No Turning Back by Tracy Buchanan

COVER Buchanan No Turning Back

As a teacher, I was always kind of a softie – an easy grader. And I suspect that is true of my reviews as well. And I REALLY liked the sound of this one: “emotional roller coaster filled with heart-stopping secrets and hairpin turns.” Sounds like my kind of escapist fiction! So, when I received an advance copy of Tracy Buchanan’s No Turning Back courtesy of Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley, I was ready for a good time!

The premise is interesting, and the beginning is strong. In fact, reading the prologue, I was sure it would be awesome: “My heart pounds, a bird trying to flutter its way out of a cage. I’m breathing fast and heavy, my bare shoulders scraping the brick with each movement. But I keep looking up, not care about the pain. He hunches down, his pale fingers curling around the wooden slats above. I hear his breath, deep and low.” THAT creeped me out, and I was sure that an author who could set a scene of danger so vividly would meet my standards for a good mystery/thriller. I read on…

In this novel, Anna Graves is a new mother who has recently gone back to her work as a radio personality following the breakup of her marriage. She is walking on the beach with her daughter one evening when she sees a group of teenagers who are not people she knows. Alert to any risk to her daughter, she is stunned to see another teenager (not part of the group) coming at her with a knife.

Adrenalin kicks in along with terror, and Anna reacts instinctively to protect her baby. The result is a tragedy but Anna and her daughter are both safe. Then her life starts to fall apart, and we watch Anna falling apart following this event and the re-emergence of the “Ophelia Killer,” a serial killer who hasn’t been heard from for twenty years. The killings stopped right when Anna’s father committed suicide (red flag alert). That event sent her mother over the edge, and Anna has bonded with her grandmother, who has always been her source of comfort.

So far, so good. And I appreciate the way the author let the reader know about Anna’s journalistic instincts. “She just had what her dad used to call the “crowd’s gut”: a natural instinct to know what the zeitgeist was at any given time.” Nice!

But things fell apart for me as the clues mounted, and the revelations about both the current mystery and the events from twenty years earlier began to mount up. At the end, I just wanted it to be over.

I looked at the author’s other titles and think that if I had looked at any of her previous work I would not have been interested in this one. But damn did the marketing people put on a good case! I was convinced, and again, it started strong. I might consider looking at her work again, because she does have strengths in the genre. But it wasn’t put on my favorite new author list. Easy grader that I am, three stars.

 

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

cover shreve stars are fire

For some reason, I think of Anita Shreve’s books as “beach reads,” and her newest “The Stars Are Fire” will most likely be a summer favorite in 2017. Thanks to Knopf Doubleday and NetGalley, I received an advance copy in exchange for this honest review.

The story is set in Maine in 1947, and begins with a very wet rainy season. As summer comes, the initial relief felt by the townspeople of the coastal town where Grace Holland lives with her husband Gene and their two children is short-lived as they enter a period of serious drought. Both these seasons are described with words that make the reader feel first the bleak and gray dampness and then the oppressive airless dry heat.

Grace is living with a taciturn man and apparently thinks he is a good husband…even though there is no joy or warmth between them. “When Grace walks into her mother’s home, she has a sensation of great warmth and safety. This doesn’t occur in her own house despite the fact that at night and on Sundays, there’s a man to protect  her.” Her life “…before she met Gene, before life became uncertain and even a little frightening,” was strictly confined and she grasps at small moments of freedom when she can do nothing more than sit and stare at the ocean.

When fires break out along the coast in October, Gene volunteers to go off to fight the fires leaving five-months-pregnant Grace with two kids both younger than two to fend for themselves. The entire town pretty much burns to the ground, and Grace is left homeless and penniless. Out of this tragedy comes the opportunity for Grace to discover herself as an individual, rather than just in relation to a (crappy) husband. She blossoms, her spirit soars, and then…well, things change. To reveal more would spoil what is quite an interesting story.

I enjoyed reading this…it’s an easy read, and the people are written so that we come to care about what happens to them. I give it four stars.

After reading it, I did some research on the terrible fires which devastated Maine in 1947. That made the story even more real for me, and I appreciate the author’s skill in bringing this bit of history alive.

 

 

The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda

cover Miranda PErfect Stranger

I first became aware of Megan Miranda’s storytelling skill when I read her previous novel All the Missing Girls, which was told BACKWARDS. Not an easy thing to pull off, but she did it in a 5-star fashion, so I was ready with high expectations when I received an advance copy of her latest book The Perfect Stranger in exchange for my honest review (thanks, Simon & Schuster and NetGalley!!)

In this one, the protagonist is an apparently troubled journalist named Leah Stevens, who has moved to a small town in western Pennsylvania to escape and start over. She picks up and takes off with her friend Emmy, becoming a high school teacher while Emmy works odd jobs under the table…or does she??? In fact, did Emmy really exist at all? When Leah reports her missing and the police come to investigate, there is no record of her existence anywhere, either currently or in the past when Leah and Emmy were college roommates. The reader is taken on a twisted ride while Leah tries to find Emmy while hiding her own past (the details of which are rolled out slowly, revealing the reason for Leah’s rush out of Boston and into Pennsylvania.

As the details of her past are revealed, we learn there was a restraining order against Leah and a threatened lawsuit for her actions in a story she wrote in Boston. Leah is just settling in to her new life when someone beats the crap out of a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Leah, and then Emmy disappears.  Leah desperately wants to find Emmy, and becomes deeply entangled with the lead detective working on Emmy’s disappearance. She tries to cooperate, but the is no trace of Emmy, not even a digital footprint. At this point the reader may wonder if Emmy ever existed, or whether Leah might have dissociative identity disorder.

The possibility of a split personality is revealed as Leah tells the reader “I was an adolescent when I first started to see myself as two people…I was both walking down the hall and watching myself walk down the hall.” Speaking of a female student, she said she ”…held herself as if she knew it. She must’ve thought there were certain rules that still applied. “

Leah’s struggles become more clear as she continues ”…then you learn. Your backbone was all false bravado. An act that was highly cultivated, taught and expected of girls now. The spunk that was appreciated and rewarded. Talk back to the professor to show your grit.” Leah has learned that for her young student “…danger had not yet made itself apparent, but it was everywhere, whether she wanted to believe it or not.” 

That is part of what makes this so GOOD: this is not just a mystery/thriller (although it definitely is a good example of that genre) – it is also a critique of how women fit in (or not) and learn to make their way in the world, whether it is essential to follow the rules, and the importance of learning about trust.

Leah’s struggle to reclaim her good name, find Emmy and figure out who, if anyone, she can trust makes this an interesting and exciting book. Five stars. And I look forward to Megan Miranda’s future work!

 

Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

cover-barber-are-you-sleeping

As a big podcast fan (admittedly sparked by Serial), I found the premise of this thriller intriguing: a hugely popular podcast has begun exploring the murder of a young woman’s father. The young woman is Josie Buhrman – who has changed her name and removed herself from the midwestern town where it happened, cutting herself off completely from her estranged twin sister Laine and the aunt who raised the two girls when their mother ran away to join a cult following the murder of her husband. Got it so far? I admit I was sort of hooked just reading the blurb about this, so was happy to receive an advance copy from Gallery Books and NetGalley in return for my honest review.

When the book begins, we meet Josie Buhrman, who has spent the last ten years away from her hometown. Josie has finally put down roots in New York, settling into domestic life with her partner Caleb, a man she met while traveling the world in search of – what? Seems like she mostly wanted to just be AWAY and NOT the murder victim’s daughter. But she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past, including her name and she isn’t quite sure how to tell him the truth: “There was a minefield of lies between us, and the only safe thing to do was to say nothing at all.” When she receives word that her mother has died, she heads back to her hometown, where she is confronted by the Sarah Koenig wannabe Poppy Parnell, whose podcast has stirred up a s&%storm questioning the conviction of the neighbor, who was identified by Laine who claimed to have witnessed the killing.

I enjoyed reading the story, and felt some aspects of the characters were well drawn, although the ending was not a surprise. The author cleverly identified a hook that might entice readers, and she has a knack for creating a tense scene, as when Josie goes in search of her sister: “I could hear the feathery tops of weeds brushing against the car’s undercarriage as I slowly inched forward in the darkness, squinting to make out the confines of the overgrown road.” That kind of descriptive writing is enough for me!

I willingly suspended my disbelief about the outcome and the relationships in Josie’s life (both familial and otherwise), and just went along for the ride. Four stars.