Monday, May 29, 2023

Strangers We Know Review

Author: Elle Marr
Genre: Suspense Thriller
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Release Date: May 1, 2023
Order Link: Amazon

Special thanks to the publisher for an arc this book.

The search for a serial killer leads a woman into the twisted tangle of her own family tree in a chilling novel by the #1 Amazon Charts bestselling author of The Missing Sister and Lies We Bury.

Strangers We Know is an intense suspense thriller that tackles the highly debatable subject of nature vs. nurture.  Protagonist Ivy Hon, who was adopted when she was a few days old, opens Pandora's Box when an undiagnosed illness convinces her to venture into the vast world of DNA analysis seeking answers to her heritage.  What she eventually discovers leaves her reeling and overwhelmed with questions about everything she's ever known or been told.  Ivy's quest for answers carries her on a journey that includes uncovering dark family secrets and unsavory characters, maneuvering through a religious cult and snooping out a serial killer know as the Full Moon Killer who apparently shares her blood.  Left to wonder if her deceased adoptive parents influence on her life overshadows the blood cursing through her veins, Ivy's search for answers as an armchair detective just may get her killed.

Ivy Hon's DNA testing results connects her to a cousin in Rock Island, Washington, and it's there she travels hoping for information about her family health history that might assist doctors in diagnosing her debilitating headaches and aches and pains.  As she reconnects with biological family members, an array of strange, suspicious characters are introduced that are a bit unnerving, but it's the information she receives from the FBI that chills her blood.  The story unfolds through alternating chapters narrated by Ivy in the present and her birth mother Tatum in the late '80's during the time she gave Ivy up for adoption.  Readers also get snippets in the creepy voice of Samson who remains anonymous until the shocking reveal.

Elle Marr does an outstanding job providing readers with several red herrings in the search for a serial killer.  Characters are well developed - some likable, some despicable but all believable.  Ivy earns readers' empathy as her search for answers rattles some skeletons some would prefer stay buried.  And ominous undertone drives the increasing pace through several plot twists that may seem confusing at first, but the author manipulates the characters through family drama and shocking reveals weaving it all together in the end. 

Strangers We Know is a well written, intense suspense thriller that raises questions about nature vs. nurture.  Do the values learned from one's daily environment during a person's formative years overshadow any that may be lurking in the blood?  While I don't believe there's a definitive answer, Marr does an excellent job exploring the subject in this story about one's woman's journey.  Fans of mystery, suspense and thrillers will enjoy this one.

Adopted when she was only days old, Ivy Hon knows little about her lineage. But when she’s stricken with a mystery illness, the results of a genetic test to identify the cause attract the FBI. According to Ivy’s DNA, she’s related to the Full Moon Killer, who has terrorized the Pacific Northwest for decades. Ivy is the FBI’s hope to stop the enigmatic predator from killing again.

When an online search connects Ivy with her younger cousin, she heads to rural Rock Island, Washington, to meet the woman. Motivated by a secret desire to unmask a murderous relative, Ivy reaches out to what’s left of a family of strangers.

Discovering her mother’s tragic fate and her father’s disappearance is just the beginning. As Ivy ventures into a serial killer’s home territory, she realizes that she may be the next victim of poisonous blood ties.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Identity Review

Author: Nora Roberts
Genre: Romance Suspense
Publisher: St. Martins Press
Release Date: May 23, 2023
Order Link: Amazon

Special thanks to St. Martins Press for an arc.

A new thriller about one man's ice-cold malice, and one woman's fight to reclaim her life.

Nora Roberts never fails to deliver romance suspense novels that are highly engaging with just the right blend of romance and suspense.  Identity is another fantastic example of this author's highly entertaining story telling ability as she pens a standalone story incorporating the high tech crime of identity theft into an intriguing plot line that includes murder.

Former army brat Morgan Albright is living in a neighborhood near Baltimore, Maryland.  She works a day job as an office manager and a night shift as a bartender with dreams of one day owning her own bar.  Her roommate, Nina Ramos, is a great friend who encourages Morgan to put herself out there and meet someone.  The two decide to host a dinner party, and Morgan invites the new mysterious guy she's been chatting up at the bar.  Things are looking up until the day she comes home from work to find her cash, jewelry and car missing . . . and Nina, who had stayed home from work sick, dead.  Soon, Morgan's assets are depleted, and it's clear the thief has stolen her identity.  It's also clear that Nina wasn't the intended target - Morgan was.  And the killer doesn't intend to let her get away.  Morgan moves to Vermont and starts her life over, but just when she thinks the nightmare is behind her, the killer surfaces again with taunts and threats to come for Morgan.  The FBI are always one step behind him . . . can they catch him before he gets to Morgan?

Readers will learn very early on in the story who the con artist/murderer is, but it in no way diminishes the suspense in Identity.  The story centers around Morgan rebuilding her life in her old home with her mother and grandmother as she settles into a new romantic relationship with Miles Jameson.  Tension builds steadily, driven by the repeated threats from the murderer toward Morgan.  She, as well as readers, knows he'll come for her.  The anticipation of when, not if, he'll strike sets a dire tone of impending doom and an increasing pace as he draws closer.  Characters are brilliantly developed, believable with great debt and complexity.  

Roberts is a master at delivering well-written, highly entertaining stories that are hard to put down with strong, capable heroines and handsome, respectful heroes.  The inclusion of family in this story showcases Morgan connection to her roots even as she rebuilds her life and learns to trust herself and another man again.  Strong threads of family, friendship, love, loss, grief and resilience are strong and flawlessly woven throughout.  Fans of romance suspense will enjoy Identity as will readers of suspense thrillers.  Highly recommended.

Former Army brat Morgan Albright has finally planted roots in a friendly neighborhood near Baltimore. Her friend and roommate Nina helps her make the mortgage payments, as does Morgan's job as a bartender. But after she and Nina host their first dinner party—attended by Luke, the flirtatious IT guy who'd been chatting her up at the bar—her carefully built world is shattered. The back door glass is broken, cash and jewelry are missing, her car is gone, and Nina lies dead on the floor.

Soon, a horrific truth emerges: It was Morgan who let the monster in. "Luke” is actually a cold-hearted con artist named Gavin who targets a particular type of woman, steals her assets and identity, and then commits his ultimate goal: murder.

What the FBI tells Morgan is beyond chilling. Nina wasn't his type. Morgan is. Nina was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. And Morgan's nightmare is just beginning. Soon she has no choice but to flee to her mother's home in Vermont. While she struggles to build something new, she meets another man, Miles Jameson. He isn't flashy or flirtatious, and his family business has deep roots in town. But Gavin is still out there hunting new victims, and he hasn't forgotten the one who got away.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

The House on Prytania Tour & Review

Welcome to my stop on The House on Prytania book tour!  Special thanks to Berkley for an arc & tour invite.  Scroll below for my review, the book synopsis and a meet the author feature. 

woman is haunted--both literally and figuratively--by ghosts of the past in this second novel of the Royal Street series by New York Times bestselling author Karen White.

Author:  Karen White
Series: Royal Street #2
Publisher: Berkley
Release Date: May 9, 2023
Order Link: Amazon

Fans of the Tradd Street series will love the Royal Street series as fan favorite characters and their offspring often appear.  The House on Prytania is the second book in the Royal Street series.  Jack and and Melanie's oldest daughter Nola is featured as she returns to the city where she grew up.  While Nola isn't a psychic, she gets a certain vibe when ghosts are present and it's not long before she senses the spirits inhabiting her new home, Creole Cottage.  While most are friendly, Nola senses a malevolent spirit and needs to figure out what's preventing them from crossing over.  When a shocking revelation throws her and Beau (the brother of Sunny who's returned home) together, sparks fly but both are resolved to the fact that nothing can happen between them.  Nola throws herself into solving the mystery of the ghosts in her house, the childhood kidnapping of Sunny and what involvement, if any, her former beau Michael and his powerful family have in it all.  

Karen White has a delightful way of pulling readers right into the middle of her highly atmospheric settings.  You breathe in the ambiance - the sights, sounds and smells of an old city like New Orleans.  I felt like I was touring NOLA in The House on Prytania - the restaurants, streets, old cemeteries, and famous landmarks.  She has a gift for incorporating it all into a steady paced mystery that unfolds through well developed characters that you can't help but love.  A hint of romance, a touch of paranormal and a side dose of humor are added enticement to keep turning pages.  And while I can't say the big reveal was shocking to me, the story was highly readable and entertaining.  While this is a spin-off series of Tradd Street, you can start here without a bump in your reading due to the great job White does of weaving in needed backstory.  Having said that, I do advise reading book one, The Shop On Royal Street, only because it's a great story and introduction to the Royal Street series.

The House On Prytania is an intense, character driven story with all the elements of a great mystery.  The characters, both alive and dead, are intriguing, easy to find empathy for and make up the perfect support cast for Nola as she tackles home renovations, the mystery of the ghosts surrounding her and answers to the mystery of who kidnapped Sunny.  Fans of paranormal suspense will love this book and series.  I highly recommend it to them plus fans of mysteries and suspense thrillers.

Nola Trenholm may not be psychic herself, but she's spent enough time around people who are to know when ghosts are present, and there are definitely a few lingering spirits in her recently purchased Creole cottage in New Orleans. Something, or someone, is keeping them tethered to this world. And not all of them are benign.

But with the sudden return of Sunny Ryan, Beau Ryan's long-lost sister, Nola has plenty to distract her from her ghostly housemates. Especially when the tempting--yet firmly unavailable--Beau, wanting to mete out justice to those he blames for Sunny's kidnapping, asks Nola for a favor that threatens to derail her hard-won recovery and send her hurtling backward. He asks her to welcome Michael Hebert back into her life, even though Michael is the reason for Nola's bruised heart. Beau is convinced that Michael's powerful family was behind Sunny's disappearance and that Michael is the key to getting information the police won't be able to ignore--if Nola is willing to risk everything for which she's worked so hard.

Torn between helping Beau and protecting herself, Nola doesn't realize until it's almost too late why the ghosts are haunting her house--a startling revelation that will throw her and Beau together to fight a common enemy. Assuming Nola can get Beau to listen to what the spirits are trying to tell him, because ignoring them could prove to be a fatal mistake...

Meet the Author:
With more than 1.8 million books in print in eight different languages, Karen White is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 23 novels, including the popular Charleston-set Tradd Street mystery series.

Raised in a house full of brothers, Karen’s love of books and strong female characters first began in the third grade when the local librarian issued her a library card and placed The Secret of the Old Clock, a Nancy Drew Mystery, in her hands.

Karen’s roots run deep in the South where many of her novels are set. Her intricate plot lines and compelling characters charm and captivate readers with just the right mix of family drama, mystery, intrigue and romance.

Not entirely convinced she wanted to be a writer, Karen first pursued a career in business and graduated cum laude with a BS in Management from Tulane University. Ten years later, in a weak moment, she wrote her first book. In the Shadow of the Moon was published in August, 2000. Her books—referred to as “grit lit” (Southern Women’s Fiction)—have since been nominated for numerous national contests including the SIBA (Southeastern Booksellers Alliance) Fiction Book of the Year.

Karen’s latest novel, Dreams of Falling, was published in June, 2018 by Berkley Publishing, a division of Penguin Random House Publishing Group.

When not writing, Karen spends her time reading, scrapbooking, playing piano, and avoiding cooking. Karen and her husband have two grown children and currently live near Atlanta, Georgia with two spoiled Havanese dogs.
- See more at:

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Payback In Death Review

Author: J.D. Robb
Series: In Death #57
Publisher: St. Martins Press
Release Date: Sept. 5, 2023
Order Link: Amazon

4 Irish Hearts

Special thanks to St. Martins press for an arc.

Review published in Mystery & Suspense Magazine

Payback In Death is book #57 in the long running In Death series written by Author J.D. Robb (an alias for Author Nora Roberts). This series is a futuristic police procedural based in New York City and set around the year 2061. To those who may be turned off by the "futuristic" label, please don't allow that to stop you from enjoying these books. While those aspects are interesting, they're really only window dressing to a well written, highly engaging, character driven series featuring outstanding writing with puzzling murder cases to be solved in each book. The character development and intricate investigations and suspense are always front and center with a sprinkling of humor woven throughout elevating the mood. Futuristic elements such as Auto Chef's and Hover Cars appear secondary at best and in no way distract from the quest to solve a murder. And actually, are we really that far away from having flying cars? Maybe not so futuristic after all.

Payback In Death opens with Roarke and Eve enjoying the last days of a two week Greek vacation that is extended with a week-long stopover in Ireland with Roarke's family where Eve has prearranged her anniversary gift presentation to Roarke. Fans of the series know that any down time is rare for this couple so it's nice to enjoy their more personal, intimate side and interactions with family. Arriving back in New York on a Sunday, their plans are to enjoy one last intimate evening of vacation time before hitting work again early on Blue Monday. Unfortunately, those plans fly out the window when Eve's link signals with an unusual request from Webster that she take the lead at the scene of an apparent suicide of the man Webster considered a father figure. Roarke accompanies Eve, and they're off and running again.

The apparent suicide of retired IAB Captain Martin Greenleaf quickly turns into a murder investigation when Eve steps on the scene and recognizes signs of a staged suicide. While Eve has never been a fan of Greenleaf, he becomes one of hers as a murder victim and she begins meticulously working the murder scene. As always, there're several red herrings muddying the water challenging readers and Lt. Dallas to sift through the evidence, find the motive and track down the killer. The plot line is creative and well-crafted as are all of the series books, and I enjoyed the manner in which Robb wove the "payback" revenge theme throughout the story. The main series support characters make appearances with Peabody by Eve's side as they work the case which is always a delight as Peabody's larger than life personality never fails to add a dose of humor to an otherwise dark subject.

While every single title in the In Death Series stands alone, you're missing one of the most important elements of the series if you don't read these books in order of publication. The In Death series features characters that carry over from book to book with an overall character story arc starting with the hero and heroine, Roarke and Eve. From their first meeting in Naked In Death to the present with this newest release, each character - individually and together - evolves, strengthens and stands the test of time as does the support cast. Start at the beginning and by the time you're a few books in, you'll feel like you know these characters personally - they'll become your friends and neighbors and you'll look forward to each new chapter in their life with every new release.

Payback In Death is a challenging police procedural with tension increasing in time with Eve's handling of the case as the plot unfolds. Eve is bold, brash and unrelenting, as always, as she turns every clue over time and again until it finally clicks into place on her murder board and in her own mind. Some of her best scenes occur near the end when she finally gets a murder suspect into an interrogation room where she does some of her finest work. Strong characters and relationships, unique plot lines and tight pacing make this a must read series for fans of crime and police procedurals. I highly recommend Payback In Death to fans of the In Death series and to everyone who enjoys a challenging mystery and police procedural.

Lt. Eve Dallas is just home from a long overdue vacation when she responds to a call of an unattended death. The victim is Martin Greenleaf, retired Internal Affairs Captain. At first glance, the scene appears to be suicide, but the closer Eve examines the body, the more suspicious she becomes.

An unlocked open window, a loving wife and family, a too-perfect suicide note—Eve's gut says it's a homicide. After all, Greenleaf put a lot of dirty cops away during his forty-seven years in Internal Affairs. It could very well be payback—and she will not rest until the case is closed.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Panther's Gap Book Tour

Welcome to my stop on the PANTHER GAP Book Tour!  
Special thanks to the awesome folks at Flatiron Books for an arc and book tour invitation.  I'll say upfront that this is my favorite book of 2023 thus far!  You can read my full review, meet the author and learn more about this book below.

In this great big reading world, I consider myself lucky to come across a book that holds me captive from start to finish. One that I quickly become totally immersed in to a point of becoming one with the characters and story. These elusive books are rarer than hen's teeth and yet, I finished Panther Gap satisfied in the knowledge I held one in my hands. Panther Gap is a larger than life story that defies genre and boundaries. One laden with a complex, multifaceted plot line and atypical characters refusing to be locked in a box. One that delivers a stunning message to humans residing on planet earth.  (Reviewer Sandra Hoover - Full review available below).

Review published in Mystery & Suspense Magazine

Available April 4, 2023!
Order Links: Amazon * Barnes & Noble

Praise for PANTHER GAP:

"This impressive crime novel from Edgar winner McLaughlin (Bearskin) centers on the unexpected consequences of a bequest... Fans of Breaking Bad will be satisfied"

Publishers Weekly

“I marvel at the research and sheer passion McLaughlin brought to bear on his latest novel, Panther Gap. It is chock-full of adventure, runs the gamut on the human experience, and bestows on the fortunate reader a treasure trove of marvelous insights about the animal world, and nature in general. And, it’s just one hell of a good yarn.” 

—David Baldacci

Panther Gap has rattlesnakes, shoot-outs, drug cartels, and international intrigue, as well as a riveting plot and characters who will stay with you long after you finish. On top of all that, there’s flat-out amazing prose and some of the best nature writing you’ll find anywhere. Panther Gap is a modern classic of the American West.” 

—David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Anthony and Thriller Award-winning author of Winter Counts

"James McLaughlin has done it again, created a multi-layered thriller filled not only with relentless, heart-pounding suspense, but achingly beautiful writing about our deep, sometimes mystical relationship to nature and each other. You’ll definitely want to clear your calendar for this one." 

Angie Kim, Edgar Award-winning author of Miracle Creek

“With Panther Gap, McLaughlin has surpassed his award-winning debut and offered up a complex and brutal installment in the rural thriller wheelhouse. If picture perfect settings, plotting as skilled as McCarthy, and prose reminiscent of Larry Brown, is what you’re looking for, McLaughlin is your huckleberry. He’s one of the finest storytellers out there today.” 

Brian Panowich, author of Bull Mountain, Hard Cash Valley, and Nails

"An exciting, action-packed suspense novel that's also a book about many other things—about the natural world and its demise, about family fortunes and misfortunes, about the responsibilities we all have to one another, about crime and betrayal and greed and heroism. A remarkable book." 

—Chris Pavone, bestselling author of Two Nights in Lisbon

“With nods to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, Panther Gap is that rare combination of heart-pumping action and raw beauty, a vividly rendered story of inheritance—in all its forms—set in the stunning American West. The twists arrive like switchbacks on a mountain pass, and I found myself ripping through the final pages, beholding new revelations at every turn.” 

—Adam White, author of The Midcoast

"Set in the Colorado mountains and the desolate scrub of the Mexican border, Panther Gap is steeped in the soul of the West. It’s also a high-stakes thriller that pits shadowy cartels and brutal prison gangs against a family that must depend on the complicated, fractured love that binds them to survive. The narrative tension is so gripping that I couldn't turn the pages quickly enough. An ambitious, exquisitely crafted novel." 

—Heather Young, author of The Distant Dead

5 Star Review:

In this great big reading world, I consider myself lucky to come across a book that holds me captive from start to finish. One that I quickly become totally immersed in to a point of becoming one with the characters and story. These elusive books are rarer than hen's teeth and yet, I finished Panther Gap satisfied in the knowledge I held one in my hands.  Panther Gap is a larger than life story that defies genre and boundaries. One laden with a complex, multifaceted plot line and atypical characters refusing to be locked in a box.  One that delivers a stunning message to humans residing on planet earth.

Panther Gap is a mesmerizing story featuring siblings Bowman and Summer whose early years are spent running wild and free on their father's secluded, off-the-map ranch, hidden away from public eyes in a remote location rich in the history of the "Others" with ancient hidden subterranean passages forming a honeycomb in the Colorado canyon walls. Since losing his wife, their radical environmentalist father appears to be slipping away in fits of paranoia, experiencing psychotic episodes in losing battles with ghosts from his past while guarding dark secrets with his life.  His irrational warnings of unknown danger frighten his children, but even so both siblings absorb his lessons in survival skills and love for nature like a sponge as they grow into misfit teenagers. 

Bowman is especially psychic when it comes to the wildlife living in the natural habitat surrounding their refuge, often venturing off for extended periods of time to live among the animals as one. At times, he becomes dangerously close to losing touch with reality as he often transcends space in a hallucinatory state during which time the fragile lines between his human form and animal counterpart merge. Much of the story, especially anything pertaining to Bowman, is engulfed in a surreal, phantasmal state.  During these times, Summer fears she may lose her brother to the same apparent madness that drives her father.

Bowman and Summer eventually become estranged when he leaves the security of the ranch to pursue the elusive panthers in Central America, with hopes of discovering his own true identity and place in the universe, and she is left to take over the running of the family ranch which is bordering on financial disaster. It's only in later years when their father's warnings prove to be sound and the much maligned inheritance from their late grandfather comes into play that they reunite to battle the crime and mafia drug forces threatening them and their way of life. The story that ensues is a dark, gritty, raw, sometimes heartbreaking thriller that this reader could not put down.

Panther Gap is a beautifully written, action packed thriller that swept me away. I love a story that integrates the surrounding environment into the plot line as an extra character as McLaughlin does in this one. Add a cast of nonconformist characters pushed over their physical and mental limits, and I'm one happy reader.  Top that with a family drama - estranged, eccentric family members forced back together in the battle of their lives against bad guys coming at them from every direction in a multifaceted plot line, and I'm in book heaven.  Panther Gap is rendered through the points of view of Bowman and Summer in riveting past/presence chapters. This allows readers to understand the radical upbringing that shaped them into the adults they've become in this place and time with an appreciation for the environment as well as the source of the deep sorrow they bear in the knowledge that many of the earth's resources and species are being depleted and destroyed by climate change in the name of progress.  
When it's all said and done, will they be able to say they made a difference? Can you?

Panther Gap has all the best of an old timey, shoot 'em up western - rugged setting, conflicted family, dirty money and a slew of bad guys gunning to claim a legacy. The action is swift, the characters damaged and the outcome in question until the final page.  I was hopelessly and totally captured by the brilliance of McLaughlin's writing as he wove this tale of a family in crisis, of a man and woman searching for their identities as individuals - one that "fit" . . . or at the very least, one they can live with.  I like that the ending is a bit open, not all wrapped up in a box with a bow.  Yes, there's much needed closure and yet one is left to wonder, what if?   

In reality, I haven't come close to conveying the magnitude and magnificence of Panther Gap in this review so I'll just say I highly recommend this entertaining book to fans of suspense thrillers, crime fiction and anyone who loves to get lost in a fantastic story that doesn't let you go until the end. 

Siblings Bowman and Summer were raised by their father and two uncles on a remote Colorado ranch. They react differently to his radical teachings and the confusions of adolescence. As young adults, they become estranged but are brought back together in their thirties by the prospect of an illegal and potentially dangerous inheritance from their grandfather. They must ultimately reconcile with each other and their past in order to defeat ruthless criminal forces trying to extort the inheritance.

Set in the rugged American West and populated by drug cartels, shadowy domestic terrorists, and nefarious business interests, Panther Gap shows James McLaughlin’s talents on full display: gorgeous environmental writing, a white-knuckle thriller plot, and characters dealing with legacy, identity, and their own place in the world.

Meet the Author:
James A. McLaughlin is the acclaimed author of Bearskin, winner of the Edgar Award. A native of Virginia, he now lives in Utah, at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, with his wife.

James A. McLaughlin
: For the past 15 years or so, I've worked as a lawyer for a land conservation business I founded with a good friend in Virginia. But my passion has always been writing. My earliest memories of literature are from my family's summer camp in the mountains—I'm eight years old, and a counselor is reading Flannery O'Connor or Mark Twain or J.R.R. Tolkien out loud as it's getting dark, with bullfrogs and crickets and whip-poor-wills as sonic backdrop. That kind of thing alters your DNA. I was deeply affected by story, maybe more so than other kids, and it seemed natural to want to make stories myself. So at a pretty early age, I decided I would be a writer, the kind who spends a lot of time outdoors, has amazing adventures, and writes books. My notion of what it is to be a writer has been evolving ever since!

Monday, March 27, 2023

The Eden Test Review

Author: Adam Sternberg
Genre: Domestic Thriller
Publisher: Flatiron, MacMillan Audio
Narrator: Carlotta Brendan
Release Date: April 25, 2023
Order Link: Amazon

4.5 Hitchcockian Hearts

Review published in Mystery & Suspense Magazine

From Edgar Award-finalist Adam Sternbergh, an electrifying domestic suspense novel for fans of The Perfect Marriage and Rock Paper Scissors, about a couple who are forced to the ultimate extremes to save their marriage—and themselves.

Adam Sternbergh brings his wit, originality, and a Hitchcockian sense of dread to this chilling, surprising, and wholly entertaining portrait of a marriage on the brink.

Since the beginning of time, man's been tempted by forbidden fruit - afforded a choice between right and wrong.  Choose right and enjoy the fruits of your labor . . . choose wrong and suffer the consequences. In Adam Sternbergh's The Eden Test, a couple confronts a crisis.  Should they forsake all others and fight for their marriage 'till death do they part?  Or give in to temptation with another bite of forbidden fruit, dooming their marriage and souls forever?  Daisy and Craig each made bad choices in the past.  The Eden Test Retreat is their chance to make the right choice . . . if they survive.

Daisy's an actress who shuns the spotlight, careful to keep her face off social media for reasons unknown to all but her. A desperate woman and wife harboring deadly secrets, she has to know if she can trust her serial cheater husband Craig when the going gets perilous.  What'll he do if faced with an "or else" ultimatum? Will he fight for her?  Daisy needs answers and after coming across an advertisement for a couples' marital retreat called The Eden Test, she jumps at the opportunity to sign them up.  The Edenic Foundation guarantees results if couples follow their plan. Seven days alone in a remote upstate New York cabin. Seven questions that force couples to reflect on their flawed marriage and reconnect with their inner feelings.  Forever changed.

Craig is fuming when he comes home from work to find Daisy's note directing him to drive to a remote cabin - an anniversary surprise she says.  Daisy doesn't know Craig's prepared to tell her their marriage is over, after which he'll board a plane for Caro with his hot, young mistress. Daisy's waiting at the cabin . . . and tomorrow, Lilith will be waiting at the airport. What's a man to do? Craig figures after three years of marriage, he owes Daisy a face to face kiss off so he reluctantly makes the harrowing drive to the cabin.  Upon arrival, Craig finds it harder than expected to deliver his rehearsed breakup speech, and the longer he postpones confessing to Daisy, the more he second guesses his decision to leave.  Maybe he'll stay a day or so and see what happens.  What Craig doesn't yet understand is Daisy has secrets of her own - ones that fuel the chaos erupting around them when bizarre things begin occurring.  Strange noises in the woods, dead animals left as calling cards, threats intensifying from volatile locals . . . and their own lies and secrets oozing out. Suddenly, their peaceful retreat turns into their worst nightmare.

A week in paradise quickly mutates into a fight for their lives with all the creepy vibes 
of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  I swear I could hear the Hitchcock opening theme music, Funeral March of a Marionette, sounding warnings in my head as its ill-boding strain resonates throughout the last half of The Eden Test.   A malicious undertone permeates every page as the action accelerates until what starts as a fight for their marriage turns into a battle for their lives.  Sternbergh's delivery is razor sharp and precise with descriptive imagery that brings a beautiful location to life before it morphs into a somber, menacing setting they may not survive. As this couples' situation turns dire, the action swells and I burned through pages seeking answers. 

I highly recommend the audio version of The Eden Test rendered by Carlotta Brendan as it's the perfect way to become fully immersed in this story.  Her voice breathes life into the characters, enhancing the sense of urgency as events snowball out of control.  Dual points of view allow readers in both characters' minds, revealing critical backstory as well as the hidden intentions of Craig and Daisy. They can lie to each other . . . but not to readers.

The Eden Test is smart, witty and highly entertaining from cover to cover.  Sternbergh brilliantly delivers a propulsive, unique, tension laden thriller that this reader couldn't put down.  Highly recommended to fans of domestic suspense and suspense thrillers. The Eden Test is one of my 2023 favorites.

Seven Days. Seven Questions. Forever Changed.

Daisy and Craig’s marriage is in serious trouble. That’s why Daisy has signed up for The Eden Test, a week-long getaway for couples in need of a fresh start. Yet even as she’s struggling to salvage her marriage, it seems Craig has plans to leave her for another woman. In fact, his bags are already packed—long before he arrives to meet Daisy in this remote cabin in the woods of upstate New York.

At first, their week away is marked by solitude, connection, and natural beauty—and only a few hostile locals. But what Craig doesn’t know is that Daisy, a slyly talented actress, has her own secrets, including a burner phone she’s been using for mysterious texts. Not to mention the Eden Test itself, which poses a searing new question to the couple every day, each more explosive than the last. Their marriage was never perfect, but now the lies and revelations are piling up, as the week becomes much more than they bargained for…How far are they willing to go?

Adam Sternbergh brings his wit, originality, and a Hitchcockian sense of dread to this chilling, surprising, and wholly entertaining portrait of a marriage on the brink.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Without Saying Goodbye Review & Interview

Author: Laura Jarratt
Genre: Domestic Thriller
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Release Date: May 2, 2023
Order Link: Amazon

Special thanks to the publisher and author for an arc and interview
Review & Interview published in Mystery & Suspense Magazine
Scroll down for Author Interview

A deeply emotional and complex thriller that explores motherhood, love and the desperate need to protect it... at any cost.

Without Saying Goodbye is the story of two women incognito who meet under highly unusual circumstances.  After coming to a wordless understanding that discussions about their past is off limits, they form a tentative bond and makeshift family of sorts.  Both women are running from something or someone.  Both are at the end of their rope.  Both would rather die than return to their former lives.  Both have secrets they will not share.  As the story unfolds, readers come to know these women, to understand their pain, motivation and fear of being forced back to the insufferable life they fled.

Cerys is battling depression as a result of empty nest syndrome.  She gave up her dreams of a career to be a stay at home wife and mother, and now all these years later she's left with nothing to fill her idle time or mind - nothing to look forward to, nothing to live for.  She doesn't know who she is anymore or what role she plays to an indifferent family that no longer needs or sees her often enough to recognize the signs of deepening depression threatening to break her.  Over a period of time, as the darkness claims Cerys, she makes an irreversible decision culminating in one dark night on an empty highway, a fiery crash and a no longer tethered woman on the run.

Lily is a young, naive, abused mother with a helpless four year old child.  Her husband has repeatedly beaten her down both mentally and physically until her confidence in her own ability as a mother, wife and human being is nonexistent.  However, it's not fear for her own life that motivates her, but rather love for the child depending on her.  There's one thing this monster can't beat out of her - her maternal instinct to protect her child at all costs, and so on a dark, foggy night after months of silent preparation, Lily slips out of the house and vanishes with her child.

One fateful afternoon, far away from their respective former homes, Cerys' and Lily's paths cross.  Both recognize a bit of themselves in the other and without revealing backgrounds, they form a tentative, temporary arrangement to live together - no questions asked.  Things improve until the day an emergency ends their anonymity, and someone figures out who they are. It's only a matter of time until danger arrives on their doorstep.  

Without Saying Goodbye is a propulsive, emotional domestic thriller that explores the many stages of motherhood, the overwhelming need to protect and the need to be needed no matter ones' age.  Jarratt does a beautiful job of characterization, of building empathy for both women who are decades apart in age.  Readers are drawn into both women's lives, coming to understand what drove them to run - to leave their families without a word of goodbye, and how in their own way, they're each searching for their own identity.  The plot line unfolds in a steadily rising pace with tension increasing over concerns of being discovered and forced to go back which keeps both women wary and always looking over their shoulder.  Will they ever truly be free of the past that haunts them?

For this reader, the most beautiful part of Without Saying Goodbye is the gradual transformation of both women from darkness to light as they learn to trust again - both their own instincts and others.  Through picturesque prose, Jarratt renders this story with beauty and grace even as she delivers a commentary on social issues like mental and physical abuse, empty nest syndrome and a mother's internal instinct to protect - to do whatever it takes to ensure the safety of her children.  How far would you go to protect your child?  I know I'd do whatever it takes.  

Without Saying Goodbye is a powerful, highly readable, heart touching domestic thriller.  It's especially suited to women of all ages who've ever felt invisible or less than without really understanding why.  I highly recommend it to fans of character driven domestic crimes and light suspense thrillers.

Cerys leaves her life behind in a fiery wreck. Lily slips away from hers early one morning, silent as a shadow. Both are mothers. And both are desperate.

When the two women are thrown into each other's paths, they strike a tentative bond. Cerys is a mother with no children to care for anymore, and Lily is doing all she can to take care of a four-year-old on her own. But each keep secrets from the beginning—the scars, the loneliness, and, most importantly, who they actually are. They need to work together to survive, but how can they trust each other? Because everybody knows: the longer a secret is kept, the worse its consequences will be when the truth comes out.

As the past catches up with them in the form of a deranged father with a shotgun, Lily especially finds herself backed into a corner. But mothers will do what they must to protect their children, no matter who else gets hurt along the way.

Author Interview:

Q. Where did the inspiration for this story come from?  Did you draw any part of it from real life experiences?

Laura: The inspiration actually came from two missing persons searches that were in the newspapers at the same time. One was a young mother who had gone into hiding with her child and the other was a man who had left his family and driven his car into the Welsh hills and killed himself. Those two stories sparked the idea for the book, and while I changed the gender of the suicide victim, I immediately knew Cerys’s story as soon as I thought of her. She arrived as a complete character with her storyline absolutely decided. Lily evolved in a similar way but a little more slowly.

I was going through perimenopause while writing the book but it was based more on the experiences of others than my own. It was a complete coincidence that as the book came out in the UK, the subject of menopause had really started to be talked about more openly. I also have friends who are going through that experience of children leaving home for university and all the emotional turmoil that brings. There probably is a little of me in Cerys’s daughter’s story as I still remember how glad I was to leave home at 19 to go to university and how frustrated I felt at my mother being so sad about it. When I look back on that now as a mother myself, I wish I’d behaved differently.

Q. Lily and Cerys are both desperate mothers running from something or someone.  While they’re decades apart in age and at different stages of their life as mothers, they form a tentative bond.  What makes each mother special?  Why were they your choice of characters through which to render this story?

Laura: Cerys was a revelation – as I’ve said, she arrived fully formed. As soon as I thought of two storylines of mothers who had disappeared from their families and what would happen if they met, she came into being. I think what makes her special is that she’s that perfectly normal mother who goes through a really rough patch. Nothing that happens in her life is anything that most of us couldn’t relate to on some level and many women really struggle with this phase of life. If her menopause hadn’t intersected with her own bereavement and then empty nest, she would not have got to that point of despair, but as it all comes at once, it became too much. I’m quite interested in the idea that everyone has a breaking point. Life has, I think, taught me that. I don’t accept that some people are so strong that it never happens to them. I really believe that breaking down can happen to anyone in the wrong circumstances. Most of us are fortunately lucky but there has been a rhetoric that makes us better or stronger people. I don’t subscribe to that; it makes us more fortunate, but no more. I work with a lot of different people in many different circumstances in my day job and while we can learn coping techniques and some manage some stresses better than others, nobody is immune. In my experience, breaking points come when too many adverse factors occur at once and this is what happens to Cerys. She reaches her dark night of the soul at the start of the book, and then she battles back. I once read a phrase from somebody who had had a breakdown, and he said ‘Breakdown equals Breakthrough, if you let it.’ That has stayed with me and that’s what the reader will see Cerys experience. She needed change in her life and she made that happen.

The character of Lily comes a lot from my previous work with troubled children. There is a real need in her to be loved and to be worthy but she has no self-belief. Children who have experienced trauma, especially rejection, often carry that imprint and their battle is to overcome it. It doesn’t leave them but they can find a way to understand it and move on with the right support around them. I wanted to show this being possible for Lily while still keeping it real. Cerys gives her what she has never had but also she finds it hard to trust because she’s been let down and that’s a typical feature of her upbringing. What I love about her is that she also understands the need to protect her own child from that. She’s a very strong young woman, even though she doesn’t know it. The others see that in her.

Q. Without Saying Goodbye tackles some weighty issues including the many trials and tribulations of motherhood, spousal abuse, empty nest syndrome and extreme depression.  Why did you choose to highlight these issues in this book?  Do they have any special significance in your life?

Laura: For me, issues always come from the characters. In this case the inspiration behind Lily’s story came from some press speculation around a real-life disappearance. I have friends who have experienced coercive abuse in their relationships and seen the impact it has had on them. The physical response Lily has around her fear of her husband is based on that.

The absolute need to protect your child is something that is very real for me personally. I’ve written about it before but I think it’s such a huge part of being a mother for so many women and it’s something mothers have sometimes been shy in acknowledging to each other, as if they’re almost ashamed of that terrible fear you carry from the moment they are born that something will happen to them. There’s a lovely meme floating about that illustrate this for me: it’s a dad throwing a young toddler in the air, and the dad sees it as a few inches, the child as a bit more, and to the mother, he’s thrown her several feet into the air. It made me laugh because I recognise that in myself. That need to look after my child dictates my whole life and has done since conception. It fascinates me how much we change when we have children. That’s why I love writing about it now. Before I was a mother, I wrote teen fiction and loved doing that but the dynamics of mother/daughter relationships are so interesting to write about.

I’ve never personally experienced extreme depression. I’ve had low moments with PMT but nothing like Cerys experiences. However my husband has suffered with a very serious and rare autoimmune condition that affects his brain, and that can present in the early stages as depression. This has been really tough for him and all of us in the family. That will have influenced, of course, how I feel about depression and recovery. It’s important to always have hope and I wanted the book to bring that.

Q. The setting for Without Saying Goodbye is Wales.  Why did you choose this setting?  What makes it work for this story?

Laura: Initially, it was because one of the inspirations for the story came from the sad death of a man who drove into the Welsh hills, abandoned his car and killed himself. The idea of it being in Wales came from that. I have Welsh family by marriage and we have often holidayed and been on day trips in the locations used in the book. Anglesey is somewhere we have a great affection for and I felt instinctively that it would become their safe space to find each other and grow. It’s on the edge of Britain and was the retreat of the Druids in Roman times and so has been a place of safety before. We live in the Welsh border so it was good to be able to travel over to research locations in more depth. It’s such a great spot that the locations and landscape having a key role in the book became a natural thing.

Cerys’s sense of healing surrounded by nature is definitely something I experience. I was born in a city but escaped as soon as I could. I should have been born on a farm, I think, and Cerys finds herself again in that environment. Because she went back to her childhood hills to die, I knew that it would be part of her healing process to be back in that world again. The character of Dilys came from that need. Dilys wasn’t a planned part of the book at all. She appeared one third into the writing process and refused to take a back seat, which is very much her!

Q. Several of your books appear to be domestic thrillers as in stories featuring family members – mothers/children, spouses, siblings, etc.  Is it fair to say this is a reoccurring theme for you?  If so, why?  What is it that draws you to these type characters?

Laura: Yes, absolutely, it is a reoccurring theme. They say you should write the book you want to read and this is what I have realised I do. Characters and dynamics fascinate me. I’m a people watcher, so I love creating families and their interactions. But books need a plot or it becomes too introspective and boring for me so I like to throw challenge at them and see how they react. I am more interested by ordinary people than those on the extremes so the type of characters I meet every day are who I write about when I’m writing for adults. For children, which I only write for fun at present to amuse my daughter, I do like to throw in some more dramatic types. Children’s books bring tremendous fun and I wish I had more time to write them.

It’s always really awkward when an editor queries, ‘Would x really do this?’ because my plot comes from the characters. But several books in, I’ve realised the answer is ‘Yes, they would…but I’ve obviously not shown their motivation well enough,’ so that editorial input is really valuable.


Q. Talk to us about what’s next for you. Are you working on something you can share with readers?

Laura: I’m writing two at once at present but I’ve had a big hiatus as my husband has been very ill over the last two years so I’ve been proceeding slower than normal.

I’m really excited by my adult novel, which is another domestic thriller, exploring the relationships between a granddaughter, mother and grandmother and a decades-old killing. Their dynamics are pretty toxic to all of them and it’s a journey of growth. I’ve wanted to write this one for ages and didn’t quite have the sequencing of the plot worked out until now as it crosses decades and interweaves different characters’ backstory with the present. That’s technically quite difficult to get right so it needs time to percolate in my brain.

I had started writing a different book, which is another reason for my slow pace, but I abandoned it as I felt it was too dark for me to write at this point, and possibly too challenging for my audience. I’ve no regrets with that now. Sometimes it happens like that and it’s just not the right concept for me or for its time. The one I have switched to instead has been bugging me as an idea for a long time and I feel in my happy place writing that.

And I’m writing a children’s book series for my daughter. I haven’t shown it to anyone but her yet. This is purely for pleasure but it may have some legs for publication. I absolutely love it and I would have adored this at her age. It’s a fantasy crossover with a warrior princess and ponies. Little girl heaven!