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Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

Summary from the publisher:
Catherine Bailey has been enjoying the single life long enough to know a catch when she sees one. Gorgeous, charismatic and spontaneous, Lee seems almost too perfect to be true. And her friends clearly agree, as each in turn falls under his spell.

But what begins as flattering attentiveness and passionate sex turns into raging jealousy, and Catherine soon learns there is a darker side to Lee. His increasingly erratic, controlling behavior becomes frightening, but no one believes her when she shares her fears. Increasingly isolated and driven into the darkest corner of her world, a desperate Catherine plans a meticulous escape.

Four years later, Lee is behind bars and Catherine—now Cathy—compulsively checks the locks and doors in her apartment, trusting no one. But when an attractive upstairs neighbor, Stuart, comes into her life, Cathy dares to hope that happiness and love may still be possible . . . until she receives a phone call informing her of Lee’s impending release. Soon after, Cathy thinks she catches a glimpse of the former best friend who testified against her in the trial; she begins to return home to find objects subtly rearranged in her apartment, one of Lee’s old tricks. Convinced she is back in her former lover’s sights, Cathy prepares to wrestle with the demons of her past for the last time.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read something this frightening. From the very first page, my heart started pounding. When Cathy met Stuart about a quarter of the way in, I was so mistrustful that I couldn’t believe he was a genuinely nice human being. By the end, I couldn’t walk by a door without thinking of Cathy going through her checking. This book had officially crawled under my skin and invaded my life, and I loved it.

The credit here goes to Elizabeth Haynes, who makes an astonishing debut with a book that truly merits the genre of thriller. She expertly built the tension as she moved back and forth between 2004, when Cathy was in the relationship with Lee, and 2007, when Cathy learned of Lee’s release from prison just as she was beginning to move past everything. Both situations reach their height in tandem, and it was incredible to see the contrast between the beaten down Cathy of 2004 and the warrior Cathy of 2007, and the common thread of strength in both.

If the tension wasn’t enough, the subject matter made the story even more powerful. As I read, all I could think of was that this would be one of my worst nightmares: to be in a mentally and physically abusive relationship with a controlling psychopath who has managed to turn all of my friends against me, leaving me completely alone. Cathy’s situation is very real, yet in a departure from similar stories, she points out something that really struck me: before Lee, she regarded battered women with scorn for not leaving at the first sign of abuse, but in hindsight, it’s not at all that simple, because part of you wants to hold on to the tender moments, and part of you is afraid of what will happen if you try to leave.

The psychological elements were also extremely fascinating. It’s clear that the author did a lot of research into how OCD develops, why the habits persist, and the various forms of therapy; it all resulted in a very authentic recovery for Cathy, complete with backslides and anxiety attacks, not to mention the fact that she’s not necessarily cured of her disorder, rather she’s found an effective way to manage it.

Into the Darkest Corner is easily up there with Gone Girl as one of the best thrillers of summer, if not the year. Thanks to the fabulous Maggie from Lemuria Books for recommending it to me, and to the equally fabulous folks at Harper Books for sending me an ARC!

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Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Summary from the publisher:
‘As I sleep, my mind will erase everything I did today. I will wake up tomorrow as I did this morning. Thinking I’m still a child. Thinking I have a whole lifetime of choice ahead of me …’ Memories define us. So what if you lost yours every time you went to sleep? Your name, your identity, your past, even the people you love – all forgotten overnight. And the one person you trust may only be telling you half the story. Welcome to Christine’s life.

Holy crap, readers.

This was one of the most twisted books I’ve read in a long time.

Imagine that you wake up every day not knowing who or where you are, and you have to trust that the person you’re living with is giving you the correct details about your life. Frightening concept, no? I thought so, and S.J. Watson exploits those fears thoroughly in this incredible debut thriller.

Ten years ago, Christine suffered a terrible trauma that left her with a form of amnesia that prevents her from retaining memories. When she starts to see a new doctor, he advises her to keep a journal, and by studying the journal every day, she realizes that her husband, Ben, is keeping things from her, things that she wants to remember. It’s Christine’s journey to break free that really makes this book. The more she learned about herself, the quicker I turned the pages.

This is also one of those books that keeps you guessing. I knew that something was wrong with Christine’s situation from the beginning, and different theories emerged as I read, including one that very closely resembled the final twist. Even so, the tension was so high by the time I got to the end that I was completely gobsmacked, not to mention creeped out.

Reading Before I Go to Sleep was like watching a Hitchcock film. If you’re in the mood for a nail biter, this is definitely for you.

(And, very conveniently, Before I Go to Sleep was released in paperback today.)

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The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

Summary from the publisher:
It’s the spring of 1938 and no longer safe to be a Jew in Vienna. Nineteen-year-old Elise Landau is forced to leave her glittering life of parties and champagne to become a parlor maid in England. She arrives at Tyneford, the great house on the bay, where servants polish silver and serve drinks on the lawn. But war is coming, and the world is changing. When the master of Tyneford’s young son, Kit, returns home, he and Elise strike up an unlikely friendship that will transform Tyneford-and Elise-forever.

I first heard about The House at Tyneford when various publishers started making “If you like Downton Abbey, you’ll like…” lists (here’s the one that made The New York Times, although Tyneford isn’t on it). Like most people, I am obsessed with Downton and, really, anything that addresses the relationship between upstairs and downstairs in grand old English estates, especially when things started breaking down in the early 20th century. The fact that Elise was a Jewish refugee made the book even more appealing.

Ms. Solomons paints a vivid picture of Tyneford House, but things become even more real when you have a strong frame of reference. It was easy to conjure the big house that slowly became more run down as the men left for war and upkeep became more difficult, as well as the frenetic activity of the servants’ hall below stairs. With these visuals in my mind’s eye, I tumbled straight into the world of Elise and the Rivers family.

Elise herself is an interesting heroine. I was fully prepared to hate her at the beginning—she seemed immature and empty headed and almost content to be so. Of course, as she reflects somewhere in the middle of the book, if she’d been allowed to stay in Vienna and go on as she was, she would never grow beyond the girl we met in the first few pages. Instead, she undergoes a journey of love and loss that is alternately traumatic, happy, and sad, and she emerges a transformed and much more likeable character. I sympathized for her as she tried to find her place in a house where she was neither servant nor gentry and as she tried to adapt in a land that was so different from her home, and I truly felt her pain as she desperately tried to learn news of her parents and sister during the war, when they were scattered all over the world.

Elise is supported by an incredible cast of characters, from the villagers who play hooky from church on the first day of trout season, to the elder Mr. Rivers and his reckless son Kit, to Mr. Wrexham who, with his pride in adherence to the old ways, reminded me of Mr. Carson. They enrich life at Tyneford and make the difficult moments easier to bear.

Parts of the plot are a little predictable, particularly where the various romances are concerned, but I enjoyed everything else about the book so much that I was willing to overlook it. Overall, The House at Tyneford is a transporting historical tale that will definitely keep you satisfied until you can get your next fix of Lady Mary and Matthew.

The House at Tyneford was read as part of the What’s in a Name challenge, hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

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The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

Summary from the publisher:
Small-time private investigator Ray Lovell veers between paralysis and delirium in a hospital bed. But before the accident that landed him there, he’d been hired to find Rose Janko, the wife of a charismatic son of a traveling Gypsy family, who went missing seven years earlier. Half Romany himself, Ray is well aware that he’s been chosen more for his blood than his investigative skills. Still, he’s surprised by the intense hostility he encounters from the Jankos, who haven’t had an easy past. Touched by tragedy, they’re either cursed or hiding a terrible secret-whose discovery Ray can’t help suspecting is connected to Rose’s disappearance. . . .

I can’t say how excited I was when The Invisible Ones arrived right before Christmas. Someone from the fabulous marketing team at Putnam recommended it to me because I love Tana French, and between that, the fact that it was about Gypsies in England, and the rave reviews it received in such publications as People, I was itching to pick this up. When I finally did last week, I found that it was well worth the wait.

The Invisible Ones is one of those twisted mysteries where you think you have a handle on where things are going and who the guilty parties are, only to be completely surprised when the truth finally hits you. The fact that Ray lost his memory at a crucial point in the case only heightens this, because you’re desperately trying to piece together his deductions as he remembers them. I was glued to the page, to the point where I wished my commute was just a few minutes longer so I could finish the chapter.

I really enjoyed Ray as a protagonist because he’s not your typical, brilliantly observant private investigator. That’s not to say he’s not those things—he is—but he’s also dealing with a lot of emotional baggage from a painful divorce and a previous case that went horribly wrong, and both of these things play strongly into the Janko case, causing him to be too cautious in certain situations and too trusting in others. And, of course, he has to reconcile his own past with his experiences with the Jankos and the rest of the Gypsy community. A character like this has every potential to be frustrating, but Ray never reached that point for me, rather I felt that he worked through all of his issues as he worked through the case, and when the solution finally became clear to him, he truly earned it.

What fascinated me most about this book, though, was the incredible insight Ms. Penney gave the reader into the Gypsy community through her second narrator, JJ. Gypsies are notoriously reticent towards outsiders, and having JJ’s input on what was going on within the Janko family and on Gypsy lifestyle was invaluable and really made the story special. Without it, The Invisible Ones had the potential to be a one-sided mystery about the dark and mysterious world of the Traveler. I also have to commend Ms. Penney on really capturing the Gypsy lifestyle, both from the traveling stand point and those who live “in bricks,” as she says. It’s clear that there was a lot of research involved, and it’s all presented respectfully, but truthfully.

Even though this book was recommended to me as a Tana French fan, I think The Invisible Ones is in a category all its own. It was an incredibly absorbing yarn that takes its time to unravel, and I highly recommend it.

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Daphne by Justine Picardie

DaphneDaphne by Justine Picardie

Daphne was a bit of a surprise and a bit of a letdown for me. I picked it up because I’m a huge fan of Rebecca and was excited to read a historical fiction piece on its author. It’s entirely my fault that I didn’t reading the abstract before I checked it out of my library, because if I had I would have known that the story was less about Rebecca and more about Daphne’s twilight years as she struggled through a turbulent marriage and an equally turbulent biography of Branwell Bronte. Daphne begins a correspondence with J. Alexander Symington, a once highly regarded Bronte scholar who, unbeknownst to her, has been in disgrace for many years because he used his position as curator to steal various manuscripts from the Bronte Parsonage House Museum and the Leeds University Library. Symington is as protective of Branwell’s manuscripts as a lioness is of her young cub, but he also wants Branwell to finally achieve some much deserved recognition, so he agrees to part with some of his material. Daphne, meanwhile, encounters a variety of difficulties as she attempts to tell Branwell’s story, both mental and physical, and she is afraid that writing this book will eventually consume her.

Meanwhile, in the present day, a young scholar is looking for an escape from a hasty marriage that is quickly evolving into a real life version of Rebecca. She lights upon the relationship between Daphne du Maurier and Symington, and her journey takes her down a similar path to her subjects. Will her research consumer her as well?

At first, the whole concept of Daphne was very interesting to me, and I enjoyed reading the back and forth between Daphne and Symington as she searched for some obscure manuscript that would vindicate Branwell, but I started to lose interest as things continued to drag on and the characters’ neuroses began to dominate the plot. The three part narrative also got old after a while; I literally groaned when I turned the page to find that it was Symington’s turn to take up the thread, and there were times when I wanted to smack our modern heroine. I didn’t need these other narrators! I liked Daphne just fine!

However, Picardie scores two major points in the writing of this novel. The first is that she has clearly done her research well, and each chapter is rich in detail, most of which is factually correct. Those parts of the book were a particular pleasure to read. The second is that, despite how annoyed I became with some of the narrators’ antics, it was all clearly a commentary on the process of researching and writing a book and how, much like in Black Swan, it can take over your life and make you crazy.

I agree that fans of Daphne du Maurier and the Brontes should definitely give this book a shot. As for me, I’m going straight back to my library to check out a Daphne biography.

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I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Flavia de Luce #4)I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

It’s 1950 and Christmas has arrived in England, but instead of decking the halls of their sprawling family home, the penniless de Luces find themselves making way for a famous film director, who has offered them a handsome and much-needed sum of money to use the estate for his latest picture. Flavia, the precocious youngest de Luce daughter, is determined not to get swept up in the glitz and glamour like her sisters—she’s conducting a very important chemistry experiment on Christmas Eve to find out if Father Christmas really exists. All of that changes when the star of the film, Phyllis Wyvern, singles Flavia out for her history of assisting the police in certain high profile murder investigations. Little does Flavia know that she’s about to become embroiled in another one. One where almost everyone in town is a suspect, including Flavia herself.

I’m a little surprised that I’ve never read an Alan Bradley book before, particularly because the Flavia de Luce books have come up on my recommendation queue several times over the years, and so many of my friends raved about The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Needless to say, I am going to remedy that right away, because I absolutely adored this book. It reminded me so much of the classic mysteries of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, where the case is far from simple, but it’s handled simply and left to unravel without a hundred crazy twists (although there are a few). Much as I love suspenseful thrillers, it was refreshing to find a modern author who writes like this.

There’s a certain amount of whimsy in the book, and it comes from its wonderful heroine. You can tell that Flavia takes herself very seriously, and she states her opinions with a certainty that only an eleven-year-old can possess. Even though she’s smart and knows how to mix up a chemical compound that will essentially glue Santa to the chimney, the author never forgets that she’s a child who occasionally want to use her knowledge for childish things, like getting revenge for her sisters’ teasing by slipping a little something in their tea to make them nauseous (okay, so it’s a little macabre, but you know you’d have had the same train of thought at that age). The only thing about Flavia that gave me pause was that she noticed glaring things about the crime scene that the police did not. I’m not sure if this ability is explained in previous books, and, if I’m honest, it didn’t bother me all that much in the end, but I can see first time readers taking issue with that.

The setting only added to the whimsy, and in the best possible way. From the first page, I was transported to freezing, crumbling Buckshaw, and Bradley was very successful in creating the atmosphere of a small country town at Christmas. The household staff and village regulars added wonderful color, and I hope future books acknowledge why Flavia’s older sisters harbor such resentment towards her and reveal more about Dogger’s past.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a great, old-fashioned mystery, and I look forward to reading it again around the holidays.

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows was this month’s #EarlyBirdRead. Thanks to Random House for sending the book to me!

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is another one of those books that languished on my to-be-read list. The book is so popular that it was always out at my library. When I went to the Random House Readers Circle tea in May, they gave us the most wonderful bag of swag, and The Guernsey Literary was one of the books I took home. I finally picked it up the other day, after my library book queue had dwindled down, and I am kicking my own arse for not pushing to read it sooner. This is a beautiful story of community and love of people and of books, and I was left with a feeling of warmth that still remains with me three days later.

The book is written in epistolary form and tells the story of Juliet, an author who gained some fame during World War II by writing a darkly humorous column for a London newspaper. Just as Juliet is casting about for something new and a bit more serious to write about, she receives a letter from Dawsey, a man who lives on Guernsey and who got her old address from a used copy of essays by Charles Lamb. He mentions a literary society that he and other islanders formed during the war to help cope with the German occupation, and Juliet has to learn more. Soon, she’s communicating with practically the entire island, and when she thinks there might be able to use their experiences in her new book, Juliet decides to visit Guernsey for herself, not knowing that she’ll be thoroughly embraced by the people and that she’ll learn things about their lives during the war that will tie her to the island forever.

There is so much about this book that is so wonderful. First is the subject matter. I knew a bit about the occupation of Guernsey and Jersey, not from the numerous history classes I took for my degree, but from watching episodes of Antiques Roadshow on BBC! The authors are right that this part of history often gets lost, and they did a great job of educating readers while putting a human spin on the whole experience. There were many times where I just stopped and thought how close the Germans were to mainland England, and how frightening that was. And the passages about the bombing of the island and the evacuation of the children were heartbreaking.

Second, this book celebrates how a shared passion can get a group of people through even the darkest of times. Mary Ann Shaffer says in the acknowledgments that she intended the message to extend over all the arts, but this story is really about the power of reading, and as someone who was once a book club member and who bonds with people all over the internet with a shared love of books, AND who wants to work with books for the rest of her life, I can say that I’ve experienced that power, and it was incredible to read about it.

But the true heart of this story is the characters. These people are so different and so quirky and so real, and it’s a joy to see things through their eyes. By the end of the book, you want to know the members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and you want to know how to secure a membership for yourself.

My mother did point out one thing that might frustrate readers about this book, and that is that it might end a little abruptly for some. I felt that all loose ends were tied up and that the authors revealed all they needed to reveal and that all that was left to do was finish the story, but I can see how others might wish to know a bit more.

The bittersweet note to this is that Mary Ann Shaffer passed away before she could experience the success of this book. I’m so glad that she told this story, and now I really want to make a trip to Guernsey and see the place that inspired her so much.

And, very fittingly, it was just announced today that Kenneth Branagh might direct the film!

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