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: The Last Piece by Imogen Clark

By Ekta R. Garg

August 19, 2020

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: July 28, 2020

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

After receiving some news, a woman takes an impulsive trip to Greece. When she comes home, her family will have to deal with the outcome of the journey and where it leads them. Author Imogen Clark tries hard to build the emotions but lets down character development in her latest novel, The Last Piece.

On an ordinary day, Cecily Nightingale gets a letter and plans a trip to Greece without consulting her daughters. She’s waited for this letter for 50 years. Now that it’s arrived, she’s not going to let anything stop her from making the journey from her home in Northern England to the Mediterranean.

Her husband, Norman, supports Cecily’s travel, but daughters Felicity, Julia, and Lily are shocked. Their mother has never mentioned going to Greece or knowing anyone there. Why the rush to go, they wonder. What could be there?

Cecily hopes the answer is “everything.” Fifty years earlier, as a teen mother, Cecily was forced to give up her newborn for adoption. Every day since then, she’s wondered what happened to her firstborn child. Now a letter has come, inviting her to a yoga retreat to meet her, and Cecily isn’t going to waste another minute.

The meeting doesn’t go quite as planned, though. Cecily meets Marnie Stone, the daughter she gave up, but Marnie is closed and stand-offish. Although she tries to reassure Marnie she would never have given her up if she had a choice, Marnie doesn’t seem convinced. After finding out that Marnie lives in London for most of the year, Cecily comes home exhausted but a little encouraged. Maybe living in the same country will give her the opportunity to see her oldest child again and introduce Marnie to her half-sisters.

Felicity, Julia, and Lily greet the news with varying reactions. Felicity, the oldest of the Nightingale girls—or so she thought, anyway—is indignant. How dare this woman try to barge in on their lives after all this time? Julia is skeptical. Why would Marnie insist that their mother come all the way to Greece? Lily, the family peacemaker, tries to encourage her sisters to keep an open mind.

Then Marnie reaches out to Cecily again; this time, she wants to visit Cecily and the rest of the Nightingale family at home. Cecily goes out of her way to make accommodations for her daughter, both physical and emotional, but Marnie still can’t seem to open up. Instead, her introduction to the family makes everyone question their place in it and with one another.

Author Imogen Clark brings to light a sad but true fact: in the 1970s, many pregnant teens in England were sent to Mother and Baby homes where they would live before they delivered. Weeks after giving birth, the girls would give up their babies for adoption and be expected to return to their lives with their families as if nothing had changed. With this idea as the backdrop of the book, the sections from Cecily’s point of view as a teen in the home are certainly the strongest and most compelling.

Less so are the other sections written from the other daughters’ points of view. Readers are given just enough information from each of them to start asking questions, but those questions are never resolved. The lack of completion of these subplots also plagues character development in the book. None of the daughters feel like three-dimensional people.

The biggest mystery of all is Marnie. Although she’s the one who initiated the interactions between herself and the Nightingales family, her behavior toward them is a mystery. Not enough information is ever given as to why she feels so much hostility toward Cecily, Norman, and her half-sisters. Even after Cecily’s impassioned recollection of what led to Marnie’s adoption in the first place, the woman seems unmoved. She doesn’t, in fact, act her age, and that makes it much harder to suspend disbelief that her reactions would be realistic.

Clark offers resources in her author’s note on where curious readers can find real-life accounts of women who gave up their children in the homes as well as the children who were adopted through them. Those might offer more engaging stories that hold together from start to finish. Readers wanting to read a women’s fiction book set in England that doesn’t revolve around London, this might be a good pick. Otherwise, I recommend readers Borrow The Last Piece.

Newest review: Musical Chairs by Amy Poeppel

By Ekta R. Garg

August 12, 2020

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: July 21, 2020

Rated: Bookmark it!

A cellist arrives at her summer home ready for some alone time with her boyfriend. When events upend her plans and her family starts infringing on her space, she’ll have to figure out where the boundaries are—including her own. Author Amy Poeppel returns with a sweet story about the bonds that tie family to one another in the lightweight but well-written novel Musical Chairs.

The start of summer has Bridget Stratton grinning from ear to ear. She gets to spend three months with her new boyfriend, Sterling, in her Connecticut vacation home. Sure, the house needs some repairs—okay, a lot of repairs—and Sterling will have to spend part of the time working on his new book. But at least they get to leave behind the craziness of New York and their lives: the Forsyth Trio in which Bridget plays as premiere cellist and Sterling’s ex and young daughter. Bridget’s twins are grown and independent, and even though her famous composer father lives right down the street she knows she’s going to enjoy the quiet of the country.

Except Bridget didn’t count on her best-laid plans getting waylaid. Sterling breaks up with Bridget over email. Her daughter flies in from her corporate job in Hong Kong unannounced, stating she’s done with her life there. Her son comes to the vacation home limping, convinced his marriage is about to end. Both of them need handholding, and Bridget is flummoxed.

Fortunately, she knows she can call on her friend, Will. The second member of the Forsyth Trio, Will and Bridget have been close since their days at Juilliard. They founded the trio with a third student, Gavin, who has since moved on. Bridget and Will have tolerated their share of diva violinists through the years who have attempted to fill Gavin’s spot. None of them have stuck with the trio like Bridget and Will, though, and the two have bonded as only the best of friends can.

Will shows up in Connecticut dealing with a crisis of his own: his apartment building has just gone up for sale. Plus, he gets into an argument with the newest violinist he and Bridget have been courting, and she quits before she even starts. Without a violinist, the Forsyth Trio won’t be able to fulfill the performance schedule to which they’ve committed. Now Will has to figure out how to find a new violinist without making it sound like a big deal to Bridget.

Then Bridget shares news of her own: her 90-year-old father has announced that he’s getting married again. The lucky lady is a German socialite the family has known for years; Bridget and her sister think she’s lovely. Her son, however, is another matter, but Bridget and Gwen know they can handle him.

It falls to Bridget to host the wedding at her well-worn home, and she’s panicking. She can’t even get the washer and dryer to work, and her twins have managed to generate more laundry than she remembers from when they were kids. Also, with everyone bringing their pets and new friends coming over, the house is always full and always loud.

Will rolls up his sleeves and jumps in to help. As the best friends muddle through one challenge after another, they’ll rely on their friendship again and again. Through it all, their summer will bring them new opportunities, new love, and new music.

Author Amy Poeppel gives readers a rare occurrence in fiction: a man-woman friendship that stays just that. Readers might be tempted to look for signals that Bridget and Will have begun to fall for one another, but that never happens. It’s a refreshing change from other novels in the genre.

With the absence of the pressure of a looming romance, Bridget and Will have the freedom to support one another and admonish one another as the situation demands. They’re protective of one another, no doubt, and elements of jealousy do creep in but it’s minimal at best. Will and Bridget really do just want the best for one another.

Poeppel has created a cast of characters that will make readers grin, laugh out loud, and shake their heads by turns. Bridget’s famous father is as indulgent of his daughters as he is pompous about his work. The other characters in the book—Jackie, the personal assistant; Marge, the housekeeper; and even Gavin—fill their roles to perfection. They all feel like real people.

Readers looking for a light, easy read will definitely enjoy this book. I recommend readers Bookmark Musical Chairs.