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.

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.

Messiah – Boris Starling

Boris Starling’s debut, Messiah, is a straight-ahead police procedural about a team of Scotland Yard detectives tasked with finding the person responsible for a series of gruesome murders.

Detective Superintendent Red Metcalfe has a reputation for being able to get into the minds of killers and so he’s in charge of putting together a team of officers to figure out whodunnit. Red “wants people who spark off each other because they think in different ways,” and that’s how he comes up with Clifton (who’s “good enough to be Red’s successor one day”), Beauchamp (“because going into one of these cases without a female point of view is like having one hand tied behind your back”), and Warren whom he picks with the flip of a coin.

It soon becomes apparent that Red and his team are not hunting your garden-variety serial killer. Although there is one similar detail between the crimes (the killer cuts out the victim’s tongues), the cops can’t find any other link between the victims and as the bodies pile up, Red gets frustrated. Worse, there is a total lack of physical evidence at the crime scenes.

The investigation in present days is supplemented with details about Red’s past, which includes a terrible decision Red had to make as a university student. The flashbacks provide some context and help us to understand Red’s single-mindedness.

I haven’t read enough police procedurals to know how Messiah compares. (Heck, I am not even sure if this is a police procedural except that it really is all about these cops trying to catch the killer.) Still, I really enjoyed this book. It was unfussy, gory, and straight ahead entertaining (if messy crime scenes and psychopathic killers are your jam.) Apparently there’s a television series and I bet it would be awesome…even knowing whodunit.

Behind the Red Door – Megan Collins

I discovered Megan Collins when I read her novel The Winter Sister a few months ago. I was very much looking forward to reading Behind the Red Door, but unfortunately it just didn’t land as well.

This is the story of Fern Douglas, a social worker who lives with her husband Eric, a physician, in Boston. When her father enlists her to come help pack up her childhood home because he’s moving to Florida, she does so reluctantly. Her childhood was complicated and her relationship with her parents is fraught.

Fern’s arrival back in New Hampshire coincides with the disappearance of Astrid Sullivan, a girl who had been kidnapped twenty years ago and then left, drugged and disoriented but otherwise unharmed, on a curb a month later. When Fern sees Astrid’s photograph, she feels like she knows her, but she can’t figure out how. Fern is prone to obsessing, or “spiraling” as Eric calls it. Her therapist likens it to needle stuck on a record; her anxiety ratchets up and her mind keeps “telling you that you have to stay on this thought. But it’s a lie.”

When Fern gets back to her childhood home, she starts to read the memoir Astrid wrote about her time in captivity. There are details in Astrid’s book that unlock memories in Fern’s mind and she soon becomes obsessed with finding Astrid, something that not even the police have been able to do because there are no clues.

Her time at home is strange. Her father, a man who has spent his entire career researching the qualities of fear, seems more interested in tapping into Fern’s growing anxiety about Astrid than he does in helping his daughter alleviate this stress. Her parent’s marriage has crumbled and her mother has already moved out.

Then there is the cast of creepy characters: the strange man dressed all in black who walks up and down the country roads; Brennan, her father’s former colleague, Father Murphy, a priest who seems to know more than he’s telling and Cooper, her childhood bestie’s older brother, who used to terrorize her when she was a kid.

Behind the Red Door moves along at a brisk pace, but unfortunately I had a difficult time believing any of it. Fern was a sort of insipid character, even as she started (bravely or foolishly) digging into Astrid’s life. Her parents are reprehensible. Cooper, even at 40, sounds like a frat boy. I had no trouble turning the pages, but it wasn’t nearly as good as The Winter Sister.

His & Hers – Alice Feeney

I had high hopes for Alice Feeney’s thriller His & Hers, probably because somewhere I read that it was un-put-down-able and I have had a difficult time settling into any book these days. (I blame A Little Life , and not in a good way.)

Feeney’s story is narrated by Anna Andrews, a newsreader who has just been demoted and sent back to the field when the woman for who she was filling in returns from her maternity leave, and Detective Jack Harper, a cop in a small British town in Surrey, which is south of London.

When a woman shows up dead in the woods in, Anna is sent to cover the story and Jack is sent to investigate it. It’s clear from the very beginning that neither of them is a reliable narrator; neither of them is particularly subtle about the fact that they are withholding information. Jack is the first to crack, announcing that he has “never worked on the murder of someone I knew before. And I knew this woman well. I was with her last night.”

The dead woman isn’t the only relationship Jack wants to keep on the down-low. Turns out he and Anna have history, too, and it makes it hard for either of them to get on with the job. What follows, unfortunately is a lot of silliness and implausibility and people acting like idiots.

It takes a lot for a thriller to impress me. I often spot the twists coming from a mile away and although figuring things out before they are revealed doesn’t always mean that I won’t like the book, I just found Anna and Jack grating and between them and the clunky exposition (and ridiculous ending) I just can’t say this thriller is a must read.

First Born – Will Dean

I discovered Will Dean on Twitter and a few months ago I nabbed a copy of his well-reviewed novel The Last Thing to Burn, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I recently picked up First Born and although I read it in just a couple of sittings, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much.

First Born is the story of 22-year-old identical twins Molly and Katie “KT” Raven. Molly tells us “I don’t use the term identical twin because it’s a blatant lie. A travesty. Our base DNA is identical, sure, but that’s about all that is. We were once one person. We are not anymore.”

When the novel opens, Molly is working in an office in London, while KT is studying in New York City. KT is the risk taker; Molly spends her time assessing threats and preparing for the worst. Molly sees danger everywhere and she is always prepared, even going to far as to making homemade weapons out of pound coins and a sock.

The twins’ parents have been visiting KT in New York and when Molly arrives, they spend their time eating toast and drinking tea and waiting for the police to give them information about just what happened to KT. There’s very little to go on, and Molly feels that it is her duty to help the investigation along. She tracks down KT’s best friend, boyfriend, investigates the creepy son of the landlord and uncovers some things about her sister she did not know.

First Born does offer a couple of excellent twists, and Molly’s voice is definitely singular. The action clips along, for sure. For me, though, it wasn’t believable and I wasn’t sure I understood character motivations at all. By about a third of the way in the prose started to grate a little bit and there was something sort of ‘lazy’ about it. Like, suddenly a character has a gun which she pulled out of nowhere, but we’re told she’d purchased before. That sort of thing. The shenanigans were all a bit over-the-top.

Still – if that sort of thing doesn’t irk you, you’ll probably have a lot of fun reading this book – if you are willing to suspend disbelief and don’t mind the crazy.

The Last Thing to Burn – Will Dean

Coming on the heels of a really disappointing read, made Will Dean’s novel The Last Thing to Burn extra terrific. I probably would have felt that way about it no matter when I read it though. I discovered this book via Twitter, which is the same way I came across Chris Whitaker’s amazing novel We Begin at the End. Twitter, keep up the good work.

The Last Thing to Burn opens with our first-person narrator hobbling across a field, her “right ankle the size of a fist.” Her voice is so distinct and her anxiety so palpable that I was immediately sucked into the story. It is only when a Land Rover appears on the track and the man driving comes for her, that we realize this person is a captive.

He holds me with no force. His power is absolute. He needs no violence at this moment because he controls everything the eye can see. I can feel his forearm at the back of my knees and he’s holding it there as gently as a concert violinist might hold a bow.

His name is Lenn. Her name is Jane. Except that’s not her name. She’d come to England from Vietnam with her younger sister, Kim-Ly. They’d been told there would be jobs waiting for them and that they’d be earning enough money to send home. First, though, they would have to pay back the people who’d arranged for their travel. This debt is endless. At first, Jane and Kim-Ly work on a farm where they are fed and have one day off. Then, Jane is sold to Lenn and Kim-Ly is sent off. That was seven years ago.

Jane’s life is one of captivity. There are cameras everywhere in the little farmhouse she shares with Lenn. Every day when Lenn comes back from tending to the fields, he watches the tapes. Her responsibilities are to keep the house just as his mother, also called Jane, did and to cook his meals, the same rotation every week, exactly as his mother did. She wears his mother’s old clothes, uses her cloth sanitary napkins. One week a month, Jane is allowed to sleep in the back bedroom. Three weeks a month,

I lie on the bed and pull the thin cotton sheet over myself. I adjust it so the sheet’s covering me from the navel and higher. This is, in some ways, the worst of it. The waiting. because it drives the truth home like a hammer would drive a nail through a plank of rotten wood.

When Jane misbehaves, Lenn throws one of her precious belongings into the fire. All these years later, all that remains are her ID with her true name on it, letters from her sister (who is working in a Manchester), a picture of her parents and a copy of Of Mice and Men.

The Last Thing to Burn is really one of those books that you read with your heart in your throat. I flew through it in two sittings because I had to know what was going to happen. Jane is an unforgettable character, but so is Lenn. He’s clearly a monster, a psychopath, and “even though he’s not a violent man, not usually, […] he’ll take what he wants in his own horrifically gentle way.” Dean wisely avoids being too graphic, but it won’t matter, the implied is enough.

Although the ending was a teensy bit abrupt, The Last Thing to Burn is a solid, well-written, propulsive page turner, and I doubt you’ll soon forget Jane.

Highly recommended.

You Will Know Me – Megan Abbott

Eric and Katie Knox know their daughter is special and so they spend all their energy on helping her achieve her (their) dreams of Olympic gold. That’s the premise of Megan Abbott’s 2016 novel You Will Know Me. This is my third novel by Abbott (Dare Me, The End of Everything), but I can’t say that I liked it all that much, although it was on everyone’s Best Book list when it was published.

There is nothing Devon’s parent’s won’t do for her: get a second mortgage on their house, rack up debt on their credit cards, neglect her younger brother Drew. All of this and more in an effort to fulfill Devon’s gymnastic promise.

Just after her tenth birthday, Devon’s coach, Coach T, shows her parents “The Track, which lays out the next few years of Devon’s life on her way to the Olympics. But, as Coach T tells the Knoxes, “It takes a family to make this happen. And it takes action. Devon needs to be here at least thirty hours a week, maybe more.”

The whole trajectory is remarkable since a childhood accident had left Devon with two missing toes, her foot now referred to affectionately as the Frankenfoot. Devon is as determined as her parents, though, and nothing stands in her way. That’s not something I can relate to, really. Neither of my children were ever involved in competitive sports. The closest I ever came was my daughter’s commitment to ballet; she danced 12 hours a week, sometimes more and perhaps at one time thought about pursuing it more seriously. I do understand that desire to support a child’s dreams; however, these parents are single-minded.

When someone with ties to the gym is killed, Katie’s world starts to implode. She discovers that the people closest to her have been keeping secrets and she understands that her capacity to prevent anyone from getting in Devon’s way is full-on mama bear. So, I guess, You Will Know Me is meant to be, among other things, a thriller. Except – not so much with the thrilling.

I just didn’t like or care about any of these people. Everyone just seems so single-minded and shrill and, frankly, Eric and Katie are bad parents. Poor little Drew. He’s an after thought at all times.

Just meh for me.

In My Dreams I Hold a Knife – Ashley Winstead

There seems to be a lot of novels out there about college reunions these days. Must be a millennial thing. I was excited to read Ashley Winstead’s debut In My Dreams I Hold a Knife because I love the title and that cover. Sadly, I am ambivalent about the book as a whole. I am not going to say I didn’t like it because I was wholly invested for the first third and still hanging in there for the second, but by the last third I was just….nope.

Jessica Miller is headed back to Duquette University to attend her ten-year class reunion. She is keen to show her former gang, collectively known as the East House Seven, that she has made it.

I wanted them to see perfection. I ached for it in the deep, dark core of me: to be so good I left other people in the dust.

The East Coast Seven are “the people responsible for the best days of [Jessica’s] life, and the worst.” She’d met them all early in freshman year, and they’d bonded instantly. There’s Jack (“an eighteen-year-old Mr. Rogers”), Heather ( “the confident blonde”), Coop (hot in a “one-time, get-the-bad-boy-out-of-your-system kind of way”), Mint (“the most beautiful boy” Jess had ever seen) , Frankie (“tall and broad…in a way that screamed athlete”), and Caro (“small and olive-skinned and pretty”).

Fast-forward a decade though and she’s really only speaking to Caro, her bestie, and Jack. Going back to Duquette means seeing Mint (her boyfriend through college) and Coop (the boy she actually loved) again. One is married to another girl, and one is engaged to Caro. As if this drama isn’t enough, this reunion has the potential to stir up the unsolved murder of Heather, who was savagely stabbed to death senior year.

So – there are lots of things I did like about this book. First of all, I am all about angst and the relationship between Jessica and Coop has that in spades. Although I am long past my university days, I do enjoy books set on college campuses. Heather’s unsolved murder has lots of potential for red herrings and such and, of course, who doesn’t love a story where people are reunited after a trauma? I also thought the writing was quite good – no quibbles with that.

The novel flips back and forth between then and now. We get glimpses of the East House Seven at various points during the four years of college, but mostly through Jess’s eyes. Towards the end, we do see certain events from the 3rd person perspective of some of the other characters. These sections felt mostly expository because they were things Jess couldn’t possibly have known, but the reader had to be told in order for the narrative to make sense.

I was wholly invested at the start. It started to unravel, though, when Eric Shelby, Heather’s younger brother, confronts the group at the reunion. He’s determined to reveal who is responsible for his sister’s death – something the police hadn’t been able to do. As each character is accused and their closely-held secrets start spilling out, the book started to lose momentum for me. I think part of the issue might have been that Winstead just tried to cram way too much into the book, and none of these “secrets” had any room to breathe. Part of the problem might have been the first person narration. It’s limiting because we only know that character’s perspective and of course, in a book like this, you have to wonder how reliable the narrator actually is. The denouement just felt sort of ridiculous – lots of shouting, and running.

All of that said, though, I would 100% read something else by Winstead. Despite the fact that In My Dreams I Hold a Knife didn’t quite work for me, it was brimming with potential and I suspect that her next offering will be awesome.

The Perfect Liar – Thomas Christopher Greene

Max W. and Susannah meet at a fancy art party in New York City. They are drawn to each other almost immediately and soon after, they are married. Now they live in Vermont where Max has taken a job as a lecturer at a small liberal arts college. One morning, while Max is away giving a lecture at an art institute in Chicago, Susannah discovers a note pinned to their front door:

I KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

Thomas Christopher Green’s (The Headmaster’s Wife, Envious Moon) The Perfect Liar is the perfect book for a rainy afternoon because you can read it pretty much in one sitting. It won’t take you long to realize that you are dealing with a couple of unreliable narrators – my favourite kind of narrator – and that’s what makes this book so much fun.

Max has reinvented himself from runaway/vagabond – to artist – to viral TedTalk phenom. He’s pretty forthcoming about the details of his life and he also knows that “he had the gift to read people. He imagined he could often tell what they desired even before he knew it themselves.” He knows how to hold a room, so he’s soon a sought after speaker at art institutes and corporate functions.

Susannah was widowed young and is the mother of one son, Freddy, now sixteen. Her former husband was her therapist first and despite the obvious conflict of interest, she continued to see him professionally even after they were married. Joseph was twenty years older than her with a “voice calming like a metronome. Susannah loved his voice and she loved how he used words. She couldn’t get enough of his voice. Just the sound of it was enough for her to feel at ease, to stop being aware of her heart.”

Susannah suffers from extreme panic attacks and anxiety, and being in Vermont seems to be helping – until she finds the first note. Then this perfect life she seems to have found starts to unravel. And Max, too, seems unsettled by the note…and the notes that follow.

Greene does a great job of moving the narrative along and giving you lots of opportunities to shift allegiances. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that either Max or Susannah are particularly sympathetic, but that doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. I don’t want to spoil any of the novel’s several surprises, so I’ll just say The Perfect Liar is the perfect book for your beach bag.