Never Look Back – Alison Gaylin

I love a good thriller – a book that keeps me turning the pages long after my bed time. There are certain things I look for in a thriller: believable characters that I can root for, plausible plot, good writing, a few twists and turns to keep me guessing, suspense. It’s not too much to ask is it?

Alison Gaylin is a new-to-me writer and for my first outing I chose Never Look Back. This is the dual-timeline story of April Cooper, a teenager who is on the run with her boyfriend Gabriel LeRoy. Together they are known as the Inland Empire killers. In the present day, Quentin Garrison is a podcast producer pursuing a story about these killers because his mother’s sister was one of their victims. His podcast series is called Closure, and that is what he is looking for.

April and Gabriel were thought to have died in a fire at the Gideon compound (a doomsday cult), but a phone call from a source leads Quentin to Renee and Robin Diamond, a mother and daughter on the East Coast.

What do all these people have in common? Secrets. There are loads of them in Never Look Back.

Gabriel is keeping secrets from everyone, including his husband Dean. Renee is keeping secrets from her daughter. In letters to her unborn baby, April reveals secrets she is keeping from Gabriel.

Gaylin’s book is inspired, in part, by Charles Starkweather, 18, and Carol Ann Fugate, 13. In 1958, Charles and Carol Ann killed eleven people, including Carol Ann’s stepfather and mother and then went on the run. This crime was made into a popular movie called Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. I remember watching it as a teenager and really loving it.

Although Never Look Back doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts, I was wholly invested in the story and if you are looking for a page-turner with lots going on, you could certainly do a lot worse.

Sorrow and Bliss – Meg Mason

Martha Friel, the protagonist of Meg Mason’s widely praised novel Sorrow and Bliss, is in the middle of a crisis: her marriage is imploding. Things have gotten so bad that, on their way home from the last party they attend as husband and wife, she says to him “When you do that pointing thing it makes me want to shoot you with an actual gun.” Patrick’s response? “How about we don’t talk until we get home.”

Things weren’t always so vitriolic between the pair. Once upon a time, they were each other’s most favourite person and Martha felt as though “we had been melted down and made into another thing. […] It was the happiest I have ever felt.”

Happiness, as it turns out, is a rare commodity for Martha. She and her younger sister, Ingrid, comes from a relatively dysfunctional family. Her father, Fergus Russell, is a failed poet; her mother, Celia Barry, a sculptor. Fergus and Celia still live in the family home in Shepherd’s Bush (a district in West London), but they can only afford their lives because of Celia’s sister, Winsome, who at first seems like a rich snob, but in the end turns out to be the rock in the lives of these fragile, broken people. Patrick was childhood friends with Winsome’s son, Oliver, and Martha has known him since she was sixteen.

It is around the same time that Martha meets Patrick that she wakes up with “no feeling in [her] hands and arms.” It is the beginning of a long period of ill (mental) health for Martha. No one seems able to diagnose the problem, and her family reacts with varying degrees of sympathy. Her mother “no longer came into [her] room, except one with the vacuum cleaner. She pretended not to notice [her], but made a point of vacuuming around [her] feet.” Her father “stayed up with [her] in the night, sitting on the floor, leaning against [her] bed.” Ingrid tells her “You’ve basically turned into Mum.”

Sorrow and Bliss traces Martha’s journey through this unnamed mental illness (Mason uses dashes — instead of naming it, and a nurse in my book club said it sounded like schizophrenia), but Mason herself says that the book is not really about mental illness. In an article in The Guardian, Mason said “It’s not the schizophrenia book, the bipolar book, the borderline personality book, it’s a book about what it feels like to have X or to look after someone with X and what it does to the extended family and the marriage.”

By the time the book begins, Martha has been – with varying degrees of success -managing her mental health issues, the myriad dysfunctions of her family, her own stalled career aspirations and for the last eight years, her marriage to Patrick, whom one woman tells her she should feel so lucky to be “married to a man like that.” The truth of the matter is that life and relationships are complicated and Martha’s life sometimes spins itself into a deep, dark hole from which there is often no escape. Strangely, it is a tattoo artist who puts things into perspective for Martha

Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change. Usually on their own. As soon as you think that’s it, it’s going to be like this forever, they change again.

I loved this book. I loved Martha’s family, particularly Winsome. I loved Martha’s relationship with Ingrid – which was often laugh-out-loud funny. I loved Patrick, who somehow didn’t come across as a martyr even though he was self-sacrificing. And I loved Martha, in all her messy glory.

This book is a winner and I highly recommend it.

Five Little Indians – Michelle Good

It’s tough to review a book written by an Indigenous author about an important subject (residential schools and their traumatic legacy) and not sound like an asshole when you don’t love it. I had the same problem with The Nickel Boys. Five Little Indians, by Canadian lawyer and first time novelist Michelle Good, won the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Amazon First Novel prize and the book was well-reviewed.

And I am not going to crap all over it because there were some things I did like about the book, which follows five people who were sent to residential school as children and then were either released or escaped into 1960s Vancouver. The novel doesn’t spend much time at the school itself, but we learn enough to see how Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie and Maisie suffer at the hands of the priest and the nuns, particularly Sister Mary. And suffer, they did.

The majority of the book follows these five characters after they’ve left the school, their lives intersecting as they try to make sense of a world they know next to nothing about. They are without skills, without family and really, without an education. The only thing they really have is trauma and that follows them throughout their lives.

Each of these five characters has a different experience once they are away from the school. Maisie, for example, seems to have it all together when another survivor, Lucy, arrives at her door. Maisie had gone home after she was released. “I lasted a month. No matter how hard I tried, this place, their house, was no longer home, and these people, though kind and loving, were like strangers pretending to be family.” She deals with her trauma by having sex in an alley with “The Old Man”, someone who berates her as he’s having sex with her, calling her the names the priest had called her as he raped her. “These were Father’s words. They took the rhythm of his thrusts. And I couldn’t breathe without this. I didn’t exist without this.”

Lucy fares a little bit better, going to school to become a nurse until she discovers that she is pregnant with the child of another survivor, Kenny, a boy she loved at the Mission school. They love each other, but Kenny has his own demons and try as he might, he just can’t stay with Lucy.

I did love each of these characters; that wasn’t my issue with the book. I just felt as though I was being told their story rather than shown it. This might have been remedied by sticking more closely with one character and having the others drift into their orbit. I felt like there was so much more that I wanted to know about each of them, but their tales felt somehow superficial – even though their individual trauma certainly wasn’t.

I finished reading Five Little Indians on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation which “honours the children who never returned home and Survivors of residential schools, as well as their families and communities. Public commemoration of the tragic and painful history and ongoing impacts of residential schools is a vital component of the reconciliation process.” Personally, I think we have a long way to go to make things right.

Messiah – Boris Starling

Boris Starling’s debut, Messiah, is a straight-ahead police procedural about a team of Scotland Yard detectives tasked with finding the person responsible for a series of gruesome murders.

Detective Superintendent Red Metcalfe has a reputation for being able to get into the minds of killers and so he’s in charge of putting together a team of officers to figure out whodunnit. Red “wants people who spark off each other because they think in different ways,” and that’s how he comes up with Clifton (who’s “good enough to be Red’s successor one day”), Beauchamp (“because going into one of these cases without a female point of view is like having one hand tied behind your back”), and Warren whom he picks with the flip of a coin.

It soon becomes apparent that Red and his team are not hunting your garden-variety serial killer. Although there is one similar detail between the crimes (the killer cuts out the victim’s tongues), the cops can’t find any other link between the victims and as the bodies pile up, Red gets frustrated. Worse, there is a total lack of physical evidence at the crime scenes.

The investigation in present days is supplemented with details about Red’s past, which includes a terrible decision Red had to make as a university student. The flashbacks provide some context and help us to understand Red’s single-mindedness.

I haven’t read enough police procedurals to know how Messiah compares. (Heck, I am not even sure if this is a police procedural except that it really is all about these cops trying to catch the killer.) Still, I really enjoyed this book. It was unfussy, gory, and straight ahead entertaining (if messy crime scenes and psychopathic killers are your jam.) Apparently there’s a television series and I bet it would be awesome…even knowing whodunit.

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.