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So the warning here is that I'm experimenting with previewing these recent arrivals based on the front and back cover and the first chapter ... but realistically, that's probably what most professional book reviewers do as well ...

Bring Me Back

Bring Me Back: A Novel (B.A. Paris)

Story Pitch: Finn and Layla, young couple are on vacation. They stop at a gas station. Finn goes to the restroom. When he comes back, Layla has mysteriously disappeared! (But is he telling the whole story?) 

Shift to ten years later ...  Finn is now engaged to be married to Ellen, Layla's sister!!!  But Ellen's giving off some suspicious vibes!!! And Finn starts to get reports of Layla-sightings ... "hiding in plain sight!"  Tangled web!!!

Cover: Is that a Wile E. Coyote-style girl-shaped hole in a styrofoam wall on the cover? Is it a wall of cheese? A stucco wall with no lathing behind it?  More mysteries!

Swear to Blurb:  Lee Child says this book is a bright spot in the "new golden age of suspense writing." Library Journal can't put it down!!!

First Chapter: Opens with a transcript of Finn's statement to the French police immediately following Layla's disappearance. Powerful creepy stuff. Likable voice. Mentions twice that Layla was afraid of the dark -- so what's up with that? Then ends with the teaser: "That was the statement I gve to the police .... It was the truth. But not quite the whole truth!"

Then the "real" Chapter One opens twelve years later, with the now-executive, engaged Finn getting a call from the British police officer in charge of the Layla investigation calling Finn to tell him that their neighbor from back then came into the station to report having just seen Layla!!!

John Says ... Story takes off like a shot! Interesting trick with a reliable/unreliable narrator ... we kinda trust Finn because he tells us he was lying ... but wait, then we can't trust him ... but wait! I like Finn -- long ago tragedy, battered but moving on, and I'm looking forward to hearing about his weirdo decision to hookup with his missing gf's sister. 

I assume this is one of those novels where the first three acts -- building the complication, living under the complication, marshalling resolve to face the buried secrets and figure everything out. And I assume the ending is a little bit of a letdown ... but that's not why you read these things.

Makes me wanna keep reading ... but this ain't about me!  On to the next book ...



Last Time I Lied

Last Time I Lied (Riley Sager)

Story Pitch: Sounds like a stupid high-concept premise. Years ago, Emma was the youngest in her cabin at Camp Nightingale, a fancy summer camp. The older girls all slip out of the cabin one night ... and mysteriously disappear!!! 

Years later, Emma (now a fancy New York artist) seems (to me, maybe not to the novel) to be cashing in on her tragedy by painting fevered canvases of dark forests and white-clad ghostly figures. The fancy millionaire owner lady of Camp Nightingale hires Emma as a painting instructor and has her stay in the original cabin from the disappearance ... but this time with the camp's one (?!?) security camera aimed at Emma's door!!! 

Now Emma has to navigate a trail strewn with cryptic clues "about the camp's twisted origins", threats and other spooky stuff to get closure ... but "closure could come at a deadly price!"

Cover: You had me at the spooky blue-tinted picture of Winona Ryder ... or whoever.

Swear to Blurb! Suspense writer Megan Miller says she was "riveted" to the "edge-of-her-seat." EW says it's like a good slasher flick -- which feels fair enough because just the plot suggests the type of horrible decision-making (go back to the camp! take a bunch of money from a sketchy millionaire woman! stay in the cabin! accept the weirdo camera in your cabin!) that is a hallmark of the slasher film.

First Chapter. Bold move to open with four pages of italics and second-person prose"You wake to sunlight whispering through the trees ..." (My brother-in-law Dan once said that he always assumed paragraphs were put in italics to let you know you could skip it ...)  I guess it's a dream sequence ... Emma reliving the gradual realization that her friends had disappeared .. the trauma. Then the first "real" chapter opens with super-cool art-punk Emma preparing her massive canvases for a show and being contacted by mysterious rich lady ... who's going to offer her the camp gig.

John Says ... This has a slower start than Bring Me Back (above). Maybe the "slasher-flick/final girl" DNA requires that ... I feel mean dismissing the book, but the first pages didn't really work for me and I don't have a lot of sympathy for parasitic celebrity art world types .... Still, I feel like I should give it more of a chance, but that's not the ground rules here ...



House on Foster

House on Foster Hill (Jaime Jo Wright)

Story Pitch: Huh, this is one of those suspense novels that follows two time lines.

Plot One: Present-Day... Two years after the mysterious-circumstances-death of her husband, Kaine Prescott buys a mansion "sight-unseen" in her grandfather's small Wisconsin town. (Seems like a questionable bid at a fresh start... but whatever.) The "eerie, abandoned house," however, proves to have a dark history and secrets of its own ... 

Plot Two: 100 Years Ago...  Gal-with-a-past and assistant-to-her-coroner-father Ivy Foster has mysterious "painful memories" of the house -- which are further complicated when an unidentified woman is found dead on the property. Now Ivy has to track dangerous memories to discovery the identity of the dead woman ... 

Cover. Classy cover for a Bethany House book... 20 years ago, Christian fiction was characterized by a weird socialist realist-style cover art ... now they're stylistically more akin to commercial books.  This is nice ... except for the fact that the grand piano at the base of the stairs makes this fancy foyer look a little like a mid-range business hotel ... but other than that, spot on!  It's moody and atmospheric!

Swear to Blurb!  The blurbs on Christian fiction tend to be from other Christian writers -- but they like it. This book is also "riveting." It "grips early and holds fast." The book was nominated for Christian publishing's Christy First-Novel Award (which is impressive because suspense is kind of an underdog in the Christian publishing world ...)

First Chapter. Nice epigraph from Dickens. Nice instinct in opening with the 1906 plot line ... Ivy is immediately signaled as a strong, thoughtful character. The unexplained death in her past ("Andrew" -- probably her brother) motivates her commitment to justice for the dead girl that she's assisting her father with ... There's also the complication of handsome Joel -- Ivy's beau until the night of Andrew's death -- who has returned to town and is working as a detective on the dead girl's case... 

John Says ... I don't read Christian fiction, but I read about it. It often brands itself as centering on characters who struggle to maintain their beliefs and ethical core in extreme situations. So the suspense plot here provides the challenge for protagonists to respond effectively while still walking Christian.  Jaime Jo Wright does a good job setting that up for Ivy in this first chapter -- and sketching a strong and likable protagonist.  In fact, the strength of this first chapter makes me eager to move on to the second -- to meet Kaine Prescott, Ivy's present-day counterpart. I'm curious to see how the more isolated Kaine will compare to Ivy ... and how their stories will eventually intersect. But the rules of this game don't permit that ..