Never Have I Ever: A Novel by Joshilyn Jackson

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She smiled, and I had no premonition as I smiled back. She didn’t look like my own destruction to me. She looked… the word was “cool”. 

“Cool” is hard to find once your life is consumed by mothering, or heck, even just “adulting” -mothers aren’t the only ones who lose excitement. When Angelica Roux crashes Char’s book club arriving at Amy Whey’s house, where it’s being hosted, they’ve let it their destruction. It’s not just her beauty that unravels the women, “I could feel her charisma like it was a wind she’d set loose in the room, pushing us all forward in our seats”, it is her very presence, her energy. It is as if she is a mesmerist! Charlotte catches on fast seeing that Roux has ‘hijacked’ the evening, she knows how to bait the women into revealing themselves, loosening their inhibitions and all within minutes of her arrival. Wine bottle after wine bottle, damn but it feels good to let yourself go, when you spend so much time living like ‘domesticated animals.’ Their book club is normally just a spot of stolen time, but it’s never been this exciting!

When it’s Amy’s turn to play,  terror invades her very insides as Roux has “cracked open the past”, and Amy’s past is ugly.  Roux has her right where she wants her, and it could blow her happy little family, and home to the wind. How can she keep a brave face with her beloved husband, maintain normalcy caring for their little boy Oliver when threats are looming. Luca (Roux’s son) has taken a fancy to Amy’s Stepdaughter Madison, just one more entanglement. One mistake Amy made in her past ripped a hole in the world, and you can’t just patch something this big, the skeletons will find you. “If she owned my past, then she owned me with it.” Who is Roux really, it’s a game of cat and mouse, even the reader isn’t sure what is happening and that is why this dark novel works so well!

The flashes into the past beg the question, what is culpability? How much punishment, ownership evens the score? Is it even possible to even a score? Roux forces all the horrific pain and memories to return, things Amy had buried to maintain her sanity, to escape the weight of her guilt, to move on in order to live again. It’s not just Amy pulled into her web. Other women will be hurt too. Some horror stories don’t involve ghosts or monsters, but mistakes made in our youth. It’s too easy, for someone like Roux, to collect currency through secrets, revelations. Yet, who is Roux to manipulate and avenge the past? To use the present to bring others down to her level. Can Amy beat her at her own game? Someone with much more money and resources? Does she have secrets of her own that could turn the game in Amy’s favor? Doesn’t everyone have a past?

This is a thriller, true, but somehow it pulls off tenderly heartbreaking moments, reminding us how vulnerable we have been, are still. As for villainy, sometimes it’s a matter of the circumstances. One split second can make a monster out of us all, despite our intentions. I won’t give anything away, read it! It’s engaging and just the side of dark I like.

Publication Date: July 30, 2019

William Morrow

 

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Gretchen: A Thriller by Shannon Kirk

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The problem for us is my age. I’m asking questions now. I’m not a little girl who’s satisfied with simple.

This novel is anything but simple. Lucy and her mother are stuck in a pattern, unable to get comfortable anywhere for long, fleeing the moment anyway takes an interest or even shows a flicker of curiosity about them. It was so much easier to fall in line when she was two, but she is fifteen and weary of it all, hungry to anchor in place and have a best friend, to be a normal teenage girl with concerns that don’t involve looking over her shoulder, keeping her head down, diminishing herself until she is almost invisible. Tired of her mother’s moods, and plans, even if it’s out of love, meant to keep her safe. Sick of the constant hammering of sticking to their rules, rules ingrained in her brain. Exhausted with the longing to be just an ordinary girl, like all the other girls she goes to school with.

Just as she finally became a face like any other to her peers in their latest state, Lucy draws too much unwanted attention from a stranger and in an unguarded moment makes eye contact. It’s more than enough reason to flee again, and flee they do finding themselves in a secluded area of New Hampshire, renting a ranch style home from a man, Jerry Sabin and his daughter Gretchen. Why does the daughter’s name so disturb her mother? Why is the answer always “Lucy, some things I can’t tell you yet?” Why must she always wait until the magical age of 18 to know everything and stop running? The Sabin’s are even stranger than she and her mother, all the Keep Out signs on their property, the traps, alarms, electrical fence and then there are the rumors too. Gretchen has known loss, which may well have turned her into a peculiar person, but her obsession with puzzles really takes the cake! She wants so bad to be friends with Lucy, and it’d be nice to finally be able to bond with someone her own age, even if she acts like a freak sometimes, a little too eager for bonding time.

The real puzzle lies in the entangled past that is set off by a game Gretchen plays. Things are darker than they appear, lies are burning on the tongues of children and adults alike. Who is the villain, and how are they made? There are too many pieces, and somehow they are tied in a bigger game that began so long ago. Lucy’s mother gets her way all the time, in everything, because a mother’s love sometimes has to be tough. Sometimes fate decides to throw twists in the schemes of human beings… and what twists! Some threats mommy can’t outrun!

This is an engaging novel, you can feel the frustration with Lucy’s lack of identity in a sense. How can you ever really know yourself fully when you can’t just be a normal kid? When you don’t have the chance to get close to anyone aside from your mother, whose paranoia and fear for you envelopes your entire life? As Lucy has reached that naturally rebellious period of life, where it’s normal to push away at constrains and flirt with adulthood, she isn’t free to develop confidence, autonomy because there is that unnamed threat looming. How will she ever find her inner strength? Will mommy always be there? Gretchen and her father are catalysts, but everyone has their skeletons, no one knows this better than Lucy’s mother. Lucy goes from being sure to disengage from everything to being thrown into the lion’s den, so to speak. Is it weird it was a little fun too? It starts more as a mystery, who are they running from, why and then leaps into a bit of horror.

I enjoyed the read, it went from odd to downright bizarre and I didn’t see the end coming, I had parts figured out, but not the entire puzzle pieces in place. I always enjoy a read that can surprise me!

Publication Date: July 23, 2019

Thomas & Mercer

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

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