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.