The It Girl, by Ruth Ware****

Ruth Ware’s novels are one more reason to look forward to summer. I’ve read four of her mysteries, and this is among my favorites. My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Press for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

Our protagonist is Hannah, and the setting is England with alternate time periods about ten years apart. In the past, we are in Oxford, where Hannah is a poor-girl-making-good. Today she works in a bookstore, is married to Will, whom she met in school, and she’s pregnant with their first child.

Hannah doesn’t graduate from Oxford; she is too traumatized by the murder of her roommate, who was also her best friend, and whom she found that night. The flashback scenes—not only the night of the murder, but the close friendships that she developed there, along with her relationship with Will, and an assortment of memories, some of them good ones—are so well depicted that I feel as if I am there with her. The group in which she travels consists of herself, Will—who was her roommate April’s boyfriend at the outset—along with Emily, Ryan, and Hugh. These last three aren’t as intimately developed, but that doesn’t matter much, because the two that count for the most in terms of her memories are Hannah herself and April. I feel as though I could pick either of them out of a crowd.

April comes from a ruling class family, and she tells other students that she has been admitted largely due to her family’s money. Eventually Hannah realizes that this isn’t entirely true; yes, her family is rich, and they’ve been generous with the school, but April is also a highly capable student and a diligent one. In fact, April seems to be very everything; today we might say that April is a lot, that she sometimes sucks all the air out of the room. She’s effusive, she’s generous, and she’s given to pulling pranks that are nasty enough to cross a line. Perhaps it’s true that opposites attract, because though Hannah is a more low-key person from a working class household, the two of them bond immediately, and Hannah considers her friendship with April more important than her attraction to Will.

The night April is murdered, Hannah and Hugh see a security guard leaving their building. He’s not supposed to be there, but he is a sleaze bucket, that guy, sometimes using his passkey to enter Hannah and April’s room, and who knows what he was doing this time? When April’s body is discovered, freshly killed, it doesn’t take long before Neville, the creepy security guard, to be arrested, convicted, and put away for life. (A note: there are a lot of Britishisms here that I had to look up. Apparently, a security guard is called a proctor, at least at Oxford.)

Now, in the present day, a friend of Ryan’s that is also a journalist contacts Hannah. All of the students in their group have been overwhelmed by press requests since the murder, and usually, they avoid them like the plague, but Ryan thinks this pal of his is onto something. The friend, Durant, believes that Neville, who has died in prison, was innocent. Now Hannah is moving heaven and earth to find out whether her evidence has sent the wrong person to prison. But who might have done it? Not Hugh, since he entered with her that night; what about the others in their group, including her own husband?

I must confess that I have a bit of trouble accepting Hannah’s sense of mission, and the extent to which she pursues it. This man was not exactly a pillar of rectitude; today he might have been fired or even charged for his misbehavior toward the girls he was supposed to be protecting. And the fact is, he’s dead. He’s never coming back, no matter what Hannah’s amateur detective work reveals. Why upset the apple cart like this, especially when she considers her own husband might be implicated? But she is pregnant, and I know from experience that when our hormones are jumping, we can sometimes have over-the-top reactions. So okay. I guess.

The other thing that gives me pause is Will’s puppyish devotion. During the last half of the book, Hannah does something that I would think would be a marriage ender. That toothpaste is never going back into the tube. Why does Will come panting back to her? This one is harder to accept.

Nevertheless, I was riveted. By the forty percent mark it was impossible for me to read anything except this book until the last page was turned, and so I recommend it to you.

The Drowning Kind, by Jennifer McMahon****

“’There was someone there, in the water.’ Her hand trembled as she held her teacup. ‘Ethel, if I tell you what I saw, you mustn’t think me mad.’”

You bring the hot dogs and marshmallows; I’ll bring the matches and a real good story. It’s time to head for the campfire, and—hey, look! It’s getting dark already. Do you scare easily?

My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Press for the invitation to read and review. This is a fun one! I was able to access both the print and audio versions, and I moved back and forth between them.  I would give a slight edge to the print version here, but the audio isn’t bad, either.

Our story takes place in Vermont, mostly, and the time period and point of view alternate. We begin and end with the present day; our protagonist is Lexie, a social worker. Jax grew up very close to her older sister, Lexie. As they grew older, however, bipolar disorder gripped her elder sister, and Jax has been forced to set boundaries with regard to her sister’s obsessions, lest she be pulled under herself. And so, when she finds nine missed calls on her voice mail, all from Lexie, Jax figures she’s off her meds again, and she chooses not to respond. She has work to do. But the next call comes to tell her that Jax is dead. She drowned in her backyard pool.

Our alternate protagonist is Ethel Monroe, and the year is 1929. Ethel is nearly too old to conceive; she and her husband desperately want a baby. The doctors are stumped; then she hears of a resort whose springs are said to have healing powers. With nothing to lose, she and her spouse hop in the car and make their way to the magic waters. In time, they are told that the water should be avoided. Whenever it grants a wish, it takes something else back for itself, often something that devastates those it has aided. But Ethel is pregnant now, and there is nothing, nothing, nothing more important than her baby.

Of course, there are all kinds of connections between Lexie and Ethel; after all, they are using the same waters, nearly 100 years apart from one another.

McMahon has a well established writing career, but the first time I read her work was when the last book, The Invited, was published. Both stories have certain elements in common, and perhaps because of this, I enjoyed the last one a wee bit more than this one, because it was completely new to me then. Both stories take a sensible, modern-day female character that doesn’t believe in spooks at the outset, and then spin them around every which way until they do. And in both, I see classic elements that include urban legends, but the story McMahon tells is fleshier, updated, and original.

In listening to the audio version, I was at first taken aback, because when the reader shifts from Jax’s story to Ethel’s, no mention is made that we are changing protagonists. The print version captions the new chapter, and since I had both versions, I grabbed the print version once I became confused and saw what had happened. However, it would have taken me longer if I had simply purchased the audio book and been forced to figure it out. The two characters are voiced (in the first person), and Ethel is given a very distinctive speaking style; I found the style to be annoying at first, a bit contrived, but once I got used to it, I was all in. Ethel’s odd speaking style does make it easier to tell when we have switched characters, and perhaps that’s why the reader chose to do it this way.

The pacing never flags. I believe Jax from the first page, and eventually I believe Ethel as well. I successfully predicted the ending, but we are eighty percent of the way in by the time I make my prediction, so I am not disappointed.

For those looking for a deliciously creepy tale, look no farther. This book becomes available to the public Tuesday, April 6, 2021.