Blameless – Lisa Reardon

Blameless is Lisa Reardon’s second novel and finishing it means that I have now read all three of her novels. (She is also the author of several plays, short stories and some nonfiction.) I discovered her years ago when I read Billy Dead, a book that has stayed with me ever since. I also read and enjoyed her novel The Mercy Killers. She would definitely be an auto buy for me if she wrote another novel.

Mary Culpepper is in her 30s. She lives alone in rural Michigan, the oldest of three sisters. She drives a school bus, plays softball, lives alone and drinks too much. She’s a solitary character, although she is friends with 12-year-old Julianna. Mary is currently waiting to testify at the trial of Patricia Colby, a mother accused of killing her six-year-old daughter Jen. The anxiety of the trial manifests itself as the Night Visitor, a huge stone monster that visits her at night.

Mary’s life has been one of trauma. Her father was a philanderer and her parents’ toxic marriage pitted Mary between them. Her mother cautions her: “Don’t you ever trust a man […] Men are selfish sons of bitches. […] And women are worse. You scratch the surface on any one of ’em and you get a whore.”

It’s hard for Mary to escape the legacy of her mother’s thoughts about marriage and relationships, especially when her own marriage fails. That betrayal is added to the list of reasons Mary has, in many respects, removed herself from the world. Yes, she still goes to Sunday dinner at her mother’s and, yes, she has friends, but just after the discovery of Jen Colby’s body, Mary had a breakdown which required hospitalization.

The she meets Number 34.

I concentrated on the players in the field. Looked for that particular width of Number 34’s shoulders, how the muscles tapered down to the small of his back. There he was in left field, where he’d been all summer. He snagged a fly ball for the second out. Jesus, I wanted to sink my teeth into those shoulders.

Blameless is a quiet novel where nothing much happens. Mary is often her own worst enemy, but as her story is pulled back layer by layer and you come to understand all the ways life has kicked her in the teeth, you just want something, anything, good to happen for her. Reardon has a particular gift when it comes to writing broken characters and I really enjoyed my time with Mary, even though, like her previous novels, the story is pretty grim.

Into the Web- Thomas H. Cook

Reading a book by Thomas H. Cook is like settling into the coziest chair with a cup of tea and a long, pleasant afternoon stretched in front of you. Cook has won multiple awards, including the Edgar for The Chatham School Affair.

In his 2004 novel Into the Web, Roy Slater has returned home to Kingdom County, West Virginia after an absence of 25 years. His father, Jesse, is dying, and “…although I had nothing in common with my father, nor even so much as a tender childhood memory of him, I couldn’t let him die alone.” Roy takes a leave from his teaching job in California and makes the journey home.

His acrimonious relationship with his father isn’t the only difficult thing about returning to his childhood home. Just a few weeks before he was about to leave for college, Roy’s brother Archie was arrested for the murders of Lavenia and Horace Kellogg. Then there’s Lila, his high school girlfriend. Roy had always intended to come back for her once he graduated, but she told him she couldn’t marry him. Now he’s back in a town filled with ghosts – and then another dead body turns up.

Cook doesn’t write fast-paced novels. He takes his time. He examines complicated familial relationships, particularly between fathers and sons. He strings you along, making you feel as though you’ve got it all figured out before he takes a hard right. Cook’s novels are literary mysteries; they require patience and attention and a willingness to take your time, but I haven’t ever met a book by this author that hasn’t been worth the effort

Blood Innocents – Thomas H. Cook

Blood Innocents is American crime writer Thomas H. Cook’s first novel. Published in 1980, it tells the story of NYC police detective John Reardon who, returning to work after the death of his wife, is given a strange case involving the slaughter of two deer in the Children’s Zoo in Central Park.

Yep – deer. Not people.

The deer had been gifted to the zoo by one of New York City’s most prominent businessmen, Wallace Van Allen. When Reardon balks at the assignment, his lieutenant, Piccolini tells him

“…this is a big case. One of the biggest. Some real big people are looking in on this one, interested in it, if you know what I mean. I know you’re in homicide, but this is bigger than a homicide right now, and the people downtown want top people on it all the way.”

Reardon has made a reputation for himself by following his instincts and so despite the strangeness of the case, he starts digging. Then, when the bodies of two young women turn up in their apartment with almost identical injuries as the deer, Reardon redoubles his efforts to solve the crimes.

I have been a Thomas H. Cook fan for many years. He’s a prolific writer, with more than 30 books to his credit, and yet many people have never heard of him. The first book I ever read by him is called Breakheart Hill (1995) and it had such an amazing twist that I was keen to read more by him. Except it was almost impossible to find his books anywhere. Over the years I have managed to track down and read Evidence of Blood, Peril, Mortal Memory, The Interrogation, The Fate of Katherine Carr, Master of the Delta, The Cloud of Unknowing, Instruments of the Night, Red Leaves, Places in the Dark, The Chatham School Affair and I have one more book on my tbr shelf, Night Secrets, which I will not read until I track down at least one more.

If Blood Innocents had been the first book I’d ever read, I am not sure I would have become the super fan I am now. It’s not that the book wasn’t any good, it’s just that it lacked the layers I’ve always found in his novels: complicated father/son relationships (although Reardon does have a son, and they are certainly not close), a clever twist (this novel is really just a straight-forward detective story), philosophical underpinnings (although Reardon is certainly at a thoughtful point in his life after the loss of his wife.)

It was definitely cool to go back to the very beginning, but I am glad it’s not where I started.

The Night She Disappeared – Lisa Jewell

It takes a skilled writer to successfully plot a novel with a million moving parts and Lisa Jewell (The Girls in the Garden, I Found You, Watching You, The Family Upstairs, Invisible Girl ) always makes it seem so easy. Her latest novel, The Night She Disappeared flips back and forth in time, and between characters and tells the riveting tale of one mother’s desperate search for her nineteen-year-old daughter, Tallulah.

Tallulah and her boyfriend, Zach, and their baby son, Noah, live with Tallulah’s mom, Kim. Zach has only recently become a part of the family again; when Tallulah told him she was pregnant he didn’t believe her, but now they are trying to make a go of it. When the novel opens, Zach and Tallulah are heading out for a much-deserved break to celebrate the end of term for Tallulah’s college course and, unbeknownst to her, a surprise proposal. But they don’t come home.

A year later, Sophie Beck and her partner, Shaun Gray, move into a little cottage on the grounds of Maypole House, the private school where Gray is to be the new headmaster. They’ve given up their London lives, but Sophie hopes that this change will suit them. She’s a writer of cozy crime novels and the last thing she is expecting is to discover a mystery in her own back garden, but that’s what happens. Someone has left a sign “Dig Here” and when she does, Sophie finds an engagement ring and, putting her detective skills to work, she discovers that the ring was purchased by Zach.

Then there’s Scarlett Jacques, the enigmatic girl from Tallulah’s school. She was the last person to see Tallulah and Zach alive. They’d been with her and some other friends at Dark Place, her family’s home. The house is

a hodgepodge of disparate architectural styles, blended almost seamlessly together across three wings, set around a central courtyard. The sun sparkles off the diamonds of leaded windows on the left wing and larger Victorian casement of sash windows on the right. It should be a mess, but it’s not; it is exquisitely beautiful.

It seems as though Tallulah and Zach have vanished into thin air, a notion Kim simply cannot accept. They would never leave their son, but it isn’t until Sophie discovers the ring that some new information shakes loose. All the while, Jewell reveals the secrets characters have been keeping, revealing complex interior lives.

Like all Jewell’s novels, The Night She Disappeared is twisty-turny, well-written and loads of fun to read. I always keep a stock of unread novels by her on my shelf because nothing beats a book slump like Lisa Jewell.

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.

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 Perfect Liar – Thomas Christopher Greene

Max W. and Susannah meet at a fancy art party in New York City. They are drawn to each other almost immediately and soon after, they are married. Now they live in Vermont where Max has taken a job as a lecturer at a small liberal arts college. One morning, while Max is away giving a lecture at an art institute in Chicago, Susannah discovers a note pinned to their front door:

I KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

Thomas Christopher Green’s (The Headmaster’s Wife, Envious Moon) The Perfect Liar is the perfect book for a rainy afternoon because you can read it pretty much in one sitting. It won’t take you long to realize that you are dealing with a couple of unreliable narrators – my favourite kind of narrator – and that’s what makes this book so much fun.

Max has reinvented himself from runaway/vagabond – to artist – to viral TedTalk phenom. He’s pretty forthcoming about the details of his life and he also knows that “he had the gift to read people. He imagined he could often tell what they desired even before he knew it themselves.” He knows how to hold a room, so he’s soon a sought after speaker at art institutes and corporate functions.

Susannah was widowed young and is the mother of one son, Freddy, now sixteen. Her former husband was her therapist first and despite the obvious conflict of interest, she continued to see him professionally even after they were married. Joseph was twenty years older than her with a “voice calming like a metronome. Susannah loved his voice and she loved how he used words. She couldn’t get enough of his voice. Just the sound of it was enough for her to feel at ease, to stop being aware of her heart.”

Susannah suffers from extreme panic attacks and anxiety, and being in Vermont seems to be helping – until she finds the first note. Then this perfect life she seems to have found starts to unravel. And Max, too, seems unsettled by the note…and the notes that follow.

Greene does a great job of moving the narrative along and giving you lots of opportunities to shift allegiances. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that either Max or Susannah are particularly sympathetic, but that doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. I don’t want to spoil any of the novel’s several surprises, so I’ll just say The Perfect Liar is the perfect book for your beach bag.

Invisible Girl – Lisa Jewell

I can always depend on Lisa Jewell to deliver a well-written, page-turning, character-driven book. She’s the perfect author to read if I am ever experiencing a book slump. I have read several of her books (The Family Upstairs, The Girls in the Garden, I Found You, Watching You) and I haven’t been disappointed once.

Invisible Girl is the story of a group of people whose lives intersect when seventeen-year-old Saffyre Maddox disappears. Saffyre’s life has been touched by tragedy; most recently her beloved grandfather has died, but before that there was an incident of abuse that resulted in some therapy. Her therapist was Roan Fours. Fours lives with his wife, Cate, and teenage children, Georgia and Josh in Hampstead. They’re renting a flat while their house is being repaired due to land subsidence. This flat is across the street from an old mansion, now flats, where Owen Pick lives with his aunt Tessie. These are the main players in Jewell’s story, told from Saffyre, Cate and Owen’s points of view.

Saffyre is the invisible girl of the title because once Roan considers her “cured” and cuts her loose from therapy, she finds herself somewhat fixated on him. She starts following him around. She’s stealthy, pulling up her hood and disappearing into the shadows. She has mastered the art of being invisible, literally, but also figuratively. She hides things from the one person who loves her most, her Uncle Owen, with whom she lives. She doesn’t let people into her life; on the outside she seems well-adjusted, successful in school, etc, but inside she is still tortured by what happened to her when she was ten.

Saffyre isn’t the only invisible character in this novel, though. Roan’s wife, Cate, is also invisible. She’s a physiotherapist who “gave up her practice fifteen years ago when Georgia was born and never really got back into treating patients.” She acknowledges the twenty-five-years of her marriage as a “hazy tableau of a marriage at its midpoint….with likely another twenty-five years to go.” She also admits that her husband “hates her. She knows he does. And it’s her fault.” Only her son, Josh, provides her with any real comfort. He seems like the perfect kid, thoughtful and loving. Of course, he’s got secrets, too.

Owen Pick, the poor sod across the street is also invisible. He teaches computer science at the local college, and he seems exactly as you might imagine a 33-year-old computer geek: friendless, awkward and a virgin. He’s not even allowed into the living room in his aunt’s flat. When he is suspended because of the accusations of some of his students, Owen’s life hurtles out of control. When it turns out he was one of the last people to see Saffyre, he quickly becomes a suspect in her disappearance. His bewilderment leads him to the internet, where he stumbles across information about incels and that rabbit hole leads to no good.

The stories shock him at first, but then the shock recedes into a kind of numb acceptance, a sense that he’d always known this about women. Of course. Women lie. Women hate men and want to hurt them. And what easier way in there to hurt a man than to accuse him of rape?

In true Lisa Jewell fashion, you won’t know who to believe until the plot unravels. Like always, I was happy to go along for the ride.

Sweet Sorrow – David Nicholls

Because I have such a backlog of books on my tbr shelf, I rarely make impulse purchases these days. If I buy a new book, it’s usually because I’ve heard of it somehow and even if I do buy it, that doesn’t necessarily mean I will read it straight away. David Nicholls’ (One Day) new book, Sweet Sorrow, was irresistible, though. I bought it and read it immediately.

Charlie Lewis, our narrator, is recounting his post GCSE summer. His life is kind of a mess. His parents have recently split; his mother and younger sister, Billie, have gone off to live with his mom’s new man and Charlie has been left to look after his father, who spends his days in the gloom, listening to jazz albums and drinking or sleeping on the sofa. Of his three best mates from school, Harper, Fox and Lloyd, only Harper seems to understand what a grim time this is for Charlie. When he’s not working his part-time job at a local petrol station, Charlie spends most of his time riding his bike around. That’s how he comes across Fran Fisher.

Fran is part of the theatre troupe Full Fathom Five. They’re rehearsing Romeo and Juliet at Fawley Manor, a country estate owned by senior thespians, Polly and Bernard. The troupe is in desperate need of more males, and so Fran agrees to have coffee with Charlie if he comes back on Monday and participates.

I did go back, because it was inconceivable that I would not see that face again, and if doing so meant a half day of Theatre Sports, then that was the price I’d pay.

Thus begins a summer of Shakespeare and first love for Charlie. “When these stories – love stories – are told, it’s hard not to ascribe meaning and inevitability to entirely innocuous chance events,” Charlie says. But the truth is that Charlie thinks Fran is “lovely” and despite their differences (Fran attended the much posher Chatsborne Academy and is clearly destined for great things; Charlie lives on a council estate with streets named after famous writers and is pretty sure flunked his GCSEs so won’t be going on to college), they fall in love.

The ache of that love – and, trust me, it aches – is heightened because the pair are rehearsing literature’s most famous tragedy, a play Charlie comes to understand and appreciate because he and Fran spend endless lunch hours talking about it, and because Charlie is telling this story twenty years in the future. C’mon – who doesn’t look back at their first love with a certain degree of nostalgia? Y’know, “misty water-coloured memories” and all that.

Not gonna lie, I love Romeo and Juliet. I know what you’re going to say, but I don’t care. I love the language and the heightened emotions and when I first encountered the play, 40 odd years ago, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Do I believe in love at first sight? Kinda.

Nicholls has written a book that is both laugh-out-loud funny and also deeply moving. How we ever survive those fraught teen years, I’ll never know, but somehow we do. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book to mature teens in my class, but this is not a YA novel. The tears I shed at the end of the book came from understanding something I could never really know at sixteen: that first love doesn’t last, but it stays with you forever anyway.

Highly recommended.

Books to distract you…

When it comes to reading these days,  I am looking for books that are total page turners. I want to be entertained and distracted without it being too labour intensive…so I thought I would offer up a few titles that might fit the bill.

First off, I HIGHLY recommend everyone check out Thomas H. Cook. If you tend to read via kobo or kindle you can probably get a hold of his stuff and he’s definitely on Audible. Cook is mystery writer I discovered probably 20 years ago. Since that first book, Breakheart Hill, I have been a massive fan.

I recommend Master of the Delta, which is the story of young teacher who gets in way over his head with a student whose father is a serial killer.

Another great book by Cook is Instruments of the Night which is the story of a writer who is asked to imagine what might have happened to a young girl who disappeared 50 years ago. Paul is not without some demons of his own and it makes for white-knuckle reading.

But, really, no matter what you pick, it will be worth reading.

Another total page-turner is Peter Swanson’s book The Kind Worth Killing. It’s the storykindworth of a man and woman who meet by chance at Heathrow airport. Over a drink, the man reveals that he thinks that his wife is having an affair and he wants to kill her – which may be a bit of an extreme reaction, but there you go. The woman offers to help the man’s fantasy become a reality and the novel does not let up from there.

Lots of readers will be familiar with Gillian Flynn because of the massive success of Gone Girl, but I actually liked Dark Places better. It’s the story of Libby Day, an angry, damaged woman who survived the murders of her mother and two older sisters. Her older brother, Ben, has been in jail for the crime for the past 24 years. But did he actually do it?

Other writers who consistently deliver books with a pulse include Lisa Jewell  (I recently read The Family Upstairs and I couldn’t put it down) and Tim Johnston (Descent is one of the best books I’ve ever read.)

My-Sunshine-AwayOne last book you should add to your tbr pile is M.O. Walsh’s debut My Sunshine Away. This is a coming-of-age novel about a boy obsessed with a neighborhood girl who is raped. Readers will not be able to turn the pages of this book fast enough.

Moving away from the thrillers a little bit, but still talking about books that will immerse you in a world that is not this one, I may as well include a book about people who are trapped together in one place. In Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto, a group of people are at a gala in South America when terrorists storm the building and take everyone hostage. That’s the plot in a nutshell – but this book is SO much more than that. Riveting and heartbreaking and life affirming.

Another book that will drop you into another world is John Connolly’s masterful novel The Book of Lost Things which follows young David as he journeys  through a twisted fairy tale world in search of a way to rescue his mother from death’s clutches.

Finally, if you haven’t yet read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng now would be the perfect time. This story about a family growing up in Ohio in the 1980s has it all: characters you want to hug, complicated relationships between parents and their children, siblings and spouses and a mystery. The book’s opening line is “Lydia is dead.” and it really doesn’t let up from there.

Let’s not forget young adult readers. As a teacher I would really be thrilled if my students would just spend 30 minutes a day reading. I know it’s not possible to visit the book store these days, but Bookoutlet.ca and Indigo both deliver. 🙂

Here are some awesome titles for your teen.

We Are Still Tornadoes  by Susan Mullen and Michael Kun The story follows besties Cath and Scott during the first year after high school. It’s 1982 and so way before technology, so the pair write letters back and forth. This is a feel-good novel that made me laugh out loud.

For fans of Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Grey and Salt to the Sea)  check out her latest novel The Fountains of Silence, which takes a look at Spain under Franco’s dictatorship. Sepetys is fantastic at making history and people come alive and this is a great step up for older teens.

If your teen hasn’t yet discovered Canadian YA writer Courtney Summers, now would be the perfect time. She’s written a terrific, page-turning zombie novel This Is Not a Test and her latest novel, Sadie, is a wonderful hybrid novel that follows a young woman on the hunt for her sister’s killer. There’s a podcast you can listen to, as well. I haven’t yet met a Courtney Summers novel I haven’t loved.

Finally,A Short History of the Girl Next Door  by Jared Reck is a beautiful coming -of-age story about a boy in love with the girl who lives across the cul de sac from him. They’ve been besties, nothing more, since they were little kids…and things are about to get complicated. This is a terrific book for anyone.

I know these are trying times…but a good book really can help pass the time, and I hope you’ve seen something here that makes you want to read.