The Drama Teacher: A Novel by Koren Zailckas

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Too old to play the ingénue, I took on the role of pampered housewife instead.

Gracie Mueller isn’t about to let her husband sink the perfect life she has created for her precious family. With their home in foreclosure, she is grasping to save them from financial ruin. Luckily for her, she has skills that her husband doesn’t even know about. Her past has been shrouded from him, that other self is dead. If she has to turn his gaze in another direction anytime he comes close to uncovering her deceptions, she knows just how to do it. She has floated on her lies for years, kept her secrets locked deep beneath the surface of her housewife facade. Always a step ahead of the chaos her past leaves behind, there is nothing for her to do but find something or someone new to manipulate and if she must commit crimes to do it, so be it, it’s nothing new.

This time, however, she is getting messy and committing acts that make one question whether there is any humanity within her soul. Through a friendship, she seeks salvation and once she sets her plan in motion, no one is safe. Then we, the reader, go backwards through snippets of her life with her father and the ways they began to leave her mother. Is she a victim? What is the point of lies, what if lies are the only way a person has been taught to survive? Just how damaging is a life of constant renewal and creation? What did dear old daddy teach her, what about her first real love? Her past is poisonous and there are secrets she doesn’t know either.

Gracie is a complicated character, she is disturbed but there are times when I felt empathy while being horrified and disgusted. Monsters really are sometimes made, but can they change? The children, I love that the author lends innocents to the story. Her children are young but not so young that she can always control what comes out of their mouths, and it’s heart breaking to hear the confusion when mommy lies and her child corrects her! Does she love her children? In the only way she knows how, but not enough to stop living the only life she knows.

When she invents another life, she seems one breath away from collapse. It’s shocking how easy people slip out of their suspicions, how their own emotional state blinds them. I didn’t want her to get away with what she’d done, and I also wanted salvation for her and the children. I would love to dissect the entire novel, but I don’t want to give away what happens. Could people really be so gullible? Yes, of course. At the start of the story she is conning people, nothing really dark, easy cons- until the rot emerges through opportunities. Sometimes the devil is in the people you let in. Who better to be a drama teacher than a woman who lives an artificial existence? Just who are you Gracie Mueller?

Publication Date: August 7, 2018

Crown Publishing

 

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Providence: A Novel Caroline Kepnes

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He’s coming at me fast and it turns out I am not the kind of kid who springs into action when it’s time to fight. I freeze. I choke. Same way I do on the baseball field at reccess.

This is certainly original, and very strange. Jon and Chloe are best friend living in New Hampshire, sweet on each other with a tender innocence. Safe to confide their passions and secrets in a shed it’s easy to see Jon is awkward. He’ll never be the cool guy, the athlete. He’s the sort of boy whose sweetness is his curse when it comes to other boys, his sensitivity making him a target. With his mind on Chloe, ready to tell her how much she means to him, hoping for more, his substitute teacher (Mr. Blair)  kidnaps him. The teacher was obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft, and seemed to despise all the kids who only cared about fitting in. He felt differently about Jon, but being his ‘special student’ is not a lucky turn of fate. Mr. Blair will want Jon to be ‘a part of something’ that will make humanity better. He is the chosen one.

Chloe is reeling when it happens. She is the only person who might know where he could have gone.  At times embarrassed by her love for him, she wonders if her moment of meanness involving another boy, Carrig, has caused Jon to run away. Even when he is missing, there is cruelty in the excitement surrounding the kids. Tidbits of his behavior is gossip, like finding out he slept with his hamster. It’s evident she is the only one who liked him, who knew everything and understood who he was. She starts to resent that no one really cares, beyond pretending for the sake the drama, and she wants them all to know Jon will not be forgotten! There is shame that she was torn between Carrig and Jon, attracted to them both for different reasons. But Jon is the person she is her most real self with.

Chloe comes apart, for a time, distancing herself from her ‘cool’ friends but being a misfit isn’t going to bring Jon back, and it’s evident he is not coming back. She had remained loyal, saving issues of the Telegraph that he so loved, drawing pictures of him each night but still… he isn’t home. Life has to go on, she returns to her friends, she tries to fit in. But Jon is still so much a part of her. Then we are with Jon, four years have passed. We know something terrible has been done to him, but what? It sounds like some sort of experiment. All he knows is he has been ‘out’ for a long time, a long induced sleep, a coma and now he has incredible power. But what? He is special, but why? Special in what way?

Through a phone call, Chloe finds out they found Jon. As soon as he returns, he wants to run to her, but everything is wrong, as it always has been for him. This power may be yet another thing that stands in the way of the love they have always felt for one another. It all gets even weirder, it’s a supernatural sort of power and the funny thing is, now that he is back he knows he has to leave again to protect Chloe from his special gift. Terrible things are happening to others, a detective takes up the mysterious case, the creepy deaths and is soon after Jon. Is he involved? This is where the story of Lo and Eggs comes in. Eggs gives a raw emotional insight about his son Chuckie, whose room he now uses as his personal office. We know Chuckie suffers from an ‘affliction’, be it autism or something else and can no longer live with them, is in a special home. He can’t connect to this son with a ‘mess in his head’, there is a story inside of the detective that makes him more of a person and not just your typical ‘good guy’ on the trail of Jon. I think a younger reader will vilify Eggs, how he has been reacting to his son, keeping his distance. As much as he feels Chuckie is damned by whatever disorder he was born with, anyone can see he suffers as much as Jon, in a way. He can’t get past his emotional chaos enough to be with his son. A more mature audience can understand the struggle, the loss of what he hoped would be and what is. Not to say you won’t feel disgust that he distances himself from Chuckie, but maybe the real ‘head mess’ is in his own mind. For me, it was this story I loved the most. The very end pulled at my heart, but that’s the mother in me. Jon and Eggs share, at least for a time, the same emotional storms, but in different ways. The difference is, Eggs emotional barrier is self-induced.

As a reader you can dissect what it means, this ‘power’ that is more a tragic curse put upon Jon by a man who seemed to want to punish the world for his own loneliness. Jon is no longer the wimpy oddball, he is a ‘hunk’, he is a man! But their love is still damned. It’s an interesting story, because Mr. Blair is obviously the sort that can’t stand those who want to ‘fit in’, but the fact is even when we don’t, against our own inclinations the best of us find ourselves struggling with the herd mentality. It is impossible to get through life and be true to yourself with every breath, even the strongest of personalities has at some point conformed to ‘fit’. Yes, even the strongest of you out there marching to your own drum, you will conform in some way, go against your own nature, be it with family or strangers. Fate, fate is such a crapshoot for all the characters, for all of us. Mr. Blair has made it impossible for Jon to even try. With his copy of The Dunwich Horror and his written ‘clues’ from Mr. Blair, it is all he has to understand what the man did to him and why. Did it make the world better? Did it safeguard Jon from the pain of human connection? We shall see…

Publication Date: June 19, 2018

Random House

Lenny

 

 

Paper Ghosts: A Novel of Suspense by Julia Heaberlin

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Lying is a delightful thing, for it leads to truth. That’s Dostoyevsky.

This is a heck of a suspense story about a serial killer who may or may not have dementia. Can you ever really trust a killer? Sure, he’s an old man but isn’t dementia a convenient illness for someone with a lot of sins to hide? Carl Louis Feldman was a celebrated photographer, but it’s the girls he photographed that captivates the young woman who arrives at the half-way house where he lives claiming to be his daughter. She is going to take him on a trip to ‘dig up’ his lost memories of his darkness, and find out what happened to her beloved sister Rachel who disappeared when she herself was just a kid.  “Death came to her like a summer’s dream.” Her years have been haunted by not knowing what happened, if she is dead or alive. An adult now, her obsession has driven her to deceive old Carl, but is his mind really filled with holes or is it just another deception in a dark life? He isn’t a fool, nor does he trust her. Her sister climbed out of a grave once, just what will Carl reveal, will she rise again?

With photographs as clues and with Carl in tow, she is going to unravel the great horrific mystery of her life. Though during his trial for another crime he was found not guilty and went into hiding, she always knew he’d ‘crawl out.’ Never could she have imagined she would become his ‘daughter’. He wants things, and only then will he help her. He tells her it’s an exercise in madness, he doesn’t remember! Then he gives her the list, and she will give in to his demands. He starts playing with her, leaving her little gifts meant to frighten her, and it works. There are flashbacks to her memories of Rachel, and now with Carl sharing her space, she is remembering things that once seemed inconsequential. She won’t be cowed by Carl, she knows her power is in never showing her fear, never flinching in his presence, never letting him know his effect on her. With two fingers on her flesh he says, “Bump, bump. That’s your carotid.” It just shows how he loves mind games, and a woman’s fear. She plays the game right back.

She wants to know everything, even if she risks her own neck. I didn’t have a clue how this story would end, not what I expected at all. It’s scores points for originality with the dementia angle. I really liked Black-Eyed Susans by Heaberlin, this one is a bit slower but still an interesting story. He is a killer, how the hell do you cozy up to a killer who plays the liar’s game so much better than you? They are both screwed up, and is strange to see how much she has in common with him. The story is more about their psyche than any of his victims, her sister included. Sometimes the answer is worse than what you thought you knew. The memories of a chid are distorted to begin with, colored by rage and grief carried into adulthood and truth becomes a murky diseased artifact. What has Carl done? Does he really have no memory of her sister because of his dementia, or is there something else?

Without a doubt one of the strangest books about a killer I’ve read in a long time.

Publication Date: May 15, 2018

Random House

Ballantine Books

 

Our Little Secret: A Novel by Roz Nay

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“Oh, I don’t want to talk about Saskia the whole time.”

Novak’s teeth are flat at the front, four of them in a row. “She’s kind of the main event.”

We meet Angela at the start of the novel in an interrogation room. HP’s (an ex-boyfriend from her youth) wife is missing, and we wait to find out just what she might know, or be hiding about this ‘main event.’ Angela’s parents ‘moved a lot’, when she was growing up and a childhood spent on unsteady ground, never knowing when she would be yanked up by her roots and planted elsewhere, forced to start all over again was not, she assures us, such an adventure in your teens where loyalties, cliques and relationships already seem cemented, no room for outsiders. Her tenth grade year they move to the town of Cove, Vermont and that is where the story of her first love begins. She is met by the ugly cruelty of pretty girls, until HP steps in.  This is where the popular, beloved, golden boy entered her life and the stage is set for eleven years into the future, where a crime has occurred.

But first we are led into the past, a tale of friendship and love. We listen as the intimate tale of her friendship with HP unfolds. The two are moving towards something intense, deep, and strong. Angela’s parents expect nothing but the best from their daughter, an educated life and her ticket out of the small New England town will take her far away to Oxford University in England and threatens distance between she and HP. There is no choice, you don’t pass up Oxford. They demand she goes, it’s a chance of a lifetime, she may not know she wants this golden opportunity but they know she will regret it with her every breath if she doesn’t take it! He will visit her, he will wait, everything will be beautiful but another woman enters the scene and everything goes awry. Angela is rooted to the past, her love is a black winged creature, and Saskia is a cage. She cannot let go of the past, and she knows HP feels the same, she knows that the only obstacle is Saskia.

Flashbacks between her high school days getting up to trouble and love with HP and friends clash with her university years and now the present. Where does HP fit in the puzzle of her adult life? In this room, the detective reveals poisonous little tidbits, facts he has unearthed, overturning rocks in her life beneath which dark pale bellied creatures live. Then there is Freddy, a soft shoulder, a dear friend to help lift her out of the gaps of time when HP is being pulled away in the rip tide of Saskia. He is her anchor, he longs to heal her, fix her and Angela is blind to the possibilities because all she can see, feel and taste is her first love. Fate could never divide two people who are meant to be, nor could new people, be they lovers or children. Right? If it’s destined, no man can divide such affection, nor can time. What is the passing of years compared to the measure of such love?

I felt passing moments of likability  and pity for Angela but more often than not she is selfish or confusing. Is she shy and weak, or an outcast smoldering with rage? Is she an ungrateful child or suffocated by the whims and big dreams her parents have for her?  I wish her personality had a little more time to come to a boil, as I wasn’t really sure how to take her. She’s bitter as an adult, greedy to meet her own needs, blind but where is her intelligence? This is a woman who went to Oxford! I get it, she is consumed by love (obsession) but something is amiss. That aside, I was engaged. The ending was good, well… well then. So that’s how it ends!

Chapter after chapter of the story creeps closer to what happened to Saskia. Dark is the heart of obsessive love, but did Angela come unhinged? Could she really have blood on her hands? Could she have killed for love? Just what would Angela do for her soul mate, what wouldn’t she do? Is she misunderstood, are they way off? Is Saskia just pulling some silly stunt for attention? You have to read to find out.

Publication Date: April 17, 2018

St. Martin’s Press

 

Baby Teeth: A Novel by Zoje Stage

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Hannah kept the words to herself because they gave her power. Inside her, they retained their purity.  She scrutinized mommy and other adults, studied them. Their words fell like dead bugs from their mouths.

First it has to be said do not go into this lightly thinking you are going to be uplifted or that it’s a champion for those with mental disorders. Go back, turn around, this isn’t that type of novel. Baby Teeth cuts deep, leaves all the adults and other children who come in contact with Hanna wounded, bleeding, in fear for their lives. We Have To Talk About Kevin just tore me apart, it is one of my favorite novels, this is something else entirely. It’s a hard book compare with. With that said, it’s disturbing and dark. There is nothing darling here, and the mother isn’t without fault. I cannot imagine…

Suzette ‘rallies’ behind her girl, hoping to figure out what is wrong while Alex is adamant it’s nothing. I’m supposed to feel for her, but is she the problem? Does she need control, has this messed up her kid? There are small moments when it seems Hanna truly feels cast out by her mother, and we’re never really sure if it’s so. There is a tug of war going on to win Alex over, Hanna wants him all to herself, the only thing right with the world is her magnificent Daddy who sees nothing sinister about her. It’s clear he wants to believe the best about his child, but there is something broken within her. Suzette cannot muster enough love, not when the child she knows is not the same Hanna who appears before her husband. She pretends to be a good girl, she makes her mother into a liar. Or does she? For a while there, I wandered if there was going to be some mind bending twist. Maybe it’s good old mommy imagining things?

If only she could siphon the love her husband feels in buckets for their girl, but it’s so hard when it seems Hanna wants to annhilate her. When she poses an idea to send Hanna to school, all hell breaks loose.

I struggle with these sort of stories. I have a sensitivity to anything written about mental health issues, mind you this is s thriller, it’s fiction and it certainly grabs you by the throat. It is engaging, horrifying and a sprial into a nightmare. I took issue with Suzette, I know she’s the ‘victim’ but she is a little too quick to want to forget her child. I don’t know, maybe it’s a mother thing, maybe I love blindly but I cannot imagine pushing my kid off somewhere and brushing off my hands with a ‘well that’s taken care of, where was I, let’s make love honey.’ But that is why I tend to read more literary fiction. I knew what I was getting into, and for that- this is a hell of a disturbing novel.

This is the story of a born psychopath, what’s scarier than a child harboring such violence, hatred, a twisted mind? It’s terrible, the paths her mind takes, particualrly the fascination with a witch. The reader sees what’s coming, while mommy and daddy are oblivious, thinking maybe things will calm down now that they are both aware. Suzette is terrified of her little girl, for good reason. It’s a novel that will make a lot of people uncomfortable but it is well written. There will be many different reactions, and it depends on your reading ‘fix’. Why do I imagine this as a horror film, that comes out on Christmas, because it would rattle people?

If murderous children are your thing, this is right up your alley!

Publication Date: July 17, 2018

St. Martin’s Press