Behind the Red Door – Megan Collins

I discovered Megan Collins when I read her novel The Winter Sister a few months ago. I was very much looking forward to reading Behind the Red Door, but unfortunately it just didn’t land as well.

This is the story of Fern Douglas, a social worker who lives with her husband Eric, a physician, in Boston. When her father enlists her to come help pack up her childhood home because he’s moving to Florida, she does so reluctantly. Her childhood was complicated and her relationship with her parents is fraught.

Fern’s arrival back in New Hampshire coincides with the disappearance of Astrid Sullivan, a girl who had been kidnapped twenty years ago and then left, drugged and disoriented but otherwise unharmed, on a curb a month later. When Fern sees Astrid’s photograph, she feels like she knows her, but she can’t figure out how. Fern is prone to obsessing, or “spiraling” as Eric calls it. Her therapist likens it to needle stuck on a record; her anxiety ratchets up and her mind keeps “telling you that you have to stay on this thought. But it’s a lie.”

When Fern gets back to her childhood home, she starts to read the memoir Astrid wrote about her time in captivity. There are details in Astrid’s book that unlock memories in Fern’s mind and she soon becomes obsessed with finding Astrid, something that not even the police have been able to do because there are no clues.

Her time at home is strange. Her father, a man who has spent his entire career researching the qualities of fear, seems more interested in tapping into Fern’s growing anxiety about Astrid than he does in helping his daughter alleviate this stress. Her parent’s marriage has crumbled and her mother has already moved out.

Then there is the cast of creepy characters: the strange man dressed all in black who walks up and down the country roads; Brennan, her father’s former colleague, Father Murphy, a priest who seems to know more than he’s telling and Cooper, her childhood bestie’s older brother, who used to terrorize her when she was a kid.

Behind the Red Door moves along at a brisk pace, but unfortunately I had a difficult time believing any of it. Fern was a sort of insipid character, even as she started (bravely or foolishly) digging into Astrid’s life. Her parents are reprehensible. Cooper, even at 40, sounds like a frat boy. I had no trouble turning the pages, but it wasn’t nearly as good as The Winter Sister.

His & Hers – Alice Feeney

I had high hopes for Alice Feeney’s thriller His & Hers, probably because somewhere I read that it was un-put-down-able and I have had a difficult time settling into any book these days. (I blame A Little Life , and not in a good way.)

Feeney’s story is narrated by Anna Andrews, a newsreader who has just been demoted and sent back to the field when the woman for who she was filling in returns from her maternity leave, and Detective Jack Harper, a cop in a small British town in Surrey, which is south of London.

When a woman shows up dead in the woods in, Anna is sent to cover the story and Jack is sent to investigate it. It’s clear from the very beginning that neither of them is a reliable narrator; neither of them is particularly subtle about the fact that they are withholding information. Jack is the first to crack, announcing that he has “never worked on the murder of someone I knew before. And I knew this woman well. I was with her last night.”

The dead woman isn’t the only relationship Jack wants to keep on the down-low. Turns out he and Anna have history, too, and it makes it hard for either of them to get on with the job. What follows, unfortunately is a lot of silliness and implausibility and people acting like idiots.

It takes a lot for a thriller to impress me. I often spot the twists coming from a mile away and although figuring things out before they are revealed doesn’t always mean that I won’t like the book, I just found Anna and Jack grating and between them and the clunky exposition (and ridiculous ending) I just can’t say this thriller is a must read.

All the Beautiful Strangers – Elizabeth Klehfoth

There’s lots of things to like about Elizabeth Klehfoth’s debut novel All the Beautiful Strangers. The story follows two timelines separated by a decade. In 2007 Grace Calloway, wife to Manhattan real estate mogul Alistair Calloway, has vanished without a trace. In 2017, Grace’s eldest daughter, Charlie, is in her final year at Knollwood Prep, a prestigious school where her father was once a revered student.

Charlie thinks she wants to be part of the only group that matters, the super secret A’s. But to become a part of that group is to participate in some extremely problematic initiation rituals. No matter: Knollwood is her life and the A’s offer an opportunity to belong in a way Charlie has never felt she has.

The thing is, Charlie is being chased by ghosts in the form of her mother’s mysterious disappearance. Then, she gets a message from her Uncle Hank, her mother’s brother.

I hadn’t seen Uncle Hank in years – since I was ten, and my father issued the restraining order.

No one besides Dr. Malby ever talked to me about my mother. But he wanted to know. What had that last month been like with her? Had she seemed different in any way? Who came and went at the house? How had things been between her and my father? And that night that she disappeared – what had I heard? What had I seen?

When Hank shows up with some photographs taken around the time his sister went missing, it sends Charlie back into her past, asking the questions she never knew to ask.

All the Beautiful Strangers is a layered story about family secrets, loyalties and the lengths people go to to protect those they love. Charlie is a tenacious, intelligent character who is determined, once and for all, to find out what happened to her mother. Although it’s not specifically YA, I think it would certainly appeal to patient YA readers. It makes for compelling reading, although at times it moved just a teensy bit too slowly. The two time lines are handled deftly, and the writing is terrific, so Klehfoth is definitely one to watch.

Our Kind of Cruelty – Araminta Hall

Mike and Verity spent much of their nine years together (from second year university until their late twenties) playing a game called the Crave. The two would head to a club, where Mike would hide in the shadowy corners watching while Verity waited at the bar until some poor unsuspecting guy would hit on her. When she’d had enough, she’d touch her necklace and Mike would “rescue” her.

I would push through the mass of people, pulling at the useless man drooling over her, and ask him what he thought he was doing talking to my girlfriend. And because I am useful-looing in that tall, broad way, and because V likes me to lift weights and start all my days with a run, they would invariably back off with their hands in front of their faces, looking scared and timid. Sometimes we couldn’t wait to start kissing, sometimes we went to the loo and fucked in the stalls, V calling out so anyone could hear.

Things are different now, though, for these crazy kids. Mike has just returned to London after two years in New York City. And he’s just received an invitation to Verity’s wedding. He’s pretty sure that this wedding is just a newer, more complicated version of the Crave. After all, he and Verity are end game. When he returned to London he bought a house he knew she’d like, had it decorated as she would like it, spent thousands of pounds redoing the garden. Mike knows Verity better than she knows herself.

Early on in Araminta Hall’s novel Our Kind of Cruelty, we learn that Mike is telling his story at the request of his barrister who “needs to get a clear handle on the situation.” Mike reveals his horrific childhood, living in extreme poverty with his addicted mother, and her various abusive boyfriends until he is taken into care by his loving foster parents, Elaine and Barry. Despite his past, Mike has had a successful and lucrative career as a banker but everything starts to spin out of control after he gets the wedding invitation. When it comes to Verity, Mike is not clear-headed.

Hall chooses to tell the story from Mike’s perspective; we never hear Verity’s side of things. Although Mike is clearly delusional, he isn’t unsympathetic. (Much in the same way that Joe in You, despite the fact that he is clearly a psychopath, isn’t unsympathetic.) To believe Mike is to believe that Verity took a shy, awkward, damaged young man and molded him into a physically imposing, devoted lover. And then, when she tired of the game, she abandoned him.

What’s missing, of course, is Verity’s perspective, which we never get. On top of that, Mike is an unreliable narrator. Then, in court, Verity is further punished – which hints at Hall’s political agenda. I kept thinking that the story might be slightly more interesting as a psychological thriller if, in fact, Mike had been right all along: they were still playing the Crave.

Nevertheless, Our Kind of Cruelty is well-written and moderately entertaining.

Near the Bone – Christina Henry

Mattie and William live in a remote cabin on a mountain. It is clear early on that Mattie is afraid of her husband; she can easily read his “ice-chip” eyes and anticipate when he’s going to hit her. There are rules to their existence on the mountain and Mattie knows not to break them. It is also clear, early on, that something is not quite right in their marriage. Mattie is having flashes of another life and she is staring to contemplate escape.

William is not the only threat in Christina Henry’s novel Near the Bone. One day, while out checking the snares, Mattie finds a dead fox. A closer investigation reveals strange tracks – bear, maybe – in the snow, almost “like the bear was walking on its hind legs like a person.”

William and Mattie set out to find and kill the bear, but it is clear that whatever is out in the woods is not any normal predator. It’s also when they come across a hiker in the woods, the first person besides William that Mattie has seen for as long as she can remember. Even more disconcerting, the man indicates that Mattie looks familiar to him.

Near the Bone is a straightforward story of one woman’s desperate attempt to escape the monster she lives with and the monster that lives on the mountain. We don’t ever really get to know enough about either of them for the story to feel high-stakes. The book is marketed as horror, but it isn’t scary. At all. And it’s not really a thriller, either.

It tells you something when all the praise included on the book jacket and inside pages is for other books by the same author. This is a story where the faceless monster is more sympathetic than the human monster.

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel A Little Life garnered copious praise and was a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award, as well as making it onto many ‘Best of’ lists when it was published. It has been sitting on my TBR shelf for at least two years and I made it my mission this summer to make my way through at least two of my chunkier books: I read Empire of the Vampire in July and finished this one a few days ago.

The novel tells the story of four friends who were college roommates and are now making their way in the world in Manhattan in the nineties. There’s JB, the gay artist; Malcom, the bi-racial trust fund kid; Willem, the handsome wannabe actor and Jude, the mysterious, brilliant glue that bonds these men together over three+ decades.

Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.

At first I was wholly invested in their stories, although it’s really mostly about Jude. It’s clear early on that he’s had some sort of tragedy/trauma in his past (and although there are no trigger warnings: reader beware), but he is not forthcoming about the details of his life and spends most of the novel’s hefty 814 pages alternately berating and abusing himself. He doesn’t deserve happiness, after all, even though almost everyone who meets him admires him and loves him and even, in his early twenties, want to adopt him.

As the narrative starts to close in on Jude and his relationship with Willem (which morphs from besties to something more, although I am not sure there was really a point to having their relationship become romantic), it loses its focus on JB and Malcom. Suddenly they are bit players in their own story and perhaps they should have been treated as such from the beginning because Yanagihara clearly loves Willem and Jude the most. I started to feel a bit as if these two men were trauma-bonded. Jude has clearly had an horrific life and although I am sure there are lots of people who do, it just felt as though Yanagihara went way over the top with Jude (he meets one monster after another over the course of his life, but as smart as he is and despite having so many amazing people in his adult life, he never really gets the help he so desperately needs.) His story wore me out- and not in a good way where I felt as though there was a cathartic payoff; at a certain point, the book just became an exhaustive catalogue of misery.

I think this is a novel that has been quite divisive. People seem to love it or hate it, although I wouldn’t characterize my reaction to it as quite so black or white. The book is not without its charms. In the beginning I enjoyed the writing (it was Donna Tartt-lite), but I found the last 300-ish pages almost unbearable. (It just felt more of the same: misery heaped onto misery.) I also grew weary of the long lists of names — like, really, what are the chances that you’d know two dudes with the same name so you have to call them Asian Henry Young and Black Henry Young? — and the balance between the horrible things that happened to Jude and the amazing things that happened seemed, frankly, unrealistic. By the time the men were in their late forties I expected them to at least sound different than they did at twenty, but no. I didn’t believe in them.

Although there are many critics who love this book and have called it a masterpiece, there are others who point out the book’s flaws. I rarely read reviews before I write my own, but I felt like I had to go see if I was the outlier; it seems I am not. Slate took a closer look at the book when it first came out. The New York Times also had somewhat ambivalent feelings about the novel.

Would I recommend this book? Not really. I am not sure there is an emotional payoff big enough to wade through all the trauma for. It is almost relentlessly grim and not even decent writing can save it from its perpetual bleakness.

First Born – Will Dean

I discovered Will Dean on Twitter and a few months ago I nabbed a copy of his well-reviewed novel The Last Thing to Burn, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I recently picked up First Born and although I read it in just a couple of sittings, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much.

First Born is the story of 22-year-old identical twins Molly and Katie “KT” Raven. Molly tells us “I don’t use the term identical twin because it’s a blatant lie. A travesty. Our base DNA is identical, sure, but that’s about all that is. We were once one person. We are not anymore.”

When the novel opens, Molly is working in an office in London, while KT is studying in New York City. KT is the risk taker; Molly spends her time assessing threats and preparing for the worst. Molly sees danger everywhere and she is always prepared, even going to far as to making homemade weapons out of pound coins and a sock.

The twins’ parents have been visiting KT in New York and when Molly arrives, they spend their time eating toast and drinking tea and waiting for the police to give them information about just what happened to KT. There’s very little to go on, and Molly feels that it is her duty to help the investigation along. She tracks down KT’s best friend, boyfriend, investigates the creepy son of the landlord and uncovers some things about her sister she did not know.

First Born does offer a couple of excellent twists, and Molly’s voice is definitely singular. The action clips along, for sure. For me, though, it wasn’t believable and I wasn’t sure I understood character motivations at all. By about a third of the way in the prose started to grate a little bit and there was something sort of ‘lazy’ about it. Like, suddenly a character has a gun which she pulled out of nowhere, but we’re told she’d purchased before. That sort of thing. The shenanigans were all a bit over-the-top.

Still – if that sort of thing doesn’t irk you, you’ll probably have a lot of fun reading this book – if you are willing to suspend disbelief and don’t mind the crazy.

Heartstopper – Alice Oseman

Heartstopper by British author Alice Oseman began its life as a web series on Tumblr and Tapas. According to Oseman’s websiteHeartstopper has amassed an enormous online fanbase with over 52.1 million views to date. [She] crowd-funded a limited print-run edition, meeting her funding goal in less than two hours. Hachette Children’s Group published Heartstopper Volume One more widely in Spring 2019, followed by Volume Two in July of the same year.”

This is the story of Charlie Spring, a fifteen-year-old who becomes friends with Nick Nelson, who is a sixteen-year-old rugby player. Although they attend the same school, their paths have never crossed, probably because Nick is an outgoing, popular athlete and Charlie is shy. Oh, and Charlie is openly gay.

When the novel opens, Charlie is making out with Ben. In secret. That’s because Ben has a girlfriend and Charlie hasn’t quite come to terms with the fact that he is being used. Nick and Charlie end up sitting next to each other in class, and the two become unlikely friends. When Nick notices how fast Charlie is, he invites him to join the rugby team. Despite his friends’ caution that Nick is straight, Charlie starts to develop feelings for Nick.

The relationship that develops between the boys is sheer delight. Nick is good for Charlie, but Charlie helps Nick, too. Watching them navigate their feelings for each other is a joyful experience.

I haven’t seen the Netflix series, but it looks terrific.

Magpie – Elizabeth Day

One of my favourite Booktubers, Jack Edwards, loved Elizabeth Day’s novel Magpie, and it was already on my TBR list anyway, so with his added endorsement, I picked it up. (Oh, who am I kidding? I don’t need anyone’s recommendation to buy more books; I just buy them.)

Anyway.

Marisa hasn’t always been lucky in love until she meets Jake.

He smelled of freshly washed laundry. No cologne. His face was uncomplicated: A defined chin and boyish cheeks. Kind eyes. A smattering of sandy-colored stubble. He had looks you could imagine aging well and at the same time you could see instantly what sort of child he had been.

Marisa moves in with Jake, and they make plans to have a family. If it all seems to be happening a little quickly, which Marisa’s friend Jas suggests, Marisa claims that “when you know, you just know.” But, as it turns out, there are things that Marisa does not know.

When Jake suggests that they take in a lodger to help pay their mortgage, Marisa agrees thinking that “it will alleviate the pressure on Jake and that, as a result, he will be more present with her. Enter Kate.

She is soft-spoken with a lively, sharp face and brown hair with an unruly fringe falling to just below her eyebrows so that the first time they meet to assess her suitability, Marisa notices that Kate keeps blowing it out of her eyes.

At first the new living arrangement works out okay. Marisa writes and illustrates custom children’s books, and she has the house all to herself during the day. But then she starts to notice something between Jake and Kate. As her uneasiness grows, so does her paranoia.

Magpie depends on subterfuge. There were lots of things I liked about this book, but there were also some things that seemed a little over-the-top and contrived. Still, it was well-written, easy to read, and I think most people will enjoy its twists and turns.

The House Next Door – Anne Rivers Siddons

When Anne Rivers Siddons’s 1978 novel The House Next Door begins, Colquitt Kennedy tells us that she and Walter are not the sort of people who you’d find in People magazine. Colquitt and her husband, Walter, are a couple of 30-something yuppies who live on a tony street in suburban Atlanta.

We have a good house, but not a grand one, in a better neighborhood than we can really afford, because the down payment was a wedding gift from my parents. We have two cars, which is all we need since there are only two of us.

Walter is the president of an advertising agency and Colquitt does free-lance public relations. By her own estimation they are “fairly ordinary people,” but all this is about to change because Colquitt and Walter have decided to tell their story to People.

The house next door is haunted, and I am the one responsible for all the publicity.

For the longest time, there was no house next door to the Kennedy’s – just an odd pie-shaped lot which seemed impossible to build on.

In our midtown neighborhood it was an oasis of wild, dark greenness, luminous in the spring with white dogwood and honeysuckle and rhododendron blooms, giving one the feeling of being cloistered away in a mountain retreat even though our street is only one block off one of the city’s main thoroughfares.

When news spreads that someone has bought the land and is intending on building, no one on the street can quite believe it. The newly married Harralsons, Buddy and Pie, (I know – what’s with the names? But, it is the South), and their young, brilliant and handsome architect Kim Dougherty do build there, though, and the house is magnificent: everyone says so. But then stuff starts to happen: dead animals around the property, Pie has a devastating mishap and then, at their housewarming party – well…

Then the Sheehans move in. Anita is emerging from a long convalescence, her husband Buck tells the Kennedys. Things don’t go all that well for them, either. Colquitt has a niggling fear that the house is sinister and that fear is confirmed by Kim, who seems to have lost his designing mojo and tells Colquitt that he believes the house is responsible.

And so it goes. More owners: more troubles, until Colquitt feels that the only thing she can do is warn people.

By today’s standards, The House Next Door isn’t particularly scary and there are some references that certainly haven’t aged well. In his introduction, Stephen King calls the book “well planned and brilliantly cast” and I would have to agree. The book has elements of the southern gothic, which include “the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation” (Oxford).

I wasn’t scared reading this book, or even creeped out, but it is well-written and wholly enjoyable.