Newest review: A Dark and Secret Place by Jen Williams

By Ekta R. Garg

June 16, 2021

Genre: Psychological thriller

Release date: June 8, 2021

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

After her mother’s suicide, a young woman struggles to deal with what happened. When she discovers a secret her mother held, the woman gets tangled in an ongoing police investigation and must try to figure out what responsibility, if any, she has toward the situation. Author Jen Williams frightens readers in the best ways meant in the genre with her newest novel A Dark and Secret Place.

Heather Evans is fighting to accept her new reality. A reality where her mother has committed suicide in a gruesome way—by throwing herself off a cliff—and left few clues behind as to why she would do such a thing. Heather didn’t even have an inkling of any distress in her mother’s life, but, then again, she and her mother didn’t exactly speak that frequently.

In fact, after the sudden death of her father when she was 16, Heather and her mother seemed to fight about everything. When she couldn’t take it anymore, Heather left home. After that she and her mother, Colleen, only spoke on family occasions and the holidays during awkward, tense conversations that lasted mere minutes. Now there’s this, her mother’s death, with no explanation at all.

The situation becomes even harder to handle when Heather starts going through her mother’s personal items and discovers dozens of letters hidden away. The letters are from a prisoner serving a life sentence for multiple murders in a case that shocked everyone in England. The man, Michael Reave, has always claimed he was innocent, but the available evidence named him guilty. The media named him the Red Wolf.

Heather contacts the police about the letters, and DI Ben Parker has an unusual request for her. He wants Heather to come to the prison and talk to Michael about a new spate of murders that has begun. Someone is attacking young women again, copying the Red Wolf’s signature ritualistic killing style, and Parker believes Michael is connected to the killings even though he’s still in prison.

Despite her reluctance, Heather agrees. She wants to know why her mother was writing to Michael and why they shared this secret relationship no one else knew about. Although she was dismissed from her last job as a reporter, Heather’s instincts kick in as she tries to get Michael to share some scrap of information that will help the police catch the new killer.

Yet Heather can’t help feeling like the crimes of the Red Wolf as well as those of the copycat criminal are both connected directly to her somehow. She discovers more of Colleen’s secrets, making her question what she knew about her mother. In time Heather realizes she won’t get any peace until she helps solve the case.

Author Jen Williams takes full advantage of everything the psychological thriller genre has to offer, which will make readers squirm in discomfort and also keep flipping or swiping pages. Heather’s newfound melancholy at not knowing her mother like she thought she did is grounded and three-dimensional. Readers will identify with her grief and confusion as she tries to navigate both.

While some of the tropes of the genre might feel a little trite—the customary romantic entanglement; weird signs that show up meant only to scare Heather and not really offer clues to the larger mystery—Williams doesn’t lean too heavily on those things to drive her mystery forward. The book’s strength lies in the fact that the characters are fully developed, fully realized people. By mixing generational angst with modern-day trappings, Williams has found the perfect blend of the times to offer a compelling plot.

The climax feels just a touch rushed, but Williams offers a careful, thoughtful explanation for everything. Readers will have no trouble racing through the book, and its pall will linger afterward. I recommend readers Bookmark A Dark and Secret Place.

Newest review: Waiting to Begin by Amanda Prowse

June 9, 2021

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: June 8, 2021

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A woman deals with memories of the past on her birthday and a secret she’s only shared with one other person. As she goes through the day, she tries to ignore her insecurities while also grappling with the reality that her marriage may not be in the best shape. Author Amanda Prowse builds another strong character in a book that needed a little bolstering in her latest release Waiting to Begin.

It’s her 53rd birthday, and Bessie Talbot feels every bit middle-aged. Her children have long since left the nest; one has just left on his honeymoon, and the other is wrapped up in her career. Now it’s just Bessie and her husband, Mario. At one time looking at Mario would make Bessie’s heart race. These days she’d be grateful for the odd palpitation.

The day brings hearty wishes from family and friends, but Bessie can’t shake the feeling that she’s stuck. In fact, she’s felt stuck ever since her 16th birthday. That day started out completely different than her current birthday.

At 16, Bessie woke up knowing she had the whole world ahead of her. Exams had ended, and she just needed the results so she could continue on her path to becoming a flight attendant and traveling the world. She had a boyfriend, although she hadn’t told anyone about him yet, and she and her best friend were all ready to make a splash at the rugby club later that evening for the end-of-term party.

Then everything slid downhill. One after another, her birthday brought so many shocks that Bessie wanted nothing more than for the day to end. She wanted to forget the day ever happened.

She may have physically moved on from turning 16, but Bessie’s never quite gotten over that birthday in her heart and mind. Worse, there are things about that day she’s never told anyone—not her parents, not her best friend (who is her former friend now,) and not even her husband. Those situations still lay claim to who she is, and she thinks about them every year.

As she starts looking around at her life on this latest birthday, Bessie just wants to walk away from it all. It seems like everyone has moved on to bigger and better things. She’s the only one who’s stuck in the past. Try as she might, she can’t seem to make any strides forward. Before the day is out, Bessie will find herself at a crossroads yet again. This time she’ll have to decide whether she can salvage her birthday for good.

Author Amanda Prowse’s latest novel showcases her writing skills in building sympathetic characters. Readers will understand Bessie’s reluctance to move on from the past. Prowse lays out the events of Bessie’s life one careful layer at a time, proving her ease with characters who could very well live next door.

The trouble with the book comes in its pacing and plot. As Bessie relives her memories, the story flashes back to her 16th birthday and intersperses moments from that day with her current birthday. Both feel much longer than they needed to be, both in time and the number of incidents that occur.

Bessie wishes, repeatedly, for the day to end. At some points, readers might be tempted to wish for the same. No doubt, the events on her 16th birthday were necessary to establish her character for later, but Prowse spends too much time driving the main point home. Multiple situations and multiple mentions of those situations come up when a few would have sufficed. As Bessie shares every thought, complaint, and tear, readers might be tempted to tell her to move it along already.

Some parts of the plot are predictable from the earliest pages, leaving readers to wait for Bessie to come to certain conclusions on her own. The result is a story that is much slower than it needed to be. Fans of women’s fiction and diehard Amanda Prowse fans will probably want to read this one. I recommend readers Borrow Waiting to Begin.