The Life of Death by Lucy Booth

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For I am there to carry you through those last moments, through the screaming and the seeping, through the fog, and deposit you softly, gently on the other side.

The story begins in 1590, twenty-three year old  Elizabeth “Lizzie” Murphy of Scotland is condemned to burn at the stake for witchcraft. A woman who has ‘a talent for poultice’, along with her sisters, aunts, mothers and women from the village took care of their people, who desperately had need of their cures, nurturing. It wasn’t long before accusations of evil, of witchery was on the tongues of those they helped. Soon, Lizzie strikes a deal with the devil and while burning before the jeers of the people, feels nothing thanks to him. She has, from the moment of her conception been the chosen one, for all Satan wants is for her to usher in the dead for all eternity.

Free of the burning licks from the fires of hate, Lizzie has spent centuries with brief glimpses into others life, taking them over to the other side. Steadfast in her duties as Death, she never falters, nor thinks about that life she traded so long ago too busy tangled up in the last moments of others. This reminded me of a show I loved, Quantum Leap, because she gets inside of people in guiding souls over but once she plays the devil’s game, it is with a far more tragic and at times darker bend. She is a dutiful worker until Tom. Just as the man becomes a widower, Lizzie is reminded of the burning desire for life and an all consuming love. It is time for Death to die, now if she can just outwit the devil, strike a deal with him so she may escape the monotony of taking lives. Then, and only then, will she be able to taste deep love, with Tom.

There isn’t a soul as dark as the beast’s, nor one as skilled at wagers. All she needs to do is take five lives in order to be released. But the catch, of course, is the devil picks who and relishes in the horror of their pain, the sorrow of their final moments. What happens when one of the Satan’s victim is too much bear? Will she change her mind, risk her only chance at love, freedom in the name of fairness? The devil is tricky tricky tricky… Will she allow the sun to set on the innocent for her own selfish desires? Can there ever be a happy ending when the devil is involved? Why is the devil so enamored of Lizzie, what is it about her that captured his attention while she was in her mother’s womb?

This novel raises the ever present question we have when death comes. Why him, why her? Why me? Death feels like a monster, indiscriminately picking us off, and stomping our feet at the inequality of it all releases us from nothing. For death truly is with us, an ever present shadow from the moment we are born. We can’t, not a one of us, escape it- not even by making a pact with the horned one. If you take the time to read About the Author, you discover Lucy Booth was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and continued to write, including finishing this very novel. The cancer returned in 2014 and this time Lucy’s battle ended. I hate saying she lost her battle, because she didn’t, we don’t. We live each day and hope to wake up the next, but just like the souls in this novel learn, life isn’t guaranteed. There isn’t a bargain any one of us can make to extend our time.. eventually we come to the end. Age isn’t always factor, sometimes not even the state of our health, and that’s what makes life so precious, that at any moment it can slip through our fingers. So many choices are really just a circle, and you still end up where you started. We do the best with what time we have, and for some it is in mustering the strength to continue on as before and finish a novel.

Out Today!!!!  May 2, 2019

Unbound

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The Laws of the Skies by Grégoire Courtois, Rhonda Mullins (Translation)

 

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We are all children, they thought, and none of us is equipped to deal with such an adversary. We go through life under other people’s protection.We listen to instructions and try to follow them.We don’t know what’s true and what’s not. What’s fair and unfair. Our world is small. Our world is narrow.

One of the first things adults learn, life isn’t fair, but at six children aren’t ready for this lesson! Not all of the twelve six-year-olds lost in the woods are afraid, the adults certainly are. This is a camping treat turned nightmare! All they have, when the night turns to horror, is each other but the woods are deep, dark and filled with unseen predators that lurk, plants that poison, but the cruelest of them all could be among them already. When the children scatter in terror and the adults disappear, all you know is no one is getting out alive. This isn’t a fairy tale with a moral, if only the children could have slept through the horror, the blood splatter, the brain matter… Don’t enter this tale with a lick of hope! For what horror is worse than the senselessness of evil, the creepy demise of a warped mind?

The wild creatures are sleeping, for now, unaware of the chaos, the warm bodies that could fill their bellies. Whimpering cries, cracked skulls, sliced arteries… the children sway, the children fall, the ground drops, there will be a battle, but the hero is no victor, because there isn’t a happy ending. The characters can’t hear you weep for them, words of support won’t be a beacon to freedom, to salvation… this is the end my friend.

There is nothing to give away, every child is doomed, the telling is in the hunt, the story is the who but when is there ever an answer to why? I finished this when I was still on heavy medication from surgery, I cringed a lot. Those poor little ones.

Publication Date: May 10, 2019

Coach House Books

The Invited: A Novel by Jennifer McMahon

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She came to believe that some objects were like that boomerang- they went out, then found their way right back where they started from. 

Having grown up with a builder father Helen got her first taste of working on a house the summer before first grade, coming to the job site with her daddy. From there, she spent her weekends and summers learning his skills. Now, it’s her turn and she is caught up in her husband Nate’s enthusiasm to build their dream house, in the country. Trading their teaching jobs for the peace of forty-four acres in the woods of Vermont, it seems happiness is on the horizon until the land, and its brutal history, begins to speak. The land must have wanted them, seeking out the perfect place, they stumble upon a wooded area with a bog. It was ‘meant to be’.  Land reputed to be haunted, if you believe in such things. Braving the rumors, they set up home in the old mobile home that was left behind by the previous owner. It couldn’t be more perfect, land that is exactly what they dreamed up, a place to stay while building… then night falls and nature gets noisy. The gnawing, breaking branches, the screaming, surely it’s just the animals, nature? Then Helen learns about Hattie Breckenridge, the witch that once lived at the edge of the bog! Is she the reason why everything is going wrong, for the strange things that feel like a haunting? Ridiculous to believe a woman from the 1900’s could curse land, it’s silly fantasy! Who believes in witches anyway?

The animals aren’t the only ones unhappy with their presence. There is local girl Olive, who watches them from her perch in an old maple tree. It can’t be, this destroys all her plans! “They’re ruining everything.” Flatlanders! Just what she doesn’t need, an obstacle in searching for the treasure that old Hattie left behind. She concocts a plan to chase them off, but she may not be the only being that is interfering. Olive’s story is tangled up in Helen and Nate’s, and ghosts aren’t as terrifying as the things living people have done. What is the true story behind Hattie? Was she truly an evil?

It’s not ghosts that terrify, its human beings and all their ugliness. People are haunted by more than apparitions, it’s the dark history that has tainted the soil. What makes a witch? Gifts can be curses when people decide to turn on you and a brutal tragedy of the past can echo for decades. This novel is more a heartbreaking story involving family, lies, deception and vengeance. Revenge is a slippery devil, what seems like a path to right wrongs, seek justice often takes more than one bargained for.

The Invited is a character driven novel, it didn’t come off as scary for me, but it is a well written story. McMahon always writes interesting characters who are neither ‘pure’ nor ‘evil’ but whose actions define them in the end. It’s all about choices, and how heinous acts can give birth to fury, leading to repercussions a long time coming. A solid novel.

Publication Date: April 30, 2019

Doubleday Books

 

Necessary People by Anna Pitoniak

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You pay attention because you have to pay attention. The world isn’t going to unfurl itself for you. You have to pry it open.

College, that place that draws people from all walks of life together, broadens your world view, lets the priveledged and working class rub shoulders and be better for it, this is the meeting place for one hell of a story. For Violet Trapp it was her intelligence and hard work, not her parent’s money that lands her at the private college. There isn’t an inkling of homesickness in her body, not for the mother who, while poor, was ‘the worst sort of snob’ and a violent one at that. Violet wants nothing more than to forget her family entirely, to cut her roots. Vilolet, a 19 year old girl whose support and encouragement came from her teacher rather than her own parents. She will invent a world where she can be a success, join the ranks of the wealthy. Her first door into the world of privilege opens when she becomes roommates with Stella Bradley, after saving her. Beautiful, outspoken, indifferent because money allows such things, there are ‘unseen parts’ that over time Violet is privy to. Violet’s first time with the Bradley family is during Thanksgiving and before long she may as well be one of them. She becomes, she flourishes once Stella enters her life. Knowing this family, blending in with them, becoming one of them is a ‘golden opportunity’ and our Violett is always paying attention, it’s what people without options must do.

Their friendship transcends college, after graduation Violet moves to New York to work for cable news. They are grueling days, thankless, but at least she can afford to be there and in a beautiful apartment with a doorman at that all because of the ‘arrangement’ with Stella’s mother.  Stella, doing Stella things ‘wherever the wind takes her’, urges her to just live there, of course mother Anne expects pay, to make it official only. Even so it’s a deal other’s would kill for. In the vacuum of Stella’s absence, Violett works her way up the ladder, begins a flirtation with her co-worker Jamie and waits for her friend to show.  Stella’s ‘hot temper and impulsive spirit’ makes for disappearing acts and blunt cruelties now and then, like reminding Violett where she came from, more as a joke of course. Her impulsiveness and vanishing can come in handy though too, at least for Violet. The relationship works with Stella as top dog, they have their roles to play, so when Violet becomes the youngest associate producer, it’s not such a shock that Stella decides to use her connections to get into the news.

When you’re beautiful and beguiling, and wealth is your superpower, any mistakes you make is ‘charming’. Stella has such charm in buckets and buckets, their roles are the ‘poor girl’ and ‘the rich girl’ and often Violet seems more like a stray the Bradley’s took in, or a pet project. Despite all her hard work, Stella surpasses her, easing into everything she wants without the sweat, blood and tears Violet must squeeze out of her worn out self. Stella’s fast rise in the business is as effortless as her beauty. Stella is demanding and often tyrannical, and when you live on the charity of the wealthy, friend or not, ‘like a daughter’ or not, you will be at the constant beck and call, a permanent audience to their dramas.

“The meager territory I had claimed as my own, the little patch of land free from Stella Bradley’s shadow- it was gone, invaded, colonized.” From here, the novel descends into darker more treacherous water and only one “It Girl” can exist. It gets twisted, and both are guilty of heinous behaviors, psychological warfare until one of them snaps.

This reminds me a lot of The Talented Mr. Ripley, not entirely, but similar dynamics. Who the hell do you root for here? Both are deceptive and selfish, though it’s easier to understand where Violet is coming from, she is relatable. What is it about some female friendships, that rivalry, the jealousies that often simmer beneath the surface of things? Envy that buzzes around like filthy flies? Of course most friendships of this vein end in childish tiffs, not crimes. Why do some people always have to demand what’s yours, even when they don’t really want it? Stella likes Violet in her place where she is insecure, uncultured, needy and dependant on her whims. She isn’t about to let Violet stand on her own two feet, no way, not when her benevolence, her family’s charity helped mold her. Stella isn’t as unobservant as Violet thought, and much more conniving but has underestimated just how badly Violet wants her territory back! Why should Stella always win, why should she be destined for great things wrapped up in her cloud of arrogance and indifference, it means nothing to her, she doesn’t earn anything! So we spiral…

This is a disturbing novel, especially once you get to part 3. Definitley add this novel to your May reading list!

Publication Date: May 21, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

Looker: A Novel by Laura Sims

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They look like they’re being filmed right now, like they’re co-staring in a shampoo commercial, but there’s only me watching.

Our narrator’s life is falling apart and she is descending into despair, unraveling and channeling her dissatisfaction and rage at the beautiful ‘actress’, her neighbor whose life has every blessing that her own is missing. A perfectly beautiful baby, while she suffers infertility, not riding buses with other ‘sad sacks’ oh no, not the actress. She has a driver to whisk her off to anywhere her heart desires. “Does she remember these and other indignities of “regular person” city life?” She can see the actresses life playing out like a movie, broadcasting everything she herself will never have nor be, the glamor, the success, the beautiful husband, a screenwriter, of course. Their smug confidence that no one would dare disturb their beautiful, safe world guarantees our narrator can watch them live their lives. When Nathan was still around, she wasn’t so concerned with her neighbor… but now… that’s all gone, Nathan’s warm loving hand.

It’s watchful torture, everything she wanted, the actress has, can conjure or grow, like that damn baby. She is nothing now, just ‘a woman shaped shadow’. No husband, no child, no beautiful home, the only thing left of Nathan, his cat. Her job is glamourless, teaching adult students, a ‘non-professor’ though. Life gives her nothing but resounding no’s, just like her body betrays her, denies her what for the actress and many other women is so simple. Soon, she is emboldened by her toxic envy, becomes a disturbance in couple’s perfect life. As she says “everything inside me has scattered”, spiraling with nothing to stabilize her, no one who cares. She begins to horde pieces of the actresses life, imagines what she can do to get reactions out of her. She gets involved with a student, who of course tries to manipulate her, the world and everyone in it is out to get her from the old woman Mrs. H, whose always on the stoop, to Nathan demanding his cat back, the cat he abandoned, left like a piece of luggage in his rush to desert her.

The nightmare is in our narrator’s breakdown, she is in desperate need of help that will never come, isn’t she? The actress represents everything she wants and can’t have, but why should the actress be so special, and she cast aside? This is a hell of a book, it’s crazy to relate to the madness, but the hits just keep coming don’t they? This isn’t going to end on a happy note!

Publication Date: January 8, 2019  Out Tomorrow!

Scribner

The Winter Sister:A Novel by Megan Collins

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Strange, now, to think of it, now that I was so far from that world, sucked back into the one I’d thought I’d peeled off of me like a sunburn.

Winter Sister, at its heart, is about more than the death of Persephone, Sylvie’s older sister. It’s about their mother’s ‘history of silence’ and strange ‘dark days’. Sylvie, before the tragedy of Persephone’s murder destroyed her mother, lived in the spotlight of her mother’s love, a tenderness that never seemed to shine over Persephone. Sylvie is the favored one, because she reminds their mother of the man who got away, according to her mom. With their independent mom, who could “love us more than a hundred fathers ever could” there was never any reason to know who those flings were. Perseophone never quite feels that all encompassing adoration and attention, and could have used a father’s love.

Sylvie thinks she harbors all the secrets that matter, that her shameful act the last night she saw her sister alive makes her as guilty of her murder as the actual killer. Persephone was forbidden to date, her mother knew nothing about Ben and their volatile relationship, nor the hidden fingertip sized bruises he left on her beautiful skin. Sylvie knows he killed her sister with his dangerous, brutal love but no one would ever accuse the mayor’s son of such an act, despite the reports that she mattered as “one of Spring Hill’s own”, Sylvia knows her sister is nothing to the town. In truth, they were never truly a part of Spring Hill. It takes the loss of her mother, when she most needs her to be present and the passage of time to see clearly what she missed sixteen years ago.

Present day and Sylvie works in a tattoo parlor, no longer known as ‘Persephone’s Sister’, having long ago shed that skin and reinvented a past for herself that doesn’t carry the tragic air of loss. In her new life, her sister hasn’t been murdered. On the night of her thirtieth birthday, the call comes about her mother’s cancer. Aunt Jill had stepped up and cared for her when her mother retreated to her room and from life in the aftermath of Persephone’s murder. Now, Aunt Jill is needed desperately by her own child, stretched too thin it’s time Sylvie do her duty and return home to help her mother through treatment. Never once had her mother checked in on her, not once did she give her the comfort she desperately needed after losing her beloved sister and now, she’s meant to play devoted, caring daughter to a mother she hasn’t spoken to in years, still just as bitter and mean as ever. To make matters worse, Ben works as a nurse at the cancer center, Ben who Sylvie is adamant got away with killing her sister.

In confronting the past, she must also question her mother’s coldness towards her sister all those years before she was killed. Could she have been the one abusing her? Why did it seem like they both shared a different mother? Has what she believed about Ben been wrong all this time? If not Ben, then who had reason to hurt Persephone? It is about being too young to understand the dynamics of relationships, being between childhood and adult things. It is a bond between sisters and how their mother’s attention or lack there of spills over into their interactions with each other, fueling resentment at times, and yet Persephone and Sylvie always chose each other, until one night Sylvie thinks she knows a way to save her sister from all consuming dangerous love. A decision she will regret all her life, a boulder of grief she carries in her gut.

Why didn’t her mother ever care enough to share in their grief together? Why is Ben telling a story that puts Persephone in a wildly different light? Maybe she didn’t know her sister as well as she thought, or built her own version of their love based on the evidence she saw. Could she really have been wrong all this time? Her mother is sober now, and it’s frightening, her vulnerability. “How much of Persephone’s relationship with Mom had I missed? How many small but accumulating hurts and dismissals had I filtered out over the years, swathed, as I’d been, in Mom’s arms?” Anaïs Nin once wrote, “we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are” and that could be the title of this book. The truths Sylvie has held in her mind begin to disintegrate upon her return home, with the clarity of adult eyes. She is stunted, she hasn’t been living her life fully since that night. I found what moved me more than the ‘who done it’ is the dysfunction in her family, that each person’s history in the same home can be outrageously different, and the truth lies somewhere in between. Youth is often a cloud that plays with memory. Fear, too, can color how we behave, or raise our children but when a child needs their mother, there is never an explanation good enough to exonerate her actions. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Touchstone

Atria Books

Watching You: A Novel by Lisa Jewell

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There was a charge in the room, as though everyone was nursing a secret too big to be entirely contained.

The characters in this novel are wonderfully developed and you must pay attention, because quite a lot is happening. Watching You takes place mostly in Melville Heights, a posh neighborhood in Bristol, England (yes, I just wanted an excuse to use the word posh) of ‘iconic Victorian villas’  where the well to do live.  Residents are lawyers, doctors, surgeons and the handsome headmaster Tom Fitzwilliam who has saved the local state school with his ‘superhead’ skill and charm. He is just one of the many people being watched or watching. Tom has a wife who doesn’t feel like she belongs, and tortures herself to be what Tom requires. Freddie is left to his own devices much of the time, aware that his mother’s sole focus is pleasing his difficult father.  Freddie spends his time tracking the residents with the skill of a spy using his ‘life-changing’ digital binoculars to observe them, though brilliant, he may not understand just what he sees, for there is a much larger story, connecting strangers in a thriller that culminates with a murder. Let not the past be forgotten either, go back to 1996 and a diary entry that begins with a girl who is in love with her English teacher, twice her age.

Tom’s neighbors are consultant heart surgeon Jack and his wife Rebecca who is pregnant with their first child and not happy about it. Jack’s carefree sister Joey, ten years his junior, with her new husband Alfie (whom she married in Ibiza) in tow have just moved in with the couple. Where Jack is successful and serious Joey can’t seem to get her life together, taking “classic Joey jobs” that don’t pay much nor require experience nor education. Regardless of where she finds herself in the world, she is still the same irresponsible Joey, so nothing surprising about her intense attraction to Tom Fitzwilliam, a man who surely would never be interested in a mess like her. She should feel ashamed of her crush, considering Alfie, even though everything between them had happened too fast. That is Joey’s way, acting out on her passions and impulses. Then there is her brother Jack’s wife, a woman so “straitlaced ” and “humorless” that she couldn’t hope to befriend nor confide in her. Why is Rebecca so distant? What did Jack ever see in her? Why isn’t she excited about having a child? Joey’s dissatisfaction with her own disappointing choices in life are buried under her new hobby, Tom, which is becoming more obsession. “Everyone wants a bit of Tom Fitzwilliams”, but she wants more than just a bit, watching him with intense longing, soon she will get to know him when she becomes the focus of his attention.

Jenna Tripp lives in the neighborhood too, and she doesn’t feel charmed or ‘blinded’ by her teacher like everyone else. Her friend Bess yearns for Tom,  thinks him “A god among men” but Jenna has different memories about Mr. Fitzwilliam, a moment she and her mother witnessed, that induce nothing but unease and a little fear.  Her mother, though, is succumbing to mental decline. It’s getting harder for Jenna to cover for her, especially when her mother has her freak outs in public, declaring that she is being followed, watched! She is adamant that Tom Fitzwilliam and ‘that son of his’ are bad people, a part of some ‘they’ who stalk people, torture them until they go mad. That Jenna just needs to wake up and see the truth, wants her daughter to stay away from the man. Her mother’s behavior is getting worse, it’s scaring her, and there seems to be nowhere for Jenna to turn for help, not without upending their life.

Everyone is being stalked and stalking in this novel inspired by love, desire, loneliness, boredom, madness or something far more dangerous. Is Tom really a god among men, is Jenna’s mother going mad, is Joey the threat? Could Freddie with his peculiar hobbies and simmering anger towards his father be the real danger lurking? How does the past and a young girl’s naive love for her teacher tie in? Who is Red Boots? The truth is full of trickery and the reader will assume many things, being both right and wrong in their guesses.

You have to read.

I began reading Lisa Jewell when I lived in England and her novels have taken a darker turn, the characters far more complex. I’ve said as much before, but I can’t help but be impressed by the webs she writes her characters into. Watching You is another success! As to the ending… I didn’t expect that and it was just right! Yes, read it! Can’t wait for her next book!

Out Now

Published December 26, 2018

Atria Books