The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware takes us into Rowan’s jail cell.  She is a young woman accused of murdering a girl in her care, and the case against her looks pretty solid.  Her story is told in the form of a letter appealing her case to a prominent lawyer.  She feels that she must tell her entire story, including all the details leading up to the young girl’s death, in order for him to have a clear picture of her innocence.

The job as a nanny for affluent Sandra and Bill Elincourt’s four daughters seems too good to be true.  She will be paid handsomely and be able to live at historic Heatherbrae House.  Rowan is filling in after a long line of nannies who have abruptly left the position, so she must commit to starting quickly and staying for at least a year.

Sandra and Bill leave her on her own with the girls almost immediately for work travel.  This is when things start going wrong.  The combination of the girls’ poor behaviors on top of nightly creepy noises and odd occurrences around the house have Rowan completely on edge.  The only person she has to turn to is the handsome caretaker Jack, and even then she is not sure if he is completely trustworthy.

Rowan finds out that there is a tragic past to the house which seems to have affected the girls.  As more comes to light, she is confronted by the eldest Elincourt daughter who knows that Rowan is lying about something.

This story is full of secrets, creepiness and lots of twists and turns, especially toward the end, which is when several surprising truths are finally revealed.

A Family Education

Educated by Tara Westover is a riveting memoir that stresses the power of family dynamics in conflict with internal motivation to succeed.

Tara is the youngest of a large sibling group.  Her parents are strict Mormons while her dad also displays signs of mental illness, perhaps bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.  He is against public education, medicine and government and is constantly prepping for an apocalypse.  Tara and her siblings are “home schooled” amidst their dad’s erratic and reckless behaviors.  Usually, home schooling is trumped by their work breaking down scrap in the dad’s junkyard.

Once Tara is a bit older, she becomes the ongoing subject of both physical and mental abuse from one of her brothers. Throughout her young life, it is almost impossible to imagine the injuries that various family members endure, all without proper medical treatment.  Most notable are multiple instances of traumatic head injury and two serious burns.  Tara’s mom uses homeopathic remedies to treat her family, eventually growing a profitable business from her treatments.  Tara’s mom is an interesting character, at first seeming quietly indifferent to her husband’s rants to eventually supporting them.

Somehow, Tara and a couple of her brothers manage to escape the family hold, but for Tara it is at the price of most of her family.  Tara puts herself through college.  Her brilliance captures the attention of her professors which permits her exceptional opportunities to further her education, resulting in a doctorate from Harvard.  Tara’s inner drive is remarkable, despite the powerful voices from her upbringing which almost hold her back.

This is a story of resilience, determination and finding oneself.  It is also a story of the intense inner workings of family that may be impossible for outsiders to understand.


What Happened to Jane?

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn describes the life of Anna Fox, child psychologist turned recluse.  Anna has gone through a traumatic incident, leading to separation from her husband Ed and daughter Livvy.   She has been agoraphobic the past ten months.  Her days mostly consist of online chess, an agoraphobic support group, old movies, lots of wine, and watching the neighbors.  I wish that I was more familiar with the old movies referenced during the story, because I’m sure I missed important connections along the way.

Anyway, Anna has been able to watch and photograph her neighbors without notice until the Russells move in.  Jane, Alistair and their teenage son Ethan provide a new interest for Anna, especially once she happens to meet Ethan and bond with “Jane.”  Shortly after their meeting, she witnesses Jane stabbed and bloody in the Russell  home.  When Anna attempts to get help, all blame turns back on her.  It seems that Jane is perfectly fine and everyone believes Anna to be crazy and hallucinogenic due to her heavy use of medications combined with alcohol.  Yet Anna can’t shake the feeling that something is seriously wrong.  She attempts to figure out what really happened while in and out of a prescription/alcohol-induced daze.

Important truths are revealed along the way (why she became agoraphobic), and the author keeps the reader guessing as to what (if anything) really happened to Jane.  Just when I found myself getting a bit frustrated with Anna, the story twisted again to reveal the true villain.  In doing so, Anna proves herself to be stronger than she ever believed.

I read that this book may become a movie; it certainly has potential to be a great one.

Time for Change

I can check off another title from this year’s Nutmeg nominee list after finishing Unbound by Ann E. Burg.

Grace is required to leave her family’s slave quarters in order to live in the Big House as a servant to Master Allen and his Missus.  Grace befriends the other slaves in the house, while witnessing the terrible treatment they endure.  The Missus seems to look for any reason to inflict bodily harm to her servants.  Grace doesn’t want to draw attention to herself, but she can’t help her reactions to injustice.

Grace overhears the Missus telling Master Allen to bring Grace’s mom and brothers to the auction block.  At this point, Grace realizes that escaping with her family is worth any risk rather than losing them forever.   With bravery and determination, Grace and her family (mother, two brothers, “uncle’ and aunt) are guided into an escape route that brings them through forest and swamp.  They meet others along the way, all with their own stories of poor treatment, loss and escape to share.

I would recommend that students read the Author’s Note and Acknowledgements before the book to understand its historic significance.  Unbound is written in verse, making for a quick and powerful read.

Getting Well

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty is about nine people experiencing different degrees of need for escape/recovery. This is what brings them all to Tranquillum House for a ten-day retreat.

Frances is the character we follow most. She is a romance novelist seemingly at the end of her career.  Her latest novel has been declined and she is reeling from a nasty review.  Tony is the ex-football player who has been “moping” through life since his sports injury.  Napoleon, his wife Heather and their daughter Zoe are still mourning their son/brother’s death.  Jessica and Ben are recent Lottery winners facing marital issues.  Carmel, mother to four daughters, was divorced due to her husband’s affair.  Lars is a devastatingly handsome lawyer/retreat junkie.  He is there in part to escape his husband’s wish to have a baby.

Masha is the owner of Tranquillum, with her own issues and back story too.  In her quest to create the perfect rejuvenating, self-help retreat she pushes the boundaries a bit too far.  The retreat begins with days of silence, no speaking or eye contact allowed.  During this time, guests have been enjoying daily drugged smoothies.  It all comes to a climax  when they are given LSD as a means of promoting therapy, followed by fasting while locked into a room together.  

This is a great read to escape; I found myself really drawn into the guests as they were developed through the book. I saw a little of myself in many of them.  The book concludes with quick snippets of each character’s future.  Read to find out if Masha’s therapy helped the guests or not; is she a maniac or a genius?

The Perfect Robot

Fuzzy by Tom Angleberger and Paul Dellinger proves that even robots can be good or bad.

Vanguard Middle School has been selected for a Robot Integration Program, and Max is extremely excited to be selected as the robot Fuzzy’s guide.  Vanguard is no stranger to robots as the vice principal, Barbara, is also an all-seeing and all-hearing robot.

This school is all about perfect data.  Students must constantly improve their scores as well as demonstrate impeccable behavior or they face being sent to an undesirable school.   Barbara is watching every moment and assigns discipline tags the moment anyone steps out of line.  It seems Max and her friends are always on the receiving end of these discipline tags.  Tensions are running tight for Max at home, and she wants to prove that she is a good student.  As a robot who can make decisions for himself, Fuzzy decides his primary mission is to help Max.  Meanwhile, there are people out to steal Fuzzy for a huge profit.

Max and her friends must face Barbara’s true motives and discover the real reason that a robot is being trained in their school.  I think readers who enjoy the movie “Big Hero 6” and technology/coding will appreciate this book.  This is also one of the 2020 Nutmeg nominees (the third I’ve read so far).

Keep Guessing

The Things You Find in Rock Pools by Greg Dunnett is quite the murder mystery. The main character, Billy, reminds me of Christopher, the autistic narrator from The curious incident of the dog in the night time.  Billy, a 12-year old, is inquisitive, intelligent about his passions and funny at times too. Despite the young narrator, I definitely do not recommend this for young adult readers! 

Billy decides to solve the mystery when a young female is killed while vacationing in his beach town. His first suspect proves innocent, and then signs begin pointing to his dad as the murderer. We discover that Billy and his dad are considered missing people and that his dad is wanted for murder. They go into hiding until ultimately the truth about everything is revealed.  Also, the story switches back and forth between Billy’s and the investigating officers’ perspectives.  

Most chapters closed with a cliffhanger so that I just had to keep reading. And the twists!! I was constantly changing my mind about whether a character was guilty or not. Well-crafted!  And now I must switch gears to some young adult literature for a while.