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.

Posted in Upcoming Releases

The Second Mother, by Jenny Milchman

Release date: August 18, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆  (7/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: The Second Mother is a mystery/thriller novel set to be released by Sourcebooks Landmark on August 18, 2020. It was written by award-winning novelist Jenny Milchman, who has written three previous bestsellers that received acclaim by the New York Times and USA Today, among others. The tagline of the novel reads, “Opportunity: Teacher needed in one-room schoolhouse on remote island in Maine. Certification in grades K-8 a must.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Julie Mason is living a gray, dreary existence in the remote Adirondack mountains, where it feels as if time has ceased to have any meaning. She rarely eats, and barely ever leaves her own house, until something compels her to answer an ad on Opportunity.com for a teaching position on an even-more remote island off the coast of Maine. She’s spent a year grieving the sudden loss of her young daughter, Hedley, helped along by a generous serving of scotch every night…but she knows that it’s time she starts trying to really live again.

But Julie’s about to get more change than she bargained for, when her husband suddenly announces that he’s filing for divorce. Shocked, Julie realizes that she’ll be moving to Mercy Island alone, for a complete and total life do-over. The island is cut off from the mainland by a choppy and sometimes unforgiving sea, and the islanders are just as secretive and protective about Mercy Island as Julie expected. But she has Depot, her loyal dog, and a gorgeous new home on a cliff high above the sea.

The Second Mother seems like a treatise on “old” generational power and money, and how those who possess these things – and thus, often control entire economic and political systems – are often willing to do ANYTHING to keep hold of their position of power.”

The Mercy Island community is tight-knit and somewhat reserved to strangers and newcomers, but Julie works hard to make friends and settle into a new routine. As her teaching position starts, and she meets the island families who’ve lived on Mercy for generations, Julie begins to suspect that there’s much more beneath the surface of the island than she originally thought. There’s the troubled young boy who sneaks into her house when she’s not at home, and the sinister messages and warnings that show up on her doorstep…not to mention the dark and mysterious woods that line her path into town. 

Julie begins to realize that there are people on the island who aren’t quite happy she’s arrived, and who want nothing more than to keep their “sacred” island secrets and traditions. The more involved she becomes in their lives, and the more she tries to help, the more danger she realizes she’s in. It’s starting to seem as if there’s no way out, and no way off of the island for her – and as if the islanders themselves truly have no mercy for Julie.

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first read by Milchman, and I did enjoy it, even though it’s not typically my favorite type of mystery/thriller. I tend to go for a twisty, unpredictable whodunit (like Alice Feeney), or mysteries that involve friendships/competition between women (like Lianne Moriarty or Sally Hepworth). 

The Second Mother is instead an atmospheric thriller that relies heavily on the location as its own dark and mysterious entity. If you’re familiar with Tana French’s Dublin murder series (and who isn’t?), you’ll know exactly what I mean. It begins in the remote Adirondack mountains, where Julie lives with her bland and boring husband (really – you won’t miss him), and ends on the isolated and distant Mercy Island. There are cliffs over crumbling beaches, large and dangerous rocks, and dark, shadowy woods with hard-to-follow paths. There’s barely any cell signal, with reception only available near the tiny town library…and the wi-fi connection is spotty and can go down with any storm or downpour.

Julie works hard to become a better teacher, a better friend, and a better person, even as the dark forces behind the scenes at Mercy Island are hell-bent to keep her from accomplishing anything that could topple their tightly-controlled house of cards.”

These elements aren’t nearly as terrifying as the people on Mercy Island, however. Milchman weaves a deadly spider web of corruption, control, and classism that has its own vernacular and caste system. The Second Mother seems like a treatise on “old” generational power and money, and how those who possess these things – and thus, often control entire economic and political systems – are often willing to do ANYTHING to keep hold of their position of power. The children themselves “bear the burden” of their parents’ socioeconomic status; in one particularly sinister scene, the young children mock and deride the child of one of the poorest fishermen, as they simultaneously defer to the child of the island’s wealthiest elite. 

This makes the story feel like an observation of real life in so many ways…and Julie herself is the young newcomer, ready to usher in unwanted change and reform. We’ve all felt like the outsider at some point in our lives (…haven’t we?), and this allows us to empathize as Julie struggles to understand the strange customs and habits of the native families. In addition, Julie herself battles a dependence on alcohol that has allowed her to cope with the devastating losses of her child and, now, her marriage. She approaches her new job and new home as a fresh start, so even as she falls deeper into the mysteries of Mercy and its children – including one difficult and frightening little boy, in particular – she struggles to do so while becoming sober and with a clean slate.

This book is a good story about resilience, determination, and the desire to do what’s right. Julie works hard to become a better teacher, a better friend, and a better person, even as the dark forces behind the scenes at Mercy Island are hell-bent to keep her from accomplishing anything that could topple their tightly-controlled house of cards. The ending provides us a resolution of sorts to many of the open questions of the novel; while the story itself is (just maybe) slightly too-long, I definitely would have enjoyed a more detailed ending/epilogue that focused on what would happen for Julie and the other main characters moving forward.

Posted in Upcoming Releases

A Million Reasons Why, by Jessica Strawser

Release date: March 23, 2021

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆  (8/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: A Million Reasons Why is a modern fiction novel written by Jessica Strawser, editor-at-large for Writer’s Digest magazine and author of three previous fiction novels. The book is scheduled to be released in March 2021 by St. Martin’s Press. The tagline for A Million Reasons Why reads, “When two strangers are linked by a mail-in DNA test, it’s an answered prayer―that is, for one half-sister. For the other, it will dismantle everything she knows to be true.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Caroline is living a seemingly charmed life in Ohio as an event director and a happily married wife. She has three young children with her husband, Walt, who – while pulling his evenly-distributed share of the family weight – decides to give the entire family DNA ancestry kits for Christmas. This well-meaning gift has sudden and irreparable consequences when Caroline receives an email from a woman named Sela, who claims to be her half-sister. 

Sela lives in NC and is the same age as Caroline; her mother has recently died, and she’s seeking relatives she may have through her unknown father. Hoping the connection is just a clerical error, Caroline and Walt sign on to view her parents’ DNA accounts…and unwittingly trigger an alert that goes directly to her father, saying he has a daughter. This email sparks an avalanche of conflict and confrontations; what does this development mean, both for Caroline’s family moving forward, and for her (possibly erroneous) lifelong impressions of the parents she thought she knew so well?

Caroline wrestles with all of the new revelations that have upended her life and her relationships with her mom and dad. Even as she ponders over all of the newly revealed “might-have-beens,” she realizes that she has an opportunity to forge a new relationship with a sister she never knew she had. She decides to respond to Sela’s email, and they strike up a tentative and delicate friendship. 

But Sela has a secret, and one that will further change and threaten her fragile new family connections: she’s sick, in dire need of a transplant to survive, and she has no matches. And, despite the pleas of her desperate friends and nurses (and ex-husband), she’s not sure she can put the burden of her own health on her newly found sister. Can Sela overcome her fears and ask for the one thing she desperately needs to survive? And would Caroline be willing to make a sacrifice for someone she barely knows, who has changed almost every aspect of her life – even if they are related by blood?

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first read by Strawser, but I would be happy to read any of her future fiction novels. The story is told by both Caroline and Sela’s viewpoints; the chapters switch off from one narrator to the next. In one very specific way regarding her writing style, I can say she’s a writer that I would liken to Stephen King (or, on a much more unprofessional level, myself) in this: she (at least in this ARC) is content to use about 30-50 words where probably 10 would do. But within this story and this specific type of fiction, I found it endearing to the story and enjoyable.

A Million Reasons Why is, at heart, a thoughtful and timely story with an ultimately uplifting message about the importance of family, friendship, and – above all else – forgiveness. Strawser weaves a complex plot that touches on so many topics popular in women’s fiction: family relationships, betrayal, regrets, curiosity about paths not taken, and new relationships. (There’s a reason why the blurb on the cover was written by the master of women’s fiction herself, Jodi Picoult.)

Strawser places this story within the framework of a very trendy topic right now, DNA research and ancestry; in real life, thanks to mail-order DNA tests provided by companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, a number of people have discovered previously unknown siblings and shocking truths about their parentage, in addition to their requested DNA breakdown. And while finding a half-sibling isn’t a complete surprise for Sela, who has never known her father’s side of the family or whether she had any siblings at all, it comes as a total shock to Caroline because it means her father betrayed her mother in ways she finds incomprehensible. Now, she must reconcile the family she thought she had – one where “rare disagreements that escalated peaked at a cold shoulder, never a confrontation” – with one where her parents concealed an illicit affair and a secret child for decades without hesitation.

Both Sela and Caroline undergo intensely private and public transformations in this story. Sela must contend with the guilt she feels over having to ask for help just to survive; she stubbornly refuses to ask Caroline to be tested to see if she’s a match, even as her perfectly controlled life spirals out. Sela thinks, not without bitterness, “How could anything seem so intimate and so impersonal at the same time, that humans could be reduced to a spare part?” And Caroline must come to terms with the fact that her mother and father have betrayed her in ways she never imagined. This causes her to ruminate on all the ways her life might have panned out differently: “What had signified hope and possibility for Sela had upended Caroline’s entire belief system – in her parents’ marriage, her mother’s character, even her own partner and whether her first choice might’ve been a better one.”

Sela’s situation is a tough one to read about, especially when you consider the stark reality of organ failure and the process to procure a transplant or donor. Strawser doesn’t shy away from the details of what living with a potentially terminal disease that gets progressively worse is like. At one point, Sela bemoans the days when she could carry around a refillable water bottle; now she has to very strictly limit her liquid intake. When she described what that unquenchable thirst is like, I realized all of the ways this struggle affects even the tiniest moments of a person’s daily life…and how complicated this could become in light of their relationships, both previous and newly forged.

Ultimately, both sisters have – for better or for worse – started a priceless relationship that they could never have imagined would exist a year earlier, and learned the REAL importance of family. Each woman receives some form of resolution to their story and their questions – whether it’s the future they’d planned for themselves, or not by a long shot. But as Caroline says, “Some gifts were better for the flaws” – and in this story, it seems like that’s Strawser’s goal. She’s saying our family (whether blood or chosen) won’t always behave in our best interests, or tell us the truth, or even be likable – but they’re still our family. And forgiveness is as much for ourselves as it could ever be for the person being forgiven, when it comes to our own happiness and contentment.

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.)