Sunday, October 21, 2018

Review: Baby Teeth

TitleBaby Teeth
Author:  Zoje Stage 
Genre:  Psychological Thriller
Publisher:  St.  Martin’s Press
Format:  Audiobook
No. of pages:  304
Published:  July 17, 2018
My Rating:  5 Stars

DESCRIPTION:

Sweetness can be deceptive

A battle of wills between mother and daughter reveals the frailty and falsehood of familial bonds in award-winning playwright and filmmaker Zoje Stage’s tense novel of psychological suspense, Baby Teeth.

Afflicted with a chronic debilitating condition, Suzette Jensen knew having children would wreak havoc on her already fragile body. Nevertheless, she brought Hanna into the world, pleased and proud to start a family with her husband Alex. Estranged from her own mother, Suzette is determined to raise her beautiful daughter with the love, care, and support she was denied.

But Hanna proves to be a difficult child. Now seven-years-old, she has yet to utter a word, despite being able to read and write. Defiant and anti-social, she refuses to behave in kindergarten classes, forcing Suzette to homeschool her. Resentful of her mother’s rules and attentions, Hanna lashes out in anger, becoming more aggressive every day. The only time Hanna is truly happy is when she’s with her father. To Alex, she’s willful and precocious but otherwise the perfect little girl, doing what she’s told.

Suzette knows her clever and manipulative daughter doesn’t love her. She can see the hatred and jealousy in her eyes. And as Hanna’s subtle acts of cruelty threaten to tear her and Alex apart, Suzette fears her very life may be in grave danger…their baby girl after all.


I have heard Baby Teeth described as more of a horror than a thriller, comparing it to The Bad Seed. The Good Son, The Other, Gone Girl and The Omen. I have only seen the movie The Bad Seed and have Gone Girl on my bookshelf, yet to be read. These references definitely fit, because this is indeed an undeniably creepy book. Simply put, seven-year-old Hanna wants her Mommy dead. She wants her father all to herself

This story is of the deeply disturbed story of Hanna and her parents Suzette and Alex Jensen. The story is delivered in two perspectives, Hanna’s and Suzette’s. Hanna is mute, but quite intelligent. She can read and write, and do math, having been home-schooled. She communicates by writing out answers to school-related questions. At first she does this only to the school questions, otherwise using grunts and crude gestures, but eventually she uses writing to answer other questions as she becomes more diabolical. Suzette is convinced that her bright daughter can indeed speak, but, for the life of her, cannot figure out why. 

Hanna displays abominable behavior, but never in front of Alex. To him, she is daddy’s little girl. This situation is threatening to destroy Suzette’s and Alex’s relationship, which is exactly what Hanna wants. She wants her daddy all to herself. 

Suzette has Crohn’s disease, and is quite disabled by it. Having gone through difficult surgeries for this, it was doubtful that she would have children. So she and Alex were thrilled to become parents. What they cope with, quite naturally, is entirely unexpected. This is especially for Alex, as he often stands on the side of Hanna. Suzette often wonders if she is imagining some of the horrific things that Hanna does. Alex cannot believe his darling little girl is capable of dangerous deeds, and often denies things that Suzette tells him.

The reader will not be caught by surprise at Suzette’s reactions to Hanna’s behavior, as her actions are clearly described by Hanna with the chapters delivered from her point of view. She is conniving enough to make Suzette truly doubt herself. Be prepared for some terrifying moments as we read of Hanna’s thoughts and actions when displayed as she is terrifyingly disturbed. Imagine such a mother/daughter relationship with the father taking the daughter’s side!

As individuals, and parents, Suzette and Alex are absolutely wonderful people. Suzette’s struggles with her physical condition, as well as her emotional issues, and this is quite touching. Alex is a fine man. He is a good father as he can be, and a very loving husband. 

I read this book in one sitting. I did so in a state of shock. I was reminded of another little girl named Hannah, one of the characters in The Lies We Told by Camille Way. Both girls were incredibly similar. These books were written and released about the same time, so I am sure this is just a coincidence. But, to read of psychologically disturbed young girls was truly unnerving. Kudos to both Zoje Stage, and Camille Way, to write characters of such ilk. 

In the case of this Hanna, I am unfortunately aware that fact is not always stranger than fiction. I feel for real families who cope with such incredible circumstances. Of course, actual cases in real life are different, no doubt, but I applaud Ms. Stage for writing such a terrifying, yet incredibly suspenseful story. 

This was truly the most disturbing story that I have ever read. From Hanna’s behavior, to Suzette’s desperate attempts to fix things to the shocking conclusion make Ms. Stage’s debut novel an absolutely thrilling read. 

Please enjoy the following excerpts:

Hanna

Sometimes she wasn’t sure if she remembered it exactly right. When people asked her how old she was she was still only holding up two fingers, but the leaves were starting to change so she was probably almost three. So the memory was more or less right, and she knew what Mommy meant even then, when she was two, not-yet-three, because she saw Mommy crumbling. And heard in the silences all of Mommy’s regret.

Lunch.

Must have been a weekend, because Daddy was around somewhere. But only she and Mommy were at the table. Mommy used her favorite plate, the one with three little sections with a fox, a squirrel, and a rabbit. Little bits of colorful food were in each section. Strawberry slices and grapes cut in half; yellow and orange cubes of cheese; teeny tiny carrots and crunchy sugar snap peas. Stuff she still liked to nibble on.

The only thing she couldn’t remember is why she didn’t feel like eating.

Mommy sat with her, nibbling a sandwich. She remembered Mommy kept gazing at her, but her eyes looked off, blank like the ones in the dead fish she’d seen at the deli. Hanna wasn’t sure if Mommy was really in there, so she threw a carrot at her.

She blinked. “Hey. No throwing. Eat your lunch.”

Mommy hunched back down, blowing out her cheeks. She went still. As Hanna watched, sometimes Mommy forgot to keep chewing and the sandwich looked like it was about to fall out of her hand. Hanna didn’t like it. Was Mommy dying, like a toy that needed to be wound up? Was there a little slot in her somewhere, like on a phone, where she could be plugged in? She was too big to drag around if all her parts stopped working. Hanna wanted her to come back to life; she threw a grape at her.

“Hey. Why are you throwing everything?” She tapped at Hanna’s plate, like that would make her hungry.

Hanna wanted to say Why? She wanted to say Stay here don’t go away don’t look so weird. She squeaked out a noise instead.

“Eat a little, something from each—you like these.”

Hanna put a piece of cheese in her mouth, sucked it a little, then took it out and dropped it on the floor. She and Mommy did one of their games, where they watched each other and neither of them spoke. And the whole time Hanna dropped pieces of her lunch on the ground, one tidbit at a time.

“Don’t you ever get tired? Just completely tired?”

Hanna blinked hard in surprise, and maybe that meant she’d lost the game, but she didn’t care. Mommy didn’t usually talk to her like she did to Daddy, but it was interesting, so she stuck a carrot in her mouth and waited to see what she would say next.

“Do you ever wish… Maybe you don’t even know who you are yet, so you probably don’t ever wish you were someone else. Not that I know who I’d want to be. Not someone I know, just someone… else. Maybe someone without…”

Hanna didn’t like what Mommy was saying, so she threw the carrot right at her eye.

“Hey!” She bent over and picked up the other bits that were littering the floor. “Don’t waste food. Do you want me to take it away?”

When Mommy started to pull it away, Hanna pulled it right back. Would Mommy really take her food away? Just because she wanted Mommy to stop being weird? She put a grape in her mouth and started chewing.

“I was just trying to make conversation. I always do all the talking and it’s like I just talk to myself all day. I didn’t think it would be so lonely. I didn’t think you’d be so hard to spend so much time with. You make me miss Alex, Daddy, who he was before.”

Hanna missed Daddy too. She spit the chewed grape into Mommy’s face.

“Hey, Hanna! That’s not how we eat our food, you know better. Chew and swallow, don’t put everything on the floor. If you don’t want to eat then just…” She flicked the grape onto her own plate.

Mommy deflated again, with a look on her face that Hanna thought meant there wasn’t a point. Hanna wasn’t worth the little energy she had left. Hanna glared at her. She stuffed a grape in her mouth, a strawberry, a cheese cube, another cheese cube, another grape. And made a show of chewing, chewing.

“Thank you. See, that wasn’t so hard.”

When it was a nice mushy consistency, Hanna got up on her knees and spit the whole glob in Mommy’s face. It struck her cheek, then started to dribble down. Hanna giggled.

Mommy scooped the mash from her face. For a second Hanna thought she might cry. But Mommy got up and came around and forced the glop back into Hanna’s mouth. She held her hand there, making it so Hanna couldn’t open her lips. She couldn’t spit anything back out, but she could also barely breathe.

“Chew.”

Mommy’s eyes looked scarier than the dead fish and she pressed hard against Hanna’s mouth. Hanna whimpered and tried to chew, but it was too tight and her teeth only gnawed on her cheeks as the gloop started slipping down her throat.

She started to gag but thankfully her tears made her throat too tight so nothing else went down that way and that’s when Mommy burst back to normal—”Oh my god I’m so sorry!”—and lifted the plate to her mouth so she could spit it all out.

Mommy patted her back and wiped her chin and Hanna coughed and coughed.

“I’m so sorry, I don’t know why I did that. Oh, baby.” Mommy scooped her onto her hip, bouncing her, kissing her. “I’m so sorry. You’re okay, I didn’t mean to do that. I don’t know why I did that. I love you, baby, I love you.” She kissed her cheek so many times.

But Mommy wasn’t full of love. She was full of fear.

Daddy came in then. Had he been upstairs? Outside? Both she and Mommy were crying. Daddy ran over like a superhero.

“What’s wrong?”

“She was choking.”

“Is she okay? You okay?”

Hanna reached her arms out to Daddy and he took her,

bouncing her just like Mommy did. “Just scared?”

“It really scared us, I don’t know what happened.”

“Everything’s okay now,” Daddy said. And it was. With him, Hanna felt safe.

Mommy gave her a sip of water to drink and smoothed out her hair. “You’re okay now. We’re okay.”

Hanna gazed at her, in a new way. A kind of game that wasn’t fun, but deadly serious. Like a war. Additional excerpt

HANNA

MAYBE THE MACHINE could see the words she never spoke. Maybe they blazed in her bones. Maybe if the people in the white coats blew up the pictures they’d see her thoughts, mapped like mountains and railroad tracks, across her ghostly skull. Hanna knew nothing was wrong with her. But Mommy wanted them to look. Again.

The room in the hospital’s dungeon carried the threat of needles and smelled like lemon candies tinged with poison. When she was little, the machine scared her. But now, seven, she pretended she was an astronaut. The rocket ship spun and beeped and she scanned the coordinates, double-checking her course. Through the round window, tiny Earth dropped from view, then she was in the darkness with the glimmering stars, zooming away. No one would ever catch her. She smiled.

“Stay still, please. Almost finished—you’re doing great.”

The flight director watched her from his monitor. She hated all the ground control people, with their white coats and lilting voices, their play-dough smiles that flopped into frowns. They were all the same. Liars.

Hanna kept her words to herself because they gave her power. Inside her, they retained their purity. She scrutinized Mommy and other adults, studied them. Their words fell like dead bugs from their mouths. A rare person, like Daddy, spoke in butterflies, whispering colors that made her gasp. Inside, she was a kaleidoscope of racing, popping, bursting exclamations, full of wonder and question marks. Patterns swirled, and within every secret pocket she’d stashed a treasure, some stolen, some found. She had tried, as a little girl, to express what was within her. But it came out like marbles. Nonsense. Babbling. Disappointing even to her own ears. She’d practiced, alone in her room, but the bugs fell from her mouth, frighteningly alive, scampering over her skin and bedclothes. She flicked them away. Watched them escape under her closed door.

Words, ever unreliable, were no one’s friend.

But, if she was being honest, there was another reason—a benefit. Her silence was making Mommy crazy. Poor Mommy made it all too clear, over many desperate years, how badly she wanted her to talk. She used to beg.

“Please, baby? Ma-ma? Ma-ma?”

Daddy, on the other hand, never begged or acted put out. His eyes lit up when he held her, like he was witnessing a supernova. He alone really saw her, and so she smiled for him and was rewarded with kisses and tickles.

“Okay, all finished,” said the flight director.

The ground control people pushed a button and her head slid out of the giant mechanical tube. The rocket ship crashed back to Earth, where she found herself in a crater of ugliness. The blobby people emerged—one with her hand outstretched offering to take her back to Mommy, like that was some sort of reward.

“You did such a good job!”

What a lie. She hadn’t done anything but come back to Earth too soon. It wasn’t hard to be still, and not speaking was her natural state. She let the woman take her hand, even though she didn’t want to go back to moody Mommy and another suffocating room. She’d rather explore the hospital’s endless corridors. She pretended she was walking around in the intestines of a giant dragon. When it exhaled its angry flames, they’d catapult her forward into another world. The one where she belonged, where she could race through a gloomy forest with her trusted sword, screaming the call that would summon the others. Her minions would charge behind her as she led the attack. Slash, crash, grunt, and stab. Her sword would get its taste of blood.

SUZETTE

SHE SMOOTHED DOWN the back of Hanna’s hair where it had gotten rumpled during her test.

“See, not so bad. Now we’ll see what the doctor says.” Her tight smile forced her eye to twitch. She dabbed at the corner of it with her index finger. A terror clawed beneath her skin, making small rips in her equilibrium. Doctors’ offices, medical buildings: institutions of torture. They pressed on her like a heavy slab. Hanna sat with her elbow on the chair’s armrest, head on her hand, absorbed and expressionless like she became in front of the TV. Suzette glanced at the framed print that held her daughter’s interest. Squares of watery color. She tried to guess, by the movement of Hanna’s eyes, if she was counting the total number of squares, or collecting them in groups of similar shades. Hanna pretended to be unaware of Suzette beside her, and she read the usual rebuke in Hanna’s refusal to look at her. After so many years, she’d lost track of the moments for which she was being punished.

Perhaps Hanna was still angry at her for running out of bananas. She’d slammed her fists on the table, glaring at her naked bowl of cereal. Or maybe Hanna couldn’t forgive some perceived slight from the previous night, or week, or month. Hanna didn’t know that Suzette had resisted bringing her in for another CT scan—500 times the radiation of a single X-ray—but relented to Alex’s wishes. Her husband’s concerns remain rooted in the pragmatic insistence that something might yet be physically impeding her verbal progress. He didn’t see what she did, and she could never tell him what was really wrong—that it had all been a mistake: She didn’t know how to be a mother; why had that ever seemed like a good idea? So she played along. Of course she’d have Hanna tested again. Of course they needed to know if anything was physiologically awry.

She considered her daughter. They looked so much alike. Her dark, dark hair. The big brown eyes. If only she’d inherited some of Alex’s fairness. She had Hanna put on a nice dress, brand-new knee socks, and Mary Janes. Suzette wore a silk shirtdress, loosely belted to show off her figure, and shoes that cost a fortune. It was silly, she knew, for both of them to dress up for a medical appointment, but she feared situations in which her mothering might be judged, and at least no one could say her child looked neglected or ill. And Suzette had so little opportunity otherwise to wear her finer clothes when all she did was stay home with Hanna. She used to dress up for Alex’s office parties and loved the way his lustful eyes followed her around as she sipped wine and chatted, enjoying the rare company of other adults. But no babysitter would ever come back, and they finally gave up. Alex, considerately, made the gatherings rarer and shorter, but still. She missed the casual normalcy she once had with Fiona and Sasha and Ngozi. She never asked if Alex talked about her at work, or if they all acted as if she no longer existed.

Nervous about what the doctor would say—how he might criticize her—she patted a jumpy rhythm on Hanna’s arm. Hanna pulled it away, lowering her chin as the colorful, blocky print continued to mesmerize her. Suzette held each part of her body too tightly—her crossed legs, her tense shoulders, her hands curled into fists. It made the tender part in her abdomen twist and squeal in protest and she fanned her fingers, trying to make herself relax. It was her first big outing since The Surgery, eight weeks before. They did it laparoscopically this time so the superficial part of the recovery was faster, though she’d asked the doctor to fix her horrible scar while they were there.

The misshapen canyon of a scar had always bothered her, falling in a deep, wonky six-inch diagonal on the right side of her navel. Alex insisted it was part of her beauty, her strength. A marking of survival, of the suffering she’d endured as a teenager. She didn’t need any reminders of those lonely and disgusting years, of the enemy within or her own mother’s deadly indifference. As it was, that first surgery at seventeen put such a fear in her that she’d put off Dr. Stefanski’s recommendation for another resection until her intestines were in danger of perforating. In the beginning, the stricture only caused a bit of pain and she reduced the fiber in her diet. She’d expected her heavy-duty medication—an injectable biological drug—to eliminate the worst of her Crohn’s symptoms. And it did. But as the inflammation receded, scar tissue built up around a narrowing in her intestine.

“Don’t take too much!” she’d pleaded with the surgeon, as if he was about to rob her, not restore her to health.

Alex had kissed her white-knuckled hand. “It’ll be fine, √§lskling, you’ll feel so much better, and be able to eat so much more food.”

Yes, reasonable assessments. If it wasn’t for her inconsolable fear of losing so much small intestine that she’d lose the inalienable right to shit on a toilet like a normal person. People did it every day—lived with ileostomies and bags attached to their abdomens. But she couldn’t. Couldn’t. The very thought of it made her start shaking her head until Hanna twitched, glancing at her with a soured frown as if she was already stinking up the room.

Suzette got herself back under control, at least so far as her daughter would notice. But her dark mind played on, resistant to more-comforting distractions in the weeks since her surgery.

What if she got another fistula?

That was the thing that haunted her every day since she agreed to schedule the procedure. The last time, it developed about six weeks after her emergency resection. She’d woken up one morning feeling as if she was sleeping on a brick, but the mass had been in her own belly, a pool of waste that needed to be drained. It had been eight weeks since The Surgery, so maybe the danger had lessened. Alex said his usual “one day at a time” platitudes. Dr. Stefanski said no no, just keep doing your injections, your inflammation markers are low. But in her head the oozing puss and shit waited in the wings, and what if Alex had to play the role her mother played, nursemaid, replacing the soiled packing in a wound that wouldn’t heal—

A quick knuckle rap on the exam room door dispelled her thoughts. Sometimes the presence of a doctor only made her trauma worse, but this one was here for Hanna, not her. And she was here as a good mother, a concerned mother, unlike her own. She pressed her palm against her tingling abdomen and made herself smile as the new doctor gusted in, grayer than the last one. His eyebrows needed a trim and Suzette struggled to maintain eye contact with him with his nose hairs on such display.

“Mrs. Jensen.” He shook her hand.

He pronounced her name as everyone did, incorrectly. It didn’t bother her as much as it did Swedish-born Alex, who, after nineteen years in the United States, still couldn’t accept that Americans would never make a J sound like a Y. The doctor sat on the rolling stool and brought Hanna’s records up on the computer.

“No changes from the scan she had … When was it? Two and a half years ago? No abnormalities of the skull, jaw, throat, mouth … upon examination or on the scan. So that’s good, right? Hanna’s a healthy girl.” He smiled at Hanna’s turned-away head.

“So … There’s no…?” She tried not to sound as disappointed as she felt. “She should be finishing first grade and we can’t even send her to school, not if she doesn’t speak. We don’t feel like she needs a special class—she’s smart, I homeschool her and she’s very smart. She can read, do math—”

“Mrs. Jensen—”

“But it won’t be good for her—it’s not good for her, to be so isolated. She doesn’t have friends, won’t interact with her peers. We’ve tried to be supportive, encouraging. There has to be something we can do, something to help her…”

“I know an excellent speech language pathologist, if Hanna is having trouble—”

“We’ve tried speech pathologists.”

“—she can be tested for any number of things. Verbal apraxia, semantic pragmatic language disorder…” He scrolled through her online chart, looking for something. “Maybe auditory processing disorder, though she presents atypically for that. Has she had any of these tests?”

“We’ve tested her for everything. Her hearing’s fine, no muscle weakness, no cognitive problems. I’ve lost track of all the tests, but she takes them, seems to think they’re fun—but she won’t say a word.”

“Won’t?” The doctor turned to face Suzette.

“Won’t. Can’t. I don’t know. That’s … We’re trying to find out.”

Suzette squirmed as the doctor flicked his overeducated attention between the two of them. She knew what he was seeing: the daughter, lost in her own head; the mother, a carefully groomed, but wound-up mess.

“You say she can read and write? Can you communicate with her that way?”

“She’ll write out answers in her workbooks, she doesn’t seem to mind that. We know she understands. But when we’ve asked her to write what she’s thinking or wants—any type of actual communication … No, she won’t speak to us that way.” Her interlocked fingers started hurting and she glanced down at them, a little surprised by how forcefully she’d been twisting them. She took hold of her purse strap and started strangling it instead. “She can make noises—so we know, maybe, she could make other sounds. She can grunt. And squeal. Hum little songs.”

“If it’s a matter of her refusing … Won’t requires a different type of doctor than can’t.”

Suzette felt her face reddening, as if her hands had moved to her throat, squeezing the life from her. “I—we—don’t know what to do. We can’t go on like this.” She gasped for air.

The doctor wove his fingers together and gave her a sympathetic, if lopsided, smile. “Behavioral difficulties can be just as difficult to manage as physical ones, maybe more so.”

She nodded. “I always wonder … Am I doing something wrong?”

“It causes strain in a family, I understand. Perhaps the next thing to try … I could recommend a pediatric psychologist. I wouldn’t recommend a psychiatrist, not until she has a diagnosis. In this age, they’re so quick to write prescriptions, and maybe this is something you can work through.”

“Yes, I’d prefer that, thank you.”

“I’ll send a referral through your insurance company…” He turned back to the computer.

Suzette worked the kinks out of her purse strap, feeling slightly dizzy with relief. She tucked a piece of Hanna’s hair behind her ear.

“I try to avoid toxic things,” she said to the doctor’s slouched back. “Not that all medication is toxic, but like you said, society’s so quick to find a pill for something, never mind the side effects. But if it’s not a disability … An organic solution, that sounds good.” She turned to Hanna. “We’re going to work this out. Find someone you might talk to.”

Hanna took a swat at Suzette’s fussing hand and curled her lip in a snarl. Suzette shot her a warning glare, then peeked at the doctor to make sure he hadn’t seen.

Hanna bolted to her feet, crossed her arms, and stood by the door.

“In a minute, we’re almost finished.” Suzette made her voice sound endlessly patient.

Spinning back around on his stool, the doctor chuckled. “I don’t blame you one bit, young lady, cooped up at the doctor’s on a sunny day.” Suzette stood as he did. “The referral will probably take a few days, then you can schedule something directly with Dr. Yamamoto. She’s a developmental child psychologist and has a great way with kids, very established. And hopefully Hanna will connect with her. They’ll print out all the information when you check out.”

“Thank you so much.”

“She might even be able to recommend some schools for you.”

“Perfect.” She looked over at her daughter, not surprised to see the angry scowl on her face. Through bad behavior, Hanna had made herself unwelcome at three preschools and two kindergartens. Suzette had come to believe that their mother-daughter relationship would improve only when they had some distance—when Hanna went off to school. And Suzette wanted their relationship to improve. She was tired of yelling “Hanna, stop!” and maybe she shouldn’t yell, but there were endless reasons—small and large—why she’d needed to. Plucking all the leaves off the houseplants. Pulling on every loose thread, no matter what it unraveled. Mixing a cocktail of orange juice and nail polish remover. Throwing balls against the glass wall of their house. Staring at her and refusing to blink or budge. Hurling sharpened pencils like darts across the room. Hanna had creative ways to amuse herself, and most of them were intolerable.

Since the doctor confirmed there was nothing physically wrong, then, for the sake of her own health and sanity, it was time to convince Alex that they needed to find a school for Hanna. Maybe someone else would succeed where she hadn’t in disciplining the girl. She couldn’t phrase it to him as a desperate need for her own time and space; she couldn’t make it all about herself. Hanna behaved quite lovingly in his presence, and often he saw silliness where she saw mischief, and her more-provocative antics he ascribed to intelligence. He remained blind to his own hypocrisy, all the things he explained away as normal while exulting her precocity. So that would be her argument: Gifted Hanna was bored; she needed more stimulation than what she was getting at home.

One way or another, she wouldn’t let Hanna continue to derail her life.

Hand in hand, they engaged in a silent contest of who could squeeze the tightest, as Suzette smiled at the nurses on their way out.

Copyright © 2018 Zoje Stage.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

(ZOH-yuh.) Zoje Stage is a former filmmaker with a penchant for the dark and suspenseful. Her debut novel BABY TEETH, released by St. Martin's Press in July 2018, was a USA Today bestseller. It was published in the UK by Transworld, under the title BAD APPLE. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA.

*****

Before turning to novels, Zoje Stage had a deep and eclectic background in film and theatre. Highlights include being a 2012 Emerging Storytellers Fellow from the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP.org), and a 2008 Fellow in Screenwriting from the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA.org). In 2009 she won the Screenplay Live! Screenwriting Competition, which afforded her the opportunity to direct a staged reading of her winning script, THE MACHINE WHO LOVED, for the High Falls Film Festival (Rochester, NY). 

Zoje has written-directed-produced numerous zero-budget films, including the documentary short BEST OF LUCK ("an amusing take on the travails of aspiring writers" - The New York Times). Her films have screened at venues such as Anthology Film Archives and Two Boots Pioneer Theater (both in NYC), Film Kitchen (Pittsburgh, PA), and Emerging Filmmakers (Rochester, NY). As a playwright, Zoje is most proud of her play MONSTER, which was produced in Pittsburgh by the Upstairs Theatre ("Ms. Stage now makes her own contribution to holocaust literature with a demanding and intensely felt play... a must-see for those wanting another view of why and how the holocaust happened." - The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). After living in Rochester, NY for many years, she is back in her hometown of Pittsburgh, PA.

Contact her:


Review: Birthday Party Murder

Author:  Leslie Meier 
Series:  Lucy Stone Mystery #9
Genre:  Cozy Mystery
Publisher:  Kensington Books
Format:  Kindle
No. of pages:  272
Published:  2002; 2008
My Rating:  4.5 Stars

DESCRIPTION:

The whole town of Tinker’s Cove is looking forward to the celebration marking former librarian Julia Ward Howe Tilley’s ninetieth birthday. Lucy Stone, Miss Tilley’s closest friend, dreamed up the party idea—at about the same time she decided she’s not getting old without a fight.

That sounds like a plan—until Lucy realizes her daughter’s fourteenth birthday bash, a coed sleepover, may turn her hair white overnight. What was she thinking when she agreed to let Sara have the party? On her mind, instead, was the shocking death of Sherman Cobb, the town’s oldest attorney, an apparent suicide. His law partner, however, thinks Sherman was murdered.

Poking about in Sherman’s papers, Lucy turns up an intriguing tie between the dead man and Miss Tilley. Meanwhile Miss Tilley’s own past has come back to haunt her in the form of a mysterious niece named Shirley and a biker great nephew named Snake. Soon no one can get to see the elderly librarian because the brash, bossy Shirley says she’s “failing.” Now, as a killer’s ruthless plan rushes toward a conclusion, Lucy needs answers fast—or else she and Miss Tilley won’t live long enough to make a wish and blow out the candles on this year’s birthday cake… 
MY THOUGHTS:

Lucy Stone, very busy wife and mother of four, has a part-time job at the town’s newspaper. She agreed to allow her daughter to have a co-ed birthday sleepover. One of the Tinker’s Cove oldest citizens, a former librarian, Miss Tilley, is approaching ninety. She feels pressured when her best friend Sue asks her to help out with a party Sue and her friends are planning for Miss Tilley. She reluctantly agrees to help. She is quite fond of Miss Tilley, but has a full schedule. They decide to throw a “Miss Tilley Day”. 

Meanwhile, Sherman Cobb was found murdered by his partner Bob Goodman. Lucy agrees to look into the case. As an amateur detective, there is nothing surprising about this. It was ruled a suicide but it seems suspicious. Her husband Bill has his typical reaction. "Bill sighed in frustration. 'What do you want to go and do that for? Haven’t we been through this a million times? Why do you have to keep sticking your nose into police business, huh?'" Why would she involve herself in solving another murder?

Although one of her children is just in the second grade, with two of her children being in college, Lucy begins to feel the effects of getting older. She has become focused on losing weight. Working on that goal, and dealing with the two birthday parties, hardly leaves Lucy time to step in and find the cause of Sherman’s death. As she begins checking things out, quite a few things do not fall into place that don’t line up for man that would kill himself. As always, Lucy leaves no stone unturned. 

Birthday Party Murder has some sensitive moments, especially as Miss Tilley experiences flashbacks from her youth. Between everything going on, this story is another delightful little mystery and is a great addition to this ongoing series. As the story progresses, other things happen in Lucy’s life and family. In this story, as well as the series, some readers like myself are getting rather annoyed with Lucy‘s husband Bill being big man on the town. His view of Lucy’s role can be rather condescending. If not the mystery in this series, which is done well, the characters will draw you in. I definitely look forward to continuing with this engaging series. 

This is the 9th book in the series, with the 25th book, Valentine Candy Murder, being released in December, which is an omnibus, as are some of the new releases. The next book in the series is Father’s Day Murder, which was originally released in 2003. I encourage readers of this review to look at my other reviews from this series on this blog. Also, here is a link to her series in order: https://www.fantasticfiction.com/m/leslie-meier/.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

I started writing in the late ‘80s when I was attending graduate classes at Bridgewater State College. I wanted to become certified to teach high school English and one of the required courses was Writing and the Teaching of Writing. My professor suggested that one of the papers I wrote for that course was good enough to be published and I sent it off to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s Department of First Stories. I got $100 for the story and I’ve been writing ever since. The teaching, however, didn’t work out.

My books draw heavily on my experience as a mother of three and my work as a reporter for various weekly newspapers on Cape  . My heroine, Lucy Stone, is a reporter in the fictional town of Tinker’s Cove, Maine, where she lives in an old farmhouse (quite similar to mine on Cape Cod!) with her restoration carpenter husband Bill and four children. As the series has progressed the kids have grown older, roughly paralleling my own family. We seem to have reached a point beyond which Lucy cannot age–my editor seems to want her to remain forty-something forever, though I have to admit I personally am dying to write “Menopause is Murder!”

I usually write one Lucy Stone mystery every year and as you can tell, my editor likes me to feature the holidays in my books. Of course Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year and my newest mystery “Eggnog Murder,” is included in an anthology with two other Christmas novellas by Barbara Ross and Lee Hollis. I’ve long been a fan of the classic English country house mystery, and was a faithful watcher of “Downton Abbey,” so I couldn’t resist trying to write one. I think I succeeded rather well, if I do say so myself, with “British Manor Murder,” which came out in October, 2016.

My books are classified as “cozies” but a good friend insists they are really “comedies of manners” and I do enjoy expressing my view of contemporary American life.

Now that the kids are grown — we have five fabulous grandchildren — my husband and I are enjoying dividing our time between Braintree and Cape Cod, along with our cat, Sylvester.

Find Her:  Goodreads / Twitter / Web 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Review: Hanover House

Title:  Hanover House
Author:  Brenda Novak
Series!  The Evelyn Talbot Chronicles 0.5
Genre:  Mystery/Thriller
Publisher:  Brenda Novak, Inc.
Format:  Audio
No. of pages:  244
Published:  2015; 2017
My Rating:  4.5 Stars

DESCRIPTION:

The stunning prequel to New York Times bestseller Brenda's Novak latest thriller HER DARKEST NIGHTMARE, described as 'gut-gripping suspense' by Karen Rose, introduces new series lead Dr Evelyn Talbot. Welcome to Hanover House...

Psychiatrist Evelyn Talbot has dedicated her life to analysing psychopaths. Why they act as they do. How they come to be. Why they don't feel remorse. Her only goal is to use her knowledge to find and stop them.

Having been tortured and left for dead when she was just a teenager by her high school boyfriend, Evelyn's determined to understand how someone she trusted so much could turn on her. Establishing a revolutionary new medical health centre in the remote town of Hilltop, Alaska, where she observes these killers is the final step in years of studying which will give her the answers she needs.

Keeping these killers inside and the residents of Hilltop safe is Evelyn's responsibility, but it will only take one little thing to go wrong for the danger they pose to become all too real...

The second book in the Evelyn Talbot series, HELLO AGAIN, is available to buy in paperback and ebook now.


MY THOUGHTS:

To be fair, I must warn readers that this book is incredibly intense. It deals with gruesome subjects like murder, torture and rape. It is not explicit, but it is the basis for this series. 

Psychiatrist Evelyn Talbot heads to Hilltop, Alaska, to a new medical health center to study the world's worst psychologically disturbed minds. The center is named Hanover House and it the first of its kind. Will she and her colleagues be able to figure out why men kill, rape, and commit other such heinous crimes? By studying all aspects of behavior Evelyn hopes to understand why psychopaths have such abominable behavior. 

The story is interrupted at times to tell of a tragic time in Evelyn’s past when she was kidnapped, tortured and left for dead when she was a teenager. The person that did these horrible things to her was her high school boyfriend Jasper Moore. What Jasper did to Evelyn was just the tip of the iceberg for the violently ill young man. He was never charged and found, and unbeknownst to Evelyn, has changed his name to Andy Smith. In her thirties now, Evelyn is still living in fear of Jasper. However, it is that life experience that led to her career as a psychiatrist.

It is no surprise that the town’s citizens in Hilltop are extremely unhappy about the new facility and the violent patients that will be transferred there. Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Amarok, is especially frustrated about this. When he learns that the main doctor is a woman, he is very concerned that she will be around so many dangerous men. This was very worrisome to Amarok, but once he meets Evelyn his feelings about the matter intensify as he becomes quite drawn to her. So the entire situation has become very personal to him. This concern has a solid basis when it becomes evident that Evelyn is in extreme danger from another source - Jasper Moore from her past. Jasper has tracked Evelyn down. He has spent two decades brutally murdering women with Evelyn as his ultimate prize in mind.  

The story shifts as Amarok expresses his strong attraction to Evelyn, but she tells him that she has no intention on becoming romantically involved with him. As accomplished as Evelyn is, she is still severely traumatized and still lives in fear. This fear could be the ruin of her. A slow build of romance develops between Evelyn and Amarok. As the story progresses, Evelyn is forced to deal with her fear of intimacy.

This novella, Hanover House, is the first book in the Evelyn Talbot Chronicles, to be followed by Her Darkest Night, Hello Again and Face Off. This exciting prequel was barely over 200 pages and was an incredibly quick read that I completed in one sitting. This was a fabulous story that set the groundwork for what promises to be an intriguing series. I decided to read this story in order to prepare for my review for Face Off, which I received from NetGalley. I wanted to read this entire series to-date to prepare to read that book. I am really glad that I did because I was really able to get to know the primary protagonists in this series. 

Hanover House is not yet in operation in this story. I am eager to continue on and discover how Evelyn will learn about the minds of the psychopaths while also hoping for Jasper to be caught before he kills any more women and finally getting to Evelyn. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

It was a shocking experience that jump-started Brenda Novak’s bestselling author career.

“I caught my day-care provider drugging my children with cough syrup and Tylenol to get them to sleep while I was away,” Brenda says. “It was then that I decided that I needed to do something from home.”

However, writing was the last profession she expected to undertake. In fact, Brenda swears she didn’t have a creative bone in her body. In school, math and science were her best subjects, and when it came time to pick a major in college, she chose business.

Abandoning her academic scholarship to Brigham Young University at the age of 20 in order to get married and start a family, Brenda dabbled in commercial real estate, then became a loan officer.

“When I first got the idea to become a novelist, it took me five years to teach myself the craft and finish my first book,” Brenda admits. “I learned how to write by reading what others have written. The best advice for any would-be author: read, read, read….”

Brenda sold her first book, and the rest is history. Many of her novels have won or placed in contests such as the National Reader’s Choice, the Bookseller’s Best, the Write Touch, the Award of Excellence and the Beacon Award for Published Authors.

Brenda and her husband, Ted, live in Sacramento and are the proud parents of five children—three girls and two boys. When she’s not spending time with her family or writing, Brenda is usually raising money for diabetes research. Her youngest son, Thad, has diabetes, and Brenda is determined to help him and others like him. She also enjoys traveling, watching sporting events and biking — she rides an amazing 20 miles every day!

Contact her

Web - https://brendanovak.com/

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Someone to Wed YouTube Video


Review: Someone to Wed

Title:  Someone to Wed
Author:  Mary Balogh
Series:  Westcott #3
Genre:  Historical Romance
Publisher:  Berkely 
Format:  Kindle
No. of Pages:  384
Date of publication:  November 7, 2017
My rating:  5 Stars

DESCRIPTION:

A very practical marriage makes Alexander Westcott question his heart in the latest Regency romance from the New York Times bestselling author of Someone to Hold.

When Alexander Westcott becomes the new Earl of Riverdale, he inherits a title he never wanted and a failing country estate he can’t afford. But he fully intends to do everything in his power to undo years of neglect and give the people who depend on him a better life...

A recluse for more than twenty years, Wren Heyden wants one thing out of life: marriage. With her vast fortune, she sets her sights on buying a husband. But when she makes the desperate—and oh-so-dashing—earl a startlingly unexpected proposal, Alex will only agree to a proper courtship, hoping for at least friendship and respect to develop between them. He is totally unprepared for the desire that overwhelms him when Wren finally lifts the veils that hide the secrets of her past.

MY THOUGHTS:  

In the first book in this series, readers are introduced to the Westcott family, and how there were three adult children who were discovered to be illegitimate children to Humphrey Westcott, the now deceased Earl of Riverdale. Readers are introduced to Anna Snow, the actual legitimate daughter of the Earl, and how she found a life with Avery Archer, the Duke of Netherby. Jumping ahead to this story, we are reminded that Alexander is now the Earl of Riverdale. 

Here we meet Wren Heydon, a glassworks heiress who has become a recluse. Whenever Wren was in the company of others, she wore a veil. The best way to describe Wren comes from a direct quote from the book, “she was a mystery woman even without it, for she wore layer upon layer of inner veils.” As the story unfolds, Wren expresses her desire to marry. She wants to marry for a number of reasons. She wants love, companionship and children. At thirty years of age she has avoided society, the ton. I choose to leave the reasons why to the reader. 

A potential suitor is Alexander Westcott, Earl of Riverdale. Upon first glance Wren determines that Alexander is not for her. He is far too perfect - tall, dark and handsome. Although he is quite an honorable man, Wren draws away, but they do visit one another for a very brief period of time. They both hope that just might suit, even if only a little. However, Wren feels that she will forever be lonely. Alexander knows he must find a rich wife, but he wants far more from marriage than money. So when he receives a marriage proposal from Wren, he insists that it is not that simple. 

Wren is a wonderful woman. Her reasons for being a recluse are very easy to understand and they most assuredly caused much emotion as I read the story. I just wanted her to find love and happiness and to get back what she most bountifully received from her beloved aunt and uncle. They raised her with a sense of true belonging. It is incredibly sad that they have recently passed away. 

Alexander is a wonderful person as well. He needed to marry for the sake of money because of being destitute. But he wanted more than a simple solution by means of a rich wife. He wanted love and affection. It’s wonderful to read if such a hero in these stories, those who are searching for love. Simply put, men are not usually described as such. In addition to Wren and Alexander, there is excellent character development in this book. We are reacquainted to members of the family that we met in the previous two stories.

Without spoiling Someone to Wed, it is important to note that a lot of this story focuses on how one's physical imperfections can cause great loneliness. Time and again this story injects incredible emotion and sensitivity. My mood changed from great sadness to frustrating anger to incredible joy. 

Someone to Wed is truly a sensitive story. This statement gave me the feels: “She felt a rush of unexpected affection for them.” I am very aware that this is an incomplete quote. I included this sentence because it displays the measure of emotion that Wren began to feel when she experienced the kindness of others. The rush of affection she felt for those at that moment in the story was very similar to the rush of emotion that I felt when I read that statement. 

This book is the third in the Westcott series by Mary Balogh. When I received Someone to Trust, the fifth book in the series for review, which will be released at the end of November, I knew that I would want to read the entire series. I am really glad that I had the opportunity to do so. This story is very different than the first two. It deals with the effects of self-esteem and true acceptance. It is truly a beautiful story and readers no doubt will see how wonderfully beautiful Wren is. I applaud Mary Balogh for writing such a captivating story. 

Series list:
*Someone to Love (2016)
  - review link: https://robinlovesreading.blogspot.com/2018/10/review-someone-to-love.html
*Someone to Hold (2017)
- review link: https://www.robinlovesreading.com/2018/10/review-someone-to-hold.html
*Someone to Wed (2017)
*Someone to Care (2018)
*Someone to Trust (2018)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

I grew up in post-war Wales as Mary Jenkins. It was in many ways an idyllic childhood even though Swansea, my home town, had been heavily bombed during the war, rationing was still on, and material possessions were few. If anyone knew how to stretch a penny to do the work of two, it was my mother.

My sister, Moira, two years older than I, was my constant playmate and soul-mate. We both have a hard time convincing people who did not know us then that we were almost inseparable yet never quarrelled. Our few dolls became our family. They had names, personalities, histories. We used to lie awake in bed at night–until our mother would call up, promising dire consequences if we did not stop talking–inventing stories about our dolls’ antics. On summer days Mam would construct a tent out of blankets, string and clothes pegs attached to the clothesline and the garden fence, and we would play “house” all day. The neighbours must have cringed when we took our dolls for walks in the strollers Dad made for us, complete with solid–and excruciatingly noisy–wooden wheels.

Moira and I both used to fill notebooks with stories. We read voraciously–especially every book of Enid Blyton’s we could get our hands on when we were younger, the classics when we were a little older. We both used to say that we wanted to be authors when we grew up, though the word we used then was authoress. We both fulfilled our dream, though we both financed it with careers as high school English teachers.

Much more about this talented author can be found on her website at: http://www.marybalogh.com.