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.

This Is Our Story – Ashley Elston

I read a fair number of thrillers and mysteries. I love the propulsive nature of the plot, the twists and turns, and the hero/heroine in danger. It’s hard to write a thriller that keeps you guessing, unless the writer makes a complete 360 that leaves you shaking your head. Behind Her Eyes springs to mind. I love books with sinister underpinnings like Unspeakable Things or The Roanoke Girls.

Ashley Elston’s YA mystery This Is Our Story puts a lot of adult mysteries to shame, really. It’s the story of five best friends: Grant, Shep, Logan, Henry and John Michael. After a wild night of partying at John Michael’s father’s hunting lodge (these boys are all from wealthy families), Grant is dead.

One of us pulled the trigger, but we all played our own part in his death. They will find marks on Grant that don’t fit with an accidental shooting. They will find marks on us that shouldn’t be there either. The last twenty-four hours will have them talking about more than what happened during this early-morning hunt.

The remaining boys, known collectively as the River Point Boys, leave their fancy private school and enroll in the local public school, but Belle Terre, La is a small town where everyone knows everyone anyway.

Kate Marino attends this school and she is quietly devastated by Grant’s death as the two had been texting each other for weeks and had planned to meet at a party the night before Grant was killed. As part of her senior year, she’s interning at the District Attorney’s office, a job that mostly consists of boring filing, until her mother’s boss tasks her with taking photos, a skill she has honed during her time working for the school’s paper and yearbook.

The powers that be might have a vested interest sweeping this incident under the rug, but Kate is determined to get to the bottom of who killed her friend/potential more than friend. And then she discovers that maybe she didn’t know Grant at all.

I literally couldn’t put This Is Our Story down. Kate is a smart, mature narrator and she keeps digging through the clues, determined to get to the truth even when it seems like her personal safety might be at risk. The novel also uses an anonymous third person perspective – one of the River Point Boys – to give us some insight into what the group might be thinking. It’s impossible to work out which of the remaining four boys might be the culprit, though.

There are lots of twists and a few real surprises, too, and I took the book home with me so I could read the last 75 pages because I HAD TO KNOW.

This well-written, YA mystery is really awesome and I will certainly be looking for more books by this author.

The Reunion – Guillaume Musso

There must be something about fall that has me reading these thrillers about reunions. In this latest outing, The Reunion (translated from the French), Guillaume Russo spins the story of successful novelist Thomas Degalais who returns to  Côte d’Azur to attend his 25th high school reunion. He’s nervous about coming home; there are secrets buried at Lycee International Saint-Exupery. Literally.

First, there’s the unsolved disappearance of Thomas’s popular classmate, Vinca Rockwell, thought to have run off with her philosophy teacher, Alexis Clement.

They were last seen the following day in a hotel in the seventh arrondissement near the Basilica Saint-Clotilde. After that, all trace of their presence in Paris was lost. They never reappeared, never contacted friends or family. They quite literally vanished.

That, at least, was the official version.

Clearly, there is more to the story than this. Thomas was in love with Vinca, and when he arrives back in his home town, long-held secrets start to spill out. Reunited with his besties, Maxime and Fanny, Thomas starts to pull at the threads of his memories. And that, right there, is a can of worms.

Then, there’s the body buried in the gym walls (not a spoiler; it’s revealed in the blurb), a body which may at long last be discovered as the gym is due to be demolished. Who is it? Who committed the crime? Worry not, all is revealed quite quickly, but this reveal is only the tip of the iceberg.

The Reunion flashes back and forth between now, at the reunion, and then, back before Vinca went missing. There is A LOT going on in this novel. Too much, I’d say; I never felt really invested in any one thing because I didn’t feel like I knew any of the characters (or liked any of them) well enough to care. Yeah, sure, it all ties together but it didn’t feel satisfying.

Maybe it’s because it’s a translation – which regular readers (do I actually have any of those?) will know, I often find stilted and stodgy. Loads of critics thought it was the BEST BOOK EVER. I found it kind of slow-moving, until it wasn’t, but so much was packed into the last 40 pages, I just found it all sort of…ridiculous. Apparently, a limited TV series is in production. That might be okay. For me, though, the book was just sort of meh.

Alone – Cyn Balog

Cyn Balog’s YA novel Alone is the story of sixteen-year-old Seda who lives with her mother and four younger siblings in Bismarck-Chisholm House or, as she calls it, Bug House. Seda’s mother is a former Boston College professor who is currently writing a book, her father is MIA and her siblings are two sets of twins aged six and four. Seda was a twin, too, but her brother Sawyer was absorbed into her own body in the womb, or so says family lore.

For years Bug House was run as a “Murder” house, where patrons could stay in one of eighteen guest rooms and had the daylights scared out of them. It’s an isolated spot; the nearest store is twenty miles down the mountain. Seda, our narrator, laments the isolation, the loss of her life in Boston, her father’s disappearance from her life, her mother’s kookiness, the fact that there’s no cell service, and just the general creepiness of Bug House.

All that changes though when a freak snow storm ushers in a handful of strangers, three boys and two girls.

The other members of his group are beautiful, yes, but he – with his thick mop of hair spilling out of the openings of the hockey mask and big heavily-lidded brown eyes – is godly. He’s the kind that always gets it last and worst in slasher films, just before his smart and sassy girlfriend-heroine saves the day.

Alone amps up the creepy house narrative with an unreliable narrator, a house full of secrets and a scavenger hunt game that quickly goes off the rails. There’s enough twists and turns and things that go bump in the night to make any fan of horror movies or scary stories happy. I did find that it got off to a slow start, but once it got going it was an enjoyable page-turner.

The Night She Disappeared – Lisa Jewell

It takes a skilled writer to successfully plot a novel with a million moving parts and Lisa Jewell (The Girls in the Garden, I Found You, Watching You, The Family Upstairs, Invisible Girl ) always makes it seem so easy. Her latest novel, The Night She Disappeared flips back and forth in time, and between characters and tells the riveting tale of one mother’s desperate search for her nineteen-year-old daughter, Tallulah.

Tallulah and her boyfriend, Zach, and their baby son, Noah, live with Tallulah’s mom, Kim. Zach has only recently become a part of the family again; when Tallulah told him she was pregnant he didn’t believe her, but now they are trying to make a go of it. When the novel opens, Zach and Tallulah are heading out for a much-deserved break to celebrate the end of term for Tallulah’s college course and, unbeknownst to her, a surprise proposal. But they don’t come home.

A year later, Sophie Beck and her partner, Shaun Gray, move into a little cottage on the grounds of Maypole House, the private school where Gray is to be the new headmaster. They’ve given up their London lives, but Sophie hopes that this change will suit them. She’s a writer of cozy crime novels and the last thing she is expecting is to discover a mystery in her own back garden, but that’s what happens. Someone has left a sign “Dig Here” and when she does, Sophie finds an engagement ring and, putting her detective skills to work, she discovers that the ring was purchased by Zach.

Then there’s Scarlett Jacques, the enigmatic girl from Tallulah’s school. She was the last person to see Tallulah and Zach alive. They’d been with her and some other friends at Dark Place, her family’s home. The house is

a hodgepodge of disparate architectural styles, blended almost seamlessly together across three wings, set around a central courtyard. The sun sparkles off the diamonds of leaded windows on the left wing and larger Victorian casement of sash windows on the right. It should be a mess, but it’s not; it is exquisitely beautiful.

It seems as though Tallulah and Zach have vanished into thin air, a notion Kim simply cannot accept. They would never leave their son, but it isn’t until Sophie discovers the ring that some new information shakes loose. All the while, Jewell reveals the secrets characters have been keeping, revealing complex interior lives.

Like all Jewell’s novels, The Night She Disappeared is twisty-turny, well-written and loads of fun to read. I always keep a stock of unread novels by her on my shelf because nothing beats a book slump like Lisa Jewell.

Tall Oaks – Chris Whitaker

Earlier this year I read Chris Whitaker’s We Begin at the End, a novel that might not have even been on my radar if it weren’t for Twitter. If you haven’t read it, I can highly recommend it; there are characters in that book you will never forget. A Litsy friend sent me Whitaker’s debut Tall Oaks, which won the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award – no idea what that is, but it sounds impressive.

Tall Oaks begins with the disappearance of three-year-old Harry, stolen from his bed in the dead of night by someone dressed as a clown. His mother, Jess, is devastated by the loss; Harry is her world. She and her husband are separated and now, with Harry gone, she spends her days asking questions and hanging missing posters and her nights drinking and having blind-drunk sex with strangers.

This is the mystery that informs Whitaker’s novel, but it is really only a fraction of what the novel is about – and maybe not the most interesting thing about it anyway. Whitaker’s skill is with creating character, a skill that he uses to full and brilliant effect in We Begin at the End. The town of Tall Oaks (apparently somewhere in the States, although there were things in the book that made it feel sort of British to me) is full of oddball characters and getting to know them is the real pleasure of the novel.

My favourite character is definitely Manny, the seventeen-year-old son of single mom, Elena. Manny reckons himself a gangster and, despite the heat, hangs around wearing a woolen three piece suit, a too-small fedora and black wingtips. He and his best friend, Abe, have decided to offer their “protection” services to the businesses in town and it’s quite comical.

“I’m here to offer you my services. A lot of shit has been going down around here lately. Graffiti, trash cans being turned over, cars being scratched. Real bad for business.”

“We haven’t noticed anything,” Stan said, eyeing the parking lot nervously.

Manny frowned, realizing he had forgotten to tip the crash cans over the previous night. Thalia had asked him to help her build a fort.

Roger and Henrietta are a married couple who have suffered a devastating loss. Jerry, 35, lives with his elderly mother who is dying from a brain tumour. At 6’9″ and almost 500 pounds, with a voice like he’s just sucked on a helium balloon, Jerry is ridiculed and shunned. Jared, a car salesmen, is also hiding something. He bounces from town to town, never settling, that is until he sells Elena a car and something sparks between them. Finally, there’s Jim, the police chief, who never gives up looking for Harry even after the case goes cold.

All of these characters intersect and, I suppose, might be considered suspects in Harry’s disappearance. As the novel went on though, what happened to Harry was less interesting to me than the daily lives of these characters, which is a tribute to Whitaker’s skill at writing characters, even minor ones, that you care about.

This is a novel that examines the private grief people carry (lost children, lost parents, lost relationships), the ways in which small acts of kindness can transform someone’s life and, ultimately, how we can never really know what goes on in anyone else’s life. In that respect, Tall Oaks is less a “crime” novel and more a terrific drama.

Whitaker is a writer worth being on your reading radar.

The Familiar Dark – Amy Engel

Last year I read Amy Engel’s novel The Roanoke Girls and I really loved it. Her novel The Familiar Dark is equally compelling and I read it in one sitting.

The Familiar Dark opens with a double homicide. When small town cop, Cal, comes to the diner to tell his sister Eve that her daughter, twelve-year-old Junie and her best friend Izzy have been murdered, Eve is bereft. Junie is Eve’s whole world. They are a team; only Cal has ever been invited into their private world.

Cal and Eve’s childhood is something they have worked their whole lives to escape. The siblings were raised “in a double-wide that stank of men and meth burners…strange faces and too much laughter, most of it jagged and mean. All of it nestled in the armpit of the Ozarks.” Their town is a backwater, where everyone knows your business and Eve wonders if the inept sheriff will ever find out who killed her daughter, so she takes her mother, Lynette’s advice: “You find him, Eve. Whoever did this. You find him. And you make him pay.”

Engel travels some pretty dark roads in The Familiar Dark. Although Eve has worked hard to live a different kind of life and raise her daughter away from the negative influences she’d had, including her mother, who she’s mostly avoided for the past decade, her questions necessarily suck her back into the “familiar dark” of her past.

For example, she must confront her former boyfriend (and I use the term loosely) Jimmy Ray, a local meth dealer.

I’d known what he was because I wasn’t blind. But I’d still fallen for the dark hair and green eyes, the lopsided grin, the tiger tattoo curled around his neck. The scent of danger he wore like cologne. When I was with him, I felt like the old Eve, the one who had flirted with disaster and never cared about how much something might hurt.

The Familiar Dark is almost un-put-down-able. Eve’s past has hardened her; Junie was the person who had smoothed out her rough edges. Engel leads the reader and Eve down a dark path, where Eve is forced to ask questions she may not want the answers to. There are some true surprises along the way and the ending is devastating.

Highly recommended.

The Lying Woods – Ashley Elston

Owen Foster has it all going on. He’s a high school senior at an exclusive private school in New Orleans and his parents are loaded. His life has been pretty sweet. That is until his mother shows up one day to tell him that he has to come home to Lake Cane because his father has been accused of stealing from the very company that provided Owen with his privileged life and also, he’s missing.

This is just part of the story in Ashley Elston’s compelling YA mystery The Lying Woods. The second narrative happens twenty years in the past when nineteen-year-old Noah arrives in Lake Cane looking for work at Gus Trudeau’s pecan farm. Noah hasn’t had an easy life, but he’s hoping to turn things around and despite Gus’s warning that he’ll put a bullet in him if he steps out of line, Noah is convinced that he can make something of himself here. When he meets Maggie, he’s sure of it.

Readers will have a great time trying to figure out how these two timelines are related, but the best thing about Elston’s novel is that both stories are interesting all on their own. For Owen, he’s trying to figure out if the things that his father is accused of are true. The company his father ran, Louisiana Frac, employed a lot of people in the small town, and what his father did has left a lot of them without a job, or worse, without their life savings. People are suspicious of Owen’s mother, convinced that she knew what her husband was up to and even has some of the missing money. When Owen has to finish his senior year at the local high school he discovers that he doesn’t really have any friends with the exception, perhaps, of Pippa, his best friend when he was a kid. She, at least, seems willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Noah is the proverbial kid from the wrong side of the tracks. As his relationship with Maggie develops, he is not unaware of the complications their relationship presents. But he is willing to do whatever it takes to make a life with her. But it seems Noah can’t catch a break. I was really rooting for things to go his way, too.

Although this is classified as YA, it actually has a lot to offer adult readers. The writing is as good as any you’d find in an adult mystery; the characters are believable and sympathetic; the mystery is twisty enough to keep you guessing. I haven’t ever read this author before, but I would certainly like to read more.

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.