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.

One of Us is Lying – Karen M. McManus

Nate and Bronwyn 4eva! Yeah, sure, there are other characters in Karen M. McManus’s super fun YA page-turner One of Us is Lying, but as we all know I am a sucker for a misunderstood bad boy. (At my age, I should really be over that. ) Okay, let’s not get off track here.

Bronwyn (super-smart), Nate (known drug dealer), Cooper (star athlete), Addy (beauty queen) and Simon (outcast) are all sent to detention for having phones in class. (Cue The Breakfast Club soundtrack.) Yes, these are the stereotypes you’d expect to find in a YA novel, but McManus manages to make each of these characters way more than they appear on paper.

Each character is given their opportunity to speak, so the narrative clicks along really quickly. (I read this novel in about one sitting – mostly because I couldn’t put it down.) Before detention is over, Simon is dead and the four remaining students find themselves prime suspects in his death. (Murder?)

Simon wasn’t actually a very nice guy. He ran a blog called About That which reported high school gossip and revealed dark secrets, secrets students would certainly rather not share. And it turns out that the four remaining teens all have something to hide. As Bronwyn says: “As a general rule, and especially lately, I try to give Simon as little information as possible.”

As some of these secrets come to light, suspicion shifts from one student to the other. And all the while, someone is still posting on Simon’s blog. So whodunnit is definitely a big part of the fun with this book.

Additionally, though, McManus makes you care about each of the four main characters. They are fully realized individuals, with back stories which will likely speak to many teen readers. There are a slew of equally compelling secondary characters and even the parents (who are often remote, shadowy creatures in YA) are not static.

The fun of this novel is not only trying to figure out who might have a motive to kill Simon (they all do), but how this supposed murder might have taken place. And that would have made for a great book all on its own. but McManus makes this novel about so much more than that. She tackles bullying, the weight of expectations, friendships, toxic relationships, the rumour mill and its devastating consequences, and trust without making any of it instructive.

I loved these characters and I had so much fun reading this book. Can’t wait to read the sequel.

Highly recommended.

A Game For All the Family – Sophie Hannah

gameSophie Hannah’s novel A Game For All the Family belongs in the “WTF did I just read category?” Hannah is a well-known and much-lauded British writer of thrillers, but this is the first book I have read by her.  And I didn’t love it.

Justine Merrison has left her high powered job as a TV exec to move from London to a country house called Speedwell located in Devon. She will do “Nothing” with a capital ‘N’ except look after her fourteen-year-old daughter, Ellen, and her opera-singing-husband, Alex.

Life in Devon doesn’t turn out to be as blissful as Justine imagined though. Only a few months into the move, she starts to receive anonymous and increasingly threatening phone calls. Then Ellen starts to act strangely, and when Justine presses her Ellen admits that her best friend at school, George, has been expelled because of a stolen coat, which Ellen insists that she gave to him. When Justine goes to Ellen’s school, the headmistress assures Justine that no such pupil has been expelled. In fact, George doesn’t even exist.

Interspersed with this weirdness, is a story Ellen is writing for school. The story traces the strange history of the Ingrey family, also inhabitants of Speedwell House.

Perrine Ingrey dropped Malachy Dodd out of a window. She wanted to kill him and she succeeded. Later, no one believed her when she screamed ‘I didn’t do it!’

Eventually these two stories (Justine’s and Ellen’s made-up story – or is it? duhduhduh) merge. I was constantly adjusting my notion of what was true…if, in fact, the truth could be stranger than fiction, or the fiction  actually be the truth. Ellen says as much in her story:

But what about you, who are reading this story? Do you respect the truth? I haven’t told you what it is yet, have I? I could have done quite easily, but then you would have taken it for granted. I don’t want you to do that. I think you’ll appreciate the truth more if you struggle for a while to work it out.

I suppose that’s the ‘fun’ of any mystery/thriller: trying to work it out. There’s no question, Hannah is a capable writer and A Game For All the Family is a skillfully plotted story, it’s just that after I feverishly turned all 419 pages, I felt sort of disappointed in where I landed.

The French Girl – Lexie Elliott

Ten years ago, Kate spent a week in the French countryside with five of her friends fromfrench Oxford. That’s where they meet Severine, the girl next door.

Severine, slim and lithe in a tiny black bikini, her walnut brown skin impossibly smooth in the sun, one hip cocked with the foot pointing away as if ready to saunter off the moment she lost interest. Severine, who introduced herself, without even a hint of a smile to soften her devere beauty, as “the mademoiselle next door,” and who disappeared without a trace after the six of us left for Britain.”

Her disappearance has remained a mystery. Until now.

Lexie Elliott’s novel The French Girl ticks a lot of boxes for me. First of all, I am a sucker for books about groups of friends whose loyalties shift and erode over time. Kate’s circle includes Lara, her bestie; Seb, her beautiful ex-boyfriend; Tom, Seb’s cousin and best friend; Caro, the ice queen of the group and Theo, whose parents owned the French farm where the group stayed. When Tom calls to tell Kate that Severine’s body has been found on the farm property, and that the French police will be wanting to speak to them all again, it exposes the cracks in Kate’s relationships with these people.

Elliott wisely chooses to set her novel in the present and make Kate our first person guide through these events. First, her reunion with Tom – returned from Boston after a break-up with his fiance. Then, more fraught, a reunion with Seb, whom she has not really seen since their break-up at the French farm. Suddenly, the former friends are thrust back into each other’s orbits, trying to align their memories about the last time they saw Severine and speculating about what actually might have happened to her.

Ever since the discovery of Severine’s body, Kate has sensed “a presence that rests on my consciousness just out of reach of my field of vision.” Kate sees Severine’s bones “bleached white, and neatly stacked in a pile with the grinning skull atop” and on other occasions  as “a fleshed-out version of walnut-coloured skin, secretive eyes and a superior lack of smile.” As the investigation progresses, Severine insinuates herself more and more into Kate’s life. Is she a manifestation of guilt or memory or something even more sinister?

I really enjoyed The French Girl. Kate is a smart and likable character and even though we only see the other characters through her eyes, I trusted her assessment of them and their shared events because she was constantly readjusting her own perspective as new information revealed itself. This is a clever mystery and would certainly appeal to anyone who enjoys character-driven plots. I look forward to reading more by this author.

 

 

No Saints in Kansas – Amy Brashear

A chance encounter with the relative of Bobby Rupp, one of the original suspects in the deaths of the Clutter family, inspired Amy Brashear to write No Saints in Kansas. In this YA novel, Brashear reimagines the murders, made famous in Truman Capote’s masterpiece of non-fiction In Cold Blood, from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Carly Fleming. Although she is a work of fiction, her father, Arthur, is the lawyer who ultimately defends one of the two men convicted of the homicides.

Carly and her younger brother Asher and their parents have relocated to Holcomb, Kansas from New York City after one of Mr. Fleming’s cases goes sideways. Holcomb is a backwater compared to Manhattan, and Carly has a hard time fitting in. She is an “outsider” and no matter what she does, it feels like she always will be. From her point of view, the way “in” is through Nancy Clutter because “Everyone likes – I mean, everyone liked – the Clutter family.” It feels like a dream come true with she is asked to tutor Nancy, although Nancy seems less happy about it. In her imagination, Carly imagines that tutoring Nancy is

…how we became best friends. From that moment on, we were inseparable. We were attached at the hip. At lunch, at 4-H club, at every school event, double dates, sleepovers, I was popular by association.

I wish.

When the Clutters are found dead in their home, and Carly learns that Nancy’s boyfriend Bobby is a suspect, she is determined to clear his name. She snoops in ways that are, truthfully, wholly unbelievable including a visit to the Clutter farm post-murders and stealing documents from the courthouse.

Although the real-life Clutter murders are the backdrop for Carly’s story, this is just as much about what it is to not fit in. Holcomb is a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone. Some of the teens in Carly’s orbit are downright mean to her. Her one “friend”, Mary Claire, runs hot and cold. No Saints in Kansas is as much about navigating an awkward adolescence as it is about the Clutter crime.

For anyone who has read In Cold Blood this book will obviously pale in comparison. Capote’s book, which I read many, many years ago, is meticulously researched (interestingly, Harper Lee spent time in Holcomb acting as Capote’s researcher), but still reads like fiction. Capote reconstructs the Clutter’s last day, follows the investigation and also paints a picture of their murderers that is often quite sympathetic, particularly towards Perry Smith, with whom Capote had a close relationship.

None of this is to say that Brashear’s  book is without merit. I think most younger readers would find it compelling enough and reading it  might encourage them to tackle Capote’s book, too.

 

Follow Me Down – Sherri Smith

When Mia’s twin brother Lucas goes missing after being linked to the death of one of his followstudents, Mia has no choice but to return to her small North Dakota hometown. Sherri Smith’s debut novel Follow Me Down plumbs the depths of sibling ties, and uncovers the slimy underbelly of a town that seems to be filled with dark secrets and duplicitous characters.

Mia isn’t exactly living her best life in Chicago when the Wayoata Police Chief calls her asking if she’s heard from her brother. (She hasn’t.) She works the night shift at a corner pharmacy, lives alone and is generally a prickly character. Lucas was always the golden child.

Lucas was already showing signs of how annoyingly good-looking he was going to be.[…] Blond, startling blue eyes, and movie star bone structure. […] As an adult, I’d actually witnessed women going slack-jawed over him, like, unable to speak for a few seconds as they took him in.

Mia is convinced that her brother is innocent of any wrongdoing; he just doesn’t have it in him to hurt anyone. He is a beloved English teacher and hockey coach at the local high school. The local police, including her childhood friend Garrett Burke, seem to have their sights set on Lucas, though, and Mia is sure that she has to a) find her brother and b) prove his innocence.

To say Follow Me Down is jam packed is an understatement. Mia ignores Garrett and turns over every rock possible trying to figure out what might have happened, not only to her brother but to the teenager he is accused of killing. The rumour mill is working overtime, and people in the community seem to think that Lucas and Joanna Wilkes were having an affair. Mia’s amateur investigation seems to stir up a hornet’s nest. A black truck keeps following her and trying to run her off the road; someone seems to be sneaking into her brother’s apartment and taking things; there are more shady characters than you can shake a stick at.

The whole time Mia is sleuthing, she’s self-medicating from her own personal stash of prescription meds. On more than one occasion, I wondered whether she was a reliable narrator. I can’t say that I warmed to her, really.

Still, by about the half-way mark there was no turning away from this story. I needed to know what happened to Lucas, and even if Mia didn’t exactly endear herself to me, I was still invested in her quest for answers.

A solid read.

The House at Midnight – Lucie Whitehouse

housemidnightLucie Whitehouse’s debut novel The House at Midnight tells the story of Joanna and her close-knit circle of friends who spend weekends at Stoneborough Manor in Oxfordshire. Her dearest friend, Lucas, has recently inherited Stoneborough from his uncle Patrick, a well-known art dealer. On their first visit there, Joanna observes that the house is “Three storeys high, [and] it reared up out of the night as if it were facing the darkness down.” The house gives Joanna a “pang of anxiety.” She wonders “How could it not change things between us.”

Whitehouse’s story works on a variety of different levels. First of all, the house is, at least to Joanna, menacing. To her, it feels like a malevolent entity, intent on causing harm. Despite the fact that she and her friends Martha (an American ex-pat and Jo’s roommate), Rachel and her new boyfriend Greg, Michael, Danny and, of course, Lucas, gather here to drink and dance and try,  in some ways, to recapture the headiness of their college days, there is something about the house that unsettles her.

I had the sudden sense that there were eyes on me…My skin prickled. The sound of my voice played in my ear. I took a breath and forced myself to stand still for a moment and look into the unlit corners away from the lamps and up above my head to the landings. I half expected to see someone there, leaning over the banisters watching me. There was nothing. And yet there was.  It seemed to me that there was something lurking, something that was not benevolent.

Then there’s Lucas. Joanna meets him during her first week at college and the two form a strong bond. For a minute it seemed like their friendship might morph into something more romantic, but the moment passed. Now, ten years later, Jo is wondering whether she and Lucas might have a chance.

The House at Midnight captures that fraught period post college when you might be wondering what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. Lucas is a lawyer; Danny is in advertising. Jo works as a junior writer for a small weekly newspaper. None of them is particularly satisfied with their lives.

Then comes the romantic entanglements, which in a small, close-knit group often seem almost incestuous. As the novel moves along, it draws and redraws lines in the romantic sand, and some of the shifts cause irreparable damage to the group.

There were moments in the novel whether I wondered if Jo was a reliable narrator. Could I trust what she was telling me? Were her feelings about the house the result of an over-active imagination or something else? I liked that I didn’t quite trust her.

This book is SO good. The house itself is a character, full of shadowy corners and dark secrets.  There’s something claustrophobic about it and about these friends as they try to sort themselves out. Ultimately, the most sinister thing about the book is the length people will go to get what they want and the damage they are willing to cause in the name of love.

This is my second novel by Whitehouse. I read and loved Before We Met at the beginning of the year.

I can highly recommend both of these books.

The Savage Garden – Mark Mills

savagegardenIt’s 1958 and 22-year-old British student Adam Strickland has been given the opportunity to study a Renaissance garden at the Villa Docci in Tuscany. Of course, he jumps at the chance. Signora Docci will soon be leaving her home in the care of her son, Maurizio, but until she goes she knows the garden has some secrets to give up.

Mark Mills’ historical mystery The Savage Garden  is a slow, thoughtful and complex puzzle of a book that begs you to pay attention. Adam arrives in Tuscany and “In almost no time he had fallen under Villa Docci’s spell.” The garden in question was built as a memorial to Flora Bonfadio. Her husband Frederico Docci had built the estate and then added the garden after her premature death at just 25.

The memorial garden at Villa Docci sat firmly within this tradition, and although it couldn’t match its eminent counterparts at Villa di Castello, Villa Gamberaia and Villa Campi for sheer size and grandiosity, it stood out for its human dimensions, its purity of purpose, the haunting message of love and loss enshrined in its buildings, inscriptions, and groupings of statues buried in the woods.

It is hard not to be caught up in Adam’s story, especially if you have spent any time at all in Italy. Interactions with the locals and with Signora Docci’s family, including her lovely granddaughter, Antonella, offer Adam both distraction and cause for concern: not all the pieces of the family’s history quite add up.

Although The Savage Garden isn’t a ‘page-turner’ in the strictest sense of the word (the novel’s pace is relatively slow and the nods to Greek mythology and Italian history were probably mostly lost on me), I still felt wholly invested in Adam’s story. Signora Docci is delightful and I enjoyed their relationship. I also really liked Adam’s older brother, Harry. He’s a sort of irreverent character, someone at odds with Adam’s more scholarly personality and while Harry certainly seems to rub Adam the wrong way, his arrival in Italy breathes fresh air into Adam’s hot and insular  life. There are two mysteries at Villa Docci, and Adam is keen on solving them both.

It’s  worth the effort to tag along.