Posted in Recent Releases, Upcoming Releases

The Weekend Away, by Sarah Alderson

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆   (8/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Academic religious, Nonfiction, Recent Releases

Can We Trust the Bible on the Historical Jesus?

Release date: September 22, 2020

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆  (8/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books you might have missed, Recent Releases

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

Release date: February 4, 2020 (illustrated edition)

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆  (8/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Recent Releases

One by One, by Ruth Ware

Release date: September 1, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆  (6/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books you might have missed, Recent Releases

They Did Bad Things, by Lauren A. Forry

Release date: June 2, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆  (8/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Recent Releases

Three Perfect Liars, by Heidi Perks

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

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆  (8/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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 Recent Releases, Upcoming Releases

The Safe Place by Anna Downes

Release date: July 14, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Recent Releases, Upcoming Releases

Florence Adler Swims Forever, by Rachel Beanland

Release Date: July 7, 2020

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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