See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Hardcover, 328 pages
Published August 1st 2017 by Atlantic Monthly Press (first published March 28th 2017)
In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done is a novel that has the advantage of having a truly titillating premise and a built-in fan base of readers who already know of Miss Lizzie Borden’s infamy:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one. 

If you’ve ever sung that “nursery rhyme” to yourself, you’re already at least a step ahead. See What I Have Done has its roots in the factual 1892 trial of Lizzie Borden–the characters are even based on and named for the real people who were in and out of the house on the fateful day of the murders. With those common facts out of the way, Schmidt rolls up her sleeves and dives into the task of reconstructing that fateful day and retelling the notorious story of Miss Lizzie Borden.

Let me start by first of all saying that the cover art and title of this novel are both phenomenal. In a bookstore setting (whether in person or online) I’d definitely reach for this book, even if just to see what it’s about!

With that out of the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also add that Schmidt has a true talent for finding her readers’ pressure points and picking at them consistently, a skill that sets a suspenseful novel apart from a predictable one. I can see this author’s method working for so many readers, pulling them in and making them feel immersed in these characters’ very thoughts. But, it didn’t work for me. In fact, there were times when this novel was an uphill struggle for me.

The one thing that will always stick out to me about this novel is Lizzie’s temperament. Throughout the novel it was eerily strange despite her obviously childlike temperament, menacing just below the surface in a way that was clearly deliberate on the author’s part. Whether she was not in her right mind in a vaguely sociopathic way or in a childlike way hinting at mental retardation I could not fully tell (though I’m leaning toward the latter), but it certainly functioned to add a little unpredictability and upheaval in the otherwise monotonous 19th century lives these characters seemed to lead.

However, there was something about the execution of this novel that really turned me off—possibly intentionally—but I definitely didn’t take to it the way I would have wanted to. Lizzie’s personality was like an itch under my skin, one I wanted to scratch until she was gone completely and long forgotten about. Instead of building suspense or anxiety, her twitchiness and oddities really just annoyed me to the point that I could no longer stand her. I wanted to be out of her head—away from her altogether at times—at any cost. Only, her chapters were by far the most interesting, as the others seemed to melt into the background for me as a reader. The characters’ voices didn’t pull me in; their actions didn’t interest me. So, that left me with Lizzie, and you can imagine the conundrum that left me in as a reader! 🙂 There was just too much of it. A titillating hint here and there is intriguing; 5 hints toward her psychological oddities per page, every page is annoying. That’s what created that itching sensation under my skin, the tap dancing on my reader Spidey senses.

The thing is, Sarah Schmidt’s ability to affect her reader in that way is a true gift, a skill that’s difficult to hone and display. So, just because it didn’t work for me personally doesn’t mean that I don’t see the cleverness and mental dexterity it took to execute that aspect of this novel, and for that I tip my hat off to her. I’d recommend this novel to lovers of The Village (2004) or of historical mysteries in general. There’s absolutely a fan base out here for Sarah Schmidt and See What I Have Done, and I look forward to giving her another shot the next time she hits the shelves. 3 stars ***

**I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Grove Atlantic, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.**

Goodreads    Southern Fried Karma Press       Twitter

Sarah  SchmidtSarah Schmidt is a Melbourne based writer who happens to work at a public library. See What I Have Done is her first novel.

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

Hardcover, 384 pages
Published July 25th 2017 by Gallery/Scout Press (first published June 15th 2017)

From the instant New York Times bestselling author of blockbuster thrillers In a Dark, Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10 comes Ruth Ware’s chilling new novel.

On a cool June morning, a woman is walking her dog in the idyllic coastal village of Salten along a tidal estuary known as the Reach. Before she can stop him, the dog charges into the water to retrieve what first appears to be a wayward stick, but to her horror, turns out to be something much more sinister…

The next morning, three women in and around London—Fatima, Thea, and Isabel—receive the text they had always hoped would NEVER come, from the fourth in their formerly inseparable clique, Kate, that says only, “I need you.”

The four girls were best friends at Salten, a second rate boarding school set near the cliffs of the English Channel. Each different in their own way, the four became inseparable and were notorious for playing the Lying Game, telling lies at every turn to both fellow boarders and faculty, with varying states of serious and flippant nature that were disturbing enough to ensure that everyone steered clear of them. The myriad and complicated rules of the game are strict: no lying to each other—ever. Bail on the lie when it becomes clear it is about to be found out. But their little game had consequences, and the girls were all expelled in their final year of school under mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of the school’s eccentric art teacher, Ambrose (who also happens to be Kate’s father).

Atmospheric, twisty, and with just the right amount of chill that will keep you wrong-footed—which has now become Ruth Ware’s signature style—The Lying Game is sure to be her next big bestseller. Another unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

 

“…years on, people round here still use your names as a kind of salacious cautionary tale…”

It’s rare that I stumble upon a read as gripping and as raw as this one was. And, it was not an outright or vulgar kind of raw—no, that wouldn’t really be the English way, now would it?—but Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game was something arguably so much better, because it didn’t lean on outright shock, melodrama and over-the-top confrontations. No, here the rawness is in the imagery, a true reader’s delight, because it pulled at the senses and plucked at our moral strings in unpredictable ways, in ways that were altogether unexpected when I picked up this novel.

Here, the reader will peep behind the closed doors of a partially secluded English home at the edge of a reach, a place where the water laps at the very door of the home in high tide just as danger and uncertainty laps at their feet from the moment they receive Kate’s SOS text: I need you. Once a place of refuge and harbor, the Reach has turned into a silent stomping ground for their greatest fears and will forever be a magnet of both dread and longing for each of the women in this sisterhood. Kate, Thea, Fatima and Isa share a secret that bonds them together tighter than blood ever could. And it starts and ends with the Reach.

The gentle suspense here was wonderful, but even it was heightened and magnified like a fly under a magnifying glass by the camaraderie that held these four unlikely friends together nearly 20 years after that fateful night—you could feel their anxieties, mistrust and the burn of their lies scorching your very skin as you read on. Ware swirled so much unexpected goodness into these pages that I was amazed at her deftness and insight. This glimpse into their world was so much more than just that—it was the peeling back of the layers of humanity within ourselves and at the lengths that we will go to protect one of our own.

The very act of peeling seemed to be almost a metaphorical foundation: the peeling away of clothes wet from the waters of the Reach, of skin around ragged fingernails chewed nearly to the quick, of secrets from the truth they’d all stood on as their foundation for years. And, too, within these pages you’ll find little nuggets, like a subtle commentary on the cultural insensitivity Muslims face every day (“What do you think it means? If you think it means that she’s using that head scarf as a bandage, then yes, that’s what I mean. It’s great that Allah’s forgiven you…but I doubt the police will take that as a plea bargain.”) the bond of family—blood and otherwise—and a true sense of setting and surroundings: It gives the whole place a melancholy air, like those sultry southern American towns, where the Spanish moss hangs thick from the trees, swaying in the wind. The town of Salten was embedded in true English culture, making the characters all leap to life on the pages, the values of this tight-knit society playing an important role in the unfolding of events. The Lying Game managed to be about so much more than lying—though those moments of actual “game play” were delightful, fun, frisky and filled with all of the carefreeness of youth that we all remember, that we all yearn to hold on to even now. It was also about the grip of a parent’s love and protection of their children, small town scandal and the whisper of child sexual abuse.

How dare you judge me? I do what I have to do to sleep at night. So do you, apparently. How about you respect my coping mechanisms and I’ll respect yours?

Ruth Ware gave her readers a phenomenal roller coaster of twists and turns. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and would be happy to read more from this author any day! The setting was palpable, the sisterhood and kinship of these women SO relatable. These women felt real; their faults and growth felt real and it made me want to follow them throughout these 300+ pages. The camaraderie was palpable, lifelike, believable and touching. There was no bow-tie happy ending here and I respected that, yearned for that, in fact. Ware had the guts to not put a ribbon on it for us, and her readers can only revere her for that. I loved every moment of reading this novel and I’m definitely a Ruth Ware fan from here on out. The Lying Game easily earned itself a very well-deserved and rarely given 5 stars. *****

 

Image resultRuth Ware grew up in Sussex, on the south coast of England. After graduating from Manchester University she moved to Paris, before settling in North London. She has worked as a waitress, a bookseller, a teacher of English as a foreign language and a press officer. She is married with two small children, and In a Dark, Dark Wood is her début thriller.

 

Goodreads

Southern Fried Karma Press

Twitter

Padmore Culture Magazine

The Child by Fiona Barton

Hardcover, 336 pages
Expected publication: June 27th 2017 by Berkley Books

As an old house is demolished in a gentrifying section of London, a workman discovers a tiny skeleton, buried for years. For journalist Kate Waters, it’s a story that deserves attention. She cobbles together a piece for her newspaper, but at a loss for answers, she can only pose a question: Who is the Building Site Baby?

As Kate investigates, she unearths connections to a crime that rocked the city decades earlier: A newborn baby was stolen from the maternity ward in a local hospital and was never found. Her heartbroken parents were left devastated by the loss.

But there is more to the story, and Kate is drawn—house by house—into the pasts of the people who once lived in this neighborhood that has given up its greatest mystery. And she soon finds herself the keeper of unexpected secrets that erupt in the lives of three women—and torn between what she can and cannot tell…

 

I absolutely adored Fiona Barton’s debut novel, The Widow, so I was all-too eager to get my little hands on this one when I heard about The Child. Of course, that’s the problem with not reading blindly, isn’t it–with already being familiar with an author’s previous works: you go in with expectations, undoubtedly heightening your expectations on the author, and it doesn’t always pan out. When that happens, those reads seem to fall harder than if you’d never met their predecessors in the first place. But that didn’t happen here! This follow-up was awesome! Unfortunately, that’s what happened here.

Not too far into Fiona Barton’s sophomore novel, The Child, I realized that this one wasn’t nearly as clever as her debut, The Widow, and wasn’t nearly as captivating either. Read as a “rush job,” without the finesse and nuance of her previous novel. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the follow-up to a blockbuster movie–you know, the ones where you can tell the studio was just rushing to churn the next one out to capitalize on the fanfare of the last one.

Have you ever read a novel and just knew you could pick out the characters on the street if you saw them? Their mannerisms are so real, their dialogue so witty, so poignant, so enthralling, that you recall a whole slew of their quotes from memory. These characters come alive on the page and delight you, make you want to be them—or at least kidnap them and keep them as your new bestie. Well, you won’t find that here, people. These characters didn’t saunter around, exuding their very essence across the page like in the previous novel.

Though, to be fair, it’s not all cons in this one. One of the better aspects of this novel is that Barton uses the format of short chapters to swiftly draw her reader in and keep them turning pages. It’s a style that I now recognize her for. That technique makes the read seem shorter, faster, and is a true hallmark of the modern-day thriller, which was once again used brilliantly here. Well, to an extent. Of all things, The Child was chalked full of filler. I could almost palpably feel myself ripping at the cotton-like filler to get down to the meat, the core of the novel. Some of the chapters were completely useless to the plot as a whole and slowed the read down to a near-screeching halt, contradictory to the goals of the short chapters, placing The Child very squarely into the “cozy thriller” category and loosening the tauntness that readers look for in a good mystery thriller.

All I needed for complete this novel was a cuppa Earl Grey and a biscuit. For some, this’ll work brilliantly, but I can see the flatly written characters turning off character piece buffs, while the added family drama will turn off mystery thrill seekers, stripping away its well-roundedness and landing this one in a category for a very specific kind of reader. It’s not that the characters here were unlikeable, more like they were just silly. Crying at the slightest stimulus. Sighing and huffing and wedge-driving over men who, for the majority of the read, weren’t much more than cliché sketches of cheaters and adulterers themselves. There were moments where I actually imagined them fawning and fanning themselves at the thought of these men, swooning in their own misery, and that made the read feel long, like I was trudging through used Kleenex the entire time.

Let’s go ahead and address this here, shall we?

There’s so much chatter in the book world about (female) characters who are unlikeable for being shallow or crass—The Girl on the Train immediately comes to mind—but these characters in The Child were equally unlikeable for a completely different reason: because they were so spineless, weak and lacking of any motivation that I could get behind for the vast majority of the novel.

**SPOILER** You can’t toss in driving motivation in the last quarter of the novel and expect me to suddenly care; no, I’ve already been too turned off by the past 300 pages to care at this point: Writer 101. **END SPOILER**

There were a lot of tears in this book, even moments of rushing out of a grocery store, abandoning their grocery cart, because the noise was too unbearable. These characters all needed a swift kick in the ass if you ask me.

Hmm, and the ending. I won’t give anything away, but I will definitely say that I’m not sure how I feel about it. It could’ve been a phenomenal ending, but it was executed poorly and via unlikeable characters, so, in the end, it just felt like a hastily done soap opera ending. There were loads of other sections that could have been scrapped in favor of perfecting the ending, believe me—and the fact that the ending was held up by sappy, weak-willed characters just ruined it, like spilling liquid on a watercolor painting. **MILD SPOILER** I get the feeling that it was meant to be a tear-jerker ending but came off as vaguely melodramatic the way that it was handled, **END SPOILER** which, all in all, landed The Child with a average score of 3 stars ***

Goodreads    Twitter

Fiona BartonMy career has taken some surprising twists and turns over the years. I have been a journalist – senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph, and chief reporter at The Mail on Sunday, where I won Reporter of the Year at the National Press Awards, gave up my job to volunteer in Sri Lanka and since 2008, have trained and worked with exiled and threatened journalists all over the world.
But through it all, a story was cooking in my head.

The worm of this book infected me long ago when, as a national newspaper journalist covering notorious crimes and trials, I found myself wondering what the wives of those accused really knew – or allowed themselves to know. It took the liberation of my career change to turn that fascination into a tale of a missing child, narrated by the wife of the man suspected of the crime, the detective leading the hunt, the journalist covering the case and the mother of the victim.

Much to my astonishment and delight, The Widow is available now in the UK, and around the world in the coming months. However, the sudden silence of my characters feels like a reproach and I am currently working on a second book. My husband and I are living the good life in south-west France, where I am writing in bed, early in the morning when the only distraction is our cockerel, Sparky, crowing.