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.

The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware****

Ruth Ware is on a roll. The Turn of the Key is a lot of fun; I received it free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Gallery Books.

Our protagonist comes across the job posting almost by accident while web-crawling, looking for something else. It sounds too good to be true, a live-in nanny position with a professional salary and the use of a car. The location is a beautiful home in Scotland, and the children are 3 adorable little girls, along with a middle schooler who’s away at boarding school. But the funny thing is, they haven’t been able to keep anyone in the position.

Rowan is called for an interview, and she stays overnight in the room that will be hers. It’s gorgeous. The bed is sumptuous, and she has a private bathroom, with state-of-the-art everything. The house was originally an historic pile, but it’s been updated with all sorts of smart house features.

This, I think, is what sets this mystery apart from others, because it speaks to an anxiety many of us face today. Everywhere, we are monitored. Cameras keep us and our belongings safe, but we are always watched. We don’t always know whether we are being watched or not; sometimes cameras are tiny and concealed, and sometimes there are drones that come and go. Every time Rowan—who of course gets the job—has a bad moment, either because she has snapped at one of the kids, or because her clothing is stained or disheveled, or because she’s getting ready to take a shower, she wonders if someone is looking at her.

To me the most surprising thing is that she never pushes back. Why doesn’t she ask about the camera in her bedroom? When she is told that she is only getting about a third of her monthly salary, with the rest being held back as a “completion bonus” after one year, she doesn’t bat an eye. At the end we learn of an additional motivating factor that could account for these things, but that factor feels contrived to me and doesn’t add to the story. It actually weakens it, partly because Megan Miranda just published a mystery with similar features.

The ghostly noises that come in the night are augmented by the smart home features, and here I can only bow in admiration. I also appreciate the poison garden, which is wickedly cool.

The red herrings are obvious ones, and I figured out most of the outcome early on. The shocker at the end didn’t seem credible to me. It took me a long time to buy into the format. The beginning is in the form of a letter our protagonist writes from prison to obtain legal help. But Ware is skilled at creating a hypnotic narrative, and by the ten percent mark I forgot about that aspect and focused on the story itself. Despite a predictable outcome or two, I found the ending satisfying.

That said, I love the use of the microphone feature in gmail that gives Rowan’s charge Ellie, the kindergartener, the capacity to send messages; particular the cute little errors (the messages that read “fairy” instead of “very” and so forth) are adorable.

This is a fast read and a deeply absorbing one. It’s available now.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway, by Ruth Ware****

thedeathofmrsw“How could one family, one person, have so much?”

Hal’s mother dies, leaving her nothing but a cheap rented apartment, a deck of tarot cards, and endless sorrow. She is perplexed but slightly hopeful then, when she receives a note from an attorney indicating she has inherited money; it’s got to be a mistake, but she sure can use it. Why not see where it leads?

My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.

Ware writes in a classic style that’s been compared to Agatha Christie. The traditional elements are there: a menacing old house with a creepy housekeeper; a fortune, complete with competing would-be heirs; an ambiguous old photograph; sinister strangers; a nasty winter storm that prevents escape. In less capable hands it might feel generic, but Ware provides some clever twists that update the old-school model, making for an absorbing read.

My practical side inserts itself, and I find myself wondering—if she feels intimidated by the family, can’t she find an attorney to handle this mess for her at a distance, given what’s waiting at the back end of the transaction? And when she returns to the spooky old house with nothing resolved yet, her stomach in her boots, quivering, I want to say—in all that great manse, surely she can find a different bedroom, one without bars on the windows and locks on the outside of the door. Why be bullied by an 80-year-old housekeeper? Find a different room and claim it, for heaven’s sake. Clean it and put the sheets on yourself if it comes down to it.

But if Hal followed my advice, the story would be no fun at all, so it’s just as well she cannot hear me.

Ruth Ware writes like nobody else, and those that have read her work before know how addictive it is. The more pages I turned, the more I wanted to turn. Mystery lovers and Ware’s fans will want this book right away; turn on all the lights and lock the doors and windows before you dive in. Trust me!

This book is for sale now.