Book Review: When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain

Vivid, clever, and steady-paced.

Hauntingly descriptive with pulse-pounding twists and a vulnerable yet highly intuitive protagonist. Paula McLain writes about a very chilling topic with the elegance and ease of a pro.

Paula McLain is an American author best known for her novel, The Paris Wife, a fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage which became a long-time New York Times bestseller. She has published two collections of poetry, a memoir about growing up in the foster system, and the novel A Ticket to Ride.

When the Stars Go Dark is the first of McLain’s novels I’ve read but it definitely won’t be the last. The book combines psychological suspense with a little mysticism, creating an intriguing angle for the overall story which pulled me in immediately. I loved the setting, based in northern California, and enjoyed following Anna and the wide cast of characters around the small town of Mendocino.

The story follows Anna Hart, orphaned as a child and passed through the foster system, which only better prepared her for a career as a detective, committed to finding murdered and missing children.

I’m always intrigued by female detectives and especially love when they’re painted in a relatable light. I found the characters believable, and their arcs very satisfying. The plot was compelling albeit slow-burning at times; different from what I usually read. But it was a fresh change and I was immediately drawn in by the narrator and her back story.

“For as long as I could remember, I’d had reasons to disappear, I was an expert at making myself invisible.”

Anna Hart – When The Stars Go Dark

I particularly loved the setting and picturing the west coast was a nice backdrop compared to the usual grungy cities a lot of detective novels take place in. A scene that sticks in my mind sees Anna visit a psychic who tells her: “This is your life’s work for a reason. The things you’ve lost have drawn you to help these children and young women,” the psychic says to Anna then goes on to hit the bull’s eye, “The ghosts of the kids you’ve helped, they hang on you like stars.” I loved the added layer of mysticism that scene brought to the story.

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is an atmospheric suspense novel that I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend to readers who love a relatable protagonist, realistic twists, beautiful settings, and a steady pace with a slow-burning end. Think of pragmatic characters like Mare Sheehan in HBO’s Mare of Eastown and AMC’s Sarah Lindon from The Killing, placed against a beautiful California backdrop.

Plot

Anna Hart, orphaned as a child and passed through the foster system, only better prepared her for a career as a detective, committed to finding murdered and missing children. When unspeakable tragedy strikes, she turns to the Californian village of Mendocino to grieve. Seeking comfort in the chocolate-box village she grew up in, Anna instead arrives to the news that a local girl has gone missing. The crime feels frighteningly reminiscent of a crucial time in Anna’s childhood when an unsolved murder changed the community forever. As past and present collide, Anna is forced to confront the darkest side of human nature.

After reading her author’s note, I learned that McLain, along with her two sisters, grew up in a series of foster homes. McLain’s biological mother disappeared when she was 4, and her father spent time in and out of prison. During the 14 years she spent in foster care, McLain endured sexual abuse. Detective Anna Hart, the protagonist in “When the Stars Go Dark,” is also a survivor of abandonment, and mirror’s the author’s own personal experience in the system. Anna, the story’s protagonist, uses her trauma as a tool to help in her police work of tracking down the predators who brutalize children.

Book Review: Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian

Lightning-fast and whip smart. A fresh take on the genre.

Never Saw Me Coming is Vera Kurian’s debut novel, published September 7th, 2021, by Park Row Books. Kurian is a scientist first, novelist second. Per her bio, she’s spent time on both US coasts but now lives in her hometown of DC, which mirrors the setting of her novel.

I was immediately drawn in by the premise of the book: eighteen-year-old Chloe Sevre earns a full scholarship to Adams college when she agrees to participate in a clinical study on psychopaths. It’s new, it’s interesting, and I love unreliable female narrators. Once first introductions were over, the story hits the ground running and drops a couple of bombs in the first 50 pages (my favorite) including, the fact that Chloe is on a revenge mission to kill a childhood ‘friend’, and if that’s not shocking enough, one of the other students in the study is found murdered. After that, the pace continues full speed and we see Chloe teaming up with two other students—Andre and Charles, also participants in the psychopathy study—as they try to figure out the motive behind who is targeting them and why.

But can you really trust a psychopath?

For a debut, Never Saw Me Coming is long in length (389 pages) but since the chapters are relatively short it never slows in pace. I found myself racing through each new chapter as the POV alternated between Chloe (18 year-old hot girl next door), Charles (privileged, handsome, rich kid), and Andre (a student with a troubled past hiding a big secret). Each character is interesting, unique, and complex, bringing their own personal set of traits to the table. Kurian did an amazing job at displaying the nonchalant and calculative tendencies psychopaths are described to exhibit in textbooks to the page, specifically in chapter 47 where I found myself gliding through a particularly gruesome scene with ease, narrated by Chloe, in which I had to pause and go back, shocked at how cold and detached she was. The tone was executed perfectly and it sent shivers down my spine!

One of the things I love the most about this book is how fresh the story idea is. I have read and enjoyed numerous books featuring unreliable narrators for one reason or another, whether it’s addiction, trauma, or straight-up deceit, but it’s not often I read about a diagnosed psychopath who is not only unashamed but openly proud to admit it. And the fact that she’s not the only one makes for a very suspenseful read with an even more interesting cast of characters. The only downside is that sometimes I found it a little hard to follow all of them, nevertheless it’s an expertly plotted novel.

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy psychological thrillers, dark academia with a wide cast of characters, lightning-fast pace, and unreliable narrators.

Plot:

You should never trust a psychopath. But what if you had no choice?

It would be easy to underestimate Chloe Sevre… She’s a freshman honor student, a legging-wearing hot girl next door, who also happens to be a psychopath. She spends her time on yogalates, frat parties and plotting to kill Will Bachman, a childhood friend who grievously wronged her. 

Chloe is one of seven students at her DC-based college who are part of an unusual clinical study of psychopaths—students like herself who lack empathy and can’t comprehend emotions like fear or guilt. The study, led by a renowned psychologist, requires them to wear smartwatches that track their moods and movements.

When one of the students in the study is found murdered in the psychology building, a dangerous game of cat and mouse begins, and Chloe goes from hunter to prey. As she races to identify the killer and put her own plan for revenge into action, she’ll be forced to decide if she can trust any of her fellow psychopaths—and everybody knows you should never trust a psychopath.

Book Review: Survive the Night by Riley Sager

Riley Sager’s fifth thriller—Survive the Night—is a must-read for anyone who loves nineties-era-nostalgia. From grungy music and classic horror movies to muscle cars and dingy roadside diners; this book brought the thrills of the big screen alive on the page for me. Charlie Jordan—college student and movie buff—accepts a ride from a stranger she meets at the ride board at school. After her best friend was brutally murdered, Charlie’s desperate to leave college and get back to Ohio, leaving the mess of traumatic memories behind her. But not long into the journey, Charlie starts to suspect her driver, Josh, isn’t who he says he is. Could she really be riding alongside “The Campus Killer”?

I’m a huge fan of anything nineties but particularly love the films created in that era. A few of my favorite examples are Silence of the Lambs, Cape Fear, Seven, Misery, The Bone Collector, Kiss the Girls. After reading a LOT of books based on serial killers, when I read the premise of Sager’s fifth thriller I was definitely intrigued. So many authors have covered the same theme so I wanted to know what could possibly be different this time. I can confirm one thing Sager does extremely well is turn a simple story idea into something genuinely original. I was pleasantly surprised with the story of Charlie Jordan and her mysterious driver, Josh Baxter, who set off on a page-turning journey into the night that made me stay up past midnight racing to the end just to find out what happened.

The plot was fast-paced and kept me glued to the page. I loved the cast of characters, especially the independent protagonist Charlie, who is courageous, smart, and has a passion for horror movies. I felt like I was sitting in the passenger seat along for the ride the entire time, as if the book was a movie playing out in my mind (similar to the story’s protagonist). And with the plot advancing at break-neck speed, I was kept guessing at the end of each chapter. One of my favorite scenes sees Charlie and Josh stop at a diner along the way, set in a remote location miles from the campus where they left from. It’s one of the most pivotal moments in the book without the reader realizing it. All the details of the scene, from the greasy food to the dirty restrooms, were so vivid and the suspense between the characters was palpable. I caught myself holding my breath in many of the scenes, waiting for the truth to reveal itself.

One of my favorite things about Sager’s books is that they’re all completely different from one another. There is no correct book to start with so just dive into the one that speaks to you first.

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend Survive the Night to readers who enjoy everything nineties, movie references, strong female protagonists, and twisty, slow-building suspense.

Plot:

It’s November 1991. Nirvana’s in the tape deck, George H. W. Bush is in the White House, and movie-obsessed college student Charlie Jordan is in a car with a man who might be a serial killer.

Josh Baxter, the man behind the wheel, is a virtual stranger to Charlie. They met at the campus ride board, each looking to share the long drive home to Ohio. Both have good reasons for wanting to get away. For Charlie, it’s guilt and grief over the shocking murder of her best friend, who became the third victim of the man known as the Campus Killer. For Josh, it’s to help care for his sick father—or so he says.

The longer she sits in the passenger seat, the more Charlie notices there’s something suspicious about Josh, from the holes in his story about his father to how he doesn’t want her to see inside the trunk. As they travel an empty, twisty highway in the dead of night, an increasingly anxious Charlie begins to think she’s sharing a car with the Campus Killer. Is Josh truly dangerous? Or is Charlie’s jittery mistrust merely a figment of her movie-fueled imagination?

One thing is certain—Charlie has nowhere to run and no way to call for help. Trapped in a terrifying game of cat and mouse played out on pitch-black roads and in neon-lit parking lots, Charlie knows the only way to win is to survive the night.

LISK: A Timeline

Image Courtesy of Pexels.com

If you’re unfamiliar with the ongoing LISK (Long Island Serial Killer) also known as the Gilgo Beach case, this post is created to catch you up. And the quickest way to do so, is with a timeline. Note that this is a work in progress, pieced together using various online sources and includes information gathered over the years by tireless individuals which helped to identify some of the nameless victims. Only cases that were officially linked to LISK have been included here (except Shannan Gilbert whom I’ve included for reasons related to my own theories).

Please let me know if there is anything missing or incorrect.

  • April 20, 1996

    Two female legs discovered on Fire Island, west of Davis Park Beach wrapped in a plastic bag.

    The victim’s skull would later be found on April 11, 2011 west of Tobay Beach in Nassau County, linked by DNA. “Jane Doe No. 7 / Fire Island Jane Doe.”

  • June 28, 1997

    The dismembered torso of a young unidentified African-American female was found in Hempstead Lake State Park, New York. Dumped in a green plastic container, the torso was left next to a road. Both arms, head, and legs below the knee were severed and haven’t been located. The victim had a tattoo of a heart-shaped peach with a bite out of it on her left breast.

    On April 11, 2011, police in Nassau County discovered dismembered skeletal human remains inside a plastic bag near Jones Beach State Park, nicknamed “Jane Doe No. 3“. DNA analysis later identified this victim as the mother of “Baby Doe.” She was found wearing gold jewelry similar to that of “Baby Doe.”

    In December 2016, Peaches and Jane Doe No. 3 were positively identified as being the same person.

  • December 19, 2000

    A female body is discovered by hikers on the Long Island Pine Barrens in Manorville, off of Halsey Manor Road. She was a white woman in her 30s with brown hair and had been dead for several weeks before her nude, headless body was found, cut into pieces and stuffed inside plastic bags.

    April 4, 2011, her head, hands and right foot were found in a plastic bag in the vicinity of Ocean Parkway on Gilgo Beach.

    On May 22, 2020 police in Long Island announced they had positively identified the “Manorville Jane Doe” and will be releasing her identity.

    Jane Doe No. 6 / Manorville Jane Doe.”

  • July 26, 2003

    A naked and dismembered torso, (no head or hands), was discovered 45 miles east of Gilgo Beach in Manorville, New York. The victim was identified as Jessica Taylor (20), an escort from Washington, D.C. She was last seen days earlier at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. Taylor‘s torso was found on top of a pile of scrap wood at the end of a paved access road off of Halsey Manor Road, just north of the LIE. Plastic sheeting was found underneath the torso, and a tattoo on her body had been mutilated with a sharp instrument. Medical examiners determined the tattoo was a red heart with an angel wing that said, ‘‘Remy’s angel”.

    On May 9, 2011, it was reported that the remains of a skull, a pair of hands, and a forearm found on March 29 at Gilgo Beach were matched to Jessica Taylor.

  • July 9, 2007

    Maureen Brainard-Barnes (25) was last seen in her hotel room at the Super 8 in midtown Manhattan. Her last known call that night was to her sister, Missy, during which she says she is at Penn Station.

    Shortly after her disappearance, a friend of Maureen‘s, Sara Karnes, received a call from a man on an unfamiliar number. The man claimed that he had just seen Maureen and that she was alive and staying at a “whorehouse in Queens”. He refused to identify himself and could not tell Karnes the location of the house. He told Karnes he would call back and give her the address, but he never called again. Karnes said that the man had no discernible New York or Boston accent (Amanda Barthelemy mentioned the same detail).

    Maureen’s body was found in December 2010 located very close to three other victims.

  • July 12, 2009

    Melissa Barthelemy (24) was last seen outside her apartment on Underhill Avenue in the Bronx. At some point, the security camera of her local bank recorded her depositing $1,000 into her account, believed to be money she’d received from a date she’d had earlier that night. She withdrew $100 before heading out the door. Her boyfriend/pimp, John “Blaze” Terry, would later say that he knew Melissa had lined up another $1,000 date the next night, somewhere on Long Island. She went by the working name “Chloe.”

    Shortly afterwards, her sister, Amanda, received 6-7 phone calls from a man using Melissa‘s cell phone and claiming to be her killer. The first calls were on July 16, July 19, and July 23 and the final call was on August 26. The calls were placed from crowded locations in New York City, including Madison Square Garden and Times Square. In one instance, police determined that Barthelemy’s phone had been turned on near Massapequa, Long Island, and that someone had gained access to her voice mail.

    Her body was discovered December 11, 2010 beside Ocean Parkway near Gilgo Beach.

  • May 1, 2010

    Shannan Maria Gilbert (23) was a New Jersey woman who may have been a victim of the Long Island serial killer. Gilbert had been working as an escort. She left for a client’s house (Joseph Brewer) in Oak Beach after midnight on May 1, 2010. At 4:51 in the morning, 911 dispatchers received a panicked phone call from Gilbert who can be heard saying that there was someone “after her” and that “they” were trying to kill her. She was last seen a short time later banging on the front door of a nearby Oak Beach residence and screaming for help before running off into the night. Neighbors Gus Coletti and Barbara Brennan are among the last to see her.

    On December 13, 2011, Gilbert‘s remains are found in a marsh, half a mile from where she was last seen. In May 2012, the Suffolk County medical examiners ruled that Gilbert accidentally drowned after entering the marsh. They believe that she was in a drug induced panic, and have concluded that her cause of death was “undetermined.” Her family believes she was murdered.

  • June 6, 2010

    Megan Waterman (22) was last seen on June 6, 2010 heading toward a nearby convenience store on foot after leaving the Hauppauge Holiday Inn Express.

    Her body is discovered on December 13, 2010, alongside the bodies of Maureen Brainard-Barnes and Amber Lynn Costello.

    On April 16, 2011, police seized the laptop of Waterman‘s boyfriend/pimp, Akeem Cruz, to search for records of clients that could lead them to the killer. In April, 2012, Cruz pled guilty to federal charges of transporting women across state lines to meet clients for sex. In 2013 he was sentenced to three years in prison.

  • September 2, 2010

    Amber Lynn Costello (27) leaves her home in North Babylon to meet a client, and is never seen alive again.

    Her body is discovered on December 13, 2010, alongside the bodies of Maureen Brainard-Barnes and Megan Waterman.

  • December 11, 2010

    A Suffolk County Police canine unit investigating missing escort Shannan Gilbert discover human skeletal remains at Gilgo Beach, three miles west of Robert Moses bridge, at 2:45 p.m. Police discover a full skeleton, wrapped in burlap, in the bramble beside Ocean Parkway near Gilgo Beach, three miles from Oak Beach. The remains are later identified as Melissa Barthelemy (24).

  • December 13, 2010

    Near Melissa Barthelemy‘s (24) grave was found, police discover three more sets of remains, also skeletal and wrapped in burlap, later identified as Megan Waterman (22), Maureen Brainard-Barnes (25), and Amber Lynn Costello (27). The bodies are found in the same location, within 500 feet of each of other.

  • December 15, 2010

    The FBI offers up its forensic and investigative services in the case. Police seize a white SUV from the client’s Oak Beach residence as part of the investigation.

  • December 16, 2010

    The Suffolk County Medical Examiner reports the remains are all female victims and that Gilbert is not one of the four female bodies discovered. The ME’s office holds a press conference to explain forensic investigation approach.

  • December 17, 2010

    Police hold a press conference to provide an updates on the investigation. They state that they had completed a comprehensive search of the beach area in both Nassau and Suffolk Counties along Ocean Parkway.

  • January 19, 2011

    Police identify one victim found as Megan Waterman (22), a woman from Maine who was reported missing in June 2010 from Hauppauge, NY. Remaining three victim identities still unknown.

  • January 25, 2011

    Police reveal the identities of three remaining victims, and Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota declares the victims are the work of a serial killer. He also reveals all four worked as escorts using Craigslist ads. Police state the women were all killed at different times, possibly a year apart in one case, and disposed of at different times.

    Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer says beach search would resume once weather conditions improve in spring.

  • March 29, 2011

    Police search teams resume search for Shannan Gilbert on Gilgo Beach, LI.

  • March 30, 2011

    During their search they find a skull, hands, and a forearm, all later verified to be additional remains of Jessica Taylor, whose torso was previously discovered in Manorville in 2003. These remains are also found along Ocean Parkway, three quarters of a mile from where the first four bodies were recovered.

  • March 31, 2011

    Police rule out that the fifth set of remains discovered a mile east of the first four sets are not those of Shannan Gilbert (24), the missing New Jersey woman.

  • April 4, 2011

    Police find three more sets of human remains along Ocean Parkway between Oak Beach and Gilgo Beach, bringing the body count to eight. An unidentified Asian male victim is found dressed in women’s clothing; the skull, hands, and foot of the first Manorville Jane Doe (discovered in 2000); and an unidentified girl between sixteen and thirty-two months old described as “Baby Doe“.

    Police later released a sketch of the Asian male. The cause of death was blunt-force trauma. He likely been working as an escort and was wearing women’s clothing at the time of his death. He was between 17 and 23 years of age, 5′ 6″ in height, and missing four teeth. He had been dead for between 5 and 10 years. He had some kind of musculoskeletal disorder which would have affected the way he walked/carried himself.

    DNA analysis identified Baby Doe to be the child of “Jane Doe No. 3 / Peaches.

  • April 5, 2011

    Police say missing woman Shannan Gilbert (24), last seen in Oak Beach on May 1, 2010 is not one of the three bodies discovered on April 4.

  • April 11, 2011

    Police uncover two more sets of remains in two separate locations.

    The first discovery: female bones and jewelry found near the Jones Beach water tower. Described as “Jane Doe No. 3“. DNA testing determines this is the same victim as Peaches and that she is the mother of the child (Baby Doe) found the week prior along Ocean Parkway.

    The second: a skull discovered west of Tobay Beach in Nassau County is later determined to be that of the Jane Doe No. 7 remains found in 1996 on Fire Island.

  • April 12, 2011

    The first news reports air about Mari Gilbert’s claim that she spoke with Oak Beach resident Peter Hackett in the days after her daughter Shannan’s disappearance. Hackett and his wife deny all allegations.

  • May 9, 2011

    In light of the six latest discoveries, DA Thomas Spota revises his theory of the case, announcing, “There is no evidence that all of these remains are the work of a single killer.”

  • July 12, 2011

    Peter Hackett tells CBS News he did speak with Mari Gilbert on the phone days after Shannan disappeared.

  • November 29, 2011

    Commissioner Dormer revises the case theory yet again, announcing he believes a single serial killer is to blame for all ten victims, and that Shannan’s disappearance is a separate case, perhaps not even a murder.

  • November 30, 2011

    The Suffolk County police announce they will reopen the search for Shannan.

  • December 6, 2011

    Day two of the search for Gilbert and the police move from Ocean Parkway to Oak Beach marsh. That same day they discover her personal items mere feet away from where she first disappeared on Anchor Way.

  • December 13, 2011

    Shannan Gilbert’s remains are found on the far side of the Oak Beach marsh, a quarter mile from where her belongings were found five days earlier. Before an autopsy is performed, Commissioner Dormer refers to her death as an accident.

  • December 15, 2011

    DA Thomas Spota decries Commissioner Dormer’s single-killer theory. The same day, County Executive—elect Steve Bellone names Dormer’s replacement as police commissioner, effective January 1.

  • January 3, 2012

    Suffolk County Interim Commissioner Edward Webber announces “There’s no fixed theories at the moment” about the Gilbert case or any of the Ocean Parkway cases.

  • May 1, 2012

    Shannan’s autopsy results are shared with her family. The cause of death is “undetermined.”

  • November 15, 2012

    A lawsuit was filed by her mother, Mari Gilbert, against the Suffolk County Police Department in the hopes of getting more answers about what happened to her daughter the night she went missing.

  • September 2014

    Due to the controversy about Shannan Gilbert‘s death, forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden agreed to conduct an independent autopsy of her remains in hopes of determining a clear cause of death.

    Upon examination of Gilbert‘s remains, Baden found damage to her hyoid bone, suggesting that strangulation may have occurred. Baden also noted that her body was found face-up, which is not common for drowning victims. Despite this, her death is still officially listed by police as an accident.

  • December 10, 2015

    Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini announced that the FBI had officially joined the investigation. The day before, former Police Commissioner James Burke, who resigned in October, had been indicted for alleged police brutality and other issues. He was said to have blocked FBI involvement in the LISK cases for years.

    A spokesperson for the FBI confirmed their official involvement. The FBI had previously assisted in the search for victims, but was never officially part of the investigation.

  • December 15, 2016

    An escort comes forward and claims that James Burke, the disgraced ex-Suffolk police chief, is linked to prostitution on Oak Beach. She gave a press conference with John Ray, the attorney for the family of Shannan Gilbert.

  • January 2019

    State Senator Phil Boyle Boyle introduced a bill in the State Senate to encourage the Commission on Forensic Science to explore use of genetic genealogy. The commission discussed the issue and that of DNA phenotyping at its June 7 meeting.

  • January 16, 2020

    Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart released images of a belt found at the crime scene with the letters “HM” or “WH” (depending on which way the belt was looked at) embossed in the black leather. The belt was found during the initial investigation near Ocean Parkway in Gilgo Beach. Police believe the belt was handled by the perpetrator and did not belong to any of the victims.

    Hart stated that forensic genealogy was being used to help identify other victims, but would not comment on other DNA or forensic questions.

    A website was announced, GilgoNews.com, enabling the police to share news and receive tips regarding the investigation.

    Attorney John Ray, who represents the family of Shannon Gilbert, also gave a press conference urging LE to release her 911 call.

  • May 6, 2020

    A judge overturned the appeal of the Suffolk County Police Department and ordered them to release the long-sealed 911 recording of a call made by Shannan Gilbert the night she died.

    Shannan Gilbert estate attorney John Ray says he has heard the 911 tapes and calls them ‘extremely valuable’.

  • May 22, 2020

    The Suffolk County Police Department said in a statement they had positively identified the “Manorville Jane Doe,” also referred to as “Jane Doe #6,” whose remains were located in Manorville in 2000 and Gilgo Beach in 2011. They have not yet released her identity.

  • May 28, 2020

    SCPD updated their website regarding the Manorville Jane Doe. She was identified as Valerie Mack, born 07-02-76.

    Valerie Mack was a white female described as being 5 feet tall with brown hair and hazel eyes weighing ~100 pounds. Family members last saw her in the Spring/Summer of 2000 in the area of Port Republic, New Jersey. She was 24 years old when she was last seen. Mack was never listed as a missing person.

    Mack‘s last known address was in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area where she had been working as an escort. She used the name “Melissa Taylor”. There is no familial relationship between her and Jessica Taylor.

    Detectives are asking members of the public, friends, family, and associates of Valerie Mack to provide whatever information they have about her and the circumstances leading to her death.



Copyright © Sarah F. Prescott 2020