Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott (2018)

“She poured the poison in my ear and now I am inflamed.” 192

give me your hand

Megan Abbott’s newest novel, once again, explores the intricacies of female relationships and the ways in which they teeter, precariously, between competition, compassion, and cruelty. Her stunning prose, her crystal clear insight into the minds of girls and women, and her willingness to stretch her plot lines into dark and twisted places all mean that her works are not to be missed.

At seventeen, Kit is poor and scrappy; assuming that — even with her obvious intelligence — she is destined for a life one step above that of her blue-collar parents. Diane is gorgeous, rich, and a star in the classroom and on the track. When the two meet, something is sparked inside them both. The harder one girl pursues a goal, the harder the other works to beat her to it; the faster one runs, the farther the distance the other covers.  For the most part, the two girls acknowledge that their relationship is helping them both achieve more and more; but under the surface a sharp, dark edge is developing between the girls.

“We are bound, ankle to ankle, a monstrous, three-legged race. Accidental accomplices. Wary conspirators.  Or Siamese twins, fused in some hidden place.” 3

Shortly before graduation, Kit glimpses something in Diane that is dark and terrifying. Realizing that she has what it takes to succeed without Diane’s relentless perfectionism to mirror, Kit ends their friendship before whatever lies beneath Diane’s sleek exterior become too much for her to keep under control.

“Her blood ran cold and merciless. The girl who could do anything. Who had a rage in her like a bomb in her chest. I readied myself for anything.” 201

The two women part for college, then graduate school, and Kit assumes she is free from whatever chaos is brewing in Diane’s future. Kit, propelled by scholarship money and a limitless desire to excel, is a star student and proceeds through college and a PhD program, finally landing as one of the elite doctoral students on a prestigious team of researchers.

When Diane arrives in the lab, newly hired to help the team embark on an ambitious study of PMS and PMDD, Kit’s orderly and sterile life is thrown into complete disarray. Now, she sees sabotage in every conversation she is not included in; sees competition and challenge in every action; and begins to act so erratically she could jeopardize her entire career trying to understand what, if anything, Diane wants from her. Diane’s return has unlocked something inside Kit, something that she is sure will lead only to destruction.

Set against the back-drop of case studies about women who become unhinged during their menstrual cycle, the stories of Kit and Diane and their dark and terrifying emotions — described in terms of blood, cycles, urges, hormones — adds a eerie and out of body quality to Abbott’s story. The overall effect is chilling and compelling, a book that is impossible to put down.

“Don’t we all feel we have something banked down deep inside just waiting for its moment, the slow gathering of hot blood? [It’s] the fear all men have that there’s something inside us that shifts, and turns. A living thing, once dormant, stirring now, and filled with rage.” 21-23

Three other outstanding novels — The Fever, Dare Me, and You Will Know Me — by Abbott have been reviewed on this site; those posts can be found following the tag “Megan Abbott.”

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The Ranger by Ace Atkins (2011)

Quinn Colson Novel #1

Quinn Colson left Tibbehah County, Mississippi at the age of eighteen when he enlisted in the Army and never looked back. In his time away, he rose through the ranks to become an elite Army Ranger, surviving several tours of duty during his decade of service. On leave, he finally returns to his hometown to attend the funeral of his uncle and visit his family over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Quinn finds his hometown unchanged in many ways — same people, same churches, same middle of nowhere emptiness — and dramatically different in others. Old-growth forests have been logged, pristine wilderness razed, and the residents ravaged by Meth. At the funeral, he learns that the circumstances surrounding his uncle’s death are suspicious and the land willed to Quinn are coveted by a man at the center of plan to clear-cut even more land in the County for a proposed “development park” that seems to have little hope of being completed.

Attempting to assure that the land will remain with his family, he goes up against political heavy-weights and greedy religious leaders. As he digs into their affairs, and their overly-keen interest in his property, he finds himself up against another formidable foe: the leader of a white supremacist gang who cooks and sells most the Meth tearing apart the County.

Unable to leave the land to be claimed by a crooked politician or let his fellow residents be left at the mercy of a brutal Meth dealer, Quinn begins his own campaign to clean up Tibbehah County, Mississippi the only way he knows how: kicking-ass Army Ranger style. Heavy on the testosterone at times, but balanced by the crystal-clear descriptions of a rural town falling under the tide of drug addiction, The Ranger was a good — if formulaic — read.

Into The Water by Paula Hawkins (2017)

Repost. Originally posted May 11, 2017

into the water

Paula Hawkins follows up her best-selling novel, The Girl on the Train, with Into the Water, a thriller that is more compelling, faster paced, and just as intensely intelligent…sure to be an instant best-seller. I read the whole book in one afternoon and loved it.

In the English village of Beckford, the river that winds through the town casts a deep spell over the local residents. Dating back to the witch-hunts of the 1600s, the river has been the sight of dozens of documented — and countless undocumented — murders and suicides: almost all involving women. These women, the women of the Drowning Pool, continue to haunt Beckford.

Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a successful photographer who spent her childhood summers on the river in Beckford, returns to the town to complete a book and photography art exhibit honoring the women who have died at the Drowning Pool. Nel has harbored a life-long obsession with the murders and suicides that have happened on the river and wants to tell the stories — the real stories — of the women who died.

Nel’s project, and her relentless obsession for stirring up past town scandals, immediately riles the local residents. When her project is linked the the tragic suicide of a local teenage girl named Katie, Nel herself becomes a target for violence. Within a few months, Nel’s body is found in the Drowning Pool and many in town feel that she got what was coming to her.

Enter Julia “Jules” Abbott, Nel’s estranged sister, who has been suddenly thrust into the roles as executor of her sister’s estate and the guardian to Nel’s fifteen-year-old daughter Lena. Jules’ relationship to Beckford is not one of deep interest (as it was for Nel), but remembered as a place of fear, grief, and violence. In fact, events that happened in that very town when the girls were young are the source for the rift between the sisters. “What struck me is how well I remembered. Too well. Things I want to remember I can’t, and the things I try so hard to forget just keep coming. The nearer I got to Beckford, the more undeniable it became, the past shooting out at me like sparrows from the hedgerow, startling and inescapable.” 11

There is nothing clear-cut about Nel’s death, nor the suicide of Katie Whittaker which Nel is blamed for causing, and everyone in town seems to be attempting to find answers. Jules, Lena, Katie’s family, the local police, and even the town witch — a descendant of the first woman believed to be murdered in the river, persecuted for witch-craft — are all searching for the truth.

These investigations delve into suicides and murders stretching back far into the town’s history, all spurred on by Nel’s book notes which seem to suggest very few of the deaths that have happened at the Drowning Pool could be seen as suicides…but rather acts aimed at “getting rid of troublesome women.”

The novel that follows is fast-paced, nerve-wracking, and deliciously scandalous! Filled with Hawkin’s signature misdirection, half-told truths, and out-of-order sequencing: the story slowly reveals not one, not two, but many, many crimes that are lurking under the serene surface of Beckford and its river

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware (2018)

mrs. westaway

In an enormous, crumbling mansion that sprawls along the frost-covered Cornwall coast, Mrs. Westaway has died. The cold, dark manor house — Trespassen — that had fallen into disrepair during Mrs. Westaway’s final years has now become a battleground for her next of kin. Gathered here on an icy December day to attend Mrs. Westaway’s funeral and hear the reading of her will, are her three surviving children and their families and one stranger.

The stranger is Harriet “Hal” Westaway, a twenty-one year old woman who traveled across the country at the request of Mrs. Westaway’s lawyer. Although she is almost certain that she could not have been named in the will of a wealthy woman who she has never heard of, Hal travels to Trespassen because she has no other options. Following the death of her mother three years prior, Hal has lived in poverty; barely making enough to pay the rent and buy food. The letter from the lawyer with the promise of an inheritance is too much to resist, Hal decides she will impersonate a long-lost relative of Mrs. Westaway in the hopes that she can improve her financial situation.

Her arrival at Trespassen is not at all what she expects. The manor house itself is dark, dank, and in shambles; lorded over by a terrifying housekeeper whose displeasure at Hal’s arrival is made crystal clear. The Westaway family is also a shock, they appear to welcome Hal with open arms. She is, they believe, the daughter of their long-estranged and presumed dead sister, Maud. Even though she is certain that she is not their niece, she stays mum.

When the lawyer finally reads the will, Hal is indeed named as a recipient — without question — not of a small, financial behest but of the entire Trespassen estate. Her shock is equal to the fury of her “family.” Hal is at a loss for how to proceed. It is clear that Mrs. Westaway was certain that Hal was a relative, but how? Why would the elderly woman disinherit her adult children? What could Hal possibly hope to do as the owner of a falling-down mansion?

A story that was strange begins to grow sinister, as Hal attempts to investigate the Westaway family and her place in it. The family’s unquestioning acceptance of her is wavering and their anger at being cut out of their mother’s will is compounded when her early impersonation as their niece comes to light. Now everyone is deeply suspicious that Hal is attempting to defraud the family.

A haunted house, a funeral, jilted heirs, and one desperate young woman; Ware has all of the elements to craft an atmospheric thriller with an outstanding sense of place. Her best work yet, by far. For reviews of her other novels, click on the tag “Ruth Ware.”

The Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand (2018)

On a breath-takingly beautiful July morning on Nantucket, at a stunning beach-front mansion, a seemingly perfect couple is prepared to hold their wedding. As prefect as things seem, fissures have been appearing along the facade presented to the island by the families of Celeste Otis and Benjamin Winbury.

Upon waking on her wedding day, bride-to-be Celeste finds her maid-of-honor, Merritt, washed up dead on the beach. The perfect wedding comes to a crashing halt as the bride is hospitalized, the best man reported missing, and the police swarm the mansion. The ultra-wealthy family members of the groom are suddenly transformed from wedding hosts into murder suspects.

At first, no one claims to have any information about the dead woman; indeed few claim to even know Merritt and no one seems to have any information about when she went missing or why she may have been in the water. An accident they all claim, suicide some whisper, but surely no one in the esteemed Winbury family had anything to do with the death of a woman from Manhattan.

As the investigation expands, the police find the nearly everyone involved in the wedding is hiding something. When pressed, suspects suddenly remember the bride and maid of honor both acting odd: both women were tense, both missing from key parts of the rehearsal, the bride seemed edgy and unhappy. As if the lies were not enough to complicate the investigation, the fact that nearly everyone at the party the night before the murder was very, very drunk making their memories are fuzzy and the evening’s timeline unclear.

As what was to be the wedding day unfolds, it seems obvious that more was happening beneath the surface of the event — and between the people at the event — than is being shared. Tugging at first one line of questioning, then another, and another, the police convince the Otis-Winbury families start to give up some, but not all, of their secrets.

Calypso by David Sedaris (2018)

calypso

While I understand that his sense of humor and style of writing are not to everyone’s taste, I adore David Sedaris and have since I was a teenager. I find something especially stirring in the way he reflects on the tender, tragic, and funny moments in his life and connects them into these small (sometimes profound, sometimes ludicrous) life lessons. In Calypso, that pattern holds.

As in all of his recent writing, Calypso discusses Sedaris’ home, his partner, his family, his writing, and his travels. This collection of essays focuses heavily on the recent suicide of one of his sisters and its impact on the rest of the family. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and thoughtful, Sedaris’ stories examine the uniqueness of his family, of their relationships (sometimes strained) to one another, and the undeniable strength they draw from their shared experiences. Indeed, in one essay Sedaris admits that his family is crazy, fucked up, full of addicts, but it is a tribe he would rather belong to another than any other. He writes, “though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost faith in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. Ours is the only club I’ve ever wanted to be a member of, the only one I couldn’t imagine quitting.” (29)

The influence his mother and sister had in his life while they were alive — and have had on it after their deaths — factors into almost every essay. As he grows older, Sedaris cannot help but think about the death, about the years his mother and sister lost, and what lies beyond.

Of course, it would not be a David Sedaris book without his awkward, wacky, one-off stories included among the more thoughtful stories. Notably, the titular story about Sedaris, a tumor, a book tour and a turtle. Also noteworthy, is his discussion about how people around the world curse at bad drivers…very funny!

I laughed out loud, I cried often, found myself shocked a time or two by this collection and loved every page of Calypso. So much so that I read it twice in a row before handing it off to my husband to read.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (2017)

force of nature

In a follow-up to her outstanding debut novel The Dry, Jane Harper brings back Australian Federal Agent Aaron Falk for yet another mystery.  (Read more about The Dry here https://wp.me/p6N6mT-34V ) A Force of Nature centers around five women who go into the bush for a corporate team-building retreat, of which only four emerge — battered and terrified — days after they were meant to meet their guide. The women are shocked to find their colleague has not made it back on her own.

When local police determine that the missing woman is Alice Russell, Aaron Falk and his new partner Carmen, are asked to head out of Melbourne and into the wild outback to join the investigation.  As it turns out, in addition to being a corporate partner at her accounting firm, Alice Russell is also a police informant helping provide Aaron and Carmen with information about her boss’ illegal activities. While it seems highly unlikely that her disappearance in the wilderness is related to her undercover work for the AFB, Aaron knows better than to ignore the possibility that it is more than a coincidence.

Offering assistance to the local police Aaron and Carmen help search for Alice, both unable to quell their unease the another member of the company might have learned that Alice was helping the feds and taken advantage of the retreat’s remote location to harm Alice, after all the bush has more than enough places for a women to disappear. Their worries do not end there; rescuers know the cold, rainy temperatures and the hostile terrain pose a challenge for even the most seasoned hiker. Adding to their worries, rumors that have plagued the National Park for decades, relating to a serial killer who targets solo, female hikers, begin to swirl around the search.

As Harper details for readers the search for Alice, she also takes us back to the start of the retreat, into the heads of the five women who were dropped off in the bush with little expertise and many, many long-buried grudges. Between the present day police work and the story the women reluctantly reveal, the full story is finally unearthed…along with several unexpected skeletons, real and figurative.  A great, atmospheric novel, and hopefully the start of a series featuring Aaron Falk.