Under My Skin by Lisa Unger (2018)

Finding Lisa Unger’s books last spring was a delightful surprise: here was an author whom I had never read, writing thrilling and complex books, and who had a stack of older novels I could devour. A book-lovers dream! Under My Skin is her latest novel, and while it departs from the spooky, magical-realism of some of her recent novels, it is still a great read.

One morning almost a year ago, Poppy Lang, awoke to find her husband gone from their bed and police detectives in her lobby, there to tell her that he had been mugged and murdered in the park during a jog. Days later, Poppy disappears for almost a week and returns with no memories what-so-ever of the time she has been gone, and no memories of the weeks leading up to her husband’s death.

The twelve months that follow are terrifying and disjointed: consumed with grief, her mind distorted by pills and booze, swaddled by friends and family trying to cushion the blow, wracked with fear and not knowing why. Finally, there is a glimmer of…something. Hope? Memory? Healing?

Poppy and her therapist discuss her emergence from the cocoon that has been her life for the past year. She starts to remember tiny details, things she has forgotten, pieces of information that had been missing until now. A face, a name, the logo of a bar, a fight, a conversation overheard. Problem is, these bits of information are surfacing in nightmares and hallucinations; out of order and not always accurate. Some of it is real, Poppy knows, but which parts she is still unsure.

“These events might seem like hallucinations, but they’re more like dreams. The state is called hypnagogia, the transitional phase between sleep and wakefulness or between wakefulness and sleep. The sensations are there — be they visual, olfactory, auditory — and are often quite vivid.” 156

Sick to death of not fully being present in her life and finally ready to face the facts of her husband’s murder, whether or not its causes her to spiral out of control again, Poppy ditches the pills and alcohol and starts forcing herself to remember. The well-meaning (and down-right controlling) people in her life attempt to stop her, convinced she will have another breakdown. Without their support, Poppy must strike out on her own, take risks and “invite darkness” into her life to get the information she needs.

What follows is a thrilling, if chaotic, descent into Poppy psyche. She is forced to really examine her marriage in those final months, and collect clues — however scant– that might lead her to places or people that will spark real memories. The more of herself she regains, the more the people around her grow nervous: some fearing she will find out things about her husband best left buried with him; some fearing she will find out who played a role in his death.

“Marriage is a mosaic, comprised of pieces–some broken and jagged, some shiny, some dull, some golden. The pieces don’t matter as much as the whole picture of your life together.” 191

While not as dark and terrifying as some of her other books, Under My Skin was a well-paced thriller with a heroine who was easy to route for getting better and getting answers. Great reading for Halloween!

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Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter (2018)

Thriller writer extraordinaire, Karin Slaughter, has written a novel that departs from her signature style — read: dark, violent, very scary — but loses none of story-telling genius with Pieces of Her. Slaughter skillfully tells two unique stories, each equally compelling on their own, and then weaves them into one unforgettable tale.

Our first story is set in present-day Georgia and features Andrea Oliver, a 30-year-old woman who has walked away from every path she has set out on: abandoning first college, then her work in the theater in New York, and finally her art. She has settled into a life of meaningless work, few friendships, and a room over her mother’s garage.

Our second story begins in the early 1980’s and follows a group of young radical activists who are ready to make a mark on the world by committing of a series of violent crimes that they hope will bring down a huge healthcare corporation. Under the leadership of a charismatic and cruel leader, the group recruits the children of the corporation’s billionaire CEO to help him attack their father and expose his abuse of patients in his facilities. Caught up in the planning is Jane, a young, impressionable girl who would follow the group’s leader to the end of the earth…or so she thinks. When the group starts killing people and are forced to go on the run, she begins to see that terrorism will never change the world, only make it worse.

Our two stories collide when Andrea and her mother are in a shopping mall when a gunman opens fire. The people around the two women are killed, but Andrea’s mother stops the shooting and kills the man before he can injure anyone else. When the footage of her mother’s cold, deliberate handling of the gunman goes viral, it stirs up a series of events that bring Jane’s story — and that of her cult — into Andrea’s life.

The attack unhinges her mother and suddenly Andrea finds herself running from another killer, with nothing but a few items from her mother and a series of coded and inscrutable instructions for her to go into hiding. Andrea, however, just cannot ignore the millions of questions her mother’s behavior have left unanswered and, rather than hiding, she goes digging into the past. There she finds things best left unknown and disrupts the lives of  many people who do not wish to have their past crimes brought to light.

Florida by Lauren Groff (2018)

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Groff bring her spell-binding writing style to her newest work, Florida, a novel that links the stories of several searching, wounded souls; mostly set against the backdrop of gritty, swampy Florida.

The only recurring character, a stay-at-home mother whose malaise and rage at the state of the world is draining her marriage and compromising her parenting, is haunting and wild, lashing out at a world that she wishes were safer and kinder. “I can’t stop reading about the disasters of the world. I read and savagely mourn, as if reading could somehow sate this hunger for grief, instead of what it does, which is fuel it.” 7

Satelliting around the nameless mother, are other lost men and women. For some, their sadness is their constant companion: as with a lonely man whose isolation from others, a life-long condition, becomes complete when he loses his hearing as is — literally — set adrift from the people in his life. For another woman in the story, sadness and loss descends on her quickly, when she goes from broke student to homeless woman and must fight every single day to eat, rest, and even stay alive. For two little girls who make a brief appearance, their lives — while just beginning — are already shaped with fear and abandonment. They learn that on their own, there are dangers but that there are even more things to fear when others rescue them.

On and on the stories unravel, slow and smooth, even when violent or heartbreaking, Groff maintains control of them words so deftly, that the emotions the characters are feeling seem too far away to hurt the reader too deeply. If you enjoy this novel, consider reading her wild and utterly unique 2008 novel The Monsters of Templeton, reviewed here https://wp.me/p6N6mT-Po

The Late Bloomers Club by Louise Miller (2018)

Nora Huckleberry’s adulthood began when she was just thirteen, when her mother died and her father withdrew into himself, leaving his young daughter to care for her little sister, their home, and their family run diner. For the next twenty-nine years, Nora has put everyone in her family — and indeed in her rural, Vermont village — ahead of herself. She financed the wild adventures of her younger sister, made sure her diner employees were well-paid, donated generously to the charities in town; all while nervously watching the bills pile up.

Now forty-two, Nora cannot help but feel that her life has not begun and realizes that she is lonely and spends all of her time keeping the diner — her father’s dream, but not hers — going and no time at all on things she would like to achieve. However, see cannot seem to find a way to to make changes without upsetting the people who rely on her.

All at once, change comes, unbidden, into Nora’s life when she and her sister inherit the a home and a large patch of land from a distant neighbor. While the property is beautiful, the inheritance comes with huge bills that Nora and her sister could never afford to pay off. When a big-box corporation makes a million-dollar offer for the land, the sisters are faced with a dilemma: do they sell so they can make their personal dreams come true, even if it means that doing so might ruin the picturesque Vermont village?

Nora must accept the upheaval of a life that she has fought to keep as safe and steady as she could her entire life and decide what it is she really wants and what she is willing to risk to have a second chance.

The Penderwicks at Last by Jeanne Birdsall (2018)

Spoiler Alert: This post will include some information about all of the novels in the five-book Penderwicks series! If you are a fan of the books, do not read any further so you can enjoy the newest adventures of this lovable family for yourself!

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The Penderwicks are back! The book series by Jeanne Birdsall that follows the lives and adventures of the wonderful Penderwick family are among my favorite in all of children’s literature. The author has written a fifth book about the wacky, loving, kind, and quirky family for devoted readers to enjoy. Following up the fourth book in the series, The Penderwicks in Spring (reviewed here https://wp.me/p6N6mT-VL ), which was a deeply emotional portrait of the struggles and triumphs of the Penderwick siblings, The Penderwicks at Last is back with a buoyant and uplifting stories for fans to swoon over!

The Penderwicks are preparing for another amazing summer, this year they will host the first wedding of one of the six Penderwick children: Rosalind! Told from the point of view of the YAP (youngest available Penderwick) Lydia, the book follows the preparations that the entire family undergoes as they plan for — and cook for, design dresses for, write music for — the big event!

The wedding gets all the more exciting when Rosalind announces a surprise relocation of the ceremony: to Arundel! Beautiful, mythical, adventure-filled Arundel — a mansion in the Berkshires and the setting for the first Penderwick book — is  legendary among the OPS (oldest Penderwick sisters) as the place where they had one of their best summers ever and where the met their beloved best friend Jeffrey.

After years of hearing the stories about that unforgettable summer, Lydia is beyond thrilled to finally get to travel to Arundel and experience the magic of it for herself. Not only will Arundel host the entire Penderwick clan for the summer while the wedding is being planned, it will welcome almost every single (beloved and not-so-beloved) character from each of the previous four books. In addition to all of the friends, neighbors, and cousins who come together to celebrate Rosalind’s marriage; there are several new characters (human and animal) to are every bit as wonderful and charming as those from the other Penderwick adventures.

Lydia and her family decamp to Arundel to prepare for the wedding and along the way have a series of experiences — some hysterical, some dramatic — that result in some unexpected last minute changes to the big day. The book was such a wonderful addition to the series that I read the entire thing in one evening and then re-read it to my youngest boys. If you have not experienced the magic of the Penderwicks, now it your chance: grab The Penderwicks and dive right in!

A Double Life by Flynn Berry (2018)

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When Claire was eight-years-old, her father brutally murdered her nanny and almost killed her mother. After the attack, her father — assisted by a network of his wealthy and well-connected friends — fled the country, escaped punishment, and was never seen again.

The attack left a stain on lives of Claire, her mother and brother. Years of police investigations, the scrutiny of the press, and the barrage of accusations against her mother (that she attacked the nanny and harmed herself to frame her husband,) left them shattered and fragile. In the end, with no murderer to convict, the case turned cold and Claire’s family relocated, changing their names and never speaking of their father again.

However, outrunning what happened was never a possibility. The constant stress of not knowing where their father was meant that he was potentially everywhere. Her father was a ghost, haunting their every waking (and sleeping) moment. Was he lurking in the shadows, waiting to finish what he started? Was he inside the dark house, waiting to strike?

To counter her constant fears, teen-aged Claire decides to learn everything she can about her father, the attack, and the police investigation into his disappearance. She spends hours each day reading everything she can and, slowly, becomes an expert on the events of her father’s life, her parents marriage, and the night of the brutal beatings. After years and years of thinking of little else, Claire finally believes she might know of a way to find her missing father and ensure his arrest.

She assembles all of her knowledge and uses it to infiltrate the lives of her father’s former inner-circle, certain that they helped him escape all those years ago and they might still be in touch. With nerve and cunning, she befriends these men and women and digs up their secrets, using what they are hiding as leverage to get information about her father.

Even though this novel may have, in its opening chapters, felt similar to other books in the “you thought you knew him” sub-genre of thrillers, it quickly becomes something much more. Claire’s descent into the mind of the killer is riveting to follow; she is called to use the very skills that her father employed in order to commit murder and get away with it for nearly 20 years. She is forced to mingle and socialize with the very people who hid a murderer, impugned her mother, and nearly destroyed the lives of her and her brother; and she does so with grace and ruthlessness that is thrilling to witness. Berry truly created a unique and satisfying story about the mental toll a crime takes on its victims.

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott (2018)

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

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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.”