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#BookReview The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen Dionne #marshking @littlebrownuk

The suspense thriller of the year - The Marsh King's Daughter will captivate you from the start and chill you to the bone.

'I was born two years into my mother's captivity. She was three weeks shy of seventeen. If I had known then what I do now, things would have been a lot different. I wouldn't have adored my father.'

When notorious child abductor - known as the Marsh King - escapes from a maximum security prison, Helena immediately suspects that she and her two young daughters are in danger.

No one, not even her husband, knows the truth about Helena's past: they don't know that she was born into captivity, that she had no contact with the outside world before the age of twelve - or that her father raised her to be a killer.

And they don't know that the Marsh King can survive and hunt in the wilderness better than anyone... except, perhaps his own daughter. 

Packed with gripping suspense and powerful storytelling, The Marsh King's Daughter is a one-more-page, read-in-one-sitting thriller that you'll remember for ever.  

Published 29th June 2017 by Little Brown UK  

The Marsh King's Daughter is a book that's currently getting a lot of rave reviews, and so I was filled with the usual mix of excitement and apprehension as I started it. Yet within one paragraph I knew it thoroughly deserved all the high praise, and that I too was going to love it. It's one of those books that literally grabs you - right around the middle, leaving you breathless and tense while frantically turning pages and holding your breath.

It begins when an adult Helena returns home with her two young children to find that her convict father has escaped from prison.  Fearing for her family's lives, Helena knows only she can put an end to whatever her father has planned. Because it was she who put him in prison in the first place and it will be she he targets in his hunt for revenge.

The narrative alternates between the present day game of cat and mouse between Helena and her father and Helena's past, where the trauma and horror of her birth and upbringing as the daughter of a captor and his captive is slowly revealed. The book is paced so breathtaking well, that I was speeding through the pages, desperately squeezing in just one more chapter and ended up reading it in less than a day.

What made the book so compelling I think, was the contrast between the action thriller present, where the daughter and father chase each other down in a dangerous battle of wit and physical strength, and the harrowing tale of Helena's childhood. Born to a kidnapped teenager held in captivity, she has no idea there's anything wrong with her feral life in the wild marsh, idolises her father and knows next to nothing of the modern world she's secluded and isolated from. Yet the reader can feel and see the sinister reality of her cruel father's games and control. I thought that the slow dawning of realisation Helena goes through was beautifully written and felt my heart breaking for both her and her mother.

There's some shocking and violent scenes in The Marsh King's Daughter, which had me reeling with disgust that anyone can be quite so cruel. Karen Dionne has created in The Marsh King a complex, truly evil villain yet manages to offset this with Helena's strength, determination and hope. This is a story of survival against all odds, and sheer will and determination to overcome abuse and oppression and protect the ones you love. It's a conflict of the fine line between love and hate, nature and nurture, and good versus evil. An absolutely gripping read, you won't be able to put it down until you've turned the very last page.

(I read an advance proof copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine program)

Cover Reveal: White Silence by Jodi Taylor @AccentPress #WhiteSilence

I'm THRILLED to have been invited by Accent Press to take part in the cover reveal for Jodi Taylor's White Silence! So without further ado, here it is...


*The first instalment in the new, gripping supernatural thriller series from international
bestselling author, Jodi Taylor*

"I don't know who I am. I don't know what I am."

Elizabeth Cage is a child when she discovers that there are things in this world that only she can see.
But she doesn’t want to see them and she definitely doesn’t want them to see her.

What is a curse to Elizabeth is a gift to others – a very valuable gift they want to control.
When her husband dies, Elizabeth’s world descends into a nightmare. But as she tries to piece her
life back together, she discovers that not everything is as it seems.

Alone in a strange and frightening world, she’s a vulnerable target to forces beyond her control.
And she knows that she can’t trust anyone… 

White Silence is a twisty supernatural thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat. 

The ebook is publishing 21/09/2017 with the paperback to follow in Spring 2018 

Doesn't it sound FAB?! I love a bit of supernatural now and then, this sounds right up my street and I LOVE the cover! What do you think? 

You can pre-order White Silence HERE

Blog Tour Book Review: The Second Chance Cafe In Carlton Square by Lilly Bartlett

One chance isn't always Enough 
Everyone expects great things from Emma Billings, but when her future gets derailed by an unexpected turn of events, she realizes that getting back on track means traveling in a different direction. 

She finds it in the closed-down pub on Carlton Square. Summoning every ounce of ingenuity, and with the help of her friends and family, she opens the Second Chance Café. The charity training business is meant to keep vulnerable kids off the streets and (hopefully) away from the Metropolitan Police, and her new employees are full of ideas, enthusiasm ... and trouble. They'll need as much TLC as the customers they’re serving. 

This ragtag group of chancers have to make a go of a business they know nothing about, and they do get some expert help from an Italian who's in love with the espresso machine and a professional sandwich whisperer who reads auras, but not everyone is happy to see the café open. Their milk keeps disappearing and someone is canceling the cake orders, but it's when someone commits bloomicide on all their window boxes that Emma realizes things are serious. Can the café survive when NIMBY neighbors and the rival café owner join forces to close them down? Or will Emma’s dreams fall as flat as the cakes they’re serving? 

Published June 23rd 2017 by Harper Impulse (UK)  

Back in 2010 I read and enjoyed Michele Gorman's debut novel, Single In The City (Review here) but this was my first time reading one of her books under pen name Lilly Bartlett. The Second Chance Cafe in Carlton Square is the second book in the Carlton Square series (the first being The Big Little Wedding In Carlton Square) though I don't feel that joining the series here affected my enjoyment of this one. In fact, it stands up very well in its own right - although it has made me want to read TBLWACS just to see how Emma and Daniel come be together!

I thought this book was absolutely charming! It's filled with warmth and heart and I loved the messages behind it. Emma's decided to open a cafe which will train and provide opportunities to disadvantaged teens - what was unexpected was the genuinely lovely community feel as diverse groups and characters come together. Mums with babies, hipsters wanting a place to work on their laptops, elderly customers with memories and stories to share and a group of streetwise youth all find a common place to rub along together.

Opening the cafe isn't without it's problems. Emma's new trainee seems troubled and is hiding something, yet Emma is unwavering in her belief that she has potential. I loved this relationship, and how with Emma's support and trust in her, Lou was able to blossom. There's also the little problem of sabotage, thwarting Emma at every turn as she gets the cafe up and running. But just who has it in for her and what do they have against the cafe? There's also trouble at home, when Emma begins to feel like she is literally being left to hold the babies and resentments begin to bubble.

The theme trickling throughout this book is one of solidarity, working together and standing up for each other. It's also of second chances, and let's face it - we all need one of those at times. This book is generous, heartwarming, community spirited and restores your faith in humans. We all need a little help now and then, and when it's offered and accepted things can turn out all right in the end. With that trademark wit I remember so well from Single In The City, Lilly Bartlett's writing is fun, engaging and a delight to read.  

(I read an ebook courtesy of the author)

Blog Tour Book Review: Blood Sisters by Jane Corry

Three little girls set off to school one sunny May morning. 
Within an hour, one of them is dead.

Fifteen years later, Alison and Kitty are living separate lives. Kitty lives in a care home. She can't speak, and she has no memory of the accident that put her here, or her life before it.

Art teacher Alison looks fine on the surface. But the surface is a lie. When a job in a prison comes up she decides to take it - this is her chance to finally make things right.

But someone is watching Kitty and Alison.
Someone who wants revenge for what happened that day. 
And only another life will do... 

Published June 29th 2017 by Penguin Viking (UK) 

Having only a brother, I always wished for a sister. I imagined close friendship, a constant companion ...someone who will always be there for you no matter what. Yet I remember my best friend's relationship with her sister was awful! They lived in the same house, were only a year apart in age and managed to not even speak to one another for years throughout their teens. That definitely put me off! If it hadn't, then Blood Sisters by Jane Corry might well have done the trick.

Alison Baker is a withdrawn, introverted thirty something, working as an art teacher for adults. When she see's a job advertised for an open prison art teacher, she takes on the challenge - determined to do some good. Meanwhile, Kitty lives in a care home - she can't walk, talk or do anything for herself. Yet inside, she has a lot she still wants to say and she becomes increasingly frustrated at being unable to express herself.

Well, I absolutely tore through this book. Jane Corry is masterful at weaving a story where the words are less read, more gulped up by the reader, meaning that it felt I was covering tens of pages in less than a blink of the eye. From the very beginning, the atmosphere of 'all not being quite as it seems' is very clear, yet there's character twists aplenty to keep the reader constantly surprised and intrigued.

The book is told in alternating chapters from Alison and Kitty, with flashbacks here and there detailing the lead up to terrible accident fifteen years ago, which has lead to the sister's current situation. Alison is interesting, she's a bit of enigma and seems, at first glance, pretty grounded. But then there's hints to her fragility and a feeling that she isn't quite as true as she may seem. At times, she's almost a contradiction - is she the victim or the perpetrator? How reliable is she and what exactly are her reasons for doing what she does? For example, everything about her screamed that this wasn't a woman who would chose to work in a prison. Yet there she is...

Kitty is a fascinating character and had me intrigued . Just how much did she understand about her past and her current situation? Was she genuinely frustrated and acting out as a result from her brain injury, or was there something more sinister at play? I couldn't fathom her, and this kept me gripped, rushing through the pages and desperate to know what the truth really was. As an aside, I have to say that I thought Jane Corry depicted life in a care home and the good and bad practice by carers here very well (giving me the rage as Kitty screamed in her head about being called "she", having people talk over her and for her constantly, and at the lack of dignity afforded her. As someone who works with people with severe communication difficulties this is a huge bugbear for me and I thought the author got that just right)

Blood Sisters tells a tangled web of lies, deceit and envy, and unraveling it was a compelling, thrilling ride. The horrifying thing is, Blood Sisters takes the complexities, resentments and secrets that could be brewing in any family and shows just how easily they can spiral out of control and one moment can change lives for ever. It explores the fine line between love and hate and the old phrase "blood is thicker than water" is particularly apt. Ultimately though, this is a story about facing up to your past, no matter how traumatic, to be able to move on. I really enjoyed this book, and can't wait to see what Jane Corry comes up with next.

(I read an advanced proof courtesy of the publisher)

Blog Tour - Guest Post and Review: The Farm Girls Dream by Eileen Ramsay ( @BonnierZaffe )

I'm delighted to be hosting a stop on Eileen Ramsay's The Farm Girl's Dream blog tour today with a guest post and review. First up, over to Eileen...  

Eileen The Writer

Everyone in my family read – books, magazines, newspapers, the backs of cornflake boxes, and if there was nothing to read our parents told stories.
Our mother was Irish and when we were young she told us tales of all the naughty things she and her friends used to do when they were children. When we were older she told us stories about Ireland in what she called the “troubles.’’
Father was born in Scotland but his father was English and so my sister, my brother and I have always felt very British. Dad had been a professional soldier and so had served in many countries and when we were young he had just returned from WW11. On cold evenings he would light a fire in the living room and he would tell us stories of “old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago” He loved Burma and the Burmese people and fascinated us with his descriptions of jungle flowers, beautiful temples, and gentle generous people. Every night I told my sister a story.  She, being three years older, was supposed to tell me one in return but somehow she always fell asleep. 
I grew up and became a school teacher and wrote stories for my classes. And then one weekend when I was staying with friends I wrote a story about my friend’s father’s dog. I called it Duffer and the Writer. My husband read it before I could print it out for my friend.
‘You should have that published,’ said my husband. 
I had never thought of publication – that was for real writers – but I began to write seriously. I was reading the books of Elizabeth Goudge and Georgette Heyer and so I decided to start writing a Regency romance. At the same time I was doing a Master’s degree and a professor allowed me to submit the manuscript as part of my course. Not long after graduation I attended a writers’ conference at UC San Diego where I met an editor who surprised me by reading the manuscript and sending me a note. ‘I think this will go.’ That same year, we decided to return with our sons to Scotland where I met an editor who gave me the names of the agents his company used. I applied to one of them who asked for the manuscript and – imagine my delight when she sold it to an American company. They did not ask for a second book and so the lovely agent said, ‘Write about what you know,’ and so I did. I wrote The Broken Gate which is about love and family life and human strength and kindness.
And Duffer and the Writer, no I have never published it but it did win the ‘Children’s story’ category in a competition held by The Scottish Association of Writers.  

My Review 

From the fields of Angus to the shores of Mexico, a family struggles to find their way home. Perfect for fans of Nadine Dorries, Rita Bradshaw and Kitty Neale.

To young Victoria Cameron, Angus, Scotland is the most beautiful place on earth and she wishes nothing more than to stay on her little farm for ever. But the death of her beloved grandfather leaves her and her mother without a farm and struggling to make ends meet.

Never one to give up, Victoria soon finds work in a Dundee mill, while her mother supports them by taking in lodgers. Neither ever expected one of those lodgers would be John Cameron, the father that walked out on them so many years ago.

Victoria is torn about how to receive this stranger, and torn about the other man in her life - a young boy she thinks she could love if only he comes back from the war.  

Published June 15th 2017 by Bonnier Zaffre (UK)

I was brought up in the eighties with my Mum's historical romance/family saga paperbacks piled up on our bookshelves, and it was one of these that became my very first adult read at around age twelve. Over a couple of years I devoured many more, and although my tastes have changed since then, I still have a soft spot for a good old saga for a bit of comfort reading. 

Eileen Ramsay is a new to me author, although she has a massive 18 books already to her name. The Farm Girl's Dream is set in the perfect time period for this type of book - the years spanning the prelude to the first world war and before the second. I think why this period in history does work so well is that, with ordinary women at the heart of this book, this period in history offers a time of great social change, growth and opportunity for females, allowing deep character developement. It becomes difficult not to become attached and immersed in their life. 

The Farm Girl's Dream captures this feeling of change for its main character, Victoria, beautifully. Through adversity and hardship, we see her become independent, grasp opportunities and fight to make a life for herself beyond expectation. The supporting cast of characters are equally as intriguing and I loved the nostalgic sense of community typical of this time. 

Eileen's writing is engaging and flowing, meaning this is a very easy book to become lost in and read over a few hours. In places I felt it was a little jumpy and things seemed to move on quite quickly, however when you're spanning three decades, then I suppose this is somewhat inevitable. I did enjoy her descriptions of places and smells, from the squalor of the Jute mill to the exoticness of India as the world is opened up to Victoria. 

The Farm Girl's Dream is a sweeping saga - there's tragedy, struggle, family, rags to riches, a villain and romance. But it's the sense of hope and accomplishment which make these books so appealing and this one definitely hits the spot. I really enjoyed getting lost in this book for a few hours, and ended with a huge smile on my face and feeling of contentment. Lovely, feel good comfort reading well worth a read - and a new author for me, whose books I'd happily pick up again  

A Pinch Of Salt, also by Eileen Ramsay, is re-released in paperback later this summer. 

(I read a copy courtesy of the publisher)


Blog Tour Book Review: I Know My Name by C.J. Cooke

Komméno Island, Greece: 
I don't know where I am, who I am. Help me. 
A woman is washed up on a remote Greek island with no recollection of who she is or how she got there.

Potter’s Lane, Twickenham, London: 
Eloïse Shelley is officially missing.
Lochlan’s wife has vanished into thin air, leaving their toddler and twelve-week-old baby alone. Her money, car and passport are all in the house, with no signs of foul play. Every clue the police turn up means someone has told a lie…

Does a husband ever truly know his wife? Or a wife know her husband? Why is Eloïse missing? Why did she forget? 

The truth is found in these pages… 

Published 15th June by Harper Collins (UK) 

So, amnesia related psychological thriller books seem to be a bit of a thing at the minute, and I absolutely love them- a narrator with memory loss adds in an extra layer of mystery and intensity. But then along comes I Know My Name by C.J Cooke with a book that is so completely not what you expected, it blows you away.

This one is going to be very tricky to review without giving anything away, so apologies now for any vagueness. It's told from two points of view: Lochlan - a successful business and family man, who receives a call while away on business from a neighbour to say his wife has disappeared and his four year old son and twelve week old baby have been left alone. Lochlan's desperate search for his wife is alternated with the story of a woman, washed up on a Greek Island who has no idea who she is or why she's there.

C. J Cooke deftly keeps the reader guessing as to what's going on, with my suspicions switching with each chapter. The reader learns more about Eloise along with Lochlan, as it transpires he didn't really know at her at all. Yet, truths are revealed about him too which cast my doubt his way before diverting it somewhere else.

What I wasn't expecting was the emotional and tragic story found at the heart of this book. I Know My Name explores the effect of trauma on the human mind and the lengths our subconscious can go to protect ourselves, while marveling at the strength of human spirit to conquer demons and continue to hope. I Know My Name is cleverly complex and thought provoking as well as being a compulsive page turner and comes thoroughly recommended.

(I read an advance proof copy courtesy of the publisher)

Don't forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour... 

Book Review: The Honeymoon by Tina Seskis

There's trouble in paradise. . .

For as long as she can remember, Jemma has been planning the perfect honeymoon. A fortnight's retreat to a five-star resort in the Maldives, complete with luxury villas, personal butlers and absolute privacy. It should be paradise, but it's turned into a nightmare.

Because the man Jemma married a week ago has just disappeared from the island without a trace. And now her perfect new life is vanishing just as quickly before her eyes. After everything they've been through together, how can this be happening? Is there anyone on the island who Jemma can trust? And above all - where has her husband gone?  

Published 1st June 2017 by Penguin (UK)  

Tina Seskis's 'When We Were Friends' was one of the few books I managed to squeeze in in 2015, between full time work/parenting and completing my degree, and I really, really enjoyed it. At that time, my mind was so completely taken up with the billion other things I had going on, that it had to be an unputdownable, gripping plot that managed to hold my attention - and this one really did the trick. So I had high hopes for Tina's latest novel, The Honeymoon, especially after reading some raving reviews.

I'm so pleased to say that The Honeymoon was every bit as compelling and gripping as I'd hoped. It was impossible to stop reading right from the very first page. It begins with the disappearance of Jemma's husband while on honeymoon in the beautiful island setting of the Maldives, and with a multi split narrative, details the time period immediately before his disappearance, early in the relationship and after -  all drip feeding snippets of information to the reader, building tension and averting suspicion this way and that throughout.

As we learn about Jemma's relationship, it becomes clear how complex it actually is. This isn't a fairytale romance - it's messy, dark and abusive. Only it's constantly difficult to pin down where the blame lies. Is Jemma hiding something? Are there other people involved? I wondered many times why the hell these two people had come to be honeymooning at all - the relationship is so dysfunctional and they don't even seem to like each other. At one point in the book I began to think this was even effecting my enjoyment and belief in the situation, but stick with it - as secrets are revealed it all starts to make sense.

The Honeymoon is packed with twists and turns meaning I never knew which way the book was going to go, despite my best attempts at guessing. And when the final twist comes ....believe me, there's no way you'll see it coming. It's a shocker! Tina Seskis turns everything you think you know and expect about this genre in just a couple of paragraphs. I could not have predicted it at all.

With its stunningly beautiful and luxurious setting contrasting with a dark, claustrophobic mystery, this is a book that conjures atmosphere, intensity and intrigue by the bucket load. Tina Seskis's writing is evocative and compelling, holding me firmly in its grip until I'd finished the very last page. I only wish I'd been reading it on a heat soaked beach myself - this book is a must for your summer holiday reading this year.

(I read an advance e-book courtesy of the publisher and netgalley)

Blog Tour Book Review: Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

Lincoln is a good boy. At the age of four, he is curious, clever and well behaved. He does as his mum says and knows what the rules are.

'The rules are different today. The rules are that we hide and do not let the man with the gun find us.'

When an ordinary day at the zoo turns into a nightmare, Joan finds herself trapped with her beloved son. She must summon all her strength, find unexpected courage and protect Lincoln at all costs – even if it means crossing the line between right and wrong; between humanity and animal instinct.

It's a line none of us would ever normally dream of crossing.

But sometimes the rules are different. 

Published June 15th 2017 by Transworld  

Earlier on today I posted an extract of this taut, chilling book, which you can read HERE and I've returned (I know - two posts in a day!) to share my review.

Fierce Kingdom is a book you can NOT begin reading if you have somewhere to be or something to do. Honestly, you won't make it, because you'll be gripped to this book from beginning to end. Allow yourself a few hours of uninterrupted reading time and remember to breathe!

When Joan and her four year old son, Lincoln, visit the local zoo, it begins as a day like any other. Like all four year olds, Lincoln is keen to stretch the day out when it's time to leave, meaning they're cutting it fine making it to the gates before closing. But when gun shots ring out through the zoo, their visit becomes a game of hide and seek as they take cover in a bid for survival.

Gin Phillip's writing had me gripped right from the very first sentence. It's sharp, tense and filled with atmosphere, transferring Joan's fear and determination to protect her son directly onto the reader. I read this book without daring to breathe or move myself, completely captured in the horrifying moment with Joan.

I couldn't stop thinking about what I would do in Joan's situation, as some of her decisions seemed unwise or even uncomfortable in one situation. The truth is I don't know. Protecting Lincoln means she faces a tough choice, and as much as I can rationalise it as pure survival instinct, it bothered me. What is clear and tangible is Joan's desperation to protect her son, and that I did completely understand. I thought the relationship and dialogue between the two was authentic and perfectly pitched, right down to Lincoln's inevitable ill timed  requests. I've dreaded the "I'm huuungry" wail myself, but never has it evoked such panic, as Joan wrestles with remaining calm and mounting frustration.

Fierce Kingdom takes a normal and innocent situation and fills it with nightmarish threat and menace. It's horrifying as it's a situation that could occur, and has occurred and is a situation completely out of our own control.  Shocking and tense, I was on tenterhooks throughout - this really is a book that grips the reader and refuses to let go until very end.

(I read an advance proof copy courtesy of the publisher)

Blog Tour: Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips - An Extract

Today I'm delighted to be hosting a stop on the Fierce Kingdom blog tour! I'll be posting a review later today but first up I have an exclusive extract....  

Lincoln is a good boy. At the age of four, he is curious, clever and well behaved. He does as his mum says and knows what the rules are.

'The rules are different today. The rules are that we hide and do not let the man with the gun find us.'

When an ordinary day at the zoo turns into a nightmare, Joan finds herself trapped with her beloved son. She must summon all her strength, find unexpected courage and protect Lincoln at all costs – even if it means crossing the line between right and wrong; between humanity and animal instinct.

It's a line none of us would ever normally dream of crossing.

But sometimes the rules are different. 

Published June 15th 2017 by Transworld

4:55 p.m.
For a long while Joan has managed to balance on the balls
of her bare feet, knees bent, skirt skimming the dirt. But
now her thighs are giving out, so she puts a hand down and
eases onto the sand.

Something jabs at her hip bone. She reaches underneath
her leg and fishes out a small plastic spear – no longer than
a finger – and it is no surprise, because she is always finding
tiny weapons in unexpected places.

‘Did you lose a spear?’ she asks. ‘Or is this one a

Lincoln does not answer her, although he takes the piece
of plastic from her open hand. He apparently has been wait‑
ing for her lap to become available – he backs up, settling
himself comfortably on her thighs, not a speck of sand on
him. He has a fastidiousness about him; he never did like
finger painting.

‘Do you want a nose, Mommy?’ he asks.

‘I have a nose,’ she says.

‘Do you want an extra one?’

‘Who wouldn’t?’

His dark curls need to be cut again, and he swipes them
off his forehead. The leaves float down around them. The
wooden roof, propped up on rough, round timber, shades
them completely, but beyond it, the gray gravel is patterned
with sunlight and shadows, shifting as the wind blows
through the trees.

‘Where are you getting these extra noses?’ she asks.

‘The nose store.’

She laughs, settling back on her hands, giving in to the
feel of the clinging dirt. She flicks a few wettish grains from
under her fingernails. The Dinosaur Discovery Pit is always
damp and cold, never touched by the sun, but despite the
sand on her skirt and the leaves stuck to her sweater, this is
perhaps her favorite part of the zoo – off the main paths,
past the merry‑go‑round and the petting barn and the
rooster cages, back through the weedy, wooded area labeled
only woodlands. It is mostly trees and rocks and a few
lonely animals back here along the narrow gravel paths:
There is a vulture that lives in a pen with, for some reason,
a rusted-­out pickup truck. An owl that glares at a hanging
chew toy. Wild turkeys that are always sitting, unmoving;
she is not positive that they actually have legs. She imagines
some cruel hunter’s prank, some sweat-­stained necklace
strung with turkey feet.

She likes the haphazard strangeness of these woods, which
are always shifting into some half-hearted try at an actual
attraction. Currently a zip line is strung through the trees,
although she never sees anyone zip-­lining. She remembers
animatronic dinosaurs here a couple of years earlier, and
once there was a haunted ghost trail. There are hints at
more distant incarnations: large boulders that she assumes
are real but possibly are not, plus split-­log fences and a pion‑
eer cabin. No obvious purpose to any of it. Empty cement
pools might have been watering holes for large mammals.
There are occasional efforts at a nature trail, random sign‑
age that makes a walk feel less anchored rather than more
– one tree labeled sassafras while the twenty trees around
it go nameless.

‘Now, let me tell you something,’ Lincoln begins, his
hand landing on her knee. ‘Do you know what Odin could

She does, in fact, know a great deal about Norse gods

‘An eye store?’ she says.

‘Yes, actually. Because then he could stop wearing his eye

‘Unless he likes his eye patch.’

‘Unless that,’ Lincoln agrees.

The sand around them is scattered with small plastic
heroes and villains – Thor and Loki, Captain America,
Green Lantern, and Iron Man. Everything comes back to
superheroes lately. Pretend skeletons lurk beneath them in
this sand pit – the vertebrae of some extinct animal pro‑
trude from the sand behind them, and there is a bucket of
worn-­down paintbrushes for brushing off the sand. She and
Lincoln used to come here and dig for dinosaur bones, back
in his former life as a three-­year-­old. But now, two months
after his fourth birthday, he is several incarnations past his
old archaeologist self.

The dinosaur pit is currently the Isle of Silence, the prison
where Loki, Thor’s trickster brother, has been imprisoned,
and – when questions of extra noses don’t arise – the air has
been echoing with the sounds of an epic battle as Thor tries
to make Loki confess to creating a fire demon.
Lincoln leans forward, and his epic resumes.

‘The vile villain cackled,’ Lincoln narrates. ‘But then
Thor had an idea!’

He calls them his stories, and they can last for hours if she
lets them. She prefers the ones where he invents his own
characters. He’s concocted a villain named Horse Man, who
turns people into horses. His nemesis is Horse Von, who
turns those horses back into people. A vicious cycle.
Joan is half aware of Lincoln’s voice changing tones and
inflections as he takes his different characters through their
paces. But she is pleasantly drifting. In the mornings these
paths would be crowded with strollers and mothers in yoga
pants, but by late afternoon most visitors have cleared out.
She and Lincoln come here sometimes after she picks him
up from school – they alternate between the zoo and the
library and the parks and the science museum – and
she steers him to the woods when she can. Here there are
crickets, or something that sounds like crickets, and birds
calling and leaves rustling but no human sounds except for
Lincoln calling out his dialogue. He has absorbed the patter
of superhero talk, and he can regurgitate it and make it
his own.

‘There was a secret weapon on his belt!’

‘His evil plan had failed!’

He is vibrating with excitement. Every part of him is
shaking, from the balls of his feet to his chuffy fists. Thor
bobs through the air, and Lincoln bounces, and she won‑
ders if he loves the idea of good conquering evil or simply an
exciting battle, and she wonders when she should start mak‑
ing it clear that there is a middle ground between good and
evil that most people occupy, but he is so happy that she
does not want to complicate things.

‘Do you know what happens then, Mommy?’ he asks.
‘After Thor punches him?’

‘What?’ she says.

She has perfected the art of being able to listen with half
of herself while the other half spins and whirls.

‘Loki has actually been mind-­controlling Thor. And the
punch makes him lose his powers!’

‘Oh,’ she says. ‘And then what?’

‘Thor saves the day!’

He keeps talking – ‘But there’s a new villain in town,
boys!’ – as she curls and straightens her toes. She thinks.
She thinks that she still needs to come up with a wedding
present for her friend Murray – there is that artist who does
dog paintings, and one of those seems like a thoughtful
choice, so she should send an e‑mail and see about placing
the order, although ‘order’ is probably an insulting sort of
word to an artist. She remembers that she meant to call
her great-­aunt this morning, and she thinks that maybe
instead – she is solving problems left and right here, having
a burst of mental efficiency as Loki gets buried in sand –
maybe instead she will mail her great-­aunt that hilarious
paper-bag monkey that Lincoln made in school. Surely the
artwork is better than a phone call, although there’s a cer‑
tain selfishness to it, since she hates to talk on the phone,
and, all right, it is a cop-­out – she knows it – but she settles
on the paper-bag monkey regardless. She thinks of the
squash dressing her great-­aunt makes. She thinks of the left‑
over plantain chips in the kitchen cabinet. She thinks of
Bruce Boxleitner. Back in junior high she was slightly
obsessed with him in Scarecrow and Mrs King, and she has
discovered that the show is available in its entirety online, so
she has been rewatching it, episode by episode – it holds up
well for a 1980s show, with its Cold War spies and bad
hair – and she can’t remember whether Lee and Amanda
finally kiss at the end of the second season or the third sea‑
son, and she has six more episodes to go in the second
season, but she could always skip to the third.

A woodpecker hammers somewhere nearby, and she is
pulled back to here and now. She notices that the wart on
Lincoln’s hand is getting bigger. It looks like an anemone.
There is that beautiful shifting of shadows on the gravel,
and Lincoln is doing his evil-villain laugh, and it strikes her
that these afternoons, with her son’s weight on her legs, the
woods around them, are something like euphoric.
Thor falls against her foot, his plastic head landing on
her toe.



‘Why doesn’t Thor wear his helmet in the movie?’
‘I think it’s harder to see with a helmet on.’

‘But doesn’t he want his head protected?’

‘I suppose sometimes he wears it and sometimes he
doesn’t. Depending on his mood.’

‘I think he should protect his head all the time,’ he says.

‘It’s dangerous to battle without a helmet. Why do you
think Captain America only wears a hood? It’s not good
protection, is it?’

Paul gets bored with this superhero chatter – her husband
would much rather talk football formations and NBA
line-ups – but Joan doesn’t mind it. She was once obsessed
with Wonder Woman. Super Friends. The Incredible Hulk.
Who would win in a fight, she once asked her uncle, Super‑
man or the Incredible Hulk? He’d said, Well, if he was losing,
Superman could always fly away, and she’d thought that a
blindingly brilliant answer.

‘Captain America has his shield,’ she tells Lincoln. ‘That’s
what he uses for protection.’

‘What if he can’t get it over his head in time?’
‘He’s very fast.’

‘But still,’ he says, unconvinced.

‘You know, you’re right,’ she says, because he is. ‘He really
should wear a helmet.’

Some sort of man-­made rock forms the back wall of the
pit, beige and bulging, and a small animal is rooting around
behind it. She hopes it is not a rat. She imagines a squirrel
but makes a point not to turn her head.

She opens her purse to peer at her phone. ‘We probably
need to start heading toward the gate in around five min‑
utes,’ she says.

As he often does when she says it’s time to stop playing,
Lincoln acts as if she has not spoken at all.

‘Does Dr Doom always wear a mask?’ he asks.

‘Did you hear me?’ she asks.

‘What did I say?’

‘That we’re about to leave.’

‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Yes, Dr Doom always wears a mask.
Because of his scars.’


‘Yeah, the scars he got in the lab experiment.’

‘Why would he wear a mask because of them?’
‘Because he wants to cover them up,’ she says. ‘He thinks
they’re ugly.’

‘Why would he think they’re ugly?’

She watches a bright-orange leaf land. ‘Well, they made
him look different,’ she says. ‘Sometimes people don’t want
to look different.’

‘I don’t think scars are ugly.’

As he’s speaking, a sharp, loud sound carries through
the woods. Two cracks, then several more. Pops, like bal‑
loons bursting. Or fireworks. She tries to imagine what
anyone could be doing in a zoo that would sound like small
explosions. Something related to the Halloween festivities?
They’ve strung up lights all over the place – not here in the
Woodlands but all over the more popular pathways – so
maybe a transformer blew? Is there construction going on, a

There is another bang. Another and another. It sounds too
loud to be balloons, too infrequent to be a jackhammer.
The birds are silent, but the leaves keep skittering down.
Lincoln is unbothered.

‘Could I use my Batman for Dr Doom?’ he asks. ‘He
wears black. And if I use him, can you make him the right
kind of mask?’

‘Sure,’ she says.

‘What will you make it with?’

‘Tinfoil,’ she suggests.

A squirrel scrabbles across the roof of the dirt pit, and she
hears the soft whoosh of its impact when it leaps to a tree.
‘And what will we use for the scarves?’ Lincoln asks.
She looks down at him.

‘Scarves?’ she repeats.

He nods. She nods back, considering and replaying. She
gives herself over to deciphering the workings of his brain: it
is one of the bits of mothering that has delighted her all the
more because she did not know it existed. His mind is com‑
plicated and unique, weaving worlds of its own. In his sleep
sometimes he will cry out entire sentences – ‘Not down the
stairs!’ – and there are windows to his inner machinery,
glimpses, but she will never really know it all, and that is the
thrill. He is a whole separate being, as real as she is.
Scarves. She works the puzzle of it.

‘Do you mean the scarves on his face?’ she asks.
‘Yes. The ones he thinks are ugly.’

She laughs. ‘Oh. I was saying “scars” – you know, like the
one on Daddy’s arm where the water burned him when he
was little? Or the one on my knee from when I fell down?’
‘Oh,’ he says, sheepish. He laughs, too. He is quick to get
a joke. ‘Scars, not scarves. So he doesn’t think scarves
are ugly?’

‘I don’t really know how Dr Doom feels about scarves,’
she says.

‘He doesn’t have them on his face.’

‘No. Those are scars.’

She listens, half considering whether she could have han‑
dled the idea of scars more tactfully, half wondering about
gunshots. But they could not have been gunshots. And if
they had been, she would have heard something else by now.
Screams or sirens or a voice coming over a loudspeaker mak‑
ing some kind of announcement.

There is nothing.

She has been watching too many battles.

She checks her phone. They only have a few minutes until
the zoo closes, and it is entirely possible that they might be
overlooked back here in the woods. She has imagined the
scenario more than once: camping in the zoo overnight,
maybe even intentionally hiding back here, going to visit
the animals in the pitch-­black of midnight – children’s
books are written about such situations. It’s ridiculous, of
course, because there surely would be security guards. Not
that she has ever noticed a security guard here.
They should get moving.

‘We need to go, sweet,’ she says, lifting him from her lap,
waiting until he takes his weight on his own feet, which he
does reluctantly. She thinks he should be wearing a jacket,
but he swore he wasn’t cold, so she let him leave it in the car.

‘Do we have a little more time?’ he asks.

She gets up from the sand and slides on her sandals. This
preference for sandals is the reason she lacks the moral
authority to tell him to wear a jacket.

‘No,’ she says. ‘It’s nearly five thirty. Closing time. Sorry.
We need to get out of here fast, or they might lock us in.’
She is now starting to get nervous about that possibility –
she’s waited too long, and they have the whole walk out of
the woods and then the long way through the children’s
area, and they really are going to be cutting it close.

‘Can we stop at the playground and go across the bridge?’
Lincoln asks.

‘Not today. We can come back tomorrow.’

He nods and steps from the sand onto the sparse grass.
He does not like to break rules. If the zoo people say it is
time to go home, then he will go home.

‘Can you help me with my shoes?’ he asks. ‘And put my
guys in your purse?’

She bends down, brushes the sand from his feet, then
pulls his socks over his pale toes and his wide, stubby feet.
She tears open the Velcro straps of his tennis shoes and looks
up to see a cardinal land an arm’s length away. The animals
have no fear in them at all here. She can sometimes spot half
a dozen sparrows or chipmunks or squirrels within a few
feet, eyeing whatever battle Lincoln is staging.
She drops his plastic figures into her purse.
‘All done,’ she says.

5:23 p.m.

Joan scans the sand pit for any forgotten plastic men, and
then she takes Lincoln’s hand and heads down the path
leading out of the woods. She wonders when he will stop
wanting to hold her hand, but for now they seem equally
happy with the arrangement. In less than twenty steps the
trees have opened up – it’s only an illusion, the seclusion of
this place – and there’s the sound of the waterfall splattering
on the rocks in front of the otter exhibit.
The otter is one of their favorite animals, one of the few
that will still pull Lincoln from his stories. The two otters
have a huge cavern-­styled enclosure with faux-­rock overhangs,
and the animals curve and flip and dive in a greenish pool
behind a wide glass wall. The rocks jut over the walkway,
and a waterfall rushes over visitors’ heads and spills down to
a turtle pond thick with lily pads and reeds and some sort of
purple-­flowered stalk. The wooden footpath that winds
over the pond has always struck her as the prettiest part of
the Woodlands – but now it seems only empty.
Lincoln laughs next to her. ‘Look at the otter. Look how
he swims.’

He still struggles with words ending in ‑er. ‘Ott‑o,’ he
says, instead of ‘otter’. Lex Luth‑o. Score a goal in socc‑o.
‘I like his paws,’ she says.

‘He has paws? Not fins? Real paws like a dog or finger
paws like a monkey?’

She is tempted to stop and point out the anatomy of otters.
This is what she wants most for him, maybe, to see that life
is full of astonishing things, to know that you should pay
attention – Look, it’s beautiful, he said, staring into a puddle
of gasoline in the zoo parking lot – but they don’t have time.
She gives his hand a tug, and he comes easily enough, though
his head is slow to turn away from the otter. As they step onto
the wooden bridge, lily pads to either side of them, she wishes
that they would see someone else, some other chattering fam‑
ily also running late. Not that it’s unusual to have the path to
themselves. They often see no one else all the way to the exit
in the afternoon, and they are pushing it closer than usual to
closing time. She picks up her pace.

‘Want to race?’ she asks


‘You want to skip?’

‘No, thank you.’

He plods along.

She sometimes wonders if his determination not to do a
thing is in direct proportion to the amount of enthusiasm
she shows for it. He continues meandering along the bridge,
pausing to shrink back from a gnat or to stare down at a
speckled koi. He comes to a complete stop to scratch his
chin. When she asks him to hurry, he frowns, and she knows
by the look on his face what he will ask for.

‘I want you to carry me,’ he says.

‘I can’t carry you all the way to the car,’ she says. ‘You’re
getting too big.’

She watches his lip slide out.

‘Here’s my compromise,’ she says, before this escalates
and slows them down further. ‘I’ll pick you up when we get
to the scarecrows, and I’ll carry you from there. If you can
do a good job of walking to the scarecrows.’

‘Okay,’ he says, although his voice is wobbly and his lip is
extending more, and he is starting to wail even as he moves
his feet in time with hers.

She did not, it occurs to her, specify that he could not cry
as he walks. He is technically meeting her terms. It is pos‑
sible that he will cry himself out in a few seconds and get
distracted by some passing thought of Thor’s helmet or
Odin’s eye patch. It is possible that he will only cry more
loudly, and she will give in and pick him up because he has
actually walked quite a long way, uncomplainingly, on his
small legs. It is possible that he will keep crying and she will
stand firm and make him walk all the way to the car because
she does not want him to turn into one of those children
who throw tantrums.

Such a system of checks and balances – parenting – of
projections and guesswork and cost–benefit ratios.
A dragonfly hovers and darts. A heron picks its way along
the edge of the water. The wooden path cuts back and forth
through trees and wild grass.

Lincoln has stopped crying, and she’s fairly sure he’s hum‑
ming the Georgia Bulldogs’ fight song – ‘Glory, glory to old
Georgia! / Glory, glory to old Georgia!’ – although as soon
as she finishes the thought, he switches to the Texas Long‑
horns. No one in their family is a fan of either team, but he
soaks up fight-song lyrics as he soaks up superheroes and

He is a collector. He accumulates.

Through the trees she can see the tent-like top of the
merry‑go‑round. It shines white against the dishwater sky.
They pass a chicken-­wire-​­enclosed exhibit for a one-­legged
eagle and a near-­invisible enclosure for a pair of egrets. There
are dead logs and monkey grass and lime-­green weeds. She
walks toward an overhanging branch, and one of its leaves
detaches, turning into a yellow butterfly and weaving up to
the sky.

Finally they are back on the concrete sidewalks, which
are as wide as roads. Jack‑o’‑lanterns perch on the fence

They take a few steps into civilization, and she glances
over at the merry‑go‑round. It is still and silent; the painted
giraffes and zebras and bears and gorillas and ostriches are
frozen. Lincoln used to love the merry‑go‑round, although
he would only ride a zebra. Now the carousel animals have
rubber bats and tiny Kleenex ghosts floating around them,
hanging from the wooden framework. She and Lincoln are
close enough that the white canvas top covering the carousel
spreads over them, bright and calm.
‘Mommy,’ he says. ‘Carry me.’

‘When we get to the scarecrows,’ she says, ignoring his
arms stretched toward her. ‘Just a little farther.’

He doesn’t protest this time. They hurry past the
merry‑go‑round, toward the food court and the Kid Zone
Splash Park, with the fountains of shoulder-­high water still
arcing onto the blue-­raspberry-­colored splash pads.
‘Medusa’s been here,’ Lincoln announces, and she looks
beyond the spraying water to the shaded spot with the stone
statues of a turtle, a frog and a lizard. These days, anytime
they see stone figures it is a sign that Medusa has passed by.
Spider-­Man has been here, he says to spiderwebs.
‘Those poor guys,’ she says, because it is what she says
every time they pass Medusa’s victims.

‘They should have kept their eyes closed,’ he says, because
it is what he says every time.

She glances at the darkened glass of the Koala Café, with
its shelves of plastic-­wrapped sandwiches and Jell‑O and
hard-­boiled eggs, but she sees no sign of movement inside.
The plastic chairs are upside down on the square tables.
The staff usually close down the restaurants and lock the
buildings fifteen minutes before closing time, so she’s not

Off to their right is the playground with the rock moun‑
tains and swinging bridge. Once upon a time, Lincoln was
interested in Antarctica, and the big rocks were icebergs.
Then last spring he was playing knights and castles on the
swinging bridge, yelling at invisible kings to bring out the
cannons and to fill the catapults with rocks. Now that same
bridge is always Thor’s rainbow-­colored pathway to Earth.
In a year Lincoln will be in kindergarten and these days of
superheroes will fade and be replaced by something she can’t
guess, and then at some point the zoo itself will be replaced
and life will have gone on and this boy holding her hand
will have turned into someone else entirely.

They are making good time now, scurrying past the gift
shop and the wooden cut-out where a kid can stick his head
through a hole and pretend he is a gorilla. They slow down
by the algae-­clogged aquariums at the edge of the children’s
area – Lincoln cannot resist looking for the giant turtle –
and an older woman appears a few yards in front of them,
just around the curve of the aquarium walls, staggering
backward slightly. She is holding a shoe.
‘The rock’s out, Tara,’ she says, and there is a certain
cheerful desperation in her voice that identifies her as a
grandmother. ‘Come on, now.’

Two blonde girls, surely sisters, come into view, and the
grandmother leans down, holding out the shoe to the smaller
girl. Her hair is in pigtails, and she looks a little younger
than Lincoln.

‘We’ve got to go,’ says the grandmother as she works the
rubber sandal onto a small foot. Then she straightens.
The little one says something, too quiet to hear, even
though they are all within a few feet of each other now. Sev‑
eral flies tap against the aquarium glass.

‘I’ll take them off when we get to the car,’ says the grand‑
mother, out of breath. She takes an off-­balance step, holding
the girls by their wrists. The girls blink at Lincoln, but then
the woman is propelling them forward.

‘That’s a grandmother,’ Lincoln says, too loudly, stopping
suddenly enough that he jerks Joan’s arm.

‘I think so, too,’ she whispers.

Joan glances toward the older woman – there is a flowery
chemical smell in the air, perfume that reminds her of
Mrs Manning in the sixth grade, who gave her and no one
else a copy of Island of the Blue Dolphins on the last day of
school – but the woman and her grandchildren are gone now,
already past the curve of the final aquarium.

‘If I had a grandmother, is that what she would look like?’
Lincoln asks. 

He has been fixated on grandparents lately. She hopes it
will pass as quickly as all his other phases.

‘You do have a grandmother,’ Joan says, tugging him for‑
ward again. ‘Grandma. Daddy’s mommy. She was here at
Christmas, remember? She just lives far away. We need to
go, sweet.’ 

‘Some people have lots of grandparents. I only have one.’
‘No, you have three. Remember? Now we’ve got to get
going or we’ll get in trouble.’

The magic words. He nods and speeds up, his face serious
and resolute.

There is another popping sound, louder and closer than
before, maybe a dozen sharp cracks in the air. She thinks it
might be something hydraulic.

They’ve come to the edge of a pond – the largest one in
the zoo, nearly a lake – and she catches a glimpse of swans
cutting through the water. The path forks: the right branch
would lead them around the far side of the pond, up through
the Africa exhibit, but the left will take them to the exit in
a few less seconds. She can see the green-­and-­red flash of the
parrots up ahead, unusually quiet. She likes their little island
in the middle of all the concrete – a bricked‑in pool with a
grassy mound and spindly trees – and it is always their first
and last stop, the final ritual of every visit.
‘Start practicing your parrot caws,’ she tells him.

‘I don’t need to practice,’ he says. ‘I just want to see the

‘We’ll have to look at them while we walk.’
A long row of scarecrows has been propped along the
fence that circles the pond. Many of them have pumpkins
for heads, and Lincoln is fascinated by them. He loves the
Superman one and the astronaut one – with the pumpkin
painted like a white space helmet – and especially the Cat in
the Hat.

‘All right, sweet,’ she says.

He drops her hand and lifts his arms.
She glances along the fence, spotting the bright-blue
pumpkin head of Pete the Cat. About halfway down
the fence several scarecrows have fallen. Blown down by the
wind, she assumes, but, no, it hasn’t been stormy. Still, the
scarecrows have collapsed, half a dozen of them scattered all
the way down to the parrot exhibit and beyond.
No, not scarecrows. Not scarecrows.
She sees an arm move. She sees a body way too small to
be a scarecrow. A skirt, hiked indecently over a pale hip, legs

She is slow to lift her eyes, but when she looks farther,
past the shapes on the ground, past the parrots, toward the
long, flat building with public bathrooms and doors marked
employees only, she sees a man standing, facing away
from her, unmoving. He is by the water fountain. He is in
jeans and a dark shirt, no coat. His hair is brown or black,
and other than that she cannot see details, but she cannot
miss it when he does finally move. He kicks the bathroom
door, his elbow coming up to catch it, a gun in his right
hand, some sort of rifle, long and black, the narrow end of
it stretching like an antenna past his dark head as he dis‑
appears into the pale-­green walls of the women’s bathroom.
She thinks there is another movement around the parrots,
someone else still on his feet, but she is turning away by
then. She does not see more.

She grabs Lincoln and heaves him up, his legs swinging
heavily as he lands against her hip, her right hand grabbing
her left wrist underneath his bottom, linking her arms.

She runs. 


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