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.

Posted in Can't-miss Reads, Upcoming Releases

Every Now and Then by Lesley Kagen

Release Date: October 6, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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 Upcoming Releases

One Step Behind by Lauren North

Release date: September 01, 2020

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ 

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: One Step Behind is a mystery/thriller novel written by Lauren North, a British author who has previously written the psychological suspense novel “The Perfect Son.” It’s set to be released by Berkley Publishing group on September 1, 2020. The tagline for this novel reads, “A woman pushed to the breaking point by a stalker develops an obsession of her own in this shocking new novel.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS:  Jenna is a wife and mother of two who has been living a nightmare for the past year – she’s being stalked by an unknown assailant. She, her husband Stuart, and their children Beth (9) and Archie (6) live several streets away from the coast in a small town in England, where Jenna works as a doctor in the A&E department (Accident and Emergency, or the same as an ER, in the United States) at the local hospital. Jenna’s stalker leaves her little “gifts” on her doorstep each night, like burned dolls with scrubs on and melted faces…and he watches her and her family from behind trees, in the shadow of buildings, and in dark parking lots at night, whispering Jenna’s name. 

Jenna and Stuart have rearranged their entire lives to accommodate this threatening stranger. Jenna drives her kids the few blocks to school to avoid a confrontation, after being followed on the walk there. She keeps a detailed diary of each incident for the police, making regular reports; her detective, DS Church, has even provided Jenna with clear evidence bags to use when she finds her stalker’s offerings each morning, in an attempt to preserve physical evidence that’s never there. Stuart installs A CCTV camera at their front door, which has proven fruitless at catching a glimpse of this mysterious figure; the suspect’s face and figure are hidden completely by a strategically placed umbrella, and eventually the camera is even disabled.

North did a very good job of adding red herrings and complex storylines; no one was completely a victim or villain, and everyone had a complex emotional backstory”

Jenna and her family are desperate to escape their constant anxiety and fear, but when the threats start to escalate, things seem like they’re falling apart. And then, one day, a young man is rushed into the ER with life-threatening injuries…and in the same clothes, and with the same umbrella, as Jenna’s stalker. Her terror is quickly replaced by a rush of adrenaline – the man who’s terrorized her for a year is off the streets, and better yet, she knows his identity. Her focus becomes single-minded: to find out why this man chose her as his victim, and why he’s been torturing her for months.

Jenna meets her stalker’s sister Sophie, who has ties to Jenna’s circle of friends and appears to be running from a controlling relationship of her own…while harboring the secret of why Jenna is possibly the victim. But as Jenna chases these new leads, her life continues to fall apart. Her insomnia becomes even worse, and the more she uncovers, the more confused she becomes. Then, the taunting emails start coming again…and gifts begin reappearing on her steps. Who IS this mysterious man in the hospital bed, and what is his story? Is he really the person torturing her, or is it someone closer to home? And how well does Jenna know the people she works with, parents with…even lives with?

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first read by North, and I really enjoyed this thriller. From a psychological point of view (which, not coincidentally, is North’s educational background), it was fascinating to see all of the ways in which Jenna was changed by her experience as a stalking victim. When the power seemingly shifted in her favor, it caused her to question not only her family and friends, but also her own moral compass. She had to make some difficult decisions, and she is forced to question whether she is becoming as obsessive and destructive as her stalker in her quest for answers.

Another reason I’ve given this book as many stars as I have is because North plotted the book brilliantly, and I couldn’t predict the twist. I’ve read many, MANY mystery/thrillers, and I can typically see a plot twist (and guess a murderer’s identity) within the first 30-50 pages (I see you, Ruth Ware…JT Ellison…BJ Paris…the list goes on). However, in this novel, I was completely surprised by the ending, even as it tied up the entire story neatly and didn’t leave any unanswered questions. This is honestly NO easy feat, and I loved it – any thriller where I don’t guess the ending makes me a happy reader. 

North did a very good job of adding red herrings and complex storylines; no one was completely a victim or villain, and everyone had a complex emotional backstory. The back and forth between Jenna and Sophie’s present, and Sophie and Matthew’s past, was enough to keep the reader moving along and wondering what was coming next. I truly enjoyed the book and the suspense; I read it in 2 days, and I’ll definitely be picking up whatever North writes next.

Posted in Upcoming Releases

The Baby Group by Caroline Corcoran

Release date: September 17, 2020 (UK)

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ 

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW:  The Baby Group, by Caroline Corcoran, is set to be released by Avon Books UK in September 2020, but I couldn’t find a preorder date or release date on Amazon or B&N for the United States at this time. The book is a mystery/thriller novel about a woman named Scarlett whose world crashes in around her as she prepares to return to work after maternity leave…because someone in her baby group, whom she considers a close friend, is ready to watch Scarlett’s life go down in flames.

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Scarlett is a 35-year-old wife and mother, living with her husband Ed in the (very) small town of Cheshire, England. For the past year, her life has been centered on her maternity leave with her daughter, Poppy, who is just shy of her first birthday when we first meet Scarlett. Finances are becoming tight after spending twelve months at home with her child, and she’s reluctantly ready to leave her days of baby classes and coffee meet-ups with her four baby-group friends to re-enter the business world. She’s worked on becoming a successful Instagram blogger and has 7500 followers, but while she receives free baby equipment and swag for running Chesire Mama, she’s yet to turn it into a money-making venture. In her previous pre-mom life, Scarlett was a star in the world of marketing and social media at her job in Manchester…and while she’s filled with dread at the thought of leaving her daughter with a stranger during the day, she feels the tiniest bit of excitement at the thought of spending her days conversing with other adults and making her own food choices. Her husband, a successful accountant for a large firm, is also stoically pushing Scarlett to rejoin the workforce and take some of the financial pressure off…which she finds frustrating, considering his seeming lack of interest in sharing the parental responsibilities at home, even as they enter a dual-working partnership. 

Scarlett’s former friends and coworkers have seemingly fallen by the wayside in recent months, and she’s becoming exceedingly close to three women she met in her antenatal classes during the last months of her pregnancy – Cora, Emma, and Asha. They created phone trees, group texts, and eventually playdates…and having 3 babies the same age has led them to spending multiple weekdays together doing mom-and-me activities and taking some of the pressures off of motherhood. They order each other coffee drinks, hold babies for bathroom breaks, and even feed each other when they’re breastfeeding. Scarlett realizes that she’s honestly sad about losing her regular playdates with her new friends, but she assumes that they’ve gotten so close that they’ll remain good friends even as she tries to resume a normal working schedule in Manchester, with a 30-minute commute.

Scarlett’s journey in this book becomes as much a voyage of self-discovery as it does an earnest desire to find out who is trying to ruin her life and marriage.”

But Scarlett’s entry back into the workforce begins with a bang that blows up her entire life. Her blog shows her perfectly curated life at home with Ed and Poppy, and her gatherings with her mom friends and their children…but before she was married and “properly posh” Scarlett, she was “wild-and-free” Scarlett. Someone who partied all night, drank and did drugs during the day, and who once – in a fit of grief and rebellion after losing a pregnancy – agreed to a filmed three-way with her boyfriend and a male friend. And that film was not destroyed, nor did it disappear. And now, as Scarlett discovers while re-entering the halls and offices of her employer, it’s been resurrected…and sent to literally every person she knows. All of her coworkers, her father, her husband, her in-laws…everyone, it seems, except her new mom friends.

Scarlett works hard to maintain the facade for her mom friends, keeping mum about the tape…but the rest of her world falls in around her. Her husband, who has always been uptight and private, becomes disappointed and distant. Together they hire a lawyer, who tells them that they can eventually remove the video from online…but that first, she should work to gather concrete evidence and figure out who has motive to destroy her life by posting it in the first place. But just as Scarlett begins her investigation, we as readers learn – through chapters written by someone titled “anonymous” – that the threat to her marriage, her job, and her role as a dedicated mother is much closer to home than she could have imagined. Because one of the three women in her baby group is the person who is actively trying to destroy her life…and she’ll go to ANY lengths to keep her from finding a way to pick up the pieces, including revealing even more damning secrets that Scarlett is desperate to keep hidden from her past.

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first book by Corcoran, but I will pick up and read almost any British thriller I can get my hands on. The version of the book that I read was the British release, and it took me a good 30-50 pages (and the occasional use of Google) to get used to all of the non-Americanized slang like “WAGs” and “Noughties music” and all of the British pop-culture references. (And as someone who has read so many British novels that I regularly think of elevators as lifts, parking lots as car parks, and “bloody hell” as a great curse…I was stunned at how much work apparently goes into translating a British novel for us across-the-pond readers.) 

Corcoran writes in a very stream-of-consciousness way, where it seems as if we’re literally hearing every single thought that goes through Scarlett’s head as she lives through the experiences in the novel. If you’re used to a thriller novel that has more mystery and an unpredictable narrator (think “The Girl on the Train,” “The Woman in the Window,” or just generally Ruth Ware), this can be disconcerting or hard to get used to…but I was able to appreciate the raw honesty and emotion that this evoked after Scarlett’s life starts to fall apart. She spirals through grief, shame, and a desperation to find out who is doing this to her and why…and in the process, reveals many raw truths about the difficulties in being a wife and mother right now. In regards to leaving her daughter with a child-minder during the day, she says, “I’ve overdone it. Even I know it. But if you pack enough bags, the feelings of guilt can perhaps be squashed under their weight. If you buy enough stuff, perhaps what you can’t purchase – time with your daughter, sanity, a mind that isn’t running away with thoughts about the right time to get out Doggy Dog – isn’t as obvious.” 

Scarlett’s journey in this book becomes as much a voyage of self-discovery as it does an earnest desire to find out who is trying to ruin her life and marriage. She begins to realize that she doesn’t know her friends from the baby group as much as she thought she did – “We might not have each other’s job titles down, but we know each other’s judgments,” she says. And these judgments among women – the harshest critics, it seems, of other women – seem to be the impetus for what is happening to Scarlett. Her former boss sends her a text to tell her that no one is judging her at the office, and her response? “And I laugh. Because everyone is judging me every day, everyone is judging everyone every day. What they’re posting, what they’re wearing, what they’re ordering, where they’re going. What their job is, who they’re married to, what car they drive, what make their bag is. Sling a sex tape into the mix though and you up the stakes.”

Those snap judgments often lead to fractures in relationships, especially when combined with a heavy dose of anxiety, likely mental illness, and our imperfectly incorrect impressions of other people. Throw these things together in a fiction novel, and you get an unsuspecting victim of an explosive powder keg of rage, which is what happens to Scarlett. She is betrayed by people she believed were her friends, and she has to learn when to stand up for her marriage, her choices, and her friends…and when to let go. By the end of the book, she’s undergone an intense and dark personal transformation…but there is a ray of hope that, just maybe, she walks away in a better situation than you would have imagined existed in the deepest dregs of the story.

To be completely honest, I was doubtful at first that I would like this book; the language and style of writing was a bit much for my liking at first, but I was really won over by the time that Scarlett headed in for her fateful first day back at work. I found myself nodding along with Scarlett’s brutal and honest observations about marriage, relationships, and motherhood, and about what it’s like trying to be honest with the world (especially on social media) about who you are without seeming TOO happy and successful (smug), or TOO depressed and unlucky (ungrateful): “What a precarious balance it is, I think, of being happy in public but not too happy. Celebrating your wins but not being smug. Making it clear that you’ve had your allocated amount of shit times without spending your life moaning. I am drained, thinking about it.” Scarlett’s experience in The Baby Group is an extreme version of what happens when you spend more time worrying about keeping up that delicate balance than you do learning about the people you allow into your life.

Posted in Upcoming Releases

A Borrowed Life, by Kerry Anne King

Release date: Sept 22, 2020 

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

QUICK TAKE: A very enjoyable and relatable story of one woman’s metamorphosis from a rigidly controlled life to a free-flying, unpredictable journey. Perfect for fans of Kristan Higgins, Katherine Center, and Colleen Hoover. 

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: A Borrowed Life by Kerry Anne King, which will be published by Lake Union Publishing this fall, is a novel categorized as women’s fiction/modern fiction. The gorgeous cover drew me in, but the storyline – a pastor’s wife finds herself suddenly widowed, and free to make her own life choices for the first time ever – is what kept me hooked.

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: We meet our protagonist, Elizabeth Lightsey, as she quietly prepares for another routine day of being the pastor’s wife. Married to an incredibly strict husband who sees every woman’s role in life as being submissive and the “helper” for her husband, she hides her trashy romance novels and her journals where she writes her innermost thoughts…and then burns them once they’re full to destroy the evidence.

Elizabeth was once just Liz, trapped with neglectful parents – one an alcoholic, one an enabler – and unsure of her own future. She works on sowing her wild oats until she meets Thomas, whose dashing good looks and church-focused charisma sweep her off her feet. They marry quickly when Thomas tells her he is being offered a church to lead and needs “a good wife,” and Liz soon learns that his definition of a good wife is a very narrow, subservient, controlled one. She stays to raise their daughter, and spends the next two-plus decades learning how to control her emotions and keep her true feelings to herself.

When Thomas drops dead in the middle of Elizabeth’s knitting circle, she is horrified and shocked – and, also, unexpectedly, free. Thomas is no longer there to criticize the cleanliness of the floors, or her friendship with her “godless” neighbor Val, or to refuse to allow her to bring pickles into the house. And when Elizabeth needs support, is it the gossipy, judgmental church ladies who come to her rescue? Surprise: it’s Val, her tattooed, smoking, cursing friend, who takes care of Elizabeth when she needs it most.

“She takes the time to make decisions just for herself, refusing to cater to anyone else’s timeline, and that is incredibly refreshing in what could be considered a modern romance novel.”

Elizabeth slowly begins to find herself again – “Liz” has always been inside, she realizes, but she wasn’t allowed to be free under Thomas’s iron fist. Much to her tightly-controlled daughter Abigail’s chagrin, she finds herself auditioning for a role in a local play and accepting when the lead is offered to her. Even as Liz begins to slowly open up to her own wants and desires, she must face alienating her own daughter – whom, she realizes, she raised (along with Thomas) to be afraid of her own true self and to aim for the ultimate goal of being a subservient wife. (Why be a surgeon when you’re just going to be the woman of the house some day, Thomas said? Nursing school is fine until you find a suitable man.)

Liz’s life changes at warp speed as she begins to reconsider her home, her belongings, and her purpose in life…and as she begins to feel very real, and very foreign, sparks of attraction to her leading man in the play. Thomas’s chastising voice never quite leaves her thoughts as she makes one reckless yet freeing decision after another, but when one of her biggest moments of passion backfires, how will she ever be able to find and stay the right course? Will she and her daughter be able to make amends and find a truly loving and open relationship? And what on earth does Liz REALLY want for her own future?

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first book by King, and I was very pleasantly surprised. Her writing style and topics remind me of some of my favorite women’s fiction authors (like the aforementioned Kristan Higgins, Katherine Center, and Colleen Hoover – particularly Hoover’s recent book Regretting You). Liz is an incredibly well-written character; we know her background, and why Thomas would have seemed like an appealing option, even as he began to control every aspect of her life. “And it was easier, safer, to let him make all of the decisions. To tell me who to be and how to be that person. To let him dictate how to raise our daughter, how to spend my time.” (Chapter 31)

Liz’s path to emotional maturity will ring so incredibly true to women who have had to make sacrifices in their lives – for their parents, their partners, their children. Her joys and struggles with her newfound freedom lead her to realize that choices aren’t necessarily right or wrong, damned or blessed – they are just vehicles that get us to the next moment of our lives and determine what new avenues open up. She takes the time to make decisions just for herself, refusing to cater to anyone else’s timeline, and that is incredibly refreshing in what could be considered a modern romance novel. Just because the swoon-worthy, flawed, sexy love interest proposes to you doesn’t mean you have to accept…especially when you’re just beginning to put together the many confusing puzzle pieces of your own life.

I am giving this book a rare 10 stars (for me), because I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the depth of the characters and the relationships within. No character was a shallow, one-dimensional stereotype; there was redemption and disaster for everyone alike. This books celebrates how messy circumstances and troubled relationships can still be beautiful, and life may take different turns that put us in better places than we could ever have previously imagined, even after unspeakable tragedy.

Posted in Upcoming Releases

The Best of Friends, by Lucinda Berry

Release Date: August 18, 2020

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: The Best of Friends by Lucinda Berry is a mystery/thriller novel that reads more like a women’s fiction book; there is an element of whodunit, as I’ll discuss below, but it’s not an action-packed suspense novel.

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Lindsey, Kendra, and Dani are three best friends living in an upper middle-class neighborhood. They’ve known each other since they were in elementary school, and their three teenage sons – Jacob (Lindsey’s son), Sawyer (Kendra’s son), and Caleb (Dani’s son) are also friends. The three boys play soccer together on their high school football team, and they are having a sleepover at Dani’s house when the novel begins.

Kendra and her husband Paul are trying to have a date night with Sawyer out of the house (although their 14-year-old son, Reese, is upstairs), when they hear gunshots in their neighborhood. Kendra runs outside to check and make sure that Sawyer and his friends are okay, and she realizes that the police and ambulance are at Dani’s house. She screams to be let inside, but the police officers deny her entry, letting her know that no one can go in until the coroner arrives.

We soon learn that one of the boys died before medical help arrived, another is brain-dead and on life-support, and the third is now mute and has debilitating breakdowns that landed him on the psychiatric ward for several days. As the three women deal with the devastating fallout of this shooting incident, they are left with only questions and no answers about what happened that night. Who pulled the trigger and why? Was there one shooter, or was this a murder-suicide or a gruesome accident? The only witness can’t (or won’t) speak, and the detectives are only at the beginning of their intense investigation.

The survivor isn’t the only person with secrets in this group; one of the women is being physically and mentally abused, and wishes she had the strength to leave her controlling partner. One of the women is about to find out that her own husband has been building a relationship with someone else online for two years, and has fallen in love with a faceless woman who is hiding behind a pseudonym. The last woman has been secretly medicating her teenage son for over a year without her husband’s knowledge, and worries that this is what is causing her family’s downfall.

As these secrets unravel, and the investigation turns up even more surprises for the grieving families, we see what happens when childhood friendships face the ultimate test of betrayal, passion, and murder. The truths finally reveal themselves in the end, and the women and their families are left to pick up the pieces and determine how to move forward into new and completely different lives.

WHAT THE AUTHOR DOES RIGHT: Lucinda Berry is actually a doctor – a former clinical psychologist and leading researcher in childhood trauma, according to her Goodreads & Amazon biographies – and she uses her background to write novels that delve into the many facets of the human psyche. Her portrait of the struggles that led to what happened to these three boys is intriguing; we see the closeness of their relationships and the raw emotions they were experiencing right up until the explosive shooting incident, which helps the reader to understand their motivations regarding what happened.

MY THOUGHTS: Okay, I have a lot to unpack about this book, so bear with me.

This is a novel about three upper-middle and upper-class families, living in a very nice neighborhood, raising three white boys who are star athletes at their local high school. Two of them – Jacob and Sawyer – have been featured in local news articles, and they’ve won athletic scholarships to college. When asked by police what they think of their sons’ demeanors prior to the shooting, they are all quick to deny any arguments, any depression, and – in the case of Caleb’s parents, when directly confronted with school reports – any anger issues and outbursts.

However, we’re told that the boys have gotten in trouble before with police for public drinking, which the parents literally all brushed off as being par for the course in raising a teenage boy: “All of it sounded like completely normal teenage behavior to me – exactly the kinds of things that happened when we were in high school and were probably happening tonight.” (loc 2260, 52%) One of the parents says, in regards to the deadly shooting, “Our boys were screwing around. Being drunk and stupid with a gun. That’s all” (in Chapter One). Another of the women says that her son wasn’t known for getting good grades, and she was terrified he was going to screw up his future and lose his athletic scholarship by getting a girl pregnant before college: “Girls have been after [him] since ninth grade,” she says.

Please excuse me if I’m wrong for thinking so, but these sentiments all seem tone-deaf and reek of white, moneyed privilege. The parents seem COMPLETELY clueless as to what is going on with their own children, and they were all utterly shocked at what happened to their teenage boys…but they all admitted that they allowed their boys to drink, they never punished them, and they never held them responsible for their bad decisions. They really seemed as if they had no idea what their children did during the day (and at night), and they didn’t care to know more – they just wanted their all-star athletes to make it to college. Two of the parents learn that their younger son is supplying drugs to kids in his high school when they sit down for an interview with the head detective, but they never punish him or even bring the topic up again – the mother even says later that they unconsciously decided not to pursue the topic again and disturb their delicate balance of peace at home.

The women are constantly ready to rip each other apart, and even have a screaming match at the end when one of them can no longer hold back her vitriol in regards to her friends’ selfishness and denial. None of them can see their own weaknesses, but they are quick to point out the weakness in each other…and their “friendships” are never shown in a deep or meaningful way. They seem like shallow friends, with no real or deep bonding moments – perhaps this is just a lack of character development due to book spacing.

All in all, the book was a quick read, and an enjoyable one if you’re able to turn your mind off and not think too deeply about how clueless and pointedly blind these parents choose to be. The “boys will be boys” mindsets are what turned me off about this read…and that could have been changed if there was a more redemptive arc, or a realization that this chosen ignorance is what led to the downfall of the three boys and their whole families – but there wasn’t. The characters all finished in what is arguably a poorer position than the ones in which they started, and while the reader would like to believe that things will get better, it’s really near impossible to see how that could be true.