Watching You – Lisa Jewell

01B345DC-2890-42FE-9E54-71D514747137The current flavour-of-the-month in book stores these days seems to be duplicitous nannies or wives, unreliable narrators of all stripes, characters and plots that simply can’t be trusted. In my experience, books like this come with varying degrees of pedigree. But then there’s Lisa Jewell.

Watching You is my third novel by this British writer. My first experience with Jewell was The Girls in the Garden and then I read I Found You. I always have another of her books waiting for me because I know I can depend on Jewell to deliver a cracking story, believable characters and a few unexpected twists.

Watching You takes place in Melville Heights, a tony neighbourhood in Bristol. The cast of characters is varied. There’s screw-up Josephine (Joey), newly married to gorgeous lug, Alfie. The two have recently returned to Melville Heights and are living with Joey’s older brother, Jack, a heart surgeon and his wife, Rebecca, who is pregnant. Then there’s Tom Fitzwilliam and his wife, Nicola, and their son, Freddie. Tom’s the new headmaster at the local school. Then there’s Jenna Tripp and her mother.

Everyone is watching everyone else in Melville Heights. Freddie spies on people from his bedroom window, keeping tabs on their comings and goings because “In the absence of  any friends or any real desire to have friends, Freddie had spent the past year or so compiling a dossier called The Melville Papers.” Down below, Mrs. Tripp is doing the same and while Freddie’s surveillance seems a bit creepy, Mrs. Tripp is clearly paranoid. And Joey watches Tom Fitzwilliam. She can’t help it.

Joey watched him walking back to his table. He wore a blue suit with a subtle check. The bottom buttons, she noticed, strained very gently against a slight softness and Joey felt a strange wave of pleasure, a sense of excitement about the unapologetic contours of his body, the suggestion of meals enjoyed and worries forgotten about over a bottle of decent wine. She found herself wanting to slide her fingers between those tensed buttons, to touch, just for a moment, the soft flesh beneath.

The story opens with a murder, a gory stabbing, and as the stories of this disparate cast of characters unravels, we watch (through a series of police interviews) the clues start to build a case. But of course, this is Lisa Jewell – so nothing is ever as it seems. They say you can never really know someone, and I think Jewell uses that premise to her advantage here. Who are these people? What are there motives? Where are their loyalties?

I had zero problem turning the pages. Ultimately, at the end of a book like this, you want to feel satisfied with the resolution. The red herrings have to be plausible at least. I like to try to figure things out along the way, and I don’t like it when the plot drives off the cliff of ridiculous. No chance of that here. Jewell masterfully manages all the players, even those with only a minor role to play.

Watching You is a great book to curl up with on these cold winter nights.

Jar of Hearts – Jennifer Hillier

So a few years back I read and hated Jennifer Hillier’s novel Creep  and so I am DDEC3EB9-C1E8-4BA6-A35F-B2150CAEAEBDactually a bit surprised that I even picked up Jar of Hearts. I guess I didn’t put two and two together before I forked over my money. I am happy to report that Hillier has redeemed herself a little in my eyes because Jar of Hearts wasn’t nearly as cringeworthy as Creep. In face, I liked it quite a bit until the end.

Georgina (Geo) Shaw’s perfect life (rich fiancé, six-figure career) comes crashing down around her when the mutilated body of her best friend Angela Wong is found fourteen years after she disappeared. For her part in the murder, Geo will spend five years in the Hazelwood Correctional Institute. Calvin James, her boyfriend at the time, is connected to three other murders and will likely serve consecutive life sentences. This is the first time Geo has seen him in a very long time and

When their eyes meet, a tingle goes through her. That goddamned tingle, even now, even after everything. From the first day they met to the last day she saw him, that tingle has never gone away. She’s never felt anything like it before, or since.

Who doesn’t love a bad boy, eh?

Jar of Hearts follows Geo through her stint in prison, where she’s savvy enough to make friends with the right people. When she is released, she returns to her childhood home. She’s not particularly welcome in Sweetbay (a suburb of Seattle), but she has no place else to go. She reconnects with her childhood friend, Kaiser Brody, who is now a cop. And then new bodies start to show up.

I liked this novel so, so much better than Creep. While not flawless, Geo was a likeable character. I understood her attraction to Calvin (who was not straight-up evil) especially at the beginning when she was only sixteen and living in Angela’s considerable shadow.  Hillier does a good job of capturing those heady teenage years when you make dumb choices and hurt the people you love. The flashbacks allow us to see what happened to Angela and why.

Some readers will likely like the novel’s ending twist. I wasn’t a big fan, but it didn’t ruin my overall enjoyment. Jar of Hearts was fun to read.

 

Girl in Snow – Danya Kukafka

5919CB39-1143-49E3-BCAE-98D1717F025EDanya Kukafka’s debut novel, Girl in Snow, earned copious praise from anybody who’s anybody in the book world and it’s easy to see why everyone was hyped up.

When they told him Lucinda Hayes was dead, Cameron thought of her shoulder blades and how they framed her naked spine, like a pair of static lungs.

Kukafka’s novel is a sort of mystery, but not in the traditional sense. Lucinda, a popular 15- year-old, is discovered  in the playground of the elementary school. She’s been murdered.  Lucinda’s death is certain in the incident that kicks the novel off, but it’s the three-person narrative that keeps its motor running.

First there’s Cameron, the boy who loved Lucinda from afar. Perhaps saying Cameron ‘loved’ her isn’t quite the right word. He watched her obsessively.  He drew her.  He feels like he knew her better than anyone, “The way her legs flew out when she ran…How her hair got frizzy at the front when she walked home from school in the heat….the way she squinted when she couldn’t see the board.”  When Lucinda’s body is found, Cameron is one of the first suspects because a classmate had once told a teacher that Cameron “was the sort of kid who would bring a gun to school.”

Then there’s Jade. When she hears the news of Lucinda’s death she says that “faking shock is easier than faking sadness.”  Jade lives with her mother and sister and I wouldn’t characterize her life as necessarily happy. She resented Lucinda, and so her classmate’s death inspires little more than antipathy.

Finally, there’s Russ, a local cop who used to be Cameron’s father’s partner before he did a runner, leaving his wife and son behind.  He feels protective towards Cameron and his feelings are further complicated by the feelings he had for Cameron’s father, Lee.  He is also suspicious of his wife, Ines’, ex-con brother, Ivan, who just happens to be the person who discovered Lucinda’s body.

It is through the lens of these characters that we see Lucinda. I wouldn’t say that Girl in Snow is a page-turner, but that’s because these are complicated people with complicated feelings and Kukafka cares about every word she writes. This is a book to be savoured and these are characters you won’t soon forget.

Cuckoo Song – Frances Hardinge

cuckoo songI don’t think I have ever read a book quite like Frances Hardinge’s YA novel Cuckoo Song. I am not much of a fantasy fan, you know – word building and that sort of thing, but I was totally enchanted by Hardinge’s story, which is as much about grief and loss, as it is a creepy story about…well, I can’t really tell you.

I can tell you that the story follows 13-year-old Triss, who wakes up after falling into the Grimmer – a pond near the cottage where she is vacationing with her family. Her mother comforts her, telling Triss that she’s “just been ill again, that’s all. You had a fever, so of course you feel rotten and a bit muddled.”

Triss’s younger sister Penny, Pen for short, doesn’t seem all that thrilled with Triss’s recovery. “She’s pretending!” she screams, when she comes to Triss’s bedroom. “It’s fake! Can’t any of you tell the difference?”

Things just get weirder for Triss because even she has to admit that something isn’t quite right. For one thing, she has a voracious appetite – never mind easing herself back into the world of food, as “soon as she saw the first bowl of soup arrive, great crusty rolls on the side of the tray, her hands started to shake.” Triss is horrified to discover that food is not the only thing that will sate her hunger; she’ll willingly eat just about anything and lots of it.

Other strange things begin to happen in Triss’s life.  Dead leaves in her hair when she wakes up. Dolls that move in her hands. Dolls that speak to her. And then what’s with all the letters from her brother, Sebastian? Those letters are impossible because Sebastian was killed in the war.

Hardinge has created a masterful, creepy and mysterious novel that is both exciting and kind of heartbreaking. I don’t want to spoil the novel’s surprises, but I will say this: you won’t forget Triss because she is brave, endearing and clever. Her desire to solve the mystery of what’s happened to her keeps the plot ticking along, but her capacity for self -reflection and self-awareness is what makes her a character who will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Highly recommended.

The House on the Cliff – Charlotte Williams

Hmmm…yet another book about a therapist whose life is in shambles. This time it’sDE5C7121-EA75-4E9F-9BDC-AA702E37EEC3 Jessica Mayhew in Charlotte Williams’ novel The House on the Cliff.

Jessica is married to Bob and they live in Wales with their two young daughters. Their marriage isn’t rock-solid: Bob has recently admitted to a one-night stand, and Jessica is having a difficult time forgiving him. Understandably.

Enter  Gwydion Morgan.

I noticed immediately when he walked into the room that he was a remarkably handsome man, tall and broad-shouldered, with a natural grace in the way he carried himself. I judged him to be in his late twenties, or thereabouts.

Up close I could see that his eyes were green, fringed with thick, black lashes. I looked away. It seemed indecent to do anything else.

That instant attraction is bound to cause some professional conflict, just sayin’. Anyway, Gwydion has come to Jessica with a fear of buttons. Apparently it’s a thing: Koumpounphobia.

Gwydion is an actor on the cusp of his big break. He has a certain theatrical pedigree, too, because his father, Evan, is a brilliant but volatile theatre director. His mother, Arianrhod, is worried about her son’s mental health. Their relationship seems, to the casual observer, a tad co-dependent. When she calls Jessica concerned that Gwydion is suicidal – even though Jessica had seen no signs of this in their therapy – Jessica drives out to their house on the – you guessed it – cliff.

From the minute Jessica steps into the Morgan house, her life becomes entangled with theirs. There is definitely something going on in the house and with the family and Jessica is drawn to them, particularly Gwydion who is both erratic and impossibly attractive. The more time she tries to figure out what is going on, the more she drops the ball in her own life.

There is a Morgan family scandal at the centre of Gwydion’s story. Jessica begins behaving more like a detective and less like a therapist, but whether or not you actually believe someone would make some of the choices she makes or not  is actually beside the point. It’s all page-turning fun.

 

 

You Should Have Known – Jean Hanff Korelitz

32555CAA-AE7E-4E76-8348-87072A3324C0Grace Sachs, the protagonist in Jean Hanff Korelitz’s compelling domestic thriller You Should Have Known, is an outspoken marriage counsellor who believes that women know from the very beginning if their partners are duds.

Over and over I’ve heard women describe their early interactions with their partner, and their early impressions of their partner. And listening to them, I continually thought: You knew right at the beginning. She knows he’s never going to stop looking at other women. She knows he can’t save money. She knows he’s contemptuous of her…But then she somehow lets herself unknow what she knows.

Grace’s tough talk is easy enough: she’s married to the perfect man, Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist and they have a twelve-year-old-son, Henry.

…she had chosen him, and now, as a result, she was having the right life, with the right husband, the right child, the right home, the right work.

Turns out, though, that all those rights actually make a wrong.

When the mother of one of the students at Henry’s school is murdered, the violent act opens up a fissure in Grace’s perfect life. First, her husband, who is away at a medical conference, stops answering her calls and texts. Then,  she discovers his phone  – not with him, but hidden in his bedside table. And then the police come knocking.

Grace’s life – it turns out – is a sham, and You Should Have Known unravels like any good thriller, stringing the reader (and Grace) along. The whodunit part of the story isn’t actually what’s interesting about Hanff Korelitz’s narrative though. It’s that Grace, a therapist who tells her patients to trust their guts, didn’t trust hers.

 

Sadie – Courtney Summers

sadieI thought if I waited a few days after finishing Courtney Summers’ latest book Sadie, I would have a better chance of articulating my feelings coherently. Sadly, I don’t think I am actually going to be able to adequately express all the ways I loved (and hated) this book.

The premise is clever. West McCray, a radio producer at New York’s WNRK, is shaking up the station’s format by introducing a new podcast, The Girls. The podcast “explores what happens when a devastating crime reveals a deeply unsettling mystery.”  McCray dives headlong into the story of Mattie Southern, a thirteen-year-old whose dead body was discovered in an orchard near a burning schoolhouse, and her nineteen-year-old sister, Sadie, who is missing.

I’ve decided the gruesome details of what was uncovered in that orchard will not be part of this show. While the murder, the crime, might have captured your initial interest, its violence and brutality do not exist for your entertainment – so please don’t ask us.

Transcripts of the podcast (and you can actually listen to those here) alternate with Sadie’s first person narrative. Sadie leaves Cold Creek’s trailer park and her surrogate grandmother, May Beth, to find Keith, a man who once lived with Sadie and Mattie’s mother, Claire. Claire is currently out of the picture, an addict who’s had a steady stream of creeps in her bed.

Despite being blocked at every turn, Sadie is like a dog with a bone when it comes to tracking down Keith, a man she claims is her father. She buys a junker car, and asks fearless questions, hindered only by her stutter and youth. By about page thirty I was as invested in Sadie’s hunt as she was. She is equal parts vulnerable and tough-as-nails and 100% believable.

And this is where I have to pause and commend Summers, once again, for writing characters who are so real. Regular readers to this blog will know I am a fan of Summers and have read several of her books including Cracked Up to Be, All the Rage, This Is Not a Test, and Some Girls Are. I’ll tell you this – Summers is not writing the same book over and over. Her characters are not stereotypes. They are vulnerable, broken, tough, cynical and hopeful and every combination in between. Sometimes they say or do things that are wince-worthy, but as a mom and high school teacher, I know that Summers cuts as close to the bone as it’s possible to get. Like it or not.

So, I wasn’t surprised that I fell in love with Sadie, rough edges and all. I expected to be invested in her journey and I hated (that’s what I hated, folks) that it was a journey that she felt compelled to take. I hated that I was afraid for her the entire freakin’ time! Sadie loved her sister and made sacrifices for her that Mattie would never have the opportunity to understand. That’s what it is to love someone.

McCray is always just one step behind Sadie, but his podcasts fill in some blanks, allowing us to see how Sadie is viewed from other perspectives. Former teacher, Edward Colburn, says, “She was teased by her classmates because of the stutter and that caused her to withdraw.” Her boss, Marty McKinnon said Sadie was “a good kid, hard worker.” Mae Beth said that “The only thing Sadie was afraid of was losing the family she had left and that was Mattie.”

All of these ingredients add up to a story that McCray describes as being “about family, about sisters, and the untold  lives lived in small-town America. It’s about the lengths we go to protect the ones we love…and the high price we pay when we can’t.”

There are few moments of levity in this novel, but Sadie (the novel and the character) will haunt your dreams.

Highly recommended.