The Last Housewife – Ashley Winstead

The Last Housewife, Ashley Winstead’s follow-up to her debut In My Dreams I Hold a Knife, fulfills the promise of that book and then some. Although I enjoyed some of the ride when I read her first book, ultimately I felt let down. That was definitely not the case with The Last Housewife, which was riveting from start to finish.

Shay Evans lives in luxury in Texas with her husband, Cal. She’s recently quit her job so she can concentrate on writing her book, but it isn’t going so well. When her favourite true crime podcaster, Jamie Knight, introduces his latest subject, it catapults Shay back eight years to her time as a student at Whitney College. The victim of the crime is Laurel Hargrove, Shay’s best friend from college. She’d been found “hanging from a tree on the edge of the De Young Performing Arts Centre.”

Shay and Jamie were childhood friends, but they’d lost touch over the years. Now Shay hears Jamie reaching out to her through his podcast because she “has dropped off the face of the planet.” Why? Because Laurel isn’t the only person from Shay’s past who has been found dead and Jamie sees a pattern.

Shay makes her return to the Hudson Valley and the Whitney campus and there is just no way to stop the floodgate of memories. Seeing Jamie for the first time in eight years brings back even more memories.

The last time I’d seen Jamie was senior year of college, when there’d only been a glimmer of the man who walked toward me now.

Laurel’s death forces Shay to confront some deeply traumatic memories. She agrees to tell her story to Jamie in an effort to find out the truth about what happened to Laurel. The secrets she’s been keeping for all these years are difficult and painful and concern the father of one of her roommates.

I thought he was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. And then immediately I felt guilty because he was Rachel’s father. But he looked nothing like her. He was tall, and so…solid. His shoulders were so broad they spanned the width of the chair. He was wearing a suit, a dark one, and he was just…powerful.

Don’s power extends beyond the physical, though. Soon, Shay and her roommates, Laurel and Clem, are spending all their time with Don, listening as he expounds on the way college is not empowering young women. He encourages them to take their power back, but at the same time – as an outsider – you can see how he is manipulating the girls. And this manipulation exerts a terrible power over Shay and her friends. Unpacking it for Jamie forces Shay to see the ways she was manipulated, but even she doesn’t realize how deep and dark Don’s power and control extends. That is until she and Jamie start to investigate Laurel’s death, an investigation which takes them to a series of underground BDSM clubs.

The Last Housewife comes with all sorts of trigger warnings for suicide, rape, physical and sexual violence etc. Sensitive readers might be shocked by the book, but I wasn’t. Considering the subject matter, you might expect the book to be more graphic, but it really isn’t gratuitous at all. It’s definitely dark and uncomfortable, but it also asks lots of intriguing questions about power dynamics, the patriarchal society we find ourselves living in, and control and giving that control up – both willingly and without realizing we are doing it. It is a page-turner that is well-written, fast-paced and smart.

Highly recommended.

Gallows Hill – Darcy Coates

When Margot Hull’s parents, owners of Gallows Hill Winery, die suddenly, they leave their estate to their only daughter, Margot. She hasn’t been to Gallows Hill in over a decade, and has, in fact, not had any contact with her parents in many years. Raised by her maternal grandmother, Margot knows nothing about wine and very little about the property that has been in her family for generations. Now it’s hers and she has to decide whether or not she wants to keep it.

Her parents’ manager, Kant, takes her to Gallows Hill after the funeral and thus begins a very long, very slow story about the house and its bloody history. Gallows Hill “rose above her, broad and dark and heavy with shadows” and Margot feels nothing when she first sees it again. She has no memories of the place and there is nothing personal inside that connects her to its many rooms.

Darcy Coates’ Gallows Hill is what I would call an old-fashioned ghost story. It doesn’t take very long for things to start to go awry, but Kant doesn’t bother to tell her about the house’s menacing history that first night. He makes her a cup of coffee, tells her that he was the one who discovered her parents and that’s about it.

Margot’s first night in the house is marked by a few creepy discoveries: a strange life-sized effigy in the living room, a house with many halls and rooms, a lock on a window in what she assumes had once been her room, a mirror which reveals her face with

“skin [that] had shrunken and puckered. Swollen wrinkles spread over the cheeks and forehead. The eyelids had peeled back. Her eyes were swollen round orbs, barely fitting inside the sockets, bulging and bloated and swallowed in a sick gray tinge. Her lips were shrunken away from the teeth, exposing grimacing yellow bone and gray, pulpy gums.”

It takes a long time for Gallows Hill to reveal its secrets, and for patient readers who like a slow burn…good enough. But for me, the story wasn’t scary, the house wasn’t scary and Margot – a sort of mousey character to begin with – just wasn’t all that believable. Because the action doesn’t really ramp up until the last third, the first two thirds is a lot of Margot creeping around using her phone’s flashlight, being scared of just about every sound she hears.

It’s too long, but I think many readers would likely enjoy it.

History of Wolves – Emily Fridlund

Emily Fridlund’s debut, History of Wolves, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017 and was the winner of the McGinnis-Ritchie Award for its first chapter. Awards generally mean very little to me because an award is no guarantee of my enjoyment. Just because someone is a NY Times best selling author doesn’t mean they can actually write. cough::Colleen Hoover::/cough

Linda lives with her parents on a lake in northern Minnesota. Once a part of a commune, Linda and her parents are all that remain.

I knew from stories how my parents had ridden in a stolen van to Loose River in the early eighties, how my father had stockpiled rifles and pot, and how, when the commune fell apart, my mother traded whatever hippie fanaticism she had left for Christianity.

The first thing to upend Linda’s life is the arrival of a new teacher, Mr. Grierson who “arrived a month before Christmas with a deep, otherworldly tan [and] wore one gold hoop earring and a brilliant white shirt with pearly buttons.”

Friendless and an outsider, Linda watches and “I wanted him to know that I saw how he looked at Lily Holburn.” The scandal about Mr. Grierson breaks in the fall of Linda’s grade nine year when he is accused of “pedophilia and sex crimes at his previous school and was promptly fired at ours.”

Then she meets four-year-old Paul and his mother, Patra, who have moved in across the lake. Thus begins a long, strange relationship which Linda recounts both as she lives it, but also from an adult perspective several years after the events take place.

At the trial they kept asking, when did you know for sure there was something wrong? And the answer was probably: right away.

History of Wolves is beautifully written, slow-moving novel about family, memory, faith and what it is to leave your childhood behind. Highly recommended.

Much Ado About You – Samantha Young

Straight-up romance is not normally my go-to genre, mostly because I find it difficult to relate to the 25-35 year-old hotties who normally populate said stories. I am a romantic at heart, but I am also a divorced 61-year-old and I come to these stories with a lot of baggage. I guess I want the characters to have some baggage, too. A much younger colleague at school told me about Much Ado About You by Samantha Young and I liked the sound of it because the protagonist is bookish and the story takes place in Northern England.

Thirty-three-year-old Evie Starling has just had her heart broken: twice. First, the guy she’d been SnapChatting with for months ghosts her, and then she’s passed over – again – for a promotion at the magazine where she works. She’s had it with Chicago and decides to shake up her life by taking an extended holiday in Alnster, Northumberland. She chooses Alnster because she sees an ad for Much Ado About Books, a cozy bookshop with a flat above where you stay while you run the bookstore. (There is a bookstore in Scotland that actually does this and it sounds like a dream vacation to me, too!)

On day one she meets Roane Robson, “the most beautiful man [she’d] ever seen”. The attraction is immediate and the two quickly become, well, friends. Evie has sworn off men, and this whole trip is so that she can figure out what she wants to do with her life. She doesn’t have time for Roane’s thick, dark hair, broad shoulders, warm brown eyes, white smile: you get it, the guy’s sex on a stick.

Evie is less than perfect – at least in her estimation.

At five foot ten, I was tall. In my four-inch heels, that put me at six foot two. But I didn’t think that was what bothered some guys. I had plentiful boobs, an ass, hips, and although I had a waist, it wasn’t super trim. Neither was my belly. Either guys loved my tall voluptuousness, or they labeled me fat.

As Evie settles into small town life, she and Roane settle into an easy friendship. That’s all they can be because Evie claims that that’s all she wants, although she certainly enjoys the eye candy that Roane provides her. The rest of the townsfolk welcome her with open arms – mostly. Evie loves running the bookshop and she loves getting into everyone’s business, so it would appear that this is a good move for her.

But, of course, the path of true love never did run smooth. Once her core starts throbbing for Roane, there’s no turning back. And once that line is crossed – although Young takes her time getting these two naked – it can’t just be smooth sailing. I found the reasons for their separation a little contrived, but you know as soon as this book starts how it’s all going to work out so whatever.

As far as romance goes, this is sweet, readable, with just a tad of tropey spice. I liked Evie and Roane; they were a great couple. I loved the setting and her bookstore gig is my dream. Did all the pieces fit together just a little too perfectly? Probably. But I don’t think you read this sort of book looking for angst.

Nothing Can Hurt You – Nicola Maye Goldberg

Sara Morgan, a student at a liberal arts college in upstate New York is violently killed by her boyfriend Blake Campbell. He admits to the crime straight away and pleads temporary insanity. Nicola Maye Goldberg’s beautifully written novel, Nothing Can Hurt You, follows how this violent crime affects the people in the community where Sara lived, as well as her family and friends.

Goldberg’s novel is not linear; instead, it reads like a series of short stories that don’t even necessarily connect to each other other than the fact that the character in each one is somehow connected to Sara.

Marianne, for example, has recently moved to Rhinebeck with her husband. Marianne is fragile. She suffers from episodes.

At first it was just nausea. Then came images, as clear as if I were watching them on television. They were so violent. I saw myself stretched out on a piece of wood. Then the wood snapped in half, and so did I.

It is these episodes that have driven Marianne and her husband out of NYC, where they both hope that the fresh air and slower pace of life will help Marianne heal from her trauma. It is Marianne who discovers Sara Morgan’s body.

Katherine meets Blake Campbell at Paradise Lake, a tranquil Recovery Centre.

If she’d met Blake at a party, or a bar, Katherine would have liked him a lot. It helped that he was movie-star handsome, the kind of handsome that shifted the air in the room when he walked in.

Then there’s Luna, Sara’s half sister. Luna was just two when Sara was killed so she has no real memories of her. Twenty years later she takes a job as a nanny to Blake’s daughter, Ruby.

Nothing Can Hurt You asks you to consider our fascination with violent crime, with the perpetrators and the victims. It is not a thriller per se, but it is a thrilling read. And while you don’t come to know any of the characters very well, especially not the victim, and although there isn’t a traditional resolution or structure, this is a book that is thoughtful, intelligent and well-written.

2022 – a lacklustre reading year

Usually at the very beginning of the new year, I take some time to reflect on the previous year’s books. In the past, I have taken part in The Perpetual Page Turner’s questionnaire, but I didn’t even do that this year. 2022 definitely finished with a whimper and not a bang. And it all started so well, too.

The first book I read in 2022 was The Fire Keeper’s Daughter, and I was so sure that 2022 was going to be stellar based on that book. Book number two wasn’t quite so good, sadly, and the next few books were just so-so for me.

It wasn’t until February’s Migrations that things started to turn around. I really enjoyed this book, and chose it, based on recommendations from my Litsy friends, as my book club pick. Sadly, I won 2022’s “Book I Enjoyed Reading Least”. I was really starting to feel as though I had lost my reading mojo.

I also read Jennifer Niven’s YA novel Breathless in February and I really loved that one, so maybe things weren’t as dire as I thought they were. The first book of March was Saint X, which I also loved. Was I on a roll? The Kiss Quotient: naughty fun.

Then came Malibu Rising, a book I was sure I was going to love based on how much I loved Daisy Jones & the Six. Malibu Rising was just….awful. Luckily, Will Dean’s book The Last Thing to Burn was a total palate cleanser. I read it in pretty much one setting and immediately after I read Everything We Didn’t Say, which I also very much enjoyed. So just as the weather was starting to improve, I felt like things were on the uptick.

Oh dear.

In Pieces made me crazy. And not in a good way. I knew that I needed to follow it up with something stellar, so I read some books by tried and true authors: Thomas H. Cook, Craig Davidson, Lucie Whitehouse.

May was saved by Stephanie Rosenbloom’s memoir Alone Time and Maryann Wolfe’s long essay on the importance of reading in a digital age: Reader, Come Home.

June is a busy month for a high school teacher, and I was preparing myself to read lots during the summer, so I read some schlock – nothing memorable.

By the first week of July I had finished Empire of the Vampire, a massive fantasy novel I enjoyed way more than I thought I would. Then, thinking it would be great to take another chunky book off my physical tbr pile, I tackled A Little Life. This is a book that really seems to divide people and I come squarely down on the side of “don’t waste your time.”

Usually in the summer I read a lot of thrillers, and I read my fair share last year, but they were mostly mediocre. The standout for me was Messiah.

October’s Sorrow and Bliss was probably the best book I read in the fall, but I also enjoyed The Nowhere Child and Never Look Back.

By the time early December arrived, I really felt miserable about my reading year and I spent more time playing some stupid Angry Birds bubblepop game than I did with my books. I read four books in December that I didn’t even get around to reviewing:

The Long Weekend by Gilly MacMillan (dear lord, just ridiculous)

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed (a beautifully written, slow-moving book about a religious cult)

A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier (a YA novel about a girl during the flu epidemic in 1918 with remarkable parallels to Covid)

Goodnight Beautiful by Aimee Molloy (at which point I decided to give thrillers a rest for a while)

I came nowhere near hitting my Goodreads target of 75 books and I am determined to do better this year.

How was 2022 for you?

My Goodreads summary.

The Swap – Robyn Harding

This is another one of those books with an intriguing premise, a strong start and then, I dunno, about half way through it all starts to fall apart, but because you’ve already invested a chunk of time, you sort of feel obligated to see it through.

Canadian author Robyn Harding’s domestic thriller The Swap is the story of three women whose lives intersect in Hawking, a small town on an island off the West Coast (I pictured Salt Spring Island). Lo is a seventeen-year-old high school student; Freya is a beautiful Instagram influencer married to a disgraced but drop-dead-gorgeous NHL hockey player, and Jamie and her husband have recently moved to Hawking to escape a personal tragedy.

For Lo, life couldn’t be more boring. She hates school; she hates her classmates; she hates her life.

My life was exceptionally boring. I had no friends, no hobbies, no extracurricular activities. I did, however, have a lot of chores.

Lo lives with her unconventional family on a hobby farm. When she’s not looking after the animals or helping her mother pickle and can food from the garden, she’s walking through the woods or along the beach taking photographs, the one thing she feels she’s pretty good at. When Freya shows up at Lo’s high school with a flyer advertising pottery classes, Lo feels something akin to excitement.

Even through the crowd in the hallway, I could tell she was somebody. There was no way I could have known then that she would come into my life and change it, change me, but I felt a magnetic pull toward her, like I had to meet her. It was destiny.

Lo signs up for Freya’s pottery class and thus begins a dysfunctional friendship between the two. Freya starts confiding in Lo, and Lo feels that the two have an impenetrable bond, that is, until Jamie enters the picture. Jamie lacks confidence and, like Lo, she basks in Freya’s attention. What neither of these two seem to realize is how toxic and manipulative Freya is. It’s only after Freya orchestrates the swap of the title (I won’t bother spoiling you here, although the book cover and blurb gives it away), that these relationships really start to crumble.

My problem with The Swap is that none of the characters are likeable or sympathetic except, strangely, Max, Freya’s husband. And sure, there are lots of twists and turns, but I didn’t believe in a single one of them. Yes, it was easy to see how Lo might be manipulated; she’s had a relatively sheltered life. The story just didn’t work for me, although it was certainly easy enough to turn the pages.

The Nowhere Child – Christian White

Thirty-year-old Kim Leamy is just living her life in Melbourne, Australia when James Finn, an accountant from Manson, Kentucky approaches her with some startling news. He believes Kim is actually Sammy Went, a girl who was kidnapped from her family’s home in Manson twenty eight years ago. He offers enough proof that Kim believes him, and so she heads to the States to meet the family she never knew she had.

Christian White’s debut novel The Nowhere Child follows Kim’s journey into her unknown history, but also offers readers a glimpse into her family around the time that she originally went missing. There’s her parents, Jack and Molly, already struggling to hang on to their crumbling marriage; there’s her sister, Emma,13, and brother, Stuart, 9. And there’s The Church of the Light Within, a group not a cult, an important distinction, who “worshipped by handling venomous snakes and scorpions. If rumours were to be believed, they also drank strychnine, spoke in tongues […], drank blood and worshipped the Devil.” Jack, who had been raised in the church, has been drifting away from it, but Molly has been embracing it with new-found fervor, especially after the disappearance of her daughter.

The Wents have all been keeping secrets from each other, but their distress over Sammy is legitimate. It seems as though she disappeared into thin air. Manson’s town sheriff, Chester Ellis, is flummoxed and the reader will be, too.

The Nowhere Child is reminiscent of another book I read recently, Never Look Back. That book also dealt with someone discovering something about their identity that they hadn’t known. I really enjoyed The Nowhere Child. Kim was a likeable protagonist and there were some truly creepy moments in this book because cults! snakes! an old, abandoned grist mill where if you write a person’s name on the wall they disappear! It all makes for page turning fun with a final twist that was both clever and believable.

Into the Web- Thomas H. Cook

Reading a book by Thomas H. Cook is like settling into the coziest chair with a cup of tea and a long, pleasant afternoon stretched in front of you. Cook has won multiple awards, including the Edgar for The Chatham School Affair.

In his 2004 novel Into the Web, Roy Slater has returned home to Kingdom County, West Virginia after an absence of 25 years. His father, Jesse, is dying, and “…although I had nothing in common with my father, nor even so much as a tender childhood memory of him, I couldn’t let him die alone.” Roy takes a leave from his teaching job in California and makes the journey home.

His acrimonious relationship with his father isn’t the only difficult thing about returning to his childhood home. Just a few weeks before he was about to leave for college, Roy’s brother Archie was arrested for the murders of Lavenia and Horace Kellogg. Then there’s Lila, his high school girlfriend. Roy had always intended to come back for her once he graduated, but she told him she couldn’t marry him. Now he’s back in a town filled with ghosts – and then another dead body turns up.

Cook doesn’t write fast-paced novels. He takes his time. He examines complicated familial relationships, particularly between fathers and sons. He strings you along, making you feel as though you’ve got it all figured out before he takes a hard right. Cook’s novels are literary mysteries; they require patience and attention and a willingness to take your time, but I haven’t ever met a book by this author that hasn’t been worth the effort

Never Look Back – Alison Gaylin

I love a good thriller – a book that keeps me turning the pages long after my bed time. There are certain things I look for in a thriller: believable characters that I can root for, plausible plot, good writing, a few twists and turns to keep me guessing, suspense. It’s not too much to ask is it?

Alison Gaylin is a new-to-me writer and for my first outing I chose Never Look Back. This is the dual-timeline story of April Cooper, a teenager who is on the run with her boyfriend Gabriel LeRoy. Together they are known as the Inland Empire killers. In the present day, Quentin Garrison is a podcast producer pursuing a story about these killers because his mother’s sister was one of their victims. His podcast series is called Closure, and that is what he is looking for.

April and Gabriel were thought to have died in a fire at the Gideon compound (a doomsday cult), but a phone call from a source leads Quentin to Renee and Robin Diamond, a mother and daughter on the East Coast.

What do all these people have in common? Secrets. There are loads of them in Never Look Back.

Gabriel is keeping secrets from everyone, including his husband Dean. Renee is keeping secrets from her daughter. In letters to her unborn baby, April reveals secrets she is keeping from Gabriel.

Gaylin’s book is inspired, in part, by Charles Starkweather, 18, and Carol Ann Fugate, 13. In 1958, Charles and Carol Ann killed eleven people, including Carol Ann’s stepfather and mother and then went on the run. This crime was made into a popular movie called Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. I remember watching it as a teenager and really loving it.

Although Never Look Back doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts, I was wholly invested in the story and if you are looking for a page-turner with lots going on, you could certainly do a lot worse.