Good Girl, Bad Girl – Michael Robotham

I was expecting great things from Michael Robotham’s novel Good Girl, Bad Girl, which was a 2020 finalist for the Edgar, and named Best Thriller of the Year by both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

Cyrus Haven is a psychologist who has been called in to determine whether or not Evie Cormac should be allowed to leave the secure children’s home where she has been living ever since she was discovered hiding in a secret room in a house where a rotting corpse is found six years previous. Very little is known about Evie – not her real name or her exact age or what happened to her because she either can’t remember or she isn’t willing to disclose the information. It’s Haven’s job to figure out whether Evie is a danger to herself or society.

As if that wouldn’t keep Haven busy enough, when the body of a teenage girl is discovered on a footpath by a woman walking her dog, his help is needed to determine who is potentially withholding info. The lead detective on the case, Lenny Parvel, is important to Haven because she was “the first police officer on the scene when [his] parents and sisters were murdered.” So, yeah, Haven has some issues of his own.

So, as he works this case and tries to get to the bottom of Evie’s trauma and shove his own PTSD to the back, you can imagine – it all gets to be a little complicated. Is Haven up to the task? Well, it would appear so. Things get even more convoluted when Evie is released and goes to live with Haven. I can’t imagine that that is a thing that could ever really happen, but it does.

My problem with Good Girl, Bad Girl is that I felt like I never really understood these characters. For example, we never do learn who Evie is or why she was hiding in a secret room, or who the dead guy was beyond his name. That’s apparently going to be revealed in the novel’s sequel When She Was Good, which I won’t be reading. Haven’s own family tragedy is also never really explored. It’s a horrific crime, perpetrated by Haven’s older brother, who is now in a facility for the criminally insane. And although we do discover what happens to Jodie Sheehan, the girl found on the footpath, it’s not that thrilling of a mystery. Evie inserts herself into the investigation in a wholly unrealistic way, too. I kinda got the feeling that Haven was a crap psychologist – which is sort of awkward because I think we’re supposed to be rooting for him. And Evie. And I just didn’t care about wither of them. Maybe if the book had focused on just one of these stories and dedicated its energy in making these characters into flesh and blood people things might have turned out differently, but when Evie turns out to be a card shark, wins thousands of pounds at a game she happens to know about, then gets robbed and ends up in the trunk of a car – well, how much are we supposed to believe can happen to one person and not have them be a raving lunatic?

It was a miss for me.

Bloodline – Jess Lourey

I read Jess Lourey’s Unspeakable Things a few months ago and really enjoyed it so I was looking forward to reading Bloodline. It wasn’t quite the same reading experience, but it was a quick, enjoyable read nonetheless.

Joan Harken, a journalist, moves to Lilydale, Minnesota with her boyfriend, Deck. The impetus for trading big city life for small town living was a recent mugging, which left Joan shaken up and afraid, especially since she’s pregnant. Deck assures Joan that “Lilydale was peaceful, friendly. Everyone knows everyone, looked out for one another, The world outside might scream and swirl like a tornado, but Lilydale floated in a bubble, outside of time, as safe as a smile.”

It won’t take readers very long to figure out that Lilydale has some seriously creepy Stepford-vibes. We’re seeing things through Joan’s eyes – and let’s not forget she’s trained to be observant and ask questions. First there are the people who live on Mill Street, the street where Deck and Joan are to live in Deck’s childhood home. The town Mothers and Fathers give off definite cult-vibes. Then there’s the fact that everyone in Lilydale seems to know her business. As Deck’s father tells her “You have to understand how a small town works. We’re a big family here. You don’t keep secrets from family.”

Well, it turns out, you can keep some secrets and there are a lot of them in Lilydale. Some of those secrets have to do with Paulie Aandeg, a little boy who disappeared from his kindergarten class on his first day. Although it happened decades ago, the child was never found and later his mother’s house burned to the ground and she disappeared, too. When someone claiming to be Paulie turns up in Lilydale, Joan feels like she’s landed on the story of a lifetime. Unfortunately, she discovers, people in Lilydale aren’t all that forthcoming with information. As Joan’s investigation heats up, she feels more and more like people are watching her – not watching out for her as you might reasonably expect in a small town, but literally spying on her. When she starts to feel as though her life and the life of her unborn baby might be in danger, she becomes even more paranoid.

It’s interesting reading a story set in the sixties. Joan’s doctor allows for four cigarettes a day and that reminded me of an old Dr. Spock pregnancy book I found years ago. His recommendation: limit drinking to two cocktails a day and cigarettes to half a pack. Imagine. There are jellied salads, crème de menthe and Peter Pan collars galore.

Bloodline is a super-quick read. It’s straight-forward, page-turning fun.

We Begin at the End – Chris Whitaker

Chris Whitaker’s novel We Begin at the End was all over my Twitter feed and the praise was copious, so I did what any booklover does, I ordered the book. Regular readers will know that having possession of a book doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to land on my bedside table (which is where my currently-reading books live), but this one called to me. I needed to know what all the fuss was about. I needed to know if it was deserving of the fuss.

Hell, yeah.

Whitaker’s mystery/coming-of-age/noir novel concerns the fates of a whole cast of characters. It starts in the past as the town of Cape Haven, California, including Walk and his best friend Vincent King, are out looking for the body of Sissy Radley, younger sister of Vincent’s girlfriend, Star. Flash forward thirty years: Vincent’s been languishing in prison, Walk is now the town sheriff, and Star’s the messed-up mom of 13-year-old Duchess and 5-year-old, Robin.

Walk has made it his mission to look out for Star and her kids. Star’s a bit of a hot mess. She and her kids live in poverty, and Star spends a lot of time self-medicating with booze and pills. Duchess thinks part of her mom’s difficulty stems from what happened to Sissy all those years ago. “Duchess had got the bones of the story over the years, from Star when she slurred it, from the archive at the library in Salinas.”

When Vincent is released from jail he returns to Cape Haven and sets about restoring his family home, which just happens to be on a prime piece of waterfront. Dickie Darke, the local badass and sometime consort of Star, wants Vincent’s land badly, but Vincent isn’t interested in selling. He mostly just wants to be left alone. Vincent’s freedom is short lived though, and he’s soon back in jail for another crime, and this crime is the mystery which threads itself through the novel. Vincent insists on Martha May, another childhood friend and Walk’s old girlfriend, to represent him even though she’s not a criminal lawyer. That brings Martha back into Walk’s orbit after a long absence.

There are lots of surprises in Whitaker’s novel and some of the best ones are saved for the end, but it isn’t really the mystery that kept me turning the pages, it’s the characters.

Walk is loyal and dogged, and he’s spent his whole life in Cape Haven, where he knows everyone, Cape Haven is a quiet coastal town and he’s never even really had occasion to draw his gun. Vincent is taciturn and patient. Star is a hot mess. Even Dickie Dark is complicated. Minor characters, Milton, the town butcher and head of the local neighbourhood watch, Cuddy, the guard at the prison where Vincent has spent the last thirty years of his life, and Hal, the children’s grandfather, are compelling. But it’s Duchess who draws you in

If Duchess is perhaps a tad too precocious, she’s to be forgiven. She’s been dealt a rotten hand. And when circumstances land her and Robin in Montana with the grandfather they don’t know, her life is upended again. It takes every ounce of energy she has to rein herself in, and she’s really only willing to do that for her little brother. She doesn’t let people get close; it takes patience and perseverance to get past her defenses. Luckily, there are people in her life willing to keep trying. I loved her. She reminded me of Turtle, the protagonist of Gabriel Tallent’s stellar debut My Absolute Darling. This is a compliment, trust me.

There are a lot of moving pieces in Whitaker’s novel, and a lot of characters, too. There has been some criticism of his prose and the short hand he uses. I don’t read westerns and while much of this novel feels like a western, I chalked Duchess’s odd vernacular up to bravado: “I am the outlaw Duchess Day Radley” she tells more than one adversary. Perhaps odd coming from a kid from California, but not necessarily from a smart kid looking to build a protective shield around herself and those she loves. As for the novel’s prose, once I settled into Whitaker’s world, the writing just seemed spare. I think it suited the story, laid it bare.

This is a great book on so many levels. Read it for the mystery. Read it for the characters. Read it for the gut punch at the end. But read it!

The Cousins – Karen M McManus

Milly, Aubrey and Jonah Story have been invited to spend the summer on Gull Cove Island by their grandmother, Mildred. That might not be an out-of-the-ordinary invitation for some people, but it is for these three teens. For one thing, they’ve never met their grandmother. For another, they haven’t seen each other for years and their parents (Milly’s mom and Aubrey and Jonah’s dads) are also estranged. So, it’s a weird request all-around.

Gull Cove Island was a little-known haven for artists and hippies when Abraham Story turned it into what it is today: a place where rich and semifamous people spend ridiculous amounts of money pretending they’re getting back to nature.

Milly’s mother, Allison, is anxious for her daughter to go. Twenty four years ago, she and her brothers (Adam, Anders and Archer) had each received a letter from their mother which said “You know what you did.” With that, they were cut out of their mother’s life both personally and financially and none of them really understood why. Milly’s mom thinks this invitation may be the opportunity to mend fences and for the cousins to get to know each other.

This is the set up for Karen M. McManus (One of Us is Lying, One of Us is Next) latest novel The Cousins. The novel is told from multiple perspectives during two different time-lines, so you get to see the parents as young adults and then their offspring who arrive on Gull Cove Island to a less-than-warm reception. Clearly there is something strange going on, and Milly is determined to figure it out, with or without her cousins’ help.

Like her previous novels, McManus manages to keep all the plates of a compelling mystery spinning. Each of the three teens are intelligent and likeable. The real mystery is rooted deep in their parents’ past and some of those characters aren’t so nice, particularly Jonah and Aubrey’s dads. Readers will have a lot of fun trying to figure out what the heck is going on, but like with her previous novels, McManus will always be one step ahead of you.

Crooked River – Valerie Geary

Fifteen-year-old Sam and her younger sister, Ollie, 10, have come to live with their father, Bear, in a teepee in a meadow in Oregon. Bear’s eccentric, sure, but he’s not crazy. One day he left his home, his wife and kids, in Eugene, and just didn’t come back. Sam’s been spending summers with her father since she was seven and she’s come to appreciate the quiet of both the place and her father.

…there was no electricity, only the sun. No plumbing, only the river and a barrel to catch the rain. No roof over our heads to blot out the stars, no television to drown out the bird and cricket songs, so asphalt to burn the soles of our feet. Most kids would probably hate a place like this, but to me it was home.

This is Ollie’s first summer; she’d previously gone to summer camp instead of going to Bear’s, but now there is no choice: the sisters’ mother has died suddenly.

When Valerie Geary’s beautiful novel Crooked River begins, the girls are down by the river and they find a “woman floating facedown in an eddy where Crooked River made a slow bend north.” They try to pull her to shore, but the current takes her. Sam is certain Bear will know what to do, but when they get back to the tent they find something that starts a chain reaction of discoveries, coincidences, and bad decisions. Before the girls can even make sense of what’s happening, their father is arrested for murder.

It is mostly down to Sam to tell this story because Ollie has elected to stop talking. “I was trying to be patient” Sam says, “but her silence was finally starting to wear me thin.” Ollie may not talk to anyone else, but she does commune with ghosts. The night is made of them, she says. “I see. I see things no one else does. I see them there and wish I didn’t. I want to tell and can’t.”

The sisters know their father is innocent, and Sam is desperate to prove it. Part of what makes Crooked River so great is the mystery, but what I really loved about the book is its sense of place. From the meadow’s hidden delights, to the beehives Bear tends, everything in Geary’s novel is written with a true appreciation for their inherent beauty. The mystery part, though, kicks into high gear in the novel’s last third and it’s a thrill ride.

This is also a book about family, grief and growing up. And if you think that’s all too much to cram into one book, then you don’t know Geary’s prodigious gifts as a novelist. There’s a beating heart at the center of this book and a crooked river runs through it.

Highly recommended.

All the Beautiful Lies – Peter Swanson

Harry Ackerson’s father, Bill, is dead. He’s only just found out and he has to leave college (he’s just about to collect his diploma) and head to Kennewick Village, Maine, where his father lives with his second, much younger wife, Alice.

She was a strange kind of beautiful, her eyes set too far apart, her skin so pale that you could make out the blue veins right near the surface. She reminded Harry of one of those hot alien races from Star Trek, a beautiful female who just happened to have green skin, say, or ridges on her forehead. She was otherworldly. Harry found himself in a state of constant, confused sexual turmoil, guiltily obsessing over Alice.

Harry’s arrival in Maine is fraught. Alice is distraught. Their house, known locally as the Grey Lady, has never been home to Harry. It’s filled with his father’s things. His father owned a rare bookstore in the village, and Alice is hoping Harry will stick around and help John, the store’s lone employee, run the place.

Things get complicated with the arrival of Grace, a young woman Harry’s age who seems to have some connection to his father, and the news that Bill’s death might not be an accident after all. This is the general story line in Peter Swanson’s novel All the Beautiful Lies. Of course, things are a lot more twisty than this.

Alice and her mother moved to Kennewick when she was fourteen. Her mother, Edith, had won a settlement from the Saltonstall Mill for a workplace accident which had nearly killed her. The move is supposed to be a fresh start, but there’s no hitting reset on Edith’s drinking. When Edith meets and marries handsome banker Jake, Alice almost can’t believe her good luck.

Swanson’s novel flips between then (Alice’s story) and now (what exactly happened to Bill), and the way that these two stories coil around each other is one of the novel’s pleasures. When someone else turns up dead, Harry finds himself caught in the a maelstrom of lies. (Whether or not they are beautiful will be up to you to decide.)

This is my second book by Peter Swanson (The Kind Worth Killing) and I am solidly a fan now.

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.