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?

All Her Little Secrets – Wanda M. Morris

Ellice Littlejohn works in the legal department of Houghton Transportation Company. Her lover, Michael, is the executive vice president of the same company. When he asks her to meet him at the office early one morning, Ellice doesn’t find the request unusual. When she arrives though, she finds “a bright crimson spray of blood” and a “star-shaped hole in Michael’s right temple”.

This is how Wanda M. Morris’s debut novel All Her Little Secrets begins. And this is also the beginning of the issues that kept me from thoroughly enjoying the novel – although I certainly found it easy to read.

Ellice is a 50-something, Ivy-league educated lawyer, so clearly not an idiot. But what does she do when she discovers Michael’s body? Does she call the cops? Security? An ambulance? No. She “prayed to God for forgiveness, turned off the lights, and quietly closed the office door…”. Say, what?

We come to understand that Ellice has a complicated past and Michael is just one of those complications. First of all, he’s married and has children. Secondly, he’s a WASP and she’s Black and their relationship is a secret, one of many secrets Ellice has had to keep over the course of her life. And it’s these secrets – revealed slowly over the course of the novel – that prevent Ellice from making sensible decisions from the the moment she discovers Michael’s body until the end of the book.

Lots of writers gushed about this book. And I think, for a debut, it has lots to recommend it, but I also think the story itself – the part that was supposed to be ‘thrilling’ – was just sort of pedestrian. There are a lot of things going on in this book; perhaps too many to manage with real finesse. I wanted to really like Ellice because it was awesome to read about a smart, mature woman – except that she makes all sorts of ridiculous decisions. Honey, your life is in danger; you need to call the cops.

And it turns out the danger is a bunch of white supremacist asshats, which, yeah, awful, but it felt like a sort of convenient way to up the ante. I am white; let’s just get that out of the way. It feels uncomfortable for me to criticize a book because it plays the race card, but if there wasn’t rampant racism (and misogyny) in Morris’s novel, the mystery/thriller part of it would be sort of not-that-thrilling in my opinion. It has the requisite duplicitous characters, red herrings, car chases and covert meetings but it also has family drama and trauma (which is used to explain some of Ellice’s questionable decisions) and which felt vastly more authentic. We never get to see Ellice doing any lawyering, really (and Morris is a lawyer herself, so it would have been easy to include). Mostly she’s chasing after answers, but I just felt like the book was 100 pages too long.

Easy to read, but forgettable.

Fire Keeper’s Daughter – Angeline Boulley

Angeline Boulley’s debut Fire Keeper’s Daughter was my first read in 2022 and it’s a cracker. It’s almost 500 pages long, but it was so good I had a hard time putting it down. It’s nice to start a new reading year with a great book!

Eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine lives in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Her white mother comes from a wealthy, important family – a building at the local college is named after her grandfather. Her Ojibwe father, who died when she was seven, lived on the Sugar Island reservation, the place Daunis calls her “favorite place in the universe.” Daunis has a brother, Levi, who is just three months younger than her. There’s complicated family history, but Levi and Daunis are close; they are both talented hockey players, and they both idolized their father, who himself was a superstar on the ice, destined for great things until he was injured in a car accident. Daunis is meant to be headed to the University of Michigan for pre-med, but when her uncle David dies and her maternal grandmother ends up in a nursing home, Daunis makes the decision to start her post-secondary education closer to home.

Then she meets Jamie. He’s a new recruit to the Supes, the local elite junior A team her brother captains. There’s an immediate spark between the two. Soon they are running together in the morning and Daunis finds herself sharing things with him that she’s never shared before.

There is so much to love about this book I don’t even know where to start. First of all, Daunis is a fabulous character: smart, resilient, capable, loyal. She aligns herself with her Ojibwe heritage even though she is an unenrolled member because her father isn’t listed on her birth certificate. Her best friend Lily is in the same boat and “We still regard the tribe as ours, even though our faces are pressed against the glass, looking in from outside.”

Boulley captures all the hardships of being a biracial teen, the casual racism Daunis experiences, the sexism; it’s all here, but none of it is didactic. The novel also weaves traditional beliefs as well as stories and language throughout the narrative, which as a white person with very little knowledge of these things, I found fascinating.

Something else that is encroaching on her life is the proliferation of meth, which seems to be coming from Sugar Island and which is starting to impact people she cares about. Her childhood friend, Travis, who has become a shadow of his previously charming, handsome and goofy self now has ” hollows under his cheekbones [that] are concave to the point of sickly. Any softness is gone.” Travis’s addiction is just the tip of the iceberg, though and when Daunis witnesses a murder and discovers that Jamie is not quite who he seems, she finds herself helping the FBI investigate the meth and the novel kicks into high gear.

It would be one thing if Fire Keeper’s Daughter was just a story about a girl trying to figure out how she fits into two very different worlds, but this ambitious novel is so much more than that. It’s a mystery, it’s a coming-of-age story; it’s a story about culture and family. It’s so good.

Highly recommended.

Lies You Never Told Me – Jennifer Donaldson

Ohhh. This one got me.

Jennifer Donaldson’s YA mystery Lies You Never Told Me is a dual perspective narrative that should keep readers guessing until the end. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how Gabe’s story intertwined with Elyse’s.

Gabe and Sasha are their school’s power couple. Sasha is one of the Austin elite and Gabe is a Chicano skateboarder he knows Sasha’s parents don’t approve of even though he “grew up in the same bougie neighborhood [and] my mom’s family has been in the U.S. for generations. They’re old money. They could find any of a hundred reasons not to like me.”

But Gabe is actually a good guy. He’s a great big brother to his six-year-old sister, Vivi, who was born with Down syndrome. He does well enough in school, has a couple great friends and puts up with a lot from Sasha, who seems stuck up and high maintenance from the get go.

One night, leaving Sasha’s house on his skateboard, Gabe is hit by a car. The girl who finds him and calls 911 is a new girl at their school, Catherine, and Gabe is drawn to her in a way he can’t explain. When he can no longer deny his growing attraction to Catherine, he breaks up with Sasha, but she’s not having it. Sasha mounts a full on campaign to get Gabe back.

The other narrator is Elyse, a girl with her own troubles. Her mother is an addict and Elyse is just barely holding it together. She does her best to pay the bills and look after her mother, but she’s just fifteen and it’s hard.

When her best friend Brynn convinces her to try out for the school’s production of Romeo & Juliet, Elyse barely hesitates.

I can feel the change come over me as I recite the words. It always happens – or it happens when I’m focused, when I’ve found something in the role to love. My shoulders round forward, my mouth quirks upward into a wistful grin, and I slide into character with ease.

Elyse is convinced that Brynn is going to snag the lead, but when the new drama teacher, Mr. Hunter, awards the role of Juliet to Elyse, her life explodes with possibilities.

Donaldson skillfully weaves these two stories together, and even though none of the four main characters (Gabe, Sasha, Elyse and Catherine) necessarily interact with each other, your brain will work overtime trying to figure out what links them together. Lies You Never Told Me is a well-written YA mystery with lots of twists and characters you will like and loathe in equal measure.

The Winter Sister – Megan Collins

When Sylvie was 14, her older sister, Persephone, was murdered. No one was ever charged with the crime. Now, 16 years later, Sylvie has returned home to Spring Hill to help care for her mother, Annie, who is taking chemotherapy. Sylvie and her mother haven’t been close in years, not since Persephone’s death, and being home is stirring up all sorts of detritus.

Megan Collins’s debut novel The Winter Sister is a murder mystery framed by a family drama, or maybe it’s the other way around. It’s definitely a novel about complicated family relationships, love, and the way our memories morph over time.

When they found my sister’s body, the flyer’s we’d hung around town were still crisp against the telephone poles. The search party still had land to scour; the batteries in their flashlight still held a charge. Persephone had been missing for less than seventy-two hours when a jogger caught a glimpse of her red coat through the snow, but by then, my mother had already become a stranger to me.

Sylvie’s life hasn’t been successful. She went to art school, then got a job as a tattoo artist, a job she seemed destined for. As a kid, she’d drawn pictures over the bruises Persephone’s boyfriend Ben had left on her sister’s wrists and arms and ribs. These bruises had always seemed like proof to Sylvie that Ben was responsible for Persephone’s murder. When she bumps into him at the hospital, it dredges up all her suspicions. Why is he allowed to be walking around, living his life, when her sister is dead.

But it’s not just Ben that makes being home so difficult; Sylvie has to interact with her mother, something she hasn’t really done since she went off to college. She has a hard time reconciling her pre-murder mother with the shrunken, bitter woman she sees now. It isn’t just the cancer that’s eating away at Annie.

Collins does an excellent job of stringing the reader along, dropping clues about the murder so that it feels like you are reading a thriller of sorts. But this is also a book about the secrets families keep. Can we ever really know each other? How do small decisions impact the trajectory of our lives? It has never occurred to Sylvie that her memories of what happened that night might be tangled in something bigger. Instead, she’s carried a tremendous amount of guilt around like an anvil.

The Winter Sister is a well-written family drama. I will definitely be reading more from this author.