even imagine. And then Agatha’s car is found, abandoned and crashed…and his life begins to spiral out of control.

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie ricochets from the past – covering Archie and Agatha’s relationship, from day one until the day she disappears, through her eyes – to the future, where we see Archie’s life unspooling as the days tick by with no signs of Agatha. Why and how did she vanish, and what will happen once she’s found? And as we know from history, she WOULD be found…but have we finally figured out the answer to Christie’s only unsolved mystery?

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first novel by Marie Benedict – I know, I know, but as I’ve said before, historical fiction isn’t typically my go-to-genre. I’ve heard only wonderful things from her many fans, so I was excited to dive into one of her books on a topic much more up my traditional book-reading alley – a mysterious disappearance, not just of anyone, but of the celebrated queen of the twisty-mystery: Agatha Christie herself.

I went into this novel without having read any existing information about Christie’s real-life disappearance, so as not to sway my opinions on the book itself. (Side note: If you needed to know just ONE thing about me to understand my reviews, you should know that I’m an Enneagram 1 – a.k.a., I need things to be done correctly, and when I walk into a room [or read a book], the first thing I’m going to notice is what’s wrong and needs to be fixed.) Writing a fiction book that’s centered around events that truly happened is a tricky thing; it requires an author to strike a careful balance between what actually happened in real life, and what the author’s conjectures are regarding the people’s motives, thoughts, and feelings.

Because of how well Benedict walks this line, I honestly had to give her nine stars for this book. She took all of the basic facts regarding what we actually know happened to Christie before, during, and after her 11-day disappearance, and she examined what we know about Christie herself, and made magic. Benedict weaves within this story an arc of redemption and maturity; Christie begins as a carefree and polite young woman, then falls head over heels in love, arguably – from the first chapter on – with someone she should never have met. Their relationship has its magical moments – oh, don’t they all? – but it’s never truly a fairy tale, and as the years pass by, even following her dear mother’s marital advice to the letter doesn’t keep the pair from drifting apart.

Benedict delivers a satisfying tale with a heroine who comes into her own.”

The chapters of this novel flip backwards and forwards in time with each chapter; one part is told through ‘The Manuscript,’ which recounts Agatha and Archie’s relationship (from her perspective) from the day they met until the day of her disappearance. The other chapters take place in the days immediately following her disappearance in 1926, told from Archie’s point of view. The conclusion happens when both histories converge on the same “present” day, eleven days after her disappearance, and we reach the dramatic and revelatory finale.

Benedict delivers a satisfying tale with a heroine who comes into her own. Christie is witty, hard-working, and eager to please…a tricky combination that can lead to a person’s greatest success or utter ruin, when skewed out of balance. This is exactly what her relationship with Archie does to her; it causes her to question her priorities, her loyalties, and even her own dreams and goals. You may (read: I did) want to reach through the book and shake some sense into her at some points, but by the end, you’ll be proud of what she accomplished and how she stood up for herself when she had no one else to do it for her.

As to whether or not Benedict’s own take regarding why Christie disappeared, and what this departure actually accomplished, could be true and comes across as realistic? Well, based on what I’ve read afterward regarding Christie herself, and the facts of the case…consider me convinced.

Posted in Books you might have missed, Recent Releases

They Did Bad Things, by Lauren A. Forry

Release date: June 2, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆  (8/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: They Did Bad Things is a mystery/thriller that was written by Lauren Forry and published by Arcade CrimeWise on June 2nd, 2020. (The release I’m reviewing is the market first edition, but was bound together specifically for the Nowhere Bookshop for release a few weeks early.) Forry won prizes for her debut novel, Abigale Hall, which was also an atmospheric and gothic tale; she teaches English at Harcum College and “never murdered anyone in college,” according to her book biography (a funny shout-out to this book). The tagline for this novel reads, “And Then There Were None meets The Last Time I Lied in this dark and twisty psychological thriller.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: In 1995, on the outskirts of London, six college students who’d never met before move into a rundown, decrepit old house at 215 Caldwell Street. The school year looms ahead, bright with promise yet intimidating, and – like most college students – they’re ready to spend the next year balancing a healthy schedule of studying and partying. There’s three women – a daddy’s girl, a studious feminist, and an insecure romantic – and three men: one gregarious and obsessed with parties, one a shy but overly thoughtful poet, and one a reserved and observant detective-in-the-making.

But when you combine six very different personalities under one roof, and throw in a healthy dose of deception and desire, you have a powder keg waiting to combust. When the year is over, only five of them will emerge from the house…and they will have a deep, dark secret that only they will share, about what truly happened on the night their sixth roommate died.

I enjoyed this atmospheric and creepy thriller, and after I was about a third of the way through, I couldn’t put it down.”

Twenty years later, the five survivors are all lured by various irresistible invitations – tailored to their own specific personalities and deepest desires – to the old and dusty Wolfheather House. This mansion is located on a secluded island in Scotland, and is similar to the house they left behind on Caldwell Street all those years ago in its crumbling structure and ongoing renovations. Each roommate is shocked to see the others, and even more surprised when notes and “gifts” start arriving…with twisted nods to what happened to their long-dead roommate.

Soon, there will be a violent, bloody murder…and then another…and the survivors will have to work together to figure out the truth about what is happening now. Can they right their wrongs from 20 years earlier, and band together to beat the person determined to punish them for their terrible silence? Or will they all pay the ultimate price for the part they played in their roommate’s death?

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first novel by Forry, but I’m definitely interested in reading Abigale Hall now; gothic thrillers are a particular favorite of mine. The events of They Did Bad Things take place in two parallel timelines: in 1995, when six new college roommates move into a decrepit house on Caldwell Street, and in the present time, when they’re mysteriously and unexpectedly reunited at an isolated and creepy Inn on the Scottish Isle of Doon.

One of the blurbs on the front of the novel reads, in part, “As ingenious as Knives Out, as twisted as Gone Girl” – and I would somewhat agree with this assessment. As a veteran thriller reader, I wouldn’t compare it to Gone Girl, because we generally always expect a good twist or two in 2020. The genre is pretty much completely dependent on it in this day and age, so it’s hard to say a novel has an ending (or a middle, a la Gone Girl?) that’s as shocking as what Gillian Flynn wrote. Forris does have a couple of twists in store for us – one of which I predicted about 33% of the way through (of course), and which became more obvious with all of the little clues that are thrown in here and there if you pay close attention. The other twist, however, I think would be very hard to see coming. (Feel free to prove me wrong!)

I would personally compare the plot of the novel to Agathe Christie (especially And Then There Were None, in agreement with the publisher’s tagline), or to a Hitchcock movie. (Hitchcock is actually referenced in this novel more than once.) This is a favorite theme/trope for many mystery novels: you start with a certain number of people who either share a terrible secret, or who all have terrible things to hide. Next you put them in a location that’s inherently creepy in its isolation and its unfamiliarity to the characters – in this case, in a reunion they’re not expecting. Add in a doomsday clock, ticking downward as each of them meets a mysterious but fatal fate, and a healthy dose of “whodunit,” and you have yourself a vintage-feeling mystery.

And to be fair, there are truly two mysteries to solve here: who was actually responsible for Callum’s death in 1995 (not a spoiler), and who’s committing the murders 20 years later. We know that none of the residents told the police the truth: that Callum’s death was a murder, and not an accident. But what we DON’T know is who delivered the fatal blow – or why. The notes they receive at Wolfheather House say the reason they’ve all been brought back together is to flush out the original killer, and make him or her confess…but is it? Or is the person who drew blood in 1995 back to destroy the only other people who know what happened?

The book goes back and forth between a partial diary of the person committing the murders, and the “real-time” events occuring in the mansion. The diary was left as a confession to the police, detailing the history of the roommates’ time in the mansion; it chronicles their year at the house, from move-in day to the day they got away with murder. As I read it, I was puzzled as to how the present-day murderer would be able to detail each roommate’s thoughts and private movements throughout their time in the house on Caldwell, 20 years later. Forry provides an explanation as to how the writer pieced together all of the information at the end of the book; there were years of covert research and interviews, and the writer states that the others’ thoughts and motives might not be 100% correct all of the time – but he/she insists that the facts are dead right. I can accept this explanation, and I understand that it was done to give us a good idea of why each person acted the way they did and what their motives were…but as a stickler for detail, it does bother me slightly, since each entry is written from that specific roommate’s point of view.

Overall, I enjoyed this atmospheric and creepy thriller, and after I was about a third of the way through, I couldn’t put it down. I am a sucker for a classic “one-by-one” secluded murder-mansion mystery in all its forms, and even though I partially knew who was behind the present day events, it was gratifying to see an ending that I didn’t see coming.

Posted in Recent Releases

Three Perfect Liars, by Heidi Perks

Release date: June 9, 2020 (originally set for August 18, 2020)

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆  (8/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: Three Perfect Liars is a mystery/thriller novel that was originally set to be released in America in its hardcover/ebook edition on August 18, 2020 (but was released early in June). It was written by Heidi Perks, best known for her previous novels like Her One Mistake (2018), Beneath the Surface (2016), and Come Back for Me (2019). The publisher writes that Three Perfect Liars is “a riveting new suspense novel about three ambitious women whose lives are turned upside down in the aftermath of a horrifying fire, which destroys a successful advertising agency and threatens to expose a tangled web of lies.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Laura is a very driven businesswoman, who recently had her first son. Only six months into her maternity leave, she’s decided to return to work as a marketing executive at the successful agency Morris & Wood. She’s the only female executive there, and she’s eager to get back to work and prove herself to be just as invaluable to the team as she was before…but she’s shocked to return and see that her temporary replacement, Mia, has been made permanent. Not only is Mia staying on as a director, but she was also given Laura’s best client, for keeps – despite the years of hard work and commitment Laura spent building that specific brand. This sends Laura on an obsessive downward spiral, determined to prove Mia’s betrayal and ulterior motives – even if it costs her everything.

Mia is thrilled to have been added to Morris & Wood’s executive team as only the second female director, right behind Laura, whom she has been filling in for the past six months. She’s not shocked to learn that Laura is furious Mia is staying on; after all, Mia had insisted in her interview that she only wanted the job temporarily and might be leaving the town behind when Laura returned. Only Mia knows why she so desperately needs to keep this job and stay on at the company…but Laura has developed an unhealthy and obsessive desire to find out why, and Mia is worried that she’ll succeed and ruin her plans.

Perks writes each woman in such a way that her own story and concerns are very relatable. They all have people depending on them, and they feel incredible pressure from all sides of their lives to do what is right.”

Janie is the wife of Harry Wood, who’d chosen to build the huge glass offices of Morris & Wood five years earlier overlooking the Lymington River. Janie and their two young daughters had agreed to move down there from London once it was done – both for the more relaxed coastal lifestyle, and also to get away from Janie’s previous role as a defense barrister. In her years of work, Janie had put in incredibly long hours to defend men against charges of sexual assault and rape, among other things…and after a particularly terrible case, with a personal and lasting consequence, she’d been more than ready to walk away. But her relationship with Harry has slowly grown more distant over the past five years, and Jane is becoming dissatisfied with the direction her life has taken…and concerned with a mysterious figure who appears to be stalking her when she alone can see them.

All three women’s lives intersect in ways that will have lasting consequences – not just for themselves, but for everyone they know. Lies will be told, secrets will be spilled, and revenge will be had…but who is responsible for what? And will justice be done to right the wrongs they seek to avenge?

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first novel by Perks, but I do have Her One Mistake on my TBR bookshelf, and now I’m pleased to know I’ll likely enjoy that one. I sped through this book fairly quickly; it’s told from the viewpoints of three of the main characters (and thus the three main suspects in the fire), Laura, Mia, and Janie. In addition to alternating narrator viewpoints per chapter, Perks also uses brief snippets of police interviews to break up the narrative and increase the intrigue about what led up to the crime.

I found this book very reminiscent of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, where we know at least 50% of the ending from the start – a.k.a., there was a fire that destroyed Harry’s business, and one or more people were badly injured – but we don’t know who did it or why, and we hear each character’s perspective firsthand. The book covers the 8 weeks leading up to the fire, and it’s slowly revealed in the police interviews how each woman was chosen as a suspect and who was hurt/injured in the crimes. These discussions between the police and the other employees at Morris and Wood also give us a unique outside perspective on the women’s relationships and interactions.

As we see in the preceding months, Laura, Mia, and Janie ALL had their own unique motives to start the fire and hurt Harry’s business – but did one of them, and if so, which one? (We also know from the prologue, told from the unnamed narrator’s perspective on the night of the fire, that she did not intend to harm anyone and was horrified to learn that someone had been in the building when the fire was set.) 

Everything is not always perfect, nor is it meant to be, and the consequences of this juggling act become even more precarious when we feel like we have to lie and pretend that everything is okay – to our partners, our friends, or the world itself.”

Perks writes each woman in such a way that her own story and concerns are very relatable. They all have people depending on them, and they feel incredible pressure from all sides of their lives to do what is right. Laura is a new mom going back to a very high-powered career only 6 months after her child is born (standard maternity leave in the UK is one year); she is concerned with disappointing her husband and son, and we see the disastrous way her ambition and her new motherhood clash. Mia feels responsible for both her sister and her mother, and her own murky motives for taking over Laura’s job reveal her true ambitions. And Janie gave up her demanding career for reasons both big and small, but home life is a hard adjustment for her, and her complicated relationship with Harry makes it feel even more restless and unfulfilling.

One of the overarching themes of the novel is the never-ending quest for perfection, and the idea that “having it all” as a mother with a career is not exactly what we might dream it to be. As Perks writes at one point, “Quite frankly Janie had already realized that no one should have ever promised women they could have it all, because they couldn’t, and the realization of it only made them feel like they were failing. The idea was laughable really.” The same was true for Laura; as she starts drowning in her own career expectations, we learn, “She had never expected to feel so desperate and vulnerable, and as she peered at her beautiful son, she hated that Chrissie and the other parent group mums were right. She couldn’t have everything, and she no longer knew what to sacrifice. All she did know was that she definitely wasn’t happy.”

This book touches on the themes of ambition versus family, and how the delicate balance between career and our closest relationships can be upset when we face the very real challenges life throws at us. Everything is not always perfect, nor is it meant to be, and the consequences of this juggling act become even more precarious when we feel like we have to lie and pretend that everything is okay – to our partners, our friends, or the world itself. This also affects our ability to develop close and “real” friendships with other women, both acquaintances and colleagues – who may seem to be competing with us for our own personal slice of the pie, when really they’re just trying to carve out their own in a space that needs to expand to include more driven female energy.

There is also plenty of references to the #MeToo era of workplace harassment and bullying, particularly to women. We see the very real and lasting consequences of rape and sexual harassment, sometimes brutally so; we also see how men who have been allowed to repeatedly commit these offenses can be brazenly rewarded for their success in the business world, even as they use their power to take advantage of their subordinates. Perks lets us know that you don’t have to be the man acting this way to participate in this type of culture; not speaking up or investigating claims, and refusing to acknowledge that something as simple as referring to all of the women in the office as “girls,” is enough to keep this type of culture pervasive and cause irreparable harm.