The Burning Girls by C.J. Tudor

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"Guilt is a little like grief. A cancer of the soul. They both hollow you out from the inside."

The rural community of Chapel Croft is a town haunted by its past. Five hundred years ago several Protestant martyrs, including young girls, were burned at the stake in a religious purge. Locals still commemorate that horrific history by constructing a monument to them and leaving twig dolls around town, gifts for the burning girls. The more recent history of the city is no less tragic. Around thirty years ago, two teenage girls disappeared without a trace. Yes, Chapel Croft is no stranger to misfortune. It is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else and all of their business. At the center of this community lies the church, a parish that has recently faced a tragedy of its own. After years of serving the town and living as part of the community, the town vicar has committed suicide. 

Reverend Jack Brooks is no stranger to tragedy. In fact, it was a tragedy at her previous inner-city parish that prompted her reassignment to quiet Chapel Croft. Relocating herself and her teenage daughter Flo isn't easy, but she's hopeful that a new town will bring the opportunity for a fresh start. Right out of the gate, however, Jack is greeted by a foreboding welcome at the front door of the ramshackle cottage she will call home. As Jack and her daughter integrate into the town, they both begin to experience reminders of the town's torrid history, figurative and literal ghosts of the past. In the coming days, the pair will be forced to reckon with not only the history of their new home town but the personal secrets they harbor as well. 

"But there is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops."-Luke 12:2-3

In The Burning Girls, C.J. Tudor deftly explores religion, parenthood, trauma, and grief, all packaged in the guise of a supernatural thriller. I've enjoyed each of her works since her debut novel The Chalk Man, so I was happy to accept a copy of this latest novel from her publisher. That first book has been my favorite of her three published works, but this newest easily surmounts that one to take the top place. There is a richness to the dialogue between mother and daughter, a sense of normalcy and reality that perfectly balances with the supernatural horror elements. The history of the town imbues the story with the depth of a real place. I couldn't help but keep reading. I just had to learn more about these characters and this place. 

Tudor is no stranger to balancing multiple perspectives in her writing, and The Burning Girls sees her present the story through a mother, a daughter, and one other character whose identity and motivations remain a mystery for the majority of the book. With each viewpoint, we gain a clearer portrait of what has occurred in this town and where this story is headed. The three points converge in a way that both thrills and satisfies. The best novels capture your attention as you read, but also linger in your mind long after you finish the final page. The Burning Girls is that kind of novel. Whether you're looking for a thoughtful meditation on religion, a harrowing story of a mother and daughter learning to live and love each other, or a "can't put down" thriller that keeps you reading into all hours of the night, you'll find what you're looking for in this book. The Burning Girls is the best novel C.J. Tudor has written thus far and has me brimming with excitement for whatever tale she conjures up next. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 7)

The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

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How well do you know your partner? You love and care for them and commit to spending your lives together, but when you stop to think about it there are large parts of your lives that you have lived apart. It can even seem like you lived a different life before you met them. Your love for them builds trust that helps fill in the gaps for the parts of their life that you didn't experience with them. As the relationship progresses, you learn more and more about the person you love, but there will inevitably be things that simply don't come up. There will always be little unknowns between the two of you. In The Wife Upstairs, the buzzy new thriller that everyone seems to be reading, author Rachel Hawkins draws upon those unknowns to concoct a story of wealth, power, and deceit. 

Jane couldn't be more out of place. Newly residing in Birmingham, Alabama, the penniless young woman has taken a job walking dogs for the residents of Thornfield Estates. Each day, she walks the sidewalks and dreams of the lives of those women who reside within the opulent manors that populate the gated community. Her own life couldn't be further from those of the people she works for. She lives in a rundown apartment with a man who could be described as manipulative at best, abusive at worst. Jane would do anything to switch her life for the life of one of the women she works for. As luck would have it, that very opportunity is about to present itself. 

It wouldn't be accurate to call Eddie Rochester the most eligible bachelor of the neighborhood, but Jane can't help but be drawn to the quiet widower. Eddie's wife Bea, a prominent businesswoman in her own right, died in a tragic boating accident. Bea and her best friend were both lost in the ill-fated trip to the lake, their bodies never recovered after the tragedy. Jane is immediately drawn to Eddie and the potential for a change in lifestyle that he brings. She quickly inserts herself into his life, and the pair become inseparable. But everything isn't as it seems. The details surrounding Bea's death are murky, and Eddie seems more willing to forget about his past and move on than investigate things further. Little does he know that Jane is keeping her past a secret too. Behind the facade of a perfect relationship lies toxicity that is about to come to the forefront. 

I love the kind of book that draws you in from the start and doesn't let go. The Wife Upstairs is exactly that. Rachel Hawkins writes intriguing drama, morally ambiguous characters, and enough twists and turns to keep the plot rolling from start to finish. The novel is a retelling of the classic Jane Eyre, but you don't have to be familiar with that book to enjoy this one. The Bronte book is one of those that I only skimmed through in high school, so I've never actually read it myself. Suffice it to say that The Wife Upstairs has enough intrigue to stand on its own. I won't say that this is the best thriller I've read this year. There are no traditionally likable characters, and the conclusion doesn't quite live up to the mystery that leads up to it. Still, Hawkins has written the kind of compulsively readable novel that begs to be read in one sitting, a fun if a bit flawed thriller. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 6)

If I Disappear by Eliza Jane Brazier

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"I will solve your mystery. I will save you. It was meant to be me."

I love a good mystery. I love the suspense that builds as you discover clues, slowly putting all of the pieces together until you've finally cracked the case. It should come as no surprise then that the majority of my reading tends to fall into the mystery/thriller genre. I was a bit shocked, then, when I realized that I had yet to read a thriller this year. The fine folks at Berkley Publishing were kind enough to provide me with a copy of Eliza Jane Brazier's debut novel If I Disappear to read and review. As I opened to the first pages, I was quickly thrust into a novel filled with suspense, uncertainty, and paranoia. In short, the perfect kind of thriller to kick off the year. 

Sera's life is in shambles. Her marriage was over before it really even began, she has no job, and she spends her days just aimlessly drifting through life. Really the only thing keeping her going is her obsession with true-crime podcaster Rachel Bard. Rachel is everything Sera wishes she could be. Rachel is a strong woman, sure of her place in the world. She's so confident in the way she digs into cold cases and gives a voice to the missing women that fall through the cracks of criminal investigations. Empowered by this strength, Sera listens to the podcast episodes on repeat. She knows every detail of the crimes and begins to feel a kinship to Rachel and the women she investigates.

One day, the podcast episodes simply stopped. There was no explanation from Rachel, just radio silence. Even more alarming to Sera, is the change in tone to Rachel's last episode. The average listener may not have even taken notice, but Sera is certain of the emotion she detected in Rachel's voice. Fear. Driven by the need to keep the one positive in her life going, and perhaps made confident by the example that Rachel has set for her, Sera decides to take investigating Rachel's absence into her own hands. She drives to the rural town near the ranch where Rachel and her family live and begins to plant herself into Rachel's world. As she encounters Rachel's family and even takes on a job at the ranch, she begins to suspect that she is in over her head. Something foul is afoot, and it will take every fiber of her being to uncover it. 

In If I Disappear author Eliza Jane Brazier spins a twisty tale that balances suspense and misdirection with rich character development. Each page is imbued with an underlying sense of paranoia and dread, the kind of writing that kept me ready for any surprise and eager to keep reading more. The main character Sera is a classic unreliable narrator. Her mistrust of the supporting characters is only heightened by her skepticism at her own assertions. The book is as much about solving a missing person case as it is about finding a purpose for living. Brazier meticulously weaves these two threads throughout the writing, each quietly echoing the other. This comes together in a conclusion that adequately solves the mystery and brings a deeper sense of understanding to the main character. If I Disappear is a confident debut thriller that served as a perfect way to kick off my reading of the genre this year. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 5)

41: A Portrait of My Father by George W. Bush

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With the US Presidential Inauguration now behind us, I thought it would be the perfect time to read a book about a former president. In 41: A Portrait of My Father, former President George W. Bush writes an overview on the life of his father, the late President George H. W. Bush. I was immediately drawn to the historical significance of this work. The Bush family is only the second family in history to produce two US Presidents. Having the perspective of both son and a former president gives George W. an unprecedented insight into the life of his father. Less a political study and more a commentary on the man himself, 41 provides an intimate portrait of the Bush family patriarch.

As a biography, there's little surprise in either structure or content in this writing. The story of George Bush unfolds linearly, starting from his humble childhood and progressing across time. Like most men of the era, a strong family unit and fervent faith created the foundation on which the future statesmen would build his life. The early portion of this book reads almost like something out of a folk tale. I'm sure that the basis of this retelling is founded on truth, but I couldn't help but feel as if it was all a bit too perfect. I imagine that the author heard these stories from his parents throughout his own upbringing, so they take on the kind of second-hand feel of any story that was passed down from person to person. Still, the lessons that his mother instilled in him as a child would be the same principles that would guide the elder Bush throughout his life. "Do your best. Don't be arrogant. Never complain."

The book takes on a different tone as the author clearly begins writing from his own lived experiences with his father. You can't help but sense the pure admiration that George W. Bush possesses for both of his parents. Grounded by his unwavering faith in religion, country, and family George H. W. Bush approached each part of his life with quiet dignity. This duty to uphold the values he most cherished saw the man through fighting in a war, raising a family, facing the tragedy of losing a child, and shouldering the massive responsibility of running the country. Even after the crushing defeat in his bid for a second presidential term, George Bush conducted himself with the kind of decorum that seems nearly impossible in the current political climate.

This is not the average presidential biography. George W. Bush focuses as much on the quiet family moments that he clearly cherishes as he does the high stakes political events that history will remember the men for. This can sometimes give the work an unevenness that readers of more traditional political writing may find jarring. Politics aside, I found the intimate nature of this writing to be refreshing. Bush Sr. never wrote his own presidential memoir, so this is the closest thing we will ever have to an inside look into his life. As most sons would write about their fathers, George W. often oversimplifies the governmental blunders and noble intentions of the late president. He paints a portrait of a man driven by the intention of doing right by the country he devoted his professional life to serving and the family he loves. As a political biography, the book is far from perfect. As a love letter from a son to his father, however, 41: A Portrait of My Father strikes all the right notes.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2021, 4)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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"I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world."

I've always attempted to keep my reading and reviewing somewhat separate from my own political beliefs. My love of reading started as a means to escape into the fictitious worlds that authors conjured, and veering into the real world threatened to dismantle that sense of escapism. Recently, however, the real world has resembled something more akin to the dystopian fantasy of fiction than what I ever imagined the real world could be. Over the past several years, I've explored more non-fiction, reading about the world we live in and gaining perspective from different voices. As I watched the violent events at the US Capitol unfold, I happened to be reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Now more than ever, I feel the need to continue to read books like this one and share them with everyone who reads my reviews. 

What does it mean to be a black man in America? How does one come to the terms with racial inequity, especially when that inequity directly affects you and your family? These are the topics that Coates muses upon in this letter/essay to his teenage son. He writes with a raw honesty that is as riveting as it is heartbreaking. There is little hope in these words. Coates is clearly jaded by the reality of his lived experience. He writes of the fear he felt when he first realized that other people felt dominion over his very being, the power to take his life on a whim. That sense of dread only grew when he witnessed his son coming to the same realizations. 

Coates writes of his experience attending Howard University and finally finding a place where his free thought could be encouraged and respected. The HBCU became his "mecca", the safe place for him to explore the best parts of humanity. This is the place he discovered his ability to learn and love. Even in this place of solace, the original sin of our country invaded. Coates writes of a friend who was murdered by the police, a reminder that there is no escaping the horrors of racism. 

Between the World and Me is a stunning portrait of one man's lived experience. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes with a startling urgency, a plea to his son to understand how the world views and treats people who look like them. Coates writes of the despair that befell his son as he realized the scope of racial inequities. This burden should not be one a child has to bear, but every BIPOC must come to terms with it. As difficult as it is to read of this reality, it is vitally important to understand it. Coates seems resigned to the inevitability of racism. How can he not be when his entire life has proven this correct? Watching the siege on Washington DC unfold, I couldn't help but see the double standard glaring across my TV screen. The lack of urgency and violence in the response to these domestic terrorists, especially compared to the response to peaceful BLM protestors, is too obvious to ignore. Works like this one are vital in revealing these realities to those who do not live them. Only then can we truly begin to change things. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 3)

The House Plant by Jeremy Ray

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Winter has officially arrived in my part of the world. We usually expect to have at least some colder weather, but the ice and snow that blew in last night was an unusual sight for south Texas. All traces of yesterday's weather have already melted into the ground, leaving only a shocked landscape of wilted greenery that wasn't ready for the out of character frost. Inside I was busy reading the newest short story from author Jeremy Ray. I thoroughly enjoyed his novella The Gatherings, so I was happy to accept the gift of his latest effort The House Plant to review. Surrounded by my own collection of potted greenery, I settled in to read Ray's imaginative new offering.

George is trapped, an unwilling prisoner who refuses to accept his fate. Brenda brought him into the home against his will, leaving him devoid of the social interaction that made him thrive. Even worse, Brenda isn't exactly the best caretaker. Poor George is dying of thirst, unable to get enough to satisfy his needs, malnourished, and losing his will to live. He longs to escape this prison. He longs to breathe in the fresh air and to mingle with his own kind. Such is the miserable life of a lonely house plant. 

Soon, George's luck begins to change. Brenda learns to water her fern, and George begins to flourish. He grows with abandon and looks forward to his daily interactions with the woman who brought him into her home. Brenda becomes obsessed with her little plant, bragging about him to her friends and reminiscing about the day she decided to bring George home. Then one day, things change. George's way of life vanishes in an instant. Can things go back to the way they were, or will this plant have to adapt to a new way of life all over?

In The House Plant, author Jeremy Ray packs a cleverly imaginative and emotionally engaging story into the efficiently small package of a short story. At first, I wasn't sure how giving thoughts to a plant would play out, but by the end, I was completely invested in the character and his story. Anyone who has tended to plants can probably relate to the challenge of caring for them and the joy they can bring into our daily lives. Turning the plant into the main character of this work provided a fun twist to an otherwise fairly straightforward narrative. With this story, Jeremy Ray has proved his versatility as an author and his ability to surprise and delight with his writing. I'll happily read whatever he comes up with next. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 2)

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