‘Behind the Red Door’ by Megan Collins is a fascinating mystery with dark overtones

behind the red door

How much does our brain do to protect us? What repressed memories might surface one day with the right stimuli? In “Behind the Red Door,” author Megan Collins explores how childhood events can be suppressed, altered, misremembered, and deleted. Main character Fern Douglas is happily married to a fabulous pediatrician and she enjoys her job as a school social worker. She knows how to talk to kids, how to get them to admit to abusive living situations and how to help them understand it’s not their fault that they have abusive parents.

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‘Anxious People’ by Fredrik Backman is a brilliant mystery and an insightful view of the human condition

“Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman is about us. It’s about every person who has ever doubted themselves, worried about not being able to do something, fretted about making a mistake, or looked at others with either awe or disdain. It’s a book in which all readers will be able to find themselves – for better or worse. But it’s also a book that every reader will feel better for having read.

With “Anxious People,” Backman gives us permission to be imperfect. The second paragraph in the story tells us:

“This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots. So it needs saying from the outset that it’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is. Especially if you have other people you’re trying to be a reasonably good human being for.”

He goes on to say that “there’s such an unbelievable amount that we’re all supposed to be able to cope with these days.” To me, as a teacher back in the classroom teaching via a computer screen to children at home, this book gives me permission to accept the fact that I really don’t know what I’m doing. None of us do. All of us teachers are muddling through the best we can, even though we are facing students who turn off their cameras to leave the room, to browse on their computers, to play; shy students who turn off their cameras and won’t talk, so we don’t even know if they are there, on the other side of the screen, listening and learning. We can’t do really enjoyable things like reading picture books to them or giving them a hug or just sitting on a rug and talking. We deal with having to repeat sentences when a child can’t hear us through the computer, or having to show multiple times how to access a web page or assignment. It’s frustrating and we are helpless — and after reading this story about people who try their best against all kinds of odds, I feel better. Really better.

In this story, there are many characters, but there is only one very significant bridge. It’s a bridge that plays an important part in the story because of one person who jumped from it many years ago and one person who did not. There is also an extremely inept bank robber and the bank robber’s hostages. 

We learn a lot about the hostages and two of the police officers who are trying to find the bank robber and solve the mystery of where the robber went after the hostages were released. We learn about the wife of one of the police officers, who also happens to be the mother of the other police officer. The father and son are very different, but alike in perhaps the most important sense. They both loved this woman fiercely, and they miss her every day. And Backman performs his literary magic of combining life and birth and death into a story that’s poignant and bittersweet and melancholy and beautiful — and about life.

The many other characters are all very important, and we get to know — and like — them all because Backman imbues each character, no matter how unlikable he or she might seem at first glance, with human qualities and human frailties. The story weaves around and around, from the characters to the bridge and into parts of the past that made the characters who they are as they are held hostage by the unsuccessful bank robber.

Backman shares what he believes is the most important thing in life (as I see it). We must love and cherish those who are close to us, our families and our friends. He also seems to believe that we must help others whenever possible.  And he also asserts, in no uncertain terms, that most of us go through life not knowing what we are doing, but doing the best we can. He writes, “We don’t have a plan, we just do our best to get through the day, because there’ll be another one coming along tomorrow.” We worry about raising our children and do it pretending that we know how to do it. That is how we get through a good part of life — by pretending that we know what we are doing. Surprisingly enough, it often works.

And tomorrow I will go back into my classroom, sign onto my Zoom class meeting, and pretend that I know how to teach 4th grade dual language on a computer to lovely children who deserve the best education but who are only getting the best that I can provide. And I fear it’s not enough, as do most of the other teachers struggling along in this pandemic. As do many, many others who are also struggling along in this strange, anxiety-provoking time. 

And at the end of each and every day, I actually do what Backman suggests at the end of the story. He says,

“But when you get home this evening, when this day is over and the night takes us, allow yourself a deep breath.

Because we made it through this day as well. There’ll be another one along tomorrow.”

Buy “Anxious People.” Read it. You will love it, and perhaps more importantly, you will feel better. You are not alone.

Did I mention that the writing is beautiful? Touching? Incredibly thoughtful?

‘Until I Find You’ by Rea Frey is a dark novel of love and loss and a mother’s determination to save her baby

“Until I Find You” by Rea Frey is a story filled with darkness and loss. There’s a lot of loss going on from main character Rebecca Gray’s point of view. In fact, one of the losses is her sight. She has a degenerative disease and can only see shadows, and she knows her sight will get worse and worse. To make matters even darker, Rebecca is a widow. Her husband died when she was newly pregnant, her mother shortly after that, and her grief at losing her husband, her mother, her sight, and the life she envisioned is quite overwhelming.

It’s fascinating to learn how Rebecca manages life with a baby. She diapers him, changes and bathes him, feeds him, and takes him for walks in Elmhurst, the suburb of Chicago where she grew up. She lives in the house she grew up in and is able to function there perfectly; she also navigates her way to the nearby park and friends’ houses. Her strength and her determination not to let her blindness hamper her become a stumbling block when she ventures out determined to not rely on anyone else. At times, we want to shake her and tell her that it’s permissible to let others help; that people who are sighted rely on others, and she certainly can, as well.

The story is told from alternating perspectives, that of Rebecca — labeled “Bec” and told in first person narrative — and that of Crystal, one of Bec’s new friends, told in third person narrative. Crystal and Bec met at a grief group and became friends. They live within a few blocks of each other in Elmhurst. Both Bec and Crystal are very unhappy. Both are widows, both have a child, and both are suffering severely. Bec is the center of the story, and her grief is compounded by all her other losses. Her life seems very dark at the start of the story. She imagines that someone has been watching her inside her home. She finds her front door unlocked when she is sure that she had locked it. She finds the baby’s playpen moved from the room she kept it in to another room. As readers, we believe her, but we also wonder if she is a completely reliable narrator. Is her emotional state causing her to imagine things?

The one bright spot is that an old boyfriend, Jake, who she believes is the love of her life, is back from out of state. He texts her and wants to meet. He knows that she is widowed, and when they meet, she realizes that she’s still in love with him. But when her baby disappears and is replaced with another infant, will he believe her? He’s a Chicago detective, so he could be the perfect person to help her find out what happened to Jackson.

Bec knows her baby. She knows what Jackson smells like, feels like. She knows every inch of him because while she can’t see him, she feels him, she touches him. She knows the patch of eczema behind one ear and the notch on his collarbone. The baby in the crib in her house is not the quiet placid Jackson who never cries.

But what do you do when no one believes you — her friends, most of whom have never really held Jackson or spent a lot of time with him, the police who were called to her home when she thought someone had been inside, and maybe even Jake. Bec knows she’s on her own, and she knows unequivocally that the baby isn’t hers — even if no one else believes her.

The story takes off at this point, and while we don’t know quite what to believe, we know that Crystal’s life, too, is far from perfect. Crystal’s narrative is vague, and there are omissions. Her ten-year-old daughter Savi is a talented cello player, and Bec, who was a symphony cellist, gives her lessons. But Savi is unhappy because she knows her mother is unhappy. While she has fun with the nanny, a young woman named Pam, we get the feeling that Pam isn’t what she appears to be, and that she’s hiding something.

The mystery of where Jackson is, how Bec will figure it out, and who her friends really are intensifies as the hours and days pass. There are many clues and many red herrings, and while we know Crystal’s story is also important because she’s the other narrator, we don’t know her role in the story.

While the beginning was a bit slow, the action and emotions really pick up once the baby is gone, and in fact, I stayed up late to finish the book and find out how it all ended. Frey has written a story that will chill readers but will make us think about living with a visual or hearing impairment. How do we remake our lives if we lose our sight? And the fact that Bec has also lost every single person in her family is perhaps the worst loss.

It’s not all dark, though. Frey provides a very satisfactory ending with a hopeful tone for Bec’s future. Light at the end is welcome, indeed.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by St. Martin’s Griffin, the publisher, for review purposes.

‘Death Rattle’ by Alex Gilly is a mystery that dives into detention centers, murder, and corruption

In “Death Rattle,” Alex Gilly takes us to Southern California. It’s not Hollywood and stars, though. It’s undocumented immigrants and a suspicious murder at a detention center that causes Nick Finn and his wife Mona, a human-rights lawyer, to investigate. When Mona gets threats, she knows she’s on the right track.

People around the investigation begin dying. When Carmen, the young woman whom Finn rescued from a sinking boat, is bitten repeatedly by a snake in a detention center and not given appropriate medical care, she dies. Mona is determined to get justice for Carmen, who was also brutally tortured by someone in the drug cartel before she escaped Mexico.

The main characters, married couple Nick and Mona, are people we like because they are real people with foibles and backstories. Their determination to do the right thing is stirring, especially when many just want to ignore the plight of the undocumented. While there are twists at the end, to many mystery readers, the twist is easy to foresee. The foreshadowing is a bit heavy handed at times, but the overall plot is thrilling, and readers will want to know exactly how it all ends up.

Although this is the second book in the series, and I didn’t read the first one, that didn’t handicap me at all. It works fine as a stand alone novel, and I would like to read future novels in this series.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher, Forge, for review purposes. 

‘The First to Lie’ by Hank Phillippi Ryan

the first to lieHank Phillippi Ryan is the master of mystery and deception. Her novels are filled with people who are not quite who they appear to be, and “The First to Lie,” as we are warned in the very title, is no different. The story is about a pharmaceutical company that will stoop as low as possible to push their drug that often helps women become pregnant. The problem? One of the side effects is sterility, meaning that women who were promised a baby ended up with a future that meant they would never be able to have a baby of their own.

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‘The Night Swim’ by Megan Goldin is a gripping story with a universal theme

nightswim

 

In “The Night Swim,” Megan Goldin explores the male domination that exists to this day in rural America. Especially the male dominance that white, wealthy men feel endowed with, along with the usual arrogance that comes from those who feel entitled. They feel entitled to special treatment from the authorities, special treatment from shops, special treatment from their friends who may not be as entitled as they are, and special treatment from girls who, in their view, really have no right to say no to their advances.

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‘Musical Chairs’ by Amy Poeppel is a charming tale of ambition, family expectations, and love

musical chairs

For those who want their fiction to start with a huge hook — a first sentence that grabs you by the throat and won’t let you go — “Musical Chairs” by Amy Poeppel is not the book for you. Rather, this charming story begins like a lovely overture, with an introduction that gets you used to the rhythm and feeling of the piece, and slowly, you become entranced and rapt in the characters and plot of this beautifully composed novel.

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‘How to Save a Life’ by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke

how to save

How far would you go to save the life of your true love? In “How to Save a Life,” co-authors Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke explore this concept in a touching novel that has more than a few “Groundhog Day” movie references. It also has a wonderfully imperfect first person narrator who either lunches or talks to his mother daily, wears his shirts buttoned up one button too many, and looks both ways before crossing the street — always. Dom is just not the adventurous type, and he wonders if that’s what made him fall in love with Mia a decade ago.

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“Muzzled”: Another Rosenfelt/Carpenter ‘Killer’ novel

muzzled

“Muzzled” is the twenty-first entry in David Rosenfelt’s “Andy Carpenter Mystery” series, and it seems quite clear that Rosenfelt’s many fans hope it’s the first of at least twenty more. The protagonist in the series, Andy Carpenter, is one of the most charmingly devilish characters in the world of legal mystery novels. And he’s also one of the funniest. Andy might be viewed as the Don Rickles of defense attorneys; he’s a genius of insult humor. But unlike Rickles, Andy’s main target is himself. With his hilarious self-deprecating comments, he willingly exposes himself as a coward, a meanie, and a downright jerk. Yet he’s also a most lovable character. Even as he bravely places himself in dangerous, even life-threatening situations, he admits that he’s scared to death while, for example, shakily clutching a loaded pistol while dealing with a murderous villain, as he does in “Muzzled.”

As usual, the unfolding of the novel’s plot begins with Andy’s big heart and sense of justice forcing him to take on the case of a man wrongly accused of murder. In this case, that man is one Alex Vogel, who has suspiciously escaped unscathed from a boat that has exploded, killing two of his business partners. Their company has been working on the development of a mysterious drug which is soon to be introduced to the world via a stock market IPO. Everybody but Andy believes Vogel, a munitions expert, has blown up the boat with the express intent of murdering his two partners — though nobody knows exactly why this respectable (and dog-loving!) man would commit such a dastardly act. So Andy decides he must defend Alex, thereby getting himself inextricably involved with shady characters, the Russian Mafia, and assorted other villains.

“Muzzled” boasts all the uniquely humorous characters and characteristics of the entire series: the wonderfully wacky and weirdly eccentric members of his investigative team and staff, the frustrated cops, lawyers, and judges who have to cope with Andy’s antics and insults, and villains who are sly, smart, and arrogant but who, in the end, can never quite match the hero’s off-the-wall brilliance.

If you’ve never read one of Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter Mysteries, start with “Muzzled,” and treat yourself to an enjoyable, laugh-inducing — and, by the way, suspenseful — good time. And if you’ve already read earlier entries in the series, rest assured that you’ll find this one every bit as involving, gripping, and entertaining as the first twenty.

This review was first published on Bookreporter.com.

‘Head Over Heels’ by Hannah Orenstein is a sweet love story that also dishes about Olympic gymnasts

head over heels

What happens when a prospective Olympic gymnast has an injury during the Olympic Trials that ends up destroying her dreams of Olympic glory? In “Head Over Heels,” Hannah Orenstein creates a main character whose whole life had been dedicated to the goal of being an Olympic contender. Avery Abrams had worked for hours after school at the gym and then had been homeschooled so that she could devote even more time to training.

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“The Vacation” of Doom by T. M. Logan

vacation

Almost all of us have taken long-planned vacations that turned out to be much less enjoyable than we had hoped. But this T.M. Logan novel,”The Vacation,” takes us on a trip so filled with gloom, anger, profound disappointment, paranoia, and near-madness that we might ourselves avoiding future vacations for fear that they might be anything at all like the one Logan describes so vividly in this excellent mystery novel.

There are twelve characters in the story, each of them bearing ugly scars, secrets, and deeply hidden problems primarily due to past misdeeds. Four of the characters are forty-year-old women who have been best friends since college but have rarely communicated for ten years. They love each other. But they have all hurt each other in the past, and those hurts and harms and horrors are slowly and painfully forced back into their memories and revealed to us as the story proceeds. Their husbands and children comprise the rest of the cast, and all of them are similarly troubled. So a lovely vacation at a mansion in a small French town becomes an ugly portrait of suspicion, fear, and, yes, loathing.

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