Sunday, January 26, 2014

Author Spotlight: Jennifer McMahon

Jennifer McMahon’s novels are distinct in that young girls usually play an integral role as heroines, victims or narrators. In an Amazon Author One-on-One interview, McMahon acknowledged that for some reason the voice of these quirky, misfit and imaginative girls comes naturally to her possibly because her own childhood was a bizarre, difficult, yet magical time. Her talent in conveying all of the insecurities, conceit and joy of youth is apparent in each of the below novels which I read during my blogging hiatus. I discovered McMahon through her last book, The One I Left Behind, and as with all authors that manage to capture both my imagination and heart, I quickly sought out her previous works and read Promise Not to Tell, her debut novel, described by Publishers Weekly as "part mystery-thriller and part ghost story" and Island of Lost Girls.

McMahon creates such compelling and vivid characters that make you want to learn their inner most secrets, their life struggles, and which ultimately make you want to root for their every happiness. She gives a voice to the outcast, like Potato Girl – Del Griswold – the school pariah in New Canaan and “the kid all the others loved to hate” from Promise Not to Tell; or the quirky misfit, like Reggie, “the weird one-eared kid without a dad who lived in the creepy stone house” from The One I Left Behind. In a guest column for Writer’s Digest in which she offered tips for writing a novel, McMahon’s advice included creating flawed and believable characters, giving that character a compelling problem, making things happen, and making it believable; McMahon seems to have followed her own advice in each one of these three novels. Each one of her characters comes fully alive on the page; each faces a past hurt or mistake, a personal demon that has shaped their life and colored the choices they made which now drive their story; and each story is filled with all of the tension and suspense you’d expect in a great mystery.

I loved all three of these novels; each for different reasons. I found The One I Left Behind the best as a pure mystery and thriller; it was taut, gripping and had me fully entranced in trying to guess the identity of the story’s villain as red herrings kept me on tenterhooks until the end. Promise Not to Tell was my second favorite and while it held a mystery of its own, what captured my heart in this novel was its bittersweet narrative surrounding the unforgettable Del Griswold; with a bold and fearless exterior that only masked her hurts, my heart went out to this incredible little girl that I would’ve given anything to save. Despite being my third choice, Island of Lost Girls was a truly wonderful read as well. Its layered story actually offered two mysteries in one and McMahon did a great job of slowly fitting in the pieces of the puzzle to reveal the extent of the tale’s darkness.

The One I Left Behind. The summer of 1985 changes Reggie’s life. An awkward thirteen-year-old, she finds herself mixed up with the school outcasts. That same summer, a serial killer called Neptune begins kidnapping women. He leaves their severed hands on the police department steps and, five days later, displays their bodies around town. Just when Reggie needs her mother, Vera, the most, Vera’s hand is found on the steps. But after five days, there’s no body and Neptune disappears. Now, twenty-five years later, Reggie is a successful architect who has left her hometown and the horrific memories of that summer behind. But when she gets a call revealing that her mother has been found alive, Reggie must confront the ghosts of her past and find Neptune before he kills again.

Promise Not to Tell. Forty-one-year-old school nurse Kate Cypher has returned home to rural Vermont to care for her mother who's afflicted with Alzheimer's. On the night she arrives, a young girl is murdered—a horrific crime that eerily mirrors another from Kate's childhood. Three decades earlier, her dirt-poor friend Del—shunned and derided by classmates as "Potato Girl"—was brutally slain. Del's killer was never found, while the victim has since achieved immortality in local legends and ghost stories. Now, as this new murder investigation draws Kate irresistibly in, her past and present collide in terrifying, unexpected ways. Because nothing is quite what it seems . . . and the grim specters of her youth are far from forgotten.

Island of Lost Girls. While parked at a gas station, Rhonda sees something so incongruously surreal that at first she hardly recognizes it as a crime in progress. She watches, unmoving, as someone dressed in a rabbit costume kidnaps a young girl. Devastated over having done nothing, Rhonda joins the investigation. But the closer she comes to identifying the abductor, the nearer she gets to the troubling truth about another missing child: her best friend, Lizzy, who vanished years before.

All three novels alternate between past and present and in doing so give us a glimpse as to each protagonist’s faced consequences from past choices and secrets. In The One I Left Behind the chapters seamlessly weave back and forth between then 13-year old Reggie and her friends and present day Reggie; Promise Not to Tell’s chapters alternate between the childhood friendship between Del and Kate, and now 41-year old Kate who is coping with a broken marriage, a sick mother, and a new murder which mirrors Del’s; and Island of Lost Girls alternates between Rhonda’s past and present, the sudden disappearance of Ernestine but also that many years ago of her best friend, Lizzy. Each revelation helps us to see not only how their pasts shaped who they are as a person but also how it charts a course for their future.

In addition to finding a great mystery in each, all three books offer moving coming of age tales that also offer real and insightful looks at such dark subjects as bullying and child abuse. Each novel is a gem all on its own with a hypnotic edge-of-your-seat tale that will touch your heart and have you quickly turning the pages. Jennifer McMahon has become one of my must-read authors and these three books are a testament as to why. McMahon’s latest novel, The Winter People, which I highlighted in my 2014 Book Preview is due for release on February 11, 2014; I have no doubt that this will be yet another bestseller for this brilliant author.