Dreaming Darkly – Caitlin Kittredge

After her mother dies, seventeen-year-old Ivy Bloodgood is sent to Darkhaven, a small island off the coast of Maine, to live with her mother’s brother Simon. Ivy and her mother haven’t had the most stable of lives, moving from place to place and existing on what they could make reading tarot cards and stealing. Ivy isn’t sure life is going to be much better at Darkhaven, a place made “from granite blocks the size of Volkswagens”.

Ivy doesn’t know much about her mother’s family and when she arrives at Darkhaven she realizes she might not have known very much about her mother, either.

Why would my mother have left this behind? She was ruthless, and she loved money. I couldn’t believe poor-little-rich-girl syndrome have driven her out of this spectacular house and away from the credit cards and clothes and cars that came with a family like this. Never mind the inheritance.

Darkhaven isn’t a safe haven, though. Almost as soon as she arrives, Ivy begins having horrifying dreams of blood and violence. Then there’s the Ramseys, the only other family who lives on the island. There’s bad blood between the Ramseys and the Bloodgoods, but that doesn’t stop Ivy from spending time with Doyle Ramsey, the only person she feels like she can trust.

There’s a lot going on in Caitlin Kittredge’s YA novel Dreaming Darkly. As Ivy digs into her family history, she starts to discover that her mother had withheld more than just the size of the house she grew up in. Uncle Simon isn’t all that forthcoming with the family stories, either, and that just makes Ivy even more determined to get to the bottom of the family secrets. And there are lots of them.

While I did enjoy reading this book, I think it’s about 100 pages too long. The last 25 pages, as the secrets of Darkhaven are revealed, happen so quickly, you barely have time to get your feet underneath you. There were lots of moments in the middle that just slowed the narrative down and probably didn’t need to be there. There were also some instances where characters appeared only as a way to impart information to Ivy; they didn’t seem to serve any other purpose.

Still, if you like family secrets, a creepy location, and a plucky heroine then Dreaming Darkly might just be the book for you

The Hunted – Roz Nay

I was hooked from the very start of Canadian writer Roz Nay’s novel The Hunted.

A hand over my mouth wakes me, the skin of it tinny with metal and salt.

“Stevie,” he whispers, his voice hoarse. “It’s not safe here. You’re not safe.”

Stevie and Jacob are high school sweethearts who have left their small-town Maine home in search of adventure and respite from the death of Stevie’s grandmother, a loss that meant that she is out of a job and a place to live. Now, at twenty-four, they’ve landed in Africa, where Jacob has taken a job as a dive instructor at GoEco, which is located on an island south of Zanzibar.

Stevie is clearly on tenterhooks and her first few days in Africa do nothing to settle her nerves. Nothing is like it is back home. On her first night at a hostel, another traveler tells her that “You can’t trust anyone.”

Then they meet Leo and Tasmin, a beautiful British couple. We know Leo isn’t to be trusted because he is the other narrator.

They seemed new. Vulnerable. I have to admit, I felt an almost immediate fondness for them both.

It’s interesting to read a cat and mouse thriller when the cat is identified so early on; you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. As the novel moves on, we get to learn a little bit about both Leo and Stevie – seems they both have some carefully guarded secrets.

Although things sort of fell apart for me once the foursome arrived in Rafiki and the machinations seemed a little over-the-top, I still enjoyed the read.

This is my second novel (Our Little Secret) by Nay. I will definitely continue to read what she writes.

Please See Us – Caitlin Mullen

Caitlin Mullen’s debut novel – and Edgar Award Winner – Please See Us is well written, but it took me forever to read. I don’t know: is that a bad thing?

Twenty-something Lily has run away from NYC and a messy breakup with about-to-be-famous sculptor Matthew and landed back home in Atlantic City. She needs a job but “it was unsettling to be in Atlantic City again — coming home had filled [her] with an inarticulate dread.” She takes a job as a receptionist at a hotel spa, a job she doesn’t want but needs if she wants to get back to her life, a new life, in New York.

Ava, aka Clara Voyant, is a teenager who reads tarot cards and palms on the strip. She lives with her aunt, Des, above the shop. They’re behind on their rent and Ava lives with the dream of saving enough money to join her mother in California. When the novel opens, Ava reads the cards of a man looking for his niece, Julie. Ava has seen the missing posters around town, but she doesn’t want to mislead the man.

I didn’t want to disappoint him with the truth: what I saw was limited, out of my control. I couldn’t just call up information from the universe as easily as plugging a question into a Google search.

Ava and Lily’s paths cross and soon they are working sort of together to find out what has happened to the missing girl who, turns out, is one of several missing girls. Of course, the reader will already know that the outcome of the man’s search probably won’t be good. The novel’s opening lines tell us that “By the second week of June, there are two dead women laid out like tallies in the stretch of marsh just behind the Sunset Motel.”

Mullen’s novel meanders through the interior lives of Ava and Lily and also, Luis, a deaf and mute janitor who works at the spa. We also get a glimpse into the lives of the girls who end up in the marsh, poignant snapshots into who they are, and the circumstances and choices which led to this most horrifying end.

Ava and Lily are compelling characters, both young enough – especially Ava – to use poor judgement and make bad decisions. Please See Us definitely has a something to say about the violence against women, and how society sees and judges women who, often through no fault of their own, end up using their bodies as a means to an end. (Frankly, the most despicable character in this whole thing is Ava’s Aunt Des who essentially pimps her out to make rent money.) There is a mystery here, but it’s a s-l-o-w burn and might not appeal to readers who want things to move along a little more quickly.

Redemption Prep – Samuel Miller

Like Samuel Miller’s debut novel, A Lite Too Bright, Redemption Prep doesn’t give up its secrets willingly. I think was about two thirds of the way through this thoughtful, intelligent mystery before I felt as though I was on semi-firm ground. And even then…

Redemption Prep is a private high school deep in the woods in Utah. Students have been told that “recruitment was incredibly selective, that [they’d] been chosen because of [their] accomplishments.”

Miller’s novel focuses on three of these students: Evan, Aiden and Neesha. Besides all being students at Redemption, they have another thing in common: Emma. When the novel opens, Emma has disappeared. Aiden is her star-basketball-player boyfriend; Neesha is her roommate and Evan is the boy who watches her every move.

As the school scrambles to locate Emma, it is clear that each of the students associated with her have their own concerns. Neesha, for example, is worried that Emma has disappeared because of the drugs she was selling for her. Aiden has been worried that Emma was going to break up with him and that her disappearance might have something to do with that; she’s certainly been acting strangely over the past couple of weeks. Evan is convinced that something more complicated, or perhaps even sinister, is going on.

Something is definitely not quite right at Redemption Prep. For one thing, no one is allowed to miss Mass. Ever. (Even though a high proportion of the student body is not Christian.) For another thing, there are a lot of maintenance workers at the school, and it soon becomes apparent that they aren’t your run-of-the-mill janitors. Then there’s the school’s head instructor, Dr. Richardson, a formidable leader with whom one does clearly not want to mess.

Eventually, despite their differences, Aiden, Evan and Neesha – along with a couple of their classmates, Zaza and Peter – form an alliance. Despite the school’s claims to the contrary, they are convinced that something nefarious is going on at Redemption Prep. They’re not wrong.

There is a lot going on in this book. It’s definitely well-written, but I do think it’s a little slow-going until it hits about the 3/4 mark, and then things really speed up. The ambiguous ending wasn’t wholly satisfying, but I still enjoyed the book overall.

Heartbreak Homes – Jo Treggiari

The “Heartbreak Homes” referenced in the title of Nova Scotia – based YA author Jo Treggiari’s (She is also co-owner of the fabulous Block Shop Books in Lunenburg), latest novel is an upscale housing development that went belly up leaving only the model home finished. This is where the story starts, at a blow-out party hosted by Malcom “Mal” Bradley, whose father was the developer of Heartwood Homes. The “Heartbreak” comes from the fact that the project went bankrupt and many people lost their money and their livelihood.

The story’s three narrators all attend the party. Frankie goes with her best friend Jessa, who has recently started hanging out with the cool kids and has a crush on Mal. Martin goes because he is desperate to reconnect with his old friends, friends he lost because his father had invested his (and others’) money in the project and lost it all, necessitating a move across town and a change of schools for Martin. Cara is there with her gang of three other girls to steal. They are homeless and desperate for food and items they might be able to sell in order to make their lives slightly less awful.

These three characters are there when a horrible crime takes place. In fact, it is Martin and Frankie who discover the body of a classmate and from there the novel’s locked-room structure (everyone’s a suspect) keeps you turning the pages lickety-split. This is a story that, like One of Us Is Lying, tests the allegiances of these characters as they try to figure out who the culprit might be. All three of these kids are sympathetic, likeable, and believable. I was particularly taken with Cara; her circumstances are awful and she does her best to look after the other girls she ‘lives’ with.

All I ever wanted was a home. For the ground to settle under my feet long enough for me to put down roots. Instead, for the last fourteen days, we’d been colder, wetter, and hungrier than ever.

Strangely, the book’s title also relates to the heartbreak found in all three of the these characters’ homes – or lack thereof. Frankie lives with her grandparents, who do not seem to understand her or even, at times, really like her. Martin’s father drinks too much and home is no longer a safe and warm place. Cara doesn’t have a home at all, has been – along with her friends – in and out of foster homes or without a safe place to call home for as long as she can remember.

While Heartbreak Homes is definitely a mystery, complete with the requisite red herrings and plot twists, it is also an interesting commentary on homelessness, family, responsibility and loyalty. I loved spending time with these characters and if the mystery itself unraveled just a little too neatly, it hardly matters. This is a great book.

The Nowhere Child – Christian White

Thirty-year-old Kim Leamy is just living her life in Melbourne, Australia when James Finn, an accountant from Manson, Kentucky approaches her with some startling news. He believes Kim is actually Sammy Went, a girl who was kidnapped from her family’s home in Manson twenty eight years ago. He offers enough proof that Kim believes him, and so she heads to the States to meet the family she never knew she had.

Christian White’s debut novel The Nowhere Child follows Kim’s journey into her unknown history, but also offers readers a glimpse into her family around the time that she originally went missing. There’s her parents, Jack and Molly, already struggling to hang on to their crumbling marriage; there’s her sister, Emma,13, and brother, Stuart, 9. And there’s The Church of the Light Within, a group not a cult, an important distinction, who “worshipped by handling venomous snakes and scorpions. If rumours were to be believed, they also drank strychnine, spoke in tongues […], drank blood and worshipped the Devil.” Jack, who had been raised in the church, has been drifting away from it, but Molly has been embracing it with new-found fervor, especially after the disappearance of her daughter.

The Wents have all been keeping secrets from each other, but their distress over Sammy is legitimate. It seems as though she disappeared into thin air. Manson’s town sheriff, Chester Ellis, is flummoxed and the reader will be, too.

The Nowhere Child is reminiscent of another book I read recently, Never Look Back. That book also dealt with someone discovering something about their identity that they hadn’t known. I really enjoyed The Nowhere Child. Kim was a likeable protagonist and there were some truly creepy moments in this book because cults! snakes! an old, abandoned grist mill where if you write a person’s name on the wall they disappear! It all makes for page turning fun with a final twist that was both clever and believable.

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

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.