The Invited: A Novel by Jennifer McMahon

40065317

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

 

Advertisements

Necessary People by Anna Pitoniak

41734721 (1).jpg

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

41488270.jpg

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

40381942

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

38355282.jpg

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

What We Did: A Novel by Christobel Kent

40121934

Isabel, Isabel: in the deep dark she remembered the girl’s innocence, her admiration, her glee at being special, it blazed. Bridget had been special once, as she frowned down at her instrument, the instrument burnished and warm from her touch, trying, trying, trying, her heart in her mouth. Him watching her, impatient.

Bridget’s world is on the verge of collapse all due to the return of her former music teacher Anthony Carmichael. Every soiled memory she has buried from that horrible time rises to the surface when he comes into her dress shop with a pretty, eager young girl named Isabel. Suddenly, the life she has been living is ripped from beneath her feet, is it possible to run, to move from the threat of him? The possessive, guiding way he was touching that little girl, the intimacy is like poison in Bridget’s veins. She should stop him, she should speak up but she is frozen in fear.

The days move on, she collects her senses and begins to relax into her daily routine sure that as a ‘visiting professor’ he won’t be around for long. Until she discovers he will be at the University her own husband works at, for much longer than she hoped. 2 years, if they can keep him, and the school is ‘lucky to have him.’ There is Isabelle, so much the same as Bridget once was, trusting, talented, open to the attention and charm of an adult. Though Bridget is no longer a child, everything about Carmichael brings chills, fear into the very cells of her being. Closer, closer he advances and then she snaps, from there an even bigger secret takes hold, but can she carry on as if nothing happened?

Bridget goes from sheltering her shameful past, which many sexually abused children feel responsible for, to hiding a criminal act. Then the story descends into a nightmare about her own son, who is keeping secrets about his own new relationship. There is also Gillian Lawson, who is looking for Dr. Carmichael, as she is digging into the past and alive with the chase of a story. She knows too that Bridget is a link, and with her husband working as the computer officer at Rose Hill, she has a way to reach her. Too, what of the husband, Matt? Is he a ‘genuinely nice man’, or is he the type to marry victims, to further abuse them? How much of a coincidence, she wonders, is it for Carmichael to end up where his former student’s husband works? It just figures a journalists is chasing truth when Bridget has something the size of…. Carmichael to hide.

The strength of the novel is in the emotional state Bridget’s abuser returning into her life puts her in. That a wife, mother, competently running her own dress shop can turn into a terrified wreck after having a run in with the man who sexually abused her, many years after it happened can explain just how debilatating sexual abuse is.  Her instinct is to uproot her life, which of course is not plausible, but that thought alone conveys just a drop of the fear and remnants of damage one person can wreak in another’s life. The fact she hasn’t told her husband anything, ever, that it’s remained bottled up inside of her all this time speaks volumes for how abusers walk away unscathed. The adult always has an edge, knows how to make a child believe that every viloation is mutual desire, and he/she is just as much to blame. If a child has a special talent, or is hungry for attention, how much easier it is for the abuser to manipulate them, to have access, to learn the family dynamics and use it against the child. I was expecting to see Carmichael exposed, to see him stripped for once of his power, publicly tarred as would seem just, but this was a completely different novel. What a strange turn. Not to say he doesn’t get punished but not what I expected. The ‘grooming’ is bigger than just Carmichael. I’ve read quite a few books that explore this very issue, one good thing is straight away there is no romanticized storyline. In fact, he turns your stomach from the very start. I sometimes felt all over the place, and the things that happen after the big moment between Bridget and Carmichael, which is very early in the novel, seem a bit hard to pull off, but truth is stranger than fiction and having a sister whose norm is chaos can come in handy, at least for Bridget.

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Fararr, Straus and Giroux

 

Little Darlings: A Novel by Melanie Golding

41806986

He really hadn’t seen it. Seen her, the woman from the hospital, the woman in the bushes. But Lauren had, solid and real as the trees themselves; the eyes still glared at her when she closed her own, the image burned there like she’d looked at the sun too long. She was going mad, she must be. That or the woman was some kind of witch, some kind of demon would could disappear at will.

When Lauren gives birth to beautiful, healthy twin boys, Morgan and Riley, the birthing process was less smooth than she hoped, leaving her exhausted, sore. Then, her husband leaves too fast for her liking leaving her, a new mother, alone with the boys in the hospital. When she finds time to rest, sleeping when not feeding her boys, the strange dreams overtake her, terrifying and lingering upon her waking. She is sure in between a state of wakefulness and sleep that she heard another mother with infant twins too, just like her. The next day, the nurses are perplexed, what other patient? What other babies? Trapped in the hospital for yet another night, things take an eerie turn. Is it just a bad reaction from the difficult birth that makes her imagine a filthy, ragged woman is trying to trade her babies for her own vile mewing creatures, or is Lauren’s world becoming a dark fairytale? The police aren’t taking it seriously, the doctors and her own husband are convinced it’s all in Lauren’s head. No one could possibly get in without being seen, not with the secure settings in the hospital. Detective Harper is determined to check on the new mother, despite the assumption it’s just ‘bad trip’. What she sees is a woman who is terrified, and unsure of her own mind. Something about her story pulls DS Harper in, and the hospital visit won’t be the last of it.

Once home with her husband and baby boys, everything feels like a threat, especially the strange gift she receives. Then her husband tells her he plans to head back to work sooner than he promised, leaving her to cope with no support. Wanting nothing more than to get away, a fresh breath, to escape her husband droning on about how good she is at this baby stuff, trying to convince her that she can do it when she knows she needs help, she bolts for the door ready to leave it all behind. Then she sees the frightful woman again, lurking! Patrick doesn’t though, and it feels like her mind is cracking. If no one is there, why is she so frightened? How to explain the strange gift that her friend swears isn’t from her? Before long, Lauren seems the woman’s filthy face peering in the windows of her home, creeping, waiting until the time is right to swap the babies. She holes herself up in the home, locked up, curtains drawn but Patrick won’t hear of it. All she needs is to get out, be in the world again, just get outside. Heeding her husband’s advice, she ventures upriver with the boys and meets her friends Rosa and Cindy, after commiserating over birth stories and mothering, sharing cake and coffee they part ways. Lauren walks to a clearing, upriver where the secluded bench sits. “Sinking down gratefully” Lauren closes her eyes and falls asleep, knowing only of her careless, unintended slumber when she startles awake and sees the baby stroller gone.

So begins the terror that her children must have been taken by the witch even when they are found not far away with another strange woman. Though they are returned to her, Lauren is convinced these are not her babies! That monstrous woman must have taken them,  and replaced them with these stand ins for these ‘others’ are not her own! To the raging river, she and the stroller must go if ever her real, flesh and blood human babies will return to her. This mad turn in her behavior has her locked up, but she will know the truth! She will do anything it takes to get her real children back. “They strapped her down. Like a madwoman.” The doctors know it is true that ‘someone took my babies’, for it is a fact and she is simply confused,  embellishing on a real incident because they are back now, safe, unharmed! She must play along if she is to be released, despite the constant truth that circles in her head “they are not my boys”.  Pretend, pretend they are yours.

Is it in the pretending that she becomes a threat to her children or is something far more sinister truly at work?

This is a nightmare seethed in folklore, quietly believable enough that you don’t have to suspend your disbelief. Lauren is flawed to begin with, surely someone who could create a fantasy through some sort of mental break, but there are things that lend her outrageous imaginings some credibility, and DS Harper is tied to the strange mystery because of her own past. Why does she feel so close to the case? Looking to study the evidence with an open mind when colleagues are quick to dismiss Lauren as a deluded new mother? This was a creepy gem of a novel, add it to your 2019 TBR list!

Publication date: April 30, 2019

Crooked Lane Books