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A Thrilling End to the Year

Hi, readers!

Quick couple of things:

  • Please remember to vote on the favorite book poll found here.
  • Our upcoming genres/themes are thriller (the poll below) and disability. Feel free to submit any recommendations for the latter here.
  • As a result of the poll I put up a few weeks ago, our new wordcount qualifications are as follows: two weeks if a book is under 120,000 words, 4 weeks if it exceeds this. Exceptions can be made if you feel it is necessary. 🙂
  • As the world starts returning to some semblance of normal, please think about how well or not our Saturday evening meetings will continue to suit your schedules. I’ll revisit this in a few weeks to see if we need to consider changing the day and/or time.
  • One of you recommended in the satisfaction form that we consider switching a social meeting for a book meeting if a book meeting is going to fall on a holiday weekend or other time when many people won’t be around. I think this is a great idea and will plan accordingly in the future.
  • Lastly and related to the above point, thank you so much to all of those who have submitted any feedback to me. I appreciate all of your words.

Aaaaaand to the books!

Verity by Colleen Hoover

(86,000 words)

Lowen Ashleigh is a struggling writer on the brink of financial ruin when she accepts the job offer of a lifetime. Jeremy Crawford, husband of bestselling author Verity Crawford, has hired Lowen to complete the remaining books in a successful series his injured wife is unable to finish.

Lowen arrives at the Crawford home, ready to sort through years of Verity’s notes and outlines, hoping to find enough material to get her started. What Lowen doesn’t expect to uncover in the chaotic office is an unfinished autobiography Verity never intended for anyone to read. Page after page of bone-chilling admissions, including Verity’s recollection of what really happened the day her daughter died.

Lowen decides to keep the manuscript hidden from Jeremy, knowing its contents would devastate the already grieving father. But as Lowen’s feelings for Jeremy begin to intensify, she recognizes all the ways she could benefit if he were to read his wife’s words. After all, no matter how devoted Jeremy is to his injured wife, a truth this horrifying would make it impossible for him to continue to love her.

Notable Review by Chai

(This person writes consistently brilliant reviews for books, and you can donate to them here or read their blog here

Me, rollerblading into my therapist’s office with heart-shaped sunglasses and a piña colada and dropping this book on the desk with a resounding thud: Boy do we have much to talk about today!

Why read Verity when you can just pull out a Ouija board and summon a demon? I’m sure it’ll have the same effect. I finished this book feeling completely sapped of life, as if I’ve been bleeding freely for the past few hours instead of simply reading. I wish I could just shake my head to dissolve the memory of that ending, to disarrange it somehow. My mind is still at war with itself, because, of all the things I’d braced myself for, that was not it.

So, what’s this book about?

Lowen Ashleigh is set free from the long tedium of her daily life when she’s employed by Jeremy Crawford to ghostwrite the remaining books in a popular series his wife, Verity, is unable to finish due to an unfortunate accident. Lowe acquiesces in the spirit of hope: that this opportunity would help her acquire some small measure of celebrity that would be pure oxygen to the fire of her career. But nothing prepares Lowe for the purity of dread that clamps down her like a vise when she stumbles upon Verity’s autobiography. Verity’s secrets soon take up so much space in the house that there is barely any room left for Lowe’s body. Now she has to force what she’s reading into what she knew of Verity, Jeremy, and their lives together. She has to weave it in among what she expected.

Sooner or later, the whole truth would spill, and this fraught waiting would come to an end—with havoc, and screaming, and loss.

“After all, this is a house full of Chronics. The next tragedy is already long overdue.”

I relish books that make me backtrack my own declarations of preference, the ones that catch me completely off-guard, astonish me, keep me on my toes. Verity is not at all what I expected, and I think it is all the better for it. I’d gone on in mystery, but not without speculation and a vast deal of skepticism. I made the mistake of perceiving this book through the haze of my opinions on Hoover’s early books, and it didn’t look quite like I remembered. I’ve never been happier to be so astronomically wrong, because this book absolutely lives up to the buzz.

Verity is a fiendishly clever, mind-bending whirligig of a book. It’s a hall of mirrors where everything is a vacant reflection, including the people who live there. Hoover lures and tricks and sets obstacles to drive you into her toils. She wields her unreliable characters to stunning effect, confounding, disturbing and delighting in turn, and draws you into a world where illusion informs reality and time enfolds hauntingly. Not only is nothing what it seems, it’s not even what it seems after it’s been revealed to be not what it seems. I was entrapped in this story long before I even realized that the net has been cast.

I love how wild the energy was in this book, barely controllable yet perfectly controlled. Hoover drapes Lowe’s unease and confusion over the reader by keeping us in the same disconcerting darkness. Danger pulses all around. Every page is very thin ice to skate on. You can scarcely see the freshly hideous future taking shape ahead of you, yet you can feel it all the same. I have a quirk of prudence in me that’s hard to break and if I were Lowe, I’d have gotten the hell out of that place. I couldn’t fathom how her fear couldn’t properly kindle. I’d have been impressed if I weren’t too distressed and I’d have appreciated her courage if I weren’t too preoccupied repeating a litany of “GET OUT OF THERE” in my head.

And, oh my God, the ending. It struck me backhanded. Verity offers you no solidity of truth that you could hold in your hands. Even as I was reading the last chapter, I was mining it for clues, trying to make sense of something so innately senseless. Everything I’ve read up until that point felt like a false memory, and I was left shaking my fist at the whole book for leaving me on such a hideous note as it did.

In conclusion, stories like Verity, are the reason I’m going to be one of those parents in their forties that make their kids go to sleep at 6 pm so they can drink scotch in the bath and have an existential crisis about that book they read back in 2018!

False Witness by Karin Slaughter

(Wordcount unknown; this book comes out on July 20.)

AN ORDINARY LIFE

Leigh Coulton has worked hard to build what looks like a normal life. She has a good job as a defence attorney, a daughter doing well in school, and even her divorce is relatively civilised – her life is just as unremarkable as she’d always hoped it would be.

HIDES A DEVASTATING PAST

But Leigh’s ordinary life masks a childhood which was far from average… a childhood tarnished by secrets, broken by betrayal, and finally torn apart by a devastating act of violence.

BUT NOW THE PAST IS CATCHING UP

Then a case lands on her desk – defending a wealthy man accused of rape. It’s the highest profile case she’s ever been given – a case which could transform her career, if she wins. But when she meets the accused, she realises that it’s no coincidence that he’s chosen her as his attorney. She knows him. And he knows her. More to the point, he knows what happened twenty years ago, and why Leigh has spent two decades running.

AND TIME IS RUNNING OUT

If she can’t get him acquitted, she’ll lose much more than the case. The only person who can help her is her younger, estranged sister Calli, the last person Leigh would ever want to ask for help. But suddenly she has no choice…

Notable Review by Elle

The thing I love most about Karin Slaughter is that she wastes no time. Every single book of hers just absolutely clocks you right away, sometimes in the prologue, but always by the end of the first chapter. This one had the one-two punch of monumental twists in both, which left me reeling. I genuinely don’t think I’ve been this floored by a plot twist like this since Triptych.

False Witness is a standalone, so you’re not going to be getting any appearances from good ‘ol Sara Linton or Will Trent. But I think fans of Slaughter’s previous books will enjoy this one, and newbies to the Slaughterverse (I just made this up) can also comfortably jump in with this one and not feel like they’re missing context. Everything you come to expect from her—action, tension, biting wit, incredible twists and a grand finale made for premium cable—is present here. Though in all the ways this book is like its predecessors, it also fairly different from her typical novel structure.

“The law was never what anyone thought it was or wanted it to be.”

For one, this is not a police procedural. I think this was a smart move, taking a step back from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. I will go to bat for Will and Faith any day, but besides the obvious skepticism around policing in the US currently, I like that we’re seeing a different side of crime presented. Mainly, through one of the two main characters, Leigh, who is a defense attorney. Her sister, Callie, is living what feels like a flipped mirror image of Leigh’s life, struggling with addiction and living barely off the street. The two had an already tumultuous childhood before a violent event impacted them both irreparably. And though they’ve tried to move on, nothing can prepare them for how Leigh’s new case forces them to confront the monsters of their past.

I love how Karin Slaughter writes sisters. Whether it’s Charlotte and Samantha in The Good Daughter or Sara and Tessa in the Grant County series, she just captures dueling personalities so well. Callie and Leigh are no exception here. Going through traumatic events links people together in a way that’s hard to explain to anyone on the outside and leaves them with complicated feelings towards one another. But like any good sisters, no matter how much they fight with each other, there’s no doubt they will also kill for one another.

And look, Slaughter is no novice to writing violence and sexual violence. If you go into one of her books, you’ve got to prepare yourself for that inevitability. The violence in False Witness, though, did have a different feeling to it. Usually I would expect the very beginning to have an assault or murder, then the middle would be a sometimes graphic investigation of those crime(s), with the ending usually containing a violent confrontation of some kind. For its part, False Witness was less explicit than say, Pretty Girls, but there were a good number of assaults peppered throughout the middle as well. And this violence was a lot more brazen and unrepentant, if at times a little cathartic.

I’m trying to make sure people don’t feel completely blindsided, but this was actually more of a feature for me than a drawback. The action is a lot more street-level, since the investigative angle is out of the picture, and there’s a grittier quality to the plot which I loved. This is not the neat and easy thriller you walk away from feeling satisfied. Trauma is messy. So is revenge.

For me, False Witness is one of the few written-during-the-pandemic books that actually worked. COVID as a topic is neither a completely avoided nor all-consuming, just a reality of the characters living through it. In the afterword she discusses more of her reasoning behind those choices, so don’t skip that! And for someone who’s written over 20 novels, Slaughter’s ability to not just write a relentlessly good thriller, but also retain a prescient cultural awareness never ceases to amaze me. I loved the intensity of this book and it’s going to be my go-to recommendation for summer reads.

*Thanks to my favorite librarian Merricat for sharing her ARC with me! Libraries are great everyone should visit them and become friends with librarians!!!!!!

Dear Child by Romy Hausmann

(98,000 words)

Gone Girl meets Room in this page-turning thriller from one of Germany’s hottest new talents

In a windowless shack in the woods, Lena’s life and that of her two children follows the rules set by their captor, the father: Meals, bathroom visits, study time are strictly scheduled and meticulously observed. He protects his family from the dangers lurking in the outside world and makes sure that his children will always have a mother to look after them.

One day Lena manages to flee–but the nightmare continues. It seems as if her tormentor wants to get back what belongs to him. And then there is the question whether she really is the woman called “Lena,” who disappeared without a trace 14 years ago. The police and Lena’s family are all desperately trying to piece together a puzzle which doesn’t quite seem to fit.

Notable Review by Kat

“Love. It’s love. No matter how sick, distorted and misunderstood, it’s still love. Love that spurs us on. That turns us into monsters, each in our own way.”

If I had to pick a quote from this book to summarize it, I’d say that’s the one. Romy Hausmann’s debut novel is a powerful look into the psychology of both love and trauma, and how it expresses itself uniquely through different people, sometimes in horrifying ways, and sometimes in healing ways.

The story is told in three narratives by ‘Lena’, the victim of an abduction who is forced into a surrogate wife/mother role to the abductor and his two children, the abductor’s daughter, Hannah, and finally Matthias, Lena’s father. While that seems fairly straightforward, an accident happens that reveals that there’s more to ‘Lena’s’ story than was first imagined, and the book follows the implications of these new discoveries on her life, the lives of Matthias and his wife Karen, who’ve been searching for Lena for 13 years, and on Hannah and her brother Jonathan’s lives, among others.

This is one of those books with start to finish tension. There’s an intentional confusion to the story which never lets you get comfortable that everything will be OK, because every new reveal knocks you back down a little. You’re never sure who to trust, which adds a nice creepy, suspenseful feel to the story, and I truly didn’t see the revelation of the abductor’s identity coming. The characters are universally flawed in this story, so there’s not really a “feel good” character to latch onto, but I think that made everything more realistic. Trauma is messy, and so are these characters.

There is a big undercurrent of power dynamics in this story. An abductor exerting his will over his victim, a grieving father fashioning a future path for he and his wife, regardless of her opinions on it, children who’ve never questioned their obedience to their father, and conversely, the power of victims to survive their circumstances. Everyone is holding onto whatever control they have over their situations, whether fair to the people around them or not. Love takes on a distorted form that each character justifies in their own way. There were a few characters I had a difficult time with (I’m looking at you Matthias), but by the end, when all was revealed, I could at least understand all of them enough to feel sympathetic.

It’s not a fast-paced book, but it kept me completely invested. If you like a psychological thriller heavy on the psychology, this is a great one. I’ll definitely be watching for more from this author.

The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

(135,000 words)

“Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day . . . quite unlike anything I’ve ever read, and altogether triumphant.” – A. J. Finn, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of The Woman in the Window

Aiden Bishop knows the rules. Evelyn Hardcastle will die every day until he can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest at Blackheath Manor. And some of his hosts are more helpful than others. With a locked room mystery that Agatha Christie would envy, Stuart Turton unfurls a breakneck novel of intrigue and suspense.

For fans of Claire North, and Kate Atkinson, The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a breathlessly addictive mystery that follows one man’s race against time to find a killer, with an astonishing time-turning twist that means nothing and no one are quite what they seem.

This inventive debut twists together a thriller of such unexpected creativity it will leave readers guessing until the very last page.

Notable Review by Chai

I didn’t expect to tear through this book, but I did—there was just so much restlessness in my reading, an urgency to reach the ending. It’s been days and I am still so keenly, strangely, extensively aware of explosions still taking place inside my head. Honestly? If Hollywood doesn’t turn this into a movie….I will personally riot.

So, what’s this book about?

Our narrator wakes up in a dripping forest, with nothing but the shade of an old unnameable fear, and the eerie sensation of being followed, an invisible gaze locked on his back. He has no recollection of who he is, and he has no more notion how he got there than he did the moon. But his head is firing thought after thought that can’t seem to complete themselves and they all begin with a name: Anna, and never seem to end.

He later learns that his name is Aiden Bishop and he’s trapped inside a stranger’s body. A masked figure curtly informs him that he must unveil a murder disguised as to not look like one if he wants to earn his release, and he must do so by reliving the day of the murder eight times, but each morning he will wake up in the body of a foreign soul. If he fails to uncover the name of the would-be murderer, he will return to the first day, memory moped clean, and start all over again as he has apparently already done innumerable times before.

Matters are made worse when Aiden realizes he isn’t the only one carried so long here and there on a stream and washed now to this strange shore: two other people are also ensnarled inside this time loop, and a knife-wielding Footman is out for their blood.

Aiden, Anna and the anonymous rivals are pieces on the game board, and there is everything at stake.

“How lost do you have to be to let the devil lead you home?” 

Normalcy has its place, but you won’t find it in this book.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a dazzling, mind-bending murder mystery…without a murder. It’s a locked-room thriller with a nearly imperceptible warp wavering in its center. A brilliantly balanced knife’s edge of a book—unfolding gradually but deliberately, with secrets unveiled as more lies are told. Every sentence was a labyrinth to navigate and my mind often felt like a door blown open in a storm. The whole experience of reading this book felt like an elaborate lie to me, some made-up fantasyland I was locked in for a set number of hours a day. And like Aiden, every moment, I was caught between another dead end and another lead. So many pieces of the story but how the hell do they fit together?

In richness of ideas, and in glory of sentences, this book is spectacular. I was deeply impressed by the sense of scope, the minute turnings of characters and their choices and how those ripples affect other players, by the hints strewn like breadcrumbs throughout the narrative and the puzzle pieces that were constantly moving around. This was genuinely brilliant and so intricately crafted and I’m still left marveling at how one person’s brain can contain multitudes.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle might be focused on the story of Aiden Bishop but the stories of many others are caught up in the wheel of his, and as that wheel turns, so do these many intertwined lives and fates. The narration lingers in the memories and lives of each “host”, dipping in and out of them like toes in a pool. The book makes you question what you know about these characters, their lives and their secrets. Everyone is unreliable, everything is questionable. Aiden’s very sense of self is threatened to be overruled by the personalities of his hosts, most of which were nasty pieces of work: more than slightly sexist, selfish, mean, manipulative, abusive, more often than not physical and moral cowards—yet still compelling even when you can’t bring yourself to like them even a little bit, and I think that says a lot for the author’s skill.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle corkscrews into a tighter and tighter coil with every page and it isn’t long before Aiden’s constant picking at the stray threads of his new jarring reality makes the whole come apart, revealing far more than was ever dreamt of. I did not see that ending coming at all, and I was left astounded into an awed slow-clap at everything the author has accomplished here.

When I flipped that last page, all I could do was breathe out, with the kind of eloquence and poise perfectly befitting the situation: “Holy shit. What did I just read?”

❗️TRIGGER WARNINGS❗️ fatphobia, murder, suicide, discussions around rape and sexual abuse, alcohol and drug use.

Vote Here

What Shall We Read Next?

  • False Witness by Karin Slaughter (55%, 6 Votes)
  • Verity by Colleen Hoover (27%, 3 Votes)
  • Dear Child by Romy Hausmann (9%, 1 Votes)
  • The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (9%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 11

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