The Chain – Adrian McKinty

Whether or not you believe the hype surrounding Adrian McKinty’s novel The Chain will depend on what you look for in a book. If the hype is to be believed, The Chain is “a blazing, full-tilt thriller” (Guardian), “a rare thriller that ends up being highly personal” (USA Today) and “psychologically rich” (Entertainment Weekly). The book also won several awards including the International Thriller Writers Best Novel of the Year. So its pedigree precedes it, and I guess that can be both a blessing and a curse.

The Chain tells the story of Rachel O’Neill, divorced mom to 13-year-old Kylie. The last few months have been shitty for Rachel because she’s been battling breast cancer, but things are looking up because her cancer is in remission and she’s going to be starting a new job as a philosophy lecturer at a local community college. Then the unthinkable happens, and her daughter is kidnapped.

It makes no sense for someone to take Kylie; Rachel has no money, but as the kidnappers tell her, it’s not about the money it’s about the chain.

“You’re in The Chain now, Rachel. We both are. And The Chain is going to protect itself. So, first thing is no cops. If you ever talk to a cop, the people who run The Chain will know and they’ll tell me to kill Kylie and pick a different target, and I will. They don’t care about you or your family; all they care about is the security of The Chain.

The way this thing works is someone whose own child has been kidnapped must pay a Bitcoin ransom and kidnap someone else’s child. Once that person has paid the ransom and kidnapped someone else’s child, the first person’s child will be released. And so on and so on aka The Chain. It’s all pretty clever and diabolical, really.

But.

Look, I had zero trouble turning the pages as Rachel and her brother-in-law Pete (ex-military and low-key heroin addict) try to figure out how they are going to comply with The Chain’s demands. As a mom myself, I could understand her panic and her willingness to do whatever was asked of her. Her motivation was clear. Still, I didn’t feel like she or Kylie (as resourceful and brave as she was) or Pete were particularly fleshed out.

Then there’s the people behind The Chain. I mean, I guess it ultimately doesn’t matter what motivated them, because clearly they’re psychos, but when their identities are revealed and the novel’s final confrontation happens it all just felt a little over-the-top cartoon-y to me.

Lots of thriller lovers will (and clearly did) enjoy the way this book is written: straight forward, unembellished prose. Lots of dialogue. Short, choppy sentences. I mean, there’s something to be said for writing this way for this kind of book, something that mimics the breathlessness that the characters must be feeling. If you don’t have to spend any real time with anybody, there’s a lot you can pack into 350 pages, and I feel like that’s what McKinty did. It’s a case of plot over substance.

So, ultimately, this was a so-so read for me. There was a lot of momentum going in, but the final bit of the book just felt contrived and wayyyyy too implausible for me. Because we never really know the characters, it’s hard to really care too much about them. They feel like cardboard cut outs: the plucky kid, the down-on-her-luck-but-determined mom, the has-his-demons-but-is-a-great-guy uncle. If you don’t care too much about writing or nuance or investing emotionally, then The Chain might be the book for you.

When We Were Vikings – Andrew David MacDonald

Zelda MacLeish, the protagonist of Andrew David MacDonald’s debut When We Were Vikings, was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, “an umbrella term describing the range of effects that can occur in an individual prenatally exposed to alcohol. These effects may include physical, mental, behavioral, and/or learning disabilities with lifelong implications.” (https://nofas.org/) Some of the common developmental disabilities found in people with FAS include “decreased IQ and deficits in motor skills, attention, executive function (working memory, problem solving, planning, and response inhibition), language, visual perception, adaptive functioning (skills necessary for everyday living).” (https://nofas.org/)

Now 21, Zelda lives with her older brother Gert. The siblings live a life dictated by schedules and rules that have been put in place to make Zelda feel secure. Gert is attending college on a scholarship and he does his best to look after his sister, but the truth is that he is only a couple years older and life isn’t easy.

Zelda is fascinated by Vikings. For her 21st birthday, Gert hires a stripper dressed as a Viking. Zelda remarks “Even if you were not an expert on Vikings and had not read Kepple’s Guide to Vikings, you would say, that is a Viking.” But Zelda is an expert and she notices several things about the stripper which are not historically accurate including the fact that his sword isn’t made of metal, his outfit is plastic, and his blonde hair isn’t natural. Zelda follows the Viking code, dividing the people she meets into members of her tribe: Gert, AK47 (also known as Annie, Gert’s ex-girlfriend), Marxsy (Zelda’s boyfriend), Dr. Laird (her therapist) and villains (most of the people Gert associates with).

Once Dr. Laird asked me why I liked Vikings. I told him three reasons:

One, they are brave,

Two, they are strong and people have to think twice before trying to hurt them.

Three, Viking heroes stand up for people who can’t defend themselves.

I told Dr. Laird that I wanted to be all of those things. People look at me and do not think that I am brave or strong and that I am the one who needs protection. My legend will show people that, even if you are not gargantuan, you can still be strong and brave and help others in your tribe.

Zelda will have her chance to prove that she is a Viking when Gert’s extra-curricular activities land him in hot water. She is so much more than meets the eye and I loved every single second of my time with her. One of the things I most love in a book is a strong voice…and Zelda’s is just perfection.

When We Were Vikings is funny, and heart-breaking (often at the same time). This is a novel about found family, but also about the unbreakable bond between siblings. Gert is a deeply flawed human being, but he loves Zelda. This is definitely a coming-of-age story, and watching Zelda navigate the tricky waters of her life is a marvelous journey to take.

Highly recommended.

Tall Oaks – Chris Whitaker

Earlier this year I read Chris Whitaker’s We Begin at the End, a novel that might not have even been on my radar if it weren’t for Twitter. If you haven’t read it, I can highly recommend it; there are characters in that book you will never forget. A Litsy friend sent me Whitaker’s debut Tall Oaks, which won the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award – no idea what that is, but it sounds impressive.

Tall Oaks begins with the disappearance of three-year-old Harry, stolen from his bed in the dead of night by someone dressed as a clown. His mother, Jess, is devastated by the loss; Harry is her world. She and her husband are separated and now, with Harry gone, she spends her days asking questions and hanging missing posters and her nights drinking and having blind-drunk sex with strangers.

This is the mystery that informs Whitaker’s novel, but it is really only a fraction of what the novel is about – and maybe not the most interesting thing about it anyway. Whitaker’s skill is with creating character, a skill that he uses to full and brilliant effect in We Begin at the End. The town of Tall Oaks (apparently somewhere in the States, although there were things in the book that made it feel sort of British to me) is full of oddball characters and getting to know them is the real pleasure of the novel.

My favourite character is definitely Manny, the seventeen-year-old son of single mom, Elena. Manny reckons himself a gangster and, despite the heat, hangs around wearing a woolen three piece suit, a too-small fedora and black wingtips. He and his best friend, Abe, have decided to offer their “protection” services to the businesses in town and it’s quite comical.

“I’m here to offer you my services. A lot of shit has been going down around here lately. Graffiti, trash cans being turned over, cars being scratched. Real bad for business.”

“We haven’t noticed anything,” Stan said, eyeing the parking lot nervously.

Manny frowned, realizing he had forgotten to tip the crash cans over the previous night. Thalia had asked him to help her build a fort.

Roger and Henrietta are a married couple who have suffered a devastating loss. Jerry, 35, lives with his elderly mother who is dying from a brain tumour. At 6’9″ and almost 500 pounds, with a voice like he’s just sucked on a helium balloon, Jerry is ridiculed and shunned. Jared, a car salesmen, is also hiding something. He bounces from town to town, never settling, that is until he sells Elena a car and something sparks between them. Finally, there’s Jim, the police chief, who never gives up looking for Harry even after the case goes cold.

All of these characters intersect and, I suppose, might be considered suspects in Harry’s disappearance. As the novel went on though, what happened to Harry was less interesting to me than the daily lives of these characters, which is a tribute to Whitaker’s skill at writing characters, even minor ones, that you care about.

This is a novel that examines the private grief people carry (lost children, lost parents, lost relationships), the ways in which small acts of kindness can transform someone’s life and, ultimately, how we can never really know what goes on in anyone else’s life. In that respect, Tall Oaks is less a “crime” novel and more a terrific drama.

Whitaker is a writer worth being on your reading radar.

Family – Micol Ostow

In the summer of 1969, seven people in L.A. were murdered by people tied to Charles Manson. Manson was a wannabe singer and leader of a cult-like group. In 1974, Vincent Bugliosi’s (with help from Curt Gentry) account of the events, Helter Skelter, was published. When she was twelve, Micol Ostow’s father gave her a copy of the book and it is clearly the inspiration for her YA novel Family.

Family is the story of seventeen-year-old Melinda Jensen. She’s run away from home, leaving behind an emotionally distant mother and a sexually abusive “uncle jack.”

now meant “uncle jack” and whiskey breath and roaming hands and squeaking bedsprings.

it meant mother, treading water, understanding that jack was not your uncle, not your father, not your family. mother, watching you drown, doing nothing as you drifted, as the current pulled you to a place where whiskey breath and roaming hands couldn’t reach.

Melinda doesn’t use capitals for anything, unless she’s talking about Henry. He finds Melinda, “a heap of bones, a tangle of stringy hair, collapsed on a sticky park bench” and offers her what she seems to desperately need. He scoops Melinda up and whisks her back to the ranch, where he lives with a bunch of other misfits. The rules are simple: “everything belongs to everyone. there are no parents, no ownership, no ego. no “i”.”

For a time, Melinda finds relief from her life at the ranch. It’s all free love and shared meals and music. To be in Henry’s orbit is to be chosen, doused in his special light. Until, of course, it’s not. Until she is called upon to participate in a horrific crime.

Family is written in verse and this might, perhaps, be one of its problems. It’s a bit repetitive. I loved the idea of the book and anyone familiar with Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders will certainly recognize the parallels. I wanted to empathize with Melinda, clearly she’s had a rough go, but it was hard to really care about any of these characters given that the prose was so fragmented. I have read other novels-in-verse and have found them satisfying, but this one just didn’t pack the emotional punch I was expecting. I think if you are at all interested in Manson, you should definitely give Helter Skelter a go. Like Ostow, I read it as a teenager and it really is quintessential true crime.

Later – Stephen King

I was a total SK stan back in the day, and while I no longer read everything he writes, I do still read him. I picked up Later yesterday morning, and didn’t stop reading until I finished the book. Like Joyland, Later is part of the Hard Case Crime series, which reissues classic crime stories for today’s audiences and also allows current writers to try their hand. While not strictly a crime story, Later does nicely slot into this series.

Jamie Conklin sees dead people.

As far as I can remember, I always have. But it’s not like in that movie with Bruce Willis. It can be interesting, it can be scary sometimes (the Central Park dude), it can be a pain in the ass, but mostly it just is

The way this works is that Jamie sees the dead soon after they have died, wearing what they were wearing, and hanging out in a place where they spent a lot of time. Jamie can ask them questions, and the dead must tell him the truth. Eventually, usually within a week, the dead start to drift away from him until they finally disappear forever.

Jamie’s mom, Tia, knows about her son’s strange ability and, more importantly, she believes in it. For a long time, it is their secret, but then she tells her girlfriend, an NYPD officer. That’s when things start to get tricky for Jamie. After the relationship between Tia and Liz goes sideways, Liz has one last favour to ask of Jamie, and it concerns a guy called Thumper. Jamie tells us at the beginning that he thinks “this is a horror story”, and he’s not wrong.

I don’t want to say too much more than that because I don’t want to spoil any of the novel’s myriad pleasures. Jamie is a terrific narrator, and Later is vintage King. The story cracks along, there are plenty of creep-a-licious moments, and a couple of surprises, too. Whenever I do read King, I am reminded of why he is loved by so many. Reading him is like sliding into your most comfortable sweats on a cold winter night. He always delivers a great tale and Later is a worthy addition to your King collection.

The Paper Palace – Miranda Cowley Heller

I read Miranda Cowley Heller’s debut novel The Paper Palace sitting on the porch at my best friend’s “farm.” (I put farm in quotation marks because it’s not a farm anymore, just a peaceful retreat in a beautiful spot at the top of a hill looking over rolling pastures, and the river. It’s magic.) I read for hours because I couldn’t stop. If there’s a list of things I love in books, I’d say The Paper Palace ticks them all.

Elle Bishop, 50, (there’s a thing I loved right there; Elle is 50.) is at her family’s compound in the Back Woods on Cape Cod. She has been coming here her whole life, and it is here where she first met Jonas when he was eight and she was eleven. For the next few summers, Elle and Jonas are inseparable, but then something happens that changes everything, and the two go their separate ways. They meet intermittently, but somehow find their way back into each other’s lives as adults. They are BFFs. Or, at least, that’s the boat they’re trying to float. They’ve managed, until this summer.

The novel takes place over twenty-four hours, but really spans a life time, flipping back and forth between then and now. Elle cherry picks the stories she tells: her mother’s failed marriages, her father’s abandonment, the history of “The Paper Palace” (the name of the place where they summer), her complicated relationship with her older sister, Anna, her friendship with Jonas.

In the here and now, the story begins with a betrayal. It’s not a spoiler to say that Elle and Jonas consummate their relationship; the blurb on the back tells us that much.

I could look at him and nothing else for eternity and be happy. I could listen to him, my eyes closed, feel his breath and his words wash over me, time and time and time again. It is all I want.

What Elle has, though, is a pretty amazing husband, Peter, and three kids. Jonas, too, is married to Gina whose “petite, perfect little bee-sting of a body” makes Elle wonder: “That’s what he wanted?” Elle and Jonas’s shared act is a powder keg with the potential to blow up many lives.

So, those of you who know me or read this blog regularly know that I love angst. LOVE it. Chuck an obstacle in front of people who love each other and I will be swooning before you can say, “hell, yeah!” Wanna stick a literary dagger in my heart? Yes, please. Heller wisely avoids making any of the players villains, which ups the ante for Elle. She’s our narrator; this is her story to tell. And the fact that she has invested in her marriage and it has been a happy one, makes her decision about what to do post-coitus, even more compelling. Then Heller reveals all the details of Elle’s life and the whole concoction is

I truly loved everything about this book. Some people have complained about all the time jumps: didn’t bother me in the least. If I had any complaints it would be 1) there are a lot of names and sometimes I was like “who’s that, again?” and 2) I love you, Reese, and I hope your production company is going to turn this puppy into a limited series *pretty please*, but I hate that your “Reese’s Book Club” sticker is not actually a sticker that I can take off and mars an otherwise gorgeous cover.

That said, The Paper Palace is a beautifully-written, page-turner about a woman who has to make a decision at a point in her life where she’s actually lived a life and has some real skin in the game.

Highly recommended.

Tin Man – Sarah Winman

Sarah Winman’s novel Tin Man is the story of Ellis, a quiet middle-aged man who has spent his adult life working nights in the paint shop at the local car plant in Oxford, England. “He was forty-five years old, and every night he wondered where the years had gone.”

Every day is much like the day before for Ellis, but his life wasn’t always so predictable. First there was Michael. Then there was Annie.

In the front bedroom, propped up among the books, is a color photograph of three people, a woman and two men. They are tightly framed, their arms around one another, and the world beyond is out of focus, and the world on either side is excluded. They look happy, they really do. Not just because they are smiling but because there is something in their eyes, an ease, a joy, something they share.

The “something they share” is the subject of Tin Man, a story that unravels like a beautiful dream. The ribbon that runs through Ellis’s story is a painting of Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Ellis’s mother, Dora, won a reproduction of the painting in a raffle and, to her, it represented “Freedom. Possibility. Beauty.”

When, as an adolescent, Michael meets Dora, they share an appreciation for the painting and what it represents. She tells Michael and Ellis, “Men and boys should be capable of beautiful things.”

Ellis’s relationship with Michael shape-shifts, and when they are nineteen they travel to Van Gogh’s France and consummate their relationship. A choice they make there altars the course of their lives, and a few years later Ellis meets Annie and marries her. Ellis’s marriage is another decision that changes the trajectory of their lives. Winman’s book is really about those choices, big and small, which can have an impact on our lives.

Tin Man is also a book about the kindness of strangers, and of how sometimes a moment of grace can allow the light to get into the darkest corners of our lives. A shared meal. A bed to sleep in. The opportunity to tell our story. Forgiveness when you need it most.

This is a beautifully written book. There are no villains here, only human beings hopeful to live worthy lives. I think the novel suggests that what’s worthy are the quiet moments, the moments of homecoming.

Highly recommended.

Mirrorland – Carole Johnstone

When Cat’s identical twin sister El goes missing, Cat returns to Edinburgh to be with her husband, Ross, while they wait for news. She hasn’t seen or spoken to El or Ross for twelve years, but the reason for their estrangement takes a long time to reveal itself. Don’t worry: you’ll be riveted to the pages of Carole Johnstone’s debut Mirrorland for reasons far beyond why the sisters stopped speaking.

Growing up, El and Cat lived at 36 Westeryk Road, a “gray flat-stoned house with Georgian-bar windows” with their mother and maternal grandfather. Now El and Ross live there, and when Cat arrives she is astounded by how unchanged it is; “the hallway walls are crowded with familiar mounted plates…The tall oak telephone table and grandfather clock are exactly where they used to be as well…The smell is exactly the same….”

This house is filled with old ghosts for Cat. When she re-discovers the papered-over “door to Mirrorland” in the pantry, it unlocks fragments of memories. Mirrorland was

a magic place. Because, whatever else, I can’t deny that. This might once have only been a tradesman’s entrance, a means to a supercilious end; it might now be forgotten – only empty, drafty space and stone – but in between it was something else. Once upon a time, it was rich and full and alive. Gloriously frightening and steadfastly safe. Exciting beyond measure. Hidden. Special. Ours.

Cat and Ross refuse to believe that El is dead. Things get even creepier for Cat when she starts receiving anonymous cards at the house, and then, worse, emails from someone (Cat is convinced it is El; who else could it be?) providing her with clues for a treasure hunt. The clues lead to pages from a diary that El kept, and as Cat discovers them, she also starts to unlock the secrets of what happened in that house when she and El were children.

Mirrorland is like that hall of mirrors in a fun house. The rooms have names like Clown Café, and Donkshop. Then there’s Bedroom 3, a room that even as an adult Cat is afraid to enter because she hears “El shriek in [her] ear, Don’t go in! We can’t ever go in!” The twins’ childhood was filled with stories of pirates and make-believe, and as Cat deals with El’s disappearance, her complicated relationship with Ross, and the sharp edges of her childhood memories, it’s hard to know what is real and what is not.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s well-written, has several excellent twists and Stephen King himself says it’s “plotted with a watchmaker’s precision.” Not gonna argue with the master.

Highly recommended.