Book Bag: ‘The House in the Pines’ by Ana Reyes; ‘The Perfect Tree’ by Corinne Demas


Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 08, 2023

The House in the Pines

By Ana Reyes; Dutton


There are so many mystery novels in the world today that it can be tough to make your book stand out. But take one that’s built around around psychological suspense and the elusiveness of memory, rather than chase scenes and blood, and you’ve made a good start.

And if your book gets a plug from Reese Witherspoon, that can’t hurt either.

With “The House in the Pines,” California author Ana Reyes, who grew up partly in the Berkshires and the Valley, has made quite a splash. In January the book, Reyes’ first, got a big stamp of approval from Witherspoon, the noted actress who runs an online book club, when Witherspoon called the novel “an absolute, can’t-put-it-down thriller” that had her “flying through chapter after chapter.”

“The House in the Pines” also jumped onto the New York Times bestseller list in mid January, reaching No. 2 for new hardcover fiction at one point.

Witherspoon’s club reviews books centered on or narrated by women, and at the center of “The House in the Pines” is Maya, a young woman living in Boston who’s still haunted by an incident that took place during the summer after she graduated from high school.

At that time, living in her hometown of Pittsfield, she’d struck up a relationship with a enigmatic though strangely alluring man named Frank — only to see her best friend, Aubrey, mysteriously drop dead while seeming to have a routine conversation with Frank just outside Maya’s house. The death was ruled accidental.

Seven years later, Maya lives in Boston with her law-school student boyfriend, Dan, working a low-level job at a garden center, though she’s a college graduate who once imagined becoming a writer. She’s trying to kick her habit of taking Klonopin, an anti-anxiety and sleep medication she’s been using for years as a means for dealing with guilt over Aubrey’s death, recurring dark dreams, and her gaps in memory from her time with Frank.

Maya’s also developed a drinking problem, using booze to try to cope with the insomnia that kicking Klonopin has brought on. Despite all this, she feels she’s making some progress with her life — until she sees a viral YouTube video of another young women who appears to drop dead in the presence of the very same Frank.

The past suddenly comes rushing back to Maya, and she’s convinced Frank has killed this second young woman, Christina, just as she was convinced seven years ago that Frank had killed Aubrey. But she has no idea how, and her suspicions leave everyone around her, including Dan, wondering about her mental health.

Maya “had lost her closest friend,” Reyes writes. “Saw it happen before her eyes, yet to this day senses there was more to the incident than what she saw. Like watching a magic trick and understanding that it was an illusion, but not knowing how the magician pulled it off.”

One of the strengths of “The House in the Pines” is its well-drawn portrait of Maya, an appealing character, despite her problems, with an interesting background. She’s part Guatemalan through her father, a man she never knew. Her mother, Brenda, had met him while working in Guatemala after finishing college in the U.S. and had had a brief affair with him — just long enough for Brenda to get pregnant — before he was killed by the government during Guatemala’s 30-year civil war.

Maya’s convinced she must return to Pittsfield to revisit that terrible high school summer and somehow excavate her memories. She’ll also have to reconnect with her mother, with whom she’s had an up-and-down relationship, and she wants to re-read the unfinished novel her father had written and that Brenda had saved: In some corner of her mind, Maya believes the story is connected to her own past.

Though she still fears him, Maya is also determined to find Frank and uncover what happened to Aubrey. She believes everything’s tied to a cabin Frank built in the Berkshire woods several years ago, to which he’d taken her the summer after high school. It’s a place that conjures both bad and good memories for Maya — yet incomplete memories she can’t pin down.

Reyes, who today teaches creative writing to adults at Santa Monica College, knows how to keep the pages turning, and her novel offers well-drawn portraits of Brenda and Aubrey in chapters that flash back to the past. Frank also emerges as an increasingly creepy character.

Reyes has drawn on some personal history as well for her novel. As she explains in an author’s note, her father is Guatemalan, her mother American, and she lived as a young child in Texas, in a town that was also home to members of her father’s extended family. Then her family moved to western Massachusetts when she was 11, where she felt distinctly out of place, at least at first, she says.

“The house in this book is born of the universal longing to return,” Reyes writes, “not just to a place but to a time when we felt completely at home, surrounded by love and warmth.”

Reyes attended Amherst public schools as a teen and then graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst before getting an MFA from Louisiana State University. Her novel, in fact, has been developed from her master’s thesis.

Find more about her book at anareyeswriter.com.


The Perfect Tree

By Corinne Demas

Illustrated by Penelope Dullagham; Harry N. Abrams


Amherst author Corinne Demas, who’s written for children, teens and adults during her career, has turned back to her younger audience with “The Perfect Tree,” a tale about woodland critters at Christmas time and how they approach the season’s message about community.

Bunny is looking for the perfect Christmas tree and sets off through the fields and woods to find it. She’s looking for one just her size, but some of her forest friends think a perfect tree should also be bushy, like Squirrel’s tail.

Mole, though, thinks it should “have a point on the top for a star, just like my nose.” Cardinal, meanwhile, says color is most important — a Christmas tree should be “the greenest green.”

Another suggestion: The tree should smell like Christmas.

But maybe there is no perfect tree, Deer says, or maybe Bunny just hasn’t found it yet. Or perhaps, the story suggests, the perfect Christmas tree is simply one that’s surrounded by friends.

Kirkus Reviews, which says Demas’ story “brims with messages of holiday warmth, cooperation, and friendship,” also praises the artwork by Penelope Dullagham: “Charming, vividly colored illustrations set a lovely holiday tone, with bright green trees highlighting wintry scenes of glistening white.”