Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Cassandra in Reverse

Cassandra in Reverse
Title:
  Cassandra in Reverse
Author:  Holly Smale
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2023. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0778334538 / 978-0778334538

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:  "Where does a story start?"

Favorite Quote:  "That's the thing I've never really understood about emotions. We're given unhelpful words for them - sad, happy, angry, scared, disgusted - but they're not accurate and there never seems to be anywhere near enough of them. How could there be? Emotions aren't binary or finite: they change, shift, run into each other like colored water. They are layered, three-dimensional and twisted; they don't arrive in order, one by one, labeled neatly. They lie on top of each other, twisting like kaleidoscopes, like prisms, like spinning bird feathers lit with their own iridescence."

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


Review

I want to love this book because representation matters. The main character of this book is neurodiverse. Diverse main characters matter. As the book description states, "Cassandra Penelope Dankworth likes what she likes, and strongly dislikes what she doesn't. Her life runs in a pleasing, predictable order." The actual idea that the character is neurodiverse comes as a "reveal" well into the book. However, to this reader (and, I think, most readers), this is not a revelation. The fact that it is a reveal to Cassandra herself is sad for here is an adult who should have received intervention and support as a child and did not. I would hope that would not be the case in real life. That aspect of Cassandra's life is unfortunately never addressed, and, to me, it is a missed opportunity.

I want to love this book because I love the opening. "It’s a lie, the first page of a book, because it masquerades as a beginning. A real beginning—the opening of something—when what you’re being offered is an arbitrary line in the sand. This story starts here. Pick a random event. Ignore whatever came before it or catch up later. Pretend the world stops when the book closes, or that a resolution isn’t simply another random moment on a curated timeline." That is so completely true, and yet, as reader, we are content to go along with the beginning, middle, and end as offered. It is part of the experience. I love the idea, but it is not really explored further. I suppose it is meant to feed into the idea of Cassandra's ability to time travel, but the connection is lost.

I want to love this book because the character discovers the ability to go back in time and live moments over. How many of us have wished for this at times? Some would go back and relish a special, happy moment. Many more would go back to change an action, undo a mistake, or do things differently to get a different outcome. Cassandra is one of the latter. The idea is relatable. Interestingly, the idea of how and why Cassandra discovers this ability is never explored. It is presented matter of fact and as a part of the given background of Cassandra's life story. This is not a story about magical realism. I am left wondering why and how.

Unfortunately, despite all the reasons I want to love the book, I end up not the reader for this book. Cassandra's entire cycle of do-overs is focused on having a different outcome in a relationship. The book begins with Cassandra getting dumped. Over and over and over, Cassandra tries for a different outcome. In that process, many other things change in Cassandra's life, many for the better.  However, her focal point keeps returning to that one relationship. There appears to be some character growth, and other relationships do grow and change. However, it seems to keep being undone as Cassandra keeps trying over and over again.

Unfortunately, the ending makes the whole thing worse. No spoilers, but I really, really wish that the ending was different!

About the Book

If you had the power to change the past, where would you start?

Cassandra Penelope Dankworth likes what she likes, and strongly dislikes what she doesn't. Her life runs in a pleasing, predictable order…until all these things happen on the same day.

She gets dumped.

She gets fired from her PR job for not being a 'People Person.’

Her local café runs out of her favorite muffins.

Then, something truly unexpected happens: Cassie discovers she can travel back in time and change the past.

She decides to use this newfound ability to change all the broken parts of her life. Get undumped, unfired. And with time on her side, how hard can it be?

About the Author

Holly Smale is the internationally bestselling, award-winning author of the Geek Girl (soon to be a Netflix series) and The Valentines teen series, which have sold 3.4 million copies worldwide. In January 2021, Holly was diagnosed autistic at the age of 39. Suddenly a lot of things made sense. Holly regularly shares, debates about, and celebrates neurodiversity on Twitter and Instagram @holsmale. Cassandra in Reverse is her adult debut and was named A Reese’s Book Club Pick, an Amazon Editors’ Top Pick of the Month, and a June Must Listen on Apple.

Excerpt

Excerpted from CASSANDRA IN REVERSE. Copyright © 2023 by Holly Smale. Published by MIRA, an imprint of HarperCollins.

WHERE DOES A STORY START?

It’s a lie, the first page of a book, because it masquerades as a beginning. A real beginning—the opening of something—when what you’re being offered is an arbitrary line in the sand. This story starts here. Pick a random event. Ignore whatever came before it or catch up later. Pretend the world stops when the book closes, or that a resolution isn’t simply another random moment on a curated timeline.

But life isn’t like that, so books are dishonest.

Maybe that’s why humans like them.

And it’s saying that kind of shit that gets me thrown out of the Fentiman Road Book Club.

Here are some other things I’ve been asked not to return to:

The Blenheim Road Readers Group

A large flat-share I briefly attempted in Walthamstow

My last relationship

My current job

The final two have been in quick succession. This morning, Will—my boyfriend of four months—kissed me, listed my virtues out of nowhere and concluded the pep talk by ending our relationship.

The job situation I found out about eighty seconds ago.

According to the flexing jaw and flared nostrils of my boss, I’ve yet to respond to this new information. He seems faint and muted, as if he’s behind a pane of thick frosted glass. He also has a dried oat on his shirt collar but now doesn’t seem the right time to point it out: he’s married—his wife can do it later.

“Cassie,” he says more loudly. “Did you hear me?”

Obviously I heard him or I’d still be giving a detailed report on the client meeting I just had, which is exactly what I was doing when he fired me.

“The issue isn’t so much your work performance,” he plows on gallantly. “Although, Christ knows, somebody who hates phone calls as much as you do shouldn’t be working in public relations.”

I nod: that’s an accurate assessment.

“It’s your general demeanor I can’t have in this office. You are rude. Insubordinate. Arrogant, frankly. You are not a team player, and do you know what this office needs?”

“A better coffee machine.”

“That’s exactly the kind of bullshit I’m talking about.”

I’d tell you my boss’s name and give him a brief description, but judging by this conversation, he isn’t going to be a prominent character for much longer.

“I’ve spoken to you about this on multiple occasions— Cassandra, look at me when I’m talking to you. Our highest-paying client just dropped us because of your quote, unquote relentlessly grating behavior. You are unlikable. That’s the exact word they used. Unlikable. Public relations is a People Job. For People People.”

Now, just hang on a minute.

“I’m a person,” I object, lifting my chin and doing my best to stare directly into his pupils. “And, as far as I’m aware, being likable is irrelevant to my job description. It’s certainly not in my contract, because I’ve checked.”

My boss’s nostrils flare into horsiness.

I rarely understand what another human is thinking, but I frequently feel it: a wave of emotion that pours out of them into me, like a teapot into a cup. While it fills me up, I have to work out what the hell it is, where it came from and what I’m supposed to do to stop it spilling everywhere.

Rage that doesn’t feel like mine pulses through me: dark purple and red.

His colors are an invasion and I do not like it.

“Look,” my boss concludes with a patient sigh that is nothing like the emotion bolting out of him. “This just isn’t working out, Cassie, and on some level you must already know that. Maybe you should find something that is better suited to your…specific skill set.”

That’s essentially what Will told me this morning too. I don’t know why they’re both under the impression I must have seen the end coming when I very much did not.

“Your job has the word relations in it,” my boss clarifies helpfully. “Perhaps you could find one that doesn’t?”

Standing up, I clear my throat and look at my watch: it’s not even Wednesday lunchtime yet.

Relationship: over.

Job: over.

“Well,” I say calmly. “Fuck.”

So that’s where my story starts.

It could have started anywhere: I just had to pick a moment. It could have been waking up this morning to the sound of my flatmates screaming at each other, or eating my breakfast (porridge and banana, always), or making an elaborate gift for my first anniversary with Will (slightly preemptive).

It could have been the moment just before I met him, which would have been a more positive beginning. It could have been the day my parents died in a car accident, which would have been considerably less so.

But I chose here: kind of in the middle.

Thirty-one years into my story and a long time after the dramatic end of some others. Packing a cardboard box with very little, because it transpires the only thing on my desk that doesn’t belong to the agency is a gifted coffee mug with a picture of a cartoon deer on it. I put it in the box anyway. There’s no real way of knowing what’s going to happen next, but I assume there will still be caffeine.

“Oh shit!” My colleague Sophie leans across our desks as I stick a wilting plant under my arm just to look like I’m not leaving another year of my life behind with literally nothing to show for it. “They haven’t fired you? That’s awful. I’m sure we will all miss you so much.”

I genuinely have no idea if she means this or not. If she does, it’s certainly unexpected: we’ve been sitting opposite each other since I got here and all I really know about her is that she’s twenty-two years old and likes tuna sandwiches, typing aggressively and picking her nose as if none of us have peripheral vision.

“Will you?” I ask, genuinely curious. “Why?”

Sophie opens her mouth, shuts it again and goes back to smashing her keyboard as if she’s playing whack-a-mole with her fingertips.

“Cassandra!” My boss appears in the doorway just as I start cleaning down my keyboard with one of my little antiseptic wipes. “What the hell are you doing? I didn’t mean leave right now. Jesus on a yellow bicycle, what is wrong with you? I’d prefer you to work out your notice period, please.”

“Oh.” I look down at the box and my plant. I’ve packed now. “No, thank you.”

Finished with cleaning, I sling my handbag over my shoulder and my coat over my arm, hold the box against my stomach, awkwardly hook the plant in the crook of my elbow and try to get the agency door open on my own. Then I hold it open with my knee while I look back, even though—much like Orpheus at the border of the Underworld—I know I shouldn’t.

The office has never been this quiet.

Heads are conscientiously turned away from me, as if I’m a sudden bright light. There’s a light patter of keyboards like pigeons walking on a roof (punctuated by the violent death stabs of Sophie), the radiator by the window is gurgling, the reception is blindingly gold-leafed and the watercooler drips. If I’m looking for something good to come out of today—and I think I probably should—it’s that I won’t have to hear that every second for the rest of my working life.

It’s a productivity triumph. They should fire people for fundamental personality flaws more often.

The door slams behind me and I jump even though I’m the one who slammed it. Then my phone beeps, so I balance everything precariously on one knee and fumble for it. I try to avoid having unread notifications if I can. They make my bag feel heavy.

Dankworth please clean your shit up

I frown as I reply:

Which shit in particular

There’s another beep.

Very funny. Keep the kitchen clear

It is a COmmUNAL SPaCE.

It wasn’t funny a couple of weeks ago when I came down for a glass of water in the middle of the night and found Sal and Derek having sex against the fridge.

Although perhaps that is the definition of communal.

Still frowning, I hit the button for the lift and mentally scour the flat for what I’ve done wrong this time. I forgot to wash my porridge bowl and spoon. There’s also my favorite yellow scarf on the floor and a purple jumper over the arm of the sofa. This is my sixth flat-share in ten years and I’m starting to feel like a snail: carrying my belongings around with me so I leave no visible trace.

I send back:

OK.

My intestines are rapidly liquidizing, my cheeks are hot and a bright pink rash I can’t see is forming across my chest. Dull pain wraps itself around my neck, like a scarf pulled tight.

It’s fascinating how emotions can tie your life together.

One minute you’re twelve, standing in the middle of a playground while people fight over who doesn’t get you as a teammate. The next you’re in your thirties, single and standing by the lifts of an office you’ve just been fired from because nobody wants you as a teammate. Same sensations, different body. Literally: my cells have cunningly replaced themselves at least twice in the interim.

The office door swings open. “Cassandra?”

Ronald has worn the same thing—a navy cashmere jumper—every day since he started working here a few months ago. It smells really lovely, so I’m guessing there must be plural.

He walks toward me and I immediately panic. Now and then I’ve caught him looking at me from the neighboring desk with an incalculable expression on his face, and I have no idea what it could be. Lust? Repulsion? I’ve been scripting a response to the former for a month now, just in case.

I am honored by your romantic and/or sexual interest in me given that we’ve only exchanged perfunctory greetings, but I have a long-term boyfriend I am almost definitely in the process of falling in love with.

Well, that excuse isn’t going to work anymore, is it.

Ronald clears his throat and runs a large hand over his buzz-cut Afro. “That’s mine.”

“Who?” I blink, disoriented by the grammar. “Me?”

“The plant.” He points at the shrubbery now clutched under my sweaty armpit. “It’s mine and I’d like to keep it.”

Ah, the sweet, giddy flush of humiliation is now complete.

“Of course,” I say stiffly. “Sorry, Ronald.”

Ronald blinks and reaches out a hand; I move quickly away so his fingers won’t touch mine, nearly dropping the pot in the process. It’s the same fun little dance I do when I have to pay with cash at the supermarket checkout, which is why I always carry cards.

I get into the lift and press the button. Ronald now appears to be casually assessing me as if I’m a half-ripe avocado, so I stare at the floor until he reaches a conclusion.

“Bye,” he says finally.

“Bye,” I say as the lift doors slide shut.

And that’s how my story starts.

With a novelty mug in a box, a full character assassination and the realization that when I leave a building I am missed considerably less than a half-dead rubber plant.

Buy Links

HarperCollins: https://www.harpercollins.com/products/cassandra-in-reverse-holly-smale?variant=40900522541090
BookShop.org: https://bookshop.org/p/books/the-cassandra-complex-holly-smale/18745506?ean=9780778334538
Books a Million: https://www.booksamillion.com/p/Cassandra-Reverse/Holly-Smale/9780778334538?id=8859746613976#
Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/cassandra-in-reverse-holly-smale/1143332733?ean=9780778334538
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Cassandra-Reverse-Novel-Holly-Smale/dp/0778334538/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

Social Links

Author Website: https://www.hollysmale.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/holsmale
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/holsmale/
GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5824402.Holly_Smale


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

Monday, July 24, 2023

The Little Italian Hotel

The Little Italian Hotel
Title:
  The Little Italian Hotel
Author:  Phaedra Patrick
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2023. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0778307646 / 978-0778307648

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:  "Hi, it's Ginny Splinter, I'm listening."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes I feel like I'm wearing a costume, trying to be what others want me to be, rather than my true self."

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


Review

This book is a story of loss and grief and finding the strength and courage to go on. This book is also about the lesson that when you have helping hands along the way, the journey of grief becomes perhaps just the tiniest bit easier. In the book, the main character Ginny is reading a book that outlines "seven stages of heartbreak:"
  • Stage 1 - Shock and denial
  • Stage 2 - Sadness and remorse
  • Stage 3 - Resentment and bargaining
  • Stage 4 - Depression, reflection, loneliness
  • Stage 5 - Welcome to your upward turn
  • Stage 6 - Reconstruction and working through
  • Stage 7 - Acceptance and hope
I have no idea of the scientific or medical accuracy of this. However, this is the structure that the journey of grief follows in this book. 

The causes of grief are about as diverse as the characters of the book. Ginny is a self-help show radio host but discovers betrayal and an affair in her own marriage. Her anniversary surprise turns into a trip to Italy with strangers. Spite? Sorrow? Just because? Why not? Actually, it's because the trip is non-refundable but can be changed to allow Ginny to go with someone else. A spur-of-the-moment decision leads Ginny to announce a contest on the radio. Listeners share their sorrows, and the producer picks the "winners" to join Ginny on this trip.

The individuals joining Ginny bring their own sorrows - a life changing diagnosis, an ill family member, the death of a pet who was someone's only family, loneliness, and more. The trip destination is a small, run-down hotel outside of Venice in the hills of Bologna. The owner holds his own grief close.

The plot of this book is sweet and corny. Each individual comes on this journey. Strangers thrown together discover friendship. The decision is made to try an activity of one person's choosing each day and then to do an evaluation of their "grief" scale. The activities range from a hike to a museum visit to a spa day. Set in the beautiful surroundings of Venice and Bologna, it is a beautiful journey to go along on.

Of course, real life - Ginny's real life - intervenes, and a decision looms. What advice will the self-help guru give herself? What decision will she make? With the help of her new friends, Ginny finds her path forward.

Interestingly, the other characters and their paths are actually more intriguing in this book than Ginny herself. As with The Secrets of Love Story Bridge, this story starts in sadness and a crisis but ends up a sweet, feel-good read with characters who make me smile.

About the Book

When a relationship expert’s own marriage falls apart, she invites four strangers to Italy for a vacation of healing and second chances in this uplifting new novel from the author of The Messy Lives of Book People.

Ginny Splinter, acclaimed radio host and advice expert, prides herself on knowing what’s best for others. So she’s sure her husband, Adrian, will love the special trip to Italy she’s planned for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. But when Ginny presents the gift to Adrian, he surprises her with his own very different plan—a divorce.

Beside herself with heartache, Ginny impulsively invites four heartbroken listeners to join her in Italy instead while live on air. From hiking the hills of Bologna to riding a gondola in Venice to sharing stories around the dining table of the little Italian hotel, Ginny and her newfound company embark on a vacation of healing.

However, when Adrian starts to rethink their relationship, Ginny must decide whether to commit to her marriage or start afresh, alone. And an unexpected stranger may hold the key to a very different future… Sunny, tender and brimming with charm, The Little Italian Hotel explores marriage, identity and reclaiming the present moment—even if it means leaving the past behind.

About the Author

Phaedra Patrick is the bestselling author of several novels, including The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, which has been translated into twenty-five languages worldwide. Her second novel, Rise and Shine Benedict Stone, was made into a Hallmark movie. An award-winning short story writer, she previously studied art and marketing and has worked as a stained glass artist, film festival organizer and communications manager. Phaedra lives in Saddleworth, UK, with her family.

Excerpt

Excerpted from The Little Italian Hotel. Copyright © 2023 by Phaedra Patrick. Published by Park Row Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Mountains

“Hi, it’s Ginny Splinter, I’m listening. Tell me your worries…”

It was something she said so many times a day on her Just Ask Ginny radio show it had become second nature, like sprinkling sunflower seeds on her muesli or kissing her husband, Adrian, on the cheek before he left for work each morning.

Ginny arrived early at the Talk Heart FM studio that day to pass a financial planning article to a security guard who’d confided to her he was struggling to pay his rent. She stopped to chat to the young receptionist whose boyfriend wouldn’t commit to anything more serious between them.

“You shouldn’t rely on him for your own self-esteem. Never forget you’re a prize worth winning,” Ginny told her with a kind smile. “Come talk to me anytime.”

The receptionist wiped a tear from her eye. “Do you really mean that?”

“A promise is a promise. Stay strong, sweetheart.”

Ginny walked away with a glow in her chest, touched when others trusted her with their personal issues. She wasn’t one to toot her own horn, but when her friends wept into their chardonnay, she was the one they turned to for good advice and packets of tissues. Where others saw paths littered with broken glass, she chose to picture the sun rising over the mountains. It was probably why thousands of folk from Greenham, Ginny’s leafy northwest England hometown, tuned in to her daily advice show.

Throughout her fifteen years on the air, there wasn’t a problem Ginny hadn’t tried to fix, whether it was loneliness, retirement worries, body dysmorphia, noisy neighbors or bullying at work. She offered solutions for the lost loves, secret loves and the never-been-in-loves. Empathy was her superpower.

Other people’s issues made her appreciate her happy marriage all the more. Her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary was just around the corner and she couldn’t wait to celebrate it in style. Whenever Ginny thought about the surprise holiday she’d booked for her and Adrian, in Italy, she couldn’t help smiling. Next month, in June, they were going to be staying in a gorgeous little village, Vigornuovo in Bologna, for three whole weeks. It would also be the perfect opportunity to renew their wedding vows, to reaffirm their love and commitment to each other and to have some fun, too.

The thought of spending quality time alone with her husband made a rush of warmth flood her skin. Ginny couldn’t wait to wander the side streets of Venice at dusk and admire Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. More than anything, she wanted to reignite the spark in her marriage. She and Adrian had been so busy recently that they were like cars speeding along a motorway in opposite directions. It made her feel uncharacteristically listless, especially now that their daughter, twenty-four-year-old Phoebe, had left home to move in with her fiancé, Pete, and was busy arranging her own wedding.

Ginny usually advised fellow empty nesters to keep busy by taking up a new hobby, perhaps home baking or walking a neighbor’s dog, but she was struggling to practice what she preached. Her hormones had felt out of balance for some time and sticking HRT patches to her backside, to banish her hot flashes, hadn’t proved to be the wonder cure she’d hoped for.

Last week, she’d had a worrying urge to rip open her blouse on the high street and flash her lacy bra to passersby. “See, I’m here, still desirable, not invisible!” she’d wanted to shout. But really, she wanted her husband to make her feel that way. The Italian holiday was going to be the perfect solution.

When she stepped into the elevator at work, Ginny was faced with a new life-sized poster of herself. She had an auburn high ponytail with a trademark curl at the end, and was wearing a pastel blue skirt suit with animal print heels. Her face had been airbrushed, removing every wrinkle, and she’d been given a golden halo and wings.

Ginny Splinter, Advice Angel, said the tagline.

Ginny pursed her lips. She didn’t like that her lines had been erased. She’d earned them over forty-nine years of life experience, like gathering stamps in a passport.

In the office, she waved at her latest producer, Tam. There was a conveyor belt of young graduates keen to join Talk Heart FM, using it as a training ground before migrating to bigger and better roles elsewhere. Tam was the latest recruit. She buzzed with ideas and her oversized black-rimmed glasses screamed ambition.

Tam propelled her chair across the office at great speed while sitting in it. “Gin, babe,” she said, tapping a pen against her teeth. “Thought we’d shake things up today and take some live calls, if you’re up for it?”

Ginny sat down at her desk and frowned. “Are you sure that’s sensible? We’ve got time to run through the show and handpick a few problems. It gives me time to digest them and give my best advice.”

Her mind flicked back to a live call during which a woman had set fire to her husband’s clothes after discovering his affair. Fortunately, he’d not been wearing them at the time. Afterward, Ginny had fielded lots of calls from concerned listeners and had to assure them everything was okay. Since then, all her producers preferred to pre-record conversations.

Tam drummed her fingers on the table. “Come on, Gin. Today’s lead news story is about a herd of sheep escaping into Greenham town center.” She fanned a yawn with her hand. “You must be bored of the same old format, too. We don’t want Just Ask Ginny to become the missionary position of advice shows.”

Ginny narrowed her eyes. She knew her audience well. “Playing some great music, reading out listeners’ letters and giving them advice on air, plus a few pre-recorded interviews is a proven formula,” she said. “And the new poster makes me look like someone off Love Island.”

Tam slow-blinked and tapped her teeth again. “Hmm…” she said, looking Ginny up and down critically. “Not sure about that.”

Ginny was increasingly aware she was now twice the age of her colleagues. It felt unbelievable, laughable even, that she and Adrian would both turn fifty later that year. She always told callers that age was just a number, but she was finding the milestone confusing. One minute, she treated herself to a new pair of sparkly stilettoes, and the next she found herself reading reviews for thermal nightdresses. She bought pretty lingerie and vitamins to improve her energy levels. She was far from being old, but her youth sometimes seemed like a distant memory.

“I’ve made my decision.” Tam pointed her pen at Ginny’s chest like a pistol. “Let’s go for the live calls.”

Ginny tried not to growl.

A few minutes later, she went live on air, playing songs by Ed Sheeran, Adele and Coldplay, slotting in a couple of her own choices by Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Strokes.

Many of the callers seeking advice used a pseudonym and sometimes even affected a fake voice. Ginny nervously gnawed the inside of her cheek as she took a live call from Confused of Greenham. The woman didn’t know whether to enter a third marriage with a kind, generous man she didn’t love, or to pursue a fling with a younger pizza delivery guy.

“Picture yourself five years from now,” Ginny said. “You’re lying on your sofa, wrapped in a blanket with a dose of the flu. A hand gently sweeps the hair off your clammy forehead. You open your eyes and see someone holding out a cup of hot tea and some aspirin for you. Is it your fiancé or the pizza guy?”

“My fiancé, I suppose,” Confused said.

“Then there’s your answer. You can get pizza anytime from any place. Care and understanding are more difficult to come by.”

Ginny wrapped up the call and Tam’s weary voice came through her headphones. “Try making the next call sexier, Gin,” she said. “We don’t want listeners nodding off.”

“I’m here to help, not titillate,” Ginny said through gritted teeth. She ran a hand down her ponytail and picked up a call from the next person on the line. “Hello, it’s Ginny Splinter, I’m listening. Tell me your worries.”

The woman’s voice sounded shaky. “Oh, hello. It’s Miss…Peach.”

“Well, hi there, Miss Peach. Thanks for joining me today,” Ginny said. “Is there anything you’d like to share?”

The caller’s words stuttered out. “I only stayed with my husband for the sake of our child. You make a promise and then you’re stuck with it, for life. I wish I’d got out while I had the chance… I’ve wasted so much precious time and now I don’t know what to do.”

A familiar ache of compassion rose in Ginny’s chest. It was something she welcomed but had also learned to control, so other people’s problems didn’t affect her too deeply. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she soothed. “It sounds like you’ve been through a tough time. There’s nothing you can do to change the past, but you can take control of your future.”

“What if it’s too late for that?”

“It’s never too late to move on. Focus on yourself and consider what you really want from life—”

“And what if I don’t know?” Miss Peach snapped. “What if I’ve forgotten how to think about me?”

Ginny hmm’d and delivered a sympathetic pause while considering what advice to give her caller. People often just needed a gentle push in the right direction. “Why not make a list of all the things you enjoy, perhaps a walk in the country or a trip to the cinema. Try to get to know yourself again and—”

“As if that will work,” Miss Peach interrupted, her tone growing more brittle. “And what do you know anyway? You think you’re little Ms. Perfect, don’t you?”

Ginny’s scalp prickled and her mouth dried. Her uneasy sensation made the room tilt a little. She waved a hand, trying to get Tam’s attention through the glass partition, but the producer was busy scrolling on her phone. “This call is about you, not me,” she told Miss Peach. “Please don’t let your regrets eat you up.”

“I’ve seen photos of you and your husband in a magazine. Adrian, isn’t it? You think you have such a marvelous life together.”

Ginny’s heartbeat began to thump ominously in her ears. A few thousand people would be listening in to this conversation. Oh, god, she hoped Adrian or Phoebe weren’t tuning in. Organizing a wedding was stressful enough for her daughter without this. Ginny drew a finger across her neck, indicating to Tam she was thinking of cutting the caller off.

Her producer didn’t notice.

“Shouldn’t you address your own problems before you lecture other people?” Miss Peach continued. “Do you even know what your husband gets up to at work? How well do you really know him?”

Ginny hesitated and rubbed the double lines between her eyebrows. Of course she knew Adrian, from the way the moles on his back formed a diamond shape, to how he liked his toast served warm, not hot, and with butter spread right to the edges. He didn’t like the bedroom to be stuffy so he slept with the window ajar, even if it meant Ginny had to wear socks in bed during winter. He thought Porsches were works of art but would feel like a cliché owning one. He could be grumpy until his morning coffee kicked in and he enjoyed a nice glass of Rioja most evenings. He loved dogs, hated cats, liked dark chocolate but never white and sang Oasis songs while he shaved.

Nevertheless, something icy seemed to slither down her spine. “Miss Peach, what do you mean by—?” Ginny started.

“Ask him,” Miss Peach said.

“Ask him what?”

But there was a click and the line went dead.

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Sunday, July 23, 2023

The Night It Ended

The Night It Ended
Title:
  The Night It Ended
Author:  Katie Garner
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2023. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0778334457 / 978-0778334453

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:  "c5: Are you ready to begin?"

Favorite Quote:  "There's always a story... Even if it's one you've never heard."


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


Review

This book could be two independent stories. The only link is Dr. Madeline Pine. One story is that of Madeline Pine herself. The other is of young Charley Ridley, who has already died before the book begins. There is perhaps a third, because interwoven between chapters are excerpts from a therapy session transcript where both the doctor and the patient are unnamed. Who might they be? What is the connection to either main story?

Madeline Pine is a psychiatrist with an established practice, a husband, and a daughter. Her life appears to have the ups and downs so many of us experience - marital arguments & teenage angst. A case from the prior year - the Strum case - seems to have left a major impact on the doctor. The details are unclear.

Charley Ridley was a student at a small private school in the middle of nowhere. The school is secluded by location and by its rules of no real connection to the outside world. The intent of the school is provide a last chance for troubled young women. What kind of past troubles do these students carry? Is the school successful in its efforts?

The fact that Charley is dead implies that there is more to the school than meets the eye. A private detective hired by Charley's parents pulls Madeline Pine into the case. As a well-known, female psychiatrist, perhaps she will have greater success garnering information from the other students.

My favorite aspect of this book is the atmospheric setting of the school. It is deep in the woods. It is secluded. No technology is allowed. It is a main house with a few, smaller cottages scattered around the property. The lasting image is dark, cold, foreboding, and somewhat medieval. It is memorable.

A tough aspect of this book is that the two stories are not really related and could very well be two entirely separate tales. One is more a psychological thriller; the other is more a mystery. Of the two, the mystery of what happened to Charley is the more interesting one to me. It embodies the setting. It incorporates most of the characters. It is the only investigation in process. Charley's story drives the plot of the book.

Madeline Pine's story is more of the past. It is slower to reveal, and, I do not find enough clues to guess the final reveal. When the final reveal does come, I can see it.  However, since there is no real background,  it does not elicit much of a reaction from me. This aspect of the book is more character driven except that the characters are not clear until the end.

The book is definitely not what I expected. The secret to it lies in the book description. "Nothing--and no one--is what it seems." As it is a debut novel, I look forward to seeing where the author goes next.

About the Book

“Disarmingly sensory, with plot twists that are sure to give readers whiplash, Garner has done a phenomenal job of giving us just enough information to think we know where the story is going, only to pull the rug out from under us—over and over again. A nail-bitingly spectacular debut!” —Amanda Jayatissa, author of You're Invited

Finding the truth seems impossible when her own dark past has her seeing lies everywhere she looks...

From the outside, criminal psychiatrist Dr. Madeline Pine's life appears picture-perfect--she has a beautiful family, a successful mental health practice and a growing reputation as an expert in female violence. But when she's called to help investigate a mysterious death at a boarding school for troubled girls, Madeline hesitates. She's been through tragic cases before, and the one she was entangled in last year nearly destroyed her...

Yet she can't turn away when she hears about Charley Ridley. After the girl was found shoeless and in pajamas at the bottom of an icy ravine on campus, the police ruled it a tragic accident. But the private investigator hired by her mother has his doubts. And if it were Madeline's daughter who died, she'd want to know why.

Arriving at the secluded campus in upstate New York, Madeline's met by an unhelpful skeleton staff and the four other students still on campus during winter break. Each seems to hold a piece of the puzzle. And everyone has secrets--Madeline included. But who would kill to protect them?

Intertwining the narrative with the transcript of an anonymous interview, this stunning suspense debut from Katie Garner will take you on a twisting path where nothing--and no one--is what it seems.

About the Author

Katie Garner was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey. She has a degree in Art History from Ramapo College and is certified to teach high school Art. She hoards paperbacks, coffee mugs, and dog toys and can be seen holding at least one of those things most of the time.

​Katie lives in a New Jersey river town with her husband, baby boy, and shih-poo where she writes books about women and their dark, secret selves. The Night It Ended is her debut novel.

Excerpt

Excerpted from The Night It Ended. Copyright © 2023 by Katie Garner. Published by MIRA, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Friday, December 16

I’m speeding home when the phone rings, persistent and angry, demanding to be heard. I know I should answer it, even though I want nothing more than to throw it out the window. I could let the call slide into voice mail, delete it, never hear the voice on the other side.

But I can’t.

I jerk to the side of the icy road to a chorus of blaring horns, dig the phone out from the cavernous tote bag resting on the passenger seat beside me. The phone is sleek and black, brand-new—opposite of the cracked, chunky white one I’m used to shoving in my back pocket.

A sweet little chime and the ringing ends.

1 new voice mail.

Quickly, I glance in the side mirror. Car exhaust melts away into the morning winter sky. Nothing is behind me, nothing but air. I exhale a deep sigh of relief, press the phone to my ear.

“H-hi, this message is for Dr. Madeline Pine—”

A siren wails in the distance. The phone slips through my fingers, lands mutely in my lap. A knot swells in my throat. I glance in the side mirror again, feel my heart pound, each breath shrinking to tiny gasps. The sirens near. An emergency vehicle speeds past.

It’s only an ambulance.

My body wilts. I take a deep breath. In. Out. The knot in my throat loosens.

I hate the person I’ve become. I’ve never been this nervous, this afraid, anxiety and fear clinging to my every move. I wish I could escape—step into someone else’s life, if only for a moment.

Just twelve short months ago everything was different. I was different. Any other December, I would’ve been home, prepping for the holidays, shopping online for last-minute deals on things none of us needed. My husband, Dave, would be staying too late at work, his dinner wrapped in a blanket of aluminum foil, kept warm on the stove. My teenage daughter, Izzi, would be upstairs in her room, scrolling noiselessly through her phone, feet kicked up on the bed behind her.

The house would’ve hummed with the steady softness of disjointed home life, but instead here I am, lurched to the side of the road, the air frigid in the tiny cabin of my car, listening to a voice mail I never thought I’d hear.

I replay the message:

“H-hi, this message is for Dr. Madeline Pine. If you get this, I’m Matthew Reyes, a private investigator working on behalf of a family. Listen, I was hoping you could please call me back at this number, I—I’d really appreciate it. We have a sixteen-year-old female who died on school property. The police believe it’s an accident, but the mother hired me to be sure. The girl was found at the bottom of a hill. No witnesses. I thought you might be able to help—given your expertise. Please call me back. Thanks.”

I repeat his words in my head. The girl was found at the bottom of a hill—I can picture it, picture her. She’s there, fallen sideways, her body splashed across the woodland floor. Moss and stones, skin and blood, leaves and twigs. I don’t know her, but I don’t have to. I already feel as if she were mine.

The man who left the voice mail, Matthew Reyes, has a voice both gravelly and weary, and I know what he wants the moment he mentions the school. Police often believe they can demand anything they want and get it immediately—even psychological evaluations—but it takes time to gain trust from strangers, and even more time to tease out the truth. Especially from teenage girls.

I start weighing my options. I’m not sure I’m capable of this, of anything. Especially after last year…especially after what just happened in that too-hot office during this morning’s disastrous therapy session.

My face flushes at the memory of the woman who’d been sitting cross-legged in front of me. Her beautiful face. Her pink silk shirt blurring out of focus. Her condescending tone—as though the therapy sessions weren’t all for her benefit to begin with.

That’s what I have to remind myself. That’s what I have to hold on to. They’re for her. Not me. I’m the one who’s fine. I should be taking comfort in that, taking comfort in the fact that I never have to see her beautiful face again, never have to be reminded of—

It’s over. I didn’t have a choice before. Now I do. I have lots of choices. An avalanche of choices. My life before today was preprogrammed for me. Not anymore. I fixed it.

Tears slip down my cheeks. I bite them back, strangle the phone in my lap, squeeze it so tight I wonder how it fails to snap in two. Choices. Possibilities.

My mind whirls as I punch the gas, merge into traffic, race home. I run inside, slam the door, bolt the lock. Gazing around my gloom-infested house, I shrivel back as wind blows branches of a nearby tree, scraping the side of the house like fingernails.

Peering at the bulging paper bag of prescriptions on the kitchen island, my eyes prick with tears. My glasses fog. I take them off, rub the lenses clean on my turtleneck.

After so many months, the pills should be working. I should stop taking them altogether. Just throw them all in the toilet, flush them down, watch them whirl around the porcelain bowl.

I think of words my daughter, Izzi, said to me: Mom, please just stop.

Stop.

I don’t know the person I’ve become, too empty, too full, all at once. I need to change. I want to be different. Every day, I think of ways I can be. It can still happen. I’m free now. I have choices now, possibilities. Maybe it’s never too late to change everything. Maybe I just need to escape.

Besides, wiggle room is all it takes for a snake to get out of its skin.

The phone rings again. I snuff the urge to hurl it across the room before glancing at the screen. It’s the same number as before. The same number as the voice mail. I hold my breath and answer.

“Hello?”

“Hello—is this Dr. Madeline Pine?”

“Um—yes. It is.” My heart thuds. “Who’s this?”

A sigh of relief, deep and heavy, into the phone. “This is private investigator Matthew Reyes. Thank you so much for answering, Dr. Pine. I—I know it’s a chaotic time of year and you’re probably busy with family but…would you be able to make a trip up to Iron Hill?”

“I—I don’t know where that is.”

“It’s about two hours north of Poughkeepsie. Upstate New York.”

“Right, okay.” Far. Very far. Too far for my ailing car to make it. I know I should just buy a new one, but I can’t. My husband Dave always said the color perfectly matched my eyes. Now I can’t even remember the last time we looked at each other.

“So, are you busy this weekend?” Reyes asks, then pauses. “I mean, you’re sure you don’t mind ditching your family right before the holidays?”

“When you put it that way, it sounds horrible.” Awkward laugh. “But, um, my husband and daughter aren’t home now, anyway—they’ve gone away to visit my in-laws.”

“You have no idea how grateful I’d be if you could make it,” he says, sounding hopeful. I don’t know what he looks like, but I can imagine him smiling. “I mean, I’ve been calling around to different psychologists all day, and—well, it should only be for a couple of days. You’d definitely be back by Christmas, the latest.”

I wince, feel a surge of sorrow. I’m too embarrassed to admit that Dave and Izzi have no intention of spending the holidays with me this year. It’s what I deserve after what I did.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “please refresh my memory. Have we ever met? You said you’re a private investigator hired by the victim’s—er, the deceased’s—family?”

“Yes, I mean, we haven’t met, but I read about the work you did on the Strum case last year. I believe one of the victims was around the same age as our current victim. And I pulled up your book online—Dark Side: A Psychological Portrait of the Criminal Female Mind. You specialize in women. Just so happens the case is at an all-girls boarding school.”

My stomach clenches. Focus. Deep breath. I shift my gaze to the calendar hanging in the kitchen. I don’t even know why I bother to keep one anymore. I have the same schedule now, week in, week out. Before, the month of December would’ve been filled with holiday office parties, Izzi’s end-of-year school activities, Dave’s plans for winter break, which I’d always beg him to change.

I glance up. Friday, December 16. This morning’s therapy session slashes across my mind again. I see her face. Blank, empty. Her lips begin to curl around a word. I see myself in the reflection of her eyes. I’m close. Closer. I swallow hard.

“The, um, the students don’t go home for the holidays?” I ask, slumping down to the floor.

“Winter break is Saturday, the tenth to New Year’s. A few students stayed behind.” Reyes pauses. “The students who either couldn’t travel for various reasons or chose not to go home.”

I lean the back of my head against the wall.

Reyes continues. “The school is asking me to wrap up my investigation before students and staff return January 2.”

“Okay…”

He senses my discomfort, keeps talking. “Please. Please say yes. You mentioned you have a daughter. How would you feel if it were her?” he asks. “If she was found dead, you’d want closure, right? To be sure everything was done by the book and no stone was left unturned.”

My stomach flips. “Of course I would.”

“So, please. Please say you’ll help.”

I think of my daughter, Izzi, the lengths I’d go to if she was found at the bottom of a hill. Even if it was an accident, I’d want to know why. I’d want to know how she got there.

If she was alone. Afraid. Or if someone else was responsible. I’d want to know. I’d find them, I’d—

“I don’t know if I can do this,” I confess.

I shut my eyes, see her face again, legs crossed, sitting prim in that too-hot office, the heat blasting, the furniture too big for the tiny space. I tug at the neck of my sweater, suddenly tight, see my reflection in her eyes—close, so close.

No. Stop. I suck up a big breath, blow it all out.

“I don’t know if you’re aware, but after that case last year—” My voice cracks.

“The Strum case?” A note of curiosity in Reyes’s question.

“Yeah. Since then, things have been difficult. I ended up taking some time off—”

“I—I wasn’t aware. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. It just—it makes cases like this difficult.”

“Oh—”

“But before I say yes or no, can you give me an overview? What, exactly, I’ll be doing when I get there? I want to be sure I know what I’m stepping into.”

Reyes lets out a breath. “Yeah—yes, of course,” he says, a hint of desperation in his voice. “Well, it happened at a private, all-girls boarding school called Shadow Hunt Hall. They have a very small student body on a very large campus. It’s densely wooded and incredibly isolated. It’s one of those ‘back-to-nature, no technology on campus’ sort of places. The girls are mostly… I guess the best word for it is—troubled?”

“Isn’t that the best kind of girl?”

“Uh, here,” he says, ignoring my attempt at a joke. “I’ll send you some info.”

I glance at the screen, see he’s texted a link to the school’s website. I tap it open, swipe down the page. The school is ancient. Giant and stone, with iron gates and actual turrets, like a possessed fairy-tale castle. The curriculum looks interesting.

Definitely nontraditional. It’s all music and arts and dance. I skim the mission statement:

We believe in a holistic, individual approach to learning and rehabilitation, focusing on a curriculum centered on nature, group trust, and a healthy mind-body connection.

Code words for no junk food or internet.

Reyes waits patiently on the other end as I peruse the site. I click on the Tuition & Financial Aid page and flinch. A single term is more than twice the down payment we put on the house.

“You there? Dr. Pine?”

I lick my lips. “I’m here.”

He pauses. “I’m having trouble getting any of the students to even talk to me,” he admits. “That’s why I need you.”

I think of Izzi, chewing on her fingernails, avoiding eye contact when I ask how her day went. Ever since she started high school it’s been all one-word answers—good, fine—before she’d bound upstairs, not to be seen again until dinner.

So I can’t imagine how the girls at this boarding school would react to a male private investigator showing up out of nowhere, prodding them with questions right after their classmate died. No doubt they’d recoil, want nothing to do with him.

“Okay… I’ll help you,” I whisper.

Buy Links

HarperCollins: https://www.harpercollins.com/products/the-night-it-ended-katie-garner?variant=40901604311074
Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-night-it-ended-katie-garner/1142299804
BookShop: https://bookshop.org/p/books/the-night-it-ended/18847353?ean=9780778334453
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Night-Ended-Novel-Katie-Garner/dp/0778334457
Books-A-Million: https://www.booksamillion.com/p/9780778334453?AID=10747236&PID=7310909



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