Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway

All too often I find an author who writes a few great books and then goes downhill.  I’m not sure if it’s because they’re out of good ideas, bored with the genre, or just assume that their readers will continue to follow them no matter what and simply stop trying.

All that being said, I’m always impressed when an author continues to grow, whether they change genres or combine them, because then I feel like I can continue to read and enjoy – and Ruth Ware is one of these.  In her fourth novel, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, she continues to stay in the psychological suspense genre, but adds another layer to her writing which makes it all that much better.

After taking over her dead mother’s psychic reading booth and borrowing money from a loan shark, Hal Westaway’s life is anything but stable.  Just as she’s about to give up, she receives a letter regarding an inheritance from a family she never knew existed.  Despite the fact that she believes it to be some sort of mistake, Hal’s desperation gets the better of her and she sets out to collect.   Once in the midst of it, Hal realizes that nothing is what it seems, and this family and inheritance may very well be the death of her.

Filled with her signature twists and turns, you are kept guessing (and changing your opinion!) until the very end.  Fans of Ware’s previous works, The Lying Game, The Woman in Cabin 10, and In a Dark, Dark Woods will NOT want to miss this!

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The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware. May 2018 @ Scout Press
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B.A. Paris’ The Breakdown

Trust is one of the most important things in life, without it, your world can be turned upside-down.  But what happens when you don’t know who to trust?  With her sophomore novel (and next one, Bring Me Back out this month!), B.A. Paris joins the ranks of S.J. Watson and A.S.A. Harrison in her story-telling abilities, begging the question: can you even trust yourself?

The Breakdown opens with a torrential storm.  Cass is taking a shortcut home through the woods, the same shortcut that her husband, Matthew, has warned her against taking.  She notices a car pulled over on the side of the road and tries to see if the driver needs help.  She comes close to getting out of her car, but thinks better of it and continues on her way home.  The next morning, Cass wakes to find that the woman in the car was murdered.  She may be the only witness, except no one knows that she was there.

And with that, B.A. Paris’ masterpiece begins.  At first we believe Cass – her recollection of the events that she keeps replaying in her head seems plausible – but soon those thoughts start to take over her life.  She becomes increasingly forgetful and paranoid that you start to question the validity of her story.  Was she even there?  Did she murder the woman?  Is she sane?  Paris weaves the threads so tightly at times that you can’t tell fact from fiction.

What I love most about this story is that moment when the pieces start to fall together – it’s then that you realize just how deep it really goes.  And that sometimes, the truth is not what you think it to be.

 

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The Breakdown, B.A. Paris 2017 St. Martin’s Press.

Tana French’s The Trespasser

“That feeling…it lives inside of you somewhere deeper and older and more real than anything else except sex, and when it comes rising it takes your whole body for its own. It’s a smell of blood raging at the back of your nose, it’s your arm muscle throbbing to let go the bowstring, it’s drums speeding in your ears and a victory roar building at the bottom of your gut.”

 

Ever since reading her debut novel In the Woods, Tana French has been a long standing favorite of mind. I have read all of her novels, and for the most part, have loved every single one of them – although, her third novel, Faithful Place is still my number one favorite.

Perhaps one of the best aspects of French’s novels is how she takes a secondary character from the previous one and creates her next story around them. You get to know more about that character, see them in a different light, and your feelings about them change – sometimes.

In The Trespasser, however, she pairs the same two detectives and puts them in the forefront once again. The murder seems to be your basic lovers’ quarrel, but as Moran and Conway get deeper into the case, they soon realize that the evidence and prime suspect doesn’t line up. The victim, the suspect, the murder squad…nothing is as it seems.

As with all of French’s novels, she brings you along for the ride with the detectives as they try to solve their case. The theories that they believe you believe, until a new theory arises, and a new one. French keeps you holding on with her beautiful descriptions until the very end, when you come to realize who it was all along.

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The Trespasser, Tana French.  Viking Books, fall 2016.

Thomas Mullen’s Darktown

The 1950’s in America was a time for great change in the South. It was the start of desegregation. African Americans were finally permitted to move out of the ghetto and into nicer neighborhoods. The U.S. Supreme Court declared black and white segregated schools to be unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Ed.

Thomas Mullen’s upcoming novel, Darktown, takes place right around this time period, in 1948, nearly four decades after the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, and as the Jim Crow era was starting to wane. It centers around the integration of black officers into the Atlanta Police Department, the power struggles and racism that accompany it, and the lengths to which the white officers would go to get the black officers off the force, but also the lengths the black officers would take in order to find justice. There’s a lot of secrecy that takes place in the novel, a lot of police brutality by officers who feel that they are untouchable. But no one is really untouchable.

Black officers Boggs and Smith are rookies on the force, as are the other six black officers that they work with. They’re both war veterans, although Boggs has never experienced combat. Boggs, being a preacher’s son and growing up in a well-to-do part of Darktown, always does the right thing, even if he wants to do otherwise. On the other hand, Smith and his family were directly affected by the riots, and he is not above getting his hands a little dirty every once in a while. There’s a camaraderie between the two, and, while they do judge the other on occasion, they always have each others back.

White officers Dunlow and Rakestraw have a very different relationship. Dunlow, the senior officer of the two, has no problem frequenting the local brothel, making deals with the bootleggers, letting people off the hook, and beating black men in Darktown for no reason. Rakestraw, not yet seasoned, disagrees with the way Dunlow polices. Unlike Dunlow and the rest of the white officers, Rakestraw does not share the opinion that black officers should be kicked off the police force. He also feels that they shouldn’t be restricted in their duties, that they should be allowed to police their own neighborhoods.

When a young black woman with connections to a congressman is found murdered, and it becomes evident that the case is not going to be handled the way it should be, Boggs and Smith take matters into their own hands, determined to solve the murder despite the consequences, and with an unlikely ally. As they start to uncover the truth, they also uncover corruption in the department that goes much higher than they could have imagined.

With a tone that is reminiscent of HBO’s series The Wire, this novel is anything but predictable, and at times had me gasping in shock. It’s a great lesson into the history of our country, showing us how far we have come, but also, how far we still have to go in order to really rid ourselves of racism and the fear that it still instills. It also begs the question, how far would you go, how much would you be willing to sacrifice in order to find the truth.

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Darktown by Thomas Mullen.  37INK.  September 2016.

Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood

“We were what we pretended to be.”

Growing up, war was a subject that interested me, particularly the Vietnam War. I was fascinated by it because of the fact that it wasn’t a war, because of the way the battle was fought, because of the politics and hardships that the veterans had to face afterwards.

After high school, my interest hit a new level when a good friend of mine joined the army as an officer.   During his first few deployments, we would write letters and email. I was always interested in what was going on in deployment, what you don’t hear about. Always wanting to know the meaning or their seemingly endless acronyms. To this day I will still text him with random questions. And he, like a good friend, will always give me the detailed answers that I am looking for (even if I don’t completely understand what he’s talking about).

I’ve watched Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam and Apocalypse Now, among other war movies. At my friend’s suggestion – when I asked what it was like to actually be there in the day-to-day – I watched the 2010 documentary Restrepo. Which, by the way is really informative and intense (it is a documentary after all), but definitely worth watching.

Youngblood was my first foray into war novels, and not too long into reading it, I asked myself why I had waited so long to pick one up. It follows LT Jack Porter as he is serving in Iraq for the first time. The war is over and the US military is there patrolling, going on peace-keeping missions and trying to keep the counterinsurgency at bay. As a LT, Porter has men that report to him, but when seasoned Sgt. Chambers joins their unit and starts disrupting Porter’s mission, he starts digging into Chambers’ past, finding whispers about his possible involvement in an unsolved scandal between a soldier and a local sheikh’s daughter. Desperate to get Chambers reassigned, Porter starts investigating the scandal, and as he gets deeper and more involved with the players, he ends up risking his own life and career to help them.

The plotline is intriguing and moves at a good pace. What I love the most about this novel though, is the atmosphere that Gallagher creates. As a US army veteran, he has first hand experience being deployed during peace-keeping times, where the day-to-day is much calmer and more mundane than you would realize. There is always a thread of IEDs and gunfire, always a threat of a riot or battle, but there is also a lot of downtime. While Porter would meet with informants, his men would play cards while they waited for him to return. There would be nights where they would have free time and go to a club near the main camp, days where they would be grateful to take an actual shower. There’s also a lot of comments about body odor and foul breath not just with the soldiers but the locals as well. All of this I found to be interesting, because not only are they things that I find aren’t frequently discussed, but also because it gives you a reality check of the little things that we have and take for granted, and a new appreciation and understanding of what the conditions are really like for the soldiers who serve.

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Youngblood by Matt Gallagher.  Atria Books 2016.

Leah Raeder’s Cam Girl

“Once you show the world you’re different, you can never take it back.”

 
At once a sexy thriller and a story about sexual identity, Leah Raeder’s latest novel, Cam Girl, follows two best friends as they grapple with the aftermath of a tragic accident and what they really mean to each other.

When Vada Bergen and Ellis – Elle – Carraway met, their connection was instantaneous. Naturally, when Vada, a burgeoning artist, gets into grad school, Elle moves across the country with her. It is there that the lines of their friendship blur, there that they become so inseparable that they cannot (and do not) want to live without the other. It’s the kind of connection that has the power to change lives for both the better…and the worse, the kind of connection that has the potential to fall completely to pieces with the smallest puff of wind. They both intentionally hurt each other. Vada does it because she is scared about her feelings and trying to fight them, while Elle does it both because of Vada’s insecurities and her own. After the accident happens – and Vada is left permanently injured – they drift apart, although as we come to learn, they were drifting apart long before the accident actually occurred.

While attending a party, Vada meets a couple that takes her deep into the world of camming, where every night, she takes her clothes off for the cyber world, racking in tons of “tips.” But when new client, Blue, takes things to the next level, Vada is forced to confront herself and the past that she is running from, finally digging down to the truth of the matter.

I had a lot of feelings about the mysterious Blue. Was he there to cause problems? Were his intentions pure? And, just who was he? While we do eventually find out who Blue is, his identity is not really important. What is important is what Blue does for Vada. The demons that Blue is able to make her face. The love that Blue is able to make her confront. Vada is bisexual, but that’s not the real problem for her. Elle has always been her exception, but, being with Elle forever, publicly, is Vada’s real issue. Despite the fact that she is completely in love with Elle, loving Elle goes against her dreams of marrying a man and living happily ever after. She’s scared of going against the norms of society because she feels that once she does, she will always be seen as a label and not as anything else. It is through her relationship with Blue that Vada is able to realize that nothing else matters in life if you are not yourself, and that, by finally allowing the world to see the part of her she kept hidden, she is able to help others realize that they are not alone.

 

“What is art? We take reality, and we filter it through our eyes and minds and hands, and remake it. What comes out is both more and less true than what went in. It illuminates some part of reality just as it obscures other parts. Art is an imperfect impression of the world. As the self is an imperfect impression of the soul.”

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Leah Raeder’s Cam Girl.  November 2015.  Atria Books.

Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian

“Forgetting is an involuntary act. The more you want to leave something behind you, the more it follows you.”

-William Jonas Barkley

Can you ever, truly, break free from your past, or will it continue to haunt you for the rest of you life, loosening its grip only to tighten it once again? This question is addressed in Dolores Redondo’s international bestseller The Invisible Guardian, where a woman returns home to track a serial killer and confront her long buried demons.

In Basque Country, nothing is as it seems. There is a spirituality to the towns and people that encompass it, beliefs that have shaped the region for centuries. When Amaia Salazar left her hometown of Elizondo, she promised herself that she would spend as little time back there as possible. As a homicide inspector, Amaia seems to be very disciplined when it comes to her work life, but her personal life is a different matter. There’s a reason why she left Elizondo, and as parts of her past start to surface, we see Amaia lose herself deeper and deeper. Her behavior becomes erratic at times and you find yourself wondering if she’ll be able to hold it together long enough to solve the case.

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the book – or, at least in my opinion – is when Amaia is sitting down with her sister Ros to read tarot cards in search of answers, and Amaia has a flashback to when she was younger and she was doing the same thing with her aunt. At the time, her aunt told her that “sometimes answers are not the solution to an enigma…sometimes the answers only generate more questions, more doubts.” It made me think about how often that is the case in real life. How, more often than not, we are plagued with uncertainty. And it is only when we surrender ourselves to the unknown and stop searching for answers that we are able to find the solutions to our problems. The clues to finding the serial killer are just under Amaia’s nose, but it is only when she stops trying to solve the mystery – and accepts her past – that she will start to see the path that’s laying in front of her.

The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo. Coming March 2016. Atria Books.
The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo. Coming March 2016. Atria Books.

Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood

To me, there is nothing creepier than being alone in a wooded area in the twilight. I remember coming home from class at night and having to take two buses. The second bus stop was in front of a park and I would always end up waiting and waiting for it…constantly looking over my shoulder and scaring myself with every movement of the trees. In the back of my mind, I always was prepared for someone to leap out and attack me. Thankfully, no such event ever transpired.

Darkness is always something that has scared me. Particularly when it is time to go to bed. As a child, I was often terrified to go to sleep, unsure of what the night would bring. This only occasionally happens to me as an adult, and it mostly occurs when I am in the middle of a book that has such a hold on me that I just can’t put it down.

In a Dark, Dark Wood, a debut novel by UK author Ruth Ware, and also the debut book of Simon & Schuster’s new imprint, Scout Press, is one of those such books. From the first page, it had me. Nora (aka Lee, or Leonora) is running through the woods getting attacked by branches, slipping in the snow, all the while hoping that she is not too late to stop a car. But who is in that car and why is she trying to stop it? Just the thought of running through the woods at night is unnerving to me…like a person’s worst nightmare coming true.

Next we see Nora in a hospital, badly injured, amnesiatic, and the story unfold from there. Having been invited to a bachelorette weekend for an old school friend that she hadn’t spoken to in over ten years, Nora reluctantly goes, but the weekend seems doomed from the beginning. The bash is being held at a glass house in the middle of the woods, where it feels like anyone can watch your every move. An eerie thought to say the least. But what happened to Nora in those woods? How did she end up in the hospital? And, perhaps most importantly, can she trust herself let alone anyone else?

Alternating between the events of the weekend and Nora’s stay at the hospital, In a Dark, Dark Wood is a dark, twisted psychological thriller that will leave you haunted.

Coming August 25th

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Lene Kaaberbol’s Doctor Death

“Around her the city is living its nightlife….But here in the passageway where she lies, there is no life.”

What if understanding death could help the living?

In Lene Kaaberbol’s novel, Doctor Death, the reader is brought back to a time when doctors had to fight in order to perform autopsies. It is 1890s France, and a young woman is found dead in front of her home, but the cause is overlooked because the family forbids an autopsy, and so a diagnosis cannot be properly determined. After a few more bodies are discovered to have some of the same symptoms as the young woman, a pathologist and his daughter Madeleine take it upon themselves to search for the true cause of her death. When her father turns up injured, will Madeleine be strong enough to shoulder most of the work herself?

What I find to be interesting of this novel, and of all period pieces really, is that it takes you to an entirely different world, one where rules were made according to gender (oftentimes) more so than by qualifications. It was unacceptable for women to do many things, and most of them resigned to that fate, to being considered the weaker sex. And here is Madeleine, desperate to become her father’s (Doctor Death) partner rather than his occasional assistant. Her work and success is limited merely because of the fact that she is a woman, but that doesn’t stop her from trying. Which is a big part of what this novel is about. One woman, going against the societal norm in order to pursue her life’s passion.

Doctor Death is at once a gripping mystery and a coming of age story that takes you on a journey to find the truth. It is definitely one to add to your collection.

Coming February 17, 2015

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E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars (YA)

“Silence is a protective coating over pain.”

The Sinclairs are always perfect. No matter what happens, they are a perfect, beautiful family. Nothing is ever wrong, even when the opposite is true. Problems just don’t exist…not for them. They believe that strength comes from burying issues and not dwelling on them. That having feelings makes a person weak. They have turned living in ignorance into an art form, and are content with such. But, is that really possible? Is that really the healthy way to live your life? There comes a point when you can no longer bury your pain. What happens then?

In E. Lockhart’s novel, We Were Liars, Cadence returns to Beechwood Island for the summer after a season’s absence due to debilitating migraines. Having no memory of the accident from summer fifteen (she is now seventeen), Cadence hopes that being around the Liars – Gat and her cousins, Johnny and Mirren – will enable her to learn the truth about what happened. There is only one thing standing in her way. The Sinclairs. Cadence is a Sinclair, and the Sinclairs have no problems. When everyone is refusing to talk about the accident, will Cadence stay in the state of not-knowing forever, or will coming back to Beechwood Island be the key to unlocking the memories that her mind (and everyone else) has tried hard to keep buried.

“Sometimes I wonder if reality splits…[if] there are parallel universes in which different events happen to the same people. An alternate choice has been made, or an accident has turned out differently. Everyone has duplicates of themselves in these other worlds. Different selves with different lives, different luck.”

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