The Witch Elm by Tana French

I have always wanted to read a book by Tana French. For ten years, French exclusively wrote the Dublin Murder Squad series. I don’t like reading series out of order, so I filed French down to the bottom of my to-read list until I could find all the books in the series. When I realized that her newest book was a stand-alone, I was excited! I could finally fulfill my desire to read Tana French. (And yes, I know I could have found her series and read them, but it’s much easier to find (and read) a standalone.)

The Witch Elm by Tana French is her latest novel released in the beginning of October 2018. This standalone mystery is separate from French’s Dublin Murder Squad series(I can’t stress that enough!). Based on the reviews that I read, The Witch Elm is a prime example of why you should check out what a book is actually about about before you pick it up. Most reviewers were excited that Tana French had put out a new book and decided to immediately read it. As I progressed through different reviews and websites, I saw that most had assumed this was a continuation of her Dublin Murder Squad series or had assumed that her newest would be a detective-centric story. It’s not! Having not read her others, I’m not sure how this one stacked up to her previous works, but I enjoyed the twists and turns of this novel a great deal.

In The Witch Elm , readers are introduced to happy-go-lucky Toby. Everything always seems to work out for Toby.  From his job to his girlfriend and his apartment, Toby seems to have it all. At the very beginning, Toby steps outside of the storyline of the book to inform readers that things have taken a turn for him. Through this novel, Toby says he will lay out the ways that his life has taken a turn. One night Toby is out having drinks with his friends, telling the story of how he has managed to come out of a touchy work situation in a positive manner. Hoping things will turn around, Toby drunkenly heads back to his apartment where he is surprised in the middle of the night by two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Not able to recover or live on his own, Toby finds himself living back at the Ivy House, his family’s ancestral home, taking care of his sick uncle.

Left damaged and traumatized after his attack, Toby struggles to take care of himself and his sick Uncle Hugo. Luckily for both men, Toby’s girlfriend moves into Ivy House to help care for them. This brutal attack has forever altered Toby and he isn’t sure how to adjust to his new normal. Uncle Hugo’s illness has left the family in doubt as to what will happen to Ivy House after he dies, which may happen sooner than they all think. All together for lunch one day, Hugo begins to broach this topic. Before they get very far, a scream is heard from the garden. The children have found a skull, tucked into the old witch elm at the foot of the garden.

With this discovery, Toby’s life will spiral even more out of control. Detectives, crime scene investigators, and the media descend in droves on Ivy House. Everyone in the family is on edge with Toby confused in the center. The aftereffects of Toby’s attack has addled his brain, making it hard for him to keep events straight. Constantly confusing the past and present and forgetting what is false and true rocket Toby to the top of the detectives’ suspect list. Through the course of their investigation, Toby is forced to look back on the idyllic childhood he lived and his perfect recent past. What he believed to be the truth may not actually be what happened. This novel takes a deep look at how what we believe to be true may not actually be how others remember what happened. While I enjoyed the suspenseful storytelling weaved throughout this novel, Toby was a character I had to work to love. Tana French crafted Toby’s character this way in order to force readers to really look at what we would do when forced to change ourselves into someone new. I encourage you to read this book and let me know what you thought in the comments below!


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Vox by Christina Dalcher

This book was all over reading lists before it even came out. When Vox was released, the hype grew even bigger. What I discovered when reading reviews of this book was that people either really loved or didn’t like it. I firmly fall in the ‘love it’ category and I hope you all like it as well.

Vox by Christina Dalcher runs in a similar vein of The Handmaid’s Tale as another example of a specific segment of the population being silenced/put into service by a different group. While reading this book, I noticed that I was growing increasingly agitated at the restrictions placed on women.

Jean McLellan is a cognitive linguist. Happily married with four children, Jean lives a pleasant life. Her husband Patrick is the science advisor to the President and seems to have an inside track to what’s happening. With the rise of the ‘Pure’ religious movement, Jean quickly realizes her basic freedoms are starting to be taken away. When the ‘Pure’ movement succeeds in infiltrating the government, Jean knows she’s in trouble.  She saw the signs, but failed to respond appropriately. Women representation in government is decreasing, the ‘pure’ religion is gaining traction, and female freedoms are being lost at an increasing rate. Jean did nothing. Her friends and family warned her and pleaded with her to do something, but Jean continuously believed that America would never go very far. She was wrong.

One day, all women were fitted with a bracelet snapped around their wrist that worked as a word counter. This permanent bracelet limited them to 100 words per day. 100! ALL DAY! That’s it. Don’t even try to go over 100 because each over will result in severe consequences. The ‘pure’ movement controls all. Religion has a higher say than science. As a result, Jean, as a linguist specialist, is very worried about what would happen to women the longer they are silenced and limited to 100 words.

Having somewhat adjusted to this horrible new normal, Jean is startled when she is approached by the President’s men saying her professional services are required. Meeting with the powers that be, Jean is told that the President’s brother has suffered a severe brain injury that impacts his ability to use language. Jean, plus some of her previous work colleagues, are needed to research a way to help him. Obviously Jean leverages her unique skill set to negotiate a deal in her favor. Jean is now in a position to help the female population, but has to do so sneakily. Complications ensue (obviously). Once Jean is reunited with her previous colleagues, they must race against time to solve the problem presented. Jean’s past plays a large role in her decision to behave the way she does with the overall message in the book being: use your voice before they take it away.


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The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware knows how to write a novel full of twists. Bonus: if you listen to the audiobook version of really any of her books, you will be treated to some pretty neat accents. The Death of Mrs. Westaway, her latest book, is dark, dramatic, mysterious, and full of family drama.

Hal reads tarot cards on Brighton pier, a job that does not pay the bills very well. This makes it hard for her to afford food, rent, etc. Hal’s mother used to read tarot cards, so after she died a few years earlier, Hal easily slipped into the job she had watched her mother do for years. Struggling to make ends meet, Hal is at her wits end when a mysterious letter arrives detailing that she has been bequeathed a large inheritance. Reading said letter, Hal knows that this can’t possible be true, but the timing of the letter seems like a gift. She decides to accept the inheritance and head to the giant, cold, and gloomy Trepassen house. Leaving for Trepassen, Hal knows that doing so is a mistake. Having taken a loan from a loan shark with massive interest, Hal also knows that she has no other options to even begin paying back what she owes without taking this inheritance. Onward she goes.

Traveling down to the English coast, Hal pours over the letter looking for clues about the family that she is heading to meet. She is at a loss as to how to introduce herself, but knows that the cold-reading skills she has honed as a tarot card reader should help her claim the money and trick the others. Arriving amidst rain, Hal is led into the funeral of the deceased. Observing family and friends, Hal begins to feel that something is off with the whole situation. Something is just not right.

Following the family back to Trepassen house, Hal gets her first look at this massive, cold, and dour house. Just looking at the place, Hal feels like there are many, many secrets hidden within the walls. The family is both tight-lipped and easy to share, a concept that throws Hal off. Left to sleep in a tiny bedroom at the very top of the house by herself, Hal and the others begin to sort through the messiness of the deceased’s will. As they get further and further involved, the wrongness that Hal initially felt grows stronger as the situation begins to spiral more out of her control. Not knowing who to trust nor who is telling the truth, Hal begins her own investigation into what is really happening. This novel reads like a bit of a detective story with Ware knowing how to spin a crafty and spooky atmosphere rich with crime, gothic, and murderous twists.


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Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

When Anne Tyler’s previous book A Spool of Blue Thread was released in 2015, multiple patrons, friends, and other librarians told me I needed to read it. Sadly, I never got around to doing so since I was consumed in so many other great books at the time and it slipped from my mind. When her latest, Clock Dance, started popping up on lists months ago, I knew I needed to read it based on the popularity of her previous novels. For once, I was ahead of the game!

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler is the story of one woman’s life journey from an 11-year-old schoolgirl forced to step into her mother’s shoes in 1967 to a 61-year-old woman hoping for grandchildren in 2017. Tyler presents many characters throughout this novel. She does a wonderful job giving each vibrant backstories and rich present lives. I found myself thoroughly invested in each character’s life as they work to survive day to day.

When Willa Drake looks back on her life, she can count on one hand the moments that define her. In 1967, Willa and her younger sister Elaine come home from school to discover that their mother has disappeared. Again. Willa is forced to become a mother figure to her sister and waits hoping her mother will come home soon. In 1977, Willa is away at college trying to decide if she wants to marry her current boyfriend. During a trip home to see her family with said boyfriend in tow, Willa sees that she needs to form an identity separate from that of her parents. In 1997, Willa lives across the country with her husband and two children. Enjoying a life full of various activities, Willa’s world is thrown upside down when her husband dies. Only 41 years old, Willa struggles to put her life back together while taking care of her boys.

In 2017, Willa is 61 years old yearning for her sons to give her grandchildren. Given how little the two talk to her and from what she knows about their scant love lives, Willa doesn’t think she’ll ever be a grandmother. One day, Willa receives a phone call out of the blue from a stranger saying she needs help. Can Willa fly out to Baltimore and be her savior? Dropping everything, Willa and her second husband jump on a plane and head to Baltimore. Once there, Willa steps in to care for a young woman she’s never met, her nine-year-old daughter, and a dog named Airplane. Willa hardly ever makes impulsive decisions, but when this spur of the moment trip ends up introducing her and her husband to places, people, and experiences she’s unfamiliar with, Willa discovers that change can be a good thing. While her husband is anxious to get back to their familiar, Willa finds comfort in these complete strangers who have accepted her as one of their own.


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Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

What would you do if one day you realized that all the stories your family has told you throughout the years are actually true? Matty is just now realizing that the crazy stories he’s heard are really true and not just the ramblings of his upset uncle railing against the government.

Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory tells the story of the amazing Tellemachus family, a group of psychics whose powers span generations. Three generations have now descended on one town, sharing secrets, houses, and jobs. The lives they have built together are now starting to crumble, thanks to actions sent in motion many, many years ago by the patriarch of the family, Teddy.

Teddy Telemachus met young Maureen when the two were at a college signing up for an experimental study. Fascinated by her good looks and psychic powers, Teddy made it his mission to get to know her better. Flash forward to the mid-1970s. Teddy and Maureen are married with three children in tow: Irene, Frankie, and Buddy. The Telemachus family is famous! They’re known on the talk show and late-night television circuit for performing tricks and feats that no one can understand. Those Telemachus people must be magic! Teddy is a conman with no actual magical talent, Maureen can astral project, Irene can detect lies, Frankie is telekinetic, and Buddy is clairvoyant. Teddy clearly knows how to work a situation to get what he wants and uses that to provide for his family.

Late one night on a talk show, the Telemachus family is faced with a skeptic whose only goal is to discredit their entire way of life. Teddy believes that after they prove this well-known skeptic wrong, the family will be set for life. Things don’t go to plan though. The magic fails to happen and the family is destroyed. Forced to go into hiding, they soon find themselves living in Chicago trying to rebuild the family name. None of the grandchildren have shown powers yet, at least that’s what Teddy tells the skeptic who keeps showing up and the CIA agents at the door. When one of his children gets involved with the mafia, Teddy discovers secrets running through the family that he wishes didn’t exist. One of these secrets: Irene’s son, Matty, has some Telemachus magic running through his veins. Fighting to stay alive, the Telemachus family realizes that they have to set aside their petty issues and come together to fend off the CIA, mafia, and skeptic threats knocking at the door. Is it too late? Only Buddy knows the answer to that and he’s not talking. You’ll just have to read and see for yourself.

How to Walk Away by Katherine Center

The description of this book caught my eye at once.  How to Walk Away by Katherine Center is all about finding joy and love even when it seems like your life has hit rock bottom. As I was reading this book, I noticed that each main character goes through a major life-changing moment that, if the individual lets it take over their life, has the ability to derail everything and completely destroy all.

Margaret Jacobsen has her life together. She has very clear goals for herself and has met every one of them. She worked really hard in order to make sure she was set up for success in the future. Margaret has a new dream job, a beautiful new condo, and a boyfriend she’s 99% sure is going to propose to her on Valentine’s Day. The culmination of her every wish is within her reach. Margaret couldn’t be more excited about the prospect of her future.

Heading out with her boyfriend, Chip, for a romantic Valentine’s Day, Margaret realizes that the date he has planned for them is not what she would have thought. At. All. Game to try because Chip is so excited, Margaret goes along and sure enough, Chip proposes! In the midst of their celebrating, on what should have been one of the happiest days of her life, everything Margaret has worked so hard for her entire life is ripped violently away from her. Now Margaret is in the hospital and realizes that there is a possibility her life will never be the same. She is broken physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Chip is no help. He hardly ever comes to visit her, expects to be forgiven, and goes rapidly downhill by wallowing in his own self-pity. Her sister, Kitty, mysteriously left town three years ago and has been completely silent the whole time. Now Kitty is suddenly back in town and old family resentments are bubbling back to the surface. Her mother tries to micromanage Margaret’s situation, while her father struggles to keep the peace between everyone.

This family drama happens simultaneously as Margaret is dealing with her intense medical problems. Her physical therapist, Ian, is also one of her problems. The nurses all say that he is too tough for her and she needs someone nicer. When Margaret and Ian meet for the first time, she instantly understands their reluctance to have Ian work with her. Ian is incredibly brusque, never smiles, and is all business. He is the exact opposite of all the other physical therapists and even her own family. Ian refuses to pity her and treats her as a capable person who has the power to change her own circumstances. After spending time working with Ian, Margaret comes to realize that sometimes the thing she needs is not what she wants and the thing she wants may not be what she needs.  This statement rings true for multiple other characters. Love, happiness, joy, contentment, and hope all have the capacity to pop up in our lives when we least expect it.


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Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter

Karin Slaughter is one of my go-to authors. I have yet to run across a book of hers that I haven’t liked. Slaughter writes suspenseful mystery thrillers that leave you wondering about past lives, secrets kept, and relationships both broken and sustained throughout the years. I like my fiction a little bit dark and twisty. If I don’t figure out the whodunnit and why until almost the end, even better. For me, Slaughter writes successful fiction because I’m consistently surprised with the twist her fiction takes.

Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter is her newest book. I. Was. Blown. Away. This novel takes a close look at the relationships with parents and their children. While we may think we know our ancestry, this novel proves that these thoughts may be completely and totally wrong. There are so many different pieces to each person. (Play on the title, get it??) We also have different identities. One woman can be a mother, daughter, granddaughter, wife, etc, with each separate part of herself hiding something from the other.

In Pieces of Her, Andrea discovers that she never really knew her mother, Laura at all. Even though she has a very close relationship with her mother, even living in her garage apartment, one day throws everything apart. Andrea knows that her mother has spent her entire life cloistered in their tiny beach town of BelleIsle. Her mother has no secrets, but is seen as a steadfast and trustworthy member of the community. With Laura’s life changed by a cancer diagnosis, Andrea moves back home and becomes enmeshed in her life. This cancer scare is a deviation from the norm, but Andrea knows her mother’s reactions are only a result of her cancer treatment.

Heading to the mall one afternoon with her mother, Andrea soon sees a completely different side of Laura. The violent scene that erupts in front of Andrea shows her that her mother was a totally different person before her, more so than her simply not having a child. The intense media scrutiny and the police’s desire to find answers brings unwanted attention to Laura and she quickly shuts down. Laura changes in front of Andrea’s eyes, telling Andrea to run away from the whole situation with only slight clues of where to go. Laura refuses to speak to anyone, instead lying low and trying to protect her daughter by pushing her away. Andrea leaves town, following the tiny bit of clues her mother has left for her. Digging into her mother’s secrets, Andrea quickly discovers that if she can’t figure out the real truth of her mother’s past, there might not be a future for either of them.

Reviewer’s note: Karin Slaughter is not shy when it comes to using graphic scenes, violence, and blood in her books. This book is no exception. If you’re squeamish, I would steer clear. In my opinion, this novel only benefits from her descriptions.


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Rust & Stardust by T. Greenwood

True crime is one of my favorite subjects to read about and watch. Learning more about the inner workings of different perpetrators and their reasonings for behaving in such a way is fascinating. The lasting implications crime has on the victims and various affected families/friends also intrigues me. Society generally only cares about a crime for the first few months. After the publicity dies down, the whole situation will fade into the background. Reading about real life crimes allows me to believe that I am keeping these situations alive and the victims will continue to be remembered.

Rust & Stardust by T. Greenwood was my latest true crime fiction read. This novel is based on the experiences of Sally Horner, an 11-year-old kidnapping victim who was abducted in 1948 from a Woolworth’s in Camden, New Jersey by 52 year-old Frank La Salle. Sally’s abduction is also considered to have inspired Nabokov’s Lolita.  From what I read about this case, this novel is fairly close to what actually happened. Granted the dialogue between Sally and Frank can never be 100% known and neither can be what really happened while they traveled the country, nevertheless, this account gives readers a look into a dark time in a young girl’s life.

Camden, NJ. 1948. 11 year-old Sally Horner just wants to fit in. She watches a clique of girls at her school form a club and yearns to be a part of it. Living with her mother and older sister, Sally has always felt like she exists on the outside of everything. After walking up to this group of girls one day, the girls tell Sally that she has to steal something from the local Woolworth’s in order to become part of their group. Walking into Woolworth’s with all the girls around her, Sally wanders the aisles looking for something to steal. Seeing a notebook, Sally grabs it and begins walking out. Almost to the door, Sally is suddenly stopped by an older man who says he saw her stealing. Having watched her walk through the store, Frank has convinced her that he’s an FBI agent who can have her arrested at any minute. Telling her that he has to take her to see a judge, Frank says that Sally has to do exactly what he says or she will go to jail. This chance encounter has far-reaching ramifications for poor Sally.

52 year-old Frank LaSalle is not an FBI agent. He has just been released from prison. Living out of his truck/camper, Frank is on the lookout for his next victim and his next scheme. Sally Horner stands no chance against him. Convincing her that he is an FBI agent, Sally introduces him to her mother and they somehow convince her to let Sally leave with Frank. Thus begins the scariest two years of Sally’s life as Frank physically and mentally abuses her. Travelling from Camden to San Jose, Sally meets many people and hopes one of them will recognize her. Her family, old friends, and new acquaintances are all forever altered, just like Sally, as a result of her abduction.

Given that this novel is based on the real-life kidnapping of Sally Horner and her captor Frank LaSalle, I found it to be intriguing and a possible explanation of what happened between the two. While there are certainly many fictionalized sections, the over-arching storyline is pretty close to the truth. With the additional information about Vladimir Nabokov and his controversial Lolita, this story is finally able to give more voice to young Sally Horner. With her death happening only four years after her abduction, Sally was unable to tell her full story like other abduction victims. This book is certainly not a light read, but its close relation to true events allows readers to gain a better understanding of these tragic circumstances.


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Before and Again by Barbara Delinsky

I’m not going to lie: the cover of this book is what caught my eye and convinced me to read it. I know, I know, we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers. With so many books in print, the options can be overwhelming though! When it comes to picking out my personal reads, if a cover catches my eye, I’ll read it. It’s yet to let me down so far especially with my latest read by Barbara Delinsky.

Before and Again by Barbara Delinsky is a captivating read that kept my attention from beginning to end. There are multiple important current issues discussed throughout this book that can have implications in everyday life. Social media, internet hacking, identity theft, the press, trauma, and secrets are all major themes that the characters in this novel find themselves battling with. This book cautions against becoming too complacent and making sure that we travel outside our comfort zones.

Mackenzie Cooper thought she had it all: a loving husband, a job she loved, a wonderful family, generous friends, and a daughter she adored. In one moment, it was all taken away. Driving her daughter to a play date, Mackenzie took her eyes off the road for just a moment to check the GPS. That glance away changes her life forever. Having lost everything, including her privacy after the intense media coverage surrounding the accident, Mackenzie runs away. She now lives in Vermont under the name Maggie Reid. Living in a small house with her cats and dog, Maggie has a new job and new friends. She just wants her new life to stay separate from her old life. That means that she can’t risk revealing too much. Her work as a makeup artist at a luxurious local spa allows Maggie to spend her day helping clients hiding the things on their skin that they wish would disappear. She’s a master at her job.

All Maggie wants with her new life is to stay under the radar and keep her probation officer happy. With less than a year left, she is so close to being completely free. Things are going slightly too well for Maggie though when she realizes that she isn’t the only one in this quiet Vermont town with secrets. A local teenage boy, the only son of one of Maggie’s friends, is thrust into the national spotlight when he is accused of hacking a powerful man’s Twitter account, numerous other Twitter accounts, and the local school’s system as well. Maggie has no idea what to do: should she protect herself and pull away or step up to help since she has experience dealing with this type of situation? Either decision will have far-reaching implications for Maggie. As the truth behind this teenager’s actions begin to come to light, Maggie increasingly finds her own newly constructed life unraveling at her feet. She knows that her friend probably just needs to be comforted amongst this sea of chaos, but Maggie truly has to decide how far she is willing to go to help.


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Tear Me Apart by J.T. Ellison

I recently stumbled upon author J.T. Ellison while looking for a new book to read on OverDrive. I had heard of Ellison in the past, but had never read anything she had written before. The description of her most recent standalone novel Tear Me Apart captured my interest because the description of the book seemed pretty straight-forward, but once I started reading, I realized that this book was going to be anything but straight-forward.

Tear Me Apart by J.T. Ellison tackles the question of how far a parent is willing to go to save the life of a child. Mindy Wright is a competitive skier at the top of her field. Despite being only a teenager, Mindy has a great chance of making the Olympic team. Competing on a course she is very familiar with, Mindy is sure she will win her current race. The weather is getting progressively worse, yet race leaders haven’t decided to halt Mindy’s run. Mindy’s life is derailed after she suffers a catastrophic downhill crash. Her leg is broken and she is rushed to surgery.

In surgery, doctors discover a complication: Mindy is suffering from a severe form of leukemia. On top of recovering from surgery, Mindy must undergo treatment for leukemia. With her condition worsening, the doctors realize that a stem cell transplant is her only hope. Mindy’s parents and her aunt are tested to see if they’re a match. When the results come back, they are all stunned to see that Mindy is not biologically related to any of them.

Mindy’s aunt works for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in the lab and does some looking into the DNA in the case. How could Mindy not be related to any of them? In the race to save Mindy, multiple lies and secrets are uncovered stemming back to before Mindy was even born. As her aunt tries to figure out a way to save her, readers are left to wonder if Mindy was switched at birth or if a more disquieting plot unraveled at the time of her birth. What is her mother keeping secret? Why is she holding back and seeming to change her story so often? One look at her face and others around her start to doubt the validity of her claims.

As the search for Mindy’s truth progresses, the secrets revealed and the tension created begin to tear the family apart and put everyone on edge. Certain members of the family are willing to do whatever it takes to protect their secrets. With Mindy’s fame as a skier, the press becomes involved when a statement is released pleading for help to find a match and to hopefully keep the rumors at bay.

How far would you go to save a child? To keep your secrets hidden? This novel digs deep into the hidden links, layers, betrayals, and secrets that have served to bind two separate families together over many, many years. Would you fight to keep the darkness and secrets buried even when the truth could potentially save someone? What about if those secrets could break apart your entire world? How long would it take you to thoroughly believe the web of lies you created for yourself and your family? Would you forget your real identity and the lives of the ones around you? Ellison weaves a gloriously tangled suspenseful thriller of a novel that will have you wondering if the people you see on a daily basis are really telling you the truth.


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