The Quiet Child – John Burley

20170423-QUIET-CHILD-cover-rev-11-18-16John Burley’s novel The Quiet Child asks some compelling questions: ‘How far would you go to protect the people you love?’ chief among them.

It’s 1954 in Cottonwood, California and high school Science teacher Michael McCray and his wife Kate had it all. Had being the operative word. Things have been different for them for a while now, ever since their younger son Danny was born six years ago. That’s when Kate started to get sick; now she is practically bedridden. The people of their small town started to pull away from the McCrays because it seemed that coming into close contact with them meant that you, too, would become ill and maybe even die. Danny is an odd child, mostly because he is silent. He doesn’t say a word. Sean, 10, is protective of his younger brother and that’s part of the reason both boys are kidnapped outside of a convenience store on the night their dad takes them for ice cream.

The man in the tan jacket crossing the street, heading in the direction of the parking lot. Danny in the back seat of the car, gazing out the window as he waited for them to return. The engine starting. The spin of tires on gravel. And Sean, standing there less than a minute ago. But now…

After the boys go missing, readers follow local Sherriff Jim Kent and two detectives from Shasta County as they try to piece together what happened and where the boys might be. Don’t forget – it’s the early 50s and sussing out what happened is a lot more time consuming and difficult without the aid of technology.

Kate insists that Michael do “whatever it takes” to bring back  her sons and so Michael sets off on his own. It takes a little bit before the police figure out that the kidnapper has made contact with Michael, but soon they are hot on the trail.

The Quiet Child is certainly a page-turner; I read it in a couple of sittings. Burley provides just the right amount of backstory about the key players so that we care about them and minor characters are fleshed out so that their fate is also important to us.

The interesting thing about this book is that it works on a bunch of different levels. Partly it’s a thriller: will Michael find his sons? Will they be alive? Will everyone survive? Partly it’s sort of supernatural, but I don’t think that’s even the right word. Why is Kate sick? Why is Michael starting to experience tremors in his arm? Are people right to be suspicious of Danny? Is he really able to make people ill? And then, the book is strangely philosophical. Do we really have the right to make decisions that affect the lives of others if they benefit the greater good?

Even if you think you know where The Quiet Child is heading, I suspect you’ll be surprised and I guarantee you’ll be thinking about this book for a while after you’ve read the last page.

Dark Saturday – Nicci French

Dark Saturday is the sixth book in Nicci French’s mystery series featuring London- darksatbased psychotherapist Frieda Klein. Although I was at a (slight) disadvantage having not read any of the previous novels in this series, I have read (and enjoyed) several other novels by French (actually the husband/wife writing team of Sean French and Nicci Gerrard) so I knew what I was in for.

There will always be a slight disconnect when reading a single  book from a series, but I didn’t find it particularly problematic. It was clear that I was missing some back story, but there were enough salient details to aid my understanding and allow me to get on with the business at hand – which is the case of Hannah Docherty.

Hannah was just eighteen when she was arrested for brutally murdering her mother, stepfather and thirteen-year-old brother, Rory. Since then she’s been incarcerated at Chelsworth Hospital which was “not a prison [but an institution where] its inmates were patients and the doctors’ job was to treat them and make them better.” However, when Frieda goes to visit Hannah for the first time “it felt like all the other high-security prisons she’d been to over the course of her career.”

Hannah has been incarcerated for 13 years and it’s immediately clear to Frieda that there has been no attempt to help her during that time. And why is Frieda visiting Hannah? She’s been asked by the police (who have clearly had five books’ worth of dealings with her) to look into Hannah’s case to see if, perhaps, there’s the possibility that she is innocent. The lead investigator on the case has recently had another conviction overturned and the police department simply want to cross their T’s and dot their I’s. They aren’t really expecting Frieda to find anything because Hannah is clearly crazy and the evidence against her is compelling.

I suspect that readers who have been reading along with Frieda over the series will already know what I quickly discovered: Frieda is tenacious. She isn’t satisfied with one meeting with Hannah. She asks for the case files and pores through documents and photographs in an effort to better understand Hannah’s story. If Hannah didn’t kill her family, who did and why?

That’s pretty much the main story in Dark Saturday. As a straight-up mystery, there’s plenty to keep readers turning the pages. For someone who isn’t familiar with all the back-story, I found some of it to be a distraction. Was I really interested in sitting in on her therapy sessions with a middle-aged woman who is suffering from panic attacks? Um. No. Did I especially care about a colleague’s cancer diagnosis? Not really because I haven’t had the chance to really know him or understand his relationship with Frieda.

I don’t know how this novel stacks up to the others in the series. Frieda isn’t the most compelling sleuth I’ve ever encountered, but I will chalk that up to having missed out getting to know her in previous novels. She’s smart and careful…although I often wondered how safe it was for her to be walking around London alone in the middle of the night.  Still, I enjoyed watching her attempt to create a new narrative for Hannah. Whether the re-written story is ultimately satisfying will likely depend on how it compares to Frieda’s previous cases. I wasn’t wholly satisfied, but I suspect that fans of this series will be anxiously awaiting the next book.

Visit Harper Collins for more info about this and other excellent titles.

The Leaving – Tara Altebrando

leavingTara Altebrando’s YA novel, The Leaving, will give readers lots to chew on. It’s the story of six kindergarten-aged kids who disappear from their small Florida town only to turn up – minus one – eleven years later.  The kids are dropped off at a playground with maps tucked into their pockets to help them find their way home. They have no memory of where they were and their arrival back home sends ripples through their lives, the lives of their families and the community.

The narrative is shared between two of the returned, Lucas and Scarlett, and Avery, the younger sister of Max, the one child who doesn’t come back.  Avery was just four when her brother disappeared and her memories are vague. When her mother gets the call that the children have returned, Avery ” certainly hadn’t pictured it happening this way.”

It’s actually hard to imagine how any of these characters might have envisioned this moment – to have their sons and daughters returned to them without any memory of where they’ve been or what’s happened to them. And for Avery, she could already anticipate “the endless news coverage, the weird-sad looks she’d get from neighbors and everyone at school…she’d be famous, but not in the right way.”

As for Lucas and Scarlett, they feel a pull towards each other that seems more than survivor’s guilt. They discover they can do things they don’t remember being taught: Scarlett can drive a car; Lucas can load a gun. They also have strange elliptical flashes of memory: a carousel, a man carrying wrapping paper, hot air balloons. They are determined to solve the mystery of the missing eleven years and that makes for pretty compelling reading.

But the part of the book that was especially intriguing to me was this notion of memory and how our memories shape who we are and how, without them, we would certainly feel unmoored. Also worth consideration – and something I certainly thought about as I read Altebrando’s book – was what it would mean if we could actually cherry pick our memories. Lucas considers this notion, wondering:

“Why not forget?

Why not just black out something awful?

Like a shooting.

Or war.

Childhood, even.

Sure!

Oh.

Forgetting meant not knowing, meant ignorance, meant making the same mistakes again and again.”

The Leaving offers lots of food for thought, but even if young readers aren’t ready to consider the value of holding tight to the memories which animate their lives, there’s lots to keep them turning the pages. For my money, the last few lines of the book are worth the bits I didn’t quite buy.

Forget Me – K.A. Harrington

forgetMorgan lives in River’s End, a small town in central Massachusetts. While once prosperous, “the town’s only major employer, Stell Pharmaceutical’s, went under [and] several other businesses that relied on Stell soon followed.” That meant that both of Morgan’s parents (and almost everyone else in town) lost their jobs as biochemists and River’s End is a bit of a ghost town.

When K.A. Harrington’s YA mystery Forget Me opens, Morgan is on her way to a party when she happens upon her boyfriend, Flynn, standing on the side of the road. He hadn’t been able to go to the party because of plans with his parents, so Morgan is surprised to see him.  It’s clear that Flynn is a bit of a mystery man; Morgan admits she is “the only one he ever voluntarily talked to.” Still, Flynn’s behavior is particularly jittery and when Morgan  presses Flynn for an explanation, he breaks up with her. She watches him walk away and then – shockingly – Flynn’s hit by a car.

Flash forward three months and Morgan is still trying to come to terms with Flynn’s death when she agrees to her best friend Toni’s suggestion to create an on-line memorial for Flynn. When she uploads a picture of Flynn onto her FriendShare (like Facebook, I guess), the program wants to tag the picture as someone else, a guy named Evan Murphy. When she does a little investigation, it appears as though Evan Murphy and Flynn are one and the same and Flynn appears to be very much alive.

Forget Me is a terrific little YA mystery that will keep readers guessing. Morgan is smart and tenacious and readers will be rooting for her to get to the bottom of Flynn’s death (?). There is the potential for the machinations to get clunky or convoluted, but Harrington avoids both. The plot clicks along, clues are revealed in a timely fashion and readers should be wholly satisfied with the outcome.

 

Watching Edie – Camilla Way

Camilla Way is a new-to-me author,  but after reading Watching Edie I would definitely watchingediebe amenable to reading more. Told by two characters Heather (who narrates ‘Before’) and Edie (who narrates ‘After’), Watching Edie is about the adolescent friendship between the two girls, their subsequent estrangement and what happens when Heather re-enters Edie’s life many years later.

Edie, 33, is living in London when the literal knock on her door comes.

I’m entirely unprepared for what’s waiting for me beyond the heavy, wide front door and when I open it the world seems to tilt and I have to grip the doorframe to stop myself from falling. Because there she is, standing on my doorstep, staring back at me. There, after all this time, is Heather.

It’s clear that whatever happened between the two girls has taken its emotional toll; however,  Edie invites Heather in for tea and they make polite conversation. Nevertheless, Edie is suspicious of Heather’s re-appearance in her life even though she has “imagined this, dreamed of this, dreaded this, so many hundreds of  times for so many years.”

Heather’s narrative fills in the back story of how the two girls met at the end of Year 11. (In England, students would be sixteen at this point, destined to move on to A-levels or employment.) Heather is a bit of a loner at school, so while she is outside with her peers, she’s not joining in on the fun. That’s when she first sees Edie.

As I watch, her facing appearing and then disappearing  behind others in the crowd, she stops, her eyes squinting up at the building before darting around herself again and then finally landing upon me. I hold my breath. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so pretty before, not in real life.

The girls, despite their differences, bond over their shared fraught parental relationships and their hatred of their hometown, Fremton, which Heather describes as “horrible.”  And then, Edie meets Connor. Heather doesn’t like him on sight, although he’s “very handsome.” She doesn’t understand “this strange heat that’s there in the crackling, held-breath space between them; I only know that it has no place for me.”

Heather makes another present-day appearance in Edie’s life after the first reunion. And this time, Edie is grateful. She’s just given birth to her daughter, Maya, product of a one-night-stand with a co-worker and she’s sunk into a horrible post-partum depression. Heather arrives – one can only imagine she’s been nearby, watching – and takes over, looking after the baby, letting Edie sleep for hours at a time, but also cutting Edie off from her Uncle Geoff, her closest relation. When Edie befriends a new neighbor and starts to come out of her funk, she sends Heather away again.

It’s clear that something traumatic has happened between the two girls, but Way doesn’t give up the secret easily. Heather is actually, especially in her sixteen-year-old incarnation, a very sympathetic character. Edie has many redeeming qualities, but her life is seriously derailed when she meets Connor. The girls’ story is both heartbreaking and horrific and it makes for riveting reading.

 

Chopsticks – Jessica Anthony & Rodrigo Corral

ChopsticksSixteen-year-old Glory Fleming is a piano prodigy. When Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral’s hybrid novel – more about that in a moment – opens, Glory is missing. Then the story flashes back eighteen months to help us understand how her life has gone off the rails.

Chopsticks is a quick read, but that’s because much of the story is told through pictures: drawings and photographs.

For example, we learn about Glory’s childhood by flipping the pages of a family photo album. Pictures of her parents Victor and Maria, and baby pictures of Gloria and ‘pasted in’ cards and programs, give us a glimpse into a tight family unit.

Victor is a music teacher and Glory is his star pupil. After the accidental death of her mother, Glory throws herself into her music until she is so accomplished that The New Yorker calls her “The Brecht of the Piano.” Glory is known for her “innovative performances of classical pieces alongside modern scores.”  Soon, she is playing sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall.

 

And it’s all good until Francisco and his family, Argentinian immigrants, move into the house next door. Chopsticks gives us the same insight into Frank’s character by showing us cards from his parents and his diary in which he writes: “She is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. She invited me over and played Chopin on her piano.”

The pair form a friendship;  it seems as though Glory hasn’t actually had too many over the years. Although it’s completely natural,  their bond deepens and as she pulls away from her father and her music, Victor tightens his hold on his daughter. Frank isn’t without his own problems. Although he comes from a wonderful family, he has trouble fitting in at school and with the exception of art, and music, isn’t excelling academically.

In an effort to separate the teens, Victor plans a European tour for his daughter. Text messages, post cards and photos mark this period. But, of course, by this time Frank and Glory are in love and the time apart only heightens their feelings for each other.

Chopsticks is a beautiful book to read – each page is visually interesting and the story of Glory and Frank, each of whom want to find their own way out from under parental expectations and to discover their own path,  is certainly one most teens will relate to.

I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while and it did not disappoint.

Commonwealth – Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is one of those writers who can maneuver a huge cast of characters so commonwealthdeftly that you hardly notice the machinations.  Her novel Commonwealth, the story of the intersecting lives of two families, might have crashed and burned in less talented hands, but Patchett moves these people backwards and forwards in time without seeming to  break a sweat.

Fix and Beverly Keating are hosting a christening party for their daughter when Bert Cousins shows up with a bottle of gin. Of the dozens of people invited to celebrate baby Franny, police officer Fix “struggled to make the connection” when he opened the door to the district attorney. Bert’s arrival was precipitated by the fact that “he hated Sundays.” By Sunday, Bert had had all he could stand of his three children and pregnant wife, Teresa: “he couldn’t play with them and he didn’t want to play with them and didn’t want to get up  and get the baby…”. Trapped in a life he clearly doesn’t want, he latches on to Fix’s party as a momentary escape hatch. By the end of the afternoon – perhaps lubricated by the gin, Bert has kissed Beverly and set off a chain of events that reverberates through the years.

After Beverly and Bert leave their marriages and form a new relationship, the five children (Franny and Caroline Keating and Cal, Holly, Jeanette and Albie Cousins) form a lasting bond. They navigate their lives – sharing confidences and allegiances, tragedies and achievements. Central to this story is Franny, who as an adult begins a love affair with Leon Posen, a celebrated writer looking for his next commercial success. He finds it in Franny’s family and the novel he writes exposes fault lines, mends fences, rights wrongs and assuages guilt.

As happened with her novel Bel Canto, I found myself falling madly in love with these characters and their very human-ness. The novel twists around itself, moving backwards and forwards in time – jumping years and characters. Sometimes we get just a taste of a character and their life, sometimes we are fully immersed. I never felt short-changed because I didn’t know everything about everyone; I didn’t mind the novel’s elliptical narrative. That’s life, isn’t it? Days and days of sameness marked by little heartbeats of pain or sorrow or happiness. Patchett manages to capture those heartbeats beautifully and there are moments in this book that took my breath away.

Commonwealth made me consider how we are our memories and the stories we tell ourselves and each other. And sometimes, as Franny remarks, there are stories we need to keep for ourselves.

Highly recommended.