One of Us Is Next – Karen M. McManus

Well, my second YA novel by Karen M. McManus caps off my 2020 reading year, and has the distinction of being my 86th book. I thought when I set my 2020 challenge at 75 I was being optimistic, and then Covid happened.

I read McManus’s book One of Us Is Lying this summer and I really enjoyed it. One of Us Is Next is a sequel of sorts as some of the characters from the first book make an appearance in this one, too. (Bronwyn & Nate!) Eighteen months after Simon’s death (first book), students at Bayview High School find themselves under attack by someone who entices them to play a game of Truth or Dare. It’s clear that whoever this is, they knows some pretty dark secrets and they’re not afraid to share them. As one student says, “Always take the Dare.”

Phoebe, Knox and Maeve narrate this story. Phoebe is the first victim of the game and the secret revealed about her has a damaging ripple effect. Maeve (Bronwyn’s younger sister) refuses to play, and her punishment is to have a secret revealed which damages her friendship with former boyfriend now bestie, Knox. Things take a decided turn for the worst when a students accidently dies.

McManus juggles the different perspectives and all sorts of other teenage drama while moving the mystery along. Alliances are made and broken. There’s some swoon-worthy romance (those Rojas sisters are lucky in love), and there’s also some commentary about slut shaming, bullying and just how clique-y high school can be. It’s clear that McManus cares deeply about these characters and she has a real ear for how teens talk.

This is another fun page-turner by a YA writer worth reading.

I Hope You’re Listening – Tom Ryan

I Hope You’re Listening, Tom Ryan’s latest YA offering, capitalizes on a couple of today’s most popular phenomena: podcasts and true crime. Dee Skinner was seven when she and her bestie Sibby Carmichael headed out to the woods to play in the treehouse built by their friend Burke’s uncle Terry. Dee’s life is forever changed by that afternoon because Sibby disappears.

What happened to Sibby Carmichael that afternoon in the woods?

If anyone should remember, it’s me. I was there, after all. But ten years and a million sleepless nights later, nothing new comes to me. No sudden revelations, no deeply buried memories emerging from a haze. Just the same few fragments, still crisp and clear in my mind, still as useless as they’ve always been.

Dee struggles with what happened to her friend, and because she wants to help, but doesn’t know how, she starts a podcast called Radio Silent which becomes something of an Internet sensation. Her friend Burke is the only person who knows she’s behind Radio Silent; Dee, known as The Seeker online, wants to keep it on the down-low for reasons mostly having to do with wanting to stay out of the public eye. She was, after all, the girl who didn’t get taken that day in the woods.

Dee uses the power of the Internet to investigate other missing persons cases, but not Sibby’s. She introduces the stories and then lets her listeners, known collectively as the Laptop Detective Agency, share information and look for clues. Radio Silent has actually had some success, too, but survivor guilt still weighs Dee down.

Then another local girl, Layla, goes missing, and the coincidences start piling up. Dee is reluctant to use her platform to dig for evidence; the disappearance is just too close to home, both literally and figuratively. Already the media is sniffing around, and Dee is keen on staying as under the radar as is humanly possible.

I Hope You’re Listening is a page-turning mystery times two: what happened to Sibby? what happened to Layla? The last third of the book is almost impossible to put down. I could totally see this story as a limited series on Netflix. Dee is a wonderful character, vulnerable for sure, but also fearless and smart. I really enjoyed spending time with her.

Tom Ryan is a new-to-me YA writer. I’ve seen him around Twitter and recently attended a virtual reading through the Lorenzo Society where he, Kathleen Peacock (You Were Never Here) and Jo Treggiari (The Grey Sisters) spoke about their writing and read from their novels.. All three of these authors are from the Maritimes, which makes me extra happy to support their work.

The Hypnotist – Lars Keplar

I am going to take a little break from reading translations now. I know some people don’t mind them, but it’s the rare translation that doesn’t irk me. Lars Keplar’s well-reviewed suspense thriller The Hypnotist was another translated miss for me.

Detective Joona Linna is on the hunt for a serial killer after a family is discovered in their home stabbed to death. Well, the father was killed elsewhere, the oldest sister is missing, and the son – although suffering from major injuries – has survived, but is in a coma. Linna figures that time is of the essence because what if the killer is after the sister? He needs whatever information the survivor, Josef, can provide. Who you gonna call?

That would be Erik Maria Bark, disgraced hypnotherapist. He’s got all sorts of professional and personal baggage, but he’s absolutely the dude you want to call if you want to reach someone unreachable. Apparently. He takes some convincing, though, because he has sworn off practicing hypnosis.

Okay – so I was relatively invested in the beginning. Gruesome murder. Conflicted doctor. Whodunnit. You know, all the things. But then the translation started to irritate me, mostly the dialogue which always seems clunky and inauthentic to me. I sorta feel like once something’s been translated into English, a native English speaker needs to have a pass at it to smooth out the rough edges or something. Or maybe that’s what has happened. In any case, when there’s a lot of dialogue it just rips me out of the story because I keep think, people don’t speak this way.

Listen to this exchange between Linna and a witness. (And it’s not even a good example.)

After a while a man appears with a towel wound around his hips. His skin looks as if it’s burning; he’s leathery and very tanned. “Hi. I was on the sun bed.”

Nice,” says Joona.

“No, it isn’t,” Tobias Franzen replies. “There’s an enzyme missing from my liver. I have to spend two hours a day on that thing.”

“That’s quite another matter, of course,” Joona says dryly.

“You wanted to ask me something.”

“I want to know if you saw or heard anything unusual in the early morning of Saturday, December twelfth.”

Tobias scratches his chest. His fingernails leave white marks on his sunburned skin.

“Let me think, last Friday night. I’m sorry, but I can’t really remember anything in particular.

OK, thank you very much, that’s all,” says Joona, inclining his head.

Yep. That’s your crack detective, right there. No wonder it took 500 pages to solve this thing.

And then, the whole thing started to fall apart for me.

Josef goes missing. And then is rarely mentioned again. His sister is put into witness protection…and is rarely mentioned again. Then we get all this stuff about Erik Maria Bark’s past. (Yes, that’s how he’s referred to almost every time.) And his son, Benjamin, goes missing. And his wife’s ex-cop father gets involved. And all these previous hypnosis patients come into the mix. I just lost interest in the whole proceeding and I slogged through only because I was mildly interested in seeing how the whole thing played out.

Unsatisfactorily, I must say.

This is the beginning of a series featuring Detective Linna. I will not be reading any more.

Unspeakable Things – Jess Lourey

Cassie McDowell, the narrator of Jess Lourey’s riveting novel Unspeakable Things, confronts her memories of her thirteenth summer when she returns to her small Minnesota hometown for a funeral. She alludes to writing a novel about a “gravedirt basement”, but now “that cellar stink doubled back with a vengeance.”

It’s the 1980s and Cassie lives with her older sister, Sephie, and her parents on a thirteen acre hobby farm. Her father, Donny, is an artist and her mother, Peg, a teacher. It doesn’t take very long to feel the sense of dread that permeates Cassie’s home life. She “felt a quease leaving [Sephie] up with [her parents] when they’d been drinking” and she sleeps either under her bed, or squirreled away in her bedroom closet. The basement of their farmhouse of off limits. The tension is almost unbearable.

Their town, Lilydale, is full of strange characters, like Sergeant Bauer, the local cop, and Goblin, the creepy guy who lives down the road from the McDowells. And then, boys start disappearing. This causes the town to invoke a 9 p.m. curfew, which does little to alleviate fear.

That sent a shiver up my spine. First, what Betty had said this morning about the boy being raped, and now this. Mom’d told us on the drive over that we didn’t need to worry about anything, but Betty had most definitely seemed concerned. Bauer did, too. He suddenly had our complete attention.

“Always travel in pairs. I don’t want to see ay of you kids out alone this summer.”

That shushed us all up, every last one of us.

This time it wasn’t the words, or even his tone.

I think it was the first moment we caught a whiff of what was coming for us.

Something is coming for the boys of Lilydale, and when it comes for Gabriel, the cute boy Cassie has a crush on, she decides to do some investigating of her own. But, make no mistake, this isn’t a light-hearted Nancy Drew-esque detective story. There are creepy-crawly things in Lilydale’s underbelly and in Cassie’s own home. In fact, there is so much to be worried about the dread quotient is off-the-charts.

Yes, someone is scooping boys off the streets and when they come back they are changed in ways they seem unable to articulate. But Cassie has to deal with what is going on in her own backyard: her father’s mercurial moods, her parents’ ‘parties’ and the implied sexual abuse going on her home. When her father’s footsteps start up the stairs, the terror Cassie – and surely the reader – feels is palpable.

Unspeakable Things is a mystery and a coming-of-age story, and all of it (and Cassie’s voice) will twine around your heart and squeeze hard. Some might find the end of this novel less-than-satisfactory. Lourey wrote an epilogue, but then left it out of the final version. You can read that here. I liked both versions.

I loved this book. Highly recommended, but potentially triggering.

You Were Never Here – Kathleen Peacock

There are so many things to admire about Kathleen Peacock’s YA novel You Were Never Here, but let’s just start with the fact that it’s set in New Brunswick. I can’t tell you how much fun it was to read a book that takes place in my home province. Okay – now that that minor squee is out of the way, let’s talk about Mary Catherine Montgomery aka Cat.

Cat has been exiled from New York City, where she lives with her screenplay-writing father, to her Aunt Jet’s in small-town New Brunswick. (The town is called Montgomery Falls, but I pictured Fredericton, for those of you to whom that means something.) Aunt Jet is the caretaker of the family’s now crumbling ancestral home, which she operates – out of necessity – as a boarding house. The reason for Cat’s exile and her subsequent banishment creates just one of You Were Never Here‘s mysteries. Another is the disappearance of Cat’s childhood friend Riley Fraser.

The boy in the picture is handsome. Chiseled jaw and wavy hair kind of handsome. The kind of handsome that gets crowned prom king or maybe class president. Even though the smile on the boy’s face looks forced around the edges, it’s wide enough to bring out the dimple in his left cheek.

There are a thousand Riley Frasers in the world, and the boy in the poster is mine.

Riley Fraser has been missing for months. The two had been friends the summer they were twelve (five years ago, and the last time Cat had been to Montgomery Falls), but something happened between them (another mystery) and even though Cat knows “I don’t owe Riley Fraser anything – not after the last thing he said to me”, knowing that he has disappeared is deeply unsettling.

Cat has no intention of doing anything other keeping to herself while she’s in Montgomery Falls, but then she meets gorgeous Aidan Porter, one of Montgomery House’s boarders. He proves to be a welcome distraction as Cat tries to process not only what happened back home, but also her complicated feelings about Riley, their truncated friendship, and his disappearance.

Those feelings become even more complicated when she bumps into Riley’s older brother, Noah. At first, Noah seems disinterested in his brother’s whereabouts, but soon he and Cat team up to try to solve the mystery of what happened to Riley.

And there’s yet another mystery in You Were Never Here which has to do with Cat herself. She seems very reluctant to touch people. There’s an incident on the bus from NYC to New Brunswick, when Cat hesitates before letting a woman sit beside her.

…there’s only so much you can do when you’re big. You can twist and contort all you want, but volume is volume, and with both of us “fat” – “overweight,” my dad always corrects, as if that somehow sounds better – a trickle of sweat forms where our hips press against each other.

Cat’s size is only part of the issue, though. (And how awesome to encounter a protagonist who is not a ‘perfect’ size zero; neither is her weight a punchline or flaw.) The other reason for Cat’s reluctance to touch people is germane to who Cat is, but I’ll let you discover that secret on your own.

I flew through You Were Never Here because it was all the things I love in YA: well-written, suspenseful, peopled with realistic characters, and loads of fun. The last third of the book was so tense, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. The fact that I was in a somewhat familiar setting was just the icing on the cake.

Highly recommended.

The Guest List – Lucy Foley

Lucy Foley’s thriller The Guest List is the perfect book to pick up if you’ve got a couple hours and you want to be distracted. Although I didn’t find the writing to be spectacular (do people not care about comma splices anymore?) and the twists weren’t necessarily twisty (once you see one, the house of cards starts to crumble), I still thoroughly enjoyed my time on Innis an Amplora or Cormorant Island.

Jules and Will (a digital magazine editor and a reality tv star) are getting married and they’ve decided to hold the exclusive event on Cormorant Island, located in the Atlantic, off the coast of Ireland. There’s nothing much on the island now, except for the Folly (aptly named as it turns out), a few crumbling buildings, a graveyard and a peat bog. To this event they’ve invited 150 or so of their closest friends, but the people who really matter come the day before.

There’s Hannah, wife of Charlie, who’s Jules’s best friend. Hannah’s quite aware that she and Jules are “the two most important people in [her] husband’s life.” There’s Johnno, Will’s best friend and best man. The two men went to an exclusive boarding school called Trevellyan. There’s Olivia, maid-of-honour and Jules’s half sister. Finally there’s Aiofe, wedding planner and owner of the Folly with her husband Freddy. Each of these people, and Jules, reveal their feelings about the event and the people in attendance in first person narratives. The book jacket tells us that one of these people is a murderer, although we don’t find out until the very end who has actually been killed.

Years ago, I read Agatha Christie’s magnificent “locked room” mystery (although at the time, I’m not sure I knew that’s what it was called) And Then There Were None. The “locked-room” or “impossible crime” mystery is a subgenre of detective fiction in which a crime (almost always murder) is committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.[1] The crime in question typically involves a crime scene with no indication as to how the intruder could have entered or left, for example: a locked room. Following other conventions of classic detective fiction, the reader is normally presented with the puzzle and all of the clues, and is encouraged to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed in a dramatic climax. (From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locked-room_mystery).

The Guest List isn’t totally a “locked room” mystery, but I think Foley does owe a debt of gratitude to Christie. And to every unreliable narrator on the planet. Every one one of the guests who arrive early on the island have something to hide. Secrets are alluded to. Friendships fray. Relationships strain. And it’s all enormous, mindless fun.

Sunburn – Laura Lippman

Sunburn is my second outing with Laura Lippman. I just re-read my review of The Most Dangerous Thing from 2014 and the issues I have with Sunburn are pretty much the same issues I had with that book.

Sunburn concerns the fates of Polly and Adam. Polly (who has several other names) walks away from her husband, Gregg, and daughter, Jani, while the three are on a beach holiday. She lands in a little backwoods town (Belleville, Delaware), and that’s where Adam finds her. Adam has been hired to find her, actually. He couldn’t have known that he would be so attracted to her. “It’s the sunburned shoulders that get him.”

Adam and Polly end up taking jobs at High-Ho, a dump of a bar, where Polly waits tables and Adam, who happens to be a trained cook, revamps the menu. At first they keep their distance from each other.

He doesn’t go in hard. He’s not that way. Doesn’t have to be, if that doesn’t sound too vain. It’s just a fact: he’s a Ken doll kind of guy, if Ken had a great year-round tan. Tall and muscular with even features, pale eyes, dark hair. Women always assume that Ken wants a Barbie, but he prefers his women thin and a little skittish.

Skittish is certainly one way to describe Polly. Secretive and calculating would also be apt. Polly’s complicated past stretches beyond leaving her family on the beach. “If anyone knew her whole story, that might be the truly shocking part, the way she ruined her own second chance. But no one knows her whole story.”

For a while, the dance between Adam and Polly is interesting. They each have secrets and they are keeping their true feelings and motives close to their chests. Is Polly a player, a maneater? How does a mother walk away from her kid? It’s a question worth asking. And Adam? Who is the mysterious man who has asked him to keep tabs on Polly? What is he really after?

Ultimately, though, in the same way that the climax of The Most Dangerous Thing was anticlimactic, Sunburn doesn’t really get anywhere….and it certainly doesn’t get anywhere quickly. The first third of the novel is far more page-turning than the last third. By the time I got to the end, I didn’t even believe in Adam anymore. He seemed sort of neutered.

I’ll say the same thing about Lippman as I did the first time around: she can write. And maybe some readers won’t mind a meandering journey like this one, but it was just so-so for me.

The Lies They Tell – Gillian French

Pearl Haskins lives with her alcoholic father on the wrong side of the tracks in Tenney’s Harbor, Maine. (For the record, I am spelling harbour that way because, USA.) Pearl works at the local country club, where the wealthy summer folk flaunt their, well, wealth. It was here, at Christmas, that Pearl last saw the Garrisons: David, the patriarch; Sloan, his beautiful wife and two of their children, seventeen-year-old Cassidy and ten-year-old Joseph. Tristan, the oldest Garrison child, is not present. Later that night, while Pearl’s dad sleeps in the Garrison’s gatehouse, someone broke into the house and shot the Garrisons in their sleep, then set their mansion on fire.

Gillian French’s impossible-to-put-down YA mystery The Lies They Tell picks up the story the following summer. Pearl has graduated from high school and she’s still working at the country club, still impossibly in love with her best friend, Reese, and still trying to manage her father’s drinking, which hasn’t really improved because most of the summer elite blame him for what happened at the Garrison’s – even though he is clearly not to blame. In fact, the culprit was never caught and the main suspect, Tristan, has an ironclad alibi.

And now here he was “with his entourage, the boys of summer, owning the place.” For reasons Pearl can’t quite understand, she is drawn to Tristan, “gripped by the physical and emotional recoil she – and almost everyone else – felt in his presence.” She feels a kinship to him because she senses he is “so alone, even in a room full of people….”

When one of Tristan’s friends, Bridges, takes a romantic interest in Pearl, she suddenly finds herself drawn into a world which she has only ever watched from the outside. Bridges seems nice and seems to genuinely like Pearl, but is he to be trusted? The third boy in the group, Akil, seems to openly disapprove of her. And Tristan, he doesn’t seem to know she exists, until he turns his laser focus on her.

I really enjoyed this novel. For one thing, it’s very well-written and the characters are believable. You know how characters in mysteries and thrillers sometimes do stupid things? Not here. Pearl is smart. She wants to figure out what happened to Tristan’s family, on the surface so that the blame can be shifted away from her father, but also because Tristan just seems like a whipped puppy to her. As she sifts through the gossip and tries to make sense of Tristan himself, she comes closer and closer to danger.

Like Pearl, I kept changing my mind about whodunnit and by the time I got to the book’s final pages my palms were sweating.

Highly recommended.

Island of Lost Girls – Jennifer McMahon

Rhonda Farr, the protagonist of Jennifer McMahon’s second novel Island of Lost Girls, has stopped at the Mini Mart for gas when she sees something that sends her reeling back through her past. A gold VW Beetle pulls up next to her, a car she recognizes, but instead of being driven by the eccentric Laura Lee, it’s being driven by a large, white rabbit.

…when the rabbit got out of the car, there in the Pat’s Mini Mart parking lot at quarter to three on a Monday afternoon, it didn’t occur to Rhonda that there might be a person inside. He hopped like a bunny, moved quickly, nervously, jerking his white head one way, then the other. He turned toward Rhonda, and for an instant he seemed to stare at her with his blind plastic eyes.

While Rhonda watches, the rabbit knocks on the door of another car parked in the lot and leads little Ernestine Florucci, whose mother is inside the store, away. It is from this absurd beginning that Jennifer McMahon (Promise Not to Tell, Dismantled, The Winter People) spins the tale of not one missing girl, but two.

Rhonda, perhaps out of guilt, decides to help with the search effort and to do a little investigating of her own. She’s aided by Warren, Pat’s nephew. Pike’s Crossing is a small place, and Rhonda knows everyone. Trying to help find Ernestine also brings back a wave of memories about Lizzy, Rhonda’s childhood best friend who also went missing many years ago. It also brings to mind the summer they spent together launching a production of Peter Pan with Lizzie’s older brother, Peter, who is the object of Rhonda’s unrequited affection and also her dearest friend. As she searches for clues, Rhonda comes to suspect that Peter might have something to do with Ernestine’s disappearance.

There is a mystery, well two mysteries, at the centre of McMahon’s novel and I think she successfully pushes the plot of both along, switching between the past and present with ease. (I read the book in pretty much one sitting, which is about a good a recommendation as I can offer, really.)

This is also a book about the loss of innocence. Rhonda loses hers when she discovers family secrets, and when she realizes her feelings towards Peter are not returned. It also ruminates on the end of childhood. Rhonda recalls her role as Wendy in Peter Pan and remembers saying her lines and having “a sudden vision of herself as an adult, saying that line quietly on some far-off night as she stared up at the sky, like it might help bring her back.”

I haven’t always liked everything McMahon has written, but I did enjoy this book.

The Wildling Sisters – Eve Chase

The four Wilde sisters (Flora, Pam, Margot and Dot) are spending the summer at Applecote, a manor house in the Cotswolds. They have many happy memories of time spent here, but this summer is different. For one thing, their cousin, Audrey, is gone – having disappeared without a trace five years earlier – and their aunt and uncle haven’t quite recovered from the loss. For another, there’s Tom and Harry, the boys from the estate across the river. Their arrival upsets the easy camaraderie between the three oldest sisters as they vie for the boys’ attention.

Eve Chase’s novel The Wildling Sisters is a slow burn gothic novel that slips back and forth between that summer in 1959 and the present day when Jessie and her husband Will, (and their young daughter Romy, and Will’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, Bella) buy Applecote in an effort to escape London’s madness and settle into a quieter life. There’s also that thing that happened at Bella’s school. Fresh start and all that.

Crime. Crowds. The way a big city forces girls to grow up too fast, strips them of their innocence. It’s time for the family to leave London, move somewhere gentler, more benign.

Jessie also hopes that this will be a new beginning for her and Bella. Being a step mother is hard enough without the shadow of Bella’s mom, the perfect and tragically-killed-in-a-car accident super mom, Mandy, hanging over their heads. The idyllic notion Jessie has of what Applecote might do for her family doesn’t quite come to fruition, though. Will spends a great deal of time in the city dealing with a work crisis, and Jessie begins to feel more and more isolated. Plus, there are all sorts of rumours about Applecote and what happened there 50 years ago.

Fifteen-year-old Margot is our narrator in 1959. The middle sister, she is aware of her shortcomings. She doesn’t “turn heads like Flora” or “command attention in a room like Pam through sheer, unembarrassable life force.” She was closest to Audrey, and so she is the most apprehensive about returning to Applecote.

…the sky is as I remember it: blue, warm as a bath, the air transparent. not washing-up-water-tinged as it is in London, alive with butterflies and birds, so many birds. So much is the same that it highlights the one crushing, unbelievable thing that is not: Audrey isn’t about to come belting out of the house, running down the path, excitedly calling my name.

This is a slow burn sort of novel. It’s a mystery: what happened to Audrey? It also begins with the image of the girls dragging a body across the lawn of Applecote. That can’t be good, right? It takes a long time to get anywhere, which isn’t a criticism because the book is well-written and does evoke a specific time and place. It also plumbs the depths of family relationships, not just between the Wilde sisters, but also the longings of daughters for mothers and mothers for daughters.

Definitely worth a read.