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  • Writer's pictureJudith D Collins

The Last Caretaker


Narrator: Reba Buhr

Brilliance Audio

ISBN: 978-1662510229

Publisher: Lake Union

Publication Date: 12/01/2023

Format: Other

My Rating: 5 Stars +



A woman in search of a new beginning is put to the test in ways she never imagined in an empowering and provocative page-turner by the author of Not That I Could Tell.


Katie’s divorce was, in a word, humiliating. So when her friend Bess offers a fresh start―a residential caretaking job at a nature preserve―Katie accepts. No matter that she’s not exactly a “nature person.” How hard can it be?


But from day one, something feels off. Katie’s new farmhouse looks as if the last caretaker barely moved out at all. When a frantic, terrified woman arrives late at night, expecting a safe place to hide, it’s clear caretaking involves way more than Katie bargained for.


Katie can’t tell who she can trust: the brooding groundskeeper, the daily regulars―hikers, dog walkers, bird-watchers, photographers―even Bess.


As Katie digs deeper for clues in what the last caretaker left behind, she must discover courage she never knew she had―and decide how much she’ll risk to do the right thing.





About the Author

Photo by Corrie Schaffeld



WRITER • EDITOR • READER • SPEAKER • DREAMER

Jessica Strawser is the author of five previous book club favorites: Almost Missed You, Not That I Could Tell (a Book of the Month selection), Forget You Know Me, A Million Reasons Why, and The Next Thing You Know, a People magazine Pick. She is editor-at-large at Writer’s Digest, where she curates the Learn by Example column; a popular speaker at writing conferences; and a freelance editor and writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and others. A Pittsburgh native and graduate of Ohio University’s prestigious E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, she lives with her husband and two children in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she served as 2019 writer-in-residence for the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library. For more information, visit www.jessicastrawser.com.


Connect with Jessica:






Exceptional Authors.

Standout Books. Elevator Talk.

INTRIGUING QUESTIONS. INQUIRING READERS WANT TO KNOW.

BEHIND THE BOOK AND THE AUTHOR


Q&A With Bestselling Author

Jessica Strawser

THE LAST CARETAKER



Welcome to December's #AuthorElevatorSeries where we go behind the book and the author. Today, we are honored to have the fabulous Jessica Strawser, bestselling author — a favorite, with us for the first time with her sixth published novel, THE LAST CARETAKER.


A woman searching for a new beginning is put to the test in ways she never imagined in an empowering and provocative page-turner by the author of Not That I Could Tell.


Join us as Jessica shares some fascinating behind-the-scenes exclusives from the book and fun moments from this multi-talented author.


Welcome, Jessica!




Behind the Book



Q. Give us your best ELEVATOR PITCH for THE LAST CARETAKER:



JESSICA: In THE LAST CARETAKER, a woman looking to start over after her divorce accepts a job as resident caretaker at a remote nature reserve, only to discover her new home harbors a safehouse for a secret network that helps domestic violence victims escape—and no one can tell her what happened to the last caretaker.


Q. INSPIRATION: The spark that ignited the novel? Where were you when the idea came to you?

JESSICA: There wasn’t so much one spark that ignited this novel, but a series of them.


First was that I’d been thinking a lot about spinning another novel that touched on domestic violence—which I’d done years before, in Not That I Could Tell (which is still the novel that brings the most messages to my inbox). The conversations that book spurred with my readers were so powerful: I even visited one book club, in a lovely home not far from mine, that had hidden one of their members from her abusive ex-husband years before. (She was there, safe and smiling, which was unbelievably moving.) I couldn’t help but be inspired by the strength and grace of these women and the things we’re capable of if we work together.


Ultimately, I landed on the idea for The Last Caretaker in a much more literal way. I’d taken a break from my office on a workday when I was feeling stumped and went for a hike alone on a nature reserve very much like the one in the book. I’d always admired the glimpses of the caretaker’s house through the trees and wondered what it must be like to live there all alone. But that day, it hit differently, and everything clicked.


Q. SETTING: Tell us more about the book setting and why you selected it.


JESSICA: I remember seeing a viral article years ago in which a woman had planned a writing retreat at a remote cabin and absolutely hated it. Given the number of writers I knew who shared the link, it obviously hit a relatable nerve. I think there’s often a gap between what sounds like an enviable lifestyle and what we’d really be willing to do. For instance, I have multiple friends who’ve sold all their worldly possessions to travel indefinitely, without a home base—and though I’m always drooling over their updates from afar, I’m not sure I’d really be willing to do that. As much as I love to travel, I can be a homebody, too.


I based Grove Nature Reserve loosely on a real-life property that really did used to be a farm and really is accessible only to paying members of a local nature center, though I fictionalized my version liberally for the novel. Katie’s friend lands her the caretaking job there not because Katie is a good fit, but because Katie needs a place to live and a job, full stop. When Katie moves in at the start of the novel, she’s talking herself up, but she honestly doesn’t know whether she’s going to love it or hate it. And I didn’t know either—I had to write the story to find out, and to live it vicariously through Katie, which was a ton of fun.



Q. TAKEAWAY: What important message, theme, or takeaway would you like readers to be left with when reading your book?



JESSICA: I’d always rather write an entertaining story that just happens to give readers something to think about than write a heavy-handed book about an issue. Though I do have my own soap boxes, I try not to stand on them, and to let my characters do the talking. So I think and hope that each reader will have their own takeaway from The Last Caretaker.


If they’re inspired to immediately loan the book to a friend and encourage them to read it immediately so they can discuss it, that’s the best takeaway I could ask for. Because I truly believe those conversations are the best way, little by little, to flip the script on issues like domestic violence and to make space for the voices that deserve to be heard.



Q. DID YOU KNOW? Name 1-5 things readers may not know about the book.


JESSICA: The black-eyed Susans on the cover are symbolic to the story in a way that is revealed about halfway through. I deeply appreciate the cover designer’s work and care to create such synchronicity between the design concept and the story inside.




Now, for more up and close with Jessica, below!

Behind the Author



BIRTH STATE?

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


CURRENT STATE?

Cincinnati, Ohio


FAVORITE FLOWER?

Looking at the striking cover design for The Last Caretaker, how could I not say black-eyed Susans?


IF YOU WERE GRANTED 3 MONTHS OF UNINTERRUPTED WRITING TIME—WHERE WOULD IT BE?

3. A Coastal Seaside Cottage

#3 all the way! Nothing like long walks by the sea, and I never tire of an ocean view.


WHEN YOU RECEIVE A SPARK OF INSPIRATION FOR A BOOK:

1. Do you immediately get out of bed or stop what you are doing and start typing? Totally immersed

2. Make a few quick notes on a pad or device.

3. Save it for later when you are at your desk or office during your regular working hours.


Somewhere between one and two. Often my “few quick notes” turn into a whole scene and I am totally immersed, though even then I’m more often emailing them to myself on my phone than physically running to my computer.


HOW DO YOU RELAX?

Badly! I’m in that phase of parenthood where there’s always something that needs to be done: a sports uniform to wash, a quiz to help study for, a messy house, the workout I couldn’t squeeze in yesterday. I could be better about making time for myself.


DESCRIBE ONE THING ON YOUR DESK, CURRENTLY.

A 2014 Volunteer Service Award from the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati. It’s an engraved pen holder, and the pen ran out of ink a long time ago. But I’ve kept the award because it means so much to me. I was heading up the writing and editing for their public awareness campaign for Domestic Violence Awareness Month that year, and it was so wrenching hearing the survivors’ stories firsthand that I wondered if I should step away and let someone else take over. The loss of my own best friend to a similar situation was still so raw. But I stayed with it and was so glad I did. The award is a reminder of how important it is for hard stories to be told.


WHICH DO YOU ENJOY WRITING MORE: DIALOGUE OR INTERNAL THOUGHTS?

Both. Although there really is nothing like writing a good argument as it plays out between two characters. It forces you to see both sides, the best and worst in both parties.


IF YOU COULD TRADE PLACES WITH ONE OF YOUR BOOK CHARACTERS FOR A DAY, WHICH ONE WOULD IT BE?

I’d actually love to be Katie from The Last Caretaker for a day. But perhaps only a day.


HOW MANY BOOKS HAVE YOU WRITTEN?

The Last Caretaker is my sixth published novel, and I’m just about to turn in my seventh, tentatively set for a 2024 release.


NAME SOMETHING YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF TO BE VERY GOOD AT.

Being there for my kids when they need me.


NAME ONE THING YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF TO BE BAD AT.

Dealing with any kind of critter in my house whatsoever.


INTROVERT OR EXTROVERT?

Yes!


YOUR MOST PRODUCTIVE TIME OF THE DAY?

Inevitably I’ll finally start to figure out a tricky scene right when my kids are arriving home from school, or it’s time for me to close my laptop and dash off to some other commitment.


WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO CHILDREN?

Not to be in such a hurry to grow up.


IF YOU WERE IN WITNESS PROTECTION, WHAT WOULD YOUR ALIAS BE?

If I told you that, it would blow my cover.


YOUR FAVORITE PLACE TO READ?

Under an umbrella at the beach.


PIE OR CAKE?

Cake.


ICE CREAM: CHOCOLATE OR VANILLA?

Chocolate everything, always.


FIRST CAR?

A maroon 1987 Buick Century with a broken circle where the hood ornament was supposed to be (courtesy of our driveway basketball games), and a pine tree air freshener on the rearview mirror. (Confession: My mom is sensitive to smells, and she made me nervous with her critiques of my driving, so I was trying—somewhat successfully—to keep her out of my car.) Whenever my high school friends hitched a ride, they’d call it “Riding the Pine.”


WHAT MAKES YOU LAUGH?

My husband.


WHAT MAKES YOU ANGRY?

Hypocrisy.


THE CRAZIEST THING YOU HAVE EVER DONE FOR BOOK RESEARCH?

That would probably depend on who you ask. My pharmacist friend still laughs about the time I called to ask her what dissolved Vicodin tastes like (“I don’t know,” she said, deadpan. “I’ve never licked one.")


WHAT SOUND DO YOU LOVE?

My kids laughing.


A SMELL YOU LOVE?

Cookies in the oven, my kids’ newly shampooed hair, clean sheets, Frasier Fir Christmas trees, freshly cut grass, Coppertone sunscreen on the beach, and the discontinued Black Chamomile Sleep Aromatherapy from Bath and Body Works (please, please, B&BW, bring it back).


YOUR BIGGEST CHEERLEADER?

My dad.


BOOKS YOU LOVED AS A KID THAT MADE YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER?

Anything and everything by Judy Blume.



Thank you, Jessica, for spending time with us today!

These are fantastic!





From the Publisher


Have you ever dreamed of leaving it all behind, of moving out to the wilderness where you can be surrounded by nothing other than the tranquility of nature? Well, I certainly have, and in Jessica Strawser’s latest novel, the main character, Katie, actually does it. Katie may not be a huge nature buff, but she leaves behind her old life and memories of her recent divorce to accept a job as a resident caretaker for a nature preserve in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately for Katie, it’s not peace and quiet she finds in the forest; it’s a mystery.


When Katie first arrives to her isolated cabin and the doorbell rings in the darkest hours of the night, she’s understandably confused, shaken—scared. She soon finds herself caught up in a kind of caretaking that she didn’t sign up for, one in which lives are at stake.


The Last Caretaker is a timely, engaging tale about a woman who is pushed to her limits and chooses to risk her own safety to help others. It’s about a woman starting over, opening her heart to others, and finding courage within herself that she didn’t know she had. It’s both page-turning and important, a type of story that makes you wonder what you would do in the same situation. And although it’s fiction, it is inspired by true stories of women everywhere. Don’t get me wrong—I’m still tempted to run away into the woods and life a simpler life, but after devouring The Last Caretaker, I’m also thinking about what good I can do here in the meantime.


—Alicia Clancy, Editor







Praise


“Strawser presents a fresh premise and compelling plot. The twists are unexpected, and Katie is pulled along through the adventure until she finds the courage to stand up for herself.” ―Booklist

EDITOR'S PICK NOV. AMAZON KINDLE FIRST PICK


“A powerful and atmospheric tale that is equal parts emotion and suspense as a woman takes over as caretaker of a remote nature reserve, only to discover the barn is part of a dangerous underground network for victims of domestic violence. In The Last Caretaker, Strawser perfectly captures the perils of living in an isolated part of the world and the desperate measures some women must take in order to survive. A richly emotional page-turner with an important message.” ―Kimberly Belle, internationally bestselling author of Dear Wife and The Personal Assistant


“Riveting, harrowing, timely, and important. The story of a woman fleeing a difficult past who stumbles upon a network of safe houses for domestic violence victims, The Last Caretaker is that rare combination of page-turning thriller and an issue-driven book with deep resonance. I couldn’t put it down, I can’t stop thinking about it, and I know it will stay with me for a very long time.” ―Michele Campbell, internationally bestselling author of It’s Always the Husband


“Jessica Strawser’s powerful page-turner The Last Caretaker takes us on a dark, winding journey that forces the protagonist to grapple with how far she would go to do the right thing, and at what price. Katie’s new job as a residential caretaker in a nature reserve is not what it seems…far from it. Strawser expertly tackles the mysteries around caretaking at the Grove Reserve with unputdownable twists and turns, proving that while life can get messy, the trick is being strong enough to handle the knocks at your door. Brava!”

―Lisa Barr, New York Times bestselling author of Woman on Fire


“The Last Caretaker is as full of life, beauty, and menace as the nature reserve in which it is set. This masterfully constructed novel explores just how much we’re willing to risk to do what’s right. Jessica Strawser’s writing drew me in and refused to let go until the very last page.”

―Laura Hankin, author of The Daydreams


“The Last Caretaker is a relevant, absorbing exploration into the dark side of relationships. Strawser’s skillful insights capture what it means to be a caretaker―what it’s worth and the impact on ourselves and those around us. A powerful read from start to finish, thought-provoking, and unputdownable.”

―Rochelle B. Weinstein, USA Today bestselling author


“The Last Caretaker is the best kind of book: important, surprising, brave. You’ll want all your friends to read it.”

―Ann Garvin, USA Today bestselling author of I Thought You Said This Would Work





My Review


Jessica Strawser returns following The Next Thing You Know (5 stars) with her sixth novel, THE LAST CARETAKER —Richly atmospheric, a beautifully written, emotional, suspenseful, mysterious, compelling, powerful tale of domestic violence, courage, and survival with strong women and an essential takeaway message.


A woman wants to start over and accepts a resident caretaker position in the wilderness at a remote nature reserve. However, her new home is anything but quiet when she discovers it is a safe house for victims of domestic violence and a way to escape. The mystery is what happened to the last caretaker.


Katie, a web designer from Pittsburg, is divorced from Clark and is ready for a new start. She puts her faith in her long-time friend, Bess, who offers her a way to leave her past behind.


The position is a resident caretaking job at Grove Farm Nature Reserve on 927 acres. Bess is the programming director at the nature center's main campus. The position comes with a furnished cabin, and she is grateful to be the 'new Katie,' leaving the 'old Katie' behind.


Katie accepted without seeing the area since it was out of state. She is not a nature buff; however, she is sure to adapt. She wants to be grateful, and Bess pulled strings for her.


However, when she arrives, it is more remote than she expected. She also feels something is off. It looks like someone lives in the cabin/farmhouse. There are personal items left. Pictures and later discovers a journal. What happened to the last caretaker? Did she go in a hurry? No one seems to have answers.


When a frantic, terrified woman arrives late at night, expecting a safe place to hide, it becomes apparent her position of caretaking involves more than she imagined. What has she gotten herself into?


Katie soon realizes her home is a hidden safehouse for domestic violence victims on the run. She was not prepared for this. She did not sign up for this. She must reach Grace, the last caretaker.


What about her protection? She has no idea who might show up on her doorstep. She does not know whom to trust. What if she lets in the wrong person, who may be dangerous? These women's lives are at stake.


Oh, how I loved THE LAST CARETAKER! I have been an avid fan of the author for many years and enjoyed her books.


Inspired by accounts of real courageous women, Katie learns she has strength that she did not know she possessed. A rewarding and brave group of women who seek refuge and a safe haven. Pushed to the breaking point to risk and choose safety to help others.


Almost like an underground railroad, the story is mysterious and comes with emotion and heart-pounding suspense. A true page-turner! Thought-provoking and compelling, the novel explores how you can help before it is too late.


I adored the significance of the black-eyed Susan flowers on the front cover and how they fit into the novel with this group of women. Black-eyed Susan flowers are Sun worshipers that forgive neglect and are tough-as-nails. Much like these women. Stunning!


THE LAST CARETAKER is timely, relevant, absorbing, and empowering! The author's passion shines through on the pages with her lyrical prose and her experience with domestic violence.


I enjoyed Katie's character, the risk, the unknown, and the courage. New beginnings! Told with compassion and sensitivity, this is a must-read book! Ideal for gift-giving and a perfect book club pick (book club questions included)!


You can read it before Dec 1st. An Editor's Pick Amazon First Reads for November.


Check out my December #AuthorElevatorSeries Q&A Interview with Jessica, where we go behind the scenes of the book and this multi-talented author!


Thanks to the author, Lake Union, and NetGalley for an early reading copy. Also grabbed it as my Amazon First Reads pick for Nov.



@JudithDCollins | #JDCMustReadBooks

My Rating: 5 Stars

Pub Date: Dec 1, 2023

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