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 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, 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 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 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 Can't-miss Reads, Upcoming Releases

Every Now and Then by Lesley Kagen

Release Date: October 6, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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