A Child Alone Alone With Strangers: A Novel by Philip Fracassi

Let it come, Henry. Life is pain, boy, but this is a gift. You know what you do with a gift, right? You open it son.

This novel managed to break my heart from the beginning and then creep me out. Not many horror stories tug at your heart, this one did. When terrible things happen to children, it makes you hate the world and all the monsters in it. It’s the human monsters that are the worst. Henry has lived through terrible loss and the callous whims of fate doesn’t seem to let up when a traumatic experience occurs. What he is left with, after losing everything again, is what some would deem a curse, other’s a gift. More than anything, it is pain. He comes out of the incident with some sort of… anomaly, which makes him feel like a freak at school, and a target for bullying. All he wants is acceptance, but even at home with his family he feels his ‘uniqueness’ is something others fear. With an uncanny ability of discernment, he still doesn’t know just how ugly people can be.

When Henry is kidnapped and taken to an isolated farmhouse in the forest, he is afraid of what his abductors have in store for him, but he may well know some things they don’t, giving him an edge. There is something ancient lurking in the dark, a primitive, inhuman presence. Somehow, he is able to open his mind to it, which may well be the only chance he has to survive their cruel plan. There is something in the cellar too, something Henry can feel with his mind and soul, his abductors think their scheme is going to run smoothly, that it’s in their control, but they will learn how wrong they are.

I adore Henry, he is such a cool kid, a survivor and his interactions with the rotten people he is held captive by were clever, mind games beyond his years. It’s so much more than a supernatural, horror, thriller because at the heart of it is loss and living through the fog of grief. I think rather than getting a character who endures endless horrors we get into the mind and heart of a wonderful little boy dealing with unimaginable, atrocious events. I liked the ending too. It is dark, make no mistake, and has gory happenings but for me, the draw was the light inside Henry. Perfect book for October! This is my first-time reading a Philip Fracassi novel, but it won’t be my last.

Publication Date: October 25, 2022

Skyhorse Publishing

Talos

River Woman, River Demon : A Novel by Jennifer Givhan

Nothing comes we haven’t conjured or called, one way or another.

I have been trying to have a more varied diet of fiction therefore I was fast to dig into this novel based on culture and folk magick (yes, the k is intentional). It seems I keep picking up stories that are about witches and water lately, maybe because it’s October. Often, these tales are about women who must find strength, particularly reaching back into traumatic pasts. For Eva, water turned toxic when her best friend Karma drowned, haunting her forever in the swamps of her memory. Her mind isn’t reliable, and just when she gets to the part of what happened to drag her friend to the bottom, the past won’t speak. Back then people believed she did it, she drowned Karma. Eighteen years have passed and “a thousand miles between Los Lunas and Calexico”, her days now are spent in a Magickal household of South Valley, New Mexico as a stay-at-home artist practicing Hoodoo with her husband Jericho (UNM professor of African American Studies) and their young children. It’s not fairytale nonsense, their deeply rooted practices, it is necessary for survival for people of color, but it can turn dark, mean. Jericho is a professor of roots and bones, of Hoodoo and mojo and herbs, he owns a successful shop and runs a Magickal showcase. Eva’s mother was a bruja (witch) who died when she was only eight. Left to be raised by her older sister, Eva was brought up among church folk, feeling robbed of her ancestry until she had her mother’s book of shadows in her hands, but it was meeting Jericho Moon that brought her birthright and Chicano perspective into focus. Her artistry was fruitful enough once, allowing her to purchase a ranch but things have gone off and death is rearing its ugly head again. She is no longer creating as before.

When she discovers her husband one night howling in the river, there is a dead woman in his arms, their friend Cec (godmother to their children). Claiming to have found her that way, there is no way to make sense of the horror and it isn’t long before Jericho is arrested and charged with her murder. It’s not going to look good, this defense of it being an accident, she knows how the authorities will judge their lives, their spiritual practices only make them look more guilty, but it is her own past that will fall under intense scrutiny. Does she even believe in her own innocence? Is there a spell that will right the wrongs, protect her family? A ritual that would prove Jericho’s telling the truth, does she believe him? Jericho is the one who always makes things right, he has been the pillar of their family, now it’s fallen on Eva’s shoulders. How can she defend him when she isn’t sure herself if he is guilty or not?

Eva suffers from blackouts, are they caused by the trauma she suffered losing Karma or is something more nefarious happening? How reliable is Eva? As she meets with the detective, she wonders if Cec and Jericho could have been lovers, and it awakens the beast of jealousy within her soul. Cec’s death is a mirror of Karma’s, it illuminates the past that Eva can’t get straight in her clouded mind. Her children (she calls them the X’s) have more faith in their father than she does, but they are having a hard time struggling without Jericho and her son Xavier is suffering through emotional distress, refusing to speak. Strange things start happening, Eva thinks they are being haunted. Living ghosts walk back into her life, she doesn’t know who to trust. She feels betrayed, conflicted, lost, and is drifting away from her life, from her marriage, from the truth.

The past and present are about to collide, darkness is falling, has she conjured this?

She’s a mess and is looking for strength, but does she have the clarity, does she trust her intuition enough? Eva’s making more mistakes, with her husband gone there is no one to guide her, but will she trust her gut? It is all so murky as the things from her past, the secrets she kept even from herself, climb out of the woodwork. Can she save her family if she doesn’t know the person or thing that is after them? What if she is the one calling the destruction upon them all? A solid psychological thriller with rich cultural history.

Publication Date: October 4, 2022

Blackstone Publishing

Motherthing: A Novel by Ainslie Hogarth

Depression becomes this house, where it’s thrived in one form or another for at least thirty years: dark, claustrophobic rooms where bad thoughts collect like tide pools, slimy, brackish hazards, impossible to avoid.

If the house is a vault of depression, than the keeper is Laura, the Motherthing whose presence lingers, rotting every inch of Ralph and Abby’s lives. The cover is perfect and for some reason reminds me of the show Tales From the Crypt (it was a horror series that began in 1989), much like this gory, vile story, the characters were unhinged and often they were all villains. You knew there were no silver linings, zero chance of a happy ending. The novel begins with Laura’s depression and pain, which she yields like a weapon, even in her final act. It ain’t pretty folks. Ralph and Abby uprooted their lives to move in and support Laura when she needed them. Abby never had a comforting family life herself and if she was looking to her mother-in-law for the maternal love her own mom failed to provide, she chose the wrong family to marry into. We get vague memories of what Abby endured with her own needy mother, as a child she was ‘collateral damage’ to her mother’s tumultuous relationships and her endless rages. She lived on ‘runoff nourishment’ from the adoration her mother’s boyfriends were treated to in the early stages of love. Has this left her unhinged herself?

Ralph is in shock, who wouldn’t be, and swamped by “late love” for his dead mother , who apparently had mental health struggles that she refused to get help for; his mother who was so hard to openly love in life. He cannot comprehend what has happened and is sinking in guilt and shame. She wasn’t your average, critical, mean spirited mother-in-law but a cold, calculated, monster from Abby’s perspective. A cruel woman who stole the very health and joy from her beloved son. Abby is optimistic that with her gruesome exit there will finally be peace and freedom. Now she and Ralph can focus on the future, have a baby, all will be glorious. She may have done something to offend the deceased, but so what? Laura owed them so much and how dare she take her life? Wound Ralph like that? Things are finally going to get better for them. Abby can finally relax, put things where she wants, act as she pleases without fear of condemnation. First she has to clean up all the blood, mind you this isn’t a novel for those with weak stomachs.

Enter the vengeful ghost, the Motherthing, lurking in the shadows, creeping into her son through his darkening moods. Could it be? Or is Abby losing her grip on reality? Worse, Ralph is taking on behaviors just like Laura, retreating into his all-consuming grief, refusing to move out of the house, which has been a prison for them. Nothing is going as she imagined it would. In fact, Abby spends a lot of time playing out scenarios in her head. She is going to cure Ralph, she is the only woman who can save him from himself, and from the ugliness Laura has stirred within him. Abby best knows how to care for people, like the ailing Mrs. Bondy, a favored patient whom she tends to at the long term care center where she is a support worker (not a nurse). Mrs. Bondy’s own vile daughter needs to stop interfering, obviously doesn’t love her mother enough, doesn’t understand her like Abby does. Listening to her talk about thinking of Mrs. Bondy as her baby gives the tale a peculiar feeling. In fact, so much of this story gives the reader the heebie jeebies, and isn’t that the mark of a good tale, even if it is disturbing? It rattled me. I don’t even want to imagine it on the big screen, it would be a abhorrent, but there is an audience for it. It’s too real, I suppose, the psychological torment. It is human beings at their worst. Violence is entering Abby’s blood stream, is it her mother-in-law from the grave causing all these earthquakes in her life? Ralph is rejecting her love, will she be able to wake him from this disturbing new person he is becoming? Will she save Mrs. Bondy from her scheming daughter? Will Laura ever retreat to the other side, where she belongs?

This is a weird book, no one can deny it. I absolutely love the title, I think the explanation of “Motherthing” is very creative. Did I love the gore, or the vile behaviors within? No, but it takes a talented writer to make such loathsome people come alive. It will set you off, no doubt about it this is very dark fiction. I wouldn’t suggest lending it to your mother-in-law, unless you want to make an enemy for life. Now I must go shake off the jitters still crawling up and down my spine.

Publication Date: September 27, 2022

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Vintage

The Gone And The Forgotten by Clare Whitfield

It’s quite desperate when you think of it, waiting in the darkest of holes.

Just how much does it cost to be given the keys to a kingdom?

Set in 1993: Prue doesn’t doesn’t know much about her family history, only thing she knows for sure is that her mother is unstable and that after sixteen years of being alive, she still has no clue who her own father is. Her mother breaks down, often, and this is just the latest collapse. Her Nana is gone, leaving grief in her wake, and years of unanswered questions. Aunt Ruth has never confided either but promises this time, if Prue comes for a sorely needed vacation in her home in Shetland, they will talk. Ruth, the aunt who married a wealthy man named Archie (a stranger to Prue) is easier to get close too but she isn’t exactly spilling any secrets. Ruth had no idea just how serious her sister had sank into her depression, this time Prue’s mother needs a place that can really help her and Prue needs room to breathe, away from her mother’s heavy needs. Prue reluctantly departs her best friend’s home and makes her way to the small island of Noost, never imaging the family secrets that are lying in wait.

Once on the island, Prue meets her Uncle Archie and his peculiar grandmother, Ronnie- the only relatives still alive in his family. In her seventies, the woman tends to her many plants like children and lives in a universe all her own, but she is sharp and in perfect control of her mind and body. She tells Prue right away that when she heard she was coming to stay, she just knew it would change everything. She tell her it’s a good thing she is there, ‘the spirits want it to happen,’ and gushes over her. Ronnie is a proud woman from a long, Scotish line of MacNairs, who landed on the island due to ‘following a boy’ long ago. Ronnie comes off as very intense, believing in energies, and extremely uptight about Prue touching her precious plants. Straight away, dreams from when she was a little girl of seven begin to haunt her. It’s the place, surely. Memories she has scrubbed away about her baby sister Holly, as slips of our early childhood hide from us with age, but surely there is more she just can’t recover? In a family of secrets, is it a surprise she keeps stories even from herself? Then the crime the woman Joan Gardner committed, it’s all returning to bite her. Ronnie seems to warm to her and where Aunt Ruth remains tight lipped, Ronnie gushes about her own past and that of their huge, old home.

The island has a magical energy that feeds the artistic palate of her aunt and new uncle, Archie. Ronnie warns her, their work is strange! It is unsettling and the house itself seems to be alive with eerie sounds. It isn’t the relaxing escape she was looking forward too, in fact, more questions than answers are arising, especially about Archie. He is ‘a proper bloke’, intimidating, a man who takes up space and is nothing near as welcoming as her Aunt Ruth’s first husband. Locals think he is guilty of something terrible, even if they can’t say what or prove anything. When she ventures out, fully immersed in her first taste of freedom, she encounters a local woman who warns her about Archie, the only good to come out of it is she meets a boy after being scared away. The two form a relationship, but she can’t help but poke the accusations she hears about Archie. Then to learn that there have been strange accidents, deaths, tragedies tied to the home only makes her more frightened of the place. In fact, the very room she is staying in has a story she can’t quite help but fear.

Is Prue ready to know what she has been asking for years? Does she truly want her own spoiled family history, that reeks of damning sins? Will it finally help her understand her mother’s lowest of lows? Archie, she should be weary of him, but even that is changing.

This was an engaging tale of family sins, of the ways people will bury their shameful history despite the cost. Prue may well have to face herself, and her own actions. A bit of a twist, with a sad past. A good read for anyone who enjoys mysteries of family sins and tragedies.

Publication Date: June 9, 2022

Head of Zeus

Apollo

Just Like Mother by Anne Heltzel

Once again I had the feeling of being non-existent, of the things and people around me being imaginary.

Maeve and Andrea grew up in a cult of mothers, but it is their bond that has provided the only love and nurturing in their lives. Maeve’s whole life has revolved around Andrea, even more so in the aftermath of a dark night, when the two are ripped apart. Maeve’s act of bravery, or betrayal to the cult, is the catalyst for the ruin of their life together. Maeve is adopted by a kind, older couple and eventually overcomes her own trauma, wondering forever what happened to Andrea. Now both adults, they find each other through a DNA website, but Andrea doesn’t want to dwell on the terror of the past. Maeve is an editor, mostly in fiction, always loving escapism. It is other people’s stories that have always interested her and she longs to know all about Andrea’s life since they’ve been separated. Andrea has risen above being unwanted as a child, in and out of foster homes, used her business degree to create her own company, starting out as a life coach. She is the CEO of “NewLife”, dazzling with it’s cutting edge technology. Hot with the Silicon Valley crowd, and married to Rob, a ‘Groundbreaking Vigeneros Tech’, her life seems far more adult than Maeve’s. She and Rob have suffered a deep loss together, but have made peace with it. There is nothing Andrea has wanted more than a family and finding Maeve ‘feels like a gift from the universe.’ Both their lives are about to change, this time through unification.

Maeve is still living her single days, not interested in having children, the opposite of Andrea’s entire purpose. She is surprised Andrea, who has been living a life filled with travel, great success and excitement, could ever miss her. She promises Maeve, you never lose who you were as a child, and she has always loved her, they are family and that’s a strong bond. It’s time she lets someone in, and no one is closer to her heart than Andrea. She is on her way to their home in the Catskill Mountains, where she will soon be immersed in their lives, being around her business partner Emily (who is worshipped even more than Andrea by Silicon Valley), joined by her husband and young son. She is out of her comfort zone, and the product Andrea is testing (more of a cause) leaves her unsettled. Is technology used to heal grief a good idea? She can’t deny her cousin, she owes her for upending their lives all those years ago. She swears to do whatever Andrea needs. Rob and Andrea’s friends can’t understand why Maeve doesn’t want children, it’s ‘unnatural’ to their way of thinking. Then Andrea makes a request, it is too much to ask, despite wanting to please her cousin. The ties of family are knots that aren’t so easily undone.

The story gets much more complicated and darker from there. As present and past collide, the reader learns the terror and cruelty of their early childhood and just how it has left its mark on them both. The mothers weren’t so nurturing, it was a sick, twisted cult. It’s creepy, it’s about trauma, grief, loneliness, and how misguided and brutal ideas can be. What a strange novel, I keep thinking ‘someone will make or movie out of this.’

Publication Date: May 17, 2022

Macmillan-Tor/Forge, Tor Nightfire

The Children on the Hill: A Novel by Jennifer McMahon

Some monsters are born that way. Some are made.

Grandchildren to Dr. Helen Hildreth, an extraordinary, brilliant psychiatrist and champion for the mentally ill, Violet and Eric bloom under their Gran’s care in the 1970’s. Living on the same land as her patients, privy to her work at the Hillside Inn, located in Vermont, it’s only fitting Violet longs to follow in her Gran’s footsteps and become a doctor. The hospital (a place for lost causes) is privately run ‘more estate than institution’. Dr. Hildreth believes in the most hopeless cases, and knows that mental health treatment involves more than just medications. She and her staff have taken on a more holistic approach, believing in the curative powers of nature, art, music, gardening, meditation and even pottery. Violet’s belief in monsters makes this environment, one full of people who behave abnormally, the perfect backdrop for study, eavesdropping on the doctor’s conversations, wildly curious and hungry for more about the dangerous patient S. Violet has been taught that people do terrible things, not because they are evil, but that they are suffering from illnesses of the mind but could it be possible Gran is harboring a murderer? Who is patient S? Where Violet’s mind bends to investigation and science, a fan of the movie Frankenstein, her little brother Eric is a sensitive savior of animals, particularly those their grandmother keeps in her basement (lab). Dr. Hildreth and her colleagues are pioneers, changing the face of mental health treatment, focusing on individual needs and their future potential. She expects nothing less from her own grandchildren too, giving them lessons in chemistry experiments, evolution, studying under the microscope in her laboratory but only upon invitation into her basement (off limits normally); their Gran provides them with a top education and encourages to hold themselves with pride and self-respect. They consider themselves lucky to be under her protection, full of love and support.

May 1978: Violet and Eric know the Inn doesn’t treat children and are rattled when their grandmother introduces them to a girl, around Violets age (13), named Iris. Like a frightened animal, with evidence of abuse, wound on her head and her lack of communication skills, she is a strange patient. Discovering they are to welcome her as a sister, making Iris the exception to the rule of who Gran treats, she becomes their new project. Helping Iris, her Gran prods her, can only aid Violet in her future dream of becoming a doctor herself. She is clever and kind enough to help the child, together with her little brother Eric, maybe they will learn what has happened to Iris, break her out of the state she is in and help her recall her journey. They know all about trauma and memory loss. Violet wants nothing more than to remember their own parents and past, having survived the car accident that took them. The accident is one Eric doesn’t want to spend a moments thought on, too horrible. Now, with Iris, she can have a sister and a new member for their little clubhouse. There, they will discuss mysteries, study their recordings, and hunt for monsters under the full moon. Evidence is required to be sure of anything, monster and human alike, theories are not enough. Better still their plan to search through private records to discover Iris’s origins, it’s a top secret mission. What they discover will challenge everything Violet knows about monsters and love.

2019: Lizzy Shelley, 53, ran a blog based on her childhood project that has led to her popular podcast: The Book of Monsters. Last season she was a member of the team Monsters Among Us, has been featured in a documentary, been in ads and invited to lectures at colleges on monsters in contemporary society. All of her work and notoriety has afforded her the means to spread her message, ‘monsters are real and living among us’. Soon she will be searching the dark shadows for more than legendary creatures. Young girls are going missing in Vermont, the troubled kind no one cares about, and it makes Lizzy wonder if the monster she has been chasing her entire life has returned to invite her in a game of Hide-and-seek. It all goes back to the Hillside Inn. Who is the monster she is chasing?

This is a creepy, dark story. There are Frankenstein themes running through it, but even more, a twist that is a nightmare, at least for those who are considered inferior. This is a subject that was all too real in history, and immoral. I have been reading Jennifer McMahon’s novels for some time now and enjoy all of her stories, always original and intelligent tales. The Drowning Kind was a wonderful ghost story (add it to your list if you haven’t read it) and now we have a monster tale with The Children On The Hill. There truly are monsters among us, the trick is in how they hide in plain sight. Now I have to wait for her next novel, sigh…

Publication Date: April 26, 2022

Gallery Books

Scout Press

The Other Family: A Novel of Suspense by Wendi Corsi Staub

“It doesn’t really matter, does it? Who cares what happened years ago?”

“I do, it happened in our house.”

“Every house has a history, Stacey.”

“Yeah, not a triple homicide mom.”

If Nora and her husband Keith imagined the macabre history of their new home wouldn’t absorb their daughters’ Piper and Stacey’s imagination, than they don’t know much about their girls. A triple homicide, nay- a ‘heinous’ triple homicide, changes a place. How can they sleep in rooms where people were slain? It doesn’t matter that is was 25 years ago, because the killer was never found and Piper fears the murderer could return. Nora wants them to let it rest, it’s old news, this is meant to be a positive change from their lives in California and the last thing she wants is anyone dwelling on the past. But Stacey isn’t so sure, she has seen shadows and a man sitting across the street who seemed ‘off’ somehow. She can’t share her fears with Piper, Piper spills too much and then they will all worry about her. In this family, Stacey is the odd one with her moods and quirks. The one who needs therapy.

For gorgeous Nora, Brooklyn is a chance for her girls to get the hang of city life, despite her husband’s misgivings. He doesn’t think her California blood can handle a year in New York, which couldn’t be further from the sunshine and “cushiness” of LA that she is used to. She wants this to work out and maybe they will even stay for good so why does she feel so wary, nervous even now that they’re here? Her life is as perfect as it gets, she has everything she wants. Their brownstone is huge, beautiful but all she can envision is blood on the walls, the murdered family. Working in their garden, she hits upon a rectangular box, but it is what’s inside that will set off alarm bells. She is the envy of her neighbor, having grown up in California and blessed with her beauty but no one lives a perfect life. The family portrait from the 1800’s that came with the house is a reminder to remember the dead, but how can an old photo be sinister itself?

For Jacob, the past lingers and tugs at him. The crime that occurred in 1994 may have faded from the newspapers and people’s minds, but is still fresh in his soul. He is obsessed with one of the victims, and fears she may have suffered greatly, though hopes she didn’t. It doesn’t sit well with him that a new family has moved in after the house has laid empty for so many years but it’s not like they’re coming back.

Stacey goes deeper into the tragedy and finds a friend in Lennon, she isn’t used to being so vulnerable and open with others. Can she trust him? Someone is following her, some street person, has he mistaken her for someone else? Despite her digging into the past there is so much left undiscovered, facts she can’t possibly unearth. She confides secrets in Lennon, but is keeping so much from her parents but they have their secrets too. Nora’s mind is playing games with her memories, and she knows Stacey is keeping things from her. She isn’t sold on Lennon either but he may not be the real threat. Who is?

The story alternates between Nora, Stacey and Jacob. It is an easy read, I just wish Jacob was more developed as a character. I also wanted to stay with each voice longer, I never sank deeply enough into Nora nor Jacob. Stacey was interesting, she actually felt like a teenager to me for once, so many books write teenagers who seem far too wise for their years. She is the right balance of insecure and hungry to make her own choices. The novel left me with questions but it was still an interesting ending-I just wish for more background. I think had it been longer, this would have been achieved. I am not sure how plausible it is, but truth is stranger than fiction so who knows. Good dark mystery.

Publication Date: January 18, 2022

William Morrow and Custom House

The Latinist: A Novel by Mark Prins

She knew, to some degree, that she could speak sharply to undergraduates with impunity, despite being young, female and podunk American, because she enjoyed Chris’s unadulterated favoritism.

Unadulterated favoritism comes at a cost, particularly career advancement in The Latinist. With a glowing recommendation letter from Classics professor Christopher Eccles (a titan in their field), Oxford grad Tessa Templeton’s future is bound to take off. Having relentlessly pursued her passion studying classical Latin Literature, at the painful expense of her relationship with Ben, there is nothing she wants more than to succeed. Chris’s support seems to be the only path to achieving her dream. Her faith in Chris comes into serious question when she receives a email informing her that he may be the one who is destroying her chances. How could it be true, surely it must be a prank? She cares for Chris, knows about the wound his father’s death caused and how difficult it has been to confront the realities of his dying marriage. He would never sabotage her career, would he? Her Daphne and Apollo dissertation was well received, far above the work of her peers, it’s a simple fact. How then could this be happening? When she discovers her peer, Liam (who has accomplished far less than her) has landed a prestigious position, she is stunned. No more so than Liam himself who always felt Chris disliked him. She discovers it isn’t a cruel prank, but why would Chris ruin her? How could she have possibly misread him? How could he be the villain in this tale when he has shown her so much support, allowed her to thrive under his wing?

The Daphne and Apollo myth comes into play as betrayal and love descend into scheming. Chris believes his heart is in the right place. His love is what Daphne needs and Ben is no longer an obstacle but he didn’t expect to have to defend his act of sabotage. Naturally he denies having written the email. His only salvation may be that she needs to remain on his good side to work at Westfaling next year. He underestimates her rage and this is far from over. She doesn’t know whether he hates her or it’s a sick form of love. The reality that she will have to accept the job at Westfaling, making his dream of keeping her close come true, horrifies her. Does she own any of the blame, has she ever led him to think she felt more? She’ll be damned if she gives in after giving up so much! She can’t even turn to Ben for love and support, now that he is gone. Instead, she travels to Italy and there probes into ‘obscure’ Latin poet Marius, who she had put off in the past at Chris’s urging. There is a taste of mystery with excavation. When she uncovers a great discovery she has the chance to rise from the ruins but how far is she willing to go?

This isn’t my usual read, but it wasn’t hard to feel outrage. The beginning is a slow humiliation but when the winds of fate began to blow in Tessa’s favor, I enjoyed the discovery she made. She takes her future in her own hands but then it gets dark. Oh poor misguided souls! I wish the ending went further yet at the same time I think it was just right. Who do you root for? Underhanded acts, shameful passion, sabotage, revenge… It’s a nice escape from reality, where people who seek to ruin others often succeed. Does she succeed? It depends on how you measure success.

Publication Date: January 4th 2022

W.W. Norton & Company

These Silent Woods: A Novel by Kimi Cunningham Grant

This world, it’ll tear the guts right out of you. As you well know. But this isn’t all there is.

Cooper and his daughter Finch have made a life for themselves cut off from the rest of the world in the Appalachian mountains. In their simple two room cabin the past can’t touch them, but it’s a life that has Cooper living in a state of hypervigilance. In their ‘small insulated world’, books and nature occupy Finch’s voracious mind but it can’t last forever. Nature it isn’t always kind, there are lessons at every turn. All he has strived for is to teach her right from wrong, but lines blur. She is like a small animal herself, having learned how to exist as one with nature at Cooper’s side. But she doesn’t know everything. The secrets he keeps hidden from Finch are, in his mind, necessary for their safety. It is his instincts that have made their survival possible but fate has a way of nosing its way in and upsetting the balance we create. Only two people know where they are, Cooper’s friend Jake and their meddlesome downriver neighbor, Scotland. Jake helps maintain their lifestyle with his yearly deliveries of supplies, without him they’d be in serious trouble. He has always been reliable, even with his health issues. Scotland is another story, a scrappy, shifty hermit who leaves Cooper unsettled, always watching he and Finch, tracking their every move closely- and over time seems too comfortable around his little girl, giving her ‘gifts’. But Cooper must maintain his calm if he doesn’t wish to be found, and that is no mean feat, especially as he is haunted by his terrible, dangerous mistakes.

Order is disrupted when Jake fails to appear. It’s a possibility Cooper has always considered, but venturing out for supplies on his own could puncture the world he has created. He knows it’s a temporary place, that one day their cabin, even the sprawling mountain will be too small to hold his girl. Finch is growing older and her curiosity is boundless. Then something exciting happens and a stranger appears, a young woman, filling Finch with urgency to get closer, where there should be fear. It is the violent events that follow that forces Cooper’s back against a wall, pushing him to again make an impossible choice. There is no where left to run but is he ready to sacrifice their lives?

This was such a good story, about how we perceive others and ourselves. It is about trauma, violence, friendship, love and the destructive choices we make. It is about things that threaten us, our instinctual reactions…the natural setting is perfect to show our own animal instincts. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: November 16, 2021

St. Martin’s Press

The Family Plot: A Novel by Megan Collins

But even after I stopped expecting us all to be killed, Andy insisted that our family was “unnatural,” that the way we were raised wasn’t right.

This novel is an ode to murder/crime junkies and a tale about a strange family. Dahlia Lighthouse is named after murder victim Elizabeth Short, aka “Black Dahlia”. Just like her, Dahlia’s siblings carry the weight of their namesake-Charlie (for the ill-fated Lindbergh baby), Tate (for famed movie star Sharon Tate), and Dahlia’s twin brother Andy, named after Lizzie Borden’s bludgeoned father. Under the shadow of horrific endings, the brood comes of age wondering when their bloody destinies will arrive. Skirting such horror, before long they learn that their parents’ purpose is to remember the victims, with their children’s names and reciting the Honoring Prayer (their invention) on the anniversaries of their murders. If their father ‘indulged his wife’s eccentricities,’ no one has been made to indulge them more than Dahlia and her siblings. The locals are suspicious and uneasy of them all, particularly with “the Blackburn Killer” running loose on the island, dumping bodies. It is no surprise that they all scattered as soon as they could, leaving behind their ‘haunted childhood’. Andy always felt their family was unnatural, far more troubled by their little honoring rituals than the rest. No one was closer to her twin than Dahlia nor was anyone more devastated than her when he ran away on their shared sixteenth birthday. She has waited over a decade for his return, hoping that their father’s death will bring him back. Twenty-six now, she has returned to the Blackburn for her father’s memorial. On the heels of his death, a gruesome discovery sends her reeling and all her dreams for reunion with her beloved Andy obliterated. Her brother’s body, with an axe splitting his head, is lying in the plot reserved for the patriarch.

The finality of Andy’s end leaves gaping holes in the years that have passed. Dahlia doesn’t want to believe it’s Andy, even if the ax was his, one he chopped trees on their land with, it doesn’t make it a fact. Despite not hearing from him since the strange, short note he left behind long ago, surely he is somewhere safe, living the best life, free from the eccentricities of being a Lighthouse. He was looking for a way out back then, something better than the misery life at the mansion was causing him. Depressed, moody and locking her out from whatever was going on with him, clear as day he was struggling with something, but what? It is confirmed through DNA testing, it is Andy.

We follow Dahlia as she combs over their childhood desperate for answers. The Blackburn Killer can’t be left out of the equation, even if the detective doesn’t see a connection. Tormented by devastating loss, Dahlia has to deal with her brother Charlie’s plan to open a museum of their family home, the Lighthouse Memorial Museum, which she sees as nothing but an opportunity for the vultures to come and ‘gawk at our grief.’ Tate’s creations of macabre dioramas (she has a very popular online following) has been her artistic outlet, but nothing could prepare Dahlia for her sister’s latest project. She is horrified to learn Tate is recreating Andy’s body in a diorama. This is how they will mourn, but Dahlia knows it will only make them appear that much more monstrous to the community. This isn’t what Andy, who hated what their parents forced on them all, would have wanted. To end up just another murder victim to be ‘honored’ at the mansion, to be reduced to a display by Tate. She blames herself, for not running away with him, would he still be alive today if she had? Worse, her mother is losing her mind, baking cookies for them, cookies! Playing at being the sort of nurturing mother who fawns over her little family, a role she has never played in their entire lives. Burying herself in cookie dough and denial.

She must find out who did this to her brother and why, who ‘covered him in dirt’, buried him like a secret. It was always Dahlia who missed him most, her life that was turned upside down when he ran. Only a person who knew about the family plot could have done it, someone who had been in their woods. Surely, it could be one of the islanders, forever watching them, ready to strike. Her mind lands on Ruby Decker, a girl she and Andy meanly called “The Watcher” when they were young, someone they too made a game of spying on. Just one person in a cast of characters she left behind when she struck out to build a life of her own. A life she wouldn’t have ever left had she known her beloved twin was rotting beneath the ground, waiting for justice.

As twins they shared a special connection, no one ever understood it. She always thought he was out there somewhere, that she would feel it if he were dead or in trouble. The fact of his remains leaves her aching, hurt that she didn’t feel the severing of their tie, wasted years longing for him to make contact, seeing him in the faces of strangers, ever foolishly hopeful. What did she miss? “All I know is how to search for Anndy.” Now she must search for his killer. As she scratches the surface of the past, Dahlia must face her own family’s failures. Questions about her parents, the cracks in their world, are crowding her mind. She can’t question her father, he’s dead and the dead don’t talk but do our perceptions and memories stand up to the test of time, can you find answers in remembrance? Recalling childhood incidents and memories, tackling it all now with a sharper, adult mind- could it be key? One thing comes to light as she uncovers the past, she didn’t know everything about Andy, her family or herself. Through the force of her grief, she will find out what happened to Andy and she will never be the same, none of the Lighthouses’ will.

I wish I could reveal more but it will ruin the tale. It’s unsettling, disturbing and sad. An original, engaging psychological thriller.

Published August 17, 2021

Atria Books