Stillhouse Lake: Thrilling introduction to the formidable Gwen

Stillhouse Lake book review

What is this about?: Gwen and her kids Lani and Connor are in hiding at Stillhouse Lake, the first house they’ve dared to let themselves like in the four years since leaving their old lives behind as the family of serial killer, Mel. But their past isn’t quite done with them yet.

What else is this about?: Understanding Gwen, the choices she’s made for her kids and herself, and why she’s not going to let Mel Royal win. Unfortunately, it comes with some muddled characterisation with respect to Gwen and the men in her life that I don’t quite understand.

Stars: 3.5/5

Blurb: Gina Royal is the definition of average—a shy Midwestern housewife with a happy marriage and two adorable children. But when a car accident reveals her husband’s secret life as a serial killer, she must remake herself as Gwen Proctor—the ultimate warrior mom.

With her ex now in prison, Gwen has finally found refuge in a new home on remote Stillhouse Lake. Though still the target of stalkers and Internet trolls who think she had something to do with her husband’s crimes, Gwen dares to think her kids can finally grow up in peace.

But just when she’s starting to feel at ease in her new identity, a body turns up in the lake—and threatening letters start arriving from an all-too-familiar address. Gwen Proctor must keep friends close and enemies at bay to avoid being exposed—or watch her kids fall victim to a killer who takes pleasure in tormenting her. One thing is certain: she’s learned how to fight evil. And she’ll never stop.

Gina Royal died the moment she saw the cops in front of her house and the woman hanging from her garage rafters. In her place Gwen emerged, the woman who survived a year in jail as an alleged accomplice of her husband’s, who survived the threats against her kids and herself until she packed them up and went on the run. Gwen is the one who teaches her children to be beyond cautious and who checks the trolls out there in the internet determined to find her and to hurt her children for daring to have Mel as a husband and father.

Terminator Mum

Gwen is dubbed as such by her daughter Atlanta, and she’s not wrong. The book is filled with how their life has changed, how Gwen stores guns in the house, the car and when she goes running. How she runs panic drills in her head, and ensures her kids know how to hide in the panic room when the need arises. She is militant about it, and when she realises her kids are chafing under her control, she realises they are getting comfortable at Stillhouse Lake, and that scares her. That means they’re easily found, but on the other hand, it forces her to recognise that after four years, her kids’ behaviour is changing from all their moving around, and her son especially needs some stability.

Connor is a sensitive kid, who doesn’t quite remember the aftermath of his father’s arrest because he was so young. But now, he’s at an age when he realises he is his father’s son and wonders what that could mean for him. Gwen realises for him to be on the run constantly, means he’s always afraid of who he is. Atlanta, on the other hand, is going goth in an effort to keep people at bay. It’s a survival tactic because she expects to be told to go on the run at any time.

The characterisation of Gwen and the kids are off the charts brilliant. Caine captures their fearful existence and Gwen’s militant focus on keeping them safe even as she tries to shield them from the horrors of the reality of what their father did.

But where it falters is when it comes to Gwen and the men in this story. In truth, this is a book that could have done without any sort of romantic anything given Gwen’s history — even as yes, she’s allowed to have some sort of happiness in her life. But I was struck that she hasn’t left Mel behind, that (and the book bears this out) she’s always going to feel like he’s coming for her, and that trusting any man would be hard for her.

Which is why it’s so surprising to have her trust Sam in this book. Sure there’s some caution in the beginning, before she too easily lets him in to their lives. Is it her desire to have something normal? Sure, it could be, but then she still continues to do her sicko patrol (checking the internet for the threats to her kids), so she knows normal is a long way away for her.

Then there’s the weird way she notices a guy’s interest in her in the beginning, who then becomes an adversary when another romantic interest appears and it’s just weird and hampers the flow of the book. In fact the pacing with the chosen romantic interest slows down the middle of the book, but thankfully the rest of the plot kept me going.

The you know, actual plot

While the book establishes pretty early on that Gwen is always on the watch for threats to her family, what she does not expect is a dead woman in the lake on which her house stands. Just the way her ex serial killer husband got rid of his victims. She quickly becomes the top of the cops’ suspect list, and soon enough her past and Mel’s past comes to light.

The cops though are somewhat cookie-cutter characters, which was disappointing. They did exactly what you would expect them to do. Thankfully Gwen is strong enough of a character to keep readers engaged even through those scenes. 

Gwen also realises that her husband, Mel is behind the bodies in the lake. Even from death row, he exerts control over his minions, who are the ones she’s sure are killing the women the cops are finding. Caine kept me on the edge of my seat as the ending revealed some goodness I didn’t see coming (are twists really that easy to see coming these days?) .

The strength in this story is Caine’s characterisation of Gwen and the kids, who are at the heart of this story. 

19 Comments

  • I agree, the romantic elements of this one were a stumbling block. But Gwen and her kids were awesome, and I’m dying to see Gwen face off against Mel again. What an absolute psycho. My skin was totally crawling when I read that prison visitation scene!

    • Verushka says:

      I forgave the romance elements because the characterisations were so brilliant when it came to Gwen and the kids. And Mel *shivers* You’re right he is a psycho, and I loved how Caine managed to make him so menacing even behind a screen in prison in that visit — THAT is the type of writing that made me keep going despite the too heavy-handed romance issues.

  • Whenever you hear about actual serial killers, you have to wonder about their friends and family. It sounds like an intriguing novel from that angle. I can see how the romance wasn’t really needed though – I don’t get why authors feel the need to always have a love interest!

    • Verushka says:

      Me either — especially when the characterisation of Gwen and the kids was just so good! I didn’t care who the romantic interest was, I wanted more of the three of them, and their relationships because like you pointed out, we always wonder about serial killers and their families. What is means to love them even though you hate what they did — and that’s clear — the kids especially have unresolved feelings about their father. So there’s no easy answers here just yet.

  • I got this as a Prime book, then upgraded for about $3.00 to get the Audio. I really enjoyed this and cannot wait for the next book.

  • I have seen this on Amazon and wondered about it. I think I might go ahead and get it. I think I would like it too. Great review.

    • Verushka says:

      It’s really wonderful — even the bits that irritated me paled next to the goodness in this generally. Srsly, such a great read!

  • I have heard so many great things about this book so the critiques you had really are very welcome. I did grab the book when it was a Kindle Prime pick and do hope to read it soon. I hope to go into the book with realistic expectations. Great review!

    • Verushka says:

      Thank you! I thought the romance was absolutely not needed and took away time from Gwen and the kids, but those three are the heart of this story, and Caine really did brilliantly with their characterisation. I was sooo impressed!

  • Lily says:

    I actually really loved this one, it was my first intro into Caine and I feel like I need more of her work in my life now. Gwen and the kids were awesome.
    I was getting a little sick and tired with the people who where absolutely nasty to her despite the fact that she was proven innocent.

    • Verushka says:

      Me too! It was my first book of hers as well, and I thought she wrote Gwen and the kids brilliantly, and as full realised characters. And oh hell yes, I was totally over the characters ganging up on her! Let it go people, let it go.

  • I have this one my wishlist because I have heard good things. I like the sound of it even with the disappointing parts. Great review!

    • Verushka says:

      She’s got such excellent characterisation, the disappointing pale next to the goodness (even if they are irritating lol A romance just wasn’t necessary in the scheme of this book).

  • Aside from the romance, this sounds like an excellent read. Gwen sounds like an intriguing character.

    • Verushka says:

      The romance was really not needed because the story and the characterisation were so brilliant as is. Gwen is such a marvellous character, she really is.

  • Greg says:

    I want this book. I love that she’s like Terminator mom lol, I definitely want to read this one, in spite of the romance issues and the cookie cutter cops.

  • I’m planning to read this one at some point. Sounds like it would be a great film too…

  • I’ve been curious about this book, as I love Rachel Caine. I believe it’s a series, right? So there is at least one more book with these characters coming out.

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