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.

First Born – Will Dean

I discovered Will Dean on Twitter and a few months ago I nabbed a copy of his well-reviewed novel The Last Thing to Burn, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I recently picked up First Born and although I read it in just a couple of sittings, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much.

First Born is the story of 22-year-old identical twins Molly and Katie “KT” Raven. Molly tells us “I don’t use the term identical twin because it’s a blatant lie. A travesty. Our base DNA is identical, sure, but that’s about all that is. We were once one person. We are not anymore.”

When the novel opens, Molly is working in an office in London, while KT is studying in New York City. KT is the risk taker; Molly spends her time assessing threats and preparing for the worst. Molly sees danger everywhere and she is always prepared, even going to far as to making homemade weapons out of pound coins and a sock.

The twins’ parents have been visiting KT in New York and when Molly arrives, they spend their time eating toast and drinking tea and waiting for the police to give them information about just what happened to KT. There’s very little to go on, and Molly feels that it is her duty to help the investigation along. She tracks down KT’s best friend, boyfriend, investigates the creepy son of the landlord and uncovers some things about her sister she did not know.

First Born does offer a couple of excellent twists, and Molly’s voice is definitely singular. The action clips along, for sure. For me, though, it wasn’t believable and I wasn’t sure I understood character motivations at all. By about a third of the way in the prose started to grate a little bit and there was something sort of ‘lazy’ about it. Like, suddenly a character has a gun which she pulled out of nowhere, but we’re told she’d purchased before. That sort of thing. The shenanigans were all a bit over-the-top.

Still – if that sort of thing doesn’t irk you, you’ll probably have a lot of fun reading this book – if you are willing to suspend disbelief and don’t mind the crazy.

Dark Rooms – Lili Anolik

As far as metaphors go, the dark rooms of Lili Anolik’s impressive debut Dark Rooms is apt. This is the story of Grace Baker whose younger sister, Nica, is found murdered in the cemetery which borders Chandler Academy, the private boarding school the sisters attend in Hartford Connecticut and where their parents are teachers.

Nica’s death leaves Grace reeling. Over-shadowed by Nica’s vivacious, doesn’t-give-a-shit personality in life, she now buckles under the weight of her death. She just wanted to “go to sleep [to escape] that total exhaustion, where even my face was numb, and none of the talk matter[ed] anyway because she was already dead dead dead.”

Someone is quickly blamed for Nica’s death, but when Grace discovers evidence which might actually exonerate him, she begins to dig deeper into her sister’s life.

Nica’s death sends ripples into Grace’s life. Her parents’ marriage falls apart and her mother leaves. Grace’s friends – well, Nica’s friends, including her boyfriend, Jamie (for whom Grace has feelings that perhaps cross the line of friendship) – rally around Grace, yet “there was a tension, a hostility even.” Grace escapes to college after graduation, but that’s a disaster, too.

A brand-new life was settling around me. It was ugly and it was empty. but I was okay with it because, thanks to the drugs, I wasn’t really in it. Not really being in it, however, had its consequences.

When she returns home, she gets a job at Chandler and starts to unravel the story of her sister. She soon discovers that nothing in her life is as it seems.

Dark Rooms is a well-written, mystery with some interesting twists. Although the main character is barely out of high school, I wouldn’t call this YA, really, although I did read it from my classroom library. There’s a lot goin on and a lot of characters to keep track of, but I enjoyed my time with Grace (well, maybe ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word) and I would definitely read more by this author.

The Missing Years – Lexie Elliott

If only the first 300 pages had been as riveting as the last 86; that’s my review of Scottish writer Lexie Elliott’s novel The Missing Years in a nutshell.

Ailsa Calder inherits her childhood home after the death of her mother. She and her mother weren’t particularly close; in fact, after her father disappeared, her mother had married another man, Pete, and had another daughter, Ailsa’s half-sister, Carrie. Now these siblings have moved out to this manor house in the Scottish Highlands, Carrie in an effort to save her per diem from her latest acting gig, and Ailsa with a view to sprucing the place up and selling it.

The Manse is not the place of Ailsa’s childhood memories, though. Ailsa feels that “The Manse has been waiting a long time for me – a quarter of a century, give or take”.

It’s strange, isolated building and things start to go wrong almost immediately. Dead animals turn up on her doorstep, doors thud, and one night Ailsa finds a strange man standing on the landing. His name is Jamie and he claims to be looking for his sister, Fi, who sometimes comes into the house. That’s creepy, right?

So are the inhabitants of the nearby village, some of whom remember Ailsa as a child or knew her parents. There’s Ben, the handsome man who works at the local hotel and who might be interested in buying the Manse; there’s his friend, Ali, whose family was ruined when Ailsa’s father disappeared with absconded with their property; there’s Fi herself, who has a hard time keeping track of time. The only person who isn’t weird is Callum, Fi’s seven-year-old son, who says that the animals won’t come onto Manse property because they sense something is not quite right, including the fact that time folds there.

All of these things should make for an interesting story…and they did, in the last 86 pages – before that, not so much. The story was slow-moving, the relationship between Carrie and Ailsa was awkward and shrill and sometimes the conversations between people was cringe-y and I just felt like everyone was shrieking.

Too bad, because I loved Elliott’s novel The French Girl.

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.

Everything We Didn’t Say – Nicole Baart

There’s a certain type of book I really like. It’s a dual timeline, family secrets, coming-of-age, angsty hybrid that, if well-written, makes my reading heart happy. Everything We Didn’t Say by Nicole Baart ticked all the boxes for me.

Juniper (June) Baker has returned to Jericho, Iowa after 15 years of exile. She’s come home to help an old friend in the town library, but this is also an opportunity to repair some relationships, particularly with her brother, Jonathan, and her 13-year-old daughter, Willa, who has been living with Juniper’s parents since she was born.

Why are these relationships damaged? Well, that part of the story happened fifteen years ago, when June had just graduated from high school, was flirting with Sullivan, the youngest son of the town’s richest farmer, and Beth and Cal Murphy, a middle-aged couple who live in the farm across the lake from Juniper and her family, are brutally murdered, a crime for which Jonathan is suspected but never convicted.

One of the reasons that Juniper is anxious to return to Jericho is because someone on the WWW is talking about a podcast aimed at proving, after all these years, that Jonathan is, in fact, responsible for the Murphys’ deaths. Juniper aims to prove the opposite, but doing so means revisiting that long-ago summer when everything seemed to change, particularly between her and her brother. Once their sibling bond seemed like “a tangible thing, a thread woven from shared experiences,” but as the summer lengthens, Jonathan becomes secretive and moody.

There’s a lot of moving parts in Baart’s story. Of the two timelines, I liked the one set in the past the best. June is heading off to college at the end of the summer, and she knows she is leaving this life behind. Her best friend, Ashley, is crazy about Sullivan, but June finds herself impossibly attracted to him and it appears the feeling is mutual. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. There are other things happening at home, too, things June doesn’t understand.

All of that seems uncomplicated, though, when compared to the present day. Shortly after she arrives, Jonathan – who seems about to share a long-held secret – is in a life-threatening accident, She bumps into Sullivan, and that’s confusing. And a local cop seems to be digging into the Murphy’s cold case. Oh, and her daughter seems to hate her – which stands to reason since she all but abandoned her.

Everything We Didn’t Say has lots to recommend it and although I did guess one significant plot twist, I enjoyed my time in Jericho, and looked forward to reading this book, which I haven’t said about a book for a while.

Two thumbs up.

The Maid – Nita Prose

Back-to-back books with autistic main characters – what are the chances? I just read The Kiss Quotient, and I also recently finished Nita Prose’s debut The Maid.

In this novel, 25-year-old Molly Gray (and don’t worry, even Molly sees the joke) works as a maid at the Regency Grand Hotel. It is a position that she is very proud of because “Never in [her] life did [she] think [she’d] hold such a lofty position”. She loves everything about her job, her “perfectly stocked maid’s trolley”, the scent of the hotel, a “mélange of ladies’ fine perfumes, the dark musk of the leather armchairs, the tangy zing of lemon polish”; even her uniform gives her pleasure, a joy to see it hanging on her locker every morning, her “second skin – clean, disinfected, newly pressed.”

Her job, her ability to do it as well as she does, makes her confident because

The truth is, I often have trouble with social situations; it’s as though everyone is playing an elaborate game with complex rules they all know, but I’m always playing for the first time. I make etiquette mistakes with alarming regularity, offend when I mean to compliment, misread body language, say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Raised by her grandmother, Molly is alone in the world now. It isn’t always easy for her to know who to trust, and that’s how she gets into trouble when one of the VIP guests at the hotel turns up dead.

There’s nothing wrong with The Maid. It’s like a locked room mystery, or a game of Clue. Someone killed Mr. Black and the someone to find him is Molly. There’s a whole cast of characters in the hotel: the manager, the hunky bartender, the immigrant dishwasher, the friendly doorman, the sneaky head maid. The fact that she trusts the wrong people to help her is certainly no surprise given her inability to read people. The mystery isn’t all that sophisticated, and the ending is so sweet it’ll make your teeth ache.

I feel like this is a book that’s gotten a lot of buzz because the main character is neurodiverse. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either. Just not my cup of tea.

The Lying Room – Nicci French

What starts as an interesting premise quickly devolves into oh no she didn’t territory in husband and wife team Nicci French’s 2019 thriller The Lying Room. I have a read a few of French’s novels (Catch Me When I Fall, Until It’s Over, Dark Saturday, and a handful of others that predate this blog) and for the most part I have enjoyed them, particularly Killing Me Softly.

In this story, married mother of three Neve gets a text from her boss and lover, Saul, to meet her at their Covent Garden love nest, but when she arrives she discovers him dead – his head bashed in with a hammer. I mean, the sensible thing to do is call the police, but Neve doesn’t do that. Instead she imagines the fallout if her betrayal is discovered, especially for her teenage daughter Mabel.

What would happen when she discovered that her mother had been having an affair, that her beloved father had been betrayed? Would everything unravel, the life that had been so painstakingly stitched back together?

In that instance, Never makes a decision. She decides to erase all trace of herself from the apartment and spends the next while scrubbing and cleaning and collecting any evidence that Saul was anything other than her boss. Yeah, that’ll end well.

It isn’t until later that she discovers that she left a piece of recognizable jewelry behind and when she returns to the scene of the crime…

There are a lot of characters in French’s book. There’s Neve and her immediate family, including her stay-at-home husband, Fletcher. There’s her three college besties (with whom she started a business called Sans Serif, which was purchased by Saul’s company); there’s the detective investigating Saul’s murder and Saul’s wife, Bernice, who comes to Neve – Lord knows why – to confide that she thinks Saul was having an affair. It’s not hard to keep track of them, but Neve (and presumably the reader) finds it increasingly difficult to know who to trust. People keep secrets, that’s a fact, and as Neve continues to lie about her involvement with Saul in an effort to protect – or, at least that’s what she tells herself she’s doing – her family, her life starts to unravel.

I mean, people love this book. Sure, pages were turned and I read it to the end. But – I didn’t care about any of these people, least of all Neve. It was, for me, a wholly unsatisfying read.

All the Things We Do in the Dark – Saundra Mitchell

One hot summer when nine-year-old Ava is outside riding her bike around the apartment complex where she lives, a man tells her “I have something that will keep you cool…” He leads Ava down a lane between the apartments and the trees and assaults her. This is the beginning of Saundra Mitchell’s YA novel All the Things We Do in the Dark.

Flash forward and Ava is now seventeen. Her parents are divorced. She has one best friend, Syd. She tries to be as invisible as possible, although she lives in small-town Maine where everyone knows who she is and what happened to her and if they didn’t, the scar the man left down the side of her face would certainly be cause for curiosity.

Ava has never really dealt with the trauma of her assault. Her mother keeps close tabs on her, but even she doesn’t know everything and Ava is prone to keeping secrets. This becomes evident when one day, walking home through the woods, she stumbles upon the body of a young girl.

She’s twisted like a Barbie doll at the waist. Her top half points forward, baring her face, her chest, those Vs. It takes me a minute to realize they’re stab wounds. Her bottom half faces down. Somehow both her breasts and her butt are exposed at the same time.

Human people, alive people, they don’t make that shape.

Ava makes a decision: she doesn’t tell anyone about the body. Chalk it up to shock or her own bad experience post-assault, but she decides to protect her. It’s a ridiculous decision to make – readers will know that – but Ava hasn’t ever really recovered from her own post-assault experience.

When Ava returns to the scene of the crime, she discovers someone else there, and convinced that she has stumbled upon the murderer, she gives chase. That’s where Mitchell’s book morphs from an examination of the trauma of assault to a straight-up mystery. I think I found this part of the book a little less successful, mostly because some of the decisions Ava makes (even though I could sort of understand why she was making them) seemed a little unrealistic.

Mitchell does do a wonderful job of crafting a character who has been through something horrific, something she still struggles with many years later as she tries to navigate relationships (with her bestie and a new friend, Hailey) and her own complicated feelings about her body and sexuality.

While I found the writing a bit choppy, a students in my class (who recommended the book) said that she liked the writing, that it felt like a conversation with her friends and that she related to some of the relationships in the book. That’s the true test of a YA book, I think: does it speak to its intended audience?