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.

American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins

The debate rages on: does an artist have the right to create something even though it is outside of their lived experience? My answer is always going to be yes, otherwise how do I justify the ten-plus years I wrote vampire fanfiction? I mean, I’ve never met a vampire let alone had sex with one. Jeanine Cummins found herself in the middle of a maelstrom after the release of her novel American Dirt.

Vulture magazine did a whole piece tracing the controversy about the book which “has been called “stereotypical,” and “appropriative” for “opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically” telling the fictional story of a Mexican mother and son’s journey to the border after a cartel murders the rest of their family.” The entire article is worth the read because it explains the whole situation much more succinctly than I could.

One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing. He doesn’t immediately understand that it’s a bullet at all, and it’s only luck that it doesn’t strike him between the eyes.

Thus begins the story of Luca, 8, and his mother, Lydia. At a family barbecue to celebrate Luca’s cousin Yenifer’s 15th birthday, the entire family (with the exception of Luca and Lydia) are gunned down. It is immediately apparent to Lydia who is responsible. Her husband, Sebastian, is a journalist and he has recently published a piece about Javier Fuentes, the most powerful drug lord in Acapulco. Javier and Lydia had also become friends, not lovers exactly, but there is definitely an intimacy between them born from their love of literature. (Lydia owns a bookstore.) Lydia had no idea who Javier was when she met him; she saw him only as a kindred spirit, someone with whom she could talk “about literature and poetry and economics and politics.”

It was just as Lydia had always hoped life in her bookstore would be one day. In between the workaday drudgery of running a business, that she would entertain customers who were as lively and engaging as the books around them.

Javier’s cartel, Los Jardineros aka The Gardeners, earned their name because they “used guns only when they didn’t have time to indulge their creativity. Their preferred tools were more intimate: spade, ax, sicle, hook, machete. The simple tools of hacking and trenching.”

After the massacre, Lydia takes Luca and runs. She has no choice; she knows that Javier will not rest until she and her son are dead too. The novels traces their arduous journey from their ruined home to the United States, seen here as a beacon of freedom and hope – but, of course, knowing what we know now about undocumented immigrants, perhaps not so much. Still, Lydia feels as though she has only one choice and so they run.

Of course, what does a middle-class business owner know about fleeing under the radar? Not too much. I think the book expects us to believe that because she is protecting her son, she is willing to do just about anything. She’s a quick study because she has to be. She doesn’t dwell too long on the fact that she didn’t see the red flags waving around Javier; she trusts her gut now as the two make their way to el norte.

It’s a gruesome trip. Lydia knows that the cartel has eyes everywhere and that Javier won’t stop until he finds them. Along the way, they meet other migrants with stories of their own. Sisters Soledad and Rebeca are particularly sympathetic.

I enjoyed the book. I guess that’s my white, middle-age, privilege talking, but I found it hard to put down. Criticism claims that there are many inaccuracies, and of course I couldn’t tell you what they are. All I can tell you is that I was wholly invested in Lydia and Luca’s journey and that I tore through the book.

Invisible Girl – Lisa Jewell

I can always depend on Lisa Jewell to deliver a well-written, page-turning, character-driven book. She’s the perfect author to read if I am ever experiencing a book slump. I have read several of her books (The Family Upstairs, The Girls in the Garden, I Found You, Watching You) and I haven’t been disappointed once.

Invisible Girl is the story of a group of people whose lives intersect when seventeen-year-old Saffyre Maddox disappears. Saffyre’s life has been touched by tragedy; most recently her beloved grandfather has died, but before that there was an incident of abuse that resulted in some therapy. Her therapist was Roan Fours. Fours lives with his wife, Cate, and teenage children, Georgia and Josh in Hampstead. They’re renting a flat while their house is being repaired due to land subsidence. This flat is across the street from an old mansion, now flats, where Owen Pick lives with his aunt Tessie. These are the main players in Jewell’s story, told from Saffyre, Cate and Owen’s points of view.

Saffyre is the invisible girl of the title because once Roan considers her “cured” and cuts her loose from therapy, she finds herself somewhat fixated on him. She starts following him around. She’s stealthy, pulling up her hood and disappearing into the shadows. She has mastered the art of being invisible, literally, but also figuratively. She hides things from the one person who loves her most, her Uncle Owen, with whom she lives. She doesn’t let people into her life; on the outside she seems well-adjusted, successful in school, etc, but inside she is still tortured by what happened to her when she was ten.

Saffyre isn’t the only invisible character in this novel, though. Roan’s wife, Cate, is also invisible. She’s a physiotherapist who “gave up her practice fifteen years ago when Georgia was born and never really got back into treating patients.” She acknowledges the twenty-five-years of her marriage as a “hazy tableau of a marriage at its midpoint….with likely another twenty-five years to go.” She also admits that her husband “hates her. She knows he does. And it’s her fault.” Only her son, Josh, provides her with any real comfort. He seems like the perfect kid, thoughtful and loving. Of course, he’s got secrets, too.

Owen Pick, the poor sod across the street is also invisible. He teaches computer science at the local college, and he seems exactly as you might imagine a 33-year-old computer geek: friendless, awkward and a virgin. He’s not even allowed into the living room in his aunt’s flat. When he is suspended because of the accusations of some of his students, Owen’s life hurtles out of control. When it turns out he was one of the last people to see Saffyre, he quickly becomes a suspect in her disappearance. His bewilderment leads him to the internet, where he stumbles across information about incels and that rabbit hole leads to no good.

The stories shock him at first, but then the shock recedes into a kind of numb acceptance, a sense that he’d always known this about women. Of course. Women lie. Women hate men and want to hurt them. And what easier way in there to hurt a man than to accuse him of rape?

In true Lisa Jewell fashion, you won’t know who to believe until the plot unravels. Like always, I was happy to go along for the ride.

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.

The Guest List – Lucy Foley

Lucy Foley’s thriller The Guest List is the perfect book to pick up if you’ve got a couple hours and you want to be distracted. Although I didn’t find the writing to be spectacular (do people not care about comma splices anymore?) and the twists weren’t necessarily twisty (once you see one, the house of cards starts to crumble), I still thoroughly enjoyed my time on Innis an Amplora or Cormorant Island.

Jules and Will (a digital magazine editor and a reality tv star) are getting married and they’ve decided to hold the exclusive event on Cormorant Island, located in the Atlantic, off the coast of Ireland. There’s nothing much on the island now, except for the Folly (aptly named as it turns out), a few crumbling buildings, a graveyard and a peat bog. To this event they’ve invited 150 or so of their closest friends, but the people who really matter come the day before.

There’s Hannah, wife of Charlie, who’s Jules’s best friend. Hannah’s quite aware that she and Jules are “the two most important people in [her] husband’s life.” There’s Johnno, Will’s best friend and best man. The two men went to an exclusive boarding school called Trevellyan. There’s Olivia, maid-of-honour and Jules’s half sister. Finally there’s Aiofe, wedding planner and owner of the Folly with her husband Freddy. Each of these people, and Jules, reveal their feelings about the event and the people in attendance in first person narratives. The book jacket tells us that one of these people is a murderer, although we don’t find out until the very end who has actually been killed.

Years ago, I read Agatha Christie’s magnificent “locked room” mystery (although at the time, I’m not sure I knew that’s what it was called) And Then There Were None. The “locked-room” or “impossible crime” mystery is a subgenre of detective fiction in which a crime (almost always murder) is committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.[1] The crime in question typically involves a crime scene with no indication as to how the intruder could have entered or left, for example: a locked room. Following other conventions of classic detective fiction, the reader is normally presented with the puzzle and all of the clues, and is encouraged to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed in a dramatic climax. (From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locked-room_mystery).

The Guest List isn’t totally a “locked room” mystery, but I think Foley does owe a debt of gratitude to Christie. And to every unreliable narrator on the planet. Every one one of the guests who arrive early on the island have something to hide. Secrets are alluded to. Friendships fray. Relationships strain. And it’s all enormous, mindless fun.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism – Grady Hendrix

In the way that the monsters and demons in Buffy the Vampire Slayer are a metaphor for the horrors of high school, Grady Hendrix’s page-turner My Best Friend’s Exorcism works on a both a figurative and literal level. Or, at least, it did for me.

Abby and Gretchen have been besties since the day that Gretchen, a new kid in school, turns up to Abby’s tenth birthday party. She’d invited the whole class to the roller rink for an E.T. themed party (it’s the 80s), but Gretchen is the only one who shows up. All the others accepted an invitation to Margaret’s polo plantation (the novel takes place in South Carolina, where apparently there are such things) for a day of horse-back riding. When Abby asks Margaret why she didn’t go to that party, Gretchen replies “You invited me first.” It is from this awkward beginning that the two girls become best friends.

My best friend story has a similar beginning. When Michelle arrived at the country school I attended at the beginning of grade eight, I didn’t like her. And she didn’t like me. At least that’s how I remember it. Her hair was too blonde, her jeans were too tight and she hung out with the older kids. I was about as geeky as they came. We both imagined being writers and I remember that the Prize for English was a hot commodity; I won. Then in grade nine, more than half of the students in our class went on an exchange to Marathon, Ontario. Neither of us went, and that meant that we were without our usual friend groups. One afternoon, we found ourselves talking at the back of a classroom. Turns out, we had way more in common than not and that afternoon cemented a friendship that is now 45 years strong.

Abby and Gretchen have the best friend short-hand. They bond over movies and music. They trade secrets and commiserate about their families; “Everything happened over the next six years. Nothing happened over the next six years.” When Abby’s home life starts to crumble, Gretchen’s family is there to pick up the pieces.

And then. Abby, Gretchen, Margaret (same one, now a friend) and Glee are in high school and one afternoon, they decide to take acid. Just to try it out, not because they’re druggies. It’s 1988. The incident kicks off a descent into a hellscape that causes friendships to fracture. Gretchen disappears that night, and when Abby finds her the next morning she can’t remember anything about her night lost in the woods.

Things take a decided turn for the worst over the coming weeks, and the beauty of this novel (and there are many of them) is that I couldn’t decide whether Gretchen’s possession was literal or just a function of being a high school sophomore. People change, right, especially at this point in their lives. They’re always trying on new personas, shedding one skin to try out another. Abby never gives up on her friend, even when Gretchen behaves horribly; even when her own sanity and safety are threatened.

The nostalgia is a river running through Hendrix’s book, the chapters titled after popular songs, the allusions to the TV shows and pop culture of the era. The book is packaged like a high school yearbook. And I was sent hurtling back to my high school days, when friendships are the most important things in your life. About fifty pages in, I couldn’t put the book down.

And for the record, I would fight the devil for you, too, Michelle.

Highly recommended.

Island of Lost Girls – Jennifer McMahon

Rhonda Farr, the protagonist of Jennifer McMahon’s second novel Island of Lost Girls, has stopped at the Mini Mart for gas when she sees something that sends her reeling back through her past. A gold VW Beetle pulls up next to her, a car she recognizes, but instead of being driven by the eccentric Laura Lee, it’s being driven by a large, white rabbit.

…when the rabbit got out of the car, there in the Pat’s Mini Mart parking lot at quarter to three on a Monday afternoon, it didn’t occur to Rhonda that there might be a person inside. He hopped like a bunny, moved quickly, nervously, jerking his white head one way, then the other. He turned toward Rhonda, and for an instant he seemed to stare at her with his blind plastic eyes.

While Rhonda watches, the rabbit knocks on the door of another car parked in the lot and leads little Ernestine Florucci, whose mother is inside the store, away. It is from this absurd beginning that Jennifer McMahon (Promise Not to Tell, Dismantled, The Winter People) spins the tale of not one missing girl, but two.

Rhonda, perhaps out of guilt, decides to help with the search effort and to do a little investigating of her own. She’s aided by Warren, Pat’s nephew. Pike’s Crossing is a small place, and Rhonda knows everyone. Trying to help find Ernestine also brings back a wave of memories about Lizzy, Rhonda’s childhood best friend who also went missing many years ago. It also brings to mind the summer they spent together launching a production of Peter Pan with Lizzie’s older brother, Peter, who is the object of Rhonda’s unrequited affection and also her dearest friend. As she searches for clues, Rhonda comes to suspect that Peter might have something to do with Ernestine’s disappearance.

There is a mystery, well two mysteries, at the centre of McMahon’s novel and I think she successfully pushes the plot of both along, switching between the past and present with ease. (I read the book in pretty much one sitting, which is about a good a recommendation as I can offer, really.)

This is also a book about the loss of innocence. Rhonda loses hers when she discovers family secrets, and when she realizes her feelings towards Peter are not returned. It also ruminates on the end of childhood. Rhonda recalls her role as Wendy in Peter Pan and remembers saying her lines and having “a sudden vision of herself as an adult, saying that line quietly on some far-off night as she stared up at the sky, like it might help bring her back.”

I haven’t always liked everything McMahon has written, but I did enjoy this book.

The Roanoke Girls – Amy Engel

Sometimes I can’t resist the three for $10 bargains at Indigo. Just because a book finds its way onto the bargain shelves doesn’t mean it’s a dud. Case in point: My Sunshine Away  I managed to snag a handful of bargain copies for my classroom library and I was thrilled to be able to offer it as a choice for my grade 12 students this year. That is an amazing book.

RoanokeAnd then there’s The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel. Can’t remember when I bought it or how long it’s been languishing on my tbr shelf, but I started reading it and finished reading it in just a few hours because it has ALL THE THINGS I love in a book.  (Lots of other reviewers loved all the things, too, because this book received lots of well-deserved praise.)

Lane Roanoke is fifteen when a terrible tragedy brings her to small-town Kansas to live with her grandparents, Yates and Lillian, and her cousin, Allegra, who is also fifteen.  She knows very little about these people. Her mother left the family home as a teenager and never returned because her life there was a “nightmare.”

Lane is mesmerized by the family home

Roanoke had clearly started out as something resembling a traditional farmhouse – white clapboard, wraparound porch, peaked dormers. But someone had tacked on crazy additions over the years, a brick turret on one side, what looked like an entirely new stone house extending from the back, more white clapboard, newer and higher on the other side. It was like a handful of giant houses all smashed together with no regard for aesthetics or conformity. It was equal parts horrifying and mesmerizing.

The house is symbolic of the labyrinthine Roanoke secrets.

Her cousin Allegra is alternately  moody and loving, and Lane is never quite sure which version she’s going to get. Her grandmother is mostly distant. Her grandfather “was fiercely handsome. …If charisma was power, my grandfather was king.”

The Roanoke family has a long history of loss. Yates’s two sisters are gone, so are his daughters. Until Lane returns to Kansas, Allegra has been the only Roanoke girl. It is a special designation, Lane comes to discover.

The novel toggles back and forth between ‘Then’ (Lane’s fifteenth summer) and ‘Now’, which happens eleven years later when Lane gets the call that Allegra is missing. Yates begs Lane to return to Roanoke. Despite her reservations, the pull of family is strong and Lane finds herself back in Kansas. Her return puts her back in contact with Tommy, Allegra’s on again – off again teenage boyfriend, now a cop, and Cooper, “still the most beautiful person” Lane has ever seen. It’s a toxic mix and makes for absolutely riveting reading.

What happened to Allegra? What happened to all the Roanoke girls? That’s the central mystery in the book. Actually, you’ll learn  the what pretty early on and it’s an explosive family secret.

This book had all the things I loved: great writing, a compelling main character who is damaged, but fierce and smart, a never-ending air of menace and unease, a hot, broken guy and a lot of twists.

LOVED it.

 

 

 

The Headmaster’s Wife – Thomas Christopher Greene

The Headmaster’s Wife is my second outing with Thomas Christoper Green. I read his headmaster's wifenovel Envious Moon almost a decade ago. The Headmaster’s Wife has been on my tbr shelf for quite a while, and I read it in one sitting.

Arthur Winthrop is headmaster/Literature teacher at Lancaster School, an elite boarding school in Vermont. When we first meet him, he’s walking through Central Park reminiscing about a time he’d visited the park with his wife, Elizabeth, and their young son, Ethan. That was years ago, though. Now “standing on the same path…he gives up trying to find this memory.” Instead, he disrobes and starts walking. “All that matters to him is the feel of his bare feet crunching wonderfully on the crusty snow beneath him.”

Of course he is scooped up by the police, and in the interrogation room he tells the story of Betsy Pappas, a young student in his Russian Literature class. At first, Arthur is attracted to Betsy’s mind, but soon he becomes almost obsessed with her. The novel tracks Arthur’s increasingly desperate attempts to woo and possess Betsy.

At the halfway point – after a wallop of a revelation – the story switches its focus to Elizabeth Winthrop. Her story, about being a student at Lancaster, fills in some backstory and allows a glimpse into her marriage to Arthur. It also allows us to meet, however briefly, the Winthrop’s son, Ethan, whose own story is the catalyst for some of the drama in their marriage.

I don’t want to spoil anything because one of the delights of this books (if you can actually call a novel about grief ‘delightful’) is letting the pieces of this puzzle click together in their own time. This is a book that sort of reads like a mystery, but isn’t that what life is at the end of the day? An unfathomable mystery.

Greene suffered a personal tragedy while writing this book. It’s highly worth reading his acknowledgments if this is something you generally skip when you read.

Highly recommended.