Posted in Recent Releases, Upcoming Releases

Home Before Dark by Riley Sager

Release date: June 30, 2020

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Recent Releases

The House Guest by Mark Edwards

Release date: 06.03.2020

Quick take: Another satisfying, twisty and quick (fast-paced) read from Edwards

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ 

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: I have always enjoyed Mark Edwards novels, so I was very excited to delve into The House Guest. The premise was intriguing and different from anything I’d read before – two house sitters are surprised when a friend of the homeowners shows up at the door, unaware that the owners are on an extended vacation. Do they invite her in, or do they turn her away…and how does their decision change all of their lives forever?

Adam (the protagonist who tells us the story in the first person in his chapters) and his girlfriend Ruth are house-sitting in New York City for Jake and Mona, two friends they met on an extended cruise. Both Adam and Ruth are British-born and raised, but he is a struggling writer while Ruth is a rising star – an actress who’s moved up from Shakespeare at sea on the aforementioned cruise, to the lead role in a Broadway play. The timing of the role is kismet, as it comes when both Jake and Mona will be out of the country on a retreat and will need a house-sitter to watch over their very expensive home in Brooklyn. The English couple jump at the chance to have a place to stay while Ruth attends rehearsal and Adam works on his fledgling writing project.

The two are surprised when Eden shows up at the door in the middle of a terrible rainstorm, cashing in a favor she says Mona & Jake owe her. She’s impulsively fled a nasty breakup in California and came to take them up on their offer of a place to stay on the East Coast, but she’s bitterly disappointed to find out that they’re not home. Ruth and Adam – clearly softer than the stereotypical jaded New Yorkers who surround them in the city – invite her in and offer her a room. Any friend of Jake and Mona is a friend of theirs, right?

But Eden isn’t a typical California girl, and quickly starts to insert herself into Ruth & Adam’s lives. It culminates when one night of drinking and unusually open conversations leads to the world’s worst hangover….at least for Adam. He awakens upstairs, naked and on the floor of his bedroom, sick and miserable….and alone. Where are Ruth and Eden? Why is his girlfriend not returning his messages or calls? And why did Eden delete the photos she and Adam had taken together in a bar…the only evidence Adam even has of her very existence?

From here the plot gets twisty, in a good way. Adam meets new friends who will help him in his mission to find out where Ruth is, but he also runs into many people who are willing to risk their own lives to silence him forever…and it’s not easy to see which is which. He must fight for his own life more than once, and can he even believe the truth once it’s revealed to him? And for Ruth, whose plight we see in alternating chapters, her own life has changed dramatically and irreversibly…can she regain control to save herself? And…does she even want to?

This book was a fast read; the plot and constant energy kept me reading, and I finished the entire novel in less than 24 hours. With some very popular thriller authors (Ruth Ware, B.A. Paris), I can see a “plot twist” or spot a villain in sheep’s clothing before I crack the 50-page mark…but Edwards somehow always avoids this tell. This story draws from very recent headlines, and any true-crime buff (and crime podcast aficionado) will be nodding their heads at the familiarity conjured up by the characters’ circumstances.

Edwards always writes believable characters with complex emotions and nuanced relationships, and this book is a prime example of this. This book has heart and humor as much as it has murder and mystery, and it’s an excellent read for a rainy night in. I’d recommend this to any thriller fan, especially if you enjoy British mysteries.

Posted in Recent Releases

The Return by Rachel Harrison

Quick takeaway: Excellent suspense thriller blends Sex & the City (friendships, lots of quick humor) with Hitchcock-level intrigue & mystery

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: I was super excited to read a paperback ARC of this novel, which I won in a book club contest, because I’m a huge fan of mystery-thrillers. This will be the first ARC I’ve given 5 stars to, so you can trust that my opinion can’t be bought.

The Return is a debut novel by writer Rachel Harrison, who received her bachelor’s in film/TV writing, which makes her book a very enjoyable and easy read. It reads very much like a Hitchcockian suspense thriller, with very gothic and creepy undertones…but combined with a very realistic and humorous look at friendship, a la Sex & The City. There are as many laughs as there are scares, and the character development is truly great for a suspense novel.

In The Return we’re introduced to our protagonist Elise, who is living a mundane and quiet existence in Buffalo when she receives a phone call from one of her college friends informing her that her best friend Julie is missing. Julie had gone hiking one morning in a national park and, according to her husband, never returned. Elise, Julie, and their friends Molly and Mae had met and become very close in college, and Elise – who was the closest to Julie – is the only one who has a hard time believing Julie is truly missing.

Just when her convictions are starting to wear thin from the endless months of waiting, Julie reappears on her own porch and is found by her husband, two years to the day she went missing. She has no memory of what happened to her, and the women immediately plan a getaway for the four of them to reconnect and celebrate Julie’s return. The getaway is set for a resort hidden away in the woods of Northern New York in October, where each room is vibrantly and aggressively decorated with a theme like “gothic red” or “jungle oasis” and comes complete with hidden hallways and real running water. Instead of seeming chic and modern, these themes will become sinister and haunting as the story progresses.

The three friends quickly realize that Julie is…very different than she was before. She’s no longer a vegetarian, eating meat almost raw and with an animal-life ferocity that frightens them. Her teeth crack and shatter, her face and body are gaunt, her hands are freezing cold, and she growls upon being touched. Elise, Molly and Mae agree to keep their questions to themselves as Julie continuges to recover…but as time passes, her changing habits make it harder and harder to keep their pact. Even worse, strange things are happening at the hotel: shadows that follow Elise, blood-like substances dripping from air vents, and missing staff who vanish without a trace.

Elise has a complicated past of her own; her current life in Buffalo is a punishment she’s inflicting on herself for cheating with a married professor, and her friendship with Julie’s husband grew uncomfortably too close for comfort over their regular phone calls while Julie was missing. Confronting Julie with the truth about what has happened to her, and what she’s become, means she really has to confront the truth about her own life decisions. The creepy happenings culminate in a crescendo of terrifying events: several of the friends fall gravely ill, the inn is barely functioning, and a bloody and vividly descriptive confrontation finally leads to the truth about who – or what – Julie is, and what will become of their friendships.

This novel was such a good read, because it’s difficult to find a true horror/suspense novel that reads like a nightmare while ALSO including a diverse array of characters whose friendships are more than shallow and underdeveloped plot points. These women have vastly different backgrounds, and they each have their own struggles – albinism, racism, missing limbs, complicated family dynamics – but they choose to be friends and to help each other overcome their own struggles and circumstances. (“So, for a while, she ended up giving away her life story to satisfy obnoxious strangers.” page 10) They are funny and honest with each other, even as they face their own crumbling situation…and we are privy to all of their best inside jokes.

The descriptions in this book were disturbingly good for a debut novel, and perfect for the storyline:

“But the silence isn’t really silence. The wind is relentless. It consumes the quiet, chomps on it, breaks its bones. Snap, crackle, pop.” (page 175)
“Something’s not right. Something’s not right. The feeling is so strong. It’s like watching a scary movie when the teenagers stand at the door of that old, abandoned house plagued by urban legend, and they reach for the knob slowly, and you think, I wouldn’t do that. I would go home. It’s the screaming intuition you suffer but they lack. Here I am, staring down the door” (p.161).

Overall, I’m adding Harrison to my list of fave thriller authors, and looking forward to her next novel.