August 3, 2015

Loved It: Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Haeberlin

Series: Standalone
Format: eGalley
Release Date: August 11, 2015
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Genre: Mystery | Suspense

I am the star of screaming headlines and campfire ghost stories.
I am one of the four Black-Eyed Susans.
The lucky one.

As a sixteen-year-old, Tessa Cartwright was found in a Texas field, barely alive amid a scattering of bones, with only fragments of memory as to how she got there. Ever since, the press has pursued her as the lone surviving “Black-Eyed Susan,” the nickname given to the murder victims because of the yellow carpet of wildflowers that flourished above their shared grave. Tessa’s testimony about those tragic hours put a man on death row.

Now, almost two decades later, Tessa is an artist and single mother. In the desolate cold of February, she is shocked to discover a freshly planted patch of black-eyed susans—a summertime bloom—just outside her bedroom window. Terrified at the implications—that she sent the wrong man to prison and the real killer remains at large—Tessa turns to the lawyers working to exonerate the man awaiting execution. But the flowers alone are not proof enough, and the forensic investigation of the still-unidentified bones is progressing too slowly. An innocent life hangs in the balance. The legal team appeals to Tessa to undergo hypnosis to retrieve lost memories—and to share the drawings she produced as part of an experimental therapy shortly after her rescue.

What they don’t know is that Tessa and the scared, fragile girl she was have built a fortress of secrets. As the clock ticks toward the execution, Tessa fears for her sanity, but even more for the safety of her teenaged daughter. Is a serial killer still roaming free, taunting Tessa with a trail of clues? She has no choice but to confront old ghosts and lingering nightmares to finally discover what really happened that night.

Shocking, intense, and utterly original, Black-Eyed Susans is a dazzling psychological thriller, seamlessly weaving past and present in a searing tale of a young woman whose harrowing memories remain in a field of flowers—as a killer makes a chilling return to his garden.

I love serial killer myster-suspense novels. The guess work, the gore, the psychological trauma, the chase, the case, and every other thing that makes for a curious riddle, BLACK EYED SUSANS by Julia Haeberlin has. The mystery behind the killings hit me on different angles, it was fascinating to say the least, and this novel sure left me discombobulated. It goes without saying that I'm recommending you pick this up especially if you enjoy suspense-mysteries. 

  • BLACK-EYED SUSANS was told in alternating time frames, present day and 1995. I have to admit, it took me some time to get into JHaeberlin's style, but once I did it was a page-turning experience til the end. 

  • So the case has supposedly been solved back in '95 with the murderer on death row. After 20 years, Tessa's back on the case because she's the only survivor, and the man convicted is totally innocent! Can you imagine the guilt of putting the wrong person behind bars?! The nightmare that never ends because it means the real killer is still out there, lurking, watching, terrorizing Tessa with those darn black-eyed susans!?! (read the blurb)

  • And there's the task of reopening the case, digging through evidence, digging through Tessa's psyche for things she'd rather forget, and the crusade for exonerating an innocent. The frustration of having the appeal turned down out of technicality. Very compelling angle, don't you agree?

  • For about 80% of the novel, I was wondering how much of Tessa's testimony and recollections are real, and not some made-up tale to cope with the trauma. It was tricky to figure out because BLACK-EYED SUSANS made a big play on Tessa's mental state back in '95 and how much of that she's still carrying to this day. 

  • We don't really get a clear picture of HOW Tessa was abducted and the entirety of those days she went missing til she was found in a makeshift graveyard. The gruesomeness of the crime is told rather than shown, so it's not as gory as you'd expect. The flashbacks starts after Tessa's been recovered while the trial's started, and she's undergoing therapy. It also didn't help that Tessa forgot a lot of things that happened to her while in captivity. So even if she's the only survivor, she's not really a reliable witness. Also, I might have missed it, but I didn't quite catch the motive behind Tessa's abduction.

  • And then there's Lydia. The best friend who's character is ambiguous at best.

I love JHaeberlin's gripping storytelling style not to mention BLACK-EYED SUSAN's editing is fantastic! Each chapter ends in some sort of a question mark, the answer withheld for another one, so we're constantly kept in suspense. The story getting curioser and curioser with each page. I suggest you read the excerpt below so you get a better grip of what I'm trying to say:

hours of my life are missing.
My best friend, Lydia, tells me to imagine those hours like old
clothes in the back of a dark closet. Shut my eyes. Open the door.
Move things around. Search.
The things I do remember, I’d rather not. Four freckles. Eyes that
aren’t black but blue, wide open, two inches from mine. Insects
gnawing into a smooth, soft cheek. The grit of the earth in my teeth.
Those parts, I remember.
It’s my seventeenth birthday, and the candles on my cake are
The little flames are waving at me to hurry up. I’m thinking about
the Black-Eyed
Susans, lying in freezing metal drawers. How I scrub
and scrub but can’t wash away their smell no matter how many
showers I take.
Be happy.
Make a wish.
I paste on a smile, and focus. Everyone in this room loves me and
wants me home.
Hopeful for the same old Tessie.
Never let me remember.
I close my eyes and blow.
Tessa and Tessie
My mother she killed me,
My father he ate me,
My sister gathered together all my bones,
Tied them in a silken handkerchief,
Laid them beneath the juniper-tree,
Kywitt, kywitt, what a beautiful bird am I!
age 10, r eading aloud to her gr andfather
from “ The Juniper T ree,” 1988
Tessa, present day
For better or worse, I am walking the crooked path to my childhood.
The house sits topsy-turvy
on the crest of a hill, like a kid built it
out of blocks and toilet paper rolls. The chimney tilts in a comical
direction, and turrets shoot off each side like missiles about to take
off. I used to sleep inside one of them on summer nights and pretend
I was rocketing through space.
More than my little brother liked, I had climbed out one of the
windows onto the tiled roof and inched my scrappy knees toward
the widow’s peak, grabbing sharp gargoyle ears and window ledges
for balance. At the top, I leaned against the curlicued railing to survey
the flat, endless Texas landscape and the stars of my kingdom. I
played my piccolo to the night birds. The air rustled my thin white
cotton nightgown like I was a strange dove alit on the top of a castle.
It sounds like a fairy tale, and it was.
My grandfather made his home in this crazy storybook house in
the country, but he built it for my brother, Bobby, and me. It wasn’t
a huge place, but I still have no idea how he could afford it. He presented
each of us with a turret, a place where we could hide out from
the world whenever we wanted to sneak away. It was his grand gesture,
our personal Disney World, to make up for the fact that our
mother had died.
4 Julia Heaberlin
Granny tried to get rid of the place shortly after Granddaddy
died, but the house didn’t sell till years later, when she was lying in
the ground between him and their daughter. Nobody wanted it. It
was weird, people said. Cursed. Their ugly words made it so.
After I was found, the house had been pasted in all the papers, all
over TV. The local newspapers dubbed it Grim’s Castle. I never knew
if that was a typo. Texans spell things different. For instance, we
don’t always add the ly.
People whispered that my grandfather must have had something
to do with my disappearance, with the murder of all the Black-Eyed
Susans, because of his freaky house. “Shades of Michael Jackson
and his Neverland Ranch,” they muttered, even after the state sent a
man to Death Row a little over a year later for the crimes. These were
the same people who had driven up to the front door every Christmas
so their kids could gawk at the lit-up
gingerbread house and
grab a candy cane from the basket on the front porch.
I press the bell. It no longer plays Ride of the Valkyries. I don’t
know what to expect, so I am a little surprised when the older couple
that open the door look perfectly suited to living here. The plump
hausfrau with the kerchief on her head, the sharp nose,
and the dust rag in her hand reminds me of the old woman in the
I stutter out my request. There’s an immediate glint of recognition
by the woman, a slight softening of her mouth. She locates the
small crescent-moon
scar under my eye. The woman’s eyes say poor
little girl, even though it’s been eighteen years, and I now have a girl
of my own.
“I’m Bessie Wermuth,” she says. “And this is my husband, Herb.
Come in, dear.” Herb is scowling and leaning on his cane. Suspicious,
I can tell. I don’t blame him. I am a stranger, even though he
knows exactly who I am. Everyone in a five-hundred-
does. I am the Cartwright girl, dumped once upon a time with a
strangled college student and a stack of human bones out past Highway
10, in an abandoned patch of field near the Jenkins property.
Black-Eyed Susans 5
I am the star of screaming tabloid headlines and campfire ghost
I am one of the four Black-Eyed
Susans. The lucky one.
It will only take a few minutes, I promise. Mr. Wermuth frowns,
but Mrs. Wermuth says, Yes, of course. It is clear that she makes the
decisions about all of the important things, like the height of the
grass and what to do with a redheaded, kissed-by-
waif on their
doorstep, asking to be let in.
“We won’t be able to go down there with you,” the man grumbles
as he opens the door wider.
“Neither of us have been down there too much since we moved
in,” Mrs. Wermuth says hurriedly. “Maybe once a year. It’s damp.
And there’s a broken step. A busted hip could do either of us in.
Break one little thing at this age, and you’re at the Pearly Gates in
thirty days or less. If you don’t want to die, don’t step foot inside a
hospital after you turn sixty-five.”
As she makes this grim pronouncement, I am frozen in the great
room, flooded with memories, searching for things no longer there.
The totem pole that Bobby and I sawed and carved one summer,
completely unsupervised, with only one trip to the emergency room.
Granddaddy’s painting of a tiny mouse riding a handkerchief sailboat
in a wicked, boiling ocean.
Now a Thomas Kinkade hangs in its place. The room is home to
two flowered couches and a dizzying display of knickknacks,
crowded on shelves and tucked in shadow boxes. German beer steins
and candlesticks, a Little Women doll set, crystal butterflies and
frogs, at least fifty delicately etched English teacups, a porcelain
clown with a single black tear rolling down. All of them, I suspect,
wondering how in the hell they ended up in the same neighborhood.
The ticking is soothing. Ten antique clocks line one wall, two
with twitching cat tails keeping perfect time with each other.
I can understand why Mrs. Wermuth chose our house. In her way,
she is one of us.
“Here we go,” she says. I follow her obediently, navigating a pas-
6 Julia Heaberlin
sageway that snakes off the living room. I used to be able to take its
turns in the pitch dark on my roller skates. She is flipping light
switches as we go, and I suddenly feel like I am walking to the chamber
of my death.
“TV says the execution is in a couple of months.” I jump. This is
exactly where my mind is traveling. The scratchy male voice behind
me is Mr. Wermuth’s, full of cigarette smoke.
I pause, swallowing the knot in my throat as I wait for him to ask
whether I plan to sit front row and watch my attacker suck in his last
breath. Instead, he pats my shoulder awkwardly. “I wouldn’t go.
Don’t give him another damn second.”
I am wrong about Herb. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been
wrong, or the last.
My head knocks into an abrupt curve in the wall because I’m still
turned toward Herb. “I’m fine,” I tell Mrs. Wermuth quickly. She
lifts her hand but hesitates to touch my stinging cheek, because it is
just a little too close to the scar, the permanent mark from a garnet
ring dangling off a skeletal finger. A gift from a Susan who didn’t
want me to forget her, ever. I push Mrs. Wermuth’s hand away gently.
“I forgot that turn was coming up so soon.”
“Crazy damn house,” Herb says under his breath. “What in the
hell is wrong with living in St. Pete?” He doesn’t seem to expect an
answer. The spot on my cheek begins to complain and my scar
echoes, a tiny ping, ping, ping.
The hallway has settled into a straight line. At the end, an ordinary
door. Mrs. Wermuth pulls out a skeleton key from her apron
pocket and twists it in the lock easily. There used to be twenty-five
those keys, all exactly the same, which could open any door in the
place. An odd bit of practicality from my grandfather.
A chilly draft rushes at us. I smell things both dying and growing.
I have my first moment of real doubt since I left home an hour ago.
Mrs. Wermuth reaches up and yanks on a piece of kite string dancing
above her head. The bare, dusty lightbulb flickers on.
“Take this.” Mr. Wermuth prods me with the small Maglite from
Black-Eyed Susans 7
his pocket. “I carry it around for reading. You know where the main
light switch is?”
“Yes,” I say automatically. “Right at the bottom.”
“Watch the sixteenth step,” Mrs. Wermuth warns. “Some critter
chewed a hole in it. I always count when I go down. You take as long
as you like. I think I’ll make all of us a cup of tea and you can tell a
bit of the history of the house after. We’d both find that fascinating.
Right, Herb?” Herb grunts. He’s thinking of driving a little white
ball two hundred yards into Florida’s deep blue sea.
I hesitate on the second step, and turn my head, unsure. If anyone
shuts this door, I won’t be found for a hundred years. I’ve never had
any doubt that death is still eager to catch up with a certain sixteen-year-
Mrs. Wermuth offers a tiny, silly wave. “I hope you find what you
are looking for. It must be important.”
If this is an opening, I don’t take it.
I descend noisily, like a kid, jumping over step sixteen. At the bottom,
I pull another dangling string, instantly washing the room with
a harsh fluorescent glow.
It lights an empty tomb. This used to be a place where things
were born, where easels stood with half-finished
paintings, and
strange, frightening tools hung on pegboards, where a curtained
darkroom off to the side waited to bring photos to life, and dress
mannequins held parties in the corners. Bobby and I would swear we
had seen them move more than once.
A stack of old chests held ridiculous antique dress-up
wrapped in tissue paper and my grandmother’s wedding dress with
exactly 3,002 seed pearls and my grandfather’s World War II uniform
with the brown spot on the sleeve that Bobby and I were sure
was blood. My grandfather was a welder, a farmer, a historian, an
artist, an Eagle Scout leader, a morgue photographer, a rifleman, a
woodworker, a Republican, a yellow dog Democrat. A poet. He
could never make up his mind, which is exactly what people say
about me.
8 Julia Heaberlin
He ordered us never to come down here alone, and he never knew
we did. But the temptation was too great. We were especially fascinated
with a forbidden, dusty black album that held Granddaddy’s
crime scene photographs from his brief career with the county
morgue. A wide-eyed
housewife with her brains splattered across
her linoleum kitchen floor. A drowned, naked judge pulled to shore
by his dog.
I stare at the mold greedily traveling up the brick walls on every
side. The black lichen flourishing in a large crack zigzagging across
the filthy concrete floor.
No one has loved this place since Granddaddy died. I quickly
cross over to the far corner, sliding between the wall and the coal
furnace that years ago had been abandoned as a bad idea. Something
travels lightly across my ankle. A scorpion, a roach. I don’t
flinch. Worse things have crawled across my face.
Behind the furnace, it is harder to see. I sweep the light down the
wall until I find the grimy brick with the red heart, painted there to
fool my brother. He had spied on me one day when I was exploring
my options. I run my finger lightly around the edges of the heart
three times.
Then I count ten bricks up from the red heart, and five bricks
over. Too high for little Bobby to reach. I jam the screwdriver from
my pocket into the crumbling mortar, and begin to pry. The first
brick topples out, and clatters onto the floor. I work at three other
bricks, tugging them out one at a time.
I flash the light into the hole.
Stringy cobwebs, like spin art. At the back, a gray, square lump.
Waiting, for seventeen years, in the crypt I made for it

Talk Supe


  1. Saw this yesterday, and thought it was quite interesting. I love me a good mystery!

  2. Ohhh creepy! Still out there, I'd be terrified

    1. Who wouldn't? I might live inside a fortress or something.

  3. Okay, I'm totally sold. I actually wasn't too sure about this one, but I definitely want to read it. I'm especially interested with the therapy and memories in a case like this.

    1. It'll throw you for a loop that's for sure.

  4. Okay you completely sold me on this! Wonderful review!

  5. I love serial killer reads, though I haven't read a good one in years. I'm glad you enjoyed this!

  6. I love serial killer reads! This one has been high up on my TBR list for awhile. Glad you enjoyed it and can't wait to hear who wins!

    Sarah @ One Curvy Blogger

  7. Sounds well written if it kept you guessing for so long. Also, yes to ambiguity! :) I need to check it out obviously. Happy Monday <3

  8. Oh my goodness, Braine! Black-eyed Susans sounds very intense! I love psychological thrillers that have a real mystery going on, and I definitely need to add this to my TBR. Great review!! You got me all excited, with an accelerated heartbeat and all :D

    Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews

    1. The mystery is well orchestrated. I was doubting Tessa's sanity for the most part.

  9. OMG I want!!! Thanks for the super review Braine ;)

    1. Can't blame you, that's my reaction too when I saw it on NG.

  10. I really liked this one as well, but I had some niggles at the end. I think the abduction was just wrong place, wrong time and saw something she shouldn't. I struggled with who was planting the Black Eyed Susans all this time and the motives of her friend. Still a good solid and entertaining read.

    1. That was unclear, I wish she made the motive more definitive. Also, the friend is an asshole. LOL

  11. This sounds like it could fall apart easily so the fact that you loved it really speaks volumes on what the author could accomplish. Sounds great. I so need to check this one out.

    1. I loved this! Kept me in suspense for the majority of the novel.

  12. It sounds good, but it sounds like I'd be confused the whole time >.<

    1. Yeah, at first the alternating timelines got me confused too.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Sounds thrilling! I love to be kept on the edge of my seat. Not sure if I could get though through the writing style though.

    1. I got used to it eventually once the story gained traction.

  15. I love psychological thrillers. This sounds really good.

    1. Me too! There's something about these disturbing situations that I find addicting.

  16. Sounds like an intense read Braine! I can see why you were hooked. A shame you were left wondering about a few things, but it still sounds like a thrilling read!

    1. I always want to know the motive. I guess I want it to be "justified". Random abductions or victimizations feels more scary to me.

  17. You definitely peeked my interest in this one.

  18. Wow, this sounds good. Not my normal read but it does sound interesting. I love the cover too!

    1. If you love suspense thrillers then you should give this a shot. It'll discombobulate you.

  19. This is the second raving review for this book I've read. I love that cover! I enjoy reading murder mysteries from time to time and this one sounds really good. I'm already intrigued by who actually did it.
    I'm glad you enjoyed this one!
    Great review!

    1. It's almost paranormal, these serial killer books. Like there has to be a blessing from the devil himself for them to get away with it several times before they get caught... that is if they do get nabbed.

  20. The storytelling and supsense sounds great

  21. I haven't read a lot of suspense and mysteries books, but I did enjoy the few that I did read, so I am planning to read more of them. This one sounds like it has an interesting plot with the old case being opened again and how it turns out they convicted the wrong man. Those questions at the end of eahc chapter sound well done and like they kept the book suspensefull! Great review!

    1. I so love that the focus wasn't on the resuce but on the aftermath of Tessa's experience. That's where the real nightmare begins IMO

  22. I loveeeeee mystery novels, and when I first stumbled across this on goodreads, I knew I had to have it. I was a bit apprehensive about picking it up, (I haven't had the best reading luck with psychological thrillers this year) but after reading your review, I'm soooooo buying this asap! Don't you just love when the only damn survivor is unreliable?? * sarcasm lol * Tessa sounds soooo stressful!

    1. Hahaha, yup! It does put a big kink in things. She's the only one who could possibly save an innocent man from death row, but she's kinda cray so maybe not?

  23. This sounds great and I've been in the mood for these mystery novels lately. It sounds like the flashbacks are used well, something I love in these types of reads.
    Thanks for the great review and chance to win! :)

    1. It created a lot of doubt in my mind, the flashbacks.

  24. I will absolutely read this, Braine. The serial killer element, the unreliable narrator, the suspense...I'm wishing I could start it right now!

  25. I've not read many suspense stories. But this does sound good. :) Thank you!

  26. Sounds intense! I don't know if it's for me, I don't tend to go for suspense novels - but I do love books that keep me guessing. I may have to grab it! Great review :)

  27. Sounds like a good read, I almost passed it up because some was set in the past but then I realised it wasn't super in the past.

  28. Great post. I wasn't sure if I wanted to try it but you've made me put it on my TBR list.


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