The Visitors – Catherine Burns

Marion Zetland lives with her older brother, John, in a house that’s seen better days in a visitorscoastal town in Northern England. The siblings, now in their 50s,  have never been especially close, but now that both their parents have died, they have to rely on each other and their relationship is a sort of co-dependent nightmare. There is something very odd going on in their house, a house filled with the bric-a-brac of a childhood spent in some luxury (the Zetlands owned a textile mill), and now the domain of a couple hoarders.

Catherine Burns’s debut novel The Visitors focuses the story on Marion. She is mostly friendless, surrounds herself with stuffed animals, and spends her days watching sappy television movies, remembering events from her past, and imagining a future which she surely never had access to. She’d learned at a young age that she was plain, and spent most of her life living in John’s considerable shadow. He, after all, had gone off the Oxford, and she had limped through school, barely able to understand the most basic things.

When the novel opens, Marion has just been awakened by a scream, a sound that “flapped its wings against the inside of her skull.” She knows where the scream is coming from, and she even knows, although perhaps only subconsciously, why someone might be screaming inside her house, but she tamps down the feeling by calling forth her mother’s voice, which she knows would tell her that “John is doing the very best for them; you have to trust him – he is your brother and a very clever person.”

Slipping easily between the past and the present, we learn about the extremely dysfunctional Zetland family, about how Marion was bullied by her peers, and John’s own perverse personality, which is alluded to many times.  The only time we aren’t closely watching Marion, we are reading emails to someone called Adrian. The first time they appeared, I thought there’d been some sort of printing error, but it’ll all make sense in the end.

I really enjoyed The Visitors. I found Marion to be quite a sympathetic character, someone who clearly had been dealt a crappy hand in the family department, but was also dealing with some mental illness, too. Turns out, though, the lens through which the story is told is just a tad unreliable. Although this story is not told in the first person, we are really only privy to Marion’s thoughts, and there’s no question – she’s an odd duck.

Although I wasn’t 100% sold on the ending, I still recommend giving this one a go. It’s well written and you’ll totally keep turning the pages.

 

 

 

The Current – Tim Johnston

the currentI was so excited to get my hands on Tim Johnston’s novel The Current. I gazed longingly at the hardcover every time I went to the book store, but I rarely spring for a hardcover unless they’re on sale. Then one day: paperback. I dropped everything that I was reading to deep dive into it.

I read Johnston’s novel Descent three years ago and I loved it. I often recommend it to others because it is the perfect combination of page-turning-thriller and thoughtful family drama. The Current examines some of the same themes but is, in some ways, even more ambitious.

College students Caroline and Audrey are on their way to Audrey’s hometown in Minnesota. Audrey’s father, former sheriff,  is dying of cancer and Audrey wants to spend some time with him. They are almost there when they have an ‘accident’ and their vehicle is plunged into the icy river. Only Audrey survives. That seems spoiler-y. I know, but that much information is provided for the reader on the back of the book.

As Audrey recovers, her father, Tom,  sets out to discover just what happened to the girls because, well, this wasn’t quite an accident. And this wasn’t the only time the river had claimed a life. Ten years ago, Holly Burke, 19, had turned up dead in the river. Her father, Gordon, shows up at the hospital to remind Audrey’s father about the fact that his daughter’s murder was never solved.

…I just kept asking myself: What would Sheriff Sutter do differently now, if it was his girl instead of that other one who didn’t make it? What would he do for himself that he didn’t do for me?

Holly’s murder has haunted Tom Sutter and as Audrey recovers, it begins to haunt her as well, although she was only a child when Holly was killed. Their stories, though, begin to twine around each other, and many other people are swept along in that current.

Unlike Descent, which is very tightly focused on the Courtland family, The Current, drifts in and out of the lives of other characters, specifically Rachel Young and her sons Mark and Danny. Danny was a prime suspect in Holly’s murder, but there’d never been enough evidence to convict him. Gordon and Rachel had been close, but of course that friendship had ended.

Danny and Mark are characters that will really stay with me. Danny’s whole life is changed by the accusations made against him and even when he returns to visit his mother, the past is always nipping at his heels. Mark is somewhere on the spectrum and is tasked with filling in for his brother when he leaves. I worried about these guys. A lot. That’s saying something since in some ways they are peripheral to Audrey’s story. Still, I loved them.

Johnston is gifted when it comes to characterization. These people seem wholly human: frail and foolish, damaged and determined. The whole town seems stuck, somehow; no one has recovered from Holly’s murder. The novel is filled with moments of heartbreaking kindness, bravery and selflessness. And the town they live in: secrets galore.

And yes, you’ll want to know whodunit, but that’s actually the least interesting part of this masterful book.

If Tim Johnston is not yet on your reading radar, he should be. Highly recommended.

 

Mortal Memory – Thomas H. Cook

cook-e1564403930383.jpgIf you are regular reader of this blog, then you know that I am a huge fan of American mystery/crime writer Thomas H. Cook. I found his book Breakheart Hill by chance well over a decade ago and I look for his books whenever I am in a book store. The problem is, he’s very rarely to be found on the shelves even though he is an Edgar Award winner (The Chatham School Affair) and a much-lauded writer. The Los Angeles Times Book Review  said that “Cook is an important talent, not simply a plotter but a prose stylist with a sensitivity to character and relationships…A storytelling writer of poetic narrative power. His crime fiction extends the boundaries of the form.” (This is why I hoard the books I find and don’t read them all at once; I have to pace myself so I don’t run out.) Besides the two books I’ve already named, I also really loved Master of the Delta and Instruments of the Night which might be my favourite of Cook’s books.  But really, you can’t go wrong reading anything this guy writes.

This much I remembered from the beginning: the floral curtains in their second- floor bedroom pulled tightly together; Jamie’s new basketball at the edge of the yard, glistening in the rain; Laura’s plain white bra lying haphazardly in the grass behind the house, the rest of our clothes, drenched and motionless as they hung from the line above it.

Thus begins Mortal Memory, a story that begins when narrator Stevie Farris discovers, mortalat age 9, that his father has shot and killed his mother, Marie, older brother, Jamie and sister, Laura. The knowledge of this horrific act tortures Stevie, mostly because he doesn’t understand why his father committed such a horrible crime. Wasn’t his family happy?

Flash forward 30 plus years and Steve is married with a son of his own. That’s when he meets Rebecca Soltero. She’s a writer who’s “writing a book about men who have killed their families.” Rebecca’s arrival and her penetrating questions bring all sorts of memories back for Steven. The story seamlessly weaves between past and present as Steve recalls the cracks in the family veneer, which ultimately causes him to examine the fault lines in his own family.

That’s one of the things I most admire about Cook. His books always operate on more than one level. Yes, there’s a mystery – that’s what will keep you feverishly turning the pages, but there is always some sort of family drama, often between fathers and sons, which is carefully and thoughtfully crafted. Another thing Cook does extremely well, is to turn your expectations upside down. Trying to figure out what’s happened is half of the fun of reading Cook, but I’ve never been right once. And I wasn’t this time, either.

So where does Mortal Memory fit in the Cook continuum? Probably somewhere in the middle. Not my favourite – mostly because I didn’t love the resolution – but any time spent with this author is time well spent.

 

What Has Become of You – Jan Elizabeth Watson

I love books featuring English teachers because I am an English teacher. Vera Lundy is whathasthe protagonist of Jan Elizabeth’s compelling thriller What Has Become of You. She’s pushing forty and has just accepted a maternity leave position at a private school in Dorset, Maine. Although Vera is well educated – she earned her master’s degree at Princeton – she is also somewhat awkward, and although being at the front of a classroom doesn’t come naturally to her she has “come to appreciate certain aspects of teaching.”

Jensen Willard is in Vera’s first period class, Autobiographical Writing: Personal Connections. Before Vera has even begun to teach, she receives an email from the precocious Jensen, asking her if it’s okay if she uses her own personal copy of Catcher in the Rye. This first correspondence sets in motion a peculiar relationship between teacher and student. In her journal, Jensen reveals very personal things, and Vera is both flattered to be on the receiving end of such honest reflection, but  also, as time goes on, troubled.

What Has Become of You mines the teacher/student dynamic to great effect. I think all  teachers have had students to whom we feel a special bond. Things get tricky for Vera, though, because Jensen is not your average kid. She’s odd, doesn’t fit in with the other students, is a bit of a loner.  She reminds Vera of herself.

She herself had not enjoyed being that age. On the contrary, those had easily been the worst years of her life. They had been the years of being ostracized, of being heartbroken, of being hunted down.

Vera sees something of a kindred spirit in Jensen, but then life goes off the rails for Vera. One night, walking home through the park, she stumbles upon the body of another one of her students. The ensuing investigation, and Jensen’s subsequent disappearance, puts Vera in the cross-hairs.

What Has Become of You is a well-written  – I hesitate to say ‘thriller’ so I am just going to say mystery. Our narrators are wholly unreliable, the plot is intricate and, although it mines somewhat familiar territory, it still manages to be surprising.

I would definitely recommend it.

 

 

 

The Chalk Man – C.J. Tudor

I’d really been looking forward to reading C.J. Tudor’s thriller The Chalk Man  and I chalkfinally picked it up. The book was well-reviewed and was a finalist for Crime Writers’ Association’s Steel Dagger Award. What can go wrong, right?

There was definitely an IT vibe when I first started reading the novel. (Stephen King’s IT, I mean.) Adult Eddie is recounting the events of 1986, when he and his gang of friends, Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo and Nicky (who “didn’t have a nickname because she was a girl, even though she tried her best to pretend she wasn’t.”) used to hang out together in their small English town of Anderbury. They do normal kid stuff: ride their bikes, go to the fair, play in the woods, and try to stay out of way of Metal Mickey’s older brother Sean and his thug friends.

As an adult, Eddie lives in the house he grew up in and teaches at his former school. He’s single and lives with Chloe who is “youthful and cool and could pass for a teenager.” There’s nothing romantic between them; she’s just a boarder, but Eddie likes to think of her as a friend, too.

The Chalk Man  flashes back and forth between kid Eddie and adult Eddie and, at least in the beginning, that worked just fine for me. One of Tudor’s writerly quirks was to foreshadow events or drop hints at the end of chapters and I always wish writers didn’t tell us things like “I found out eventually. After the police came round to arrest him for attempted murder” before the fact. But oh well.

The title of the book refers to the chalk stick figures Eddie and his friends used to leave for each other on the sidewalk outside each other’s houses and in the playground. When Eddie was a kid, a series of these chalk figures lead him and his friends to a horrible discovery, and now in present day someone has sent him a letter with a single chalk figure. Bound to stir up old memories.

It doesn’t take very long for Tudor’s story to get convoluted and, for me at least, lose momentum. I raced through the first 50 pages, but then something happened. It lost some of its initial charm. Doesn’t mean it’s a dud, it just wasn’t a home run for me.

 

 

The Broken Girls – Simone St. James

Broken GirlsAlthough I don’t usually trust author endorsements on book covers (except for Stephen King’s praise; he’s a pretty reliable reader), Simone St. James’s novel The Broken Girls  had an equal number of positive reviews from places like Kirkus, Library Journal and Booklist. I felt pretty confident when I chose it as my book club pick back in March.

The Broken Girls tells two stories. In one, we follow four friends (Katie, CeCe, Roberta and Sonia) who are attending Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for troubled young ladies. It’s 1950. Idlewild Hall is an unforgiving place, and while none of the girls is a delinquent by any stretch, they each have their own troubles. And the school has troubles of its own, in the shape of Mary Hand, a ghost many girls have seen on the school grounds.

Flash forward to 2014 and meet Fiona Sheridan. She’s a local journalist, still struggling with the death of her older sister, Deb, whose body was found in an overgrown field on the grounds of the now ruined Idlewild. When Fiona hears that someone has bought the derelict school with plans to renovate and re-open it, Fiona is determined to get the scoop. The blurb on the back of the book announces a “shocking discovery” during the renovations, but I am just going to tell you now {{{{SPOILER ALERT}}}} that another body is found, one that connects the past to the present.

Fiona races around to try to connect all the dots, and that’s one of the problems I had with this book: there was a lot going on. There’s the back stories of all four of the 1950s girls; there’s the ghost; there’s Fiona and her boyfriend, Jamie, a local cop; there’s the death of Fiona’s sister, which although Deb’s boyfriend is currently in prison for the crime, still niggles in the back of Fiona’s mind, even though twenty years have passed. It’s not that it’s all that difficult to keep track of all these threads, it’s just that it felt like there were too many of them to make a coherent story. There’s a boatload of red herrings, but again, I think St.James just attempted too much here because by the end, I felt all the pieces clicked together just a teensy bit too neatly.

On the plus side, Fiona is a likable character, and so is Jamie. The four girls from the past are also sympathetic. The writing is straightforward and there were a couple of truly creepy moments.

Was it a popular choice with my book club? Nope. Only one of my friends gave it a thumbs up. Luckily for me, dinner was fantastic.

White Rabbit – Caleb Roehrig

white rabbitRufus Holt is having a really fucking bad day. I use the expletive because, well, there’s a lot of F-bombs in Caleb Roehrig’s YA mystery White Rabbit. I’m not a prude by any stretch, but I have to admit that by the end of the novel I was getting a little tired of all the swearing. Surely teenagers as smart as the ones who populate Roehrig’s world would have the vocabularies to match.

But, really, that’s just a niggle. Overall, Roehrig has written a tightly plotted and well-written (I know what I said, it’s still a well-written book!) mystery.

Sixteen-year-old Rufus has just received a call from his half-sister April. He’s pissed because his ex-boyfriend, the handsome and thoughtful Sebastian, has just hauled him out of the 4th of July party they were attending to “talk.” But then, April tells Rufus that she’s in trouble and needs his help.

Rufus’s relationship with April is somewhat contentious. Her father is his father, but Rufus is the black sheep. His father is never anything but cruel to Rufus. His relationship with his older brother, Hayden, is downright abusive. But when April calls, Rufus feels obligated to help. What he discovers is his sister, whacked out of it,  sitting in a puddle of her boyfriend Fox Whitney’s blood surrounded by White Rabbits, “a designer drug known to cause euphoria, heightened sensory perception, and hallucinations.” But “the pills have also been linked, notoriously, to acts of extreme violence.”  April swears she didn’t kill Fox and begs Rufus to help her.

Rufus and Sebastian spend the rest of the book trying to prove April’s innocence by visiting the other people who’d attended the same party. Rufus has never been a part of the “IT” crowd, but one of the party attendees is Lia, Sebastian’s ex-girlfriend. Sebastian insists that he’s not leaving Rufus, and besides he has the car.

White Rabbit  is a carefully plotted mystery. The characters are, generally speaking, awful people – with the exception of Rufus (despite his potty mouth) and Sebastian. As the boys try to get answers to clear April’s name (and there is a financial incentive for Rufus to take on this mostly thankless task), they are lied to, shot at, chased with cars. While they try to figure out whodunit, Rufus and Sebastian also try to navigate their feelings for one another. There are red herrings galore and people with nefarious motives, but all of it makes for page-turning fun.