Book Review: Just Like Mother by Anne Heltzel

Title: Just Like Mother
Author: Anne Heltzel
Publisher: Tor Nightfire
Publication date: May 17, 2022
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley

Rating: 2 out of 5.

A girl would be such a blessing…

The last time Maeve saw her cousin was the night she escaped the cult they were raised in. For the past two decades, Maeve has worked hard to build a normal life in New York City, where she keeps everything—and everyone—at a safe distance.

When Andrea suddenly reappears, Maeve regains the only true friend she’s ever had. Soon she’s spending more time at Andrea’s remote Catskills estate than in her own cramped apartment. Maeve doesn’t even mind that her cousin’s wealthy work friends clearly disapprove of her single lifestyle. After all, Andrea has made her fortune in the fertility industry—baby fever comes with the territory.

The more Maeve immerses herself in Andrea’s world, the more disconnected she feels from her life back in the city; and the cousins’ increasing attachment triggers memories Maeve has fought hard to bury. But confronting the terrors of her childhood may be the only way for Maeve to transcend the nightmare still to come…

Just Like Mother is a creepy thriller about young survivors of a mother-worshipping cult, who in turn grow up to be damaged and potentially dangerous adults. I was drawn to this book by the synopsis — but quickly realized that this book was more manipulatively disturbing than necessary.

Maeve and Andrea are raised by the Mother Collective, but their cult is raided and disbanded after 8-year-old Maeve flees and turns them in. As an adult, Maeve is a talented editor who lives a lonely, disconnected life, until a DNA test reunites her with Andrea once again.

Andrea is now the head of a tech and lifestyle company with a seemingly limitless fortune, and she wants nothing more than to spend time with Maeve, although discussion of their early years is strictly forbidden. As Maeve spends more time with Andrea and her husband at their isolated country home, things get weird… and that’s about all I’ll say about the plot.

The story goes in awful, frightening directions, but honestly, I didn’t find any of it credible. The plot is designed to shock and disturb, but didn’t present enough insight into the characters or situation to make any of it truly believable. (For example, I never did understand Andrea’s company and how she came to be so successful — it does involve robot baby dolls, though, which… ew).

This book absolutely should include content warnings: Rape, imprisonment, loss of bodily autonomy, abuse… the list goes on. It’s unpleasant and anyone triggered by these topics should definitely avoid this book.

Why two-stars instead of just one? Well, I did keep reading. The book held my attention, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. The ending is pretty terrible, but by the time I got there, I didn’t expect any other outcome.

So many elements feel familiar in this book — shades of everything from Stepford Wives to Rosemary’s Baby to Gone Girl, among other examples. I think the author was probably going for terrifyingly creepy, but for me, the overriding feeling was being pissed off and disgusted.

I can’t say that I recommend this book at all… but if you have read it, I’d love to hear other points of view!

Book Review: A History of Wild Places by Shea Ernshaw

Title: A History of Wild Places
Author: Shea Ernshaw
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: December 7, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Travis Wren has an unusual talent for locating missing people. Hired by families as a last resort, he requires only a single object to find the person who has vanished. When he takes on the case of Maggie St. James—a well-known author of dark, macabre children’s books—he’s led to a place many believed to be only a legend.

Called Pastoral, this reclusive community was founded in the 1970s by like-minded people searching for a simpler way of life. By all accounts, the commune shouldn’t exist anymore and soon after Travis stumbles upon it… he disappears. Just like Maggie St. James.

Years later, Theo, a lifelong member of Pastoral, discovers Travis’s abandoned truck beyond the border of the community. No one is allowed in or out, not when there’s a risk of bringing a disease—rot—into Pastoral. Unraveling the mystery of what happened reveals secrets that Theo, his wife, Calla, and her sister, Bee, keep from one another. Secrets that prove their perfect, isolated world isn’t as safe as they believed—and that darkness takes many forms.

Hauntingly beautiful, hypnotic, and bewitching, A History of Wild Places is a story about fairy tales, our fear of the dark, and losing yourself within the wilderness of your mind. 

Author Shea Ernshaw has two previously published YA novels (including Winterwood, reviewed here). In A History of Wild Places, her adult debut, her powerful writing once again provides for a compelling read.

We open with Travis Wren, a man whose gift enables him to see visions of people’s pasts through touching items they’ve left behind. At the end of his rope after a series of personal misfortunes, he takes one last missing persons job, to search for bestselling children’s author Maggie St. James, who disappeared without a trace five years earlier. As Travis follows a trail of clues into the remote woods of Northern California, he finds evidence of an isolated community, then disappears himself.

As the story continues, the plot focuses on Pastoral, the isolated community that Travis had stumbled across some years earlier. Within the world of Pastoral, the community lives in harmony, led by their leader Levi, enjoying back-to-nature living, the beauty of their surroundings, self-sufficiency, and a simpler way of life. The drawback, however, is that no one enters or leaves Pastoral, not since an infection in the forest surrounding the community threatens to kill or infect anyone who steps across the boundary.

For Theo, his wife Calla, and her sister Bee, it’s a quiet but joy-filled life, with simple pleasures and routines, marred only by the fear of the pox lurking in the woods and even in a rainfall. They’re content in their lives together, even knowing that there are external threats and limits.

Our clothes are in endless need of mending, of stitching, an ongoing effort to make everything last for one more season.

Whatever we have is all there will ever be.

There’s an ominous sense hanging over Pastoral. The residents love one another and admire their leader, but the fear of contamination pervades everything they do, and they are essentially trapped within their own borders. Those who’ve tried to leave have been found dead or dying, bearing distinct signs of the pox. It’s quite clear that leaving equates to death, and that the people of Pastoral must accept their fate, to live permanently where they are, with what they have.

Events take a more dire turn when a baby is born prematurely. The infant will not survive with medical help, but there’s none to be had. Venturing to the nearest town to bring back help might save the baby, but would doom the entire community by introducing outside infection. The community’s split reaction to getting help precipitates a more dangerous turn of events, and this leads to Theo, Calla, and Bee each questioning what they know and what they think they know.

The cobwebs of tiny mistruths, little papercut deceptions, rooted in our joints and slung between rib bones.

How does this relate back to Maggie and Travis? I won’t tell, but trust me, the explanations and answers are fascinating.

I loved the moodiness of the entire novel. The author does a masterful job of portraying both the natural peace and beauty of Pastoral and its paranoia and fear. There’s a sense of impending danger in even the most ordinary of scenes.

No matter where you go, there are cracks in the plaster, nails coming loose, you just have to decide where you want to piece yourself back together. Where the ground feels sturdiest beneath your feet.

Likewise, I really appreciated the unfolding character arcs throughout the novel, as the characters learn more about themselves and their own secrets, as well as the bigger mysteries and secrets surrounding Pastoral as a whole.

The resolution is well-earned, with surprising twists that are justified by the build-up. Pretty much the only piece of this book that didn’t quite ring true for me has to do with Maggie’s novels, which are described as a bestselling children’s series — but based on the excerpts included in the book, I couldn’t get the appeal or why they’d be so influential. Maybe we just don’t see enough of them to get the full picture.

I’d definitely recommend A History of Wild Places. The writing is beautiful and evocative, and the plot is full of intricate characters and sharp twists. A can’t-put-it-down reading experience!


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Book Review: The Children of Red Peak by Craig DiLouie

Title: The Children of Red Peak
Author: Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: November 17, 2020
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Bram Stoker Award-nominated author Craig DiLouie brings a new twist to the cult horror story in a heart-pounding novel of psychological suspense.

David Young, Deacon Price, and Beth Harris live with a dark secret. As children, they survived a religious group’s horrific last days at the isolated mountain Red Peak. Years later, the trauma of what they experienced never feels far behind.

When a fellow survivor commits suicide, they finally reunite and share their stories. Long-repressed memories surface, defying understanding and belief. Why did their families go down such a dark road? What really happened on that final night?

The answers lie buried at Red Peak. But truth has a price, and escaping a second time may demand the ultimate sacrifice.

Reading The Children of Red Peak gave me serious chills — but I’m not sure whether this story needed the horror/supernatural element to have that effect. How can a story about childhood survivors of a death cult be anything but horrifying?

In The Children of Red Peak, we meet the three main characters — David, Beth, and Deacon, at the funeral of their childhood friend, Emily. Emily has committed suicide, leaving a note that says simply “I couldn’t fight it anymore”.

Fifteen years earlier, these four people, plus David’s older sister Angela, were the sole survivors of a brutal yet mysterious mass suicide out in the desert at a location known as Red Peak. A religious congregation, led by their pastor, endured weeks of starvation, hard labor, and mutilations before finally drinking poison (and murdering those who balked) — all with the goal of gaining eternal life in heaven, leaving behind the rest of the world to suffer the end times.

The survivors were all teens at the time, and after their rescue and extended psychological treatment, they eventually went their separate ways and made lives for themselves. But none are truly happy, and none can really explain what happened on that terrible day at Red Peak.

Through chapters that alternate between Beth, David, and Deacon’s perspectives, we learn about their varied current lives — Beth is a psychologist, Deacon an up-and-coming rock star, and David a cult exit counselor. We also see the characters start to allow their memories to resurface, so we get the backstory of the Family of the Living Spirit, its road to ruin, and the events of the final day in bits and pieces, until they eventually add up to a disturbing, terrible whole.

While there is a mysterious supernatural (religious?) element that comes into play, for me the true impact of this book lies in the description of the Family of the Living Spirit’s trajectory toward destruction. When we’re introduced to this community, they are a peaceful, religious, spiritual group living off the land on a small farm, devoted to the worship of the Living Spirit, but also living a joyful, celebratory life.

It’s only when the pastor discovers a miracle in the desert that the group’s emphasis on gaining eternal life kicks into high gear. With growing fervor for the apocalypse and their crossing over, the congregation evolves quickly into a doomsday cult. Choices are removed, blind obedience is emphasized, and increasingly destructive behaviors are held up as testaments to faith. It’s horrible, especially as we see these events through the eyes of people who were children at the time.

I’m not sure that I loved the climax and conclusion of The Children of Red Peak. The story of the cult and its destructive power is the true horror — for me, the addition of a supernatural element seems almost beside the point. Yes, it’s all very scary and horrifying, but even if this story were just about the delusions and failings of a group of brainwashed people, it would be just as scary and horrifying.

Maybe even more so?

The ending gives us a way out, so to speak. It allows for the possibility that the group’s beliefs might actually have had some sort of fulfillment, in its own awful way. And truly, there are no excuses. Whether the events were the work of a supernatural or divine being, it still resulted in suffering, death, and the permanent psychological damage done to the children who survived.

The Children of Red Peak is thought-provoking and utterly devastating. I came to really care about the characters, and found the entire story and the characters’ various endings heart-breaking and tragic.

This is a powerful read, and I just wish I had someone to talk about it with! Craig DiLouie is a gifted writer, and I will gladly read whatever he writes next.

For more by this author, check out my reviews of:
One of Us
Our War