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Before Familiar Woods

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For fans of David Joy and Christopher J. Yates, comes Ian Pisarcik's haunting debut novel exploring the fraught nature of families and the inescapable secrets that are out to cripple them.

On the outskirts of a town too tired for its own happenings, the boys were found dead inside a tent.

Three years later, their fathers have disappeared, too.

Ruth Fenn's son was the boy they blamed. For three years, Ruth has accepted her lot as pariah, focusing on her ailing mother and the children left in her care by the struggling single parents of North Falls, Vermont. But now the additional loss of her husband is too much to bear, and she has no choice but to overcome the darkness or be consumed by it. But as she edges closer to the truth, she begins to uncover some secrets that are better left buried.

That's when she meets Milk Raymond, a war vet who comes home to find his nine-year-old son abandoned by his mother. Unable to find work, with no idea how to be a father, Milk turns to Ruth for help. But as the mystery of Ruth's missing husband deepens, the fragile stability Milk has created for Daniel is shattered by the ill-fated return of Daniel's mother, who will stop at nothing to get her boy back.

As these unsettled and interconnected lives hurtle towards a devastating conclusion, both Ruth and Milk are about to learn that their dying Vermont town has more secrets than they ever thought possible--and there are those who will do anything to protect them.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published March 10, 2020

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About the author

Ian Pisarcik

1 book61 followers
Ian Pisarcik was born and raised in rural New England. His stories and poems have appeared in the Roanoke Review, Lullwater Review, Maine Review, Spokesman Review, and the Flyway Journal of Writing and Environment. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and Labrador retriever.

Praise for Before Familiar Woods:
“Before Familiar Woods, a novel dripping with heart and grit and tears, is an electrifying debut from Ian Pisarcik. Rarely are thrillers this elegantly told and seldom full of such beauty. Like all the best tales, this compelling story feels like it has been sitting in the dark for centuries waiting patiently to be told by someone with Pisarcik’s immense talent and empathy. I will be first in line for anything he writes after this.”
—Christopher J. Yates, author of Black Chalk and Grist Mill Road

“Poignant and searingly authentic, Pisarcik's mesmerizing, heartfelt debut pulls you in and doesn't let go—a haunting testament to survival of family and community in a poor and desperate landscape.”
—Kim Michele Richardson, author of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

“Pisarcik wields a poet’s eye, stacking images for a novel that flips and turns like the pages of a photo album. Before Familiar Woods is ripe with unforgettable characters. This is a debut to savor.”
—David Joy, author of The Line That Held Us

“Ian Pisarcik has written the best kind of thriller: gritty, dark, and tragically human. Intriguing mysteries keep the pages turning, but it is this novel’s people—roughhewn, fractured, grasping for family—who linger long after the covers close.”
—John Larison, author of Whiskey When We’re Dry

“Before Familiar Woods conveys its people and its landscape in striking ways—taking us through peaks and valleys, shadows and sunlight, beauty and brutality…A well-wrought delivery of emotion and place.”
—Michael Farris Smith, author of The Fighter and Desperation Road

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 90 reviews
Profile Image for Chelsea Humphrey.
1,420 reviews77.6k followers
September 8, 2022
"She wondered where the boy's mother was-whether she was fighting for him or even looking for him. And then she thought of Elam and of Mathew, and how a person could be lost and still not missing, or else missing and not lost-and how she wasn't sure which of those was worse."

Fellow readers, this debut is really something special. I know that the slow burning mystery isn't everyone's cup of tea, but if you enjoy character driven mysteries that are deliciously atmospheric and filled to the brim with heart-wrenching emotion, you won't find a 2020 release that does it better than Before Familiar Woods by Ian Pisarcik. I'd like to give you a little context about the structure of this novel, because I think it will help some friends decide if this book is one you'd like to dive into, but as always the spoilers will be left at the door. If I haven't hammered down this point thoroughly enough, this is a slow burning mystery, not a thriller, which seems to be a confusing marketing ploy used over the past few years to sell more books.

"I only want to sit with you. That's all I ever want. To be sitting next to you."

*deep breath* Ok, so this is a novel that jumps around between the past and the present. The book opens with a glimpse at Mathew and William's last night alive, and aside from the final chapter, we get nothing else from their POV. The past scenes help paint the picture of what happened to the boys and are one part of the mystery that drives the suspense of the novel. It's worth noting that, while brief, the scene describing how they are found in death is extremely graphic and disturbing. It is possible to skip this scene, as the details are not mentioned again, and how their bodies are found aren't entirely necessary to the concluding details, but they are relevant. The present narrative is when the boys' fathers go missing, along with the arrival of an Iraq veteran named Milk in town. His story and Ruth's (the mother of Mathew and wife of Elam) intertwine and come together at the climax of the story.

The beauty of this story isn't really either mystery, although they are well done and we receive more closure than I expected going in, but it's the intricate detailing in the setting and sense of small town placement that truly shines. I felt the temperature drop all around me as I read the descriptions of crunching snow in Vermont, I could practically smell the fresh mountain air as I metaphorically flipped the pages, and I could certainly feel each and every character's sorrow as they tried to live their lives after being touched by unspeakable tragedy. In my heart of hearts, I know that losing a child is my deepest fear, and the care and development that the author put into invoking a sense of empathy from the reader is nothing short of astonishing. While the action in this book is saved mostly for the final 20%, I couldn't help but feel the entirety of the book was a page turner in its own way. There are so many things I'd like to mention in my review, but I think I'll leave it here and implore you to please give this book a chance if this type of fiction is your jam. Highly, highly recommended, as this is a tale I won't soon forget, and will most definitely be in my Top 10 reads of 2020.

*Many thanks to the publisher for providing my review copy via NetGalley.

Content Warning:
Profile Image for Michelle .
862 reviews1,223 followers
March 6, 2020
For a debut novel this is a well crafted piece of fiction.

Ruth Fenn's son Matthew and his best friend are found murdered in their tent and no one was ever accused of the crime. In fact, the media and the small town of North Falls, VT blamed Ruth's son, Matthew, for the crime and the family becomes the town pariah.

Three year later and Ruth's husband has gone missing but he wasn't alone. He was with Horace who just happened to be the father of the other boy murdered in that tent. Where have they gone?

Milk Raymond has just returned from Iraq to find that his son has been abandoned by his drug addicted mother and is living with his unstable grandmother. Eventually Milk and Ruth's path will cross in a dramatic conclusion.

Ian Pisarcik will be an author that I will keep my eye on. I adored the character of Ruth and I enjoyed the sense of place he has set. The atmosphere is rich and you can feel the desolation and the whipping winter winds. This is a slow burn but deeply compelling story that I think many will enjoy. For grit-lit I didn't find this book to be as bleak and dark as some others that I have read but I should warn you that the murder of the boys is described at one point and it is gruesome. 4 stars!

Thank you to NetGalley and Crooked Lane Books for providing me with a digital ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Luvtoread.
487 reviews269 followers
May 12, 2020
Fantastic Storytelling!

Two boys go camping in the woods and are never seen alive again. Three years later their fathers disappear. How are the these events connected and what has happened to trigger both of these mysteries? Along comes a young Iraq war veteran who arrives home to find his eight year son has been abandoned by his mother and left in the care of his unstable grandmother. How will this man's story man's story intertwine with the missing men?
Hopefully you read this novel find out all the answers.

Cannot believe this is a debut novel by Ian Pisarcik!

I went into this book thinking it would be an eerie crime mystery. It was so much more! The story is bleak and foreboding yet I felt a compelling force to keep reading because the writing was excellent. I couldn't put this book down and when I was finished I felt as if I was punched in the stomach. The writing made me truly ache inside. All I can say is this man can write and he brought the characters to life along with the land and surrounding scenery. If you think you have problems you really need to read this story to find out the type of problems you would never want to encounter in your lifetime.

I want to thank the author "Ian Pisarcik" for writing "Before Familiar Woods" and the publisher "Crooked Lane Books" and Netgalley for the opportunity to read this wonderful novel and all opinions expressed are unbiased and my own!

I highly, highly recommend this book and given a rating of 5 Compelling 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 Stars!!
Profile Image for Michelle.
593 reviews447 followers
May 6, 2020
I caution any reader considering this book on what to expect. The less you follow the plot summary the better. If you are a mystery or thriller lover and you go into reading this expecting that genre, you will be disappointed. If you're looking for a dark, atmospheric story set in small town Vermont that is character driven, then you have the right book for you!

Let's talk about the writing. I cannot believe that this is a debut! Mr. Pisarcik is very, very talented. We are just coming out of cold Spring and entering mild Spring here in Buffalo and reading this book put me right back to those bitter cold days of winter where when you step outside you feel your breath taken away. The weight of despair these characters and community carried with them everywhere rested solely on my shoulders. I imagined nothing in color. It was all monochrome. The stage was set very well.

With that being said, this book really challenged me as a reader. It's harder for me to "rate" a book positively when I don't like the story. By "like" the story, I mean makes me feel good or has an ending that redeems the bad stuff that happens before it. Well, that's not always realistic. That's not always life. So it's unfair for me to equate good rating with things working out for everyone. Once I started following that mindset I realized I should rate the book justly and give it a strong 4.

I wouldn't recommend this for quarantine time reading, but when things settle down I would highly suggest you give this author and book a chance.

Thanks to Netgalley, Crooked Lane Books and Ian Pisarcik for the opportunity to read this book and provide an honest review.

Review Date: 05/06/2020
Publication Date: 03/10/2020
Profile Image for Carolyn Walsh .
1,445 reviews575 followers
October 11, 2019
I wish to thank NetGalley and Crooked Lane Books for this ARC in return for an honest review. This gritty story is set in a small town in decline, located in Vermont and surrounded by forests. It is winter time, and the author does a wonderful job with elegant descriptions of the forests and the hard, cold winter weather. I am not anti-smoking, but I found the constant references to people smoking, the odor of cigarette smoke and piles of cigarette butts to be repetitive and added little to the plot or character development.

I thought the story was well written, but moved lethargically , as did the characterizations. Later I felt I knew the people well. Suspense was built up at a slow pace, as seemed fitting within the setting.

Ruth has lived in semi-seclusion with her husband, Elam, and her ailing mother since the tragic death of their son, Matthew. She has been shunned by her friend Della and many of the townspeople since the violent deaths of Matthew and Della’s son three years earlier. The two boys were found dead in their tent in the woods while on a camping trip. Rumors blamed Matthew, but what really happened is too dark and disturbing to contemplate.

Ruth’s home had been a place of refuge for troubled children. Child Welfare had frequently sent children there for loving care and pottery lessons. She also rescued abused dogs. Now her time is taken up worrying about her elderly mother, grieving her son, and her silent, moody husband who is in the depths of despair following Matthew’s death.

Now, Ruth’s and Della’s husbands have both vanished. They had last been seen together at a local tavern, and witnesses found this surprising as it was well known that they had never liked each other. This is more than Ruth can bear, and in searching for Elam she begins to uncover terrible secrets hidden in the small town.

Milk Raymond has just returned from Iraq with some fearsome memories which disturb his sleep. He is a stranger with his 9 year old son, Daniel, who had been deserted by his unstable mother. He wants to be a good father but has a lot of self-doubts. He is unable to find work, and it is suggested that the boy be left in Ruth’s care while he seeks employment. When Daniel’s mother returns and snatches the boy away he finds his problems partly coincide with Ruth’s. This brings the story to a shattering conclusion with revelations about evil infesting the town, but with much hope in the aftermath.
Profile Image for Kim Michele Richardson.
Author 8 books2,952 followers
December 18, 2019
Poignant and searingly authentic. Pisarcik's debut, BEFORE FAMILIAR WOODS is a haunting testament to survival of family and community in a poor and desperate landscape. I can't wait for you to meet Mathhew, Milk and Ruth... just a few of Pisarcik's unforgettable characters!
Profile Image for Ian Pisarcik.
Author 1 book61 followers
October 11, 2019
The best novel ever written? Maybe!

In all seriousness, I tried to write the book I wanted to read. I'm proud of the book and I sincerely hope you enjoy it.
Profile Image for Linda Strong.
3,882 reviews1,630 followers
March 25, 2020

Two mothers bury their sons at the same time. The young teenagers were found dead inside a tent among the woods.. most likely from a drug overdose.

Ruth's son was the boy they blamed for the drugs. For 3 years she has accepted this as the truth... but is it the truth?

Three years later the mothers' husbands have disappeared at the same time. Is this a copy of what happened to the teenagers?

Milk Raymond is a war vet that came home to find his wife gone ..and his son living with his wife's mother. Unable to find work, and having no idea how to be a father, he turns to Ruth for help. And then his wife shows up .... willing to stop at nothing to regain her son.

As the women look for their husbands, Ruth begins to uncover secrets ... secrets that should never be unearthed.

These lives will never be the same again....

Described as a domestic thriller, this is a well-written story of love, loss, death, in dark, gritty style. The characters are deftly drawn, the setting a small place, filled with desperation and family survival. It's a debut novel that will leave the reader reeling.

Many thanks to the author / Crooked Lane Books / Netgalley for the digital copy of this novel. Read and reviewed voluntarily, opinions expressed here are unbiased and entirely my own.
Profile Image for ᒪᗴᗩᕼ .
1,458 reviews144 followers
May 15, 2020

⤏ 2.75 ✰STARS✰


This cover portrays exactly how I felt while listening to this...upside-down and lost in the woods...

I thought this was going to be something like The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel, which is a favorite of mine in the grit-lit category. Sadly, it really felt like the story was incomplete to me. I can't even really say how I feel about it because I'm not sure what even happened in it. Maybe, it just wasn't the right time for me to read/listen to this. The ending left me hella confused and I felt like I missed something important or didn't read between the lines when I should have...I'll just say that this wasn't for me...but maybe it will be for you???

The narrators are mainly just Susan C Hunter and Neil Hellegers. Michael Crouch (a favorite of mine) has only a very small part at the very end. I feel like they were actually good for the content of the book...but since the book left me feeling so...meh...I'm probably not a good judge of how good they were.

Narration Rating⇢ 3.5/5
Characters⇢ 3.5/5
The Feels⇢ 2.5/5
Pacing⇢ 3/5
Addictiveness⇢ 2.5/5
Theme, Tone or Intensity⇢ 3.5/5
Originality/Believability⇢ 4/5
Flow (Writing Style)⇢ 2/5
Twisty-ness/Mystery⇢ 2/5
Ending⇢ 2/5

Profile Image for Vonda.
318 reviews106 followers
December 31, 2019
A top thriller that has you turning left and right. The characters don't quite reveal themselves, they keep dark secrets that slowly reveal themselves in this fast paced thriller that is hard to put down.
Profile Image for Addie BookCrazyBlogger.
1,149 reviews35 followers
March 9, 2020
Before Familiar Woods is the stunning and extraordinary debut that needs to be on your list as a must read. The novel is broken into two perspectives: Ruth Fenn, a middle aged woman trying to seek connection and redemption after her 15 year old son Matthew died of a heroin overdose, allegedly overdosing the town’s golden boy, William along with him and Milk Raymond, a solider who has just mustered out of his 3rd tour of duty in Iraq only to return home to his rural Vermont town to find that his 8 year old son Daniel has been abandoned by his heroin addicted wife, Jessica. There’s a thriller edge to this novel as Ruth tries to find her missing husband and discover the truth of where she went wrong with her son. Mostly this novel was about finding what the character’s new path was going to look like, along with an absolutely realistic look into how heroin has become both hope and terror to a community. When I say hope, I mean it gives an addict, someone whose pain has become too much to bear, the hope of finally finding something to make it better. I found this novel to be astonishing, well written and fast paced. I really loved this novel!
Profile Image for Wayward Readers Book Blog.
530 reviews14 followers
October 19, 2019
This is a first time read from author Ian Pisarcik and has been a remarkable experience. The narrative has that Americana feel of impoverished and forgotten small town USA. Pisarcik’s depiction of the town, the setting, and the overall gravelly, raw nature of the characters - it’s an entire entity in itself. The characterization of the cast is unique in that the reader is (what I think is purposefully) held at arms length, adding a whole other edge of suspense to the storyline. This may not play well for audiences who like to submerse themselves thoroughly into characters. However, I’ll speak for myself and say that Pisarcik’s creative expression is well appreciated. While this is a suspense novel by genre, it holds a multitude of other complex dynamics within the plot that makes it feel like so much more. Loved it. 5 stars.

Thank you to #NetGalley and @CrookedLaneBooks for this ARC. #BeforeFamiliarWoods read and reviewed voluntarily by #wayward_readers and all thoughts and opinions are my own.
Profile Image for Tracy Robinson.
482 reviews143 followers
January 20, 2020

I finished BEFORE FAMILIAR WOODS yesterday and I think a lot of you are going to dig it.

Set in Vermont, I was immediately snared by the authors descriptive ability AND his MC Ruth Fenn. She is a strong woman that takes no shit and loves fiercely. Part mystery, part thriller, I thought the book moved well and I enjoyed the reader discovery. There are a couple of story lines at play here and by the time they smash violently together at the end, there was no way I could put this down until I finished. The ending of the book is unique...it ends and then there’s a bit more. I can’t say too much bc I don’t want to spoil anything, but I rather liked it and I can’t wait to see what others think.

For fans of David Joy and others, this book is out March 10th from Crooked Lane Books. Thanks to them and Netgalley for the e-copy.
807 reviews76 followers
May 31, 2020
4.5*s It is very unfair of me to hold every author in this genre up to a David Joy and Brian Panowich standard. I'm working on it.
Profile Image for Linda.
737 reviews78 followers
February 6, 2020
This book is a bit different from most I read. It’s not a thriller but definitely will keep you on edge at times. It’s a mystery for sure as you will want to know what happened. You’ll want to know where the two husbands who are not really friends are. They were together and you’ll want to know why. It’s somewhat of a sad story in many ways. It’s about what drugs will do to a person. Things they never imagined they would ever do. I felt bad for some of the characters in this story but hated some also. Though you can’t really blame another person if someone you love gets hooked on drugs you can get angry that they would take advantage of someone or get a kid hooked. Some things are just wrong no matter what. I’ve seen up close and personal what drugs do to good people. I’ve lost family members to drugs and it makes you so angry. This country does have a huge problem with drugs and it can only blame itself. The big drug companies get things started then the person has to turn to something they can afford. They feel helpless and hopeless. It’s truly sad what drugs does to people. What they will cause you to do just to get that high.

This book hits hard on drugs. It is also about two families who lost their only children to a crazy camping trip and supposed drug use. Also a mother who abandons her child to run away with someone so she can get drugs. A man back from Iraq who loves his son and wants what is best for him. A mother who blames herself. Another mother who tries praying to get her through the loss of her son. Two dads who have to live with choices.

This book is told in two stories. One is Ruth Fenn telling a story of love and loss. Of looking into herself to try and fix things. She wants to find her husband before something happens to him. The loss her her teenagers son. She is a hard woman now but loves children and helps people also. She’s a kind woman in many ways but will not be messed with about some things. I loved her. Then we have Milk’s story. He has a son also. A nine year old son who he is trying to raise since his return from Iraq. He’s alone. His wife and the mother of his son left. But she returned and will try anything to get Daniel back. Even though it’s the worse place he could ever be. Ruth and Milk become friends via a social worker who recommended Ruth to Milk as someone who would help him out with his son so he could find a job.

As this story progresses you will wonder what happened to the men. What happened to the boys who were found dead in a tent. Were they murdered or was it a night of doing drugs gone horrible wrong. That one you’ll have to read and figure out for yourself. One father in this story I loved. One I totally detested. In that I mean the father’s of the dead boys.

This is a good story to help you understand what drugs do to people. To people who are good until they get involved with that drug for the first time. How they change and how it changes a family is horrible. But it’s reality unfortunately.

I felt so many conflicting emotions reading this book but it is what it is. It’s the raw truth as to what happens in towns where no one seems to care that drugs are taking over. Where the law turns a blind eye to things and blames an innocent person totally for something that he may or may not have done.

I have to thank #NetGalley #Ian Pisarcik and #Crooked Lane Books for the eARC of this book.

I gave it 5 stars for the lesson I hope can be learned from reading it and I believe the author did a fantastic job of bringing this story to life. It felt real. From the cold to the addicts to the deaths. It felt like I was seeing these things as they unfolded. To me that is what a good book is suppose to do. I give this a high recommendation.
Profile Image for Cynthia.
730 reviews115 followers
May 1, 2020
4.5 stars

A small rural community believes Ruth Fenn’s son is a monster. That when he and his friend are found dead in the woods, Mathew Fenn is the reason for their demise. After three years of suffering the ache of loss and a town’s judgement, Ruth’s husband goes missing, too.

Another story, which eventually intersects with Ruth’s, unfolds as Milk, a war vet, is thrust into the role of a single parent to his nine year old son.

The main characters have some fierce demons to battle.

There is some mystery - sure - but the story’s core is the private torment of grief and trauma. It’s a story of masks and the withered faces beneath them.

The writing in this book is truly extraordinary and if you can read it without feeling the depth of Ruth’s anguish and shame or the haunting of Milk’s PTSD, I might wonder if you even have a pulse. Ian Pisarcik’s characters feel so real. They are deeply flawed humans and he captures every aspect of that truth.

The narrative moves slowly and, yet, it doesn’t. It’s like going up the first hill of a roller coaster. The pace is steady and unstoppable with the top of that hill in sight. You keep moving toward it with every turning page.

Before Familiar Woods is truly something special, full of the layered depth I long for but rarely seem to stumble upon in novels. If you like strong character development, dark, atmospheric settings, poetic details, and a spark of suspense, I highly recommend giving this hidden gem a try.

Profile Image for Lesley Moseley.
Author 6 books31 followers
May 3, 2020
This will go on my 6 stars shelf. The most 'cinematic' book I have read for years. Not a word, sentence, or chapter, out of place. I'm known to bleat on about good editing. Not this time. I will definitely re-read this sensitive, heart-searing, and conversely, heartwarming novel.
358 reviews3 followers
December 25, 2019
Thanks to NetGalley and Crooked Lane Books for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Gritty, real and oppressive in its darkness. "Before Familiar Woods" is a tour de force of a novel.

There is something of John Steinbeck in Ian Pisarcik's vivid depiction of poverty in rural America, that is without parallel in contemporary novels. So, is you want a cosy read that provides a cathartic escape from everyday life, then this is not the novel for you. If you want an intriguing, thoughtful mystery and masterfully constructed narrative that is uncomfortably evocative of life on the margins of society, then you won't find a better example than "Before Familiar Woods”. This is quite simply a tour de force of a literary thriller. There is the mystery, of course, and let me tell you, you will become quickly drawn into the intricacies of the cleverly constructed plot that centres on the life and losses of one Ruth Fenn. Ruth has lost one son to murder, and another son has been blamed for the slayings of the boy and his friend. Living as an outcast on the margins of the meagre town of North Falls, Vermont, Ruth's misery is compounded by the disappearance of her husband and once again the cycle of rumour and accusation begins anew. Thrown into the mix is Milk, a returning veteran of the Iraq War, who returns to the town to take up custody of his son, who has recently been abandoned by this mother, Milk's ex and when she returns... well, lets just say that events take an explosive turn. This is a story of how certain configurations of human life can interconnect in ways that eventually provide a catalyst for the darkest of events - murder. In this eventual unravelling of the Gordian Knot of motive and personality, Ian Pisarcik proves masterful. This is a novel full of heart, albeit a dark throbbing one pulsating on the periphery of a small community, Real and gritty, but never plunging to the depths of poverty porn, Pisarcik has written a rare gem of novel that brings us face to face with uncomfortable truths we would rather turn away from.

A highly recommended read for 2020.
Profile Image for Dawnny.
Author 1 book21 followers
March 11, 2020
A multilayered plot. I was pulled in from the first page. This was a gritty tale centered in Vermont but to me it reads like southern grit. I love gritty stories like this. This was emotional and heartbreaking. A haunting story you won't soon forget. I highly recommend this for book clubs it's a perfect discussion book. Lyrical and engaging. I couldn't put it down until I knew the end. This blew me away. I'll be talking about it all year.

Novels N Latte
Hudson Valley NY
Profile Image for Wee Lassie.
101 reviews56 followers
June 29, 2020
An excellent and well written book that I just could finish, because it's just too sad.
Profile Image for Kathy .
3,322 reviews
March 16, 2020
Before Familiar Woods by Ian Pisarcik is a somewhat bleak yet compelling mystery.

Three years ago, Ruth Fenn’s son Mathew and his best friend William Downing died under somewhat murky circumstances.  Unfortunately, State Trooper Leo Stonebridge shared his opinion of what happened to the media and the blame fell squarely on Mathew’s shoulders. William’s mother, Della, publicly agreed which destroyed her longstanding friendship with Ruth. With Ruth and her husband Elam shunned by their small town, they keep to themselves on their rural property.  Meanwhile Della is very involved in the local church and her husband Horace has battled demons of his own.

Ruth is forced out of seclusion when Elam fails to return home one night. She is also shocked to discover that he was with Horace the night before and that Horace is also missing.  Ruth has no choice but to seek out Della in order to try to make sense of why their husbands were together.  Ruth is tough, gutsy and no-nonsense so she fearlessly confronts the less than savory men who might have information about Elam and Horace. Della is a rather insipid woman whose faith sustains her but she is shaken out of complacency as days pass without any new information about Elam or Horace.

Iraq war veteran Milk Raymond has just been discharged from the military and he returns home to care for his nine year old son Daniel. Milk is quite upset that his son's mother Jessica left Daniel in the care of her elderly, confused grandmother.  After hurriedly settling into an apartment, Milk tries to settle into fatherhood. Unfortunately, he is struggling with nightmares about his wartime experiences.  Milk is also a bit of an indifferent dad who has no idea what it means to raise a child. But Milk is trying his best and social worker Jett Oakley puts him in touch with Ruth who is an art teacher.  Milk's first order of business is to find employment, but their economically depressed town is definitely on a downward spiral.

Before Familiar Woods is a gritty mystery that deals with some very difficult topics such as addiction and PTSD.  Ruth is a pragmatic woman whose regrets haunt her as she contemplates her marriage and motherhood. Milk is doing the best he can under the circumstances but his parental skills are lacking.  The Vermont setting is rather dark, oppressive and unyielding.  Ian Pisarcik brings this gripping mystery to a shocking, twist-filled conclusion that is also surprisingly hopeful.  A well-written debut that I enjoyed and recommend to readers of the genre.
Profile Image for Rachel Drenning.
393 reviews
July 24, 2020
Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC of this book.
It's hard to believe this was the author's first novel. This book is a new favorite. Such a heart-breaking, noir tale full of emotion. You feel so much of what the characters are going through. I hope to read more by this wonderful new author. Reminds me a lot of David Joy, Ron Rash, William Gay.
Profile Image for Donna.
1,814 reviews
December 7, 2020
Ruth and Della were best friends for over 15 years. Three summers ago, each had a 15 year old son. The boys took a tent out one night and didn't return. Heroin needles and beer cans were found inside the tent with their abused bodies. Ruth's son was rumored to be a predator so she has been shunned by the town. Now, both of their husbands are missing.

This book was good but very sad. I was struck by the poverty and hardship but also the perseverance. Most people in the town were barely making ends meet but they were taking care of their problems. Lot of cigarette smoking going on in this story.

Ruth is a good person, non judgemental. She is taking care of her elderly mother. She helps children with her art. She's very practical and does what she believes is right. She also rescues dogs and has several - old Woodstock, a border collie - North, a coonhound - Emmylou, and an Irish setter - Mud. I was glad I read the story even though it made me sad.
Profile Image for Michelle.
457 reviews27 followers
October 24, 2019
Grim. Gritty. Dark. These are the first words that spring to mind after reading Ian Pisarcik's debut, Before Familiar Woods. Absent is the glitz and glamour of New York-set novels (or even novels portraying the struggling millennial, desperate to make ends meet while toiling as the executive assistant or the barista). This is poverty in small town America, the forgotten sector, set amidst the backdrop of drug addiction and exploitation.

I wanted to retreat immediately into a fluffy rom-com after finishing this one. It's a hard read, but wow, what a voice and what a setting. You're drawn into to the cold, unforgiving Vermont woods.

Ruth Fenn stars in this one. She's living on the outskirts of her town, an outcast after her son and his friend are found dead in a tent in the woods. Her son, Mathew, is blamed for everything. But then her husband disappears and her world is once again turned upside down.

Things get more complicated when she meets Milk, a returning veteran of the Iraq War, who takes custody of his son when his ex abandons him. Milk has no idea how to care for Daniel and he's desperate to find work. But when Daniel's mother comes back for her son, Milk and Ruth and thrown into the heart of evil that might have stolen Mathew.

There's some great character development here and your heart breaks alongside Ruth's. The action picks up considerably in the last quarter of the book and you're left with a feeling of unease when it's all over. This was not the book I was expecting when I read the blurb. I thought I was in for a crime thriller; this ended up being much bleaker. But I'm glad to have read it all the same.

Thank you to NetGalley and Crooked Lane Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in return for an honest review.
Profile Image for Laurel.
362 reviews26 followers
March 22, 2020
Beautifully written noir with a strong narrative voice. Pisarcik's characters, in particular, Ruth, are so well written I could have spent all day in her head, plot be darned. However Pisarcik doesn't rest on the strength of his character development. There's a chilling pair of mysteries, one from several years before, and a present day one, that links two broken families. I loved the way he crafted this forgotten little town and the people that live there, and there are some quotes in here that I want memorialized somehow. Highly recommend, and I can't wait for what this author does next.
Profile Image for Tracy.
43 reviews22 followers
June 26, 2020
In the end, I ended up enjoying this book. However, it took me well over half way through before I began to enjoy it. I almost stopped reading it several times I felt that some of the characters were well thought out, and others, not so much. The writing is very descriptive, which I enjoyed. Not bad for a debut novel, and I am looking forward to reading his next book.
Profile Image for Bandit.
4,459 reviews445 followers
May 21, 2021
I’m often cautious when approaching small town fiction. Being a lifelong major metropolis person, I often find it unrelatable at best and stereotype confirming at worst. And then there are those other times when suddenly such striking beauty is revealed that it smashes all preconcepts. This, dear readers, is very much one of those instances.
A native New Englander, the author has done his region justice. Mind you, some of the stereotypes you might have had about small town living are definitely there, which is to say there is a huge crisis in US, its name is addiction and it is ugly. It isn’t unfathomable to understand why people would want to grab a temporary getaway from their sad small desperate lives, but it never ends up a mere party favor and a weekend thing, it ends up a lifestyle and at the same time a slow destruction of a life.
It doesn’t just affect the users, but people around them too. The protagonists of this novel both get sideswiped by it and it wrecks them. There’s Ruth, whose only beloved son has been found dead under tragic and salacious circumstances that sends the local gossip mill into overdrive. And there is (inexplicably named) Milk, a war veteran who has just come back to find that his wife has become a junkie, who vanished, leaving their eight year old in the care of a senile grandmother.
This is the story of Ruth and Milk, two very different individuals trying to get by in the unkind world and the unforgiving Vermont’s weather. A story of a mother without a son and a father rediscovering his son. Each have a specific trajectory…Ruth is looking for her spouse who has up and vanished, Milk is looking…well, for many things, work, sanity, peace of mind. Eventually their trajectories will intersect as these things always work in fiction, but their journeys will still be their own, something they have to complete to…I suppose, to just be ok in the world.
There are elements of suspense here, Ruth’s storyline specifically, but primarily this is drama. A fine work of dramatic fiction with striking emotional resonance, first rate character development and terrific writing. This excellent debut is a perfect example of the power of literature to inform us of the world outside of ourselves and help us understand it both emotionally and intellectually through a completely engaging reading experience. Recommended. Thanks Netgalley.
Profile Image for Kay Parker.
Author 5 books24 followers
February 12, 2020
Rating: 3.5 🔪

Author: Ian Pisarcik

Publisher: Crooked Lane Books

Release Date: 10th March 2020

(Thank you Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for a free early copy of this book to review)


For fans of David Joy and Christopher J. Yates, comes Ian Pisarcik's haunting debut novel exploring the fraught nature of families and the inescapable secrets that are out to cripple them.

On the outskirts of a town too tired for its own happenings, the boys were found dead inside a tent.

Three years later, their fathers have disappeared, too.

Ruth Fenn's son was the boy they blamed. For three years, Ruth has accepted her lot as pariah, focusing on her ailing mother and the children left in her care by the struggling single parents of North Falls, Vermont. But now the additional loss of her husband is too much to bear, and she has no choice but to overcome the darkness or be consumed by it. But as she edges closer to the truth, she begins to uncover some secrets that are better left buried.

That's when she meets Milk Raymond, a war vet who comes home to find his nine-year-old son abandoned by his mother. Unable to find work, with no idea how to be a father, Milk turns to Ruth for help. But as the mystery of Ruth's missing husband deepens, the fragile stability Milk has created for Daniel is shattered by the ill-fated return of Daniel's mother, who will stop at nothing to get her boy back.

As these unsettled and interconnected lives hurtle towards a devastating conclusion, both Ruth and Milk are about to learn that their dying Vermont town has more secrets than they ever thought possible--and there are those who will do anything to protect them.

My Thoughts:-

When I went into this book I wasn't sure what to expect, the synopsis sounded interesting but it didn't really give a hint to what the book was going to be. I found it was a bit slow starting, now that's not a bad thing always, and in this case it wasn't bad at all. It slowly builds up an image of the small Vermont town, North Falls, and it's interconnected and close knit community. Nothing ever happens in the hidden away town of North Falls, until it does. The reader is slowly fed little snippets of detail about the community, it's people and the lives of Ruth, Della, Milk and Daniel. It's told almost as two stories - one about Ruth and Della, the other Milk and Daniel - that slowly, steadily start to connect into one story with a hell of a conclusion. The story starts with the graphically described and disturbing murder of Ruth and Della's teenage boys, Mathew and William. Honestly, I nearly hung up the towel at this point because the brutally graphic description of mutilated children was almost too much for my mothering instincts to process. I am a mother, and I am very sensitive to details of death or abuse of children in books as a consequence, it doesn't bother other mothers but it does me so I was disturbed and wary of continuing. I decided to continue and hope the worse was over and it was, the boys are mentioned constantly throughout the book but never again do we meet with details of their horrible death.

Now the next thing I need to discuss is the two stories interconnecting, slowly, into one story. It's a great idea on paper and maybe it can be done really well by some authors, but sadly it didn't really work for me with this one. I found that I was enjoying Ruth's story and chapters much more than Milk's because her chapters where more enjoyable and connected to the plot. Milk's chapters don't really seem connected at all to the story until he eventually comes to North Falls and I feel like we didn't need to meet his character until that point. His backstory didn't add much to the plot in my opinion and it made the first half of the book tedious. I just wanted to read Ruth's chapters and found I was rushing Milk's to 'get back to the story'. I think maybe this splitting of characters by chapter would have worked better if the second character was more closely connected to the plot from the start.

So there are good and bad points about this one. More good than bad though, and Pisarcik's fluid writing style makes up a lot for the bad points anyway. I'd say I enjoyed it for the most part, as I did really enjoy Ruth's chapters from start to end and enjoyed Milk's more after the halfway mark. It's a good story, shocking and sometimes horrible, but enjoyable and gripping. I'd recommend it to some degree, it's probably not a book you NEED to read, but you'd certainly have tasted a decent new author if you did.
Profile Image for Jordan.
241 reviews14 followers
February 8, 2021
There are a number of well-written passages, but overall, what’s the point? There is nothing electric or engaging or inspiring about this book. You just follow broken people through hard lives where one person’s bad decisions harm others. (Not arguing for tyranny of the happy ending here, or the necessity of sunshine and rainbows. I’m onboard with “life is pain and anyone telling you otherwise is selling something,” but I don’t think there is anything noble or beautiful underlying this story. I don’t think you learn anything meaningful about what it means to be human and work through the pain. It’s just emotional for emotions sake...or it tries to be.) I just don’t get this genre or why anyone finds it rewarding.
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