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 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 Upcoming Releases

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, by Marie Benedict

Release date: December 29, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆  (9/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Upcoming Releases

The Second Mother, by Jenny Milchman

Release date: August 18, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆  (7/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Upcoming Releases

A Million Reasons Why, by Jessica Strawser

Release date: March 23, 2021

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆  (8/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Can't-miss Reads, Upcoming Releases

Behind the Red Door, by Megan Collins

Release date: August 4, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★  ☆  (9/10 stars)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: Behind the Red Door was written by Megan Collins, whose successful mystery/thriller novel The Winter Sister was published in 2019 (and featured in the Book of the Month club as their monthly thriller). Behind the Red Door is set to be released on August 4, 2020 by Atria Books. The novel is about “a woman who comes to believe that she has a connection to a decades-old kidnapping, and now that the victim has gone missing again, begins a frantic search to learn what happened in the past.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Fern Douglas is a happily married school social worker on summer break – the only time of year she’s not actually “allowed” to concern herself with the students she cares for during the academic term. She lives with near-constant anxiety, which she proactively manages with medication and visits to her therapist, and she’s attempting to enjoy a quiet and relaxing summer with her husband Eric.

Her weeks of (hopefully) mindless relaxation are interrupted by a phone call from her father, Ted, who asks her to return home to New Hampshire to help him pack up for a big move to Florida. Shortly before she leaves Cambridge to make the trip, she’s startled by a news story about a woman named Astrid Sullivan. Astrid had disappeared from her home in New Hampshire 20 years ago, only to be returned – bound and gagged – two weeks later…and now, she’s disappeared again.

Collins unravels the mystery thread by thread, moment by moment, as Fern’s memories and instincts grow stronger – and as she, by default, becomes more comfortable standing up for herself.”

Fern is overwhelmed by thoughts that she knows Astrid, that she’s seen her before…but where? Her return home is plagued by dreams that seem more like memories, and complicated further by her psychologist father Ted’s typically cold and clinical relationship to his daughter – whom he’s always viewed more as a scientific experiment than his own child. He even deserts her at the local hardware store, forcing her to accept a ride home (and thus reluctantly reconnect) with her biggest childhood bully – all in the name of his dedication to research. 

But Fern brought home more than just boxes and packing supplies; she also bought a copy of Astrid’s recently released memoir, giving a new and detailed account of her captivity. As Fern delves into Astrid’s descriptions, her own memories are triggered…and she falls farther into a dark web of deception, mistrust, and doubt. What really happened to both Astrid and Fern twenty years ago, and who can she trust now, as the days pass relentlessly by with no signs of Astrid’s return? Is it Fern’s destiny to uncover the truth, or to disappear unseen into the darkness as well?

MY THOUGHTS: I devoured Collins’ first novel, The Winter Sister, when it was released in February 2019, so I was eagerly anticipating this new release. I enjoy nothing more than a twisty thriller that delves into someone’s past, and this book definitely delivers that – once I started, I didn’t want to put it down until I was finished. And, to be fair, that’s saying a lot, because there are very few books I’ve read this year – even 9/10 star books – which managed that feat.

According to her biography, Collins has taught creative writing at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and Central Connecticut State University, and she’s won several literary prizes…which naturally lends itself to a more poetic/academic way of writing (which I enjoy). Her descriptions of anxiety, for example, are dead-on for anyone who’s suffered from it before: “In the daylight, things are different. They always are,” Fern says; then, “Even so, it’s like I’ve walked into a spiderweb I can’t wipe off, the silk of that dream sticking to my skin.”

If you enjoy an unreliable narrator, but a LIKEABLE one (I know – it DOES happen), you’ll feel right at home in Fern’s story. Her nightmare of a childhood makes it no surprise that she’s blocked out large portions of her memory, enclosing them (at least temporarily) in darkness for her own safety and sanity. “Our brains can do that,” Fern muses. “Especially when we’re kids. They can scrub out whole people, whole experiences, leaving only a tiny trace of the truth.”

Behind the Red Door is as much about hard-earned redemption and self-awareness as it is about a mystery needing to be solved.”

And to her credit, Collins doesn’t turn Fern into an unmotivated alcoholic (a la The Girl on the Train, or The Woman in the Window), or give her any unhealthy coping mechanisms that make it hard to root for her. Instead, we want to hold a mirror up to Fern’s distorted view of family and her childhood, and gently let her know that what she’s been through is not acceptable, and – in fact – is completely to blame for her constant worry and fear.

Let’s also not forget, in the midst of this self-exploration and psychological deep-dive, that we’re in the middle of a mystery spanning twenty years. Where IS Astrid, and are Fern’s dreams and memories of her real? And if they are, is Fern in danger too? Collins unravels the mystery thread by thread, moment by moment, as Fern’s memories and instincts grow stronger – and as she, by default, becomes more comfortable standing up for herself.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a well-written psychological thriller. Behind the Red Door is as much about hard-earned redemption and self-awareness as it is about a mystery needing to be solved. And even if you guess the ending – and thus, by the nature of this story, the beginning – I think the plot’s arc of resilience and self-reconciliation still keep the story fresh and inspiring, and ward off any disappointment that would be felt with just a basic whodunit.

Posted in Recent Releases, Upcoming Releases

The Night Swim, by Megan Goldin

Release date: August 4, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆  (7/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: The Night Swim was written by Megan Goldin, and is set to be released by St. Martin’s Press on August 4th, 2020. Goldin is the bestselling author of The Escape Room, so this isn’t her first foray into the mystery/thriller world. The book’s tagline reads, “a true crime podcast host covering a controversial trial finds herself drawn deep into a small town’s dark past and a brutal crime that took place there years before.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Rachel Krall is the host of the very successful podcast Guilty or Not Guilty, where she examines one specific true crime case each season. In her first two seasons, Rachel has helped put guilty people behind bars, and even released innocent ones who were wrongly convicted. 

In a bid to keep her popularity and ward off the many copycat podcasts who are repeating her successful formula, she decides to go inside a rape trial for her third season. It’s a somewhat controversial decision, but she’s determined to put her listeners “in the jury box,” so to speak, so that they feel like they have a stake in the outcome of the trial. This requires traveling to a small town on the east coast, where a local boy and champion swimmer has been accused of raping a 16-year-old. Determined to provide an impartial overview, Rachel schedules meetings with all of the parties involved and documents each day at trial for her listeners. 

In fact, as we’ve learned in the ‘Me, Too’ movement, half of these people don’t even think about themselves as rapists, thanks to toxic cultural norms. If you’ve seen the pictures on social media showing protest signs that read, “How come every woman knows someone who’s been raped, but no man knows a rapist?”, you’ll know what Goldin (and I) am referring to.”

However, immediately upon her arrival, she is flooded with mysterious letters from a woman named Hannah who is determined to have Rachel tell her own story. Hannah writes about her sister Jenny, who she says was murdered 25 years earlier in the same small town. Rachel tries not to get involved but finds herself drawn to Hannah’s story; soon she’s trying to keep up with a grueling trial-and-recording schedule, while also digging into Jenny’s mysterious death from decades prior.

As the trial unfolds and the locals become familiar faces, Rachel begins to see connections between both Jenny’s story and Kelly’s case. Who among the older residents can she trust, and why – 25 years later – are people compelled to either continue keeping secrets, or lying to keep them from coming out? And what will it cost them all to find out the truth?

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first work by Goldin, but – and keep this in mind as you read my honest opinions below – I will definitely read her future books. The topics covered in this novel – rape, podcast culture, the justice system – are very timely and reflect too many true-to-life cases to count. Goldin does a good job allowing Rachel to reflect on what this idea of rape culture, and victimology, does to both the accused and the accusers, and her incredibly detailed reflections on why rape victims do not report their crimes are hauntingly realistic. I’ll reflect more on that at the end of my thoughts here…but now, for my brutally honest take on this book.

I actually thought this was a debut by Goldin (having not read any of her previous works, and also clearly having overlooked the blurb about her previous novels). Why, you may ask? Well, to be fair, the book felt like a first draft in need of a good polish and editing. For one, the initial dialogue between Rachel and her producer Pete was a bit cringe-y, and I say this lovingly as a wannabe writer who has the hardest time crafting realistic dialogue. It seemed stilted and as if it were set up just to info-dump, while not actually sounding like how ANYONE would really talk. (For example: “It was bound to happen,” sighed Pete. “You are a household name.” And: “I could ask the cops to look into it. See what they can find out,” Pete offered. “My contact in the FBI said we shouldn’t hesitate to file a complaint after the death threats you got last year. I still have his card with his direct number,” he added.)

Secondly, I didn’t feel like all of the scenes were necessarily realistic. I, for one, am from a small town, and I don’t think anyone would ever erupt into a heated (yet very generalized “guilty/not guilty”) argument about a local trial in the grocery store lines, with the clerk taking part as well…but that’s just my experience. It’s also not terribly likely that years after one young girl’s death, someone would still have graffitied “whore” on her tombstone, especially when the boys who raped her repeatedly were all dead or had suffered tremendous medical consequences. The waiter at the local hotel also probably wouldn’t point out that you look like you’re there for a murder trial because “you don’t have a vacation vibe,” and also simultaneously say that the town is small (“Everyone knows the boy involved. Some personally and some by reputation. And this town is small enough that people can pretty much guess who the girl is”) and then, four sentences later, say the exact opposite unironically (“I don’t think it’s true that everyone knows everyone here. Maybe once. Neapolis isn’t a small town anymore.”)

WHAT I LIKED: Now, with THAT out of the way…I truly enjoyed the way the book was structured (and that has NOTHING to do with the fact that I myself have written an entire outline for a mystery book with podcast episodes included as part of the plotline). I didn’t particularly connect much with the main character of Rachel, likely because we know literally nothing about her except what she does in regards to researching this case, and her podcast musings. However, I felt like the podcast “episode” chapters gave us the most insight into her thoughts as a character, and thus gave Goldin (as the author) a place to air her deepest thoughts on rape culture and how the victim is always the one who pays the price for the crime that happened to them – regardless of whether or not the perpetrator is caught, convicted, and serves time. (Hearing the details of what happens when a rape kit is taken in the hospital was incredibly horrifying, and I could easily understand why so many women wouldn’t bother to go through this after an assault.)

The reality is that these types of situations – both Jenny’s and Kelly’s – do happen every single day, and often the perpetrators go on to live seemingly normal lives (as per Jenny’s murderer in the novel) and/or aren’t even convicted (see: real-life Brock Turner, who was actually witnessed and stopped mid-crime yet was spared jail time to “preserve his future”). In fact, as we’ve learned in the Me, Too movement, half of these people don’t even think about themselves as rapists, thanks to toxic cultural norms. If you’ve seen the pictures on social media showing protest signs that read, “How come every woman knows someone who’s been raped, but no man knows a rapist?”, you’ll know what Goldin (and I) am referring to.

Goldin does a good job allowing Rachel to reflect on what this idea of rape culture, and victimology, does to both the accused and the accusers, and her incredibly detailed reflections on why rape victims do not report their crimes are hauntingly realistic.”

Goldin makes some very valid points about how the system victimizes rape victims continuously even after the crime is long past. In one of her episodes, Rachel opines, “One of the questions I keep asking myself is whether it’s worth it. When a person goes through a terrible trauma, her mind is conditioned to forget what happened. Memory loss from trauma is a protective mechanism. It helps us stay sane. In this case, a sixteen-year-old girl is being asked to recount, in front of a large group of strangers, in public, every single traumatic, horrific moment of that night on the beach so that maybe, just maybe, her alleged rapist will be punished for what he did to her.” She goes on to say, “The trauma of testifying is one of the main reasons why so many rape victims opt not to testify and why so many rapes are never prosecuted.”

As Rachel says in her podcast episode, and Goldin is saying overall with this book, our society is more than willing to discuss grisly murders in great detail – but rape, not so much. True crime is a booming industry right now, and there are thousands upon thousands of social media groups dedicated to discussing Bundy and Gacy and Keyes, and dissecting their every preference and action. But we feel uncomfortable even using the word “rape,” and – like some of the characters in this novel – many people want to say it’s a gray area in a world of black and white. Goldin wrote this novel to show the importance of recognizing the trauma that rape victims go through, and to point out that we should be just as horrified by every sexual assault and sex crime that occurs as we are by murder and carnage. As she says in the novel, rape victims are still alive to relive the assault and the trauma every day – and they deserve our care and respect for what they’re going through.

Posted in Upcoming Releases

Don’t Look for Me, by Wendy Walker

Release date: September 15, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ 

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: Don’t Look for Me was written by Wendy Walker and is set to be released on September 15, 2020 by St. Martin’s Press. It’s a mystery/thriller novel, which is Walker’s specialty; her previous psychological suspense novels have hit international bestseller lists. The tagline reads, “The greatest risk isn’t running away. It’s running out of time.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: It’s been exactly one year since Molly lost her 9-year-old daughter Annie in a tragic accident – one where Molly had been behind the wheel. Her life has fallen apart in multiple ways – her son is away at boarding school, her oldest daughter seems to hate her guts and is in the throes of her own downward spiral, and her husband barely acknowledges her existence. 

Just as she thinks it can’t get any worse, she finds herself out of gas…in the middle of nowhere…at night…in the midst of a category four hurricane. The darkness brewing inside of her threatens to combust when faced with the darkness surrounding her, and she briefly considers starting a new life…but then headlights appear in her path, and she flags the vehicle down, relieved to have found safety after all. Or so she thought.

However, this fact doesn’t deter from the addictiveness of the unfolding plot, which continually brings in new residents of the small town with their own intriguing secrets and unique potential reasons to break the law.”

Two weeks later, Nicole is awoken by a phone call after yet another night of drinking and strange men. The woman on the other end of the line tells her that she saw Nicole’s mother on the night of the hurricane…the night she disappeared without a trace. She gives Nicole details that weren’t released to the public, and that only someone who had actually seen Molly would know…and Nicole decides to take the stalled police investigation into her own hands. She packs her bags and heads to Hastings, the small town where her mother was last seen, vowing not to return home without Molly.

Nicole’s desperation to find out what has happened to her mother, and her mother’s own battle for her life, sets off a series of events and confrontations that reveal explosive twists and some seriously devious minds. What follows is a story of small-town secrets, corruption, captivity, poverty, abuse, and murder…and not everyone involved will make it out alive. 

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first novel by Walker, although after reading it, I can safely say I will likely read her future books as well. 

This is your basic psychological suspense novel, written from two different points of view – Molly’s and Nicole’s – in alternating chapters that take us backwards and forwards in time. We see Molly’s dilemma starting from the very beginning of her terrifying journey, up through the point where her and Nicole’s timelines merge days later; Nicole’s story in Chapter 2 starts on day 14, two weeks after her mom’s disappearance.

I enjoy a novel told from two points of view, especially with this type of storyline – and Walker makes it an easy transition from one point of view to the next, keeping some chapters incredibly short as the tension ratchets up. There are some twists and turns in the novel, although not necessarily ones that could go unpredicted, mind you (unlike in Alice Feeney’s roller-coaster His & Hers). This isn’t a surprise, considering the limited pool of guesses as to who Molly’s kidnapper could be in such a small town. However, this fact doesn’t deter from the addictiveness of the unfolding plot, which continually brings in new residents with their own intriguing secrets and unique potential reasons to break the law. 

Walker is here to tell us that, in our darkest hour, we must actively choose survival and life over death every day.”

At its core, I think Don’t Look for Me is a darkly-told but heartbreaking view of the reality of living with the loss of a child, especially when you were responsible – even though it was an accident. We see the various ways people would cope with this type of immense loss: Molly longs to run away at the beginning of her story. She feels incredibly unloved and unwanted – and she’s not wrong. Her own husband spends nights away from her and turns her own name into a way of belittling her when she experiences anxiety; he seems to throw himself into his work and away from his family. Nicole, who was just a teenager herself and witnessed the horror, feels responsible herself and lashes out both at Molly and her own life. She turns this loss – the “empty hollow spaces” that take over her life – into alcoholism and promiscuity, just searching for any numbing relief for the pain and loss of feeling. 

These destructive coping mechanisms for grief could be the permanent undoing of relationships and someone’s quality of life, which Walker doesn’t shy away from in this novel. We can see the future for these people, and if things don’t change, it would be bleak. Don’t get me wrong; this novel is still a quick-read mystery/thriller at heart – and not the deep or overly “hopeful” and upbeat storyline of a general fiction novel. But Walker is here to tell us that, in our darkest hour, we must actively choose survival and life over death every day. Even if we’re wallowing in grief and loss so immense we can’t see the light for the darkness, there is still something worth fighting for, and Walker shows us what that is as we watch Molly and Nicole’s story unfold.

Posted in Can't-miss Reads, Upcoming Releases

His & Hers, by Alice Feeney

Release date: July 28, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★  ★ ☆ 

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: His & Hers is a new mystery/thriller book by Alice Feeney, the New York Times bestselling author of thrillers Sometimes I Lie and I Know Who You Are. This twisty summer read is set to be released July 28th by Flatiron Books. The tagline reads, “There are two sides to every story: yours and mine, ours and theirs, His & Hers. Which means someone is always lying.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Anna Andrews has happily settled in as a network news anchor for the BBC during their popular afternoon/lunch time slot. She was promoted from a correspondent position two years prior when her predecessor left on maternity leave with the first of two back-to-back babies, but now, her loyalty and hard work is about to be rewarded with…a demotion, right back to the correspondence desk. Because the previous network news anchor is back to resume her career – and with no contractual claim to a job that was never hers, Anna is forced to step down. 

Fuming but resigned, Anna’s forced to trek off to fight viciously for a few precious moments of air-time while covering a rare murder in the small English village of Blackdown – where she happens to be from. Of course, no one at the BBC knows this, because no one at the BBC really knows Anna that well. Her alcoholism, her failed marriage, her previous affairs, her lost family…these are all things Anna has gotten good at keeping to herself. But it seems like someone in Blackdown remembers the past all too well, and things are about to get very out of hand, in a gruesomely murderous way.

Essentially, every character is a villain – it’s just a matter of figuring out WHICH villain is responsible for this special kind of misdeed.”

Detective Jack Harper is the head of the Major Crime Team in Blackdown, where he’s moved after leaving London to be a “big fish” in a smaller pond. His existence in the quaint village has been lackluster and less-than-thrilling so far, except for an illicit affair with one of the local women…who just so happens to wind up dead, the first victim of a brutal murderer on a rampage. No one knows about his affair, except for the person who suddenly seems to be planting evidence to suggest Jack is responsible…or are they?

Jack and Anna have a past that not everyone in their present lives knows about, with intricate threads that stretch into the current day. Both are very flawed and nearly self-destructive in nature, and they each have their own secrets from each other, as do the people closest to them. The reader must determine the truth: whose story is real, who is keeping us in the dark, and who has the biggest motive to commit such heinous murders? The reality in this twisted tale might be much murkier than you’d think.

MY THOUGHTS: This is my second read by Feeney, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading His & Hers much more than my first foray into her dark mind (which was Sometimes I Lie, and which I remember literally nothing about more than a year after reading it, which is par for the course with my brain). I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, and it’s one of the summer thrillers that I sped through the quickest this year. 

This novel is presented with three narrators; the chapters switch back and forth from “her” (Anna’s) viewpoint and “his” (Jack’s) viewpoint, à la the title of the novel. They’re interspersed with interludes throughout the novel that are written by the perpetrator of these murders, also written in the first person, and with no reveal of who the actual murderer is until the very last few pages.

Feeney is not for the faint of heart; her writing runs deep and dark, and she really wants to explore all of the blackest parts of the human psyche. She’s fascinated with secrets, and with talking about all of the different ways we can hide or change parts of ourselves to fit in and please those around us. “There is a version of me I can only ever be with myself,” the murderer writes in one the first-person admissions sprinkled throughout the novel. “I sometimes think the secret to success is the ability to adapt.”

The crime scenes and victims are brutally staged, almost theatrically so, and we learn in flashbacks how each of these victims are personally linked to both Anna and Jack. There’s sex, abuse, torture, blackmail, cheating, addiction…the list of deadly sins is nearly complete amongst both the victims and the survivors. “We’re all addicted to something: money, success, social media, sugar, sex…the list of possibilities is endless. My drug of choice just happens to be alcohol,” Anna muses.

Feeney is not for the faint of heart; her writing runs deep and dark, and she really wants to explore all of the blackest parts of the human psyche.”

Apparently, Feeney’s endings are somewhat legendary (and not necessarily in a good way) among mystery/thriller fans…which is probably why I only remember that vague unease I had when I finished her first big novel. But – speaking strictly as the reader who is continuously disappointed when I can guess the ending of most mystery novels – I can truly appreciate a master of her craft like Feeney. 

Make no mistake – Feeney weaves plots so complex that it’s incredibly hard to guess an ending (or “whodunit”). The potential motives of each character cut so deep in almost every thought and memory they linger over; it’s like gazing into a house of mirrors, with a dozen inverse reflections staring back at you. (“People rarely see themselves the way others do; we all carry broken mirrors,” the murderer writes.) Feeney’s books are nothing less than a deep dive into the most (negatively) formative and emotional journeys these characters have experienced, providing them all with a richly-historied reason to kill. Essentially, every character is a villain – it’s just a matter of figuring out WHICH villain is responsible for this special kind of misdeed.

This novel featured multiple shocking reveals, a building crescendo of deception after deception that had me thinking I had everything figured out more than once…and I was wrong every single time. Only the last few pages told the truth, and immediately after finishing them, I went back and reread the first few pages…and everything fell neatly into place, like I finally had the missing pieces of a puzzle.