He Said He Would Be Late by Justine Sullivan


Relationships are built upon trust. Think about it for a moment. You love and respect the person you've chosen to spend your life with, but there's no way for either of you to know every aspect of their life that hasn't included you. Undoubtedly, there were moments before you entered each other's lives that you simply don't know about. Even the longest relationships between couples who "share everything" are bound to have at least some kind of discrepancy or blind spot.  It is the trust that you've established between yourselves that allows you to not have to worry about those unknowns. If trust between a couple can be built, it stands to reason that it can also be broken. In her debut novel He Said He Would Be Late, author Justine Sullivan tells the story of a couple about to face the ultimate test of trust in their relationship. 

From the outside looking in, Liz Bennet has a perfect life. She's a published author with a deal for a second book secured. She's the mother to the precocious toddler Emma. Liz's husband Arno is everything she ever dreamed of. He's handsome, wealthy, and the perfect father to their daughter. To top things off, his last name is Bennet, giving Liz the same name as the protagonist from her favorite novel Pride and Prejudice. That has to be some kind of cosmic sign that her relationship is meant to be. Yes, there is no denying that Liz's life is about as perfect as she could dream of. Why then, does it feel as if her life isn't everything it is cracked up to be?

The cracks in Liz's life begin to appear soon after the birth of her daughter. Instead of the bliss and sense of duty that comes with being a mother, Liz can only think of the way this child is negatively impacting her life. Other mothers speak of the way giving birth flipped a switch that turned on motherly instinct. Liz loves her daughter, but that ethereal motherly inclination hasn't come to her. On top of this, spending every waking hour caring for Emma has kept her from writing her second novel. There's just no time to devote to her ever-approaching deadline. Finally, there's her relationship with Arno. He's a great father when he's home, but Liz is noticing him spending longer and longer days at the office. It seems as if he's always running late. Then she stumbles across a text from a female coworker on his phone. At first glance, it seems like an innocent enough message thanking Arno. But there's a kissy face emoji at the end. This simple text begins to sow seeds of doubt in Liz's mind. She'll stop at nothing to find out the truth. 

He Said He Would Be Late marks the debut of author Justine Sullivan. She's written about the perils of paranoia in the form of suspenseful domestic fiction. The novel is told entirely from the perspective of the protagonist, giving the reader deep insight into the character and what motivates her. This isn't a thriller in the traditional sense. Instead, Sullivan uses the anxiety of her character to lace each page with a sense of uncertainty. As I read, I became intensely invested in the plight of this character. I wasn't certain that I could trust her instincts around her husband's infidelity, but I equally could not look away as she followed every breadcrumb of potential evidence. This is a tightly plotted read that will have you breathlessly turning the pages. The open-ended ending may frustrate a few readers, but I found that it perfectly capped off this story. I'm thankful to Sullivan's publisher for sharing a copy of the book with me, and I can't wait to read whatever she comes up with next. 

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2023, 16)

Finding Freedom by Erin French


You probably have yet to hear of Erin French. The odds of you having ever dined at her exclusive restaurant The Lost Kitchen are slim. The 40-seat eatery has been lauded with awards and recognition, becoming one of the world's most coveted places to eat. Diners are selected by submitting handwritten postcards to the local post office. Only a lucky few are drawn to attend. French has become more well-known in recent years due to her appearance on her own show on Johanna Gaine's Magnolia Network. That's where I first learned of the chef and her restaurant. I was drawn by her connection to her hometown of Freedom, Maine, and her commitment to only using fresh/local ingredients from her community. I devoured the three seasons of her show, and have been eagerly waiting for more from her. When I learned that French had written a memoir, I rushed to my library to borrow a copy. 

The story of Erin's life is centered on her hometown of Freedom, Maine. Freedom is the place she grew up. It is where her father owned a diner and the place she honed her skills in the kitchen. Freedom is also the place she couldn't wait to get away from. As soon as she was able to, she ran away to college, hoping to leave her small town behind for good. An unplanned pregnancy halted her dreams and forced Erin to move back home. It was here that she began hosting small dinners, part of a traveling supper club that she used to support herself and her small child. It was here where she first fell in love, both with the idea of cooking for people and with her first husband. As she chronicles the events of her life, it is clear that Erin would not be where she is today without the never-ending heartbeat of her hometown.  

In Finding Freedom chef Erin French highlights her journey to becoming a food superstar. She writes honestly about her struggles. French faced abusive relationships that nearly sidelined her dreams of being a chef. She doesn't hold back in writing about how she lived through those terrible moments in life, hitting a low when she checked herself into a rehab facility and completely lost her business and custody of her son. Despite these trials, French stayed true to who she was and persevered. Ironically, she ultimately found her own freedom in her aptly-named hometown. As a fan of her and her show, I really enjoyed learning about how the events in her life brought her to where she is now. Her past is rarely mentioned in the show, so it was fascinating to learn of her beginnings. Even if this review is the first time you've heard of Erin French, I think there is a universal relatability in her story that will appeal to all readers. 

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

(2023, 15)

What Have We Done by Alex Finlay


Who is an author that you've heard of but never read? In addition to reading many books each year, I spend a fair amount of time reading other readers' reviews. After all, how will I find my next great read if I don't check out what others are reading? Alex Finlay is an author whose work has come to my attention in recent years. Despite hearing great things about his standalone thrillers, I've never made it a point to read them for myself. When his publisher invited me to read his latest book What Have We Done, I jumped at the chance to see what this author is all about. 

It happened nearly twenty-five years ago. They were all residents at a home for troubled teens. They thought that the past was behind them, but then one of them, a judge, was murdered. Another of the group, a troubled reality show producer narrowly escaped a similar fate. The remaining, a newly married stepmother and an aging rock star know that they must be next on the list. The three former friends will have to come together to escape the sins of their past. 

To attempt to fully summarize the plot of What Have We Done would deny potential readers the thrill of this narrative unwrapping. With each new chapter, Alex Finlay meticulously peels back the layers of his mystery. He employs shifting perspectives and time jumps to lay the breadcrumbs to his twisty conclusion. As I read, I could easily see why so many readers enjoyed this author's work. He writes with a quick pace, never letting the tension cease. The deeper into the web of this mystery I fell, however,  the more over the top I found it to become. This is sheer pulpy action fun, the kind that I rolled my eyes at a few times, but I couldn't stop reading. The characters serve the plot fine but don't expect any deeper revelations into their emotions. They are here to drive the story, and they do that well. I'm left with mixed feelings about my first outing with Finlay. On the one hand, I couldn't stop reading. On the other, the action got a bit too unbelievable for my tastes. If you're the kind of reader who has trouble looking past outrageous plot points, this one may not be the book for you. If you are able, though, to suspend disbelief, you'll really enjoy the ride this book takes you on. 

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

(2023, 14)

Mothered by Zoje Stage


Like many of us during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, author Zoje Stage found herself isolated at home, waiting for the world to reopen. Days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months. It quickly became apparent that COVID was here to stay. Like other authors, the pandemic heavily influenced Stage, inspiring her to write her latest novel Mothered. In an unfortunate act of serendipity, I found myself isolated at home after a positive COVID test earlier this week. I've suffered through the last couple of days with a sore throat and no voice at all, but I'm thankful that my symptoms haven't worsened. With all this time at home, I managed to read Stage's new book. It has added another layer to this already fascinating novel. 

The early days of the pandemic impacted different people in different ways. Yes, there was uncertainty about the situation. What was this strange disease? Were we all in danger of getting it? Beyond the mechanics of the illness, though, arose real questions about how it would impact people's livelihoods. Grace is one such person facing these uncertainties. As a hairdresser, she relies on being in close contact with other people to make a living. You can't cut someone's hair when you are supposed to be social distancing. The owner of the salon where Grace works has decided to use the temporary shutdown as an opportunity to liquidate the business and take early retirement. This, of course, leaves Grace out in the cold. 

With her job prospects on ice, Grace is desperate to find any means of income possible. Right before the pandemic began, she purchased her first home. At the time, she was excited to have made this huge life step, but now she's saddled with a mortgage that she's unsure she'll be able to pay. With no other choices, Grace turns to the one person she never thought she would ask for help. She asks her recently widowed mother Jackie to move in. 

There's a history between mother and daughter that caused a rift in their relationship. Grace optimistically looks at their cohabitation as an opportunity to mend that gap. Soon, however, good intentions turn bad, and their troubled past resurfaces. Grace begins to have nightmares that eerily blend reality and fiction. She dreams of her deceased sister, who despite her own physical challenges always found a way to be cruel to Grace. Things worsen from there, forcing Grace to grapple with the one person she has never been able to fully understand. . . her mother.

This was my first experience reading Zoje Stage's work. I was especially eager to accept this publisher-provided copy of Mothered based on how many of my book reading buddies adored her debut novel Baby Teeth. I found her writing to be compulsively readable. Much of the narrative momentum of the novel is driven by the characters, both of whom are fully fleshed-out versions of people grappling with different aspects of the pandemic. Stage daringly allows her characters to venture into their own paranoia, urging the readers to peek around the corner with them, veering closer and closer to the gruesome and taboo. There is no shortage of disturbing violence, especially as the novel crescendos to its climax. Stage balances this by grounding her characters in a reality that we all recently lived through. Mothered is a unique domestic thriller grounded by strong characters. It is the most inventive and captivating thriller I've read so far this year. 

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

(2023, 13)

Device Free Weekend by Sean Doolittle


"Transport yourselves, if you will, to a time before. A time when hashtags were pound symbols. When computer screens, for those lucky enough to possess their own, had nothing but words on them."

Sometimes we need to get away from everything. With technology at our fingertips, we are constantly connected and attuned in every moment to the rest of the world. While there is no denying that this technology has had its benefits, there's something to be said about the power of disconnecting. After the rush of the holiday season, I took a weeklong cruise. It was an opportunity for some forced relaxation, but the best byproduct of this trip was that my phone had no service on the open seas. I had no choice but to disconnect from everything. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to read the advanced copy of author Sean Doolitile's latest novel Device Free Weekend. 

Six friends have been whisked away to the private island of their college buddy, a billionaire tech savant named Ryan Cloverhill. The group hasn't been together in decades, so they are eager to reconnect. There's only one catch to this all-expenses-paid retreat. Ryan has forbidden the use of any electronic devices on the island. At first, the friends are a bit taken aback by this request. Why would someone so involved in technology forbid it from his property? Soon, though, they are overcome by the conversation and seeing each other. They forget that all of their devices have been confiscated. 

It isn't until the second day of their visit that things get strange. Ryan is nowhere to be found. Physically shut off from the rest of the world, the friends are at a loss as to what to do. Soon Ryan comes back into contact with the group in the form of covert electronics hidden all around the house. He's broadcasting from the basement of his yacht,  and it seems he has some sort of game up his sleeve. The friends are at best annoyed, but they become even more fearful when they realize the horrifying extent of Ryan's scheme. They will have to make a decision, one in which no choice is good. Things are about to get very interesting. 

It is easy to get swept away by Sean Doolittle's high-concept thriller. Device Free Weekend features a luxurious tropical setting, a strong set of main characters, and an intriguing premise that is flawlessly set up. Doolittle has written a book that is pure escapism fun mixed with some real philosophical quandaries. As I read my copy of the book on a beautiful beach in Mexico, it was easy to imagine the place that these characters were visiting. This is the kind of book that hooks you from the very beginning and keeps the pages turning. The only problem with a gripping start is that the author has to maintain the momentum through to the very end. As much as I enjoyed reading it, I can't say that it flawlessly stuck the landing. Still, I'm not sure that really matters with this one. Device Free Weekend is a fun popcorn read that is both entertaining and smart. It isn't a perfect book, but it worked just fine as a solid beach read. 

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

(2023, 12)

Eyes of Prey by John Sandford


Like many readers, I'm faced with the eternal problem of having more books to read than I'll ever have time to finish. There's just not enough time in the day to work through my extensive backlog of titles. Even worse off are the countless series that I've neglected to stay current on. With a few long-running crime series numbering 30+ installments, it seems like an insurmountable task to keep up with them. Determined not to let these series fall by the wayside, I've decided to start working on one at a time. First up is John Sandford's Prey series. I've read and enjoyed the more recent novels, and started the first book several years ago. The second book, read last year, didn't hold up to the standards of what is culturally acceptable today, but I've decided to give book number three a go. 

This go-around sees Lucas Davenport face off against two bad guys. The villainous duo comes to an agreement akin to the classic Strangers on a Train setup, wherein they each commit a murder to benefit the other. As is often the case in a partnership of this kind, one half of the group is much more cunning than the other, and he's the one pulling the strings in a terrifying direction. The other man becomes more of the muscle than the brain, exacting the mastermind's evil agenda with ghastly precision. From the get-go, their carefully laid plan goes slightly awry leaving the duo scrambling to stay ahead of the police who are hot on their trail. Davenport is working through a serious bout of depression. As such, he won't let anything, not even the law, get in his way of catching these killers. 

This is the darkest of the Prey series so far. John Sandford has imagined a killer who is as cunning as he is evil. It's a combination that makes for quick reading and ever-tightening suspense. The reader is privy to the identity of the killers from the very start of the book, making the thrill of reading more about seeing Davenport chase down the clues and come to the conclusion that we already know. Nevertheless, I couldn't put this one down. Beyond having the best villain thus far, Eyes of Prey sees Sandford begin to dig deeper into the emotions of his main character. By focussing on Davenport's debilitating depression and reckless response to it, Sandford allows his character to be more than just an action hero. He's becoming a person whom the reader can actually care about. That makes this my favorite of the first three Prey books. The end leaves plenty of room for the story to continue, so I can't wait to keep reading this series. 

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

(2023, 11)

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