Archive for the ‘Suspense’ Category

Review of Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

Wednesday, March 10th, 2021

Into the Water

by Paula Hawkins
read by Rachel Bavidge with a Full Cast

Penguin Audio, 2017. 12 hours.
Review written March 8, 2021, from a library eaudiobook

I decided I’d been reading too many children’s books and I was ready for a thriller, so I checked out this book by Paula Hawkins, who wrote the incredibly suspenseful The Girl on the Train. This one does have suspense, with danger and mysterious deaths.

The setting is an important part of the book. It all happens in Beckford, at the Drowning Pool part of the river that runs through town. Years ago, they used to use the pool to put accused witches through their ordeal and end up drowning them. In more recent years, it’s been the site of multiple suicides.

Nell Abbot has always been obsessed by the Drowning Pool and those who died there. She used to terrorize her little sister Jules with stories of the little boy who saw his mother jump to her death. She was working on a book about the “troublesome women” who died there. But now Nell Abbot is dead, having jumped off a cliff into the river. Or did she jump?

Her fifteen-year-old daughter Lena is convinced she did, and is devastated because of the argument they had shortly before. Jules has been called back to Beckford to care for Lena, and Jules has her own guilt because she’d refused to talk to her sister for years, and had been convinced the urgency in her voice on the phone recently was just a bid for attention.

All of Jules’ narrated sections are in the style of her talking to Nell. She thinks she hears Nell’s voice, and she sees Nell in everything, in all the memories of being in the same house where they grew up, and looking at Lena, who looks so much like Nell when they were young.

But it turns out that the little boy of of Nell’s old story is Sean Townsend, the detective in charge of her case. He didn’t actually see his mother jump into the river so many years ago, but he was at the river, and his mother’s death in the same way brings extra emotion to the case. And there was another death in the river only a few months before Nell, when Lena’s best friend Katie jumped to her death. Katie’s mother can’t forgive Lena for still being alive, and she couldn’t forgive Nell for being so obsessed with women drowning in the river that she surely gave Katie the idea.

But that’s just the beginning of this complicated story. We’ll find out more about all those recent deaths – from Sean’s mother to Katie to Nell. And to do it will take many perspectives. I wish I had paid attention and realized when I started listening that it was a full cast production. At first, I quickly lost track of who was who in the many voices I heard. It helped when I realized my eaudiobook showed the name of the current narrator on my phone screen, and I think if I’d read the book in print, that would have been easier to follow. There were so many characters, the different voices didn’t help me keep track of who was who.

It’s a sordid story. It seems like almost everyone in it was having sex with someone they really shouldn’t have had sex with. And I’m not talking merely adultery. There’s an awful lot of death, too – though we know that right from the start. Let me just say that not all the deaths in this book turn out to be suicide, which is also not a surprise. Who is responsible for different deaths is more of a surprise.

The characters also aren’t tremendously likable. Though by the end, I was especially rooting for Jules and Lena to make a family relationship with each other and find peace.

So it’s not exactly a pleasant story – but it’s certainly suspenseful and engaging. I stayed up an extra hour to finish it when I got to the end because I didn’t want to put off finding out what happened. Paula Hawkins does know how to weave a suspenseful story and feed us bits of what happened in a way that realization gradually dawns on us how much is at stake.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Even If We Break, by Marieke Nijkamp

Sunday, January 24th, 2021

Even If We Break

by Marieke Nijkamp

Sourcebooks Fire, 2020. 306 pages.
Review written December 9, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#3 General Teen Fiction

Even If We Break is a Then There Were None-style thriller for teens. As the book begins, five teens are making their way to a high-tech mountain cabin owned by one of them. There was a storm the day before that blocked the path for the car and boulders on the path still make it difficult for the two who have mobility issues.

We get the perspective of different teens in each chapter. Finn and Ever are transgender, with Ever using they/them pronouns. Finn uses crutches and Maddy, who is autistic, has been in an accident recently that changed her from a star lacrosse athlete to someone whose knee hurts when she walks, especially over boulders. Liva is the one whose parents own the cabin, and Carter works for her father’s company.

They are all high school students, but Liva, Carter, and Finn have graduated and will be going off to college at the end of the summer. So their three years of playing a role-playing game together will come to an end. They’re going to have one last immersive game experience in the mountain cabin first. Even though Finn hadn’t been joining them as often lately, and even though Liva’s ex-boyfriend Zac had stopped altogether.

There are stories that the mountain is haunted, and Ever, the gamemaster, weaves that into their adventure. Every adventure started with a murder, as the group are Inquisitors from the land of Gonfalon, and the Council hires them to use magic and skills to solve crimes. For this adventure, a councilor herself (represented by a pile of blankets) is dead.

But as the adventure begins, things begin to become all too real. The power goes out. They hear a music box, just like the story of the haunted mountain. Then bloody handprints. And yes, there’s murder. And that high-tech cabin? It’s hard to get out when it locks.

Never mind solving the murder – the teens who are left want to escape with their lives.

The author pulls the story off well. I’m tempted to say more, but won’t for fear it will give you clues. I did love the central role of the transgender teens and enjoyed that all the characters had emotional depth.

And I was very glad I had a chance to finish it in one sitting! This is not a book you want to set aside.

mariekenijkamp.com
FIREreads.com

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Review of Prime Suspects, by Andrew Granville & Jennifer Granville, illustrated by Robert J. Lewis

Saturday, November 9th, 2019

Prime Suspects

The Anatomy of Integers and Permutations

by Andrew Granville & Jennifer Granville
illustrated by Robert J. Lewis

Princeton University Press, 2019. 230 pages.
Starred Review
Review written 9/19/19 from a library book

Okay, now I’ve seen everything! This is a graphic novel murder mystery about research mathematics!

The characters have names that play off of the names of distinguished mathematicians. The lead detective uses ideas from his namesake.

The most interesting part is that when the detective team goes to the autopsy of recent victim Arnie Int, lieutenant of the Integer Crime Family, they found everything inside his body has decomposed – except for prime numbers! The apprentice detective pulls a bloody number out of his body and says, “It’s a prime, sir!”

They find the body is similar to a previous victim, Daisy Permutation. I like the scene where the detectives discuss it while playing billiards:

“It’s not a similarity, but in both victims, the internal organs were completely decomposed.
Except that in Arnie Int there was a smattering of primes, and in Daisy permutation, a smattering of cycles.”

“But that’s only to be expected.
Cycles are the fundamental constituent parts of a permutation, just like primes are the fundamental constituent parts of an integer.”

And it’s all done in a dark style, with some clueless videographers to explain things to, and mathematical puns in the background.

The math itself – where they compare the set of integers to the set of permutations – went over my head, and I’ve got a Master’s in Math. I read the back matter where it’s explained, and it still went over my head – though I at least understood what basic concepts were at work. And I did, after reading, understand at least that cycles are the building blocks of permutations as primes are the building blocks of integers.

And I’m still tickled to death that someone made a graphic novel thriller about higher math.

There are fun ads on the inside cover, such as: “Are you looking to get away from it all? Why not come and stay at Hilbert’s fabulous “Infinite Hotel”? There is ALWAYS room for as many guests as want to stay.” And: “RIEMANN’S ROOTS: We’ll plant your organic roots in straight rows. Guaranteed to have at least 41.69% of the roots in a straight line!” And: “Fermat’s Dreams: Truly remarkable ideas for the future which this inside cover is too small to contain!”

The back matter takes up 50 large pages, so it takes as long to read as the 180 pages of the graphic novel part. Yes, it includes the math, but also you’ve got notes on the mathematicians referred to, notes about the references in the art, and an explanation of how the book came to be – beginning as a screenplay (which has been performed in live readings).

Here’s the beginning of that section:

Integers and permutations are fundamental mathematical objects that inhabit quite distinct worlds though, under more sophisticated examination, one cannot help but be struck by the extraordinary similarities between their anatomies. This comic book stemmed from an experiment to present these similarities to a wider audience in the form of a dramatic narrative. In these after-pages, we will clarify some of the mathematical ideas alluded to in the comic book, giving the details of Gauss’s lectures and Langer’s presentation at the police precinct. We will also break down the content of some of the background artwork, explaining how some of it refers to breakthroughs in this area of mathematics, some of it to other vaguely relevant mathematics, while some content is simply our attempt at mathematical humor.

Our goal in Prime Suspects has been not only to popularize the fascinating and extraordinary similarities between the fine details of the structure of integers and of permutations, but also to draw attention to several key cultural issues in mathematics:

— How research is done, particularly the roles of student and adviser;
— The role of women in mathematics today; and
— The influence and conflict of deep and rigid abstraction.

I’m not sure everyone will love this book, but I sure do! Sure to be all the rage in graduate wings of math departments across the nation!

press.princeton.edu

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Review of This Savage Song, by Victoria Schwab

Saturday, October 20th, 2018

This Savage Song

by Victoria Schwab

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2016. 427 pages.

Kate Harker and August Flynn live in a divided city overrun by monsters. The monsters are created when violent acts are committed. In the north side of the city, people pay Kate’s father for protection. Those who wear one of his medallions will not be touched by the monsters (or the monsters will pay). In the south side of the city, August’s father’s forces patrol to control the monsters. But he uses three of the most powerful type of monster — which includes August himself.

But the truce between the two powerful men and the two halves of the city is growing shaky.

Kate has been sent away for her own protection. But after she gets kicked out of six boarding schools, her father has to take her back. She will attend Colton Academy on the north side of Verity. August is also going to attend Colton Academy. Because the truce may fail. And Kate Harker may be the one thing her father cares about.

Monsters are only capable of telling the truth. Which might make it hard for August to pose as human, but he manages. His type of monster, the Sunai, can steal the souls of sinners by making music. He can tell when someone has committed violence, the kind of violence that produces monsters — their shadows don’t hold still.

The Sunai bring about justice. They work for good, right? But when they get Hungry, they can lose control….

Kate wants to prove she’s strong enough to live in the city, that she is enough like her father to not fear the monsters and rule the city. She notices there’s something off about August.

When monsters attack her school and it looks like the Sunai are doing it — but August is the one who saves her — Kate realizes that someone is trying to make the truce fall apart. Both she and August are in danger, but can they trust each other?

This book has an imaginative premise and explores what makes a human and what makes a monster. There is gore and violence, but interesting thoughts about society and violence and family.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Death of Mrs. Westaway, by Ruth Ware

Saturday, September 8th, 2018

The Death of Mrs. Westaway

by Ruth Ware
read by Imogen Church

Random House Audiobooks, 2018. 12 CDs.
Starred Review

I’m reviewing another audiobook for adults! Our Newbery committee agreed not to listen to audiobooks of eligible books, since that might influence us one way or the other. So I’m using my commute to listen to books for adults. After reading The Woman in Cabin 10 and thoroughly enjoying spending time with a thriller, I was excited to see the library had an audio version of Ruth Ware’s latest thriller.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway is a completely different story from The Woman in Cabin 10, but it, too, sets the stage, lets you thoroughly understand the characters – and leads up to a completely tense, edge-of-your-seat, the-author-wouldn’t-really-let-her-die-would-she? moment.

At the beginning of this book, Harriet (known as “Hal”) Westaway receives a letter from her lawyer informing her that her grandmother has died and she needs to go to Trepassen House in Cornwall to receive her inheritance.

The thing is – Hal’s grandmother died before she was born. Her mother was single (said her father was a student she had a one-night stand with) and though she was named Westaway, her birth certificate lists a totally different name than the supposed grandmother of the letter.

But Hal is in deep financial trouble. When her mother died, Hal continued her tarot-reading booth on the pier in Brighton. But that’s not a reliable income, and she got in trouble borrowing money from a loan shark after her mother’s death, and now he wants her to pay back several times what she originally borrowed.

What if she just goes to Cornwall and tries to claim the money? They’re rich. Surely it won’t hurt them for her to take a little.

But when Hal gets there, she finds people with faces, not just selfish rich folks. Though there are some disturbing things about the house.

And then she finds out two things. One is that her mother spent time at Trepassen House right around the time Harriet was conceived. The other is that Mrs. Westaway named Hal in her will – and left her the bulk of her estate, passing over her three living children and the missing daughter who had the same name as Hal’s mother.

This book moves slowly, building the scenes and the relationships step by step by step. Which makes it all the more powerful when it comes to the terrifying, but ultimately satisfying, ending.

The narrator is the same one who read The Woman in Cabin Ten — and though Hal wasn’t as desperate a woman as that narrator, I enjoyed Imogen Church’s way of voicing her just as much. Though it’s no secret I’ll enjoy listening to anyone who has a British accent – she does a good job on top of that.

If you enjoy psychological thrillers, here’s another outstanding one.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library audiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Review of The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

The Woman in Cabin 10

by Ruth Ware
read by Imogen Church

Encore (Simon & Schuster Audio), 2016. 9 discs.
Starred Review

While I’m reading lots and lots of children’s books for the 2019 Newbery Medal, during my commute I indulged in a thriller for adults. This book is so intense, I can’t promise that it didn’t mess with my driving.

We’ve got a wonderfully unreliable narrator. Lo Blacklock is a travel writer, and she gets an opportunity to go on a luxury cruise on a small lavish ship while her boss is on maternity leave. But a few days before the trip, she suffered a break in, and she’s very much on edge. And then, yes, she had quite a bit too much to drink the first night of the cruise.

So when she wakes up suddenly in the night to the sound of a body thrown into the sea, we definitely wonder if that’s really what she heard. But there must be an explanation for the fact that before dinner, there was a woman in Cabin 10 who gave Lo mascara when she asked to borrow some, and didn’t want it back. After Lo hears the splash in the night and calls security, there is no one in Cabin 10, and she’s told that the person who booked that room never came on the cruise at all. So who did Lo see and talk with?

The security staff don’t believe her. The reader isn’t sure we should either. The ship keeps traveling on.

But some more odd things start to happen.

This book does a wonderful job of setting a puzzle which I not only couldn’t solve, but I couldn’t imagine how the author could possibly solve.

Let’s just say that the author did make the puzzle work – with plenty of life-and-death danger and suspense along the way.

The narrator was fabulous. Though I have to say that I’m easily pleased by anyone with a British accent – but she did a good job and was a delight to listen to. Lo’s precarious mental state was communicated often by the tone of voice, sounding somewhat desperate when called for, or bewildered, or simply exhausted.

This was one of those audiobooks I eventually brought into my house to finish, because I couldn’t stand waiting until my next commute. Highly recommended for a version of a locked-room mystery – at sea.

audio.simonandschuster.com

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Source: This review is based on a library audiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing, by Jen Waite

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing

A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal

by Jen Waite

Plume (Penguin Random House), 2017. 258 pages.
Starred Review

I thought I’d read just a chapter of this book on Friday night. But once I started, I couldn’t look away until I’d finished.

Yes, it’s the true story of an apparently wonderful husband who cheated, lied, and turned out to be a psychopath. (There is a disclaimer at the front that this is not an official diagnosis. This isn’t an official diagnosis, either.) Many of my readers know that I, too, had a husband who cheated – and the long, awful time of suspicion and being lied to and desperately trying to fix things eventually ended with finding out it had all been much worse than I’d thought.

Jen Waite’s story is different from mine. She had only five years she thought she’d had a good marriage (and came to find out, he’d been cheating very early on). But that feeling of devastation? The world-toppling discovery that leaves you not knowing what was ever real? The wondering, always wondering what he’s up to right now and compulsion to check? All of that felt horribly familiar.

When I read that her husband was working long, long hours – through the night to the early hours of the morning – I just cringed. (That one took her a long time to figure out. And I know why – He’s working so hard! You want to be supportive! He’s sacrificing so much time for his job!)

Anyway, this is a story of a marriage – how they met and fell in love quickly – and betrayal. The discovery happened shortly after the birth of their first child. Jen Waite tells the story beautifully and suspensefully. She starts with the moment she read the email her husband had written that changed her world. It’s just a paragraph, which ends like this:

What I am seeing must have a logical explanation. It must be a misunderstanding. As soon as I can talk to my husband, he will explain and everything will be OK. This is not an emergency yet. If I can just hear his voice, I will be able to breathe again. Balancing the baby in one arm, I reach for my cell phone with the other, unconsciously bouncing my knees to soothe my daughter’s screams.

After that, she alternates between sections describing “Before” and “After.” The “Before” sections deal with how they met and built a life together. The “After” sections involve finding out what, actually, happened, and how she very slowly figured out the extent of his betrayal.

Jen finishes up the book describing how she has resolved to become a licensed therapist, specializing in recovery from psychopathic relationships. Yes! So it ultimately becomes a story about wresting good out of a nightmarish situation.

For me, reading it gave me a sense of solidarity – a reminder that I wasn’t the only one who ever got cheated on. (I know this intellectually, but that’s different from feeling sympathy as the author describes going through it.) But it also gave me a lovely realization of how far I’ve come. Yes, I remember being so devastated – but I am not devastated now! I remember trying to get my life back on track and find my footing – and (Wow!) I have done so! Not only am I working full-time as a children’s librarian and youth services manager – I even had my dream come true and am on the Newbery committee! And I would never have even become a librarian if my husband hadn’t left me – I was enjoying working part-time far too much.

I liked her emphasis that life goes on and we can emerge better and stronger. Yes! This is true!

You may not have such a personal connection with this book, but either way, it’s still a gripping and emotional true story. It will give you insight, compassion, and understanding for people caught in such an awful situation.

I checked the author’s website, and she’s got further encouragement for people who are putting their lives back together. May she continue to grow better and stronger because of what she’s been through.

jenwaite.com
plumebooks.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Shadow Land, by Elizabeth Kostova

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

The Shadow Land

by Elizabeth Kostova

Ballantine Books, 2017. 478 pages.
Starred Review

When Alexandra Boyd gets off the plane in Sofia, she’s jet lagged, exhausted, and not even thinking straight. She’s in Bulgaria to begin teaching English, but came a month early to do some sight-seeing. First, the taxi driver brings her to a nice hotel, instead of the hostel where she has a room booked – and drives off before she can fix it.

While she’s trying to figure out what to do, she sees an elderly couple and a younger man come out of the hotel. As the younger man is helping the older man in a wheelchair get into a taxi, the older lady stumbles. Alexandra catches her arm and helps her. And then she passes their bags to them and helps them settle in the cab.

The younger man thanks her, and chats with her about her travel plans. She asks if she can take their picture – the first people she’s spoken to in Bulgaria.

Then Alexandra gets into a taxi and heads for her hostel. But as they are driving away, she suddenly notices that she has the tall man’s satchel. When she opens it up, it contains an urn with ashes and a name on the urn, Stoyan Lazarov. She asks the taxi driver to stop and bursts into tears.

When Alexandra opened the urn, she began to cry not because she was afraid of human remains but because it was just too much, the last straw. She was in a strange country, she was exhausted, her plans had already gone awry, and in the dramatic way of the young she felt herself in the grip of something larger — destiny, or some plot that could as easily be evil as good.

Alexandra has the driver, who says she can call him Bobby, take her back to the hotel, but there’s no sign of the people who lost the urn. She goes to the police, which Bobby doesn’t think is a great idea. But the police give her an address to try. First, though, she and Bobby drive to the monastery where the tall man said they’d be traveling.

In the monastery, Alexandra and Bobby get locked into a room, but it turns out Bobby has lockpicking skills.

By now Bobby is interested in Alexandra’s quest, so they continue on the trail of the Lazarov family. Each place they go, they find the family is not there, but get another lead of a place where they might be found. Along the way, they find out more about Stoyan Lazarov as well. But at the same time, as they travel, Bobby’s car is vandalized and they get threatening notes. Someone besides the Lazarov family seems to want the urn.

This book has a chase saga and a mystery, as well as being a story of a young American woman traveling in Europe on her own for the first time. Just when I thought it was especially lovely, pleasant reading, the book starts delving into the history of Bulgaria – particularly Stoyan Lazarov’s time in a prison camp – particularly brutal and awful.

But the overall feeling of the book is hopeful and surviving through art and through love. The story is compelling, as Stoyan Lazarov’s past has repercussions in the present.

This is a very personal story, despite having large themes. Alexandra has some of her own issues to deal with, but she cares about the people she meets along the way, and the reader can’t help but care, too. The author weaves in flashbacks well, never interrupting Alexandra’s story long enough to make us impatient.

I still say it’s a lovely book, even though it has some very hard chapters. The author brings Bulgaria to life so vividly and so lovingly, I wasn’t surprised to read at the back that she’s married to a Bulgarian. The plot is gripping, yet she manages to weave in lots of background material without letting up on the tension. On top of all that, these characters – from Alexandra and Bobby all the way to the man in the urn – are people you come to love.

elizabethkostova.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

Friday, May 15th, 2015

girl_on_the_train_largeThe Girl on the Train

by Paula Hawkins
read by Claire Corbett, Louise Brealey, and India Fisher

Penguin Audio, 2015. 11 hours on 9 compact discs.
Starred Review

Warning to potential listeners: If you have ever been cheated on, this book contains some triggers which will remind you of that time. However, it’s also somewhat therapeutic. It will make you feel that your own reactions were incredibly calm. You were not a crazy woman! (Who knew?)

Rachel Watson rides the train into London every morning and goes home every evening – so her flatmate won’t know that she lost her job months ago for turning up drunk. Every day, the train stops as it passes the house where Rachel used to live – and where her ex-husband Tom lives with his new wife and child – the woman who replaced Rachel and the child she longed to have.

To avoid looking at her home, right next to the tracks, naturally enough Rachel watches the people a few houses down. They are the perfect couple. As in love as Rachel used to be. Rachel gives them names, Jess and Jason, and she imagines their perfect lives.

Then, one day, Rachel sees Jess kissing a man who is not Jason. Jess is ruining Jason’s life, just as Tom ruined hers! That evening, having thought about it all day, in her drunken agitation, she gets off the train at her old stop. She knows something bad happened when she wakes up at home the next morning with a cut on her forehead, but she doesn’t remember at all what it was. And the newspapers say that Jess – actually named Megan – has gone missing.

Gradually, we learn about Rachel’s past, about Megan’s history, and about Anna, the woman who replaced Rachel with Tom. Rachel has not been doing well since Tom left her. And she doesn’t blame Tom – she was already a drunk before he left, depressed because she wasn’t having a baby. Now she calls him at odd hours, even turns up at the house.

But after Megan’s disappearance, Rachel is sure Megan’s husband will be suspected. The police need to know about the man Megan kissed. The husband needs to know. Maybe Rachel has to lie a little bit to get them to listen to her, but it’s all trying to help….

I have to admit, the people in this book are not very nice. The situations are sordid. There’s a whole lot of cheating going on. But ultimately, I found I couldn’t stop listening (and this was another audiobook which had me bringing the final CD into the house to finish listening). The audio production is very well done. The three different narrators for the three women – Rachel, Anna, and Megan – make it clear who is speaking at any given time.

I think the character of Rachel is what had me hooked. I remembered the world-shattering pain of learning my husband was cheating. It would have been so very easy to turn to alcohol. To call him and beg him to take me back. If he had married the mistress and moved into our home with his new wife and baby? Well, her pain was all too easy to imagine.

And the mystery is a tangled and interesting one. There are compelling twists along the way. Let me just say that some of the cheaters get a satisfying comeuppance. But best of all is that by the end of the book we feel that Rachel, who has believed many lies about herself, is on her way to healing.

And that’s a beautiful thing.

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Source: This review is based on a library audiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier

Friday, January 9th, 2015

night_gardener_largeThe Night Gardener

by Jonathan Auxier

Amulet Books, New York, 2014. 350 pages.
Starred Review
2014 Sonderbooks Stand-out, #5 Children’s Fiction

Let me say right from the beginning that this book is not for everyone. It would have been way too scary for me when I was in upper elementary and middle school. However, for kids who like a dose of fear and creepiness with their adventures, this well-crafted tale delivers.

Molly and Kip are kids from Ireland, and they’re traveling in England without their parents, looking for work, looking for food, looking for a place to stay. They left Ireland because of the famine, and it’s not clear what happened to their parents. Molly speaks bravely about the adventures their parents must be having, but Molly’s a storyteller, and those adventures don’t sound all too likely.

The book opens with Molly and Kip trying to find their way to an estate owned by the Windsors. A lawyer in town said they could work for that family. But when she asks directions, over and over she’s told things like “My advice: go back to whatever country you came from. The sourwoods is no place for anyone.”

They find a storyteller who looks like a witch who’s willing to tell them the way – if they’ll bring her back some stories. It turns out that the estate is on an island in the river.

The heart of the island had been cleared away to create an open field surrounded by dark trees. The lawn was not flat but covered in a series of miniature hills, each ranging between one and two feet in height. Wind swept across the grassy mounds to create an effect that reminded Kip of rolling ocean waves. At the far end of the lawn stood the Windsor mansion. The house had obviously been left vacant for some years, and in that time it seemed to have become one with the landscape. Weeds swallowed the base. Ivy choked the walls and windows. The roof was sagging and covered in black moss.

But strangest of all was the tree.

The tree was enormous and looked very, very old. Most trees cast an air of quiet dignity over their surroundings. This one did not. Most trees invite you to climb up into their canopy. This one did not. Most trees make you want to carve your initials into the trunk. This one did not. To stand in the shadow of this tree was to feel a chill run through your whole body.

The tree was so close to the house that they almost seemed to have grown together – its gnarled trunk running up the wall like a great black chimney stack. Palsied branches crept out in all directions like a second roof – including a few that appeared to cut straight through the walls. “It’s almost a part of the house,” Kip said softly.

Why any person would build a home so close to such a terrible tree was beyond him. Had it been too difficult to cut down?

When they enter the home, they aren’t exactly welcomed. But they have nowhere to go, so it is agreed that they’ll work in exchange for lodgings. The family consists of a lonely little girl, a spoiled older brother, a sharp and worried mother, and a father who is preoccupied, timid, and often absent.

And the mysteries pile up, slowly and eerily. There’s a door, supposedly to a closet, which is locked and which is forbidden. There’s a portrait of the family, painted only last summer, which shows them looking far more plump and healthy, far more colorful in skin, eyes, and even hair. Everyone living in the house has nightmares. But most sinister of all, a man is walking in the house at night.

Molly hears thumping footsteps. The door to her bedroom has come open, and dead leaves and wind have come in. There are muddy footprints leading right to the side of her bed, the same heavy, muddy footprints she’d cleaned from the stairs during the day. She goes to investigate.

Mistress Windsor’s bedroom was at the end of the hall. Molly could hear the woman murmuring, caught in her own nightmare. She could hear the footsteps again – heavy and slow. Through the crack around the door, she saw a tall shadow move inside, a shadow the size of a man. “Master Windsor, is that you?” she said as bravely as she could.

The footsteps stopped.

The wind stopped.

Her heart stopped.

Molly wiped the perspiration from her palm and adjusted her grip on the candlestick. She took a deep breath and inched toward the door. A howl split the darkness, and she felt a great burst of wind. The gust knocked her to the floor and swept along the upstairs hall. She covered her face as dry leaves skittered over her like bats from a cavern.

She heard a loud slam behind her, and the next moment, everything was still and dark. Molly climbed to her feet, trembling with fright. She felt her way along the wall until she reached the main stairs. She could hear no footsteps. The wind and leaves were all gone. The bedrooms were silent, and the front door was safely shut. The house was completely still. By the time she reached the bottom of the stairs, it almost seemed as if she had dreamed the whole thing.

Molly was about to turn into the service hall when a shadow caught her eye. There, lying in the middle of the floor, was something that hadn’t been there before. It was an old top hat, tipped on its side. Molly remembered Kip’s words. “A tall black hat,” he had said. Molly knelt down and picked it up. It was as real as anything she’d ever touched, its brim damp with mildew and age. She slowly turned the hat over in her hand – dead leaves spilled from the crown, forming a pile at her feet.

Molly stared at the silent house, which only moments before had been filled with leaves. It wasn’t a dream. Kip, Penny – they had both been telling the truth.

The night man was real.

And that’s only the beginning. I love the way Jonathan Auxier spins this tale. He’s not explicit about the magic of the tree and the house. But you gradually learn, along with Molly, why the family would stay in such a place. And while you’re mentally urging Molly and Kip to just leave, you watch with horror as Molly, too, gets ensnared.

I won’t enjoy a book just for being creepy. The skillful plotting does go a long way toward winning me over, but I think what makes me love the book is the good-heartedness of Molly and Kip. Even the Windsor family grows on you, but Molly and Kip have been given a rough deal in life, and they come through with resourcefulness and kindness.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you the book has a happy ending – an earned one. I wouldn’t want to read it if all that scariness really did lead to doom. There are, however, a couple of violent deaths along the way, so I think my warning that the book is not for everyone stands.

Creepy and well-crafted, I will keep this book in mind for the next kid who asks me for “a scary book.”

thescop.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Childrens_Fiction/night_gardener.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss spoilers!