Saturday, April 10, 2021

Summertime Guests

Summertime Guests

Title:
  Summertime Guests
Author:  Wendy Francis
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2021. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1525895982 / 978-1525895982

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It wasn't as if Riley could have anticipated what would happen later that day."

Favorite Quote:  "Because if today's tragedy has underscored anything for him, it's that life needs to be celebrated. That even when death surrounds them - maybe most especially when death surround them - they need to push on and celebrate all that they hold dear."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Review


Summertime Guests, with its lovely water side summery cover, is set not on a beach but in an iconic hotel in the heart of Boston. The water views are of the bay. The summer delights are of a hotel that has recently reopened after a renovation and reinvention.

The book begins with a dramatic event. A woman falls to her death from a higher up floor of the hotel. The event is witnessed by hotel guests and staff. The identity of the woman is unknown. hence the mystery.

As the book proceeds, it is clear that unless an ending brings in a character out of the blue, there are two possibilities for who the deceased is. The question of accident, suicide, or foul play remains open.

As the book  proceeds, it is also clear that the book is about more than the mystery. As the author's note at the end states, "I've also been wanting to write a modern love story, one that centered on four different couple who were in various stages of a relationship."

That is the heart of the book. There are Gwen and Jason, the young couple in a relatively new relationship who come to the hotel to celebrate a birthday. The uncertainty and the baggage each brings to the relationship looms large. There are Riley and Tom, the couple who are planning their wedding and determining how their lives and families mesh together. They are also trying to prevent the monumental task of planning a wedding from overshadowing their joy in each other. There are Jean-Paul and Marie, the couple who has been married for a while. With a job-related move from France to the United States and a new baby, many pressures tug on their relationship and their love. Finally, there is Claire, the recent widow, who contemplates what her life has been and thinks of the paths not taken.

Within the context of these relationships, the author traverses a lot of emotional ground, reaching back into childhood traumas and first loves and forward into medical diagnoses. Depending on the stage of life the reader is at, you can find much to relate to with any of these characters. Trigger warning:  one of the relationships involves abuse and violence.

By the end of the book, the mystery of the deceased identity is not much of a mystery. However, that does not matter because I invest in the stories of the characters and the relationships and where they are going. The relationships are also not fully resolved, which is real life. All, however, have a path forward and hence a conclusion to the story is satisfying. It may or may not be a happily ever after, but that adds to the reality of the book.

What I expect to be a summer beach read mystery turns into something else. It is still an easy, quickly read summer beach read but about family, relationships, and emotions that leaves much to relate to and much to think about.

About the Author

Wendy Francis is a former book editor and the author of the novels The Summer Sail, The Summer of Good Intentions, Three Good Things, and Best Behavior. Her essays have appeared in Good Housekeeping, The Washington Post, Yahoo Parenting, The Huffington Post, and WBUR's Cognoscenti. A proud stepmom of two grown-up children, she lives outside Boston with her husband and eleven-year-old son.

About the Book

Sip cocktails in the lounge, bask in the summer sun by the pool, and experience the drama of the rich and famous firsthand in Wendy Francis’s newest novel, SUMMERTIME GUESTS (Graydon House; April 6, 2021; $16.99 USD). With its rich history and famous guests, The Seafarer is no stranger to drama. But the bustle at the social hotspot reaches new heights one weekend in mid-June when a woman falls tragically to her death from the tenth floor, unwittingly intertwining her life with the lives of the hotels’ guests and staff.

Claire O’Dell, reeling from the loss of her husband and possibly her job, has gone to The Seafarer for a little vacation…and to reconnect with a long-lost-love. Jean-Paul, the hotel’s manager, is struggling to keep his marriage and new family afloat. Bride-to-be Riley is at the hotel to plan her wedding with her fiancé ... or, she’s at the hotel with her fiancé while her mother-in-law tells them how to plan their wedding. Jason, whose romantic getaway with his girlfriend has not exactly gone the way he'd hoped and instead has him facing questions about his past that he can't bring himself to answer.

As their truths and secrets come to light, the lives of these four will collide in tragic, beautiful ways none of them could have expected that will teach them about the love they deserve and the strength they possess to change their lives for the better.

Excerpt

Excerpted from Summertime Guests by Wendy Francis, Copyright © 2021 by Wendy Francis
Friday June 11th, 2021
ONE

It wasn’t as if Riley could have anticipated what would happen later that day. None of them could. Because when you’re at a tasting for your wedding reception at one of Boston’s ritziest hotels, trying to decide between crab cakes or lobster quiches, no one thinks of anything bad happening. Or at least, this is what Riley tells herself later. Why she—and no one else there—could possibly be to blame.

At the moment, though, Riley is sitting at a table by the window, half-listening to her future mother-in-law while she sips gazpacho the color of marigolds. Something about wanting to know if the outdoor terrace can be transformed into a dance floor, assuming the weather cooperates. If Riley were asked to gauge her interest in planning her own wedding, she would characterize it as mild at best. Her only requirement being that she and Tom marry in July—and that the flowers are pale pink peonies from Smart Stems, the shop where she has worked for the past three years.

It was Tom who’d suggested the Seaport District for their reception, Boston’s new up-and-coming neighborhood, and Riley had happily agreed. It’s an easy spot for guests to travel to, and the setting is over-the-top gorgeous with views of both the city and the water. Not to mention the promise of fresh seafood—an almost impossible request if they were to wed in Riley’s hometown of Lansing, Michigan, where everything remains hopelessly landlocked.

But she hadn’t counted on Tom’s mother wanting to be so, well, involved. Maybe it’s the fact that Riley’s own mother passed away a few short years ago, and so Marilyn feels compelled to step up and fill her mother’s shoes. A retired schoolteacher, her mother-in-law-to-be still tackles each new day with the necessary energy for a classroom of boisterous second-graders, a gusto which she now seems to be funneling into her son’s nuptials. At first, Riley was grateful, but while she sits listening to the hotel’s wedding coordinator drone on about the Seafarer’s rich history, she’s beginning to feel as though she has stepped into one of those horrible, never-ending lines at Disney for a ride she doesn’t particularly want to go on.

Riley is well aware that the Seafarer is one of the most coveted venues for weddings, especially in light of its recent renovations. It’s no secret that New England’s most glamorous, its most fashionable clamor to stay here and that the Seafarer’s well-appointed rooms are typically booked months in advance. She should be grateful that they’re even considering it as an option. Rumor has it that everyone from Winston Churchill to Taylor Swift has been a guest (as the saying goes, if you want to appear in the society pages of the Boston Globe, then spend a few hours at the Seafarer’s exclusive summer cocktail hour from four to six). As for out-of-towners hoping to take in the full scene that Boston can be—with its attendant snobbishness and goodwill and weird accents wrapped into one—the Seafarer, Riley understands, puts you in the heart of it.

Not that she has anything against tradition, but if it were up to her alone, she would probably choose a smaller, more modest setting, a wedding with no more than fifty guests. There’d be a justice of the peace and rows of white chairs lining the harbor, the wind whipping her veil in front of her face. Naturally, she’d want a reception afterward, but Riley counts herself as the type of girl who’d be equally content with trays of fish tacos and margaritas under a tent as with oysters on the half shell served in a tony hotel restaurant.

“I can’t reveal everyone,” the coordinator is saying in hushed tones, “but it’s no secret that some of Boston’s greatest legends have celebrated their nuptials with us.” Riley shoots Tom a sideways glance, as if to say Is she for real? but her fiancé’s chin rests firmly in his hand, his attention rapt. He’s eating up every word.

“Well, Gillian, it’s all very impressive,” Tom’s mother says, slipping her reading glasses back into her pocketbook after a review of the menu. Her hair is pulled back in a severe ponytail, her lips coated in her trademark color, fuchsia. “It’s no wonder Boston’s finest flock here for their special occasions. The view alone is to die for.” She gestures toward the expanse of crystalline water out the window, the romantic outline of the city’s financial district in the distance. “Kids, wouldn’t it be something to come back here every year to toast your anniversary?”

Marilyn shoots Riley a wink, as if the two of them are in cahoots to convince Tom that this is the spot, meant to be. There’s no need to point out that she and Tom could never afford such a venue. They already discussed it over dinner the other night when Marilyn revealed that she’d gone ahead and booked an appointment for a tasting at the Seafarer on Friday and how she hoped Riley wouldn’t mind. “I don’t want you to worry about money, dear,” she instructed. “Tom’s dad and I would be honored to host. Tom is our only child after all.”

And Riley had breathed a tiny sigh of relief while swallowing her pride. Not because she wants an extravagant wedding but because it means that she and Tom can now channel the nest egg they’ve been building toward a mortgage on a new home instead of toward an elaborate one-day celebration. It’s a much more sensible use of their money, and Riley, having grown up poor verging on destitute, is nothing if not sensible.

Can she really imagine herself celebrating her marriage here, though? Tom keeps missing her not-so-thinly veiled comments about the food on the menu, which leans toward the bite-size variety that he hates (precisely because it never fills him up), but he has said nothing. Maybe he’s just being polite. Riley quickly scans the room for other future newlyweds, but most of today’s diners appear to be here for business lunches—buttoned-up men in suits and women in sharp blazers with silk shifts underneath. A few couples, perhaps away for a romantic long weekend, and a group of older women sharing a bottle of wine, sit wedged into the corners. It’s a lovely space, but is it too lovely?

She shifts in her seat and tries to picture her dad here, wearing his familiar old sports coat that’s nearly worn through at the elbows, his khaki pants and penny loafers, pretending to feel comfortable when he wouldn’t know which fork to reach for, which glass to use.

When Marilyn turns toward to her and says, “Don’t you agree, Riley?” Riley feels her cheeks flushing because she hasn’t been paying attention. She has no idea what her future mother-in-law is referring to.

“I’m sorry. What was the question again?” She’s slightly annoyed that Tom can’t—or won’t—decide on a few things himself or at the very least rein his mother in. Especially because they talked about this very thing—not letting Marilyn take over the tasting—last night! They’re discussing the appetizers, apparently, and all Riley knows is that she doesn’t want crudités. If there’s one rule she’s abiding by, it’s that her wedding menu will include only those foods that she can pronounce.

It seems there should be a box on a list that they can check for the Standard Reception—something not overtly cheap but not insanely expensive, either. Tom squeezes her knee beneath the table, though it’s unclear if it’s meant as encouragement or as a reprimand for her not giving this conversation one hundred percent. What Riley really wants to know is this: How can she avoid attending any more tastings with Marilyn? Should she just agree to the Seafarer right now and be done with it?

“Mom was wondering,” Tom says in complete seriousness, “if you thought it would be better to have cold and hot hors d’oeuvres or just cold since the wedding will be in July?”

“Oh, right.” Riley pretends to consider her options. “Good point. It’s bound to be hot, so I wonder—”

But somewhere between the words so and wonder, a loud whistle of air followed by a deafening blast socks through the room like a fist, sending Riley to grab the table and Tom to reach for her hand. Marilyn’s fork drops from her elongated fingers, clattering onto her plate, and the room seems to shake for a brief moment. There are shouts followed by an eerie hush while the dining room settles back into itself. Riley watches the other diners who begin to mumble to each other across their tables, asking if they’re okay and spinning in their seats to better determine the source of the blast. The woman at the adjacent table hovers on the edge of her chair, as if considering diving underneath the table.

When Riley glances over at Gillian, she looks equally alarmed and as surprised as the rest of them, which means this isn’t some kind of bizarre emergency testing by the hotel. Whatever they heard was real. Significant. Riley’s eyes slide toward Tom, then Marilyn, whose face has turned a shade as pale as milk, then back to Tom.

“What on earth was that?” Marilyn gasps, her voice an octave too high, her fingers fluttering to her necklace. It’s a silver chain studded with azure stones, the kind of jewelry that Riley has come to associate with women of a certain age.

“I’m not sure.” Gillian’s voice cracks. “It almost sounded like some kind of explosion, didn’t it?” And then, as if remembering her wedding-coordinator cap, she rushes to reassure them. “But I’m sure it’s nothing like that. Maybe a blown transformer?

But both Riley and Tom exchange glances because no matter how ill-versed they are in loud noises, that definitely was not a transformer. It wasn’t so much a popping sound as a crash, she thinks. Did the massive chandelier in the lobby fall? Did it come from the kitchen? Construction work outside maybe? It’s hard to tell.

“Not to be overly dramatic, but it almost felt like an earthquake,” Riley says. “The table actually shook, I think.” And although she understands that the curiosity sparked inside her is somehow inappropriate, she wants an explanation. “Whatever it was,” she says, lowering her voice, “it sounded awfully close.”

“Yes, very close,” Marilyn agrees, still fiddling with her necklace.

And that’s when the screams begin. Not from the kitchen at the back of the restaurant, not from the lobby, but from outside, just beyond the elegant bay windows peering out onto the terrace that fronts the water, the ocean seemingly close enough to dip a hand into. Riley’s glance swivels toward the small crowd that’s beginning to form outside near the firepit and hot tub.

“If you’ll excuse me?” Gillian says, as if emerging from a fog, and rises awkwardly to her feet before heading toward the row of windows.

Riley’s gaze follows her, and suddenly, she, too, feels compelled to get up, as if an invisible string tugs her toward the window. She hurries forward and angles around Gillian for a better view. But when she does, she immediately regrets her decision. Because it’s not a collapsed scaffolding or an awning or even construction work that has caused the sudden shaking, the loud blast.

But a woman, lying facedown on the terrace, several yards beyond the window.

The body lies completely still, the woman’s legs scissored like a rag doll’s, her left leg angled upward awkwardly. A curtain of muddy blond hair shields her face from view. Riley watches while a few bystanders move hesitantly toward the woman, as if afraid of startling her, until someone kneels down and grasps her wrist, presumably to check for a pulse. A man in blue running shorts and a Red Sox T-shirt yells for someone to call 9-1-1.

To Riley, it looks as if the woman was perhaps reaching for a glass that slipped from her hand, her arms still outstretched above her head. Her body is long, lean, even elegant. Riley holds her breath, waiting, and feels Gillian stiffen beside her when a youngish man, nicely tanned and formally dressed, parts the crowd and gently encourages everyone to take a few steps back. He assures them that an ambulance is on the way and speaks with an authority that suggests his importance.

“That’s Jean-Paul, our manager,” Gillian says quietly as they watch him crouch down next to the woman and brush her hair away from her face.

Just then, a young man in the crowd throws his hand to his mouth and rushes off, and Riley stands on her tiptoes for a better view. And that’s when she sees it, too—the wild splash of bright red she hadn’t noticed earlier that lies at the far edge of the woman’s hair. And in that awful moment, Riley—and everyone else watching—understands. An image of a woman in her yellow summer dress, cartwheeling through the air from somewhere up high, perhaps her hotel balcony, spirals through her mind.

“Oh, my God.” It hits her all at once, a hollow pit forming in her stomach.

“Jesus,” says Tom, who has come up beside her to rest a hand on her shoulder. “She’s not moving.”

“No.”

It’s obvious to them both, but somehow still needs to be said, as if by acknowledging it aloud, the woman might hear their words through the open window, might somehow will herself to move an inch, if only to give them a sign—a flutter of a hand, the shifting of a foot—that she’s going to be all right.

But her body remains completely, horribly still.
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Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Children's Blizzard


Title:
  The Children's Blizzard
Author:  Melanie Benjamin
Publication Information:  Delacorte Press. 2021. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0399182284 / 978-0399182280

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "They came on boats, on trains, great unceasing waves of them - the poor, the disenfranchised, the seekers, the dreamers."

Favorite Quote:  "The Great Plains were immense enough to inspire the grandest, most foolish of dreams - but they were also vast enough that no one could ever explore every corner."

The Children's Blizzard is also known as the Schoolhouse or School children's Blizzard. It hit the plains states on January 12, 1888.  "The blizzard, created when an enormous trough of cold air rushing in from the Arctic had met up with an equally enormous influx of warm, wet air from the gulf, gobbled up everything in its path. The collision generated a force of energy no one could remember seeing in their lifetimes, but that all would talk about with wonder until the day they died." The blizzard hit on an unseasonably warm day, and it hit suddenly at a time when many were at work and at school. In other words, there was no warning, and 235 lives were lost. "... those who experienced the storm would never forget it; they would pass the stories down from one generation to the next, and they wouldn't embellish them because they didn't need to."

This book tells a fictionalized account of this storm and its aftermath. It presents three views. One teacher let out school early, leaving the children to find their way home. One teacher kept her students together as best she could. A parent found his way to his daughter's school, determined to keep those in that school safe. The impact and repercussions of these decisions forever altered the course of their lives and the lives of those in their care.

Within the context of this storm, this book also paints a picture of a time and a place. It tells of the immigrant experience and the settler experience of people who left all they knew in search of a better life. It speaks of the treatment of Native Americans and the schooling available for their children. It speaks of the racial divides and the prejudices. It depicts the harshness of prairie life and the resilience and perseverance of those who settled this nation. This provides context and background, but it also means that there is lot going on in this book.

The second half of the book deals with the aftermath of the storm and goes in many different directions. Ultimately, this half ends up the story of women and the men in their lives. The personal stories of the women head in the direction of being attracted to, being duped by, longing for, and making decisions in reaction to men in their lives. The book even ends on a romantic note, with a romance born out of loss. That entire tone in the book seems not in line with the rest of the story. In a time and place where survival often relied on the strength of the women, this focus seems a disservice to the women.

Based on the title and timing, the theme of the book is the blizzard. Given the wide net the book casts, there are a lot of characters and stories. Overall, there is a bit too much going on. However, I truly appreciated learning about the blizzard and the historical context of the time. 


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Other Mother

Title:
  The Other Mother
Author:  Matthew Dicks
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2021. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1250103460 / 978-1250103468

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "This mother is not my mother."

Favorite Quote:  "When Dad died, he took all his memories with him. Everything I didn't know about him - every question never asked and every story never told - can never be known now that he's dead. It's like losing your only copy of a book before you finish reading the story, except it's the only copy of the book ever. There's no way to get those pages back."

Capgras delusion is a psychiatric disorder in which a person believes that someone in their live - a family member, a friend, or even a pet - has been replaced by an identical person - an impostor. This condition manifests itself in thirteen year old Michael Parsons. His father passed away suddenly.  He lives with his mother, his two younger siblings, and the new man in his mother's life. As you may guess, his relationship with the new man in his mother's life is tenuous at best.

He believes that his mother is not his mother, but a whole other person. Someone who looks and acts like his mother but is not his mother. He is the only one who sees it, and he cannot tell anyone else. No one would believe him anyways.

On the one hand, Michael is depicted as a responsible young adult, who is often left in charge of his two younger siblings. On the other hand, Michael is a boy still recovering from the devastating loss of his father. He meets regularly with his guidance counselor who attempts to help him navigate this time. He appears not to have many friends, until he meets his neighbor. This young woman believes him and manages to research and identify the condition. What she cannot do is convince him that his delusion is not real.

As the book winds through Michael's thought, it is revealed that Michael harbors a secret of his own - one that might perhaps explains the enormous pressure on his young mind and heart.

Learning about this condition is a fascinating side effect of reading this book. The characters and the story are touching. Given Michael's age and given the friendship with the young woman next door, most of this book has a very middle grade / young adult feel. It depicts the social angst of school, the shyness of navigating a new friendship, the discovery of a friendship that perhaps might be more, and all the teenage emotions that go along with that. The one I think I really appreciate is the positive way in which this book depicts the relationship between Michael and his guidance counselor. It is so important for children and families to realize the resources that exist to help in the challenging times and to depict the roles in a positive light.

Part of me wants to reach in and give Michael a hug. Part of me wants to know what the adults in his life are doing. The ending is about what you might expect it to be. However, I don't think life is quite that simple or that neatly and quickly handled. The ending does not seem to address the diagnosis implied in the premise of the book. It is left on an assumption that it will be addressed. I suppose I wanted more after the happily ever after to hit the reality of the challenges Michael and his family face moving forward. To some extent, the story and the healing begins with the ending, and it would be good to see where that goes.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Her Dark Lies

Her Dark Lies
Title:
  Her Dark Lies
Author:  J. T. Ellison
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2021. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0778331989 / 978-0778331988

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "She is going to die tonight."

Favorite Quote:  "We all want to be remembered for something. We have children, we paint, we write, we fight, we conquer. We leave behind marks on the fabric of humanity, and while some are content to stay in the background, some of us want to make those marks as vivid and overwhelming as possible. We don't just want to be remembered. We want to be unforgettable."

***** BLOG TOUR *****

Review

A private island in Italy. A business empire. A yacht. A charitable foundation. The Comptons are that kind of rich. Jack Compton is one of the heirs of the family. He falls in love with Claire a tattooed free-spirited artists definitely from the other side of the tracks. The wedding is to take place on Isla Isola off the Italy coast. It is a dream.

Perhaps, it's a dream that covers a nightmare. Jack was married before. His first wife died in a tragic accident, but not much has ever been said about that. Strange happenings seem to be following Jack and Claire. A break-in. Remains of a body discovered. An apparition. The setting and the event are lovely. The underlying reality is much more sinister. Things are definitely not as they seem. People are definitely not as they seem.

First of all, the setting of the book is beautiful. "Hidden away on the western edge of Italy in the southwest of the Tyrrhenian Sea, out of sight from the mainland and the more popular islands of Capri and Anicapri to its north, lies the isolated Isle Isola." I can picture the opulent and at the same time dark villa on a private island in Italy. The ruins, the labyrinth, the cliffs, and the caves all add to the mysterious beauty. It's hard to reconcile the dark vision with the Italian coast, and yet it works.

Second, the suspense and the action builds from beginning to end. I do guess the eventual resolution of the mystery, but it does not deter from the enjoyment in getting there. The ending also leaves doubt, which I love. It is not neat and tidy and makes me wonder if a follow-up story may emerge.

Most of all, I enjoy the characters of the book. The characters all emerge as multifaceted and not complete heroes or villains. Will Compton is the patriarch of the family. What seems like Alzheimer's plagues him, but he still knows more than people thing. Ana Compton may very well be the power behind the throne. Jack is the head of a philanthropic foundation, but perhaps philanthropy does not underlie his actions. Claire's sister harbors a grudge. Katie is a true friend.Claire has secrets of her own. "I don't remember. Three words, so simple, yet so duplicitous. What is memory anyways? Echoes of reality, twisted and molded into what we want to believe. What we want to remember. Our brains allow us grace to cope with trauma. They give us space to heal, to come to terms with our actions, our fears."

The different facets of the characters imply many different story threads. Not all are fleshed out or followed through. Yet, it all works in a a whirlwind of intrigue from beginning to end. I keep turning pages to see what happens to all of them. With its picturesque setting and its drama, I can see this book making a great movie. Whether or not that happens, the story makes for a fun, roller coaster read.

About the Book

Fast-paced and brilliantly unpredictable, J.T. Ellison’s breathtaking new novel invites you to a wedding none will forget—and some won’t survive.

Jutting from sparkling turquoise waters off the Italian coast, Isle Isola is an idyllic setting for a wedding. In the majestic cliff-top villa owned by the wealthy Compton family, up-and-coming artist Claire Hunter will marry handsome, charming Jack Compton, surrounded by close family, intimate friends…and a host of dark secrets.

From the moment Claire sets foot on the island, something seems amiss. Skeletal remains have just been found. There are other, newer disturbances, too. Menacing texts. A ruined wedding dress. And one troubling shadow hanging over Claire’s otherwise blissful relationship—the strange mystery surrounding Jack’s first wife.

Then a raging storm descends, the power goes out—and the real terror begins…

About the Author

J.T. Ellison is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than 25 novels, and the EMMY® award winning co-host of the literary TV show A WORD ON WORDS. With millions of books in print, her work has won critical acclaim, prestigious awards, and has been published in 28 countries. Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens.

Author Q&A

Explain the difference between police procedurals, thrillers and psychological dramas.
The differences are subtle but meaningful, for sure.
  • Procedurals focus generally on the police/private investigators/law enforcement as the main characters, and the stories are about their day-to-day involvement with the plot, their relationships to one another, and to the suspects and victims. 
  • Mysteries are often procedurals, with the general focus on the “who” done it. The reader and the hero often learn the solution to the puzzle at the same time. The challenge is intellectual.
  • Thrillers, on the other hand, are more “why” done it, or “we need to stop them” from doing it. The reader often knows the solution to the puzzle well before the hero, and the reader often knows the identity of the villain early on and the fun of the story is watching the hero (protagonist) and the villain (antagonist) match wits, with a few twists along the way. The challenge is physical.
  • Psychological dramas are usually more focused on a non-law enforcement main character. It’s an extraordinary event happening to an ordinary person, and the story is about their interaction with the plot, suspects, and victims. Often, they are the victim themselves. Storylines can pull from either mystery or thriller formulas. The challenge is emotional.
I like to think of these stories in terms of your house front door. In a suspense novel, the main character is inside the house. In a thriller, the main character is about to knock on the door.

There’s also one more element that separates them––immortality versus mortality of the main characters. In my mind, a thriller has a hero that is invincible, and can’t be killed. In a psychological story, the main character is truly at risk, and might not survive.

Which is the most fun to write?
Oh, that’s not fair. I love them all. The procedurals are usually series and the characters generally immortal. They are easier for me to write because the world is already built. The psychological suspense books are usually standalones for me, and much more complicated.  Think of it this way – a series title is like making dinner with access to a full pantry. You can open the doors, pull out the ingredients you need, and get to work on making dinner.  A standalone is like making dinner without the ingredients at hand. You have to make a list, go to the store, shop, then unpack the groceries, put them away, then cook the meal.  I love a good series title, but the freedom that comes with a standalone is intoxicating. I am in control of every ounce of the story, and don’t have to worry about pulling threads from other books or leaving a trail for the next one.

We've read your series with Lt. Taylor Jackson and Dr. Samantha Owens. Who would you cast for TV or Film?
That is a moving target, because those books have matured past my original inspirations. I always thought of Charlize Theron when I wrote Taylor. Now, I’d love to see Blake Lively play her, and maybe even Florence Pugh in a few years. Sam is different. She has morphed in my mind as she’s matured. Such a wide range of actresses would be perfect. If I were casting today, I’d like to see Teyonah Parris in the role. She’s so gorgeous and has such intensity!

What's it like to work with another writer, such as Catherine.
Two heads are sometimes better than one! It was great to build a story with another author. Novelists are rare in the creative storytelling world because we work alone. TV and movie writers are used to having a number of heads at the table. It was quite nice to have a partner to bounce ideas off of, and work with day to day. And of course, working with Catherine was a masterclass in writing. She knows exactly what her readers want and expect from her stories. It was illuminating.

So your new novel is another stand alone. Tell us why we want to read it. Elevator pitch?
Claire Hunter, an up-and-coming large format oils artist, is about to marry the man of her dreams, Jack Compton, son of the Compton computer family magnate. Their wedding is about to take place on his family’s private island, Isola, and things go wrong from the start. Claire and Jack are both hiding some hefty secrets from one another–and why won’t he talk about his first wife, and her suspicious death? It’s a will they, won’t they gothic thriller set in an isolated, creepy villa on a remote Italian island in the midst of a terrible storm…with a killer is on the loose.

Which one of Her Dark Lies characters was the hardest to write and why?
Honestly, my main character, Claire. She didn’t want to give up her secrets, and I had to force them out of her. Once she admitted her sins to me, the whole story fell into place. I understand why she didn’t tell me, and when she tells the story of her past in the book, that’s exactly when she let me know, too. Wow, she made it hard on me!

Which character in (Her Dark Lies) is dearest to you and why?
Katie, Claire’s best friend, is a total spitfire and so dedicated to Claire’s happiness and well-being. They’ve been friends since childhood and she’s seen Claire through every stage of her life. She’s a great chick and a lot of fun to write. I have been blessed with several Katie’s in my life. Everyone needs that friend who is loyal to you and loves you no matter what.

Where did the inspiration Her Dark Lies come from?
I was in Italy on a family trip for a big birthday. We were on Lake Como, in a beautiful room with a terrace, and a yacht pulled up to Comacina Island, across the water from where we were staying. A wedding party got out and proceeded to have a huge party. At dark, fireworks went off. I knew immediately I wanted to write it as a story – with a dark side, of course. Imagine being stuck on an island, in a storm, with a killer on the loose. Yep. Boom. Story.

What do you use to inspire you when you get Writer’s Block?
I actually had a pretty rough time writing HER DARK LIES. I had two knee surgeries back-to-back while I was drafting, and it messed with my head and with my storytelling. I felt completely blocked, and the story just wouldn’t cooperate. When I emerged from that fog, the work got much easier. So assuming there isn’t something organic behind a block, or a life event that gets in the way (cough pandemic cough), I generally treat it as my story trying to tell me it’s going in the wrong direction. Almost every time I’ve been blocked, when my word counts start to dwindle and I find myself doing non-fiction instead of writing, that’s a sign I need to step back and see where I’ve gone off the rails.

Favorite Season (Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer)?
Oh, I love Spring, especially after the winter storm we’ve just had, but my heart is all Fall. I love the colors, the crispness in the air, the leaves drifting to the ground (though that first one always makes me melancholy), the scent of burning leaves, the sense that things are wrapping up for the year and preparing for renewal. It’s a moment of inevitability that I cherish.

What has been the hardest thing about publishing? What has been the most fun?
Honestly, the hardest thing are the business expectations. There’s so much that goes into writing a novel that has nothing to do with writing. But the most fun – that’s almost impossible to narrow down. Getting fan letters from people who genuinely loved a story, seeing the cover for the first time, finishing that first draft when you’ve been at it for months, meeting someone you’ve inspired to start writing themselves, or have returned to reading and chose your book to start… all amazing moments!

What advice would you give budding authors?
For the inspiration answer: Read everything you can get your hands on and write what you love to read. Don’t worry about the market, don’t worry about your friends or family and their reaction to what you write. All good books find a home, so write with passion and excitement. On the practical side, respect your time. Find the time that’s best for you to write, carve it out of your day, and protect it like your life depends on it. A daily writing habit creates a long-term career.

What are you reading right now?
I just finished Ashley Audrain’s THE PUSH which was delicious and creepy and touching, and am about to dive into Lisa Jewell’s THE INVISIBLE GIRL, Allison Brennan’s TELL NO LIES, and Adele Park’s JUST MY LUCK.

If you could have your books adapted would you want them to be adapted into Movies, a Short Series on HBO/Netflix, a Stage Play, or a Melody?
A series, I think, so there’s time to get to know each character and reveal their true motivations. Though I’m not going to say no to a movie…

Are you a morning bird or a night owl?
I am a night owl forever in training to be an early bird. At some point, though, I think it’s important to celebrate what sleep schedule works for you! I try and try and try to get up early and write, and it simply doesn’t happen. But from 2-5 in the afternoon? Watch out!

What does the act of writing mean to you?
It is a sacred contract with myself while I’m drafting, to honor the muse, honor the spirit of the story, and give life to the voices in my head. To show up for my work, to allow the words to flow through me to the page. Storytelling is in my blood, and I get very cranky when I’m not writing. It’s something I love, and I respect the work and the process of creation tremendously. But once I’m revising, it becomes a sacred contract with the reader. I want to take you on a journey, for you to be excited to pick up the book and regretful to set it down. I want to get in your head and live there,r long after you close the pages. I want to take you away from your troubles, at least for a little while, and to give you entertainment that makes you happy. So every word, every line, ever paragraph, page, chapter, is designed to excite and delight you.

Did you have a hand in designing the book’s cover?
I did a bit, but the art team at MIRA is so astounding they need very little help from me. I gave them some photos the cliffs and fortress/villa I used as inspiration, and they created the most brilliant cover ever. When they sent it I yelled in delight. It’s so perfect for the story and exactly what I imagined the setting to look like.

How did the book’s title come to you?
Funny you should ask that. This title was attached very early on. The original working title was THREE DARK NIGHTS, but my team felt like it needed to change, and I knew I wanted three words and dark in the title. HER DARK LIES came to me, I ran it up the flagpole, everyone loved it, and off we went. It’s not usually that simple, but this one was!

How could you describe this book in five words?
What if Rebecca hadn’t died?

Did COVID-19 hinder the release of this book?
Actually, I was the hindrance on this one. I had to have two knee surgeries a few months apart and that pushed back my deadline by a few months. I did almost half the book and all of the revising during the early months of the pandemic when we were in complete lockdown, and the final revisions over the summer and fall of 2020. I got very, very lucky, I think. GOOD GIRLS LIE came out December 31, 2021 and I was just finishing up my tour when we went into lockdown. That freed me up to write like the wind.

Social Links

Website: https://www.jtellison.com/
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Buy Links

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2YArr8J
Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/her-dark-lies-j-t-ellison/1135512743?ean=9780778388302
Bookshop: https://bookshop.org/a/1809/9780778331988
IndieBound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780778388302
Libro.fm: https://libro.fm/audiobooks/9781488210600
Books-A-Million: https://www.booksamillion.com/p/Her-Dark-Lies/J-T-Ellison/9780778331988?id=7392897228554
Target: https://www.target.com/p/her-dark-lies-by-j-t-ellison-hardcover/-/A-80220721


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Jigsaw Man

The Jigsaw Man
Title:
  The Jigsaw Man
Author:  Nadine Matheson
Publication Information:  Hanover Square Press. 2021. 496 pages.
ISBN:  1335146563 / 978-1335146564

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "6:44 am. Greenwich Pier, low tide and Maxwell Thomas is walking his dog on the riverbank."

Favorite Quote:  "I always find it odd when people say that of the dead. They had their whole life ahead of them. Clearly, they didn't because they're dead. We may not like the method of disposal but when it's your time to go, then it's your time to go."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Review

Bodies are being discovered around South-east London. Rather, body parts are being discovered around South-east London. A leg here, a torso there, a head with eyes gouged out, another with ears cut off. It is gruesome but all part of the job for Inspector Anjelica Henley. She is returning to her job with the Serial Crimes Unit after a leave. The leave was necessary due to the fact that she once became a victim in a crime she was investigating.

She captured Peter Oliver, a serial killer who arranged the body parts of his victims like jigsaw puzzles. He is behind bars, but it appears that the new set of discoveries mimics his modus operandi. Is it a copycat killer, or is there more of a connection to both Peter Oliver and to Inspector Henley?

First and foremost, I must suspend disbelief for this book. Serial killers and gruesome crimes are sadly very real. That is not the disbelief part. The disbelief comes from the fact that Inspector Henley is involved in the investigation and then remains involved even as more and more connections to her investigation of Peter Oliver are discovered. That seems counter to what I believe police procedure would dictate. Inspector Henley was a victim of Peter Oliver. She was grievously injured. She still bears the emotional scars. Events in the book pull her directly in the path of the copycat killer. Personal relationships within the police department may further hinder her objectivity. Yet, she continues as lead investigator.

I put that disbelief aside and go along on the adventure of this book. I realize that more than the actual identity of the copycat serial killer, this book becomes about the psychological and personal journey of the inspector and about the almost competitive relationship between her and the original jigsaw killer. Inspector Henley's story becomes about a marriage, the pressures of an intense career, motherhood, post-traumatic stress, an extramarital relationship, and race. It is also about the psychological manipulations of a serial killer and his obsession with the inspector.

In other words, there is a lot going on in this book. At the beginning, it takes a while to settle in as it seems there are a lot of characters and a lot of pieces to this story. The pace is quick and seems even quicker with short chapters. However, the characters settle and develop into their roles, and the realization hits that this is more psychological drama than police procedural. The story clicks, with each detail of the crimes more gruesome than the last.

These facets keep me turning the pages until the very gruesome and yet unfinished ending. Based on the ending and the author's interview below, it is clear that more of Inspector Henley's story is to come. It will be interesting to see if the same themes and same characters carry through the series. Given that this is a debut novel, I look forward to seeing what the author's style develops into.

About the Author

Nadine Matheson is a criminal defense attorney and winner of the City University Crime Writing competition. She lives in London, UK.

About the Book

In THE JIGSAW MAN (March 16, 2021; Hanover Square Press), Detective Inspector Anjelica Henley has a lot to deal with on her first day back her from leave from the Serial Crimes Unit of Scotland Yard. After nearly becoming a victim of the vicious serial killer, The Jigsaw Man, just before he was put behind bars, she also has to contend with the subtle digs and microaggressions that come with being the unit’s only black female detective. Add a new trainee and a rocky marriage to the mix, and DI Henley nearly has a full plate. Until the first call comes in...

Along the Thames, a fan of the Jigsaw Man and copycat killer has scattered two dismembered bodies along the shores like a jigsaw puzzle. When DI Henley sees one of the victims, a young black woman, is already being written off by her colleagues, she makes it her mission to solve the case, driving her to seek help from the original Jigsaw Man himself, Peter Oliver. Oliver, however, is determined to get to his copycat before Henley can, and sets into motion a series of events that puts Henley and her family in the crosshairs of two monstrous serial killers.

Author Q&A

You are a criminal defense attorney in London. Has real life ever been stranger than fiction?
Most definitely life has been stranger than fiction. My most memorable case involved a woman accused of fraud and had used multiple identities. My client insisted that she was, let’s call her, Emma Smith, even when the prosecution brought the real Emma Smith and her entire family to court. It was absolutely crazy and to this day I am no closer to knowing this woman’s true identity.

What's something about your job that you wish people knew?
There is absolutely no glamour in my job. My working life is not an episode of Suits. Sitting around in police station at 4am is not glamorous and there is so much time spent waiting. I was never told in law school that I would spend so much time waiting for either clients to arrive, or for the police to be ready for interview. There was one occasion where I attended court for my case which was scheduled to start at 10am. The case wasn’t called on until 3.30pm.

Will there be more books with DI Anjelica Henley?
Absolutely. DI Anjelica Henley’s story isn’t over. I’ve recently finished book 2 in the series so there will definitely be more of her.

Why do think there aren't as many #ownvoices novels in the mystery/thriller genre?
There are many #ownvoices in the mystery/thriller genre but for some inexplicable reason these voices are not being elevated or promoted as voraciously. I suspect that there’s a misconception that #ownvoices writers can only tell one type of story which is not true. Our storytelling is as diverse as the #ownvoices writers. I’m hopeful that things are now changing and that these talented writers are being placed on a higher platform.

What are some of your favorite #ownvoices novels?
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, This Lovely City by Louise Hare, Take it Back by Kia Abdullah

Do you work from an outline or just fly by the seat of your pants?
I could never fly from the seat of my pants. My characters would be wandering around aimlessly in the middle of a field if I didn’t have a plan. I always outline the first draft of my book. I call my outline a safety net. My outline is not something that I stick to rigidly as sometimes a character can take you off in an unexpected direction and a subplot can appear out of nowhere.

Coffee or Tea?
Tea! Always tea with milk, sugar and a biscuit on the side! There has to be biscuits.

What do you use to inspire you when you get Writer’s Block?
Nature. The best thing for me to do if I get stuck is to leave the house. I will usually walk around my local park or go to the river. I love being near water and I find that it’s the best place to be if I need to expand my mind.

Favorite Season (Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer)?
This is not an easy question because I love all seasons. I love the crispness of winter, the new beginnings of Spring and the gentleness of Fall, but Summer is probably my favorite season. Summer feels like freedom.

What has been the hardest thing about publishing? What has been the most fun?
The hardest thing has been trying to meet the deadline for the second book whilst trying to finish edits on the first book. The most fun has been holding my book in my hands for the first time and having readers contacting me to say how much they’ve enjoyed ‘The Jigsaw Man.’

What advice would you give budding authors?
Read a lot and write the story that you want to tell. Don’t worry about what’s number one in the bestseller charts or if anyone will buy your book. The most important thing is to write your story and to finish.

Who would play DI Henley in the TV/movie adaptation?
Naomie Harris.

Do you find yourself unnerved or even somewhat scared while writing crime stories?
No. There’s not been one moment where I’ve felt the need to fall asleep with the light on after whilst writing my stories. It may be that I’m very skilled at compartmentalizing. I’ve always said I wouldn’t have lasted six weeks if thought about all of the cases that I’d worked on as a newly qualified Criminal Defence Attorney. I’m able to sleep very well at night.

What are you reading right now?
Lightseekers by Femi Kayode.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

The Women I Think About at Night: Traveling the Paths of My Heroes

Title:  The Women I Think About at Night: Traveling the Paths of My Heroes
Author:  Mia Kankimäki (Author), Douglas Robinson (Translator)
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2020. 416 pages.
ISBN:  1982129190 / 978-1982129194

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I'm M."

Favorite Quote:  "It seems likely that even today women's attitudes have not been entirely freed from this messy skein of duty and guilt. I haven't raised any children or been responsible for my parents' care (yet), but it seems to me that I have nevertheless spent my entire life to date living according to unspoken expectations - under the sway of conditioned obedience and conscientiousness.  I took the expected university degree, entered the profession for which I was qualified, strove ambitiously to advance in that profession for nearly a decade and a half ... all quite willingly, even enthusiastically. But then, somehow, it began to pall on me. Was this all there was to life? Did life have nothing new to offer me? (Probably it was at this juncture the many of my friends started families.) I began to feel that I'd had enough of doing the things I was supposed to do. I'd been conscientious, decent, obedient, and sensible long enough. I didn't want to be sensible any longer!" 

Based on the title and the description, I immediately want to read this book. Mia Kankimake, in her own words, is a "fortyish woman [who] seeks meaning of life." She manages to arrange her life to travel and seek inspiration in the paths of women - ten pioneers - she finds inspiring. She reads their works, contemplates their lives, and travels to their destinations from Africa to Japan to Italy. The book is described as blending "travelogue, memoir, and biography as she recounts her enchanting travels."

I expect to travel to far off destinations. I expected to learn about these women. More importantly, I expect to learn about the author's vision of these pioneers. Most of all I expect to be inspired. Unfortunately, for me, I find myself still seeking and determine that I am not the reader for find these goals in this book.

Travel:  I love travel and the idea of learning and immersing myself in the places and cultures I find myself in.  Unfortunately, on her first trip, the author has this to say. "When you travel, everything is always strange and scary at first - the food, the huts, the people, the animals, the smells, the sounds. But then at some point you begin to adjust, your organism says Okay, fine, your eyes open, and you begin to see past the strangeness. That's why I want to stay on this trip for a long time. I want to wait till I start seeing. That usually happens around the tenth day. We're not there yet." That outlook seems to last the entire book. The commentary is that of a judgmental tourist.

The Women: Interestingly, this book details the reasons the author "rejects" a woman from her list. Some are because of profession or destination which is understandable. Some rejections - "filthy-rich aristocratic heiresses ... whine-fests ... endearingly nerdy aunties" - again bring in a negative judgement which is off-putting. For the women chosen, a lot of this book is excerpts from writings by or about the women the author chooses to study. The excerpts are interspersed with the author's own musings. As such for me, they lose continuity and do not paint a picture of the woman in question. It leaves me wondering if rather than reading these snippets, I should just read the original writings to get a more cohesive vision.

Inspiration:  I am not familiar with some of the women the author chooses as her heroes. However, the term heroes implies a respect. It implies lessons to be learned. It implies approaches to be emulated. It implies choice. Unfortunately, in the process close to the beginning of the book, she asks the question if one of these women in an "unbalanced b**tch". Although she determines that this conclusion may be a result of an author's presentation, the book continues with this tone of annoyance and judgement.

This book has been translated into English. In that, I wonder if something (or everything!) is lost in the translation. Unfortunately, I found this book titled to be about heroes to be anything but inspirational.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Lost Apothecary

Title:
  The Lost Apothecary
Author:  Sarah Penner
Publication Information:  Legends Press. 2021. 320 pages.
ISBN:  978-1789558975

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and the Winter 2021 historical fiction blog tour from Harlequin Trade Publishing free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "She would come at daybreak - the woman whose letter I held in my hands, the woman whose name I did not yet know."

Favorite Quote:  "To me, the allure of history lay in the minutiae of life long ago, the untold secrets of ordinary people."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Review

Nella Clavinger is a healer, a apothecary in the 1700s in London. She learned her skills from her mother and whose focus was to serve women with her knowledge and skills. "My mother had held tight to this principle, instilling in me from an early age the importance of providing a safe haven - a place of healing - females." A betrayal early in her life leads to Nella helping women but in ways her mother never dreamed. She offers solutions to help women escape or deal with men who have harmed them. Nella becomes a purveyor of poison. "First, there was trust. Then, there was betrayal. You cannot have one without the other. You cannot be betrayed by someone you do not trust ... what you have learned is the same heart-wrenching journey of every woman to whom I have sold a poison. And it is, indeed, the same path for me." However, as she learns, "Healing by way of vengeance ... no such thing existed; it never had. Hurting others had only injured me further."

Eliza Fanning is a child twelve years old. She comes to Nella on a mission from her mistress. She returns out of fear and a lack of understanding of what is happening to her own body as she grows up. She finds comfort in Nella, and Nella finds the dream of the child she never bore

An innocent mistake has life altering effects for both of them.

Two centuries later, Caroline comes to London. The trip was to be a tenth anniversary celebration. Instead, Caroline is alone, still reeling from her husband's betrayal. "Intermingled in the mess was another, subtler secret ... we were happy, yet unfulfilled. It was possible, I understood now, to be both at the same time." In many ways, Caroline comes in search of herself and all the parts of her she let go for marriage and family. "... not everything in my life was how I imagined it would be, and that I hadn't lived up to my own potential. And worst of all, I'd been too scared to even try."

The book goes back and forth between the perspective of these two time periods and these three characters - I might say women, but Eliza is really a child in a grown-up world. Caroline once dreamed of being a historian. That dream is rekindled as she looks for an escape from her sorrow and stumbles across an artifact that brings her to Nella and Eliza's stories. Her discovery of both the artifact and the history is conveniently easy in the book, but that becomes a minor point in the rest of the story that engages me to the very last page.

I love the three characters and the challenges they face as so many other women in this world have. To some extent, the three characters could be the same woman at different point in her life. Eliza is the young girl still learning about herself, the world, and her path in it. Caroline is the woman who has put her own dreams on hold for those she loves and now looks to rediscover the woman she was meant to be. Nella is nearing the end of her life with regrets for the choices made and the understanding that perhaps she would do it all all over again. To me, the characters represent the stages of a woman's life and leave a lot to think about.

What also really makes this book stand out is the fact that the stories in both time periods go in a direction I completely do not expect. The parallels between the two time period draw closer than I expect between historian and history. One ending also is not definitive as to the exact conclusion, making me wonder if a sequel might be planned to this wonderful debut novel. I would read along if there was.

About the Author

Sarah Penner is the debut author of The Lost Apothecary, to be translated in eleven languages worldwide. She works full-time in finance and is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Women's Fiction Writers Association. She and her husband live in St. Petersburg, Florida, with their miniature dachshund, Zoe.

About the Book

In this addictive and spectacularly imagined debut, a female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course. Pitched as Kate Morton meets The Miniaturist, The Lost Apothecary is a bold work of historical fiction with a rebellious twist that heralds the coming of an explosive new talent.

A forgotten history. A secret network of women. A legacy of poison and revenge. Welcome to The Lost Apothecary…

Hidden in the depths of eighteenth-century London, a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo through the centuries.

Meanwhile in present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, running from her own demons. When she stumbles upon a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that haunted London two hundred years ago, her life collides with the apothecary’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

With crackling suspense, unforgettable characters and searing insight, The Lost Apothecary is a subversive and intoxicating debut novel of secrets, vengeance and the remarkable ways women can save each other despite the barrier of time.

Book Excerpt

Excerpted from The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner, Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Penner. Published by Park Row Books. 

Nella
February 3, 1791

She would come at daybreak—the woman whose letter I held in my hands, the woman whose name I did not yet know.

I knew neither her age nor where she lived. I did not know her rank in society nor the dark things of which she dreamed when night fell. She could be a victim or a transgressor. A new wife or a vengeful widow. A nursemaid or a courtesan.

But despite all that I did not know, I understood this: the woman knew exactly who she wanted dead.

I lifted the blush-colored paper, illuminated by the dying f lame of a single rush wick candle. I ran my fingers over the ink of her words, imagining what despair brought the woman to seek out someone like me. Not just an apothecary, but a murderer. A master of disguise.

Her request was simple and straightforward. For my mistress’s husband, with his breakfast. Daybreak, 4 Feb. At once, I drew to mind a middle-aged housemaid, called to do the bidding of her mistress. And with an instinct perfected over the last two decades, I knew immediately the remedy most suited to this request: a chicken egg laced with nux vomica.

The preparation would take mere minutes; the poison was within reach. But for a reason yet unknown to me, something about the letter left me unsettled. It was not the subtle, woodsy odor of the parchment or the way the lower left corner curled forward slightly, as though once damp with tears. Instead, the disquiet brewed inside of me. An intuitive understanding that something must be avoided.

But what unwritten warning could reside on a single sheet of parchment, shrouded beneath pen strokes? None at all, I assured myself; this letter was no omen. My troubling thoughts were merely the result of my fatigue—the hour was late—and the persistent discomfort in my joints.

I drew my attention to my calfskin register on the table in front of me. My precious register was a record of life and death; an inventory of the many women who sought potions from here, the darkest of apothecary shops.

In the front pages of my register, the ink was soft, written with a lighter hand, void of grief and resistance. These faded, worn entries belonged to my mother. This apothecary shop for women’s maladies, situated at 3 Back Alley, was hers long before it was mine.

On occasion I read her entries—23 Mar 1767, Mrs. R. Ranford, Yarrow Milfoil 15 dr. 3x—and the words evoked memories of her: the way her hair fell against the back of her neck as she ground the yarrow stem with the pestle, or the taut, papery skin of her hand as she plucked seeds from the flower’s head. But my mother had not disguised her shop behind a false wall, and she had not slipped her remedies into vessels of dark red wine. She’d had no need to hide. The tinctures she dispensed were meant only for good: soothing the raw, tender parts of a new mother, or bringing menses upon a barren wife. Thus, she filled her register pages with the most benign of herbal remedies. They would raise no suspicion.

On my register pages, I wrote things such as nettle and hyssop and amaranth, yes, but also remedies more sinister: nightshade and hellebore and arsenic. Beneath the ink strokes of my register hid betrayal, anguish…and dark secrets.

Secrets about the vigorous young man who suffered an ailing heart on the eve of his wedding, or how it came to pass that a healthy new father fell victim to a sudden fever. My register laid it all bare: these were not weak hearts and fevers at all, but thorn apple juice and nightshade slipped into wines and pies by cunning women whose names now stained my register.

Oh, but if only the register told my own secret, the truth about how this all began. For I had documented every victim in these pages, all but one: Frederick. The sharp, black lines of his name defaced only my sullen heart, my scarred womb.

I gently closed the register, for I had no use of it tonight, and returned my attention to the letter. What worried me so? The edge of the parchment continued to catch my eye, as though something crawled beneath it. And the longer I remained at my table, the more my belly ached and my fingers trembled. In the distance, beyond the walls of the shop, the bells on a carriage sounded frighteningly similar to the chains on a constable’s belt. But I assured myself that the bailiffs would not come tonight, just as they had not come for the last two decades. My shop, like my poisons, was too cleverly disguised. No man would find this place; it was buried deep behind a cupboard wall at the base of a twisted alleyway in the darkest depths of London.

I drew my eyes to the soot-stained wall that I had not the heart, nor the strength, to scrub clean. An empty bottle on a shelf caught my reflection. My eyes, once bright green like my mother’s, now held little life within them. My cheeks, too, once flushed with vitality, were sallow and sunken. I had the appearance of a ghost, much older than my forty-one years of age.

Tenderly, I began to rub the round bone in my left wrist, swollen with heat like a stone left in the fire and forgotten. The discomfort in my joints had crawled through my body for years; it had grown so severe, I lived not a waking hour without pain. Every poison I dispensed brought a new wave of it upon me; some evenings, my fingers were so distended and stiff, I felt sure the skin would split open and expose what lay underneath.

Killing and secret-keeping had done this to me. It had begun to rot me from the inside out, and something inside meant to tear me open.

At once, the air grew stagnant, and smoke began to curl into the low stone ceiling of my hidden room. The candle was nearly spent, and soon the laudanum drops would wrap me in their heavy warmth. Night had long ago fallen, and she would arrive in just a few hours: the woman whose name I would add to my register and whose mystery I would begin to unravel, no matter the unease it brewed inside of me.

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