Peril – Thomas H. Cook

My first finished book of 2020 is Thomas H. Cook’s 2004 novel Peril. Unlike most of the perilother books I’ve read by  Cook, which have generally focused on one narrator, Peril lets the reader see the same set of circumstances through a variety of lenses.

Sara Labriola is hoping to disappear. After nine years of marriage to Tony, she can’t go on and so one day she packs her clothes, leaves her wedding ring and takes the bus into Manhattan.

Tony is devastated when he discovers Sara missing, but his father, Leo, is furious. Leo is a thug who berates everyone around him, including Tony who has never had the nerve to stand up to him. Leo tells his guy Caruso to find Sara and Caruso leverages the help of Mortimer Dodge because he owes Leo money. Dodge works for a guy named Stark, a guy whose job it is to find people.

Need a chart yet? Let’s recap.

Sara runs away from Tony.

Tony wants to find his wife before his father does because he knows that if Leo finds her first the consequences will be grim. He tasks his employee and friend Eddie with helping him.

Leo gets Caruso on the job. Caruso gets Mortimer on the job. Mortimer gets Stark on the job.

Sara is in NY and thinks she has found a job singing in a night club owned by Abe, who happens to know Mortimer.

It all sounds way more complicated than it is and it’s actually way more compelling than this, too, and that’s because, well, Thomas H. Cook wrote it.

You know how you can read some thrillers or mysteries and they’re just straight ahead books that are driven by plot but not much else? Yeah, that’s not Cook. There is not a character in this novel who doesn’t have a totally believable backstory that makes them, even when they are not particularly likeable, sympathetic. (The exception here is Leo Labriola, who is a misogynistic asshat.) And I mean every character, even characters we only meet a couple times, like the mother of Sara’s neighbour, Della.

And if you think all this backstory is going to bog down the plot – which would be bad, too – forget about it. You’ll turn the pages lickety-split because, well, Thomas H. Cook. He balances character and story and even if some of what happens here seems a tad too coincidental, you won’t care. At all.

There’s something old school about Peril. It’s like a noir film, peopled with shadowy gangsters in crumpled hats, a beautiful, fragile heroine who earns the good will of the men she meets, and a bunch of guys who ultimately, turn out to be loyal and decent.

You will NEVER be wasting your time reading a Cook book. (Couldn’t resist.)

The Dutch House – Ann Patchett

dutchI think some authors could write about paint drying and it would be worth reading. Ann Patchett is one of those authors. The Dutch House  is the third book I’ve read by Patchett (Bel Canto, Commonwealth),  and it did not disappoint.

Danny and Maeve grow up in the Dutch House, a gorgeous jewel-box of a house in Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia. The house seems to “float several inches above the hill it sat on.”  Danny and Maeve’s father, Cyril,  had bought the house as a surprise for their mother, Elna, but she didn’t like the house – or so the story goes – and left the family for parts unknown. When the novel opens, Danny and Maeve are 8 and 15 respectively, and being introduced to their father’s ‘friend’, Andrea and her two young daughters Norma and Bright. The arrival of Andrea into their lives changes everything for the siblings.

The Dutch House is not a linear story. It bounces back and forth through time, covering roughly fifty years. Not every writer could manage this sort of narrative as easily as Patchett does. Although the perspective is Danny’s, readers will come to know and love (or hate) many other characters, most notably Maeve, who is the centre of Danny’s world.

She taught me the proper way to hold a fork. She attended my basketball games and knew all my friends and oversaw my homework  and kissed me every morning before we went our separate  ways to school and again at night  before I went to bed regardless of whether or not I wanted to be kissed. She told me repeatedly, relentlessly, that I was kind and smart and fast, that I could be as great a man as I made up my mind to be. She was so good at all that, despite the fact that no one had done it for her.

When Andrea turfs them from their house, their lives are thrown into chaos. They find themselves parking in front of the Dutch House over the years, reminiscing about and redacting their past, never quite able to let go. In some ways, their lives are halted by this connection to a place.

Not much happens in the novel, but at the same time everything happens. Danny and Maeve’s  lives and relationship are the story,  which makes sense, really. As we’re waiting for our own plots to unfold, life is actually happening all around us. The bitter feelings Maeve clings to derail her life, but we don’t really understand that until her mother turns up out of the blue. Or we see what ends up happening to Andrea.

Patchett has written characters you will absolutely come to care about and given them lives which should remind us to care more deeply about our own, and the people we share them with.

Highly recommended.

The Current – Tim Johnston

the currentI was so excited to get my hands on Tim Johnston’s novel The Current. I gazed longingly at the hardcover every time I went to the book store, but I rarely spring for a hardcover unless they’re on sale. Then one day: paperback. I dropped everything that I was reading to deep dive into it.

I read Johnston’s novel Descent three years ago and I loved it. I often recommend it to others because it is the perfect combination of page-turning-thriller and thoughtful family drama. The Current examines some of the same themes but is, in some ways, even more ambitious.

College students Caroline and Audrey are on their way to Audrey’s hometown in Minnesota. Audrey’s father, former sheriff,  is dying of cancer and Audrey wants to spend some time with him. They are almost there when they have an ‘accident’ and their vehicle is plunged into the icy river. Only Audrey survives. That seems spoiler-y. I know, but that much information is provided for the reader on the back of the book.

As Audrey recovers, her father, Tom,  sets out to discover just what happened to the girls because, well, this wasn’t quite an accident. And this wasn’t the only time the river had claimed a life. Ten years ago, Holly Burke, 19, had turned up dead in the river. Her father, Gordon, shows up at the hospital to remind Audrey’s father about the fact that his daughter’s murder was never solved.

…I just kept asking myself: What would Sheriff Sutter do differently now, if it was his girl instead of that other one who didn’t make it? What would he do for himself that he didn’t do for me?

Holly’s murder has haunted Tom Sutter and as Audrey recovers, it begins to haunt her as well, although she was only a child when Holly was killed. Their stories, though, begin to twine around each other, and many other people are swept along in that current.

Unlike Descent, which is very tightly focused on the Courtland family, The Current, drifts in and out of the lives of other characters, specifically Rachel Young and her sons Mark and Danny. Danny was a prime suspect in Holly’s murder, but there’d never been enough evidence to convict him. Gordon and Rachel had been close, but of course that friendship had ended.

Danny and Mark are characters that will really stay with me. Danny’s whole life is changed by the accusations made against him and even when he returns to visit his mother, the past is always nipping at his heels. Mark is somewhere on the spectrum and is tasked with filling in for his brother when he leaves. I worried about these guys. A lot. That’s saying something since in some ways they are peripheral to Audrey’s story. Still, I loved them.

Johnston is gifted when it comes to characterization. These people seem wholly human: frail and foolish, damaged and determined. The whole town seems stuck, somehow; no one has recovered from Holly’s murder. The novel is filled with moments of heartbreaking kindness, bravery and selflessness. And the town they live in: secrets galore.

And yes, you’ll want to know whodunit, but that’s actually the least interesting part of this masterful book.

If Tim Johnston is not yet on your reading radar, he should be. Highly recommended.

 

Mortal Memory – Thomas H. Cook

cook-e1564403930383.jpgIf you are regular reader of this blog, then you know that I am a huge fan of American mystery/crime writer Thomas H. Cook. I found his book Breakheart Hill by chance well over a decade ago and I look for his books whenever I am in a book store. The problem is, he’s very rarely to be found on the shelves even though he is an Edgar Award winner (The Chatham School Affair) and a much-lauded writer. The Los Angeles Times Book Review  said that “Cook is an important talent, not simply a plotter but a prose stylist with a sensitivity to character and relationships…A storytelling writer of poetic narrative power. His crime fiction extends the boundaries of the form.” (This is why I hoard the books I find and don’t read them all at once; I have to pace myself so I don’t run out.) Besides the two books I’ve already named, I also really loved Master of the Delta and Instruments of the Night which might be my favourite of Cook’s books.  But really, you can’t go wrong reading anything this guy writes.

This much I remembered from the beginning: the floral curtains in their second- floor bedroom pulled tightly together; Jamie’s new basketball at the edge of the yard, glistening in the rain; Laura’s plain white bra lying haphazardly in the grass behind the house, the rest of our clothes, drenched and motionless as they hung from the line above it.

Thus begins Mortal Memory, a story that begins when narrator Stevie Farris discovers, mortalat age 9, that his father has shot and killed his mother, Marie, older brother, Jamie and sister, Laura. The knowledge of this horrific act tortures Stevie, mostly because he doesn’t understand why his father committed such a horrible crime. Wasn’t his family happy?

Flash forward 30 plus years and Steve is married with a son of his own. That’s when he meets Rebecca Soltero. She’s a writer who’s “writing a book about men who have killed their families.” Rebecca’s arrival and her penetrating questions bring all sorts of memories back for Steven. The story seamlessly weaves between past and present as Steve recalls the cracks in the family veneer, which ultimately causes him to examine the fault lines in his own family.

That’s one of the things I most admire about Cook. His books always operate on more than one level. Yes, there’s a mystery – that’s what will keep you feverishly turning the pages, but there is always some sort of family drama, often between fathers and sons, which is carefully and thoughtfully crafted. Another thing Cook does extremely well, is to turn your expectations upside down. Trying to figure out what’s happened is half of the fun of reading Cook, but I’ve never been right once. And I wasn’t this time, either.

So where does Mortal Memory fit in the Cook continuum? Probably somewhere in the middle. Not my favourite – mostly because I didn’t love the resolution – but any time spent with this author is time well spent.

 

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

littlefires“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over,” Mia tells Izzy in Celeste Ng’s second novel Little Fires EverywhereI read Ng’s first novel Everything I Never Told You a couple years ago and I love that book. So much. Little Fires Everywhere is also excellent. There is no doubt that I will buy and read whatever Ng writes going forward.

Shaker Heights, Ohio is America’s first planned community with rules determining what colour your house can be painted and where schools are placed so that children don’t have to cross any major streets.

The underlying philosophy being that everything could – and should – be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.

Elena Richardson believes in the defining principles of Shaker Heights and, in fact, that’s the way she runs her household and her life. Her three oldest children Lexie, Trip, Moody seem to tow the family line. Her youngest, Izzy, is more of a problem child and when the novel opens “Everyone was talking about […] how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”

What would compel Izzy to commit such an act?  Meet Mia and Pearl. They’ve just moved into the Richardson’s rental property. Mia is an artist and Pearl her intelligent fifteen-year-old-daughter. When Pearl and Moody become friends, the two families’ lives intersect. In the Richardsons Pearl sees “a state of domestic perfection” and in Mia Izzy has someone who understands her and listens to her.

Little Fires Everywhere is a book about motherhood and it asks important questions about what it means to be a mother. Are you a mother because you’ve given birth? Is it a choice? Is a relationship between a mother and their child automatic or is it something that must be cultivated beyond mere biology? What happens if you give up a child? Do you have the right to change your mind?

Free-spirited Mia worries that her daughter is perhaps being unduly influenced by the Richardsons and wonders “if it was right for her daughter to fall under the spell of a family so entirely.” She and Pearl have always been vagabonds, moving from place to place in search of inspiration for Mia’s photography. Now she has promised Pearl that they will stay put.

In Mia, Izzy finds a sort of surrogate mother, someone who listens to her complaints about the state of her world and asks her what she intends to do about it. “Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury” but Mia encourages her to consider her options.

This is a book that is very female-centric. We don’t spend a lot of time with the men, but that’s okay, the women are fascinating. Their hopes and dreams, some derailed by circumstance, others by choice, are worthy of close inspection. I loved my time in Shaker Heights. Little Fires Everywhere  is filled with stymied, passionate, damaged, beautiful and complicated characters, and like Everything I Never Told You  there is something about the way Ng tells a story that just keeps you turning the pages to get to the end. Then, you want to start all over to spend more time with her magnificent characters.

Highly recommended (and not just by me. The accolades are endless.)

When I Am Through With You – Stephanie Kuehn

throughwithuCharm & Strange  was my introduction to Stephanie Kuehn’s work and I have been a fan ever since. When I Am Through With You is her latest YA offering and it’s a layered and tense thriller.

The narrator of the story, Ben Gibson, is a high school senior.  From the very beginning, readers know that something has gone horribly wrong Ben’s life.

This isn’t meant to be a confession. Not in any spiritual sense of the word. Yes, I’m in jail at the moment. I imagine I’ll be here for a long time, considering. But I’m not writing this down for absolution and I’m not seeking forgiveness, not even from myself. Because I’m not sorry for what I did to Rose. I’m just not.

Rose is (was) Ben’s girlfriend. She chose him, not the other way around. She is an exotic combination of her French Peruvian heritage, a “girl with bright eyes and brown skin and very short hair.”

…Rose was my first everything. First kiss, first touch, first girl to see me naked and lustful without bursting into laughter (although she was the first to do that, too). We did more eventually. We did everything. Whatever she wanted, Rose dictated the rhyme and rhythm of our sexual awakening, and I loved that. I never had to make up my mind when I was with her.

Ben is an engaging narrator, even though the reader might consider him unreliable. Kuehn wisely keeps her cards close to her chest, unspooling Ben’s backstory carefully. Why does he suffer from debilitating migraines? Why does he feel like his life is on the road to nowhere? What happened to Rose?

Much of the action happens in the middle of the book. Ben is helping his teacher, Mr. Howe, lead a camping trip out in the wilderness. Rose and her twin Tomas, Duncan (the high school drug dealer), Clay ( a quiet , studious kid), Archie (the wild card), Avery (Ben’s childhood friend), and Shelby (volleyball goddess) are the other campers. It’s kind of like the Breakfast Club of orienteering. Out of their natural element (with the exception of the teacher, who isn’t really front and centre, but manages to be important nonetheless), alliances fray and a combination of bad luck, bad decisions and bad weather cause total chaos and panic.

When I Am Through With You wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I knew to expect great writing, and I knew that the characters would be smart and prickly – something I’ve come to expect from Kuehn. This book asks you to  consider the moral choices these characters make. Ben is unrepentant, but he is also sympathetic. I felt tremendously sorry for him throughout the novel. It’s not all introspection, though. There are some truly heart-racing moments in this novel, and its propulsive plot will keep you turning the pages.

He Said/She Said – Erin Kelly

It seems as though everyone is writing thrillers these days, but as someone who loves a hesaidgood page-turner, I know that they are not all created equal. This is the third book I’ve read by British writer Erin Kelly and although The Dark Rose is still my favourite,  and I have also read The Burning Air,  He Said/She Said is a terrific read.

Kit is an eclipse chaser. I know, it’s weird, but whatever. At an eclipse festival in Cornwall, his relatively new girlfriend, Laura, stumbles upon what looks like a sexual assault. The man, handsome and charming Jamie, denies it. The woman, Beth, insists that the crime has taken place. This chance meeting inserts Beth into their lives, binding the three of them together in a way that proves to be problematic for all parties.

The novel moves seamlessly between past and present. In the past, Kit and Laura are called as witnesses to the crime. In the future, they are married and appear to be in hiding. They’ve changed their names; they don’t have social media; they live quiet lives as they await the arrival of their twins.

Although Kit and Laura are clearly in love, it is also obvious that whatever happened in the past has taken a toll on their marriage and their day-to-day lives. Kit is about to head off to the Faroe Islands for another eclipse, and it is causing a great deal of anxiety because while “It seems unlikely that Beth will be on my ship [it is] not impossible that she will be somewhere on the Faroes.”

The reader, at least in the early part of the book, is left to wonder just why Kit and Laura are avoiding Beth. (More than avoiding really. Laura seems to be experiencing some serious PTSD and Kit has his own share of nerves.)  It’s only one of the reasons to turn the pages.

I think that what separates the wheat from the chaff in thrillers like this is character development and twists that you really can’t see coming. I thought I’d figured things out on more than one occasion, but I really hadn’t. When things really started to ramp up – and they did, by about the midway point – I just couldn’t stop reading. I was wholly invested in these characters, even though I wasn’t sure whom to trust. He said/ She Said for sure, and that’s one of the great things about this book, but there are other dynamics at play here. New relationships are tricky at the best of time, but what if at the root of things are secrets you just don’t know how to share?

If you haven’t yet discovered Erin Kelly, I can highly recommend her. Her novels are smart, well-written and definitely have a few surprises up their sleeves.