The Beltway Sniper. The Green River Killer. The Boston Strangler. Great unease prevails in a community when there is a cold-blooded killer on the loose. Police work tirelessly and civilians are extra cautious about venturing out. But what happens when the investigation drags on without anyone being apprehended and the number of victims continues to climb? This is the story in Joyce Maynard’s latest book, After Her, a novel as much about a serial killer as it is about the complicated relationships between parents, children and siblings. When sisters Rachel and Patty are teenagers, women begin turning up dead in the mountainous area just beyond their home in northern California. The killer, dubbed the “Sunset Strangler” because of his method and time of day he kills his victims, always seems to be one step ahead of law enforcement. The sisters’ father is the local detective assigned to solve the case, and his spirits and physical health decline as the killer continues to elude capture. Eventually, public opinion turns against him, and he is removed from the case, leaving an unfinished chapter in his career. Thirty years later, his daughter Rachel is still trying to make sense — and make peace — with her now-deceased father’s professional and personal struggles.
Maynard crafts a story that is family saga, history lesson and murder mystery melded together. There is suspense, but also poignant moments showcasing the lasting bonds of family. Ultimately, in order to find the missing piece of the puzzle, Rachel must confront unexpected secrets of her father’s past. Maynard based After Her on the real-life case of the Trailside Killer, and the investigating detective and his family. On her website you can watch a trailer for the book with interviews with the real-life sisters behind the story.
Life on the run might appear glamorous. Travelling to new places, assuming new names and identities, and trying out new living arrangements all seem like obvious perks. But as the young heroines of two new teen novels learn, the truth is far from that.
In The Rules for Disappearing, by Ashley Elston, “Meg” (her latest identity) and her family have been in the Witness Protection Program for eight months, and have already lived in six different places. She is tired of the subpar housing and lifestyle, but mostly she is worried about the toll the program is taking on her family: her mom is drowning her anxieties and depression in alcohol, her little sister is a shell of her former self, and her father seems oblivious to it all. Mainly, Meg just wants to know what her father did to land them in the program in the first place. Elston creates grounded characters, realistic depictions of small-town high school life and a suspenseful mystery that draws the reader in.
In Elizabeth Kiem’s debut novel, Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, Marina is a young dancer living in the lap of luxury in the Soviet Union, thanks to her famous ballerina mother’s connections. But when her mother disappears, Marina and her father must defect to the United States to protect themselves. As Marina tries to continue her dance training, she must also juggle more practical responsibilities, navigate Manhattan and Brooklyn and adapt to the new capitalist culture. At the same time, Soviet secrets are casting a long shadow from halfway around the world, and what her family knows about the government cover-ups becomes the crux of this dark tale. Kiem brings the 1980s landscapes of gritty Brooklyn and frozen Moscow to life with a suspenseful story of overprotected teenager meets international intrigue.
Dianne Dixon’s second novel, The Book of Someday, links three seemingly unrelated characters in an intriguing story of betrayal, love, loss and maternal protection. Livvi is a successful author with an abusive past. She has recurring nightmares about a woman in a silver dress, but has no idea why or what the dreams mean. Recently, she has fallen in love for the first time but is confused by her boyfriend’s evasiveness and family secrets.
Micah is a talented photographer who has recently found out she has breast cancer. As a result, she is on a cross-country journey to try to make amends for past wrongs.
AnnaLee is a housewife with a young daughter. Her husband loves her, but he is a disappointment to her career-wise and their financial struggles have further strained their marriage.
Told from the alternating perspectives of these three characters, Dixon slowly peels back the layers of the story to reveal the interconnectedness. There is also introspection and self-discovery as each woman matures and better understands the gray areas of their past and present relationships with others.
Dixon is a screenwriter and employs brisk writing, succinct dialogue and concise descriptions to create context and keep the story moving forward. The complex characters and plot twists contribute to a dramatic tale which will keep readers up late at night to unravel the mystery. Fans of Jodi Picoult or Kristin Hannah will appreciate the unique ending, which answers some questions but doesn’t tie everything up too neatly. Highly recommended as a book club selection, or as a good couch read on a chilly fall day.
“The paranoia was fulfilled” – that’s how Joan Didion described the murders carried out in 1969 by Charles Manson and his band of devoted followers known as “The Family.” Translation? The late sixties were already a time of intense political change and civil unrest. Throw in sensationalized murders and an equally dramatic trial, and this period was officially the craziest and most unsettling in American history, no matter one’s political or ideological leanings. In Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, Jeff Guinn traces the hardscrabble origins of the boy who grew up to become the infamous cult leader and murderer. Although Manson did have a somewhat unstable home life, he exaggerated or fabricated childhood tales of woe to win sympathy and devotion from his followers. In the true fashion of an “opportunistic sociopath,” as Guinn describes him, Manson used skills obtained in prison, like Dale Carnegie’s popular How to Win Friends and Influence People program, to manipulate followers and bring them under his control. His teachings that “Helter Skelter”, the end of an orderly American society, was close at hand led to the “Tate murders,” where pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others were brutally killed. Additionally, his followers murdered several other people before and after this most infamous crime.
Guinn does an excellent job alternating national and world history with Manson’s development, meticulously chronicling his childhood and adolescence in and out of reform schools, his young adulthood as a petty repeat criminal, and his time in Haight-Ashbury, the neighborhood that was the epicenter for the darker side of the hippie movement where Manson did much of his initial recruiting. Those who enjoyed Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders will appreciate this in-depth account of these suspenseful and chilling crimes. As James Lee Burke writes in his cover review: “Hang on, reader. This is a rip-roaring ride you won’t forget.”
A cozy New England hamlet definitely needs some mystery and dark secrets to make life interesting, and Karen Brown delivers with The Longings of Wayward Girls. In the summer of 1979, Sadie is a 12-year-old girl with a big imagination, a flair for the dramatic and just enough boredom to lead her into trouble. She also physically resembles another neighborhood girl who disappeared five years prior, a coincidence that will continue to haunt her into adulthood. Sadie and her best friend play a trick on Francie, a younger neighbor, leaving her a series of letters supposedly written by a boy from an earlier era. Francie’s letters back to the imaginary person become darker and more telling of trouble at home, but Sadie and her friend are not mature enough to understand this. Soon after, Francie becomes the second girl in the neighborhood to disappear, and Sadie and her friend harbor guilt over her disappearance. Twenty-four years later, Sadie is living the quintessential stay-at-home mother existence in her hometown. Yet she remains haunted by her dysfunctional family history, a recent stillbirth and her own lack of professional accomplishments, not to mention the long-ago unsolved disappearances of the two girls.
In some ways, this is a typical suburban drama about families with underlying issues: Sadie’s alcoholic, suicidal mother; Francie’s abusive father; another neighbor’s odd obsession with Christmas displays. Yet Brown fine tunes the characters and brings enough details about suburban living into the writing to authenticate the scenes. The characters are not always likeable, but their past traumas and upbringings do provide a modicum of explanation for their current actions and personalities. Those who enjoy authors like Jennifer McMahon or Heather Gudenkauf will become intrigued with this community brimming with past and present secrets.
In the eyes of society, five young women were lost even before they went physically missing and found dead. In Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, Robert Kolker vividly details not only a modern-day true crime case but also the stories of these women who slipped through the cracks of American society. Melissa Barthelemy. Maureen Brainard-Barnes. Shannan Gilbert. Amber Lynn Overstreet Costello. Megan Waterman. None of these became household names like Laci Peterson or Natalee Holloway did when they were reported missing. In fact, for several of them, their relatives had trouble being taken seriously by law enforcement. Yet all five women had personal histories, albeit with many common threads. They all grew up in towns without a lot of economic opportunities, they all had troubled family backgrounds, and several had children of their own they struggled to support. They all turned to prostitution as a way to make ends meet. And all of their bodies were discovered in the Oak Beach, NY area, a sparsely populated strip of land off the coast of Long Island.
Kolker masterfully interweaves the histories of these five women with suspenseful and frustrating elements of the crime investigation, including questionable detective work and an uncooperative beach town with secrets of its own. Ultimately, this is still a cold case, with speculation about whether all five died at the hands of the same person(s). Kolker also traces the evolution of prostitution, with women now being able to find clients through sites like Craigslist. This Internet business model belies the dangers that still exist in this line of work and has made it all the easier for those in desperate situations to sell themselves. For true crime fans, this is a book to read not only for the unsolved murders but for what it reveals about overlooked pockets of American life today.
The murder of a child is always shocking, and child killers even more so. In The Wicked Girls, Alex Marwood debuts with a gritty, psychological crime story about two British women trying to outrun their past. For Kirsty Lindsay and Amber Gordon, two girls from the same neighborhood but different worlds, their lives changed permanently one fateful afternoon when they were 11 and committed a horrendous crime against a child. After serving their time, they were given new identities and a chance to forge a new life. Amber, who drew a rougher lot as far as juvenile detention facilities go, eventually becomes a cleaning supervisor at a faded beach town amusement park. Kirsty is a successful journalist with a comfortable home and family, although recently the recession has put a strain on her career and finances. When a string of murders suddenly happens in the town where Amber lives, the two women are unexpectedly brought face-to-face, their shared past threatening to overwhelm them in new ways.
Marwood has constructed a gripping plot with shifting characters and twists like the maze of fun house mirrors in Amber’s amusement park. The backgrounds and dark secrets of the characters are balanced with the crime itself, making this a good choice for readers who like well-developed characters and relationships as well as crime drama. Ambiguous and not at all reassuring, this novel examines social structures and the criminal justice system and questions whether someone should be forever indebted to society for a past mistake. Until the last pages, readers are left wondering if the girls’ crime was accidental or the work of cold-blooded killers. Fans of Rosamund Lupton or Gillian Flynn will appreciate this murky, suspenseful story of flawed characters desperately grasping for normalcy.
Something very wrong was happening to patients at various hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Mysterious deaths and a higher than usual number of unexplained incidents followed nurse Charlie Cullen as he hopscotched from one hospital to the next. In The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder, Charles Graeber relays a chilling, true crime account of a board-certified nurse who killed an unknown number of the hospitals’ most vulnerable patients over the span of 16 years. More disturbing was the hospitals’ handling of it. Although Cullen had been dismissed or summarily fired from jobs, he never seemed to have problems finding another position. Fearful of appearing incompetent or risking internal investigation, hospitals did not report missing drugs or unusual deaths. Cullen was often allowed to resign with the promise that incidents would not show up on his record. Even when police investigators became involved in 2003, one of the hospitals blatantly lied about their ability to access data showing which drugs were requested by which nurses.
The Good Nurse is the result of six years of research by Graeber, including interviews with a now- imprisoned Cullen. Through these interviews, plus police records and court documents, Graeber reconstructs Cullen’s violent family history and the convoluted methods he used to manipulate the hospitals’ drug-dispensing systems in order to kill patients with overdoses. He gives readers insight into a complex man who could just as easily build rapport with co-workers and woo women as he could mercilessly kill the sick and infirm. The total number of victims will never be known, although Graeber describes him as “perhaps the most prolific serial killer in American history,” with estimates as high as 300 deaths. True crime and medical thriller readers shouldn’t miss this story of a “good nurse” with deadly intentions, and the detectives who were in a race against time to arrest him before he killed again.
When you’re set to marry a high-powered New Yorker who’s being groomed for mayor, have a satisfying law career and a comfortable life in the city, what more could life hold? Ellen Branford is about to find out when she travels to tiny Beacon, Maine to deliver a letter from her just-passed grandmother to one of her grandmother’s old flames. In The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café, Mary Simses serves up a delicious dish of chance meetings, small town living and discoveries of long-past. When Ellen’s grandmother passes away unexpectedly, she leaves instructions for Ellen to give a letter to a Chet Cummings, its contents full of apologies and requests for forgiveness. For what? Ellen doesn’t know. But her quick in-and-out trip to Beacon is delayed when at first she nearly drowns and is rescued by a handsome construction worker, and then discovers that there is more to her grandmother’s past than she or anyone in her family knew. Will the magic of this unique place pull Ellen away from a life she’s worked so hard to build? Although the answer is fairly predictable, the plot twists – especially the arrival of Ellen’s fiancé and mother – create an engaging story of love dilemmas and family drama.
Simses’ first novel, she keeps the writing light and humorous with poignant family relationships mixed in for substance. Cozy rural living springs to life through the descriptions of food, homes and one-of-a-kind quirky characters. True to its title, see if you can make it through the book without wanting to bake or eat something with blueberries. Fans of cozy mysteries, romances and anything chick lit will devour this sweet treat of a tale.